Chapter 155: Why I’m Here
My heartbeat quickened and my palms grew slick with sweat as Sylvie’s emotions leaked onto me, but I had no time to rest; with their conjurers and archers nearby sustaining serious injuries, the enemy augmenters and soldiers were quick to approach us.
“We got some headed our way. Don’t get cold feet on me now,” my former professor chuckled. Her lighthearted tone didn’t suit the screaming and clashing of weapons resounding in the background.
“Cold feet? I’ve been taking the brunt of attacks from their conjurers and archers, trying to establish a pattern in their attacks,” I answered, drawing Dawn’s Ballad and burying its sharp blade in through the breastplate of an enemy soldier in one swift motion.
“Is that how you were able to set off those explosions just now?” Vanesy asked as she parried a large warhammer. It was compelling watching my former professor fight up close without holding back. Her fighting style, combined with her utilization of both earth and fire in a unique way to conjure glass, produced an array of glimmering attacks. She was able to create a layer of sharpened glass around her swords to extend her reach, cleaving down enemies several yards away.
“No, that was something else.” I pulled my sword out from a different enemy. “Vanesy. We should end this battle soon, or at least take it away from here.”
“You say that as if we”—Vanesy ducked, narrowly avoiding the head of an axe—“were purposefully prolonging this battle.”
I swung Dawn’s Ballad, sending a sharp crescent of wind at my former professor’s attacker. With a sharp hiss, blood splurted out from the barrel-chested Alacryan’s unprotected neck. He was only able to let out a soft gurgle before collapsing to the ground, his eyes wide and frantic while his hands pressed down on his fatal injury.
My tone grew stern as I replied. “I’ll admit my priorities may have been a bit different until now, but there’s no time now. Take the battle elsewhere—anywhere away from here.”
Her forehead creased. “What’s going on?”
“There’s going to be someone coming, someone as strong—if not stronger—than me. Get everyone away from here so they don’t get caught in our crossfire.”
Vanesy’s furrowed brow deepened. “Our? You can’t mean—”
I nodded gravely. “This is why I’m here—in case something like this happened. Get everyone away from here.”
“I know you’re strong—actually, I can’t fathom how strong you actually are—but damn it, that doesn’t mean you can’t use any help!”
My eyes loosened as I gave my former professor a look of concern, but remained silent.
“Shit,” my former professor cursed, surveying the battlefield. She looked back at me with a resolute gaze. “Fine, but you better come back alive or I’ll pull you out of hell myself just to send you back.”
I couldn’t help but let out a chortle from her ridiculous threat. “I promise.”
Vanesy took a step back and saluted me before Torch swooped down from the sky. The captain jumped onto the flare hawk and bellowed out, “Dicathens! Retreat!”
Like that, the tide of battle shifted. Vanesy flew overhead, rallying her men that might not have heard, but already our soldiers had begun edging back while defending themselves from our enemies.
I watched as our soldiers withdrew, holding back any enemies that tried to chase after them, but there were simply too many.
<em>It’s okay</em>, I told myself. The Alacryan soldiers weren’t the problem. Vanesy and Captain Auddyr’s divisions were going to have to manage.
I put away Dawn’s Ballad and made my way toward the edge of the clearing. Jumping up onto a tree, I conjured a cushion of wind underneath my feet and made my way southward, hopping from one branch to another.
Just beyond the clearing, the tame trees, evenly spaced and maintained by woodcutters from the nearby town, became more wild and dense. There were large trees strewn below, fallen in storms. The harsh winter had stripped away much of the bark but by the thin layer of frost on the untouched ground, it seemed like the Alacryan Army hadn’t passed by here when they made their way up.
The only sound around me was the rustling of leaves and the occasional snaps of branches from the wildlife.
<em>Sylvie. Are you there? How close are you?</em>
I was met with only silence from my repeated attempts at establishing contact with my bond. She was either too far away, which shouldn’t be the case, or intentionally ignoring me.
<em>‘Aren’t you a cute boy. Could it be that you’re lost?’</em>
I flinched from the unfamiliar voice that rang in my head, nearly falling off the branch I was perched on. Whipping my head left and right, I tried to locate the source of the sound.
I wanted to move but my body froze—not from the cold, but from a tangible fear. A deep sense of dread creeped up like a rising tide, slowly but surely, as I surveyed the area.
Even with augmented vision and hearing, I couldn’t find her. Yet, I knew she was there, her high, grating voice still scratching the insides of my ears.
<em>‘Are you, perhaps, looking for little ol’ me?’</em> her shrill voice screeched inside my head like a coarse blade being dragged against ice. I gnashed my teeth, trying to keep calm. My mind knew she was intentionally intimidating me but my body couldn’t help but fall victim to her tactic.
Her voice seemed to come from all around me and at the same time, inside me. My limbs grew stiff as my heart beat hard enough to break out of my ribcage.
Without a second thought, I bit down on my lower lip. As the pain and metallic taste of blood washed over my tongue, freeing me from the holds of her killing intent, I immediately activated Realmheart.
The once lush green and brown scenery washed down into shades of gray with only speckles of color radiating from the mana around me.
Unable to see any sources of mana fluctuation, I began to doubt what I heard—no, I wanted to doubt what I heard. Suddenly a flicker of light whizzed past the corner of my eye like a green shadow. It was almost impossible to follow the shadow’s movement but if I kept my eyes unfocused, I could catch glimpses of her movement.
The green shadow stopped. From her location, it looked like she was inside the trunk of a tree about thirty feet away.
<em>‘Sharp eyes, little boy. Sharp eyes.’</em> She moved once more, travelling from inside one tree to another, using branches as if they were tunnels, leaving behind traces of sickly green mana. My eyes darted, trying to follow her movement as she let out a cackle of laughter that echoed in the thick forest.
“Your eyes look like they’re spinning, dear,” she teased, her shrill voice just as earsplitting out loud as it was in my head.
“Am I here?” she asked, farther away this time.
“How about here?” Her grating voice sounded to my left.
She let out a childish giggle. “Maybe I’m here!”
Her voice seemed to grow more distant than before. Was she trying to avoid me?
“I could be over there…” she taunted once more, her voice suddenly coming several yards away to my right.
“Or I could be right here!” Suddenly, an arm shot out from inside the tree I was perched on.
I had no time to react as her hand gripped around my neck, spreading a searing pain across my throat and collar. I was lifted into the air, held by my neck, as the source of the shrill voice came out of the tree.
I gripped at her bony pale arm, splotched with discolored marks as I tried to break free from her hold. She was wearing a sparkling black dress that accentuated her body’s tall and sickly thin frame. I could practically see her ribs through the thin piece of fabric that would’ve looked elegant had it been worn by any other woman.
I struggled to lift my gaze high enough to see her face, but what stared back at me was a ceramic mask with a doll-like face masterfully drawn. Long, scraggly black hair was tied into two ponytails behind her head with a bow tied at each end.
“My, what a handsome young boy you are,” she whispered from behind her mask, the drawn eyes looking straight at me.
Like a bolt of electricity, a shiver shot down my spin at her words, making me struggle harder. My neck felt like it was being constantly branded as the burning pain became almost unbearable. Struggling with the last of my consciousness, I willed mana into my palms.
With Realmheart still active, I could physically see the specs of blue mana gathering around my hands, turning into a shimmering white as I formed a spell. Tightening my grip around her wrist, I released my spell.
She immediately let go of my neck and pulled her arm away from my grasp. Upon release, I fell from the tree, crashing through a hollow log on the ground.
“The little puppy has a bit of a bite,” she reprimanded from atop the tree.
I hurriedly got back up onto my feet, ignoring the burning pain still radiating from my neck, but the woman was already in front of me, looking down through the small eyeholes of her mask. Her right arm was discolored and swollen from where I was able to briefly touch her with the spell.
She shook her head. “No matter. I’ll just have to be a bit more strict in your training.”
My body involuntarily took a step back. She had no intention of killing me; she just wanted me as some sort of pet.
“What’s your name, my dear?” she whispered, looking away as she buried her right arm inside the tree behind her.
“My mother told me not to talk to strangers, especially ones as… strange as yourself,” I answered, wincing from the pain as I gingerly touched the wound on my neck. Usually, thanks to assimilating with Sylvia’s will, I’d feel my body already healing, but the injury she inflicted was different.
“Not to worry. We’ll get acquainted soon enough,” she replied, pulling her arm back out of the tree, the wound marked by my spell nowhere on her arm. The tree she’d pulled her arm out from now had a gaping hole in it, like someone had branded it with acid.
She took long strides, her scar-marked legs sinking into the ground as if she were wading through water. “Unfortunately, we don’t have much time as I have tasks to finish. Any chance that you’d willingly be this beautiful lady’s slave?”
I drew Dawn’s Ballad out of my dimension ring. “Sorry, I’ll have to refuse.”
“They always do.” The bony woman let out a sigh as she shook her head. “It’s okay, half the fun is breaking the will of a disobedient slave.”
As she finished talking, mana the color of rotted seaweed began gathering beneath my feet. Immediately, I jumped back, just in time to avoid a cluster of murky hands that shot out from the ground. The humanoid arms or mana clawed the air before sinking back into the corroded ground.
The woman tilted her head but I couldn’t see her expression through her disturbing mask. Through Realmheart, the spells seemed to have a similar attribute to wood, like Tessia, but with every spell she conjured, it left a mark of corrosion.
I slid my fingers down my burning neck, afraid of what I’d see in my reflection. More of the murky green mana gathered around the mysterious enemy, but before she had the chance to finish her spell, I shot out a stone spike from the ground beside her. I watched as the earthen spear dissolved instantly the moment it made contact with her.
“You’re just prolonging the inevitable, my dear,” she cooed in her high, grating voice that made me want to claw my ears off.
She raised both arms, conjuring more pools of mana on the ground and on trees around me, only visible because of my unique vision.
My first thought was how I should save mana during this battle when I realized for the first time in a long while that I had no reason to hold back. Most likely, she was either a retainer or scythe, one of the key enemies that I had spent years training to fight against in the land of asuras.
Breaking open the metaphoric wall I had built to control my mana, I felt a rush of mana pour out of my core. The once dim runes that ran down my arms and back glowed brightly, blatantly apparent even through the thick mantle I wore over my undershirt.
Particles of mana in blue, red, green and yellow rushed out of my body while the mana in my vicinity swirled and gathered, drawn to my body like moths to a fire.
“Looks like I found someone special,” the woman effused as she crossed her raised arms, invoking her spell. Dozens of vine-like arms appendages erupted from the ground and shot out from the trunks and branches of nearby trees.
My expression remained calm, her imposing intent no longer affecting me, as the disfigured hands of mana reached for me with their spindly fingers. A small crater formed in the ground below my feet as I dashed toward the slender witch of a woman, ignoring her spell.
I ducked and swayed, dodging the vine-like hands that followed my movement, never breaking my stride as I reached the witch. I was just inches away from reach, yet the woman didn’t even flinch, confident in the aura that had dissolved my earlier spell.
“Absolute Zero,” I whispered, coalescing the spell completely around my body.
The murky green hands that froze inches before contact became a disturbing statue that only philosophers could put meaning to.
My first instinct was to swing Dawn’s Ballad but I was afraid that my sword would end up like the stone spear, so I took one last step, just before her feet, and willed the aura of ice to form into a claw-like gauntlet around my left hand like the augmenter had done back at the start of my earlier battle. As my spell collided with her aura, a cloud of steam hissed out, blocking my vision.
It only took one gulp of breath to realize that the steam was toxic. My body immediately reacted, sending me to my knees in a fit of coughs as both my innards and skin began burning. The toxic gas surrounding me had already melted a lot of my clothes, exposing the runes on my arms. It was the fading of the golden runes that snapped me out of my daze.
The runes, imparted onto me by Sylvia and the very symbol of how this all started pulled me out from the cold grip of darkness.
I promptly created a small vacuum to suck the toxins out of my searing lungs. It helped, but with no air to breathe and the oxygen from my lungs sucked out, I was left with just a matter of seconds until I blacked out.
The fog, as toxic as it was, covered me from the witch’s eyes. She’d assumed I’d have fainted by now, or worse, so I used that opportunity. Locating her mana signature with the help of Realmheart, I waited for the right opportunity to strike while fighting my body’s unwillingness to stay conscious.
Seconds seemed like hours, reminding me of my time spent with my consciousness in the aether orb, when she finally drew close enough. While she shouldn’t be able to sense the mana fluctuation around me from the effects of Mirage Walk, I could only pray that she wouldn’t be able to see the dim glow of my sword.
With the last bit of energy, I triggered Static Void, stopping time around me as I exploded to my feet and struck her with Dawn’s Ballad. My sword crackled as it seemed to tear through space, imbued with a gleaming white lightning that seemed almost holy as I released time just before my blade made contact with her face.
The force of my swing spread the cloud of acid covering both of us, but even without seeing, I knew I’d somehow missed my target. I shuddered as my gaze fell to the blade in my hand, or rather, what was left of it. The tip of Dawn’s Ballad, forged by an asura, had been corroded flat with an inch of the teal blade gone. However, spotting the faint trace of blood on my blade, I shifted my glance to the witch.
I could only see the point of her sharp chin as her head was reeled back, a thin trail of blood rolling down the side of her neck. The entire forest seemed to have quieted in fear as the only sound I heard was the shattering of her mask on the dirt floor.