â€œMind if I join you?â€
Nia looked up and smiled, sliding over to make room for Citrios. As he sat, he took her hand and followed her gaze. On the horizon, they could just make out the faint dots that were the now rapidly-approaching Lintha fleet. She sighed. â€œTheyâ€™ll be here soon.â€ The setting sun to the west cast shadows across the town, obscuring the bustling preparations as the soldiers moved towards the harbour and the rest of the townsfolk gathered their belongings to flee into the hills.
â€œNot more than an hour, Iâ€™d imagine.â€ Citrios glanced over at Nia. â€œAny more visions that might help us?â€
â€œNothing. The Unconquered Sun canâ€™t speak about this.â€ She was watching him carefully, and smiled at how well he hid the flinch at that name â€“ she might have missed it. After a moment, she decided not to draw attention to it. â€œI donâ€™t know whether to be glad that youâ€™re here with me.â€
â€œI know I am.â€ Citrios sighed. â€œAll those years you were looking after me, and I never even realized it. This time, weâ€™ll face the danger together.â€
â€œAnd die together?â€
â€œIf we have to.â€ The young Dragon-Bloodâ€™s face was resolute. â€œBut Iâ€™m really hoping it doesnâ€™t come to that.â€
â€œThereâ€™s another option.â€ The two looked back as Twice-Forged Steel strolled up, Jasmine walking softly behind him. â€œThe Azure Riderâ€™s still in port. We can fight on her. And if things go wrongâ€¦ well, sheâ€™s a faster ship than just about anything the Lintha can mount, Iâ€™d bet.â€
â€œAbandon the city?â€ Citriosâ€™s voice was grim. Steel looked him over with a sarcastic smile.
â€œNo, go for a pleasure cruise.â€ He rolled his eyes. â€œOf course. Look, Iâ€™ve done what I can. But I can crunch the numbers. Weâ€™ve got a sweet setup here â€“ chances are, between our weapons and our soldiers, the Lintha will lose two hundred and fifty ships before they finish clearing out the zombies.â€ He stopped, and shrugged. â€œAnd maybe another hundred clearing out the locals. At which point it will be four Exalts and a ghost against four hundred Lintha ships and a powerful akuma. We donâ€™t have a prayer.â€ He looked out onto the horizon. â€œIâ€™m something of the â€˜he who fights and runs awayâ€™ school, myself.â€
â€œAnd then what?â€ Nia stood abruptly, stalking up to Steel. â€œWhen Dukantha captures the gate, heâ€™ll open it. Kimberyâ€™s demons will swarm across the West. Where will you hide next, Steel?â€ Steel blinked, opening his mouth, but she cut him off. â€œThe North is lost to you. The West will be gone. Will you run south, see if thereâ€™s something there to destroy?â€
â€œHey, now. Thatâ€™s notâ€¦ I meanâ€¦ Jasmine, back me up here.â€
Jasmine shrugged with a ripple of silk. â€œI have no opinion. The Lintha have no necromancers â€“ I can battle to the end, and still return to the Underworld unscathed when this body is finally destroyed. You must decide for yourself how much you fear the Underworld.â€ With that, she turned and began walking down to the harbour.
â€œI donâ€™t fear anything!â€ Steel shouted the comment after her. â€œIâ€™m just not stupid!â€ He turned back to Nia and Citrios, looking grumpy. â€œLook, Iâ€™m not saying Iâ€™m going to bug out right now. The Rider will be on the seas, boarding and stopping Lintha ships. But when things finally go sour â€“ and they will â€“ weâ€™re leaving. Thatâ€™s it. You guys are cool. I like you. If you want to be onboard, weâ€™ll gladly have you. But Iâ€™m not coming back for you.â€
â€œFine.â€ Nia turned away from Steel, crossing her arms. â€œWeâ€™ll keep fighting to the end.â€
â€œSo will I.â€ Steel turned away in response, clenching his jaw. â€œI just know what itâ€™ll be.â€
As he stormed off, Nia turned to watch him go. Citrios shook his head, watching the Abyssal. â€œI suppose we shouldnâ€™t be surprised.â€
â€œI was hoping heâ€™d have more loyalty than that.â€ She sighed heavily. â€œAt least he hasnâ€™t left already. Thatâ€™s something.â€
â€œAnd we have one more advantage.â€ Citrios and Nia jumped, spinning around, to see Nganto looking down the path towards the harbour. â€œI didnâ€™t wish to say anything in the meeting, because of the possibility of spies. But, in addition to my skills as a solider, I have some passing skill with Celestial Circle Sorcery. I donâ€™t know any spells that will be particularly useful here, butâ€¦â€ She paused, and smiled grimly. â€œI do know countermagic. Dukanthaâ€™s infernal patrons have improved his sorcerous might. When he sees us gathered around the cannon, he will almost certainly attempt to cast a powerful spell against them. When he does, I will counter it, draining his Essence reserves just before the battle.â€
â€œThat will help.â€ Nia nodded, and Nganto took her shoulder.
â€œDonâ€™t fear yet, child. This battle is far from lost, whatever the deathknight thinks.â€ With a sharp-toothed grin, she turned and started down towards the harbour herself, shifting into her powerful war form and picking up speed. The two younger Exalts watched her go, and Nia took a deep breath.
â€œWe have the strangest allies.â€ Citrios grinned lopsidedly, and Nia returned his smile, leaning in to kiss him lightly.
â€œI know. But Luna said to trust her. You canâ€™t get a much higher authority than that.â€
â€œWell, youâ€™re vouching for her.â€ Citrios grinned. â€œThatâ€™s quite high enough for me.â€ He sighed. â€œCome on. Weâ€™d better get into position.â€ Holding hands, the two Exalts moved down towards the docks, and war.