I made my way back to our encampment, the emptied-out City of Rivne that sat on the southern border wall of the inner capital region. This seemed like the final spurt before we would take over Purnesia, and then, end this pointless war.
We had already lost far too much, even as we gained ground on our enemies. There wasn’t a moment that I didn’t think that all of this would have been better off not happening. But that was just a silly dream. An ideal situation where the happy days were endless. Reality came nonetheless.
What I wanted most was answers now. Staring at the bald man, my downed opponent, I couldn’t help but fidget listlessly as I waited for him to wake up. The fitted uniform, only dirtied by the recent scuffle, looked high class compared to the tatters and rags that normal gunmen of Purnesia wore. Some decorations on his left shoulder looked remarkably similar to military ranks in my old world. But I had no idea what they meant. I never did pay attention to such things. It was just a vague sense that he was some officer of importance.
Surely, I could poke a spot on his body to revitalize him, but a feeling of hesitation loomed over me. Who knew how he would respond if some vitality was restored? Given his sharp senses during combat and his stocky build, I half expected that he might muscle his way out of the bindings. I convinced myself that waiting for him to slowly regain consciousness was better. ‘But was that all just an excuse?’ I pushed away the worries of what truth I would hear.
The other squadrons passed by the empty spot where we had parked ourselves, in front of some damaged buildings which looked like a marketplace. The captive was tied against a pole as I stood and waited. The passing soldiers obviously tried to ignore me, as they were still afraid of the new power that I held. I didn’t blame them. The darkness felt disturbing to the normal person, like a creeping fear tickling one’s spine. To them, I was an executioner waiting to swing my ax.
The only reason that they didn’t take a detour instead was the armor that I donned, the symbol of Sistina. Without that, surely they would back away. But even if they had faith in their Queen, watching demonic aura spewing from me elicited gazes of measured caution. As long as I was on the battlefield with my sword turned toward the enemy, they were fine with it. But if I were to start pointing it back towards them…
‘Let’s not go there.’ I shook my head to clear out the negative thoughts. I couldn’t let it get to me. After losing Eryn, these little disappointments should have been nothing in comparison. I still had people to fight for, and that was all that mattered for now.
A hand touched me gently on the shoulder. A cup of hot liquid was thrust before me.
“Tea. Drink it and calm your nerves, Claude.” Saki’s voice tickled my ear. Out in this battlefield, it seemed like she was the only one willing to touch me, since our great fight in Lodz.
Honestly, I couldn’t believe what I had done to her, to Eryn, to everyone. It felt like one big dream that I had woken up from, but Saki’s injuries had been very real. One false move, and she would’ve been another casualty, sliced chunks on the ground. But somehow, her determination to keep me from hurting others had kept her alive long enough for Katalina to stop us.
‘If my heart didn’t feel so hollow, I probably could have fallen for her.’
By now, many people had warmed up to Saki, after seeing the bravery she displayed. I was honestly happy that everyone’s opinion of her had taken great leaps upward, but that was tempered by the nosedive of my own.
Still, Saki understood. She did her best to smooth out the discord among Sistina’s army towards me. Likely, she was returning the favor from when I did the same for her. ‘How quickly people change their minds about things…’
She was also fighting on the front lines, keeping an eye on me as a fellow Electi. However, we were stationed some distance away, lest the purple wind and earthquakes interfered with each other.
“So, this is the one? Who took down Eryn?”
I could feel Saki’s other hand grip her own cup tightly. She wanted answers just as much as I did.
“Yeah, a bald man wielding pistols. Fighting him myself, I could see how Eryn lost.”
His movements were razor sharp, like an experienced swordsman or fist fighter. But what surprised me was how easily he could dodge my deadly wind that cut through everything. It was like he knew exactly where it would land.
“Don’t know what will happen when he wakes up. I’d like him to spill the beans about what happened, but be ready to smash him if he tries to kamikaze our asses.”
I thought again if it wouldn’t be better to cut off his legs to keep him from escaping, but then, I would be the same as those disgusting men in Ludmila’s past. I truly didn’t want to fall to that level. If all else failed, I had other things in my repertoire, like the disgusting curry mix from ages ago. The current batch wasn’t quite as potent as I lacked the ingredients to recreate that disaster; it had truly been a perfect storm of vileness.
Both of our heads shot towards the man as groans escaped from him. I drew Radiant Light, while Saki held one of her mallets. We held our breath to see what manner of person awaited.
“Ugh… the hell… not dead again? What is with my-” The man paused as he stared at two sets of foreign armor in front of him. Noticing his arms bound to a pole, his head tilted upwards to our waiting gazes. “Well, shit… caught by the demons. Guess my time is actually up.”
“Not quite. I kept you alive for a reason.” I said, crouching down to his eye level. I wouldn’t want to give him a neck cramp as some excuse not to confess.
“Tch, surprised that the Grim Reaper could do anything but turn people to mincemeat. But then again, who am I to judge? I’m made to do the same.”
Despite the man’s complaints, there was something different about him. At the very least, he seemed to fight honorably against me. Perhaps, I had subconsciously held back against him because of it. Some naivety was still lingering in me unfortunately.
“I’ll have you know that I am normally a very nice guy. But this war – you all – changed that. So tell me, what’s your name, gunslinger of Purnesia?”
“Pulchny Golabki. And yours?”
I snorted for a moment as his last name sounded a bit tasty. It was a nice dish that one could find at a Polish deli. But quickly, I regained my composure.
“Alright, Mr. Cabbage Man, the name’s Claude, Claude Evers. Grim Reaper, Chancellor of Sistina, whatever you want to remember me by – I have some simple questions for you.” I stuck the blade before his eyes. “This sword, remember it? It belonged to the girl who died by your hand.”
Golabki stared closely at the blade. As lights shimmered off it, it drudged up some recollections of the duel he lost, not once, but twice. “So… she passed away after all…”
I pulled back the sword and raised it up into the air. “You make it sound like you weren’t responsible for it. What a lie! Our men saw you fighting with her.”
“Yes, but I lost-”
In a fit of anger, I slashed downward, but an arm pulled me back. Saki stopped it just in time for the sword to swing at the empty space between Golabki and me. Still, it didn’t keep me from saying the words that clung bitterly within my heart.
“Liar! Why don’t you just come out and admit it!? Say that you killed her! So that I can have my revenge! So that I can stop feeling so bad about not protecting her! I-I just want some freaking closure!”
Tears stung my eyes as Saki pulled me back. In my fragile state, even she could manage to muscle me away. The bitterness of facing Eryn’s death made me weak, and I wanted to cut away all reminders of it. That was why I confronted the man.
Golabki’s face scrunched up as he saw me devolve into a pitiful state. But he had seen that on many men – the sorrow felt after one lost a loved one. “She, she was your lover, I take it?”
Sniffling to control my emotions, I merely nodded in response.
Slowly, Golabki looked at the ground and sighed. “It’s not going to matter if I blabber about this or not, since you’ll probably execute me after this anyways. Your girl fought well. She even managed to escape from my gaze. That was the reason why I lost… so no, I can’t bring peace of mind to you. Because I wasn’t the one who did her in. Someone else did after I fell.”
I pushed Saki back, who was just as stunned to hear those words as I had. Walking over and placing my sword right up against his neck, I stared into his eyes and asked, “Then, who was it?”
Golabki shook his head, letting the blade draw blood against his neck. But still, his eyes didn’t seem to show any deception. “I don’t know. Some gunman shot her in surprise. Carried the body away. That’s all I saw. The truth, every bit of it.”
I didn’t want to believe him. I had been tricked before by an honest plea. A single leap of faith had led to disastrous results, and I still blamed myself for it. And above all, I didn’t want to believe that someone as strong as Eryn could be killed by a stray bullet. My mind whirled, wondering if Golabki was simply saying what he could so that I would spare him.
But one thing stood out. ‘I don’t know.’
It was not like he claimed that he knew who was responsible, in a shallow attempt to lead me to the true murderer. He said that he didn’t know. He signaled to me that I had no more use for him. He had the resolve to die after he said his piece.
Confused, I took a step back. “Very well. I need some time to think, so I’ll just leave you be for now.”
Golabki looked at me with a hint of surprise, likely because I hadn’t cut him down on the spot after getting what I needed. Perhaps, I felt like holding an officer hostage would be valuable. Maybe, the look in his eyes made me feel a bit sorry for him. If he was telling the truth, then he fought Eryn honorably. Someone else deserved the anger that brewed within me. Either way, I wouldn’t know for sure until the truth serum was fetched from the Capital. The crown had confiscated the supply after the incident with Charlemagne, just in case of times like this.
But then, a clamor sounded in the distance. All three of us perked up at the racket.
‘Fighting! So close by! But how?’
It was strange for there to be an ambush, so soon after the City of Ravne had fallen. It didn’t seem possible. But as I turned toward the noises in the distance, my eyes widened.
People, our own men, were being flung into the air, like ragdolls. Immediately, Saki and I dashed forward, wondering what could be doing such a thing.
But we didn’t have to run for long. Among the bodies blown away, two figures moved rapidly across the area. With bursts of speed, it appeared as if they jetted to and fro between their opponents. A fierce tornado ripping through the crowd and flinging people off to the side was how I would describe it.
But as I got closer, their bizarre appearances became clear to us that they belonged not of this world. They were like…