From the tense and gloomy air within the cavern, it was obvious that this battle had caught all of us by surprise. We were usually all capable in battle, but these past few months of repetitive excursions—hoping to find any signs that a mutant might be close—had left us dull and sloppy.
A few teams had already regrouped and were taking a rest while the injured and deceased were sent back to be properly cared for. Some of the more restless augmenters were sharpening their blades while conjurers sat still in meditation to be in top shape for whatever lay ahead of us.
As our young leader continued surveying the battlegrounds like a zombie, I finally called out for her to join us.
“What’s wrong?” I questioned. “Are you okay, Tessia?”
Her face turned to us as she revealed a faint, and obviously forced, smile. “It’s nothing. It’s good that we won… but we still ended up letting almost ten soldiers die.”
“Our ever-so-compassionate princess exuding kindness and grace to us peasants!” Darvus cried out. “We are not worthy!”
“Zip it,” Tessia quipped, her voice coming out a lot softer than usual.
“We did our best,” Caria consoled, gently patting her back.
“She’s right, Tessia. It’s impossible to save them all,” I added. However, rather than comforting her, it seemed to have the opposite effect, as her expression dropped.
“I guess you’re right. I can’t save them all,” she repeated glumly.
“Nice going,” Darvus whispered beside me.
“Hey! It was better than your sarcastic remark,” I retorted in a hushed voice.
“At this rate, I’ll only bring him down,” Tessia continued, almost too quiet for us to hear.
“By him, do you mean that guy you’re always talking about? Arthur, was it?” Caria chimed, leaning in, eager to hear about the boy Tessia depicted as some fantastical hero out of a children’s book.
“Ugh, not him again,” Darvus groaned. “Princess, when are you going to snap out of that delusion of yours?”
Tessia calmly shook her head. “It’s not like that.”
“What do you mean?” Darvus continued. “You describe him as if he’s some all-powerful, charismatic hotshot without a single humanly flaw.”
“Oh please. You’re just jealous because Arthur is everything you wish you could be, plus better-looking,” Caria accused. She then turned back to Tessia, eyes twinkling. “Is he really that handsome and charming?”
“I guess,” Tessia giggled. “He was pretty popular in school, although I doubted he knew that.”
“I’m hating the guy more and more,” Darvus grumbled.
Tessia shook her head. “He isn’t without flaws, though. Honestly, Arthur was kind of scary when I first met him.”
“You said he saved you from the slave traders after you ran away from home, right?” Caria confirmed.
“Y-Yeah.” Tessia’s face reddened at the embarrassing memory. “He did save me, though I felt like it wasn’t really out of the goodness of his heart, but some logical scheme. Of course, I was only a child back then so I could be wrong, but Arthur had always had this scary side of him where he seemed cold—heartless, even.”
“Ooh, a bad boy,” Caria cooed.
“I’m going to barf,” Darvus gagged. “If you ask me, he doesn’t seem like that great of a guy. I mean, he left you alone in danger a few times, right? And he went off on his own after you got kidnapped by that Alacryan mage that invaded Xyrus Academy! He didn’t even make sure you were okay and went off to who knows where.”
“He checked in with Grandpa to make sure I was okay, but he was in a hurry,” Tessia reasoned, her head lowering.
“Oh right, to go ‘train’ somewhere in secret.” Darvus rolled his eyes. “If you ask me, he just ran away from the war because he was afraid he would die.”
I took a peek at Tessia’s expression, afraid that she would be mad, but our leader was calm. “You’re wrong, Darvus. Arthur may be a bit clueless when it comes to expressing or even handling emotions, and a bit naive in some other aspects”—Tessia’s cheeks blushed ever-so-slightly—“but he’s not one to run away in fear; his desire to protect his loved ones is too strong for that.”
“Yes, yes. Arthur will be the hero that saves us from the wrath of the Alacryans,” Darvus sighed, conceding from Tessia’s determined gaze.
“He can’t be that strong though, right?” I asked. I had grown more and more curious about the boy Tessia cherished to such a degree.
Our leader’s lips curled into a smirk as she gazed afar. “He’s strong.”
“Well, I can’t wait to meet him!” Caria added. “You will introduce us to him, right?”
“Yeah.” Tessia’s smile dimmed. “Hopefully that time comes soon.”
Darvus shook his head, hugging himself. “Blech. You can count me out! I feel like I already know the guy way too much. Besides, after fighting alongside me for so long, I bet the guy will only look like some second-rate mage.”
“Is there a limit to how pretentious you can be?” Caria shook her head, eliciting a chuckle from me.
We got up after noticing that the rest of the teams had gotten reorganized. After Drogo finished counting the heads of the team leaders, we departed through the dark corridor on the far end of the cavern.
As the teams began marching into the narrow hallway, they were swallowed up by the shadows. Our team went in next, and it was shocking how the atmosphere changed so drastically once we stepped foot. The air was dry, still, and somewhat sour as the only sound that echoed along these walls was the sound of footsteps.
I was barely able to discern the figures of the soldiers ahead of us, the tiny light from someone in the front bobbing in the distance. I looked back in confusion; the light from the cavern we had just come from seemed to retract from the hallway.
“This is some spooky crap,” Darvus’s hushed voice echoed from behind.
“Tell me about it,” I said. Some of the other conjurers ahead of us tried to illuminate the hallway with a spell, but whatever orb of light they conjured were soon eaten away by the darkness.
“It looks like only the illuminating artifact up in the front works in this place,” Caria said from my side.
Tessia, who was ahead of us by a few steps continued walking, unaffected by the unnatural absence of light.
As we continued walking, the light from the cavern we had come from dwindled into a speck. Everyone walked in silence or hushed whispers, paying attention to our footing and the bobbing orb of light guiding our way.
It felt like we had marched for hours when another speck of light came to view. The orange light from the illuminating artifact stopped as Drogo spoke once more.
Our expedition leader spoke in a low voice, afraid that the mana beast would pick up on our conversation despite how far away we were. “We’ll soon arrive where Sayer, our scout, and his team had arrived before his team was ambushed by mana beasts. From what he had witnessed, we are to expect at least a few hundred gnolls and orcs, some larger than the ones we had faced up until now. Prepare your bodies and hearts, and may the ones watching over us be with you.”
We broke into a steady jog, the white light growing larger as we advanced through the dark corridor. Luckily, the ground was pretty even; if anyone ahead of us tripped, it would undoubtedly create a domino reaction.
The speed of the bobbing orange light ahead of us grew faster as we began picking up the pace until, finally, the illuminating light was almost upon us.
After being in almost total darkness, my eyes had to adjust as I stepped out of the corridor. I brandished my mana launcher, ready to blow apart anything that came my way.
However, my anticipation for a battle had gone to waste as all that lay before us were bodies sprawled on the ground and an eerie stillness.
Hundreds of orc and gnoll bodies lay scattered, massacred by the hundreds. I had to look at my feet to keep myself from accidentally stepping on a severed limb or body of a dead beast as I tried to deduce what had happened here.
I looked around, somewhat comforted by the fact that everyone else was just as confused as I was.
“What in the world?” Drogo’s head wouldn’t stop turning as he scoured the cavern, his hands gripping his longsword.
“I’m not sure whether to be relieved or scared at this,” Darvus said, his brow furrowed in suspicion.
“To the door!” Drogo commanded, snapping out of his daze.
All heads turned to face the towering doors at the other end of the circular cavern. The only impressive thing about the double doors were their towering size. The metal that covered them was thick and covered with dents and scratches, making it seem ancient and threatening.
As we all headed towards what we presumed was the den of the mutant, the tension began to rise. No one spoke as we all stood around the large doors that each spanned over five meters in width. The hundred or so that were left of us took position in a semicircle around the doors, all braced to attack or defend, as ten augmenters positioned themselves to haul the entrance open.
“The door,” one of the men voiced. “It’s not fully closed.”
Everyone looked at one another, perplexed by the strange chain of events, but Drogo snapped everyone to attention with a firm stomp.
“Open it!” he ordered, lowering his stance to combat whatever lied in store on the other side.
The harsh screech of the metal doors against the stone ground echoed until they had been completely pried apart.
For a brief moment, not a single word was spoken as the entirety of the soldiers ready to fight for their lives stood frozen, jaws slack.
Atop a hill of corpses that loomed high above us sat a lone man. His arms rested on the hilt of a thin, teal sword that shined dimly beneath a layer of blood that had come from the body of the orc it had been embedded in. Scattered beneath this mountain of carcasses were more bodies of orcs and gnoll, some frozen, some burned, others simply bisected.
At first glance, the pile of corpses that the man was resting over seemed to blend together into indiscernible remains of mana beasts, but looking closer, there was a figure near the top that stood out amongst the others. With the head of a giant lion and the body of a scaled monster, it lay sprawled in a bloodied mess. Its gray body was lifeless as the unnaturally black horns that sprouted out of its head had been shattered.
There was no doubt about it. That was the S class mutant we had ventured all this way for, that we had laid down our lives for—except it was already dead.
I focused my gaze back at the man, sitting tiredly atop a throne of corpses, when he finally lifted his head.
The man wasn’t even staring directly at me, yet I could feel his domineering pressure weigh down on my very soul. Every fiber in my body screamed at me to run away as far as possible from this man. My sense of fear became magnified as the man’s azure eyes gleamed balefully from above.
This wasn’t anything like the diminutive fear I had felt back at the tent; no, this was true dread.
I knew—and most likely everyone in here knew as well—that advantage in numbers didn’t apply to someone like him.
From my side, I spotted a figure stepping forward. I almost lashed out in fear for the person’s life when I realized it was Tessia. Suddenly, the dread that had overcome me grew stronger as I hopelessly stood, frozen from the unbreakable shackles of terror, as Tessia took another step forward.
Time itself seemed to slow as our leader dropped the thin blade in her hand. A single tear rolled down Tessia’s cheek as her face contorted into a mix of different emotions.
She uttered a single word that left me more overwhelmed than the man sitting on top of the mountain of corpses. “Art?”