My stomach lurched at the scout’s foreboding words.
This is it, I thought. This was what we were down here for. After this was over, I would be able to go back home for a bit and sleep in a real bed, eat a seasoned meal cooked for taste, not for sustenance. Yet why was I so afraid?
“Leader, I was able to do it.” The scout let out another pained breath. “I managed to set up the mass-teleportation gate near the entrance.”
“You did good, Sayer.” The leader, Dresh, squeezed the scout’s arm before heading out of the tent.
“Come on, we should prepare as well,” the woman named Helen Shard advised, following behind.
Tessia nodded firmly in response, motioning for me to follow. But I couldn’t.
My legs felt like they were anchored to the ground, as if my very body protested against the fact that following them might just lead to my death.
“Stannard? You okay?” Our team’s leader tilted her head, locking eyes with me as she lifted the tent flap.
“Yeah, I-I’m fine.” I said this more to convince myself than anything else.
We arrived back at our team’s campsite where Tessia relayed the scout’s news.
“Finally!” Darvus groaned in relief. “I can take a hot bath after all of this is over.”
“Can you at least try to say things a spoiled child wouldn’t?” Caria shook her head as she headed over to her tent.
“What? Everyone’s thinking it anyway, right?” Darvus turned to me. “Tell her, Stannard. You’re just itching for a hot bath after this, right?”
“Uh, yeah. Sure,” I replied blankly as I sat down with my mana launcher in my hands.
“Something wrong, Stan?” Darvus asked, raising a brow.
Letting out an annoyed sigh, I replied, “No, I’m fine. I just want this to be over.”
It was pointless to say anything. Darvus, Caria and Tessia all were genius mages and combatants. They didn’t need to feel fear in situations like these. They wouldn’t understand.
“All right. Well, we’ll head to our camp and prepare as well. Samantha and Adam have no clue of what’s going, on after all,” the short-haired leader of the Twin Horns announced as the rest of team trailed behind.
A few minutes after the Twin Horns had left, Dresh’s voice echoed through the large cavern, alerting everyone of the scout’s message. Soon, the entire place was filled with a frenzy of movement as over a hundred soldiers scurried around to prepare themselves for the impending battle.
Beside me, Caria had already equipped her battle gear, which consisted of a light leather armor covering her vitals without hindering her mobility. She lay sprawled out beside me, stretching her limber body in ways that I would’ve normally deemed impossible if I hadn’t seen it for myself.
Darvus, sitting across from me by the fire, was juggling the smaller axes he used for throwing. The normally lax expression on the spoiled fourth son of the Clarell Family was gone, replaced by the calm and focused mask he normally had during a serious battle.
I turned to our leader, Tessia, who was actually the youngest on our team—losing to me in age by just a year—but was actually the most composed. She had already equipped herself for battle, adorning her toned and slim body in a light armor. Our leader wore a tight-fitting black leather wrap underneath a chainmail plate protecting her chest. An elegantly curved, metallic cover decorated with intricate designs of flowing branches rested on top of the shoulder of her dominant arm. Her wrist guards were of the same design as the single shoulder plate armor and the faults that protected her hips and thighs.
As Tessia tied her hair back, revealing the nape of her cream-colored neck, I couldn’t help but avert my gaze. I could feel my face growing hot as the image of Tessia’s elegant figure burned itself into my skull.
Get yourself together, Stannard. She’s out of your league! Besides, she’s in love with that Arthur guy. I shook my head as I tried to concentrate on counting the ammunition I had. We wouldn’t leave for a few more hours, which gave me some time to load more beast cores with spells.
I had about twenty-five low-damage rounds, and about eight high-damage cores. After roughly calculating, I had come to the conclusion that about five more low-damage and two more high-damage rounds should suffice.
Looking up, I observed as the mages began preparing the connection between the teleportation gates so that we would be able to arrive right where the scout had placed the artifact. As the shimmering portal enlarged, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of my body growing heavier by the second.
I had done well the past three months we’d been here. However, this was the real thing. I had fought mana beasts before all of this, but it would be the first time fighting against a mutant.
“Come on, Stannard. You should stretch too. It’ll be bad if your body suddenly cramps up while we’re in battle.”
Caria’s voice shook me out of my daze, her bright eyes looking down at me from beside the fire as she held out her hand.
A smile managed to escape my lips as I accepted her hand. “Go easy on me.”
After about two hours, the gate was ready and teams were already heading toward the gate, eager to be the first ones to go through. I gripped tightly at the handle of my mana launcher to keep my hands from trembling.
“Let’s go,” Tessia finally announced. A newfound fire burned in her eyes, determination practically leaking out of her pores.
“Aye, captain,” Darvus responded, a snarky grin on his face.
We approached the mass in front of the teleportation gate capable of transporting a few dozen at once.
“Are you guys ready?” a familiar voice chimed in from the left.
“As ready as we’ll ever be,” Tessia responded, a confident smile on her face as she locked eyes with Helen and the rest of the Twin Horns.
“Vanguard teams, brace yourselves upon arrival. We’re not certain how many mana beasts will be there on the other side,” Dresh yelled beside the portal. The teams he had specifically chosen beforehand would be the ones to lead the charge, as teams like ours would be more towards the rear, fighting any stragglers until the main battle came.
“Charge!” Dresh roared, unsheathing this longsword and taking the lead. The mass that gathered in front of the teleportation gate began dwindling as teams charged in with weapons at the ready.
Tessia, who was in front of our team, looked back at us over her shoulder. “We’ll all get out of this alive and eat a nice, delicious meal. Agreed?”
“Agreed!” we all shouted in unison as we stepped through the glowing gate.
I let out a crazed yell as I stepped through the gate in time to see an augmenter from one of the teams ahead of us get hacked down by a pair of hyena-faced gnolls.
“Grannith!” a woman beside him desperately cried out before the same pair of gnolls jumped on her.
As I quickly loaded my weapon with a low-damage core, Darvus had already sprung into action. With a powerful leap, he had cleared the distance and arrived above the gnolls that assaulted the female conjurer that had cried out for her dead comrade.
Unclipping his two short axes from his back, he brandished his weapons in the air. The air around him swirled, coalescing into his two axes as he let out a fierce battle cry.
Instantly, the two gnolls’ heads were severed clean. Blood had only splurted from the base of their necks a second after as he checked on the state of the conjurer.
“Damn it!” he swore, sending one of the decapitated bodies tumbling off with a firm kick. “She’s already dead.”
“Come on, don’t stay in one place too long. Stick together, but we need to move around,” Tessia ordered as she looked around us.
It seemed like a fair-sized group of gnolls and orcs had been waiting for us, because the few teams that preceded us were all locked in battle with mana beasts.
We were in a cavern about half the size of the main encampment. For a second, I thought we had arrived in front of the towering doors that the scout had speculated was the place where the mutant was, but peering ahead, there was only a narrow entrance to a hallway darkened by shadows.
“Stannard, to your left!” Caria’s voice called from behind.
Immediately, I whirled around, taking a step back just in time to dodge a crude head of a halberd. Raising my mana launcher in line with the orc’s chest, I fired off a low-damage beast core, burning a hole into the center of the beast’s heart.
The monster crumbled to the floor, dropping its weapon with a heavy thud. I had no time to rest as another gnoll hastily approached.
“Got it,” Caria called out mid-dash. She bolted close to the ground like a speeding cannon as both her fists were tucked closely to her chest, ready to fire.
“Hahp!” Caria exploded up at breakneck speed with the help of a small earthen platform she had raised to accelerate herself. She brought her arms over her head, as if she wanted to dive straight into the approaching gnoll—her fingers pointed like the tip of a spear.
With a resounding thud, Caria’s gauntlet pierced through the stomach of the gnoll that had been about twice her size. As the giant dog-faced monster faltered, its grotesque face crinkled in shock, I delivered the final blow with another low-damage core.
Landing deftly on her feet, Caria regained her balance, shaking the blood off of her metal gauntlets before bolting off into another direction.
An agonizing growl behind me caught my attention. Turning around, I got a glimpse of Tessia taking down a pair of orcs and a large gnoll. She was a flurry of blades as she zipped from beast to beast. Each step, each swing, had a purpose as she slashed and lunged at gnolls as if in a choreographed dance.
Every time I saw her fight, I couldn’t help but grow amazed. I had always been jealous of Darvus and Caria for their innate talents in mana manipulation and fighting prowess, but Tessia’s skill and grace was at a level where one could only revere.
“It’s about time you made yourself useful, right Stannard?” Darvus called out as he pried out a hatchet from the skull of a dead orc.
“Shut it!” I retorted with a smile. “How about we start mobbing them up?”
I took out a large beast core that radiated an orange-red glow.
“Conjurer cross-fire!” Darvus yelled out in warning to the other soldiers that would be in range as he began herding a group of orcs.
The rest of the soldiers knew what to do as some began backing out of the way while others veered their opponents toward my line of fire.
A rather large conjurer approached me and gave a meaningful nod as he raised his staff in preparation as well. Soon, a few more conjurers joined while we all readied our attacks as more and more orcs and gnolls got herded toward the center of the dim cavern.
The few strays that had managed to break away from the group were quickly hacked down by the augmenters protecting us.
Taking a deep breath, I loaded the glowing beast core into my mana launcher. Steadying the tip of my weapon at the center of the mass of gnolls and orcs guarding their cavern, I waited for the signal.
A deep, baritone voice called out from the edge of the group as a soldier hacked and pushed a stray gnoll into the cluster of beasts that had been herded. “All clear!”
The conjurers positioned around me all fired off their most powerful spells at the mass as I waited calmly for the right timing. Just as the last spell shot out at the monsters, I launched my spell.
The recoil from firing the sphere of fire three times my size sent me tumbling back into the cavern wall. The burning orb of fire grew in size as it advanced towards the group of orcs trying to escape, but they couldn’t make it in time as the blaze encompassed them and the spells that the conjurers had cast.
The flaming sphere diminished to reveal the charred remains of the few dozen mana beasts that had been trapped within, sending out a wave of cheers from the rest of the soldiers. The few scattered mana beasts were easily dealt with by the augmenters, giving me a few minutes to breathe.
“Good job, you peculiar little mage.” Darvus winked at me as he helped me back on my feet. There had been around twice as many mana beasts as there were soldiers, but by the end of the battle, we had incurred less than ten deaths.
“This was an overwhelming triumph, despite the surprise attack that the army of mana beasts laid down on us,” Dresh’s firm and commanding voice echoed throughout the cavern. “Let’s not let our comrades’ deaths be in vain and continue forth!”
A fervent cheer resounded from the soldiers, including Darvus and Caria. Tess merely cleaned her blade and sheathed it back with a solemn face. Her hollow turquoise eyes followed an elf being carried back through the portal we had come through, staring intently at the jagged spear protruding out of the lifeless elf’s back.
I didn’t know whether Tessia had known that elf, but I couldn’t help but empathize with her.
Was this truly a victory if, to some people, the weight of those ten deaths mean so much more than a simple number count?