Chapter 172:

Dead End

Mad God


Ren was standing not far away from their side's camp, watching the battlefield in the distance that burned on for four more days before the flames finally died down on their own. Neither side made any move after it, only standing still, watching the other.

"Master." Ariana walked up to her, wiping down her own forehead, squinting at the setting sun's bright rays. "Two more died… one of them being Letty. Tylvana is still unconscious, but she is going to live, thanks to Elder Dermitos' help… but I don't know how she will react when she learns about the others."

"It will be either her strength against the Tiger King, or it becomes her inner demon." Ren sighed, crossing her arms. "Using such a weapon… It was because either they didn't realize its destructive powers or Harimau didn't even care. This one action of his turned a whole army against him. He effectively gave us the southern part of his territory and a road to him directly…" She turned towards her disciple, but Ren's eyes showed no joy inside. "We need to get him out of the picture as fast as possible. If he has more weapons like this and starts using them wantonly…"

"It could burn down the whole forest." Shaman walked up to them. After arriving, he studied the weapon that Ren had captured. He was mostly focusing on the boulder-sized ammunition, disassembling it with her help.

"Did you learn anything useful?" Ren turned towards him.

"A lot." He nodded with a weird smile. "And it scares and depresses me at the same time!"

"Why?" Ariana asked, surprised, as even Ren raised her eyebrow with a questioning look.

"Because look at this." He pulled out a small glass bottle from his robe, filled with a greenish jelly-like substance. "This is the thing I came up with! I finished it in the past 2 years and worked day and night to make it possible to build a weapon out of it! Finally, decades of research culminating in my own weapon against the ents!" He sighed with a tinge of disappointment.

"Isn't that a… good thing?" Ariana asked. "You always wanted to find a way to… hurt them for what they did to you and your family."

"Yes. I was stoked when I finished!" He nodded, pulling out another bottle with the same kind of substance, but it was much clearer and more slimy than his. "This is a sample from the thing inside that… thing."

"It is…" Ariana murmured as she looked closely at the bottles. Ren just watched the face of Shaman, who felt completely defeated at that moment. He felt like he was working his whole life to build a chair. When he finally assembled one from sticks and straws, someone simply walked inside and placed a whole, soft, leather armchair right before him to sit in.

"It is basically the same thing. The only difference is that theirs are more refined. Every detail has been ironed out. It is an improved version of mine. This weapon was made to kill ants. To burn the forest down." He said, and they could feel a weird admiration in his voice.

"Are you sure this could hurt them?" Ren asked.

"100%," Shaman answered immediately. "This is an artificial substance. This thing does not exist naturally; it only exists when someone makes it. Humans developed armor because you know you are squishy and easily injured. Don't you think a tree with the same intelligence as you are going to develop an armor that could defend it against its most glaring weakness?" He asked, looking at the two of them. "This thing was made to combat exactly that! The worst thing is… I can see what happened here…" He added as he looked past Ren towards the battlefield in the distance. "This was a test run. They are using the tigers as an extension. They are testing their inventions through them. My question would be; What else did they trade over? Are there any more weapons we are not aware of? More destructive inventions that are only waiting to be tested out?"

"We need to kill him. Fast." Ren said as she took out a jade token to contact Rumira.

"I agree," Shaman said, putting away the flasks. While Ren walked away to speak with the Queen of the foxes, Ariana watched Shaman's eyes, fluctuating constantly.

"I think you shouldn't feel so down." She spoke up after a short pause, patting his hand with a smile.

"Mm?" Shaman blinked his eyes rapidly, not understanding her meaning.

"Master explained to me the crest and writings on the weapon. If they are really descendants of a long-gone kingdom… they had two millennia to come up with this. How long did it take for you? Hm?" She chuckled softly. "Don't feel inferior because you are not! Quite the opposite!" Hearing her words, Shaman just blinked his eyes once again before finally laughing quietly, nodding at her with a thankful expression. Suddenly, he felt as if he did not waste his own life chasing a solution that others had come up with and perfected a long time ago.

"You are right… Also, there is another added bonus." Shaman continued with a new resolve. "Because I know what it is made out of… I can come up with a way to counter it! I'll start working on it immediately!"


….
…..

"It is not our problem that you can't use a simple weapon." An uninterested, bored voice resonated out from a bronze plate in Harimau's palm. He needed great will not to crush it into powder, hearing it.

"Your weapon made my men betray me!" He growled, veins popping visibly around his arm while he was breathing heavily.

"That is your fault, not the weapon's. You asked us to help you speed up your conquest. We provided exactly what we agreed upon. What you surface dwellers do with our toys is not our problem. If this is all why you contacted us, then I'll cut the feed. We have a lot of things to do; we don't have enough time to chit-chat with an imbecile like you."

"Don't you dare!"

"Hmm? Why not? Will you come here yourself? Dig up the thousands of kilometers long mountain range to find us? Good luck with that!"

"I want more." He said through gritted teeth.

"Excuse me? More?" The laughing voice came through from the other side after a short pause.

"There is only one being who can hurt me… I need something to gain an advantage over her."

"Mmm… well… we have a prototype weapon we are not really sure how well it would work in live combat… We can send it to you. It does not matter if it gets destroyed in the process. But…”

"Just say it." Harimau cut in, impatient.

"It requires a sacrifice to activate, and it must be fueled by a strong demonic core. If you feed it a weaker one, it won't work for long before shutting down again." The voice said, explaining it calmly, making Harimau feel the owner of it just smiled a little at the other side.

"Send it."

"Woah, slow down, tiger!" An ear-hanging cackle echoed from the plate. "This is not something we just… give to you. We want a specimen in return, a good one! Not some dregs dragged out from some cave. We want a proper demon. A healthy and strong one. One of your bests."

"..." Harimau stayed silent for a good minute before finally making a decision. "I'll go with Shona. You can keep him."

"Good. Meet with us at the usual point. Don't worry, this weapon of ours, when activated, is going to please you greatly!" The voice said with a friendly and happy tone before the bronze plate went completely silent.


….
…..

When Tylvana woke up, she felt every fiber of her muscles hurt and ache, assaulting her mind with pain. It was like rolling in sharp needles constantly. Still, she somehow managed to sit up on the bed and see the bandages around her body. Unfurling one from her right arm revealed her badly burnt skin that was fused with parts of her old armor. It was making it seem as if she had metallic parts embedded into her flesh.

"Not all parts could've been taken off. Under the heat, some of it simply fused with your bones. You won't be able to ditch your human form ever again. It would kill you." Ren said as she walked into her tent.

"I see… well… It was my lucky charm." She smiled weakly, putting down her arm.

"It saved your life. The rest… were not so lucky." Ren sighed, watching her eyes immediately tremble. She fell silent for a little, closing them, softly grabbing onto the sheet that covered her body.

"Both of them?" She asked with a weak voice.

"Yes. My father-in-law could save your life thanks to the armor… But their inner organs were beyond repair. Sorry."

“No… it… it is what war is. We all knew from the start; I just… did not expect it to ever happen." She said, raising her hand to stop Ren from speaking, taking deep breaths, recollecting herself. Even though she reopened her eyes, they were much more dull than before. "What about… the other side?"

"Nothing yet. They stay holed up in the fort. I was waiting for you to regain consciousness before going and meeting them. Also, I hoped that maybe the King would show up, but he did not."

"I see… Give me a little time, and I'll be able to accompany you. But… I may need some help."

"Sure." Ren nodded before carefully patting her hand and leaving.

When morning came, Tylvana was already up, dressed in a somewhat loose robe, as her skin was way too sensitive, even with bandages on. She refused to be carried in any way, shape, or form and walked to the old fort on her two legs, accompanied by Ren, Ariana, Shaman, and Kang. As they walked through the burnt battlefield, under their steps, the ground cracked like dirty, greenly-colored glass, giving out sounds that made their spines shiver every time they put their feet down. There were no corpses, weapons, or anything tangible that remained there, only a completely smooth, slippery surface wherever the eye looked.

"Interesting…" Shaman murmured, almost slipping at first. "They must have something special in their formula because it turned the dirt into a glass-like state. It should not be possible, yet…"

"Later… okay?" Ariana whispered to Shaman, tugging on his sleeve. Her shadow was already attaching itself to Tylvana's without her noticing, keeping her fragile thoughts and feelings focused.

"Oh… sorry! Okay." He scratched his throat with an apologetic expression.

After a few meters, leaving the glass lake behind them, Ren stopped. Not that far away, Sengge was approaching them with a few others in tow, both lions and tigers.

"You must be Sengge?" Ren asked.

"And you must be the human who unified the different tribes in the south, Ren." He nodded, looking at Tylvana. Although she looked fragile in her current situation, her eyes were firm. "Tylvana." Sengge sighed a little. "It is good that you survived."

"I was always lucky. It was the second time escaping from death's grasp." She shook her head while Ren murmured under her breath,

"Maybe all of you have nine lives…"

"Mm?" Sengge and Tylvana both looked at her, but she just shook her head.

"Nothing. So? What now?" She replied as she crossed her arms, watching Sengge.

"We surrender without conditions." The lion replied, stunning the demons behind him as he told them nothing about this. He made Ren smack her lips in surprise.

"Hah… I did not expect this!" She looked at him, moving her eyes up and down.

"We did not expect that something like this would be used to kill indiscriminately. Even the surviving tigers lost their morale. They have a crisis in their beliefs. They are not fit to fight anymore. This was the worst outcome for everyone." Sengge said as he shook his head. "So the only option we have is to surrender. I have nothing to say, not even if you want to put me to death to make an example out of me." His words immediately caused his own trusted soldiers to protest loudly and start shouting. They would not let anyone touch him, not until they breath.

"That won't be necessary." Ren continued, her voice snuffing out the shouts of the others.

"Even as I am the general, who is responsible for this?"

"Let's not get into semantics. Can someone order fanatics around? I don't think so. Plus, if a former right-hand man turns against his own King and fights at my side, it would make things much, much easier after everything is done."

"And what is going to happen after everything is done?" Sengge asked, more seriously.

"Let us walk into your fort and have a long chat." Ren smiled at him.

"Are you not afraid? What if I am going to try and kill you?"

"No." She shook her head while Kang already stood tall, towering over everyone with his height and size. "You just told me the morale is at an especially low level. I have someone who can make it even worse."

Right as she finished, Ariana stepped forward, and from under her feet, blackish smoke started to crawl out. All the demons standing before them took a step back, even Sengge. The feeling they got from Ariana, watching her just standing there, was stomach-churning and spine-chilling. Their animalistic side felt as if they were facing an apex predator. They felt like being cornered and helpless, and it quickly triggered some of their bodies, partially turning them back into their demonic forms.

"What a vile technique…" Sengge murmured, recollecting himself while Ariana just smiled with sad light in her eyes.

"The feeling of anguish on the battlefield is still there… it has such a strong echo that if I don't have my Master here, I don't know if I would be able to withstand it." She explained, drawing it back into her body perfectly. Yet Sengge almost swore he could see a pair of ancient eyes watching him from the inside of her shadow… and those were not the eyes of a human or a demon.

"As I said," Ren spoke up once again. "Let us continue in your fort. I want to end this as soon as possible. We have a plan for the Tiger King. You just need to cooperate with us for a few days, and he is going to die." She explained, walking past him and continuing her speech. "It is time that he wakes up from his dream and faces reality. The road he took led to a dead end."