Tessia took another step forward, less hesitant this time. “A-Arthur? Is that you?” she muttered once more, her voice getting caught in her throat.
Every one of the soldiers, augmenters and conjurers alike, had their heads turned to face our leader as she approached the man sitting atop the hill of corpses, as if in a trance.
Suddenly, the silence that had filled the cavern was broken by a bright chirp. Seeming to come out of nowhere, a streak of white shot out towards Tessia and landed in her arms.
It looked like some sort of miniature white fox.
“Sylvie!” Tessia, exclaimed, embracing the creature before looking back up.
“Y-You! State your name!” Dresh was the one to speak, his usually confident voice wavering at the sight before him.
The blue-eyed man regarded him in silence for a moment, making Dresh instinctively take a step back, before he answered. “Arthur Leywin.”
Prying his bloodied sword out of the corpse it was embedded into, he deftly leaped down the large mound of bodies, landing in front of the large doorway.
As he stepped out of the shadows, I could finally make out his full appearance that had been shrouded in darkness.
He appeared pretty young despite the aura that emanated from him. Tousled, shoulder-length auburn hair contrasted his bright eyes that seemed composed—casual, almost—even in this situation. The splatters of blood and grime that darkened his face and clothes did nothing to diminish his looks.
This man wasn’t glamorous. Nothing like the noblemen I’d seen, who carried themselves with chests puffed out and nose pointed so high up that they might as well have been looking at the sky. No, behind his nonchalant gaze and slightly curled lips was an air of sovereignty that transcended any of those peacock nobles fluttering their power like colorful plumage.”
Sheathing his teal sword into an unadorned black scabbard, he took a step toward us with his hands held up. “I’m on your side,” he said wearily.
The soldiers present all exchanged uncertain glances at one another as Tessia took another step forward.
“Arthur?” several members of the Twin Horns exclaimed as they all ran up to them.
However, Tessia remained where she was. I saw them lock eyes for a brief moment and I thought I even saw a faint smile from Arthur, but neither of them approached each other.
Tessia’s actions caught me off guard, but the way the Twin Horns acted with the guy named Arthur seemed to dissipate the tension and suspicion that had filled the cavern. However, this only brought on more questions in my head.
Assuming that really was the Arthur Leywin our leader had told us so much about, what was he doing here? How did he get here? Did he kill the S class mutant by himself?
I turned my head to Darvus and, by his furrowed brows and perplexed gaze, it seemed like he was also curious about the same things. Caria, on the other hand, had a goofy smile plastered on her face as she ogled the man surrounded by the Twin Horns—ignoring the fact that there was a giant pile of bloody and stinking corpses just behind them.
“While I hate to interrupt your reunion, there are more pressing matters at hand,” Dresh spoke aloud. “What exactly happened here? I had not been informed that anyone by the name of ‘Arthur’ would join us down here in this dungeon.”
“I’m sure no one had been informed since I arrived less than an hour ago,” Arthur replied, stepping out from the crowd of his friends that had surrounded him. “Even I was surprised to be greeted by so many mana beasts.”
“A-Are you saying that you, single-handedly, killed all of those mana beasts—including the S class mutant—behind you?” a soldier stammered.
“Do you see anyone else in there alive besides me?” Arthur tilted his head.
“That’s impossible!” another soldier yelled out. “How can a mere boy do what a whole battalion of mages had set out to do by himself?”
Arthur simply raised a brow, unaffected by the remark. “It really doesn’t matter whether you believe me or not. The fact is, the mutant that you guys were ordered to kill is now dead.”
More and more soldiers began asking questions and spouting accusations, but all were ignored by the mysterious man. He simply walked over to Dresh and extended a hand. “You seem like the leader of this expedition. Do you mind letting me stay at your camp tonight? I’m rather spent and would like a decent night’s rest before heading out.”
Dumbfounded, Dresh accepted his handshake and nodded wordlessly.
“What about all the beast cores?” a bearded conjurer blurted out, pointing at the mountain of mana beasts.
Everyone, once again, exchanged glances with one another in hopes that they would somehow find answers within someone’s eyes. Usually, the beast cores that were collected after a battle were split amongst the soldiers. Looking at the sheer number of corpses that had been stacked atop one another in that large hill of bodies, even the most humble man would drool at the potential to be gained.
“They’re all gone,” Arthur answered quietly. “Sorry, but my bond has quite a large appetite for beast cores,” he continued, pointing to the furry white fox still cleaning itself.
“Are you saying that that little thing just devoured hundreds of beast cores?” a burly augmenter retorted in disbelief as his hand gripped tightly at the handle of his sword.
“Yes,” he responded matter-of-factly.
“What about the S class mutant’s beast core? What happened to that?” Dresh asked, regaining his composure.
“I have it.” Arthur let out a sigh. “Any more questions? I’ll be happy to debrief later, but standing around answering everyone’s questions isn’t exactly the best use of our times.”
“We’ll escort him back to base, Leader,” Tessia spoke up as the members of the Twin Horns all nodded in agreement.
“Very well. For now, I want a few teams to stay behind to look for any stragglers and collect anything worth selling. The rest, we’ll go back to camp and wait for further instructions,” Dresh ordered, placating the dissatisfied soldiers.
The trip back to the main camp was almost as tense and stifling as it had been when we had first opened the dungeon doors. Caria, Darvus and I all kept silent as the sour mood of almost every soldier present weighed down on our shoulders. Even Tessia and the Twin Horns kept their conversations with Arthur down to hushed, indiscernible whispers.
Behind me, I could hear the conversations of soldiers, some glad that there was no battle, others disappointed at the fact that they would leave with no beast cores or other bounties. and some downright angry for not being able to battle a strong mana beast. However, despite the mixed feelings everyone had of the guy’s appearance, we all shared one emotion: fear.
Upon arriving back to the main camp, the guy named Arthur headed straight for the bathing stalls by the stream while Tessia and the Twin Horns followed Dresh into his personal tent.
“Well that was anticlimactic,” Darvus sighed, slumping down next to the smoldering remains of our campfire.
“I’d say that it was pretty eventful,” Caria countered. “Did you see that pile of mana beasts? And that giant mutant? I doubt that even with all of us combined, we’d come out from a fight like that unscathed.”
“Exactly!” Darvus exclaimed. “That guy, Arthur…How the hell was he able to kill them all—if he really did kill them in the first place?”
I shook my head. “What, you think the guy was sitting there, posing, waiting for us to show up to take the credit?”
“W-Well, I’m not sure about that, but I mean…it’s not natural. Tessia said he was around her age, which means he’s a bit younger than us. What kind of fiery pit did he have to grow up in to become a monster like that?” Darvus let out a sigh, looking down at the two axes he had been fumbling with in his hands. “If he really was able to singlehandedly kill all mana beasts along with that S class mutant, what are guys like us needed for?”
“Do I smell a hint of jealousy?” Caria smirked, lightly prodding Darvus with her elbow.
“You meant to say envy, Caria,” I corrected on impulse.
She turned to me. “What’s the difference?”
“Jealousy is what you feel when you worry someone will take something you possess. Envy is longing after something someone else has.” I shook my head. “You know what? Never mind; it’s not important.”
Caria just shrugged and placed a hand on her childhood friend’s shoulder. “Anyways, he’s just one person, Darvus. No matter how strong he is, it’s not like he can win the war by himself. You saw the state he was in. He wasn’t really hurt but he seemed pretty worn out!”
Darvus rolled his eyes. “Thanks. At least he was tired after wiping out an army of mana beasts and an S class mutant by himself.”
“No need to get snarky with me, Darvus. I’m just trying to help,” Caria clipped, her cheeks turning red.
“Well, don’t! I don’t need your pity. Besides, that guy isn’t natural. No point in comparing myself to a freak of nature like him.”
“I don’t know, he seems pretty normal to me,” I chimed in. “Putting his strength aside, he seemed like a decent person while he was talking to the Twin Horns.”
“Yeah, I even spotted a smile from him when he saw Tessia!” Caria added, her lips curling up as well at the thought. “Although I was expecting something more, like a passionate hug or something.”
“Please, you saw the way he talked to everyone. He was a snobby jerk,” Darvus continued, shaking his head.
“Well everyone was kind of a jerk to him,” I countered. I didn’t know why I was defending the guy, but it was times like these that Darvus really rubbed me the wrong way. Whenever a situation didn’t go his way, he always pointed fingers and made assumptions to feel better about himself.
Darvus’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you taking his side?”
“I’m not strictly taking his side”—I shook my head—“I just think it’s naive to base our impressions on the guy without even holding a conversation with him. You’ve heard how Tessia always talked about Arthur. Don’t you think we should give him the benefit of the doubt?”
“Tessia’s mind is probably clouded by her past memories of the guy,” Darvus scoffed. “You saw the tension between the two. Hey, maybe you finally have a shot with her.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. “Are you that petty? You sound like a child, bringing me into this. You’re drawing conclusions on this guy based on what, exactly?”
“G-Guys, let’s not fight,” Caria voiced, her eyes shifting from me to Darvus.
“I’m basing it off my instinct, twerp!” Darvus hissed, standing up. “Maybe that’s something you can’t do because of your deformed mana core.”
I could feel blood rushing to my head at that insult.
“Well, at least I don’t need to convince myself and everyone else that someone better than me can only be a monster just to keep his worthless pride intact!” I spat out.
Darvus’ face burned red as well as he shook in rage. Throwing the hatchet he had been white-knuckling down at the ground in front of him, whipped around and stomped to our tent and slipped inside.
“Stannard…” Caria came over to me after watching her best friend go. “Y-You know he didn’t mean that, right? Come on, you know how he gets when he’s all riled up.”
Letting out a sigh, I mustered up a faint smile toward the girl who was just a bit taller than me. “I’m fine. It’s not like it’s the first time we’ve had one of these fights. I don’t butt heads as often as Tessia does with him but that’s mainly because I just hold it in. It’s when I can’t endure it that I explode and something like this happens.”
“You’re right, though,” Caria replied after a moment of silence. “Darvus is much better than he was back then, but being the prodigious son of noble blood, he was handed everything: wealth, resources, attention, and even talent.”
“A whole lot of good that does him if he’s still an ass.” I rolled my eyes. “Look, Caria, I’m not mad at you, and I’m not even mad at what Darvus said to me. I’m just tired of his narcissistic ego that pops up no matter how much you try to shove it down.”
Caria let out a small giggle. “Tell me about it. I’ve known him more than twelve years and I bet rabid mana beasts could mature much faster than Darvus. But ever since he’s met Tessia and you, he’s gotten a lot better. That’s a fact.”
“Yeah, I know.” I nodded, already looking for a way to break the ice with my egocentric teammate.
Caria and I talked for a while longer as we sat around the fire we lit up once more. As two shadowed figures approached, we stood up.
“Hey guys,” Tessia’s voice rang. As the two got closer, I could make out our leader and the guy next to her.
“I’d like you to meet my childhood friend, Arthur,” she said, putting a hand on the man next to her. When I stood up and approached them, I couldn’t help but notice that our leader’s eyes were a bit red.
His hair still damp from his bath, Arthur dipped his head. “Stannard Berwick and Caria Rede, right? Nice to meet you guys, and thank you for taking care of my friend. I know she can be quite a handful.”
This got out a giggle from Caria as Tessia jabbed an elbow to his ribs. Seeing the two like this made me doubt the feeling I had when I first saw the guy. Without the blood covering most of his face, it was safe to say Arthur was indeed the enemy of all single males. His features were sharp, but not overly so, with a subtle charm that went beyond just the textbook standard of handsome. His reddish-brown hair was a tad long, as if he hadn’t gotten a proper trim in years, but it only served to hide his looks—not dampen them.
He was a head taller than Tessia, which made him quite tall for his age since our leader was just a few centimeters shorter than Darvus. Even underneath the loose-fitting robe he wore, I could tell his physique was that of a fighter. The way Arthur carried himself, the way he walked over here, and the way his eyes seemed to gaze over everything around him indeed confirmed that the aura he exuded wasn’t just my imagination.
As Tessia and Arthur were about to take a seat around our fire, Darvus stormed out of his tent. When he passed by me, he shot me the look of embarrassment he always had when he was about to apologize, but I stopped him with a hand. Revealing a snide smirk, I mouthed, “It’s fine, twerp.”
Darvus scratched his head as he flashed a wry smile. However, his gaze turned rigid as he faced Arthur. Tessia, Caria and I all looked at him, worried at what he might say when Darvus lifted a finger and said loudly. “Arthur Leywin. I, Darvus Clarell, fourth son of the Clarell House, formally challenge you to a duel!”