Aldrich smiled as he watched Valera stand over the corpse of Crab triumphantly. He was proud of her.
Proud of what she could do and how well she could handle herself. Seeing it firsthand made him even more sure that he could trust her with controlling his forces.
Valera was a veteran through and through in terms of battle. And it made sense given her lore background.
She was a vampire noble born from a forbidden union between her vampire count father and a Dullahan warrior of an opposing faction.
Her lineage made her forever accursed in the eyes of her vampiric peers, and though her father's doting nature had given her an early life of royalty, once her father was killed through internal political strife, she had been sent off to the Nightshield Order.
Most third or fourth children of vampiric nobility were sent to the Nightshields for they were too far down in the line of succession to claim their bloodline's title, and there, they served as distinguished warriors or, in Valera's case, as a Guardian Knight to protect a proper vampire count or countess.
After completing her training, Valera had served a countess for a solid decade before the countess was assassinated and Valera was framed for the murder.
After that point in time, she lost any semblance of what she could call an ally and gained a fierce reputation for killing anyone that was sent to apprehend her.
All that had given Valera an instinctive understanding of how to fight and how to apply her combat knowledge.
As long as it was in matters of warfare, Aldrich was fully confident in leaving his forces with Valera now.
That would become quite important in the future as Aldrich would have to deal with the politics of the Alterhuman Agency and Panopticon.
He had already sowed seeds for his success by saving Minuteman, having the hero owe him a favor, and projecting himself as a savior for Haven, but it would always be good to have someone he could delegate the war side of things to when needed.
'Valera-,' projected Aldrich telepathically as he put a finger to the side of his head. He was about to praise her and tell her to start routing the last of the variants, but something immediately stopped him. It was his heavily enhanced Perception stat that sensed it.
A sort of preternatural danger avoidance instinct that immediately made Aldrich look up. In the distance, across the horizon, he could see with his night vision an enormous black cloud of metal moving his way.
Countless little red dots blinked around in this black cloud, granting it an ominous appearance like a plague of death.
A loud buzzing hum droned through the air - the unmistakable sound of a Class 5 Panopticon drone fleet.
Or, as they were nicknamed, Bugs for their vaguely insectoid outlines and the way their rotors and engines hummed together in a cacophony that mimicked the buzzing of flies.
Bugs did not just come from the distance; they came from above as well. They started to swarm around Aldrich's Storm, and as they approached, it became very evident that they were a hostile force.
Barrels of guns were drawn out, as were the heads of missiles in racks ready to shoot outward.
The Panopticon drones were operating purely in an automated fashion, and it was evident that they would not recognize Aldrich's undead variants as friends.
"No, you don't," proclaimed Aldrich as he crushed his hand into a fist, commanding the Storm to unleash its technology disrupting field.
A wave of blue energy pulsated outwards from the centered Anglerfish, traveling past jellyfish, growing thicker and brighter until it cascaded past the storm's perimeter in a resonating wave that washed over hundreds of Bugs.
The Bugs sputtered and crackled with electricity as the Storm disrupted them, and they fell to the ground in disabled droves.
The Bugs then started to move away from the Storm, recognizing its disruption field threat, and instead ignored the Storm and started to head towards Aldrich.
The Bugs were individually rather weak drones, but their strength lay in their continuous learning network that allowed their many losses to continuously calibrate into battle data.
In this way, Bugs were a self-learning force. Though each one was individually weak, they could transmit battle data about their deaths and observations to all in their network, increasing their capabilities over time.
However, they, like all artificial intelligence operated drones, were not fully self-sufficient as per the Galatea Edict.
The edict forbade all creation of A.I. that was or had the potential to become independent and sentient, for the world had already been threatened once by a techno's mad creation during the early days of the Altering.
Countless Bugs were probably already around the battlefield at this point, having swarmed in from other angles.
'Master!' Valera's voice resonated through Aldrich's mind. 'These human contraptions are striking us, targeting the native beasts of this world under your command. Despicable humans, for them to dare to even lay a single metal finger upon my master's undead - shall we lay waste to them all?"
'Destroy the ones that pose an immediate threat," said Aldrich. "But try to limit how many you take down. Focus instead on evacuating all variant undead to portal range so that Portal Girl can take them under the Deildeghast line.'
'Understood, master!' With that, Valera's voice disconnected from Aldrich's mind.
"Tch. Now this is an annoying situation," Aldrich said under his breath. From what Valera said and from what he could observe, the Bugs only targeted variants. It appeared that Elden World monsters and entities escaped target.
Even now, though, Aldrich thought about how he could abuse this situation. The fact that the Panopticon had not adjusted their Bugs to avoid targeting Aldrich's forces meant that they were too busy to pay attention to what was going on here.
The fact that the Bugs attacked Aldrich's units meant that he could use that as additional leverage against the Panopticon after this battle.
Yes, thought Aldrich. This would only serve to cement his position further as long as he played his cards right.
There would be little to no cost either. Once Aldrich's variants were under the Deildeghast barriers, they were invulnerable to drone interference due to the nature of the tech disrupting smoke that the [Spirit Boundaries] projected.
With the Storm above projecting its disruption field as well, no Bugs could target Merman and the anemones so long as they stayed under the protective, tech disrupting range.
But the biggest issue would arise when Shrimp recovered. Even now, the variant army still fought, meaning that Shrimp, the Locus, was still alive, and Aldrich could confirm that from Shrimp's energy signature still embedded deep in the earth.
When Shrimp surfaced, Aldrich could not risk having Bugs annoy him and get in his way by targeting units he needed to use freely.
Aldrich needed a way to have the Bugs stand down without destroying too many of them, for the more he kept intact, the better his position looked as a victim of the Panopticon's incompetence. He looked over to his side at Seismic's blank expression.
There was an easy way to settle this.
Aldrich whistled, and his voice projected strongly outwards, reaching Crow.
Crow flew down from his position near the Storm, away from Bugs, and landed by Aldrich's side. Aldrich hopped on Crow's back, and he waved Seismic forward.
The giant of a hero jumped on as well.
That was when Aldrich snapped his fingers, granting Seismic's will back. He had not wanted to do this until after Shrimp was dealt with as he did not want to risk Seismic, his greatest arisen undead asset so far, to be confused or disoriented during the fight.
But this situation forced Aldrich's hand early.
"Where…where am I?" said Seismic as he rubbed his head, blinking rapidly as light and focus returned to his eyes.
"I'll keep the explanation short. You died fighting the Locus. I resurrected you with my powers. Now, I need you here with me to fight against the rest of the fishmen and the Locus when it returns," said Aldrich.
"I'm…alive again?" Seismic looked down at his hands and closed them into fists. He took in a deep breath, and when he exhaled, his expression turned deadly, focused serious. "I get it. I'll fight with you."
"No questions?" said Aldrich. "About who I am? What I'm doing?"
"You already said it. You are fighting the variants. That's enough for me. And it feels like I can trust you," said Seismic simply. "All I want to know is how we're doing out there."
Aldrich nodded. He liked Seismic already. The man was no nonsense and all business. No panic. No questions. Just doing what he needed to do.
"Good," said Aldrich. "The defenders have held the line, and ever since I arrived with my Legion, they haven't given ground. I've taken out the anemones and the two variant leaders, leaving the fishmen for cleanup.
All that's left is the Locus, and it's still remaining stationary underground."
"I'll be ready when the Locus makes a move," said Seismic. He looked down to his stomach where his costume had been torn in a circle where before he had been punched straight through. He scowled as he balled his hand into a tight fist… "This time, I'll be the one to put a fist through it."