Episode 150 – Comrades
Nelaira’s fists clenched so hard her nails drew blood.
“You have a responsibility to your team, Lieutenant. This is not the time to succumb to your feelings of grief and self-blame.” Lorafiel continued. “Think about it carefully. If there was one Tainted here, there might be more. We should teleport back immediately.”
Nelaira fell silent. She hated to admit it, but her corporal was right. Every second that they remained here she was risking the lives of the remaining three members of her team.
Out of the four of them who have survived, Lorafiel and Scotty weren’t specialized in combat, while she was in no condition to fight. If another Tainted popped up, their entire team would be wiped out without a doubt.
But even so… even so… she was unwilling to just abandon Luki and Aurel! Until she saw their corpses she refused to proclaim them dead!
Even if they had been tainted, with proper treatment they could survive a few more years!
How could she ever look their families in the eyes if she didn’t even confirm their death?
She gritted her teeth and decisively showed her Beacon into Lorafiel’s hands.
She couldn’t risk the lives of the remaining three, but she couldn’t abandon Luki and Aurel either. Thus, she could only risk her own life to save the duo.
Giving Lorafiel no chance to complain, Nelaira took off her backpack and threw it at Lorafiel’s feet. “Stand by for teleport. I’ll go down to bring back Luki and Aurel. Give me 30 minutes. If another Tainted appears in the meantime, don’t wait for me to return, activate the Beacon immediately.”
She eyed Scotty, Lorafiel, and Grass sternly, leaving no room for negotiation.
Her physical state might be nearing collapse but that did nothing to dampen her commanding presence.
Grass and Scotty subconsciously straightened up and nodded their heads. Lorafiel accepted the command without question. He pocketed the Beacon with a strange glimmer in his eyes, then he crouched and picked up her backpack.
Nelaira faced Grass and Scotty: “While you are waiting, round up the bodies of our fallen comrades. We will bring them back home with us.”
She refused to leave them here to be eaten by monsters.
They deserved proper funerals.
Their families deserved to see them one last time.
While the other two listened to her carefully, Lorafiel searched through her bag as if looking for something.
As Nelaira spoke she couldn’t help but feel that something wasn’t quite right. The feeling was very subtle and hard to define. It felt as if it was right in front of her, staring her down, but when she extended her fingers towards it, they passed right through it. As if it was nothing more than insubstantial mist.
She looked at Lorafiel searching through her bag. There was no logic behind this feeling. With how diligent her corporal was it would be stranger if he didn’t check through her backpack. After all, the most valuable items were all in her possession.
This eerie feeling probably had nothing to do with Lorafiel at all. She turned her attention back to the remaining two, but they weren’t doing anything at all let alone displaying any strange behavior.
Nelaira shook her head. She was probably feeling overly sensitive due to the previous happenings. The mood was depressing, the icy plain quiet and still. It would be strange if she didn’t feel unsettled.
Deciding to save the mana remaining in the mana crystals powering her boots for when she needed it later, she turned and started walking towards the pit on foot.
She sighed mournfully, what was she doing thinking about a random feeling of unease? All of them had just lost their friends and comrades, acting unusual was to be expected. What would be odd was if they weren’t impacted by the loss.
Weren’t…impacted by the loss? Nelaira’s heart jumped into her throat and she froze in her tracks. Just as she stilled, Lorafiel’s drawling voice reached her ears.
“Where is the diary?”
Purge squads kept a diary of their expedition which was used to report their progress and receive orders from higher-ups. But that diary was already inside her backpack.
Thus, the diary he was referring to…!
Nelaira tried to swallow her saliva but her throat was painfully dry.
“I destroyed it,” Nelaira responded. “Orders from the higher-ups.”
Silence descended onto the clearing.
Nelaira didn’t resume walking towards the pit, her heart tightening in her chest.
She was wrong.
They weren’t acting any different than usual.
But this lack of strangeness…
…was exactly what was strange!
The silence was broken by a quiet click of the tongue, followed by a soft yet prickling exhale: “Liar.”
Blood drained out of Nelaira’s face and she abruptly spun on her heels to face the source of the voice.
Yet, when she turned back her eyes didn’t land on Lorafiel, who had been the one to speak, but rather, Grass, whose fist appeared right in front of her.
Her eyes didn’t even manage to widen in shock before she was struck in the pit of her stomach. Her body curled up like a shrimp and she fell on all fours, spitting out a large mouthful of blood. Her limbs shook, her whole body spasming in pain. Her wavy hair, wet from her sweat and blood, fell over her eyes like a dark curtain of seaweed, covering up her vision.
With the loud ringing in her head, she could barely hear Lorafiel’s eerily calm voice: “Search her.”
She felt her arms being pulled behind her in a restraining grip. The firm hold both supported her upper body from falling over and forced her to remain kneeling.
She looked through the gaps in her hair too see Scotty’s dark-skinned form approaching her.
“What… are you… doing?! Assaulting… your… superior… is a serious… offense!” Nelaira panted, finding it difficult to speak between the painful gasps.
“Pity that the only members of the team that would actually care about your empty title are already dead.” Lorafiel’s lamenting sigh reached her ears.
Nelaira stared into his golden monocle, dazed. Only when she felt Scotty patting her body in search of a diary did she snap out of her stupor and start struggling. But after all the impacts her body had received, including the damage from flaring her aura, she was far too weak. Even if she slammed her elbow into the other’s jaw, the only thing the other would feel was the uncomfortable poking.
Luckily though, her magic was still there.
And while her mind wasn’t quite clear right now, it couldn’t stop her from using the Morph that had long become an instinct to her.
Her mana rushed into the ground underneath her. However, Grass and Scotty were standing right next to her, and the Mind they had wrapped around themselves managed to sense what she was doing.
Both of them jumped back promptly to avoid her attack. Grass, who had been holding her down, released her arms only to send her body flying with a roundhouse kick.
Her body painfully rolled in the snow like a rice dumpling until her back hit something squishy.
She didn’t attempt to wipe the blood streaming down her chin nor did she wait for her dizziness and blackened vision to clear. Instead, she attempted to get up immediately, ignoring the ache spreading through every fiber of her being.
She had no time to lay around. No one would wait for her to recover and get up.
Her attempts at getting up didn’t proceed as planned. Before she could steady herself, she ended up slipping on something wet and falling back down.
She let out a ragged breath only to almost throw up from the stench that assaulted her nostrils.
Her hand flew to her face to cover her nose but froze in place before it touched her face.
Down her hand slid a thick black liquid that looked strangely beautiful. Like liquified night, the purest black in existence, littered with countless glittering stars.
Nelaira’s body shook and she lowered her gaze downwards…
…only to see herself sitting on a black gory mess of the monstrosity they had killed.
Innards, muscles, puss, pieces of broken bone, mixing in a black soup that was letting out fumes.
The remains of the creature seemed to be disintegrating into black smoke. It spread into the air with its wispy elegance, propagating outwards enchantingly. Just like a drop of black ink propagating through water.
It slithered through the air like a snake, like a transparent sheet of silk.
Nelaira tripped over her own limbs in her hurry to escape. She slipped several times, ending up crawling backward, away from the gory mess.
But even as she did so she knew that it was already too late.
One touch was all it took.
And she had practically taken a bath in Ink.
How did it come to this?
Why did it come to this?
Nelaira’s head rigidly turned towards her three remaining team members. They were no longer approaching her. On the contrary, each time she stepped forwards, they would step backward.
They looked at her with a mix of disgust, fear, reluctance, and pity.
Then they shared a helpless look between themselves, not knowing how to proceed.
Looking at their faces without any shred of comradely affection Nelaira’s blood chilled.
And then, at that moment, she felt as if she had been struck by lightning.
The fog clouding her mind lifted, revealing the truth underneath.
Suddenly many things that were unclear to her before became crystal clear.
Back then when the Tainted was upon her, when she tried to use her boots to escape, her back had slammed into something invisible.
She hadn’t had time to ponder over what happened back then, but now…
“It was you!!!” Nelaira half croaked half screeched, her black eyes staring at Lorafiel as if she wanted to devour him. Coupled with her disheveled looks, bathing in black blood, she looked downright terrifying.
“You morphed an air wall to stop me from escaping back then!”
“Well, technically that was Scotty…” As if her spit had hit his monocle, Lorafiel took it into his hands to wipe it clean. “But yes, it was indeed done under my orders. I figured it was an excellent opportunity to deal with you without anyone noticing anything strange. Scotty just needed to slow down your escape and the monstrosity would have done the rest.”
Lorafiel shook his head sadly. “Pity Aurel interfered, I did not see that coming.”
Nelaira’s blood started to boil.
Her comrades, her team members.
People that she had been looking after for years, people that she was ready to die for, were the ones after her life.
The people that were supposed to guard her back were the ones to stab the fatal blow!
Nelaira’s aura turned chaotic.
When she had flared her aura previously, her mana had spread all through the clearing.
And now all that mana started to get agitated.
“Why?!” She screamed her throat sore. “Why?!”
Unperturbed by her outburst, Lorafiel finished cleaning his monocle and put it back into place.
“Don’t give me that fierce look. It’s nothing personal.” He explained patiently. “You are a capable leader. If given a choice I’d much rather you continued acting as our lieutenant.”
He sighed and shook his head in what seemed to be melancholy. “Unfortunately, that is no longer an option. You’ve become a liability that we can’t afford to nurture any longer.”
“What are you talking about?” Nelaira ground her teeth until she felt as if they would crack from the pressure.
Lorafiel gave her a meaningful look. “You really shouldn’t have continued to translate that diary.”
Nelaira’s heart trembled.