Chapter 174: Mother Earth’s Embrace
The figure walked with a confident gait, his lanky arms messily wrapped in black bandages dangling by his side. He had a slight hunch, which made him look a bit shorter than he actually was, but he still stood well over seven feet. Even before he had walked close enough for me to make out his face, I already knew who he was.
How could I forget the retainer that had killed the lance I replaced?
“Uto,” I said calmly despite my raging insides.
His dark lips split into a sinister smile. “Hello, boy wonder.”
“Retainer Uto,” Olfred greeted with an unnaturally stiff bow.
I restrained my urge to let out a scoff at the lance. Despite the turn of events, I was actually relieved the retainer that had come was Uto. Unlike Cylrit or any other Vritra, his motive was obvious.
Uto ignored the dwarven lance as he crept closer to me with outstretched arms. “You can’t imagine how excited I am to have you here.”
“Really?” I smirked, playing along. “I was actually expecting a different retainer.”
I could see Olfred react out of the corner of my eye.
“Oh?” Uto dipped his head so his gaze was level with mine. His pale grey nose was practically touching mine. “You seem to know a bit more than I thought you would.”
With Realmheart still active, I could clearly make out his aura, the brilliant nimbus of power crackling and popping chaotically like his very nature. But even without it, I could feel the pressure in the air around him. A palpable tension that was squeezing the air out of my lungs.
<i>‘The two humans,’ </i>Sylvie reminded from within my cloak.
The two subordinates of the petrified Sebastian were in a fit of spasms as they stared wide-eyed at Uto. They didn’t know who he was; their bodies were only<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>able to feel the might of the being in front of them.
“Let’s take our fight elsewhere,” I said simply, turning my gaze back to the Vritra.
Uto tilted his head. “Fight? Why do you think that a lesser like you is worth my time at all?”
“Because <i>you’re </i>here,” I answered, losing my patience. “If all you wanted to do was kill me or capture me quickly, then I’m sure Olfred with a few of your soldiers would have sufficed.”
The retainer didn’t answer, his gaze looking… unamused.
Suddenly, he burst out into a fit of laughter. “I can see why so many of you try so hard to keep your motives hidden. For times like these when it should be a surprise.”
He turned around and made a dismissive gesture. “Lead the way.”
“Retainer Uto!” Olfred blurted. “Lord Rahdeas’ instructions were to deal with this one cleanly to minimize chances of—”
The lance didn’t even get the chance to finish as he let out a nasally scream in pain. A black spike had shot up from the ground beneath Olfred, skewer the lance’s nose.
“Do you think I give a lesser’s ass about what your traitorous master thinks is the best course of action?” Uto spat, looking over his shoulder before he continued walking toward the door.
I checked up on the two subordinates. They were unconscious but still breathing. As I made my way toward the entrance I had come in from, I checked on as many of the slaves as I could.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>Most of them were out cold and the ones that were conscious were probably in a state no better off than the ones that weren’t. I took one last look at Olfred, who had erected a stone pillar below his feet to get high enough to dislodge his nose from the black spike.
Despite my suspicions, this short trip had been filled with a faint hope that my doubts weren’t true. Now that they were, it was difficult to wrap my head around the emotions manifesting inside me. I was never good at it in my previous life, and I thought I had gotten a little better in this life, but apparently not quite enough.
I broke one of the three beads that Aya had given me, activating its effect before tossing it into the large trapdoor by the entrance.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>Olfred’s eyes grew wide as he saw this, knowing exactly what it meant.
<span class=”s1″><b>OLFRED WAREND</b></span>
I cursed, berating myself for the turn of events. To think <i>she</i> would be nearby. There was no time.
Rubbing my punctured nose that had already begun to heal, I descended into the ground. The earth obeyed, parting beneath me to make a path to the floor underneath the building that served as a cover.
I dropped to the underground floor below, causing several of the soldiers around to shout in surprise.
The underground level I had made was vastly larger than the prison structure above it. Here, thousands of soldiers were able to rest on standby.
“Evacuate the premises immediately,” I ordered, my voice echoing off the large chamber walls.
A mixture of responses. The Alacryan Soldiers glanced at one another while others blatantly ignored my command. Both they and I were fighting for the same cause, but because this was the continent where I had been born, they saw me as a traitor unfit to lead them despite the gap in power and experience.
I repeated my order once more, this time causing the earth around us to quake. We had no time.
Soldiers began slowly filing toward the stairs leading back up to the surface. I helped them by erecting a few more staircases, but when the light artifacts hung all around the walls started to burst one by one, I knew it was too late.
I cursed, erecting a dozen magma knights around me, but the chamber had darkened to a near pitch-black state.
Yells of confusion from the soldiers bounced off the walls that once served as protection and cover. Now I feared these men were in a prison.
I shrouded myself in a protective barrier of mana while sending out pulses throughout the underground chamber in hopes of locating her.
“Come out, Aya. There will be another Vritra—a scythe—coming soon. If you flee now, I can ensure that you’ll make it out alive.” I tried reasoning with her. I felt no remorse for these soldiers of foreign descent, but they were part of a bigger plan and time was running out. If Aya escaped and was able to notify the asura—Aldir—of my betrayal, it would be easy for him to simply kill me just by invoking the artifact I was bound by, but at this point though, I might prefer that over what she might do here.
Her whisper brushed against my ear—as if she was right beside me.
My magma knight promptly lashed out with its sword.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>A burning arc of lava launched in the direction of Aya’s whisper only for it to crash into the far wall. The attack scattered into glowing sparks upon impact, lighting up the darkened room for just a second. That’s when I noticed it.
The entire underground chamber was submerged in a thick layer of swirling mist that almost seemed to have a mind of its own. And within this mist, chaos ensued.
Sporadic flashes of spells lit up the vast chamber as the soldiers began retaliating against the intruder, but even those became less frequent as Aya got to work.
“I have to thank you for trapping this many Alacryans in one place,” she whispered again, this time beside my other ear. “It makes my job much simpler.”
“Enough with your tricks and illusions!” I roared. “Come out and fight me face to face! Have you no shame as a lance?”
“Shame?” Aya’s voice echoed in unison from at least twelve different locations at once. “It’s a matter of common sense, dear. Why would I throw away one of the few advantages I have?”
There was a levity in her words that came off as arrogant in this situation. She was always like that. No ounce of seriousness in her ever-present facade.
“You leave me no choice,” I replied through gritted teeth. “Getting rid of a lance will at least make up for my error.”
I slammed my palm down into the ground, creating chasms all around the floor and walls of the chamber that lit up a fiery red. The temperature within my newly created domain rose drastically, while the glowing magma spilling out from chasms brightened the underground expanse.
The mist that filled the area was slowly evaporating while my senses became sharp. Aya’s spell worked much like the mist present in the Forest of Elshire, except it also served as an anchor for her to freely and near-instantly traverse.
Despite the increasing amounts of fire and earth mana surrounding me, it didn’t look good. My first instinct would’ve been to escape into an open space where I could at least escape from the mist, but that would mean abandoning the thousand or so soldiers trapped here. I was tempted to just raise the entire underground chamber to the surface, but that would mean destroying the building above us. I would not shed innocent blood, especially that of my own kind.
I scanned my surroundings. Much of what I could make out was obscured by the mist but the earth told me how many were at least on their feet and how many lay either dead or incapacitated. In this short time, more than a fourth had already fallen.
I cursed once more, but regretted doing so immediately after when an airy chuckle resounded beside me.
“Is the impregnable mental fortress of Olfred Warend slowly crumbling?” Aya whispered behind me this time.
A group of soldiers in a defensive position was firing out spells before each began dropping to the ground, clutching their necks.
<i>I won’t be able to protect anyone at this rate,</i> I thought just before a stampede of horned wyrms suddenly appeared in deadly fervor.
I ignored the illusions. Instead, I willed three of the rifts on the ground to erupt. Three blasts of molten lava coalesced into a fiery collision where I had sensed Aya’s mana fluctuation.
My spell hit.
“As expected. Can’t let my guard down against you,” she chuckled, shimmering into view. Aya was clutching her burned arm.
Meanwhile, screams of horror and shock echoed from the soldiers who weren’t able to distinguish between what was real and what were her sick illusions.
“Your illusions are as sadistic as always, Aya,” I spat in disgust. “That sick habit of torturing your victims is why you are always ostracized—even amongst your own people.”
“I saw that lovely statue you made up there,” Aya replied, fading from view. “If you ask me, I’d much rather have my breath sucked out of my lungs than be slowly burned to death in a molten tomb.”
“That filth deserved it.” I erected another magma knight in the location of her voice. “I gave him the same fate as those he chose to enslave for monetary gains.”
“Is that the same logic that led you to betray Dicathen?” Her tone was sharp, which was rare for Aya.
“You elves have never understood the hardships that our people go through. Even after your war with the humans, dwarves are <i>still</i> treated as lower class. Just because our people would rather hone our magical abilities to create rather than to destroy, we are belittled and taken advantage of. I trust the decision Lord Rahdeas chose to make in joining arms with the Vritra and their Alacryan army.”
“Do you think the Vritra would care for Rahdeas and your people? The Vritras and all the other asuras call us lessers because we’re nothing to them!” She hissed with more emotion than I’d ever seen her display. “You’ve read the report we were given, weren’t you? How the Vritra experimented with the Alacryans in order to enhance their army to fight against the other asura clans! They want to do the same here, to your—to <i>our </i>people. Dwarves, humans and elves alike!”
I siphoned as much mana as I could afford, creating a devastating blast of fire and stone around me.
The illusory mist dissipated to reveal the elven lance.
She tilted her head. “Did you give up on protecting the Alacyrans?”
“The ones left are dead. The others have escaped through the tunnels I created while you were so busy lecturing me,” I answered.
Aya still wore her mask of apathy, but I could tell by the slight twitch in her brow that she had miscalculated.
Without hesitation, I rushed toward her. Aya retaliated, dashing back back while hurling crescents of compressed air at me. However, I was no longer in a situation where I had others to protect.
Slabs of lava from the ground and walls around us began gravitating around me, enveloping me to form a protective suit of molten armor. The compressed blades of air chipped away at my magical armor but new slabs of molten rock filled in the gaps.
The magma lances I had summoned all dashed toward the elven lance, their weapons ablaze, but Aya was too fast. Even without the mist shrouding her movements, she was able to easily outmaneuver the golems and reduce them to pebbles at the same time.
Time seemed to slow as we fought. I couldn’t match her speed, but she couldn’t overcome my defenses.
“It seems we’re at a stalemate,” I said as I regenerated another crack in my armor.
Aya had patches of raw skin from where my magma had managed to burn through her defensive aura, but she was still relatively unwounded.
“Well, if this duel goes on for another hour or so, you might actually have the upper hand,” she said with a cheery smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Like I said before. Another Vritra is coming soon. It’s not too late for you to run away.”
She replied by hurling a barrage of air blades from all directions.
Ignoring the damage to my armor that was already repairing itself, I shaped the magma in my left arm into a jagged lance.
I struck at Aya while simultaneously conjuring spikes of lava from the ground beneath and wall behind her.
For a moment, I thought that my attack had landed successfully, until her body faded into wisps of air.
<i>Curse her illusions.</i>
The battle continued but it seemed like Aya had no intention of beating me. Her attacks grew less confident. It seemed like she was losing mana but my instincts kept me cautious. She was planning something.
I let my guard down purposely, hoping she’d get in closer range.
She took the bait, flickering right above me with a whirlwind of air concentrated into a spear-like point around her arm. She struck the crown of my helmet, shattering it and nearly piercing through my head as well.
Reacting instantly, the suit of magma protecting me began wrapping around Aya’s arm, keeping her in place. The elf’s eyes widened in horror as I pierced her with a mana-infused hand.
Aya tried to talk but only stuttered gasps came out as I twisted my bloodied arm inside to ensure she wouldn’t survive. “You’re strong and resourceful, Aya, but patience was never your strong suit. If it is of any consolation, I never wished for it to come to this.”
I tugged back my arm but it wouldn’t budge.
That’s when I saw it—the thin, hair-like strands of mana attached all over my suit.
I immediately tried to sever the thin strands of mana, but my attacks went straight through them.
“You’re right,” Ayas voice whispered beside me. This time, it was really her. “I <i>am</i> rather resourceful.”
She had mentioned to me once about a spell she had been developing, but to think she was able to do <i>this</i>.
The strands of mana glowed and I felt the air in my lungs convulse. I was still breathing only because she willed it. I now realized that throughout our fight, she had been carefully biding time for this moment.
“Surprised?” she said. “I needed a way for the ever-vigilant Olfred to weaken his defenses, and the only way you’d do that is when you think you have the upper hand. It also helped that your huge suit of rock kept your senses dull.”
The thin strands of mana that connected to the tips of her fingers glowed once more and a sharp pain pierced my chest.
However, rather than kill me, she continued talking, basking in her victory. “I remember you have a fascination with my magic, Olfred. Regardless of race, everyone’s body has a natural protection against foreign magic. It’s why water mages can’t just drain a human’s body of their fluids or why earth mages can’t just manipulate the iron in someone’s blood.”
“Every capable mage is aware of that basic premise, but to be able to establish a link to directly manipulate someone’s body using mana… how?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied curtly.
My lungs shuddered as I forced out one last deep breath. Despite my level of strength, this feeling of my breathing being <i>allowed</i> by someone else was nothing short of terrifying.
I raised my hands in submission as I slowly turned to face Aya. Her usually gentle eyes were sharp—the same way they were toward her enemies. “I know just by your gaze that my fate is sealed. And it would be unreasonable for me to ask you to have mercy on Lord Rahdeas, but please spare Mica. She had no part in this. I had to drug her in case she somehow found her way here.”
Aya’s brows twitched ever-so-slightly in thought before answering, “I’ll keep it in mind but that’s not up to me to decide.”
I replied with a nod. That was the best answer I could hope to get. “Despite our disagreements, it was an honor working with you.”
I thought I saw a sliver of remorse in those cold eyes, but I would never be able to confirm. My breath left me as if it was ripped out of my lungs. My vision darkened as I felt the cold grasp of Mother Earth pull me back into her embrace.