Alberton and Titus stood in grim silence as they awaited the emissary of the Colony to approach. The elderly woman looked the same as she had before, her expression the same resigned weariness that she had borne the first time they had met.
“I apologise for making you wait,” she greeted them, “my old bones aren’t as nimble as they once were.”
Titus was in no mood for pleasantries.
“My daughter,” he ground out, “does she still live?”
If Enid was surprised by his coarse attitude, she did not show it.
“She is still alive, of course she is. She spent many weeks with us helping the survivors of the Garralosh wave. I personally count her as a friend and would not see her come to harm.”
It was such an infinitesimal change that only Alberton, through his long years working alongside his commander, saw the release of tension in Titus when he learned that Morrelia had not perished during the battle. Ever since his daughter had berserked and charged headfirst into the enemy lines he’d been wound as tight as a void-steel trap.
“What do you desire in exchange for the safe return of the prisoner?” he asked, his voice stiff.
“You desire a prisoner exchange? Pardon my rudeness, but I do not believe you have captured any of our people…” she left a deliberate gap, “… alive.”
It was true. On campaign against the monsters, the Legionem Abyssi did not take prisoners. Never had, never would.
“Can you offer a reprieve? Leave the Colony alone for a period of months? The ants would be more than willing to accommodate such an offer,” Enid said.
Alberton grimaced, after even just two months, these ants would have multiplied into the millions. Multiple Legions would need to be deployed, probably even golems and praetorians. Such an expensive campaign would drain them of precious resources at a time when they couldn’t afford it. Besides which, the Loremaster glanced at Titus.
“I will not entertain anything that goes counter to my orders,” Titus stated flatly. “We have come here to exterminate this threat and that is what we intend to do.”
Enid nodded in understanding.
“Although I hate to say it, that doesn’t give the Colony much reason to continue to keep your daughter alive though, does it commander?” she pointed out. “There must be a point at which your duty and your familial affection can intersect, don’t you think?”
“You’re threatening her life?” Alberton demanded, “didn’t you say moments ago that she was your friend?”
“She IS a friend,” Enid insisted, “to me and many others in Renewal. But the Colony will make any decisions regarding her safety. They are fighting for their existence because of you. The idea that they would baulk at them killing a prisoner when you slaughter every one of them you get your hands on is laughable.”
Though she tried to hide it, the contempt she felt for their actions seeped into her voice as she spoke.
“You would weigh the lives of monsters against those of humans?” Alberton scoffed. “And then expect us to do the same?”
“You would give no weight to the lives of monsters, and then expect them to treat you differently?” Enid countered.
“Enough,” Titus growled and the controlled rage in the man’s voice was enough to silence the others in an instant. “No more games, Enid Ruther. You are a skilled negotiator and I have not the patience for this dance. State your terms.”
When he wasn’t actively holding himself back, the power of the commander rolled off him in waves and Enid needed a moment to steel herself before she spoke. With Morrelia’s help, they had agreed on what the arrangement should be long before she had walked out to parley, but it was necessary that they create some form of illusion to protect the girl.
“The Colony will keep your daughter alive so long as you, commander Titus, do not take the field for the remainder of this battle. Should your forces be victorious, you find her within the nest, safely ensconced in my rooms. Should you pull back for whatever reason, send an emissary and she will be returned to you.”
Alberton was troubled. This offer implied that the enemy was confident they would be able to hold the Legion at bay until circumstances forced them to fall back. This meant the Colony was as keenly aware of the approaching wave as they were. Maintaining a siege in the second strata would be impossible. Once these tunnels became flooded with demons, they would be forced to retreat. More than that, he was worried of the growing tree-kin presence in the tunnels below. Scouts reported that the forest spread further by the hour and movement had been spotted within several times. Most likely, the grove-keeper was already awake and the others wouldn’t be far behind. The Loremaster inwardly cursed. That infernal tree would hound them any chance it got. How unlucky they had stumbled on a root stem out here in the middle of nowhere. The odds of it were so small he almost developed a headache just thinking about it.
“If I do not take the field, more of my soldiers will die in order to see that those living on the surface do so in peace,” Titus said.
“I live on the surface, right next to the biggest anthill I’ve ever seen and I’m doing just fine,” Enid replied.
“My people will still die.”
“Not if you turn around and leave.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Then you must make a choice, commander. Will you sacrifice the lives of your soldiers in order to save one of them? It’s not a decision a leader would make,” Enid sighed, “but it’s one that a father might.”
If Morrelia was right, Titus had little choice in the matter at all. His orders were clear and he had to follow them. Even if he was willing to sacrifice his daughter, which he likely wasn’t, he would have to agree to their terms. The end result was that due to Morrelia’s action, innocent soldiers would die who might otherwise have lived. A hard choice, but one that may have saved hundreds of thousands of Colony members.
Alberton was about to speak, but Titus cut him off.
“I agree,” he rumbled.
Having said his piece, the commander nodded stiffly to Enid and turned on his heel to march back to his camp. Caught flat footed, Alberton stumbled a little before he too turned and caught up to his friend.
“Are you sure about this, old friend?” the Loremaster asked. “Do you really believe that they will hold to their end of this arrangement?”
“I believe Enid Ruther to be an honourable woman,” Titus replied, “this is the best chance I have to ensure that my child is returned to me.” His voice quietened. “I cannot lose her too, Alberton. I just can’t.”
Only when he heard those words did Alberton understand the true depth of the struggle that took place inside his commander. The loss of his first child had cut the man in a way that had never healed, though he hid it far too well. Should his daughter die, the man considered throughout the Legion to be unbreakable may crack like a fragile egg, never to come back together.