We began our march forward the next day. Now deep into Purnesia’s territory, we gradually saw the landscape morph from a vibrant environment to a sickly, barren wasteland.
With each stretch of land forward, I could sense the ambient mana grow thinner and thinner. Even that which was inside my body felt like it was slowly peeled away unless I remained focused. The weapons that Purnesia had created from Katalina’s blueprints were much less effective here, seeing as fuel for the magic stones was limited. Of course, they would still work with our supplied mana, but we preferred to conserve what we could.
With a lack of magic shots and portals flying our way, the standard battle formations went back into effect, with our soldiers charging into the enemy without fear. Their physical might was enough to push back against the line of Purnesian marksmen that could only fire bullets in our direction.
Sturdy shields thrust in front of Sistina’s army were enough to block the attacks; the bullets were reduced to pebbles clanking upon metal. They no longer had to worry about surprise attacks from above or behind, making it easy for them to advance.
Magicians who relied on spellcrafting were not crucial to this portion of the fight; those that did were mostly relegated to the back, where they could command their squadrons with the occasional magical bombardment as needed. Fortunately, our supplies had plenty of mana recovery potions, but they were expensive consumables that were best used when in dire need.
Therefore, mana-enhanced food that boosted the normal fighter’s parameters served a greater purpose, allowing people to charge forward with the potential of several of themselves.
While the soldiers fought, the members of the Valkyrie Squad zipped around the back lines to relay information. I briefly saw Violet, Eryn’s second in command, skirting by to confirm that the resistance so far was nothing that they couldn’t handle. Most of Eryn’s knights were more suited for magic warfare than physical combat, but that was mainly due to the lack of battle experience.
Despite the ease of advancing forward, that didn’t stop their leader from charging ahead on her own. Without waiting for her guards, without a levi-board, running like the wind.
“Eryn! Slow down!” I yelled ahead of me.
I was racing to catch up to her on foot, with Saki running a few paces next to me also.
“Please, Marchioness Faulkner. There is no need to be hasty!” Saki joined in as she whacked several Purnesian gunners into the ground with her mallets.
Ahead of us, Eryn’s sword danced in the air, severing limbs that were aiming guns at her. She kicked over one gunner and stabbed him in the chest before moving on. Fiercer than I had ever seen before, her blade never stopped moving. A trail of cut down marksmen were left scattered on either side of her as she dashed ahead.
Eryn had insisted on rushing to the front lines. To take down the enemy even the slightest bit faster. To rid all signs of resistance and ensure that we would conquer Purnesia even a moment sooner. Despite how low leveled the enemy was, it was never good to act in haste. However, what could I even say to stop her?
When I finally caught up to her after the entire wing of Purnesia’s army had been decimated, I found her breathing heavily and her armor coated with blood all over.
“Eryn, calm down… what’s gotten into you?” I reached out to grab her shoulder but froze when I saw the look on her face.
“But… I just can’t wait… after what you said. Aren’t you looking forward to it? …The moment that we finally come together?” She turned to me with unbridled enthusiasm in her eyes. Her red irises momentarily flickered with the hue of purple like a filament that wasn’t sure it would stay lit.
Something had drastically changed within Eryn. A switch that seemed to be flipped. There was no doubt that my promise had led to this result, and now, I was starting to get seriously worried.
Saki noticed the different air around Eryn too, and she walked up to whisper to me about it. With no other choice but to hurt Saki’s feelings by telling her the truth about our previous night, I spilled the beans.
I watched nervously as Saki’s fist clenched a few times during my explanation, my feet on pins and needles as I expected her to deck me in jealousy. But her strike never came. Instead, she just looked down and sighed.
“Love makes us do strange things, don’t they?” Her tone held a sadness as if she was resigned to her unrequited feelings. “I can understand it, why she wishes to rush toward the goal line.”
“Yes, you are right to worry though.” Saki interrupted. “But, what more can you do but be by her side and protect her at all costs? Even if it means acting a little stupid along the way.”
“I guess I don’t have a choice…”
Eryn felt determined to finish things up so that we could move on to the next stage of our lives. I had to forgive her for being a little bit selfish, just like how I had been hesitating with my own feelings. Hopefully, things would be okay if I gave into her whims a little bit…
“Do not worry. I will still defend the both of you with my life. That is my promise to you,” Saki said as Sistina’s army finally caught up to us. “Each of my mallets swing for your sake and hers.”
“Thanks, Saki. You’re a good friend. If I had met you first, your name would be right up there on the ‘waifu list’.”
Saki slugged me gently… which nearly bowled me over with her excessive attack power. “Is that what you should be saying with your love so close by?”
Her face flushed a bit red from my comment, which seemed to cheer me up. I found her fun to tease after she had grown used to my antics. It helped a lot that she understood the language of weebs.
I waved to her in thanks before trotting over to Eryn. Having someone to talk to about the situation made it easier for me to accept what we were going through. I didn’t want to doubt myself after making such a bold commitment.
For the next several days, our army continued to march ahead, covering the vast but barren territory while pushing the enemy lines deeper and deeper in. Our progress was swift and steady, making sure not to advance too far for our supply line to support us. The stream of wagons moving back and forth between Sistina and our current location was the only lifeline to feed our stomachs and restore our vitality.
We found the barren wasteland, lacking anything to harvest, challenging to be in. I wondered how the Purnesians could possibly live in this place – devoid of healthy green and lacking wildlife. There was not even enough mana to create housing or produce water.
Like the citizens of Sistina, I had grown accustomed to magic as a replacement for science and technology. And not having learned to rough it like a true survivalist, the harshness of this environment was only manageable due to the supplies brought to us regularly.
Even as we marched into the few towns that dotted the region, they were left abandoned and stripped of any goods. Likely, the townspeople had evacuated, knowing that there was no way to impede our advance. We stationed some men in these locations to protect the supply line.
When there wasn’t any town nearby, our magicians burned some mana to create some makeshift shelters, ensuring that the lords and ‘important’ people of Sistina had a place to sleep, rather than the hard ground that the rest of the army rested upon.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep with me?” Cornelius teased us.
I stared at the igloo that she made as her private shelter. A shiver ran down our spines as we imagined how something that cold could possibly feel comfortable.
“Oh? I wouldn’t mind some company to snuggle with to keep me warm then.” With a hand over her mouth, that jest seemed remarkably forced. Also, I could no longer tell who she was directing it towards. Me? Eryn? Both of us?
Regardless, Eryn made the first move and simply pulled me away, toward the earth-crafted dwelling that was made for her. Cornelius just smirked and later joked that having the two of us join her would likely be ‘too hot and heavy for her place to handle.’
Apparently, Cornelius had known all about Eryn’s night visit to my room in Fort Valga. Despite claiming to have not given up on her, Corny seemed to be quite permissive of our current arrangements.
However, Eryn was oddly calm in contrast to that night. Though she insisted on sleeping next to me, her advances from before were absent. Giving me a simple kiss on the cheek, an armorless, cleaned-up Eryn curled up by my side in bed and drifted to sleep.
I couldn’t help but blink absentmindedly at her sudden transformation to a curled kitten against my arm. The urge to pet her hair became too overbearing, but being asleep already, she probably didn’t even notice.
In contrast, sleep was hard for me to come by. During those long nights, I wondered why I held such reservations. Her behavior wildly swung back and forth, likely due to stress, but that was what I was here for…
If we could end the day, reassuring ourselves that we would always be next to each other, that was all that we needed, right? We were a man and woman sworn to each other – that was the important part. That was what I told myself for the next several nights while lying in bed. But then, one night…
‘Why then, do our cores feel so off?’
I looked down at our bodies on the bed. My eyes glowed with a purple hue, staring at the lines upon our clothing, A slight trail of purple miasma seemed to be flowing from our abdomens to the charms around our necks.
If there were truly no worries, if I knew that everything would be perfectly okay… then that trail of miasma would simply end with just that. Hesitantly, I switched to ‘Eyes of Ruination’.
And immediately, what I saw only served to question our fate.
At some point, my eye skill had grown more invasive, not only seeing the lines of death upon our bodies, but now, seeing the mana spewing forth from within. And from that vision, I could see the two cores that were housed in our lower bodies.
The bright blue of a soul meant that one was pure. But the purplish hue of mine made me different from the other people of this world. And through various circumstances, that purple leaked out in the form of miasma, infecting and invading the cores of others.
I bit my lip as a swirl of miasma hovered around Eryn’s core. When Neiya had shown me the purple core of an Electi, the murkiness of miasma hadn’t existed at that point. And even when I had it checked out by Carina after becoming Chancellor, it didn’t seem to have a life of its own. But now, it was as if my core had thrown a lasso around Eryn’s, leaving a presence that strangled the blueness of her core.
Because of that, I couldn’t help but wonder…
Was the way that Eryn acted, all my fault?
Had things affected me so much that I was starting to fall towards demonification, all the while dragging Eryn into it as a consequence?
The eye skill activating for Eryn was proof of that darkness being transferred to her. And after spending several days in her arms, it seemed like we were now in sync.
At this rate, it seemed rather risky to be without our charms, which pulled away just enough of the miasma to keep us stable.
I hugged Eryn tightly, hoping that her presence would offer me some measure of comfort. I didn’t know what to do to stop its progression. More and more, I wondered if it was better to abandon the fight and leave it to the others, dragging Eryn back home.
But I knew that was being overly selfish. We couldn’t just drop our responsibilities and leave on a whim, all over some strange feeling growing within us. While some would understand our situation, many others wouldn’t.
I slowly slipped out of bed, careful to not wake up Eryn. Exiting the shelter, I walked a fair distance away to where no one would hear me. And after checking to make sure no one was following, I pulled out the long-range communication device and hit a button on it.
After about ten seconds, I heard a click. On the other end, a groggy voice whispered. “-Haa? It’s the middle of the night. Tell me… What is wrong?”
The voice of Lady Kaguya was on the other end, surprised that I had called her up. Knowing that I wouldn’t carelessly contact her at such a strange time, her voice grew serious mid-sentence.
Without hesitation, I told her about the worsening condition of our cores. Surely, she would know what to do as the expert. I pinned my hopes on her response.
“That… is truly unfortunate. If what you speak is true… then with this path that has been chosen… there is no future for the two of you.”
My heart sank as my knees buckled, and I knelt on the ground as Kaguya’s options made me rip out the fragile grass that dotted the ground.