Chapter 52: The Run-Around
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A/N: Some time passes, some things begin to become clearer...

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“I’m starting to suspect we aren’t allowed to leave.”

As Avina comes up beside him and whispers that under her breath, Mikael winces. His eyes immediately dart to the center of the room to check on Bula and make sure she hadn’t overheard the other woman… but as far as he can tell, she hadn’t. Letting out a low sigh, he gives Avina a slight nod.

“I suspect you might be right about that…”

It’s been three days since they were shown to this room. Three days since High Executor Krislamin outlined his expectations and then was pulled away. Three days in which an increasingly frustrated Bula had been trying to bind with the God of the Forest. Even now, the half-orc warrior kneels in the center of the ritual circle wearing her mother’s old dress, focusing on something only she can sense. Her eyes shut tightly in concentration; Bula is a fidgety, agitated mess.

Which is precisely why neither Mikael nor Avina has told her of their suspicions just yet. While Bula hasn’t spent every waking moment trying to make headway in connecting to Syl, she’s still been working incredibly hard and all on Mikael’s request. In return, in order to keep her motivated, he’s spent every night with her since they arrived here. Needless to say, they’ve broken in every surface in the room at this point, all while Avina watched.

Mikael is just thankful he has the Soul Engine, his magic, and his… unique constitution. Because otherwise, he’s not confident he would have survived the experience of an incredibly frustrated and pent-up half-orc night after night.

Still, back to the issue at hand… the guards hadn’t outright said it, of course. They hadn’t come out and told them that they weren’t allowed to leave. However, there was no denying that there WERE guards posted outside of the room and whenever they’d wanted anything, it had been brought to them rather than them being allowed to get it themselves.

Glancing over at Avina, Mikael raises an eyebrow, making sure to keep his voice as low as possible.

“What was the excuse this time?”

Scoffing, his Soul Mechanic rolls her shoulders and then crosses her arms over her chest.

“Same as before. Not safe.”

Yes. That was the most common reason why they had to stay inside. It wasn’t ‘safe’. Supposedly, if they went out and walked the wooden treetop city freely, they were likely to be attacked outright by Sylian Elves who apparently saw red if they caught even a whiff of outsiders. As such, for their safety and the safety of ‘The People’, they had to stay put.

Sounded like bullshit to Mikael though. They’d gotten plenty of strange looks while traveling with the High Executor, and some had even been decidedly hostile, but none had felt murderous or bloodthirsty. And even if Daylor was too busy to escort them now, so long as they had an elven escort with them, shouldn’t it be fine? Could the guards that the High Executor assigned to protect them not speak with his authority or something?

On top of that, they hadn’t spoken to High Executor Krislamin since three days ago. All of their requests to either be brought to him or to have him come to them had been met with variations of ‘he’s too busy’. Doing what? Mikael didn’t know exactly, though he could at least be sympathetic of the fact that the elven man was trying to hold together the last remnants of his entire species apparently.

Still, any sympathy he might feel for Daylor and the Sylian Elves’ plight drained away whenever their guards made entirely unsubtle digs about how the High Executor MIGHT have time for them once the High Priestess Candidate had finished binding with Syl.

Frustrating, to say the least. Especially since they really needed to talk to the elven leader about potentially mobilizing his people for the fight against Foss. Sure, Mikael understood that Daylor would need to see results first… but they hadn’t even managed to get to why they were here in the first place three days ago. He’d figured they had time to bring it up later, but with nearly half of their self-imposed time limit having passed at this point and no sign of the High Executor, he was starting to get antsy.

One look at Avina showed that she was feeling much the same way. She might have been used to behavior like this from her time partially under Zadicus Quinn’s thumb, but that didn’t mean she had to like it. It feels like a life time ago, but Mikael still remembers that thug Tak and his friends and how he and Avina had interacted.

If anything, those experiences made her more in tune with the fresh smell of bullshit, not less. This whole situation was starting to stink and Mikael wasn’t sure if they should even wait the full week before getting the hell out of here.

To be fair, Bula… might have been making progress? Looking over at the kneeling half-orc, Mikael watches in no small amount of fascination as a nimbus of energy swirls around Bula’s form. Her eyes tightly shut and her face contorted into a grimace, she’s clearly giving it her all. The ritual circle is blindingly bright at the moment and Mikael has to assume that she’s close to whatever binding with Syl looks like.

Except… just like every time before over these past three days, the energy abruptly dissipates, the bright shine diminishing to a mere glow as Bula lets out an angry huff and her eyes snap open. Mikael waits for her to gather herself for another attempt… but not this time.

“GRAAAAH!”

With an angry shout, the half-orc slams her fists into the wood beneath her. It’s a testament to how tough Sylian Trees are, or perhaps the protections of the ritual circle, that Bula doesn’t damage it in any way. That doesn’t make her any happier though and she abruptly hops to her feet, glaring at nothing in particular for a moment.

“… Bula?”

Whipping her head in his direction, Bula huffs.

“Need to kill something.”

Mikael and Avina exchange a concerned look at that, but Bula doesn’t waste time mincing words. Before they can even contemplate whether it’s a good idea to talk her down or not, the dress-wearing half-orc has grabbed her battle axe and is striding out of the room. All they can do is follow after her to keep up.

“Hold! By order of the High Executor, you-grk!”

The guards outside step forward to try to stop her, of course. But Bula isn’t having it. She’s not nearly as understanding as he and Avina have been so far. Grabbing the first one to speak by his leather jerkin, she lifts him off the ground and slams him into the nearest bark wall. The other guards all tense up, looking uncertain what to do… after all, she’s the High Priestess Candidate. Not like they can hurt her.

Fortunately, Bula isn’t so far gone that the speaker receives her battle axe directly to his face. Instead, the half-orc leans forward, pinning him in place with both her hand AND a deathly glare.

“One way or another, I’m going to kill something. It can either be you and your friends… or you can point me in the direction of your enemies and I’ll kill them instead.”

Sputtering and looking at his fellows for help but finding nothing but uncertainty and fear, the elven guard quivers in Bula’s grasp.

“B-But the High Executor-!”

Now, Bula does bring her axe to bear… pressing the sharp edge of it against the underside of the guard’s chin and snarling at him.

“Make. Your. Choice.”

A brief pause… and then…

“O-Okay! Alright! We’ll take you to the frontlines!”

There’s some shuffling from the other guards at that, even as Bula huffs and drops the first to the ground. He lands on his feet… but it would seem his legs have turned to jelly at some point because he collapses to his knees for a moment before having to be helped up by his kin. Mikael raises an eyebrow and shares a glance with Avina.

On the one hand, it’s obvious that they’re clearly under orders to keep them all contained so Mikael is a bit surprised that that worked. On the other hand, he’s not THAT surprised. Bula can be very intimidating when she wants to be, after all.

Of course, there’s still a moment after the first guard is pulled to his feet where he looks mulish and like he might try to renege on his deal with Bula now that she doesn’t have him dead to rights and he’s been pulled back to where his fellows are standing. There’s a moment of silence as a standoff ensues between Mikael, Bula, and Avina and the elven guards ordered to keep them from leaving the High Priestess’ Room.

“NOW!”

… But Mikael isn’t sure Bula even realizes there IS a standoff as the half-orc gets impatient and snarls at the group of guards a moment later. They all positively jump out of their skin, before hastily hurrying to do as she says.

And so Mikael and Avina find themselves trailing along after Bula as they’re led through the massive canopy city. The half-orc’s stomping and consistent angry growling are enough to keep their escort moving across the city, even as they descend to the lower branches of the trees, getting further and further down.

Curiously, while they definitely get some strange looks from the Sylian Elves that they pass in the process… none try to accost them. Whether that’s because of their escort or simply because the threat of violence against outsiders was entirely overblown… in the end it doesn’t matter. Eventually, they reach the Southern edge of the city. The opposite of where they’d been all this time.

Mikael hears it before he sees it, of course. Bula does too, judging by her twitching knife-like ears. The sound of fighting. Of battle. It’s then that they see… this edge of the city is both in shambles and far more well-fortified then the part they’d been in. Probably because it’s an active war zone. The branches go much closer to the ground here, only about two hundred feet up or so. And there… down below, there are ‘the frontlines’.

He hadn’t been sure what the elven guard had meant when he’d said he would take them to the frontlines. But now he knows. Now they all know. For the past three days, they’d been in a city that was already under siege. Children of Syl swarm in the dozens on the forest floor down below, and thousands of elven warriors struggle to hold back the encroaching tide, relying upon the high ground to give them the advantage.

Not all of the monsters are as big as the one that came after him and the others back when they first ran into the High Executor of course. But some are… and even the smallest is bigger than a carriage. There are a lot of them too. Enough that Mikael can imagine how eight elven cities, all supposedly bigger than this impressively large city, could fall to the horde over the last eight years.

“Yes…”

Caught up in his thoughts, Mikael doesn’t have a chance to stop Bula from running forward and literally throwing herself off the platform into the fray below. The half-orc’s opening move is to sink her battle axe into the skull of one of the moderately sized Children of Syl, riding the thing to the ground as she lets out an uproarious laugh.

“YES! MORE!”

Mikael facepalms but resists the urge to jump down after her. He’s not about to leave Avina with a bunch of suspicious elves after all. Instead, letting his magic slowly unfurl around the two of them, he looks at their guards… who are all paying him and Avina no mind, staring after Bula with expressions of horror and awe on their faces.

Before he can ask if there’s a safer way down, Avina grabs him by the arm and points off to the side. Pausing, Mikael takes in the sight of the innocuous wooden lift just sitting there about twenty feet away and sighs.

“Of course. Bula… what am I going to do with you?”

With the guards still caught up watching Bula fighting like a one-woman army down below, Mikael and Avina quietly make their way over to the lift and transport themselves the rest of the way to the ground. A few minutes later and they join Bula in combat, the half-orc grinning wider than she has in a long while, her face splattered with the blood of her enemies. Dragging a modestly sized Child of Syl over, she thrusts it in front of Mikael.

“Eat!”

Tilting his head to the side, he lets out another sigh before nodding and reaching out with the Soul Engine. Sucking up the Child of Syl’s soul feels… strange, but not unwelcome. No telling if Avina’s fiddling over the past three days has made it safer or not, but either way… it’s a big chunk of Weave that he winds up consuming. Leaves him feeling all… tingly.

Once he’s done, Bula lets out another laugh and raises her axe into the air.

“Come! There will be no need to bind with a God if we just kill them all! You will finally have the strength of an army, Mikael!”

… Was she still on about that? Bula had been pushing for that strategy since Alether when Foss had shown up with his army. Only, that army had turned out to be undead so Mikael couldn’t slaughter his way through them and become all powerful. Then there had been the Citadel, where her plan might have been put into place if Thayla’s father hadn’t turned out to be reasonable. Though Mikael would have preferred to avoid slaughtering an entire Knightly Order if possible. Just running away would have been his preference if it proved necessary.

Now though… Mikael looks around them. The Elven Warriors are giving them a wide berth but the Children of Syl are not. More than a few of the massive beasts are already prowling closer, seemingly sensing an easy meal in the form of the three morsels standing in their midst.

Immediately, he deploys some of his magic to shield Avina from harm, keeping her close to him as she squeaks a little bit at suddenly being corralled in. Mikael gives her an apologetic look at that, but he’s not about to take any risks with her, not here. Given they clearly can’t trust the elves, at his side is the safest place for her, but this is still an active battlefield.

That said… Mikael smiles and gives Bula a nod. Killing every single Child of Syl in one go might be a bit of a tall order but…

“Sure, Bula. Let’s try out your strategy.”

The way the half-orc’s eyes light up like a kid in a candy shop is both adorable and a little frightening. With a happy roar, the battle maniac of a woman launches herself at the closest monster, forcing Mikael to move forward to keep up with her. Apparently… they were doing this. Time to see how well it worked.

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Plug: The next TEN chapters of The Soul Engine can be found over on my Patreon at all times!
 

A/N: They're finally going to try Bula's "Let's make Mikael super powerful via genocide" plan. I'm sure this will go perfectly and nothing will happen to interrupt it...

Be sure to let me know what you think!

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