Chapter 281
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I took a deep breath as I considered the options available to me. Every minute that passed, Envy was getting closer and closer to invading. It was suffocating, like a constantly pressing down on my chest. If only I had more time, everything would be so easy.

Wishes wouldn’t change reality, though. No matter how I wanted it to be different, Envy would still come with the Leviathan in tow. I had to make a decision soon, but there were several loose ends I needed to clean up first.

With a sigh, I stood up and slowly walked back to Ater-Albus. I could have flown, but I wanted the time alone to get my thoughts in order before the responsibilities of everything were once again pushed in front of me.

It was difficult to tell when the sun rose through the blood mist. The dim light that made its way through the crimson haze left the city cloaked in shadows. The lack of light did not slow down the soldiers, though. Under General Arthur’s command, the army fully transformed the city. Destroyed barracks were cleaned out. Any materials or goods still in one piece were salvaged and repurposed. Debris was cleared from the streets to allow soldiers quick movement to any defensive structure in the city. It was impressive how much they had managed to accomplish in a single night. 

The general himself was no less busy than his men. I found him sweating hard as he worked to clear out the destroyed insides of a watch tower and clear the stairway for use.

“There you are!” General Arthur shouted joyfully as I approached, “I just sent out a squad to look for you.”

“Did you need something?” I asked curiously. 

“Yes, I need you to make a decision about all the dead bodies and pieces of bodies littering the streets. We have been trying to move them to the central courtyard, but there are too many for us to process. I don’t know what the Demons did there, but I have never seen so many severed chunks of flesh in my life.”

I nodded, remembering I had drawn all the energy from my undead army, leaving tens of thousands of empty shells behind. “I’ll deal with it.”

General Arthur wiped the sweat from his forehead before stretching his back. “I also wouldn’t mind if you could order some undead to help clear out the debris. Large stones from destroyed buildings can be used for trebuchet ammunition, and we are gathering broken furniture in a warehouse by the south gate. If nothing else, they can be used for firewood since no trees remain around the city. There is a lot of work to do if we are to get this place battle ready for a full-scale invasion.”

“I’ll get it done,” I replied numbly.

General Arthur raised an eyebrow at my detached reply. “Everything ok?”

“Fine, just trying to decide my next step,” I replied with a dismissive wave of my hand.

“Ah, I see,” General Arthur said with a knowing chuckle. He placed a hand shoulder and smiled. “Go see your family first. The work will still be there later.”

“It’s fine. There will be time later.”

“No, I will gather everyone for a strategy meeting this afternoon. It is best if you see them now. Clear your head first. Then we will all decide the best course of action together.”

I looked up at the general in surprise. I hadn’t expected him to see through my worries so easily. He had certainly earned his reputation as a brilliant general. If he could read his opponents' thoughts as easily as he had mine, there was no war he could not win. 

Under General Arthur’s insistence, I took his advice and returned to Dragon’s Nest. There, Dad and Charly were in an animated discussion about the glyph that protected the soldiers from the blood mist. Even with all the time I spent learning about glyphs, I could only understand every third word. Despite that, I still found myself smiling as I walked up.

Dad’s face lit up like a light as he saw me. A big smile stretched from ear to ear as he rushed to my side and pulled me into a big hug. “Wren, I am so glad you are alright! You have no idea how much I was worried for you.”

Charly grinned. “He was awake all night waiting for you. I told him you were fine, but he insisted.”

I flushed in embarrassment. After being captured by the Demons and then losing Dom in the battle, I had not considered what Dad must have been feeling. I was so distracted by my own worries that I hadn’t even told him I was ok.

I buried my face in his burly chest and returned the hug. “Sorry, Dad, I should have returned sooner.”

“Everything is fine so long as you are safe,” he whispered softly.

I felt a warmth in my chest as the two of us stayed like that for several minutes. It was only once I had reassured him several times that I was unharmed before he finally released me.

The three of us sat together at the edge of Dragon’s Nest as I told them everything that had happened since we separated. Escaping the prison, regaining my power, and Dom’s death, it was something of a release to talk to them about it. I had lost friends in war before, but it was never easy. Knowing that you would never see them again almost felt surreal. As if they would simply show up at any moment, acting like nothing happened, yet, they never did. Dom had been with me for so many years I had lost count. Despite that, I still remembered those days fondly.

Dom had been born here in Ater-Albus. I didn’t know him back then, but according to the man’s own account, he had a very boring childhood. He had no tragic backstory or emotional trauma that inspired his actions—only an ordinary family from an ordinary home. The only notable point he would mention to me was his grandfather, a man that fought in my army during the revolution to overthrow the previous emperor. Dom was always so proud when he mentioned that. He grew up listening to his grandfather’s war stories, and the moment Dom was old enough, he volunteered to join the army. I still spent a lot of time in the capital in those early days, acting as a proper empress. It was not long before I met the talented recruit quickly making a name for himself.

The first time I met Dom, he had just been promoted to captain of a twenty-man unit. Feeling a bit mischievous that day, I decided to make a surprise inspection of the army. Dom’s was one of only ten units that passed. As a reward, I gave each of those ten captains an opportunity. If they succeeded, they would easily move up the ranks. In the end, only three passed the first mission, and by the time of the fifth, only Dom remained. It quickly became something of a game for me as I increased the difficulty of the tasks with each success. By the thirtieth mission, I was sending Dom into some of the world's most dangerous locations. On the fiftieth, I introduced the man to the Thirteen Divisions and the worlds beyond our own. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but it stopped being a game at some point, and I started relying on Dom as we fought together in the war. He had truly earned the place at my right hand.

For centuries, Dom and I had fought together. The war had taken a toll on both of us, and when he said that he wanted to retire and start a family, I supported him completely. I offered him a lordship or even a country to rule as king if he desired it, but Dom turned my offers down. Instead, he built himself a bar to look after the little slice of peace I had established in this world.

I broke down in tears as I told the story of Dom’s life. Dad and Charly both listened, asking the occasional question. The last moments of Dom’s life kept flashing through my mind, but talking helped. It felt as if a weight was lifted from my shoulders with each word I spoke and tear I shed.

“I should never have asked Dom to join me again,” I muttered softly.

“After all you’ve told us, do you really think he would have stayed out of this?” Dad asked, “Even if you hadn’t gone to him, I believe Dom would have sought you out himself as soon as he noticed the eminent invasion. I doubt he would have accepted it if you refused his help.”

“I know, still… I can’t help but wonder how things could have turned out if I had just acted slightly different. Worst of all, I know he will not be the last one to die in this fight against Envy. I can’t help but worry who will be next.”

Dad placed a hand on my back. I could feel the warmth radiating through my clothes. “No matter what happens, you will not face it alone. We will be right here beside you every step of the way.”

I gave Dad a reassuring smile, but I unconsciously started tracing the cover of the Chronicle nervously. The last thing I wanted was for my family to put themselves in harm’s way. I had to become strong enough to handle Envy and the Leviathan alone. Otherwise, the tragedy of Dom’s death would repeat itself again. I couldn’t tell Dad my thoughts, though. He would never agree to the kind of risk I was considering. Even I knew my plans were reckless. If it was just Envy invading alone, I wouldn’t even consider them as an option. However, with the Leviathan under his command, I wouldn’t be able to use any cheap tricks like normal. Only if I wielded absolute power would I be able to save everyone.

After some time sitting with my family, reminiscing about the past, I decided that sitting would do no good. I needed to do something, anything, to keep my mind busy and not focused on the worst possible outcomes. I would have to make a choice soon, but it didn’t have to be today. First, I would strengthen every card in my hand as far as possible. My most immediate priority would be the strategy meeting this afternoon. With a Demon in our hands and the ability to set our own battlefield, I needed to devise a good strategy that could turn the tides of war in our favor.

I entered Dragon’s Nest, intent on writing down a few different locations and options for troop placements when I was startled to see Sebastion and his sister Tia on the other side of the door. I realized immediately they could hear my entire conversation from where they stood. The young girl’s eyes were puffy and red from crying, and I looked at the ground, unable to meet her gaze. 

To my surprise, though, Tia didn’t accuse me or shout at me like I expected. Instead, she actually wiped the tears from her eyes and smiled. “Thank you, Aurielle.”

“What?” I asked, visibly recoiling from how bright the girl looked at that moment. 

“My dad… he talked about you constantly. To him, you were like an untouchable goddess. His greatest regrets in life were when Sebastion killed you and that he wasn’t there during the final battle with the Archdemon. He believed he let you down. If he only knew you held him in such high regard…” Tia choked up as tears began to fall again, “If he were here, he would say thank you. Thank you for letting him fight by your side one final time.”