Chapter 57 – Graham

Normally I use the cocking lever to arm my crossbow, to avoid unnerving people, but I had no time for that. I went ahead and pulled the string back and set it over the latch using just my fingers and Tiana’s inhuman strength. I pulled the enchanted bolt out of the stock and set it in the flight groove.

It’s a risk to point a crossbow downward with a bolt in the groove. The fletching usually will hold the bolt in place in front of the string, but occasionally it will slide out of place. But I had to take the risk. I aimed down from mid-flight at the orc closest to Ceria and fired.

Another boom echoed throughout the cavern, and the orc went down, the metal bolt having drilled a hole in his armor and ripped into his upper torso from behind. I landed next to one of the wolves and booted it aside without mercy. It didn’t kill the thing of course, but it sure felt like a few ribs broke.

When I looked up, a second orc was staring into a magic formation that had just appeared in the thin air before him. Air formations do not last but a few seconds, but before it broke apart, Ceria used it to launch a wind scythe at the thing. Unfortunately it didn’t hit the neck where she’d probably aimed, but struck its chest. It had enough force to slice through its leather armor and into its flesh. Not lethal, but a serious hit.

I tossed the crossbow aside. I had a couple of wolves and the third orc focusing on me, and a crossbow is not a close-quarters weapon. Drawing my sword, I ran at the orc. He swung his ax at me, which I had to parry. The creature just had to be an expert with the thing. I began having to dodge backwards as he came at me with a rapid series of circular swings, left, right, left, right, like the viking berserker of my worst nightmares. Finally, I saw the timing and spun around to bring my sword at him from the side opposite his ax stroke. I landed a blow against his pauldron and immediately gave a wing beat to push myself up and away before the ax came back through.

With a normal sword, I might not have done more than weakened the armor, but my mithril blade had cut all the way through and bit into his arm. Blood streamed down from beneath the pauldron onto his arm as he turned to come at me.

The wolf I had booted aside was back. I felt him coming at me, so I whirled, and brushed him aside with my wing just as he tried to leap. He flew again, this time striking Ceria’s barrier. Unfortunately it was weakening from the repeated attack of wolves against it while she was busy trying to land a lethal blow on the orc she had wounded. He penetrated it and landed at her feet.

For a horrifying moment, I thought it would kill her before I could stop it. But Ceria calmly lifted her staff, her mouth chanting some spell I couldn’t hear, and drove it down into the wolf’s ribs.

‘Aether’ element seems to correspond in some way to electricity. At least, magic lightning is an aether attribute spell. I knew as I saw blue fire play over the wolf’s body that she had hit it with some aether spell.

It was dead or unconscious. I could concentrate on the orc. He was coming at me as I returned my attention to him, but when he arrived, he didn’t have as effective an ax motion. My blow had taken away that whirlwind attack. I timed for the moment when he would be slowest recovering his swing, and drove at him again, to land another blow on the same arm. This time, he was unable to keep his grip on the ax with that hand and the weapon went astray rather than coming back through.

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I kicked him in the abs, causing him to stagger backward, then rushed him and ran his neck through in an unprotected spot just above the gorget. It must have severed his neck bone, because he dropped as I yanked my sword back.

Ceria dropped the last orc just after I spun toward it, a magic arrow running it through. The wind barrier was gone, so I’m guessing she had to drop it to use the magic arrow spell. She was still holding her staff up one handed like a bow. She noticed me looking her direction and smiled.

Had I been looking, I would have seen that her magic arrow spell worked just like Arken’s; the ‘bow’ would materialize, overlapping the staff, but bend like a normal bow as she drew a magic ‘bowstring’ and materialized the arrow. It would disappear once the arrow let fly.

But now, we both turned toward Bruna. She was battling a spear-wielding orc while standing on the body of her troll. The other orc was down. She looked wounded. I needed to get to her immediately, but…

A naked troll, with a giant divot out of his skull and visible brain tissue exposed, was lumbering toward me, once again clutching his club. I groaned and ready for the onslaught as Ceria hurried to assist her sister. We had this battle won, but the mopping up looked like it was going to take a while.

# # #

I pondered the figure in front of me, trying to organize my thoughts. This was a whole new category of problem, and not one for which I had a ready solution.

Graham’s leather armor was gone. His mighty chest was bare, and his exposed muscles had the ‘pumped-up’ condition of a body builder displaying his physique. Massive pecs and biceps bulged with effort transmitted into the big hands which gripped his war axe mid-swing.

That swing had begun days ago, and had yet to complete its arc.

The largest abs I have ever seen looked like they ought to be glistening with sweat as he battled, but they were dry, and every inch of skin had a dull, slate-like hue. As did his his eyes, his hair, everything of Graham that wasn’t covered by his remaining gear.

Graham stood in front of that huge stone outcropping, in a wide, square stance that would give maximum support for his swings. There were traces of blood from his attackers on his clothing, and a few remaining scraps of the carcasses of monsters that had fallen to his axe on the rocky ground. They mostly had long since been consumed.

“Petrification,” Bruna observed, although she was just stating the obvious. “Lady, you seem to have a lot of knowledge about monsters. What monsters live around here that can petrify their opponents? It’s just cockatrices, right?”

“In this region, they should have both cockatrices and basilisks,” I answered.

“And no cockatrice would be running around underground,” she mused, scratching her cheek.

Ceria noted, “You guys think there were Trolls back there, so…”

“Trolls are intelligent,” I responded. “Semi-intelligent, anyway. They can conceive of doing something against their normal nature.”

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“And I’ve heard basilisks go into caves all the time,” Bruna noted. “So, it’s a basilisk. Didn’t know they lived this far north.”

“They aren’t common up here,” I admitted. “But they’ve been reported as far north as Thuriben.”

The Royal Knights take high-level monsters very seriously, and we have records of sightings and hunts going back hundreds of years. As a squire, Tiana had spent many hours searching through those records for investigators, and had accumulated a wide knowledge about each species.

“Are we going to carry him out?” Ceria wondered. Her eyes were all over the picture of masculinity in front of us. I could understand. I had memories of Tiana being similarly fascinated when she saw Graham exercising shirtless. It was a slightly overwhelming sight for a girl’s eyes. Not in the sense of attraction, though. It was something more like bewilderment. Or morbid curiosity.

“No,” I answered. “We can’t carry three petrified adventurers out of here. The other two will almost certainly be in the same condition when we find them. Just managing Graham would be an accomplishment. But I’m not sure what we should do.”

“Huh? Go back and get an expedition together!” Bruna retorted. “I’ve seen an unpetrification before. You need dozens of healers working together, and it takes hours to do it! You’re gonna need protection for them and everything too!”

I pursed my lips as I realized I had to explain things in more detail to these two, about the hero’s party and about the adventurers who set them up and the possibility of a conspiracy against them. That expedition wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

- my thoughts:
Graham is back. Sort of. Don't worry, he's not dead. He's just stoned. Sorry, I couldn't help it. Check out my other novel: Tales of the ESDF
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