In just over an hour, the thick wall of ice that blocked entry into the Kingdom of Sistina had been knocked down. Captain Chrusciki marveled at how thick that wall was, given how quickly it was cast. However, the Ice magician had merely needed to fill in the key areas that had been blown wide open.
As soldiers tried out their new flamethrower weapons on the cold surface, thick slabs of rubble periodically tumbled from their suspended places.
In the meantime, a portion of his squadron practiced with the portal guns that were given. Getting accustomed to the freedom of positioning they offered, new strategies could be developed to confuse their enemies.
Interestingly, they discovered that a magic shot would not pass through a portal, but rather, it would damage the gateway itself. Therefore, they had to physically pass the gun through the portal before firing on the other side. This posed a bit of a risk, as he watched some soldiers smack away the hands that appeared from poorly positioned portals.
‘The average soldier doesn’t have the aptitude to use these tools effectively,’ thought Chrusciki.
And there were even a few cases where a soldier poorly placed an entryway in the direct path of a magic shot.
This strange method of warfare appeared quite promising despite the hiccups at the start. Judging by the strength of the blasts, these guns had roughly the same power of a magician in the level 30s. However, the exact output varied depending on the quality of magic stone connected.
This was still far better than having soldiers who barely hit level 20 in training. Especially since he had been given a platoon of several hundred low-level commoners.
Tasked with leading the first frontal assault, his objective was to march southward, straight for the capital. They would likely encounter the strongest opposition, where the true test of these new weapons would be evaluated.
Because of that, having to wait as the ice wall gave way bit into the precious time he had to launch the first strike. More time wasted here meant that Sistina could gather a stronger force and march north. They needed to get further south and secure a location to replenish their mana for these weapons to be effective.
The Captain frantically commanded all those with flamethrowers to melt down the wall, watching as the soldiers quickly exhausted their mana before passing the weapon off to the next person.
He briefly wondered whether creating portals to crawl to the other side would be faster. But he clicked his tongue when he saw that the openings were too small for a fully-equipped person to move through. It would simply take more time for an entire army to unpack and drag their gear through it.
They had no choice but to wait while the fire crew did their work, using the downtime wisely to train with their toys.
‘Hopefully, we won’t encounter too many magicians of this caliber.’ Chrusciki thought in disbelief that it had taken so much effort to unfreeze the pathway.
This magic had to be from someone tens of levels higher to endure so much Fire magic. That was a thought that made the Captain quiver in his boots. Suddenly, he wasn’t so thrilled about being the first to strike.
Nonetheless, the wall had been broken through, and his platoon of 200 men moved forward, along with the many others that were given a similar task. However, they were scout teams expected to fan out and survey a wider area, with only Chrusciki given the direct path forward.
Not long after their march through the greener lands of Sistina, a small town could be seen in the distance. He looked back at his men, who appeared to lag somewhat in their steps.
That was not surprising, as many of them had spent a fair amount of mana on the ice wall. Resting in a town would be best, but first, they would have to take over it.
Just then, the sight of a man running from his right caught his attention. He stopped his horse and held his hand up to pause the march to see what the matter was.
“Captain! The right wing, headed by Major Golabki, has discovered a couple of merchants and taken them hostage. We’re told that they were passing by and noticed that the nearby town was empty.”
Chrusciki’s right eyebrow arched at the news. “What are they doing out here then?”
“Supposedly, they were harvesting a local crop and became surprised at our approach. We found them hiding not far from their cart, which appeared to be stocked with goods.”
“I take it that there are orders for what to do with them then?” the Captain asked, slightly perking up with anticipation.
He wouldn’t mind killing off some citizens of Sistina to cool off from the annoyance before, but he had to do things properly. Otherwise, he would lose favor with his assigned squad. But if a superior officer ordered him to…
“Yes, since the Major has to march westward, he asked if you could confirm the status of the town ahead and potentially use them as hostages or whatnot.”
“I see. Bring them here.”
Ten minutes later, what appeared to be a young couple was seen approaching with their cart, tens of soldiers pointing their guns at them in case either tried to escape.
The two of them were dressed in poor commoner’s clothing. The man leading the cart had brown hair and looked around with jittery eyes, as expected of the situation he was in. Though he couldn’t see the woman’s face, her short, blue hair was buried in the man’s side as she held onto him. Like that, they looked like a married couple that was fearing for their lives.
Chrusciki invoked ‘Status Check’ magic, one of the few spells that Purnesians found essential to use their mana on.
“Tch. Level 10, huh? Would barely make a dent on my experience gauge.”
Killing them himself would merit hardly anything, so maybe he would let the lowest level person in his squadron do the honors after he was through with them.
For now, there were other things on his mind.
“You there! I heard that the town is empty. How long ago did you pass by there?”
The man stiffly turned toward the Captain’s voice, a streak of nerves jittering in his voice at being addressed.
“T-T-Twenty minutes a-a-go?”
“Did you not find it strange that the town was empty?”
All he got that time was a fierce nod in response.
“Now, tell me why I shouldn’t just kill the two of you both right here?”
This time, the man and woman both jolted back in fear and froze. A moment later, the man pointed an unsteady finger toward the back of his cart.
Chrusciki motioned for someone to investigate, in which they pulled out several large pots from the back, along with a handful of purple, bulbish plants that they had never seen before.
“Food! I cooked it! You can take it!”
Giving his men the go ahead, one of them popped open the lid, releasing a savory scent into the air. Given that Chrusciki’s men had just marched a long distance, the delicious aroma reminded them that they had not eaten anything decent since that morning.
Chrusciki found his own stomach grumbling in anticipation, having never experienced an aroma so unique before. However, it could very well be poisoned, so he had one of his men grab a floppy piece of the purple and white flesh to sample.
As soon as the man popped it into his mouth and chewed, he let out a fiery roar that prompted everyone to turn their guns onto the couple. But apparently, they had done so in haste.
“WHOOOAAAAA! Get a taste of this! I feel like crying. It’s so good!”
The man who had sampled it reached in for another piece, successfully plucking one out before another man pulled the jar away to fish for one himself. Pretty soon, the crowd of people around the jar celebrated the wonderful taste in their mouths.
Chrusciki stepped forward and pushed the crowd away, getting a taste for himself. Just like the others, a robust aroma hit his nose before the savory taste spread across his tongue, sending him into a daze. The food available in Purnesia was nothing at all like this, making him believe that Sistina was truly a paradise in waiting.
After the initial reaction to it, he cleared his throat and regained his posture before turning to the couple.
“You said that you cooked this. Can you make more?”
Slowly, the man nodded.
“I said, can you make enough to feed this entire army?!”
Rearing back, the man answered this time with a high-pitched ‘Yes!’
Captain Chrusciki smirked. Resting in town with a good meal was just the thing needed to rejuvenate his squadron, so that they could quickly march onward. With that, he had the couple guide them towards the abandoned town of Minsk. They would be safe for now, until their bellies were full.
After reaching the buildings in the distance, Chrusciki discovered that it had indeed been abandoned, as it was devoid of people or livestock. Having his men check each dwelling, they took note that many personal belongings were missing, leading to the conclusion that the inhabitants had skipped town.
That meant that Sistina already knew about the invasion and had begun to arrange the proper response. But finding a town to hole up in meant that they had a base to operate from, invaluable as they moved from area to area.
There was no doubt that Sistina would send their armies to try taking the town back, but before then, Chrusciki sent one of his men back towards Fort Valga to send word that they had secured a control point. The next groups could then march forward.
In the meantime, he had his soldiers take a rest in the residences, while the man and his wife worked furiously in the kitchen. He scrutinized every move that the couple made as they prepared enough food to serve their entire unit.
Frankly, the proficiency in which the man cut through the purple bulbs and tossed them into a giant, heated pan displayed a high sense of familiarity in the craft. Such a man was not likely to be some assassin sent to harm them, but Chrusciki couldn’t let his guard down.
He glanced over to the woman next, who was busy toting the raw ingredients from the cart into the kitchen. Now that he had a better look of her face, a sly smirk crept onto his own. The fair skin of the lady looked comparable to a noblewoman; only her plain style of clothing ruined the appearance.
‘However, that is easily rectified in the bedroom.’
After they had fulfilled their duty, he would have no further use of them. He held no promises to keep them alive, so having a bit of fun beforehand would let him get over the annoyance of being chosen to lead the charge.
Turning back to the man, Chrusciki watched as a large flame gushed from the cooking apparatus. The pan in his hand nimbly tossed the ingredients into the air before catching them. With the other hand, he grabbed bottles of sauces, shakers of seasonings, and finally, a large spatula to mix everything together.
If this hadn’t been a war, he wouldn’t have minded hiring the man to be his personal chef, but circumstances as they were, hostages were more trouble than they were worth.
In less than an hour, the couple had prepared enough food to feed several hundred people. Though the entire meal was comprised of a sole ingredient – those purple bulbs from before – the aromatic scent and savory appearance made that excusable.
‘Certainly preferable to hardtack and dried potatoes.’
The blandness of their rations could hardly compare to a freshly-cooked dish, and by the look of the others, no one seemed to care either.
As the man set down the last dish of food onto the tables, the hungry troops looked ready to pounce upon it.
However, Chrusciki held up his hand, stopping them.
“Hold up. I’ve been watching you to make sure, but I’m still not convinced. There better not be any foolishness added; otherwise, the men here will be ‘very, very annoyed’ that they won’t be able to sate their hunger. And I don’t plan to stop them either. Whatever they wish to do…”
The Captain narrowed his eyes, driving home the dire consequences to the couple. The threat made the both of them jump back in fear.
“O-Of course not! We’ve been on the road this whole time. Where could we possibly have obtained poison to add to it?!”
“Then… I’m sure you would have no issue feeding the food you made to your wife!” Chrusciki picked a random plate from the batch, thrusting the food toward the two.
They looked at each other briefly before the man grabbed the plate. Picking up a fork from the table, he swirled the mixture around for a bit before lifting a bite up. He gingerly blew on it to cool the food down before bringing it up to his wife’s lips.
After he gave her a nod, she bent forward and chomped on the fork. Chrusciki and his soldiers watched carefully as the food disappeared into her mouth, and she chewed and swallowed. Bringing her dainty fingers to her mouth, a slightly flush appeared on her cheeks.
Right after she said that, the man’s stomach grumbled, much to his embarrassment.
“Uh… do you mind if we both eat? Haven’t had anything since way before you captured us.”
Chrusciki nodded his head, watching as the man alternated between stuffing himself and holding out bites for his wife. The moment was too sweet from the Captain’s taste, but he had no reason to disturb them. With a wave of his hand, he allowed the soldiers to dig in.
Having several bites for himself, the wonderful taste of the food truly made him hesitate to get rid of someone so skilled. Before he knew it, an entire plate had been polished off by himself.
He patted his full belly, scanning the area around him. The soldiers were as cheerful as they could ever be, having never tasted food this delicious. And the entire time, the couple continued to eat alongside them, completely unsuspecting of what they had in store for them later.
A single meal did not erase the decades of tragedy that had been inflicted on their people. One kind couple did not lessen the anger they held for those of Sistina. Even though their bellies had been filled, everyone here possessed a different kind of hunger.
‘A hunger for revenge.’
And once the immediate needs of the body had been fulfilled, the mind would have to be satisfied next. Chrusciki pulled out his dagger, running the tip of his finger along the sharpness of the edge.
‘After dinner is a show, of course.’
He turned his eyes toward the couple who were quietly whispering to each other. They were like prey hidden among the grass, oblivious to the hunters’ fangs that were converging upon them.
As Chrusciki moved to stand up, he suddenly noticed a bit of numbness in his legs. Finding it a bit strange, he jerked his body to the side to bring some blood flow to them.
That had been a bad decision as the sudden motion triggered a bout of nausea. He had been so focused on his meal that he failed to notice the gradual dulling of his senses. His vision started getting cloudy as he looked around, seeing that his soldiers were now on the ground, some of them vomiting.
It did not take him long to realize that they had, in fact, all been poisoned. And now, he could barely lift his legs. His hands shook with a violent tremor, and the atmosphere appeared grim before his eyes.
The sounds of people flailing and crying out in pain only served to drive his fuzzy mind further into a madness. But even if he wanted to somehow end the terrible sensations now wracking his body, the dagger had bobbled out of his grip.
‘But what of those two?’
Chrusciki rolled onto his back and looked to the sky. The only thing on his mind was where the couple had gone. Had they sacrificed themselves to rid his entire squadron? But to his surprise, the two of them appeared in his vision, staring down at him.
The man had a solemn look of pity on his face, almost regretful of the current situation.
On the other hand, the woman had eyes that lacked mercy, a chilling glare that made his convulsing body feel like it was on a bed of ice. And slowly, he could feel his surroundings growing more frigid by the second.
The last thing he saw was his own hand, coated in frost, reaching futilely towards the two of them.