Go read Box: Detach instead!
One more insurgent came in through the side entrance with a flurry of stabs, and so I retreated slowly while batting away the crystals constantly peppering against my shield towards the stairs to the second floor. Samantha was missing her railgun shots, and before I could tell her to move behind me, she decided that it was better to abandon the weapon along with her backpack to run to the right. Something - or rather, someone - plopped to the floor next to me, and I frowned. My senses were delayed.
What she saw with her ability, I had no clue. Perhaps I should have at least asked the bare minimum about their ability so I could factor it into my plans. However, it was too late for that.
And the two twins seem confident in their ability to take down an entire group of insurgents by themselves, so their ability must be of some calibre. Not as a combative power, but something else. When it seemed that she no longer truly needed me as a shield, I reluctantly gave her up and allowed her to run off on her own.
What I needed to do was make space for her, and to attract all the still incoming attackers onto me. I drew a large circle in the air to collect the weakly manipulated crystals into my spiral, then snapped my fingers, sending them exploding forward into the myriads of shadow-covered Aerilosacs. The crystals reoriented themselves mid-air and became a golden hailstorm of knives, and I was sure at least one of them was caught by my careless attack.
If I had done that back on the Lyosa, my old instructors would have thoroughly punished me. Redirecting crystals instead of blocking them was considered to be a rash technique by most Aerilosacs, since it required timing and an opening to avoid getting attacked while circling at the air. It also lowered my guard on my sides for a short moment there due to me concentrating fully on the front, but thankfully, none of the insurgents were quick enough to position themselves around me just yet.
It would have been a different story if they had access to the stolen wares. I would be in trouble then.
I still could not sense how much Aerilosacs there were hiding within the dark, though as I ascended into the second floor hallway, I realized that it did not matter. I needed to pull away as many Aerilosacs as I can to lessen the burden on Samantha.
So, I sent a single bottle-sized shard flinging and bouncing off the walls of the hallway rapidly until I got a decent feel for all the various obstacles that I could potentially use against the insurgents. There were plenty of trolleys and carts, indentations in the walls that could mean elevator shafts or doors, and the occasional crack of glass behind me told me enough about the dimensions of my arena.
I backed up further and emptied my pockets by flicking my jacket back, grabbing them out of the air as I did so. I rotated the dust-like crystals clockwise and anti-clockwise at the same time with both wrists, then pushed them before me in a rectangular shape like those game shows where people had to make certain poses in order to avoid getting hit into the water by a board. The vertical wave of dust crashed into two figures, the crystals parting ways around their figures. One male and one female, both in heavy armour.
I heard the crystals slicing at the air before I felt them, so I dashed backwards while clapping my hands together. The dust that flew past them harmlessly before condensed into small clumps of floating crystals, and with a quick motion to bring my hands to the floor, the clumps crashed down onto the opening in the floor, blocking the other Aerilosacs from going up that way. It would not take them long to break it open with their combined might of ten. At least, that was how much force I estimated was behind their attempts to break my blockade. Did they have more numbers than I previously assumed?
I narrowed my eyes at the two swirling figures standing side by side together in the dark. Now that we were separated from the noise of gunfire coming from downstairs, I could make out exactly who these two Aerilosacs were. Lior and Lirfa, two out of the four Aerilosacs in my Division over two centuries of age. They were not particularly strong as an individual fighting force, but they were formidable when paired up together.
Two waves of crystals scraped on the walls of the hallway as they approached, pulling the bricks and paintings off with a loud screech. I held out a single palm and pressed forward, and the blades halted their movement.
The blades broke into two halves, the ones on the bottom aimed at my feet to incapacitate me while the ones above aimed to take the killing blow. I scowled at the pathetic attempt and stomped my feet, wrestling away the control on the lower crystals as I simultaneously brought my other hand up to send the upper crystals stabbing into the ceiling above. Lior and Lirfa had pulled out two heavy rifles while I was defending myself, the extra attachments on the sides of the barrel indicating abnormal ammunition was loaded in.
Crystal-piercing rounds. Funny how the only time we get to use it is against each other.
I grabbed at an invisible rope in the air and pulled it taut, and the blades that were embedded into the hallway previously ripped free, slamming into the wooden door to my right. I walked in before the crystal bullets could tear me asunder, studying my new room as my crystal blockade around the stairs finally broke.
An Aerilosac hopped in through the glass with two tendrils of rough crystals attached behind his back, causing me to whirl around in surprise. Where had he come from? How could he have the strength to leap up from ground floor?
The faint glow under his trench coat was my answer.
Had some of the lighter armoured insurgents taken some of the wares for themselves while Samantha was doing whatever she was downstairs?
This is bad.
The Aerilosac was a blur as he charged at me with the crystals acting as his spear-tails, and I backed up, wondering how I was going to possibly kill him without damaging the apparel.
I needed that in mint condition when Larius sends his inspector down to check on the wares. If I made irreparable damage to it, I would not necessarily get removed from position, but it would be preferable not to get on Larius' bad side.
I managed to find the time in between his furious stabs at my head to send another blockade of crystals at the doorway, which should buy me some more time to carefully figure out how to eliminate this Aerilosac.
I should go for the head, then.
When one of the tendrils reared back to stab at me again, I stepped to the right and grabbed the tip of the tendril with my bare hands. The Aerilosac widened his eyes in surprise before I broke the tip of and jabbed it into his unprotected face. The crystal went clean through with a little push from me, and the crystal behind his back fell to the floor, lifeless.
I collected his spare crystals for myself, knelt down to confirm that the apparel had indeed not been damaged, before wondering what my next move should be.
At least two heavier armoured Aerilosacs outside in the hallway, and I could deal with them just fine. However, it was the ones wearing the apparel that was the problem. It was not just the annoyance of having to kill them in such a delicate way, but also that they could overwhelm me quickly in high numbers.
There were thirty sets of apparel in that crate, and I had split it unevenly between Rivin's group and mines, the former getting more of the share. As such, there were ten sets of apparel in that backpack downstairs. How many had they taken while Samantha was momentarily away?
There was the one set in here with me. The insurgents donning medium or heavier armour would not be able to strip quickly enough to put it on, so I have to assume there were at least three or four Aerilosacs who had it on.
I needed to prioritize killing those Aerilosacs first before everything else. I cannot be swarmed.
The blockade finally broke through, and a yellow floodlight was the first thing I saw from outside. I winced, jabbing the crystals orbiting around me to send them out into the hallway blindly. The walls of this room - an office, it seemed to be - exploded into me, and if it were not for the quick cover on my ears, I might have gotten concussed there. Three Aerilosacs swept into the room with heavy rifles, moving in a perfect V-form. I had already carved a hole in the roof above and leapt up to the third floor while they moved in, shouting incoherent orders.
They were also much more prepared and organized than I had expected. Part of the idea was to capitalize on their urgency, but perhaps I was wrong.
I had emerged into a new hallway just as dark as the last, so I flicked another shard out to test the dimensions of the new area. Once I got a decent enough understanding, I recalled the singular shard back between my fingers. Waste not a single-
"One coming from behind you, another bursting in through the left wall," a voice whispered.
I turned and immediately sent the single shard out to catch an ambushing Aerilosac coming up from a flight of stairs I had not seen, then dashed forward as one of the heavy armoured Aerilosac crashed in through the wall. Before he could train his rifle on me, I jerked my hands up forcefully and impaled him from below, the crystals shards I dropped below forming a large spike that exited through his gaping neck. Both Aerilosac fell at around the same time, and I distanced myself away from the impeccably cut circle in the floor before anyone could get the jump on me.
That was four of the expected ten down, but I will have to assume there were more than ten.
Heavy footsteps approached from the back staircase where I had sniped that lone Aerilosac, and I pulled my cloud of dust back to me just as the three V-formation soldiers swept onto the third floor. They wasted no time in firing their weapons, the bullets sparking embers with every deflect I did. The hallway lit up with flashes of white and yellow as I crushed my hand into a fist, solidifying the dust in the air to form a series of shards standing between me and them.
The bullets continued to ricochet in the cloud of floating crystals as I backed up further, noting that there was no more floors for me to ascend. Only two sets of doors on my left remained, and I needed to choose one to get into. One of the bullets grazed past my bandaged arm as I walked into another room, so I tore the white cloth off to study the severity of my injury.
I will live.
Then from nowhere, two Aerilosacs in trench coats exploded from the floor beneath me, gun and knife in both their hands. I could practically see the wicked grin behind their demon masks, and I swiped at them with a hand, bringing a blade of crystals towards them.
There was a shudder as my blade half the size of the room cleaved through the walls, causing the foundation of the floor itself to crack and shift. I scowled and jumped back onto a desk, rapidly scanning the room for the whereabouts of the two Aerilosac who had seemingly phased through the attack itself.
Every time they bounced off a wall and changed positions, there was soft pulse where their feet touched the wall. They were a literal blur, speeding and redirecting within this room like that blue hedgehog in the Earth video games. My eyes failed to catch up to them, so I called all of my crystals back to me - even the ones I left outside to slow the V-formation soldiers - just as a knife came slashing at my stomach.
I whirled and kneed the flying Aerilosac in his face, his nose moving into his face in slow motion. I was about to jab down at him with a crystal shard when the second Aerilosac stabbed me in the thigh from behind, so I flinched and grabbed the downed Aerilosac's face with my entire palm, ignoring the pain shooting up my leg.
When the second Aerilosac bounced off the walls to come at me again, I raised the first Aerilosac up by his head atop my desk to use him as a shield.
He was moving too fast to stop, and his knife swiftly decapitated his own ally as I leapt off the desk. He was momentarily at a loss of words and thoughts to stare at what he had just done, but that was a foolish move. I manually picked up a shard of crystal and flicked it at his head like a dart, and it caught him in the eye. While he screamed and stumbled back with the shard in his head, I punched at the air and pushed it further into his head. There was a loud crunch as it entered his skull, and he was dead no more than a second later.
I frowned and stomped the ground beneath me, stifling in a laugh as I dropped back down to the second floor right as the three heavy-armoured Aerilosac moved into the room. They were always moving a bit too slow with their equipment, and in an instant, I identified the three slowpokes in armour.
Liuhu, Leah, Lehgu. If there was such a thing as middle-aged Aerilosacs, then they were the epitome of that class. Less experienced in combat than the previous two who were wearing the wares, and that would be their downfall. Leah was more towards the tracker spectrum, so if she was prioritized first, she would not be able to defend herself.
I sprinted and burst through into the same hallway on the second floor, kicking a heavy armoured Aerilosac from the side as I did. We were both surprised by each other's presence, but I recovered first, covered my fists in crystal gauntlets, and began pummelling the helmeted Aerilosac into the brick walls behind him, not giving him a chance to stand back up. He managed to whip a single hand to make a scythe of crystals flying at my waist, so I stopped smashing his face into the wall for a second to catch it with my gauntlets.
He might have blinked under the helmet, but I was not sure. I stepped to the right and used his own scythe to decapitate him once again. The third floor was shaking above me, and I suddenly got very worried.
It would be bad if it collapsed on top of me.
But I needed to deal with the three more heavy armoured Aerilosacs above me first. There were still others, but I did not know where they were as they slinked about in the background.
They were still afraid of me, but individually, they stood no chance. They had to come at me as a group like the three, or-
I was blinded when a flashbang dropped through the hole in the ceiling that I had made, and I stumbled back while drawing my hands to form crystal flower petals underneath my feet. They surrounded my entire body as bullets began to slam into my barrier from the left, front and above. I scowled and glared at the singular sweat rolling down my forehead, trying to ascertain the positions of the insurgents.
The constant bullet storm was making it difficult to concentrate, and I spent more effort trying to hold the barrier up rather than counting their numbers.
"There are two directly in front, and one to your eight o'clock. Man, this is fun."
I took a gamble and drew three vertical lines from the inside of my blossom shield at the three directions, then pushed out the crystal shields into the two directions. The door on my left caved in from the impact and slammed into the Aerilosac firing from there, while the shield I sent to the front shattered when the armoured Aerilosac punched it head on.
Both Aerilosacs reeled back when I appeared right in their faces with two large shards of crystals in my hands, and the first one moved a bit too late to avoid me impaling him through the chest piece. The tip of the shard was stuck for a moment while it was halfway through his ribs, so I kicked forward to push him into his ally. At the same time, I pulled the shield on my left back to me to spear the sharp end of it onto the shard.
With another quick press onto the shard stuck in the Aerilosac's chest, he was sent flying back, skewering the second Aerilosac in the process. All three soldiers seemed to fall at the same time, and I forced myself to breathe out.
That was tiring.
But there was still more.
I ignored the voice and touched the ground to feel for any vibrations. I could practically sense more and more Aerilosacs converging on the unstable building now. Was Samantha still holding up fine? How long had it been since I last saw her?
And the others. I had killed three more since
I needed to use my final technique if I wanted to win.
But if anyone of them managed to live, they would figure it out and tell the others.
Do I do it?
"What final technique? You guys have actual techniques that you use?"
"Quiet!" I hissed at myself as I collected the crystals back one last time, drawing them into a swirl at my palms before spreading them out all across the hallway like a fisherman's net. My fingers snapped out to shift the crystals into threads of spider-webs beneath my feet. They slithered out to cover the expanse of the darkness, lining the walls and curling around the ceiling to form a network of interconnected death.
It had been a while since I tried doing this.
The instructors never liked it, but they were dead now, so I do not think they have the right to say anything about it. Nor the ability.
"Hey, Losar. You going to listen to me?" the voice insisted, and I pushed it aside for now. The technique needed extremely precise and careful control, lest I might end up eviscerating myself. Nine of the initially expected ten were dead, but I could sense at least four more insurgents lurking around the second and third floor, plus the three heavy armoured Aerilosacs still above me. If I paid attention, I could even hear intermittent gunshots coming from the first floor. That should mean that Samantha was still holding her own. I needed to get back to her soon.
I clasped my hands together in a prayer once again, and closed my eyes.
"What the hell are you doing?" the voice mumbled. "Is praying to God your final technique?"
Three Aerilosacs approached my vines of crystals. One from the same flight of stairs, one from behind, and one tapping on the other side of the wall adjacent to me, testing or predicting my movements before making his move.
It would seem like they were coordinating their attacks, but really, apart from the heavy armoured ones, the other insurgents were loose and scattered all over the warehouse. While it would be difficult to make sure I do not damage the apparel when I perform the move...
I am sure damaging one or two out of thirty is within acceptable limits.
I closed my eyes just as three blurs moved deep into my network of crystals.
"Do you not need to see with your eyes to track their positions? Very interesting indeed."
That was not it.
It was always a little bit terrifying doing it. I might as well not have to see it either.
With a final mutter along with the suddenly worrying thought of having not bought insurance on myself, I tore my fingers apart from each other as violently as I could, and the entire hallway quaked.
At first, I thought my lack of practice had failed me.
Then the crystal vines creeping on the ceiling lashed out first, slicing up and down like razorblades, tearing through the fragile walls like thin paper. The Aerilosac in front barely had enough time to scream as he was eviscerated. Next, the walls by my side exploded - was really the only apt description I could find - and similar tendrils swiped out absentmindedly. I was faintly aware for a brief second that one of my own crystals had sliced my cheek open, so I covered the wound with my own hand while keeping my eyes closed.
The floor beneath me tremored and gave way, and suddenly, the entire second and third floor began to collapse, my feet unable to find solid ground. All around me were long gashes that were still continuing to spread towards and away my central body, completely out of my own control and simply rebounding off anything it comes in contact with. Razor-sharp whirlwinds slashed at my unprotected limbs, and something must have lodged itself into my right leg, because I fell over lopsided after a burst of pain.
Perhaps stabbing a hole into my thigh to showcase the medical cubes was the final straw for my leg giving out. Regardless, the pain was nowhere near enough to indicate having to amputate it. I would need to assess the injury with my eyes first.
The second and third floor continued to shake, and with what little sense of the room I still had left, I turned around and dashed through the hallway towards where I imagined the open area of the warehouse would be. With my palms facing outwards, I managed to push off all the wild lashes that would have attacked me, though my feet could not find a stable spot away from the vines. I had not expected the destruction to be so vast, and if I kept my eyes closed, I would not be able to manoeuvre out of this situation.
I opened it, and the first thing that I saw was the moonlight shining down on my face. I instinctively held up my arms to protect myself from the falling debris - all while I was falling - and I pulled as many crystals as I could to brace my back. Their cold embrace swallowed me from behind just as the entire floor collapsed, and the voice laughed.
"Well, shit. Hey, that's the Raixien girl over there."
I hastily drew the crystal fall-breaker behind me to above me to knock away a brick coming directly onto my forehead.
It happened all in the span of ten seconds, between unclasping my hands and my back touching the ground. My stomach lurched upwards from the rapid change in momentum, and more rocks continued to pelt against my barrier. There was no dust nor blood, and the pain faded away rather quickly, so I did not fail particular in any danger. There was still the risk of getting crushed my debris if I let up the barrier on top of my face, so I needed to do this gently once again.
"Is allying with the Raixiens really such a god idea? I mean, it's kinda obvious they're hiding something from you."
Of course they were. I had not asked them about anything yet, so that was a given.
... Why was I bothering to reply to the voice? It could very well be just an agent of concussion, and I was not in the best of conditions to diagnose my mental state of being at the moment. Ripping apart the entire warehouse's top floors had taken a toll out of me, which reminded me sorely that I needed to practice more. The fact that I could not find worthy opponents was my own fault. Maybe I would go visit my old friends once this is all cleared up.
"Um, don't do that. Not a good idea. There's a broken pipe waiting to meet your eyeballs if you open the barrier up like that. Try cutting out an exit through your right."
At least my concussion intuition seemed to be working just fine, so I obeyed the little voice in my head and rolled over.
"I'm not a voice in your head - oh, why do I even try."
Then something banged on my shield from top, and I knew from the sheer force that it was not any mere debris. I could sense crystals slamming into mines. Was that the last insurgent that I needed to kill? Or were these the three heavy armoured ones? I gritted my teeth and punched the inside of the shield as hard as I could, and it flew open like a cork in a bottle. Immediately, a pipe fell down onto where my eye would be had I not already shifted my head pre-emptively to the right, and I squinted to keep myself clear from dust blindness while I kept cutting the shield with a single finger.
"Oh, if you're not going to listen to me, then at least remember the name of that twin."
Why was the voice suddenly talking about Roya?
"Do you still think my voice is yours? No, no, no, I'm not anything you created. I'm actually here, but I can't stay for long. Hurry up and carve his name onto your arm."
"Just carve it. Actually, since you guys regenerate, why don't you stab crystals into your arm to form the name? That way, you won't forget it."
As if the world was heeding the very words of the voice, I crawled out from the right of my shield into the open area of the warehouse, head still spinning around from the fall, only to see a bloody bandage be picked up by a sudden gust of wind and flew into my arms. It was the one I had ripped of not long ago, and now, it had returned to me.
"Yeah, pierce the shards to spell out his name. Cover it too - yeah, that's right."
I followed the voice's instructions and pinpricked my own injured arm with crystals until the word 'Roya' could be seen clearly, before wrapping the bandage over it. I clipped the cloth with a final shard nailed into my flesh, and that was it. Without any special reason, I should not remove it any time soon.
Wait a minute.
Why was I listening to this voice?
The voice cackled madly. "Alright, I have to go. The last three that survived the fall is behind you, by the way."
I turned around and fired off three rapid jabs to the unarmed shadowy figures atop the rubble. Each and every last one of them flew back and into the walls of the warehouse with a thunderous crack, their crystals deposited around their hands due their lack of heavy rifles working against them. There was no need to confirm their deaths. Anyone slamming into the wall at the speed would find their internal organs crushed instantly, no matter how thick the armour.
Then I wheezed and doubled over, feeling a long-forgotten sense of fatigue and tiresome washing over my body. No longer did I sense any animosity directed towards me, though...
Out of nowhere, Lyla zipped in front of me with a hand draped around my shoulders as she supported me off the mountain of rubble laying in the middle of the warehouse. Her eyes were wide with surprise when she turned around to assess the damage, but I could not care less for how badly I had wrecked the building. I did not need to see it either.
We hopped off the last giant chunk of stone and landed on the first floor, where a dumbfounded Samantha was staring intensely at my behind as well. Was the damage really that impressive? She barely even acknowledged my existence, and I quickly scanned her up and down. She did not seem to bear any significant injuries, though her eyes were bleeding from the corners. Perhaps it really was due to the overuse of her abilities.
Regardless, she had survived despite me forgetting my duty to serve as her shield. I felt a little twinge of shame and guilt for that, and I was about to apologize when Lyla spoke.
"Commanding Officer, we kinda failed," Lyla said with an embarrassed undertone. When my eyes snapped to glare at her, she made an eek and quickly elaborated. "I don't mean we failed, failed! Leki and I accidentally let four Aerilosacs get away from us, and they're all heading back to the warehouse. Leki is heading over to protect the other two Raixiens as you said."
Four going back. Since I had not many loyalists remaining under me apart from Lyla and Leki, I needed to preserve and protect as many of them as I could. Every last Aerilosac who still wished to serve under me had to live, or else there would not be much meaning to this being called a 'Division' anyways. A three-Aerilosac group is - well, not the best example to use, but I would much rather those who stuck by me continued living.
If the four Aerilosac that had escaped were heading back, they would undoubtedly try to lure me back by threatening my loyalists. That would be the one engineer, the three technicians and the two medics that were not as proficient in combat. The guard I assumed was killed by me, since I had recognized the traces of his techniques just now. He could have been one of those who was wearing the wares, just like Lyla now.
Seeing the lack of a backpack on Samantha's shoulders reminded me of something
"Understood. Lyla, uncover the buried wares in this warehouse. I assume the one you are wearing was from here?"
"There are nine more pieces of apparel underneath the rubble. Most should not be damaged even after the fall. Recover six of the nine, and once you do, return to the warehouse. Leave the remaining three for me, they are not important anymore."
"Understood. Where are you two going?" Lyla called out to me just as Samantha and I began to sprint away through the back entrance, my leg starting to recover its strength.
"Samantha will go and assist the Raixiens. I will go and face the insurgents."
"Oh, okay," Lyla said, her chin dropping at the mention of not being able to accompany me. As I turned around to address her concerns, her aura of apprehension near drowning out my own heartbeat, she zoomed towards me with that glowing shirt of hers and hugged me. I reeled back from the unexpected gesture, and my bodyguard giggled. "Don't die."
"Okay," I said, not entirely sure how I should be reacting. Perhaps I should put my arms around her?
Samantha saw through my indecision and struggled to strangle down a smile. That was the sign I had needed to break away from the embrace by tearing Lyla's arms away from me, and I gave both of them a nod before I started running back to the warehouse.
The words pierced into my arm started to sting.