Chapter 18: Be a Man!

“There!” she shouted to Darius who followed behind her. She wasn’t sure if this would work, but she had to try. In the exact same moment that they ran into the cave, another crack followed by an explosive blast destroyed everything in the immediate area. The lush green forest instantly transformed into a scorched barren desert.

The cave was deep and wide yet narrow at the entrance, the walls covered in thick moss. Luckily for them, the cave was vacant, or at least, whatever usually resided inside wasn’t there.

“We’re cornered,” Darius moaned as he faced the dead end at the back of the cave.

“Does that thing work?” Lara asked as she eyed his hammer.

“Yeah.”

“Well, in that case, I have a plan.”

The great crustacean slammed into the cave’s entrance. It was far too large to enter, but that didn’t stop it from trying as it repeatedly bashed into the mouth of the cave. Determined to penetrate the cave, it reared back for a moment before lunging forward at full force, getting itself stuck in the process. It used its long antennae to probe its surroundings, searching for any signs of Lara and Darius, while using its other, much smaller claw to reach inside the cave, trying to grope anything it could. Lara seized her chance and went on the offensive, dashing forward to slice off all four antennae in one sweep. Blinded, the creature writhed in pain. It still had two eyes, but its eyesight was too poor to see into the dark cave. Nevertheless, it was determined to kill everything in the cave, at any cost.

“What is wrong with this thing? It’s blind, but it keeps attacking anyway.” Lara talked more to herself than to Darius. Spirits also valued their lives and would normally stop attacking once they were wounded this badly, so it surprised Lara that the shrimp kept at it.

The creature then unraveled its large claw. Lara saw this and leaped onto the shrimp’s head. She grunted as she jammed both of her swords into the shrimp’s head to no avail.

“The armor’s too thick!” she said as the beast violently jerked its head up and down, bashing her repeatedly against the roof of the cave before throwing her off so hard she flew into the end of the cave, knocking her unconscious.

“Stop the test immediately!” the Emperor bellowed as he stared at the screen in disbelief.

“Where is the administrator? Have her shut the formation down now!”

“Father, you know we can’t do that. She has to survive the test on her own without our help. Either way, the administrator isn’t allowed to stop the test for anything, even you.” Edward reminded, the oldest of Lionel’s siblings. He knew that Lara was his father’s favorite child. When the time came, she would most likely be chosen to become Emperor, or in her case, Empress. If she were to say, tragically die in the test, his problem would be solved.

“Screw the rules! That thing is going to kill her!” Lionel shouted, enraged by his brother’s lax attitude toward the lethal threat looming over their only sister.

“Well, maybe if you hadn’t been such a coward, you would have been there to protect her in the arena instead of hiding from your responsibilities like you always do,” James, the second oldest, snapped at Lionel. He realized what his older brother was trying to do and decided to support him in bumping off the competition.

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Lionel looked to his father for help, “Dad, we can’t just sit by and watch Lar-“

“Your brothers are right, Lionel. If we help her, she will not only fail by default but also bring shame upon herself and our family. We have no choice, ” the Emperor interrupted, clearly defeated.

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Lionel slumped into his chair. His brothers’ words had cut him like razors. It was true. If he hadn’t avoided his responsibilities, he could have been there right now, but he wasn’t.

Lionel could tell from the moment he set eyes on the shrimp that it was a possessed creature. Spirits were formless beings made of pure energy. They usually took the forms of animals to solidify their existence in the physical world, but they would always appear disfigured or unnatural.

Spirits were classified in terms of raw power in the same way as Spiritknights. There were four levels called steps, each with three sublevels called stars. Much of a spirit’s energy was spent maintaining its form, so if it possessed a creature in the physical world, it didn’t have to spend energy sustaining its existence and its power would increase drastically. That was why even though the forest only had one-star level one spirits of the first step, the mutated shrimp had the power of a level two spirit of the first step by successfully possessing a real animal. This was referred to as a variant spirit.

For reasons unknown, Spirits always sought to destroy everything in the material plane, which obviously sparked the endless war between them and mankind. This particular spirit that had possessed the shrimp, however, was unusually hellbent on destruction, even more than spirits of its level usually were.

“Can’t it figure out that using its main attack in such a small space will incinerate itself alongside everyone else in the cave? Why would it go to such lengths just to kill two humans? Is it crazy or just incredibly stupid?” These thoughts raced through Lionel’s mind as he could do nothing but helplessly watch on.

The only one left standing between the shrimp and Lara’s grizzly demise was Darius who knew that if they didn’t do something to stop its claw, there would be no surviving this. He knew they only had about ten minutes until a certain death.

Rushing over to Lara, he picked her up, dragging her well out of reach of the smaller claw which feverishly grasped for something to grab and dismantle. He then sat down right next to her.

“Eight minutes,” Darius muttered. Lara, who was coming to, heard this.

“What?” she asked, not averting her eyes from the giant pistol shrimp claw that slowly inched into the cave to deliver its wrath. Although Darius wasn’t the person she had wanted to spend her last moments with, he was the only option, so she figured they might as well talk.

“We only have about eight, well, seven minutes until that thing kills us. I’m basing it on my estimates of its speed and its current rate of destruction.” Darius shook with fear.

At that moment, Lara felt incredible disgust toward Darius. This time, however, had nothing to do with his false nobility or that he was a simple peasant. This time, it was because of the sheer amount of fear that Darius emanated. As far as she could see, she was at least three times the man Darius was.

Meanwhile, Darius rocked back and forth, hugging his knees tightly and mumbling to himself, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die, I don’t want to-“

“SHUT UP! For once in your petty, worthless little commoner life, could you have some dignity?” Lara screamed.

She couldn’t stand it. She was willing to kill him then and there if she could die in peace. She loved her brother Lionel, but in this stressful moment, she wanted to kill him for setting up the events for her to die next to Darius of all people!

She then said, quite frankly, “Yes, we are going to die. It’s inevitable, and if you can’t accept that, maybe you should do something about it rather than sitting around and crying like a child! Because if you hadn’t noticed, whining about it isn’t going to make the problem go away.”

“I’m sorry.” Darius lowered his head in shame.

Lara knew the rules of the test. No one would save them. Although she wasn’t afraid of death, she was still disappointed and felt like she was too young to die. She still had her whole life ahead of her.

“This is all your fault. I was doing just fine before you brought that thing to me.” She aimed her anger at Darius.

“I worked so hard. I spent so many hours studying, training, watching my father, and learning how to rule an Empire. This was my last test before I could qualify to become his heir. I was supposed to be the Empress.” Although she normally kept raw emotions like sadness and disappointment close to her chest, never revealing them to most people, she broke down now at seven minutes of life remaining.

“But now, I’m going to die because of you.” Her last words would be bitter and filled with hate and disdain. She indeed had a plan, which was to have Darius smash a hole through the cave once the creature was blinded. She figured that once it could not see, it would focus on escaping, but much to her surprise, it didn’t care about its injuries and kept furiously attacking. She reflected on this hill that she’d observed before entering this cave within it. There was no way Darius could blast through the rest of the place in six minutes.

Darius didn’t respond. There was nothing he could say. He wasn’t ready to die here, so he decided to do something. In a desperate last attempt, he ran up to the shrimp and pounded it with all he had.

- my thoughts:
I swear, girls can do it too!
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