Seeing the familiar face of Helen Shard, leader of the Twin Horns that Art’s father had once led, I excitedly waved at her and the rest of the Twin Horns behind her. “Hi Guys!”
I gave the leader of the Twin Horns a large hug before greeting the rest of her party.
“Guys, I’d like you to meet Helen Shard, Durden Walker, Jasmine Flamesworth, Adam Krensh and Angela Rose of the Twin Horns. I’ve told you about them before, right?” I pointed at my teammates, introducing them as well. “This here is Caria Rede, Darvus Clarell, and Stannard Berwick.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Madam.” Darvus rushed over to shake hands with Angela, the Twin Horn’s conjurer. “Darvus Clarell, fourth son of Darius Clarell, and I must say that you are a sight for these sore eyes of mine.”
“Ugh, typical,” Caria whispered. He goes straight to the one with the large…” She didn’t finish her sentence as she merely cupped the space in front of her chest exaggeratingly.
I looked down at my own breasts. I had never really cared about my figure, but looking at the two boys practically drooling over Angela’s womanly figure, I couldn’t help but wonder if even Art preferred…
“How long have you been here, Princess?” Helen’s voice snapped me back to reality.
“Huh? Oh, we’ve been here for about three months now, I think,” I replied. “And please, just call me Tessia.
“Sorry. We’ve only met a few times and they were all brief so I thought it’d be rude,” she chuckled.
“Did you just get here?” I asked, my eyes shifting toward the sight of both Stannard and Darvus trying to flirt with Angela.
“This afternoon. We were at The Wall for about four months before our party was sent here to help out with the scouting,” she explained as I motioned for her to have a seat beside me around our crackling fire.
The Wall was what everyone called the stretch of forts built along the the Grand Mountains to make sure the battle didn’t reach the other side. While I knew that the Alacryan forces might be invading from the western coast, Grandpa told everyone, including myself, to explicitly keep it a secret until proper preparations had been made.
Fortunately, communications with the dwarves had been going well over these past few months and they’ve agreed to let the humans and elves take shelter in their underground kingdom if needed.
No one was hoping it would get to that stage, especially the elves, because the distance between the Kingdom of Darv and Kingdom of Elenoir made it so only teleportations could be used. For now, many of the tribes along the southern half of Elenoir had migrated across the Elshire Forest and Grand Mountains near the central cities of Sapin. For now, Grampa’s, as well as the rest of the Council’s, plan was to get as many civilians as possible out of the western coast and away from the Beast Glades.
“What is it like fighting along the Wall, Helen?” I asked, curious about where a lot of the main fighting occurred. “Have you actually fought against Alacryan mages?”
“Yes,” she answered grimly. “The Alacryan forces are strong. Out at the Wall, it’s not just the Alacryan soldiers that we have to fight against but the mana beasts that they somehow put under their control as well.”
“I see.” I looked at my sword, dissatisfied that the only fighting I’ve done ever since I had joined the war was against the mana beasts under the control of the Alacryan forces.
Noticing the look on my face, Helen added, “But the battles going on here are just as important, maybe even more—trust me. The more mana beasts we kill here, the less there are up at the surface. And if we find and kill a mutant, the Alacryan forces lose hundreds of puppets fighting for them.”
I nodded silently in reply. I knew that winning the fights down here were crucial to this war. The main task of the soldiers gathered here were to find the mutant in the depths of the dungeon. Mutants were mana beasts, mostly leaders of their own dungeon, that were controlled by the Alacryans. They used the mutant to control the hundreds of mana beasts that served it. As long as these mutants existed, mana beasts of their species followed them, fighting alongside the Alacryan soldiers.
There were dozens of squads out there, deep inside various dungeons, trying to find and kill the mutants before they gathered enough mana beasts and advanced toward the Wall.
Usually, there wouldn’t be this many soldiers inside one dungeon, but one of our scouts had found signs that a S class mana beast had been turned into a mutant.
“Anyway. Because the mutant hiding inside here is supposedly a S class mana beast, your grandfather had sent more mages here, which is why we’re here,” the large man named Durden chimed in, overhearing our conversation.
“Thank the heavens for that. And for dear grandfather for bringing such a fair angel into my arms,” Darvus added, inching an arm across Angela’s back.
Angela just giggled, regarding Darvus as a cute puppy, as Caria smacked Darvus upside the head and dragged him away where he could keep his hands to himself.
Stannard, who had been ridiculed by Angela when she cooed and pet his head like some pet, moved next to Durden, fiddling with his crossbow-like weapon with a scowl on his face.
“Tell me more about the fights happening in front of the Wall, Helen.” I turned back to the leader of the Twin Horns.
“Look, Princess,” Adam Krensh spat. “Fights that happen at the Wall aren’t bedtime stories that your nanny reads to you inside your fancy canopy bed. It’s war! People die—on both sides.”
The spear wielder with a head of red hair that looked like the burning fire we were huddled around glared at me as if he was scolding a child. I was about to say something when Durden got in between us. “You can’t take Adam’s words to heart or we’d have all killed him more than once in his sleep.”
Unknowingly, I was already standing up as Durden intervened. His words quelled my anger enough for me to sit back down, but I was still glaring at the lanky emberhead. Arthur had mentioned how Adam could be when he described the Twin Horns, but I didn’t realize how much of an understatement his words were.
“Adam, go set up our tents around one of the empty fire pits,” Helen ordered with a surprising amount of authority in her voice that wasn’t there when she was talking to me. “Angela, can you go help him out?”
With a cheery salute, she herded the grumbling Adam away from our camp, leaving only Helen, Durden and Jasmine—who had been silent since they had first arrived.
“Adam, despite how his words came out from that defective muscle he calls a tongue, only said that because he didn’t want you to know,” Helen sighed. “You think you’re over here fighting beasts, but in actuality, the Alacryan soldiers are much more monstrous than any mana beasts here. At least the creatures you battle here fight for survival and instinct. They fight to kill, and to some extent, that’s mercy.”
“What do you mean by that?” Stannard asked, his face pryed away from the weapon he had been cleaning once again.
There was hesitation on Helen’s face as she tried her best to sugarcoat whatever she was about to say until Jasmine had stepped up and explained for her.
“Information is the most important in a war,” she said evenly. “Both sides, they’re trying to get information out of each other. That means kidnapping… torturing.”
We were all silent for a moment as even Darvus’ usually aloof expression had hardened.
“Battles here are black and white—beasts are bad, you are good. When you’re fighting other humans, elves and dwarves that can all talk, scream in pain and beg for mercy… things become more gray and it becomes hard to distinguish what is right and wrong,” Jasmine continued, her face a stone mask despite the horrors she was describing.
The once lively atmosphere of a reunion had turned tense as I exchanged glances with my teammates.
Suddenly, a series of loud smashes made us all turn our heads toward one of the gated entrances that led deeper into the dungeon.
“Please, hurry let me in!” A muffled voice yelled from behind one of the doors. The sentry in charge of that entrance quickly verified the man’s identity before unbolting the door and hauling it open.
The entire cavern was deathly quiet as everyone stationed inside or resting after an excursion was standing up, their hands gripping their weapons and their gazes focused on the entrance.
As the two heavy doors slid apart, the man that had shouted from the other side fell through, laying unconcious.
“Does this happen often?” Helen asked, her bow ready in hand as her other hand was already at her quiver.
“No, it doesn’t,” I answered, my hand leaning on the pommel of my sword.
The sentry immediately pulled the scout inside before closing the doors.
“Get me a medic!” the sentry roared, hoisting the bloody scout on his shoulders. There weren’t any emitters stationed here since most were at the Wall, healing the wounded there. However, there were always a few people well-adept at medical treatment.
“Do you want to see what that’s all about?” Stannard glanced up at me.
“Do we have the clearance to go inside?” Helen asked, her neck stretched out to see.
“Being a princess is a kind of clearance, right?” Darvus shrugged, eager to know what had happened.
Letting out a sigh, I motioned them to follow. “Not everyone, though.”
Eventually, Helen and Stannard volunteered themselves to come with me. Arriving at the white canopy tent at the opposite wall of the entrances and closest to the exit back to the surface, two guards stopped us from going inside before recognizing who I was.
“P-Princess. What brings you here? Are you injured?” The slightly larger of the two armored guards asked, dipping his head to get a better look at me.
“No. I know the scout that just arrived and I’m worried about him. Do you mind letting us through?” I lied, giving him a solemn smile.
The two guards exchanged hesitant glances, but eventually they opened the removable tarp that served as the entrance.
I’d expected a lot more noise to be going on inside, especially from the shocking entrance of the scout, but the tent was empty except for the medic inside, her assistant, the leader of our expedition and the scout—who was still unconscious in bed.
At our arrival inside, the assistant and the leader of the expedition, a rather barrel-chested augmenter named Drogo Lambert, stood up from their seats.
“Princess? What happened? Are you injured?” Drogo asked, worry, etched on his face. His face turned to Stannard, then Helen before his face lit up. “Helen Shard?”
“Nice seeing you, Drogo, or I guess I should call you leader, right?” Helen stepped up and shook hands with the bulking man, whose armor seemed to contain his muscles rather than protect them.
“Haha, please, you’re more than fit to take my place and more,” his smile faded as he regarded us in wonder. “So what brings you two here? Is everything okay?”
“Don’t worry, Leader, everything’s fine.” I nodded.
“The princess here is probably curious about what news our little slumbering prince brought to us, right?” the medic, an elderly woman with a hunch and a naturally scowling face to match, confirmed.
“Haha, I can’t hide anything from you, Elder Albreda.” I scratched my head.
“Bah! Does this poor excuse of a treatment center look like a gossip wing to you?” she grumbled as she organized a shelf full of herbs and plants.
“Of course not,” Helen chimed in. “But I was brought here with my team to help out in finding the S class beast that was turned to a mutant and send updates to my superiors back at the Wall periodically. I thought I’d find out fastest what was going on by talking to this guy.” Helen pointed to the unconscious man lying in bed with her eyes.
“Right. You’d be right in thinking that, but unfortunately he hasn’t woken up yet,” Drogo sighed, looking over his shoulder to the scout sleeping peacefully.
Stannard carefully approached the man. “What happened to him?”
“Dehydration and massive fatigue. The lad isn’t injured but it seemed like he hasn’t had anything to eat or drink for a few days and by the state of his feet, I’d say he’s been running nonstop for who knows how long.” Elder Albreda lifted the sheets to reveal the scout’s bandaged feet, splotches of red already seeping through the gauze.
“I see,” Helen responded. “Drogo, can you let us know as soon as he gets up?”
“Sure.” The leader of this dungeon expedition nodded.
As we were about to leave the tent, however, a sharp gasp made us turn back around. The scout had gotten up with a series of dry coughs.
“H-How long have I been out?” the scout sputtered in between fits.
“Calm down, soldier. One of the sentries recognized you; your name is Sayer, right?” Drogo had his arm behind Sayer’s back, supporting the scout.
“Yes, Sir,” he answered before greedily gulping down the cup of water the assistant had just handed him.
“Well, Sayer, it’s been only about ten minutes or so since you’d come back. What happened? Where is the rest of your team?” our expedition leader questioned.
“Dead, Sir. I had stayed behind…” the scout named Sayer hesitated. “I had a disagreement with my teammates so I had stayed behind.”
“Disagreement?” Drogo repeated.
“I felt terrible for letting my teammates go deeper by themselves so I trailed behind them almost immediately after they had left!” Sayer added, guilt practically etched on his forehead. “But they’d unknowingly walked into an ambush of gnolls far deadlier than the ones up here, Sir.”
Everyone in the tent was silent as we processed Sayer’s words.
“There must’ve been hundreds of them, Sir. A-And there was this large door behind them. As though they were protecting whatever was on the other side!” the scout stammered, taking another large gulp of water before continuing.
“I think we found it, Sir. I think we found the mutant’s den!”