Prei swung Myriad, swinging it free of the blood that covered its surface. Her armor, stained with red, no longer shone in the sunlight. Her helmet, its visor dripping with fresh blood, suffered a similar fate. She released a low growl. She would need to spend a considerable amount of time cleaning the armor later – along with a bath to clean the liquid from her scales. While she entertained this thought, she heard rapid footsteps and frenzied breathing, along with the clang of metal against metal as her would-be assailant attempted to scale the literal mound of corpses atop which she stood. Not sparing a glance in his direction, she casually flicked a finger, and a spear of stone found its way through his head, causing him to crumple down, adding to the mound. How many was that? Prei had lost count. How long had she been fighting? She had not been keeping track. Bodies lay all around her. Had she killed her target number yet? She was unsure. The humans were unfaltering in their advance: Even after seeing their fellows so easily defeated, they continued to rush at her, climbing over the corpses of their allies, as if they intended to overwhelm her through sheer numbers. And thus, she could only keep fighting, killing all who approached.

To her right, she noted a column of human soldiers charging past her position, trying to get to the walls of Riasode, presumably hoping Prei would be too preoccupied to come after them. This was unfortunately not the case. Prei would consign them the fate that had befallen the many others who had tried the same in this battle. Her priority, after all, was not engaging the enemy: it was to protect her home. She leapt off her vantage point, hovering midair. Then she rocketed down toward the group of cavalry who were frantically urging their mounts forward. Landing in their path, she swung Myriad in a wide arc, cleanly bisecting the foremost soldiers. Then she conjured up ten, twenty, thirty spears of various elements and struck down the remnants. There were no survivors.

She looked around the battlefield. The majority of the enemy army was busy dealing with Riasode’s elite forces, including herself and her mother. The few stray groups who found their way to the walls of the city were stymied by Tate’s barrier, and casually picked off by archers on the walls. She glanced over to the mage division – or what was left of it. The ground was painted red. Various body parts lay scattered across the plains. She saw the occasional glints of light reflecting off Lily’s wires as she painted a picture of carnage. If she squinted a bit, she could see the armored figure that was her mother dancing across the battlefield, raining down attacks. ‘Dancing’ was the only way to describe Lily’s movements. She flitted from enemy to enemy, moving in the air as though it were solid ground, even though she had no actual means of flight. Every movement looks beautiful, elegant, powerful – a far cry from Prei’s much more unrefined, if more practical, method of combat. Prei let out an admiring sigh then focused her attention on the battlefield, looking for her next-

Struck by a sudden sense of danger, she leapt backward from where she had been standing. Almost immediately, something struck the ground where she had stood, kicking up a cloud of soil. Instantly alert, Prei brought her Myriad in front of her in a defensive stance, just in time to block the attack of the white-clad winged enemy that burst out from behind the veil of soil. Vessel’s greatsword struck Myriad’s shaft, forcing Prei to take several steps back. Prei quickly regained her battle stance, barely allowing her to react to Vessel’s next attack, a wide swing of the greatsword. Moving quickly, she lowered Myriad’s tip and ducked under the sword, aiming a stab at her opponent’s torso. However, Vessel twisted her body while the greatsword followed through its arc of swing, catching the attack on the sheath of her other greatsword, clipped to her waist. Not wasting a moment, Vessel turned her greatsword’s tip toward Prei and swung down. Prei rapidly jumped to the side, transitioning into a backhop to gain distance, but her efforts were quickly rendered moot as Vessel immediately charged at her, forcing her to bring Myriad into an imperfect block. She was able to stop the blade, but not its force, and with her imperfect stance, the strike sent her flying, tumbling in the dirt. But even in such a state, she had to force herself to remain vigilant. She turned her tumble into a roll, getting to her feet just in time to block another attack. Vessel was relentless in her onslaught, allowing Prei no time to think. She was too fast, too strong. She was unlike any enemy Prei had ever faced. Prei was being forced to defend herself – there was no room for attacks.

Growling in frustration, Prei quickly jumped just as one of Vessel’s many attacks struck Myriad. The force sent her flying through the air, wherein she flapped her wings once and stabilised herself midair. She had no time for relief, however, as Vessel quickly came after her, following her into the air. The two winged battlers darted around each other, avoiding the other’s blows while attempting to land their own – in the air, one could not block.

Finally, by some combination of luck and skill, Prei managed to land one attack – she narrowly dodged a swing, then countered with a downward stab. Vessel flew to the side to avoid it, but Prei changed Myriad into its greatsword mode and converted the momentum from the downward swing into a sideways slash. Taken by surprise, Vessel brought her own greatsword forward to block, and was thus sent uncontrollably flying through the air from the force. Having thus acquired some breathing space, Prei quickly created countless magical spears behind her, pushing her mana to the limit, and immediately sent all of them flying at her opponent, hoping to strike her before she could recover.

However, each of her spears was intercepted by a corresponding ethereal sword, seemingly made of pure light. The two sets of magical constructs crashed into each other, dissipating into nothingness as Vessel gained her balance midair. But Prei had only a short moment to despair, for she had to quickly dart to the side to avoid a sword of light striking down on her position. Almost immediately, another one struck downward on the position she had dodged to, then another after she dodged that. Prei streaked through the air, avoiding the numerous swords that were raining down on her. As she did, she conjured up spears around her, and finally turned around and launched them at the swords that were about to strike her. While her attention was focused on the swords, Vessel closed the distance between them, her greatsword poised to strike. A current of fear ran through Prei. There was no time to block. This attack would connect, and then it would be the end.

Thankfully, as Vessel was about to swing down the sword, she abruptly turned and brought her sword downward into a guarding stance, blocking the inhumanly strong kick hurtling at her from the side. The blow sent her flying again, allowing Prei to breathe a sigh of relief. Lily hung suspended before her midair, her body still in kicking posture, and she quickly grabbed Prei’s hand just as she began to fall. Prei briefly tossed Lily upwards and transformed into her dragon form, catching Lily upon her back. The time they took for this was enough for Vessel to launch another barrage of light swords, but Lily’s wires served as a protective field against them. Vessel instantly closed in for an attack, but Lily punched away the incoming sword, following up with a grapple for Vessel’s throat. Vessel quickly darted backward to avoid the grab, but then had to duck under a torrent of flame emerging from Prei’s mouth. Her dodge put her in range of Lily’s hand, which detached from the rest of her arm and shot out, aiming for Vessel’s neck. Vessel rolled through the air to dodge the hand, but this action put her in the firing range of Prei’s spears. At the same time, Lily’s hand changed direction midair and again shot toward Vessel. In order to avoid this multi-directional attack, Vessel beat her wings once and rapidly gained altitude, but Lily released wires from her other hand in response, aiming to entrap Vessel’s ankle. Vessel somersaulted midair, avoiding the wires, and quickly put distance between them. Prei marvelled. After so many bouts, they had finally managed to put Vessel on the defensive. Winning this battle might not be as impossible as it originally seemed.

They both watched Vessel carefully to see what she would do next. They had managed to force her back, but it was too risky to attack her head-on. They did not know whether she had any other vectors of attack, and she had still not drawn her second blade. However, to Prei’s surprise, Vessel clasped her hands together and closed her eyes.

“Is she…praying?”

Prei voiced her confusion, but Lily’s reaction was far more pronounced.

“Get us down on the ground. NOW!”

Prei was unsure of the cause of the sense of urgency in Lily’s voice, but she knew better than to question her mother’s intuition. She folded her wings and dove to the ground, transforming into her human form as she did. If they were going to fight on the ground, she no longer needed to carry Lily, and her human form was more manoeuvrable. As she finished her transformation, she felt danger approaching from above and quickly brought Myriad into a defensive stance again, glancing at Vessel. The woman was now bathed in white light. Suddenly, she vanished, and reappeared in front of Prei.

“What the-!”

Prei was in a proper guarding stance, but even so, the weight of the blow forced her to a knee. Vessel was much faster, much stronger than before. Vessel pushed down on Myriad, forcing Prei to struggle to keep the weapon away from her. Without warning, Lily entered the fray and kicked at Vessel, but Vessel disengaged and dodged the blow before Lily could connect. Prei quickly got to her feet and took up a stance next to Lily, who watched Vessel, hovering in the air above them. They were quickly joined by Victoria, who ran up beside them and stared at Vessel, her own spear in a ready position. Her own armor was just as impressively bloody as Lily’s and Prei’s.

“That was some battle. You two are monsters. That woman in the air, too. I might not be at the level of you people, but I think I’m strong enough to help without getting in the way.”

Vessel stared at the three of them, who regarded her with hostility and wariness. Prei now understood why Lily wanted to return to the ground – on the ground, they could force Vessel into a position where she had had the numerical disadvantage. In the air, their ability to fight would be hindered, since Prei was the only one capable of flight. In this situation, even if Vessel attempted to use her light swords, Lily’s wires would render them impotent; and if she tried to use hit-and-run tactics, Lily’s wires would be able to snare her. If she attacked, it would have to be on the ground, on their terms. At the same time, however, they could not attack her in her current position without putting themselves at a disadvantage. They had reached a stalemate, where neither side found it advantageous to go on the offensive. Vessel looked to the walls of Riasode. Lily briefly whispered to Prei.

“Check on the city.”

Prei nodded and turned to look at the walls, while Lily and Victoria kept their eyes on Vessel. While Vessel had engaged them in combat, several battalions had approached the walls, but Tate’s barrier was keeping them out. Soldiers found themselves blocked by an invisible wall, while arrows and magic fizzled mid-air. At the same time, Victoria’s vanguard, riding back from the frontlines, was running amongst the enemies, carving out a path of slaughter. Prei turned back.

“The barrier is holding. The vanguard is making short work of the soldiers that managed to reach it.”

Lily nodded, then placed her fingers to her mouth, calling out to Vessel.

“What will you do? Your men cannot penetrate the barrier. Will you go and crush it yourself? But that would go against what your god wants, wouldn’t it? So, what will you do, Vessel?”

It was impossible to tell what kind of expression Vessel was making – her eyes were covered by her strange visor, her mouth was a thin, expressionless line. But when she spoke, her voice reverberated across the fields.

“Brothers and Sisters! We retreat for now. There is no reason in pointlessly losing your lives any further. Collect our dead and return.”

With that, she turned and flew in the direction of the invading army’s camp. Lily, Prei and Victoria breathed a collective sigh of relief. For now, at least, the battle was over.