The scent of blood clung to the back of my nostrils. Perhaps, I was imagining it since I had the luxury of staying several steps away, leaving Gadwin to do the killing. Regardless, something was nauseating. A feeling choked the back of my throat and made me want to gag.
‘How many was this now?’
I lost count at some point, but likely, it had been around twenty. Despite that, the fort was still swarming with activity. By now, the whole group of Purnesians had acknowledged that we were in possession of a portal gun.
At some point, using portals to sneak up on the assassins stopped working. They had all but stopped using them. Instead, we were taken by surprise when a hand poked out of my portal next to us, firing a bolt of Ice magic. They had switched strategies and started using their magic guns instead.
Hearing the frozen spear of ice shatter against the wall, a clamor of footsteps sounded in the distance. We had given away our position just now; staying hidden and silently moving about had been our biggest advantage.
Gadwin and I swore under our breath as we eyed no less than ten assassins file down the hallway towards us. Magic sailed down the narrow passageway toward us, with no room to dodge.
The two of us backed into a larger room that would at least give us some maneuvering space. Gadwin moved to the left side while I remained on the right. Before long, several people spilled through the open doorway, their shots spreading in a wider arc.
With my knife, I carved away an ice spear coming straight for me, while dodging the others. Likewise, Galdwin was using his spear to knock away any shots approaching him. Electricity zapped the end of his spear, which leapt straight for the metal tip, but fortunately, the handle was made of an insulating material that negated its effect.
Different to what I had faced outside, the numbers here were manageable, especially split between two targets. Finding a gap in their firing, I dashed forward and sliced the nearest person, watching him fall to his knees unconscious.
A splash of blood flew into the air to my left, hitting the ground just inside my field of vision. Gadwin’s spear had drawn a wide slash diagonally across his enemy’s torso, dyeing the man’s shirt red. Without pausing to check whether his foe was slain, he followed up with a leftward, horizontal swing that dug into the man’s side and tore a giant chunk of flesh from it.
A bolt of magic smacked me right in the face, taunting me for daring to look away from the fight. The heat of a raging fire stung my skin, which was fortunately all it did due to my high Magic Defense.
I swung my knife in an uppercut in response, cancelling the mana that supplied the flamethrower. With a follow-up sweeping kick to the person’s hand, the magic gun flew out of his grip and clattered on the ground. My raised knife fell from its suspended position, smacking the weak point on his shoulder with a downward stroke.
In that time, two more groans of pain could be heard around me. I couldn’t bear to look that way. My knife continued moving forward through the magic, finding its way into the man before me. With a flick of my wrist, I sent a jolt of mana to paralyze him. Simultaneously, I swung my foot out and tripped another, before bending down to jab a finger into his neck.
Finally, only one assassin remained. From the clothing’s outline, this one was female. Her eyes stared at me with hatred, unwilling to back down despite seeing her companions knocked out. A careful look at her body left another sense of bitterness in me.
Short, dirty hair that looked like it had not been cleaned for ages. Bones protruding from her skin, indicating how little muscle was on them. And what appeared to be a limp on her left leg, making her fighting stance unsteady.
“Please. Stand down.” I couldn’t help but say. My mind had already turned the visual information into a possible sob story. Likely, someone like her – like many of those here – didn’t have much of a choice but to fight.
However, her response was to simply grip her magic gun and steady her aim at my head. It was obvious that she refused to concede. Something kept her moving forward, ignoring any reason. Her eyes never left mine, even as her body started trembling.
“Please, I don’t want to fight.” I tried again, feeling that it was likely fruitless.
Her finger slowly drew towards the button to fire. But then, the flat of a spear tip slammed into her chest, flinging her body into the wall behind her. A nasty crunch sounded as the wall cracked, likely shattering the bones in her spine.
Redness spewed from the girl’s mouth as the gun fell from her hands. With a few weak coughs drowned out by a throat filled with blood, she slid down to the ground and plopped onto her side.
“Dammit! Why did you interrupt?!” Tears formed in my eyes. Now, I would never know what pushed her so hard.
“Because she was going to shoot, of course.” Gadwin’s cold tone didn’t help in the slightest.
“But, but it wouldn’t have done a thing! One low-level person against us! Not a thing! We could’ve taken her out at any point. We could have-“
“Given her a chance? To what? Stab us in the back? They are invaders, Chancellor. They held no hesitation in murdering all of my fellow soldiers. It’s laughable for me to give them a chance in return! It will hurt you far more if you try to humanize them.”
“I… um, sorry.” I hung my head, knowing that he was right. If anyone I knew had been killed in such a way, there was no telling what I would do. I had even flown into a temporary rage when Favian was killed, despite him betraying me.
“That is the nature of war. An enemy that doesn’t back down doesn’t listen to words. They cannot be convinced.”
Gadwin tapped me on the shoulder. I knew he was trying to keep me from doing something stupid, however blunt his approach may have been.
“I know… sorry for being a peace-loving idiot.”
“You are what you are. Just keep in mind the time and place. We all know that you’re a bit fresh for the role you hold, but you’ll learn. You’ve got us old fogies to support you.”
As I turned toward the doorway, I heard the dull sound of several more stabs into flesh. I didn’t have to turn to know what had happened, the voice behind me making it clear.
“Leave the killing to me. If that’s what will get you through the problem at hand.”
Raganoff clicked his teeth at the current situation. After he had let the Chancellor of Sistina escape into the fort, it became very difficult for his team to track the man down. The usefulness of the stolen portal and magic weaponry was severely limited in close quarters.
Lamenting that he wasn’t finished off out in the open where it would have been easiest, Raganoff had his men scour the place to hunt him down.
However, there were now reports that over a third of the Dark Hand had been slain. Personally inspecting the bodies of the fallen, Raganoff noticed that the fatal blows did not appear to be due to a weapon wielded by the Chancellor.
“Gouging thrusts… most likely from a spear.”
That was the weapon of choice for many of the soldiers stationed at Fort Valga… meaning that they had overlooked someone when claiming the stronghold. And that someone was a rather powerful fighter.
Leaving even one or two of the soldiers to aid the Chancellor greatly diminished the likelihood of them holding the fort before backup arrived.
While Raganoff himself was a level 73 fighter that excelled at short blades and projectile weaponry, the average level of the Dark Hand was only around 25. That was because the group under him was treated as disposable – men and women with nowhere else to go.
Starving from lack of nourishment, hunted for small crimes, and abused by family or neighbors – they were a collective bunch of people with a rage to fight against their sad fate. Simply by offering them food and shelter, along with a place to fit in, they were willing to do anything it took to stay there.
That was recognized by the Mad Empress herself, who had created this group to start with. Though it started with only Raganoff and a few like-minded individuals, the Dark Hand had helped the woman overturn the previous ruler, placing her at the helm instead.
Like her, he felt no strong remorse stringing along these unfortunate people as his ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. They each got what they wanted – a family for the unfortunate and loyal fighters bound by obligation to Raganoff while serving the top.
The arrangements had perfectly satisfied the Mad Empress, who simply smiled at the thought of minions able to do various dirty work. That gave many people the chills, as her scarred face and missing teeth made her appear somewhat ghastly while doing so.
Nonetheless, those who knew how such injuries had been inflicted on her once beautiful face were used to it. At least, she was ‘happy’. Heaven forbid what would happen if she behaved like what others referred to her as.
Yet, that woman didn’t seem to mind at all about such a negative nickname, given shortly after she had snatched the throne.
“That sounds perfect for me. Let them call me that.”
Rather than rejecting the cries of the first person to call her the ‘Mad Empress’, she simply walked over to him and sliced off his legs, slightly below the knee.
“Curse you, Mad Empress!” the man, a military officer who opposed her ascension, howled in pain.
“Good! Good! Yell that out! Let everyone hear the title bestowed upon me, as the new ruler of Purnesia!”
She laughed maniacally as she ordered someone to heal the remaining stumps of his legs so that he could save his energy to curse her. Then, she had him chained to a pedestal in front of the castle courtyard, where he continued to loudly scream ‘Curse you, Mad Empress’ to the public.
This continued for days and nights without end, as he was forced to continue bellowing that statement. For if he were to stop, the sight of his caged family in front of him, waiting to be executed, spurred him on.
Even still, the body hit its limit eventually, and after the third night, even with the screams of his family urging his weary head up, he passed out.
He was awoken by the pain of something hard smashing him in the back. The morning sun hit his eyes as he flung his head up, bringing his teary face back to reality. When his head flopped back down, the severed head of his wife stared lifelessly back at him.
Once again, this renewed the urge to curse the Mad Empress, and for another two days, this went on. He woke up next to the head of his eldest son, and so on. The cycle continued, each time passing out sooner as his willpower diminished more and more.
Before the week ended, a line of rotting heads and an empty cage were all that was left in front of him. The man’s cries had dulled to whispers as he had nothing more to lose. When his lips finally stopped moving, the Mad Empress approached him.
“Is that it? Your rage hardly compares to mine.” She bent closer to his ear and whispered. “For I would willingly slay every single person I know to curse my fate.”
With that, she picked up a sword and slit his throat.
She turned to the people of Purnesia, who had lined up before their new empress.
“Let it be known, even those who oppose us will yell out the name of your leader, the Mad Empress! For too long, we have settled for this forsaken land. Kicked out by those who were jealous of us, of our abilities! But fear not! Yell out my name for all to hear, for our enemies will know that we are coming! And that we WILL NOT back down!”
Raganoff had been there to see it – the fires of people stirred up and used to launch an assault on the Kingdom of Sistina who had left them to rot long ago.
They didn’t care if they were used. At least, they believed that they were serving a greater purpose. The deep bitterness that they held inside burst forth and resulted in overwhelming support to invade Sistina and take revenge.
They were tired of living in the cold, desolate wasteland where hardly anything grew. The limited resources kept their population at a minimum, and even now, starvation was a constant threat.
Only with the opportunity that the Mad Empress gave would they have a chance at succeeding. And it sure wasn’t going to be stopped by the few people that remained in Fort Valga to oppose them.
Raganoff eyed the crates of materials being collected in the central area of the fort, while he sent his minions to keep the pests busy. He had to get his task done before the army approached, when he could start handing off the new weaponry.
Wooden barrels full of gunpowder and crates of Fire Stones – were all placed strategically around the inner walls of the fort.
There was no need for such an obstruction holding them back. Their armies were already gathered and marching south. And the Dark Hand was tasked to open a pathway into Sistina.
It did not matter how many of his men were lost as long as the boom of war rang out. Their morale would be lifted upon seeing the crumbling of the icon that relentlessly mocked them from re-entering the fertile lands they once tread.
They were here to claim what was on the other side. And it would start with a single spark thrown right in front of him. Raganoff gave a toothy grin to no one in particular, anticipating for the right moment to light the match.