Chapter 231: Following Orders
The quiet yet palpable tension had dissipated, replaced by the guttural roars of our soldiers and the rumble of the earth as they charged forth with fervor.
Even with all of my knowledge and experience in the battlefield, both in this life and the previous, my heart still quivered in excitement.
Sylvie felt it, and she was in a similar state as well. The rush of adrenaline leaking from her mixed alongside my own barely-contained anticipation as we gazed down at the approaching enemy forces.
We leaned forward, watching expectantly as our forces collided with theirs. Our front line was an organized wave of soldiers with allies ready to back them up and provide cover, but it was different on their side.
At first, it was hard to notice. The mist that had shrouded the battlefield obscured everyone from looking at fine details.
Even the scrys behind us were barely able to give us any news or readings aside from the fact that our enemy troops all wore little to no armor of various colors.
Despite knowing what was happening below, I couldn’t make out the clashes of metal and screams of soldiers from a distance. It was different. During battles on a scale this large, sounds weren’t as distinct. They sort of blended in together in such volume that tremors could be felt all the way up here.
Can you tell what’s going on? I asked Sylvie.
My bond responded by shaking her head.
I turned to Varay. “Maybe we should get rid of the mist, General. I can’t tell what’s going on down there.”
The white-haired ice mage refused. “We know what’s on their side. We have to keep them from knowing what’s on our side. Deviating from the plan at this stage is impossible. Wait for Bairon and the Council’s orders.”
I was irritated but held my tongue. She was right—and more than that, it wasn’t my place to make suggestions like this. I was the one that refused the position because I couldn’t handle the responsibility. Who was I to come here now and do as I please just because I felt uneasy?
Choosing to trust Varay, Bairon, and the Council that were still receiving information realtime, I watched, waiting for my time to come.
Flashes of light followed by a wave of cries and screams soon caught my attention.
It looks like the Alacryans have already sent in their mages, I conveyed to my bond.
It was a little disconcerting that they’d deploy their mages so early on in the battle. However, I remembered what Agrona said about how Alacrya had so many more mages due to experiments that he had performed since generations before.
‘Their mages seem to be spread out inconsistently, though,’ Sylvie pointed out.
She was right. There were areas on the field where flashes of magic were close together or clustered, while in other areas, there would be spells going off several dozens of yards away from one another.
Again, a sense of unease filled me, but I remained quiet, My eyes scanned across the battlefield through the shroud of steam emanating from the icy ground, trying to find any signs of a retainer or scythe.
Suddenly, shadows stretched above me. Looking up, I saw a fleet of mages riding on various winged mounts.
“The aerial fleets are here,” Varay announced as the dozen or so mages sailed overhead and into the battlefield.
There would be three main forces against the Alacryans during this battle. First were the infantry, responsible for making first contact and keeping a constant pressure forward, away from the Etistin Bay. Next were the aerial forces responsible for creating disarray to the Alacryan’s backline by dropping spells on them from above. Finally, there was us, the lances.
The aerial forces lit up the foggy backdrop with their spells. One of them rained down motes of fire on the Alacryans while another utilized the mist itself and formed the water droplets into sharp icicles.
The cries and screams that were so jarring at first were beginning to blend in with the other background noises of battle. Seeing Varay’s gaze as she studied the battlefield intently, I could almost see the burdens of their deaths weighing down on her shoulders.
The battle continued for more than an hour before I finally lost it.
“General Varay. Let me go down there too,” I requested.
“No. It’s too soon,” she replied, still gazing down at the battlefield. “Wait until after the other infantry divisions flank from both sides. That’s when you’ll go down.”
I was itching to go down there, to feel useful. After the recent battles and losses, I needed a win.
‘It’s okay. We’ll have our time to contribute, Arthur,’ Sylvie comforted. ‘Besides, it looks like the tide of battle is in our favor.’
This was true. I had to admit that for how little experience our side had with large-scale battles, we were holding up fairly well. I could make out the vague outlines of formations from where we were standing. With three lines that interchanged positions constantly to give each other a break, our forces were able to maintain their intensity.
Varay turned her piercing gaze to me. “You’ll go in and target only their powerful mages. You will only be in the field for an hour at a time.”
I nodded in understanding. Varay and I were the only white core mages on this side. I couldn’t be too tired in case a retainer or scythe—perhaps both—showed up. That was our most important duty.
“Get ready,” Varay instructed.
I hopped on top of Sylvie’s back, cladding myself in mana.
Another horn trumpeted out in the distance, followed by another one on the other side of the bay.
“Go!” Varay ordered. “And don’t die.”
I thought she was joking, but her severe expression said otherwise. Giving her a stern nod, Sylvie beat her powerful wings, sending gusts of wind below us.
The two of us stayed low, barely hovering over the next line of soldiers charging forward until the ground changed to snow.
Fight in human form and focus on helping our troops. I’ll handle picking off the Alacryan mages, I sent to my bond as I jumped off her back.
‘Got it. I don’t sense any retainers or scythes, but be careful, Arthur. Always be careful,’ she replied before flying off to the side in her human form.
I landed hard on the icy ground, spurring a cloud of frost. Behind me, I could hear the thunder of armored boots as our augmenter troops charged forward into battle.
Ahead, I could already see our first wave of troops trying to withdraw. Much of the white field was covered in blood and corpses and only more would come as the battle progressed.
Withdrawing and imbuing Dawn’s Ballad in pale blue fire, I held my sword aloft for those behind me to see.
“For Dicathen!” I roared, charging forward alongside the line of battle mages clad in armor and mana.
Our strides kicked up more snow, obscuring our field of vision. Perhaps it was a good thing, since I wouldn’t be distracted by the sight of my allies dying in the distance.
On the other side were the Alacryans. Many of them were already bloody and sweaty from the wave before. It was odd seeing some soldiers clustered together while others were off by themselves.
There were no front lines, no division of forces to utilize their specialized magic like I had expected.
Casting aside my worries and doubts, I continued leading the charge with fervor, reinforcing confidence and morale into my comrades by cladding myself in lightning and fire.
The charge forward may have been an awe-inspiring sight, but the the clash was dreadful. I felt it just as much as I heard it.
Metal shrieked and rang while men screamed in pain. The faint hum of magic was always present as both sides took damage from one another.
The carefully formulated line consisting of augmenters quickly digressed into chaos amidst the snowy field. My first opponent fell instantaneously as he had approached, with a single slash from my sword.
The following enemy soldiers fell just as quickly under my attacks, but it wasn’t just me. The division of mages that had charged alongside me swiftly mowed down the average soldiers, a few only getting injured by the occasional lone mage that struck them by surprise.
I felt uneasy once more, but I pushed the feelings aside. Hesitation was useless in a battle like this. With Dawn’s Ballad in one hand and a spell always ready in the other, I left a trail of Alacryan corpses with every unabated step.
The first enemy mage that I found was by himself, surrounded by Dicathen soldiers on the ground. His shoulders were hunched forward and his entire body was terribly thin with a sickly pale tone. His hands were clad in tendrils of lightning.
Our eyes locked, and he peered into me like a starving wolf—desperate and deranged.
I abandoned my curiousness and rushed forward. He was an enemy I needed to kill. The more of them I killed, the more allies I saved.
I swung my free hand, conjuring a blade of ice clad in lightning. With the addition of wind manipulation, the crescent cut through the enemy mage’s torso before he even had a chance to strike me with his lightning whips.
Without batting an eye, I moved on to my next enemy. I tried to focus amidst the chaos of battle, tuning out the cries for help from allies and the high-pitched ring of metal on metal as weapons clashed. It was hard to ignore as enemy weapons cut through the flesh of our soldiers. Stains of pink from snow-mixed blood could be seen more often than white itself, and in some desperate places, the ground had turned into dark crimson.
Severed arms still clutching onto weapons, chopped off legs, and split-open heads littered the battlefield as I ran around, targeting the flashes of magic that appeared in the distance.
Had it not been for my previous life experiences, and the adrenaline coursing through my veins, I would’ve knelt down and retched on more than one occasion.
About an hour had passed, Sylvie and I regrouped and headed back to the camps where Varay waited.
I could feel the grief and horror emanating from my bond, and my state of mind wasn’t any better. The two of us were welcomed into the camps by soldiers applauding and cheering, but it only made it worse. Most of the same soldiers were injured, many unconscious.
I couldn’t help but think that, out of these dozens of soldiers, how many of their missing limbs had I run across out in this battlefield?
Medics ran around carrying supplies while the few emitters available in this particular camp were on the verge of backlash from overusing their mana. But despite all of the activity and noise around us, I felt like I was watching everything through a thick foggy lens.
“Good work,” Varay said, patting me on the back.
I mustered a nod before taking a seat below a tree on the far edge of the camp. Sylvie sat beside me and the two of us silently gathered ourselves.
I wasn’t tired. My mana reserves weren’t drained despite the near fifty mages I had killed in that hour. But my body still felt heavy. It wasn’t like fighting against the beast horde. These soldiers that I had killed were people—people that had families.
Despite my brain screaming at me to not think about this, it was hard not to. The only small consolation I had was that I was just following my orders. It was that small difference that differentiated a soldier from a killer.
I was just following orders.
The day stretched on with the end of the battle nowhere in sight. During this time, more and more of our troops had arrived as support.
Large formations of soldiers stood ready to charge at a notice down below near the shore. The campsites had become more and more packed with injured soldiers who were being patched up and carried away in carriages back to Etistin.
During this time, Sylvie and I had gone down to the battlefield four times and we were getting ready for our fifth run.
“Are you okay, Arthur?” my bond asked, gripping my arm gently.
“I’m hungry but feel nauseous just thinking about food,” I replied quietly. “Let’s get this over with.”
Sylvie nodded. “We’re doing a good thing though. We’ve saved hundreds, if not thousands of allies by taking down those mages.”
“I know, but it’s just… nothing,” I sighed.
Reading my thoughts, she said aloud, “Are you still thinking something is off about them?”
“I do. I tried not to think about it because we’re winning, but it’s still on my mind. I haven’t studied the Alacryans indepthly or anything like that… but this—them,” I said, gesturing out to the field. “They’re not the organized troops that Agrona had created. Not in a way that I had imagined them, at least.”
“Maybe the troops that we’ve fought against before were elites,” Sylvie replied.
“Maybe you’re right,” I sighed.
Maybe I really had overestimated Agrona and the Alacryans. Despite all of the planning that they’d done over the years, the enemies were still trying to invade an entire continent. It’s only normal for us to have this much of an advantage.
That was when I overheard one of the injured soldiers talking.
I whipped around and ran to the legless soldier lying on a table with a medic wrapping new gauze around his injuries.
“What did you say?” I asked, terrifying the man.
“G-G-General! My apologies. I shouldn’t have said something so outrageous like that!” he exclaimed, eyes wide with fear.
“No. I just want to know what you said just now. Something about ‘freed’?”
“I-I just said that I felt a little… bad for them,” he answered, his voice dropping to a whisper. “One of the Alacryans, just before I killed him, begged me not to kill him. He said something about being granted freedom if he lives.”
“They would be granted freedom?” Sylvie echoed, turning to me with an expression of concern. “Do they enslave their soldiers?”
Thoughts accelerated in my head as I processed and connected everything: how untrained the soldiers seemed, how spread apart their specialized mages were, the disunity amongst their troops that made them seem more like they were fighting a free-for-all, and even the lack of uniform and armor that helped them tell each other apart from their enemies.
“They’re not soldiers,” I muttered, looking at Sylvie. “Those are just their prisoners.”
Sylvie’s eyes widened in realization before asking the question that really mattered. “So then, where are their actual soldiers?”