~~Northwest of Beilanea~~
Slightly west off the highway leading to the Royal Capital was a rough, half-beaten path, on which lied ten-odd dead bodies. Lina and her team happened upon the gruesome scene, and saw that some among the corpses had their pieces scattered about, having recently been eaten by beasts and monsters.
The freshly-dead bodies reeked of decay. Blazer, upon hearing the howl of a beast from beyond the Light Source magic’s circumference, took a step forward.
He wore a spirited face as he drew his sword, and then swung straight ahead, as effortlessly as waving a twig.
A large dust cloud burst forth as the howling beasts whimpered and scattered away.
“You’re amazing as always, Sir Blazer! That invitation to the Six Braves sure was not just for show, sir!”
“No need to be excited at everything, Egd. What’s important is that you never let your guard down.”
Egd, hands on the scabbard on his waist and always ready for battle, positioned himself directly in front of Lina.
The red-haired boy, who had attained quite a gallant countenance and a robust body over the years, was close enough to Lina to perceive a change of her temperature, causing him to feel slightly feverish under his nose, while still maintaining his battle-ready state.
“I’ll protect you to the best of my abilities, Miss Lina!”
“T-thank you. Hahaha…”
“Bah, wouldn’t have brought him along if not for Dragan’s request…”
“Shh – he can hear you, Brother.”
Bruce replied absentmindedly to Betty’s whisper of warning toward his idle complaint.
Regardless, his mind was fully aware of his surroundings, as apparent from his eyes constantly moving left and right and his vigilant stance.
“Blazer, how’s it look?”
“If you’re not sensing anything, then I wouldn’t expect to, either. If not for the Elemental Reapers’ nocturnal nature, we would’ve had an easier time looking…”
Lina stood in the middle row, Egd in her front, and Betty stood behind her.
Blazer took the very front, and the opposite of him, Bruce stood in the very back. Their overall formation was a simple, straight line, but they were able to make this effective because of their trust in Betty to intercept any attack from their flanks.
“Egd, don’t move around so much.”
Bruce’s frown worsened upon receiving such a carefree reply, but then something prompted that expression of his to immediately grow vigilant.
“Yeah, straight ahead, 50 meters… 40… a lot more than what the quest info said.”
“Should be about 15 of them. Ugh…”
“Ahead, 30 meters, 4 centimeters, 7 millimeters… their advance is decelerating. They’re staying vigilant, too-“
“Heh, as fussy as your master, I see…”
“Rise, A-rise, Magic Barrier!”
Lina invoked a spell, briefly materializing a layer of blue light in front of Blazer to signify its effect.
Blazer detected several gaseous spheres shining in red, pea green, and bitter orange, pulsating as they lined up horizontally. In the midst of the spheres was a single deep crimson eyeball, its pupil trained on him, as it moved around.
“At least they know how to line up… 8, 10, 12… total of 16.”
“This is bad…”
“You can say that again…”
As both Bruce and Blazer grumbled, the horizontal line of Elemental Reapers suddenly moved forward, all at once.
“That’s the fastest I’ve ever observed from them! Hits in four seconds, Sir Blazer!”
The sideway line of monsters went against the straight line of Lina’s team.
In this situation, Blazer could only take on so many of them. Betty and Egd would have to pick up some of his slack.
Having decided that would be the case, Bruce leapt forward over everyone in a single bound, landing beside Blazer.
“Leave the right to me!”
“Yeah, and I’ll take the center! Betty, Egd!”
Blazer called their names to signify that he wanted them on the left, and while he said that, he was already swinging his sword.
The attack cut the very front, pea-green Elemental Reaper right in half. However, it immediately reattached itself and proceeded to attack Blazer.
Bruce found himself stuck in the same loop, forcing the both of them to cut their respective Elemental Reapers again and again until they finally stopped regenerating.
“Damn it, this is why I hate gas monsters!”
“Try cutting multiple of them with one swing! They stop moving when they’re split!”
“Roger that, sir! Dah!”
“I know we gotta hit them as many times as we can, but there’s damn too many of them!”
“Rise, A-rise, Cross Wind! They’re attacking the barrier from the left! A-and now the right, too!”
One Elemental Reaper had barely been stopped in its track by the invisible barrier, but that must have exposed its relatively low integrity, for several other Elemental Reapers immediately took to tackling the barrier from all sides. All while the giant eyeball trained its sight on Lina.
Bruce and Blazer each destroyed two, then Betty and Egd took one each, but by then, the barrier was already cracking. The remaining Elemental Reaper gave it one last tackle, as if to ridicule their speed. A high-pitched noise rang forth as the barrier collapsed, and the Elemental Reapers took this chance to rush down the four combatants.
“Dah! Kuh-! Whwhwhwhoa!?”
Egd screamed as an Elemental Reaper pinned down his sword, causing him to fall over backwards.
Everyone was worried about Lina’s position, but all they could do now was fend off the enemies in front of them.
“-A-rise, Quadra Boundary!”
Stakes of light descended from Lina’s Craft Circle, forming a square perimeter around the Elemental Reaper that had gone past Egd, and then pinning it in place.
Bluish-white light crackled within the perimeter as it held down the Elemental Reaper, providing Lina with a chance to draw a Spell Circle for another barrier.
The suddenly reappearing barrier took the three active combatants by surprise. The first to realize where it had originated was Egd, still flat on the ground. While he was getting up, he caught sight of Hornel, who approached from behind Lina.
Egd shouted out the name on the one in question, but the three other combatants did not turn around, and only spoke their reactions as they gave their undivided attention to the Elemental Reapers. By the time Egd was back into the action, Idéa and Midors’ supporting fire also rained down on the enemies.
With Lina and Hornel alternating their Magic Barrier spells, the group gained a stable ground, and was able to consistently eliminate one Elemental Reaper after another.
“Big spell coming up!”
The four on the front line took a deep breath and answered Lina’s signal, and then Blazer, seeing it as good timing, issued his order.
“Now, cluster formation!”
The four retreated all the way to Lina’s position and crouched, freeing up Lina’s field of vision.
Now with the whole picture before her eyes, Lina unleashed her attack from the Spell Circle.
“Sharp Wind Asteriskos & Remote Control!”
Countless wind blades made a clean sweep of the pursuing Elemental Reapers.
The last of the Elemental Reapers, writhing in agony in the Quadra Boundary, was also finished off by Midors and Idéa’s spells.
Seemingly relieved of a heavy mental burden, Egd crashed down on his backside and heaved a deep sigh.
“Dah- that was intense… Would’ve gotten dangerous if not for Hornel’s team showing up…”
“There’s twice as much as what the Guild’s info stated – Can’t do much ’bout that. You really saved us there, Hornel.”
Bruce said as he turned around. Following suit, Lina and Betty, and then Blazer offered them their thanks, and so did Egd, in more of a half-hearted tone.
“Bah, still a cheeky rascal, I see.”
“That goes for us as well, doesn’t it? Well, used to, maybe?”
“Without a doubt. Hahahahaha!”
Midors and Idéa looked back at their past selves and laughed. Seeming to have been grated on his nerves, Egd clicked his tongue, a gesture that would prompt Blazer to land a fist on his head.
“Ouch-!? What was that for, Sir Blazer!?”
“You ought to know the importance of words and the value of your life, Egd… If you can’t do that, then there’s no future for you!”
“W-what!? My master won’t keep quiet about this, sir!”
“Very funny. If the Dainty Tiger would step forward for such a petty thing, then by all means, let him.”
Blazer said without even exerting his voice, and knowing full well that he was right, Egd shut up, eyes cast down in shame.
Then he realized the meaning of the words he had just spoken. His thoughtless act had brought his mentor, one of the Six Braves, into a public topic that he had no business in.
Having observed the whole exchange, Lina stepped forward and patted Egd on his shoulders. As Egd turned to look at her hand, Lina proceeded to encourage him with a tender, yet powerful smile.
“Egd, remember that we improve and learn new things every day. You never know – your imperfections now may very well lead to a better you in the future!”
“M-miss Lina… Miss Lina-! -Gueh!”
A tad too carried away by Lina’s kindness, Egd was about to jump into her bosom when Hornel and Midors grabbed him by the collar of his shirt.
And then Idéa stood herself in front of Lina, protecting her by keeping the two of them apart.
Lina cracked a wry smile all through the scene.
Then, suddenly, Betty’s face tensed up. Lina tilted her head, confused by the tone shift.
“…It’s gotten too quiet around here.”
It was indeed a long, tense, and silent moment.
Suddenly made aware of ‘something’ concealed within the vicinity, Bruce and Blazer were prompted to ready their blades once again.
The reason they were particularly concerned was the fact that Betty had been the first to notice the siege of eeriness upon them.
They were familiar with this sensation. This intense bloodthirst.
“Brother, this… we’ve felt this before, haven’t we?”
“Yeah, too strong to forget… two years ago, at the Labyrinth of No Return.”
“…The Laughing Foxes… Maüs…”
Upon Blazer’s utterance of that particular name, Lina and Hornel tensed up, and then immediately cast support magic effects onto everyone.
Lina had heard the story from Asley, and in turn, Hornel had heard it from Lina.
That the leader of the Laughing Foxes had survived. And how abnormally strong he was.
“They know we’re here! Cast Light!”
Midors and Idéa each cast their own Light Source spells, illuminating the vicinity with intense light.
By the time the lights illuminated the area, the group was already surrounded by brutish men. They numbered 26 in total, and a majority of them was top-naked.
The man who stood furthest in the back with his arms folded was none other than the one who had cornered the three Silvers, Asley, and Pochi years ago, the leader of the Laughing Foxes, Maüs.
“A rare encounter under this moonlit night… Blazer the Silver Lion and Bruce the Silver Wolf. Oh, and what have we here… aren’t you the Student Council President of the Magic University, the Silent Witch?”
“I don’t remember ever introducing myself to you, Maüs!”
“Hmph, has it never crossed your mind that you might have become a little famous, Bruce? …Anyways, it’s time to pay up, people.”
“Heh, gonna too much for us to pay, I’m sure.”
“Hahahaha, if there’s one thing I can’t match in you, it’s how fast you talk back.”
At this time, Blazer and Betty were already moving to cover their group’s mages. It was a warriors’ job to stall for the mages to do their magic. As orthodox as that was, it was what formed the foundation for today’s battle strategies. That was all the more reason for Egd to follow suit, albeit slightly delayed, creeping out from the middle row to the outside.
Blazer proceeded to call out to Egd with a whisper.
“Egd, the enemies in the back… how many seconds do you need to break through them?”
Blazer asked, putting into consideration that Egd would likely be able to see the weak points in the enemies’ line.
“…Twelve or fifteen… at most eighteen.”
“Make it in ten.”
“We’ll buy you ten seconds. Run away with Lina and the others in that time.”
If drawn out, they could very well expect annihilation, so Blazer resorted to using The Silver members as decoy. Aside from Lina being visibly disturbed in the moment of realizing so, no one had the time to question anything now.
That did not mean Lina was not aware of their situation, however. Even Hornel was so mentally strained that the best he could do now was keep his eyes from turning away from the enemies in front of him.
Everyone realized from the sweat trickling down Betty’s face, and also Bruce’s voice, while he conversed with Maüs that they had no room for error, for the enemy’s combat strength surpassed theirs.
“You’re done planning your moves yet, Blazer? Don’t worry, we’ll treat the girls nicely. Our new subordinates would want us to do that, too.”
The vicinity burst up with creepy laughter.
Among the ruckus, there were noises of licking, causing Betty to shudder.
“Hahahaha, congrats, Betty! Someone’s actually into you!”
“Damn it, Brother… joking around now? You ought to know some manners!”
“Hmph, that’s exactly why you’re so unpopular.”
Betty rebutted Maüs’ cynical humor, but she didn’t waste the moment, for at the same time, she flung three daggers at the three grunts to Maüs’ sides.
One among them successfully deflected the attack, but the two others were taken down. At this time, Betty was already making her next move, utilizing her agility to rush at the nearest enemy and stab him.
Certain that Betty’s move was the sign for him to go, Egd rushed forward, with Hornel, Idéa, and Midors taking after him.
“-A-rise, Earth Control and Remote Control!”
Lina acted differently. She erected a wall of dirt, separating the group consisting of her and The Silver from Hornel’s group.
Her act of deliberately leaving herself behind prompted Hornel to stop in his tracks and turn around. However, both his arms were grabbed up by Midors and Idéa as they caught up, leaving him no choice but to retreat.
Egd, occupied by the presence of the enemies in front, was not aware of that happening. If he had known, he most likely would have acted the same as Hornel had attempted.
Lina had taken that into consideration, meticulously timing her separation from Hornel’s group.
Egd stabbed one enemy, but as soon as he blinked once, two more already came rushing in from the sides, giving him a total of three more to deal with.
First, he kicked the opponent he had just stabbed off his sword to gain some distance, then lowered his stance as he saw two more enemies appear, as if to wait for all of them to be in the right position.
That moment, his sword, lined for a horizontal strike, emitted a flash of light.
The four rushing enemies fell over in succession, their bodies pushed back by an invisible wall.
Now on the ground like the man, who had been kicked down earlier, and lined up neatly due to the path of their fall, Egd jumped to their row’s side.
And then he leapt, rushing at the straight file of targets in front of him.
The unleashed attack boasted more than enough power to spell the death of those five men. With Egd’s leap making way for them, Midors and Idéa, with Hornel in tow, ran on ahead. Egd, upon landing followed them, keeping himself in the back row to watch out for an ambush.
First, to break out of the enclosure, and then, after neutralizing the threat, rescue Blazer’s group. All four of them had the same plan in mind.
Intense pain ran through Egd’s legs, forcing him to trip over forward.
Unsightly as that was, he was able to quickly get his posture in order, but then he realized what had hit him. An arrow through his right thigh.
Moreover, they were not dealing with just one arrow.
Sharp arrows hit Midors in his arm, and Idéa in her calf, and grazed past Hornel’s face.
And then Idéa, sweating profusely from her face, dropped right down onto the ground. That went to show how the damage had not been dealt at just where the arrows had landed.
“Bah, it’s toxic…! Hornel, Recover!”
However, Hornel’s invocation of the Swift Magic was unsuccessful.
“Curses, this… neuro… toxin…?”
Egd was the most physically fit one, and thus the last of the group to fall – so when he eventually did, four members of the Laughing Foxes came to round them up.
They put away their bows and drew their blades from their backs or waists, and then showed the same creepy grins and laughs as the lowlifes from before.
One of them kicked Idéa so that she would turn over and face up, and then lowlifes’ laughter intensified as they put their blades to Midors and Hornels’ necks.
Around the same time, shortly after Lina let Hornel’s group go on ahead, Betty slit the throat of one of the fourteen remaining enemies – that count excluding Maüs. So as to decrease their numbers as soon as possible, Betty picked out the weakest ones among them first.
At the same time, Blazer and Bruce spread out, each taking on multiple enemies at once, struggling to secure the other group’s escape.
Although quite concerned by a myriad of things, Lina kept on using Swift Magic from the back row, and used kicking attacks to support the other three as needed.
“Damn it, these guys are tough as nails!”
“It’s not much, but some of them did deflect Betty’s daggers! Not to mention, they’re pushing us back… kuh-!”
“The ones in the back are small fries, but the ones over here are the real deal. What, let’s just say that I had a few connections in my trade.”
Lina was particularly bothered by Maüs’ last statement, but the surrounding chaos had almost all of her attention now, making that one detail slip by her.
Bruce, Blazer, and Betty each were taking on four enemies, but one of the thieves attacking Lina judged that three would be enough to deal with her, so he broke away and rushed for Lina instead.
Lina had narrowly deflected the man’s kick with her staff, but she was still knocked back by the impact.
And when she landed… the first thing that entered her vision was Maüs’ boot. Maüs grinned as he kicked Lina’s staff away and lifted her up by the collar of her shirt.
“Oh-ho, I knew you were a nice girl. Maybe I’ll sell you off when I’m done! Hahahaha! Orah!!”
Maüs shouted, then took a dagger and stabbed Lina’s thigh. For a second, Lina’s expression warped in intense pain, further fueling Maüs’ humor.
“You little shit! Your corpse’s not gonna look pretty!”
“Hold it, Brother – I’ll kill him myself!”
“Hahahahahaha! Barking won’t do you any good now that you can’t even move around! But it sure is noisy around here… so how about I do this to shut you up!?”
Maüs moved the dagger in his hand, resting it on the base of Lina’s neck. The toxin on the blade already taking effect, Lina’s expression turned pale.
The three others held their breaths as they watch Maüs’ every move. Then it only took an instant of negligence for Betty to be knocked down.
The man who had kicked Lina now circled around to Blazer, slashing him on his back.
Even Bruce, the last one standing, had his movements disturbed by the sight of Lina’s bleeding neck, and was ultimately pinned down.
“Hmph, in the end, that’s all you people can do? Well, I guess that sounds about right.”
Betty seemed to have also been hit with the toxin when she had been knocked down, as apparent from her sweating profusely from her face, and how she was immobilized despite not being pinned down.
Bruce and Blazer desperately scrambled for an idea on how to get themselves out of this predicament, but the enemies’ numbers alone rendered them unable to do anything but stare at the ground as blood dripped from their noses.
“Leave them around, and they’ll be trouble for us later. Kill the men off.”
Lina’s whisper prompted Maüs to incline his head in doubt.
The thief subordinates also stopped what they were doing and strained their ears to listen.
“I can… hear them…”
“What? Ah, right, things over there should be wrapped up by now! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!”
Maüs let out a hearty laugh in celebration of the Laughing Foxes’ presumed victory, but Lina continued talking as her face was left hanging down.
“No… I can… hear… them…”
The frail, yet reassured tone of her voice briefly confused Maüs, but then he disregarded it and issued the order ‘to kill’ to his subordinates once again.
-It happened that very moment.
The enormous dirt wall in front of Maüs was met with a heavy impact on the other side, causing it to crumble down and be swept away like sand in the wind.
The destruction of the wall distracted everyone present, momentarily stopping all movement. On the other side was Hornel’s group and nine members of the Laughing Foxes, all flat on the ground.
Amid this bizarre turn of events, Lina… and Lina alone, felt an abnormal gust of wind brush against her cheeks.
The wind from the other side of her magically-constructed wall, blowing past her in but an instant.
“Hey, you just ran past him!”
“Well, it’s not my fault, sir! Wasn’t this your idea of showing off, Master!?”
“I mean, I won’t deny that, but everyone’s in trouble, so I wanna do… that!”
Maüs turned around upon hearing those voices coming from behind him.
Betty smiled, reveling in the nostalgia those voices induced.
Blazer and Bruce, although still in trouble, celebrated the arrival of the two newcomers.
And streams of tears burst forth from Lina’s eyes.
“Watch out, y’all… we’re gonna do the thing!”
“Yeah, that thing!”