Pressing the metal latch on the back of her left arm firmly, a clicking sound came through as the elongated metal apparatus on the underside of her wrist tightened. Doing the same for the one on her right arm, Inareh carefully made sure that both were secured before quickly sliding on a pair of leather bracers over them.
Rotating her hands and wrists to make sure that her motions were not hindered in the slightest, she quietly stood up and in one smooth motion, flicked both of her arms downward.
Her two wrist blades instantly sprang forth, locking themselves in place as the mechanisms that had ejected them continued to whirl mechanically.
Lifting the thin dark blades upward, they glimmered softly upon catching the dim rays that had pierced through the trees.
About two finger’s width wide and half the length of her forearms, the weapons had been with her even before she joined Tal’hrus. A token of her past, they were ordinary in appearance and flimsy looking. Yet from within them, she could feel the powerful enchantments upon them, having had them reforged by the artificers and runemasters of Tal’hrus.
*Click! Click!* Another two distinct sounds came through, coming from the blades’ metal housings. Indications that the contraptions were ready for reloading.
Taking a calm breath, Inareh slowly edged her right foot forward.
With a sudden burst of speed, she rushed forth and slashed at the large tree before her, leaving a deep diagonal gash. Following it with two horizontal rending blows, she finished the flurry by twisting her body as if evading an attack at her neck and drove her left hand into the tree.
The thrust had gone at least a hand span into the thick trunk and content with how both weapons felt, she quickly pulled back the embedded blade.
Without further need to readjust them, she willed a surge of mana into the devices on her arms and the sound of mechanisms unlocking began whirling through the air once more.
Lifting her arms, she flicked them down to her sides again and the two blades instantly retracted.
“Inareh. Are you… are you ready?”
Aida’s voice nervously questioned from behind and she turned to see that the younger woman had already finished preparing.
With her brown hair tied back, Aida was wrapped in a gray cloak while wearing a dark and form fitting attire underneath for ease of movement. As usual, there were no visible weapons on the younger woman beyond a small satchel on her left hip and four metallic spheres each the size of a marble in her hands.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.” She replied, answering calmly. Moderately surprised at her own response, she thought nothing of it and, “How about yourself?” Questioned back.
Though Aida’s expression was dark upon hearing her answer, “Yes…” The younger woman also replied in affirmation.
Knowing exactly what was going on in her partner’s head, she quickly covered her bracers with her sleeves and walked toward the opening of the tree lines before staring outward.
In the distance and across what used to be rich and fertile farmlands for the town of Jarnlan, there were now hundreds of tents flying the velvet harp of House Onarald.
The army had settled there the previous afternoon presumably to rest, but judging by how they had yet to even begin preparations to depart, it was safe to assume that they were now eyeing the town itself.
Turning back to look at Aida, “You know what to do, right?”
“I do, but… are you sure about this?” Aida meekly questioned from behind, her nerves clearly on display.
“Yes.” And answering Aida, Inareh quickly took a solemn and deep breath to steel herself. “The lady must be made to serve as an example for others… and an example she will be.”
“Aida.” She interrupted before the younger woman could voice any more concerns. “I am counting on you.”
Their assault on Count Xaendis, the Lord of Aravant had been under the cover of darkness but such an operation would not suffice this time. This time, the execution called for plenty of witnesses. Enough so, that words pertaining to what is about to transpire would spread throughout Malpaars like wildfire, forcing anyone with similar motives to rethink their actions.
“I will go first and draw their attention. Use that chance to slip into the camp. When you have done so, keep your distance and continue observing until I begin.” Inareh ordered.
“Al… alright.” Though it was spoken with a tinge of worry, Aida quietly conceded to her instructions.
“Then let us get this over with.”
Without looking back or confirming Aida’s willingness, she continued through the trees that had been shielding them from sight.
Having been in numerous operations over the years, it was clear that the task before them was not going to be simple. Their target the Lady of the Onarald House, though past her prime and a mere Rujal, was still a mage with an army of almost fifteen hundred strong behind her.
Normally such an endeavor would require the cooperation of a full unit of mages or the element of surprise, but such advantages were not possible right now. Her very own unit had been cut down to a mere five by herself and those alongside her, and of those five, only Aida had been unfortunate enough to be there when they were tasked with the mission.
Yet… instead of fearing for her life as she approached the outer perimeter of the large camp, she could not help but suppress an unnerving smile.
Even though the possibility of death was all too real, she could not feel any hesitation within her body or self. Her legs were as steady as ever, her eyes and ears sharp, and her arms and fingers were overflowing with an odd and surprising calm.
Glancing at the silver ring on her index finger, ‘Was this how he felt?’ She wondered as the image of a youth slowly injected itself into her mind. Just picturing the boy’s face and imagining his presence, she could almost feel the ocean of mana that she had glimpsed surrounding him drowning her from within.
In front of the boy, she had discarded her dignity and pride as an agent of Tal’hrus. Before his gaze, she had completely forgotten her fear for the masters she was serving. Even dismissing the dangers that came with such a betrayal.
Taking a deep and calming breath, Inareh carefully gazed down at herself.
The tranquility throughout her body had settled upon her realization, but from within, she could feel a more overpowering sensation. Her heart was beating faster than usual and though she was walking toward what could even be her imminent doom, there was an exhilarating sense of unknown expectation suffusing through her.
“This is… I am excited?” She quietly mused.
Angling her eyes upward again to stare at the large camp in front of her, it was as if her body had innately understood her purpose and the reason why she had been so laxed.
It was obvious now.
“O-over here! We’ve got company!”
Ahead, one of the patrols had finally spotted her and was calling for others who were nearby.
Seeing the guards panicking, she smiled, finally noticing how small the army truly was.
In front of the transcendental existence who now held their lives in his hands, the task before them could only be construed as nothing more than a simple trial. A test.
One, that must be overcome in order to prove themselves. In order to prove herself.
“Then let it escalate. I don’t see a problem there.” Esmera Staymar Onarald sharply voiced and set her goblet of wine down.
Having been interrupted while in the middle of her breakfast, she continued to glower at the aged man in dark plate armor before her, while proceeding to pick at a bowl of chilled fruits.
“M-my lady?” The man’s troubled voice questioned with surprise as he lifted his head to look up at her.
“Those mongrels should be thankful to even have a place amongst my ranks. If they dare bare their fangs, then all the better. At least then I will have good cause to put them down and recoup what I have relinquished to them.” Esmera added, putting a frozen berry into her mouth and chewing contemptuously.
“My lady, please.” Keeping to his kneeling position, “Can’t we just cut them loose? Give them what they were promised and let us be done with their lot.” The knight counseled softly.
“Give them what they were promised?” Esmera snarled back at the man, “What about what I was promised? Should that not be taken into account as well?”
“I- I understand, but at this rate…”
“At this rate what!?” She loudly exclaimed, “What exactly are you so afraid of, Bertram? Surely you and the others can handle a few useless vagrants.”
“My lady…” The man sullenly echoed, his voice growing quieter, “It is not that we are afraid. It’s just…” The knight looked up and she could see his aged eyes drooping, “Have… have we not shed enough blood already? To be turning on those who willingly joined their hands with ours…”
“Hmph.” Sickened by his sudden change in demeanor and tone, Esmera tossed the berries in her hand onto the table, “And just where is this coming from? Was it Girabel?” She snorted derisively, cupping her goblet again.
“It- it is not Sir Girabel…” An exhausted voice emerged from the knight’s mouth.
“Then where is this coming from all of a sudden?”
“I-…” The knight hesitated slightly, before opening his mouth again. “All of this… it just all seems so pointless now.”
“Pointless huh? Finally grew a conscious, did you?” And she sneered, carefully observing the man’s waning posture, “Where was this Bertram when I gave the call to arms? Where was your hesitation when we were marching? When we plundered those in our paths?” Narrowing her eyes, Esmera glared at the man who had been serving her house loyally for over a decade.
“…” Appearing to recoil into his armor, the knight did not endeavor an answer.
“Can’t remember? Shall I help you refresh your memories?”
“I was… mistaken.” The armored man quietly voiced, “The illusion of glory had blinded me. As one who is sworn of honor and righteousness, I… I am immensely ashamed of myself for what I have done, and for what I have driven my brothers to do.”
“Honor? Righteousness? You’re not fooling anyone, Bertram.” She swiftly rebuked.
“Please…” The knight begged again, hanging his head lower. “We’ve all had enough. The soldiers have had enough. There… there is no glory in cutting down peasants and those who do not wish to fight.”
Hearing the tone of the man’s voice, she quietly scrutinized his pensive state, hoping to find any cracks in his resolve. Yet unable to spot any doubts, “… fine.” Esmera finally and irritably conceded. She had wanted Jarnlan as well, but seeing the state of her knights and having been opposed in the previous two raids already, it did not look like she could continue forcing the issue any further.
Taking a quick sip of wine to calm herself, “I will call for Mikil and have him see to it that everyone is-“ Yet before she could finish, the entrance to the tent suddenly flew open.
“Lady Onarald! Milady!!” One of her guards rushed inside, screaming loudly for her.
Having been interrupted not just once but twice while still in the middle of her meal, “What in the world is wrong now?!” She fiercely roared back, unable to hide her irritability.
The guard quickly hurried onto all four. “It- it’s Inareh, my lady! T-that woman is here! She killed Dahmont!” The guard cried out. Upon closer inspection, the man was out of breath and pale as the frost outside.
“Inareh?” Repeating the woman’s name, the guard before her began nodding profusely.
Quickly taking a moment to try and understand why the Tal’hrus mage would suddenly be in her camp and even bother to do such a thing, “What does she want?” Esmera groaned.
“I- I don’t know.” The guard shakenly replied, “She or-ordered us to bring her to you. When Dahmont questioned her purpose, she- she slashed his throat.”
Surprised by the man’s statement, “Inareh did?” Esmera remarked and stood up.
Turning her gaze over to a corner of the tent, her eyes fell upon seven large wooden chests stacked atop one another.
Filled to the brim with jewelry and valuables, they were but a fraction of what was supposed to be her spoils in the prematurely abolished war.
“Surely, she can’t be here for such a trivial thing…” The thought was preposterous, for the Tal’hrus mage should have little care for the wellbeing of Malpaars and its citizens. Curiously looking back at the guard, “Where is Inareh now?” She questioned.
“Sh-she’s coming here right now, milady. The others are escorting her this way. I- I had been tasked with warning you.” The guard hurriedly answered.
Followed by Bertram and three other men in plate armor, they soon met up with the circle of scared but armed soldiers who were escorting Inareh. The Tal’hrus agent on the other hand, was calmly strolling in the middle of the group, walking as if there weren’t over three dozen wary men pointing their weapons in her direction with dozens more in tow.
Upon spotting their entourage, the large group quickly halted and parted to allow her and her knights inside.
“Lady Onarald.” With a cold frozen expression, Inareh calmly called out to her, “I hope I am not disturbing?”
In contrast to the questionable person who had ended their march and disbanded their unified army that day, the Inareh before her was vastly different. No longer agitated or appearing on edge, there was an uneasy sense of calm around her. A calm, that shouldn’t exist considering the current situation they were in and how they had parted ways.
“Inareh… why are you here?” She cautiously growled back, making sure to keep a good distance between them while also scanning the area for any other unwelcomed guests.
“Apologies for arriving unannounced, but there is something that has been troubling me over the past few days.” Expression unchanging, Inareh’s eyes coldly darted from her, to the knights beside her. “Because of that, I am here to confirm whether such misgivings are true or not.”
“Misgivings?” She calmly inquired, not backing down from the younger woman’s gaze. “Just what kind of doubts could one such as yourself have?”
“A simple one.” An immediate response from Inareh as their eyes locked against one another. “While we were on the march, did you perchance send your men into the forest to hunt for stragglers?” Though an unassuming question, it was one belying the truth of its cordial tone.
Seeing the knowing and unadulterated look in Inareh’s unwavering eyes, “… So what if I did?” She snarled, leering back at the woman. “Why would such a thing be of interest to you now?” And added her own inquiry, unsure as to why the trivial pursuit had even warranted the woman’s attention.
“I can’t believe it…” Yet at her admission, Inareh’s eyes immediately darkened with a flash of rage before swiftly returning to normal. “To not even realize what you did… you mewing bitch.” Like bile, the words slowly squirmed out of Inareh’s mouth.
And from her sides, her four knights instantly drew their swords, pointing it at Inareh.
“B-bitch?!” Esmera shouted, “How dare you?!” She roared as her own anger flared upward and the beginnings of an incantation strung itself melodiously through her mind.
“Would blind old crone be better?” Inareh snapped back at her, face igniting with anger. “What else would be fitting for someone as clueless as yourself? So eager for the blood of your own countrymen, you had invited death himself upon us and you didn’t even know it.”
The words took her aback and, “W-what nonsense are you spouting?” She questioned, confused by the peculiar exclamation, “Have you gone and lost your-” Her mouth suddenly stilled midsentence as she recalled the discarded memory of a youth young enough to be her grandson glaring down at her.
‘You brought your forces under a mage like Inareh. Did you ever stop to wonder why she had conceded to my demands? Or were you blinded because you too, are a mage?’ The boy’s very words that evening surged forth from within the concealed depths of her thoughts and she shuddered.
In order to remove the humiliation, she had rid herself of that particular and vexatious event, having already replaced it with their recent conquests.
Yet like the nightmare it was, it had now returned, bringing with it someone that she did not expected to see again so soon.
“My mind? Not at all.” Inareh’s voice shattered her reflection and as quickly as it came, the anger upon Inareh’s face disappeared, returning to its cold and indifferent mask. “In fact, my mind has never been clearer.”
She felt her body suddenly shiver, finally sensing that a calmness had begun to slowly drift about them. Moving through the air like a transparent haze, it was converging around the Tal’hrus agent. “Wha… what do you think you are you doing!? Ha-have you forgotten where you are?!” She screamed out indignantly as the incantations within her mind faltered in fear upon sensing the mass of magic before her.
Without answering though, Inareh simply silently snapped her arms downward and two long thin blades exploded forth from her wrists. “We have all brought this fate upon ourselves through our own actions. Know that I too, am nothing but a slave to this fate- Guh!” Before Inareh could finish, Inareh suddenly grunted, barely catching the blade of one of the knights.
Her other three knights hurried before her and, “B-Bertram?!” She yelped in surprise, thankful for the man’s swift actions. Had the knight not acted and struck first, Inareh surely would have rushed them.
Panicked and uncertain but spotting the clear hostility and cold rage within Inareh’s eyes, “K-kill her! All of you, kill her now!” She shouted, frantically pointing a finger forward.
Yet before her three knights and soldiers could reach Inareh, “Incinaratius Izen Fremasius. Siran!” With a swift invocation, the mana converging around Inareh suddenly expanded outward as flames burst into life through the air. “Out of my way!” Screaming loudly, Inareh slashed with both her wrist blades and sent a wave of flames forth.
The few spells that had been on the cusp of her lips instantly vanished upon the horror of such an invocation and, “Bertram!” Esmera screamed, seeing the haze from before igniting into roaring flames and engulfing her knight before the knight could even retreat.
With Inareh’s surrounding manifesting into torrents of flames, Aida immediately threw her metal spheres into the air. Quickly bringing both her palms together in a loud clap, “Seberas igna zaram! Seberas fezalias! SIRAN!” She screamed, pouring the mana within herself into the four orbs.
Immediately envisioning her own invisible grip upon the four spheres within her mind, her knuckles curved inward together and with a forceful pull, she ripped her hands apart like they were glued together.
In the air and in accordance to her will, the spheres instantaneously stretched into four long thin wires barely visible to the naked eyes.
Having chosen her weapon’s manifestation, she frantically looked ahead again at the roaring flames.
Caught within its midst, the man who had attacked Inareh was now screaming as his whole body burned wildly upon the ground, plate and all. Inareh on the other hand, had already infused herself with an explosion of mana and was rushing forward for their target.
Taking the opportunity before anyone could take notice of what she was doing, Aida swiftly cocked her arms back and then forcefully pushed forward.
Deathly screams overtook the sounds of frantic shouting as her wires sliced into flesh and bones, cutting through those in its path.
Carefully controlling their movements by weaving her arms through the air, she tore at the hundreds of soldiers along the outside of the flaming arena, keeping them from overwhelming Inareh while opening an avenue of escape.
Voices shouted from nearby and glancing in their direction, she caught a handful of panicked soldiers rushing toward her with weapons in hand.
Her arms still occupied, she hastily invoked a second incantation and stamped the ground with her right foot, instantly causing the earth to bulge upward.
“W-what?! Ar-archers! We need archers!”
The frantic commands below suddenly changed as she was lifted into the air with a pillar of dirt and rocks.
Using the momentary reprieve before arrows began flying, she quickly refocused her attention back onto the main fight, barely managing to catch a heavy strike from one of the knights with her wires. “Inareh!” She screamed as the surprised man who had circled around for the deadly strike attempted to withdraw the sword that was caught in her wires.
True to her abilities as the leader of their group, with the opening, Inareh swiftly disengaged from the other two and pivoted around the troubled knight, instantly putting him between her and the others. With one swift strike while the man struggled, she skillfully rammed one of her wrist blades into the opening under the man’s armpit before kicking the armored man away.
“No!” One of the two remaining men in plate armor shouted, and they both quickly zoned in on Inareh, delivering frantic and wide arcing slashes at Inareh’s sides.
She hurriedly defended Inareh against one of the attacks with her wires, but instead of defending herself or retreating, Inareh rushed forward. Lunging at one of the men, Inareh’s body twisted through the air and with a burst of fierce red light, Inareh’s right arm gruesomely lodged itself into the attacking knight’s chest, her blade piercing through armor and mail.
“Bring her down! Where are the archers?!”
Tearing her eyes away from Inareh’s fight once more, she turned her gaze downward to see a number of men hacking away at her earthen pillar.
Quickly stamping the top of the pillar once again, the ground surged upward and widened the pillar even more. Not wasting a moment’s breath in case Inareh somehow got overwhelmed, she reached into the satchel at her side.
Grabbing a fistful of the incendiary powder that she had prepared beforehand, she tossed them down around the pillar and quickly divided her will into two. One for her wires, and one for the new incantation. “Aziras! Veytras Fremmas!” She swiftly commanded, igniting the powder residue that were still on her hand.
“Ahk!? GAuaaaa!” “Get it off me!!” “Water! Water!” Screams came from below as what she had sprinkled flared into a circle of flames, protecting the pillar she was standing on.
With the successful deterrent around her, she immediately returned her focus back to Inareh before lessening her control of the metal wires and blinking in disbelief.
She had felt that something was off ever since seeing Inareh mercilessly slaying one of the guards earlier in contrast to their plans, but she still could not believe it.
Spinning in a half circle, Inareh forcefully brought her blades down and parried an upward strike from a broadsword that was screeching upward at her. With what seemed like a calculated maneuver, Inareh also allowed the momentum of the swing to push her back, allowing her to evade an oncoming attack at her side.
Her eyes widened at the fluidness of the evasion.
The Inareh before her was fearless and was moving with such finesse and agility that her own role was being relegated to nothing more than an observer.
They had feared that the moment everything began Inareh would be flooded by the countless soldiers while fighting the old lady and her knights, but looking at the spectacle before her, such worries were irrelevant.
Instead of helping her men, the slack jawed Lady of the Onarald House was terror stricken and had fallen to the ground in fear.
Having also dealt with three of the knights right away, the one that were currently engaging Inareh was now moving carefully as if they were being extremely mindful of Inareh’s every twitch.
The soldiers on the other hand, were simply watching with wary eyes and sweating as Inareh’s flames continued to roar around the small area.
Suddenly, a heat searing wave pulsed outward and, “Sir Dahveed!” A cry of horror pierced through everyone, coming from the old lady.
In Inareh’s left hand, was the dismembered head of the last knight. Inareh’s blade had pierced the man’s skull in their clash and instead of pulling it out, she had sliced off the man’s head with her other hand.
“W-why?! Why are you doing this?! What do you want?!” Their target, the old lady screamed, her bravado and stern expression nonexistent now after seeing four of her knights fall.
Casually flicking the head upon her blade away, Inareh calmly cracked her neck and a grin filled with fury bloomed upon her face. “Why indeed?”
Seeing the look of complete confidence on her colleague’s face, “I-Inareh…” Aida felt her words quavering as they emerged from her lips.
The Inareh before her, was no longer the person she knew.