The Selection

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Chapter 59 - Inteiru Expota - Defenders

It’s the day before the battle. We begin packing for our journey west past Elbar, to Xantho. Out of the four away teams going to other kingdoms for their Rising Champions battle, our group travels the farthest. One of our transports carries our food supply during the journey. Supposedly, it has enough provisions to feed Sigma 3, 4, and Omega 7 during our round-trip to Xantho.

I wish we weren’t the lucky group. There’s nothing to do on the wagon on our way there. And I thought the route to Aramore was long. This journey will take over a day of travel according to Captain Albius because of the snow. That’s two to three days on the road including the way back. We’ll spend only a fraction of that time fighting the battle.

We often traveled during our short adventuring days, but we never left Drosera. The atmosphere was different. We were hanging out with our friends. But here, I’m shoved on the back of one transportation with Jetia, Garen, Laud, and four members of Sigma 3. Of course, Ada is one of them. Since none of Captain Albius’ members are riding with us, I can’t hold any exchange between us against her.

She hasn’t bothered me, yet. It’s not entirely surprising. She didn’t win a single duel against me over the last two weeks. They were close during the first few days, but I adapted to her fighting style rapidly. I’d give her an ‘A’ for effort. I know that she takes training very seriously, which I respect, unlike those in my platoon. She has an intense desire to win. I’m sure for the main event today too. I could irritate her right now to throw her off her game.

Crushing her pride and self-confidence isn’t enough, not after what she did. I’ll rub more salt in the wound. I smile and ask, “So, I guess you never ended up winning a duel, huh?”

She doesn’t answer, staying completely still. Is she asleep? Her eyes blink now and then, so clearly not. I wave my hand in front of her face and try again. “Hello?”

She turns her head toward me, still expressionless. “Shut up. I’m saving my energy.”

“Well, I’m bored outta my mind. Just trying to have some conversation. I’ll fall asleep otherwise in this silence.”

She goes back to her previous position, staring at the ground. I poke the side of her face. I push her head back slightly and wait for it to drop back into place before repeating.

“I think that’s enough, Kai,” Aisha says. “I understand Ada hasn’t treated you all that well, but don’t you already see you’ve trampled her spirit already? Normally she’s very energetic and competitive. Be mature and take the high road. Otherwise, you’re not allowing the rest of us to obtain any rest either.”

She doesn’t understand what Ada’s done to me. If she’d knew she’d understand. I can’t ever bring it into the light so that she won’t understand. I can’t push it any farther than this. I’m starting to look like the bad guy here. I sigh and answer, “Fine.”

“Thank you,” Aisha says with a smile.

Whatever. Normally I like nap time whenever the chance arises, but this is a bit much. We’re not allowed to stop and stretch until the designated break times every six hours. Allows us to eat and relieve ourselves. Even if there’s a monster attack, we’re supposed to let Captain Albius’ platoon take care of it because we have to conserve our energy and Mana for the upcoming fight. Understandable, but no fun.

Eventually, we arrive at our location in Xantho. A group of 16 people is waiting near the edge of the cliff. This can’t be the exact place the fight takes place because it’s just on the top of a cliff. Captain Albius informs us that he’ll be discussing with the other overseer before leaving to meet them. The battleground has already decided and is beyond the cliff.

I walk over to the edge cliff and widen my eyes. There’s a distinct geographic region amid a withered white forest. Completely different than any mountain or forest I’ve seen. It’s a hilly area that covers an enormous amount of space. Way too spacious for just one battle between 32 people.

There are many overgrown trees in the area; they have a thickness ranging from a small house to a large building. The setting here looks almost unnatural of the presence of elevated landscape and those ancient looking trees. Some of the hilltops are plateaus with few trees. All the trees are still lush with greenery despite the season because the snowfall covers only the top of gigantic trees that umbrella the area. Inside the abnormal growth remains clear of snow.

This battle will be interesting. I’ve never fought in a setting like this before. We don’t know the rules of the battle yet either. According to Captain Albius, there can be several different rulesets. He’s going to try to lead the conversation to a ruleset that favors the main strategy we’ve prepared.

This battleground is a bit unsettling. I can’t help but have an ominous feeling. Monster hazards are normal during the Rising Champions every year. From Captain Albius’ experience, usually, the place of battle is somewhere with a low density of monsters or ones that are not as dangerous. This region, however, spells danger. Something tingles throughout my body. I think a part of me wants one of those monsters to appear.

I remember the red eyes. The ones that send shivers and fear down my spine. Not those. But something formidable. Marin walks over and asks, “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Her eyes sparkle with interest as she breathes out a mist of breath.

“I wouldn’t exactly call this beautiful. There’s no color variety other than different shades of green and brown.”

“You’re not amazed?”

“I am, but…I don’t know. It’ll be exciting to see the match unfold in this place.”

“It’s always about fighting for you… “

“Well, we are about to fight in a large-scale battle for the first time. A bit change of pace from what we were trained to do in the old days.”

“Is that what excited you back then? Fighting monsters?”

“Well…yeah. Exploring the world and hunting monsters...alongside friends. Honestly, I still want to do that, but… Well, what about you? That doesn’t excite you?”

“You’re weird… Witnessing beautiful sights like these is part of exploring the world. I wanted to see grand views like this. Well, I still do,” Marin says with a smile. “When my parents visited, they would often tell me stories of these grandiose views they observed throughout their journey. I wanted to experience it for myself when I became an adventurer.”

“Is that what inspired you to take up archery? Because you can see things from far away?” I ask.

“No, of course not… What kind of stupid reason’s that?”

It was stupid. She continues, “I wanted to feel closer to my mom…because she was an Archer too. I thought I would feel connected to her more.”

Her expression darkens. A mistake on my part. I shouldn’t have shifted the conversation this way. But she smiles again and asks, “What about you, Kai? You could’ve chosen anything, but you went with Light. Did someone inspire you?”

I smile skeptically. “Well, I guess you could say that…”

“Was it Emdos?”

“No…” I answer, still unsure if I should make something up. Marin wanted to feel closer to her mom, but my reason was petty. We decided we wouldn’t keep secrets from each other. I’ll tell the truth. “It was Sitos. I hated the way he was acting toward me on our first day. I knew that picking the same role as him would piss him off the most.”

“Oh…” Marin answers with little energy. She’s probably disappointed. “So, that’s why you took on the same weapon choice as Sitos.”

“No, not exactly. I stumbled upon someone dueling with two swords against someone with only one. The way he chained one attack with another was like an art. It was a sight to behold. That’s what truly convinced me to take on dual-wielding.”

“That’s romantic. I wonder what everyone else was thinking when they signed up to be an Adventurer and chose their role.”

“Well, I bet Hiro just thought it would be fun and Drugo followed whatever he chose to do. Hiro obviously determined that the Heavy role would be the center of attention. His weapon literally goes boom when he smashes the ground. Drugo wanted to cover everyones’ backs and protect. Sitos probably was pressured into it by his dad and chose Light because that’s what his trainer specialized in. Luna… I have no idea, and we’ll never find out.”

“Whatcha talkin’ ’bout?” Ruby asks abruptly from between Marin and I. It almost makes me lose my balance. A bit dangerous while overlooking the edge of a cliff. That reminds me, Ada could push me down to my death if I’m not careful. That’s the real reason she looks defeated. Just to get me off my guard. I look around, but she’s not lurking behind me. What a relief. “Did I scare ya?”

“Yeah, don’t jump out of nowhere like that. Especially not while we’re by the edge.”

“I’m sorry, Kai. I hope yer not mad.”

“I’m not mad.”

“’Kay, that’s good.”

“Ruby, we were talking about why we wanted to be Adventurers and how we decided our roles at the Academy. Did you go to the Academy before joining the army?”

I glare at Marin with narrowed eyes.

Ruby answers, “Yeah I went ta the Academy. I wanted ta be an Adventurer ‘cause I love cookin’. I’d be able ta discover all kinds of ingredients fer cookin’ while completin’ requests… The white-masked people killed everyone on my team. We went on so many adventures together fer over a year after graduatin’ the Academy too. I wanna get revenge, so I joined the army. It’s the same fer ya guys, right?”

“Yeah…except we only went on adventures for less than three months. We lost everyone but each other…” Marin answers.

It’s good that Ruby didn’t mention age. Otherwise, there would be a discrepancy in her story because older people could enroll in the same year. Because she went on adventures for at least a year, it means that she enrolled at the Academy as an Adventurer a year before us. She’s our senior by a year. That means she’s at least seventeen years old. I nod my head multiple times.

“Attention!” Captain Albius exclaims as he regroups with us. “We’ve finished our discussion regardin’ how the Rising Champions match will be played.”

“You’ll be fightin’ in the Panoramic Grove over yonder,” he informs while pointing toward the overgrown garden. “The location was non-negotiable. It looks like they’re set on battlin’ in there. They’re goin’ to have something planned in that case. But we’ll have an attacker’s advantage. The enemy’s platoon’s stationed near the entrance in one spot. They aren’t allowed to move or attack until you’ve determined their location. Not much of an advantage, but you won’t have to risk an ambush. You’d be able to execute our main strategy without issue if you’re able to locate them without them noticin’.

“The rest’s pretty standard. No killin’ if someone surrenders and blah, blah, blah... Any questions?”

“Will there be monsters in there?” Garen asks.

“Probably. But remember, they’re as hazardous to our opponents as they’re to you. We’re stronger, so don’t worry. That’s probably why they’re insistent on fightin’ in there. Stick to the plan, and you’ll be fine. You’ve got ex-adventurers with you. We’ll be watchin’ from afar. Probably on the apex of one of the hills over there. If things turn for the worst, we’ll intervene. Anyone else?”

“Will we get inta trouble if we kill someone befer they surrender?” Ruby asks. I’m curious about that too, considering our game plan. The battle could end without as much of a fight if they’re on the level of our typical Soldier.

“You’re free to go all out without consequence. They should’ve prepared something already since they knew of our capabilities before settin’ up their team. Anyone else?”

I’m tempted to ask if he knows if the other team is comprised of ex-adventurers as well. That would be something that would change everything. And explain why they chose a dangerous setting that could be filled with hostile monsters. But at the same time, if they are, it could break our team morale. Especially the lesser skilled ones. I’ll stay quiet about that. But there’s one thing that worries me. I ask, “What happens if a monster kills someone?”

“No consequence to either kingdom, unless a direct action from someone causes a monster to kill someone.”

“What about Conjuration magic? We won’t know if a monster’s summoned by someone or not.”

“That’s something we report if someone has that capability. There weren’t any reports, so if you suspect anything, make sure to let me know. I’ll take the proper next steps.”

“I’ll keep you updated.”

“Anyone else?” Captain Albius asks. Silence follows for five seconds. “If that’s it, we’ll start headin’ down to the base of the location.”

Everyone makes their way back to the wagon. Ruby, Marin, and I linger a bit. Ruby exclaims, “Good luck, Kai! I’m gonna do my job properly, so ya don’t hafta worry. Marin’s there too.”

“I’m not worried. You have the support of the entire team. I’m sure you’ll be able to separate them, so that it’ll be easy for Ada and me to pick them off,” I say. “How do you think you’ll do, Marin? Have you gotten more used to Aisha and the others Archer’s combat style?”

“A little bit. But my role’s slightly different than theirs after the initial strategy. I’ll be primarily supporting unless they need me on offense.”

“I see, that’s more suited toward your strengths. Well, I might be a bit paranoid, but stay wary. Our opponents might be ex-adventurers too. I didn’t wanna bring it up because it could’ve damaged our morale, but be careful.”

Marin nods.

“’Kay! I won’t hold back.”

I’m not sure what she means by that, exactly. All I know is, she and Aisha are responsible for our initial attack on our opponents. Their role is to hit them with a head-on attack in the middle that forces them to separate left or right. It takes time to prepare, so the rest of the team turtles and create an opening for their Mana to be able to materialize and activate.

“Well, we’d better get going. Good luck,” I say and then jog back to the same wagon I was on previously. We leave shortly afterward.

Eventually, we arrive outside the Panoramic Grove. The other overseer platoon is waiting. There’s a symbol on the front of his armor. It’s hard to see from here, but it looks like a lion baring its fangs. Is their leader a Captain too? Although, I’m not too sure of their military structure. Captain Albius mentioned they had multiple generals. We only have one, so it can’t be all that the same.

Captain Albius meets with them for a few minutes before they split. The enemy overseer group walks into the Panoramic Grove while our overseer platoon returns to us.

“The battle’s goin’ to start soon. Xantho’s overseer platoon will go into the Panoramic Grove to inform their combatants that the battle starts as soon as you’re ready. I have the utmost faith that you’ll come out on top of this clash. Remember the strategy and your role. We’ll be observin’ from afar. Good luck,” Captain Albius says and then goes into the battlegrounds with his men.

Aisha hops off the wagon and announces, “With that said, I hope everyone remembers their roles in this battle.”

I don’t like how she assumed the role of the leader for the entire team. Probably thinks that she’s above me considering that she won against me during the mock battle. Then again, I’m part of a two-man unit with Ada that operates separately from the rest of the team. I wouldn’t be able to lead anyone as part of the battle, so whatever.

“Once we’ve located the enemy, Ruby and I will make our preparations based on the terrain. Each member of the defense team will create barriers of Mana serving as our first line of defense. Kai and Ada will standby until Ruby, and I have released our attack. Everyone else will put everything into assault, forcing the other team to stay together as a group. Ruby and I will unleash our attack to separate them into two. The offensive team will continue to focus on separating the enemy platoon.

“In the confusion, Kai and Ada will into one side of their split forces to distract them until backup arrives. The rest of us will stay in a group and utilize our numbers advantage to focus on the other half. I’ll take command in case things don’t go our way mid-battle. Now, are you ready to show them what we’re made of?”

“Yeah!” everyone cheers with hands and weapons raised in the air. I stay silent, though. I can’t be the only one.

“Show the results of our training!”

“Yeah!” The cheers grow louder. Even Jetia, Laud, Garen, and the other two goons are playing along.

“Let’s do this!”

“Yeah!”

“Defense team, forward!”

“Yeah!” everyone cheers one last time.

The defensive team marches forward while the rest of us follow in formation. I can’t help but think to what Hina keeps telling me that I need to inspire everyone as the leader. It makes me feel like I’ve lost in that aspect. But what good would come of inspiring the goons? It’s only artificial. It won’t take much to shatter it. I haven’t witnessed it, but they’ve trained seriously for one week at most. If I hadn’t funded the initial Mana training seminar for them, they wouldn’t have much of a role in the battle.

We step into the Panoramic Grove, walking in a straight path toward the center. This place looks empty, devoid of any life other than these various plants and trees. It’s a big place so that the monsters could be deeper inside. The bigger question is if those monsters are docile or hostile. In a place like this, I would find it strange if there weren’t dangerous monsters ranked ‘C’ or higher roaming about in a place like this. They could be hibernating because it’s winter.

We’re a few minutes deep in here, but still no signs of the enemy or anything. It also feels warmer, like it’s spring, but it’s clearly winter. Are these trees giving off heat? I hope the temperature doesn’t increase much more than this. Otherwise, I’ll be a bit uncomfortable with these armor warmers installed. My joints will be less stiff, though, in this warmer weather. Should be easier to move around in these conditions.

Hopefully, Xantho’s team isn’t too far into this jungle. Captain Albius mentioned they would be near the entrance. He didn’t mention where, but it has to be in an open area. They aren’t going to station on the middle of an upward-slant. If we’re supposed to find them fairly easily, there has to be some kind of landmark.

The top of this hill up ahead seems like a strong contender. This hill looks larger compared to a previous one we passed. It extends in the distance from the left and right of our view. If the bottom of the slope is the ground, the top has to be at least the third or fourth floor. From down here, it doesn’t look like the area is secluded by smaller trees either. Just the massive ones that curve and twist above us.

The best thing to do would be to play it cautiously from here and use this terrain to our advantage. Aisha and Ruby could prepare their magic ahead of time and wait to activate it. Don’t make too much noise and try to glimpse what’s on top of this hill, minimizing movements. I don’t want to bring it up since the enemies could hear me. If anything, it would be Aisha’s job to call it out. No one seems to say anything as the defense team starts their climb up the hill.

It would be too confusing to bring up the matter, anyway. Everyone’s already had the strategy drilled into their brain. A new one would confuse them. I’m thinking too hard because our opponents might not be pushovers, but it should be fine either way.

I reach the top of the hill shortly after our frontline. A complete flat area from what it appears. Looks like a round mound. The grass goes up to my waist, so it’s hard to tell. There are a few small stray trees around, but isn’t a major obstacle. The enemy is positioned right across as I thought. They’re grouped up closely together. It’s hard to tell how many there are since they’re far as well, but there should be 16. Captain Albius mentioned all of them had to be there.

“Everyone, it’s showtime!” Aisha exclaims. Everyone rushes forward to move into their positions. Ada and I don’t have much of a role to play now. Jetia, the four goons charge forward releasing a short stream of Scrap Mana from their palms in front of them. A bit of a waste in my eyes, but it’s not like they know how to use magic. The only purpose is to stop them from moving any inactive Mana in the area in front of them. We all follow them because we want to settle down in a better position.

They stop and create several vertical walls of Scrap Mana. It’s to protect Aisha and Ruby from a direct line of sight attack by the enemy. If anything strong breaks through, Ada and I are backup. But, they should’ve moved farther in before barricading there. Otherwise, they’ll have a longer time to react to Aisha and Ruby’s big attack. Amateurs.

Everyone besides Aisha, Ruby, Ada, and I continue dashing forward. The enemy hasn’t moved much, thankfully. There are a few things they can do that would be problematic for us. Running away is an issue, but it’s also dishonorable at the start of the battle since it doesn’t count as a tactical retreat at that point, so that’s out. Splitting up right from the start and charging at us in a full-on assault would be the worst case scenario. If they’re smart, they would go around the bottom of the hill instead of right across. Otherwise, even if they split up, Ruby and Aisha’s magic would still be largely effective.

That’s why everyone charges in from the start. To stop our opponents from splitting up if they do. Their attacks aren’t meant to do any damage to them. Going all-out isn’t the goal either. Because that might alter the landscape and create conditions unfavorable for us, they only need to distract them for a moment as it won’t take long for Aisha and Ruby to prepare, especially in a flat area like this.

The enemy lines up in an arrow-shaped formation and charges at us. Strange that they decide to do this now. Maybe they came up with a strategy on the spot. Unrefined Mana appears around them, cloaking them inside. It’s like a smooth wave of slow-moving Mana moving toward us. That settles it. They must be ex-adventurers. Or at least have several members responsible for creating that. All of them are running fairly fast while in sync too. Faster than Jetia and the goons run.

They’re going full-force down the middle. The enemy can’t possibly know about our plan, so I don’t see why they would think we can’t stop them. We can’t stare and do nothing since Aisha and Ruby won’t be ready in time. Several from Aisha’s group could easily deter them from this strategy. The enemy must think little of us if they thought otherwise. Unless we collide with them head-on, they’ll end up a bit separated.

The sledgehammer user from Aisha’s team aligns himself with their charge and jumps into the air. He slams the ground in front of him. The enemy team is still a way’s off. I suspect the only purpose is to send Mana into the ground. He’ll use a trigger word to activate the magic when the time is right. They can’t defend from an attack from under with their current strategy.

Four of our Archers shoot arrows at them. That’s one thing they can’t defend against with their Mana barrier. The Mana surrounding the enemy disappear, and their frontline blocks the projectiles with their shield. Their backline must have alerted them about the incoming attack. It doesn’t slow them down. They slow down suddenly, coming to a stop. It must be Deniz’ Wind magic; the grass around them shift away from us. The two army recruits from Aisha’s team shoot magic at the enemy too. Balls of fire and water. With the combined assault of our attacks, they can’t defend against both physical and magical attacks at once.

A stone wall seems to extend from their shields at the front of their formation. Or so, they can defend against both. Since the grass is in the way, it’s hard to tell if the shields cover their lower half, but their upper body is covered. I would assume they would cover any gaps with Unrefined Mana. They continue their charge forward but slightly slower than before. I’m sure the weight of the stone wall slows them down.

Aisha’s team could attack more aggressively by going around their blindspot, but they would have to travel farther out. Since they’ll have to fallback eventually, it’s not a good idea. A stone platform rises from under the enemy quickly. It launches them into the air. It was wide enough to include over half of their members. The stone wall disappears shortly afterward.

Two of our archers shoot one arrow each right under them. A puddle of water appears from under them. The second arrow adds Lightning magic to the mix. Dropping from that height would already be problematic, but now they have to deal with the trap too. A dirt cube appears right underneath them that falls a short distance down. A thump resounds as it hits the ground. It effectively neutralizes the trap and reduces their fall time. To have written instructions for that on the spot is impressive.

Everyone on our team on the frontlines falls back. The enemy seems to stop their advance forward and drop from behind the cube. A dirt bridge appears over the puddle next to the cube. They cross it and then charge down the middle with the same formation. That’s good for us since we don’t have to expend energy to force them to regroup. At this point, Ruby and Aisha should be ready before they reach us.

“Are the preparations done?” one of the Archers asks as she rejoins us.

“Just about. Defense, fall back!” Aisha exclaims. Jetia and the four goons run back to us. Their Scrap Mana barrier disappears soon after. The enemy Is still a bit far from us, but that’s what we want. Somewhere not too close and not too far. I’m surprised our plan has worked so well. They haven’t tried attacking us at all. That would’ve challenged our strategy a lot if they focused on attacking instead of closing the gap. “Are you ready, Ruby?”

“Yep!” Ruby exclaims.

“Everyone, stand back!” Aisha warns. A giant mist of her Dark magic appears in front of her. It forms a large square-wall shape that extends forward. The mist travels quickly toward the enemy who stops their charge and puts up a wall of Unrefined Mana. That won’t work. From what I heard, Aisha has Runic magic too, the same as Marin. She most likely converted the mist into a physical object so that it would easily bypass the wall of Mana. As a physical object, it also won’t weaken Ruby’s attack.

Ruby walks farther up and points both of her palms forward.

“Everyone, get ready for stage two of our strategy!” Aisha exclaims. The mist has almost reached our opponents who are standing ducks out there barricaded. They haven’t realized that the Dark magic isn’t a magical object.

Infernal rush!” Ruby exclaims. The sheer size of her attack catches me off guard. It covers a greater area than Aisha’s attack, and it’s not over yet. It has to cover nearly I gape as this monstrosity of an attack rushes forward quickly toward our unsuspecting opponents. All of this is Rich Mana too. I’ve used my Rich Mana fireball enough times to know.

The fire from her magic seems to interact with Aisha’s Dark magic too. It ignites the mist causing small explosions. At this point, I can’t see our enemies anymore. Ruby’s Fire magic is too massive. And it’s still coming out. She mentioned she wasn’t going to hold back. Does that mean she means on using all of her Fire Affinity with entirely Rich Mana? This is on the level of Hina’s ridiculous amount of Water Affinity. If she used this attack in the cafeteria… I’m sure Hina wouldn’t be here right now.

Holy shit… At this point, I’m not sure if Ada and I will have a role to play here. Our enemies might be completely toasted at this point. Dead. They’re completely dead. No wonder Ruby asked that question earlier. No one moves or says a word.

Fire finally stops appearing in front of Ruby. No sight of our enemies on the right side of this attack. It either means, they’re inside or on the left side.

“Not yet…” Ruby says. Two seconds later, Ruby exclaims, “Explode!”

The smooth, giant stream of fire expands almost twice in size instantly, covering almost half of the length of the mound. A gust of wind erupts from it that blows outward. The flames continue to expand outward from every direction except behind toward us. The stream of fire breaks apart quickly into parts forming smaller waves of fire that shoot outward in every direction except behind toward us. The flames ignite all the grass and trees on fire. Ruby laughs manically, her magic still active, wreaking havoc in front of us. Some of her magic is still present in the middle, so the enemy is nowhere to be seen.

Firewall!” she exclaims and then continues laughing. The flames that spread outward return to the original location forming a wall of fire in the middle. She turns to me and smiles. “I did good, right Kai? It’s yer turn now!”

My turn? I don’t have a turn. That was complete overkill. The grass has already burned away. I charge forward, not knowing if Ada is following me. I’m not following the plan anymore. I want to know if there are any survivors, though I know the answer. I’m expecting Captain Albius and the other overseer group to appear at any moment now. There isn’t a match if everyone is dead.

But they’re ex-adventurer, right? I’m not sure myself what I would’ve done in their shoes if I got caught in the middle of that. I would end up using my Mana to surround myself. In their case, they would need to surround themselves in a lot of Rich and Unrefined Mana to survive.

I reach the point next to the fire where we last saw our opponents. I don’t see anything. Even if they were dead, there should be some armor left behind. They’ve got to be smart enough to avoid staying too long in the middle. If the fire burned them, naturally, the response is to run from it. Unless they’re still in there protecting themselves with Mana.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ada asks. She came with me after all.

“Following the plan,” I answer. “Stage two, remember?”

“It’s obvious we don’t need to follow the plan anymore.”

Several on our side yell in the distance behind us. Too far to hear them. Our team is shuffling about. The enemy must still be alive. Are they all on the other side?

“You were saying?” I ask and turn around. “There’s nothing here, so let’s regroup.”

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

Before I have a chance to run back, something erupts from the ground in front of us. A man dual-wielding two short swords surfaces. He smiles and says, “Surprise.”

Damn! Were they underneath Ruby’s magic this entire time? He doesn’t appear to be hurt at all. I unsheathe both of my swords immediately. A strong gust of wind knocks Ada and me back.

This is bad. We’re flying farther away from the team. Worst of all, Our trajectory is away from the mound. It’s going to hurt if we hit the ground from this distance. The man from earlier runs toward us. There doesn’t look like there’s anyone else. There could be more inside the mound that hasn’t come out yet.

I’ll hit a tree before hitting the ground. I turn around and reverse the grip on my swords. I impale the trunk of the tree with both of my weapons. I climb down slowly taking one sword at a time while putting another one in until it’s completely safe to free fall.

“Took you long enough,” Ada says. Easy for her to say.

“Shut up. I don’t have Wind magic like you do.” There doesn’t appear to be any other enemies coming out. I lost track of the other guy. This place we’re at is not an ideal place to fight: trees, big boulders, and tall bushes. There are too many obstacles in the way. The ground isn’t even either. “Where’d that guy go?”

“I’m right here,” he says behind me. I jump forward and turn around. He’s not there. “Just kidding.”

Again, his voice came from behind me. But he’s not there. I say, “Cover my back, and I’ll cover yours, Ada. We’re gonna need to work together on this one.”

“Don’t have to remind me,” she answers and places her back to me.

“Hope you’ll entertain me,” his voice echoes around us.

Since I don’t know where he is, there’s not much I can do in preparation. Blindly running in isn’t a good idea either. There could be an ambush set up.

This guy needs to attack us already if he’s going to. Or is his plan only distraction? Once he shows himself, I won’t lose track of him.

A spinning blade glides through the air from my right and another one from my left. They curve toward my path, but I easily parry both of them. What’s he planning? He threw both of his weapons away. Adding a bit of Wind magic on them isn’t going to make them exceptionally hard to avoid. Metal clangs resound behind me. I take a quick look. Ada parries these small star-shaped blades.

More of those small star-shaped blades are speeding toward us from every direction. They’re not much of a problem to deal with. I don’t need to put pressure into my swings. I move my blade in its path which knocks them away with their own momentum. He’ll run out of stuff to throw eventually.

One after another. It’s been at least a dozen of them. A branch rustles above me. The man falls toward me with his two weapons raised above him. I’m tired of all this running. I’ll challenge him head-on. I raise my swords above me to meet his attack. His descent quickens suddenly. Our blades clash.

He’s strong. Lightning magic appears on both of his blades. He presses harder into me. I grit my teeth, and he slowly pushes my blades back. It won’t be good if he breaks my guard and hits me with his magic.

I move Scrap Mana to my arms and exclaim, “Strength!”

I push back but not too hard. Ada is moving behind him, and this position will do just fine. Suddenly, his push is getting stronger. How is he so strong?

I can’t make this a contest of power. I angle my blades toward my left and step to the right. His weapons slide off mine toward the ground. I strike him with a follow-up attack. He jumps back. Ada isn’t close enough to catch him. She throws two daggers toward him while he’s still in the air, not slowing her charge. She exclaims, “Light cone!”

A cone of light that projects forward appears around both of her thrown daggers. She grabs another pair of weapons from her belt. I dash forward too. Best not give him too much breathing room.

He closes his eyes and parries both of the daggers toward me. Oh, shit.

“Ah!” I exclaim as the light blinds me. I close them immediately, but it wasn’t fast enough. I won’t be able to see well for a few seconds I stop running and jump to my left to avoid the daggers. “Damn it, Ada!”

Fighting with a Light user on your side is annoying. It might work well with her team since most of them are Archers, but to fight together in close-combat is difficult. It was easier to fight against her.

I open my eyes, my vision blurry. Pain radiates from both of them. I try to focus my vision, despite it. Metal clangs quick succession in front. A burst of wind knocks me back. I reverse the grip of my weapons and dig them into the ground before getting knocked too far. Four swords are flying toward my direction. I have double vision, so that’s probably two.

I pull my weapons from the ground, switch my grip to normal, and then jump over to the left. That should be good enough to avoid his swords. They suddenly change trajectory toward me. Wind magic?

Fine. I parry both of them. It’s not that hard to figure out their general location even though my vision is not perfect. I move Scrap Mana into my legs and exclaim, “Haste!”

I dash back to where I was. His decision to throw his weapons away is questionable. It only buys him a few more seconds. How many swords does he have?

My eyes are back to normal. I sheath my left sword and move Rich Mana into my left palm. I can’t leave Ada alone for too long without help. She won’t have a chance against his strength. I was able to exploit that during our duels, but this guy is stronger than I am. She can’t handle a head-on battle with him.

I follow the sounds of metal clashing. Ada strikes with one attack after another. Left dagger, right, dagger, left foot, right foot. The enemy effortlessly blocks every attack with his Lightning covered blades. Those look like the last of his blades, so he can’t throw any more of them away. He could easily overpower her if he wanted to. Why isn’t he?

I don’t think about it too much and point my left palm toward him. “Fireball!”

A ball of fire comes out of my palm and flies toward him. He and Ada jump backward. The enemy jumps on a tree trunk and jumps to another tree. I keep my eyes on him.

“Hey! Watch it!” Ada exclaims.

I regroup with her. “That wasn’t anywhere close to you. At least he can’t redirect my magic toward you unlike someone’s…”

“You should’ve knocked them back at him. Not my fault you didn’t react fast enough.”

“Listen, there was no time. He was precise with his strike and it perfectly aligned with my sight.”

“Okay. Next time. You’ll reflect it back.”

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t do stupid things like throw weapons with Light magic on them that he can easily turn in his favor.”

“What do you want me to do then? If I’m in your way, you can fight him alone.”

“No, I can’t take him alone. He’s strong. He hasn’t gotten the slightest bit serious yet. Knocking us around with Wind magic is the only magic he’s used so far.

The enemy jumps around from tree to tree like a monkey. He’s agile like a monkey. But what’s his purpose? He doesn’t have any remaining weapons left to throw. At this point, it might be better to leave him and regroup with the others. Hope they’re fine.

He throws both of his weapons at us while continuing to jump around. I don’t know if I’ve overestimated this guy, but they completely miss their mark. They go right over our heads. He doesn’t have anything left. But the first two weapons he threw earlier is near him. He’s planning to pick those up. I won’t let him.

I dash toward those weapons. At best, he’d be able to pick one weapon up but not the other. I’ll use that to my advantage and continuously attack him, so he doesn’t have time to pick up the other one. He’ll regret playing around with us.

He jumps to a branch that collapses immediately. He falls. Unlucky for him. I’ll be taking this chance. Ada is right behind me. I cover myself with a layer of Unrefined Mana so that he can’t knock me back with Wind magic anymore. We surround him before he has a chance to run.

“Wa-wait! I give up!” he exclaims with his hands raised above him.

I sigh. This was way too easy. This guy is just an idiot. He might be strong, but his strategy is awful.

We need to regroup with the others. I look around. Hmm. Which way did we come from? I walk forward a bit in the direction I think the mound is in, but it’s not there.

Something roars in the distance. I turn toward the direction. Oh, shit…

A monster. From the sounds of it, it could be a lion. I’m not sure if that’s in the direction we came from. Why did I hope for a monster to appear? One really did. Ruby’s attack might have attracted it here. We shouldn’t waste too much time here and regroup.

“Kai, stop wasting time and come on,” Ada says, turned toward another direction.

Well, at least she’s good for something. I turn toward her but notice something strange. The enemy has Lightning magic surrounding his both of his hands. He smiles as he gets on his feet, still crouched down. What’s he doing when he’s already given up? There are no monsters nearby.

He lunges forward toward Ada.

“Ada, watch out behind you!” I warn and dash toward them. What’s that guy thinking? Doesn’t he know that he can’t fight after giving up?

I won’t get there in time. Ada starts to turn around. She won’t realize in time. The man grabs the back of her neck with his left hand and puts his palm on the back of her armor with the other. Ada screams as she’s shocked by his magic and falls. She lets go of her daggers.

The man takes one of Ada’s daggers. He covers it in Lightning magic and stabs her through the shoulder. She screams. She’s still conscious but probably paralyzed.

“What the hell are you doing?!” I exclaim. This could disqualify their whole team. “Hey, Captain Albius! Do you see this?!”

The man laughs. “There isn’t anyone here. Just us. Rule number one of fighting. Never let down your guard.”

I knew something was off about this guy. He made himself look stupid by throwing his weapons at inopportune times. There’s no way he didn’t recover from that branch breaking. Or was he the one who broke the branch? He must’ve planned to pretend to give up and use a cheap trick to take out Ada from the start. He could’ve done it without cheating if he wanted. But he chose this underhanded method. Where the hell is Captain Albius or anyone from the overseer team?

He jumps away from as I rejoin with Ada. Attacking him feels wrong despite what he did. I can’t kill him. We’d probably get into trouble for that. But maybe, if we explain what happened, it would be fine. At least injure him enough so that he can’t move, but he won’t die. That would be best. But I can’t leave Ada. Who knows what else he’s going to pull.

I could get my revenge against her now by leaving her, but if she dies, I’m sure they would end up blaming me for it.

“C’mon, let’s dance!” the man exclaims. I don’t move from my position. I’ll wait for Ada to recover from the Lightning magic. “Leave the girl. No one’s watching.”

Several seconds pass. He smiles and then says, “Suit yourself. Rise! Activate!”

He runs off somewhere. Were those trigger words?

“Kai, over here!” Ada exclaims.

I turn around, finding all the initial weapons he threw in the air flying toward us. They’re each covered in Lightning magic. There must be Wind magic too for them to be flying toward us. I’ll stop the source of their power first. I form a thick wall of Unrefined Mana in between us and the incoming small star-shaped blades and the two short swords. It won’t stop the Wind magic from coming out or the momentum of the weapons, but the Wind magic will stop propelling the weapons. The blades will fall and miss their mark.

The weapons appear past my wall of Unrefined Mana, but the trajectory and speed didn’t change at all. What?!

Putting aside what just happened, I’ll have to stop them manually. I stand in front of Ada with my blades ready.

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