Once the fort was taken, I left men to defend it and then jumped back through the Portal with a contingent of men. There was probably a safe room in that fort too, but it would have to wait until after I dealt with the Demon Prince. I gathered the troops, and began another Portal, ready to head to the fort that was currently under siege. As I did that, Carmine came running out, holding up her dress as she quickly made her way over to my side.
“You should stay here, Carmine. It’s where you are safest.”
“I won’t!” She declared back stubbornly, and then lowered her eyes. “It’s just, you’re going after the champion, aren’t you?”
I nodded. “He’s our greatest opponent in the gladiatorial match. He’s in a position where he could leave the dungeon any time and snatch the victory from us. More than that, he’s personally picked me as his enemy. For that reason, he should be eliminated. He’s dangerous.”
She bit her lip. “The old you would never have sought to wipe out an enemy like that.”
“Well, maybe it’s better that I’m the new me now. I don’t keep any delusions of being able to protect and save everyone. That’s why I want you to stay behind. I mean no offense, but I won’t allow you to be hurt.”
I knew that I was a bundle of contradictions since I had my body spliced. For example, I was more careful in my decision making, but I was less hesitant in carrying it out. On the other hand, I had less empathy. I wouldn’t say I had no empathy, but it was diminished. That meant, I worried less about the girls and how they were doing. That was good because it meant I could focus on the now and what had to be done, rather than worrying about them crying over my death back home. On the other hand, I was less tolerant of loss, and couldn’t stand the thought of any of my women being taken away from me. That was the unsaid other reason that I absolutely couldn’t allow him to live. He wouldn’t threaten me or my women. If any man sought my women, I’d kill them!
“Master… ahem… I mean commander…” Soldiers passing nearby had given her a strange look when she said Master, as it would be strange for a princess to call anyone master. “Bernard seeks me out the most.”
“What are you suggesting?” I asked, my eyes narrowing slightly.
“Right now, we have conquered two of their forts. Once we destroy his forces, he’ll be cut off completely from the capital and effectively removed from the campaign while we can move on to the castle and defeat Aberon. What I’m saying is that we should make sure that he tries to take out the fort with everything he has, and we should cause the maximum damage possible.
“You know as well as I do that the best way to do that is to use me. If he sees me in the fort, he will use all of his strength to reach me. Only by using me to taunt him will you be able to maximize the damage!”
No sooner had I taken a step into the fort than I heard the sound of distant fighting. There was a boom, and the ground shook, raining dust and debris from the ceiling. The fighting seemed to be getting pretty bad out there.
“What’s the plan, commander?” One of the skeletons, who I assumed was currently in charge here, spoke up.
“The princess is going to show herself on the wall. This will cause Bernard to begin his largest assault yet. We will allow him to break through, make a strategic retreat, and then let the fort be destroyed. Are our mages ready?”
“They are, my lord!”
He gestured into a room, where five mages had drawn a circle and were currently chanting while mixing up various herbs. I had never done anything that difficult to cast a spell, but then again, I had never tried to cast a spell outside of my ability before. If I still had access to the dungeon store, I would have switched to Meteor and used that. Instead, the mages were creating five explosive runes which would all erupt at the same time. It wasn’t nearly as damaging, but it would be enough to make the fort unusable to them and wipe out just about anyone inside.
I wanted to guarantee that one of the people inside was Bernard, which was the only reason I ultimately decided to allow Carmine to take a risk. With five skeletons guards flanking her, she walked up onto the wall. I remained behind the wall, not because I wanted to, but because the guards insisted that both of the fort’s most valuable people, the princess, and the commander, shouldn’t be in the same visible spot. I reluctantly agreed and watched the forest through a murder hole.
“Demon Prince Bernard!” She cried out.
No one on the skeletal side knew the Demon Prince’s real name, so when we called him Bernard, it sort of just got accepted. I wondered if the demon side knew his real name, or if our presence somehow upset and changed his name. It was a mess.
“Gladiator Carmine…” A distant voice, hidden behind the cover of the forest called back. “You look well.”
I breathed easier knowing that he was still here, trying to crack this fort. Up until now, he still didn’t know the fate of his fort.
“Your reinforcements are about two hours away…” he said…” By then, this fort will be nothing but ash. The dungeon has promised me this.”
“The dungeon?” I mouthed the words, my eyebrows rising in confusion.
Did he enter a safe room too and sees some mural of him with Carmine? It was really difficult to get a read on this guy, but it only pissed me off more and made it more necessary that he died quickly. If he had been civil, I would have happily worked together and escaped this dungeon as a group. I’d have even let him take the victory for his aid. However, he wanted to do things the hard way, so he couldn’t blame me for being aggressive. It was his fault that he was a meathead used to brawling rather than strategy.
“I’m sorry, but you have already lost.” Carmine shot back. “Give up, and I’ll show you mercy.”
“You speak of the forts you have taken.” Prince Bernard shook his head. “I’ve never cared about those. Did you think you were the only one who asked for reinforcements?”
My expression soured, and I felt worried. Did he have some plan I didn’t know about? While we were here, was he conquering the two forts we just took?
At that moment, there was a massive fireball that erupted from the sky. It looked much like the fireball that had once wiped out our party, but it might have even been larger. I watched in horror as it fell, not on our fort, but theirs, across the river in the distance. There was a resounding boom, and the ground shook as the place we’re planning to flee to was reduced to cinders.
“It’s a trap!” I cursed.
Before I could say anything else, another fireball was flung out, this time aimed at our own fort. This was some pretty weighty magic, and normally we’d have people to counter it, but the best mages were still setting up the explosion magic. Thus, they were useless as the front gate exploded open. A moment later, there was a roar and demons were running across the plains toward the unprotected fort at full blast.
“Is the second fort fallen?” I demanded of the nearest skeletons, but they could only shrug and shake their hands.
If we escaped to that fort, and it was already breached, then I was mostly just sending our men to their death. I didn’t believe they would have destroyed that fort. They had said it themselves. That was the only fort with any value in it. It held the pass that opened up the rest of the Capital and it’s supporting territories. Where we were right now was on the outside of the main area, and the only fort that the humans had from which to launch attacks. Once this place fell, nevermind starting an invasion, we’d be kicked out of the entire valley.
It turned out that Bernard was more of a strategist than I had thought. No, he said he sent for reinforcements. That meant he was being supported directly by Lord Aberon. The only one who could conjure up magic that powerful would be the demon lord and his strongest generals. They must have come down upon the prince’s request. In the past, the prince ran away with the princess like a coward, prompting retaliation. In this world, the prince was outright trying to steal the princess, showing no weakness at all. After setting everything up so well, how did things go so bad so quickly? Was I just too sure of myself? Was my plan too inflexible? I was starting to regret thinking I was better off without the traits I had cut off and removed.
I ran out into the courtyard. “Carmine! Get off the wall!”
“Master…” She cried out, running down the stairway as demons started flooding in and skeletons rose to fight them.
The man I least wanted to see jumped out from the crowd of demons right at the base of the stairway and grabbed her. The bodyguards were all behind her, drawing their blades at that moment, but he didn’t pay them any mind. Instead, his eyes turned to me. I pulled out the star sword and raced at him at full speed.
“Let her go!” I screamed out, cutting down three demons with rapid skills as I moved to him at full speed.
“You still think you can fight the dungeon’s will.” He shook his head. “You should have just surrendered to it. When you do, the dungeon gives you power.”
“Die!” I screamed. However, he casually snapped his fingers, and his body suddenly disappeared. It was a skill that I recognized. It was the Return skill! Like that, Carmine and Bernard were gone, and I had no clue where he had taken them. The demons continued to flood through the open gate, and a moment later I was surrounded.