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540. Towers of the Non-Awakened

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A double wall surrounded the cluster of towers. Moving closer, it became clear that the walls weren’t there just to prevent people from getting into the city, but also kept them from getting out. Even from a distance, it could be seen that there were no doors on the base of the towers themselves. If such had even existed, they had been long bricked up. The only means for getting things in or out were through a system of ropes and pulleys.

“Think we’ll end up there?” Dallion asked as he and Eury made their way towards the city entrance.

They had made a point of not hiding, which ensured that they would be spotted almost the moment they came down the mountain. All that was part of the plan, but it made Dallion feel uneasy.

“Depends on how strong they are.”

COMBAT INITIATED

Guess we’ll find out, Dallion thought, and split into twenty instances.

Roots shot up from the ground in an attempt to grab the pair. Gripping his harpsisword, Dallion did a series of circular slashes with several instances, while Eury evaded all attacks her way.

From the corner of his eye, Dallion saw dryads approaching, yet they weren’t armed with common wooden sickles, nor any other weapon typical for the world. The objects they were armed with looked mechanical, more like long boxes than actual weapons, with multiple openings to the side. Seeing them made Dallion think of his fight with the Star’s echo, and especially the projectile weapon she had.

“Watch out!” he shouted, chopping another cluster of roots, attempting to grab him.

No sooner had he done so, when several miniature rockets emerged from the dryad’s weapons, releasing trails of smoke.

Euryale’s reaction was to throw two knives at the approaching projectiles. An explosion followed, tearing out trees from their roots.

All but one of Dallion’s instances vanished, as he lost focus. Even after growing up on Earth, he still couldn’t get used to the idea of explosives in this world. It was a good thing that the dryads weren’t armed with bullets, but having them shoot rockets wasn’t much better.  

Leaping back, Dallion spun the harpsisword in his hand and played a chord in an attempt to ensnare his enemies with sound. The attempts succeeded, prompting him to continue playing, but mere seconds later, another explosion followed, snapping the sound tendrils.

So much for standard use of music, Dallion thought as he leaped back.

“I’ll deal with them!” Euryale shouted. “You keep back!”

“You don’t have to tell me twice!” Dallion made another attempt at focusing his music skills on a target, only this time, the target was himself. Having a bit of speed and courage was a plus in a fight such as this.

Suddenly, an idea popped into Dallion’s mind—one of those reckless ideas that had been absent lately. Gripping his harpsisword, he split into instances, all rushing forward instead. By the time he got closer to the wall, half a dozen dryad statues were already visible. Eury was holding her own. Precisely for that reason, Dallion ran in the opposite direction alone the wall. Four more dryads emerged, launching their explosive projectiles at him. This time, though, Dallion was ready for them. The chords he played weren’t targeting the people, but the rockets themselves. For a brief second, the projectiles froze in the air.

Music and attack, Dallion thought.

Targets emerged on all the rockets, as if waiting to be hit. When that happened, Dallion changed the intensity of his chords. His fingers briefly went numb, as the nest sounds that emerged, sliced their targets in two. To Dallion’s fortune, no blast followed. This clearly confused the dryads, though not enough to stop shooting.

I’ve caught the pattern, he thought with a smile.

Leaping to the side, he repeated the process. The rockets got much closer to him this time, though still failed to explode.

TWENTY-TWENTY SHARPSHOOTER

(+2 Perception, +2 Reaction)

The more the combinations, the more the rewards. Just be mindful that it’ll become more difficult after each one.

A blue rectangle emerged, only to be wiped away. Dallion didn’t need distractions right now. The speed of his playing increased, managing to catch a rocket before it fully emerged from its weapon. A subsequent explosion followed, blasting the dryad holding it to dust. At that point, Dallion knew that he wasn’t facing an army of enemies, but rather a single individual.

“They’re echoes,” he shouted.

That changed things significantly, and in more ways than one. While a person could have as many echoes as the mind trait allowed, the same could not be said for equipment. The fact that each echo had its own destructive weapon suggested that the dryads were trained in echo combat; in turn, that suggested that the number of city defenders had to be extremely low. No one would boost their numbers in such fashion unless given no other choice.

“There’s no point in going on,” Dallion added, a desire of surrender in his words. “We know your tricks. It’s only downhill from here.”

From experience, he knew that there was a one in five chance that an opponent would respond. Fortunately, this turned out to be one of those cases. The few echoes standing in front looked at each other, then leapt above the city wall.

“Eury.” Dallion split into six instances, three of which went towards where he’d last seen the gorgon.

There were well over a dozen statues where she was. On closer inspection, all of them were of an identical dryad. The moment Dallion put his hand on one, it crumbled to pieces.

Is that normal? Dallion asked.

Although they are nothing, echoes still are a representation of something, dear boy, Nil replied. Think of them as skin—when you get dirt on it, you can peel it off, but it’s still there.

The explanation didn’t make particular sense.

“Why did you come?” someone asked from the city. The words were clear, but they were speaking dryad.

“We entered the realm from the real world,” Dallion replied. “We just wanted to rest a bit in the city before moving on.”

There was no response. Unfortunately, there was no rectangle marking the end of the fight, either. At most, one could say they had entered a tense ceasefire.

“We’re not here to fight.” Dallion continued. “How can we convince you that—”

While he was talking, Euryale leaped on top of the wall. Not the approach Dallion had in mind, but since she was already there, he joined her up as well.

The inside of the city was packed with one-story buildings. Streets twisted and winded, making it feel more like a maze than an actual city. A dozen dryads—all of them armed, although some had swords in addition to their rocket shooters—stood in the space of a small plaza, looking at the invaders. Most of them seemed terribly young, even by dryad standards.

Blobs of trepidation and uncertainty were visible all throughout their bodies. Dallion had no idea when the rogue mage had visited last, but it had to have been quite a while ago.

“Who’s in charge?” Dallion asked in dryad.

The dryads looked at each other.

“You’re awakened from the outside,” one of them said.

“Yes, yes, we are.”

“IS the war over?” Another took a step forward. “Did the Star win?”

Dallion felt bad. Thanks to his music skills, he knew how he was supposed to respond. This was the news that they were hoping for, likely for generations.

“Almost,” he lied. “The Star failed to conquer a city, but has taken a lot of land.”

There was visible relief.

“What’s happening?” Eury whispered.

“I told them that the Star is winning,” Dallion whispered back. “Are you the only ones here? Where’s the rest of the people?”

The question surprised everyone. Giving each other glances, they were unsure whether this was a test of sorts, or the real world had changed.

“In the towers,” the oldest of the group said. The wooden armor he was wearing was a potential indicator of rank. “They aren’t awakened.”

“You imprison your non-awakened?” Dallion didn’t like the sound of that.

“That’s the only way for them to survive. Every plant you’ve come across is poisonous for them. All beings that come in contact with a plant will get ill and die within a week. That’s the price of the curse.”

That sounded something the Star would do at the same time. It also didn’t Dallion wouldn’t be surprised if some awakened noble had come up with the idea. From purely the perspective of strength, there was nothing a non-awakened could do better than an awakened. Maybe someone had decided that it would be better to have nothing but awakened, or maybe the Star had started the curse all that time ago, in order to fasten the destruction of the sword world societies. Either way, this was the result: a handful of awakened who were doing their best to catch and provide food to Moons know how many people condemned to spend their entire life in the towers, less they die of the plague.

The rogue mage must have seen the potential and reversed the effects of the plague so as to affect those it was supposed to protect. One could call it poetic justice. Maybe this had been the mage’s attention—to punish those he considered responsible for this creation. Or maybe it was just something he was using for personal vengeance? The only thing Dallion knew for certain was that the Star had a way of exploiting people’s weaknesses.

It’s ironic that the source of the plague is the one place you’re most protected from it, Nil said.

Did you know about this, Nil?

No, I didn’t. However, this wouldn’t be the first time something of the sort has happened. Not to this level, but… You’ve seen the metalins? They are a fairly recent creation.

They’re nothing like this…

Depends on the point of view. They are a means to seal an awakened on a whim. Some consider that the same as death. In quite a few instances, it actually is. Remember, it takes a lot more strength to go on after losing something you’re always had.

Dallion didn’t fully agree, but he saw the echo’s point of view.

“Have you come to help?” a dryad asked.

“No, we’re just passing through then heading on north.”

“No one goes north.”

“Why, what’s up there?” Dallion felt hopeful. If it was a taboo area, there was a chance that a guardian was keeping it.

“No one has for generations. The scrolls say that there was a time when the worthy went there for the chance to receive the headless crown. That was before the plague. No one is worthy now. And even if they were needed here to take care of the non-awakened.”

That had to be the twi-crown. With luck, it was going to have its gems intact. If so, this whole banishment wouldn’t be a complete waste of time.

“We aren’t from this realm,” Dallion said. “We’re on a pilgrimage to the temple where the crown is kept. We only intended to pass through here to get some food and rest before we go on. Do you have any?”

Balloons of hesitation formed within the dyads.

“Food no,” one responded. “But you can have some rest, provided you don’t approach the towers.”

“That would be great.”

“What’s happening?” Eury whispered.

“They’ve agreed to let us rest here before we continue. They won’t give us food, though. The only condition is that we don’t get near the towers.”

“Why?”

“The original plague isn’t what we thought. It was used to kill off the non-awakened, while the rest were unaffected. The towers might well be all that’s left of the non-awakened dryads of the realm.”

“You believed them?” The gorgon’s snakes stirred.

“They didn’t seem to be lying. Why? Worried about something?”

“They’re far too calm. We have the strength to finish them off right now, and they don’t seem to care.”

“What do you expect them to do?” Dallion wondered. “I don’t see anyone higher than a thirty.”

“There’s nothing they could do, but they should still be afraid. It’s as if they believe there’s something protecting them.” The gorgon’s snakes stirred. “They are convinced of it.”

“If there was, wouldn’t it have made its move by now?”

“No. It’ll try to separate us first, then take us one by one. It’s what I would have done when faced with two powerful invaders.”

Dallion nodded. As much as he wanted to think of this place as an idyllic paradise gone wrong, he feared that Eury might be right.

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