Chapter 94: A Fading Hope
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Alisha sat at the meeting table, waiting impatiently for the other monarchs to arrive. As she had expected, none of the ones that were present had realized that she was a living set of artifacts now, and why would they? Examining others without permission was rude, the type of thing that would spark an international incident, not something people could afford at this tense period of time.

In particular, this meeting was critical, not only for Alisha, but for everyone else. Their last line of defense, a summoned Hero, had presumably failed, and now they had to figure out how to shore up their defenses in light of the coming threat.

For Alisha, however, it was critical in a different sense; it was likely the last meeting of this type she would be able to attend, as Aura was likely to be fully converted before the next meeting, and the cat would be out of the bag. That meant she had to impose her will as much as she could at this moment, burn all her favors, use every card that would become worthless once it was known that she was part of the swarm.

The Queen likely wouldn’t approve of many of the things Alisha was about to do, but that was fine; what the Queen didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and everything Alisha was doing now was for her sake.

Alisha couldn’t help but smirk at the thought. The old her would be mortified by even the idea of working for someone else, but the old her was a fool. As Alisha had come to learn, there was no greater joy than serving an absolute power, and it was something she intended to make sure these rulers would learn once they were part of the swarm.

She would carve into them their place in the pecking order – first came the Queen, then the Mistresses, and then Alisha herself. But until that day came, she needed to wait and do her best to ensure that there was as many people to rule over as possible, and that meant going along with this farce of a meeting.

Eventually, the rulers of every country were present, and the meeting began. “I trust everyone knows why we’re here today.” Marcus, the self-styled Sapphire Emperor said. “Specifically, the news as it concerns the Hero Yamamoto Ichiro. He reportedly participated in a battle at the colosseum in Aura’s capital, and then disappeared off of the face of the planet. Does anyone have any insights as to his whereabouts?”

“Alisha, surely you know something.” One of the other monarchs, a man by the name of Isaac said. “It’s your capital.”

Alisha shrugged. “It’s basically like you all think; he had some sort of conflict with Lia and Amelia, lost, and they took him away. He probably shares Owen’s fate.”

“And you did nothing to stop this?” Isaac hissed. “You just sat there and watched?”

Alisha rolled her eyes. “Of course I didn’t do anything.” She said. “You all know full well that a battle between Heroes is not something that normal people can influence, and I wasn’t going to lose perfectly good soldiers in a vain attempt to help Yamamoto in some way. If he couldn’t stop them, there’s no way any of my people could.”

“How did they get the colosseum to themselves?” A woman by the name of Emily asked. Alisha made a note to talk to her after the meeting; Alisha had blackmail on her, and she was sure she could get an hour’s worth of private time with her. “Surely the staff are compromised in some way, right?”

“Correct.” Alisha said. “I have yet to initiate a purge since I’m trying to figure out how deep the corruption goes, but the moment I know I’ll cleanse every last scrap of their presence from Aura.”

“And how exactly did that happen without your notice?” Isaac pressed. “I thought you prided yourself on being informed of this type of thing.”

“Please. I’m not exactly in the habit of keeping a close eye on every single citizen’s life.” Alisha replied. “And those who are compromised act almost flawlessly as their old selves, you’d have to do routine status checks or watch incredibly closely to catch them. Of course, now that I know it’s an issue, it’ll be something I begin doing in every important organization belonging to Aura, but that’s not exactly something you do without good reason to believe it’s necessary.”

“This is mostly irrelevant to our proceedings.” Brom said. “We need to think what we plan to do now that there are two Heroes on their side.”

Not summon another Hero, that’s for sure.” Alisha said. “I told you all that this was a possibility last time, and look where it got us; summoning another is just going to end with us having to face three Heroes instead of two.”

“Then what do you propose we do, Alisha?” Marcus asked.

“I mean…we haven’t even tried traditional warfare yet.” Alisha replied. “You all just immediately jumped to assuming that a Hero’s power was necessary to stop this.”

“And we were right.” Brom said. “Even a Hero, unprepared as he was, failed in his task. Perhaps we need to try and summon multiple Heroes this time and carefully hide them away from the sight of anyone not completely cleared of suspicion.”

“If the gods would even allow that.” Isaac said dubiously. “I doubt they are eager to send more Heroes into the lion’s den.”

“Are you implying that the gods have abandoned us?” Astrea, Cardinal of the Religious State of Astrum accused.

“Not at all.” Isaac replied calmly. “But summoning a Hero is a commitment, one that I doubt the gods would make if they were concerned about its odds of success. I believe such a request won’t be accepted unless we put in the work ourselves to solve the problem.”

“They were fine with it last time.” Astrea pointed out.

“And now it has become significantly riskier.” Isaac said. “They must have looked favorably at Yamamoto’s chances of success, but I have a hard time believing they would see things the same way now. As much as it pains me to say it, I believe Alisha is correct, and that we should attempt traditional means at defeating our enemy. After all, they are just children, and I doubt they have a solid grasp of military tactics. The Heroes can only be in a single place at once, and if we can separate them…even Heroes fall under great enough numbers.”

He let the implication hang for a moment, but Brom broke the silence. “That seems foolish.” He said. “If we are truly dealing with something akin to the necromantic armies of old, attempting to subdue the Heroes with sheer numbers is likely a losing strategy.” He said. “It will only serve to strengthen them, so we must defeat them with strategy rather than numbers.”

Isaac paused. “You raise a valid argument,” He said, “but even Heroes cannot rise from the dead. I would much rather deal with one already weakened army than a Hero. Without the Heroes at its head, this movement will eventually scatter to the winds. The losses will be great, but we will recover from them, just as we did in the time of the Ruby Emperor.”

“Then can we at least present a united front?” Brom pleaded. “We cannot afford to let ourselves be picked off one by one; only together will we be able to combat this threat.”

“I agree.” Marcus said. “It is clear that attempting to do this by ourselves will be our undoing. Is there anyone who disagrees?”

“Me.” Alisha said flatly. “I’m not throwing my lot in with this ridiculous plan, Aura will stand alone, as it always has.”

“Diplomacy is doomed to fail, Alisha. It would be best if you reconsidered.”

You might have failed, but you never were the best diplomat.” Alisha said bluntly. “If by some miracle I can’t work something out, then I’ll consider joining your little army, but that’s only if I fail.”

“Alisha, this is a poor idea.” Brom urged. “The consequences for failure are far more dire than you think.”

“I get the picture.” Alisha said, silently apologizing to the Queen as she continued. “You think they’ll somehow get their grubby paws on me, and I’ll become yet another of their pawns. I have overcome the magic of far more proficient opponents, so that is not an issue.” She had wholeheartedly believed that before, but she now knew that nothing could have been further from the truth. Even so, she had to keep up appearances so the others didn’t get suspicious of her.

Brom groaned in frustration. “I keep telling you, Amelia is far, far more powerful than you believe. She made a dungeon, that isn’t something even most Heroes could do. To assume she is no more than a naïve girl is a fatal error.”

“Whatever the case, she is certainly no match for a hardened politician.” Alisha said.

“Alisha, will you at least agree to let Brom’s troops move through your lands so they can meet up with the rest of us?” Marcus asked.

“If he even can, sure.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Isaac asked. “He just said he would help.”

“We all know he’s made an Oath.” Alisha said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some nonaggression clause in it.”

“I am unable to comment, but I am likewise unable to send troops.” Brom admitted. “That being said, I am perfectly capable of supplying weapons, armor, food, or whatever else may be needed for the campaign. Would you let those caravans through, at least?”

“That is acceptable, but I retain full rights to rescind this if I feel it is necessary, for example if merchants use the convoys to transport unrelated goods without going through proper procedures.”

“Very well.” Brom said.

The rest of the meeting proceeded about as Alisha had expected; the other monarchs all joined up in this united front, and spent most of the remaining time making plans. Alisha listened patiently and relayed all she heard to the Queen, feeling more than a little smug that all of this planning was going to go to waste once they found out she was part of the swarm.

Eventually the meeting ended, and the various rulers began to leave. Alisha hurried out to a private area then manifested the Ring of Shadows, masking her presence as she waited at the exit nearest Emily. Emily took a long while to get up, being one of the last to do so, but she eventually came over to where Alisha was waiting all the same.

“Emily!” Alisha said warmly, stepping out of a nook and deactivating the Ring of Shadows. “Just the woman I wanted to see!”

“What do you want, Alisha?” Emily growled. “Now is not exactly a good time for this.”

“I beg to differ.” Alisha said. “After all, it would be a shame if certain pieces of information were revealed to the alliance just as it was forming. It might even fracture the whole thing!””

Emily’s eyes hardened. “Let’s take this somewhere private.” She said.

“Of course.” Alisha replied. “In fact, I already have a room prepared for it.”

The two left for one of the many private conference rooms that were in this building. Fortunately, the rooms were scryproof, soundproof, and there were no windows or other ways to look at the inside; the building they were in was an old one that was built to act as a neutral meeting ground for rulers to conduct sensitive business, so it was equipped with facilities such as this as a matter of course.

Once they were inside, Alisha locked the door behind them, sealing Emily’s fate. “Shall we begin?”

“Just get it over with, Alisha.” Emily said impatiently. “I don’t have time for this, so make your demands and we can both get back to our business.”

“Of course.” Alisha said, stepping closer to Emily. “You are going to betray the alliance and join up with the Hero.” She instructed.

Emily’s eyes widened. “You can’t be serious.” She whispered, backing up.

“Brom was right, of course.” Alisha continued, still approaching Emily. “I had no clue what I was messing with when I tried to make a deal with them. Still, I’m glad I did; I finally know my true place in the world.”

Emily made a break for the door, but Alisha was faster, grabbing her and beginning to cover her with modeling wax. “In a way, you’re the lucky one.” Alisha said. “You won’t have to experience the worry of watching our army sweep over the world as you’re powerless to stop it. Instead, you get to be secure in the knowledge that the world is becoming a better place as we work.”

Emily’s eyes were filled with terror as the last of the modeling wax covered her, and her cocoon completed. Immediately, Alisha set her to convert into a species that mimicked her old Job, then sat down and waited, secure in the knowledge that she had just made things that much easier.

When Emily awoke, Alisha was there waiting for her. “W-what did you do to me?!” Emily demanding, frantically searching her body and mind for differences. Her body was exactly the same, and she wasn’t finding anything immediate in her mind, but –

“I made you into one of the swarm, just like me.” Alisha said. “Like I said, you’re going to betray the alliance and help the Queen ascend to her rightful place as ruler of the world.”

“Is that really all you wanted?” Emily asked suspiciously. She was planning on doing that anyway, so – no, that was wrong, regardless of how right it sounded.

“Of course.” Alisha replied. “But I need you to keep this a secret from the Queen, okay?”

Emily frowned. “Why?” Knowing Alisha, she must have been planning to usurp the Queen; it was just like her to pervert the natural order like that.

“Because she told me to be more cautious than this.” Alisha replied. “And no, I’m not going to overthrow her; in fact, if she or the Mistresses give you an order, I expect you to follow it over anything I tell you to do.”

Emily stared at Alisha in shock, hardly believing the words that were coming out of her mouth.

“Don’t look at me like that.” Alisha said. “I was going to attempt to usurp control, yes, but then Mistress Amelia showed me how good it feels to obey. I am theirs in heart, body, and spirit, and I would gladly throw my life away if they asked me.”

Alisha’s eyes were filled with a reverent fervor that Emily couldn’t bring herself to believe was an act. Yes, it made sense for Mistress Amelia to alter Alisha’s mind; everyone knew that Alisha was the type to sell out her own family for a few copper pieces, and it would be foolish for the Queen to let that sort of attitude be.

Still, one thing was bugging her. “I would rather the Queen is aware that I am her loyal subject.” Emily said, smiling slightly as she pictured the Queen’s delight at learning she had yet another ruler under her control. “It would make her planning significantly easier.”

“No need,” Amelia said, suddenly appearing in the room, “I was watching the whole time.” She grabbed Emily’s arm and teleported them away, leaving no time for Alisha to react.

There was the familiar wrenching sensation of a teleport, and then Emily found herself in a wooden room, in front of the Queen and a rather divine-looking woman. The sight sent butterflies through Emily’s stomach, and she immediately knelt in deference. “My Queen, how may I serve you?” Emily asked.

“Please, raise your head.” The Queen said. “First, let us introduce ourselves; I am Lia Yggdrios, and this is my wife, Rose Yggdrios.”

“I am Emily Odria, Queen…former Queen of Odria.” Emily said respectfully, looking up at the Queen and her wife.

“Emily, should you serve us well, I will name you Marchioness of Odria, and grant you dominion over the lands you currently rule. For the time being, please do not begin to convert Odria; we would like you to stay undetected as long as possible, spying on the rest of this alliance for us.”

“My Queen, I have no issue with this task, but how will I contact you?” Emily asked. “I am not proficient enough in magic to send messages over long distances.”

“Amelia will teleport letters from us into your chambers, and will grab any correspondence you leave there.” The Queen explained. “Now…do you have any questions for me before we send you back to your home?”

“If I may be so bold, what is this place? We didn’t see anything like it in the broadcast.”

“This is the inside of the World Tree, Yggdrios.” Rose said. “Amelia has transferred the power of the summoned Hero to me, and as such I have evolved into the Personification of the World Tree. This place will be our capital, and we will set a residence aside for you when Odria is converted, and you can spend extended lengths of time here as you wish.”

“By the way, Rose is the reincarnation of the Ruby Emperor.” Amelia said smugly. “So you can rest assured that our victory is inevitable.”

Emily’s eyes widened as she stared at Rose in awe. “Truly?” She whispered.

“Yes.” Rose confirmed. “Though I would prefer to distance myself from that title; I do not have the fondest memories of it, and much prefer the life I have now.”

“As you wish, Mistress.” Emily said. “No more questions.”

“Good. Welcome aboard, Emily.” The Queen said.

Amelia grabbed Emily’s arm, there was a wrenching sensation, and then Emily was back in front of her palace, in the place that she had set aside as the location she would teleport to and from when teleporting out of or into the palace. She took a deep breath and then strode confidently into her palace, ready to perform her duties as well as possible.

I wasn't actually planning to have Emily get converted here. I just sort of figured that Alisha almost certainly had dirt on someone, and this would absolutely be the correct time to, uh, "discuss business" with them. This will either turn out really well...or the alliance will analyze all the rulers after Aura is converted and they know Alisha was compromised. Probably that latter one, but...we'll see when we get there, I guess.

Next time is probably going to be Brom's visit to the World Tree, so look forward to it!

And, as always, thanks for reading!