“C’mon, Claude. Let’s get moving! The next town is in sight!” Eryn beamed as Purnesia’s army thinned out to almost nothing.
“Ah… sure. Be right there.” My feet felt heavy. Every swing of my knife held a hint of hesitation. I was not in top condition, but it was more than enough to take out anyone that tried to aim the barrel of a gun at me.
The secret talk with Lady Kaguya last night weighed on my mind. The current condition of my core and Eryn’s hung on a delicate balance, one that could possibly endanger the others. Given the impact of the war and fighting on our hearts, there was no doubt that proceeding further would slowly drive us into the madness of demonification.
And that usually impacted the Electi first, due to the inherent growth of the purple flame within them. If I were to succumb to the darkness, surely Eryn wouldn’t be far behind, given the signs that she was displaying.
The only way to reverse the process was to stop what we were doing and retire from the stress factors. Essentially, the two of us would have to run away from it all – our duties, our responsibilities, and our companions. To live a carefree life of no worries, where no one would bother us. We would have to throw away our current livelihood.
As tempting as it seemed for the two of us to elope and ride off to our own happy end, the reality was that I didn’t want that. And I doubted Eryn would either. To abandon all of our friends at this time, that was a pretty hard pill to swallow. Not to mention, all the people that looked up to us for leadership and to guide them toward a better future.
And what of Katalina, and Cornelius, and Saki, and Ludmila… and all the others who we cared for? The regrets of leaving them behind would no doubt plague our minds.
That made it just as hard to deal with the other option that was proposed – for me alone to go far away. Distance dulled the effects of miasma for a Master/Electi bond, as well as quenching the feelings that the two of us held. Even the strongest of emotions would only appear as a muted sensation if our hearts were nations apart.
But that would mean giving up on our relationship and the promise that I made. I had a feeling that would go over even worse than the previous suggestion.
So I decided to stay silent for now. Until I could brainstorm what to do and weigh my options against the risks. I stared blankly at the back of the woman I loved, bravely marching forward and striking down any who dared to get in her way. Before we passed through the next town, some course of action had to be done. For both of our sakes.
As Eryn and I approached the walled city that was a bit larger than the towns that we had come across so far, we noted an eerie silence. There was no hum of people perched above to rain down any defensive measures. No gunfire or weaponry of any kind bearing down on us. It was rather strange.
I nodded to Eryn and approached the metal gate, firing up my ‘Eyes of Providence’ before slashing through the structure several times. Following it up with a kick, a neatly-carved, square entryway resulted as the heavy metal fell back with a clang.
“After you,” I commented, extending a hand in courtesy.
Eryn didn’t even bat an eye as she walked forward with her wind barrier up, in case an ambush lay in waiting. Unless they had a dragon or a tank for a secret weapon, there was hardly anything for us to worry about.
‘And even if they do, it’ll all come down to who gets the first successful strike.’
Walking through the main street of the walled city, silence continued to blanket the area, save for our own footsteps. There were no gunmen to surprise us with attacks or soldiers diving in to strike. The place seemed like a ghost town.
The wind rustled through the buildings, in which the shutters and doors were closed. As Eryn walked down the cobblestone path, suddenly, an audible clink followed by a whirl sounded.
“Eryn! Land mine!” I guessed as the sound came from where she stood.
In the next moment, a loud explosion rocked the area and pushed me a few steps back. Brushing away the dust that had been thrown up, I reached forward to look for Eryn, only to find her standing on the same spot completely unharmed. Her magic barrier soaked up all of the damage seemingly.
“Hmph, is that all? You had me worried for a second.” Eryn shrugged off the surprise and continued walking forward, triggering the next set of mines along the ground. I held back a nervous chuckle as she nonchalantly marched through the explosions, undaunted by the impacts.
Soon, I noticed a shutter open slightly. My eyes snapped toward that direction, catching the first signs of life in this town. With no hesitation, I dashed up to the house and broke down the door, moving right to the room with the open window. What awaited me was a frightened man, clutching a kitchen knife.
A quick scan with ‘Status Check’ showed that he was only level 15, a person that could hardly damage me even if I let him have at me. I pointed my own knife at him and motioned my head outside.
“Hey, why don’t you tell me what’s going on here? Is this entire city booby trapped?”
Seeing that I didn’t immediately strike him down, he let the knife in his hand drop. He turned away for a moment, contemplating his next words as he scanned my outfit up and down.
“Ar-Are ya with those bloodsucking Sistina folks from the south?”
“I am, but not sure why you think that since we’re not all bad.” I immediately replied, lowering my knife to calm him down for more info.
“Ha! That’s what they all say! Why shoulda believe someone who doesn’t understand how harsh our lives are? Sucking on the richness of the earth while leaving none for us up ‘ere. Getting rid of us when all we want issa bit of that for our own!”
I stared at the man before me, who looked like a bag of skin and bones. Like the others I fought before, he carried a bitterness from a lifetime of malnourishment and hardship. I dropped my threats entirely, knowing that continuing would do us both no good.
“Look, I’ve only been here for like two years. I’m a person from another world. I don’t understand the harshness of this place. All I know is that if someone does me right, then I won’t hesitate to return the favor. Got that?”
The man’s eyes never left me as he scrutinized my words. “An otherworlder? But if you’re not here as a tool of our enemy, then what-“
“I’m here because I want to know what’s going on with this nation, the Empire of Purnesia. Look at my outfit! I’m a freaking chef normally. Doesn’t it seem like it would hurt my soul to see people starving?”
For once, my chef uniform served a decent purpose – that of convincing the man before me that I wasn’t some soldier coming to take their homes. That moment of confusion as he acknowledged my outfit was enough to make him relax and hear my words.
“A chef, huh? What damn good would one be here? When there’s no food to be prepared?” He clicked his tongue at me.
“Ah, about that… I also happen to be an important person in Sistina. So, if you’re willing to tell me what is going on, I can bring you some food to fill that belly. Deal?”
I offered my hand to him. Slowly, he reached out and took it. We walked outside, where the blasts were still going on in the distance. Apparently, Eryn had never looked back to see that I had detoured somewhere.
As we went outside, the man suddenly yelled out in short bursts, “Join! As one! Family! Our hands!”
Cocking my head at his outburst, the answer came momentarily when the windows from other buildings opened, revealing others who were in hiding. It must have been a secret code or something to connect with the other cityfolk. Slowly, various people filtered out of the dwellings and approached us.
A quick glance showed that they were men and women in their 30s or 40s, but despite that, they moved like elderly people. A lifetime with little food and tough labor had whittled away at their bodies, similar to the man that I talked to. I ground my teeth wondering if this was how the Empire treated its people.
‘Did they harness such hatred from such despair?’
Certainly, it was a tough scene to look at. And any able fighter would be motivated to enrich their lives even the slightest bit compared to them. Interestingly, I saw no young people among them.
“Hey, Mister… where are the young ones? From all that I see here, there’s only people that hobble around. What are you all doing in such an empty place?”
The man turned to me with a snarky grin. “Hmph, simply put. We were ordered to die, since they had no use for us. Thought it would serve to slow the enemy down, even if all we could do was chuck shit at ya when the bombs weakened y’all.”
“Sorry that my companion is impervious to such things.” I joked. The sound of explosions in the distance still had not stopped. By now, it seemed like she was circling through another part of the city before looping back.
The man shrugged. “Hardly a bad thing, since I’m still alive and talking to ya. As for the young uns… Most of them were forced into the army. And the ones that were too young… well, they got rounded up and held in that fort attached to the city.”
“What?! They’re holding your kids hostage?!” I shouted in disbelief.
The other people, overhearing our conversation, walked over with their heads bowed. They had solemn expressions on their faces, which made me understand that this was no jest. For the Empire to do such a thing, how could they paint the people of Sistina as the villains?
“How can that be? They’re your own people! What will those in your army think when they hear about all that?!”
However, the people simply shook their heads.
“They won’t hear of it. Or rather, they’ll just claim that they died unjust deaths at the hands of the invaders.”
“They told us that y’all would skin us alive and watch us suffer, so ain’t no choice but to use our crumbling bodies to slow ya down. That our efforts would at least save the kiddos.”
Hearing this, I felt a trail of blood run down my chin. I had bitten my lip so hard that it was bleeding. My hands were shaking from anger. I clenched a fist a few times to calm myself down.
My ears perked up as the sound of footsteps from the front gates approached. The people around me slunk back in fear at the sight of armored men in the colors of Sistina arriving. Quickly, I raised a hand to motion for them to stop.
“Hold. These people are not enemies.”
One person, a lower ranked noble who led the squad, nodded before motioning for his men to sheath their weapons.
“Send word for the Duchess to come. Stand by while we decide on our next course of action,” I added.
“Yes, Sir. By your order, Lord Chancellor!” The men saluted, sending two men back toward our command center.
Turning back to the group of city dwellers, their faces had grown slack with surprise.
“L-Lord Chancellor?” the man from before choked out.
“Ah, I did say that I was important in Sistina, didn’t I?” I scratched my head sheepishly with a grin. Still, they were stunned, probably because of the obvious.
“Why are ya dres-“
“Because I am! An Electi chef that somehow got promoted to Chancellor and is now here to figure out some way to help you! Now, do you want your food, or not?!” I rubbed my head in exaggerated annoyance so they would immediately get the point. They could tell that feigned anger was a farce meant to break the atmosphere.
Frankly, I was tired of explaining myself all the time. Were my quirks really that hard to digest? I simply didn’t feel like wearing something stuffy for the sake of looking regal! Did I need some kind of fancy sash over my chest to hide the comfy uniform that I had become used to?!
Seeing that I was just some silly guy who happened to have authority, they chuckled at my behavior. At the very least, it seemed like my easy-going personality helped loosen them up.
“Hey, what’s going on here?”
I looked up and saw Eryn giving me an odd stare. Apparently, she was done with disarming the explosives and noticed that I wasn’t around. How it took her that long to look back eluded me. Now, she had emerged from an alley with her sword drawn.
I sighed. “Lots of things. For now, let’s just take a break while we wait to regroup.”
She eyed the group once before sheathing her sword. Together, we walked toward the gates to find Cornelius.