Raganoff eyed the ice wall that had been erected before him, clicking his tongue at how magicians of Sistina could show off their fancy spells. Living in a kingdom rich in mana made quite the difference in this world as the Purnesians had been forced to reinvent their livelihood around its absence.
But now, they had the means of fighting back.
He eyed the large sea of men behind him, roughly five thousand in number. This was but half of their total army, but the Mad Empress had made sure that nearly every man and woman of fighting capability were included in the plans to invade Sistina.
The solidarity of an entire nation hungry to reach out for a better life served as the best incentive to drive them forward. The unity of knowing that every neighbor linked arms and moved as one kept anyone from deserting and self-sustained their spirits as they marched through the desolate wasteland.
As they approached the ruins of Fort Valga, the lusher vegetation brought tears to their eyes. Some even reached out and chewed upon the grass and leaves just to check that it was real. Because further north, the only crops that could survive the lack of ambient mana were roots and spuds that grew deep within the earth, somewhat protected from mana leakage.
To them, Sistina had locked away the garden of paradise for decades and kept it all to themselves. In their minds, that kingdom had greedily stripped away their rights and left them to die in the wastelands.
Now, Raganoff was eyeing these fervent soldiers, ready to die to regain this paradise. They gathered around the loot that the Dark Hand had obtained – the magic gun and portal gun technology pilfered from the South.
It was not as if Purnesia had no way of fighting back without magic weaponry as not all equipment required mana to forge and use. The long shafts shouldered upon each member of the army were the standard issue firearm that every Purnesian soldier carried.
A long barrel expelled small pellets at a target – a long range weapon with a quick, explosive strike. These so-called ‘guns’ were simple enough for any person to use with the most basic of training.
And in this world, the only things that mattered when attacking with such a weapon were that it struck the target and the user’s individual stats. Even with a firing mechanism that relied on the plentiful stocks of explosive powder manufactured by local materials, there was no substitute for a person with high stats.
The inherent parameters of a person influenced the weapon’s power, which was coupled with the equipment itself. Lamps had designed the guns to be as cheap to make as possible, ensuring that most of its citizens could have one. His choice of weaponry took fire across the Empire, as everyone seemingly carried one that had his signature emblem – an opened eye with a small blue gem at its center.
As a result, a person’s level became one’s worth, and the best method to level up was to slay other beings, the death of the living fueling the source of the killer’s growth. However, it was no surprise that even something like that was challenging as few animals lived upon a land that bore little fruit.
Naturally, those that were able to find what little prey to hunt had become the strongest of the Purnesians, who later established a military faction composed of them at the top. But even with this monopoly of resources, there were limits to what prey were available.
Raganoff stiffly smirked as he walked by the various squadrons, turning away from their joyful cries. If he had bothered to look them in the eye, it was likely that he would see some connection to the many targets that he had killed to become strong himself. His assassinations could have taken away their lovers and family members, but they would never know. They were his little secrets buried deep inside.
He was not part of the military officially, but merely a hired hand who excelled at his job – that of murder.
It was hardly a surprise to any who thought about it carefully. There was always some person that disagreed with the path of the Empire. Some dissenter that stirred up trouble with his or her own ideals that contrasted those standing at the top.
For those people, a simple order from above to Raganoff was given, and he would soon be staring at their cold, lifeless eyes. The targets that had been marked for disposal were silently killed off to maintain proper order in a society that needed unity above all else to survive.
In the beginning, when he had just started out, the sight of his stats going up with every kill he completed made him lick his lips. The allure of getting stronger by leeching off another’s life was like a drug that sated his hunger.
Surely, if he were to stare at those faces basking in momentary joy, a habitual urge would grow to reach for his dagger and plunge it into the back of an unsuspecting soldier. If the victim didn’t know it was coming, no amount of leveling would keep them safe.
‘A dagger unseen makes the flesh soft and vulnerable.’
That was what he always told the members of the Dark Hand, his subordinates.
As he continued walking away from the ice wall that loomed behind him, he sensed a stronger person shortly ahead. Lifting his head enough to barely eye the man in question, the smirk that he held turned into a scowl.
A man in his thirties, dressed in a fancier uniform than the others, gave him a sharp look. The nicely trimmed mustache and clean cut of his brown hair distinguished him from the basic commoner in Purnesia. More than that, the man had giant rounded ears that almost looked like they could flap like wings, but Raganoff couldn’t fathom a flying being with such an ugly mug.
Another difference was the lack of a long-barreled gun strung on his back. Rather, he sported a sword and a small pistol upon his belt – the telltale signs of an officer in the military.
“Captain Chrusciki,” Raganoff mouthed the man’s name in acknowledgement. It was proper to address those of rank with respect, like they were nobility. That seemed like one of the few constants in this world.
“Why, if it isn’t the leader of the Dark Hand… I do have to thank you for the new weaponry. Such things are far beyond a man of my caliber, but they will certainly boost the strength of a standard soldier and provide much needed power in a frontal assault.”
Chrusciki gave a cheeky grin that displayed a forced gratitude that was merely for show. Rather, Raganoff could feel a disdainful pity emanating from his words. The smug tone was that of an insufferable man who was strong in name only.
The mere sound of his voice made the assassin’s hand twitch, wanting to silence him forever. However, that was, of course, an unwise decision.
Captain Chrusciki was one of the few people that stood above others, having been boosted to around level 60. Even if the man was an ass, his fighting power was necessary to lead his squadron in the first attack.
However, Raganoff held absolutely no respect for the man before him, who was actually a terrible shot when it came to combat. Chrusciki had gained his strength purely from the position he once held. One that he could exploit to the fullest.
When people in Purnesia committed crimes or disrupted order in public, they were often arrested and locked up. Given the lack of prey in the wild, at some point in time, the military leaders considered another option – public execution of prisoners.
‘Why waste resources on those who didn’t follow society’s rules? Rather, they should be consumed to improve those that do.’
That idea quickly took traction as a way to quell any disturbances. And after the first rumbles of discontent, the population quickly fell in line.
In fact, many officers started looking for excuses to find people to execute, in order to boost their own power. And that was exactly the kind of man Chrusciki had been – someone who sought out sickly people or orphans with no means of succeeding in life.
He would offer them a bit of aid to quickly boost their levels before slaying them in secret to serve as fodder for his own growth. He considered those who made little impact on society to be hardly missed by others.
The thought of working with such a man sickened Raganoff and the Dark Hand, who had themselves been the very type of victims that Chrusciki targeted. But they chose to walk the path of blood rather than become fodder for the top.
“You have your weapons. We’ll be on our way, since we’re done here.” Raganoff walked past the Captain, not bothering to interact more than the absolute minimum.
Behind him, the remaining members of his group trailed behind wordlessly. The assault on Fort Valga had taken out more of them than he had expected, especially after how smooth the operation went initially.
That Chancellor and overlooked guard had slayed nearly a third of them before the arrangements were complete. But still, it had been a worthy sacrifice to transport enough Magic Stones to supply the Purnesian army, which numbered many more. They could deal with the troublemakers.
The hundred portal guns had just been a start. His members passed by several carts filled with the empty husks of gun-like weaponry. All they needed were the magic stones to be inserted for them to be operable.
And then, there would be enough of these to equip a thousand men, an incredible boost in power as these inventions gave off a set output regardless of its wielder. Even soldiers with the lowest level would be able to fire blasts of magic equivalent in power to a proficient magic wielder. And furthermore, the weapon could be passed on to another, once the first person had exhausted his or her mana supply.
And there was no need to worry about mana restoration once they moved farther south where it was abundant. That made the limited ammunition of exploding powder and pellets unnecessary, and it greatly improved their chances in a long, drawn out battle.
The Purnesian Empire had to thank Lamps Magellan, the genius crafter under the Mad Empress, for all of these achievements. In the short span of two weeks, he had fully deciphered the Queen of Sistina’s blueprints and rallied the entire empire to craft these armaments. Nearly the entire Empire’s supply of raw materials was dumped into this endeavor.
Now, Sistina would unexpectedly have to face their own creations, its existence thanks to their dear Queen Katalina. How ironic it must have been for the situation to turn out in such a way.
But for now, Raganoff and the members of the Dark Hand had no further business here. They relinquished their own guns and marched toward the nearest town. They had done their duties and lost some capable men.
Even if he didn’t particularly care about such things, a good leader had to give his men time to recover and lick their wounds. Even though there wasn’t a single sob behind him, chances were likely that teary eyes were hidden under those cloaks.
He had ordered some of their companions to die, so the least he could do was to act like he gave a damn about their losses as their boss.
And there was no better way to do that but to drown their sorrows in alcohol and pass out for the evening.
The ruckus behind them grew softer and softer, that of people shaving away at the ice wall to continue forward. But Raganoff hardly noticed the change. His mind kept going back to the Chancellor who fought in such unconventional ways.
A man who could slay anything without the need for secrecy or hiding in the shadows. As an assassin, there was nothing more of a waste than such a person who held back because of silly reasons like morality and kindness.
If they were ever to meet again, the desire to show him the foolishness of his actions would burn brightly within him. He wanted to see what would happen to that man when he became unhinged.
Perhaps, he could feel somewhat alive again. He had long grown tired of toying with his prey, in which each kill barely made a difference to his level anymore. If anything, he wanted another taste of that final moment when the Chancellor got serious and incapacitated his arm in an instant.
‘That surge of power. That merciless strike. I know those eyes. They are the same as mine. They are eyes that are determined to do whatever it takes to prevail.’
Surely, a man such as that wouldn’t die until they met again.
“The thrill of the kill. Finally, I may get to taste it again.”