Chapter 96: Eye of the Storm

Dear God, please grant me strength.

If things continue as they are… I-I don’t think I can save them all…

 

In the wake of Enbos’ furious assault, battle lines have been drawn between us and the cultists. While this isn’t the first time I’ve been in a disadvantageous situation, our current predicament is by far my most distressing. Although we may have more fighters, everyone except Hachirou and myself have been drained of their strength. Our only choice is to flee, but the captives are far too weak and some have even lost consciousness. Sen’s life is slipping away like sand in an hourglass, and as dearly as I want to tend to him and the others…  

 

“C-cleric!”

“<Blessed Edge>! <Guardian’s Light>!”

 

… I can’t afford to look away from the battlefield. To my horror, the cultists are reanimating the dead. Their raspy groans are stirring the adventurers’ collective trauma, and with every life lost, their bodies will only add to their ranks. I’ve been supporting the tortured adventurers however I can, but at the same time…

 

“<Rupturing Edge>!”

“<Mana Shield>!”

 

Ting!

 

“Thank you, Lili! <Six Claw Slice>!”

 

… I must also aid Hachirou, Minna and Norf in their battle against “Mr Kell”. He is far too dangerous to be left alone and yet I can only spare the occasional spell. Between the undead, their mages and “Mr Kell”, I’m stretched in every direction and I fear a moment of complacency could spell our doom. Never has so much rested on my shoulders, and yet as demanding as my trials may be, the one thing I and everyone is most weary of… is far outside our control.

 

Boom!

 

“Look out!

“T-They’re coming this way again!”

 

Blind to everyone around them, Enbos and Tascus continue to ravage the battlefield in their frenzied duel. Never have I experienced a battle between sides where the presence of two individuals could be so commanding. The sound of Enbos’ distant swings ring louder than all of our own. The might of Tascus’ spells stir the ground beneath our feet. Their combined auras inspire both unrelenting dread and insurmountable smallness to friend and foe alike. I’m reminded of the stories of old, of heroes deciding the fate of armies, except no one can see the two as anything but forces of destruction. Enbos now resembles a manifestation of violence at first glance, but in my eyes, all I see is a tragic soul pushed to the brink of inhumanity. I cannot imagine how he will feel after all is done, assuming we ever get out of this ordeal alive.

 

“<Pact of Piety>.”

“W-what!?”

 

All of sudden, I experience a terrible sense of foreboding as every inch of my body begins to crawls. The cultists suddenly stiffen and begin chanting in ominous union, “For Maleosis! For His Holiness! For Maleosis! For His Holiness!” over and over again. While it doesn’t appear to be an incantation, their mana seems to be fluctuating for some ungodly reason…

 

“O-oh my God…”

 

T-Tascus’ mana… it just… How can any human possibly have so much power!? I’m nowhere near their battle, and yet his aura is like a suffocating haze. Like a harbinger of despair, two black halos now hover behind him as he blasts Enbos away and ascends to the darkened skies. He then raises a towering column of earth and throws it at Enbos… which ploughs straight towards our frontline.

 

“Move!”

 

In the few seconds to spare, everybody enters a mad scramble as the mass of earth surges between both sides. Two of the shambling dead are instantly decimated by Tascus’ attack while the rest are knocked to the ground. Helpless before his unholy might, the resulting chaos creates a momentary break as we try to rally our forces amidst the shifting soil.

 

“*Cough, cough* I-is everybody okay?”

“The villagers are fine b-but that was too close! I think some of us were hit by the flying debris.”

“I-if that attack had been a few degrees in our direction… H-hey, how long do you reckon Enbos can…”

“It doesn’t matter! Enbos has yet to falter, and so shan’t we!”

 

Although I say those words, I can’t help but secretly concur with his sentiment. I can see no hope of Enbos prevailing against the hierarch. Tascus’ strength is now as far above Enbos as he is above us, and should Enbos fall, we will all be doomed to follow. Our only hope is to hold out until the cavalry arrive, but even so, I fear nothing less than a party of S-ranked adventurers could deter this human monster.

 

“Quickly everyone, gather around me! I’m going to heal-”

“ARRRGH!”

 

All of a sudden, I hear a soul-piercing scream as I turn to find a bloodied adventurer biting deep into his companion’s neck. My blood runs cold as his terrified eyes lose all life, only to refocus with unholy vigour. The sight of our former comrades sends several of our fighters into a panic and is breaking down our formation. I-I have to calm them before it’s too late!

 

“<Blessed->!”

“<Shadow Ball>!”

 

To my dismay, the cultists begin firing offensive spells into our midst. I manage to shield the villagers from their attacks, but our vanguard has completely fallen apart. Some are scrambling, some are huddled, and some are too shaken to hold their weapon. The cultists’ brand of terror has resettled in their hearts, and despite my continued resistance… I-I’m also afraid. I can see no hope of salvaging the situation as a part of me wants to slip away and be done with this nightmare. Nevertheless, I cannot bear to leave these people to die, and in my heart…

 

(Forgive me father. Forgive me mother. I may leave before you…)

 

CRACK! BZZZZZT!

 

All of a sudden, a bolt of light descends from above and explodes in a shower of sparks. It lands near the cultists and instantly sets one alight. As he falls to the ground in a quivering mess, his brothers are thrown into equal disarray. Stunned, it takes me a moment to realise that the steaming object that fell from the heavens… is Enbos’ sword.

D-did he throw it to save us? No, he wouldn’t dare abandon his weapon in his current state. It terrifies me to think it could have just as easily land in our midst. But if his sword is here, then that means…

 

BOOM!

 

As the sound of destruction draws near, cultist, villager and adventurer alike scamper out of the way like frightened animals. A black figure comes crashing into the remains of the wagon, and as much as I wish otherwise, I know it’s Enbos lying in the debris. The battle enters an unexpected lull as Tascus arrives and Enbos rises with all the ferocity of a wounded beast.

 

“And yet, still you refuse to yield. Despite being driven to the brink of death, despite being unarmed, despite being outclassed in every way… your determination has not waned…”

 

I-I almost wished it did. As much that is riding on Enbos’ survival, I can barely bring myself to look at his battered state. His strained movements scream with rage and anguish, and with every word that passes Tascus’ lips, he only grows more agitated. Reaching a breaking point, Enbos drags himself forward like a broken marionette, roaring with inhuman malice.

No, I-I can’t stand it anymore. Enbos is tearing himself apart, and yet not a single one of us has moved in to help. While Minna, Norf and Hachirou are preoccupied with “Mr Kell”, everyone else is treating him like a humanoid monster. But not me, and I would rather draw Tascus’s attention than see Enbos discard any more of his hard-kept humanity!

 

“<Sacred Elven Art: Phantasmagor->!”

“Look out, Lili!”

 

Before I can cast my spell, a knife comes flying towards my head. I manage to deflect the attack with a barrier, but I soon find “Mr Kell” quickly bearing towards me. He’s far too nimble for Hachirou to catch up, and despite the adventurers’ best efforts, he slips past everybody to reach his prey: me.

 

“You will not disturb the Hierarch! <Swift Strike>!”

 

Faster than the eye can follow, he swings his blade towards my exposed throat… and misses by more than a foot. Unaware that I’ve distorted his sense of distance, I swiftly side step his next attack and reach out to his face.

 

“<Blinding Light>!”

“Argh!”

 

Scoured by God’s brilliant glow, he clasps his eyes in agony. However, I suddenly feel a bout of incredible pain as I quickly realise he has kicked my side. His powerful strike sends me sprawling onto the muddy earth, and as reluctant as I am to heal myself over the others, I’m forced to tend to my injury. As for “Mr Kell”, he is far from incapacitated as he approaches with menacing poise and closed eyes.

 

“Nice try Lili, but I don’t need my eyes to take care of- Huh?”

 

He suddenly stops out with an alarmed expression, and it takes me a moment to realise that, despite the continued rain, I can feel an incredible wave of heat surge by. I look towards the source, and to my disbelief, I discover Enbos has conjured a massive globe of roaring flames! So hot are the flames in fact that the falling rain is turning into scalding steam and the empowered Tascus is forced to raise his guard.

H-how he did recover so quickly!? N-no, more importantly, is he honestly planning to bury the entire vicinity, people and all, in a sea of flames!? There’s no time for us to get away!

 

“Quickly, gather around me! I’ll shield you all!”

 

Fearful of Enbos’ might, all the captives and adventurers scramble towards me while the cultists take flight. I begin unravelling the restraints on my holy sceptre, praying that I can finish before Enbos is done with his. Rushing the invocation, I raise my sceptre above my head and activate the secret enchantment embedded within.

 

“<Sanctuary>!”

 

With a burst of divine light, I conjure a massive golden dome that thankfully encompasses everybody around me. Not a moment later, Enbos unleashes his full might, plunging our world into steam and flame. While we are by no means the target of his ire, the residual force and heat is enough to threaten our only refuge. I-if anybody had been outside my <Sanctuary>, the scalding vapours would have left them in searing pain. As the tremors begin to weaken, I take the brief moment of respite to tend to Sen’s condition.

 

“He’ll be fine Minna. With God’s light healing everybody inside the <Sanctuary>, he should recover some of his lifeforce.”

“Thank goodness…”

“E-excuse me Holy Maiden, but how long will the barrier last?”

“Only a moment more. For all its defensive and restorative powers, I can only cast <Sanctuary> in cycles of a month. We’ll have to run as soon as it fades.”

“I-I see.”

“Did everybody hear all that!? Get ready to move!”

 

To my relief, it seems everyone has recovered enough from <Sanctuary> to take flight. Norf is carrying Sen on his back while Minna is offering her rope to keep everyone together in the shroud. Hachirou is still looking in the direction of his enraged friend, but he eventually turns his back to join us. I pray Enbos will last until we can get everyone past the hill… assuming there would still be an Enbos left to save.

As the enchantment begins to fade, we immediately break into a collective sprint. I cast <Orbs of Light> to illuminate our way. I can feel myself sweating profusely from the lingering steam. We eventually break through the veil, and to our fortune, the cultists are still scattered and are only now reacting to our flight. I prepare to cast protective spells to cover our escape, but all of a sudden…

 

BANG!

 

… a brief yet incomparably loud blast draws my attention to the smouldering field. Something sizable flies out of the mist like a pebble across still water, skidding along the wet soil in a series of gruelling crunches. I come to an involuntary stop upon recognising the figure at the end of the trail of gouged earth.

 

“E-En… Enbos!”

 

Laying half-submerged in the mud with a deformed chest, I would have thought him dead if not for the bloodlust still emanating from his form. I want to help him, and yet I’m painfully aware all my spells would do is harm him. My magic would be better served helping the others take flight. Nonetheless, the thought of abandoning him to Tascus just for a moment of respite is truly damning. Dear God, please grant me insight. W-what should I do?

 

Goddamn it.

“H-huh?”

 

To my disbelief, Enbos raises himself from his open grave with all the semblance of a dead man standing on his knees. I can feel my heart stop as he reaches for the vertical crack running along the left socket of his mask. My blood freezes with paralysing dread as he shifts his gaze back to Tascus, filled with undying tenacity.

He’s truly lost himself… N-no, I won’t allow it! Even if God can’t reach you, I will!

 

“Enbos, snap out of it!”

 

It was not I who uttered those words but Hachirou who is running towards his tortured friend. Nevertheless, I find myself running alongside the small kobold as we throw ourselves onto Enbos in a vain attempt to restrain him. His jagged, broken bones dig into my robes as we hold on for his dear life.

 

“Please, you have to stop! You’re killing yourself with every step!”

“N-not like this, Enbos. Nothing is worth seeing you like this, even if it means our lives! Please go back to the kind soul you are.”

“Listen to us, Enbos!”

“…”

 

Despite our best efforts, he’s dragging us along like an undaunted Treant. He doesn’t even realise we are holding onto him. I try to lift him by the torso, and to my surprise, I manage to do so despite his powerful movements. However, my success proves short-lived as I suddenly lose all sense of touch and collapse to my knees, followed shortly by Hachirou.

 

“W-what did Enbos j-just do!?”

“I-I’m not sure, Lili. I think he severe our spiritual links, b-but to do so from contact alone… I-I can’t get up!”

“Enbos! Enbos!”

 

I-it’s no use. He can’t hear our desperate pleas, even as Hachirou’s cries become pained barks. He doesn’t recognise his own name… his name…

 

“… Tyler!”

 


 

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