Chapter 154: Changing Tides
<span style=”text-decoration: underline;”><strong>ARTHUR</strong></span>
I gnashed my teeth at the sight of Cedry’s body falling limp on the ground. The enemy axe-wielder pried his weapon out of the ground and prepared to swing down, his arrogant sneer exposing his yellow teeth, when a thin blade protruded out of his gorget.
As the axe-wielder’s body slumped, Jona—Cedry’s friend—came into view. With a firm tug, he pulled out his bloodied dagger from the man he’d just stabbed before kneeling down next to Cedry.
<em>Idiot. What are you doing in the middle of a battle?</em>
I was inclined to leave him; that’s what Grey would’ve done. But I was reminded of last night—the talk we had before I went up to fight onstage, and the carefree night of drinking that followed shortly after. I hardly knew them more than the enemies I was facing but the sentiments that we’d briefly shared the night before—albeit, half-drunk—tugged at my consciousness, nudging me to help him.
With an annoyed click of my tongue, I dashed toward Jona, who was cradling Cedry’s corpse tenderly in his arms. An enemy augmenter, pulling the tip of his spear out of a soldier’s head, caught sight of Jona. Even underneath his helmet that covered much of his face, it was obvious that he was grinning at his luck.
Concentrating on the ground just below his feet, I shot a stone spike at the enemy. The spear-wielder narrowly avoided a fatal injury, flopping awkwardly to the ground as he clutched his bleeding side.
I increased the output of mana to my body and dashed toward the wounded soldier. As he lay rolling on the ground in pain, I stepped on his chest to keep him steady.
Mercilessly, I drove Dawn’s Ballad deep into the breastplate of the spear-wielder and watched the light go out in his eyes.
With one fluid motion, I slid my sword out and drew an arc, getting rid of the blood on the blade, before tugging Jona by the scruff of his neck.
“You need to get out of here,” I growled, shaking him.
He looked back at me, his eyes flooded with tears. “Cedry, you’re going to be okay.” he mumbled, his gaze distant as he clung onto his half-elf companion’s body like an infant.
The sharp whistles of incoming arrows and the faint hiss of spells approaching drew my attention, but with both my arms occupied I could only do so much. I’d been stingy in my usage of mana purely because of the unlikely scenario that I’d have to fight against one of the four scythes or a retainer but if I wanted to get Jona and Cedry to a safe place, I’d need to expend more mana than I’d want to.
Grey’s voice echoed in my head, chastising me, urging me to leave them and conserve my mana for the worst-case scenario.
Cursing under my breath, I knocked Jona out with a firm punch to his solar plexus. His body spasmed from the shock I’d added to ensure that he’d be out cold as I heaved him over my shoulders and used my free arm to scoop the half-elf’s body under my arm.
Cedry’s thin corpse weighed more than Jona’s body as I held her by her waist. I couldn’t do anything about her arms and blonde hair dragging on the ground, but Jona’s unconscious body seemed to take offense, his arms dangling towards her from my shoulder, as if trying to scoop her up.
Ignoring the creeping desire to just drop them back to the ground, I freely released the mana I had been conserving. An intoxicating sense of power rushed out of my core, spreading out to my limbs and filling me with renewed strength. Tuning out the chaotic clamor around me, I focused entirely on the mana surrounding me.
Because of the expanding layer smoke and fire, I willed a spiraling barrier around us as I prepared to rush them back to base. A translucent layer of mana whirled around us as a torrent of wind and stone began shaping itself into a sphere.
Strengthening my body, I pushed off the ground. Immediately, I had to tighten my grip around Jona and Cedry to keep them from falling. The barrier I’d conjured remained strong as arrows and spells bombarded it. Sparks ignited each time an enemy hit my barrier, deflecting or redirecting anything that came our way, but the spell was constantly eating away my mana reserves.
Thanks to the mana rotation technique I’d learned from Sylvia, even such a superfluous spell like this could be recovered back in a fairly short amount of time.
I plowed through the battlefield, gritting my teeth to cope with the weight of my two passengers as I concentrated solely on keeping the barrier active despite the intensifying attacks on it.
My body jerked as a particularly powerful spell bombarded my barrier but I held firm and increased the amount of mana into the barrier. Cries from the enemy soldiers ordering their subordinates to bring me down echoed within the forest.
<em>At least with all of their conjurers focused on me, </em>Vanesy<em> and her soldiers will have an easier time,</em> I thought.
As soon as I was out of the main battle, I released my spell. Immediately, an augmented arrow skimmed my cheek, drawing blood. The force of the arrow brought down a tree beside me, catching me by surprise.
With Jona’s limp body sagged over my shoulder, I had to turn around to see who I was up against. Before I could spot my attacker, two more arrows whizzed toward me.
I had barely a second to react, but that would be enough. Letting out a deep breath, I murmured, “Static Void.”
The deadly arrows were only inches away from me when I released the first phase of my dragon’s will. The world grew still as even the chaotic sounds of battle deafened.
In one swift movement, I positioned my right foot on top of one arrow and bit down on the shaft of the other arrow. Releasing Static Void, my neck immediately jerked from the force of the arrow in my mouth as the arrow beneath my foot buried into the ground.
Whipping my head towards the direction of the attacker, I released a torrent of pure mana. For a moment, the afternoon sky grew dark as terrified birds shot from the trees and littered the sky, sensing the malicious intent I’d let loose.
I stood there for just a second, staring at the space where I thought the enemy archer was, his arrow in my mouth, warning him—warning him what I was capable of if he got in my way.
My unspoken threat seemed to have done the trick because there were no more arrows or spells headed my way. Turning back, I bolted into the dense forest, making my way back toward the edge of the cliff where we’d come from.
“Arthur? What happened?” a voice called out as I lowered Cedry and Jona to the ground at the edge of the encampment.
I looked up to see Madam Astera, blood on her face and on her once white apron. Noticing my gaze, she looked only to shake her head with a faint smile. “Don’t worry, it’s not my blood. I’m just helping the medics and emitters patch up some of the wounded that were brought back.”
I nodded. “I see. In that case, please take care of her”—I pointed to Cedry—“and look after Jona.”
Without waiting for the head chef’s response, I turned around toward the cliff, ready to head back, when something tugged at my boot.
“Why? Why couldn’t you have saved her like you saved me?” Jona’s hoarse voice trembled as he tightened his grip around my ankle.
“I can’t save every soldier in a war,” I replied, unable to look back and face him.
“Liar… I bet you could’ve if you really wanted to. You’re a lance, right? I wasn’t sure until you caught that arrow with your mouth. For a second, I thought I was dreaming because the arrow stopped mid-flight.”
I gnashed my teeth in frustration—not at him, but at myself—and kicked my leg free from his grip. “Like I said, my priority isn’t to save every soldier I come across in war.”
“We might not’ve known each other that long, but if Cedry was alive, there’s no way she would’ve just thought of you as ‘just a soldier,’ General.” There was venom laced in the hiss of my title.
Whipping around, I lifted Jona up by the scruff of his shirt once more and pulled him close. “I’m sorry for your friend, Jona, but pull your head out of your ass. There are enemies out there stronger than you can imagine—stronger than any adventurer you’ve probably worshipped—and you want me to expend all of my energy to save everyone here? If I do that, who’s going to stop them? Who’s going to stop the enemy leaders that can level a mountain if they wanted to?”
The hate and blame from Jona’s eyes disappeared, replaced by guilt and sorrow as tears rolled down his cheeks. “What am I going to do, then? I promised her when we were little. I was finally going to keep the promise… I was going to ask her to marry me.”
At his words my chest ached, twisting into knots as my breath became short and ragged. I struggled to keep composed as I stared into Jona’s grief-struck face.
“I’ll take care of him, Arthur,” Madam Astera whispered, pulling Jona back by his shoulders. “Go on.”
I gave a curt nod and peeled my eyes away from Jona. Heading back up the cliff, my mind was clouded with thoughts of Jona and Cedry. I saw them spar, I saw them bicker, and I saw them laugh together, but I never thought much of their relationship.
“Damn it,” I cursed as I weaved through the dense array of trees. The sounds of battle grew louder but my thoughts were focused on Jona’s last words.
The faint whistle of an arrow snapped me back to reality. I spun out of the path of the projectile and conjured several throwing knives out of condensed ice, throwing them at the enemy archer without breaking stride. The pained grunt of the archer and the hollow thud of his body falling from the tree sounded behind me.
A few feet later, a bolt of electricity crackled toward me. The spell was powerful but by the way it branched out and weakened, I could tell the caster was inexperienced in the deviant magic. Sidestepping away, I gathered mana to the tips of my fingers once more and released the spell.
Unlike my attacker’s lightning, mine shot out like a bullet. However, just as my spell was about to hit its target, a metal wall erected from the ground, deflecting the streak of lightning harmlessly to the sky until it dissipated.
<em>Annoying</em>. While fighting against the Alacryans, I began to see a pattern. For every augmenter or conjurer fighting, there seemed to be a different conjurer whose sole duty was to protect them. The archer earlier didn’t seem to be an augmenter, which explained why he went down so easily.
Because the enemy conjurers and augmenters weren’t focused on protecting themselves while fighting, their attacks were much more relentless and brash.
My mood had turned sour since dropping Jona and Cedry back at camp, and my temper grew as more and more enemies attacked.
“Fine! You know what? The more of you all I kill, the less my soldiers will die!” I spat, revealing a menacing smirk. “Realmheart!”
Conjurers and augmenters that were hiding now stuck out like sore thumbs as they prepared their attacks. As the particles gathered around them, swirling and spinning in preparation, it became all too clear what sort of spells they were conjuring, but I needed more time to counter them.
All thoughts of conservation were gone as I once again released the first phase of my dragon’s will. The world froze once more and I quickly assessed the spells needed to counter the attacks of twelve different enemies. “Three blasts of fire, a barrage of sharpened rocks, augmented arrows, a lightning spell, condensed bullets of water, and one of the conjurers was planning on burying my feet from under me to keep me from moving. Easy enough,” I murmured. Like I thought, conjuring the barrier earlier to save Jona had drawn a lot of attention.
Seconds ticked inside the suspended realm of Static Void. My body felt heavier but I didn’t care. This was nothing. I released Static Void as soon as I was ready and retaliated.
Immediately, spells detonated from all around me, a cacophony of screams and wails mixed in as well. Enemy and ally soldiers alike looked around, confused by the sudden explosion.
As I heaved out a breath, I couldn’t help but smile in satisfaction. Rather than canceling the enemy’s spell like how Lady Myre had taught me by using mana interpretation, I overloaded the Alacryan soldiers’ spells, causing a deadly backfire.
“How’s that, Jona! Are you satisfied?” I fumed.
“Arthur!” a clear voice called out from behind.
Looking over my shoulder, I spotted Captain Glory. She wore a hardened expression as her two long swords dripped with blood. Her once tied hair had come loose and was caked with mud and dried blood, and her armor wasn’t any better off, but there was still a fire raging in her eyes.
“You look like crap.” My lips formed a pained smile, relieved to see a familiar face.
The corner of her lips curved up into a smirk. “That’s not something you say to a woman even during war.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I chuckled.
“Anyway, did you do that?” Vanesy asked, looking around.
I nodded. “I was testing something.”
“Testing something during battle? You never change.” She let out a sigh. “Do you think you can do it again?”
“Probably,” I answered when suddenly, Sylvie’s thoughts poured into my head. ‘Arthur, I’m coming back.’ There was a flood of emotions that was laced together with her message: worry, desperation, and fear.
<em>What happened? Did you find something already?</em> I sent back to my bond, her emotions affecting mine.
<em>‘No, I had to stop midway…’ She grew silent for a moment but there was a grim sense of foreboding that made my heart beat faster until she spoke again. ‘Someone is headed your way. Arthur, he’s… he’s strong.’</em>