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I came back to a village that was more destroyed than it’d been when I’d left, and I was’t sure who to blame for it.

Whatever the other oathholder had done—Nishi, he’d called himself—had amplified my power, enough that I hadn’t been able to properly control it, but it hadn’t been nearly enough to totally nullify the primordial’s blast.

The plants in a small radius around me had withered and died, affected by the blast of Inome’s power, but just past that radius were shrubs and trees and flowers of all shapes, sizes, and colors. None of them had been there before I’d blacked out momentarily, so the blast had almost definitely created them. More of a deflection, then, not a full cancellation. Still far better than anyone besides the Ben-derens could ever hope for.

And Nishi, maybe, given that he’d played a significant role in keeping me alive.

The primordial wasn’t attacking anymore. Maybe that last blast had been all it had in the tank, or maybe it had accomplished the task it had come here for. Whatever the case, the oppressive pressure in the air was gone now, and the tree had gone dormant. I wasn’t completely sure, but I might have seen the figure of a human in its upper branches, the silhouette vague and indistinct.

Jasmine. The thought rose to my mind, unbidden. Where was she? She hadn’t greeted me immediately, and the radius that had remained untouched wasn’t all that large. Had she been hit?

I turned away from the primordial. If it wasn’t going to be a threat to me, I wouldn’t bother attacking it.

“Jasmine!” I called out, cupping my hands around my mouth to increase my volume. “Jasmine? Are you alright?”

Almost as an afterthought, I added another call, this one with a lot less energy put behind it. “Oh, and Professor Lasi?”

It was the latter call that got answered.

“Here!” Lasi shouted. I couldn’t see him— the sound was coming from behind a good deal of rubble. “Jasmine is here as well!”

My heart dropped into my gut for a second as he said that. She must be hurt. There was no other reason she wouldn’t call back. How hurt was she? Was she going to make it out okay?

Pull yourself together, I told myself. Who was I, to care so much about some godsdamned noble girl?

I ran, and there was an edge of panic to my run. I almost tripped over a patch of wrinkled roots as I exited the radius I’d cleared, my foot catching on a gnarly piece of wood. I reached for the strings of magic in the air with a gesture, looking to break the root out of irritation, and I found my internal reserve empty. I really had spent everything, then. I extracted my leg like a normal, magicless human, feeling vaguely embarrassed even though nobody had seen.

The offshoots resulting from the blast looked to be on par with or stronger than the most dangerous plants we had been fighting earlier— not the most lethal that the primordial could bring to bear, not by a long shot, but still a threat. At least, they would’ve been if they fought us, but the formerly combative greenery had returned to being mundane—albeit exceptionally out of place—plants, their roots firm and unmoving. I weaved my way around them, their irregular construction still a pain to get around even if they weren’t trying to kill me.

I found Lasi and Jasmine in less than a minute, and I suddenly felt very aware of the speed at which my heart was beating, the way there was a nervous pit in my stomach.

I was worried, I realized. Concerned for a friend, no other emotions attached.

That… that was something I hadn’t properly felt in a while.

Lasi was sitting with both his knees on the ground. He seemed more or less unharmed at a glance, and my gaze slid to the woman lying on her back right next to him.

“Hey, Jasmine,” I said. “You make it through alright?”

“Hey, Lily,” she returned the words. Jasmine was quiet, and it took a second for me to realize why.

She’d been hit. Only once, thankfully, but it hadn’t been light. A craggly stick the width of a finger and the length of my arm sprouted from her right shoulder, the point of impact just a little bit above her chest. It brought an arrow to mind, the way it had hit her.

Small white flowers were blooming from the twigs stemming from the stick-arrow, and the lowest ones were crimson with blood. Jasmine’s wound wasn’t bleeding all that much for an arrow wound, the stick not having the same cutting edge as an arrowhead, but there was still a worrying amount of blood pooling there. She’d worn the same chainmail breastplate as before, a simple white shift under it, and a hole had been torn straight through both.

“The chain won’t stain, but I’ll need a new top,” Jasmine said, catching me looking. “I’m alright. Just need a moment.”

The stick was still buried inside her shoulder, and I was struck with the sudden urge to pull it out and get Jasmine to safety, but I knew that removing it would only result in more bleeding than there was already. We didn’t have first aid kits with us, so we wouldn’t be able to stop it, but the urge remained.

I felt off somehow, moreso now than I had even when speaking with Nishi in a literal godly domain.

“Doesn’t feel right,” I voiced my thoughts. “Seeing you get hurt this time.”

“You had your turn on the ground,” Jasmine said, coughing out a laugh. She winced, then raised her head a little, trying and failing to get an angle to observe the primordial. “I’ll be fine. Shouldn’t you be fighting?”

I looked up. Our enemy hadn’t moved.

“It… it kind of looks like it got tired,” I said. “Or it gave up.”

“It’s not attacking,” Lasi clarified. “And it hasn’t shown signs of wanting to.”

“Then we did our job well,” Jasmine said. “Good.”

We sat there in silence for a minute or two longer, unsure of what to do next, and then I heard it.

Magic, deployed in great quantities. Caël oaths, that would be, the telltale crack of mass teleportation resounding across the levelled village.

I stood up, shielding my eyes from the noonday sun, and I saw a sight that I hadn’t witnessed in well over a decade.

It had been a long time, but I would never forget this sight.

Yellow-orange spell circles began to light up the plains outside the village limits, each one of them forming at the same speed. It was blindingly fast, given that each circle was almost as wide around as the entire village.

Another crack, and one of the circles burst into blinding yellow light. I closed my eyes and covered them to keep myself from going blind, and I still saw spots afterwards. When I opened them again, I saw that Lasi had joined me.

“Haven’t seen this in a few years,” Lasi said, glancing at me to check for a reaction.

I painted an image of surprise on my face. Lily of House Byron had born witness to battlefields by the dozen, but Lily Syashan had never seen this before. It wasn’t a huge deal, but every little detail counted.

“Who are they?” I asked, keeping my voice at a carefully innocent tone.

“Friends of mine,” Lasi said. “Formerly.”

In the wake of the beacon of light, a group of uniformed men and women appeared, their bodies infused with some of the same energy. There were four blocks of them in the group, each one of those blocks a three-by-three square of soldiers.

Of oathholders.

The Tayan military was here.

“Reinforcements finally arrived,” I said, sitting back down. “Can you see them?”

“I can see the light,” Jasmine said. “The army?”

“The army,” Lasi confirmed. “And quite a few strike squads. We should get out of here. They’re going to start bombarding the primordial soon, and I’m not sure if they’ll wait for us.”

“Are you mobile?” I asked Jasmine. “And if not, can you heal yourself?”

“I can’t heal myself,” she said bluntly. “That was damaged. I can walk fine, though. It’s no big deal, just get us out of here and I’ll get healed later.”

She was lying. Jasmine was hiding it well, but I could see it in her face. The way she winced with every little movement, the way she was slowly growing more pale… we needed to get her to a healer as soon as possible.

I reached my hand out, and she grasped it. She wore thin silken gloves, and her hand felt impossibly soft and warm in mine. Her grip was weak, though, and I frowned in concern. Much as she might not want to admit it, Jasmine was definitely feeling the effects of the attack.

I helped her get to her feet, and I could tell that it was mostly me pulling her that got her up.

Wordlessly, I put my arm around her waist, standing on her left so I wouldn’t accidentally jostle her wound, the stick still embedded inside her shoulder.

Jasmine raised her arm, and I ducked down, letting her place it over my shoulders. We started walking, the three of us, taking it slowly. The first step was awkward, the blonde noble’s weight on my shoulders throwing me off, and I almost tripped over my own two feet, but the second step was easier. By the fifth step, we were moving in lockstep, and it felt almost natural.

She flashed me a tired smile, and I returned it. I’m getting too used to this.

“The primordial still isn’t moving,” Lasi updated us. “I think I saw its core body manifest, up in the branches.”

“Did you, now?” I asked. “What did it look like?”

Lasi was silent for a telling moment before he spoke. “An adult man. It was human, once, but now it has mutations growing out of it, more plant than human. It has to be suffering just existing, let alone fighting. It’ll be better off when it dies.”

I thought back to the figure I’d seen earlier. Yes, it had been just a silhouette, but it had not been a great mutated figure like he was saying. It hadn’t even looked like an adult, come to think of it, but that was something that I could chalk up to poor visibility.

I turned my head to the woman next to me, careful to avoid a sudden shift of weight, and I saw that her expression had relaxed. I hadn’t even noticed that she’d been tense before, but I could tell that tension had left her with Lasi’s announcement.

You’re too pure for this world, I thought. Even after all the death, even after she herself had been stabbed by the afterglow of the primordial’s attack, she had been thinking of the person that our enemy had once been. Guilty, perhaps, that we’d been working to kill an innocent, someone merely caught by the raw power of a god and unable to resist its influence.

I didn’t want to shatter that peace of hers, and so I held my tongue. I looked at Lasi and gave him a silent, grateful nod.

“We’re almost… out of the village,” Jasmine said, pausing in between words. “How far… do we need to go?”

“Let’s get to one of the military forces,” Lasi suggested. “The kingdom’s forces have healers, and the last time I was in a strike squad, we were told to aid the adventurers in evacuating if there were surviving ones from a draft.”

“Fuck,” Jasmine said. “The blue knight. Aren’t they—“

“Already gone,” Lasi said. “They left while you were injured.”

“What about others still in the village?” Jasmine asked. “There were some still living, weren’t there?”

“Not many,” Lasi replied. “And besides—“

Another sound of teleportation. Fewer people, this time, if the fact that the noise was a pop of air rather than a crack of thunder was anything to go by. It was followed by another pop, then another.

“Strike squads,” I said. “Are they here to attack?”

“That’s what the… massed forces are for,” Jasmine said. “These guys are evacuating.”

Through the rubble of a ruined village and the bloody aftermath of hundreds of battles between offshoots and adventurers, I saw uniforms. Small groups of oathholders, each of them four to six people strong. All of them were clad in brown from the neck down. Every last one of them was wearing a woolen coat over a shirt and rugged pants. Their coats were lightly glowing around the edges, golden letters inscribed around the perimeter of their outfits, and as I watched a particular group run the glow intensified.

I was observing a group of four. They were the closest one to us, maybe a hundred meters away, but they were heading towards the heart of the village. A moment after their coats lit up with power, they started running faster, the magic effect imbuing them with speed. Almost simultaneously, light poured out of their rune-circuits and passed over their bodies, enveloping each one of them with a nearly skintight forcefield, off-white energy moving with them like a second skin.

“Hmph. Kids these days,” Lasi said with a shake of his head, his tone quite a bit less than serious. Even after a day or two spent with the man, it caused my mind a little trouble reconciling this jovial combat mage with the serious, no-nonsense teacher. “We never had it that good. Aedi oathholders have gotten far too talented at mass producing equipment.”

The group of four that I’d been watching blurred with speed, and they swarmed onto a collapsed building. They fired yellow magic, and their spells were done so silently that I didn’t even notice they had attacked until stone had been turned to dust. That group had fired at the shattered remnants of what had once been a bakery, if the broken sign next to it was any indication.

The four of them knelt down and reached into the cleared area that they had created, and when they stood back up they were carrying two bloody wrecks in their arms. The group stood together for a moment longer, deliberating, and then they started glowing brighter. The effect extended beyond the edges of their uniforms, this time, passing over their entire bodies and even beyond that. Golden magic linked the four of them together, forming a rough circle, and then there was another pop and then they were no longer there, leaving behind just a golden afterimage.

“Evacuation squads,” Lasi said. “It’s the worst job you can get on a mission like this. They’re here to evacuate those that can’t move on their own and to retrieve bodies for identification. Them being here means that the bombardment isn’t going to start for just a little longer.”

“So they can’t help us?” I asked. “Since we’re mobile.”

“Not necessarily,” Lasi said. He turned towards the center of the village, raising his voice to a shout. “Evac groups! We have one injured! Still mobile, but we could use some help!”

A few seconds passed by, and for a brief moment I wondered if they had simply ignored us.

“Acknowledged, adventurer!” someone shouted back. He sounded moderately exasperated. “Hold for one more minute!”

“We should keep going,” I said. “If they forget or they just don’t want to bother, we really don’t want to be here when the spells start.”

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed. “I can… make it a little farther.”

We continued walking, step by excruciating step. Jasmine was leaning on me more, now, and if the circumstances were a little different I might’ve even grown to enjoy it.

As it turned out, our worries were unwarranted. Less than a minute after Lasi had shouted to the soldier, I heard light footsteps behind us.

I turned around slowly, extricating myself from Jasmine, and I saw that a group of five had come for us, wrapped in the same white shields that the first group had used.

“Stay still,” one of them ordered. “The spell will fail if you don’t.”

“Lasi,” I said, indicating with a cock of my head that he should come closer.

“Understood,” Lasi said, joining Jasmine and I.

The five of them gathered around us, and the light from their uniforms began to increase in intensity once again.

A moment passed, and the light stopped growing brighter.

Shit. I started gathering magic in my hand as fast as I could. I didn’t know how well I would fare against strike squad forces, but—

“Wait, Lasi?” One of them asked. “Strike Team Leader Lasi?”

“I was, once upon a time,” Lasi said, a little taken aback. “Where do you know the name from?”

“You… you taught me,” the soldier said, a hint of awe in his voice. “When I was still in the Junior Corps, fifteen years ago. You probably don’t remember me.”

Lasi smiled. “It’s always good to encounter a student, no matter how long ago they were under my tutelage.”

“Can we get moving?” I asked. “I’d like to move before the rest of your forces start casting at us.”

“Come find me when the job is done,” Lasi said. “You’ll always find me at the University.”

“I will,” the soldier said. “Alright. Restarting the process.”

The runes grew brighter once more, sliding off the edges of their uniforms, and it grew to encompass us. The blinding light continued growing in intensity and size, and I closed my eyes as it formed a dome over us.

My stomach dropped like I was in freefall. My ears popped a moment after, and when I opened my eyes we were more than two kilometers away from the village. A makeshift field hospital had been set up in a clearing of grass—this kind was ankle-height and stayed still, thank the gods—and there were three or four dozen of us milling about the area.

We’d come with one hundred fifty people. There were no more than fifty of us, now. I noted with some relief that the blue knight had made it out safely. Sunsbridge and Lukas were here, too, recovering from their wounds at the clearing set up for their healing.

“I’ll see you again,” the soldier said. “There’s a healer squad here, they’ll get you sorted out.”

With that, the repurposed strike squad prepared their spells to teleport back. I was incredibly curious on how that worked. Had the Aedi oathholder who’d made the uniforms been a Caël oath as well? Did the squads all require a Caël oathholder to come with them?

That was a question for later.

For now…

“Hello, adventurers,” a woman greeted us. She was dressed in the same uniform as the strike squads from earlier, but the color of hers was a dark green. “We’re requesting all the adventurers remain in this area for now. You may find healing with us in the triage area.”

She pointed towards the clearing. Dozens of cots had been set out, so many that I was pretty sure there were more of them than there were surviving adventurers.

I put my arm around Jasmine again, and she accepted it, allowing me to help her the rest of the way to the clearing.

“I’ve got you from here,” a man said almost as soon as we’d made it into the square that we’d come from. “Lie down, and I’ll have you stable in less than ten minutes.”

I helped her down slowly, dropping to my knees so she would have something to support herself on as she did.

The healer was fast. Not nearly as shockingly fast as Jasmine had been, I noted with some satisfaction, but he was competent. He placed both his hands around her wound, and after a time that I objectively knew was around five minutes but felt to me like an entire hour, Jasmine began to heal, and the stick fell out on its own, forced out by the flesh knitting itself back together.

“Thank you,” Jasmine said.

“Of course,” the healer said, and he left immediately. There were too many other injured.

“We made it out alive,” I said, taking a seat by her side. “We did well.”

“Too many people died,” Jasmine sighed. “I knew what it was going to be like going in, but I had hoped to do better.”

“You give nobles a good name,” I said with a laugh. “I wish there were more like you.”

“There are,” Jasmine assured me. “You’ll meet more like me, one day.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” I said.

Off in the distance, the sound of a resounding series of explosions rolled over to us, a crack-crack-crack that sounded like fireworks, a sound I’d heard once or twice before. I looked over to witness a thousand flashes of lights blazing across the face of the primordial’s tree.

The army was ending the primordial.

I turned back to Jasmine.

“We won,” she said, a wan smile spreading over her face.

“We did,” I said, smiling back. I reached a hand out, and she took it with both of hers.

“Have you given any thought to what you’ll do next?” she asked.

“Run more adventures,” I said. “Learn more. Develop my power. Meet new people. You?”

“Anything, as long as it’s with you.”

“Same here.” My own voice surprised me, and I knew I truly meant what I had said.

And so one hard mission ended, ready for countless more to begin.

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That's the end of book 1! Thanks for reading so far, and I hope you enjoy what comes next! Updates will continue as per usual on Thursday. Since the first book is over, I'd like to request that you leave a review or a rating expressing your thoughts on it!

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Slifer274

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