Chapter 157: Pinnacle’s Height
<strong>CAPTAIN JARNAS AUDDYR</strong>
“Ulric,” I whispered, signaling him to move out left as I crouched down low behind a fallen log. The massive augmenter silently gathered his small team of five mages and began making their way through the dense trees.
“Brier.” I tilted my head in the direction of the small path to our right, signaling my other head and his troops to follow me. Brier nodded in reply as he unsheathed both of his serrated daggers. The well-built augmenter quickly navigated through the dense forest, his gait long and confident. I followed behind him and his troops a few paces behind with my fingers anxiously positioned on the grip of my artifact, ready to strike.
I’d come to be thankful for the frigid gale that constantly howled through the trees, bobbing the branches and stripping their foliage. It served to cover the sound of our footsteps as we made our way deeper into the forest.
Clearings were frequent but I navigated my troops away from them, in case we were exposed to this great danger that Captain Glory had warned me about. I suppressed the urge to scoff at her ridiculousness—believing the words of a teen that somehow snaked his way to be a lance. He probably made up his suspicions about this powerful foe so he could escape by himself to avoid battle.
<em>I’ll apprehend him on sight if I catch him running away,</em> I thought. <em>Perhaps my critical role in driving off the Alacryan forces and capturing the rogue lance will earn me a well-deserved promotion.</em>
I’d grudgingly followed Captain Glory when she abruptly started ordering her troops to retreat. It was my mistake to so blindly trust her judgement.
After being informed by Captain Glory on what she had been instructed to do by that lance, I immediately turned my troops back. She had the nerve to throw away the battle and risk bringing the entire fight to the cooks and medics back at the encampment, but I was not her subordinate.
The battle had become chaotic after Captain Glory’s troops started retreating, leaving only my troops to fight. However, taking advantage of the fact that the Alacryans tried to go after Captain Glory’s troops, it was easy for my soldiers to subdue a lot of the occupied enemy forces.
Better yet, Captain Glory had received her consequences for having so little judgement in the middle of a battle; she’d sustained a sizeable injury to her side that left me in charge of both troops. With my expertise as a commander, I quickly meshed together the two disjointed allied forces and we resumed the fight until an explosion resounded just a bit south from where we’d been fighting.
Unexpectedly, the enemy leaders began ordering their leaders to fall back, leaving us with an exceptional victory. The sound of my cheering troops filled me with a sense of satisfaction that reminded me of what it meant to be a figure of power.
Resuming my duties as the acting general in charge of both divisions, I ordered every able-bodied soldier to pick up an ally’s body and head back to camp. I also ordered the retrieval of any Alacryan soldiers, if still alive, so that they could be interrogated later.
I had wanted to go straight to The Council and debrief them on what had happened here, but Captain Glory stopped me. She suspected that the boy lance and the foe he was fighting had something to do with the explosion and wanted me to take some troops to see what happened.
If it wasn’t for the possibility of apprehending the boy for running away in the midst of battle and the chance to take his place as a lance, I would’ve refused.
Perhaps the deities were finally rewarding me for my service to King Glayder and now, the entirety of Dicathen. I would become one of the pinnacles of power in this continent.
As we trekked further south, the more careful we had to be with our footsteps. As the sun set, mist began pooling between the thick trunks of the trees, obscuring the ground even directly below us. More so than the possibility of an imagined foe, I wanted to catch the boy off guard and accidentally snapping a twig might make him run and complicate the task.
My sources up in The Council’s castle told me that Arthur had not accepted the artifact granted to each of the lances to enhance their powers, but being careless would be a mistake; however much of a coward he may be, the boy was still a lance, after all.
Brier, my right-hand, stopped and wordlessly motioned for me to come. Walking past the soldiers in his unit, I arrived in front of what seemed to have once been a tree.
Looking at the dark sludge pooled in the center of the tree trunk, I slowly reached out when Brier swatted my hand away. My eyes narrowed as I shot my subordinate a glance, but Brier merely shook his head and dipped a spare knife strapped to his thigh into the puddle.
With a faint hiss, the blade of the knife had been completely dissolved in a matter of mere seconds. Shifting my gaze to the rest of the tree that’d toppled over fairly recently, I pointed to it, making sure this acid was what caused it.
Brier nodded in reply and we continued our trek until one of his men—or rather, a woman—pointed out a few more trees with the same corrosion in the middle of their trunks. Some trees were still standing, with the acid only making a small hole, while others were melted down to the roots.
The sharp <em>snap</em> above us caused all of us to immediately whirl toward the sound. The woman swiftly nocked an arrow on her bow and instantly fired.
The arrow accurately hit the source of the sound… a branch. Letting out a sharp breath, I studied the branch that’d fell, only to realize that there were parts of it corroded by the same acid on the trees. I shot a menacing glare at the archer and immediately she dipped her head apologetically. <em>Incompetent</em>.
Signaling everyone to continue, I stayed close to the rear of the team in case anything were to happen.
While the winds continued to buffet the trees around us, the forest was eerily quiet. There were no scutters of nearby animals and I had yet to hear the crow of a single bird—almost as if the inhabitants of the forest had all run for their lives.
Suddenly a pained scream resounded, piercing through the trees into our ears. The quietness of the forest only seemed to amplify the sound as everyone looked toward me for guidance.
From the deep timbre of the scream, it sounded like Ulric but was it really worth giving our position away if he had already been caught? Whether it was the lance or the supposed enemy he was facing, the element of surprise was one of our only advantages.
Brier, who was close friends with Ulric long before he’d joined my division as a head, stared at me with knitted brows. His eyes seemed to say to let him go, but I motioned for him to wait. I separated our team of five into two groups, with Brier in the team of three. We slowly fanned out with the archer staying by my side while Brier’s group slowly made their way toward the sound of Ulric’s scream.
The density of trees dwindled as we approached a large clearing, with more and more signs of the acid evident around us. The ground underneath abruptly dipped, almost making us tumble downhill into a mysterious fog that grew denser as we got closer to the glade. With the archer covering me and Brier and his group a few paces ahead to my left, I unclipped the handle of my artifact, Stormcrow, and imbued mana to transform it into a mighty halberd.
With the ghastly green mist blocking our view and the ground below unlevel, I suppressed the temptation to turn back with the thought of becoming a lance and I raised my arm; holding up three fingers, I silently counted down.
Letting out a roar, Brier slashed out with his serrated daggers, unleashing a torrent of sharp gales to dissipate the potentially dangerous mist.
<em>What in the…</em>
My will to fight all but vanished as the green fog cleared. Stormcrow nearly slipped out of my loosened fingers as we all stood, jaws slack, at the scene just a few yards ahead.
We had unknowingly stumbled on the edge of a massive crater. In the center stood an enormous and awe-inspiring spear that made my priceless artifact, handed down in my family for generations, look like a used toothpick. And impaled on it was what seemed to be a lanky imp-like fiend.
The ground sizzled underneath the suspended monster with the same murky acid dripping from its grotesque body. A faint hiss sounded from the fiend as the green fog continuously spewed from its gaping wound but it was undoubtedly dead.
But perhaps the only thing more striking than the scene below was that of the obsidian dragon so casually sleeping next to the boy slumped against a tree on the other side of the crater—a boy who could be none other than Arthur. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I had seen the dragon when Arthur was first knighted as a lance, the fear currently gripping at my chest might’ve just squeezed the life out of my heart.
For a second, I thought that both the boy and his bond had both died during the fight, but the steady rise and fall of the dragon’s body said otherwise. I pried my gaze off of the black dragon to see Ulric on the ground on the other side of the crater. His troops—minus one—were huddled around him, nursing the stumps where his left arm and leg used to be.
<em>Perhaps the boy died in battle,</em> I thought, hopeful. I assessed the situation the best I could from this distance. It was hard to see the state of the boy from here boy, but by the ragged breathing of the imposing beast beside him, it’s safe to say that both had incurred some kind of damage.
I loosened my grip around Stormcrow. “Retrieve the general’s body.”
Brier, signaled for one of his men to go forward when Ulric, who’d now located where we were, flailed his only arm.
“Don’t!” Ulric and his troops screamed but Brier’s subordinate had already leaped into the crater to make his way to the other side where Arthur was.
Suddenly, just as Brier’s subordinate dashed past the lanky fiend, a murky tentacle erupted out of its body, clamping onto his ankle.
The soldier howled in pain, but rather than pulling his body, the tentacle severed his foot that was protected in mana, sending him tumbling down to the center of the crater. The soldier’s arm landed inside the puddle of green sludge and almost immediately, the acid worked its way through his armor and flesh until not even bone was left.
The soldier, who’d been shrieking in agony, cradled the stump of his arm when the tentacle that’d grabbed him earlier dragged the rest of his body into the puddle.
We stood there silently, horrified, the only sounds coming from acid working through the soldier’s body and the archer retching behind me.
“Don’t go near that monster!” Ulric huffed, his voice labored from pain. “Th-The general said that it won’t attack if you keep your distance.”
“What is going on?!” I roared, losing composure. “Give me a report!”
“W-We don’t exactly know, Captain!” one of Ulric’s troops sputtered. “We sensed mana fluctuations nearby so we scouted around the area when Head Ulric and Esvin slipped and fell down the crater. Head Ulric was able to make it out but Esvin…”
“Is that monster still alive?” I asked, taking a step back in case another tentacle sprouted out of its body.
“No, it’s not.”
I whipped my head toward the source of the hoarse voice, only to see that the boy was now awake. “You!” I raised Stormcrow, pointing it at Arthur. “Did you have anything to do with this?”
The lance’s hardened eyes, his irises nearly glowing with an azure radiance, focused on me between his auburn bangs.
“With the death of that retainer? Yes.” His gaze remained harsh and voice even. “With your soldiers’ deaths? That’d be because of that thing’s automatic defense spells that are still active even after she’s died.”
I could feel my cheeks burning in embarrassment while the boy talked to me as if I was a fool. “W-Why didn’t you help them, then—or warn us?”
“I’m sorry; did you want me to put up a caution sign?” the boy mocked. “Quite frankly, I’m having a hard time staying conscious, let alone warning mages that obviously didn’t want to be found.”
“General Arthur, you were under suspicion for fleeing in battle, but now that new information has come to light, we’ll ask that you come with us so that we can take you to The Council for further questioning,” I announced, afraid to take even a single step despite Ulric’s earlier reassurance.
“I’ll go to the castle on my own accord. Right now, I have other matters to attend to,” the boy replied as he remained seated against the tree.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible, General,” I said through gritted teeth. “Information on the enemy leaders is crucial and The Council needs to be informed at once.”
Gathering my wits, I made my way toward the boy—steering clear of the tentacle’s reach—when the obsidian dragon’s eyes shot open, freezing every one of us on sight.
Its shimmering topaz gaze bore directly into me, making my body shrivel on reflex. The dragon’s eyes contained a ferocity and wisdom that made every mana beast I had bested seem like plush doll.
“Take another step if you wish to lose your head,” the dragon rumbled, baring its fangs.
“I-It speaks!” Brier cried out, stepping back in fear.
Gripping the handle of Stormcrow harder to suppress my body’s instincts to retreat, I replied. “My apologies, mighty dragon. We have no intentions of hurting your master. We simply wish to bring him safely to The Council and see to it that his wounds are treated.”
The dragon huffed out a fog of air from its snout, almost as if it’d scoffed at my words. “My promise still stands, <em>Captain</em>. Take another step—”
“Enough,” Arthur cut in as he leaned against the dragon to get to his feet. He took slow steps toward me, but had no intention of stopping.
He was fairly tall for one his age, standing just a few inches over me, but I couldn’t help but feel as though he was somehow towering over me. Unconsciously, my body had stepped out of Arthur’s path as he walked past me—without a single word—and made his way down to the center of the crater where the tentacle had killed one of my soldiers.
I cursed in my head—not at Arthur, but at myself for being so ignorant. It was only now that I’d begun to realize the gap between me and this boy.
I stood silently as Arthur trudged carefully down the sloped ground. Even when the boy got in range of the corroding vine made of some mysterious mana, the tentacle froze and shattered on contact.
Arthur casually placed a foot over the puddle capable of melting even armor and bone. As the acid froze into a solid state, the boy stepped on it and reached out toward the monster, pulling out a worn teal sword. “Sylvie, let’s go.”
The obsidian dragon beat down its wings, creating a surge of wind below it. The dragon hovered over Arthur and lowered its tail for its master to grab onto.
Mounted atop the mighty beast, Arthur sheathed his sword and peered down at me with a harsh gaze. “Get Captain Glory or someone else capable to take the retainer’s corpse to The Council.”
There was a sharp sting to his words that I would punish anyone else for, but I held my tongue. The fear still lingering in me and the overwhelmingly imposing pressure Arthur radiated as he gave out his instructions made me lose all the remaining confidence I had.
He truly was a lance.
I sheathed my weapon and got down on one knee. “Yes, General.”