Now that the decaying foliage was removed from hiding this spot, it actually made me wonder why it was so hard to find in the first place. There was a small hill, and on the other side was a gaping maw ready to devour anyone who entered. Well, it was large enough of a hole that one person could enter crouching. One by one, we sent the elvish soldiers in, and the network was large enough that soon, the majority had entered the underground layer where Baba had indicated.
From what the reports said, there was a steep drop of about ten feet, and then the path headed at a downward slope towards the fort.
Of course, going in and risking their life was the job of the soldiers. I was a leader, so I had no intention of entering the cave. The incident in Virdainia had been forced on me. I wasn’t one of those men who believed he should fight on the front lines with his men. If anything, that was the worst place to be. How could you get intel, redirect troops, or see the whole battle if you were right in the middle of it? People who fought in this way were just displaying pure bravado.
It wasn’t cowardice. It was just common sense. My value and the value of my sister and the princesses for that matter were significantly greater than the value of the soldiers all around us. It wasn’t a pompous statement, but a true one. If any of us died, it would cause untold strife and difficulty. That’s why I’d remain in the back of the battle and not subject myself to such dangers again. An event like Virdainia definitely couldn’t be repeated.
An hour later, my feet were starting to get tired. I had remained at the entrance to maintain my presence for the troops. If they came out victorious, then naturally I wanted them to associate that feeling with my presence. However, I was a devil-kin, and we already didn’t like the light. The muggy humid feel of the midday sun was growing increasingly unpleasant.
Baba, having completed her job, had already left, having neither the need nor the desire to impress anyone. Saria also left, finding the wait with the occasional report of ‘nothing yet’ to be tiresome. Bala kept to herself, and Aeryn remained ready. I wondered how the woman didn’t become bored always waiting around for me. Well, not that I would have given her a choice even if she was.
The only one who still looked alert was Olivia. She stood at the entrance, her ears perked as if she was waiting to enter. In fact, she had wanted to go with the troop initially. It took me and the commanding officer of her own bodyguard unit to convince her not to head down there. Still, nothing happened until a sudden rumble came from Olivia’s stomach.
Her cheeks turned pink and she made sure not to look at any of us. I decided this was as good of a time as any to earn some points with my sister. I glanced back at the waiting Aeryn.
“Since it’s past lunch, can you go to the kitchens and bring back four meals?” I asked her earnestly.
One meal was for me, another for my sister, Bala, and then Aeryn herself. If I didn’t order the meal for her, there was a chance Aeryn wouldn’t eat it. This wasn’t because she wasn’t hungry, but because sometimes she seemed to want to remind me of the power that I held over her and how I must always take responsibility. Well, perhaps she just felt it wasn’t her place to request a meal while technically working, a throwback to being a servant in the castle. Maybe I did think too much sometimes.
As Aeryn walked off toward the fort, I joined Olivia and peered into the darkness.
“How is your vision in caves?” I asked.
“What are you implying, nya?” Olivia shot back, not even looking away from the cave for a second.
Standing there with her ears perked and her tail waving back and forth, she really did look like a cat who was staring at a bird on the other side of the window.
“I’m not trying to imply anything,” I said defensively. “Rather, I thought since you’re um… well… a beastkin, you might have some abilities in the dark.”
“I don’t know… the only ability that matters is magic, and compared to most elves, I’m considered weak.” Olivia said unhappily.
“Isn’t that just a matter of opinion?”
“The opinion of my teachers!” Olivia glared at me irritably.
I held up my hands. “What I mean to say is that there is a balance amongst all of the races. At least, that’s what Baba is always going on about.”
“What of it? Beastkin had physical superiority, elves have a natural affinity. Dwarves have earthly affinity. The faeries have mana affinity. Humans are weak.”
“Human’s are… adaptable.” I said. “You can see it as that they have no strength, but that also means they have no weaknesses.”
“Person to person, a beastkin may be physically superior to a human, but there are humans with a great deal of physical prowess, and those humans could match a beastkin. A Beastkin will always be weak against pure magic outside of control magic, yet a human could also be a monster tamer or a necromancer.”
“Hmph… but a human who is good at physical prowess isn’t good at necromancy. That human isn’t even as good at physical prowess as many beastkin. In any competition, they will always fail.” Olivia sneered.
I shook my head slowly, “You attack someone… say the elves. They are quick and nimble. They have distant eyesight. They make good archers. They’re good at nature magic. How do you attack them?”
“You exploit their weakness, nya!” She crossed her arms and sniffed.
“Exactly…” I glanced around the woods, “They are strongest in nature, so you destroy that nature. Suddenly, they can no longer take advantage of their greatest strength. Their abilities halve.”
Olivia frowned, looking around the decaying forest. They could see miles around them now. Had the forest been full and alive, their visibility might have only been a few feet. They definitely wouldn’t have been able to tell if an archer was hiding in a tree or if there was someone crouching in a nearby bush. However, this kind of thing was decimating to the current elves.
“Their greatest strength right now isn’t even something they built, but something created by humans.” I continued. “Our people built these forts, not because we couldn’t take advantage of the forested terrain, but we never dared to allow ourselves that weakness.”
“The other races, the beastkin, the elves, the dwarves… they think they will attack and be able to sweep through the human realm. They do not. Any challenges they offer, the humans will come up with a solution. Every meter they step will include a mountain of blood. Why do you think it is that despite the human realm having the most border shared with the devil’s, we’ve taken some of the least loss of land? It is because humans may not be the strongest at anything, but together, they are the strongest.”
Olivia’s eyes widened when I finished my speech. Well, it might have been a revelation for her, but for my enemies, this was nothing surprising. They knew that humans were the strongest together. That’s why they were working so far to divide us. Each princess represented 1/6th of the realm. Divided like that, our country would be doomed.
“Brother…” she suddenly said, causing me to glance at her in surprise.
It wasn’t that she had never called me brother, but that usually it was said scornfully. This time, it sounded like she wanted to ask me a question.
“What is it?” I edged her on.
“I-if… if you were attacking, what do you think of that the enemy is doing now.”
“Now?” I blinked and then followed her eyes to the cave. “It’s clever, setting up the curse under the ground. The humans who built this clearly know elf physiology well.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s dark down there, with tight curves. It eliminates an elves’ ability to see long distances. It just eliminates their archery, which depends on long distances and the wind. Then there are their ears. In an enclosed area like that, sound echoes. It makes it very difficult to pinpoint noises and might even cause elves to grow confused. Furthermore, their greatest strength, mobility, is eliminated. They won’t be able to dodge or use cover. In fact, it’s basically a perfect location for an ambuuuu…. Shit!”
I slapped my forehead, causing Olivia to jump in alarm.
“What is it?” She asked, a confused expression on her face.
“Recall your soldiers. Immediately! It’s a trap!”
I blinked in surprise. She hadn’t seemed to follow the same conclusion I had, but she still decided to listen to me. She had a magic stone which she used to call for the soldiers to leave. She didn’t warn the troops though. This was good. If the troops were spooked or panicked, it would lead to greater trouble. Unfortunately, it was only a few moments later when an echoing scream shot through the cave.
It lasted for about ten seconds, and when it finished, everyone was dead silent. Just when I was about to say something, there was another scream, and then another. The screams started to increase their pace, and there was even the sound of metal ringing and the clang of steel.
I had been foolish. These weren’t human men. These were elves. I hadn’t taken into account their limitations at all. A large man in front with a shield, a couple of pikemen… they could have held off any threat. However, the elves were not cut from the same cloth. I had been treating these like my own men, and the result was now going to be a slaughter.
“Camus? Tanyth!” Olivia called into the cave.
As the screams continued, Olivia’s tail swished irritably and she started to pace in front of it like she was ready to dive in at any moment. Then she noticed me standing nearby and glared.
“You knew this would happen!” She accused.
I shook my head. “I didn’t think they’d be bold enough to actually try to massacre elves in their own territory. I figured they’d run and the elves would find a few clues.”
“Liar!” She snapped, making a disgusted face and turning away. “I should have been in there!”
“You’d be dead.”
“I’m a mage!” She snapped. “I’d have been able to help. They’re dying because I’m not there.”
“That’s not true.”
“Shut up! You’re to blame for all of this!”
“Olivia, we need to get back to the fort. We’re not equipped to deal with this right now. I have a few ideas…”
“Nya! Screw your ideas!” She spun away, and then made a single jump, leaping into the cave head first.
“Shit! Shit!” I snapped, not even hesitating to dive after her.
I reached out and managed to grab what I thought was her foot.
“Let go of me, nya!” She snapped.
“No, you’re going to kill yourself in here!” I shot back.
She kicked me and my hand slipped from her leg. She began to fall down the slope to the tunnel. I followed after her, tumbling down the slide until I hit the ground. I immediately stood up and glanced around. Surprisingly, my eyes adjusted quickly. My eyesight was apparently quite suited for caves. It was enough I managed to notice her tail just as she turned a corner.
“Oliv-“ I bit my lip and then just started to run after her.
Screaming my head off down here would be a stupid decision. I’d only be alerting whoever else was down here that I was present. I still didn’t know who this trap was for. Was it for Olivia, or was it for me? I’d prefer to not use my life to find out. However, I also couldn’t let Olivia be.
Fortunately, she was somewhat easy to follow, because she was moving in the same path as the screams, clearly trying to find her men. As I turned a corner, I noticed someone running behind me. I glanced back to see Bala in pursuit.
“You should have remained topside. This isn’t a place suited for your kind. You’re vulnerable here.” I said as she caught up to me.
“And you are suited to it?” She shot back.
I blinked as I realized that I really was. Not only was my sight surprisingly good in the dark, but the sounds coming at me were easy to discern. I was moving with extreme confidence in the direction the shouts were coming from. It was clear that Bala couldn’t do the same. Despite our ears having a similar shape, it seemed that elves were good at hearing quiet things, like the rustling of a bush or the crack of a twig. Meanwhile, my ears seemed to be good at echolocation, sorting out sounds and determining their exact direction and distance.
The catgirl, despite denying her own prowess, seemed to share in these abilities, as she hadn’t stopped once as she ran down the paths. I followed after her, determined to keep her alive. However, as I ran, a voice in the back of my head suddenly rose to the surface.
Why bother? It seemed to ask.
I realized that it was a prudent question. Besides the fact that she was putting me into direct danger, if she died, it was the same as giving up her claim to the throne. That wasn’t to say I gained 1/6th of the land. Rather, it would be evenly distributed to the remaining children, becoming 1/5th. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than nothing, and this idiot mage was walking to her death willingly. All I had to do is not save her. Then, I could worry about the next girl while saving a great deal of time.
I shook my head and clenched my teeth. That’s not something I could do in the slightest. If she died while I was nearby, my other sisters would notice and grow suspicious. It would make it impossible to get them to lower their guards and trust me. Actually, there was a much simpler reason that I was ignoring. She was my sister, and I had to look after her.
This feeling welling up inside me surprised me. It was akin to the reason that I had yet to sleep with Mother. By all accounts, these women weren’t related to me. I was just a disembodied soul given life in Prince David’s body. I came from another world, so there was no one who had less to do with these women than I. So, why did I feel so impassioned about protecting them? Why did I risk my life for this woman?
“Captain Taryth!” She cried out suddenly, and then let out a scream.
I sped up my pace, and thankfully she was only a turn away. When I entered a large cavern, there was a massive beast lumbering around. It had various arrows embedded into its skin, and it was waving its arms around, trying to swat several elves like they were irritating mosquitos. It was partially made of rock, or perhaps it was covered in rocks. It did have skin, but it was hard and leathery and could be confused for rocks if it wasn’t moving.
For someone like me, the sight was extremely surprising.
“What the hell is that thing?” I said.
“It’s a cave troll.” Bala pulled her sword immediately.
Now that she mentioned it, the large arms that nearly went to its knees, the bulbous nose, the bad teeth, all this thing could be was a troll. I glanced to my side, seeing that Olivia had lost her footing and fallen on her butt. She was staring up at the thing with wide eyes, seemingly frozen in terror. For all they taught her, they must have pampered the princess quite a bit. When it was important, she was completely frozen.
Well, Bala was also a princess raised by the elves, and she didn’t hesitate to rush the monster, slashing it’s knee caps with her sword. They made a loud, metallic clank, but there was no indicator that she harmed it at all. As I glanced around, I could see there were still a few elves alive. However, there were also many bodies that looked like they wouldn’t be getting back up. The head of her guard, who must be this Captain Taryth, was trying to disengage the enemy to flee, but his men had been trapped and were only just avoiding the slashes of the troll. If any slash connected, it would kill whoever it struck.
I turned and grabbed Olivia, “Snap out of it! I can take down the troll, but I need you.”
Olivia blinked for a moment and finally, her eyes met me. “B-brother…”
“If you won’t stand up, I’ll carry you!” I snapped, grabbing her and picking her up in my arms.
“Ah… ahhh!” She let out a cry as I stood up with her, trying to thrash out of my grip. “I got it! I got it! I can stand!”
I let her feet fall to the floor and she jumped back, patting down her butt while glaring at me with a red face and puffed out cheeks. What was with that look? It wasn’t like I was grabbing her butt. Well, a little, but it wasn’t on purpose. It was smaller and more muscular than I expected. Even though she was just a mage, I guess she couldn’t fight the biology of a catkin after all.
“What is it that you want me to do!” She demanded while I was looking at my hand.
“Ah, right…” I glanced back to the troll, which was currently fighting Bala while the men tried to edge toward their exit. “Back there, behind its neck. That’s it’s weak point. Attack it was something sharp.”
“How do you know that?” She demanded.
“Look, it avoids putting its back to anyone. If it was as hard as it looks, why would it continually shift and miss attacks to keep its back away from us? It’s because that’s it’s weakness.” I raised my voice, shouting to Bala. ”Try to get it to face away from us!”
Bala didn’t give any indicator she heard, but I knew she’d do what I said. Olivia still looked slightly pouty and a bit flustered, but she started to chant an incantation. Actually, wasn’t this really slow? Baba could just point and then things sort of just were destroyed. I think there was chanting involved, but it was very fast. This included the magic she taught me. If you couldn’t cast it in under a second, it was worthless. That was her philosophy. Mine too.
“It’s in position!” I cried out.
However, Olivia was still chanting. A wind-like power started to worm its way around her arms. I wanted to yell at her to move it. Bala was not next to the retreating men. The troll seemed to notice that wind behind him. He stopped pursuing Bala and then started turning back to us.
“Olivia!” I finally cried out.
“Got it!” She shouted, and then a massive wind ball exploded from her hands.
However, it was much more powerful than I expected. I was tossed back where I hit my head on the stone wall, dazing me for a second. When I looked up, the troll’s head was completely gone.
“What the hell was that?” I said.
“My strongest attack!” She responded proudly, even going so far as to point her thumb at herself.
“You idiot! We’re 100 meters underground. Why did you use your strongest attack?”
“Nya?” she cocked her head and then sniffed. “You’re just jealous I’m so powerful.”
“No! we’re underground, you could have caused a-“ A deep rumbling sound started to roar. “Damn it, why am I always right! Run! Cave in!”
I grabbed Olivia and turned, but we only made it a few steps before everything crumbled around us.