I pushed myself off the ground and stood up, shaking and unsteady. The pain from my wounds felt dull as fear of the army before me took precedence. The flames that licked around the ruins of Fort Valga made the scene even more unsettling. The only choice I had was to escape on my levi-board and find some way to contact the kingdom of the impending invasion.
However, how much time would pass before I could send word? How far would the Purnesians invade before our armies would be geared and deployed to defend?
I gritted my teeth as there was simply nothing that I could do to slow down the large army in the distance. I was only a single man, also somewhat injured. Even if I could cut down tens of them, that was but a drop in an entire lake.
However, my ears suddenly picked up a low humming noise coming from behind me. It sounded like a chant.
The air suddenly dropped in temperature; a blast of cool air brushed against my face. My head traced its trajectory towards the direction of Fort Valga, only to discover that icicles started protruding from every surface. They extended and smothered the flames that danced around them. In mere moments, the area shone like shiny crystals due to the sun reflecting off the icy surface. These shimmers grew in size and eventually merged together, until a towering wall formed to block out any sight of the army beyond.
“Hmm, that’s all I can manage in this area?” The whimsical voice of Cornelius confirmed my first thought of who had been responsible.
I turned around to see both her and Ludmila, the former looking a bit unsteady, riding up to me on a levi-board. The young maid had a portal gun in her hand, likely the one I asked her to borrow from Katalina.
“I see you brought help, but just you two?”
“Master told Ludmila only to bring guns. Corny sister came along on her own.”
‘Ah, right. I forgot that was exactly what I had told her.’ I smacked myself for giving such half-hearted directions. For the moment, I grabbed the guns Ludmila held out and threw them in my Item Box.
“I deduced that there was likely some strange plot involving Purnesia, so I requested to tag along. Looking at the situation, it seems like I was correct. It’s a good thing that I have already given the signal for my men to march, just in case.” Cornelius gave me a look of confidence that she had everything covered.
I peeked around them, looking off into the distance. There was no sign of a single platoon marching toward our location. The only movement came from the occasional breeze against the natural foliage.
Cornelius sighed at my expectations.
“Did you really think that an entire squadron can make its way here in so little time? The Reichenstein army is farther away from the capital, where I happened to run into Miss Ludmila. I merely sent in the call to assemble and march. It will be hours before they arrive.”
I smacked myself for jumping the gun. Ludmila and Cornelius had been riding on a levi-board, likely using portals to shorten the travel distance. Of course, they arrived much sooner than everyone else.
“Let’s put those details aside for now. Tell me the situation.” Cornelius’s face took on a glare of seriousness for the matter at hand. She handed me a recovery potion for my injuries, which I chugged immediately.
I relayed the details of Favian’s plan that provided Purnesia with the special guns Katalina wielded, the assault on Fort Valga, and how Gadwin was left behind in the explosion not long ago. Cornelius eyed the ice wall that she created.
“It may not be too late. Sir Gadwin is a tough one. Possible that he survived despite that.”
Without waiting for me, he motioned for Ludmila to go search. The young girl blipped out of sight as Cornelius started running toward the ruins.
“Wait, seriously?!” I dashed forward to catch up.
As we marched up to the frozen ruins, we saw Ludmila standing around where I had last seen Gadwin. Coated in a sheet of ice, a bundle of charred heavy armor was curled up into a ball.
“Still alive. Ludmila feels pulse of mana.”
Amazed by how he could retreat into his armor like a turtle in its shell, I gave up trying to convince myself of that. My hand slammed into the ice, breaking the man free from it. I was simply grateful that we could still save him.
Cornelius peeled the bulky man apart, spreading out his body to see his condition. “Extensive injuries though. He will require quite a bit of treatment, obviously away from here.”
Since Gadwin was such a large man, it took both of our levi-boards to lift him off the ground without fear of him falling off. Ludmila swiftly glided the magical stretcher forward through portals as we headed back south.
Once we had gone a comfortable distance away, I asked Cornelius, “So, how long is that wall going to hold?”
“Heh, not long enough. Another hour or so, tops. And with how weak the mana is around here, my magic reserves will be quickly spent if I try to repair it. That spell alone drained more than half of my mana.”
Hearing that, we didn’t have much choice but to wait for help to arrive. For the time being, we traveled to the town of Minsk to re-evaluate the situation. Since we were carrying a heavily-injured person, our actions were limited.
South from Fort Valga was a straight field with thick forests on either side until the town of Minsk. Travel was difficult for an army through the dense foliage, so it was obvious that they would move straight for the town first.
After Minsk, the traversable land fanned out where it led to the Hohenheim territory in the west, the Grendhoven territory in the east, and the Faulkner lands directly south. There was no particular reason that they would move to Hohemheim, aside from the advantage of a larger front. While Grendhoven had a rich deposit of mana veins, the same could be said for the Faulkner territory that bordered it. Plus, it was doubtful that Purnesia needed more magic stones, having smuggled quite a few for their weaponry.
Based on Cornelius’s intel, Purnesia had developed technology that avoided relying upon mana, given the relative scarcity of it in the Northern Lands. As a result, many of its soldiers were trained in the use of basic, unenhanced bladed equipment, combined with projectile-launching weaponry with a physical mechanism of propulsion.
“Physical mechanism? What do you mean by that?” That portion of the explanation sounded strangely familiar, so I asked to confirm.
“The Northern Lands possess materials to create a smoky powder that, when struck, creates an explosion like that of magic. However, no mana is required for ignition, making it a purely-physical effect.”
‘Smoky powder is most likely the gunpowder I saw in the fort. And when used to direct an explosion…”
“Firearms.” Ludmila finished my thought for me. Her face looked down with a hint of fear, a rare occasion in which she exhibited emotion.
My eyes widened at her reaction as I bent down to check on her. “You okay? Do you know something about it? Did you see them when you were in Purnesia?”
Ludmila had originally been summoned there, but her Master was killed for trying to keep her away from being used as a tool for the Empire. We ended up running into her on the way to Akigawa, but she had traversed quite a distance to get there. Not to mention, where we found her was much further east than where Fort Valga was.
“Ludmila remembers the sight of guns. Ludmila ran fast to avoid being shot. Before long, ran into swamp and large wall. Swamp smelled of gas, so Ludmila was careful not to create fire and held breath while running.”
“Wait, how did you get over the wall?”
“Ludmila made rope with vines and climbed over where there were no guards.”
I scratched my cheek thinking that it would have been funny to see her nimbly swing over a massive wall undetected. It seemed like she had the makings of a ninja even before her incredible training.
“But… that is not only memory…” Ludmila’s expression grew darker. “Ludmila recalls… the loud bang that disturbed peace. Ludmila recalls… family falling upon the snow, dyeing the ground red. Family tells Ludmila to run. Ludmila thought to get help, but before long, the sound of bangs stopped. And then, pain… suffering…”
By now, a visible tremble racked Ludmila’s body, which shocked me especially.
This was a girl that barely reacted in the face of danger. She had leapt into the mouth of a dragon with no regard for her own safety, taken out the castle guards to help me escape, and slammed into an army of nearly-impenetrable fighters, critically injuring herself in the process.
“Ludmila… Ludmila doesn’t want to remember…”
Tears leaked from her wide eyes. Perhaps, she had not even realized that she was crying. The thoughts of her past plagued her more than anyone could have guessed. Certainly, she had never mentioned anything about them before.
I drew her forward in an embrace, her head resting against my chest. My hand went up to her blond hair, stroking it to comfort her. I eyed Cornelius, who took her condition into account of the plans.
With a cough into her closed fist, she formulated the best course of action.
“First of all, let’s have Ludmila transport Sir Gadwin to Hohenheim, which is closest, for immediate medical attention. She can request for the other regions to send their armies via Magic Pigeon.”
I looked down at the girl still against my chest. “Ludmila, can you do that?” I pulled out the portal gun and handed it back to her.
She gently pushed away from me and wiped her face, returning to her stoic expression as she accepted the device. “Yes, Master.”
Cornelius walked over to me and plucked the emblem that hung from my breast pocket. She turned to Ludmila and pinned it on her.
“There, with this emblem, your orders will be coming straight from the Chancellor himself. Make haste.”
With a nod, Ludmila created some portals and pushed Gadwin into the nearby one. With a poof, the portal disappeared, leaving Cornelius and I alone.
“Now, what bad news am I going to hear next? Since you deliberately sent her off before saying the rest.”
“That obvious, huh?” Cornelius stroked back her rich blue hair with a sigh.
“You would think that I knew you a bit better after our ‘date’,” I teased.
“Don’t get cocky just because you fooled me one time,” Cornelius snapped back. “But putting that aside, it looks like we have no choice but to shore up our defenses here and hold them back for as long as possible. Can’t have them charge straight for the capital unchecked, even if there is a barrier protecting it. The mana veins haven’t been restored, so the current state of it can’t hold up to such a large force.”
“And how the heck are we supposed to do that ourselves?”
I scanned the town, skeptical that it would hold. Aside from a few small barricades and the houses present, there wasn’t much to hinder a charging army. Sure, Cornelius could take advantage of the existing structures to add ice walls in between, but that wouldn’t last for long. And there was a limit to mana regeneration, even with my special cinnamon buns helping out; the amount in the ambient surroundings could only supply so much.
“Luckily, the mana is better here, so a few rounds of spells shouldn’t be an issue. Making a sturdy wall could buy us some time, but they too would be consuming the surrounding mana with their magic guns-“
“And there’s the added trouble of their portal guns.” I interrupted. Even if her ice walls could stop the main army, it didn’t stop the unknown number of people that could warp right over it and fight us directly.
“What, can’t defend a single girl from harm? I worry about your future.” Cornelius dramatically shook her head in disapproval before narrowing her eyes. “But honestly, what other choice do we have?”
There was little in Minsk to turn the tide against a large army that would be arriving in an hour. I scanned around the area again, scraping for some idea that would improve our chances. The only thing that stood out was a covered wagon, likely left behind in the evacuation.
“Ah, it’s one of the new ones that run on mana.”
People out here in the boonies didn’t usually train their mana reserves, so devices that sucked up mana weren’t as useful to commoners, especially those that required the amount needed to transport a heavy object. The villagers likely found it easier to take their horses instead.
Eyeing the back of the wagon, there were filled sacks strewn about. Wondering what they could have left behind so carelessly, I pulled out a purple, bulb-like vegetable.
“Haaa, of course they wouldn’t need to bring eggplants with them. They are probably sick of-“
A sudden flash of inspiration jolted my thoughts. Or rather, it may have come from my stomach instead. But my eyes lit up as I realized that there was something that I could do.
“Hey Corny, you up for dinner and a leisurely stroll on a wagon?” I turned with a smile on my face.
By now, Cornelius knew when something interesting crossed my mind. And she was not one to dismiss such ideas casually, especially not when the situation sorely needed creativity.
“Cut to the chase, Mr. Chef. I take it that this is no mere ‘date’ you are asking me out to?”