“Darvus, switch positions with Stannard!” I swung my blade, creating an arc of wind that knocked away the armored gnoll—a nasty mana beast that was more like a bipedal, rabid dog—that had tried to catch me off guard.
“Careful, Leader! If you die on us, your grandfather will murder us all!” Darvus warned, a wide grin visible underneath his dented helmet.
“Bite me!” I snorted, parrying the downswing of another assault mage’s axe with my sword. “Do you want me to count all of the times I saved your ass?”
“Don’t start a battle you can’t win, Darvus!” Caria mocked as she nimbly dodged a spiked club, following up with an uppercut at a fanged orc’s jaw.
“Stannard, have you found the pack leader yet? These gnolls just keep coming out of nowhere.” Darvus twirled two hatchets before launching them at a nearby gnoll.
“Not yet,” our blonde-haired mage called out from behind.
“Hey, Leader. I’m thinking we should fall back. The numbers are too much for just our team to handle without overexerting ourselves.” Darvus unclipped his two large battle axes from his back and decapitated a large orc.
“I think you’re right. We should at least fall back into the range of our conjurers.” I thrust my thin blade underneath the seam of the armored gnoll’s breastplate. Its rabid, dog-like face contorted in pain as it crumpled to the floor.
“Those lucky wand-wavers, sitting behind the lines and firing off spells while they gossip with each other,” Darvus grumbled as he caved a sword-wielding gnoll’s chest with the blunt end of his axe.
“Hey!” Stannard exclaimed. “That’s degrading!”
Ignoring my team members’ complaints, I hopped back next to Stannard. “Stannard, I’m going to hold them down. Go all out, okay?”
“Understood,” he acknowledged. “Darvus, Caria, better get out of the way!”
Sheathing my sword, I released the first phase of my beast will to strengthen my spell. Placing my palms on the ground, I concentrated.
A wave of vines shot up from the ground, entangling both the large orcs and the gnolls that were coming through an opening on the far side of the cavern.
Stannard, the frail-looking mage beside me, aimed a device that looked like a narrow crossbow at the horde of mana beasts now rooted to the ground. As he inserted a small orb into the tip of his arrow-less crossbow, his pale blue eyes narrowed in concentration.
The embedded gem glowed bright red as he waited for the right timing. As soon as both Darvus and Caria had cleared out of the way, Stannard unleashed his attack.
Like a cannon gone mad, a fiery blast exploded from the tip of Stannard’s device, nearly blowing the small-framed mage off his feet.
We all stared blankly at the scene in front of us; orcs and gnolls burned as the wave behind them were trapped in the wall of fire ignited by their own comrades’ bodies.
“Another new spell you mixed up?” Darvus queried, his eyes still looking at the fiery blaze just a dozen meters away.
“Yup!” Stannard replied, strapping his device across his shoulder. “The rebound is a bit painful though.”
“That’s why I’m telling you that you should train your body more with me,” Caria wagged her gloved finger at him.
“And I’m telling you that there’s no way in hell that I’d train with you, you compact package of savagery!” Stannard retorted. “I still have nightmares about that day!”
“Guys, let’s save the banter for when we’re back with the rest of the other teams. That fire won’t hold them back for long,” I cut in. With that, we headed back through the narrow corridor we had come from, making sure there weren’t any mana beasts following us.
After making our way back through the long cavern, I saw the flickering purple light that indicated the main base—the place that I’d called home for the past few months.
“I wonder what food they’ll have ready?” Darvus mused, licking his lips.
“Probably the same old mush they call ‘food.’ I swear, the cooks purposely make it as unappetizing as possible so no one will want seconds,” Stannard sighed as we drew closer to the purple light.
“Any chance that our leader, that we love and appreciate so much and also happens to be a princess, can hook her precious teammates with some real food?” Darvus asked with a twinkling look in his eyes.
“Gross!” Caria cringed beside me. “If you want to beg for favors, you’re better off covering your face while you do so.”
“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, shorty!” Darvus stuck his chin out so we could truly behold his rugged but sharp face. The human would be considered objectively handsome despite his unkempt appearance and self-inflating attitude.
“I’m petite! And I’m cute too! Right, Tessia?” she snapped back at him before turning to me and grabbing my arm.
“Oh please. Stannard here is what you call petite. He can pass off as a ten-year-old, after all. You, on the other hand, are just short and barbaric.” Darvus stuck out his tongue.
“Is there really a need for you to include me in your squabble!” Stannard exclaimed, offended. He was always sensitive whenever someone called him short or small.
“Guys! Who cares if we’re pretty, cute or handsome? We’re in a dungeon, covered in blood, sweat and grime. Is there really a need to look attractive down here?” I sighed as we reached the iron wall protecting the camp.
“Tch. As expected of someone who’s been blessed with true beauty. Our leader would never understand the hardships that normal girls have to go through to find a man,” Caria pouted.
“Stop it. What true beauty?” I scoffed, shaking my head.
“It’s true,” Darius agreed. “If it weren’t for the fact that you’re Commander Virion’s precious granddaughter, and the fact that you could easily beat me up, I’d have already made a move on you.”
“I can only beat you with my beast will activated,” I retorted.
“Alas, our love is still not meant to be. I prefer my women flaunty and easy,” Darvus sighed with longing.
“Gross,” Caria and I said in unison.
After knocking on the mana-enhanced iron wall, a slit opened in the middle and a pair of sharp eyes regarded us for a moment.
As the eyes landed on me, they widened. “Princess Tessia!”
“Yes, now please open the door,” I replied, looking up at the flickering purple light inside the lantern bolted to the ceiling.
The metal slit closed and the purple light changed to red, indicating to clear the way.
Just then, the dark wall split apart at the seam in the middle. The harsh grinding of metal on stone echoed off the walls of the narrow cavern until the doors opened enough to admit us one at a time.
As we stepped through the doorway, the warmth of several burning fires in earthen pits and the smell of indiscernible herbs and meat greeted us. The narrow hallway we had just come from opened up to a massive cavern with a naturally formed vaulted ceiling high above us. High up near the ceiling, large holes were dug into the walls where archers and conjurers lay inside, ready to fire at any intruders.
Artificial light from orbs lined the walls far below them to brighten the immense cavern that over a hundred soldiers and mages had set camp in. An underground stream gurgled near the side of the cavern, providing fresh water for all of the soldiers stationed here.
“Welcome back, Princess.” The sentry guarding the door bowed. I waved him off with a quick nod as my teammates followed close behind me.
After arriving at the small space where my team and I had set up camp, I went directly inside the tent Caria and I shared and gathered a new set of clothes and a towel.
Opening the flap of the tent, I could see Darvus trying to light a fire while Caria watched Stannard disassemble and clean his crossbow-like weapon. I couldn’t help but smile at how far the four of us had come in these past three months.
I still distinctly remembered when I had first been introduced to this group after gaining my grandfather’s approval to go out to battle. Darvus, fourth son of the Clarell House, was a lazy, spoiled, arrogant ass. But he was also an exceptionally talented prodigy in mana control and had the reflexes to match.
The Clarell Family had been a distinguished family for centuries, known for their unique and secretive style of augmented axemanship. Despite a history of fooling around and skipping out on training, from what Caria had told me, the wild-haired Darvus was still a far better axeman and fighter than any of his older brothers. His father, tired of his son’s lackadaisical attitude toward everything, had sent him to battle after Darvus had reached the solid-yellow core stage.
It was a nightmare in the beginning; Darvus looked down on me and considered me a liability after taking one look. Even after I had beat him down, having to resort to using my beast will, he still saw me unfit as a leader and did as he wanted. He only really cared about two things, and that was flirting with sleezy women and watching out for his childhood friend, Caria.
“Tessia? You know, you look pretty silly with just your head sticking out of the tent,” Caria said with her head tilted.
“Ah, no, I was about to get out. I’m going to take a shower,” I replied, somewhat flustered.
“Don’t be too long, Princess. The longer you wash, the more tempted I get to peek,” Darvus called out lazily, lying on his side by the fire.
“Then I’ll make sure to have you locked up every night with those old, pot-bellied men you love so much,” I threatened, carrying my clothes and towel over my shoulder.
“Can you stop with those indecent taunts?” Caria snapped as she kicked the arm that Darvus had been leaning his head on, causing the axe wielder to smash his head on the hard stone ground.
“Gah! Oww! Can we not always resort to violence, you vicious little mouse?” Darvus cried, rubbing the side of his head.
“You were asking for it,” Stannard chuckled from his seat, putting down his weapon. “Darvus, where did you put the beast cores we collected?”
“They’re over there,” he grumbled, pointing to the bag by their separate tent.
As I made my way toward the stream, I glanced over my shoulder to see Caria rubbing her childhood friend’s head, making sure he was okay. I wonder when she is going to gather the courage to confess to Darvus.
Caria Rede was just as headstrong as Darvus, if not more, but also bright and optimistic despite the harsh environment she was raised in. The Rede Family served the Clarell Family for many generations, but when Caria’s mother had failed to produce any males, Caria, the oldest of the daughters, was raised as if she was a male, trained to protect a member of the Clarell Family: Darvus.
This girl, who had the appearance of a thirteen-year-old and was actually only a few years older than me, had been the glue that held the team together. Caria was bright, cheery and sensitive of her surroundings, which served as great traits to keep Darvus and I from cutting each other’s throats. It was only after about a month or so that she confided in me that she had been helplessly in love with her perverted and lazy childhood friend. Needless to say, I was shocked at first, but I couldn’t help but empathize with her as a girl who had feelings for a boy that only saw her as a little girl that needed protecting.
Apart from her role as the mediator in our group, she truly shined in the battlefield. Even after fighting in battles for over three months, I’d yet to see anyone as agile, nimble and flexible as Caria. Her weapon was an artifact that took the appearance of a pair of gloves. However, when activated, they transformed into gauntlets reaching all the way up to her shoulders.
Going inside an open stall that had been conjured at the edge of the stream, I stripped my filthy clothes, careful not to irritate the scratches and bruises I’d gotten from this last battle. Dipping my body into the cold, flowing stream at the far end of the enclosed room, I hurriedly wiped myself with the cleansing herb I had brought. I had to constantly be moving to fight the brisk water. After washing myself and the clothes that I had fought in, I dried myself and changed into a fresh attire, keeping the towel wrapped around my head.
Arriving back to my camp, I huddled closely beside the fire, gingerly defrosting myself from the torturous shower. Darvus was nowhere to be found, most likely flirting with some of the female conjurers stationed to guard the main base. I could see Caria’s butt sticking out from our tent as she rummaged through her belongings, leaving only Stannard and myself by the fire.
“You should wash up as well. You don’t want your wounds to get infected,” I advised, facing my back toward the fire so my body could be evenly roasted.
“Ugh, I swear, fighting mana beasts is less painful than taking a bath in that near-frozen stream,” Stannard grimaced. “I guess I should, though. Let me finish up with this beast core first.”
I nodded in reply. I watched the blonde-haired boy, concentrating as he chanted a spell while clutching firmly at a beast core we had extracted from one of the gnolls.
Stannard Berwick, the last member of our team, had left a very distinct impression after his assessment. Professor Gideon was actually the one that had introduced him to my grandfather. When the dainty-looking boy that appeared no older than Caria stepped down at the training field, all three of us had our concerns. He was a dark-yellow stage conjurer at the time, and had a dual affinity for fire and wind. This was good and all, but Stannard also had a deficiency in his mana core that prevented him from storing the usual amount of mana a yellow stage mage normally would’ve been able to.
At first, I thought that having Stannard in the backlines like the other “wand wavers,” as Darvus called them, would’ve been better because his condition. However, Gideon guaranteed that the boy would be useful to have as a teammate on the frontline. As it turned out, Stannard was a very peculiar type of deviant. His unique ability allowed him to somehow store actual spells into beast cores. However, he was the only one who could activate this prepared spell, otherwise, we’d all be carrying bags of loaded beast cores.
Seeing Darvus approaching our camp, I called out to him. “The ever-so-sexy-and-suave Darvus from the Clarell Family couldn’t get a date tonight?”
“Haha, the sheltered elf princess is getting better at sarcasm,” he snorted. “And it’s not that I couldn’t but because there were no girls worthy of myself.”
“You know, you’re only hurting her by doing this,” I sighed, pointing to Caria, who was still inside the tent.
“Why would she care what I do with women?” Darvus asked, his brow raised in confusion.
I shook my head. “Never mind, you dolt.”
Caria came out of the tent at that moment with dried fruit and meat in her arms. “I finally found where I hid these!”
Darvus let out an eager gasp as he eyed the food. “Why would you hide these?”
“So that our ever-so-sexy-and-suave teammate doesn’t inhale it all at once,” Stannard chimed, putting down the beast core he had just finished.
“Not you too,” Darvus groaned.
As we all laughed, a familiar voice called out to me from behind. “Princess!”
Turning around I couldn’t help but smile at the unexpected surprise. “Helen?”