The Selection

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Chapter 50 - Avarice - Bad Luck

“How much farther is your transportation?” Kane asks. I wonder myself. We’ve been walking for what seems like half an hour, but it couldn’t have been that long. If we traveled straight, we would’ve made it by now…or at least I thought we would. I must’ve misjudged how far we went into the forest because of how focused I was on finding the slightest clue to the requests.

“Not much farther,” I say confidently while continuing in the same direction. My palms sweat a bit. With my head facing forward, I scan the area in front of me. I’m pretty sure this is the right direction. These tree clusters look kinda familiar too. I want to check my surroundings and make sure that I don’t feel the same about the other trees around me, but don’t want to alert everyone that I might be lost.

An idea pops into my head. I’ll pretend like I’m stretching my neck to get a quick glimpse around me. With my left hand on the back of my neck, I turn my head right. Nothing unusual here. I pass my sword over to my other hand and then repeat the stretch for the other side. Suddenly, an arrow.

What?! Completely caught off guard, I fall forward, the arrow barely missing. There was no time for me to warn everyone. By the time I hit the ground, screams resound behind me. Marin! Ruby!

“Enemy attack! Fall back!” Kane shouts.

I try to stand up, but there’re more arrows flying from the same direction. Fire and Earth magic too. I roll farther in the space that was in front of our group even though I don’t want to be split at all. The arrows are pinning me down. Kane’s headed my way with his heavy sword covered in Mana. I appreciate his concern, but I’m more worried about the others.

“Kane, forget about me! Protect everyone else!” I exclaim.

“What about you?”

“I’ll regroup with you guys as soon as I can. Go!”

“Alright, don’t die!” Soon, I’m next to a tree. I block an arrow with my sword while standing up before taking cover. The brief moment allows me to see three or four archers.

My heart pounds rapidly. These guys must be more of those bandits. They must’ve recognized the adventurers or the hostages they had. It’s gonna be a lot easier this time now that I know who’s who. I need to regroup with the others. I peek my head out, finding that the archers are gone. Damn!

I ditch my hiding spot but find the path that I came from blocked by two men, both holding one-handed swords. They’re closing in on me. The archers are running parallel to Kane. Our group seems to be moving farther away. I can’t stay here for too long or I’ll lose them. This won’t be good if there’re more than a dozen of them. Half of us are injured or can’t fight. They’ve got Artificial Magic Weapons too.

With no time to waste, I unsheath one of my swords and charge in. The guy on the right shoves the tip of his sword into the ground in front of him. A ball of water appears in front of the guy on the left. I sidestep to the right and continue dashing in. It’s a bit strange how the magic came out since his sword wasn’t pointed at me. The guy on the left steps in front of the other guy.

I swing my regular sword first. He parries it and holds my push with both of his hands. Since his weapon seems to shoot Water magic at strange angles, I place my other sword behind mine at the same angle as his. I press the button which envelops the sword in flames. I’ll overpower him in a second.

I feel a vibration under me for a moment before something erupts and launches me into the air. My eyes widen. Could an Artificial Magic Weapon really do something like that?

“Cedric, now!” one of the two guys shouts.

Shit there was one more? I look around. Another one of them beside a tree with his palm facing me. Of course Artificial Magic Weapons can’t do that.

Fireball!” he shouts. A familiar ball of flames heads toward me from his position. I could use my own supply of Mana to block his attack or… I sheath my regular sword and then place the other sword into my right hand because it’s closer to the ball of fire. I press the button to envelop the sword in flames. Since it becomes a magical object, I can protect myself from the Fire magic and let it pass by when I fall.

Spikes cover the pillar that launched me into the air and the ground around it. I point my left elbow toward the guy I crossed swords with. I won’t let him do any follow-ups. I exclaim, “Firebolt! Firebolt! Firebolt!”

Arrow-shaped flames appear and fly straight to him. He creates clumps of water in my magic’s trajectory. The ball of fire connects with my sword. I keep my arm steady as the magic pushes me back. I let go of the button, slide my sword off, and angle my body horizontally in the air. The flames gently warm the front of my body. I reposition myself upward after the Fire magic safely passes over me. Conveniently, I didn’t need to use any Mana to avoid the spikes.

These guys are much more skilled than the guys we dealt with earlier. Must be their elites. I wasted too much time already. I need to eliminate them quickly. And I’ll use Rich Mana for it. I draw my other sword before landing on the ground. The shock from landing keeps me from moving immediately. The Water and Earth guys charge at me from the front. The other guy is trying to flank my right side.

My sword clangs with each one of theirs in front. Even though having the keyword bound to my elbow is annoying sometimes because of limited angles, but times like this is useful. I point my right elbow toward the Fire guy while still keeping my weapons connected to the two swords in front. I move Rich Mana to my right elbow and then exclaim, “Fireball!”

Rich Mana intensity flames in the shape of a ball appear from my right elbow. The Fire guy screams for a few seconds before going quiet.

“Cedric!” the Water guy exclaims. Suddenly, both of them aren’t putting as much strength into their weapons. I overpower them and knock them back. I have no idea why they’re losing focus in the middle of a battle. I can understand losing someone close to you but I don’t feel sorry for him because of his background and the things he’s done. He points both of his palms toward me. Water magic? I sidestep to the left. “Wait, this is a mistake!”

“What mistake? I’m stronger than you originally thought?”

“No! Because I thought you were—“

I slice his throat before he can finish. I don’t care about his reasons. There’re no good reasons for ambushing a group of people out of the blue. The Earth user must’ve run away. I head in the direction where I last saw the others. I hope they’re okay. There’re a lot of screams and loud noises in the distance.

The Earth guy’s actually going in this direction too. While I really want to regroup with everyone else, a short detour wouldn’t hurt. Better to take him out now before he becomes a headache later. I run toward him instead. I break down some Unrefined Mana into Scrap Mana. I move a large amount of Scrap Mana into my lower body and core muscles in the same ratio as earlier, immediately activating the Mana to strengthen them.

“Don’t kill me! You’re making a mistake!” he exclaims while still running. The gap between us closes fast. I’m not making any mistakes. Just getting rid of someone bound to take more innocent lives down the road. “We didn’t mean to target you! That’s why I’m going to alert the boss. I’m trying to help!”

Didn’t mean to target us? We’re clearly from the army. The gap between us is already closed. I don’t need to answer him, but his poor excuse arouses feelings of anger. “Trying to help? You’re only trying to save yourselves.”

“No, it’s for both of—ahh!”

He falls from the cut across the back I gave him. I stand over him about to plunge one of my blades through his neck.

“I don’t want to die, I’m sorry!” I hesitate a moment, but this could be his game plan. To buy as much time as possible for whatever’s happening with my platoon and the others. When I think about how my sluggishness resulted in tragedy before, I easily finish the motion and pierce his throat.

I sigh and slash the blood off. I’d better get—

Shotgun!” someone shouts. Dozens of small spherical rocks fly toward me. It’s everywhere. There’s no time to dodge. I cover my face with my arms. A heavy blunt force hits the back of my right hand. Massive pain radiates from it. It goes numb. Several rocks shatter on my armor. No force behind them. Something blue comes out of the rocks. Mana? No. It feels cold around the center of my body.

The barrage ends. I put my arms down. A large rock flying my way. I try to move out of the way, but I can’t. My feet are encased in ice frozen to the ground. What? I shake my head. The grip on my right hand’s weak, so I can’t block the rock with it. There’s not enough time to release Mana to block it either. I hold my left sword its way. The rock connects with my sword, but there’s hardly a force behind it. It splits in half as if it was made out of paper. Water inside spills on me. I close my eyes.

“Ahh!” I scream. It feels like my right hand’s on fire and the center of my body burns up. “It hurts!”

The water got onto my face, but that part feels fine. I don’t know what’s going on. I prepare some instructions for my Mana to create some fire to melt this ice surrounding my feet.

“Cedric, Jesper, and Ivar felt worse pain than you,” someone says. He’s close. I open my eyes, but I can’t see clearly because the water gets into my eyes. He’s close enough to grab both of my swords. It looks like his hands are made out of stone. I gulp. He jumps in the air while still holding onto my swords. He kicks me in the center of my armor and exclaims, “Burst!”

A tremendous force hits me. The right sword’s yanked out of my hand. I struggle but lose the grip on the other sword too. I crash through at least two trees, finally landing on the ground and rolling several meters. I cough and groan. It hurts everywhere. There’re two giant rocks headed my way from opposite directions. I focus my eyes. It’s just one coming from the sky and it’s almost here. I release as much Mana as I can from my palms before it squishes me.

A loud noise resounds as the gigantic rock makes contact with my Mana. Coincidentally, it rolls onto the ground next to me since my Mana formed a slanted wall. My heart’s pounding. I was forced to use my Mana…did he see? There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. I sigh. The center of my armor has two severely chipped areas, probably where he kicked me. A big red blister’s located on the back of my right hand. Moving any of my fingers even slightly causes pain. The ice surrounding my feet are gone. I shiver.

How’s this guy using ice magic? I think back to Emdos. My first thought is that this guy’s using Water magic to do it, but that’s impossible. The attack he did with the small rocks. There were no water inside them, but it felt cold when it hit me. The blue thing. It wasn’t Mana and it wasn’t Water magic…

That guy’s ridiculously strong. Where’d he…come from? I recall that he said Cedric. The name of the Fire user from earlier. That means he was with everyone else! And he’s here now… I force myself to get up, even though it hurts. I probably broke something. The worst case scenario appears in my head, but I refuse to believe it. Even the slightest chance that Marin and Ruby are still alive, I’ve gotta get moving.

I walk in the direction where I was blown away. I reach the point where that guy appeared. Both of my swords left on the ground. There’s someone knelt down next to the two guys I killed. Must be the guy who attacked me. A surprise attack on him is my best shot of beating him. I slowly walk closer to him. He probably thinks I’m dead. Do I use the Rich Mana fireball on him? No, he can probably avoid it or counter it with his own magic.

I think back to his Hybrid magic with the water inside the stone. I don’t know why the stone was so soft. I could use Hybrid magic but how would that work with Void magic? How would I do it in a way that my magic isn’t revealed? I have no idea. The only thing I can do is Layered magic; using different Mana types in one attack. I’ll use a ball of fire with all Mana strengths, the strongest in the center. Using all of my Fire Affinity available. I break down my Unrefined Mana into Scrap Mana since I used up all of it on my Enhancement magic which is still active.

I start writing the instructions immediately. I make sure to match the speed of all the separate Mana types to be the same. It would be better to hit him from a different angle, but it would take longer to program. I don’t know how much longer he’ll be knelt down. He won’t expect anything from this direction since he thinks I’m dead anyway. Eventually, I finish my instructions and send out the Mana for immediate activation upon arrival to its destination.

Moments later, a girl comes from somewhere and walks toward the two bodies and the guy. I widen my eyes. It’s Ariane. I limp toward them as fast as I can. “Ariane, get out of the way, quickly!”

Ariane turns around and so does the unknown man. That face I recognize. Ragnar. He knits his eyebrows. Ariane still hasn’t moved out of the way. “You’re that boy from back then?”

My Layered magic activates. I point and exclaim, “Watch out!”

Ragnar turns to my ball of fire and shouts, “Stone cube!”

A big cubed-shaped rock appears in front of him. “Get out of the way! That’s not enough to stop it!”

Ariane kneels down to one of the two men on the ground. Ragnar replies, “This will work. You’ve utilized Rich Mana inside, right?”

The fireball makes the initial contact with the cube and crackles resound. “How’d you know?”

“Because you were able to survive,” he answers. The fireball moves into the cube at a faster pace than before. The outer parts of the of the fireball disappear pieces at a time. “The only way was by utilizing Rich Mana.”

I can’t tell him that I used something stronger than Rich Mana. I bite my lip before yelling, “It’s not enough! Get outta the way while you still can!”

“It’s okay. Earth is the most stubborn Evocation magic. We’re not leaving Cedric.”

Cedric…? I killed him with my Fire magic… The hole left in the stone cube Ragnar summoned decreases in size as the ball of fire tears its way through. Damn, it’s only a matter of time!

What?!” Ragnar exclaims. I knew at this point the strongest layer has ripped its way through, although the weaker layers of the magic are still interacting with the rock from my side. He doesn’t move out of the way. He screams, “Ariane, get back, quickly!”

I can’t see what’s happening. I walk as fast as I can to a better angle. A green glow emanates from Ariane’s palms. She’s using Healing magic on Cedric’s face. She says, “I can’t stop now. This is the crucial moment.”

Ragnar’s knelt down and water flows from his palms. Steam rises from the point of impact with my magic. The fireball has almost reached him. Another stone wall appears between him and my magic with water still spewing from his palms. The water gathers in a clump behind the wall. Water stops flowing from his hands. My magic rips through the wall and begins turning the clump of water into steam rapidly. “Arctic Winds!”

Small streaks of blue shoot out of his palms toward the clumped up water. The same blue I saw earlier. The water next to the ball of fire stops turning into steam. The small portion of the clumped water remaining turns into ice. But my magic shows no change in size. The ice disappears and the fireball picks up in speed again. The entire thing seems to fade away nearly at once before it reaches Ragnar. What the hell happened?

Ragnar pants and falls forward. He extends his arms before hitting the ground. “You’ve got some really strong magic.”

“Uh…thanks,” I answer, even though he was trying to kill me moments ago. Wait. If this is Ragnar and Ariane was with him, why’d Ragnar ambush us? Ragnar’s actually bad and Ariane’s okay with it?

Ragnar stands up and says, “I apologize for attacking you. You’re part of the army, right?”

“Couldn’t you have known that from the way we were dressed? Anyone could’ve known that immediately.”

He sighs. “It’s a long story. I need to warn everyone else first.”

“Kai!” Ruby exclaims. I turn around. Marin’s with her. I smile. They made it out alive. But just those two? Seeing how the family of four isn’t present, there must be more with them.

“Glad you’re okay Ruby. What happened over there?” I ask.

“We got separated from everyone but we protected the family!” Ruby exclaims while running to me. She examines me top to bottom. “Who did this ta ya Kai?”

Knowing her, I’ve gotta be very careful how I answer or else she might attack Ragnar. I should avoid telling Ruby right now that the bad guys this time weren’t actually bad guys. In her eyes, these guys are probably bad and she won’t change her mind. I’d like to avoid a confrontation between her and Ragnar. “It doesn’t matter. I’m gonna be fine. I found Ragnar and Ariane, so can you tell everyone else to meet us here?”

“’Kay!” she exclaims and runs off in the other direction. Since Marin doesn’t seem to be worried at all, I presume that the rest of Ragnar’s group’s either dead or subdued. Ragnar’s still here, so he must’ve thought the same. I’ll verify it for the both of us since Ragnar’s in no position to ask here.

“So, what happened to everyone who attacked you guys?” I ask.

“Dead,” Marin answers. Ragnar falls to his knees.

“Damn… I shouldn’t have left them alone over there,” he mutters. “So this is where our dream ends…”

“How’re you really feeling, Kai?” Marin asks.

I sigh. “Not too good. I think I broke something.”

“You can tell me what happened since Ruby isn’t here anymore too.”

“Yeah. Well first, there were three guys that I…” I think back to the latter two. How I killed them when they practically were doing nothing. I was wrong about them, but it wasn’t my fault. It was the right choice at that time, but it was the wrong choice. I stop thinking about it. “...killed and then Ragnar came and attacked me for revenge. I didn’t see his face until after all the damage was done and realized who he was.”

Marin stares into my eyes intently. “What else happened?”

I look away. “What do you mean?”

“There’s that weird rock with that hole in it.”

Damn, there’s no way out of this one. I left it out on purpose to not bring up the question of how I planned my ambush on Ragnar. She wouldn’t possibly believe that after the attacks he pulled off me, he wouldn’t be able to handle my Rich Mana special. Plus, there’re clearly four differently shaped dents into this rock by examining the front of it. I knew I might have to tell someone about my Mana eventually, but to as few people as possible. Ragnar might’ve figured it out knowing his skill with magic. I still can’t believe he stopped my magic. “I’ll tell you later, okay?”

“That’s a promise,” she says with a smile.

I face Ragnar. “I think it’s time you tell us the story.”

He sighs. “It’s been my lifelong dream to explore the world as an Adventurer like my parents did. I’ve never met my parents because they were doing that until they met their end, but it must mean the world was that interesting. The village never allowed anyone to go to the Academy because of my parents’ and many other deaths. So, I learned magic on my on my own in hopes of eventually leaving the village.

“I finally left two years ago, eventually finding like-minded people. None of us had Adventurer licenses but we convinced people to allow us to complete their requests. We gradually built up a reputation and more people trusted us. Recently, other groups of people have started mimicking our actions, but with no good intent. We didn’t want the city folk to think poorly of us because of hoodlums giving us a bad name.

“We recruited a few members a week ago to collect supplies around this area.”

“Wait,” I interject. It sounds like an exact match from request one. Except Ragnar’s the one who recruited the missing person. “Do you know if you recruited someone who dropped out of the Academy to open his own restaurant?”

Ragnar cocks an eyebrow. “Yes…that’s Henry. He was an amazing cook.”

His tone gives me a bad feeling. Don’t tell me… He was part of this attack group? I ask, “What happened to him?”

“Well, during our search for supplies, we found someone barely alive. He told us what happened. A bandit group killed a group of army soldiers and looted their equipment. We went back after collecting supplies. Also didn’t want to endanger anyone who didn’t want to take part in looking for those bandits. We knew they had Artificial Magic Weapons in hand. Henry was one of the members who wanted to help find those bandits. The same day, we took a request to find two former Adventurer group members.”

I really don’t like where this is going. The person from the second request did mention that he couldn’t trust whoever offered help. It ended up being Ragnar’s group. “So we’ve been in this area searching since then. Our searches haven’t turned up anything, but a scout found a family of four tangled up with some bandits an hour ago. We searched for them and we found…you. We mistook you for bandits because soldiers don’t use Artificial Magic Weapons and we saw you carry a whole batch of them with you. There was also the family of four we saw earlier.”

Something still doesn’t make sense about the last words of the last two guys I killed. They said it was a mistake only after I used my Rich Mana special. And Ragnar said something similar. “Why’d it only matter that I used Rich Mana before you decided you made a mistake?”

“The ones who killed the soldiers originally also knew how to use magic. It’s not unusual that some bandits around here to be able to use Unrefined Mana, but I’ve never bumped into someone who could use Rich Mana.”

“Didn’t you used to be a bandit, technically? Your village still has a bounty on your head.”

Ragnar tilts his head down. “You’re right.”

“Most soldiers that I’ve seen in the army can’t even use magic at all,” I add.

“You’re right… It was my mistake. Everything. I should’ve never left the village.”

“I’ve done all I can,” Ariane says. Ragnar stands up and walks over to her and Jesper.

“How is he?” he asks.

“He’s hanging on, but I’m not sure how much longer,” she says and then stands up. She walks over to me. “Your injuries are quite serious. Let me take care of that.”

“No…” I interject and look away. I was the one who caused their friend’s injuries. I don’t deserve to be healed. “I’m fine. It’s not that serious.”

“You don’t have to feel bad about Cedric. It was a misunderstanding. I’m sorry about any of your losses too.”

I just remember. I’m not sure who else made it out alive from my side.

You bastard!”Jetia shouts. He dashes toward us, sword in hand. There’s only one thing he could be thinking in this situation. I still have one sword left on me I can stop him with. I unsheath it and stand between Ragnar and Jetia. “Kai get out of the way!”

“Jetia, it’s a misunderstanding. I’m ordering you to stop or I’ll make you stop.” I tightly grip my sword. He’s not stopping but doesn’t seem like he’ll attack me. I don’t like him, but at least he follows the rules. He doesn’t like me either, but rules are rules.

“There’s no misunderstanding! He killed Dano and Banni!” he exclaims and then stops in front of me. His furrowed eyebrows twitching. “I won’t forgive him!”

“I understand, but I killed close friends of his too. He could have killed me, but he’s not anymore because he realized it was a misunderstanding. He’s lost more since you guys cleared out everyone, right?” I assume his silence means yes. “He’s going to come quietly with us back to Beltan. The village should decide what to do with him, and we still get our reward.”

Jetia clicks his tongue and sheaths his sword. “Fine. Have it your way. We’re at least going to give them a proper burial.”

“Thanks for defending Ragnar,” Ariane says.

“Just doing what’s right. I don’t need healing now, but I’ll accept it later.” I sheath my sword.

Looks like Ruby brought everyone else over. This can’t be everyone. Only Vicki and the family of four are present. I shake my head. Kane didn’t make it, even though he told me to not die. But now we don’t have anyone that knows where the bandit hideout is. This is a disaster. And where’s Kama? Jetia didn’t mention him and I thought they were close.

“Kai! I brought everyone!” Ruby exclaims as she runs over to me.

“Good job. What happened to Kama?”

“Hmm… I think I saw ’im run away.”

“What? Kama…ran…away?”

“Yep.”

I pinch the skin between my eyes. Run away when everyone else is still fighting? How can anyone think to do that? Unbelievable. “Where’s he now?”

“I dunno,” Ruby answers and shrugs her shoulders.

“Okay. We’re not going to look for him now. We’ll bury everyone first, and then we’ll leave. I trust that you’re not going to run, right?”

“I’m not going anywhere. If you don’t mind, I want to help with the burials. I have my own over there as well.”

“That’s fine,” I answer. “Ruby, can you lead us to the bodies?”

“Yep!” she exclaims and runs off. I walk past the family.

“This is horrible. I’m so sorry. This was all because of us,” the man says.

“It’s not your fault. I hope you don’t mind that it’ll be a little longer until we take you back to Drymo.”

“We’ll be fine.”

I follow Ruby. Everyone else follows. We reach the bloody battlefield. Ragnar quickly buries the bodies under the earth using his Earth magic. He leaves out Dano and Banni. They don’t appear to be any more injured than I last saw them. Asking how they died seems inappropriate here, so I don’t. Marin leaves two holes big enough to fit them using her magic. I guess I’ll give them a few words. I stand over next to Dano. But what do I say? I don’t know anything about him.

“Well, Dano was a man who—“

“His name’s Banni. You stupid monkey.” Jetia asks. My face burns up. Ruby giggles.

I’m so stupid… Even after I scolded Ruby for not remembering their names. I’m not sure if I’m confusing one for the other now.“Banni…well…he… Umm…”

“Yer done,” Jetia says and shoves me aside. “Go somewhere else. I’m taking over.”

Marin smiles. I smile and shrug before walking over to Ragnar and Ariane. This works better for me. I have a lot of questions for Ragnar. Maybe he can teach me some magic tricks.

“Ruby, you should stay here,” Marin whispers.

“Fine…” Ruby says.

Ariane hugs Ragnar. I stop walking, though I’m already pretty close. Ragnar hugs her back. Feels awkward. I clear my throat. “Sorry to interrupt…but I have a few questions for Ragnar.”

They keep their hands on each other and only turn their heads toward me. Ragnar asks, “Can this wait until we get back to the village? I’ll be executed there, but I’ll answer anything before I am.”

“You’re not going to be executed… I won’t let it happen. I can talk to mom and dad. They can talk to the chief,” Ariane says. “You can answer his questions. He’s the one who saved mom and dad over a year ago.”

Ariane pulls away but Ragnar pulls her back in. “I don’t want to be separated from you anymore.”

“I don’t either.”

“Kai, right?” Ragnar asks.

“Yeah.”

“I’ll answer your questions. I owe you one for back then.”

“What’re you talking about?” I ask.

“Those men you saved Ariane’s parents from were one of my own. I didn’t deal with them properly.”

“I see… Well, I have a few questions. First, what’s that blue-colored magic you used on me? It felt cold.”

“It’s Fire magic. Didn’t you study at the Academy?”

“Pardon…? Fire magic? I did go to the Academy, but…they didn’t teach that…”

“It uses the same Affinity to use. It’s Fire. After bonding your Mana to Fire Affinity, make it colder instead of hotter.”

“Make it colder? That’s impossible… The special property of Fire is the heat. You can’t change the special property.”

“Special property? I don’t know anything about that. When I first learned how to use Fire magic, I could only make it hot. But later, I managed to make it cold. It became blue when it did. I can try to walk you through the feeling later.”

I smile. “That would be great! How’d you make the rock soft? The one with water inside.”

“It’s the same feeling as how to make Fire magic cold. It’s something I learned how to do later.”

“So it’s more advanced?”

“You could say that.” Amazing. This means that I’ll be able to use something more than Fire magic! Well, it’s still only Fire magic…and I have Void magic too. How should I ask him the next question? I can’t exactly ask him how he stopped my Fire magic with my Mana inside. I could rephrase the question in a way that I get an indirect answer. Footsteps nearby. Sounds like one person. It’s Kama.

“Kama, where the hell have you been?” I ask.

“Kai, I’m glad to see—Oh no!” he exclaims and then runs away in the direction he came from.

What the hell? I chase after him. “Hey! Get back here!”

“That guy’s dangerous! You should get away from him too!” Kama exclaims while still running away. Must be talking about Ragnar.

“No, it’s all just a misunderstanding! He’s not going to harm you now! Stop running!” I exclaim. He doesn’t stop. This is such a pain. I catch up to him immediately since he’s not very fast and I have my Enhancement magic on my legs. I tackle him. I stand up and then ask, “Why do you keep running? How can you abandon everyone in the middle of a fight?”

He turns his body around so it faces me. “I was scared. I’m still scared. I don’t want to die.”

“I’ve just had about enough of you and your selfishness. Half-assing training and complaining about being weak is one thing, but running away just because you’re scared? How can you just leave everyone behind when they’re still fighting? Everyone else would die trying to protect you with their lives. That’s the unwritten rule of working as a team. If you didn’t run, Dano and Banni might still be alive. Your friend would be ashamed.”

Kama springs back up. “What the hell do you know, Kai?! Calling me weak and selfish. I watched Dano and Banni die! I was completely helpless in whatever that guy did. Of course I ran! I was completely helpless and would’ve died if I didn’t run! And you know what? None of this would’ve happened if you weren’t so insistent on taking on so many requests at once! None of this would’ve happened if you cared enough to train us yourself! Not everyone is as talented as you. I’ve had enough of your selfishness and arrogance. I thought that your recklessness might get me killed one day and it almost did. It killed Banni and Dano. Their deaths are on you and you alone.”

I open my mouth to say something, but I don’t. I don’t know how to respond to that. I’ve never seen Kama get so worked up before. But he’s right. Dano and Banni would still be alive if I never decided to take on so many requests. They might’ve faired a bit better in combat if I had focused my efforts on training them instead of myself. I expected everyone to be trying their hardest in their own way, but I was wrong to think that. These aren’t the Academy days.

“Look, I’m sorry. I’ll—“

“No, you’re not. And whatever you’re going to say, don’t. As soon as we get back to the Castle, I’m leaving the platoon,” he says and then walks away in the direction we came from. I grit my teeth and fists. It feels like there’s a lump at the back of my throat. What the hell’s up with that? First, he was scared and then angry. I was going to offer to train him every day. Training from me. Interrupting me and saying he’s leaving the platoon. He’s going to turn back on his team again? No one would care if someone like that left anyway…or died. No one would see or hear if I do it swiftly. I take out my sword and follow quickly behind Kama. I stare at the back of his neck at the exact spot I plan to stab him through. It’ll be quick.

Suddenly, I lose my balance and fall forward. The Scrap Mana that was instructed to augment my lower body ran out. I stand back up. Kama now farther in the distance. Why’d I want to kill him again? I couldn’t have been that angry. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was a good thing that my Enhancement magic ran out. I sheath my sword. I look around. For some reason, I feel like someone’s watching me. Could it be more of those bandits we encountered earlier? The only thing around me are trees and stray monsters.

The reality hits me again. Everyone from Kane’s group’s gone… Which means we failed the second request and the third request. We have no leads for the bandit hideout. Ragnar’s group is wiped out too. The missing husband, Henry, gone. Under the circumstances, it couldn’t be helped. But it’s not all lost. We came back with Ariane and Ragnar. The family of four too. And the Artificial Magic Weapons. We have fewer arms to carry them with, but it’ll weigh out some of our losses. I hurry up and rejoin with the others.

“There he is. Our great leader. Did you get lost?” Jetia asks. “Let’s get out of here already.”

“Not yet. I need everyone to pick up the Artificial Magic Weapons again to carry back to our transportation,” I say. By Kama, Vicki, and Jetia frowns. “We may have made a few mistakes and failed the requests, but we can still balance it out a little with the value of those weapons.”

“I’m not carrying anything back,” Kama says.

“Sorry, Kai. I’m too tired,” Vicki says.

“Forget about the weapons. It’s about time you paid for your stupidity,” Jetia says with a smile. He just wants to see me demoted as soon as possible. I’m no doubt that I’ll be demoted to Corporal again, but he seems to have forgotten about the punishment. That’s for the whole platoon.

“I’ll be able to help with that,” Ragnar says. “It’s the least I could do.”

“I’ll appreciate it if you can take one or two lying around,” I say.

“I’ll take all of them.”

I knit my eyebrows. Several seconds later, something made out of stone appears in front of him. It looks like a wagon, but can it move? “Put everything in here. After a few adjustments, we’ll be able to move it over to your transport.”

“If you say so,” I say. We gather the Artificial Magic Weapons around us and put them in the stone wagon Ragnar created. Somehow, it’s able to move as if it was an ordinary wagon. I lead everyone back to the transportation. Ragnar and Ariane take a small detour for Cedric. I haul the weapons on the wagon to our transportation. Ragnar and Ariane following closely behind. Ariane, Ragnar, and Cedric join Marin, Ruby, and me on the first wagon. Ariane heals my injuries on our way back to Beltan. I also inform her of the request we accepted. The gate opens for us before we get there.

“Ragnar?!” one of the guards at the gate exclaim. “Alert the chief!”

“Got it!” the other one says and then runs into the village. We go in as well and head to Ariane’s house. Her parents are waiting outside. Several guards tail us from behind. Many of the villagers’ eyes are on us.

“Ragnar, let go of Ariane at once!” Ariane’s father exclaims.

Ariane hops off the wagon. I follow her. “No, dad! You’re misunderstanding. Ragnar isn’t holding me hostage.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I heard from Kai. You told him I was kidnapped, but I wasn’t!”

“If you weren’t kidnapped, then what happened? You randomly decided to leave and you came back with Ragnar?”

“Ragnar came during the night. He asked me if I wanted to go with him. I went with him.”

“He threatened you, of course you’d go with him.”

“No, dad. He didn’t threaten me. I went with him out of my own accord.”

“He brainwashed you. There’s no other reason why you would go with him.”

“Why can’t you accept that I wanted to go with him?

“Because your life is better here. Out there, you have no certainty about the future. You could die at any time.”

“You exiled him from the village without telling me first. There was no other way I could be with him.”

“Well, you’re not going to live a life out there, and that’s final.”

“I’m not going to leave the village again. Ragnar will stay in the village too.”

“That’s impossible. He’s definitely going to be executed for his crimes.”

“No! Please, dad. Don’t let them execute him. He hasn’t done anything wrong. Anything you think he did is a misunderstanding. Please trust me on this.”

“How can I trust you? We’ve told you to never use your magic and you said you won’t, but always break that promise.”

“You’re right, and I’m sorry. Ragnar and I will never use magic again, so please. Give him a chance. If either of us use magic again, you can do whatever you want with Ragnar, and I’ll do everything you say.”

“Why would you go so far for him? What’s your plan?”

“I don’t have a plan. I just…love him. I can’t live a life without him. So, please…don’t take him away from me.”

He crosses his arms, frowns, and closes his eyes for several seconds. He opens them and answers, “You’re not seeing clearly because you’re in love with him.”

“You’re the one not seeing clearly because of your misunderstanding.” Ariane turns toward her mother. “Mom, say something to dad.”

“Sorry, Ariane. I’m with your father on this one. He tried to have us killed over a year ago.”

Four guards and an old man approach us. Ragnar hops off the wagon. Ariane continues, “I’m telling you, that was a misunderstanding! It wasn’t Ragnar who told them to do that!”

“So it is true. Ragnar was captured,” the old man says. The guards surround Ragnar. “I am glad you are unharmed, Ariane.”

“Thank god you’re here chief. Take him away,” Ariane’s father says.

Ariane exclaims, “No, wait! Chief, please listen to what I have to say. Ragnar is innocent.”

“What do you mean? Were you not kidnapped and held hostage by him?” the chief asks.

“Of course she was, she’s been brainwashed by Ragnar,” Ariane’s father says.

Ariane takes a deep breath. “I wasn’t kidnapped, chief. Besides, isn’t it strange that Ragnar isn’t putting up a fight? If he wanted to kill you, he could. There’s nothing stopping him. Isn’t that worth something? Please listen to my side of the story. I know what he’s been up to and what happened before he was exiled.”

“Okay. I will give him a chance,” the chief says.

“But chief—“

“Enough. We will discuss with everyone and get the facts straight. We will hear Ragnar’s and Ariane’s sides of the story before deciding. Let us go now.”

“Yes!” Ariane exclaims. “Thank you chief. Isn’t that great, Ragnar?”

“Yeah… Thank you for giving me a chance, sir,” Ragnar says. “Just one thing. There’s a badly injured man in the back of this wagon. Please help him.”

“Do not worry about him. I will have someone bring a doctor to him,” the chief says. “Now, come with us. We have a lot to discuss.”

“I almost forgot,” Ariane’s father says as he turns to me. “Sergeant Kai, thank you for bringing our daughter home. We’ll have to give you your reward for bringing Ariane home later. Enjoy your stay at the village until then.”

“No problem. Glad to be of assistance,” I answer. With that, Ariane and her parents leave with Ragnar and the others in the direction the chief came from.

I sigh. It’s been a long day. My stomach growls. “Marin, Ruby, do you guys wanna find something to eat?”

“Sure. Ruby’s asleep, though. Let’s leave her be.”

“Still? She must’ve been doing some tiring training earlier in the day,” I respond. I wish I could say the same for everyone else. Marin hops off the wagon.

“Shouldn’t we invite everyone else?”

I look away, feeling hesitant considering what happened earlier with Jetia and Kama. “Uh, yeah…if you want.”

“Did something happen with Kama? You’re acting strangely.”

“It’s nothing, really.” I don’t know what she’ll think if I tell her that I almost killed Kama in a fit of anger. “Go ahead and invite everyone else. I think it’s better if you ask.”

“Okay,” she answers and then walks toward the wagon behind ours. She comes back in a minute. “They’re tired and want to rest for a while longer. They’ll look for somewhere to eat with the family.”

“I see.”

“So, that means…it’s just us,” Marin says with a smile. She brushes her fingers on the back of my hand. I gulp.

“Yeah… Let’s find something quick then. I’m starving,” I say while walking deeper into the village. We don’t look around for that long. We sit down at an outdoor bar with seats since there’s no one else here.

“Welcome!” a man greets us. “Oh, you’re from the army, right? The ones who saved Ariane?”

“We didn’t exactly save her, but we brought her back,” I explain.

“Everyone’s glad that she’s back. This one’s on the house for me. What can I get you two?”

“I’d love something with soup that can fill me up,” I say.

“I’ll have what he has,” Marin says.

“Comin’ right up,” he says and then turns around. A full kitchen behind him.

“So…tell me what happened between you and Kama back there.”

I sigh. “I don’t know. I guess I kinda blew up on him. All my frustrations with his lack of drive and desire to get stronger. He’s so complacent with his training when he needs to get stronger. And I just couldn’t understand why he would run away in the middle of a fight, leaving everyone behind. That kinda behavior’s unacceptable. I think I let those feelings overpowered me. I said things I shouldn’t have and blamed him for Dano and Banni’s deaths.

“And, well…he didn’t take it too well. He shouted back. I’ve never seen him so angry. Said everything’s my fault. That I’m selfish and responsible for Dano and Banni’s deaths. And he’s right. I decided on my own that I wanted to get stronger and reach my goal as soon as possible. And that means taking on as many risks as possible. Not everyone wants that.”

“I understand. It’s okay to be selfish, Kai. It’s not your fault Dano and Banni passed away. They chose to come with us. It was an unlucky misunderstanding with Ragnar. You should make up with him.”

“It’s too late for that. He said he was going to leave the platoon as soon as we get back.”

“You can still make up. He might change his mind.”

“Yeah, I could…but I’m just frustrated. I wish everyone could see eye-to-eye with me. Like in the old days, everyone worked toward the same goal in mind,” I say, my eyes feeling watery. “I’m sick of what our team’s become. It feels like everyone’s working against me. That I have to do it all myself to get anything done.”

“You can rely on me and Ruby if you tell us. You can’t blame the others for being that way. They weren’t adventurers…and they haven’t spent their lives fighting. You need to be more open to them and maybe they’ll understand.”

“Okay, I’ll do that from now on. By the way, did you see how they died?”

“Dano and Banni? I’m not sure. It looked like they were drowning, but I didn’t see any Water magic. Ragnar did something.”

“I see. Ragnar’s something else. He’s so strong and he didn’t even go to the Academy. He can make Fire magic freezing cold and Earth magic soft.”

What? Earth magic soft? Like dirt?”

“No, he made stone as soft as a thin piece of paper. I don’t know. He said it was the same concept as making cold fire.”

“That sounds impossible… He’s changing the special properties of the Fire and Earth magic.”

“I know, right? The fire changed colors to blue too. I’m hoping he can teach us…but this village definitely won’t let him use magic again.”

“That’s disappointing… I’m going to try writing instructions to make soft rock later.”

“And I’m going to try making cold fire. I can’t believe I have so much more to learn. It’s exciting.”

“Food’s ready,” the man comes back with two bowls and sets them on the bar in front of us. “Enjoy.”

My the inside of my mouth waters excessively. Looks like noodles in some soup with meat and other stuff inside. As long as it’s soup, I don’t care. I start digging in.

Nooo,” a kid whines. “I wanna go to the Academy! I wanna learn magic. I won’t move until you agree to let me go!”

“No, you don’t want to do that,” a woman says.

“But I just said I do!”

“Do you want to be like Sofiel?” I stop gulping down my food. Sofiel? I turn around, finding a woman talking to a small girl lying on the ground.

“Who’s Sofiel?”

“A girl who wanted to learn magic too.”

“Tell me more about her!” I shake my head and turn back around to eat my food.

“Okay, pay close attention. Sofiel was a girl from another village. She was one of many who admired the adventurers who passed through. Since she knew the village wouldn’t let her go to the Academy, she snuck out. Reaching the Academy and eventually graduating. She went on countless adventures hunting monsters with her magic. Her friends were delighted by the presents she brought.

“Until one day, Sofiel stayed overnight at the village. Screams woke her up, and she smelled blood. Monsters invaded the village. Upright monsters she’d never seen before. She took her weapon and killed them all. But something was strange. They were weaker than any monster she fought before. There were no signs of any villagers anywhere. She only found the body of monsters.

“Sofiel noticed something strange on one of the bodies. It was a necklace she bought for a friend. She walked closer to it and saw a reflection of something on a window. Long sharp fangs, red eyes, and spikes coming out of the skin. She screamed and turned around, but there was no one else. The monster on the ground wasn’t a monster at all. It was her friend. She looked at the window again. The monster was her all along. Sofiel realized she used so much magic, she had become a monster herself. The guilt of murdering the village overcame her. She summoned all her magic one last time. The same magic she used to kill monsters. Because she was a monster, she killed herself.

“Do you still want to go to the Academy?”

“No! I don’t wanna become a monster! That sounds scary!”

The woman laughs. “It is scary, so never learn how to use magic unless you want to be like Sofiel, okay?”

“Okay! I don’t wanna go to the Academy anymore.”

“Good. Let’s hurry on to dinner.”

“Okay!”

Ridiculous. This must be the village folklore Ariane’s father was talking about. Using too much magic turns you into a monster? Heh. These noodles are something else, though.

“I wonder what Sofiel’s doing now,” Marin asks.

“Who knows. I hope she made it out and found somewhere to stay. It’s dangerous outside the city. We don’t know if she didn’t get attacked by monsters.”

“I’m sure she’s fine. We could meet her one day at one of these villages.”

“Maybe.”

Footsteps resound rapidly behind us. “Sergeant Kai?”

I turn around. A guard. I answer, “Yeah, what’s wrong?”

“I need you to come with me. The chief has almost reached a decision regarding Ragnar. He requested your presence along with everyone in your platoon.”

“Okay.” I turn to the man who made us food for a moment. “Thanks for the food. It was delicious.”

“Any time!”

I follow the guard. We arrive at a house. Inside are the old man from earlier, Ariane, Ariane’s parents, and several other faces I don’t know. Jetia, Vicki, and Kama are here too, but not Ruby.

“Now that everyone is here. From my understanding, Ragnar has killed two members of your platoon, correct?”

“I think so,” I answer.

“Ragnar killed them. I saw it,” Jetia says.

“We have reached our own verdict. We cleared up the misunderstandings and will let him back into the village. His bounty is void, but we will give you a partial reward. First, we will let you decide what to do with him since he has taken your own. Do you wish to forgive him or do you want to punish him? Since you are the leader, you will decide, Sergeant Kai.”

“Don’t forgive that bastard, Kai! Kill him! Get revenge for Dano and Banni!” Jetia exclaims. But I already have my answer. I want Ariane to be happy and to learn magic from him. Killing him is the last thing I want to do. I need to ask him if he knows about my Mana and how he stopped it.

“I’ll forgive him. Everything was a misunderstanding anyway,” I answer.

“I should’ve known you were going to do that,” Jetia says with anger. “Figures, since you don’t even know their names. Their deaths haven’t affected you at all.”

Their deaths have affected me, but I don’t want to cause a scene here. I don’t respond.

“It is settled then. I put Ragnar in a jail cell while we discussed the verdict. I will unlock him immediately and bring him here,” the old man says.

“Yes!” Ariane exclaims. She runs over to me. “Thank you so much for forgiving him Kai!”

“It’s not a big deal. I know he’s lost some too. Do you mind if I bring him here instead?” I ask. “I have more questions to ask him.”

“If you insist. Here is the key,” the old man says and hands me the key. “The jailhouse is one house over to the right.”

“Okay, I’ll be back soon,” I say. Marin tries to follow me. I don’t want to reveal anything to her yet. “I’ll be fine by myself, Marin. Stay here with the others.”

“Okay,” she answers. I leave the house and turn right. I skip over one house and go into the next one. It’s pretty dark in here. There’s only one lantern inside near the entrance. I can’t see anything.

“Hey, Ragnar. Are you here?” I ask. I wonder if I went into the right place. This is one house over, though. It’s weird how there’re no guards here either. I go deeper inside. The entrance to the jail cell is fairly visible. A dark figure inside. He’s facing the other way. “Ragnar?”

“Kai, why are you so weak?” he asks.

“Excuse me?”

“That’s how you lost your friends.”

Dano and Banni? They weren’t really my friends…but they were gone before I got there. Wasn’t because I was weak. The keyhole for the cell is right in front of me. “What’re you talking about? I wouldn’t go as far as calling Dano and Banni my friends. Weren’t you the one who killed them? Marin said you drowned them or something. What’d you do exactly?”

I unlock the cell and open the door. The darkness of this place is kind of creeping me out. “They told me you’re free to go. They removed your bounty as well. Aren’t you glad?”

“I’m talking about your other friends.” I freeze up, immediately thinking of Sitos, Drugo, and Hiro. How’d he know about that? Now he’s really creeping me out.

“Wha-wha-what about them?” I ask. I think of that masked man I met. It makes me tremble.

Ragnar laughs. It was just like that man. My eyes widen. He turns around. A white mask with a snake on the right side. “You’re weak, Kai. Nothing has changed.”

No way. I take several steps back. I can’t believe Ragnar was that masked man. He walks forward. Before I know it, my back’s against the wall. He’s the one responsible. He’s right here. The one who killed Sitos, Drugo, and Luna. He’s right here. I can get revenge. I grit my teeth. He doesn’t have any weapons. I have both of mine. I grip onto both of them. I exclaim, “You’ll pay for killing them!”

I unsheath both of my swords and slash Ragnar with both of them. He doesn’t dodge or flinch. I know I hit him, though. Blood is on the ground and on the tip of my swords. “I didn’t even feel it. At this rate, you’ll lose everyone else.”

“No! I won’t lose anyone else! This ends right here!” I unleash a flurry of attacks on him. I have to kill him. I won’t let him hurt Marin. I’m not weak. “Do you feel this, you fucker?!”

Die, die, die! All my attacks connect. There’s no way he can survive this. That’s what he deserves for belittling me and for what he did to Sitos. I swing one last time, cutting off his head. Blood spews out of his neck and all over me. My heart’s beating rapidly. His body falls backward. I did it… I killed him!

I smile while panting. Sitos you can...wait…

My eyes widen. I gulp. I look over to his head. He’s not wearing any mask at all. There’s no mask anywhere. No. Wait. No. I look everywhere, but it’s not there. No, no, no… I look down. Only my body and weapons covered in blood. No, I didn’t kill him, I didn’t! I killed the masked man. He was the masked man but he’s not wearing a mask!

A piercingly loud scream resounds next to me. It nearly bursts my right eardrum. Ariane’s standing right there.

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