If there was one thing Julius was thankful for, it was that the Fire Temple was easily the simplest temple in terms of getting through everything. Rather than a sprawling series of structures and puzzles meant to test both strength and wit, it was just a number of rooms, one after the other, where they just had to fight whatever creatures the room spawned. Some had obstacles and platforms to get around, but all of them were based entirely around combat.
Though Julius himself hadn’t done much fighting. After he had explained the setup of the temple, his kids seemed more than up for testing themselves. They’d actually insisted he stay out of it so they could test their mettle. Granted, that did mean that they were pretty tired by the time they reached the guardian door.
Sophia especially seemed out of it, since she had nearly used up all her own energy healing everyone, panting tiredly as she sat down against the nearby wall, her modified red robe bunching up around her feet. So she’d definitely have to sit out the upcoming bossfight. Even Adrien and Sue were breathing heavier than normal. He’d need to work on getting them to pace themselves…Also, there did happen to be one thing that Julius hadn’t brought up as they walked through the rooms.
For some reason, nearly all the rooms they passed through had craters somewhere in them, whether in the floors, walls, or even ceiling in a few cases. It looked like someone, or multiple someones, had been smashing their way through the temple. So, chances were, there’d be a general waiting for them.
“Hm. So, are you kids ready to see me kick some ass?” Julius asked as he glanced over his tired team with a slight smirk. A chorus of groans echoed back as he adjusted the salamander scale armor that they’d purchased to deal with the heat in the Fire Temple. Since they were all wearing some variation of it, it kind of looked like he was leading an affiliated mercenary group or something.
“Yeah…go for…it,” muttered Maria, sweat pouring down her face even with the layered protections against fire on her. While she seemed to be doing decent enough with figuring out fire magic, judging by a number of temple guardians–mostly golems and stone-lizards–she’d outright seared into ash, this clearly wasn’t her preferred environment. Maybe her wood elf nature was making her more susceptible to heat?
He didn’t think it would be too much of a problem…then again, all of his kids looked exhausted by now. Still, he might need to keep that in mind for their future temples…
“Good luck…” Sergio muttered, his quiver of arrows nearly depleted.
“Well, feel free to kick back and enjoy the show. I’ll get this done in no time and you kids can go take a nap.”
“I know you’re making fun of us…but that sounds fantastic…”
Smirking, Julius walked up to the door. He stared up at it, bracing himself. Whoever the general was waiting in there, they had to be around the same level as Autumn. Just what kind of fighter were they?
If they were someone like the dryad, just more suited for a hot, rocky environment, then he might have some trouble. Of course, in the end, the only way to know was to see with his own eyes. And with that thought, he opened the door.
And then immediately ducked as a stone golem went flying over him, smashing into the ground behind him and thankfully missing all of his students.
“Is that all ya got!? My last fuck gave me more’a workout!” came the rather loud voice of what Julius presumed to be the next general.
Standing in what looked like a crude ring carved into the ground by some kind of blade was a tall and broad orc, who, unlike what was common for a lot of her people, had long, blonde hair that she currently had tied up into a short ponytail. Surprisingly, she also seemed to be wearing a full set of gray plate armor, leaving only her head visible and letting everyone see her sharp teeth and large tusks as she smiled.
“Come on, Crow! Can’t ya make a stronger one!?”
“Kinda busy ‘ere,” replied a different orc, sitting cross-legged under the temple core. Her short, tousled black hair reached her shoulders and, unlike her dark-green ally, she had gray skin. She was wearing a long, black robe that folded over her knees, but left her arms bared, showing the black tattoos curled around her impressive muscles.
“Oh! Then ‘ow ‘bout me!” offered third, bald orc sitting at the edge of a ring, an eager smile on his black-bearded face. He was sitting by another orc, one with pink skin, and was wearing a set of brown armor.
“Ha! Ya couldn’t beat boss even if she was blindfolded and bound!” joked the last orc, the pink one with shaggy black hair, who was equally muscular and wearing his own set of the brown plate.
“How ‘bout, rather than beatin’ each other up, ya get ta work and kill our guest over there,” ‘Crow’ spoke up, pointing over at the door. She smirked as she locked eyes with Julius and he returned the look with an unamused glare.
“Huh?” Looking over as well, an even larger smile spread over the lead orc’s face. “About time ya showed up! I was startin’ ta get bored!”
“Hm. Yeah, sorry about that. I was letting my team test themselves against the temple’s challenges.”
“Really? Don’t tell me ya let a bunch of deedless whelps do all the work for ya, Dragon-Slayer.”
“Deedless?” Adrien asked as he looked up towards the orc, his sword already drawn and his gaze wary. Still, he was letting it droop too low. He was obviously tired, but staying wary was still a good thing for him.
“Well, I suppose it’s a good thing ya did. Now I don’t have to worry about ya being too tired ta go against me.” The orc smirked, ignoring Adrien. “Real nice ta meet ya, Slayer. The name’s Leok Lion-Bane.”
She pointed a thumb over her shoulder. “Lovely lady back there’s Crow Black-Art, and then these two boys-” She gestured at the two remaining orcs. “-are Sero Hawk-Cutter-” The green one raised his hand with a grin. “-and Caro Boar-Breaker.” And the pink one did the same.
Julius nodded. “Julius Goldforge, and my students, Adrien-”
“Ah, ‘old it there,” Leok interrupted. “I know who ya are, Julius Dragon-Slayer, and I don’t care who yer kids are. I’ll hear ‘em when they got names.”
“What does that even mean?” Adrien muttered, frowning.
“Orcs don’t have surnames, normally,” Sue replied, standing by boyfriend and staring right at Leok. “They only gain them through accomplishing some kind of feat to set themselves apart. So I guess she doesn’t care about us until we do something impressive.”
“What? Well, what about how we beat that giant drosi and conquered a temple?”
“Maybe if one’a ya did that,” Caro spoke up. “That kinda things usual fer ‘eroes, and if ya did it as a group, it’s not really yer deeds, yeah?”
“…Hmph. Okay, but why can you talk to us?”
Adrien just blinked in confusion while Julius sighed. “Aside from all of that, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to tell us how you got in here and why you’re trying to steal the temple core in the first place.”
“Sure,” Leok said, shrugging. “We got in usin’ a mini-core ta link ta the core, then trickin’ it inta openin’ up a back entrance, and Claire wants the cores so she can link ‘em to her castle cores, build up an even bigger citadel kinda thing connected across the Dark Lands, and warp ‘em enough that she can let loose an endless army of divine-powered monsters that’re completely loyal ta her and her alone. Means she can wage tons of invasions and shit without riskin’ any of us too, which is nice enough, but I still wanna be on the frontlines, y’know?”
“…What.” Julius just stared at her. All of his students were staring too, a quiet horror overtaking the group as Leok’s words sunk in.
“What? I prefer fightin’ instead’a commandin’.”
“I think ‘e means ‘bout calling the overboss Claire, boss,” Sero offered.
“Oh, yeah. Claire’s the name’a Top Boss Three-God.”
“…And…that’s Valondrac?” Sergio spoke up.
“Yeah, duh,” Caro answered.
Julius frowned. Why would she be known as ‘Three-God’? A question for later. More importantly, “I’m assuming there’s a reason you’re still here, and haven’t left with the core immediately?”
“Course! Crow, explain!”
“Hrh. Well, whatever. It’s real simple. Us demonbloods can’t just take a core. Damn things don’t like goin’ with us. So we have ta corrupt it a bit first, “ she explained. And, just as she implied, the core did look a little off to Julius. While it was still a bright, fiery red, a fair amount of the core’s surface was starting to darken.
“Well, that’s not good. So that’s why Autumn hadn’t just run off before we got there then?”
“Yup! Which sure screwed over that stuck-up bitch!” barked Leok, a wide grin on her face.
“I’m glad you enjoy your fellow general losing,” Julius said blandly. He drew his sword, cracking his neck for a moment. “Still, there’s no time to waste then.”
“Hey, hey! Slow down there Slayer!” Leok held up her empty hands. “I’m all up for a good fight, same as you, but why don’t we ‘ave some fun with it?” Smirking, she gestured at the crude ring around her. “No weapons, me and you. First one down or out loses. Ya win, and we leave. I win, well, that goes without sayin’.”
“…You really don’t think I’m stupid enough to fight you barehanded with all that armor on, do you?”
“Ha, Shrewd one ain’tcha?” Leok suddenly started shucking off her armor, much to Julius’s mild surprise. Before long, the orc was standing there in a brown sleeveless tunic and matching pants, her muscular arms on full display, along with the numerous red tattoos wrapped around them. They were more of an orange-red than the blood red common to the Butcher’s worshippers, so…shit, maybe he should’ve been paying attention to Douglas’s weird research. “Good enough for ya?”
Focus. “Forgive me for asking, but why exactly are you doing this? This doesn’t seem like it’s anything that’d help your orders.”
“Yeah, nah, it’s not. But even if I fail here there are plenty other cores around.” Leok punched the palm of her hand and grinned. “So might as well have some fun, right? It’s not everyday ya get ta fight a legend, and besides, takin’ out a bunch’a tired runts won’t even be a challenge.”
“…Okay, fine.” Julius sheathed his broadsword and detached both it and his dirk from his belts. Grabbing both his blades by their sheaths, Julius handed them over to Sue.
“Huh? Wait, you can’t be serious!” Sue protested as she held onto the weapons.
“Uh, are you sure about this old man?” Adrien asked.
“I am. Besides, didn’t you hear me earlier? I’m going to be kicking some ass.” Julius smiled and gave his students a thumbs up, then walked up to the ring.
“…My money’s on Teach.”
“You can’t just say that! None of us are betting against him!”
“Oh, right…So do you think those orcs would be willing to take bets?” Julius sighed and just kept walking.
“Heh, glad ta see ya ain’t running away.” Leok smirked as Julius stepped into the ring, her arms crossed over her chest. Suddenly, the tattoos on her arms flared, and a ring of fire surrounded the two. “But, just ta make sure.”
“H-Hey!” Adrien and Sue immediately rushed forward, but were promptly stopped as Caro and Sero stood in front of them.
“Ah ah ah,” Sero chided, wagging his finger. “No interruptin’ the boss’s fight.”
“Though if ya want ta play with us, we’ll be glad ta oblige,” Caro added.
“Your boss didn’t mention anything about a ring of fire surrounding them!”
“But she didn’t say there wouldn’t be one.”
“Didn’t you kids hear Leok here earlier?” Julius spoke up, staring right at Leok at he settled into a boxing stance, his left side facing her. “It’s a one on one fight. So just sit back and relax.”
“Ya heard him ya runts! Sit and enjoy the show!” Leok barked, then smirking right at Julius as she took her own stance, one unfamiliar to Julius.
“Hm…I have to say, this is the first time I’ve fought an orc who took up martial arts. Tell me, is that an outworlder style?”
“Aw, really? Ya must’ve fought some real shit orcs then. But yup, yer right on there! And what can I say? This style really called out ta me.” Fire burst to life on Leok’s arms, coating her fists in seconds. “If yer lookin’ fer a name, it’s called lethwei.”
“Interesting. I’ll look it up once I’m done here.”
The two of them stared each other down for a moment, a tense air filling the room, until it was broken by a loud burst of flame from the core. “Wha-”
Julius ignored Crow’s exclamation and immediately darted forward, promptly met by Leok who was doing the exact same. He dodged to the side and landed a solid hit on her chest as her arm passed by his face but a second later her knee slammed into his side. He didn’t have a second to grunt before she tried to punch him again, his arms raised to block.
That was a bad move. He winced and immediately back up as heat rolled over his skin, the leather of his armor barely brunting the wash of flame.
“Ha! Ya forget who yer fightin-” Oh, so she was a talker. Okay, he needed to think this through better. He swung his arms out at his sides, taking a breath. They stung, but would work. It had been a while since he’d been a bare fist fight that he actually needed to take seriously. Fuck it though. Keep the playing field even. If she was using magic, he might as well try some tricks.
She was still grinning and talking. Her arms were raised in a loose guard. He could feel a cool sensation wash over him, a consequence of steelskin. Using a degree of ‘fighting magic’ was just natural to anyone who had any professional reason to fight, but mixing in elemental stuff was a little trickier. Leok seemed to be at least skilled with just that, so he needed to try something new.
Julius took a breath, standing straight and staring right at Leok, one arm up, the other low. He could dimly hear his students cheering him on, but he let the noise wash over him.
Fighting time was no place for distractions.
“Oh? Heh, someone’s lookin’ serious now,” she muttered, before grinning. “Come on then!”
Another burst of flame signaled the start and Julius stayed rooted as Leok charged him. He couldn’t afford to take direct hits from her flaming limbs, and hitting them would do more damage to him than her. The trick–he moved around as she swung and buried a fist in her gut but kept moving, barely letting it impact and hold him there before he drove his other fist into the back of her head–was to not let her hit him at all.
A damn harder plan than it sounded since she only barely faltered from the hit and turned with a hard and fast kick. This time though, he blocked it, arm and knee together, and swung even as her fist came for his face again. She was damn fast and smashing his knuckles into her nose felt like punching a wall. Well, a very solid wall, since he could actually punch through those…
She didn’t even fall back, spinning and trying to drive her elbow into the side of his head as blood leaked from her nose. He ducked and had to block another knee, actually forced backward from the momentum. It was impressive, admittedly-he had to twist around her to avoid an elbow driven downward then backed up as she kicked back-she could move from swing to swing at an impressive rate.
“Well fuck me, ya actually can hit,” Leok muttered, wiping some blood from her lips. “Not hard enough ta-”
She instinctively raised her arms to block the feint towards her face and got a hard, deep hit to the abdomen for her trouble, saliva spraying from her mouth as she bent with it and–fuck–nearly smashed her skull straight into Julius’s as he had to block with his other arm and winced at the direct blow to his forearm. Something cracked and he backed up fast, grabbing his damaged arm.
Leok actually coughed, a hand going to her mouth as the other pressed to her stomach. Her eyes were bright with eager-Someone looped their arms through Julius’s armpits and he slammed his head back into their face, rewarded by a crunch as Sero stumbled backward.
“Gh, fuck. Good instincts!” Leok said, standing and glaring at Julius. Her twitching smile seemed to show that she couldn’t decide on being angry or happy.
“I thought this was one on one,” he replied, keeping his eyes on her as Sero rubbed at his jaw.
“F-Fuck me, that one’s got a hard head,” the other orc grumbled while Leok chuckled.
“What? When’d I say that? Sounds like yer makin’ assumptions. Bad thing ta do in a fight.”
He nodded, conceding that point. “Fine. Rules are different than I thought. I can adapt.” And then he very deliberately stepped to the side.
Sero had about a second to blink before both of Sue’s feet slammed into his face, driving him out of the ring entirely in a spray of blood and teeth.
“HA!” Leok barked, gasping and smiling wide. “I thought yer students were too tired?!”
“Yeah, I implied that. You know what they say about implications.” Julius didn’t even look at Sue’s landing, though he did smirk at the louder crunch. “You really want to keep this going?”
Leok immediately laughed, loud and husky. “Ya really hafta ask!?”
“Hm. Cheat rules then.”
“Cheat rule-?” Nobody ever expected the pepper bombs. The dirk, maybe, but a large blacksmith chucking around little spheres full of pepper? Always caught people off guard and Leok was no exception, clutching at her eyes with one hand as the other immediately swung wide, launching a number of twisting blasts of flame across the ring, which was really damn sloppy.
Good of Sophia and Maria to put up shields, though shame for Caro, who took a good blast of it straight to the chest and slammed straight into the wall. Julius went low, under her arm, and didn’t try for anything fancy. No, just a strong uppercut right into her stomach again.
This time, there was blood mixed with the spit and Julius didn’t give her any chance to recover as he went up, grabbed the back of her head, kicked out her legs and slammed her full face into the floor of the temple, burying her face straight into the stone and badly jarring his arm. Still, better safe than sorry, and he smashed his fist into the back of her head again, burying her another inch as the flames around the ring instantly went out.
He stood, staring at the still-breathing orc for a moment, then idly tapped her side with his foot. She didn’t stir.
The core abruptly flared three times, and that was that.
A low whistle rang out through the now silent room as Crow climbed to her feet, a genuinely impressed look on the gray orc’s face. “Wow. Didn’t expect ya ta actually knock her out.”
Julius shrugged. “It wasn’t easy. Though, if you’re about to try anything…”
“Yeah, nah. I’m not stupid, and I’m way squishier than Leok there. I don’t think I’m about ta get in a fight with ya.” She grinned. “Especially with yer students backing you up.”
Julius blinked as Adrien suddenly moved in front of him, the hero’s sword and shield both drawn, then glanced around. Sergio had a few of his remaining arrows nocked while Maria had both fire and plant magic swirling around her hands. A second later, Sue walked up to stand by Adrien, her fists up and ready, and Julius felt a slight soothing feeling as Sophia started to heal his wounds.
“Heh. So, I’ll be takin’ this as our loss,” Crow said, then walked over to Leok. Julius watched her for a moment, then started to relax as Crow just started poking at her boss’s unconscious form.
“Glad to hear you’re taking this loss gracefully,” he muttered as he let down his stance, breathing heavy as he felt his wounds begin to heal. The worst one was definitely the facture in his arm and he winced as it started to shift, the bones mending together again.
“Someone ‘as to be the smart one of this group,” replied Crow, a small frown on her face. Bringing up her hand, she suddenly smacked Leok’s head, which actually got her to jerk up.
“Gah!” Julius frowned again as his students all tensed. The semi-conscious orc slowly pushed herself up and turned over, blinking rapidly as one of her tusks actually dropped from her mouth, clattering to the floor. And then she locked eyes with Julius. “…Ya fuckin’ cheated.”
“I never said I wouldn’t.”
“…Ha! That was fuckin’ great!” Moving herself so she was sitting up, Leok grabbed her broken tusk, turning it over in her fingers. “Can’t remember the last time someone beat me in a fist fight.”
“I can see why. I don’t think many people could take one of your hits.”
“Ya got that right. Even if my arm was broken, I could still punch out anyone.” Tossing up the tusk at Julius, Leok smirked. “Yer reward. Feel free ta show it off. Yer officially the third person to beat me in a fight.”
“…Thanks, I suppose.” As he awkwardly held the broken tusk, Julius wondered if it would be rude to just shove in a satchel.
“No problem, Slayer. If you’re ever up for round two, feel free to come by Surton. Me and my bunch are set up there.” Standing up, Leok stretched her arms, before looking at Sue. “Offer extends ta you too, Orc-Kicker.”
“…Huh? Me?” Sue asked, practically radiating confusion, “Orc-kicker?”
“Yeah, course. Ya fuckin’ knocked out Sero in one blow. He’s not at my level, but that’s enough to get ya a name.”
Julius didn’t even need to turn around to tell Sergio was doubled over, holding back his laughter.
“Yer welcome. Keep doin’ this ‘save the cores’ thing, and the rest of ya might just have some names of yer own by the time we meet up again.” Leok grinned, which was a little disconcerting with the large gap in her teeth, then tilted her head as Sergio outright cackled. “…Somethin’ wrong with that one?”
“Yes, many things,” Julius replied, the rest of his students promptly echoing the sentiment. All except for Adrien, who started rubbing the back of his head.
“Uh, actually, to be totally honest, he’s probably laughing since we’re not actually here to save the core.”
“Oh?” Leok crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow. “And what’s that mean?”
“Uh…” Adrien, thankfully, actually seemed to realize he shouldn’t have spoken up. And then Sergio opened his mouth.
“Heh, ah, I needed that. Anyway, Dro’s right, we’re here to steal the core too.”
The room went silent. Even the core seemed to flicker in surprise. The silence stretched until a trio of slaps rang out as Sue and Maria both cuffed the boys around the back of their heads and Julius slammed his palm into his own forehead. “Why. Why would you say that. Why would you even phrase it like that?”
Both orcs stared at them for a moment, then looked at each other. “Hm…Right, that’s real interestin’ and all, real real interestin’, but it’s clear we gotta go right now and all. Crow, grab Caro.”
“Wait, hold on-”
“No no, ya won fair and squares and we really gotta go and all. Report some stuff, all that,” Leok said as she walked over to Sero and hoisted him over her shoulders. “Real interestin’ talkin’ to you, nice kids, good to know about these things y’know?”
“No, seriously, stop, what do you even think we’re doing with the-”
“So you got the green one on you right now or somethin’?” she suddenly asked.
“Good good, good ta know. Right, Crow, ready?” Crow, now with Caro over her shoulders, nodded as she walked over. “Sweet. Right, see ya! Lookin’ forward ta kickin’ yer asses later!”
And then they promptly vanished in a flash of black light. “…We don’t even want it for anything! We’re giving it to a dragon!”
“Uh, Mr. Goldforge? I think they’re already gone.”
Julius sighed. “Yeah, I noticed. Thank you Sophia.” He pressed both hands to his face and let out groan. “This is going to bite me in the ass later, I know it…” Why couldn’t things just be simple for him?
He slowly dragged his hands down his face, then looked over at his students. Adrien looked suitably guilty while Sergio was unrepentant, but that was to be expected.
“Right, fuck it. Let’s just get the core and go.”
“…Um, Mr. Goldforge, sir, didn’t the orcish mage just say that we can’t take the core without corrupting it?”
“Nope. They said they can’t.” Julius turned his gaze up at the core in question, his eyes narrowed. “The core is clearly going to let us take it with us, because there will severe consequences if it doesn’t.”
“…Uh, Teach, I don’t think you should threaten the core.”
“Yeah, that seems like a bad plan, considering the whole monstery, magically, artifacty stuff it has going on.”
“Thank you for the input, Sue, Maria. But I’m not threatening it. I’m stating facts.” He really was. If they didn’t take the core, Arancoda would be completely incensed with them.
Still, it did make him feel a little better to actually see a temple core flinch. Phrasing was fun.