My eyes darted back and forth between the mess of round balls on the ground. The scent of gunpowder was now recognizable. Out of reflex, I stepped back two paces.
“Don’t worry, these aren’t going to explode unless you activate the Fire Stone inside. Then you have about two seconds to leave the room.” Gadwin looked at me with a fearless grin.
“Two seconds is hardly enough time to put a wall in between us and a bomb!” I said, a bit louder than I meant to. Quickly, I clamped a hand over my mouth, forgetting that we were in hiding.
“Even in these circumstances?”
I shot him an inquisitive glance. What could he possibly mean by that?
“While I was sneaking around, I got a good look at what those invaders were using. Rather fortunate that I had been on break and noticed the faint mana signatures. Old age tells you when stuff is off, you know?”
Surely, Gadwin must have meant experience, since he was only in his forties, but I let him continue explaining. He was one of the few guards at the time that was awake during the night shift. With his years of training, he detected something strange creeping around the fort, so he immediately stepped into a secluded place and surveyed the surroundings.
Sure enough, he watched several portals fly around, before they silently converged upon the guards to stab them. Instantly, Gadwin knew that this was an attempt to capture the fort by assassins.
Though he ran around trying to inform the others, he soon discovered that the fort had already been compromised. Unable to help anyone, he prioritized collecting information over all else.
The sight of portals, like the ones the Queen used, was shocking at first. But the outfits that the attackers wore were unmistakably Purnesian in design – overcoat-like robes with thick lining to ward from the cold.
Even though it was late summer in Sistina, the regions to the north still faced a certain coolness that prevented all but the hardiest of vegetation from growing. As such, Purnesian clothing always looked sweltering to Gadwin.
Not worrying about how they obtained such trinkets, his mind was swept up with thoughts of how to defeat them instead.
Since they attacked from the narrow opening of a portal, he could maneuver into a blind spot and rush in with his spear. However, he had no way of knowing who was watching and what was on the other side. If his spear was caught in a trap, then he would be done for.
“So, hurling a bomb into a passing portal is your alternative?” I sighed, wondering if it would be that easy.
“At the very least, the explosion would reveal where the attacker is hidden.” The grip on his spear tightened.
Granted, it wasn’t like blindly stabbing his spear would guarantee a direct hit. Often, Katalina would position portals at a distance and call for them only when she was about to dive in. Who knew how these were being used?
In the heat of the moment, while the attacker defended from the bomb blast, Gadwin could then charge in with a follow-up attack. Frankly, the plan was growing on me.
“Still, how are you planning to carry all of these bombs and launch your assault? Can’t imagine you getting very far alone.”
“You know… I didn’t think about that….” Gadwin snorted, forgetting about this little detail in execution.
I sighed, knowing full well what I had to do. Since I was stuck in the same boat as him, we would have a better chance at succeeding by working together. I walked over and started shoving the makeshift bombs into my Item Box.
Giving me a nod of acknowledgement, he quickly showed me how to light one of them.
“Just focus your mana into the center, and you’ll hear a fizz from the Fire Stone inside igniting. That’s your cue to throw it in. I would advise you to not hesitate at that point if you want to keep that hand of yours.”
He handed me a loose Fire Stone and had me mimic its activation. It glowed hot in my hands with more mana. After a few tries, I could gauge how much to use.
With that, Gadwin gripped his spear, while I held a bomb in each of my hands. Since the portal user had to be somewhere in direct line of sight to control it, he would be paying close attention to where the bomb I shoved into any portal would end up.
After leaving the darkness of the armory, it didn’t take long for Gadwin to feel one of the hovering signatures approaching. We parked ourselves against the wall on either side of a doorway and waited for the portal to hover by.
Catching sight of it pass right by the doorway without turning toward us, I leapt out and plopped the bomb right into the opening, making sure to trigger the Fire Stone before releasing. A clunk sounded to my left before an explosion shook the hallway.
With little time to even flinch at the result, Gadwin was already charging in the direction of the noise, his spear shoved out in front of him. A moment later, I heard a pained grunt and a momentary struggle before it became quiet once again.
I turned toward the direction of the explosion, only to see a scene that turned my stomach slightly. Crimson red splattered on the ground, some of it dripping down the weapon shaft impaled into the body.
Gadwin had sent his spear cleanly through a woman’s torso, who now dangled lifelessly on the other end. The pale expression of death hadn’t set in yet from the fresh kill, but the hollow eyes that drooped down at the ground gave me an instant sense of pity.
With a hefty kick, Gadwin shoved the woman off his spear, leaving her body to messily dye the ground and wall red. Stifling a bitter wave of disgust inside, I looked away from the gruesome scene.
“What are you standing around for? They are going to converge on this place soon! Get running!”
Like molasses, it took my legs a moment to push through the heaviness. My mind knew that I needed to make distance from here, but my body wasn’t responding correctly. Finally, Gadwin shoved me along, breaking me free from the sensation. Together, the two of us bolted to find another hiding spot.
In my mind, I knew that these people were going to kill us. They had already slain the other guards besides Gadwin. It made perfect sense that he would not hesitate to kill back. He had every right to.
But for me, there was still a disconnect since I hadn’t felt the same loss. The reality of this situation was still behind a set of curtains. An understanding of what needed to be done was present, but it felt like a mere outline of truth glossed over. Pulling back the curtains added detail to the vagueness – details that I really didn’t want to acknowledge.
My hands felt cold and clammy, and my fingertips shivered until I clasped my hand over them. And as we approached another portal searching the area, I almost hesitated to throw the next bomb in.
Still, a jab by the butt of the spear handle was enough to get my limbs moving. I heaved the bomb into the portal in front of me before I could regret it. Another explosion sounded, and with that, a body dropped to the ground in surprise. This time, it was a man who had tripped to dodge the bomb being thrown right at his face.
Since he was aware of the bomb enough to dodge it, the explosion itself caused him only minor burns. However, it had also kicked up a cloud of smoke, to which he couldn’t see a downward thrust of the spear.
Once again, the splatter of red gushed onto the stone hallway. The gurgle of the last dregs of life erupted from his mouth before his head turned to the side.
My eyes lingered for a bit longer on his fresh corpse than the woman before. Biased as it may have been, I was able to stomach his death enough to notice who we were fighting – a sunken face that appeared malnourished, thin appendages that suggested little strength, and poor equipment that was no better than winter clothing for peasants.
Since he was already dead, I couldn’t even bring up a command window to find out his name. From the way Gadwin slayed him easily, his stats and level had likely been low, but that was something that I would never know.
In fact, I wasn’t sure I wanted to, as it would only reinforce the idea that we were bullying them. Slaying weak people in one stroke.
“Hey Gadwin, couldn’t we like, just knock them out or something? Is there really a need to-“
My words were cut off as Gadwin’s presence loomed over me with a silent rage. One look at his mocking eyes told me that I had said too much.
“I-I’m not trying to be insensitive. It just doesn’t feel right to go overboard.…” I tried to quickly defend my prior statement.
Gadwin scanned my face, his eyes flicking back and forth across my nerves and trembling body. Finally, he sighed and backed off.
“Must be nice not experiencing the true perils of war. With all due respect, Chancellor, you’re too naïve.”
“I… can’t refute that.”
By now, most of the top people in the kingdom knew about my tendency to simply ‘knock people out’ rather than inflict critical injuries. However, few knew the reason behind it – that I simply didn’t want to relive the mistakes made in my past life.
“I’m a softie that doesn’t want to kill when there are other ways. I mean, we’re so much stronger than they are, right?”
My shirt bunched up as a rough hand pulled my entire body forward. Gadwin looked straight into my eyes.
“Knock them out, and then what? Leave them for the others to revive? It’s just us here, against all of them. Tens, who knows, maybe even a hundred. Imagine that many attacks surrounding you with no way of knowing when one will hit you in a blind spot.”
After a momentary silence, Gadwin let go and pushed me back. “We don’t have the luxury of letting them live. That is the reality. Nothing more.”
As much as it went against my principle, I couldn’t encumber him anymore with my ideals. This wasn’t the time and place for it.
I ground my back teeth as my fist clenched, knowing that it would be best to set those feelings aside. I was thrust into a perilous situation, so I had to change gears.
My eyes glanced over to the portal gun that the man wielded before. Picking it up, I checked whether I could use it. Fortunately, a set of portals formed in front of me.
“Good, no lock on the device.”
“You any good with that?” Gadwin questioned, rubbing his chin.
“Had a little bit of practice. In theory, I should be able to do anything they can.”
Before long, the sounds of footsteps could be heard in the distance. Once again, we had to move back into hiding, ducking into the doorway of a side room.
This time, a group of four assassins moved together, guns at the ready. It looked like they were still using portals to search all the rooms.
Suddenly, I had an idea. I motioned to Gadwin to get his spear ready, parking one portal in front of him. Another portal was formed and drifted off toward the group, blending in with the others flying about. Since there was no way to distinguish the mana signature coming from the same slew of guns, they would likely believe that it was one of their own.
The portal that I sent floated past the group, hovering right behind their backs. Closing my eyes, I knew what would come next.
A sequence of screams sounded out as a spearhead exited from the portal, jabbing into each assassin in an instant. The swiftness of Gadwin’s thrusts were too fast for them to react.
I opened my eyes to see that all four had been knocked down, but still alive. Gadwin had apparently coated his spear with mana to prevent it from piercing through their bodies, opting to hit them hard with a strong knockback. Still, the result had been broken backs that caused the assassins to painfully crawl upon the ground, tears flooding their eyes.
Gadwin walked over to them, ending their suffering with a stab to the heart. By this time, I could feel a murkiness bubbling within me, which then triggered the charm that hung around my neck. It was fortunate that there was something controlling the darkness that flared up occasionally.
Hopefully, I could continue to hold out. The fear of going berserk like I had at the Divine Isles lingered heavily on my mind.