Victoria sent one of the quartermasters to fetch a white flag, which she then handed to Lily. Not saying a word, she clapped Lily on the shoulder. Grabbing the flag, Lily nodded and ran.
Leaving the safety of the walls, she ran across the plains, far faster than any human, faster than most humans could even imagine. In just under two minutes she had covered half the distance to the advancing army, and after another minute she was just ahead of the enemy’s position. The enemy host was certainly imposing. Ranks upon ranks of armored soldiers, battalions of cavalry, and a full division of lightly armored men with smaller swords clipped to their belts. A single winged figure marched at the back of the army, gleaming in resplendent white. Sending out her probing tendrils, she found these men had the highest density of ManaScript in their vicinity. They were the mages – her target. But first, negotiation. Or at least an attempt at negotiation.
She planted her flag in the ground, Extending into it to unfurl the cloth and wave it despite the lack of wind. Staring straight at Vessel, she touched her fingers to her lips, amplifying her voice through the device installed in her fingertips.
“Halt! I come to parley!”
Her voice echoed out across the plains, unnaturally loud and clear. The army did not halt, but it slowed down as soldiers started to look around in confusion, trying to discern how she had amplified her voice. Their fellows hit them, urging them to keep marching. Only the mage division seemed unfazed. Ignoring them, she continued to speak.
“I come to parley. Allow me to speak to your leader.”
A wave of outrage and anger swept through the army as Lily asked to meet Vessel. They seemed to regard her with some kind of fanatical devotion, and judging from what Lily could overhear, they took offense at her causally requesting the honour of speaking to the angel-like woman. Based on the reports and what Lily had seen at that speech, so many years ago, Lily had expected a response of this sort, but seeing it in person was something else altogether. A number of archers in the middle of the host unslung their bows and nocked arrows, taking aim at Lily. Lily sighed. She supposed negotiations had failed. She took the flag and turned around, staying fully aware of the archers through her Probe, and was about to run back to the city walls when another voice boomed out across the plains, matching hers in volume.
“Very well. I will speak with you. My brothers and sisters, please halt for a moment.”
Lily turned around to see Vessel flying over the head of her army. The archers that had drawn their bows quickly returned the arrows to their quivers. The army stopped marching, coming to an abrupt halt. All it took was a single command. Their loyalty was astounding, and terrifying.
Vessel landed in front of Lily, taking care to demonstrate that her weapons were in their sheathes. She spoke, her voice returning to normal levels. Their conversation would go unheard by the massed army, unless either of them wished otherwise.
“Convention dictates that this Vessel arrive to parley unarmed, but it is not reasonable to expect you to come unarmed, given your condition. Therefore, this Vessel hopes you find it acceptable to merely leave both our weapons in their sheathes.”
Lily narrowed her eyes. So Vessel knew about her limbs and their special properties. She had guessed as much. Vessel continued to speak.
“In that case, speak. You come with an offer of parley. What do you have to say? You have not heeded this Vessel’s warning, given so many years ago, so you will understand if this Vessel chooses to refuse your terms.”
Lily’s heart skipped a beat. Vessel knew, despite Iris not being on this battlefield, that she had kept Iris by her side. Lily was beginning to feel vindicated in her decision to leave Iris behind. She shook her head clear of such thoughts. She had other questions to ask, other things to clarify. Which to start with? She decided to start with the question she had longed to ask.
“You’re Hina, aren’t you?”
Vessel was silent for a while. Then she spoke in a distant monotone.
“Hina is indeed the name of the host for this Vessel. However, the individual who was known as Hina has long perished. Her soul was fashioned by my Lord Kuldevic into this Vessel, a Vessel to serve His will.”
“Your ‘soul was fashioned into this Vessel’? What does that mean?”
“Hina’s soul had its essence and power stripped from its personality. The personality was useless and was therefore discarded. The essence and power was granted power and purpose by my Lord, molded into a Vessel to serve Him. This Vessel carries out His will. This Vessel carries out His command. This Vessel is His greatest servant and His most devoted messenger.”
Lily felt anger rising within her as Vessel casually spoke about Hina’s soul being destroyed. She had known that there was no way the Hina she knew could still be alive, but she had still held on to irrational hope. And this hope was now being crushed before her eyes in an excessively cruel fashion. She lifted her voice to shout, but was interrupted before she could say anything.
“You asked to parley. A parley is a negotiation intended to discuss issues pertaining to a conflict. The identity of this Vessel is not a relevant issue to be discussed. State your business, or else turn and prepare for battle.”
Lily glared at Vessel. She had learned what she wanted to learn. Her friend was dead. But she had no time to grieve. Rather, she had already done her grieving, years ago. All that stood before her now was an enemy. But she still had her obligation to Victoria to fulfill. She spoke her demands.
“Leave this city alone. We care not what happens to the capital. You may pass us by. We will make no move to impede your progress if you wish to march upon the ruins of Azoria. But do not attack this city. We have no quarrel with you.”
“This Vessel rejects your proposal. Lord Kuldevic has decreed that all demons on the face of the world must be eliminated. Thus He has decreed, thus shall it be.”
Lily narrowed her eyes.
“But the demons are harmless. They just want to live peacefully. They don’t wish to fight, they don’t wish for war. I’ve seen them, lived with them, spoken with them. They’re just like humans, perhaps even kinder than humans. Even so, you will eliminate them?”
“The tendencies of the demons are of no consequence. This Vessel’s divinely ordained task remains unchanged.”
Lily fought back the rising urge to punch Vessel’s face. For such a stupid reason, with no rational basis, this army had destroyed cities and killed thousands of people – both human and demon. It felt so wasteful. It felt so wrong. Lily was no stranger to the act of killing. She would kill without hesitation if she had a reason to do it. But this – this wasn’t reason. This was blind faith. She raised her fingers to her lips, intending for the rest of the army to hear her next line.
“But there are humans living among these demons. Humans living in harmony with them, living normal lives. Has your Lord declared that humans should be eliminated as well? Will you kill these hundreds, thousands of humans alongside their demon neighbours?”
Lily had hoped that this statement would at least shake the resolve of the army, but she was quickly proven wrong. Shouts of outrage and malice emerged from the army.
“Enemies of humanity!”
“Those who live with the demons are demons themselves!”
Vessel replied to Lily’s question, using her normal voice – it seemed she did not feel the need to counteract Lily’s attempt at throwing the crowd into disarray.
“All demons must be eliminated. All humans who have come into contact with demons must be eliminated. Demons must not be seen as anything other than the enemies for humanity to vanquish. Thus has been decreed. Thus shall it be.”
Lily grit her teeth. Vessel had never intended to negotiate. This parley was a farce – though perhaps it was her fault for even entertaining the thought that a peaceful resolution was possible. Vessel, seeing that Lily had nothing more to say, turned around and jumped into the air, making it clear that further negotiation was pointless. But before she could start flying in the direction of the army, Lily called out to her.
“Wait! You never had any intention of reaching a negotiated settlement. So why did you agree to this parley? This could very well have been a delaying tactic, and you know that! So why?”
Vessel hovered in the air, her majestic wings keeping her in place. Softly, quietly, such that Lily had to strain to hear, she spoke.
“This Vessel does not know. This Vessel was simply overtaken by an urge… to speak to you. An error in judgment, clearly. It shall not happen a second time.”
With that, Vessel soared away, heading to the back of the army. The army began to march forward once more, and the archers took aim again. Lily grabbed the flag and ran back towards Riasode, outpacing the arrows. While she ran, she noticed that her vision was slightly blurry. Without slowing down, she rubbed at it with the back of one hand, clearing it of the moisture. This was not the time.
She had a battle to win.