Ch-31.3: The play starts
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Mannat woke up in pain and found it difficult to breathe.

He tried to roll over his stomach to ease his breathing, but that proved easier said than done. It was like there was someone sitting on his chest and pinning him to the ground. He couldn’t feel his arms either, and he was sure someone was holding his legs because they didn’t move. Then the memories struck him like a wooden hammer on the head and he remembered people jumping out of the bushes and hitting his head. He could still feel his head buzzing where it had hit the ground.

His heart skipped a beat. A primal instinct awoke in his body and told him to run away. His rational mind countered saying running away was impossible for the time being and told him to figure out his situation before acting. Mannat thought it was reasonable and decided to listen to its advice.

He stopped moving, felt around with his hands, and found his arms tightly bound together with a strip of cloth. Since he couldn’t move his legs either he figured they were also in the same situation. Mannat found it strange. Did they not bring a rope? His kidnappers seemed surprisingly underprepared. Perhaps, they didn’t intend to tie him up in the first place. Whatever -- their ineptness was his advantage.

It took him a few moments to understand the gravity of his situation. Tied up, far away from the village, no chance of help; his situation wasn’t optimistic. He could even say the boys could kill him and no one would find out -- except the Witch. She definitely knew about the mess he was in. Question was, why she didn’t send help. After tens of thoughts, he came to one unshakable concrete conclusion. She wanted him to deal with it.

He was a magician apprentice. One of his many jobs entailed fighting nightmarish demons only people of his profession could find. Though no different in mentality, his enemies were definitely human – definitely because he wasn’t dead yet. His mind worked quickly, actively computing ways to escape, and he figured it was impossible to get away until he freed his hands. He was sure there were at least two of them, and probably a few more.

He tried opening his eyes to look around and saw a blurred dark figure surrounded by a corona of rainbow light above his chest. He had to flash his eyes close right away as overwhelmingly bright sunlight threatened to pierce right through his eyeballs and burn his brain.

He sealed his lips and engulfed the pain that had erupted from his eyes when suddenly his kidnappers started talking.

“Doesn’t he look like a fish all tied up, hmm, boys? I wonder if he’ll squeal like one if I poke his eye?”
“They don’t want him dead, Mange!”
“You mean dead-dead, or playing dead?”
“The latter is the best kind of dead ‘init, Tick?”

There was laughter.

Did they intend to kill him? Mannat’s wasn’t sure and it didn’t matter. He didn’t plan to stick along long enough to find out. All he needed to worry about was to figure out a way to escape.

There were three of them unless the others were away. In that case, it would be tricky to getaway. The voices sounded young, but they were gritty and grainy, like someone going through puberty. Only one of them sounded the same age as him. The woods would be a great place to lose them. He knew from experience how difficult it was to traverse through the forest terrain for a complete novice. He hoped the little experience he had gained during his hunting trips would help him bridge the attribute gap. They definitely had an advantage there.

He knew the time since the glaring sun was right above his head. Not a long time had passed since they got the jump on him. They definitely didn’t have the time to move him far away. Actually, the dirt he cupped in his hand told him that he might still be on the road. He decided to take a chance and find out so he could better prepare himself when he actually escaped. He wasn’t worried about the strip of cloth that bound his hands. It would have no say in the matter. There was but one small problem. He only had enough mana for two shots of ‘mana strike’. He would have to use one to free his hands.

As for where he was -- He raised his head slowly and squinted to protect his eyes from the sun. It was one thing if they knew he was awake, but he didn’t want to announce the same to them. He had too little going in his way. Every advantage was an opportunity that just might help tip the chances in his way.

“I’m not joking you two!” The youngest among the three said. “We’ll be in serious trouble if they didn’t keep their word.”
The one sitting on Mannat’s chest snickered. “I thought you wanted revenge for the claw mark that the raven gave you. What happened? Did you drop your balls somewhere on the way, Flea?”
“Shut up, Mange; and stop calling me flea, yeah? Even the alley boys have started calling me that. The name’s gonna stick like Tick.” This person needed better friends Mannat thought.
“Ticks a good name though,” And this person needed to see a doctor.

Mannat remembered who they were. They were the bullies from the barbershop, the ones who had hurled abuses at him before the Raven attacked them. He wanted to see their faces without announcing his status to make sure, and perhaps God heard him.

“Let’s wake him up.”
“We should take him somewhere else, yeah? We are out in the open. What if someone comes up the road?” Flea’s advice was ignored.
“It doesn’t matter,” Mange said. “We won’t be around for long.”
He swung and plastered a cackling slap on Mannat’s face, which instantly started blistering and swelling his cheeks.

There was no way Mannat could keep pretending to be asleep after that. He tasted blood. His ear rang exactly the way it had when the furnace exploded. The sting opened his eyes wide and filled them with tears. It was his chance to look at his surroundings and he did so frantically. The others thought he was struggling to get away, and he was glad they thought so.
He was right about his position.
He was still on the road, and definitely in the same or near the place where he had fallen.

There were definitely only three of them. Mannat didn’t find anyone else in his surroundings. While Mange, who was the leader of the enemy group, sat on his chest. The absent-minded one, who they called Tick stood at a short distance and was keeping his peeled on the road. The third one, whom Mange stubbornly called Flea, was holding his legs.

“Look how he flips ‘n’ flops about!” Mange said bouncing on Mannat’s chest in excitement. “He definitely looks like a dying fish!” Mange held Mannat’s face and grinned, revealing his scum lathed yellow teeth and wicked black gums.
“Not on the face, Mange! They said hurt him where others can’t see. Your handprint is gonna be visible on his face for days.” Mannat saw the plum boy when he pulled his friend's shirt from the back. He looked like an innocent boy with chubby cheeks and a rosy nose. The claw wound did add a sense of maturity to his otherwise pure blue eyes, though he was an emotional mess. His hands shook as he pulled Mange’s shirt.  Mannat could see that he was afraid of the boy, and he backed away as soon as Mange glared at him.

“Thank you, Flea. I’ll be careful the next time--” Mange had just said the words when he broke his promise and swung his hand again. Mannat saw it coming, but couldn’t avoid the slap. Another crackling sound traveled up the empty dirt road when Mange slapped the other side of Mannat’s face. This time Mannat couldn’t keep his voice down. Unfortunately, there was no one around to help him.

“Oops, my hands slipped.” Mange raised his hands in surrender.
Flea sighed deflated onto himself at the sight of the grin. “Do-don’t let it happen again, yeah?”

Suddenly Tick started laughing. He had a donkey’s laugh. Mannat’s hoped he wouldn’t have its endurance too, because the boy was tall as a tree and built like a house! He would not be able to escape into the forest with the man chasing after him.

“What’s so funny?” Mange said rubbing his hands together.
“You two said the same things when you grabbed his sister’s udders last night while we were eating at his home.”
Mange chuckled. “You are right, Tick. That is actually very funny. Good job,”
“Thanks, Mange,” Tick smiled and turned away to keep an eye on the road.

Mannat bore the pain and took a final look at his surroundings before settling down again. He exhaled rapidly through his mouth, and each exhale ballooned his cheeks like bubbles rising in a simmering pot. There was a big heavy rock on the road, but it was too far away. His hands wouldn’t reach it. He kept his head tilted forward despite the sting to keep an eye on the three. He didn’t want to lose their positions. They were distracted. It was his chance.

The road might be the shortest distance to the Witch’s hut, but it wouldn’t be a long chase either. The woods were dense around him and the perfect place for anyone to hide.

He set the plan in motion.

His nerves were strangely holding together for someone in his situation. ‘Meditation’ would have further calmed him down, but the skill didn’t work in clutch situations. His calm was the rush of adrenaline before the panic.

The time seemed to stop for him as mana rushed toward the palm of his hand. He didn’t let it gather but dispersed it into the strip of cloth binding his hands. His eyes grew wet as his body reacted on its own. He heard the laughter and his heart started beating faster, strengthening the flow of mana. Panic exhaled life into his body. He noticed something flying high in the sky, right above his head. It was drawing circles in the wild blue sky as if waiting for him to act.

The belt exploded. Mannat freed his arms and swung a fist. “Hey,” He called Mange at the same time. The boy turned toward him with the same sleazy smile pestered across his face, unaware that their time was up. There wasn’t a resounding crackle when Mannat’s fist met Mange’s face. There was only a grunt, an explosion of blood, and a thud as Mange fell off Mannat’s chest.

Mange would have absorbed the punch if the difference in their constitution was more than double. Since he fell off him, it proved that the difference was less than that. So at least that boy was not as strong as Pandit was.

The next part was important. Mannat crunched his abs and rose from the ground. He followed the momentum and swung another punch at the plum boy who was holding his legs. He had sprained his wrist in the last attempt. Fortunately, he had two hands. Unfortunately, the punch barely missed the boy and slid over his head as the boy ducked. Mannat was astounded at first, then realized the boy hadn’t ducked but hid his head like a turtle. However, it was also true that the boy had actually dodged the punch in such a close-quarter situation. Either he had great instincts, or his experience had honed his senses. Good for him. Mannat would have let him be if Flea hadn’t hugged his legs in some desperate measure to keep him down until --

Until what?

Mannat sensed movement beside him.

“Get him Tick!” Someone rasped near his ear. Mannat turned and saw Mange crawling away from him. He was holding his face. Scarlet blood flowed through the gaps between his fingers and coldly dripped down his face, leaving evidence of his cowardice in the dirt. There was hate in his eyes, but that didn’t stop him from increasing the distance between the two.  

Mannat saw Tick darting toward him and his hands turned cold. The man was glaring. He rolled his sleeves up and curled his fists. Deep dread grew in Mannat’s heart. That was a man born with skills in both ‘strength’ and ‘constitution’, Mannat was sure.

He found his heart beating faster. Blood rampaged down his veins in a tempest. His mana surged. Collecting from various parts of his body, it flowed toward the palm of his right hand. His body understood the threat better than he did. Controlled by an emotional burst Mannat acted. He raised the palm toward Flea and, and…

Suddenly, the boy raised his head. His face was ashen, eyes blasted wider than exploding popcorn kernels. He was scared, potentially even more so than Mannat. The boy was staring in the same direction as he was just moments ago. They were both scared of the same man, of falling into a similar situation. Mannat could feel him shaking through his legs. The gathered mana threatened to shoot off the palm of his hand. It wasn’t going to be restrained for long.

“What if you lost control over your mana and killed someone?” His father’s words filled Mannat’s ears. He hesitated, but only for a moment. Then Tick was upon him.
“Kill him!” Mange screamed.
Like a lightning-filled dark cloud, Tick grew in Mannat’s sight. 

“Do it!” Mannat heard a whisper in his ear.

Just as Tick’s fists were about to rain his fists upon him, Mannat hand slid in his direction and the gathered mana shot off Mannat’s palm.

No one expected the result, not even Mannat. The invisible pressure struck Tick’s guts and exploded a hole through his shirt. It didn’t kill the man or even blew him away. It couldn’t even bring him to his knees. Mannat drew a sharp breath. The skill failed. Mannat held the cold stifling breath as the next few seconds passed slowly through his eyes. Tick approached him one step at a time, while his friends silently stared at him. His stomach was reddening at a visible pace. There was no other damage. There was no blood.

Tick loomed over Mannat. Mannat helplessly and silently watched him raise his fist, and fall to the ground beside him as a tree axed from the bottom. He didn’t move after that. Mannat could sense he was alive, but his insides were a mess. He wasn’t waking up anytime soon.

A hiss got his attention. Mange was stumbling down the road, running away from him as far away as he could.

Mannat exhaled his worries and inhaled in relief. It was over.

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