The bars and inns closed their doors earlier than usual. Tonight was the final night before the festival and the last night for a warrior’s purge. They didn’t bother waiting for the roads to clear or the street lamps to go out. Once the last light faded and darkness swept the city, the battles began. The knights and soldiers were quick to respond, but after these past bloody days, little effort was put into concealing the havoc. Now they were just putting revelers down as fast as possible and taking fewer prisoners.
Noah neither joined nor wasted his time watching any of the fights. He hurried to the warehouse while invisible and searched the area. If the Harajin were coming, it would be after the last light had faded, and Noah had no doubt they’d turn up. They’d arrive in some form or fashion and try to kill him rather than make the trade. He had to convince them that a fight wouldn’t be worth it, and it would be better if he did it without killing them, especially Grond, as it was possible Cyrilo could find out and turn on him. That meant he’d have to be careful with his own magic, using it sparingly so that Grond couldn’t learn anything from it and share that information with others.
Noah reached the warehouse before the Harajin and worked fast to set the scene to his advantage. Klein eventually arrived, with Grond and Tora keeping their distance and surveying the situation. However, he did not enter the warehouse, as his attention was instead focused on a dead body lying outside, near the edge of the pier. He recognized the clothes and the knight’s sword in its hand, as well as the smell of blood. Klein waited in the shadows, not daring to approach. This couldn’t be real, could it? This stranger, having slain three Harajin, to be lying there in a pool of blood was preposterous. Could he really have fallen victim to the Red Revelry? Klein checked the warehouse but found no signs of occupation. He decided to wait, letting a minute pass, then two, and three, and several more, never taking his eyes off the body while his ears picked up the sounds of fighting throughout the city.
Patience, it was an assassin’s greatest quality, and a staple of Harajin training, but still, the doubts eventually came. What if this was a trap? He could wait out a human threat, not a mechanical one, and the longer the body sat out there, the greater the chance of someone else discovering it. This was not something he could simply walk away from, not after everything they had lost since coming and everything they risked by staying. He took a chance, he hurled a dagger at the body. It pierced the side, beneath the ribcage, and was buried deep. No reaction. Klein braced himself and stepped out of the shadows, approaching the body.
“Not one more step.” He heard it when he reached the halfway point between the warehouse and the edge of the pier. There was a ship docked nearby, and while he could not see anyone there, the voice had originated from it. “You move at all and the deal is off.”
“The same to you. Show yourself.”
Noah stood up, bow in hand and trained on Klein. He had the drop on him. “Show me your hands. You try to use any hand signs and you’re dead.”
Klein complied, raising his palms to show he wasn’t holding anything. Both of Noah’s spells were active, and he separated from his clone and got into position by the body. In reality, it was his clothes from the previous night, draped over a rough scarecrow made from some materials collected from the warehouse ad dabbed with some blood. The Harajin would never have dared move if he just left the goods exposed without it. He set the fungal antidote and mystery potion down next to the body, wrapped in his mana, and by the time his clone made it to his position, it had worn off and they appeared as if out of thin air. They were placed precariously at the edge of the pier, so easy to knock over.
“Here is how this is going to go: you are going to explain Bakudan to me, every single facet and detail. When I am satisfied, I’ll depart and leave these three items to you. You go home with your prizes and my curiosity is sated. No one else will ever know what happened here or what you tell me. We can all walk away from this.”
“How can I know you won’t sell this information to others?”
“You can’t. You’re just going to have to take the risk. With this sword and antidote, you can secure an alliance between the Harajin and Uther, and this antidote I stole from your friend is clearly valuable to you. Are they not worth it?”
Klein took a deep breath. “Yes, they are worth it.”
No more words were spoken, there was only the flipping of the switch as he bolted towards Noah with sickles in hand. Noah fired his arrow and hit only Klein’s cloak. The way he moved made the fabric flap and billow, hiding his real movements like an octopus’s tentacles. Noah sent his clone sprinting off to the side to draw his attention and reached for another arrow in his quiver. Before he could even feel the fletching, he saw Grond charge towards the supposedly-abandoned bottles, along with the third Harajin, Tora.
Noah grabbed the bottles and sword and chased after Klein. The Harajin’s speed and reach turned him into a storm of blades, and Noah’s clone could only move as fast as he could, so he focused on dodging Klein’s attacks and studying his movements, scrutinizing the few occasions when those sickles passed through the illusion. Klein was utterly silent, despite his constant movement. None of his footsteps made a noise, same with his cloak, and rather than magic, it came down to pure skill. Unfortunately, using his clone like this burned through his mana at an exorbitant rate, so Noah could only maintain it for a short while.
Klein was realizing that something was wrong just before Noah’s mana gave out, letting him step into the place of his clone and cancel the spells. He finally blocked one of his attacks with the knight sword, then disengaged and spun around to launch a kick to the side of Klein’s head. The attack was dodged and Klein closed back in, swinging both sickles at once like the mandibles of some giant beetle. Noah stepped back just far enough to dodge, though they came closer to his face than would have liked. Klein pursued him, one blade after another.
Noah managed to dodge one of his swings and land a hit of his own, but Klein reacted instantly and pulled away from the sword as it was cutting him, thereby lessening the damage. He opened up some space between him and Noah, something that left Noah shocked. The way he moved, rolling over in midair the instant the blade touched him, was almost inhuman, both in terms of agility and reaction speed. Was that a monk enhancement or training? He could only hope the other two weren’t similarly gifted. He’d find out in the moment, for they were coming to join in the fight.
He pulled away from Klein and led him along the pier. They sprinted parallel to each other, hurling and dodging throwing knives with a few even knocking each other out of the air. Like before, Klein used his cloak to block and deflect the oncoming attacks. The flapping and twisting fabric would catch the blades and direct them away from his body.
Noah continuously moved to keep Grond and Tora from sliding into his blind spots. Like Klein, they used their cloaks to conceal their true movements and ward off attacks, so they were always in motion, never letting Noah get a precise lock on them. Their technique was the same as Klein’s, so Noah’s analysis with the clone served him well in surviving their onslaught. Even when he did manage to land a hit, their reaction speed was so good that they could pull away from his blade as it cut them. These Harajin well surpassed the hobgoblin, ogres, and other armed opponents he had encountered thus far. In fact, it had been centuries since he had faced opponents anywhere near this level of skill. His body was strong, but theirs had been shaped since birth for combat. Were he in his prime, he could kill all three without even needing magic. Unfortunately, that life was a long time ago, and his skills were rusty.
Continuing to move back, Noah stepped on a piece of rotten fruit. The momentary loss of balance was all Klein needed to get past him. Noah spun around to try and catch him and found only empty air. He sensed Tora approaching and turned to block, only to feel blades slice his arm and leg. Klein had appeared from the darkness and attacked him from behind. Blood poured freely despite his leather armor, and even worse, Tora had disappeared from view.
Noah managed to pull away from both Grond and Tora. The moment he turned away, Klein appeared in his blind spot and attacked him, but Noah was able to dodge his attacks and once more get all three in his view. He was starting to figure out their tactics, now he just had to deal with their poisoned weapons. He knew it from from the wounds Klein had inflicted and could feel his movements slowing and his senses becoming foggy. As long as he didn’t take any more hits, he could power through. Tarnas had made a big deal about Grond poisoning two knights, meaning whatever was on his blades was the greatest danger. He’d have to deal with him first. They were still on the pier, giving him an idea.
He charged back into the group while keeping his eyes fixed on Grond. The Harajin scattered, and as expected, Klein and Tora activated Bakudan as soon as he averted his eyes, while Grond dared not cast it under Noah’s gaze. About to enter Grond’s range, Noah came to a sudden stop and spun around, aiming behind him with his sword. He wasn’t trusting any of his senses, only his hunch, and that was all it took for him to slash Tora across the stomach. It was deep, but not fatal.
No time to celebrate, he escaped Grond before he could finish what Tora started. Klein was nowhere to be seen, but Noah knew where he was and how to flush him out. He kept his eyes focused on an area of empty space and pulled out the poison bottle he looted from Oritz. He smashed it against the ground, spraying glass and liquid in all directions, with several shards and droplets hitting an invisible shape. Noah replaced his sword with his bow and fired an arrow, striking the invisible Klein in the shoulder.
“So that’s how you do it, how you get so close to your victim. You approach from their blind spot, and just before you enter their field of vision, you activate Bakudan and become invisible. When they look around to find you, your friends attack or play decoy. As soon as they look away again, you release the spell and close in. You can’t move while it’s active, so you can only use it to lie in wait or fight when you’re in a group.
It seems it doesn’t matter how much blood you spill to protect your secrets. I’ll squeeze them out of you, bit by bit. Tell me what I want to know while you’re still capable of talking.”
Klein and Tora were temporarily down, but Grond was itching to cut Noah’s head off. Noah returned his bow to his ring and faced Grond barehanded. Without a weapon, Noah should have been at a disadvantage, but the absence of the weight and the freeing of his hands put him on equal footing. Every time Grond reached out with a blade, Noah would aim for his wrists to block the attack or direct it away from his body. It was easier said than done, as Grond was an expert in his blade work, and Noah avoided injury only by the skin of his teeth. His hands were a blur from the motions and he did his best to tough it out. When the perfect moment finally arrived, Noah went on the offensive.
A kick to the balls, chop to the windpipe, and then punch to the solar plexus, all delivered so fast that not even Grond could react. Noah finished by kicking him off the pier and into the shallow water. The pain from Noah’s attacks left him barely able to think, let alone stand up, and his wet clothes were weighing him down. It took all his strength just to keep his head above the water and breathe, while beneath the surface, the fungal spores and poisons were being washed off his weapons.
Despite neutralizing Grond, Noah was not able to prevent Tora from sinking her sickles into his back. Both lungs were punctured, leaving him struggling to breathe and racked with pain. Regardless, he turned around and kicked her square in the chest. She was knocked through the air, ironically, in a similarly breathless state. He turned around and drew his new sword, just in time to counter Klein’s attack. With these continuous assaults, he didn’t have a moment to take a potion, and even worse, Tora’s poison was taking effect, this one devouring his mana.
Now that it was one-on-one with Klein, Noah could finally take the offensive, if only for a few seconds. He disengaged and then closed in again, slashing and stabbing with all of the strength and coordination he could muster. The weight of a sword in his hand had now become so familiar, he almost didn’t feel it. While the intricacies of specific styles were still lost to him, he had relearned and remembered how to feel through a blade, how to use the weapon as an extension of himself. No motion was wasted, as his damaged body needed every available spark of strength just to function. Even with two sickles, Klein couldn’t get past Noah’s guard. His sword was hitting its marks, all his attacks aiming for body parts that weren’t moving, thus unprotected by the Harajin cloak.
Noah tried to press him further, but his momentum was broken. He had managed to ignore his pained breathing until a bloody cough worked its way up his throat and demanded an audience. Klein seized the opening and kicked Noah in the side of the ribs, knocking him off his feet. He was hacking and spitting up blood, but Noah rolled to the side to avoid another attack and got to his feet, unsteady as they may be.
“You guys are really starting to frustrate me,” Noah wheezed. “You’re so stubborn and refuse to see reason. Just tell me what I want to know and this fighting can stop.”
“You’re in no place to talk, looking like that.”
“You three aren’t doing much better. I’m after your knowledge, not your lives, but the more you drag this out, the harder it’ll be for me not to kill you.”
“We will die for our clan and our secrets.”
Noah spat out a glob of blood. “Don’t.”
“You know nothing about us.”
“I don’t need to know anything about you. You say you’re willing to die for your clan. Should you? There are countless things worth living for and many things worth killing for, but there is nothing worth dying for. All you truly have is your life, the brief privilege to enjoy an entire universe of experiences. Everything else is expendable, replaceable, and pointless. Whatever it is you care about, be it your clan or your faith, I guarantee you, I promise you, it is not worth your life. Live for the Harajin if you want, but do not die for them.”
“We are proud of our commitment, proud of our loyalty to our clans and our gods. It is with pride that we die in battle, and also with shame, for to be slain by another is to be inferior to them, too weak to carry on our duties. I swear, I swear on my pride as a Harajin, you will die here, bereft of the knowledge you’ve so foolishly pursued.”
“Your friend, Hulf, do you know what I told him before he died? I told him that if he didn’t give me answers, I would hunt down the rest of his team, one by one, and pull the information out. If that didn’t work, I would cross the sea and hunt down the rest of the Harajin, one by one, until I got what I wanted or they all died out. Don’t make them die for your pride.” He turned, hearing something very familiar and very troubling. It was an explosion, and towards the center of the city, he could see a pillar of flames and smoke. “Well, that can’t be good.”
“Just give it up already,” said Foley.
“Quiet, I’m working,” Roc shot back.
“You’re not working, you’re failing. I was hoping you had a better idea than just trying to pick the lock. If it was something original, I could have followed that. There are literally a dozen other guys in here that have tried this.”
“You’re ruining my concentration.”
“What concentration? You’ve just been jamming that stick into the keyhole all afternoon. It’s probably filled with sawdust and wood pulp at this point. They could come to let us out and their own key wouldn’t even fit. You’re actually making us even more trapped. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Hey, it’s better than doing nothing.”
“Is it, though? Is it really? Do you even know how locks work?”
“No, not particularly. I’ve actually only seen this done once before, but I’ve never faced a problem I couldn’t solve without perseverance.”
“You’re using a piece of scrap wood to try and pick a magic lock. That’s not perseverance, that’s the result of you being dropped on your head as a baby. I pity the poor lass who receives your horrendous technique.”
“Instead of complaining, how about you do something to help? I’m pretty sure these locks are dwarf-made.”
“What do you expect me to do? Give it three taps and whisper sweet nothings?”
“No, I expect you piss yourself and dance a jig!”
Foley snorted in laughter. “I’ll give you honest points for that one.”
“Shit.” The stick, having been worn down to the size of a crayon, finally crumbled in his hand. “I need the spoon.”
“Hey, we already agreed, you can’t use the spoon.”
“Just give me the damn spoon!”
“Fuck you.” Roc turned to him, flashing his unblinking thousand-yard stare. “Oh please, I ain’t afraid of you.” Roc continued glaring. “You look like you need to take a shit.” The glaring intensified. “Fuck, fine, take it.” Foley tossed him the spoon and Roc went to work digging out the ground-up wood from his earlier attempts. All the spoons in the dungeon were bent and twisted from prisoners trying to pick the locks. “Look, I don’t know what you got waiting for you out there, but you’re not going to get to it any faster.”
“Well I have to try. The sooner I can get out of here, the sooner I can get back to hunting. I need to find a letter of recommendation before tomorrow.”
“Couldn’t you have just done it the normal way? Most nobles give them out like candy.”
“I thought this would be an easier method. Was it the wisest choice? No. But right now, it’s the only option I have. Besides, I’d rather die than accept anything from those Uther nobles.”
“Well if you’re going to the academy, how long do you think you’ll have before you’re found out?”
“Hopefully, long enough to grind all of the noble brats into the dirt. Damn.” He had dropped the spoon, and while reaching down to retrieve it, he suddenly jerked back as something struck his arm. It was the magic lock, falling off from the door.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me. Did you really do that?”
Roc picked up the lock and examined it. “No, it wasn’t me.”
The shackle was broken, but it hadn’t snapped. It was cut. Throughout the dungeon, all of the other locks were likewise falling off the doors, alerting everyone. The guards posted at the exit were left utterly stunned. Someone or something had just unlocked every cell. Just a moment of hesitation, then the doors were flung open and the prisoners all burst out of the cells, Roc and Foley included. The guards didn’t even last a second before being slaughtered, as even while unarmed, most of these prisoners were skilled battle junkies. The wave of escapees flooded through the dungeon, most looking to collect their belongings while others decided to simply flee as they were.
In various storerooms, warriors seized their confiscated gear. Shoving his way through the crowd, Foley managed to find his buckler and grinned at the sight of the sealed envelope tucked within. For many, this was a chance to upgrade and started stealing whatever looked good, including Roc. He had no interest in weapons or armor, only healing potions. As he fixed his shoulder and other wounds, he saw a redheaded young man move towards the door.
“Hey, buddy, mind telling your name?” Roc asked as he approached.
The alarm was raised as the prisoners rushed out of the dungeon and into the night air. Horns and whistles were blown and the flashes of spells began to light up the sky as the battle began. Swords and other weapons clashed and arrows filled the air like raging hornets. The prisoners were focused on escape, so they fought only long enough to get by those standing guard.
Archers manning the wall around the dungeon tried to rain death upon the prisoners. Outside of the building, it was open ground with no cover, a killing field designed to keep any escapees from reaching the wall or the single exit. However, this was no mere breakout of common criminals. These were heavy-hitters, and the archers who fired were themselves fired upon, with both spells and arrows, and knocked from their perches. The heavy iron gate, the single entrance and exit to the facility, was ripped off its hinges by a sword swing with the power of a speeding truck, courtesy of warrior magic.
The evening had just begun, and everyone, both military and civilian, could hear the commotion and see the flashes of spells. The knights and soldiers rushed towards the scene of the violence, now spreading as the freed warriors put more and more distance between them and the dungeon. They’d start fires and kill civilians as a distraction, and the revelers already out in the streets couldn’t help but join in the chaos. It was turning into a riot, with mounted troops rushing down every road, shouting at civilians.
“Clear the streets! Everyone, get inside and lock the doors!”
At the Knight’s Sheath, the doors were sealed, with men and women alike pressing their noses to the windows and watching the havoc in the shrinking distance. Daniel, still bedridden in the backroom, could only listen to the fearful voices in the parlor.
In the town square, Sir Berholm was barehandedly dispatching troublemakers with masterful skill and frightening power. Things had become too chaotic for the privilege of being taken prisoner, so anyone he deemed an enemy was dealt a crippling or even fatal blow. Despite his size and age, he was fast as lightning with fists like sledgehammers. He could snap bones and crush organs with a single strike, and anyone who dared attack him would see their weapon smashed to pieces. Swords snapped like twigs, shields were crumpled, and arrows were snatched out of midair.
He looked down the street, seeing a mob of malcontents charging towards him with their weapons drawn. If they knew who he was, they would have turned the other way, but it was too late for them. Before they could reach him, Berholm looked up, spotting someone running on a nearby rooftop. Valia Zodiac, long silver hair fluttering, leaped off the building towards the center of the mob. In her hand, she wielded a rune-inscribed khopesh sword.
Mana shrouded her and a large magic circle of silver light appeared behind her like the face of a clock. She landed in the center of the crowd and brought down her sword upon the ground. Her foes were blown away with a devastating shockwave as a crater opened up in the street. The strongest among them, those who survived the force without losing consciousness, scrambled back to her feet and all ganged up to attack her.
One fighter tried to attack her from behind, his sword aimed for the back of her neck. She beat him to the punch, severing his own head without even needing to turn hers. A second lunged with a stab of his saber and she dodged by just a few centimeters. Her arm wrapped around his blade like a serpent, never even touching it, while her own sword zoomed past his guard and severed his Jugular with the lightest flick. She grabbed him by the collar and threw him at a third warrior, knocking him to the ground. She brought down her sword upon them both and nearly sliced them in half. A fourth came at her from the side with an axe, but she needed no magic to destroy the weapon like it was made of cardboard. Her blade sliced through the steel axe head and diced up the handle, a deadly flurry made in only a second. He came to a stop, the remains of the axe falling out of his hand. Then, fountains of blood sprayed from across his body.
The rest attacked all at once and she dispatched them all with single swings of her blade. A few of them had some skill, others relied on strength and magic, but her movements were so fast, so masterful, that her victims never saw their wounds being inflicted. In the end, steel and flesh tore with similar ease. Only when they all lay dead did she speak to Berholm.
“I hope I didn’t steal your thunder.”
“Not at all, glad to have you with us.”
“This city is my home, and I won’t have anyone say I didn’t defend it. But this… this is a catastrophe.” They both heard it, the whooshing shockwave, like a hurricane gale, and their eyes were drawn back to the dungeon, being ripped apart by a pillar of crimson flames from deep underground, one lighting up the night sky. “And it just got even worse. That psycho will incinerate all of Colbrand!”
“Look!” Berholm pointed up, where a streak of gold light shot over the city towards the flames. “We have to trust Sir Tarnas to take care of it. All we can do is take care of these rats.”
“Then let’s not waste any more time.” Valia raised her sword. “Zodiac: Baol! Rakshon! Udan!”
The magic circle once more appeared behind her, displaying ten runes, three of which glowing brighter than the others. She took off like a rocket, her whole body moving faster than the human eye could catch. She sprinted and leaped through the city, with any obstacles either being jumped over or smashed through. To those who saw her, she was all but a silver blur, and any rabble-rouser she encountered was mowed down like blades of grass, though she was gone before they even hit the ground. Her armor and clothes naturally frayed, but she never received so much as a scratch. Even when charging through burning buildings, she was all but indestructible.
While she and the other knights were busy fighting the escaped prisoners, Tarnas arrived at the dungeon, flying on wings of light growing from his back. He stared into the flames consuming the dungeon, flames melting iron and rock like they were candle wax. In the center was Gradius, having burst free of his own isolation. His armor was no longer capable of containing his power. Flames were shooting out of every gap, producing a roar like the trumpets of Armageddon and becoming a firestorm surging from his back. But more intense than the flames was his madness.
“PRISONERS ESCAPING! HUNT THEM DOWN! DON’T LET ANY OF THEM LEAVE HERE ALIVE! I’LL RIP THEM APART AND BURN THEM TO ASH! KILL THEM! I’LL KILL THEM ALL! DIE! DIE! DIE!”
“Sven, that’s enough! You have to calm down! You’ll destroy the whole city!” Tarnas yelled.
In his hand, Gradius held his axe, and he swung it wildly as though already surrounded by his victims. The ground shook every time he brought it down, a result of his devastating strength coming unbound like his flames. He pointed it at Tarnas, having long-since lost the ability to tell friend from foe. “I’LL KILL YOU! I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU! I’LL MAKE YOU DEAD! I’LL BUTCHER YOUR FUCKING SOUL!” From there, it just degenerated into a monstrous howl.
Tarnas sighed and drew his own sword and his body became wrapped in an aura of holy energy. “You truly have lost your mind. No, perhaps you never had it at all. I had hoped you could at least learn to channel your rage, but you are too far gone. It’s only fitting that I be the one to put you down.”
The two knights readied themselves and then launched towards each other. It was not a run, so much as leap, each propelled into the air by nameless monk enhancements. Sword met axe and light met flame, producing a thunderous shockwave that threatened to bring down the walls around the dungeon. They were the only thing keeping the battle contained, and as much as Tarnas wanted to change the location, just moving Gradius would be as hard as killing him. All he could do was try to finish him off without leveling the city.
Their weapons collided over and over, each time sending streams of power shooting off into the sky. The entire dungeon grounds were a sea of surging flames and holy energy, a hellscape that would annihilate even most gold-ranked knights. Every strike seemed to create a mushroom cloud, casting its light across the city. The physical power they wielded with every swing was titanic, both gripping their enchanted weapons with enough force to crush diamonds.
Gradius scored a lucky hit, managing to knock Tarnas’s sword out of the way with a one-handed swing, then closing in and striking him in the face with a punch like a meteor. Tarnas was tossed through the air, but managed to stick the landing and aim his sword at Gradius.
Up over the battlefield, several magic circles appeared, each one firing a powerful holy laser down upon Gradius. They washed over him, disturbing his mana flow and dissolving his physical enhancements, but it was not enough to stop him. He didn’t even name a spell, Gradius simply screamed in fury and swung his axe, launching a wave of fire into the sky like an erupting volcano that destroyed the magic circles. He raised his axe high above his head and wrapped it in a pillar of flames that almost reached the clouds. The crimson mana was dense, like compressed plasma, and formed a solid shape. He roared again and dropped his axe, bringing down the blade of fire towards Tarnas.
He couldn’t dodge, as the apparition would reach far beyond the walls and slam down onto the city like a giant guillotine. He gripped his sword with both hands and gold mana surged from the blade. “Severing Dawn!” He swung his sword, launching a wave of mana like Gradius had done earlier. The two apparitions collided and exploded, creating yet another mushroom cloud that sent searing mana raining down upon the dungeon grounds and explosive gales rushing through the city.
He leaped towards Gradius, sword over his head. “Lumendori’s Gavel!” He brought down his sword and Gradius blocked with his axe, with the resulting collision ripping apart the ground and tossing soil and rock into the air, only to instantly melt. The walls threatened to collapse from the all-powerful force, with the tremors even being felt on the other side of the channel. Forced down into the bottom of a crater, Gradius did not fall. He looked at Tarnas without even seeing him and screamed at the top of his lungs. A focused jet of flame erupted from the slits in his helmet, slamming into Tarnas and knocking him back with his head smoking and armor melted. He had managed to shield his face at the last moment, but he wasn’t without burns.
“Lumendori’s Blessing,” he said, causing the mana shrouding him to heal his injuries. He glared at Gradius, still howling in utter insanity, not even knowing where he was. “If this is how it is supposed to end between us, then let it end.”
Noah stared down the Harajin, gripping the knight sword with hands sticky with blood slick with sweat, and they returned the stare. He and his opponents were on their feet, though shakily, having accumulated a large number of healed and open wounds. Their shredded clothes attested to the skill each side had, with Grond forced to abandon his wet cloak and Tora’s sickles broken. Their supply of potions and knives appeared exhausted. Noah had managed to take only a few gulps of potions over the course of the fight, including a high-class antidote found in his ring, and was far from 100%. Still, this had become a war of attrition, and he had the stamina to keep up. On the plus side, his mask of bandages remained in place, keeping his identity hidden, as well as lessening the sweat in his eyes. In the background, he could hear the sounds of battle and see the lights of burning buildings. The whole city seemed like it was falling apart.
“The deal is still on the table. I suggest you take it.”
“Not gonna happen,” said Klein. “In fact, now that everything has gotten so noisy, we no longer need to keep this fight hidden.”
He held out his sickles and arches of electricity sparked between the tips of the blades and the handles. Beside him, Tora’s hands were wreathed in scarlet flame while Grond’s clothes were billowing from a surge of mana-infused wind. Lightning, wind, and fire, three things Noah had bad luck with recently. What’s more, their bodies came alight with various monk enchantments. Simply beating them into submission wasn’t working. It was time to make an example out of one of them. Klein, he would act as the sacrificial lamb. The problem was that Noah only had a little bit of mana to use and had to do it without exposing the nature of his magic.
“Desert Gale,” Grond cast while clapping his hands together.
A surge of wind, infused with visible mana like smoke, surged past the three Harajin and washed over Noah. It wasn’t strong enough to knock him over, but the wind somehow seemed to pick up every grain of loose soil in the street and send it aiming for his face. He covered his eyes, both for cover and to activate his magic, and sprinted to the side, just barely able to see the incoming fireballs from Tora. When he first arrived in this world, he encountered an old man who used a similar technique, but he could not compare to this Harajin. Noah dodged as best as he could, with the miniature stars splashing upon impact and spraying flames in all directions like incendiary grenades.
Klein charged, moving twice as fast thanks to the power of magic. Noah could already imagine what would happen if he touched the electrified sickles, and there was no way for him to match Klein’s speed and avoid his attacks. No other choice, he and his clone each raised their swords and the real Noah moved forward. They swung at the same time, before Klein had even reached the clone. He saw the illusory sword rise and fall but never reach him, yet he felt the searing pain in his shoulder. Flesh was torn from a slash that wasn’t supposed to happen.
‘It doesn’t make sense,’ he thought. ‘I was out of the reach of his sword.’
Despite being hit with an invisible sword, his reaction was as sharp as before, and he pulled away as soon as the blade touched him. Noah closed the distance while his clone hung back and made the same arm movements. A sideways slash, aimed low, Klein and the others saw the wound despite Noah being out of range, and Klein felt the invisible blade slice his legs. He once more twisted upon contact, going with the force of Noah’s swing instead of against it. Despite leaving twin blood trails, he managed to retreat. Noah wanted to pursue Klein, but he had to return to his clone to conserve mana.
To the Harajin, it appeared to be a warrior spell of some kind. His sword could harm them from a distance of at least three meters, meaning midrange combat was no longer an option. Both Grond and Tora repeated their spells in an attempt to keep Noah at bay while he chased down Klein. Despite his wounds, he retained much of his agility and stayed out of Noah’s range, or, at least, that’s what he thought. Noah had his clone run slower, prompting Klein to also slow for the sake of his bleeding knees. Four meters of space were between them, and Noah closed in and had his clone mimic him as he slashed Klein from shoulder to hip. The wound was too deep for him to endure and he collapsed, the life pouring out of him like his blood. He confirmed the kill with a hack to the neck, then fled the raining fireballs from Tora.
His mana was at its limit and his spells broke on their own, a painful and disorienting experience. Combined with his physical exhaustion, it made Noah momentarily lose consciousness, long enough for him to collapse to the ground like Klein had. A fireball hit the ground near him, lighting his clothes on fire and nearly burning his face. He rolled away with what little strength he could conjure and managed to get back on his feet, just barely holding his sword. Another wind blast from Grond hit him, leaving him fighting just to stay on his feet.
Now that he was pinned, Tora attacked and knocked the sword out of his hand. They didn’t know his true range, so the best choice was to disarm him. She grabbed his arm and swung herself up onto his shoulders in a flying headscissor. Her legs wrapped around his head and she swung her body to knock Noah off balance. Before she could reach full rotation, he grabbed Tora’s collar, dropped down on one knee, and smashed her head against the ground, and though the mask resisted breaking, blood began to trickle from under it and her body went limp. She wasn’t dead, but she was out of the fight. Noah got to his feet and drew his longsword and Grond moved forward to attack.
“Oh, just stop,” Noah groaned as he put the blade to Tora’s throat.
In the Harajin, hostages were considered already dead and not meant to be saved. Grond himself had been raised knowing that if he was ever taken captive or used as a human shield, his comrades would simply stab through him to kill their enemy. Despite that, instinct made him pause.
“That’s right. Your other friend is dead, and if I kill this one, you will gain nothing by killing me. You will never be able to return to the Harajin.”
“What are you talking about?”
Noah held up the mystery potion. “She’s your only witness, the only person who can collaborate your story, who can say that this bottle was stolen from you and you all worked together to get it back. Right now, she’s more valuable to you than the bottle itself. Even if you kill me, returning to the Harajin alone will ruin you and your superiors will look for any excuse to blame you for all these deaths. All five members of the team die, but you somehow walk away? That sounds awfully suspicious to me. True, they probably would never be able to confirm your guilt, but you can never prove your innocence, and they will always distrust you. I bet Harajin who can’t be trusted die faster than usual.”
“Spare me your lies.”
“That’s exactly what they’ll say. It won’t matter if you bring back the potion, you’ll just have restored the status quo, with the exception of five suspicious deaths that can all be linked to you. And forget about the sword and any peace talks. If you even mention an alliance with Uther, you’ll be killed for suspected treason before you even finish your sentence. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Grond didn’t say anything, not that he needed to. Noah could see his control shaking, the change in his breathing. He wanted to come up with a counterargument, but everything Noah said was the truth. Forgiveness wasn’t something found in the Harajin, as failure was looked upon in the same light as betrayal.
“That’s the thing about dying for a cause like the Harajin: it’s not asked or expected, it’s required. If your enemies don’t kill you, your superiors will. The decision will inevitably be made that you are no longer worth the effort to support. Depending on how much blood or money is involved, you will be turned on. You will be disregarded, abandoned, framed, or even killed. It’s all a matter of when it’ll happen and how much stuff you’ll get blamed for. Your friends just happened to die before their time could come, and if you return without them, your time will be very soon.
Now, that’s assuming you’re able to kill me. Right now the score is 4 – 0, and it’s about to be 5. You die and the Harajin lose everything. You live and she dies and the Harajin still lose five members. You both live, you give me the information I want, and I give you everything I offered in the original deal. Those are your three options and this is the last chance I’m giving you. Throw away your weapon and explain the spell.”
Grond struggled to think up a plan. There had to be some way around this, some way to kill his opponent and make this mission a success. Should he prioritize saving Tora? Or sacrifice her to go for the kill? Grond could see it, Noah’s exhaustion and blood-soaked clothes. He was at his weakest, yet all of Grond’s instincts were telling him that this was a fight he could not win, and even if he did manage to kill Noah, it would be a hollow victory. He would die for the Harajin, same as all his compatriots, but his hands, like theirs, were stained with the blood of his brethren. If he returned to Ezeria, his life would be forfeited.
Grond sighed and tossed his sickle far out of reach. “Bakudan… it is not a spell, more of a state of being. Everything in the world has its own unique mana flow, most of which we don’t even have the proper senses for. Bakudan involves slowing the flow of mana in our bodies, even slower than in the air around us. Human eyes can’t see that which has no mana flow. When Bakudan is active, we can’t move or even breathe, and barely even think.
We have to train our reflexes and spiritual sense to detect everything around us and react as fast as humanly possible, be it arrows in the dark or blades on our skin, all so that we can remain somewhat aware of what goes on around us when we are still. It takes years to learn, spending days in meditation to whittle down the motion occurring in our bodies and slow our mana. Even dead bodies have more mana flowing through them can a Harajin in Bakudan, but because of that, many have died trying to learn it. That’s everything you need to know.”
“None that I know of.”
“If I find out you lied to me, I will come looking for the truth, and I won’t be nearly so friendly as I’ve been here.”
“It’s all true. I just want this to end.”
“Took you long enough. Here.” Noah tossed him the mystery potion. “The knight sword is over there.” He then revealed the fungal cure. “And as for this…” Noah pulled the cork out with his teeth and shocked Grond as he began drinking from it.
“What are you—” Noah’s wounds, Grond fell silent as he watched them recover. “You son of a bitch. It’s a healing potion. You didn’t steal the fungal cure, you just switched the contents of the two bottles. The knights had the real cure all along.”
“You poisoned two of them, correct? I thought it would be better if our business didn’t interfere in them getting mended, at least more than it had to. Besides, you should be grateful. I’m leaving enough for her.” Noah placed the half-empty bottle on the ground beside Tora and then turned to leave.
“Wait,” Grond said. “Who are you?”
Noah stopped but didn’t turn back. “An eternal stranger.”
He walked away. As soon as he was alone, he drank some of the yellow antidote to cure the last of the poison in his system, and some mana potion to regain a little bit of strength. He cast his invisibility and began the walk back to the Knight’s Sheath while pondering this new information. Bakudan, it was not the same technique as his, not even close. However, while that one issue was disappointing, the rest of the information interested him. The training idea and the physics of Bakudan; perhaps they could still be used to further develop his own magic. For the moment, he focused on just memorizing the explanation and then tucked it away, needing instead to focus on the city around him.
The fires were spreading and more and more, same with the violence. Anyone who could use water magic was recruited to help fight the flames, but they could only prolong the inevitable. Now that the freed prisoners and active revelers had taken up the attention of the authorities, the common criminals had a golden opportunity to go nuts. For them, this pandemonium was a godsend. They and the desperate homeless were pillaging people’s homes and businesses to loot, rape, and kill as they wished. In the distance, Noah could see huge explosions coming up from the dungeon. At the rate things were falling apart, the whole city would be destroyed by dawn and the country would cease to exist.