Before the explosion occurred, Saki was held up by General Cielbasa and his automatic rifle. The man before her wore a fancy uniform with many emblems, proudly showing off his high rank. However, the way he carried himself as he fired at her gave off a sense of vileness.
Cielbasa, having proudly announced himself to her, proceeded to mow down anyone that got in his way. Purnesia’s own soldiers could only run away in response, likely knowing not to get anywhere close to his firing range. Saki didn’t have the heart to use them as meat shields even though she had been attacking them herself.
Encountering such a despicable person with so little regard for others tightened her grip on the hammers with a sense of vengeance. Rather than taking down people indirectly with shockwaves, she wanted to personally swat him like the pest he was.
But pitted against a long-distance fighter, she was at a natural disadvantage. Most of the skills in her repertoire involved smashing things in which the damage fanned out a certain distance.
As such, the demolition of an area around her targets bombarded them with various debris, which served as scratch damage or even as a distraction. At this point, her strength had already topped out at the maximum of 999 through leveling up.
Only one other person had reached this point, but Koujiro had matched it mainly through equipment enhancements. He still lacked the proper skill to transmit his mana into attacks that affected a large area. For Saki, this was something easily done, perhaps due to her inherent Electi nature.
Nonetheless, Cielbasa refused to step a single foot into her strike zone. Though he had seen the earthquakes she created, he did not understand that they were from sheer power. He simply dodged out of her reach because of his cowardly ways, while firing bursts of rounds toward her.
Given that her mana manipulation wasn’t as refined as the others, the bullets dealt a heavy blow to her. Only her powerful armor was keeping her body from harm. But that wouldn’t hold up for much longer. Already, the dents covering the metal plating were starting to crack, its integrity starting to be breached.
Some backup from magic casters would greatly tip the battle in her favor, but she couldn’t count on Eryn who was busy with the other officer. Neither could the other magicians be expected to break through the wall of gunfire.
Eyeing the clumps of rock littering the ground from her earth-shattering strikes, Saki got an idea. She re-attached her hammers onto her belt for now and scooped up a handful of them. Picking a random one in her hand, she gripped it tightly between her fingers before heaving a full swing forward. With the rock leaving her hand, it was pitched right at the fleeing gunman.
With a loud crack, the rock shattered a few meters next to Cielbasa, but it left a small crater where it hit. The man looked nervously at that spot, nearly letting his gun slip from his hands. Immediately, he revised his understanding of her. As he watched her wind up for another pitch, he realized that even a single hit from one of them would likely shatter his bones.
Dashing behind some cover created by Saki’s seismic hammering, he continued to fire behind the safety of a stalagmite. However, that had been a false sense of security.
In the next moment, the thick stalagmite, which was wider than Cielbasa’s entire body, exploded into a shower of rocks. Saki had flung an entire handful of pebbles, creating a spray akin to a shotgun blast. In a panic, Cielbasa cowered in fear at the sudden danger, forgetting that he needed to make distance from her.
As he was too late to scramble away, the sound of a hammer smacking against a palm happened a bit too close for comfort. The dust settled with Saki standing right before him, daring him to squirm away like a cockroach. Now that he was a mere three steps away from her, there was no way he could leave her strike zone.
“Any last words?” Saki calmly stated, preparing to give him a quick death of minimal pain.
Words failed to come up to the chattering lips of Cielbasa, who was only strong on paper. He looked around for some way to distract her, but he noticed that Major Golabki had disappeared, leaving the other knight of Sistina walking uninterrupted toward the gate.
The next thing he knew, a huge explosion rocked the entire area. Both Saki and he turned to the side where a giant hole was torn in the wall protecting the capital region of the Empire.
“Tch, damn brats from Lodz couldn’t even do jack shit!” he mouthed off before he tried to crawl away.
Saki, having heard that, quickly dashed over and snatched him by the back of the shirt collar. Hardly the type of person to throw her opponent, she normally could not pick up an adult man and lift him by the collar into the air. However, a fierce intent to attack him overrode that instinct and bestowed her a burst of strength. As long as her rage didn’t lessen, the system of the world allowed for her to dangle the man helplessly in the air before her with a single arm.
“You… what do you mean by that?!” she growled, her eyes glaring daggers at him. Saki watched as Eryn fell to her knees in front of the wreckage. “What was over there!? What did you do!?”
Saki was ready to snap off the man’s limbs, as she became impatient by the sudden shift in Eryn. But the hand that held her hammer went loose at his next words. The hammer fell to the ground with a clank.
“I had those kids from Lodz shoot at anyone approaching the wall! Didn’t do much good though.”
‘Those kids from Lodz’, meaning that they were the young children that were presumed to have been kept at Fort Lodz.
“You mean, they were all here?!” Saki yelled in surprise, shaking him.
“Pretty much, save for the few that the Dark Hand personally favored…”
“But why did you arm them?!”
Cielbasa shivered nervously as Saki brought her fist up to threaten him. “Why wouldn’t we?! Any able body with mana is all that’s needed to shoot! Not my fault they were caught in the path of your invasion!”
Saki’s fist shook with anger, a look of ferocity filling her eyes. She couldn’t believe that this man would drag children into a war. Had he no morals?
“Wait! I can tell you more! Just, Just let me live!” Cielbasa cried out, waving him hands in front of him. The very definition of cowardice.
Saki took a glance at his status, which showed that he was in the level 60s. That was peculiarly high in this region unless he had slain many enemies. And given that there were hardly any monsters living in the Northern Territory, she found it unlikely that he was innocent.
“Tell me one thing… How many people have you killed?”
“Don’t you dare lie to me! I know the aura of a killer when I see it! I am one after all!” Saki roared bitterly as her own level had been boosted in the same manner, albeit not of her own control.
A sharp glare shot through his gaze as the hand on his collar tightened, starting to choke him.
“Two hundred! Okay, I confess!”
It was no surprise that Saki could tell. She felt a certain coldness from him, even when children were killed in the explosion. It was a far cry from how a good-natured person like Eryn acted when forced to kill. He had no qualms with people dying. The selfishness of his actions was all too apparent.
Therefore, there was only one punishment left for him.
Enraged by her enemy’s disregard for others, the darkness within Saki brewed. She pulled off the charm that was around her neck and tossed it aside for the moment. Slowly, she could feel a purple haze swirl around her. If only for a little bit, she would let herself go wild.
“Aura de Gigante.”
Those words meant nothing to Cielbasa, but regardless, the atmosphere around him changed as the illusion came forth. Since he had been dangling in the air, he suddenly found himself bolted to a wooden cross of some sort. He had no idea how he had suddenly ended up here, as even the normal sky had turned into a dim, murky red.
“W-What did you do? Where am I?”
Saki, not knowing what illusions would come forth for him, said only this, “The depths of your very fears.”
Before Cielbasa could understand what she meant by that, the sound of metal chains dragged heavily across the floor. Not one, or two, but an entire chorus of them overlapping upon each other. Slowly, figures hobbled from the darkness and into view, and at that moment, Cielbasa screamed.
Faces, many that he hadn’t thought much about, stared up at him with hollow, soulless eyes. Blood dripped down their bodies, pouring from their eyes, noses, and mouths. More blood gushed out of bullet holes littering their bodies. With hands that reached up to grab at him, they bellowed out their desires in a low rumble.
“Give us back our life!”
Cielbasa panicked as he fiercely tried to kick those outreached hands away, like brushing ants off his shoes. That was what he had thought of them as, mere insects that were only there to serve as fodder to increase his level. Many of them had been plucked straight off the street and murdered on a whim. He thought very little of his targets, only whether they would give him a nice boost.
As his family was a founding member of the Purnesian military, there were few who would bother to reprimand him. As such, lives were used for his benefit. People were taken advantage of when they could, for the sake of his rise.
It was no wonder that Major Golabki hated the man, but he could not talk bad about a superior, at least not in public. The Cielbasa family came up with any number of excuses to cover up why such a person deserved to be executed. And because of that, they could get away with it.
However, judged under the weight of a conscience that he never knew he had, those people were now grabbing at his feet, dragging him down as they climbed up the cross toward him.
“St-Stay back! Get away from me!!!”
The mob ignored him as they clawed upwards. One of the dead finally reached up to his chest, suddenly sinking its teeth into Cielbasa’s flesh. Though it was supposedly an illusion, the pain seemed very real somehow.
More dead climbed up to take a bite out of him, carving out small chunks from his torso, his legs, and his arms. After they had taken their piece back from him, they moved aside to let others reach.
After a grueling amount of time, a picked-over husk of a man was left hanging on the cross, barely alive after being devoured by the fragments of his past. Finally, several small forms marched forward, guns in their hands.
They pointed the weapons up towards him, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Cielbasa only had the strength to turn his head slightly away. Apparently, his mind had acknowledged all the wrong he did to his victims, despite normally convincing himself otherwise. No amount of environmental conditioning could deceive the inner psyche, that which told of the natural evil of taking another’s life.
Saki stared blankly as she watched the man before him scream as his body was torn asunder in a matter of moments. Normally, the illusion of ‘Aura de Gigante’ was just that, a deception to fool the mind. However, that was completely different if she allowed for her miasma to take control of the technique from close up.
The purple whiffs of aura hovered around Cielbasa, like they had a life of their own. Saki didn’t bother to understand what demons were hidden in the despicable man’s mind, noting that it simply carved at his body like a swarm of piranha. She had simply been the catalyst that brought about the judgment.
She let go of his collar, watching him drop to the ground as a writhing, bloody mess that would soon expire. Even after understanding the full meaning of her ‘Aura de Gigante’ skill in her status window, it hadn’t prepared her for this gruesome result. She wondered if her heart was truly a similar evil that was only on ‘good behavior.’
However, she didn’t have time to regret her decision to use the skill here. Hurriedly, she scooped up the charm and placed it around her neck again. Satisfied that her darkness seemed under control, she raced over to Eryn, who was in a daze.
“Miss Eryn! Please, get up! We’re still in the middle of a battlefield!” she cried out, making sure no one had turned toward them to attack.
“B-But… w-what do I do? The children! And then Cornelius! And, and-“
Saki saw the look of absolute turmoil on her face. While she couldn’t fully understand what had happened, she knew that the children of Lodz that they planned to save had become casualties of war. Suddenly, a thought struck her.
‘If they are here, then what happened to Claude and Cornelius, who went to Fort Lodz? With the children not there, all they would find would be…’
Saki’s jaw dropped. “A trap!”
Eryn lightly nodded, confirming her inference.
“Then! We must pull back! Right away!” Saki shouted in panic. She had vowed to protect Claude as well. And if Purnesia had created some kind of ambush in Lodz, then they would wind up in a pincer attack. Highly dangerous given the new weapons that Purnesia had brought out.
“B-But, but I’m afraid! I just got a vision of Cornelius falling to a blade, and then something happened to Claude! I can feel it! The worst may have happ-”
Saki finally understood what had shaken the immovable courage that Eryn typically possessed. Not long ago, she had felt something strange in the distance. Given Eryn’s reaction, Claude’s fear of demonizing might have come to fruition. She grabbed Eryn’s hands and pulled her up to her feet.
“Then, wouldn’t you be the only one who could stop him? You are his Master, right? Set him on the right path. It is your responsibility. I will give you as much support as I can, but you must go to him.”
Eryn gazed at Saki’s look of determination. She gave her a light smile that made Saki’s heart skip a beat.
“That’s right. What would he do without me? I can regret and mull about other things later.”
Eryn’s heart hurt – because of her hasty decisions, because she may have just lost a dear friend. But if she didn’t get moving, she would lose everything else. And if it came to that, then there truly would be nothing more to fight for.
Eryn pulled out a levi-board, and the two of them sped back toward Lodz at top speed. Seeing them retreat, the rest of Sistina’s army pulled back. Having known Eryn for so long, she wouldn’t retreat without good reason, so they followed after the pair. Despite heavy casualties on their side, the Purnesian Army had repelled Sistina and bought some more time.
However, what waited for them back in Lodz was a surprise that many would have difficulty accepting for quite some time. A change so drastic that no side could account for. An existence that many would fear for some time after.