I let out a deep breath as I scanned the frozen area around me. Moments before, the Purnesian soldiers had all been eating the meal I cooked. But now, they were all blanketed in a sheet of ice.
“So… how was my acting?” I turned to Cornelius who had been responsible for the wide range magic.
“It certainly helped that you have the nerves of a witless servant. Really sold the helpless act there.”
“What kind of compliment is that?!” I yelled at her, a bit miffed. “Even if they are low level soldiers, they all still have guns! Not something that I can easily ignore, you know!”
Originating from a place where guns were a lethal weapon that spelled death from a single shot, it was natural to feel a little unnerved by several dozen being pointed straight at us. Even with Cornelius assuring me that most of them couldn’t even make a dent on us due to their low attack power, there was nonetheless an instinct to quiver in my boots while staring down the barrels.
Also, Cornelius made sure that we didn’t appear all that strong, using her mana control ability to mask our stats. The ‘Status Change’ skill was similar to what Carina and Pietro used before, making it seem to others that we were merely townsfolk dragged into a hopeless situation.
With the enemy completely disabled, Cornelius cancelled the Ice magic that had warped my face, just in case there was someone that knew what I looked like. The magician herself, on the other hand, didn’t need a mask, as most people were still used to the fake male one. This entire time, she had worn her true appearance. She still felt hesitant to do it in public, even after the incident that revealed her gender to everyone.
“Honestly, I prefer you like this. It makes me want to punch you less.” I sighed.
“Oh? Feeling a bit attached after we played a little of the married life?” Cornelius giggled, continuing to poke fun at my mess of an acting.
I ignored her this time, looking out at the frozen town.
‘Somehow, this plan actually managed to work,’ I thought, somewhat in disbelief. It was the only strategy I could conjure up to halt the approaching army and buy us much needed time.
After Ludmila raced away with the injured Gadwin, I roped Cornelius into dressing ourselves as merchants visiting the area. Given that eggplants only grew in this region, the chances were high that Purnesians had never heard of the ‘demon fruit’.
When eaten raw, it supposedly caused a whole slew of bad side effects, mainly due to solanine poisoning. But since our enemy didn’t know that, I used it to our advantage.
We allowed ourselves to be captured while harvesting a bunch more from the nearby grove as we waited for the army to march toward us. The tired, famished soldiers looked like they were in dire need of a good meal, so I whipped out the pre-prepared food that I made in town as Cornelius was gathering clothes for us to look the part.
With their stomachs dictating their next actions, they allowed us to make enough food for all of them.
In order for the plan to be successful, they had to eat the food in a ‘poisoned state’. I had discovered when playing around with eggplant dishes that the solanine effect could be enhanced with mana, keeping it from breaking down as it normally did when subjected to heat. All I had to do was create a heavy sauce to mask the bitterness that was retained.
Therefore, the stir-fried eggplant in sauce became laced heavily with a poison that would only take effect after the body had time to absorb it. The delayed response of slow-acting poisons and the deliciousness of the meal ensured that the soldiers would have their fill before feeling the effects.
However, I was startled when the man in charge of them suddenly asked me to feed Cornelius the food to check for poison. My eyes flashed toward her, giving a confident nod that asked her to trust me, which she surprisingly did without a word.
Grabbing a metal fork from the table, I discreetly heated the utensil with Fire magic as I gave the dish a couple of stirs. I could feel the plate that I was holding start to get warm as I clutched the bottom, forcing the poison to break down from the injected heat. Before the soldiers around us started to get suspicious, I lifted a piece up, hoping that I had degraded enough of the solanine to minimize its effect.
Luckily, they didn’t even bat an eye that I blew on the food to cool it down, despite the plate having sat there for some time. And then, I fed Cornelius before picking a piece for myself. Thankfully, the hint of bitterness that would be present in the poisoned dishes was completely gone. Now sure that we would be completely fine eating our share, the two of us polished off our plate of food, which convinced the soldiers to dig in themselves.
They mistook my victorious smirk that the plan succeeded for pride in a well-cooked meal. Never suspecting that only I had the know-how to negate the poison, they wholeheartedly dove in.
And now, the entire army was frozen solid after succumbing to the symptoms.
The impact of the solanine poisoning was what I had heard – paralysis, nausea, vomiting. The reports that I read about it as part of the Chancellor’s duty were recreated in front of me. Thankfully, it seemed like my quick solution to destroy the poison had been enough. I had a slight headache and tingling around my body, but it was much milder than what the others were experiencing.
As soon as we noticed them fall incapacitated, we dashed away from the scene. From behind the corner of a house, Cornelius cast a wide range Ice spell that enveloped the entire area into a frozen landscape.
Their groans of agony slowly fell into silence as a bitter cold swept over them. Like statues frozen in place, it was game over for this portion of Purnesia’s army.
The two of us walked over to the man who was in command. He took the longest to be fully set into ice, probably due to his higher level. I felt a bit of pity from tricking all of them, but they had invaded us in the first place.
Cornelius, however, had no qualms in dealing with them. She shaped a spear out of ice and shoved the whole thing into the frozen man’s torso. Breaking through the thin coating, blood dribbled down the side of the spear before seemingly freezing into red trails.
I pulled up a ‘Status Check’ on the man, seeing that his life points rapidly fell. It went past the normal portion of the bar and dove straight into the section that denoted the vitals of a person. Seeing that chunk completely drain as well, it was clear to me that the man had just died.
With a sigh, I turned to Cornelius, who had an icy glare still.
“Um, what should we do with the others?”
Cornelius turned toward me, giving me a questioning look. “What do you mean? They aren’t of any concern to us now.”
“Huh? What about when your ice thaws? Or are you just going to keep them frozen until reinforcements come?”
After a few moments, her eyes widened like she had just grasped what I meant. “There’s no need for that. The soldiers in this town. They have all perished.”
My body felt an abrupt chill. I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly.
“What do you mean? The average level of the Purnesian soldiers here is rather low. Normally, one’s mana buffers them from the lethal aspects of magic, but with such a gap between my spell’s intensity and their mana, it’s no surprise that they would freeze to death.”
Given that Purnesia had a serious lack of mana in the environment, its citizens were more susceptible to magical attacks than other people who used mana on a day-to-day basis.
It was like poor blood circulation within one’s body, making any injury difficult to heal because fresh blood failed to arrive promptly to deliver the needed support. However, it appeared to me that Cornelius had done this knowingly, since her proficiency in mana control allowed her to sense that weakness.
“No, I mean, why did you kill them? You make it sound like you did it on purpose!” At this point, I was nearly yelling in disbelief that she had done so instead of trapping them like she usually did.
“Should I not have? I see no reason to let those with such animosity towards us live.”
Cornelius stared me down, anger shooting from her eyes.
“Do you mean to tell me that you couldn’t feel the atmosphere? These were not people that were going to simply let us off after their bellies were full. Were you so focused on the plan that you missed the bloodlust towards us? …The glares of men that were obviously stripping me in their minds, while menacingly tracing a finger along their sharp knives?”
I had been so nervous that I tried to keep my mind off the situation by focusing on the poisoned food. Using my fear of the situation as an excuse, I barely gave them more than a glance. Their wicked gazes and smirks of devilish planning were overlooked by me.
“Look, you did what was needed. I don’t blame you for feeling uncomfortable about all of this.” Cornelius turned away and bit her lip. “It’s not like I wanted to kill them either….”
As she said those words, I noticed that Cornelius was lightly shivering. Her affinity for the cold made it unlikely due to the sudden drop in temperature. She had also hesitated in her actions, but she didn’t let emotions get in the way of things.
“Sorry. I need to be more serious about all this, don’t I?”
Cornelius reached out and placed a hand on my cheek. It was warm despite how cold her magic was.
“You do you, Claude. That’s how it’s been, hasn’t it? You wouldn’t be getting the attention that you do if you weren’t otherwise.”
“But I can’t be dragging-“
My words were cut off as a body plopped against me. Looking straight at the tuft of blue hair, it took me a moment to register the arms that had pulled me toward Cornelius. Her breath tickled my ear as my hands were still up in the air, too shocked to return any kind of gesture.
“Since when have you failed to serve your guests properly?” Cornelius’s tone was gentle, her usual teasing absent. Even the embrace felt lacking in theatrics, but rather, a genuine action on her part.
After a moment, she moved away. Looking right into my eyes, she spoke with confidence.
“You have shown me that there are many ways to fight. When things looked down, was it not you who pulled out ideas no one else could hope to see through? Even this plan came from your expertise. Don’t sell yourself short. That is why you have the rest of us doing what you can’t do.”
“You, of all people, are cheering me up? What’s gotten into you now?” I chuckled, feeling a bit better.
Suddenly, a sharp jolt smacked against my forehead. Looking forward with my hand rubbing the sore spot, I saw Cornelius with her hand up, obviously having done a forehead flick.
“Why wouldn’t I? Rivals, partners-in-crime, or maybe even… friends. Whatever you want to call us, I see you as an equal. I bother you because I know I can depend on you. So, how about we take care of business before their reinforcements arrive?”
Her eyes darted back to the north, checking to see if any signs of more soldiers were in the distance. I shook my head to reset my mind and switch gears.
“Yeah, we should get out of here before they show up. The next batch isn’t going to let their guard down after seeing this mess. But before we do, we need to smash the troublesome weapons they have.”
I activated my Eye of Providence, scanning the area for the mana stones housed in their magic guns. Since the frozen people no longer gave off a mana signature, they stood out against the icy landscape. Quickly, I pulled out my knife and slashed at a nearby one, cutting through the thin ice and watching the weapon shatter into pieces.
It only took seconds to locate and destroy each one, and with Cornelius helping to find them, this task was completed in a matter of minutes. That was around 50 less portals and magic shots to deal with later as the Purnesian army wouldn’t be able to pass the tools onto others.
We took one last look at the lifeless town of Minsk before heading south to meet up with Sistina’s forces. I would’ve liked to see what they thought of our little trap, but we had much better things to do.
However, the Purnesian army did stop and reevaluate their charge forward after seeing their first squad wiped out. Rather than move quickly south toward the new capital, they fanned out and tried to gain a foothold in the nearby cities. The war had only just begun, and only time would tell the outcome.