Chapter 33: Vassal Contention

Aultcray made certain to keep his frown of suspicion hidden behind a mask of steely confidence, so as to not worry or concern the soldiers that were obviously uncertain with the latest development that had just occurred, a strange bump in the proceedings that had the potential to turn very ugly very fast.

"What in the hero's name is the Claw doing right here, at this point in time, at this very place? What's he hoping to achieve? Diplomacy? Delay? Destruction?"

Thoughts and considerations racing through his mind at a swift and rapid pace the Cane hero didn't once slow his stride, marching past ranks of stationary but disciplined men and women as the Shadow at his side asked, "Your orders? How shall we respond to this?"

"Remain watchful and vigilant. Have half your number patrol the surroundings for any sort of approaching army or outside interference while the remainder prepare themselves to assault the Claw should it become necessary."

"Understood."

A nearly inaudible rustle of cloth preceded the hooded figure sprinting off into invisibility, their body disguised by the throngs of humanity as Aultcray finally reached the front ranks, even highly-trained and drilled military discipline not enough to keep aforementioned formations from shifting and fidgeting as they snuck glimpses towards the pair of figures residing by and on some simple furniture no more than a hearty stone's throw away.

With a pointed look towards the frontline commanders to keep their troops calm and under control the Cane hero marched forwards without pause, sharp eyes running over the Claw hero and taking in his appearance, looking for weaknesses or vulnerabilities - or even a hint as to what the Vassal hero might be thinking if that failed - and found precious little of usable information, yellow eyes meeting his stare with a polite disinterest as Aultcray hid yet another scowl of displeasure.

The man was of somewhat unremarkable height but possessed a memorable visage that sported those steely eyes of yellow, heavily tanned skin and shocking white hair, physique hidden by a set of simple but durable looking plates of armor while hardy pants, jacket and boots was worn beneath the protection. And the Cane hero would be remiss not to mention the unremarkable but immediately familiar sight of a metallic claw attached to his right arm.

The man's companion was an even more unusual sight, dressed so provocatively and lightly that the only purpose he could assign to her was of a paramour or concubine.

Coming to a halt before the duo Aultcray was treated to a polite gesture of the Claw hero's hand, calm voice announcing, "A pleasure to meet you, Cane hero. Care to take a seat and chat for a bit?"

"A rather suspicious request to make, for an enemy to invite another to sit upon the battlefield."

A smug, knowing grin lit up the man's features.

"What's the matter, Lüge? No faith in your trailing Shadows to keep me honest in our dealings?"

The Cane hero's twitch was brief and well-disguised...but by no means invisible. That name belonged to a man that had died long ago and no longer held any meaning or bearing on his current existence and was simply a bad memory of a time when he'd been small, alone and helpless.

Stiffly pulling out a chair and sitting across from the smirking Claw hero Aultcray stonily watched as he pulled out a bottle of some kind of alcohol from beneath the table, his concubine still calmly and near-emotionlessly watching the proceedings.

"Here, a bit of a peace offering between us to ensure that things remain friendly. You're welcome to examine it for all of the poisons and what not or even have me drink first if you're uncertain."

Aultcray didn't even glance at the thing, bluntly asking, "What are you doing here? Are you allied with Siltvelt, another Vassal hero they kept hidden and secret?"

"No such thing. I'm here speaking to you and your army completely of my own free will, no outside strings attached."

He paused, amending that previous statement with, "Well, there is one poor soul who I'm hoping will appreciate this war coming to an end, she's never been a fan of widespread conflict."

Aultcray mentally tabled that information, eyes narrowing as the man further explained, "And while we're on that subject, the rest of my party members should be well on their way to removing Roran Vanil from the equation and bringing a swift end to Siltvelt and your old kingdom's side of the conflict, Schieldfrieden following shortly afterwards if they keep trying to push things."

Aultcray was silent for a time, eventually stating, "You sound so confident, that your allies can put a stop to a Vassal wielder and whatever forces accompany them. What makes you certain that such an end result will be brought about?"

"You mean aside from the fact that I personally handpicked and essentially raised most of the ones going to do so while the rest are pretty scary in their own right? I couldn't possibly say."

The Cane hero didn't miss a beat, silkily inquiring, "And who's going to stop me?"

"Isn't that obvious? I'm going to, if you decide to pursue your little path of misguided vengeance. And many, many of your soldiers are going to die if it comes to that, along with perhaps yourself counted among that tally."

Aultcray barely even heard the latter half of the Claw hero's words, lowly growling, "Misguided? Misguided?! Do you even have the slightest concept of what those animals did to me? To my sister?! To my sweet, blind sister who had done them no wrong? They tore her to shreds, nothing but cloth, meat and blood left behind!"

The man's eyes blazed with a fury that demanded action, teeth bared as he snarled, "There's only one way to pay for such a cowardly and horrific crime. Meet the blood they spilled with their own!"

Aultcray's tirade was met with an idle and unperturbed nod from Narvas, the man lazily pouring himself a drink from the bottle that he offered to Aultcray and - predictably - received no response in kind.

"Revenge. Understandable, really. Hell, under any other circumstance I wouldn't even be all that harsh on you...but there's one minor problem with your drive to burn Siltvelt to the ground. Lucia is still very much alive and well."

The air seemed to still for the Cane hero, breath catching in his throat at the sudden words from his fellow Vassal wielder-

-and reality reasserted itself, the older male's teeth gritting so hard that he was surprised they didn't chip in his mouth.

"How would you react, Cane hero, if I was to tell you that Lucia is enjoying a quiet, loving life near the borders of Siltvelt with her husband? That no harm has befallen them and the scene you came across was an attempt to save her life, not take it."

"It matters not how I would react, the words dripping from your vile mouth are simply untrue and unfounded."

There was a look of deep sympathy from the man, tone melancholy as he mused, "Oh if only you knew...but humor me anyways. If your sister and her beloved were indeed alive and well, enjoying their own quiet slice of peace and contentment as the war swiftly drew to a close...would you still fight?"

"Your attempt to misguide me is infantile and fruitless at best and wasting valuable time at worst. No matter what tripe you attempt to sway me with my path is set. Lucia is dead, Claw hero. And should you continue to use her memory against me - a memory I am at a loss as to how you even possess - then I will ensure that you are as well. Step aside."

There was a profound sense of disappointment on the Claw hero's features, meeting Aultcray's volcanic gaze with an icy one of his own as his fingers drummed a steady beat on the table.

"One last hypothetical, then. You believe I'm saying all of this in the hope that I'll delay or outright convince you to hold off on your march to Siltvelt, correct? A trick to confuse and sow doubt in your mind."

A terse nod from the Cane hero.

"That is the only reason you could be regaling me with a fantasy that does not exist, to turn away and avoid a battle you wish not to fight."

"Well you're not wrong about that last part."

The finger drumming slowed to a steady, ominous tap of only his index as yellow eyes narrowed to match Aultcray's, the air between the two turning ice cold.

"So here's the hypothetical. If I massacred your army and brought you to your knees, completely crippled your ability to wage war and then told you your sister was alive...would you believe me then?"

The Cane hero stiffened, a nearly inaudible snapping of string and swinging of wood catching his attention as he spun around, concealed catapults flinging dozens of vials directly over the massed formations of his troops-

-and with a display of color and sparks that reminded him quite a bit of slime sparklers they covered the passageway in drifting clouds of ominous looking dust and gas, panicked shouts and warnings turning to hacking coughs and wheezes with alarming speed.

The Cane hero spun around, Vassal weapon rising as he prepared to strike down the lying bastard where he sat.

Except instead of a certain Claw hero all he found was a wooden table approaching his face at what seemed to be an unreasonably fast pace, his world turning to white fire as he was sent spinning to the ground while the hazy outline of the paramour turned to light, rejoining the Claw hero's right arm as he distantly realized his opposite somehow possessed the ability to manifest a Vassal avatar or some other medium.

Not that he had time to appreciate such a fact, the tan-skinned man bearing down on him with a sharp and metallic looking Claw that would no doubt tear him open-

-and several blurs of black and purple jammed swords and daggers into the man's exposed body, piercing heart, throat, liver and kidneys as the Cane hero's Shadows came to his rescue.

"How...anticlimactic."

Gathering his wits about him Aultcray watched dispassionately as the Claw hero quietly wheezed and gurgled, the swift assassins not releasing their hold on him one bit...and bloodstained lips turned into a smile, one hand tapping the side of his head as the Cane hero belatedly realized what he was telling them.

"You missed the brain."

"What the-"

One of the Shadows cursed in a rare showing of lost composure, their weapons being pushed out of their target's body as glowing lines of magic began to congregate on the Claw's impaled body, Aultcray whirling around to find the source of the power-

-and felt his blood run cold, more than a hundred of his soldiers collapsed and violently sick as each and every one of them released some kind of ethereal tendril that converged on the Claw, no doubt the source of his healing.

Some puked out crimson and solid chunks of something, others cried blood, some were frantically trying to spit out enough saliva from their mouths just to breathe and a few were even spasming uncontrollably across the dirt, writhing as if their bodies were no longer their own.

"HEALERS TO THE FRONT, DON'T BREATHE IN THE GASSES!"

Roaring out orders the Cane hero whirled around as his Shadows once again cried out in surprise and panic, cursing as he would very much like a moment to regroup and regain his composure, the Claw hero's body now vastly different from how it was before and already proving to have another trick up its sleeve.

Sporting darkened skin and wild markings the form possessed three spaded tails that lashed outwards and briefly pricked the warriors stabbing his flesh before any of them could knock aside the appendages, convulsions and strange moans leaving the Shadows as their grips on the weapons loosened or lost much of the applied force.

Snarling in agitation at how cleanly his opponent had taken control of the situation Aultcray made to cast a spell on his Shadows that would release them of their afflictions-

"Zweit, Arc Chain!"

-and fought back a curse as blinding streamers of electricity jumped between the Shadow's bodies, jerks and spasms causing them to collapse a scant second later, smoke curling from mouths and eyes as the Cane hero grit his teeth in anger, preparing himself as the Claw turned his attention towards the opposite Vassal wielder.

"Zweit, Strato Impact!"

The spell rocketed towards the older man with shocking force although Aultcray merely grinned, shifting his weapon into an ornate and glassy form that swallowed the magic within a blink of an eye, redirecting it at equal force and speed as the Claw was battered by his own wind-based offensive...although the lacerations were oddly shallow and the sickly threads of illumination from the Melromarc forces sealed up even those within an eyeblink, Aultcray leaping backwards as he used his Vassal weapon to fire off a collection of sparks into the air.

A scant second later the whistle of metal and wood filled the air, arrows and ballista flying towards practiced and predetermined locations as the soldier's leader shouted, "Zweit, Tempest Wall!"

Wavering force sprang to life far overhead, the wind spell causing every projectile that struck it to accelerate and strike with several times the force it normally would, the Claw hero weathering the storm as the occasional lucky shot pierced his flesh with barely any resistance, barrage ignored as an unheard spell ignited several sizable balls of flame to launch themselves towards Aultcray, the man hastily responding in kind with a wall of water that - while it did nullify the assault - ultimately sent him sprawling as an explosion of steam smashed him into the dirt.

And still the Claw regenerated his flesh as if there had been no damage inflicted whatsoever, the Melromarc leader gnashing his teeth in frustration as the hot and humid air made breathing difficult.

"There must be some way to reduce or nullify his ability to heal!"

As if in answer to his prayers a titanic gust of wind blew the drifting steam, gas and other harmful material high into the air, the rest of his forces charging forward as several knights on horseback raced forth, mage corps rushing towards the hundreds of wounded and dying as Aultcray staggered to his feet, shouting, "SEE TO THE WOUNDED AND HEAL THEM! THAT'S HOW HE'S REPAIRING HIMSELF!"

Given all the drifting lights trailing upwards from his soldier's bodies it wasn't hard to make the connection, whatever foul disease he'd inflicted upon the men and women sprawled in the dirt providing some kind of enhanced healing factor.

"Drifa, Bastion Rising!"

Casting the strongest buff in his arsenal on a group of mounted knights the cavalry was inundated with a silvery glow, vastly increasing their resistance to damage of all kinds as they kicked their mounts into an all out charge, shouting a war cry as the Claw hero raised his hand once more, sparks dancing across his fingertips as the beginnings of a lightning spell gathered, Aultcray willing to bet the bastard's strength would overpower his protective spell.

With an inward sigh of resignation he shifted the Cane into a seldomly-used form, a spiral rod that would attract any and all magic assaults towards it rather than other recipients.

"Mirellia would be shouting my ear off about how reckless I am."

The random thought had just enough time to make its way through his brain before the Claw hero's spell was fired, electricity corkscrewing through the air-

-and jumped towards the Vassal cane, the man's mouth opening in a soundless scream as his body burned and seized with an agony he could barely comprehend, the assault seeming to last an eternity before coming to a mercifully brief end, shouts of alarm from nearby medics sounding worryingly distant...but that didn't matter, they could repair him.

They could repair him because his stratagem had worked, the Claw hero's attack stopped dead in its tracks as he was run over by the headlong charge, limbs snapped and chest caved in by the buffed horses before a reinforcing wave of Shadows materialized from nowhere, nailing his broken body in place with their blades as his mages began to carefully but swiftly heal the poisoned members of his vanguard, the Cane hero grinning at their victory.

At least until there was an explosion of air and sparks from the 'defeated' Claw hero's body, the man rising to a height many times his previous, flesh and appearance resembling the one he'd held previously except far more muscular and imposing, lances and swords that had previously pierced skin and muscle bouncing off as if they were shoddily made training swords.

Then the killing began all over again.

With unbelievable swiftness the towering Claw hero leapt and dashed, simply swatting aside or outright crushing the cavalry and Shadows that tried to go for soft tissues such as the eyes or neck. Aultcray stumbled to his feet, trying to rally what remained of his forces-

-and a deafening CRACK caused him to gape at the sight before him, the Claw hero having finished off his assailants and simply crushed bare rock to a fine gravel within his hands...a sight that made Aultcray frantically shout, "RAISE SHIELDS, INCOMING-"

A powerful swing of the giant's arms hurled chips of stone with enough force to crush and penetrate armor, the Cane hero feeling something chip away at his gut as screams of pain and agony emanated from his soldiers, a sickeningly familiar sound of tiny catapults launching their payload into the air once again as clouds of roiling gas and poisons settled into the valley, what few injuries the Claw hero suffered vanishing like dust in the wind as his regenerative source was renewed.

...He'd lost.

A wave of dizziness and vertigo hit the man as he collapsed onto his back, mouth dry as the panicked shouts and pleas of his remaining forces were far away, too far away to offer what assistance they might have been able to muster.

Not that it would have mattered, the Claw was simply too powerful and ruthless. He'd won the moment they entered this killzone and Aultcray had been too proud to realize it.

A few scattered knights and mages attempted to attack the opposing Vassal hero - now shifted back into his normal form with the Claw attached to his arm - but inbetween a hardy set of armor and a weapon form that tore through metal and flesh as if it was moldy parchment the Cane hero swiftly found himself staring upwards into a visage that could have been carved from stone.

"Well? Your forces are in shambles, your life is mine to take the second I want it and you haven't so much as given me a light scratch...if I repeat what I said earlier - that your sister is alive and well - will you believe me now?"

The older man turned his head to the side, growling, "Torture, before killing me? Just get it over with."

"That hole in your side isn't big enough to kill you. At least not quickly. And you're not dying today. I'd daresay you're getting back your life."

The man looked out over the groaning, retching crowd of soldiers as the rest of the formation hastily tried to heal them while steering clear of the lethal fumes.

"I can reverse all of that, you know. I made antidotes and cures, no one else needs to die today. All you have to do is abandon this mad quest and accept that what I'm telling you is worth pursuing, worth finding out the truth of."

Both Vassal wielders stared the other down.

"Deal?"

Aultcray remained silent, mind lost and wheeling at the multitude of emotions coursing through his body as his complete and utter defeat fed him the bleeding remnants of his pride.

"...Deal."

No sooner had the words left his lips than the Vassal Claw was up and moving, inventory disgorging large sacks of simple glass vials that he began distributing to the wounded and sick, the wariness and mistrust of the reinforcing Melromarc soldiers not enough to override their hope of treating the horrific and deadly afflictions rampaging through their comrades, the assembled host relaxing a fraction as the medicines seemed to do exactly as their former foe said they would.

The Cane hero listlessly stared at the Claw as he left the rest of the distribution to the assembled soldiers, returning to him before promptly stating, "Watch out for a man named Jaralis...he's no friend to your sister and her protector. And give Siltvelt's leader Tyran a chance, he's more important to you than you might initially think."

Before Aultcray could ask what any of that meant the Claw hero shifted his weapon into a strange form that had him vanish in a flare of light, leaving behind nothing but a scarred and ravaged battlefield, as well as the bitter taste of defeat before his campaign had even gotten underway...all of it riding on a current of tender, boyish hope.