Dippo rushed the squad to leave as early as possible to cover most of the remaining work in one day. Judging by the grumbling of the chief who was still barely awake, they were the last one to enter the city yesterday and the first to leave today.
As the group slowly rode through the city, Orisa spotted two men conversing with the guard by the city gate. When the squad passed by a trio of men, she overheard a worried voice:
"I know you are probably right, but it's still strange for them to stay in the field without saying something first."
"As you said so yourself, they were scheduled to return before nightfall. I'm sure they are sleeping soundly somewhere with tons of mushrooms and herbs in their bags and would surprise you soon with their big catch."
"I hope you are right, Patr. I really do..."
The entrance to the gorge looked ominous. It was still too early for the sun to fully brighten up the path, so the gorge looked like a dark chasm. Orisa shivered, hushing her imagination.
There were marks of the recent fight all over the place: scorched and smashed stone, broken arrows, and even one shattered wooden shield. Seeing the scene, Orisa recalled the conversation she had with the chief last evening, and it added to the overall gloomy mood.
"Come on, kids. We need to pick up the pace!"
Dippo rushed his horse, and the squad followed his example. They rode quietly, only the hoofs echoing inside the gorge. Dippo graciously illuminated the road with the floating lights, so at least they did not need to worry about the road. Orisa switched places with Clemen and was now riding by Dippo's side.
"I have a really bad feeling, sir."
"Me too, dear kitten. That's why we are rushing."
"To get away from the trouble?"
Dippo gave her a surprised and questioning look, before answering with a laugh:
"No, silly, to be the first ones to get there!"
They almost made it out of the gorge when Orisa turned to Dippo once more:
"I think I feel Mana outside. Like, a lot..."
"Interesting," he pondered before turning to face the squad.
That very moment they finally made it outside the mountains, and all the Mana that was blocked by the rock appeared on Orisa's Seal-radar. It was an oppressing, crushing amount of Mana that momentarily made her dizzy.
The moment the last member of the squad came out of the chasm, numerous Beasts from both sides rushed to block the path, cutting the squad's easiest and safest escape route. The road ahead was already obstructed by a few giant boulders so close to each other that no horse would be able to pass through. The ground by the road's sides was too uneven and riddled with small obstacles that it was out of the question to lead the horses there while maintaining at least a bare minimum of speed.
"There are dozens, if not hundreds of them everywhere around us!" Orisa yelled, looking over the surrounding scenery. Numerous Beasts stood there, growling and howling, with even more of them hiding behind rocks, inside the cracks and caverns. Razor-sharp feathers, needles, and spikes started flying from all directions.
"Halt! To arms!" commanded Dippo and dropped from the horse.
"Triple Block!" - "Triple Block!" - "Triple Block!" - "Triple Block!"
"Fog of war!"
While Orisa was setting up the first line of their defense, Dippo and Clemen both let out clouds of Mana to further obstruct the Beasts' aim and field of view. Seizing the moment, Orisa pulled a minuscule vial out of her chest pocket and downed its content, an easy-to-use single dose of the Concentration potion.
The anti-projectile barrier appeared and gave them a short breather to prepare, and everyone started moving. Amidst the shouts, buffs, and other spells, Orisa managed to ask Dippo:
"What the hell is happening? How is it possible?"
"Someone or something is leading them, I guess," while Dippo was answering her questions, a long and loud howl spread across the area. "Oh, and that's our clue. A twice evolved pack hound or a wolf, something like that; yep, sounds about right. They are quite capable of following their prey, gathering more grunts to do the deed, and creating an ambush as well."
Without any more hesitation, Dippo took out a few expensive-looking potion bottles and downed them all, tugging a few support crystals into his pockets. While he did all that, the puzzle inside Orisa's head finally assembled. A surprisingly low amount of trouble they met on their way here; a small scouting group of the Beasts inside the city; missing people who got caught on their way back home.
"I'll probably be busy playing with their leader, so you'd better take care of everything-."
But Dippo wasn't able to finish the phrase as the Beasts rushed to their side from all directions. Orisa immediately felt the pressure rise on her barrier, straining her Mana pool. They had two lanterns at their disposal, and Dippo took one with him. The last thing he did before disappearing into the crowd of the Beasts was to shoot three red flare guns up into the air.
"What's the plan?" Kanai asked while throwing several healing spells.
"We won't be able to hold out in the open!" shouted Iten while warding off another Beast.
"I'm thinking! Give me some time."
Orisa bit her lip in panic and frustration. So far, only agile and swift foes like dogs and wolves made their appearance, that's why they were still holding up. The long-ranged Beasts were giving them much trouble, eating Orisa's Mana, and the moment stronger Beasts like boars or bears would make it to the squad's position, everyone here would be dead. Or Orisa's Mana would run out, leaving them without her shield to be easily picked by ranged attackers. They ought to seek cover and make it out of here.
The entrance to the mountain path was a hundred meters away from them and would serve as a good cover. The path in that direction, however, was packed tight with the Beasts.
A vague plan started to take shape inside Orisa's head. The shouts around her made it harder to focus, especially while maintaining the barrier, so the frustration inside her boiled. That moment, a familiar calmness dawned upon her, and Orisa let go of the barrier to cast Enrage and more Blocks. While she was throwing the spells, her plan formed into an elegant but still extremely risky endeavor.
"Clemen, come to me," she asked her overly enthusiastic squad mate.
"Reporting for duty, Imperator Orisa!" saluted the boy. He was covered in blood and sweat and had a few deep cuts here and there, but it didn't stop him from smiling.
"I'm going to drop the shield and cast five more blocks. When I'm done, I need you to cast the Fog of War a few times. Clear?"
"Crystal clear, sir ma'am lordship!"
"I'm dropping the shield in five seconds, be ready!" Orisa yelled and counted to five.
The moment the last series of Blocks appeared, she nodded to Clemen, and together they activated their skills:
"Fog of War!"
"Fog of War!"
A stream of information flooded her mind. Discarding most of it away, Orisa focused on the part that contained data on the spell and Mana flow inside Clemen's body. With a light internal chuckle, she noticed that the intent behind the spell that made Mana distract Beasts was 'Sparkle.' Pondering the very source of the magic system and the laws of this world, Orisa focused on the spell she was about to create. While the details were still being processed by her accelerated mind, Orisa commanded the squad:
"Everyone! When I shoot the spell, you all jump on your horses and rush to the gorge!"
Orisa added a few more groups of blocks to cover the squad and got on her horse. She ought to ride first to make it work. Raising her right hand, she focused on the first part, the Seal of Intensity which was supposed to increase the effects of durational and persistent magic. Without this Seal, the spell wouldn't be able to cover their retreat. After that, the Repeating Seal took its spot in the line. Straining her mind, Orisa created the last part, the Seal of Lesser Projectiles.
Maintaining three Seals was a feat of its own, and everything in front of Orisa's eyes became blurry already. She focused on creating a shell and felt blood vessels pop up inside her nose yet again, but despite that still managed to finish it. The moment Orisa tried to infuse it with Mana, something clicked inside her head, and she blacked out, falling from the horse with a loud thud.
Onuki reacted instantly. While Kanai was pulling Orisa up, she checked the girl's status and proceeded to heal her. A few seconds later, Orisa groaned in Kanai's arms and came back to her senses.
"Whatever you were doing, you need to stop," Onuki scolded her angrily.
"I need... A buff to Dexterity and Mana control. Do it," slowly muttered Orisa with a barely audible voice.
"Wait a bit!" said Tiana who rushed to the sight of Orisa falling from the horse. She now dashed away and pulled an unenthusiastic Ramulie a few seconds later. "Just do it, please!"
"Guess I have no choice, then," the girl rolled her eyes and pointed her wand at Orisa:
"Major Owl's Eye!"
Orisa immediately felt much better. Muttering thanks, she climbed back to her horse, renewed the Blocks around the group, and started from the beginning. Meanwhile, the squad had already lost three horses by that moment, and both Iten and Bassa were beyond exhausted, with Marina following close. They were running out of time, Mana, Barriers, and weak foes.
Orisa remade the three Seals and the shell; slowly and carefully pouring Mana inside, she added intent to 'Sparkle.' With the construction made of three Seals and the infused shell, Orisa aimed towards the path to the village. Opening a small hole inside the shell, she launched the spell and almost fell from the horse again, so hard it was to operate five Mana layers despite being buffed to the brim.
Her projectile started emitting Mana that was bound to both attract and distract the Beasts; it passed through her first Seal, making the distraction more potent. Without any additional effects, it passed the Repeating Seal and came into contact with the Seal of Lesser Projectiles. At that moment, the shell disappeared, and four smaller shells came out of this Seal, flying in the same direction but with slightly altered angles. Half a second later, the Repeating Seal spat out three more shells one after another, and they were multiplied by the last seal yet again. Before the Seals disappeared, sixteen shells flew forward, showering the surrounding area with the distractive Mana fog. It looked like an advanced smokescreen right out of the WWII movies. It wouldn't be able to hide them completely, but there was nothing she could have done to increase their odds.
"Mount and run!" she commanded, grabbing Kanai and helping him sit behind her back since his horse was dead. The moment his hands tightened around her waist, Orisa sent the horse galloping forward.
"Triple Block Rush!" - "Triple Block Rush!" - "Triple Block Rush!"
While they rode, Orisa was constantly pushing the Beasts away with the blocks. Enemies' projectiles flew all over the place, and the Beasts were running chaotically, trying to find their prey in the blinding and maddening mist. Orisa didn't stop her Block barrage even for a second.
When they made it out of the distracting mist and into the gorge, Orisa noticed that her Blocks were now pushing a huge clot of Beasts deeper into the gorge. Some these Beasts managed to leap over her barriers and were now running in the squad's direction. They were jumping back and forth between the walls of the gorge, which made it impossible for Orisa to stop them effectively, so she commanded to dismount and shouted:
"Iten, Kanai, Clemen, these further down the road are yours to handle! Everyone else, focus on the entrance. Tiana, Shou, to me!"
As the mist Orisa made began to dissipate, the first Beasts started getting to their position as well. Onuki, Marina, Bassa, and Ramulie were dealing with them, while Orisa explained her plan to both casters.
"This is an experiment. I'm going to conjure Seals for both of you to shoot through them. I only tried it once and with a single Seal, so stop if you notice something is wrong."
Tiana and Shou were both puzzled but nodded obediently to their leader. Orisa stood at the center of the gorge and spread her arms wide. She focused on the Seals, and two identical sets appeared to her left and right, above her palms. It was one of the methods Rita explained in her Seal manual, and Orisa longed to utilize it in a battle for quite some time now. It was her chance now to test it.
Their vanguard was battling the Beasts when Orisa suddenly commanded them to get back. When all four members made it past her, Orisa yelled:
"Empower!" - "Major Firebird!"
It was way harder to keep the Seals up and running when other people used them. Orisa felt like she had to fold origami during a hurricane; the Seals were constantly losing shape, making Orisa concentrate twice as hard to maintain their functionality. Aside from that, each passing spell pulled a chunk of her Mana pool to refuel the Seals, and Orisa wasn't used to the feeling of constant borrowing.
Each projectile was first increased in size by the Gigantic Seal and then multiplied by the Seal of Lesser Projectiles. A local branch of hell was now open on the mountain path. Shou maintained his Barrage while Tiana launched firebirds almost every second. The entrance to the gorge soon turned into a burning and smoking pit of flesh. The whole passage was covered in smoke and dust.
Ten seconds later, Orisa found her Mana pool halved, but Shou stopped his spell and mumbled tiredly:
"Out of Mana."
"Cover us for a moment!" ordered Orisa to the now idle vanguard and turned to her casters. Aiming her palms at their chests, Orisa chanted:
Tiana and Shou looked at her with shocked expressions plastered over their faces. The spell was extremely ineffective, that's why nobody used it. But Orisa with her lake-like Mana pool was an exception. They switched back to shooting half a minute later, letting the vanguard retreat. The situation no longer felt as dire as it was a mere five minutes ago. They switched twice more before she noticed the number of Beasts rushing the gorge drop down.
With her sharpened senses, Orisa spotted three wolves jumping back and forth between the walls of the gorge. They avoided all the spell fire with ease while bouncing in the air like squirrels, and Orisa understood the reason a few seconds later. The slits that all Beasts had in place of their eyes were glowing violet, the sign of their owners completing their first evolution. The once evolved wolves were cautions, cunning, dangerous beyond measure.
Immediately dropping the Seals, Orisa started shooting at them:
"Blast Shell!" - "Blast Shell!" - "Block Rush!" - "Block Rush!"
After the first few spells, Tiana and Shou both noticed new threat and tried to help Orisa shot them down. While far from dead, two of these wolves went down, but the third Beast made it to their line. Despite Orisa's expectations, it leaped over their heads and ended up in front of the other four members who were resting at the moment.
Orisa was already forming the Blast Shell on her palm when the Beast's jaw closed around overwhelmed Marina's waist.
The wolf swung its head towards the gorge's entrance with great force and opened the jaws at the last moment. Marina's body was sent flying high into the air. Orisa's Blast Shell went inside the Beast's neck, exploding and ripping a chunk of flesh, but Orisa wasn't paying attention. She followed the body's trajectory with a horrified expression. Marina flew at least fifty meters if not more, and crashed somewhere outside the gorge and Orisa's field of view.
Channeling her Mana through the Steel Skin Seal on her right glove, Orisa activated both Thickness and Force Guard barriers. With the same variation of the Wall Rush spell that she used during the defense of the Arrival Chamber fort Orisa launched herself into the air and flew towards Marina's body.