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Chapter 334: Last Mercy
My gaze s.h.i.+fted from the woman in the orange armor to the ring of ascenders around her closing in on us. Their hardened expressions, posture, gait—everything about them reinforced my impression that the Granbehls had made a significant investment to orchestrate this last ditch effort.
Stopping in front of Darrin, our female a.s.sailant placed a hand on the golden aura restraining him. “Sorry you got wrapped up in this, Ordin. I know I speak for all these men when I say that you’ve earned our respect over the years.”
“Well, then you could let us go,” Darrin ventured, the charm in his voice ruined by the m.u.f.fling of the golden force field.
The woman shook her head, eyeing us seriously. “No, I’m afraid not.”
I watched the mercenaries, their hands gripped firmly around their weapons despite their advantages. My eyes turned to where we had crossed over to this floor. A steady stream of ascenders should have been headed in both directions, but no one new came through the portal from the second level, and the street leading out into the first level was empty as well.
“Still scheming for a way out of this?” The woman asked with a raised brow. “I admire your composure, but it’s no use.”
“Scheming?” I echoed, raising a brow. “Is that what it looked like I was doing?”
“Superstar here thinks he’s invincible after being let loose,” one of the men standing nearest to her said with a chortle. His red hair had been shaved down on the sides, and scars marked his face, the sides of his head, and the bare skin of his arms.
Apparently, even the most professional of mercenaries weren’t immune to the disease of a swelled head because another man—this one a much rounder axe-wielder—leaned forward lazily against his weapon.
“That’s a top tier force cage, moron,” he said with a smirk. “The thing about these expensive ones is that, while they cost as much as a Relictombs estate, they drain your own mana to use against you, reinforcing the barrier.”
“So by all means,” the scarred redhead sneered, giving his shoulders a little shake, “struggle all you wish.”
The orange-armored woman let out a snicker and the mercenaries behind her saw that as a signal to cackle in amus.e.m.e.nt.
So when the supposedly unbreakable golden barrier of mana shattered around me, their expressions couldn’t have changed any faster.
‘Puahaha! Look at their faces!’ Regis guffawed, practically rolling on his back within me.
“Th-that’s impossible…” the woman stammered, her tanned skin a shade paler.
“I’ve been told that a lot,” I replied casually, dusting the golden shards of solidified mana off my shoulder.
Recovering quickly from her disbelief, the woman in orange let out a guttural roar as she flashed forward, twin sabers appearing in her hands, blazing in a golden red fire.
My form blurred as I used Burst Step to close the distance between us, catching her off guard. I kicked her knees and slammed her face-first into the ground with a quick strike to the back of her neck.
By the time the rest of the mercenaries snapped out of their shock and terror, their leader was already under my foot.
My gaze swept across the twenty some men and women in cold apathy. I had given the Granbehls enough chances.
Regis, kill the rest, I thought.
A shadowy wolf engulfed in violet flames burst forth, eliciting a storm of curses and yelps of surprise. Being the hardened mercenaries that they were, however, our opponents reacted with practiced efficiency, glowing mantles of all different elements erupting around them. Mana s.h.i.+elds flickered to life as well, bathing the platform with colorful light.
I took a moment to glance back at Alaric and Darrin, whose dumbfounded expressions indicated that they were still processing what exactly was going on. While the idea of freeing them for additional help crossed my mind, it didn’t seem necessary…and I wanted them to get a glimpse of just what sort of person they were actually helping.
Shrouding myself in a layer of aether, I focused on my opponents, ready to meet their barrage of spells.
Regis struck like a meteor, spraying blood wherever his dark claws and fangs went, but after killing a few of their comrades, our attackers were able to encircle him with mana s.h.i.+elds while their Casters bombarded him with spells.
The scarred ascender with burning red hair was the first to approach me, rus.h.i.+ng forward with a giant warhammer in hand, creating a depression on the ground with each mana-infused step.
“Screw taking you alive!” he roared. “Die!”
With bloodshot eyes filled with vengeance, the Striker swung his blackened steel hammer that seemed to pulsate.
I dug my heels into the ground, directing a burst of aether from my core through my arm and into my fist while keeping a steady flow throughout the rest of my body to keep myself stable.
My bare fist collided with the face of his metal hammer, creating a shockwave of force that ripped through the air.
The mercenaries nearby were blasted off their feet, slammed by the kinetic energy while the redhead’s hammer shattered just like the force cage they tried to trap me in.
Before my wide-eyed opponent could recover, I followed up with an aether-clad punch to his chest that made sure he never would.
Meanwhile, Regis had his jaws trained on the round axe-wielder’s head. His agonizing scream turned into a gut-wrenching crunch as my companion snapped his mouth shut before moving on to his next victim.
While protective panels of mana were able to deter the shadowy wolf for a moment, Regis’s claws were infused with destruction, slowly disintegrating whatever the mercenaries could conjure.
All around me, the mercenaries scrambled chaotically, perhaps now realizing how outmatched they were.
A Striker came from my left, hefting a huge sword surrounded by a sharp torrent of wind, but I sidestepped the unwieldy weapon easily, ignoring the scratches from its cutting aura. As the blade struck the ground, I snapped out a forward kick against the flat edge. There was a rending of metal as the serrated blade tore free from its handle and went skittering across the ground into the distance.
The Striker had just a moment to stare dumbfounded at his broken weapon before my second kick took him in the side, sending him cras.h.i.+ng through the wall of one of the surrounding buildings.
Spinning, I dodged a crackling arc of electricity that left a trail of shattered earth in its path.
The robed caster let out a manic laugh as he moved his arm, controlling the stream of voltaic mana back at me.
With another series of aetheric bursts channeled through my body, I Burst Step past the caster, my bloodied arm ripping a hole through his stomach.
His laughter dissolved into a hysteric scream as he looked down at his fatal wound.
As the ascender slumped, blood leaking from his mouth, I held his body and spun, using it as a s.h.i.+eld to catch a series of ice spikes that flew toward me. I felt that man’s body shake as the spikes impacted, then he went still in my grip.
I let the corpse fall to the ground.
Flicking the blood off my arm, I scanned the battlefield; one of the mercenaries had made a break for the portal. A powerful gale of wind blurred his form, and he was just a single step away from escaping, one arm already inside the glowing window of the portal.
The world s.h.i.+fted as my perception stretched and the currents of aether appeared around me. Letting the threads of spatium feed information to me, I was able to find the route that led me to the escapee.
Then I took a step.
Tendrils of violet lightning crackled around me as my vision s.h.i.+fted to just behind the wind mage. Grabbing him by the back of his armored collar, I jerked him toward me.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.
Despite my gentle smile, the ascender’s face twisted into one of horror.
“H-how…” he croaked before his skull was slammed into the ground.
Feeling the absence of the rich aetheric atmosphere of the deeper Relictombs zones, I noted the drop in my reserves from that single G.o.d Step and knew I couldn’t be careless about wasting aether.
Turning back to the battle, I spotted Regis who had moved onto another victim, the huge shadow wolf ripping through armor and flesh alike with ease.
As I stepped back toward the remainder of the enemy combatants, a shadow moved through the air right in front of me. I brought my left arm up just in time to catch the hand holding a dagger, which s.h.i.+mmered as it moved, just like its wielder. My attacker, a short-haired girl, had somehow camouflaged herself and her weapons, making her almost invisible against the chaotic backdrop surrounding us.
“You should’ve escaped when you had the chance,” I said, snapping the wrist in my grasp.
“Screw you!” the camouflaged ascender screamed as she spun on her heel and swung the second dagger she held in her other hand.
The dagger never reached me. The tip of my finger, extended into a sharp claw, tore across her throat.
With a spray of blood and an unintelligible gurgle, she fell to her knees.
Behind her, I watched as Regis leapt on a spear-wielding Striker, catching the shaft of the spear between his jaws and snapping it in two before dragging the man down. Spinning disks of white light kept flas.h.i.+ng past Regis’s shadow wolf form from behind the corner of a nearby building, where a couple of the mercenaries were retreating.
Movement brought my attention back to the dagger-wielding ascender, who—while clasping her torn throat with one hand—managed to muster the strength to drive one of her daggers into my leg.
I winced, more out of annoyance than out of pain, as I wrenched the dagger free.
The camouflaging ascender froze, unable to do anything but stare as the wound she had desperately inflicted began visibly healing in front of her, before succ.u.mbing to her fatal wound.
Finally, the enemy began to break as a couple of the men attempted to flee. Regis had already killed one of them, and was going after the second when one of the white disks caught him in the shoulder.
Anger flared from my companion as he ignored it in favor of killing the runaway first.
By the time I finished off a few of our remaining attackers, Regis had his attention back on the caster that had injured him with the glowing white disks. He was hiding behind a grizzled woman in armor of overlapping steel plates.
As the two stumbled back into an alleyway away from the shadowy wolf stalking them, the woman conjured a box of s.h.i.+mmering mana around her and the caster. A second and third box manifested around the first, and she took a deep breath, her hard eyes bearing down on Regis as the relieved caster behind her began summoning more searing white disks.
With each step my companion took toward the two remaining mercenaries, the brighter and more sinister his claws glowed until destruction flickered silently, melting effortlessly through each of the three conjured barriers. I could tell that my companion was relis.h.i.+ng in his final two prey.
Leaving Regis to wrap up, I walked over to where Darrin and Alaric were both watching me with wide eyes beneath the golden aura restraining them.
The force cage artifact gleamed from the ground where it had been dropped, projecting ethereal golden chains that snaked around my companions. Without preamble, I stepped down hard on the unfolded pyramid, and it—along with the ground—crunched under my boot.
As the golden light faded, both men stumbled forward.
Ma.s.saging his knees, Alaric’s gaze swept across the bloodied battlefield before taking in my form.
Clearing his throat uncomfortably, he shot a glance at Darrin before looking up at me. “You…uh…hurt?”
“It would’ve been faster if you two had joined,” I said with a shrug.
“You seemed to have things…under control, ” Darrin muttered, his emerald green eyes still soaking in the sight around us.
A figure stirred on the ground to the left of where we stood.
Alaric and Darrin looked to me but I shook my head. I let her recover as she peeled herself off the ground with a haggard groan. The once-orange armor was dyed in crimson, but most of the blood wasn’t hers. Aside from a raw sc.r.a.pe across her face, and what was likely to be a vicious headache, she wasn’t badly wounded.
I walked toward her and waited silently until she was finally able to take in the sight surrounding her.
“No…” she whispered, eyes red and lined with tears.
The ascender turned her trembling body toward where I stood.
“Please…just let me live,” she croaked.
“I didn’t leave you alive just to show you this mess,” I answered, even-toned. “I have a job for you.”
She nodded fiercely. “A-anything you want.”
“Tell the man who hired you that this”—I swept my gaze through the portal platform now littered with corpses—“was my last act of mercy.”
The mercenary’s jaw clenched, but she nodded once more in understanding.
“If he chooses to disregard whatever semblance of sanity he has left and comes after me again, I’ll make sure that Ada is the only Granbehl left to mourn for her blood,” I said, giving her a mirthless smile. “After all…I know where they live.”
With one last nod, she scrambled away, barely able to make it through the portal.
I made my way to Darrin and Alaric, who had watched my interaction with the woman in grim-faced silence.
“Do you disagree with how I handled this?” I asked.
“The outcome? No, not in the least,” Darrin answered before he looked off in the distance. “The method, well…”
“The outcome would’ve been better if you could’ve broken us out of the force cage without breaking it,” Alaric grumbled, holding the broken sc.r.a.ps of the artifact tenderly. “Do you have any idea how much this was worth?”
“If you sold it, it would just end up back in someone like Granbehl’s hands,” I replied, deadpan.
“Well, sure,” he sputtered, “but I’d be significantly more wealthy in the meantime!”
I snorted, and Darrin gave me a helpless shrug.
Regis chose that moment to reappear out of the alley. He loped up beside me, his maw red with blood, and I couldn’t help but notice the way Darrin eyed him uncomfortably.
Shaking himself, Regis sent a fine spray of warm red drops into the air, splattering Alaric, Darrin, and myself with little specks of blood. Darrin flinched back, covering his face with an arm, while Alaric stared off into the distance, unamused and face dotted red.
‘I feel so much better,’ he thought, his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth. ‘Gonna take a nap now.’
Darrin and Alaric watched, awestruck, as Regis faded away, drifting back into my body.
“Your magic and…summons…” Darrin paused, as if searching for the right words. He opened his mouth, hesitated, and closed it again. In the end, he only shook his head helplessly.
“I’m more curious how you broke out of the force cage, myself,” Alaric admitted as he tried to force one of the triangular panels closed. “That should be impossible.”
“Do you really want to know?” I asked, meeting Alaric’s eye.
He looked down at the hard-packed dirt for a second before kicking away a loose stone. “Nope, I don’t suppose I do.”
Over his shoulder, Darrin said, “Well I certainly would like to know, and I hope one day you’ll trust me enough to let me in on your secret, Grey.”
‘Which ones?’ Regis snorted in amus.e.m.e.nt.
When I didn’t immediately reply, Darrin’s face twitched with a tentative smile, and he turned away, leading our party out of the Relictombs.