Chapter 8: Frontlines

Rhodovus pushed his way through the camp as he headed to where the captains waited. The tension in the staging area was palpable. Every veteran here knew what awaited them in the Dungeon’s maw, and every new recruit was picking up on it. The mage suppressed a chuckle. These humans were going to get themselves killed. Served them right.

Popping into the mage’s tent, he quickly set out fifteen sheets of uniform rune paper. It was a bit spiteful, but if he was going to do this, he was going to waste as much of the army’s resources as possible. Next, he chose the most expensive inks even though it wouldn’t really fit the magic he planned to use. Recalling that for those without better means, white ink was by far the hardest to dye, he told the observing rune mages that he needed white ink for its efficiency in mana use and low interference with runes, both true and also completely unnecessary.

The mages were reluctant, but after some conferring amongst themselves, they brought him a white ink pot worth around a gold coin. Rhodovus struggled to conceal his smile before realizing he’d still have to waste much of the vital mana that he’d planned to use in completing his other mission for the Academy. Then again, it didn’t matter anymore; he wasn’t in any position to complete either of his missions.

Sighing, he quickly scrawled some mediocre strength runes for the soldiers, each taking around twenty seconds each, making sure to waste as much ink as possible. With a smirk, he completed fifteen runes, meaning that one of the sixteen captains would receive no enhancements. After all, he had merely agreed to make runes for captains—not all of them. So long as he stayed within the spirit of the contract, he’d remain perfectly unharmed by the promises he’d made under truth contract.

Striding out of the tent while all of the captains rushed to use one of the runes, he yelled, “Enjoy fighting without my blessings, Cap Tivanius!” With a mock bow towards the red-faced human, Rhodovus hummed and left for his tent. One of the watching mages reached out to stop him. Rhodovus whirled around. “I’ll be fighting on the front lines. Don’t bother me.”

The mage glanced at the scowling Tivanius and shrugged. Brushing him off, Rhodovus stomped out.

Now that he had completed the required parts of the truth contract, it was time for him to flee this wretched camp. Thank god that the arrogant commander hadn’t forced him to accept the fighting on the frontlines part under truth contract.

Finally spotting his tent that loomed above the other soldiers’ shoddy setups, Rhodovus quickened his steps. At his tent stood two humans in full plate. They were conspicuous with their dazzling magic gear and intricate insignias emblazoned on their breastplates, the Commander’s personal guard.

The elven lord stopped in front of his tent, hesitant to order them away. These were some of the best trained and equipped soldiers in Hewther. He wouldn’t offer much of a fight at such a close distance. Best to see what they wanted for now.

The guard on the left gave a slight bow. “We’re here to escort you to the front, sir. The Commander asked us to be polite but forceful.” He winked in a way that seemed anything but friendly. “Personally, I’m hoping you run. Us in the Guard have a bit of a pool going. Let’s just say I’ll give you a 10-second head start.”

The other guard cut him off. “As my friend here was saying, we’re bringing you to the front. No packing, no preparations. This is a punishment detail, not a caldarium. Walk or be dragged.”

“I won’t stand for this! I am one of the few mages this pitiful army” Rhodovus was pushed into line between the two soldiers. “You…” the rear soldier punched him in the kidney.

The impromptu prison convoy gained a decent number of hangers-on, grunts who poked fun at the fallen elvish lord. Still, they kept their distance. No one was brave or foolhardy enough to interfere with the Commander’s business. As such, the abuse kept itself down to a trickle of jeers and curses. Rhodovus suppressed a groan. He should’ve abandoned his chest; after all, he only had some easily replaceable clothes in it. Everything of value was in his bag of holding as it would be of an experienced adventurer.

Rhodovus glanced around him, noting Sir Thomas and his circle of higher-tiered qi users leading the vanguard. There were even a few of the upper fifth circle, a full rank higher than Rhodovus, although qi ranks were far easier to achieve and, thus, granted less power than their equivalent magic ranks. Still, at close range, any of these qi warriors could give him a run for his money. Rhodovus turned to eye the enemy he had been forced to face.

About a ten minute walk away, he could make out the milling demons who had already noticed their presence. Clearly, the human army did not merit much of a threat because only a tenth of the total demon population had arrived. While they had simplistic weapons and lacked any mage staffs among their midst, Rhodovus knew that each of them could easily match an upper third rank qi-user, with their chieftains reaching the early fifth rank, not to mention that they outnumbered the 750-man army ten to one. Sir Thomas pulled out a bullhorn.

The 750-man army approached, not even bothering to hide; they knew the demons had noticed them. It was almost impossible for the army to hide in the Dungeon’s domain, where it had entrenched hidden monsters and traps to defend itself even before trespassers entered its main body. Luckily, the army’s scouts had already identified the worst of these, so the marching army successfully avoided the majority of them. There had been a few accidents, but the point of most of the traps was anyway more to notify the Dungeon of people’s approach and remove lone, weak travelers who would prove to be a waste of the Dungeon’s true defensive resources. An army of future victims would remain relatively unimpeded.

Rhodovus looked back, watching the individual units follow behind. The archer and mage units remained at the rear, guarded by a contingent of troops. Once more, Rhodovus nearly bit his tongue in anger before managing to still his face once more. He ought to have been protected as a powerful mage, used only as a trump card and, otherwise, treated with respect. Instead, Sir Thomas barked, “Mage, get ready to charge. If you screw us over, I’ll make sure you die before I do.”

Not even Rhodovus would attack a Hewther Kingdom commander in broad daylight. He couldn’t afford to ruin the Academy’s reputation and enrage the Kingdom enough to chase after him. Being the focus of an entire Kingdom was never a good idea.

With a roar that swept across the plain, the army ran toward the mass of demons arranged before them. Rhodovus wheezed, not even his enchantments would allow him to pace with Sir Thomas charging forward at full sprint. With a roar, the commander unsheathed his sword and decapitated the six-foot-tall red demon reaching toward him, and so the battle began.

For some though, the battle was far less bloodthirsty. Sighing, Rhodovus calmly pulled out a sheet of ice spike runes. Sending a blast of mana into the paper, he lobbed the paper into a ring of demons. Bang! The demons grunted; a few screamed shrill gasps of death. Rhodovus smiled. At least he’d finally gotten to kill things.

Sir Thomas grunted as a demon’s spear hit his chest plate. Frowning, Rhodovus pulled out his sword and stabbed it through the demon’s eye as it overreached. Sir Thomas nodded toward Rhodovus, wiping his brow with his gauntlet. “You’re not a bad fighter, Mage.”

“Shut up. You made me come here.”

Sir Thomas laughed as he forced his way forward. The Dungeon was only a few hundred meters away. Arrows flew by both ways, causing soldiers and demons alike to falter and fall. One even grazed his cheek, and Rhodovus was suddenly very glad he’d spent months before accepting the mission to make sure this Dungeon was too young to develop Magic Demons. The army’s charge slowed. Rhodovus was sweating, feeling a bit of mana chill settling in. He hated this mana desert. He started drawing mana from his battery, regretting that he’d only brought a few gold coins worth of extra mana. He hadn’t expected to be sent to guard an army. If this battle turned into an endurance match, he’d quickly exhaust himself.

He cursed, turning toward Thomas’s entourage, roaring, “Has anyone got any mana batteries.”

Only allowed on

The guards blankly looked at him before one coughed. “We’re bodyguards, not commanders.” Ah, that’s right. The Hewther kingdom had a deficit of powerful bloodlines, so anyone with one decent enough to buy a mana battery for wouldn’t be here.

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To his surprise, Sir Thomas handed him a mana battery that was half-full. “You’re not that bad, Mage. Besides, I think you’d use it better than I can.”

Rhodovus paused. “Commander Thomas, don’t you need it?”

The commander chuckled. “My bloodline’s nothing special. Sure, it’s strong, but it’s a pretty common Leadership bloodline that produces an aura around me that strengthens allies and curses foes. You know that’s not exactly prized.”

Rhodovus nodded. He had noticed that his rune-enhanced strength and speed had surpassed what was expected for a fifth rank rune, approaching a sixth rank enchantment and nearly doubling his natural stats. It seemed the commander had almost tripled in both traits as well. Clearly, an aura had been at work.

He muttered, “Thanks.” The commander patted his shoulder and returned to the fray. With another mana supply, Rhodovus felt confident enough to begin casting some more complex spells. He would use his mana to guide the mana out of the battery and into the rune spell by forming a “path” that the battery mana would follow like electricity flowing along a metal guide wire. While less efficient than using ambient mana, it was still better than using his own mana to replace the mana deficit in the dead zone.

Splattering a trio of fireballs, Rhodovus yelled, “Guard me. I’m going to clear the way to the Dungeon.” The demons noticed Rhodovus fueling ridiculous amounts of mana into a black sheet of paper covered in runes. Pointing at him, they hurled themselves at the line, struggling to end the mage before he unleashed whatever it was he planned to do. Sir Thomas and a few of his bodyguards circled him while the rest of the army gathered around in a loose circle, the demons closing ranks as the Dungeon finally recognized a credible threat.

Sir Thomas worried, “Damn it! Hurry up, Mage! We’re losing men by the second!”

Rhodovus took out a small clipboard from his bag of holding and kneeled on the ground. Concentrating on his work, he yelled, “Give me space. I just need to complete the final steps!”

Sir Thomas shouted, “Why the hell didn’t you take care of this before we marched to battle?”

“You didn’t let me! And more importantly, it’s rather unstable because I haven’t quite mastered it yet.”

The soldiers around him shifted uneasily, and many stabbed ever more ferociously at the demons surrounding them, trying to increase their distance from the mage. No one wanted to receive the brunt of an out of control spell. A man fell, gurgling blood out of his ripped out throat. A new soldier quickly replaced the fresh corpse, but the reinforcing ranks were quickly thinning. Swords rang out, even as several demon blades broke due to their inferior make, but demon blades were just as quickly switched out with demon claws: natural weapons that, though shorter, were far more durable than a common blade.

Balancing the half-complete rune on the clipboard to have a stable writing surface, Rhodovus tapped his lip, looking up to make sure the line was holding. What spell to use? Pulling out his quill, Rhodovus took a deep breath and drew.

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