The image of Arthur on top of that mountain of corpses, drenched in blood, looking down at us with a cold glare, had been burned into my head for hours now. I recognized him almost immediately, but my voice got caught in my throat. I couldn’t call out to him; I was scared to.
Even after gathering the courage to finally say his name, he stayed silent. The fear that something had changed in him during his training immediately came to mind as he faced us. When Sylvie popped out, I was happy, but even when Arthur finally spoke, I couldn’t get rid of the unease in my chest.
The sight of him stepping into the light made my heart feel like it had twisted into a knot. He was filthy and his eyes practically screamed exhaustion, but it really was Arthur. I wanted to embrace him right there, just as the Twin Horns were doing, but something in me kept me from doing so. Looking at my childhood friend, I sensed a clear distance that went beyond the few meters that separated us. And so I stood still, anchored, as I gave him a hesitant smile that didn’t even reach my eyes.
He smiled back, but it was only for a moment as the soldiers immediately began questioning him.
Throughout the trip back to the main camp, Arthur stayed relatively silent despite the chatter of the Twin Horns around us. They were all excited to have him back, despite the obvious discontent among the soldiers. Arthur smiled when spoken to, and he responded with minimal words, but that was it. Immediately after arrival, he spotted the stream and went to wash up with Sylvie. I went straight to the main tent with Dresh and the Twin Horns to try and help appease the tension our leader, along with the rest of the soldiers, felt towards my childhood friend.
Arthur came to the main tent after he had washed up, but even without the blood and filth covering him, he was just as unapproachable. He debriefed what was necessary, otherwise stating that the information was to be told directly to my grandfather. I stayed silent throughout the short meeting as Dresh and the Twin Horns bombarded him with questions.
Dresh left first to inform the rest of the soldiers of their next course of action. The Twin Horns reluctantly agreed to let Arthur rest only after being promised of a more detailed account later.
With only Arthur and me left in the tent, I remained tense, staring at my feet as I could feel Arthur’s gaze boring into me. I didn’t know what to say, how to act, or even how to feel. With Arthur suddenly appearing in front of me after more than two years, and him acting so… distant, I was at a loss. Whatever confidence I had left to approach my childhood friend went out the window as I looked at my pitiful state. Here I was, dressed like a man, layered from head to toe with grime and soot. Worst of all, my hair was a bird’s nest and I smelled like week-old garbage.
I could see him walking up to me, each of his footfalls making my heart beat just a little bit faster. However, I refused to look up. As he came closer, I could smell the faint aroma of herbs coming from him. Don’t come closer, I prayed, scared that he’d be repulsed by my stench.
His feet stopped just in front of mine but my eyes stayed glued to my feet as I squirmed awkwardly. For a moment, we were both silent. The only sound I could hear was the beating of my uncooperative heart.
“It’s been a while, Tess,” Arthur finally said. “I missed you.”
At those few words, the ice that had stiffened my body melted. My vision became blurry as I refused to stare anywhere else but at my feet.
I clenched my fists to keep myself from shaking. My eyes betrayed me as I could see the drops of tears darkening the leather of my boots.
Art’s warm hand gently touched my arm and I couldn’t help but notice how large it was. I had known him since he was shorter than me, but now, the simple touch of his palm filled me with a sense of protection. I tried my utmost to stay firm, but I found myself sniffling uncontrollably as my body began quivering.
I didn’t exactly know what came over me to reduce me to such a state. Maybe it was finally seeing my childhood friend again. Maybe it was because his words just now confirmed that it was still truly him, not the cold killer that I thought he had turned into when I first saw him. It might possibly not have had anything to do with that at all; I couldn’t exactly explain the reason why every barrier I had unconsciously raised to endure these last two years had just come crumbling down. All I felt was this wave of relief that everything was okay now, that I didn’t have to worry anymore. All of a sudden, it felt like everything Grandpa, Master Aldir and everyone else had been worrying about would turn out okay now that Art was here.
It was funny how a person could do that—how one person could make you feel truly… safe.
“Art… you… idiot!” I hiccuped in between sniffles. I raised my fists to hit him, but by the time they reached his chest, there was no strength behind them.
I must’ve shouted every profanity I knew at him, blaming him for just about everything: his cold attitude, his tastelessly long hair that made him look scary, his lack of contact until now—down to how it was his fault I was in my current state. Art just stood there, silently taking it all as his large hand continued to warm my arm.
I was angry, I was frustrated, I was embarrassed, but I was relieved. That whole mix of emotions turned me into a lump of tears as I continued assaulting Art—mostly because I hated myself for how I was acting right now.
After crying out all that I could, I rested my head against his chest, staring down at his feet that had also been spotted with my tears, letting out hiccups and sniffles.
It was quiet for a minute and I finally worked up the courage to look at his face, only to see him staring right back at me.
I was about to whip my head away when his smile stopped me. It wasn’t like the smile he had when we saw each other at the entrance of the mutant’s lair. His eyes crinkled into two crescent moons as a warming sincerity tugged at the corners of his lips to create a gleaming smile.
“You’re still a crybaby, aren’t you?” he joked, removing the hand he had on my arm to wipe a stray tear that refused to drop to the ground.
“Shuddup,” I replied, my voice coming out nasally.
Letting out a soft chuckle, he motioned with his head to follow him. “Come on. Your friends must be waiting.”
I gave him a nod, picking up Sylvie, who had been asleep on the ground. As we walked, my gaze constantly shifted between the sleeping Sylvie to Art.
“You got taller,” I remarked, my eyes now focused on Sylvie.
“Sorry I can’t say the same for you,” Art teased, weariness evident in his eyes as he let out a faint smile.
“I’m tall enough.” I stuck out my tongue.
Spotting Caria and Stannard talking around our fire, we picked up our pace as I tried my best to hide all signs that I had been crying.
After introducing Art to the both of them, we situated ourselves around the fire when Darvus suddenly came stomping out with a determined expression.
“Arthur Leywin. I, Darvus Clarell, fourth son of the Clarell House, formally challenge you to a duel!” he announced without any particular anger or spite; instead, he looked resolute.
“What?” the rest of us, aside from Art, exclaimed in unison.
My gaze immediately landed on Art to see how he would react. With him being physically and mentally drained from these past few hours, I didn’t know how he would take such a confrontation. However, to my relief, I spotted an amused expression on my childhood friend.
“Nice to meet you, Darvus Clarell, fourth son of the Clarell House. May I ask for the reason of this duel?” Art replied without getting up.
Caria immediately got up and held back Darvus. “D-Don’t mind him, Mr. Leywin—”
“Please, just call me Arthur.”
“—Arthur,” she amended. “He’s just being foolish.”
“I’m fine, Caria. I’m not mad or anything.” Darvus shook his childhood friend away before facing Art again. It was a weird sight seeing Darvus speak to Art in such a formal and respectful manner since Darvus was a few years older than Art.
“As for my reason,”—Darvus paused—“with all excuses aside—a man’s pride.”
I was utterly baffled by his response, and looking at the stunned expressions on Caria’s and Stannard’s faces, so were the two of them.
However, Art stifled back a laugh as he covered his mouth. His shoulders shook as he tried to hold it in before breaking down into a hearty laugh.
The four of us looked at each other with expressions of even greater confusement as even Darvus looked bewildered. Soldiers, drawn in by the uncontained laughter of Art, gathered around our camp, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend,” Art finally spoke, stifling in his laughter. “After spending what felt like a lifetime with those old coots, I just thought that what you said was quite refreshing.”
“Thank you?” Darvus replied, still trying to figure out whether to be offended or pleased with Art’s remark.
“Sure, as long as lives aren’t at stake, I’m fine with a duel,” Art said with a content smile, getting up from the stump he was sitting on.
As the two guys began making their way toward the southern wall of the cavern, the group of curious soldiers eagerly followed behind them.
“Do you know what this is about?” I asked Caria as the three of us trailed behind the group.
My petite teammate merely let out a sigh as she shook her head. “Something about him feeling insecure because Arthur is younger and supposedly stronger than he is.”
“Not to mention he’s pretty bitter that Arthur is better-looking than him too,” Stannard added, letting out a deep breath as well.
“What? So that’s what he meant by a ‘man’s pride’?” I blurted, dumbstruck.
“Yeah, I know. He’s hit a new low.” Caria nodded, looking at my expression. “I wonder if all men are like that?”
We both turned to Stannard who looked back at us with an unamused raised brow. “On behalf of all men, allow me to say that we aren’t all like that.”
“Maybe not all, but it has to be a majority, right?” Caria asked, making me giggle.
Letting out a defeated sigh, Stannard nodded. “Probably.”
We got to the makeshift dueling grounds just in time to see them about to begin. It seemed like the entire camp had stopped what they were doing to watch the two go at it. I could understand the soldiers being curious about Art’s strength since we had only seen the aftermath of his fight, but I didn’t expect to see Dresh at the front, eagerly waiting in anticipation next to the Twin Horns. The usually impartial Helen, leader of the Twin Horns, was enthusiastically rooting for Art as the rest of her party cheered him on. Soldiers from this expedition who had all seen Darvus in action and knew of his prowess cheered for him with whistles and hoots.
Beside me, Caria let out a groan. “Who am I supposed to root for?”
“Shouldn’t it obviously be to your childhood friend?” I teased, snickering at the sight of Darvus pompously receiving the cheers with his chest puffed out. Sylvie, who was still in my arms, shifted in her sleep from the noisy crowd, taking a quick peek before deciding that her sleep was more important.
“Hey! We don’t always have to choose our childhood friends,” Caria replied, shaking her head at Darvus’s unseemly attitude.
“You kind of do, Caria,” Stannard snorted, turning his gaze toward my arms. “Anyway, I didn’t ask before but it’s been on my mind; what sort of mana beast is Arthur’s bond anyway?”
“You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you,” I smirked, focusing on the mock duel ahead.
Art was leisurely standing with his left hand leaning on the pommel of his sword as Darvus began juggling his axes to put on a show for the crowd to see.
“Just before you came, Tess, he was in such a sour mood. Now look at him; God, I swear, he has the emotional stability of a four-year-old,” Caria grumbled.
“Probably even younger,” I chuckled, remembering how mature Art was when he was four years old.
One of the soldiers, a seasoned augmenter, volunteered himself to be the referee and stood between Darvus and Art with his hand held up.
“I’m sure the general consensus is that we’d like to keep this cavern in one piece, so I want you both to keep mana usage strictly to body augmentations. Is that clear?” the soldier asked, taking a glance at Dresh for confirmation.
Getting the approval from the leader of this expedition as well as two consenting nods from Darvus and Art, the soldier swung down his hand. “First to yield or otherwise be incapacitated loses. Begin!”