༺ Eyes of a Dragon and the Human Heart (20) ༻
The wooden floor shattered, sending a cloud of dust into the air.
The thrust into my shoulder weighed on my body, and after throwing down Senior Neris with all my strength, I found myself stumbling backward.
Gripping the dagger lodged in my shoulder, I forcefully yanked it out and cast it away. Blood streamed out of the open wound as a groan escaped through my clenched teeth.
The anesthetic proved more potent than I had anticipated, spreading swiftly throughout my body.
My vision grew increasingly blurry, and although I wasn’t sure if it was just my imagination, my body also felt weaker and unresponsive.
Drawing ragged breaths, I picked up the hatchet that had fallen to the ground.
I had to end this quickly since Senior Neris probably wasn’t in any better state than I was.
However, to my surprise, she erupted in cheerful laughter.
“Ahahahaha! Pfft, hah, puh-hahaha!”
A chill coursed down my spine.
Even though she was still struggling to get up, the fact that she could laugh meant that she had regained her senses.
Moon Reversal’ was a technique designed to incapacitate the opponent by shocking every muscle in their body with incredible force. Typically, it was impossible for them to get back up on their feet afterwards.
However, she had managed to stagger back up on her feet.
Her emerald eyes gleamed with amusement, and although she coughed up blood, it was only a minuscule amount.
“I wonder how long it’s been… since I’ve been hit like this? Ahhh… my head is spinning! It’s quite refreshing, junior.”
I let out a hollow laugh. The fact that she had gotten up was proof that my technique hadn’t been fully effective.
I stood bewildered as Senior Neris pulled out another dagger with a faint smile.
I finally realized where those daggers were coming from.
“…A spatial pouch? And you have it sewn onto your uniform?”
My voice, tinged with disbelief, was met with a peculiar smile.
Even crafting one out of a separate container was so expensive that it was beyond the means of most nobles. Yet, she had one discreetly fashioned into the small pocket of her uniform. Even with a rough estimate, it would have cost an astronomical amount.
It was proof of the Imperial Family’s extravagant wealth.
Senior Neris spoke again, her voice nonchalant.
“I still have over a hundred daggers left, junior. Now, shall we start in earnest?”
Curses swirled in my head.
Despite my strangely heavy body and increasingly blurry vision, I managed to rise, forcing my body upright. The moment I tightened my grip on the hatchet, Senior Neris charged.
Her dagger traced a dark line as it descended.
I raised the hatchet to parry, but astonishingly, it soon slipped from my grasp as it was swatted away.
I stared in disbelief.
While I stood dumbstruck, Senior Neris raised her leg and launched a powerful kick, shooting me through the air.
Struck squarely in the solar plexus, the pain was so intense that my consciousness momentarily blacked out.
Before I knew it, I had crashed into her work desk.
My head spun. I gasped for air and slowly raised my arm, repeatedly clenching and relaxing my hand.
I couldn’t muster as much strength as I wanted, but it was, overall, a familiar sensation.
It mirrored the sensation of moving without using any mana.
“It’s a poison from a venomous insect that lives in the Great Southern Forest.”
I stared blankly as she oh-so-graciously continued to explain.
“It disrupts the flow of mana, rendering you unable to wield it for a while. Isn’t it impressive? Just how did a creature evolve to naturally produce such a precise toxin?”
“You seem quite fond of poison…”
It was a simple observation.
I had heard of a toxin that disrupted the flow of mana before, but it was unbelievably expensive. It wasn’t some cheap commodity to be used casually—especially not on some random second son of a small rural viscount.
There was another reason why I seemed particularly affected.
With my mana bound, the effects of the anesthetic I had been suppressing until now began to spread. That clarified why my mind felt so muddled.
“Yeah, I like it. It’s underhanded, but isn’t it satisfying to crush your opponents? I especially enjoy bringing down arrogant nobles beneath my feet.”
Senior Neris didn’t bother concealing her delight as a charming smile adorned her face.
I struggled to get up.
I was resolved to finish this, no matter the cost.
Driven solely by the urge to win, I compelled my body into motion.
But, as I struggled, another dagger was thrust into my thigh.
Blood streamed from the wound, yet not a single scream escaped my lips.
The anesthetic had already permeated my entire body, dulling any perception of pain. I could only acknowledge the sensation of the blade slicing through my flesh as my legs gave way.
I found myself sliding back down against the desk.
“As a commoner, I’ve witnessed all sorts of things… especially the nobles—they’re truly despicable. But then, my fortune turned for the better when I was chosen to join the Imperial Intelligence Agency.”
Approaching me, Senior Neris bent her knees and sneered as she locked her eyes with mine.
Although her face was mere inches from mine, I couldn’t muster the strength to raise my hand.
Her eyes gleamed with undisguised exhilaration.
“All their ugly sides, the ones they wouldn’t dare expose to others… I gathered them, organized them, and sometimes even used them as blackmail. While it’s undeniable that it was all for the imperial family, it was still extremely gratifying. All those who had scorned me for being a commoner until then started groveling and begging beneath me… Pfft. How can it not feel good when they show such a pathetic, sorry spectacle?”
My mana gradually stiffened, and holding onto my consciousness became increasingly difficult.
I was on the verge of blacking out.
Regardless, Senior Neris’ voice persisted in penetrating my foggy hearing.
“Just what kind of screams will the up-and-rising Hatchet Lord let out, I wonder? I’m quite eager to find out… Not to mention, who it was that leaked information about our branch to you… Could it be Yurdina? Rinella still stands a bit too low to know about us…”
Her monologue sounded like a lullaby, and as my head drooped, succumbing to the drowsiness, the solemn voice of a man resonated in my ears.
Jolted awake, I raised my head and found myself kneeling in a vintage bedroom.
Across from me was a withered old man struggling to sit up on a luxurious bed.
With a pitifully gaunt face with sunken cheeks and arms devoid of any muscles, he perfectly portrayed what it meant to be ‘skin and bones’.
Anyone could tell that he was ill, a stark reminder of the mortality that was equal to all.
Conversely, his eyes were still vibrant with life.
It seemed as if all his life force had converged into those eyes, and in the dim light, they shone like blue flames.
He was a born ruler, and his dignity drove my body to bow my head instinctively.
“…Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.”
The emperor. I didn’t know how, but I knew the identity of the old man.
“How are the battlefronts faring recently?”
“As you are aware, the situation isn’t good. But please rest assured. They will never breach the Great Wall, our final bastion, as long as I draw breath.”
“As long as you’re alive, you say…”
I fell silent. I couldn’t promise more than that.
The world teetered on the edge of ruin.
All six other Masters had perished, and Omeros’ army, led by Delphirem, had besieged the Great Wall for days on end.
Everyone had their limits, and I was no exception to that natural law.
“Huhu… How laughable. Is this how several hundred years of imperial history will come to an end? No, that’s not it. The end of human history is not far off either.”
I wanted to offer some words of comfort, even just conventionally, but couldn’t bring myself to do so.
False hope was more unbearable than death.
The old man’s gaze returned to me.
“Ian Percus… Humanity’s last Master, and my loyal subject.”
His voice cracked as he spoke, signaling his imminent end. The ebbing traces of life reflected on his withered body.
The sorrow in my eyes deepened as I sensed his fading vitality.
“I will pass down to you the authority over the Dragonblood Script.”
“Your Imperial Majesty, the Dragonblood Script is a privilege of the emperor. It should be passed on to the next emperor…”
“There’s no point anymore.”
Although I had replied hastily, my words scattered upon hearing the emperor’s single statement.
That was simply the reality.
The once-glorious Empire and its throne, the symbol of its zenith, had lost all significance.
The old man continued calmly.
“…Instead, I have one last request for you.”
I raised my head and met his gaze.
His intensely blazing blue eyes instantly overwhelmed me into silence.
The ruler of the throne, bearing centuries of imperial history, issued his final command.
I bowed hastily, showing the utmost respect a subject could offer to his sovereign.
The old man had to remain an emperor until his dying moment. At the very least, it held true for the kneeling man.
Along with those fiercely burning eyes, a voice that would forever be etched into my heart resonated in my ears.
“…Save the world.”
With that single short, succinct phrase, the blurry boundaries collapsed, and my consciousness returned to reality.
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