A few hours later, the girls had finished spreading the mark around and I had finished working out the plans with Baba. If I made it back by the end of the day, we might do a few more. Otherwise, a few men will just have to grow comfortable sleeping beside each other. For now, giving more blood might lead to me losing some of my cognitive functions, and I had a feeling that I was going to need them in the hours to come.
“You! Pervert!” Olivia called out as soon as we walked out into the courtyard without showing any leniency or modesty. “We’re waiting, nya!”
Yes, I felt there might be a shortage of intellect on the upcoming journey. I certainly couldn’t imagine a good idea coming from Olivia’s direction.
“What is with that look, nya? You want me to set your stupid tunic on fire!” She said.
I coughed, refusing to give her any expression one way or the other. Saria happened to be alongside Olivia, and her shoulders were shaking when she looked at me. Did she find how Olivia treated me to be amusing? Well, it wasn’t too late to enslave Saria, after all. She was asking to get a little bit of punishment.
“Are you ready to go?” I asked, ignoring my sister’s challenging words.
“Didn’t I say we were waiting!” She responded agitatedly.
I nodded and then glanced back at the men behind her. “Move out!”
I gestured with my hand, and the men turned and started heading for the gate to the fort. Olivia’s face turned red as she glanced back at the men and then me.
“H-hey! I’m in charge, Nya! Don’t think you can just order my men around!”
“Men, comb the landscape. We’re looking for an underground cavern system. Use staffs or poles, poke the ground. The path will almost certainly be covered and not visible from the walls of the fort. Keep that in mind.” I spoke as I walked past her, following the men out the gate door.
“Hey! Hey!” Olivia cried out angrily.
I glanced back. “What are you doing? Come along.”
“You… grrr….” She actually was shaking with anger.
As I turned away from her, I couldn’t stop a smile from landing on my face. Aeryn, who was always by my side, saw the expression and made a face.
“If Master doesn’t wish to be seen as a devil, he shouldn’t act like one.”
I shook my head slowly. “What gave you the impression that I didn’t want to be seen as a devil?”
“…” Aeryn didn’t respond, continuing to follow me outside back in the decaying forest.
Olivia finally caught up with us, yelling out orders that were essentially what I had already yelled but said in her own words. It was clearly an attempt by her to regain her authority after I had stripped it. As for the soldiers, they had a chance to speak with Ayda’s group all day. By now, they understood the severity of the situation. They were in no mood to play a game of who is in charge. Especially when it came between me and Olivia. Neither of us had any particular authority as neither of us were elves. Even the ones sent with Olivia were assigned as her bodyguards, not her unit. They may listen to what she said, but they had no obligation to do so as long as she was kept safe.
We only walked about a hundred meters outside the doors before we stopped. The men started to carefully comb the landscape, looking for areas where a tunnel might meet the surface. However, I didn’t expect them to find anything. It would be hidden enough that an enemy unit wouldn’t be able to find it. If they did, it would threaten the integrity of the fort itself.
That said, the entrance to this tunnel should be all but impossible to find except for people who knew it was there. Knowing this, having the men look was simply a manner of giving themselves something to do while I bought time for Baba to finish. However, that was only part of the reason. The other part was to help gain the trust of these men. If I solved this issue instantly, they wouldn’t respect it. Rather, they needed to waste a few hours trudging in the decaying muck before I came up with an answer. Then, knowing how impossible this entrance was to find, they’d appreciate it even more.
Of course, all of that depended on my theory being right. It was also possible that after all of this, there was no underground area under the fort. If that was the case, I’d likely earn the ire of these men. So, I couldn’t say I wasn’t at least a little anxious. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait very long before the small loli Baba began to trudge out where I was standing, overseeing the soldier’s movements.
Olivia, Bala, and Aeryn were by my side, however, I left my mother and the others inside the fort. If I surrounded myself by too many of my own people, it would be less accessible to the elvish soldiers. Naturally, the elvish princesses were an exception to the rule. Ayda also was doing her job watching over the fort. She was manning the wall right now, and I had a feeling she was watching over everything with a keen eye.
While everyone else was waiting for reports, Olivia was barking out commands at the passing soldiers, as if to make up for the slip earlier where the soldier’s followed my orders. The men would politely nod and give affirmations, but it was pretty clear she was only telling them things they already knew. Eventually, she quieted down, but she still had a displeased expression on her face.
“You didn’t even leave me with an escort!” Baba complained noisily as she approached us. “Back in my day, there would be a parade and rose petals would be dropped where ever my feet touched!”
“I don’t have rose petals for you, but will the decaying grass do?” I responded, looking disdainfully down at the dying landscape. “At least, they are roughly equivalent.”
Baba glanced in the direction I was looking and winced. There was a gnarled tree that had bent in half, seemingly rotting away even while it was still alive. I could see a look of regret on her face. Naturally, as someone concerned about this world’s balance, this is something that would greatly bother her.
“Whoever is doing this must pay.” She said, her voice holding a kind of ancient power that even caused Olivia to glance at her twice.
“That’s the idea.” I responded, “Is it ready?”
“Mm…” She nodded. “You always have such strange ideas. I never would have thought of doing something like this.”
She reached out and a long staff suddenly appeared in her hand. She was likely using a storage ring or some kind of storage magic. The item that appeared was too heavy for her, and thus it hit the floor quickly with a thud. I reached and grabbed the handle. It appeared as a long staff with a heavy stone on the end. It looked like a rudimentary sledgehammer, although the head was rounded and the handle was too long. It likely wouldn’t work very well as a tool.
“How will the image be projected?” I asked, looking helplessly at the object in my hand.
“Creating something you can visualize is not something I could do on such short notice.” Baba defended and then tapped her head. “The images should be projected up here.”
“Well… there is a small chance that the magic will acquire too much data, overload my mind, and I’ll become catatonic.”
“So, it’s a win, either way, I suppose.”
“Hmph! You should be thanking me profusely for being able to make such a marvel so quickly based purely on your vague descriptions and random references to a bat. The fact I could create anything even attemptable in a few hours just shows how amazing I am.”
“Of course, Baba is most impressive.” I reached out and patted her head, feeling like continuously teasing her would only make her angry.
Actually, she seemed to preen under the head pat. Wasn’t this a little too easy? Well, if Baba made sense, she wouldn’t be Baba, so I decided to leave it at that.
“In which case, how do we try it?”
“Simply, find a spot, and slam it down. The harder you slam it, the better the image.”
“That does sound simple.”
“What is this, Nya?” Baba’s appearance, as well as the device, had naturally caught Olivia’s attention.
I glanced at her with a side-long look. Given what I knew of Olivia so-far, I figure there was only a fifty-fifty chance I’d be able to explain this in a way that she’d be able to understand. With those odds, I was contemplating whether it was worth my time to explain things. She seemed to pick up on my hesitation.
“Hey! Nya! Don’t look down on me! Aren’t I a powerful mage!”
Baba snorted. “Is this what counts as powerful in this age?”
“I…I… mean no offense to the Great Magus!” Olivia gave a bow.
Although she was disrespectful to me, upon learning the Grand Magus’s identity, she was very quick to bow and shower her with respect. As a fellow mage, I had even thought the Grand Magus could teach Olivia a few things, but Olivia had vehemently refused. Although she didn’t give me the reason, Baba had explained it to me. Magicians are a prideful lot, and the only way they could cast magic was having confidence in their ability to cast. Being treated like a disciple by a grand Magus would be like a swordsman with some skill going up against a Royal Knight. The experience wouldn’t just be humbling, but mentally damaging.
Seeing someone accomplish things with ease that you’d never be able to dream of would only stall a magician’s progress. As it were, most magicians stopped growing when they finally reached a problem they couldn’t resolve. They would then spend the rest of their lives trying to resolve that problem. They would be called sages at this point, and most of their time and effort would be towards learning everything possible about that field of magic.
It was a bit like a scientist, who starts out learning everything but eventually specializes in a very specific part of a very specific field. You might have someone who studies physics, but in the end, any given physicist will likely spend their whole life studying the ins and outs of a single particle, only making relatively few gains in their entire lifetime.
I asked Baba if she had ever reached such an issue. She told me that if she ever did, she would let me know. That meant that even now, Baba was still growing as a magician. This was the separation between a Grand Magus, and even an elder magician. For an apprentice like Olivia, she had to be even more careful to keep herself from losing her ability to progress.
“This tool is an echo-location device.” I decided after some thought to respond.
“Echo-nya?” She cocked her head, her ear twitching.
“Leave it to the prince to say nonsensical things.” Baba sighed, “He gave me the following example. How do bats see at night?”
“Bats? Don’t they see with their eyes?”
“True… that works outside, but what about in caves? Isn’t there no light at all? Yet, unlike us, they don’t get lost and can easily find their way out.”
“Ah… I guess that’s true.”
“It turns out, they make a noise, and when the noise bounces off the wall, they listen to the returning sound. Based on how quickly the echo turns, they are able to make a mental map of the world around them.”
“How does this apply to our current situation?” It was Saria who had become interested at this point.
“Sound doesn’t just travel through the air, it can travel through the ground,” I explained. “Yet, when the medium change, so does the sound waves.”
“Waves?” Olivia responded blankly.
It hadn’t been much different from Baba. Explaining a dozen different scientific principals in quick succession, it took nearly an hour to get Baba to understand what I wanted her to do, and another hour of answering questions before she worked out a way to do it. With Olivia, I didn’t think there was enough time in the day to explain this all.
“So, what you’re saying is you’re going to use this tool to use sound to map out the ground under us?” Saria offered, and then her eyes widened. “We’ll be able to find the caverns!”
“As expected of my fiancée, you’re brilliant.” I smiled at Saria.
I was surprised that I felt a sense of pride in Saria being able to understand these concepts quickly. She really was a brilliant woman. Saria blushed, looking away.
“Ah… what is brother doing, nya? It’s creepy!”
“Isn’t he smiling?” Baba asked.
“It doesn’t suit his face,” Bala added.
“I do smile.” I frowned. Glaring back at the three women.
“Mm… that angry, dark look is more fitting.” Bala nodded.
“It isn’t like you can’t smile, it’s just usually it’s… how do you describe it… like you’re about to do something rotten, or you’re gleefully watching someone in pain?” Baba continued.
“Aren’t you calling me a sadist?” I cried out and then shook my head. “Enough of wasting time. Let’s test this out. Are you ready, Baba?”
I didn’t know if I needed to give her a warning since the information was going to be transmitted to her mind, but I felt it was important.
After the girls settled down, I went to pick up the stick. “Ah… it just came to my realization that Bala would be able to hit the ground harder, and thus create a better image. Would you do it?”
“Oh?” Saria’s eyes flashed mischievously, “Is fiancé saying he is far too weak to pick up the tool himself?”
Saria was better off when she was being cute, however, after getting over my praise, she naturally returned to being the true sadist in the group. She was like a shark, and she couldn’t help but attack as soon as she tasted blood in the water. It wasn’t like I was unable to lift the tool, probably, if I tried hard enough. However, I definitely wouldn’t be able to lift it and still remain a man in the eyes of everyone present. This was about my image to the troops. It was extremely important. I was thinking strategically here.
“Hehe… Brother is so scrawny.” Olivia couldn’t pass up a chance at mocking me as well, although she probably wouldn’t have noticed my weakness if Saria hadn’t revealed it.
“Bala, do it,” I responded, perhaps a bit shorter than I intended.
Bala was my slave, after all, so she did what I ordered immediately. Unlike me, who would have had to huff and puff to raise it up in the air, she seemed to pick it up with ease. I had been gaining quite a bit of muscle training under Bala lately. However, it had only been a few months. Undoing a lifetime of living like a noble couldn’t be undone quickly. This problem didn’t seem to affect Bala.
She pulled up the staff and then slammed it down. There was a bell-like gong sound when it struck the ground. Despite the presence of decayed grass and soft soil, the object didn’t sink in at all and hit the earth with a thud that caused the immediate ground the shake slightly. It was powerful enough that a few of the soldiers who were scouring the landscape closer to us looked over in shock.
There were a few moments of silence once the ringing gong sound disappeared, and all of our eyes were on Baba. She had her eyes closed and she had her arms out as if she was feeling the land around her.
“I see… woah…” Baba suddenly collapsed, but I moved quickly and caught her.
For a moment, I was afraid she had been knocked unconscious, but I was relieved to find out she still had her eyes open.
“Hehe… so, it was just an excuse for the Prince to hold me.” She seemed quite comfortable in my arms.
“Did you find anything?” Immediately standing her back up.
“Hmph… always so serious!” She sniffed. “Perhaps I just want to be held for a while.”
“Well?” I decided it was better to ignore her playful side right now.
She gave me a look and then sighed. “I’ve seen the tunnels.”
I let out a breath of relief.
“Really? Brother was right?” Olivia cried out in disbelief.
I shot her a glare. “What is with that look?”
“Of course, isn’t it because Brother is full of hot air!”
“The thing is…” Baba continued to talk, looking uncharacteristically uncertain.
“What is it?”
“It’s just… there is a lot more of it than we thought. It’s not a single tunnel or a couple of tunnels. It’s a vast network, and it goes farther than we imagined. I’m not able to map it out for you, or tell you something like they are over here.”
“I see…” I said, stroking my chin thoughtfully. “Do you at least know where the entrance is?”
“Several of them.” She nodded. “There are at least 6 within the proximity of the fort.”
I glanced over at Olivia. “Recall your troops. It looks like this expedition is just getting started.”