Is it Jolly to have Cooperation in the Dungeon?
Chapter 2: Companionship
Sparks and steel clashing against steel rang through the glade.
The knight's blade slashed at Solaire's throat with deceptive speed. The knight of the sun leaned back, the blade just grazing his chainmail. He leapt back, sinking somewhat into the water. The other knight halted his attack, still as a statue.
Solarie bit his lip, raising his hands in a placating motion. He had no intention to fight this person- only wanted to have a conversation. It was rare he fought outside Orario as well, so he was a bit out of practice.
He walked forward, making sure to keep his arms out of view.
"Now dear fellow, I mean you no-!"
The knight leapt forward again, jumping forward and bringing his sword down in an overhead motion. Solaire made a side-step to avoid the blow, but his body didn't move as fast as his reflexes did.
The knight's sword bit into his left pauldron. The air filled with a sound like nails on a chalkboard, but his armour didn't budge. The knight pressed the back of his hand onto his blade and pushed down.
Solaire grunted as the weight behind the blow increased. He shot a glance into the water, jerking his feet. Something swirled around them, nullifying his agility.
Mud. Of course- how could he expect anything else in a bog? It meant he couldn't just run away from the fight or gain some ground to calm down his opponent. He would have to fight.
Solaire clenched his right hand into a fist and hammered it into the knight's chest-piece. The metal caved inward from the blow. Blood spat from the knight's helm, the force slackening behind his strike.
He staggered back from the pain-
Solaire took his chance.
"You give me no choice, my good man!"
He drew his sword from his shield and ran forward. One moment the knight was looking over his wound, the next he glanced up to see Solaire reeling his blade back to strike. The knight stiffened in surprise, raising his shield to block-
With the strength of a Level 6 Adventurer, Solaire split it like butter.
The ruined shield fell apart, shattering into an infinite amount of fragments. The knight widened his eyes as the sun knight's sword dug into his forearm. Blood gushed from the wound, staining both of them red.
For a few moments, they struggled against each other, the knight shaking whilst Solaire was the picture of calm. He stood calm and relaxed as if he weren't putting anywhere near as much effort as the other fighter was.
Naturally, he wasn't. If he were… only one of them would be standing alive.
Solaire focused his gaze on his opponent. Something niggled at his brain. Despite the fact he's used some of his strength to get this advantage, in truth, he hadn't expected the shield to break. Even more so for the knight to struggle against his blow rather than caving outright.
He knew of Adventurers outside of Orario who could reach Level 3, but they were outliers at best. For this man to keep resisting despite all his blood loss…
"I don't wish to wound you further," Solaire began, alleviating a little of his strength. The knight stopped shaking as much, though he still pushed as hard as he could against his blade's edge, "But I must ask. From what land do you hail?"
The knight said nothing, only looking at him. Not a hint of emotion left his masked face, nor did his posture betray any thoughts. It was almost as if he were a machine, focused on filling a single function.
Solaire loosened the pressure a bit more, allowing the knight to solidify his stance.
"Do you come from Catarina? Or perhaps Rakia? You certainly have a fierceness similar to them."
The knight whipped his sword with unexpected speed. The blade cut into Solaire's tunic, slashing through the emblem and deep into his chainmail. Solaire grunted from the pain. It didn't draw blood, but the chainmail forced into his chest caused more than a sting.
"Gah… quite an excellent blow. However…"
Solaire grabbed the knight by the shoulder with his left hand. He closed his grip around the shoulder, feeling steel bend and curl under his strength. As the knight winced, Solaire gathered his strength.
Pivoting on his left foot, Solaire threw the knight into the cluster of trees with as much strength as he dared. The knight's back smashed into a tree. The trunk cracked and splintered from the impact, branches breaking off and dropping into the bog with a disgusting splash.
Solaire huffed from the slight exertion, dipping his sword into the water to wash away the blood staining it. He watched for any sign of movement from the knight. Not a sound or spasm left his opponent- he was as still as a corpse.
"I do hope I didn't overdo it," he mumbled to himself, knitting his brow in worry. As a Warrior of Sunlight, he truly had no desire to harm someone- let alone kill them.
A knot of guilt wound up in his stomach. He walked forward, picking his way through the water and past the few underwater strands of reeds that occasionally ensnared his feet. The closer he came, the more he wondered how the knight was still alive.
There wasn't a spot on his armour that wasn't broken in some way, whether from rusted patches or pieces hacked out of them. Even his helm, the most intact part of his ensemble, was far from perfect- lumps riddled it, and a giant crack ran up the visor, though it didn't expose his face. Cuts and dark stains littered his tunic, and the edges were ragged as if something had bitten into it.
Solaire had to stop himself from reaching out of concern. He'd never seen an Adventurer in such a dire state before, not since his early days.
Solaire reached out to check the knight's heartbeat, keeping silent to avoid any disorientation. His downed opponent still did not move. He didn't expect him to, but even so… something bit at his brain.
"Are you awake?" he inquired, leaning forward, "I hope I didn't harm you too badly-"
His instincts screamed.
The knight's boot slammed into his chest, sending him sliding back. Solaire let out a groan but straightened up in time to see the knight stagger to his feet. His outstretched hand cradled a steadily growing ember in his palm.
"Magic?" he wondered, setting his shoulders, "I would warn you, fire magic in a wood like is hard advisable!"
The knight ignored his warning. Instead, he did the one thing he would never expect a Magic Swordsman to do.
He plunged the ember into his chest.
Solaire had no time to consolidate his surprise before heat pulsed from the knight. Steam rose off his ruined armour, a burning light emerging from the depth of his visor.
"I see…" Solaire voiced, awe-colouring his tone, "You are not a vagabond or wanderer."
Indeed, the knight couldn't be someone so humble. Arrogant to think that, perhaps, but it was the truth of the matter. The knight was too skilled with a blade, moving with years of fighting experience behind him.
Those he would've understood as the result of a true warrior. But to be able to survive even a Level 6's bare effort? One which would trump some other Adventurers?
To use magic that bore the unmistakable signal of a Falna?
Undoubtedly, the opponent he faced was someone like him. An Adventurer of a god's Familia.
The knight stepped forward. For a brief moment, his sword appeared to be wreathed in illusory flames. Solaire unslung his shield, planting his feet deep into the muck. He held his sword to the side, not pointing at his opponent.
A sword wasn't his only weapon- as the captain of the Warriors, he possessed a Magic as well. But that was one meant to kill, not to subdue. To use it here would mean dooming this person he wanted to talk down from his madness.
"I do want to avoid hurting you," he called out, already knowing how futile it would be, "it would go against my beliefs. And, of course, you'd stop living."
The knight appeared not to hear his words, drifting in one ear and out the next. His steps went faster as he broke into a run. He brought his blade back, hunching and ready to spring forward.
Solaire refused to let his concentration cease. He watched his opponent and leaned forward, holding his shield to cover his head.
The knight jumped forward, a burning flame lighting in his chest. The tip of his blade stabbed into Solaire's shield with the force of a hammer. Solaire grunted as the force pushed him deeper into the muck, water sloshing around his upper thighs now.
The force was unlike before. Whatever magic the knight had, it seemed to be an amplifying one. Similar to Finn's Hell Finegas perhaps?
Solaire pushed the theorising away in favour of keeping his ground. The knight allowed a moment to pass before throwing a punch into Solaire's side. His rib cage rattled from the impact, though he didn't give way. Instead, Solaire allowed a sliver more of his strength to slip through his control.
The knight's blade reversed course. Solaire stomped forward and forced it back. The knight stilled, gleaming eyes widening in surprise, before pushing all his weight behind his sword. It refused to force Solaire back even an inch… in fact, it was being sent back even harder.
"Now, my good man…" Solaire gritted his teeth, "time to calm down… I would think!"
With a shout, Solaire swung his shield arm with all of his might. The knight's sword flew to the sky, his stance open and the flame fading. Reeling his sword hand back, Solaire apologised in his mind… then he punched.
His clenched gauntlet sunk into the knight's stomach. Immediately he felt something rupture and tear within, bones cracking and fracturing. The wind blew from the power behind his blow, the knight doubling over immediately.
He let out a strangled gasp and coughed up a veritable river of blood. He fell to his knees, a puppet with its strings cut. Solaire watched him wretch and twist from the pain before he sheathed his weapon.
As if it were a signal, the feeling of magic from before disappeared. The knight keeled over again, coughing up more and more blood. Solaire frowned, reaching for his medical pouch. He wasn't even aware that a person could lose so much blood like that. Perhaps he had overdone it.
He proffered a small vial, filled to the brim with silver liquid. Purchased from Dian Cecht, it was the best short-term healing potion he had. Even this had cost quite a lot of vali. But as the Warriors believed- a friend in need was a companion indeed.
"My name is Solaire, Captain of the Warriors of Sunlight," he introduced himself, kneeling to eye level, "I am sorry for that, but you wouldn't stop otherwise."
The knight shook his head, flecks of blood flying from the cracks. He let out a rattled gasp, staring at Solaire in something akin to wonder.
"You…" he began, his voice hoarse and airy, as if he hadn't spoken for a very long time, "you are not… Hollow?"
"Now, I must warn you… it's quite a potent brew!"
In the lightness of the day, a cork popped out of a bottle. Sitting against the side of the wagon, Solaire kept his eyes on the horses as they grazed. After a moment, he lifted his newly opened potion bottle to his nose and sniffed deeply.
"Mmm… still fresh," he smiled brightly, nodding to himself as he offered the bottle to his new companion, "you first."
The knight looked at him from beneath a veritable mop of dark hair. It wasn't long, but it was shaggy and spoke of a general lack of care. It, for lack of a better term, stuck down to his head, giving an impression as if he had been drowned and never dried. A single green eye poked from underneath a fringe, the other hidden from view.
His gaze went from Solaire to the bottle and then back. His expression didn't change even a little. "...are you sure?"
"Oh yes!" Solaire pushed the bottle into his companion's hand- gently, to avoid breaking the costly elixir, "you'll feel much better after."
The knight glanced at the bottle. He turned it over between his worn digits, brow furrowing a little at the glowing liquid. He peered back up to Solaire's encouraging face, then downed the bottle.
He gulped it down- at first, slowly, but then the feeling hit him like a sledgehammer. He hadn't drunk in a long time. So long he'd forgotten what it was to be thirsty. He held the bottle tighter and forced himself to drink more than he could, the brew spilling over to dribble down his chin.
Solaire chuckled, closing his eyes and letting the noon sun warm his face.
The knight plucked the bottle away from his lips with a 'pop', then handed the empty container to Solaire.
"You must have been thirsty, to down a Sucellusian brew," Solaire commented, storing it in his pack, "I will admit, he isn't Dionysus, but Sucellus' potions are quite potent."
Even as he spoke, the knight's fingers twitched unconsciously, erratically. All of a sudden, his tiredness ebbed away, the edges of his vision more solid and real than they'd been for a long time. He blinked twice, banishing the dark spots in his vision.
The knight looked down at the bandages wrapped around Solaire's torso- around the sword wound in his gut.
"...sorry," he apologised, still unused to speak as much as he was, "I didn't… it was…"
His fists clenched and he breathed deep in through his nose before releasing it slowly.
"I didn't intend to," he finished lamely, running his finger along his planted sword.
Solaire waved it off, smiling and chuckling to himself. "Apology accepted. Truly, if I hadn't learned to forgive people in the past, I'm sure you would have quite a few jealous adversaries."
He hummed, tapping his fingers against his arm. From the corner of his eye, he saw the knight glancing back at the bonfire- now smouldering and fading, the weapon that served as the ignition point melting.
Despite his face being a statue, his eye… misted over as if they were sinking deep into memory.
How peculiar. Even in his long life, Solaire hadn't met someone so… well, someone so like this knight.
"What do they call you?" he queried, scratching the back of his head, "it would be quite awkward to keep referring to you by descriptions."
The knight raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
"Well," Solaire started, reaching into his pouch once more, "it is considered rude to not refer to people by name… at least, where I come from."
He withdrew another bottle. Uncorking it, he downed it in one go with an appreciative humming in his chest.
"Alvin," the newly christened knight spoke. The name tumbled from his lips like he hadn't said it in a long time, "that's my name."
Solaire nodded, his lips curling up encouragingly. "Alvin… a fine name, my good man."
For a while, they sat in peace. The wind whistled, birds chirped, and the grass rustled. In essence, the scenery could not be called anything but relaxing.
"What were you doing in such a place?" Solaire inquired after a while, "I wouldn't expect a warrior of your calibre to be in a place like this. Not to say it's wrong, of course- following the path of one's sun can be long indeed."
Alvin lowered his head, his face hidden from sight by his hair. His good hand clenched and unclenched before relaxing.
"...I was searching for something." He responded with the tone of his voice level, betraying no vulnerability.
"I see, did you manage to find it?"
Alvin gripped the pommel of his sword, finger tapping against the grip. "...yes."
Solaire nodded in understanding. A touchy subject then. "Your fighting style is excellent by the way. I haven't seen someone with as much experience since I left Orario. Well, I expect it shan't be long before I see my jolly comrades again."
He dared to glance at Alvin. He hadn't moved a muscle since he'd answered his question. He just… stared forward. Looking without seeing.
Solaire had seen that look before. Adventurers who had nothing to live for.
He knew what he had to do.
"You know, I will be stopping in Port Melen on the way back to Orario," he broached, getting to his feet and shaking off excess river water, "I can give you a lift as far as there, and then you can decide what you want to do.
He smiled apologetically. "And, of course, I would want to recompense you for your broken equipment. There's a notable blacksmith in Melen too."
Alvin's gaze twitched down to his shield arm, then glanced over himself. He tapped his caved-in chest place, wincing, and rolled his right shoulder.
To Solaire, it seemed as if Alvin was understanding for the first time how decrepit and ruined his equipment was.
Alvin looked up at the man he'd fought and nearly killed.
He knew had to continue the hunt. He knew he had to continue finding them. He knew that he couldn't be distracted, couldn't turn away from his self-appointed duty.
Solaire's disposition was unlike anything he'd seen before. Bright as the sun, warm as its heat, as welcoming as a new morning. How long had it been since Alvin had seen those things?
Besides, to continue the hunt, he would need new equipment.
"...very well," Alvin agreed, reluctance colouring his tone as he stood up, "as far as this 'Melen'. There, we part ways."
"Of course, my good man."
The course of action decided upon, the two climbed into the wagon- Solaire in front, Alvin inside with the goods- and drove off.
Solaire found himself wondering if the Ivory King was doing well, and how the Warriors were faring in his absence. Well, he would send a letter once he arrived in Melen just to assure them he was on his way.
…he wasn't sure that would be enough to tide his comrade over, though.
The new companions disappeared into the brush, leaving only the half-melted memorial behind. The only mark that someone was at rest there.
Some days later, within the Labyrinth City of Orario, a certain Vice-Captain froze.
A chill ran up his spine, sinking into his nerves. He gripped his arms tighter, ignoring the steadily building ache in his muscles from the pressure. Slung across his back, his sword seemed heavier than before.
Then the moment passed, and the Burnt Ivory King could breathe.
Sounds faded into focus, of warriors screaming and metal clashing against each other, again and again. Sparks flew and bodies fell but none stayed down. They knew better than to give up when he was present.
The Ivory King blinked, refocusing his attention. He watched the newest recruits to the Warriors of Sunlight- a Pallum and a few humans mixed in-trade blows.
The Pallum's height lent itself well to cloak and dagger strikes. He dashed forward, rolling underneath a sword swing from one of the humans. The human stumbled forward, too much strength in his swing.
The Pallum swept around and kicked the back of his opponent's knee, bringing him down. The human cried out, then a shield smashed into his face. He collapsed to the floor unconscious, dropping his weapons.
The Ivory King resisted the urge to sigh, the familiar disappointment bubbling in his veins.
Was it truly so hard for younger Adventurers to learn how to fight?
He glanced around, seeing little improvement among the other training groups- rookie mistakes and stupid errors that would become a habit if not corrected. The higher level Adventurers waited to the side of the square of land, following the schedule he had laid out.
The Pallum pivoted on his heel, facing the two other opponents- a human and Chienthrope. One carried dual knives- leaning too forward, feet too tight together- and the other a large axe- not compensating for the added weight, sluggish awareness-, waiting for a signal.
There would be no signal.
He strode forward just as the three began to dash at each other. Instantly their eyes caught onto him and dropped into a bow. The other groups ceased moving too, casting looks of awe towards him.
It was hard not to do so, in their minds. Sleek silver armour covered his entire body, a royal red tabard flowing from his pauldrons and skirt. A sun emblem embedded into the cloth glew brighter in the morning sun.
Slung around his shoulder, a massive greatsword glimmered, notches and ridges perfectly symmetrical. Even from a distance, all of the trainees could feel the power rolling off him. To many, he was a figure of admiration and authority.
To others, he was and had been one who would never have mercy.
His elaborate helmet, a facade of a passive human face, stared at the group.
"Vice-Captain!" The Pallum shouted first, in acknowledgement and terror. The others, apart from the felled human, followed in succession.
"That was a below-poor performance," he cut through the pleasantries, voice as decisive and cold as sword steel. The trainees jolted, but did not rise to meet his gaze, "I was led to believe you were worthy recruits. Was I mistaken?"
"N-no, sir!" The Chienthrope responded, quivering in his boots.
The Ivory King gestured silently to the downed human. The question was quite obvious: what had he done wrong?
"He put too much power into his swing," the Pallum answered the prompt. He jumped as the Ivory King turned to face him, fidgeting with his small blade, "it made it easier to unbalance him."
The Vice-Captain looked at the other two. Even without seeing his eyes, they could feel their intensity sitting on them.
Almost instinctively the second human corrected his stance and the Chienthrope adjusted his grip, holding the axe lower. Better- not by much, but at least it was an improvement.
Without comment, the Ivory King walked away, leaving the recruits in terrified silence.
It was not in him to be idealistic, to praise everyone and encourage them to do better. It was his job to make them better. To forge them from whatever drivel of adventuring poisoned their minds into capable soldiers.
Solaire was the one who made the Warriors friendly and loved in Orario. Conversely… the Ivory King made them feared in the Dungeon.
He returned to his posting, leaning his blade against the fence surrounding the training grounds. The training routines started once more, the Pallum helping the downed human to his feet to continue.
"He won't last…" the Ivory King muttered, dissatisfaction colouring each syllable, "to be felled so easily…"
"Indeed," a rumbling and familiar voice agreed, its owner stepping up to his side, "War is not for the naive."
The Ivory King looked at his companion, nodding once in respect. "Lord Faraam."
"Vice-Captain," Faraam returned the gesture. "How are the recruits faring?"
"Not well," the Ivory King answered bluntly, watching yet another obvious failure in another of the training groups get a mace to the arm when he forgot he was dual-wielding knives. "I dare not think how we shall perform this Monster Feria."
Faraam hummed in agreement, leaning onto the fence. Though the height difference wasn't too extreme between the two of them- the Ivory King remained only slightly shorter than Ottar- he still had to crane his head to look at his god.
Together they watched the drills for a short while until they shot each other a look. The Ivory King glanced at his lieutenant. He nodded once and got one in return. As his lieutenant took his spot, the god and his knight walked to the Manse's front.
"Have you had word from Solaire?" the Ivory King questioned, "if he has not brought a sizable amount of recruits, I shall have words."
Faraam chuckled at the thorny words of his Vice-Captain. From his pocket, he drew an opened letter. The broken wax sealed pushed together back into form, bore the image of a smiling sun.
"He has stopped in Melen to resupply," Faraam assured him, "he has a prospect with him. One who managed to survive a bout with him."
Behind his helm, the Ivory King raised a thin, disbelieving eyebrow. "I see. Only one?"
The Ivory King didn't bother to hide his disappointment, letting his shoulders fall. Faraam watched with glee in his eyes.
"He is aware that the reason he is allowed to go on these journeys is so he can bring benefits to the Warriors?" The Ivory King quipped dryly, "If not… he is more a fool than I thought."
Faraam refused to answer. To do so and not give Solallow Solairend himself would betray the creed of a soldier's pride.
"...apparently, this warrior fought admirably," Faram replied. The doors to the manse swung open, a candle-lit hall greeting them, "better than some Adventurers have."
The Ivory King halted mid-step. He ran a hand alongside his helm's sculpted jaw.
"I see," he commented. His sword hand twitched once before stilling into absolute calmness. "We shall see if he is worthy enough to alleviate Solaire's failure."
Faraam nodded. "Indeed."
The god held up a second letter, this one completely sealed. It bore no identifying marks, apart from the wax seal bearing a single snowflake.
The Ivory King's heart lightened. Faraam held the letter towards him, smiling beneath his ragged scarf.
"I would suggest you retreat to your quarters," he advised, looking out to the training grounds and the higher-level Adventurers practising against each other, "allow yourself a moment of peace, my friend."
Faraam stalked deeper into the Manse, leaving the Ivory King clutching his letter so tight as if it would have flown away at any time.
He let out a lightened breath and began towards his quarters. The thought of testing Solaire's recruit faded from his mind. He would bear it, yes, and would do what he may when they would meet at last, but its importance faded away for a short time.
At that moment, all he could think of was her. His frozen queen in a far-off land.