To my surprise, I had stumbled upon a Hohenheim that was in the midst of battle already. Fortunately, the Purnesian detachment force had focused their eyes toward the city, so the sounds of gunfire and explosions tipped me off way before any of them could see me.
The hills contained a decent amount of shrubbery, enough for a single person to hide behind as I glided from place to place to avoid detection. Along the way, I noticed how much Earl Hohenheim’s side was struggling to push the invaders back. My glowing eyes could see the wall of mana that had been erected to keep portals from passing through.
Instantly, I thought back to my hastily-made rampage through the Earl’s mansion. If I hadn’t broken their crafted weapons and knocked them senseless, they probably would have defended the city better. I gulped at the guilt of my foolish actions.
Add to the fact that I needed to check up on Ludmila and Gadwin, there was not much choice but for me to fight my way through the crowd. At that point, I noticed a lone person charging into the line of gunners, completely ignoring being shot up. With a hefty swing of the spear, people flew like dolls heaved into the air.
That monster of a blow could only have been done by Gadwin, who I was surprised to see on his feet already. Not wanting to waste that moment of distraction, I sped forward on my levi-board and pulled out two chef knives, coating them both with a long blade of mana.
In the current chaos, hardly anyone noticed another lone person charging from a different direction. However, a few of the more astute of mana turned around to face me, training their gun at my whizzing form in a panic.
A few shots fired off, none of which I could see the bullets, so I did my best to dodge them based on the position of their barrels. However, as more people turned around to shoot, I no longer could keep track of them all. A few stray bullets collided right into me, causing me to wince out of reflex.
‘Eh? That’s not nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I’ve tasted worse from Lau’s love taps.’
My eyes popped open when I realized that most bullets felt like nothing more than getting hit by a penny, with some impacts more like the oomph of baseballs. I honestly felt relieved that a person’s stats played so much in distorting the reality of being shot. Thankfully, it didn’t seem like there were any high-level gunners on this side of the field.
With that in mind, I didn’t hesitate to slam right into the line of gunners, waving my knives around to cut people through their mana gates. With a direct blow at the heart of their mana supply, it was an instant ‘lights out’ for them.
With the detachment army pincered by Gadwin and me on either side, I soon heard the cries of ‘Retreat!’ in the distance. With everyone running away, I had little urge to pursue. Instead, my eyes caught the difference between the ground that I stood upon versus that where Gadwin was. Before his feet were the mangled bodies of many people, blood soaking into the ground. The redness had even splashed upon Gadwin, who looked over at me with a gaze of indifference. The smeared blood made it difficult to tell at first that he had terrible burns.
On the other hand, the bodies of people simply knocked unconscious lay before me. I felt like I was staring at two different realities, separated only by a thin stretch of ground. Truthfully, my mental state probably teetered along that patch in between.
My eyes couldn’t look away as my board glided over to Gadwin, like I was trying to make sure none of the carnage touched me. As I got closer to him, I noticed some strange checkerboard pattern across his arms. Fresh blood dripped where the charred skin had linked together, torn from the excessive motion of Gadwin pushing himself.
“Are you sure… you should be up?” I questioned, taking note of his re-opened injuries.
“Like this is enough to put me in the ground.” Gadwin waved his spear nonchalantly at my worry.
“Alrighty then…” I scooted away from him, turning my board towards Earl Hohenheim, who I spotted farther back. I had asked Ludmila to go find him to tend to the injured man, but that appeared to be unnecessary.
Gadwin followed behind as we both approached the slightly ‘winded’ Earl, who had just released the huge barrier protecting his city. I stopped myself short of cracking that pun.
“How are you holding up, Earl Hohenheim?”
I could clearly see that things had seen better days. Several of his men were lying on the ground lifeless. A quick scan of their bodies, which failed to bring up any status windows, told me that they were unable to be revived.
This only made me worry more about Ludmila, but it would have been rude of me to drive the conversation to her before making sure that those present were okay.
“Hmph, we’ll manage… is what I would like to say, but we were taken by surprise. To think that Purnesia had crafted so many in such a short time frame. That proves how troublesome the Queen’s inventions can be.”
“I don’t think she ever intended to let things get so out of hand. Her inventions have always been done in earnest.”
Hohenheim shot me a sharp glare. “That much is evident from her personality. But that doesn’t mean others won’t take advantage of that.” He stared at me for a moment before adding, “I’m sure that you haven’t come here just to chat. That girl that was with you is over there in that building, though something has stricken her… Well, you’ll see for yourself.”
The Earl walked towards where he had pointed, soon coming to a residential building that wasn’t far from where he was defending. Opening the door, he beckoned me and Gadwin to go in.
I expected Ludmila to run up to me like she normally would, but the building was eerily still. However, I could pick up the muffled sounds of some noises further in. My heart started pounding as I recalled what the Earl said.
‘Please don’t be hurt.’ My mind repeated this with each step down the hallway, my teeth chattering in dread.
As I turned the corner, a small form was seen huddled against one side of the room. Her head was tucked between her knees like a frightened child. The magical girl-like clothing that I had seen not long ago told me that it was Ludmila. I looked back toward the entrance at the Earl and Gadwin, my gestures questioning them as to what had happened.
However, the Earl simply shook his head and Gadwin stared blankly, so I softly walked over to her.
“Ludmila? Are you okay?” I gingerly prodded her.
Immediately, her body froze up, and she stiffly turned toward me.
“Master!” she cried, before leaping straight into my arms. I could feel a dampness as she rubbed her face against my chest.
Slowly, the others filtered into the room where we were, seeing the trembling form that I held against me. I tried to ask her what was wrong, but she only responded with whimpers. I was stunned by this, as I had never seen her face so tear stricken. She had always been the stoic, cool-headed girl that was courageous beyond her years.
I turned to the others, wondering what could have done this.
“I was told that she suddenly acted strange when the battle started. We had some men move her to this house for the time being, since we had no time to deal with what had come over her,” the Earl said, giving only the slightest clue of her condition.
“That’s strange… We’re talking about a girl that dove headfirst into the mouth of a dragon and charged fearlessly into an army of warriors in Sanshiro…”
Just as I said that, one of the Earl’s soldiers walked in, presenting a long, musket-like gun to his lord. The old man examined it quickly before aiming the barrel out the window.
‘Ludmila recalls… the loud bang that disturbed peace.’
Her statement from before suddenly returned to me, and quickly, I held up my hand to stop him. However, I was too late as the bang of a gun being fired once echoed loudly through the room.
Ludmila flailed wildly against me. Suddenly, her body drooped towards the ground. I braced myself as her arms formed a death grip around my waist, even as her legs seemingly lost the strength to stand. Her nails dug painfully into my back, most likely drawing blood.
“Get that gun out of here!” I roared, making it obvious what had been the trigger for her current state. The others nodded and quickly exited the room.
Like a drowning person flailing to stay afloat, I fought with her body, trying desperately to calm her down. I hugged her tightly, rubbed her back, and tried whatever else that I could to soothe a delirious child. In the process, I noticed the biting tingle of miasma leaking out from her, but I endured that uncomfortable chill invading my senses.
Finally, she settled down enough to be intelligible.
“Master, can’t… feel legs… Ludmilla can’t run! Can’t run!”
I paused my actions and reached down, toward her legs which were flopped upon the ground. Patting her lower thigh gently, I expected some response, but it simply remained limp. I shifted my body to pull her to her feet, but the legs merely buckled under her weight. Truly, it seemed like she couldn’t walk for now.
All I could do was simply hold her as she trembled and cried, wondering what had happened in her past life. A deep trauma from guns was imbedded within her, and this war would no doubt continue to set her off. I had to take her back to the capital where she would be safe from all of this.
After another twenty minutes, Ludmila had cried herself to sleep, so I whisked her up and laid her on a bed. Hesitantly, I plucked the charm from my neck and placed it around hers. The miasma leaking from her was soon sucked into it. Exiting the house with a conflicted expression, I saw Earl Hohenheim and Gadwin conversing. The soldiers and magicians of this city were busy preparing makeshift fortifications, in case the Purnesian Army came back.
After discussing with them about what to do going forward, it was decided that Gadwin would stay here to defend the territory. Since the Earl’s wind barrier negated the portals that flew into it, the best option was to contact the Queen and request for a magic barrier to be set up promptly. It had purely been the Earl’s stubbornness to avoid supporting the Queen which had led to his city being left out of the arrangements so far; other large cities had already bought into this device, so they were far more protected from invasion.
It would take some time to set up, but with Gadwin stationed here, the Purnesian Army would be hesitant to attack. A quick round of magic pigeons with Katalina revealed that she could send over Roderick and a team of castle guards to aid in the defense while the barrier was being built, which would likely take a week’s time.
Also, surveillance had revealed that the Purnesian Army had been pushed back to the town of Minsk for the time being. Their forward progress had been stalled by the combined efforts of Sistina’s lords and people. Already, fortifications were being built by Earth magicians to cover the approach toward the Minsk area.
Given a breather from these events, I decided to head back to Faulkner the next day, once Ludmila had some time to recover. When I returned, I anticipated that there would be many things to discuss, mainly what to do about the invaders and how to deal with the weapons that they had acquired.
But more than that, I wondered if there was anything that I could do for Ludmila. Taking care of the ones I loved were no doubt at the top of my list. Much more so than fighting any battle that could be won by others.