Thankfully, it turned out that golem arms were pretty easy to reattach. I was seriously worried for a bit that she was irreparably harmed. I had heard that certain priests could reattach limbs. There might even be a day at some point where I can do something like that. However, I didn’t want to see Terra walking around with one arm for the foreseeable future.
With her arm reattached, I redoubled my efforts to help the girls in combat. Fortunately, the long-distance group was able to keep the dragon distracted enough that our shenanigans didn’t cause things to fall apart. To be fair, the Bandits weren’t exactly orderly either. Three had already been knocked out or perished. Another two had run away in the middle of battle. These were supposedly their elites too.
We were down to fifteen people, with roughly ten focused on the dragon and the remaining five focused on the Paladin. Carmine was definitely the weakest link between the pair, and she had collapsed to one knee, finally being overwhelmed by the Bandit King and her forces.
Rooooaaarrrr…. The dragon seemed to sense that its master was in distress, as it tried to make a run straight for her.
“Hold it!” Salicia called out.
“Celeste!” She summoned her strongest attack.
A whirlwind of air blades struck the dragon, and at the same time, Lydia slashed at its legs with several recurring quick attacks. The dragon stumbled and collapsed to the ground.
“Terra! Finish this!” I said excitedly.
With the dragon on the ground, it was Terra’s time to shine. She started summoning earth to trap and restrain the dragon. A stalagmite rose up and pierced the dragon while a stalactite came down from the ceiling and pinned the dragon. With its restraints completed, sealed off and it’s master-servant bond breaking, we could finally defeat the dragon.
“Celeste, you’re doing it! Everyone! It’s down! Finish it off!”
Just as the girls surged forward, I realized that the long-distance support we had been receiving had suddenly stopped. I spun to see the Bandits fleeing towards the cave entrance. Salicia had an unconscious Carmine in her arms. Presumably, the master/slave relationship between the two was severed now, which was why the dragon was starting to thrash wildly in its restraints.
“We can defeat it!” I said.
Salicia shrugged. “I already said, I don’t care about the dragon!”
“It’s a clockwork dragon! It ought to have something valuable! Besides, if it escapes, it’ll cause you just as much trouble as the countryside.”
“Whoever said I planned to let it escape?” She chuckled.
She had a ring on her hand which suddenly glowed. Several barrels appeared, and the Bandits immediately grabbed them, putting them around the entrance.
“So… that’s how it is…” I sighed.
The look in her eyes was clear. She was planning on making this grave for more than just the dragon.
“What can I say… you may also be a problem if you escape.”
“Miki… do it.”
Miki raised her hand and cast a spell. Suddenly, all the Bandits around Salicia collapsed to the ground. Miki’s capacity to damage the dragon was minimal. Her task was actually to attach sleeping spells to as many bandits as she could. If they betrayed us, she’d trigger it and then they’d all collapse to the ground, instantly swapping the chances. It was actually a very impressive feat, and only a 9-tailed fox Spiritualist might be able to pull off.
I shrugged. “You’re outnumbered.”
I gestured for the girls to come to me, even though they were still trying to keep the dragon contained. In a few moments, he’d break out again. Our only real choice was to ignite the gunpowder and collapse the cave. Except… we’d be on the outside when that happened. Given that the Bandit King decided to betray us, it was the best that could be managed now.
However, I barely managed a few steps when the look in her eyes made me wary. A small smile formed on the Bandit King’s eyes as she continued to back her way out of the cave, holding her sister at her side.
“Oh… you’re clever… I give you that. You just made one small miscalculation.”
“What is that?” I asked, narrowing my eyes.
A fireball formed in her hand. “I don’t care about my people.”
She threw the fireball right at one of the jugs. A man only a few feet away was currently sleeping, and the attack would assuredly mark his death.
“Wait, no!” I let out a cry.
It was too late. The entire cave erupted. The heat and dust blew me back. Thoughts of using Return or escaping immediately escaped my mind as the cave started to collapse on top of me.
“Damnit… so ruthless…” I said, coughing.
I hadn’t lost consciousness, but I had curled up in the fetal position as rock fell from the ceiling and the entrance collapsed. She was absolutely right. I hadn’t seen her leaving fifteen of her best men for dead. If any of them were alive in this mess, I couldn’t see it.
As my vision cleared, I realized I could see. At least one of my orbs had survived and was still transmitting light. I could see Terra standing there. She had created a dozen pillars of stone, keeping the cave from collapsing on top of us.
“Lydia? Miki? Celeste?” Before I even called their names, I had already checked their status through the party.
With great relief, I found that everyone was alright. The girls were dusty, but otherwise still alive. I created some more lights in the room. There were a few unconscious bandits, but I didn’t feel like seeing if they were alive or dead at the moment. I may not be callous enough to murder Bandits, but I was starting to grow callous enough that I didn’t care whether they lived or died.
“Master…” Celeste approached me carefully. “Shall I… execute the plan?”
I summoned a mana potion from my ring and then handed it to her. “Immediately flee. Don’t engage her. Don’t even taunt her. Just run like the wind. Caste Haste first… I don’t want to take any risks.”
“Y-yes, Master… Haste.” Her body seemed to blur as she cast the short-lasting spell on herself.
She guzzled down the mana potion, and then took a deep breath.
“What are you doing?” Miki asked curiously.
I shook my head. “Just a little payback. She decided that we couldn’t have anything. I decided to return the favor.”
“Aeroswap!” Celeste cried out into the empty cavern.
Air started to wrap around her, and then she disappeared in a puff of wind. In her place was a woman who instantly collapsed to the ground. I was waiting for it, so I managed to catch her and guide her back down into a position I deemed comfortable.
“Carmine?” Lydia called out in disbelief.
“One of her wind spells, Aeroswap, allows her to mark someone and swap with them without being in their party. Salicia is probably still scratching her head wondering why her sister suddenly turned into a Sylph that darted away.”
I did make sure to check numerous times to make sure Celeste was safe. She didn’t show herself being hurt at all. Just as I was starting to relax, there was a sudden rumble. I could hear rocks and pebbles falling, and it sounded almost like the cave was breathing.
“Wha-“ Miki let out a cry.
“The dragon!” Terra immediately locked on the rocking form moving under various boulders.
Terra had made a space to protect us when the boulders fell. That space did not incorporate the massive dragon. Suffice it to say, and the avalanche of stone had fallen on it, crushing it in dozens of places.
“Terra, can you move away some of the lighter debris?”
Terra looked uncertain, but she did as I commanded. With a few waves of her hand, she cleared off the mechanical creature. I could see crushed gears and broken exhausted. The monster’s eyes were still lite in the darkness, but it seemed to be taking staggered breaths as if it was a living creature on the verge of death. It didn’t look at us, nor did it try to struggle or move.
“He’s… dying…” Lydia said, a complicated look on her face.
“It’s just a machine.” I said, partially for myself, “It doesn’t really have a life. However, it seems that it has been destroyed.”
“No…” Terra shook her head. “There is just one more thing.”
“What is that?
“The Church was able to create this thing with a dragon core from a real dragon. That is what was so dangerous. If we leave it here, the church could always find the core and rebuild the dragon. We must take the core.”
“Take the core?”
I was honestly a little surprised that she didn’t say we should destroy it. Wouldn’t she want to see the dragon soul or whatever it was that receded in this core to be annihilated from this world?
“Dragon cores are very valuable,” Terra went on to explain. “After everything that Master has done, I wouldn’t dare to ask him to so casually destroy it.”
“Very well… then, please… bring me the core.”
I didn’t want to go chopping into a dragon myself, after all. I had a feeling that with Terra’s abilities and experience with the dragon, she probably knew how to find it and get it out safely over anyone else. Terra nodded and then turned to the dragon. She had her hands out in front of her as if she was feeling for something. A moment later, there was a rumble in the ground. It made me slightly nervous because of the previous cave-in, but Terra was an earth golem, so I figured I needed to trust her on this.
A moment later, a spike erupted through the dragon. It jerked a single time, but then the lights in its eyes went out. The spike came out somewhere near where Terra was standing. Cupped inside it was a small orb which looked to be made of glass. She fetched out the orb casually, turned and then presented it to me. Smiling, I reached out, grabbed her fingers, and then closed them around the orb.
“You did it…” I explained. “You defeated the clockwork dragon. No one has earned this core more than you.”
“Me? Eh? Wha-“ She looked back at the dragon, now lifeless, and then to me again, growing increasingly flustered.
The other reason I asked her to fetch the orb was that I wanted her to do the final killing blow. This was a creature she had literally been fighting her entire life.
“Congratulations.” I pulled her into a hug. “You protected us all, and you have made a splendid guardian.”
“Ah…” Tears started to form in her eyes, and suddenly she clung to me desperately, and I could hear crying.
The other two girls ran up and hugged the pair us too, crying right alongside her. Why were they crying? Wasn’t this Terra’s burden to unload? Ah… well… it was fine. Her story was finally brought to a close. She had finally destroyed the dragon that had once destroyed her. Wait… something about that thought unnerved me slightly. I felt a strange aching feeling. It was a feeling I had felt twice already. Suddenly, I noticed something rising out of the pocket of the unconscious Carmine.
A bright light filled the cavern that made my own orbs seem negligible. The light pulsated for a few seconds, but it was almost like I could read its mind. A… finished… lore…
“H-hey… no-no-no… didn’t she finish it? What are you doing! Wait!”
A light shot towards me and text started to float into my mind. A searing feeling wrapped around my thigh as a new tattoo branded itself on my body. Lore began to flood into my mind. Another blessing. Another curse.