The Selection

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Chapter 61 - Inteiru Expota - Escape

We reach the base of the mound, but it’s too quiet. It should be quite noisy if everyone’s fighting off a monster attack considering that a roar came from this direction two minutes ago. But the only thing we hear are the sounds of our feet hitting the ground. It gives me a bad feeling as we climb the hill.

At the top, we freeze, as my fears become a reality. No one standing to be seen. Only a large group of tigers numbering at least a dozen feasting on bodies lying on the ground. One tiger stands out from the rest; it’s the only one with red fur with yellow and orange stripes. The remaining tigers have orange fur and black stripes. It only takes a moment for the monsters to realize that we’re here. They stop eating and turn their head our way. They stare at us with blood dripping from their muzzle.

“Run, run!” I exclaim and quickly do a 180-degree turn back to where we came. Anyone they’re gorging on right now is definitely dead. Nothing we can do for whoever was unfortunate enough to be caught. Not even if it was Marin or Ruby, but there’s no way they’re dead. Captain Albius must’ve evacuated everyone.

“They’re catching up!” Ada yells from right behind me. “Turn right!”

I do as she says. We need to get out of this overgrown forest as soon as possible. At this rate, those tigers are going to catch up to us in no time. It’s too hard to run at full speed on this terrain. And both of us are injured. I could use Enhancement to run faster, but I would end up leaving Ada behind.

Suddenly, the ground in front of us rises. It blocks our way forward. The fuck?

I stop running right before crashing into it. No time to process what just happened. We’ll have to go around it. That’s what I thought, but the ground around it rose up too. I widen my eyes. It’s the monsters. They can cast Intermediate Evocation magic. We need to turn around before we’re trapped. “Go back!”

I turn around, but it’s too late. The ground rises with no other way out other than above. But that’ll be a dead end too because they could always make it higher. It would take a while to climb too and wouldn’t work since they’re nearby. This is bad.

There’s only one way out of this. I need to focus.

“Wha-what do we do?” Ada asks, shivering. She widens her eyes and jerks her head toward a monster roar. “What do we do?!”

“You’re seriously asking me?” I ask, surprised how she’s depending on me to get us out of this. I’m working on something to get us both out, but she doesn’t know that.

“O-of course! Who else would I be asking, you idiot?”

“Well considering what you did to me in the past, I think I’ll just leave you here. No one’s watching anyway.”

“Wha-what?! No! Please, I’m sorry. Don’t leave me.”

I smile and turn my back on her. This is too good. I stay silent.

“Look, I know I treated you like shit, and it’s all my fault. I was skeptical whether you were a part of them or not but I convinced myself that you were. That it had to be the truth. I couldn’t just take it back when I pushed it that far.” Loud rustling noises nearby. The monsters are here. “Please!”

Wow. I didn’t expect a full-on confession from her. Here I thought that she wholeheartedly believed that I was one of the masked men. When really, she was only half sure and never verified it. That’s really scummy. A part of me wants to leave her here, but I won’t. It’s not like I get anything out of it. I could use this to climb up the ladder quicker.

“Shut up and grab hold of my back, tightly,” I instruct. She says nothing and wraps her arms around my chest plate. The monsters growl. We’re lucky the tigers gathered around us haven’t pounced on us yet, but it would be stupid to risk waiting any longer.

My magic activates, finally reaching their destinations. A portal appears in front of me wide and tall enough so that neither of us would be in any danger of breaking the boundary rule.

I run through, appearing in the air far above us, beyond the smaller trees that covered the area around us, though nowhere near reaching the top of the gigantic trees. Luckily, the monsters can’t see us from up here because the crown of the trees blocks the view. We quickly fall into an upright position. Ada screams.

I point to the direction we ran in before the ground rose and yell, “Hurry, use Wind magic to get us out of this place!”

Our bodies jerk toward the complete opposite direction than I indicated along with our body orientation. We’re now gliding through the air head first and face down in our point of heading. I warn, “You’re going the wrong way!”

“I can’t change directions now!”

I wasted too much time teasing her that I didn’t leave any time to fill her in on my plan to escape. It would be too hard to change directions now taking account into the monsters catching up too. At this point, she’d better do a good job of committing to this heading. Land first and take care of everything else later. I don’t like the idea that my life is in Ada’s hands, so I’ll prepare something just in case. I tilt my head up, looking ahead.

“Front, in front! Watch where you’re going!” I exclaim, too late to prepare any counter-measure. We’re headed right into the edge of the trunk of an overgrown tree. Edge or not, that’s going to be enough to stop our full momentum. She turns our course slightly, narrowingly avoiding crashing.

I don’t think I’ll be able to do much with my magic. I can’t see what’s under the crown of the trees below us to know where a portal would put us. It could be deadly if a tree or rock were directly in front of the portal. The best I could do is activate the exit portal above ground somewhere before activating one in front of our heading. It would put us closer to where we started. If the monsters are following us, they could catch us. That’s dangerous because I don’t know how much Mana Ada has left, and it’s not like I have an infinite supply either. If we’re both left with no Mana, we wouldn’t be able to survive this place after landing.

Our distance from the ground shortens rapidly. It would be nice to land in an area clear of these annoying smaller trees. I’m assuming that the wood in this forest isn’t brittle, so it’s not going to be pretty if we brush along the crown at this speed.

“How’re you planning to land?!” Ada asks.

“That’s your job! Hopefully by redirecting some of the force below us to fall slower!”

Our bodies thrust upward, now going a bit diagonal, but slowing down to only vertical movement. I hope she understands that we’re trying to go down, not up. The climb upward halts, and we drop down. Every few moments, a burst of air launches us up slightly, probably to stop us from falling too fast down. Her control sucks.

I can’t complain too much, though. She’s keeping both of us alive. Should I burn the top of the trees below us? No, because that might attract monsters. I hope we land safely.

I didn’t see this before, but there’s a place nearby without any trees. I point and ask, “Hey, can you land over there?”

“I’ll try.”

She flies us over in spurts diagonally upward toward the open area. She could be more efficient, but it’s working. She switches back to the vertical descent when we pass the trees. Finally, we reach the ground, with the grass reaching as high as my chest.

Ada lets go of me and drops to the ground. she mutters, “We’re alive…”

I sigh and sit down too. “Yeah…”

This open area is much nicer. Though, it’s like we’re ants in a regular forest considering the presence of these extremely thick and tall trees. There’s a large amount of space between each of them with hills everywhere. If those tigers track us here, they will able to track us in the air. So in that sense, it was nicer where we were.

“Your plan... You were planning all along to use me in your escape but didn’t say anything...”

Oops. She figured it out. This is the part she’ll take back everything she said and blame me.

“I deserve it...thanks for not abandoning me. I’ll do anything to make it right.”

It’s too bad I can’t see what kind of expressions she’s making with this grass in the way. I smile and ask, “Oh, anything?”

“No-not anything.”

“But an eye for an eye. It’s the only way it’s fair. You saw and assaulted my bare body, soo...you know.”

“You sick—I mean...” she mutters and then sighs.

Speaking of ants…if the trees in this place are so much bigger, does that mean the monsters here are huge too? Those tigers were menacing, but only because there were so many. They didn’t scale up to the size of these trees.

I thought a part of an overgrown tree moved in the distance before, but now I’m sure it did. Currently, it’s moving in a different spot on the same tree. Several spots, actually, like a thick line wrapped the tree. Oh, no…

I stand up immediately, realizing the impending danger. The grass blocked my view before, but now I notice that the monster is close to the base of the tree. I don’t see the head or tail.

I’d rather be in the mini forest compared to out here. I say, “Get up, now.”

“Wha-what? You want that now?”

“I’m not screwing around. Get back into the forest, now,” I warn while walking backward, inching closer to the forest.

“I didn’t agree to it yet,” Ada says, still not standing up and having her misunderstandings as usual. To begin with, I wasn’t serious about that.

Get up, unless you wanna end up eaten whole by a snake.”

She jumps up to her feet and runs over to me. We hurry into the edge of the forest and then hide behind a tree.

“Where’s the snake?” she asks.

I inch my head out. I point to the tree that I saw it on. “It’s that one. It’s hard to see since it’s camouflaged, but it’s moving.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“What?” I check for myself once more. She’s right. There’s nothing there unless it’s not moving and blended in really well. I don’t think things are going to work out that conveniently for us. The other outcome is more likely. “Shit. It’s already moved off the tree. Let’s move.”

“Aren’t you being too paranoid? It didn’t see us.”

“Maybe, but I don’t wanna take any chances.”

“It’s not headed our way. The grass is completely still.”

She’s right. It’s easy to see the grass around the base of the tree because we’re at a lower elevation compared to it. There’s no movement around the tree whatsoever, although, it might have some way of moving through the grass without disturbing it. Or it could be going around the grass entirely.

“Either way, I don’t wanna stay in an area where monsters are a hundred times their normal size. If that snake was that big, we’re screwed if something with better eyesight sees us. I definitely don’t wanna wait around for monsters to come around and eat us. We’re both bleeding, so…”

Ada gulps and answers, “Ye-yeah…you’re right.”

We head in the direction we flew from at a slow pace, paying close attention to our surroundings, when my stomach growls.

“Hungry?” Ada asks.

“Yeah but I’ll deal with it,” I say. She should be hungry too. We ate at the same time over six hours ago. “We don’t have time to look for food.”

“It’s everywhere. We don’t need to look,” Ada says with open stretched out arms.

Is she referring to the mushrooms and berries around here? “We don’t know which ones are poisonous. It’s too risky.”

“I know all about them. My parents ran a restaurant, and they taught me all about the edible goodies,” Ada says as she crouches next to a tree. She cuts some hairy thing from the bark. Now she’s on the ground on all four, plucking some oddly-shaped mushrooms. She hands me everything and says, “Look for these. They’re all edible non-poisonous mushrooms. Make sure the color matches exactly for the ones I got from the ground.”

It’s hard to believe this white hairy thing from the tree is a mushroom let alone edible. It literally looks like hundreds of white strands of hair hanging from a pole hidden in the center. I didn’t want to waste time like this looking for mushrooms, but a few more minutes can’t hurt. I split up from Ada to look the hairy thing on trees because it looks the most interesting. The other ones give me bad memories of my 5th year. I don’t want to wander too far, though.

I circle each tree individually. It takes a few to find my first one. I use one of my swords to scrape it off the tree. These things aren’t on every tree, but it looks like they’re common enough to gather in a short amount of time. It’s a bit annoying to drop everything on the ground to cut the next one I find, pick everything back up, and restart the process. I head back to my starting point with plenty of these hairy mushrooms in my arms.

“Ada, I got a bunch of the hairy ones,” I say. Dead silence. Not sure if she heard me, but I don’t want to yell. It could alert predators. “Ada?”

Nothing other than a few small noises in the distance. Did she wander off somewhere else? Or did she get caught by a monster?

I drop all the mushrooms and unsheathe both of my blades. I search the vicinity of the last place I saw her. I move through the area with light steps, turning slowly around the large scattered boulders.

If it were a monster, she would have screamed unless something got her in an instant. And she wouldn’t dare try to split up from me. She knows that she needs me to survive. She’s not stupid enough to wander off either.

Her legs are sticking out from behind a bush. She’s on the ground. “Ada?”

No response. I gulp and slowly walk toward her, not knowing whether she’s dead or alive, my heartbeat racing.

I don’t know why I’m concerned about her safety to this extent. I wanted nothing more than for her to suffer for what she did to me. But it increases my chances of survival if I keep her with me.

I find her intact in one piece with no signs of battle or monsters nearby. I sigh. But there’s still the problem with Ada. Did she accidentally eat something poisonous? There’s not much I can do for her if that’s the case.

I kneel next to her head. Her breathing is heavy, and sweat drips from her face. I put my palm over her forehead. She’s burning up. Her left arm catches my attention. The wound she suffered is turning slightly yellow on some parts of her raw skin. I don’t think a wound would be infected this quick, but that guy might have done something else to her too.

Do I wait here for her to recover or bring her with me? We’re out in the open here, so it would be risky to stay. But it would also be risky to carry her and continue onward. If I ran into any trouble, she’s toast. I wouldn’t be able to protect us both. I need to find a place where it’s safe to recover. Nowhere is completely safe, but there has to be a place.

In a tree could work, though getting her up there would be difficult, but doable. I climb the thickest nearby tree and then stand on top the branch closest to the ground. It’s thick enough for my purposes. I release a short stream of Fire magic made from Unrefined Mana from my left palm. I guide the flames to the trunk of the tree.

I’m not trying to burst the tree into flames, instead, only to weaken the wood. It doesn’t burn at first because of the presence of Mana inside the tree. It’s only a matter of time before it can’t protect itself from my magic.

Hopefully, the wood on these trees isn’t too hard to break. I only have Iron swords with me because of the basic equipment requirement of the Rising Champions.

Finally, a small piece of the tree burns and smoke rises from it. I use my sword with my free hand to scrape off the smoking pieces from the trunk. It doesn’t take much force to separate it from the rest of the tree, which is a relief. I repeat the process of burning and scraping the tree, eventually carving out a hollow shell of the tree enough to rest Ada inside. Now all there is to do is bring her up.

I jump off the tree and slam my blade into the tree tip first, pushing it until my hilt touches the wood. It’s comfortably high enough for me to jump to it easily while carrying Ada. I’ll put the second one off to the right and equidistant between the first and the branch with the burrow. Now, I’ll be able to climb up the tree with no hands.

I sweep my hands from under Ada to pick her up. The mushrooms she collected are piled under her. I go over to the two steps I created and then go from one foothold to the next. Finally, reaching the branch, I rest her back inside the opening I made while balancing my weight. Her legs hang off the edge because the tree isn’t thick enough to hide her entire body. This won’t protect her completely, especially if monsters here uses magic.

While I’m waiting, I’ll cook those mushrooms. I’ll toss them in a pile and use some Fire magic. I go back to gather the hairy mushrooms I dropped and add them to the heap Ada collected. Things won’t turn well if I use Fire magic on the clump of mushrooms. It’ll end up too burnt that way. But it’s not like I have any cooking supplies either. And it would be too much of a hassle to set one up. I don’t want to set the environment on fire if possible because monsters might smell the smoke. It was already risky to burn a part of the tree, but that was only a little bit at a time.

So I’ll have to cook over mid-air, which means I’ll have to skewer the mushrooms with something. My swords and Ada’s daggers are probably too thick for the job. However, I could use those twigs on the branch. Those should be thin enough for the job.

I take my weapons back from the tree and then put them back into my sheaths. I climb the tree and use one sword to cut off I the most straight-looking twigs from the branch. I jump down to the ground where they fell, remove the leaves, and then skewer all the mushrooms on them. I bring them up on the branch with me.

I sit on the branch next to Ada with my legs hanging in front. I bond my Scrap Mana to Fire Affinity to create a small flat surface of fire with the heat pointing up. I split the twigs among both of my hands and hang it a few inches away from the fire. It won’t be evenly cooked this way since I’m holding a clump of twigs in each hand. The ones near the top won’t be cooked well. I don’t have the patience to do this one by one.

I opt to create more flat surfaces of Fire, all pointing toward the skewers. I form a box of fire, leaving the front and back empty because I don’t want to burn the twig. Since I’m unsure how long I need to cook for, I’ll leave it like this for a while. The rumbling in the distance worries me, but it’s all good here, so far.

“Ugh…” Ada moans.

“Don’t try to move yet. You’re weak.”

“Where am I?”

“I made a hole in a tree. ”

“I see. Sorry for the trouble… Look. I really don’t want to owe you anything, so I’ll swallow my pride just this once. I’ll let you do whatever sick thing you want me to do as payback, and I won’t tell anyone about it.”

“Forget it. I wasn’t serious about that,” I say. General Nero is the real person to blame here. He’s the one who triggered everything. “Instead, you can tell me what General Nero told you that day.”

“That…” she pauses.

Speaking of which, General Nero told me to keep my mouth shut regarding the punishment. He must have done the same with Ada…and Captain Albius. I don’t know how he intends to make sure no one knows, but it’s best not to let something slip. Even now, someone could be listening. Highly doubtful, but there could be a way for him to know whether any of us ratted.

“Nevermind. He probably told you to not speak about it or else. The restaurant your parents run. Convince them to give me a free pass for a lifetime. You can do that much, right?”

“I…can’t,” she answers after several seconds. The tone of her voice has a tinge of sadness. Then I make the connection. It all makes sense now. Her blind anger toward me and why she’s in the army instead of continuing to help her parent’s business. Everyone’s in it for revenge, after all. Maybe I can use her help with the upcoming Inteiru Expota.

“Sorry, I should’ve known that you lost them, all things considered. Everyone from the Academy who joined has the same motive.”

“It’s fine. So, sorry. I won’t be able to do that for you either.”

“There’s something else you can help me with, but you have to promise me that you’ll stay calm no matter what I tell you,” I say. Ada furrows her eyebrows and nods her head. “First, you should know that the man we fought earlier…was one of the masked men.”

What?!” Ada exclaims and leans forward. She clutches her left arm and lets out a cry of pain.

“Quiet. I told you to stay calm. And your body isn’t in the best shape right now. You didn’t feel it earlier because of an adrenaline rush,” I say. Although I could say the same for myself, my left forearm is throbbing with pain. I won’t be able to fight with full strength. It’s also a gamble whether or not my weapons will hold up against monsters in this forest.

“I can’t sit let this bother me after what you’ve told me. How’d you find out?”

“It was his—“

Loud rumblings in the distance. Louder than before. The vibrations shake the branch a few times before going. No signs of any monsters nearby, though. I continue, “It was his parting words. I’ve met him before, twice.”

“Twice?”

“Yeah. The first time was at the beginning of the attack. The second time was in the Underground area of the Academy. That time we went to look for survivors during our enlistment into the army. He left with the same parting word. He called us, ‘suckers.’”

“If he was one of them…do you think there were others?”

“I’m not sure. That’s why it was good that I didn’t chase after him. Hopefully, he was the only one. Otherwise…”

“No, Aisha wouldn’t be dying to the likes of them. We all survived together the first time. Captain Albius is there too.”

“You’re right. Even if there were more of them, I don’t think they would’ve finished anyone off. After all, we’re alive.”

“I’ll make him regret it for not killing me when he had the chance,” Ada says and sits up completely. She scoots next to me.

“You’re fine already? What about your fever?”

“I’ll power through. Are those done yet?”

“I’m not sure,” I respond. They’ve been roasting for a while, so probably. I send out some more Scrap Mana to deactivate my Fire magic. The mushrooms’ color has browned and blackened on the surface. Hopefully, not too burnt. I hand the twigs in my right hand over to Ada.

“Thanks,” she says and then separates one twig from the rest. She blows on them. “So, what did you need help with?”

I give her a quick summary of what we learned from Viessa while we eat the food.

“I haven’t updated Hina, but I’m sure after running into one of the masked men today,” I say. “We’ll do our own investigation during the Inteiru Expota. General Nero knows everything I told you, but he wouldn’t approve an individual investigation. Make sure to keep the inner circle on who knows small.”

“I got it. I need a favor,” she says and looks at her left shoulder. The yellow parts of her injury are darkening and spreading to other parts of her skin. ”He did something to me. I feel really weak. This might be the cause.”

I have a bad feeling about where she’s going with this. She continues, “I need you to burn it.”

I shake my head and reply, “No way. You’ll pass out. I don’t think that’ll fix your issue either. You need to see a doctor.”

“I’m not going to pass out. You’ve given me a lead on those masked men. Now that I know, I won’t let myself kick the bucket here. I’ll be more useful to you if I can hold my own. It’s worth a shot.”

“You’re serious about this?” I ask one last time.

“Yeah, do it,” she answers with a nod.

“Alright. We’ll do it on the ground,” I say and hop off the branch. If she’s going through with this, she won’t be able to keep herself from flopping around. It might be hard for her to jump down from the branch in her state. “Hey—“

She jumped before I could interject. Her legs buckle after touching the ground, and she lands on her butt. “Damn it…”

I was going to offer her some help, but she went off and jumped. She’s definitely the reckless type. I toss all the leftover twigs from the mushrooms except one. I hand her one and say, “You’ll want to bite into this.”

She takes it and then bites into it with her teeth. She rotates her body until her left shoulder is in front of me.

“I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will just in case. You’ll need to keep your voice down and keep your arm steady for me.”

She silently nods. I inspect her arm to check the extent of the damage. Luckily for her, the injury is only located on one side. I won’t have to cover the entire circumference of her arm. The man already cut off her sleeve from the shoulder, so it saves me the trouble.

It’s best that I minimize the time I cover her in Fire. Which means I’ll use Unrefined Mana or Rich Mana to power my magic and hit the entire injury at once. The downside is I’ll torch her healthy skin too, but that’s probably more preferable compared to extending the operation time. Since I’m trying to burn the surface of her skin, a more powerful flame would be better.

I grab hold of her left forearm tightly. I’m stronger than her, so she won’t be able to jolt her arm away when the fire shows up. I bond Rich Mana with my Fire Affinity and instruct them to form a thin band of fire right on top of her wound. It’s set to deactivation in a second. I hold her arm steady in this position since the Mana will appear at the exact assigned location.

“I’m gonna do the whole thing at once. It’s ready to go. Are you ready?” I ask. She gulps and silently nods.

I send a bit of Scrap Mana to the location to activate the magic. Ada squeezes her eyes shut as my fire appears on top of her injury. Surprisingly, she doesn’t try to move away from the fire, and I don’t exert much force trying to keep her arm still. It’s over in a second. She didn’t scream or so much let out a sound. What strong willpower.

I let go of her arm. Her skin has a mixture of white, red, and brown splotches with none of the yellow spots left. She rolls onto her back and grimaces with an open mouth but still stays quiet.

I consider burning my wounds shut on my left arm because my head feels a bit light from the blood loss, but I’d be risking my ability to use my left arm properly in a fight, so probably not the best idea.

Ada spits out the twig and slowly stands up while saying, “I-I’m re-ready.”

Tears and sweat drip from her face as she struggles to keep her balance. “You don’t look ready to me.”

“I-I’m fine. I feel better already.”

We’re both on a time limit. Best to get moving. “Right…well. Let’s go.”

We go back to our previous heading. We come across a few different creatures, but they don’t want to fight. A fat, orange bird with an enormous, wide beak sitting on a tree, a snake, and other small animals like squirrels and rabbits were some that we came across.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy all the way through. I’m ready for something to go wrong.

And then, something huge lunges at me. I block immediately with both of my swords crossed purely by reflex. A giant snake. It closes its mouth and sinks its fangs into my blades while pushing me backward, putting my back against a tree. Ada screams.

I move Scrap Mana into my arms and legs and then exclaim, “Strength! Haste! A little help here!”

“You-you’re not going to believe this,” she says, standing still. I push with all my strength. A green substance leaks from the snake’s mouth. Simply taking a whiff of it burns the inside of my nose. Something sizzles from the ground while crackling sounds resound inside its mouth. Surprisingly, I’m slowly pushing it back.

“Quick, use Wind magic to knock it away before my swords break!” I yell.

Ada points both of her palms toward the side of the snake’s head. The moment a draft of air blows against my skin, I push forward with a burst of power using only my arms and then jump back, surrendering both of my weapons. The snake is blown away but not before spewing blood all over me.

I shut my eyes because some of the blood went into my eyes. But I saw it before that happened. The only thing left of the snake was its head. That must be why I was able to push it back so easily. I wipe the blood from my eyes with my sleeve.

“Are you okay?” Ada asks.

“Yeah, but what the hell? I ask, turning my head toward the brown snake, flopping on the ground. The hilts of both of my swords are next to it.

“I told you that you weren’t going to believe it.”

“That snake… I think it was the same one that I saw.”

“What happened to it?”

“I don’t know…” I mutter. I walk over to where it initially lunged at me. “It came from over here, so that might give us some answers.”

Behind the bush lies the rest of the snake’s body. I widen my eyes. Something decapitated it with a clean straight vertical cut. Blood continues to spew out of it, forming a larger pool of blood. The snake died recently. I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of monster killed it. We barely missed whatever ended the snake.

“Let’s get out of here,” I say. The thing might come back at any moment to feed on the snake.

“Ri-right. Wait,” she says. She holds her chain daggers in front of her. “Take these. I can’t fully use my left arm right now, so these are useless, and you don’t have a weapon. I still have one other dagger left.”

“Sure,” I respond and take them. I’ve never used these before, but it’s better than nothing. They’re much lighter than my usual weapons and made of Iron too, so won’t be that helpful against monsters like the snake.

We walk around the severed snake head and continue in the same direction, eventually reaching the mound we fought on.

I hope those tigers have moved on to new prey and have left the area by now. Just in case, we sneak up the hill slowly, putting our bodies against the ground nearing the top. We peak out with only our head to minimize detection. We’re on the side with grass still standing, so we have to stand up to see anything. The coast is clear.

Most of the mound has burned up due to Ruby’s magic, so it’s easy to spot the bodies. We jog over there as it might give us some clues about who fell to the monsters.

Something is not right. While it’s not surprising that they’ve eaten everything from skin to flesh from head to toe, but even some of the bones and armor broke into pieces with some missing. Their stomachs must be pretty strong to be able to digest metal and bones. They didn’t bother eating the weapon leftovers, though.

Judging by the number of weapons left on the ground, I’d say around twenty people died, unless I missed some hidden in the grass somewhere. Since there were sixteen people on each team, that means at least four died from our side? With a few of these bows left on the ground, it doesn’t make me feel any less uneasy.

I crouch down next to one of the bows left over. I think Marin’s bow is a bit longer than these. Or were they shorter? I don’t know anymore. For all I know, these bones could be all that’s left of her. Marin’s lifeless head appears in place of the skull on this body. Is it happening again?

“What are you doing, gawking over there? That’s not your friend,” Ada says.

“How’re you sure?” I ask, my heart racing.

“I’m not, but those bones look a little too big for her. When I helped with my parents’ shop, I saw a lot of different carcasses. One thing they had in common was that females usually had smaller bones than males. The bone size around here all look identical, so they have to be all male.”

I look around to compare the relative size of the bones. It’s hard to find a fair comparison since each body seems to be missing a different bone. But she’s right that these all look similar. Nothing stands out.

I don’t know if the group Xantho sent comprised of all males, but there’s also Captain Albius’ team and the other overseer platoon. That’s twenty-four more people right there. I completely overlooked it. What am I worried about? The majority of the people gathered were men, so it makes sense.

A tiger roar resounds nearby. It’s close!

I stand up immediately, recognizing it. It’s definitely the tiger from before. I prepare instructions for my Void magic to avoid the worst case scenario monsters surround us again.

The tiger with red fur with yellow and orange stripes leaps on the mound from lower ground and then charges at us. There are no other tigers nearby. Do we make a run for it like before? I don’t think these chain daggers are going to cut it.

No, wait… It’s injured. At least ten arrows are sticking out of the body. The tiger roars again as sparks of electricity erupt from within out of nowhere. It must have carried some charge with it, though I didn’t see any Lightning magic shoot out from anywhere. The monster drops to the ground, twitching.

“It’s Melody!” Ada exclaims.

“It’s down!” someone yells from the edge of the mound.

Captain Albius appears, running faster than he did during our first duel despite holding onto his massive hammer. He jumps into the air with his arms stretched back as far as possible, swinging the hammer down toward the tiger’s head upon landing. Blood explodes from the tiger’s head where he had struck. It splatters everywhere nearby. The force of the blow was so powerful it created a dent in the ground and a loud boom that was a mixture of hitting the ground and smashing the skull of the tiger.

He looks up and says, “Oh, Sergeant Kai and Corporal Ada? You’re alive.”

“Ye-yeah,” I answer. This is the first time I’ve seen Captain Albius in action other than our duel. I have a feeling that wasn’t his full strength. Seeing how the threat is gone, I cancel the instructions I wrote for my magic.

He stands up and stores the hammer on his back. A crowd of people emerges one by one from the bottom of the mound. I have questions for him, but I want to make sure Marin and Ruby are fine first. I gulp as Ada’s entire team are in sight first before anyone from my team.

“Ada!” Aisha exclaims. “We were so worried!”

Still, no one from my platoon arrives. My heart sinks. But just because they haven’t appeared with Aisha’s team, it doesn’t mean that they’re dead…right?

“He-hey Captain Albius… Whe-where’s my team…?” I ask trembling.

“Oh… They sacrificed themselves,” he says.

I hold in my breath and mutter, “What?”

I know I heard him correctly, but I can’t believe it. He laughs. Does he not care about the lives of Marin and Ruby? I started to trust him recently, but maybe that was a mistake.

“Relax, Kai. You’re misunderstandin’. All I meant was that they sacrificed all of their Mana to weaken the Keor. They should be restin’ outside the Panoramic Grove now with my platoon,” Captain Albius informs.

“Oh…” I interject, ending it with a long sigh.

“You did well to survive. What happened?”

“That’s what we should be asking you,” I say. “I thought you were watching over us from somewhere. We fought this crazy guy that broke all the rules…but that’s not important now. I found out he was one of the masked men.”

Captain Albius expression darkens and asks, “You’re sure?”

“Yeah. We barely escaped with our lives.”

“It’s true,” Ada says, walking toward us. Her team right behind her. “If it weren’t for Kai, I would’ve been done for.”

“That’s why it’s really important to know where the group from Xantho are. More of them could be from the white mask group,” I say.

“You don’t have to worry about that. All the participants from their side were killed, leavin’ only a few from the overseer group alive. They’re outside with everyone else.”

“Then, let’s hurry back!” I exclaim. If they’re with the masked men, there’s no time to waste.

“There’s no need to be hasty. My men are no pushovers, and you’re actin’ as if the masked men are from the Xantho military. It won’t look good for us if you go out there and accuse them. Do you have any proof that he was in their group?”

“Well, he was hiding in the ground when we went to check for any survivors after Ruby’s attack. Didn’t their entire team do that?”

“Yeah, but that’s not any proof. Did you kill him?”

“No,” I answer. This isn’t good. He’s going to ask how we thwarted him off. I used Void magic, but I can’t tell him any of that. Ada also knows, but she knows not to spill the beans. We’ll have to get our stories straight if he asks.

“There’s nothing we can do. You don’t know this yet, but we haven’t officially informed any other kingdom about the attack on Drymo. That’s one thing on the agenda for the Inteiru Expota. It’s good enough that you survived and brought this information to us. General Nero will be pleased. You did well.”

“Thank you, sir. What happened to the battle?”

“It was cancelled due to the incomin’ monster attack, but their overseer said they would admit defeat if we took out the Keor. We’re takin’ home a win.”

“Ugh…” Ada moans and collapses face first on the ground.

“Ada!” her team exclaims, gathering around her.

I almost forgot about her injury. I inform, “She needs a doctor’s attention immediately. The man we fought skinned her alive and did something to her. She collapsed earlier with a fever too with her injury discolored yellow, until she told me to burn it off with my magic. I knew it wasn’t gonna work, but she insisted.”

“We’ll head back to Drymo immediately,” Captain Albius says and walks off. “Someone carry her.”

Deniz takes her, and the rest of us follow Captain Albius out of this forest.

The initial breeze of cold air feels good. Marin is resting on one of the wagons as far as I can see with Ruby asleep on her lap. Captain Albius was a bit sarcastic with the sacrifice part. Marin and Ruby are the only two that can use magic other than myself on the team. Ruby should’ve burned most of her Mana in the initial attack, but I don’t know how large her Mana pool is. Marin seems fine since she’s awake.

I’m going to miss this place only because it was warm. It nearly made me forget that we’re in the middle of dead winter.

“We’re leavin’ immediately! Hand out the rations,” Captain Albius says as he walks his platoon. Marin and I exchange waves as I follow Captain Albius. He continues to the other five men left from Xantho’s group. I pay close attention to their leader.

“Is it done?” the man asks.

“Yes,” Captain Albius answers.

“Good work on disposing of an A-ranked monster, though I’m not sure how fair it is for you to participate as well. I didn’t say you couldn’t, so as agreed, we’ll report the battle as our loss,” the man answers. I’ll remember his face. It doesn’t look like he has any injuries. Did he leave his men to die? I look away at the moment our eyes meet.

“It was nothin’,” Captain Albius says. “I only finished it off. The participants weakened it to the point that allowed me to finish it. We’ll take our leave.”

I follow Captain Albius back to our transportation. He turns toward me and says, “Sergeant Kai, we’ll have another discussion when we’re back, but really well done today. You must have worked well with Ada to survive an encounter with one of the masked men. There’s no doubt that you’ll be one of the chosen platoons to escort the ministers and the king to the upcomin’ Inteiru Expota.”

“Thank you, sir,” I respond. Marin’s wagon is already full, so I guess we’re going back to Drosera with the same seating as before. Jetia, Garen, and Laud have already switched places with members of Sigma 3.

I climb onto my assigned wagon. I’m the last one to arrive.

“Our great leader’s alive, hooray,” Jetia says with no enthusiasm. “We all thought some monsters took you out in the back. If it weren’t for Marin and Ruby vouching for you and Sigma 3 vouching for Ada, Captain Albius wouldn’t have accepted Xantho’s replacement offer for selecting the winner.”

“There’s no way that’s true. Captain Albius values me. So take that into account of why he decided to do that,” I say.

“Whatever. I’m just letting you know what I saw. Don’t forget about your promise.”

“Yeah, yeah. We’ll do it when we’re back,” I answer. It’s a bit of a stretch to play along considering Captain Albius took care of most of the training for the battle. Still, I made the promise. I also don’t want him to piss him off too much because he knows the truth between my relationship with Marin.

A member from Captain Albius’ team hands some food for us for the journey back to Drymo. It includes a portion for Ada too even though she’s not conscious. I miss those mushrooms already. It was far tastier than these hard pieces of dried meat and bread. Our transports embark back to Drymo.

“Kai, I want to thank you sincerely for saving Ada’s life,” Aisha says. “So, thank you.”

“Thank you,” the two other archers from Sigma 3 say with their heads lowered.

Aisha continues, “But I also want to apologize…for how Ada has treated you in the past.”

“It’s whatever. I needed her help to survive too. She apologized to me whole-heartedly for how she treated me, and I can understand her circumstances. The masked men got her parents.”

“Yes, but I doubt she shared with you the entire perspective. I think you have the right to know. Now’s a good time since Ada’s unconscious.”

So it’s something she doesn’t want Ada to know that she told me. Is it because it would bring too many sad memories? I don’t have anything better to do right now. I take a bite into the dried meat and say, “Okay, let’s hear it.”

“All of us knew that you weren’t truly one of the masked men or held any responsibility for the attack, but we didn’t discourage her with her reasoning.”

Seriously? Today is full of surprises. I never thought to blame any of the other members on her team for her behavior, but now I’m starting to think differently. So they’re all scummy. They essentially encouraged her to treat me that way, only caring for her feelings and not mine. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth despite that I’ve moved on from it.

“It was easier to blame someone for her parents’ death than no one at all. To be more accurate, it was her adoptive parents’ death.”

“So they weren’t even her real parents?”

“Yes, but it was just as impactful as real parents would be. Or even more considering the circumstances.”

“I get that. I can relate because I never knew my real parents either,” I say. Emdos isn’t my birth father, but he served the same role. Where did you go, Emdos?

“Sure, but she did know her real parents. They abandoned her because she was a bit of a problem child. She grew up hyperactive for her age and had a penchant for sharp knives. She broke everything and misbehaved. So, her parents abandoned her at a young age of five. But that wasn’t the end of it. She went through many adoptions, but it all ended the same. Until one family accepted her for who she was.”

“The ones who ran a restaurant?”

“Yes. We spent our downtime during our 5th year gathering materials for them because we knew how much they meant to Ada. We always took the time to collect meat, extract crystals from monsters, gather plants, and anything else we could find. She wanted to help out in any way she could to make them proud. It’s really unfortunate how it ended.”

“Okay, I get the whole picture now, but why’d she have to blame me? I ask. It all is the same if she takes me out of the equation. “Blame the masked men. Hate them. That’s what I did. And that’s what drives me forward.”

“It was easier for her to blame someone physically near her. We don’t know anything about the attackers, after all. It’s easier to hate a person rather than an unknown group. She made herself think that you were one of them, and the hate helped her steer away from blaming herself and helped her move on. You were her goal. Thanks for listening. And thank you again for taking the high road, saving her life,” Aisha says.

“No problem,” I answer. I don’t want to bring up the stuff about the snake earring group now with Jetia and the two goons listening, though I might have to eventually.

The last part of Aisha’s story reminds of that man’s words. “The secret is rage… Let it consume you and you will become much stronger.”

I shake my head. I don’t want to think that much about it. I’m just glad everything worked out in the end today. The only time we truly came out on top with no losses to my knowledge. I finish the rations and take a nap.

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