Before my eyes could adjust to the surroundings, the noise of gunfire and people’s cries filtered into my head. Trying to force myself conscious, I noticed that the scenery around me was in motion.
Immediately, my eyes popped open as I stared at the ground moving. Feet shuffled before them as I finally realized that I was being carried by someone running.
“Eh? What the-“
“You finally came to, huh? What a bad time to take a nap. Making a girl carry you.”
The sound of Cornelius’s voice caused me to bolt up, nearly shoving myself off her shoulders. It was embarrassing to be fireman-carried by a girl, no matter the circumstance.
However, my body instantly chided me as my chest flared up in pain. It made me recall what had happened shortly before I lost consciousness. The boy that held onto me had been holding a bomb, which exploded right against me. With no time to guard, the explosion’s full force crashed into me, knocking me off the wall.
Fortunately, my mana was trained to the point that it had subconsciously formed a thin barrier around my entire body, an insurance measure quite useful in enemy territory. However, that had only dulled the impact somewhat. As for those that were untrained…
“The others?” I asked in a low voice, finally giving in to being carried. But somehow, I knew the answer.
“Dead, most likely. There was no time to check, but even a single glance is convincing enough. You are lucky to still be whole.”
Her voice was serious and cold. Of course, it would have been. She had just watched her allies get blasted by suicide bombers. I couldn’t believe that the Dark Hand would use children in such a manner. Neither did Cornelius, but her danger sense picked up something at the last second. It was all she could do to dive off the wall and catch me.
“I owe you one… for saving me….” I choked out some words, feeling it difficult to talk.
“Quiet now. The best I can do is the most basic of healing. We are far from safety.”
By now, I had noticed what else was happening around us. Brief glimpses down long alleyways showed our soldiers engaging in fighting all throughout town. The racket of gunfire and armor was continuous, but somehow… the enemy had gotten the jump on us. Where did they spring up from?
After a few minutes, Cornelius finally slowed down, stopping behind some back alley. Her ragged breathing told me that she had pushed herself too hard to find a safe place to rest. The fact that we were in such a perilous situation surprised me. I didn’t think that the Purnesian forces had enough strength to damage us so badly in a head-on confrontation.
Slowly, I slid off her, finally recovering enough to stand on my own. I came face to face with eyes that were filled with worry and impatience.
“You are probably confused, but first thing’s first. This entire city was a trap. They welcomed us here on the pretense of surrendering, but we were taken as fools!” She pointed toward a group of cityfolk who passed by while firing their guns, which tore through our soldiers. They looked rather familiar…
The pieces fell into place in Cornelius’s mind. What better way to let our guard down than to have us encounter citizens who seemingly could not fight back? Furthermore, they had taken advantage of our first instinct to protect them, all the while leading us into a dangerous situation.
I had completely forgotten how bitter Purnesia’s grudge against us was. Surely, an empire with tight control of its citizens’ mindset could convince them to pretend to surrender. Still, who would remain unfazed by the prospect of children torn away from families? That made this tactic particularly heinous.
“So, what now? And how are they dealing so much damage to us?!” I could clearly see soldiers falling to the ground, regardless of how they defended. It made very little sense to me as to how low-level cityfolk could mow down people with much higher stats.
“I do not know. I detect something dreadful about their guns. I sense a different mana signature from them. Regardless, we must act while presuming that they are deadly.” Even Cornelius, with her keen inferences, could not figure out a good reason behind it.
For now, the only thing we could do was to escape the city and regroup with the rest of the army stationed outside. As we got up to move again, Cornelius suddenly pushed me aside and summoned an ice barrier.
An old man peeked around the corner with the barrel of his gun and let off a shot. A loud crack sounded as the bullet smashed into the barrier. Even with how strong her magic was, the defensive measure buckled from the sheer force of the shot.
“Curses!” she cried before chucking an ice spear forward, which easily stabbed the old man who barely limped away to dodge. In an instant, his life had been extinguished from a spell that was far more than enough to kill him. I ran over with my knife drawn, making sure that the man would attack us no longer. I stared in surprise as he was yet another person in the crowd earlier. Who could forget the wide eyes that fervently pleaded for help to save the children? Then, I caught a glance of the bluish glow near the base of the gun he was holding.
Quickly, I snatched it from the ground before returning to Cornelius. Holding it up to her, where that glow came from finally dawned on me.
“A Resonance Stone!”
Cornelius took the gun in her hand and traced her fingers over the stone embedded in the handle. After a few moments, she clenched her teeth, seeming to understand what it meant.
“Someone powerful is sending their mana through this! That’s what is going on!”
I cocked my head to the side in confusion. “Why would that matter?”
Though it was hardly the time to explain, Cornelius gave me a run down as we started moving again.
By using a Resonance Stone, someone that was much higher leveled could transfer their mana to the weapon remotely. If designed correctly, the weapon would register the sender’s mana as the attacker, rather than the person holding the gun. From tomes of a long ago history, there was once a ruler who defended a city in such a way, bestowing his mana to his people to defend against enemy attacks. Every one of them were said to have the strength matching that of their leader, and now, it became clear how that was done.
Therefore, these guns were likely using that same power, firing attacks with the strength of a designated person. It did not matter who held the gun. In this manner, even the weakest of people could become a deadly deterrent for the sake of the Empire.
We were fighting that same person, multiplied by the number of weapons that were given to the cityfolk. That was the reason our soldiers were being wiped out all across the area.
“But one thing makes no sense! How can they equip so many!” Cornelius racked her brain as she ran.
Certainly, the sheer number of guns, a clamor of hundreds from what we could hear, would require a significant amount of mana. The capacity of a normal person, even high-leveled, could only support tens of them at most. Either, there were many suppliers, or… it was an Electi with a near inexhaustible supply.
“Don’t tell me… Lamps Magellan is the Electi of Mana?” The very thought brought chills down my spine.
“That is very plausible. As the inventor of these gun weapons, he could have easily tuned them to draw from his mana supply. Not to mention, the Empire would then simply have to devote their resources into one person.”
My jaw dropped as I realized what this meant.
Rather than training an entire army to fight against us, they had chosen to create a super elite in terms of raw stats. With all of that funneled into one person, there was little doubt that the inventor himself had become unmatched by even Sistina’s best. And then, by luring us into a false sense of victory against their weak army, they suddenly turned the tables. The Empire had hidden fangs that we couldn’t have fathomed.
“We must get back and warn the others! Otherwise, we risk being wiped out from an instant counterattack!” Cornelius said as she fired off more Ice attacks to pick off any gunman in sight.
With no way of attacking from a distance, I had no choice but to simply follow along. But soon, even Cornelius was starting to run out of mana. She turned to me with a serious look upon her face.
“We have no choice. Claude, portal ourselves back to the main forces. We must abandon the fight here.”
Nodding in confirmation, I ground my teeth that we had to give up on saving anyone still alive in the city. But I understood the gravity of this situation. Quickly, I pulled out the portal gun and shot above a tall building. The two of us darted into the adjoining portal next to us.
From this vantage point, we could see how grim the situation had become. Both sides were caught in a gruesome battle, where a single attack would end a life on either side. Whether a bullet hit first or whether magic or sword lashed out beforehand, the recipient would fall instantly.
But the ramifications of this fight would extend far beyond this result. Now, we knew that the Empire could potentially arm every single person with a deadly weapon. Every pawn was a force to reckon with. And that had exactly been why the Empire decided to mount an invasion. With two of the top people in Sistina trapped in this ambush, Purnesia held the advantage.
Cornelius and I continued warping between the rooftops, as we headed toward the outer walls. That was the safest route, away from the fighting at ground level.
But as I stepped out of another portal, several shots kissed the ground around me, causing me and Cornelius to jump.
“Yo! We meet again!”
A familiar voice that made my blood boil directed my gaze to the side. Standing there in his ragged cloak and sneering smirk was none other than Raganoff. However, he had daggers in his hands. The shots from before came from other members of the Dark Hand who were standing next to him.
Cornelius shot me a glare, and instantly, I moved to shoot a portal as far as it could reach toward the wall. At the same time, a massive barrier of ice shielded us as the gunmen started firing. I pushed the portal out farther and farther, nervously taking glances at the ice shattering and being reformed at a rapid pace. With how exhausted Cornelius was, she wouldn’t be able to hold on for long.
Finally feeling that it had reached its limit, I shot another portal before grabbing Cornelius’s hand and dragging her into the portal to escape.
“Look at you! Letting a chick protect you! Guess I have to take her out first!”
My eyes widened as two arms suddenly appeared behind Cornelius. Using knock-off portal guns shot by his helpers, Raganoff shoved his arms into the portals. Now, hands gripping daggers were freely whizzing through the air towards us. Time seemed to slow down as we tried to dodge around their paths. But as I jumped through and pulled Cornelius along, I saw a flash of pain on her face. Her hand squeezed me in a sharp death grip.
We both tumbled a short distance on the other side. The portal was still a good several meters in the air, but the scrapes that I received from crashing into solid ground were hardly on my mind now.
Clutching Cornelius who had collided into me, I felt a warm dampness on her back. I brought my hand up, seeing dark red slathered upon it. The pale expression and shallow breaths from her threw me into an immediate panic.
“No! No! You are not going out this way!” I quickly fished around my Item Box for a recovery potion to heal her wound. My jittery hands grabbed the first thing I could find as I tried to uncork it.
However, Cornelius simply grabbed my hand with hers, cold like the touch of ice. “Th-That won’t… help. Struck in the… worst of places.”
Cornelius had been stabbed in a vital point and was bleeding out quickly. Even if the recovery potion would reverse some of her immediate damage, the dagger had struck the critical portion of her life bar, vitals that couldn’t be saved without high-level magic. A healer with that proficiency wouldn’t arrive in time. She had only moments to spare. The blade of a master assassin such as Raganoff ensured that this blow was fatal.
“This artist will have to lay down her brush… At least, I lived long enough to see Eri find that special someone….”
“Oy! Don’t you joke now! I, I…” My eyes brimmed with tears, knowing that this was no jest. ‘If I hadn’t taken so long…’ I ground my teeth that I didn’t push myself as much as she had.
“Hey, save those tears for Eri… They surely are wasted on me….” Cornelius’s lips curled into a half-hearted smile. She was growing paler with every word.
“Screw that! They are for you! Why wouldn’t they be?!” I held her close to me.
The schemer, the jester, the person who always put me through a fair share of headaches – they were all part of the person that I could call a friend. Even with all the reasons that I could think of for her to abandon me and save herself, she could never follow through with it.
And here I was, unable to return the favor. Simply, holding onto her as her life ran out. How could I face Eryn after this? How could she forgive me for letting her friend die?
“I see… thanks for the kind gesture….”
Cornelius’s last words whispered lightly into my ears before I felt her go limp. I balled my fist and hammered the ground repeatedly at my worthlessness. Tears streamed down my face as I merely flailed around in sorrow as Cornelius’s status slowly disappeared into nothing. Not even a name remained on an otherwise blank status window. Part of me wanted her body to fade away into pixels as well. That way, it wouldn’t feel so real. The weight of her lifeless body against me wouldn’t sting so bad then.
A pair of footsteps stopped before me. The dreaded voice of the murderer made me draw my knife, wanting to slice him in two.
“Did I awaken your killing sense? Such a waste to kill you in this state before I have a chance for some thrills, don’t you think?”
Turning my head up to glare at his twisted mug, the desire to drive my knife into him grew. The despair he made me feel, simply for the chance at a good duel, made me far angrier than anything else. As I gripped my knife stronger, suddenly, a dark pulse reverberated inside of me. Instinctively, I reached up to my chest for a source of comfort, but the charm that was normally there was gone; it must have fallen off from the blast.
I could feel my core wailing, but not only that, a glimpse of strange visions flooded my sight.
Eryn appeared to be standing before a bunch of slain enemies among a disaster area, but she was holding a hand to her mouth like she had become sick. Her eyes were wide and jittery like she had done something inexcusable. A darkness momentarily enveloped her before a strand of it flew from her body and stabbed into my core.
Then, a strand of darkness flew out of me and stabbed into her core. Her eyes froze in shock at that moment, as if she had picked up on something. But the words that came from her mouth, made all reason around me crumble.
“Cor…ne…li…us…,” Eryn mouthed slowly, shaking her head in disbelief as she sank to the ground.
And that was the last straw.
At that moment, a wave of darkness erupted from her, dancing in the air before converging around me. The bitterness of tragic mistakes, the pain of lost loved ones, the feeling of hopelessness – it swirled around me until I could no longer see anything but darkness.
All I could see was the glow of lines in the darkness, outlines of figures shining with the temptation to be cut. I knew at that point that I had lost.
Lost to the darkness. My humanity taken over.
Raganoff stepped back as I slowly rose from my kneeled position, knife pointed forward and eyes hollow. He licked his lips in anticipation despite the heavy atmosphere that had suddenly developed all around. His comrades pointed their guns at me.
However, even he had not counted on what would happen next.
With a single wave of the knife, a dark wave brushed across them. It was like a purplish wind had merely blown past their bodies, hardly something that was believed to be an attack.
However, Raganoff’s jaw fell slack as he saw the bodies of his comrades collapse into little piles. With a single strike, the lines that indicated their weak points had been sliced through. With nothing holding up the bodies, the severed lumps of flesh crashed to the ground.
Raganoff had awoken the Grim Reaper. And only he had been strong enough to avoid instant death’s touch.