Chapter 26 – Obsession
“Have you figured out who lit that flare yet!?” Izmir shouted at his companions as they traveled across the rooftops of the city. No one could give him an answer, and with no more signs of the perpetrator, they could only continue doing what they had done so far.
As a scouting party of the academy, they could be considered one of the few elite groups of magi that were around in this crisis. They personally had no trouble handling the magical plants, but the students were off worse. Most of them were still wet behind the ears and struggled to keep themselves barely alive. That being said, those magi could at least defend themselves as long as they stuck together, and with teachers coordinating their movements, this whole ordeal would have eventually ended with only a few casualties overall.
But this city didn't consist of only magi.
The plants were surprisingly smart. They had good judgment as to who was their prey and who was too strong for them to feast upon. This led to the magical plants using cunning tactics and ambushes, which created a major headache for Izmir and his group. As one of the strongest group of magi present, they did their best to help out the ordinary people, but it proved challenging to do so.
They traveled from fight to fight to help out everyone that needed them. But even with that, the number of casualties among the common people didn't decrease. Each ambush wasn't a long-lasting fight they could rush to support. Instead, it took only a few seconds for the plants to devour the humans before hiding again.
There was only one option if they wanted to somewhat prevent the rise of casualties. They had to rely on divinations to arrive at their targets shortly before the ambush happened. It was grossly inefficient, but there was nothing else they could do for the time being.
“South-west... Larkins' inn.” Zeast huffed with the last of his strength before collapsing into his partner's arms.
Izmir frowned when he saw the state Zaest was in. He couldn't blame him as he was the sole magus in their group that was capable of divinations. Magi that focused on divination Magecraft were a rare breed to begin with, as their value wasn't highly regarded unless you were at the top of the crop. Divinations and counter-divinations played a significant role in the military, but it was a role reserved for the high-ranked magi. Only their predictions were worth investing in and precise enough to be used in warfare. Thus, few would try their hands at divination even if they had the rare talent. Unless they had the absolute confidence to reach complete mastery and become a Rank 7 magus, most would choose to become a regular magus.
In general, divinations worked by becoming one with nature and being in tune with the elements. This specific discipline needed an understanding of particular fields in all of the five elements. Naturally, the Rank 7 divination magi wouldn't be considered archmagi as they focused only on those small fields of each element.
These divination magi created constructs that listened to nature. The wind that carried memories of the past. The earth that would never forget what had walked on it. Fire symbolized that no matter how much time passed or what happened, nothing would completely cease to exist, but merely change form. Water was the river of time. One couldn't swim against the current, but once could see what lay upstream. Lastly, lightning showed the fleeting present that only lasted a single moment.
Using these mnemonics as guidance, divination magi interpreted the constructs they created and their results. Only a few magi had the talent to truly understand the whispers of nature, and it wasn't something that could be learned.
“Rustov take three others and go. The rest will stay behind and guard Zaest until he recovers.” They had no other choice than to rely on him. Even if they randomly ran around to help groups that were already fighting, their support would only make a minuscule difference. Those weren't the ones who really needed their help, after all. Izmir looked up at the dome of sentries that had remained unmoving for the entire hour of this assault. He was just as perplexed as everyone else as to what the headmaster was thinking.
All of a sudden, a roar filled with ferocity and wrath echoed within the dome, causing everyone to look up to the sky. They all felt relief when they saw the headmaster standing in the sky. But just as quickly as he'd appeared, he disappeared from their sight again.
“Where is he!?” Zeristin shouted, unexpectedly standing right in front of the group. Confusion and a hint of fear rose within them as they confronted the headmaster whose eyes had turned into a devilish, bloodshot red.
“H-Headmaster!” Izmir was the first to recover. “Who do you mean? And what's going on? Why is the dome still trapping us inside?”
Zeristin paid no regard to Izmir and focused his gaze solely on Zaest. For a year, Zeristin's thoughts had been disordered. Too many issues he'd tried to solve all at once caused him to disregard the critical details of each problem. If only he'd paid more attention or investigated more thoroughly, none of this might have happened.
He wouldn't make the same mistake twice. As such, there was only one thought on his mind, and that was to catch Aien at any cost. Everything else had to wait.
“Tell me where he is!” Zeristin ordered Zaest as a sentry flew in front of him. Shortly after, the image of a young man in the academy's uniform was projected for all of them to see.
“Excuse us, headmaster, we've neither seen nor know of this person,” Izmir said hesitantly. He was appalled when he realized what the headmaster demanded. After gathering all of his courage, he stepped in between Zeristin and Zaest.
“And I'm afraid Zaest is too exhausted to perform another divination. As you can see he has to re-”
“I have no business with you!” Zeristin waved his arm and with the back of his hand, sent Izmir flying into the nearest house. His body disappeared within the hole of the impact before the entire house began crumbling into itself. The rest of the group watched this happening in utter disbelief. They couldn't understand what was happening, and soon, a different kind of fear emerged within them.
Before, they'd been afraid of defying orders or bearing the brunt of the headmaster's terrible mood, but after this, they were actually afraid for their lives. Whatever had possessed the headmaster, they knew he didn't hold back the slightest when they saw Izmir stumbling out of the ruins, covered entirely in his own blood.
“I won't repeat myself again! Where is he!?!?”
The second shout that was directed at Zeast shocked him out of his stupor. Filled with fear, he proceeded to use his construct to divine the whereabouts of Aien. Soon enough, his face lost all color and turned as white as a sheet. All of the healthiness of his skin seemed to flow out of his mouth in the form of a bloody trail. He exerted himself to his limits, but no matter how much he tried, he couldn't find a trace of the person the headmaster was looking for.
“I-I can't... find... him...” Zaest uttered with ragged breath. The veins on the headmaster's head protruded out in a rage, and the group was sure they'd soon explode if he didn't calm down.
“Where is the next outburst of plants!?”
“Headmaster!!!” Izmir cried out in defiance from below. This was going too far! If Zaest exerted himself any more, who knew what repercussions it could leave. But his shout fell on deaf ears. Zeristin continued to stare at Zaest like a wild beast, and the latter knew he didn't have another choice. While he still couldn't believe the headmaster would actually hurt them, he was petrified by the strength oozing out of the magus in front of him, crippling his thoughts. Thus, he obediently proceeded with another divination at the cost of his well-being.
“ South... around...Reisteyn's... tavern...”
With that, Zaest fell unconscious, blood streaming out of every orifice on his face. One of the group proceeded to use various potions on him, but it didn't have much of an effect. His divination construct had assaulted him with an enormous amount of information that overstrained his mind. The only method of recovery was to let him rest. Whether this would leave any longterm damage, however, wasn't something they could tell until he woke up again.
Despite fear filling their bodies, the group looked at the back of the departing headmaster with built-up resentment.
“What's wrong with... him!?” One of them thought to curse but didn't dare complete his choice of words.
“I don't know.” Izmir shook his head, but he thought back to the recent incident. “We'll wait for Rustov and the others to regroup with us. Rest until then. Iri, some potions, please.”
Zeristin rushed through the chaos of his city with no attempt to help quell the outburst of plants. Only if something was directly in his path would he take the time to eradicate them by using the burst of wind beneath his feet. Aside from propelling him forward, the wind would turn into sabers and cut the plants apart, yet it didn't do much in the bigger picture.
His only priority was Aien, and in his quest for vengeance, he lost sight of the people he was supposed to save. The city was not designed with interior defensive capabilities in mind. This was one of the significant flaws in human Magecraft compared to other magic. The purpose had to be predefined and was thus inflexible. That didn't mean the fortress was entirely incapable of defending its interior. Still, it would mean to use the sentries and collapse the dome. He did allow a few sentries to help out, which created a few holes in the ceiling of the dome. However, that was it. It wasn't close to enough.
Zeristin wouldn't use any more sentries even if that meant more people died. He wouldn't give Aien the chance to mix under the people and leave the city as, for whatever reason, no one could track his whereabouts. Maybe there was a different method to approach all of this without letting Aien escape. But Zeristin wouldn't risk it. The dome had to be kept up under any cost. The image of Lea's torment and her transformation into a stranger was ingrained into the depths of his mind, filling him with an unrelenting desire for revenge.
Regardless of that, Zeristin was incapable of large scale attacks that could discern between friend or foe. A big problem, considering most plants already stuck close to the struggling victims. The only help he could have provided was to rip apart each plant one by one. Although he'd do so with astonishing speed, it would take a lot of time.
This incident was certain to leave more than just a bad record on the history of the academy, but Zeristin no longer cared. Everything he held dearly was already irreversibly blemished by the rat he'd allowed to infest his home. Like a bull that chased after his red target, Zeristin bloodshot eyes shone with a similar light as the entire dome of sentries, while he scanned the whole city for clues.
After studying the turmoil in the city, Zeristin realized that there was a pattern to the outburst of plants. It was the only lead he could follow to find Aien. At first, one house would suddenly be infested with plants until soon after dozens of the adjourning houses followed suit.
It didn't take long for Zeristin to arrive at the complex of houses, which were supposed to be the next target of an eruption. In an instant, he took note of a hooded person that walked inside the house. Increasing his speed with his last step that shattered the air beneath him, he was about to take hold of the person, but he kept himself at bay.
He saw the face of the man, and it wasn't his target. The strange behavior of the man, however, was something Zeristin took note of.
The hooded man walked inside the house, and Zeristin impatiently followed him. The former tightly held onto a small wooden box. Aside from its magnificent craftsmanship, there was nothing suspicious about it, but Zeristin could see the traces of mana the box stored inside.
“Finally! Finally! Finally! Finally! Finally!” The man repeated himself over and over while he caressed the box like his most precious possession. He cautiously looked around to see if anyone was following him, but he couldn't see Zeristin, who was tailing him without creating any sounds.
“The red light! It finally appeared! Thank the Gods there was still a box left!”
Talking to himself, the man arrived in his room upstairs. It was completely empty. Traces revealed that there used to be some kind of furniture, but it was no longer there. Only the lonely man was left in this desolate and cold place, where he took no note of the chaos outside.
Frowning, Zeristin realized that this entire area was unusually devoid of plants. Wherever the man had gone before, it seemed he was quite lucky.
“The key!” The man suddenly shouted and hurriedly raced through his own room to look for something.
“Gone! Where is it!? Where did I place it? The drawer? Under the bed?” With crazed eyes, the man looked around the room, opening drawers that didn't exist and looking beneath his bed that was no longer there. Eventually, a key that was hung around his neck rose forth from behind the shirt he was wearing and fell into his sight.
Relief overwhelmed the man as he rejoiced. With trembling hands, he ripped the rope from his neck and retrieved the key. Following that, he opened the box, and what he found within was...
The man's eyes lit up in delight, and he devoured the pastry in the blink of an eye. Soon after his eyes lost their focus, and with a creepy but satisfied grin, the man sunk to the ground. Inside his own little world, he stared at the ceiling that had become the boundless sky through which he floated along. He reached a state of bliss that detached him so far from reality that he neither realized Zeristin entering into his room, nor the entities that had begun devouring his body.
When Zeristin saw the man, he already knew that he was a lost cause. There was no point in saving him, and he provided him with some information about the cause of this outbreak. The cookie was filled with dozens of seeds from magical plants. After entering the man's body, they prospered with astonishing speed as they feasted upon his insides.
Zeristin watched the cruel method of simplifying the tough survival of magical plants in their early stages of life. It seemed that Aien was using them as parasites to increase their survival rate and help speed up the growth.
But Zeristin couldn't understand it.
What was wrong with this man? His desire after this seemingly inconspicuous cookie was out of this world. He remembered the ale he'd once checked, and it seemed his hunch back then hadn't been wrong. Alas, his investigation hadn't been thorough. It seemed, he needed more information.
In a different house, a woman was cowering in a corner of her room. Her ragged and disheveled appearance only paled in comparison to her twisted face that displayed the struggling emotions within her. Similar to the man, she tightly held onto a small wooden box with all of her might.
“I don't need it! I don't need it! I don't need it!” She desperately screamed at herself. Back when she'd obtained a box from the storage place, she witnessed something unfathomable.
A man who couldn't endure until he was home, opened the box the second he'd gotten his hands on it and devoured the piece of dried fish he found within. She saw him enter a state of bliss she enviously longed for, but what followed after, left her frozen on the spot in fear. The woman saw how the man was eaten from the inside as several tiny carnivorous plants found their way out. They were about a hand's size before they proceeded to eat the rest of the corpse. After growing a little more in size, the five plants fought amongst themselves until only one was left. The remaining one rivaled her in height and wandered over to the unknowing prey closest to it.
Terrified, she ran back to her home. She didn't realize she still held onto the damned box that contained these terrifying creatures. Despite desperately wanting to throw the box out of the window, she was unable to bring it over herself. Her desire conflicted with her reasons, and the two competed within herself.
“He told me I need it. No! Don't open it! That man was just an accident - A coincidence. I don't want to die! Relax. It will bring you happiness.” In the end, she was overwhelmed by her desires. But when she was about to open the box, she realized it was no longer in her hands.
“Where!?” She frantically turned around to search through her empty room until she found Zeristin standing before her, holding onto the box.
“Give it back!” She shouted while clawing at his arm.
This was the fifth person he saw. It was incomprehensible to him. How were these people reduced to a state where they would willingly jump into death? He pushed the woman aside, and from within his Spacial Pouch, he pulled out a plant. A twig with leaves that had reddish lines, narrowing into the green surrounding it. It caught fire, and the smoke was directed into the nose of the woman. Her hysteric screams, which reminded him of something he really didn't want to remember, died down, and a tired, glazed gaze replaced the craziness in her eyes. Looking like she was about to fall asleep, the woman stood there without uttering another sound.
“Answer my questions. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” The woman answered to Zeristin's relief. Finally, someone who had part of their reasoning left.