“Earl Sevald Hohenheim, I’m here to arrest you!” I pointed my knife straight at him.
“Hmph, for a single man to barge into the home of a powerful noble in such a manner, how foolish… or that is what I would say if it were someone normal. But you, Chancellor, are far from the normal person.”
A strong aura seeped from the man at the desk, causing the two merchants in the room to back away. Greggor and Ivanov knew about the Earl’s proficiency in magic, stemming from his past as a Magic Knight in his younger days.
‘Hohenheim the Gale’ was a name that many people had heard of, coming from the powerful Wind magic that he wielded. His abilities had allowed him to fight on equal terms with demons that appeared in the past. Though his raw attack power wasn’t as strong as heroes like Pythagoras, his magic gave him the control of an area through speedy movement and re-direction of attacks through swift gusts.
“Go, the two of you! I shall keep him busy!”
With a wave of his hand, a fierce gale burst forth, knocking me backward. In the middle of the storm, the two merchants were whisked out the window by a stream of air. Fortunately for them, the wind carried them gently to the ground where they could take off running.
Getting up quickly, I slashed at the wind but found it densely packed. Even though I could disperse the individual gusts, the old man kept the pressure on me, not letting the waves of magic air die down in the slightest. Rather than deal any damage to me, he was solely focused on keeping me from getting to him.
However, I raised my arm and shouted “Ludmila!”
Instantly, the girl that had been hiding in this room unveiled herself, punching the Earl in the back with a full power Mana Strike. She could feel the Earl’s back buckle under her fist, but then, he spun around and lashed out with the back of his hand. A greenish streak, coated with the property of Wind, struck her, sending her body sailing off to the wall.
“Hmph. I figured that there was another one in the room. I could feel a faint distortion in the air. Another breath, low and nearly ephemeral. A spy who could hear everything being spoken, I take it? No wonder you came barging in so quickly.”
Ludmila quickly got up from the backhand, rubbing the side of her cheek. She tried to use her speed to dash into the Earl, but the wind pushed back with too much force.
“Don’t take me for a fool who isn’t aware of the Queen’s little bodyguard. Your speed is nothing if your movements are restricted!”
I gnashed my teeth, wondering what could be done. At this rate, he had both of us trapped. The room and hallway were boxing us in, the pressure of the Wind magic keeping us from getting any closer. I wondered if I should retreat and chase after the merchants instead, but Ludmila was still trapped in the room.
‘I can’t abandon her and run away by myself! That’s not an option!’
I scanned the room, looking for some way to break through the standstill. The gale stung my eyes as I fought to keep them open as I searched. Everything in the office was now pressed up against the walls, the wind having sent all that was not bolted down to the edges of the room.
“If only I could reduce the pressure…” My voice couldn’t be heard within the roaring gale, which even smacked against my throat the moment I opened my mouth.
However, a thought flashed into my mind.
‘Pressure depends on the volume of the room.’
With a small area such as this office, it would be easy to pressurize the wind with his magic. However, the situation would be different if there was a larger space.
I looked to the side and slashed the wall, diving into the safety of the side room.
“Running elsewhere won’t help you!” I could hear the Earl cry out in the adjacent room.
However, I wasn’t running away. I glanced around each corner of this side room, noting that the outer walls were on the far side. Quickly, I slashed that wall before circling around to cut down the wall facing the office.
Immediately, wind burst forth, along with the furniture that had rested against it. Jumping to and fro, I avoided those items as they toppled by me and smashed into the far wall. Another loud crash occurred as that wall crumbled from the projectiles, opening the room to the outdoors.
In that moment, I felt a dip in the gust. That was what I had aimed for. The sudden opening of an area greatly increased the space. The change caused an instant drop in pressure, allowing for me to dash toward the Earl with my knife.
My mana was shaped into a thin rod, stretching out as far as I could push it. Like a long, fencing rapier, I thrust forward, hoping that I closed the distance before the Earl could readjust his magic. As I felt the resistance against my body start to build up again, the very tip of my mana saber barely poked into the stomach of my opponent.
It was an attack that was laughable for anyone, except for me. Earl Hohenheim suddenly started coughing as his magic flickered and flailed while coming out of his body. He was trying his best to maintain the flow within, but his gates had been forcibly clamped shut.
I had injected a pulse into his Divine Gate, the central nexus for all abilities that required mana. And now, his mana delivery was sputtering like an engine without gasoline. Gradually, the swift winds that had pushed us back died down. The Earl bent down, clutching his stomach and muttering his annoyance at the situation.
Ludmila and I walked up to him, glad that the largest obstacle had been taken down. Now, all that was left was to round up the two merchants and stop the whole manufacturing of weaponry.
“Hey, no more games. Where did the two of them go? To salvage what’s left of your operation, I guess?”
I pulled the man up by the collar of his vest, but he simply looked to the side at Ludmila in contemplation.
“Hey, answer me! I’m not going to tolerate anyone planning to hurt Queen Katalina. Not in the slightest!” I drew my knife threateningly towards him. I hated that it had come to this, but the urgency of using heavy-handed threats would likely get him to spill faster. Time was of the essence.
“Hurt the Queen? That’s the last thing that I intend to do…”
The Earl’s unexpected answer caused me to blink a few times.
“Don’t you lie to me! The two of us heard you talking with your merchants, about how you were dissatisfied with her rule and that it was the reason to build up your army! You’re planning to turn those guns on her to take over the kingdom with force!”
The Earl stared blankly at me, his eyes narrowing from my accusations.
“Take over the kingdom? I believe you misunderstood something… My plan was to ‘save’ this kingdom with the weaponry.”
An anger rose from within me.
“Save? Bullshit! How does getting rid of the Queen ‘save’ the kingdom? Do you really think that you should be the one in charge?”
“Not at all.”
‘Eh?’ My gripped loosened on his collar. Now, I was growing confused.
“What the hell? You’re not making any sense!” I spat out, the knife in my hand faltering with hesitancy.
“Neither are you….” The Earl glanced back at Ludmila and his face suddenly shifted. “You had merely listened in on the conversation that I had with Greggor and Ivanov, and nothing else?”
“Yeah, what does that have to do with anything?”
“Then, you are not aware of my full plan. We have no intention of usurping the throne. Gathering weaponry was being done to protect the kingdom from outside enemies.”
The Earl’s statements from before really conflicted with what I had heard..
“Then, what was all that talk about war and going against an entire country? And about ‘her’ noticing?”
The Earl contemplated for a moment, recalling what he had said before. After a few head nods, he gave his answer.
“The war that I’m referring to is with the Purnesian Empire. The nation led by the ‘Mad Empress’.”
Slowly, my grip on the man had loosened. ‘Did I make a big misunderstanding?’ I tried to settle my emotions so that I could listen carefully to what he had to say.
Earl Hohenheim proceeded to detail his plan, which was to amass the weaponry needed to defend the kingdom at its weakest from Purnesia. He had uncovered a rapid amount of military preparation which indicated that Purnesia was possibly planning for a large-scale assault on Sistina.
Due to the loss of many nobles recently, the management of the kingdom’s forces was lagging behind, creating a window of opportunity. The Earl had hoped to plug up that disadvantage by arming his people, the ones closest to the border, with the might needed to repel the attack.
“Why didn’t you request help from the Queen?” I wondered aloud.
“I did. It was rejected. While Queen Katalina did approve of sending more personnel to occupy Fort Valga, which guards the entryway between the two nations, that simply would not be enough. My request for her specialized weaponry or an Electi stationed there was denied.”
“Hmm, that’s likely because all the resources were being used to rebuild the kingdom, I suppose.”
“Correct. While it was skirting the bureaucracy, I had to force my hand and come up with another way to protect my people – by producing the weaponry that gave the Queen her abilities.”
“And there was no other way?”
“It would simply take too long. At this point, the attack could happen any day.”
I clenched my fist at this sudden turn of events. Sure, I had jumped the gun, but who could blame me? The conversation certainly sounded like the makings of a coup. I groaned as I weighed the options. If he was telling the truth, there was merit in ensuring that the kingdom would be safer from invasion.
“Can you show me where the stuff is being made? I get where you’re going with this, but unless you can prove to me that you have the right intentions, I can’t help you.”
“Under one condition.”
“What is that?”
“Can you reverse what you did to me? I cannot feel my legs, and at this age, that worries me.”
After restoring the Earl back to his normal self, he guided us to the workshop on the edge of town where the magic guns were being made.
“Here it is. I would be grateful if could convince the Queen to-“
“Master, the scent of blood!” Ludmila interrupted us as we approached the building.
Certainly, there was something off about the place. It was the middle of the day, but not a single sound of activity could be heard from within. An eerie quiet was all that enveloped the workshop.
Cautiously, we opened the front door, only to see several bodies, covered in blood, lying prone on the floor. Someone had come here before us and slaughtered them.
“Y-You didn’t have those two-“ My words trembled as they left my mouth.
“No! My order was for them to pack up and move to another undisclosed location!” the Earl immediately retorted.
Suddenly, Ludmila pulled on my sleeve and pointed further in. As my eyes focused on the dimly lit interior, the bodies of Greggor and Ivanov could be seen, also among the casualties.
“W-Who could have done this?” With the two of them also dead, the trail had suddenly turned cold.
Or so I thought, until Ludmila spoke again.
“This mana signature… the other merchant… was here.”
“Other merchant?” My blood froze. The only other merchant in our minds was… “Favian… shit, no way… but there’s no other lead…”
I quickly replayed in my mind the conversations we had on-route to this city. After dropping us off, I vaguely recalled that Favian was heading back toward Minsk which was very close to the border.
“Wait… it couldn’t be…”
Quickly, I looked around the workshop, trying to locate the goods that should have been here.
“Earl, where did you keep the magic stones?”
“Why, in the back room-“
I didn’t wait to hear the rest as I dashed there, leaping over the dead bodies. I flung the door open, only to find that there was nothing there. The Earl caught up to me shortly but gasped as he eyed the bare floor where barrels and crates should have been.
The magic stones that he had collected – the same rumor that Favian had told me – were now missing.
Not simply a flag being triggered, I could literally hear the sound of one snapping in half, metaphorically closing off the bright future I imagined this kingdom heading toward. A sudden sense of dread enveloped me as I thought of the worst possible outcome.
“Ludmila, how fast can you run back to the capital?”
“Go to the Queen. Get her to sign off on us using her weapons and come find me around Minsk right after. If it’s as bad as I expect, then you’ll probably sense me fighting wherever I end up.”
With a nod, the speedy girl disappeared from sight. I turned to Earl Hohenheim next.
“When your guards wake up, be prepared to take action. Sorry that I broke their guns, but do what you can.”
“You are going to Minsk? Do you have some idea what happened?”
“I am almost certain of it now. Favian is a spy for Purnesia.”