Chapter 26 can be read below the cut.
“Do you think that owl spirit is telling the truth?” Kiyaska asked. The four of them were still waiting for the owl spirit to return.
“It better be,” said Lisel. “I sure hope the spirits aren’t counting on us killing each other for them.”
“As long as I’m here, the spirits will keep their promises,” said Nüwa. “Some of them may not like me, but they would not betray an Immortal.”
The owl spirit flew back into the clearing and took its human form. “I’ve told the other spirits about the plan,” it said. “I will lead you to the first group of Imperial soldiers. They’re spread out along the cliff face.”
“What about the spells on them?” Lisel asked. “How easy is it for us to remove them?”
“They are not visible,” said the owl spirit.
“Then our best option is to kill them ourselves,” said Lisel.
“Excuse me,” said Nüwa. “We don’t know if these soldiers are carrying any other spells. They may have taken the precautions to become impervious to our weapons and magic as well. In that case, running in and trying to kill them would be hazardous.”
Lisel crossed her arms. “I know running out is stupid. I’m not advocating that.”
“I didn’t think you would,” said Nüwa. “But I have a suggestion. I can remove spells by touch. I’d like to sneak up on these soldiers, disable all their spells, and then let you three and the spirits come in and do whatever you please.”
Lisel frowned. “How do you plan on doing that?” she asked.
Nüwa vanished. “I’m a lot sneakier in this form,” a voice said from the ground. Lisel looked down to see a small rat snake. “The owl spirit can relay messages from me to you.”
“So what happens if you get caught?” Kiyaska asked. “That kind of snake doesn’t look venomous.”
Nüwa let out a long hiss that Lisel assumed was a sigh. “I know how to take care of Imperial soldiers by myself!” said Nüwa. “I can remove all their spells and kill them in an instant of I want to.”
“You should probably do that, then,” said Lisel. “It’ll save us a lot of time and work.”
Nüwa somehow managed to look displeased. “If you want me to do all the work, I suppose that’s fine as well,” she said. She looked up at the owl spirit. “Take me to the soldiers.”
The owl spirit changed back to its owl form and flew into the trees. It fluttered from branch to branch, waiting for Nüwa to catch up. She slithered through the foliage, occasionally rearing up and looking around for any sight of the soldiers.
The owl spirit stretched its neck to look forward, then swiveled its head to look back down at Nüwa. It then looked back into the trees. Nüwa moved forward and raised her head to look at what the owl spirit was paying attention to. There were four Imperial soldiers in sight; she could feel the vibrations from two more walking around and talking to each other on her right.
Nüwa climbed up the nearby tree and wound along the branch until she was next to the owl spirit. “Where are the other six?” she asked.
The owl spirit swiveled its head to look down at Nüwa. “There are three by the cliff and three at the pond. You may want to start with them,” it said.
“Once I remove the spells, signal your fellow spirits to come take care of them,” said Nüwa. “You’ll probably be quieter than killing them than I would be.”
“I will do that, Lady Nüwa,” said the owl spirit.
Nüwa slithered back down to the ground and tasted the air a few times to figure out where the other groups were. She headed in the direction of the pond, the most isolated area. One soldier was sitting on a rock, and the other two were sitting on a log. All three of them were chatting to each other and one was eating something. None of them were paying any sort of attention to their surroundings.
She looked at them for a moment, analyzing the protection spells. Those spells definitely prevented the spirits from touching the soldiers. One of them also carried a spell that created explosives similar to the ones Lisel had written, but this one was inactive. There were many more of those same inactive explosive spells in one of the packs. She’d still have to be careful. Those spells could be activated easily.
Nüwa went through the fallen leaves and plants until she was behind one of the soldiers sitting on the log. She stretched out and gently touched the back of the soldier’s shirt with her snout. That invalidated the protection spell entirely. She did the same to the other two soldiers. After that was done, she slithered back to the tree where the owl spirit was.
“Do whatever you want with them,” said Nüwa. “I’ll go to the next group.”
The owl spirit dipped its head. “I understand, Lady Nüwa.”
The next group of three was dispatched as easily as the first. As the spirits did their work, Nüwa returned to the part of the forest where the remaining six soldiers were. She started hearing shouting as she got closer, but the exact words were unclear until she got close enough to recognize Lisel’s voice.
“I specifically told you NOT TO DO THAT!” Lisel yelled.
Nüwa heard the sounds of people yelling and running around, followed by a rifle shot. She sighed, changed back to her human form, and drew her sword. It didn’t take long for her to run into an Imperial soldier armed with a rifle. She hit him in the eye with the butt of her sword, then disarmed him and stabbed him through the midsection. Once that was done, she held up her sword.
“IMPERIAL SOLDIERS, DOWN!” Nüwa shouted.
All the soldiers dropped their weapons and fell to the ground bonelessly. Lisel dropped to her knees, only managing to prop herself up with her rifle. Kiyaska hit the ground, curled up into a ball with her hands over her ears. Hirúka slumped but managed to stay standing. Sirilrhis flinched and moved his hands toward his head.
Nüwa went to each soldier and stabbed them through the chest and head. Lisel shook her head and attempted to stand up. “Give me some kind of warning before you do that! It hurts!” she snapped.
Nüwa didn’t bother looking up. She stabbed another soldier, this time in the throat. “It’s not always possible to give warnings in battle,” she said. “You of all people should know that.”
“I really would have liked some kind of warning,” Kiyaska muttered from the ground.
Hirúka crawled over to Kiyaska and flopped onto his side. “I think Kiyaska and I are going to need a few minutes to recover,” he rsaid.
“Not just them,” said Lisel. “So do I, as much as I hate to admit it.”
The owl spirit fluttered into the clearing. “Lady Nüwa, we’d like to finish cleaning up this mess.”
“Go ahead,” said Nüwa.
Lisel stood up, swaying from the effort, and reached out toward the owl spirit. “Can you bring their weapons and supplies to us?” she asked.
“I’ll relay that to the others,” said the owl spirit. It flew off. A couple of seconds later, other spirits came out of the trees and bushes and started dragging away the bodies of the Imperial soldiers. They were extremely quiet, the only sounds coming from the rustling of the grass and other plants.
“That’s creepy,” Lisel commented.
“Did you not see this happen just a few days ago?” Nüwa asked.
“I didn’t exactly stop to watch,” said Lisel. She sheathed her sword. “How are we going to deal with the other group?”
“I will lead you to them,” said the owl spirit. It had somehow managed to fly back to them without anyone noticing. Just as quickly as it said those words, it flew off again, leading them toward their original path and flying a bit too quickly for their comfort.
“Hey!” shouted Kiyaska. “Why are you going so fast? Wait up!”
“Keep your voice down,” Lisel hissed. “You don’t know if any of them are close and can hear-”
She tripped on a branch. Stupid, to take her eyes off what was under her feet and in front of her when she was in a forest with a lot of unforgivable foliage. As she fell forward, she heard the sound of a rifle firing. A bullet whizzed over her head and embedded itself in a tree on the other side of the path.
Lisel immediately grabbed her rifle and ducked behind a nearby tree. “GET DOWN AND OUT OF SIGHT!” she yelled.
Hirúka jumped into the trees. Sirilrhis switched to his dragon form and flew up into the sky, out of Lisel’s sight. Kiyaska scrambled behind a tree and started stringing her bow. Nüwa simply paused where she was, looking around calmly. The owl spirit had vanished entirely, or maybe just hidden itself somewhere.
“Nüwa! What the fuck are you doing?” said Lisel. “Get out of their line of sight!”
There was the sound of another gunshot, and Nüwa put her hand up. It took no effort for her to catch the bullet between her thumb and first finger. “I will handle this,” she said.
“You better be serious about that,” said Lisel. “Eliminate every single one of them. And try not to hurt us with your magic this time, okay?”
Nüwa nodded and quirked up one side of her mouth in a smile. “I’ll certainly try, but I can’t guarantee anything.”
She darted off in the direction the gunshot came from. Kiyaska stepped forward to join her, and Lisel grabbed her arm to pull her back. “No, don’t follow Nüwa. You’re already tired. I don’t think you can handle much more of that magic.”
An Imperial soldier suddenly ran through the bushes on the other side of the path. He saw Lisel and Kiyaska almost immediately and started toward them.
“Queen of Air and Darkness, lend me your magic,” Lisel said quickly.
“HEY!” Kiyaska said indignantly as Lisel disappeared. That distracted her enough that she barely had time to duck out of the way when the Imperial soldier swung his dao at her. It glanced against the tree where her head had just been. A second later, the soldier fell backward. Lisel reappeared, her rifle pointed at the Imperial soldier’s face as he fell. She pulled the trigger, and the soldier was dead before he even hit the ground.
Lisel and Kiyaska both stared at the dead man on the ground. “Don’t freeze like that when someone’s trying to kill you,” said Lisel. “All it’ll accomplish is getting you killed.”
Kiyaska pressed her palm against her face. “I know, I know! But who’s the Queen of Air and Darkness, and why is she giving you magic?” she asked.
“Now isn’t the time for that sort of question, Kiyaska,” said Lisel.
There was an unintelligible shout from Nüwa. Lisel flinched, and Kiyaska dropped to her knees, curling up again. A loud thump came from the other side of the path as Hirúka fell out of the tree. He slowly stumbled over to them and flopped over.
“Is it just me or was that one worse than the other?” he asked.
Lisel stood up. “It’s probably hitting you harder because the last one hasn’t quite worn off yet,” she said.
The trees above them started swaying and rustling. Alarmed, Lisel pointed her rifle upward. Sirilrhis dropped to the ground in his human form moments later. Lisel scowled and pointed to the dead soldier on the ground. “So what the fuck were you doing when we were dealing with this soldier?” she demanded.
Sirilrhis brushed some invisible dirt off his beizi. “I directed Nüwa to the other soldiers. It sounds like she’s taken care of the rest of them,” he said.
When they found Nüwa a couple of minutes later, she didn’t have a single scratch or drop of blood on her. “How many of them were there?” Lisel asked.
“Ten,” said Nüwa. She looked down at the dead soldier on the ground. “It seems that one of them is missing.”
“There’s always one missing,” Lisel grumbled. “Hirúka, Sirilrhis – do you smell another soldier anywhere?”
Sirilrhis shook his head and crossed his arms. Hirúka tilted his head to the side. “No, this whole area smells like a mix of humans, elves, and spirits. There’s nothing clear,” he said.
“Is there some way to find this soldier?” Lisel asked.
Nüwa shrugged. “I could cast a spell that kills every living soldier in the area instantly, but that would also harm the four of you. And it might target you as well, Lisel,” she said.
“Well then, let’s ask the spirits if they’re still willing to help us,” said Lisel.
Nüwa looked around. She whistled and extended her arm like she expected the owl to land on it. Nothing happened. “How odd. It seems as if the spirits are done helping us,” she said.
“Why would that happen?” Lisel asked.
Nüwa shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Guess we’re doing this the hard way,” said Lisel.
“What is that?” asked Hirúka.
“We continue along our path while we wait to be ambushed,” said Lisel.
“That doesn’t sound difficult,” grumbled Sirilrhis. He shoved his hands into his pockets.
“I don’t like the sound of it,” said Hirúka at the same time.
“There’s only one more soldier!” said Lisel. “One lone soldier is no match for the five of us.”