The bomb exploded on the shield’s surface, forming a small crack on it. Nothing significant. Not enough to destroy the barrier even if you threw a dozen more of those bombs at the same spot.
But the thugs were not stupid. They realized this, and began spreading out around us. I turned to the Plague Doctor, as a few bullets deflected harmlessly off the domed shield around us.
“Do you have any more of those smoke bombs?” I asked hurriedly.
“Unfortunately not,” he said, his gaze sweeping over the thugs around the large room; some of them were positioning themselves behind the wooden crates, tables and chairs, and barrels scattered throughout the lobby area. But the bulk of them were still down the hallway ahead of us. “I have not had access to any alchemical ingredients in a while. And I was… not expecting to use up my stock here.”
“So what do we do then? We’re surrounded!” I pointed out the obvious.
“Not completely.” The Plague Doctor pointed at my behind with his cane, the mana crystal at its tip still glowing and keeping the barrier active. I saw two thugs barring the entrance— no, exit to the warehouse. “Ms Melas—”
“Just Melas is fine.”
“Melas, then. If we make a break for the outside, we should be able to escape their encirclement and they’ll be forced to funnel through that doorway. We would be in a more advantageous position than we are now.”
My eyes flickered to the side, as more gunshots, crossbow bolts, and another explosion impacted the barrier protecting us. The thugs were getting more impatient now, and were bolstered by the tiny spiderwebbed lines forming around the translucent shield. “Hurry up and come out, you bastards! We’ll teach you not to mess with us!” the thug boss yelled.
“And how are we supposed to do that?”
The Plague Doctor reached for his coat pocket, pulling out a bottle I vaguely recognized. “With this,” he answered, sloshing the liquid inside of it. “Can you take on those two men?”
I looked at the two thugs blocking the exit. Both of them were holding melee weapons— a club and an axe. Neither had a long ranged weapon on them.
“Yes,” I said with confidence.
“Good.” The Plague Doctor nodded, then slowly lowered his cane. “On my mark, you run for it and don’t look back.”
“I got it.”
I held out my dagger in front of me, aiming my pistol at the man with the wooden club. I waited with bated breath for the signal—
And I dashed forward, firing multiple shots at the thug waiting for me. The barrier dissipated, and there was a flash of blinding light from behind me. But I stayed focused only on my targets. My vision blinded for only a moment. As if a powerful flash camera snapped a picture of me. But I could see again after a second.
The man I fired at was down on the ground, clutching at a few wounds on his body, while the other man was still grasping at his eyes. A flash of light followed by a loud bang echoed behind me, as the man looked up just in time to see me reach him.
He swung his axe at me. He missed. And I slashed at his legs, ducking under the swing. The man screamed, falling to his knees. Before I finished him off with a quick shot to the head.
It happened so fast. One moment I was ignoring the gunfire ringing off behind me as I finished off the second thug, the next I was outside catching my breath for a moment. The Plague Doctor followed immediately after, rapidly loading more bullets into his revolver.
“Don’t let up. There’s still dozens of them.”
“Right,” I said, aiming through the door and blasting a man holding a crossbow in the head. Bullets whizzed past me as I ducked back behind cover. “Got anything else up your sleeve?”
“Not unless you have something.” The Plague Doctor fired off multiple shots as fast as I could even aim. “Do you?” he asked, stepping from his side of the door to next to me.
“I—” I bit my tongue. Is he trying to make me use magic? He suspected me of something— I did not know what he thought he knew, but he definitely knew something. I shook my head, exasperated. “This is not the time!”
“I know,” he remarked casually as he fired another round. “That’s why I’m waiting for you. You have a secret, don’t you?”
I hesitated. Then a round object rolled at our feet. My eyes widened, and I reacted before I could even think. “Bomb—”
I rolled out of the way as it exploded at my behind; the shockwave scattered some dirt and rocks on me, knocking me back further. But otherwise, I was unharmed. I whirled around in a panic, trying to see what happened to the Plague Doctor. Why didn’t he move out of the way?
Only to have my question answered when I saw the domed barrier surrounded him.
Right, forgot about that.
I wanted to sigh in relief; I was glad the Plague Doctor did not die. However there were more pressing issues at hand I had to focus on. Like the gaping hole in the wall!
The double doors of the warehouse had already been destroyed from the fighting. But after that bomb went off, the wall next to it was blown apart, tripling the size of the exit for the thugs.
A few projectiles impacted the Plague Doctor’s translucent shield. There were far fewer flying about now. The Plague Doctor seemed to have mostly targeted those with ranged weapons during the previous engagement.
I picked myself up as the domed barrier dissipated, and the first thug charged at the Plague Doctor. The masked man simply brought his cane up, aiming the slightly pointed end at the charging enemy. The lower half of the cane glowed, the mana crystal at its top shining a different color. Then the Plague Doctor ran the thug through with it effortlessly.
More thugs came at him swinging their weapons. The Plague Doctor took a fencer’s stance, and met them all in combat. He blocked. Parried. Stabbed. And the thugs fell one by one at his weaponized cane.
I managed to fire off a few shots both at the thugs assailing him, and the ones giving them covering fire. Two fell dead, another was wounded. Before finally, some of the thugs turned their attention to me.
The first man knocked my gun aside, following up with an overhead strike. I sidestepped it easily, stabbing into his guard. The blade plunged into his chest. With a quick twist, I yanked it out and turned to the other two thugs immediately to my right.
I slashed at the one on the right as he backed up. The other thug swung at me from behind, but I sidestepped around it. They came at me at once from both sides. I took advantage of my smaller size to continuously dodge between the two, focusing on deflecting the incoming strikes, while alternating my counters with every other swing.
I managed to cut one low. Right at his shins. And he stumbled back for a second. I immediately followed up on him as his friend tried to stab at me with his sword from behind—
And I ducked out of the way.
The injured thug was struck on his chest. He barely even registered what happened before he fell, with the blade lodged into his heart. The other thug’s eyes widened in shock as he realized what happened. I took that opening the moment I saw it. With a quick double slash, the other thug fell over.
I was panting. My breathing was heavy. I had to labor for each breath to come out. If only I could use magic! But I could not.
I swung my gaze around, looking at the fighting happening right in front of the warehouse; there were still over a dozen thugs circling around the Plague Doctor. But they were keeping their distance. The small pile of bodies at his feet was enough of a deterrent to keep them all charging in at once.
A part of me wanted to immediately charge in and help him. But another part was screaming at me to get out of here. I was scratched up, and if I had made a single mistake, I would have been dead by now. And more than that…
A scream. And another thug fell dead in an instant.
“What are you doing, idiots there’s only one of him!”
“Attack him together—”
It seemed like he did not need my help; if anything, he seemed to be taking this threat more lightly than not. Whether I was here or not would have made no difference— so why not leave?
I took a step back, still undecided on what to do. But before I could actually make my decision, someone else made it for me.
“Trying to leave, are ya? Too bad. A little girl such as ya shouldn’t have come here in the first place.”
The thug boss came up from behind me, swiveling his glowing shortsword. The light formed what appeared to be a second blade around the metallic edge of the weapon, and it almost looked like it was… vibrating?
“Ya come here, and cause a mess, killing dozens of my men. This gang which I’ve built up for so long. And ya really expect to leave just like that?”
“Um, yes?” I quirked my head to the side. “Although I wasn’t sure if I was going to leave. I was only thinking about it, you know?”
It was a quip. A stupid quip. The only thing I could think of saying at the moment, with my heart pounding faster and faster the longer I stared at his chainsaw blade.
He shook his head. And as he did, I thought I could almost see the Plague Doctor take notice of what was happening from my peripheral vision. Before I could turn my head to confirm, the thug boss snarled.
“I have some bad news for ya, brat. I’m going to make you pay for this!”
He lunged forward at me. I brought my dagger up to block his attack. Our blades met midair. The clash was not like any other I have felt before. The rapidly rotating aura of energy forced my hand back upon contact. I did everything in my power to keep by my dagger from flying off.
The thug boss saw me stagger back. He pressed forward, not letting up his attacks. I tried to parry another swing, but once again I almost lost hold of my weapon. I watched him load up for another strike, and this time, I dodged out of the way.
He continued his relentless swinging. Not even bothered by my attempts at counterattacking— easily avoiding me with his superior reach. I backed up several feet as the thug boss spat. “Stop running, and just give up!”
He pulled out a round object. It was a bomb, of course. “Catch,” he said, throwing it at me.
Why would I do that?! I leapt out of the way in time. The shockwave did not knock me back, but it did cause me to stumble a little bit. Oh my God, I’m actually going to die—
A glowing light cut through the dust and smoke. The chainsaw blade came right at me. Straight at my neck. I barely even registered it. But my instinct kicked in, and my hand went up in a panic. A finger twitched. And a light covered me.
My magical barrier shot up just in time. The blue shield that was slightly bigger than me formed where my hand was, taking the brunt of the hit. Cracks formed where the enchanted blade struck, but it did not shatter.
The sudden glow must have attracted more than a few looks, as I heard a few gasps. The thug boss stared at the magic circle right at my palms, slowly registering what he was seeing.
He yelled, recoiling from shock. He worked his jaw to say something else, but I did not let him; I saw an opening, and I took it.
The magic circle disappeared alongside the barrier as I alleviated the spell. Already, another spell was forming on my other hand, as it shot up pointed towards the thug boss. I said its name to cast it faster.
And it shot out at him. He did not even have time to react. The large sphere of flames engulfed him entirely, carrying him to a cluster of trees at the back. There was an agonizing howl as the thug boss was swept up by the spell, but he was quickly silenced by the explosion that followed it. But it was not just him.
Everyone was staring in stunned silence at where the thug boss blew up. At the crater surrounded by flames, crackling, and burning up the remaining shrubbery that survived the blast. The only exception was the Plague Doctor— he was looking at me. But all the thugs?
“M— that’s magic!”
“A Dark Crusader? Run for your lives!”
“She killed the boss! She’s a Demon!”
“Goddess grace us—”
Pandemonium broke out. The thugs threw down their weapons, making a break for it. I was about to stop them. Maybe with an area of attack spell. But the Plague Doctor just shook his head.
“Hm, if that was your secret, you should have just said so.” He raised an arm, opening his hand up towards the sky. “I don’t think she’d like it if any of you tell on her. So unfortunately, I’ll have to stop you.”
A mass of energy began to form on the palm of his hand, and my eyes went round. Glowing green particles shaped into an orb. About the size of my head. Magic? I thought to myself. No— where’s the spell circle?
The thugs that saw this screamed as well. A dozen of them scattered in all directions, fleeing from us both. But there was no point. The first beam shot out of the green ball of energy, curving midair to strike the nearest thug. Then another came out, followed by another, and another.
Shouts of pain came and went one after another. The last of the thugs only managed to get several dozens of feet away, before they, too, dropped dead.
The Plague Doctor lowered his hand, the green energy dissipating into nothing; he nodded his beak-like mask to himself, then started for me. I took a wary step backwards as he approached.
“Are we going to do this again?” he asked. “Calm down, Melas. If I was going to harm you, I would have done so by now.”
He’s right. I knew he was right; however not only did he now know about my magic. There was also…
“What was that?!” I snapped, pointing a finger at all the corpses, then back at him. “Why didn’t you just do that the entire time!”
The Plague Doctor shrugged, replying as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “The same reason you did not use your magic. I believe we were both at fault for being too cautious of one another, choosing not to reveal our secrets unless absolutely necessary.”
“I— but, that’s…” I bit back my tongue, sighing. “Well that’s fair, I guess?”
“Indeed,” he concurred casually.
I heard a branch snap; I cast a glance to the side, and saw the flames from my Fireball were spreading to the rest of the woods, looking as if it were not stopping anytime soon. I should probably put that out, shouldn’t I?
Unfortunately, since the magical flames went on to create regular fire, I could not just put it out with Dispel Magic. I could theoretically force the fire to extinguish itself, but not only was it more than I had ever done that on before, it also usually made it burn up all its fuel at once— something which I was certain would get pretty bad here with all the potential sources of fuel.
I knew a few Hydromancy spells, but not enough to quickly put it all out. It would have taken a while for me, so I turned to the Plague Doctor.
“Do you know any water magic?” I asked, gesturing at what appeared to be the start of a forest fire.
“No,” he said simply, “I do not know any magic. Especially not water magic.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “But what you did earlier— wasn’t that magic? Thaumaturgy?”
“There were no spell circles, no?” he pointed out the obvious.
That was true; I noticed as much when it happened. I assumed that maybe it was something similar to pre-casting, or maybe he was hiding the magic circle somehow. But now that he admitted that was not the case, I was… lost as to what he did. It could have been some advanced mana tool, however I sincerely doubted it.
“Wait, so how did you do that?”
I heard a muffled exhale. The Plague Doctor took a step forward, reaching for his mask. “You know, I knew you had a secret from the first time I saw you at the orphanage. Magic was… not unexpected. But I believed that maybe there was something more than that.”
I folded my arms. “What do you mean by that? Magic gets you killed!”
“Only in some places in this continent of Vitae. And while it is illegal in both continents, especially so in Soli, that is only because of the influence of the Church. Even so, the Dark Crusaders exist. Some criminal organizations employ spellcasters within their ranks. And there are many stories of children finding a book they should not, and picking up magic in their adolescence before an adult or a member of the Church ‘disciplines’ them.”
I… did not know that. “Is magic really that pervasive?” I asked stupidly.
“Not pervasive. It’s uncommon. Rare, even. An average person would never meet a practicing spellcaster more than once in their life. And that is unknowingly. However, I am a master of secrets. I have seen many in my time, and I know for a fact, that secret is not the grandest of them all.” The Plague Doctor pulled off his beak-like mask. I caught a glimpse of his face underneath his face covering. He was… handsome.
I had thought he would be ugly, or at least, terribly scarred across the face, which was why he wore the mask. But instead, his face was unmarked. His skin almost glistening under the pale moonlight, and his face was almost perfectly symmetrical. He had sharp violet irises, and curly blonde locks that went down his shoulders. It was almost a crime to cover up a face like that!
“What do you want from me? It’s still illegal!” I argued, as the Plague Doctor yanked a glove out of one hand.
“I know it is,” he said, “but something tells me that’s not your only secret.”
I scowled, pocketing my hands. “I’m not telling you anything else. You won’t even tell me how you did that weird magic thing!”
“True, you did reveal a secret to me,” the Plague Doctor remarked, rolling up his sleeves. “Now it’s time for me to reveal one of mine.”
Then he raised his arm up, pointing at the flames. There was a glimmer, then I squinted as it turned into a flash of light.
Lines began to form. Not into a magic circle, or even in midair like they usually did. No— glowing green lines began to draw itself down his arms. Up into his hand, forming a complex pattern. Like some kind of magical tattoo. But it was not magic.
It was a miracle.
The lines stopped at his shoulders. I could see some of it peeking up the right side of his neck. Otherwise, however, was left alone. A globule of water amassed in the direction he was aiming; it quickly ballooned up in size, covering most of the area on fire, before dropping. The water splashed over the flames, putting it out completely.
I covered my head as thousands of little droplets rained down on me for a moment. But it ended soon enough.
“You—” I whirled on the Plague Doctor. “You’re a Saint?!” I exclaimed.
“No,” he said simply. “I am not.”
“But that was a miracle! Only Saints and Saintesses can—”
I was halfway speaking, when it finally dawned on me. It was not so much of an epiphany, and more of putting the pieces together; I realized what was going on right as the Plague Doctor put my thoughts into words.
“I can perform miracles, but I am no Saint. That is my secret.”
I put a hand up to my cheeks and felt it for a moment. I slowly brought it down to my arms, feeling the smoothness of my skin. It felt… good as new.
Better than ever, in fact. Almost as if I had been applying some skincare product my entire life— which I had never done once in this world.
And yet, when the Plague Doctor performed his miracle on me, it not only healed all the minor injuries I suffered from the battle, it made me feel gorgeous!
“How does that work?” I asked. I quickly realized how dumb my question sounded and elaborated. “I mean, healing potions don’t do that, right? They just heal you. Regrow your skin so it’s fleshy and weak. But your miracle healed me and it’s making my skin glow!”
My past self would have been so jealous of my current self’s body. It was like something straight out of a beauty commercial! Not that I had seen one in over ten years, of course.
“It’s not the same as an ordinary healing potion. My miracles don’t just heal one thing. It can target and purify everything at once. But it’s effects will wear off soon enough. A clean body only stays clean for so long.”
“And that’s how you heal the Noxeus?”
“Yes,” the Plague Doctor confirmed. “There is no potion— no cure for the Noxeus. At least, it’s not something that myself, or many other talented Alchemists, have been able to conceive. The very origins of the plague is a mystery. Trying to understand the plague itself is something that is many times more difficult. Let alone creating some sort of remedy for it.”
“I see,” I said, rubbing a temple.
“What’s wrong, Melas?”
“I was… hoping that there was a cure for it. You’re the Plague Doctor, you’ve seen it yourself— how bad the Noxeus gets.” I shuddered as I recalled a pile of bodies on the side of a road back in the Free Lands. “I thought that if you had some potion for it, I could get you to share its recipe with the world.”
“I would have already done so long ago if that were the case,” the Plague Doctor stated simply.
“I know, I know,” I sighed wistfully, “I just wish this world wasn’t so terrible.”
There was a moment of silence. But not complete silence. It was turning to day soon; the sounds of birds and insects filled the void, along with our footsteps as we trudged along the road.
I cast a quick glance at the girl on the Plague Doctor’s back. Hannah was still unconscious, even though she was completely healed. Supposedly, she was just asleep because she was tired. But her skin… and mine too…
“Do you… use your miracles on yourself?”
“Pardon?” the Plague Doctor paused midstep, and turned to me.
“When you took off your mask earlier, I saw your face. And your skin. It looked so good. Do you use your miracles to maintain that?” I inquired about what was clearly the most important question I had.
“Hey, you need to tell me!” I raised a finger accusingly. “You do, don’t you?”
“You’ve got to teach me how to do that!”
“I told you earlier, it’s not something I know how to teach.”
“Shush, she’s waking up. We’ll talk more later today.”
Hannah opened her eyes, shifting in her position on the man’s back. “W-what’s going on?”
“Do not strain yourself, Ms Hannah. Your wounds have healed, but you are still tired. Rest, and you will find yourself back with your family in no time—”
By the time we got back to the orphanage, the sun had already risen. But they were all waiting for us.
Everyone in the orphanage stood at the gate. They looked like they did not get a wink of sleep, but even so, they all jumped up when they saw us return.
“She’s back! She’s really back!”
“The Plague Doctor did it—”
Ok, fine! They jumped up when they saw the Plague Doctor return.
They all ran up to Hannah and embraced her in a tight hug. I could make out faces among the crowd: Eaton holding her tightly with both eyes clamped shut; Jay was holding back a tear as he clutched her arm, apologizing; Callie and Patty both crying simultaneously—
Faces I recognized. But people I barely knew. Even Ms Sharity, who was standing at the back, standing guiltily back away from them all.
“Hannah, I’m so glad you’re safe—”
“Mom,” Hannah cut her off. She ran forwards at Sharity, and threw herself at her in a hug. “Mom— I was so scared. I thought I would never see you again! I thought I would never see anyone here ever again!”
The girl’s mother— no, the mother of this family eyes widened in shock at being called ‘mom’ for the first time. The rest of the family poured in on her, following after Hannah. All of them were crying now, and Sharity too had tears streaming down her face.
“Mom, why did this have to happen?”
“Please, mom. I promise I’ll do better!”
“Mommy, I love you so much—”
“My children, I’m so sorry that had to have happened. It was my fault. I promise I will not let that happen ever again.”
It was a heartwarming scene happening here once again; too many in the span of three days. Yet, even though they were little more than strangers to me, I felt happy for them this time.
“It feels good, doesn’t it? To know you’ve helped someone?” the Plague Doctor spoke up from beside me. “But come, the best part is yet to come.”
And it came.
Ms Sharity approached the Plague Doctor, and bowed her head deeply. “Thank you so much. I owe you everything for saving not just Patty and I from the Noxeus, but Hannah too from those wicked people.”
“It has been my pleasure, Ms Sharity. However, this was not something I did alone.” The Plague Doctor took a step to the side, and ushered me forward. “This brave young girl helped me too.”
“Huh? Wait—” I tried protesting, but suddenly found myself at the center of attention. Then I realized I was blushing, which made me even more embarrassed.
“She did?” Ms Sharity stared at me, disbelieving. But the Plague Doctor allayed those doubts.
“Indeed. She was at the gang’s hideout even before I got there. She would have saved Hannah herself if you had not found me.”
It was like something clicked in the woman’s head; she must have remembered the probing conversations I had with her yesterday, and realized the Plague Doctor was not lying. Then she directed her gratitude towards me.
“You have my thanks too, Melas. For helping save Hannah. Thank you so much.”
My first thought was to deny it. To have said something along the lines of ‘oh it was nothing’, but I knew it was not just nothing; I had put in a lot of effort to help them, and did a lot of things I would have rather never done to achieve it.
Plus, it was a happy ending. One I wished I could have gotten together with my own mom. But even if that never came true for me, I was content with seeing it happen to others. So instead, with my cheeks still flushed I accepted their thanks with all my heart.
“You’re most welcome,” I said, beaming.
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