Chapter 153: A Normal Soldier
Multiple battles going on at once, the sound of metal clashing and spells firing resonant in the air. The musty stench of burning wood overwhelmed all other smells as a thin layer of smoke surrounded us.
However, despite the chaos, my battle with the augmenter seemed confined—almost isolated—as if the soldiers around us deliberately left us alone. Whether the people nearby were too focused on their own fights or if there was some sort of illusion put in place, I couldn’t quite tell, but it left me with more questions.
Just from the short exchange I had with this augmenter and his helper, now just barely a yards away, I could tell that their fighting tactics were fundamentally different than ours. The conjurer manifested a thin veil of mana around the augmenter’s body at his command. While my opponent’s injuries remained, he no longer looked fatigued as he rose from his knee with renewed vigor.
With a click of his tongue, he peeled his eyes from me and focused his gaze elsewhere. It was obvious he was signaling to someone else, but he was looking in a different direction from where the conjurer that’d protected him was.
With a stern nod, his gaze fell back to me. Mana enveloped his hands into the same claw-shaped form as before and just as he readied himself to attack, the faint hiss grew louder behind me confirmed my suspicion.
Remembering my mana interpretation training with Myre back in Epheotus, I was tempted to activate Realmheart to finish this off quickly but decided against anything that’d draw too much attention to myself.
I whipped around in time to see a blast of fire hurtling toward me. Condensing a gale of wind to spiral around my hand like a drill, I dispersed the fire spell only to pivot away from the augmenter’s strike immediately. The moss-covered roots nearby caught on fire from the scattered embers of the conjurer’s spell. The once lush clearing within the forest was turning into a pit of blood and fire as more and more soldiers on both sides began piling on the ground.
The augmenter’s movements were rather concise and well-coordinated despite the uneven terrain, but years of sparring against Kordri had made his attacks seem sluggish. The augmenter landed deftly, his mana claws only hitting air.
“He was right. You’re not just some foot soldier,” he spat as he whirled back around in preparation to pounce on me once more.
<em>Was he only capable of using those mana claws?</em>
“He?” I asked, bewildered as to who could’ve possibly given him this information.
He remained silent and dashed toward me, using a tree stump as a foothold to leap off of with his mana claws poised to strike.
I positioned myself to meet the assault head on but when his claws were just inches away from my face, I withdrew my own fist and swayed to the left. I drove my fist toward the augmenter’s open ribs when the veil of mana surrounding his body gathered toward the area I had intended to attack.
My augmented fist was met with a solid thud before the mana barrier protecting my opponent’s ribs cracked. Just the force of my punch sent the augmenter tumbling to the ground, but when he got back up, there was only an expression of frustration, not pain.
I looked over my shoulder, focusing my gaze at the conjurer again. With his brows knitted in concentration and hands trembling, I could tell that he was the one that’d blocked my attack, not the augmenter. What confused me, and further defending my suspicion was how the soldiers around the conjurer seemed to ignore him—allies and enemies alike.
<em>Is there really something like an illusion around us?</em>
Just then, another fireball shot toward me but it was little more than an annoyance at this point. The spell had come from a different direction but I knew where the conjurer was hiding: fifty feet away directly ahead, positioned somewhere on top of a cluster of large moss-covered rocks.
“She’s over there, right?” I asked with a smirk, pointing in her direction.
The augmenter’s face paled but he remained silent. He pulled himself up to his feet with the help of a nearby tree despite his fatigue, desperation evident on his rugged face. Keeping his deep set eyes locked on mine, he clapped his hands just once. As soon as he did, multiple images of the augmenter began forming around me, resolving my suspicion—there was illusion or deceptive magic involved.
Soon, there was at least a dozen figures of the augmenter all in different—very life-like—poses, all ready to attack.
I looked at the illusions manifested around me, noticing that both Dicathen and Alacryan soldiers were unaware of what was happening, and let out a stifled laugh.
“This is funny?” the augmenter growled, his voice coming from all of the clones as well.
“I’m sorry,” I sighed, still smiling. Looking up, I surveyed the dozen or so augmenters, all with glowing mana claws that couldn’t be distinguished from one another. “Thanks to this illusion, I can let loose a little.”
Poking my conscious deep into my mana core, I activated Realmheart. A burst of mana exploded out of me as my vision faded into an achromatic state. I could feel the comfortable warmth as the glowing runes flowed down my arms and my back while my long hair began shining with a twinge of silvery hue rather than turning completely white.
The clones that had once seemed identical in my normal state were now no more than clusters of mana shaped into the form of a man. All but one appeared to be a mass of white mana particles. What surprised me was that the illusion wasn’t invoked by the hidden conjurer but the ‘shield.’
Locking my gaze on the augmenter, it was obvious from his expression that he knew there was something dreadfully oppressing about me. Beads of sweat rolled down his face as he regarded me with fearful perplexity. Ignoring his wariness, the augmenter—along with all of his clones—dashed toward me.
At the same time, the mage conjured another blast of fire—larger, this time—in sync with the augmenter’s assault. Raising my output of mana, I ignored the illusions of the augmenter and aimed for the real augmenter’s mana claws head on, shattering his spell. Grabbing a tight hold of his exposed hand, I used his momentum to redirect him toward the fire blast.
I caught a glimpse of my opponent’s eyes widening in horror before being struck by the full brunt of his ally’s spell.
Several layers of barriers attempted to protect the augmenter but they all shattered from the force of the blast. Still, the augmenter’s life was preserved thanks to that.
The illusory clones flickered before disappearing as I turned my attention toward the conjurer hiding in the tree.
Wordlessly, I raised my left arm and coalesced mana into the tips of my fingers.
“Shiel—Cayfer! Protect Maylin!” the augmenter roared, still struggling to get up from the ground.
The conjurer named Cayfer that the augmenter had referred to as ‘shield’ nodded furiously as I finished preparing my spell. Jagged vines of electricity coiled down my arm like a serpent, gathering at the tips of my index and middle finger.
Using my right arm to help stabilize my aim, I concentrated on the hidden conjurer that was now clearly visible thanks to Realmheart.
“Release,” I muttered.
The thin bullet of lightning shot out from the tips of my two fingers, piercing directly through the trees that stood in between me and the hidden mage.
The layers of translucent barriers that formed in the bullet’s path were instantly shattered until my spell hit the cluster of rocks I had been aiming at.
There was no dramatic scream or howl of pain in the distance, only the soft thud of the mage’s limp body falling off the boulder.
“No! Maylin!” the barrier caster cried out as he ran toward his fallen comrade, abandoning his post.
As the mage fell and Cayfer’s concentration broke, the illusion surrounding us disappeared. As if a window had been open, the world became clearer around me and the near-muted volume of the battle going on resumed in full blast. It wasn’t long before I got swept up in the chaos of battle.
I released Realmheart but brought out Dawn’s Ballad from my dimension ring. The translucent teal sword glimmered as its blade arched around me, drawing blood wherever it hit its target.
The battle between the two sides had gone on for less than an hour, yet the ground was littered with corpses and body parts—severed legs, lopped off heads, and chopped arms still spewing blood.
The cold winter air did little to mask the acrid stench of blood and burning flesh, while the dense array of trees surrounding the battle further amplified the cacophony of screams.
While the enemy was fewer in number, they had much more mages than our divisions. Augmenters with mana-imbued weapons pierced through our foot soldiers while conjurers struck from a distance.
Enemies rushed me in the heat of battle, some with unique techniques like the mana-clawed augmenter that was nowhere to be seen—whips of fire, armor made of stone. There was one enemy augmenter that’d killed several of our soldiers by conjuring water down their throats until they’d drown.
Yet, none of that made a difference to me. My mind grew numb at one point as my body seemed to be moving on my own. I’d killed only a handful of men but I was already slick with blood. My tunic and pants stuck to my skin, but I couldn’t tell if it was from sweat or blood.
Words were hardly spoken in the midst of battle. Words were useless. Instead, soldiers from both sides let out primitive cries as they fought, drunk on adrenaline as they flailed their weapons.
As I drew my blade from the bloody chest of another man, I clicked my tongue. There was nothing good about this. Death of a beast was one thing, but both sides were of the same kind.
I kicked away the limp body and used its clothes to wipe the blood from my sword. I’d conserved much of my mana but constantly fighting for almost an hour had taken a toll on my body.
I surveyed the other soldiers when the sight of a familiar person caught my eyes. She had just parried her opponent’s axe to the ground when her gaze landed on mine as well. Her lips were curved up into a confident smile as she positioned to drive her gauntlet into her opponent’s face.
<span style=”text-decoration: underline;”><strong>CEDRY</strong></span>
I dashed forward, slipping and swaying out of the Alacryan’s reach until he was open. Then I drove my gauntlet to his side, the satisfying crack of his ribs indicating that he was down.
“Slut,” the narrow-eyed man spat as he buckled over, blood leaking from his lips. He desperately grabbed onto me to keep from falling, his hands landing over the leather padding protecting my breasts. With a lewd smirk on his half-closed eyes, he used the last bit of his strength to rip my armor off of me.
Breaking his wrist with a firm chop, I put the ugly bastard out of his misery with a firm slam to his head. I couldn’t help but grin, elated and thrilled by the victory as an intense furor built up inside me.
Another fool tried to sneak behind my back but I dodged his sword and whipped around. A short bearded Alacryan raised his shield as he prepared to strike again.
My heart pounded and everything seemed a bit sluggish like the night before after ten mugs of ale. I swung my fist, augmenting my body and gauntlet, and punched straight through the soldier’s metal shield.
The clash made a sharp ring that stung my ear, but the force of my strike caused the bearded soldier to drop his shield. I didn’t give him the time to recover, pivoting off of my lead leg to gain momentum for a roundhouse chop.
The soldier’s eyes widened as he desperately tried to bring his arm up to block my strike but his shield arm wouldn’t lift, still numb from the shock of my earlier punch. He couldn’t bring his sword up fast enough as the blade of my hand reached his prominent Adam’s apple.
The soldier fell back, squirming with his hands wrapped around his neck as he struggled to breathe. After a desperate gurgle, his body felt limp before me.
I let out a fearsome roar. <em>No man can belittle me here. Only strength is absolute on the battlefield!</em>
My cry attracted the attention of a nearby axe-wielder. While his body was much larger than mine, his movements were slow. As he swung down, his axe began glowing yellow while a layer of mana began spreading over his body. Looking at the different elemental affinity of mana surrounding his axe compared to his body, it seemed like someone else had cast a spell to protect him, but I didn’t have time to question. I didn’t have time to be surprised. Strength is absolute.
I willed all of my mana into my right fist as I turned my body to the side to dodge his attack. I caught a glimpse of my reflection as the flat of his axe swung down; there was a euphoric—almost crazed—smile pasted on my face.
I used the momentum of his attack and parried the axe down to the ground when I spotted him. It was the country boy that beat everyone he’d sparred against—even Madam Astera. There were talks of some of the soldiers mentioning the kid was a lance. I’d scoffed at the ridiculous notion at the time, but as I stood here, just a few dozen feet away from him and the pile of corpses strewn around him, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were right.
My eyes finally met his but rather than the calm, playful expression he’d worn all through last night, his eyes were widened as he desperately mouthed something to me.
I couldn’t hear what he was saying but it didn’t matter, I’d ask him later. The axe-wielder was still struggling to pull his weapon out from the ground, when I felt a sharp searing pain in my chest.
In an instant, all of my strength and furor was seeped dry. My hands could no longer clench into fists. The ground suddenly seemed closer as I realized I’d fallen to my knees. I looked down at the source of my pain, only to see a gaping hole where my chest used to be.
I instinctively tried to cover the hole with my hands, only feel a burning pain spread on my palm. I pried my gaze away from my wound to the ground in front of me, finding my answer there—a scorched crater just a foot away.
I lost feeling in my legs as I crumpled to the floor. I grew sleepy and cold, my last thought of how tall the bloodstained grass looked from down here.