I poked my head through a portal, watching as several troops below were patrolling the perimeter atop Fort Lodz. So far, none of them had noticed the lone mana signature high in the sky, its light easily mistaken as a star. Then, a flat, handheld device exited the portal as my hands joined the head that was scouting around. With a few quick motions, I began to place dots around the visual interface that lit up from it.
Since Fort Lodz was up on a hill, the enemy had the advantage of visibility if we tried to approach. We couldn’t endanger the children held hostage, so instead, we thought of another way to break through.
Since Cornelius could see what was going on from a bird’s eye view via Hal, using portals to get the drop on them from above seemed to be the ticket. However, ATMOS was locked with me as the sole user, so I had to determine where to deploy the entryways. Not to mention, the device couldn’t map out anything that wasn’t in direct line of sight, so that was why I ended up with my top half leaning into the sky a few thousand meters up, while my bottom half was simply standing on stable ground. It was a strange new way to mess with my perception of space and induce more levels of acrophobia.
Finishing up the placement before I accidentally stumbled or dropped the crucial device, a set of ten portals suddenly opened up all around Fort Lodz. Immediately, soldiers of Sistina popped out of them and cut down the guards standing around before they could raise an alarm.
Confirming that no one had any troubles, I stepped back to the normal surroundings of ground level and gave Cornelius a thumbs-up. With haste, I put away the device and dashed into the nearest portal along with her.
Immediately, the sight of blood splattered on stone and the body of a fallen gunman met my gaze. My eyes darted away and toward the courtyard, where a small group was tied up in the center.
“Hmm, where are the other children?” I whispered to Cornelius.
“Presumably, locked up elsewhere. Likely, they only need to bring out a few at a time to threaten us.”
Cornelius’s words meant that we had to discreetly take out the guards before they were alerted to our presence. Otherwise, they wouldn’t hesitate to use force against them.
After the others waved along the outer wall to signify that they were in position, I took out my portal gun and shot an entry point next to me before aiming it right before the hostages.
“Ready,” I whispered as I felt a chill against my skin.
“Touch of Ice, let your cold blossom upon my foes and chill their hearts – Wintry Wonderland!”
As the name of the spell escaped Cornelius’s lips, I shot the adjoining portal and leapt into the nearby one. Appearing right before the tied-up children, I grabbed one of them and chucked the kid into the portal before grabbing the next one. Already, a cold shiver ran up my back. A quick look downward showed that icicles crawled up my legs.
Ignoring the pricking chill, I heaved the last three in before leaping back into the portal, landing safely on the top of the outer wall but frosty all over. Cornelius bent down and offered me a hand, which I took because I couldn’t feel my feet at the moment.
“Lucky for you, that should thaw shortly.” Cornelius grinned.
Given that I had the second highest Mag Def rating, only behind Corny, I had been given the duty of grabbing the hostages in immediate danger. The wide range Ice spell couldn’t be used without harming them unless someone fished them out. I stared over to the courtyard, where the surroundings had turned into solid ice. The guards walking around there had been frozen in mid-motion, their low stats causing them to freeze in a blink of an eye.
The children themselves were half-coated with ice, more so for the last ones I rescued, but they were in no danger. I let out a sigh of relief as no alarms had been sounded. With that, our soldiers continued to search through the other rooms.
Minutes passed and then tens of minutes. The sounds of running grew louder and less careful. Just when I was wondering what had happened, one of the soldiers barreled toward us.
“Lord Chancellor! Duchess! We have searched everywhere. And there are no signs of anyone else here! None hiding in the rooms. No sounds of children. Nothing!”
“What?! But, how?!” I turned to Cornelius who looked surprised.
“I saw them though! Only a few hours ago, I confirmed no less than 50 children!”
Now, all that was left was the five that we saved. My heart sank for a moment before the soldier spoke, preventing me from thinking the worst.
“No corpses either. It does not look like they were killed. Maybe moved elsewhere?”
“All we can do is wake those here and ask them,” I said as I walked over to them. Pulling out a vial of vinegar from my Item Box, I held it in front of one boy’s nose. Immediately, he scrunched up his face before stirring. I did the same to the other four, and soon, they were all awake.
The five kids stared at us, shivering, having noted that none of us carried a gun, which the members of the Purnesian military shouldered.
“Hey, don’t worry. We’re here to take you back to your family,” I reassured them.
By now, others of the squad joined us, having turned up nothing also. The kids, looking like they were about to cry, leapt from their places and grabbed hold of us. A short boy with curly hair, the first one I woke up, latched onto my waist. He looked not even 10. Similarly, the other 4 boys and girls of various ages hugged one of the nearby soldiers, likely relieved to be rescued.
I reached up to stroke his hair, but as I did, Cornelius shouted behind me.
“Sir Claude, get away!”
At the same time, another voice below me, as well as four others, came together in a chant, “Join as One Family. We, the Dark Hand. Shall prevail!”
With a bright flash and searing touch, a loud explosion erupted. The next thing that I knew, I was falling… falling… ‘The pain. It hurts so much.’ I gnashed my teeth together as I realized what had happened. A mixture of anger and disbelief spewed forth.
We had stepped into a trap, made obvious only as the children’s words rang clear. The five of them had been members of the Dark Hand all along, the group led by Raganoff. And they had been carrying bombs on them. Sacrificing themselves in a surprise attack, the immediate surroundings were blown away, taking whoever stood there with it.
And now, I was sailing through the air, knocked off the walls of the fort, and falling to the ground hundreds of meters below. But I could hardly sense my surroundings. My eyes felt heavy. My limbs numb from the howling wind pressure.
I heard a scream from above, making me look up. The figure of a person free-falling downward reached out to grab me. Purely by instinct, I extended my hand upward to catch it, not able to think of what else to do. The cry of a blue bird echoed around me, whipping its wing across my face as it flew by several times to slap me back into consciousness.
That was enough to bring me out of the daze I fell in. Tilting my head down, I panicked as the ground quickly came into view.
“Bountiful Snow! Bountiful Snow! Bountiful Snow!” Cornelius waved her hands quickly, casting a spell over and over, shooting trails of magic to accompany the incantations.
Following the shots of magic, I noticed a white circle growing upon our presumed landing spot. As we reached the ground, the two of us splashed right in the middle of it, disappearing into the giant hill of snow that had been created in haste.
An elderly man stared out the window toward Fort Lodz. Not long ago, he watched a group of Sistina’s soldiers disappear into some portals, and presumably, launch an attack on the stronghold.
He had waited patiently in the crowd as they formulated a plan and executed their rescue mission, all the while unsuspecting that everything they did would be leaked.
A slight smile curved upon his lips as he pulled out a gun from his closet, positioning himself where the remaining army couldn’t see him.
The shaky hands from age didn’t keep him from pointing straight at a crucial moment. He brought his eye toward the aiming sight. The pale, shriveled face gave off a sneer of hatred as he lined up his gun with the back of a soldier.
“These are the vermin who killed my son. Humiliated him. Shamed us all.”
The man’s name was Crusty Crusciki, but hardly anyone called him by name. Instead, people referred to him with insults like ‘Father of Failure’ and ‘Trash Spawner’. They spat at him. They blamed him. All because his son, who had led the vanguard invading Sistina, was crushed by the trickery of Sistina’s chancellor. The man that poisoned his son was now in this city.
For that reason, he never hesitated when a strange man came up to him and gave him an offer to join the Dark Hand. His weathered heart leapt for joy as he explained the plan to him, which involved the youngest members of his group pretending to be hostages to lure them into a trap. He was given a gun embedded with a special stone. One that would reveal its power at the right time.
And that time would be when an explosion rocked Fort Lodz.
Hearing that same signal go off suddenly in the distance, Crusty mouthed out a chant.
“Join as One Family. We, the Dark Hand. Shall prevail!”
Then, he pulled the trigger. A bang shot through the quiet room as a bullet fired off from the chamber. It pegged the soldier in the neck – a painful, agonizing death as he gasped for air.
That didn’t matter to him as he reloaded the next bullet into his chamber. By now, the soldiers across the city were now alert of enemy attack as the sound of gunfire echoed in the distance. People like him had purposefully hidden themselves among the citizens, pretending to welcome the invaders with open arms. They played along with the ignorant masses as they wailed about their children being taken away. He had no sympathy for them. They didn’t hesitate to fling slander upon his son.
He aimed the gun at the next soldier in sight. This one had his guard up while checking on the condition of his fallen companion. Normally, it would be impossible for a bullet from a low-level person to be effective, but the man named Raganoff assured him not to worry about that.
As Crusty pulled the trigger for the next shot, the bullet flew straight for the soldier’s chest, blocked by a shield. However, that soldier suddenly went rigid before falling over. As his shield fell from his hand, a small indentation could be seen in the middle of it. The armor that protected him also had been hit, and a puddle of blood pooled underneath him, making it obvious that the bullet had penetrated.
Crusty lowered his gun for a moment, staring at the blue stone that was glowing brightly in the butt of the gun. Raganoff had simply told him to “aim without worry, as the Empire will take care of the rest.”
But Crusty hadn’t lived this long without knowing a few things. The blue gem in the standard issue gun was a Resonance Stone, something that was plentiful in these lands. While they held no mana within itself, it could be used as a conduit of mana transferal from another source.
For them to activate at this time meant that Crusty’s own mana was not being supplied to the gun upon firing, but someone else’s was. And given that the bullets were tearing through an armored soldier’s defenses, the source was someone powerful.
As to who that was, Crusty didn’t care. He aimed his gun forward as another soldier came into his view. With another click of the finger, another enemy fell to the ground lifeless. Even if they would eventually find him here, he didn’t care.
He was doing his part to slay the villains that had claimed his son. He was taking action through his own hands.
“Join as One Family. We, the Dark Hand. Shall prevail!”
Similar cries echoed through the streets as the sounds of death accompanied them. A sense of pride and willingness to die enveloped their hearts as they did what no one, but the new rulers in power, expected them to – fight with the strength of any warrior in battle.