After nearly an hour of ambushing the assassins throughout the fort, a strange feeling kept gnawing at my mind. We were picking them off, several at a time, but there was no increase in how many showed up despite the ruckus of an alerted enemy around.
In fact, we were seeing smaller groups for the latter half of the hour, the largest one being when they first attacked any portal in sight. It was strange that they had not surrounded us by now, since we could no longer rely on sneak attacks at odd angles.
“Your face is ringing some alarm bells. You feel it too, don’t you?”
I turned toward Gadwin and nodded, as we sneaked down the hallway to locate the next mana signature.
“The groups are too spread out, and they aren’t even trying to gang up on us. Like they don’t plan to.”
Literally, every assassin that we ran into made no effort to run away, attacking us in a suicidal attempt until they no longer moved. Also, they had stopped carrying a portal or magic gun, relying only on crude weaponry and hand-to-hand combat.
“It feels like they are leading us around or stalling us for some reason. Any thoughts?” I whispered to Gadwin as we paused before a corner. Gadwin and I could hear some footsteps ahead of us.
“Seems that way to me too. Since we keep running into batches of them, I haven’t paid attention to where we are heading, but it’s almost as if they want to deter us from certain places.”
“That being?” I wasn’t familiar with the layout of Fort Valga, so I had no idea what was stored here. I studied Gadwin’s face as he contemplated.
“Like…,” Suddenly, his jaw fell, and his eyes widened in realization. “…shit! Was that their aim all along?!”
Gadwin spun around and dashed back, ignoring the enemies ahead of us. I moved to follow him as it was obvious that he recalled something important.
“Gadwin! What is ‘that’?! Explain it to me!”
“No time to stop. I’ll have to raise my voice, even if someone hears us, but they’re basically planning to bring down this whole fort, rather than simply occupying it as a base.”
“B-Bring it down!?
“This entire time, we’ve been led around everywhere but the munitions room, next to the open, central area of Fort Valga. That is where we keep the ready-to-use explosives and flammables.”
A shiver ran down my back. I suspected that it would be the case, but I asked anyway. “Enough to demolish the entire place?”
“You bet! It’s no wonder that they didn’t need to chase after us. They simply needed to stall until they could set off the charge, taking the place down with us!”
Now that I knew the plan, my steps had become a bit quicker. The fear of getting blown up pushed my feet harder against the ground. My guard tightened as the mana around my body thickened in anticipation of the walls around me caving in at a moment’s notice.
Along the way, a few groups of assassins gave chase, likely noticing that we had caught on to their plans. They fearlessly charged into us, hoping to buy even a second more. While completely throwing out all caution in regard to defense, I watched as several of them dove towards me.
I pivoted on the heel of my foot and did a spinning slice with my chef knife, lining up the weak points like three fruits on a virtual chopping board. A single step to the side was all the room I needed to evade their bodies crumpling to the ground where I was.
I shot a glance at Gadwin, who had been completely surrounded. He was crouched in a low stance, his armor covering him like a turtle in its shell. Three assassins were desperately pounding their knives into the grooves of his armor, hoping to deal some damage. Another two men were a bloody mess on the ground in front of him. Despite sacrificing those two to reach the warrior, Gadwin’s sturdiness was simply too high. Even if he were stabbed in the face, the knife would likely just bounce right off.
Still, Gadwin instinctively curled into a defensive pose, before flinging his arm to smash one assassin in the head with a backhand. With his spear in the other hand, he stabbed forward. The tip went right through the man’s chest, causing a splash of red to burst from the wound. The fatally injured body twitched several times before Gadwin pulled the spear back, flinging the body with it. The corpse’s weight pulled itself free from the spear tip, leaving it to join the other bodies that had suffered a similar fate.
Now slightly less burdened, Gadwin grabbed the next assassin, the one who had been struck by the backhand. A woman’s face was barely recognizable among the bloodied mess that completely dyed over those features. Gadwin hardly spared a look before slamming her to the ground and stomping on her spine with a sick crunch.
And with one final motion, he swept the spear in one quick arc at the last assassin, catching him in the throat. The man lurched forward, ignoring that his breathing had become drowned gurgles from the blood flooding into his mouth. He stabbed at the empty air before falling down in front of Gadwin.
The spear user ignored their labored twitching and marched forward, leaving the two assassins to die slowly where they fell.
Seeing this scene unfold before my eyes, my legs froze for a moment before I gritted my teeth and moved on with my eyes clenched shut.
‘Don’t think about it. Just focus on the task at hand.’
I only opened my eyes once I had moved well past the bloodied hallway. The ones that I had knocked out had been the fortunate ones. Gadwin didn’t bother to finish them off.
Before long, the scent of fresh air purged my nose and a natural light creeped in from around the corner. We were close to the center, where there was an open courtyard in the middle of the fort. Gadwin didn’t hesitate to charge forward, not even checking the high places for an ambush as he dashed out into the open.
Seeing that no one immediately bombarded him with attacks, I followed, taking note of the barrels that lined the hallways. Those were likely the explosives being used to send this place sky high.
Gadwin made a beeline straight for the large man in a cloak who was giving out orders. The others around him were busy carrying the barrel and crates, making it obvious who was in charge.
Before the minions could react, Gadwin thrust his spear at the leader. Its tip zoomed straight for the man’s head, but suddenly, his body flickered and moved out of the way. Gadwin stumbled forward, having missed his target entirely.
“Well, well. Already here, huh? That’s no good. We haven’t completed the handoff yet.” The cloaked man signaled to the others, who dropped what they were carrying and ran for one end of the fort.
I circled around to cut off their escape, but only a few fell to my attack as the others bolted through a door and closed it.
“Don’t think a door is going to stop me!” I yelled, raising my knife while charging.
Suddenly, a portal flew right into my path. Unable to react fast enough, my upper body barreled through the portal while my lower half was caught on the bottom lip. Now, I was essentially stuck with my butt hanging out one end and my head stuck somewhere unfamiliar. All I noticed was a shadow rapidly approaching.
I awkwardly looked up to see a dagger stabbing downward. With what little leverage I had, I pushed myself back through the portal, but it was too late as the sharp dagger plunged into my shoulder.
An intense pain gripped my right side, causing me to drop my chef knife before slipping backwards out of the portal. Managing to stay on my feet, I yanked the dagger out of my shoulder as I made some distance. I could feel blood spewing from the wound, which I immediately put pressure on with my left hand.
I looked back to see the portal had been connected to the leader, who was bearing a sinister smile. To damage me so easily through my mana shield and defensive gear, he had to have been fairly high-leveled.
“No, no. Your place is here with me. Can’t have you causing more trouble for Raganoff of the Dark Hand.” The man gave a slight bow as he introduced himself.
The end of a spear sliced at his head as he moved to the side to avoid it. Not even taking a moment to introduce himself had left him open to attacks.
Raganoff moved a portal next to him before shoving his arm into it.
Instinctively, I dove forward, just as I felt something slice me from behind. A stinging sensation followed, blood dripping down my lower back. Rather than targeting Gadwin, he had chosen to make a surprise attack on me via portal.
Gadwin chased after him with his spear, but Raganoff was simply too fast. At the same time, he could easily maneuver the portal like an extension of his body. His free-moving dagger hand whizzed through the air in an unpredictable pattern.
My eyes tried to follow the movements of the remote-controlled limb flying in a three-dimensional space. But even that was a challenge as it would momentarily disappear from sight, only to show up in an awkward angle. I paid the price in the form of several cuts being added to my body.
The damage I took was slowing me down. The sting of being sliced wasn’t something that I had learned to endure, so it was getting difficult to focus.
I tapped my Divine Gate and felt a surge of energy. My vision became instantly clearer, just in time to see a dagger rush straight toward my face.
With one swift motion, I sliced upward and caught the flying arm in the wrist before it could reach its intended target. The dagger fell out of its grip and made a clang as it hit the ground.
Raganoff pulled his arm back out of the portal before cancelling it. He gave the floppy limb a shake, noticing that he could no longer make a fist. Part of his arm had gone limp, as I only had time to strike the local mana gate that gave him control of it.
“Bah, that’s what I get for messing around… But it looks like we’re in the clear.”
Raganoff turned his head toward the gate leading to the Purnesian side. In the air, a colored signal flare soared upwards. Unknown to us, the Dark Hand had completed assembling the magic weaponry and moved the shipment far enough away from the blast zone.
“Well, that’s it. Fun’s over.”
Raganoff shot two portals, sending one flying past the gate where his companions were waiting. With a wave, he swiftly dove into the portal and escaped from the fort.
“Shit, we have to get out of here now!” Gadwin barked.
I reached into my Item Box and retrieved the portal gun that I had swiped off a dead body. Shooting a set of portals, I similarly sent one of them over to the Sistina side, hoping that I could move it far enough away.
Though it usually relied on line-of-sight, one could push it temporarily into a blind spot as long as the mana connection wasn’t disrupted. It was just much harder to keep them open and stable. Feeling the limit of how far it could be moved, I called out to Gadwin.
“Get in… while I still have a good hold on it!”
However, Gadwin simply shook his head.
“Not going to happen. The hole is just too small for all the armor I have on.”
“Then, take it off quickly!”
Suddenly, Gadwin dropped his spear and hoisted me up. Lining me horizontally with the portal despite my flailing, the entryway was just big enough to toss me through like a javelin.
“W-Wait, let me just cut the armor off you! One slice-“
But Gadwin didn’t wait. I felt my body soaring through the air, and the next thing I knew, the surroundings of the fort’s interior had abruptly changed to a grassy meadow and trees.
My back landed roughly on a patch of grass, jarring the wounds that I had already incurred. However, there was no time to worry about that as I picked myself up to head back.
From the portal hanging in front of me, the image of Gadwin’s resolve to remain struck me hard.
He gave me a salute as a fiery din suddenly enveloped his entire body. A plume of fire gushed from the portal before the opening was snuffed out.
A tremendous boom shook the earth in the distance as large pieces of wall were blown high into the sky. The sections of Fort Valga rained down like a volcano, littering the ground around the area with slabs of hard rock and foundation.
As the initial burst of flames settled down, an obvious hole appeared in the distance, a large gap in the wall, no longer separating Sistina and Purnesia. And beyond that wall, the movement of many, like a hoard of insects, scurried in the distance.
Gadwin and I had failed to stop it.
That was the front line of the Purnesian army, more men than I could bother to count. And very soon, they would come marching through the ruins of Fort Valga and right into Sistina.