With the battle over, there was a sense of calm in the air despite the heavily damaged exterior of the surrounding landscape. Some of the trees were still burning, and a few of them lay broken on the ground. Large pockets of soil were simply missing or dislodged far away, and two of the carriages were torn asunder with many of the horses rattled. In spite of this, the Superiors seemed relaxed and even satisfied.
As Bright Star approached the rest of her team, Dario noted a hint of lemony fragrance in the air. He hadn’t noticed it at first when the blonde Superior picked him up, but it was all he could smell now that his face was practically up against her back. Was that her perfume?
He spared no more attention to the idle thought as they finally reached the others.
“This was a shitshow, but at least we got some World Energy out of it,” remarked the stout, heavily armed man known as Soldier Smolder. “It’s been too long since I had a good fight. It’s too bad they were only after the girl.” The man took a deep breath before pointing at the limp body hanging over Bright Star’s shoulder. “Who’s that, Bright Star?”
“His name’s Dario, and he manifested recently apparently,” Bright Star informed him.
“Wait a minute… Dario?” he said, brows furrowed. “I recognize that name, I swear I’ve heard it somewhere before.” He gestured towards her. “Let me have a look at him.”
Bright Star turned around, whereupon Dario’s smiling face came into view.
“Hey.” The cheerful teen waved. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Well, well, aren’t you the one who rescued someone from that fire I put out? Dario... Sindred, right? What the hell are you doing out here?” Soldier Smolder asked in bewilderment. “I know I told you to keep up the good work, but this is a bit much for a newbie innit?”
“I went for a stroll out here to kill some monsters, but I got a little lost,” Dario admitted. “It turned out alright in the end though, right? I even managed to help you guys out during the battle.”
“And how exactly did you help us out?” the bearded man asked with a raised eyebrow.
Before Dario could respond, Bright Star chimed in, “He saved Nightingale during the fight, but it cost him his foot, as you can see.”
Upon hearing her name, the nearby Nightingale perked up and stood from her sitting lotus position.
“Thanks for the save... Dario, was it? You really shouldn’t be here, but I appreciated your help nonetheless,” she said, her voice soft and melodious.
“It was no problem, I only wanted to help.” Dario grinned with what he assumed was a charming smile. The effect was ruined due to his slightly reddened skin and missing pieces of hair.
“How’d you even get in a situation where you needed a newbie to save you Nighty?” Soldier Smolder inquired with a raised eyebrow.
The woman in question had a sheepish grin on her face. “I was out drinking last night. I must’ve challenged a whole bunch of people in drinking contests ‘cause I can’t remember what happened and I still have a killer hangover. I just got really sloppy and wasn’t paying attention.” She shook her head before muttering, “That’s the last time I listen to Katie about drinking before an escort mission.”
“Ha! The secret to dealing with hangovers is to keep on drinking! I drank a keg this morning and I’m perfectly fine!” Soldier Smolder chortled before pulling out his pipe to smoke.
“Not everyone can be perpetually drunk like you Smolder,” Nightingale said, rolling her eyes.
Dario was a bit astonished to see such well known Superiors acting so differently from their public image. The Soldier Smolder he’d met a few days ago seemed so composed and heroic, but here he seemed like the typical average person, behaving more like a functional alcoholic than anything else.
Nightingale was one of his childhood idols back in the day, but she behaved more normal than expected as well. Regardless, there was a question in his mind that he’d been meaning to ask ever since he first realized it was her.
“Can I have your autograph, Nightingale?” Dario asked.
It may have been a long time since he’d last idolized Superiors, but he just couldn’t help himself when there was one of his childhood heroes right in front of him!
“Oh! Um, sure!” The blue-clad, blonde Superior looked surprised before she turned and walked over to him. “It’s been a long time since someone asked for one.”
“That’s because you’re always out here fighting, or in there drinking,” Soldier Smolder muttered.
When Nightingale approached, Dario noted the strange scent of lemons once more.
“Here you go.” With a pleased smile, Nightingale pulled out a card from a hidden pocket and handed it over to him. “I don’t hand these out very often, but I feel like it’s the least I could do.”
Dario looked down from atop Bright Star’s shoulder and inspected the card. It was a beautifully drawn rendition of a city with crystal-like spires. In the center was the floating form of Nightingale with her signature beneath it.
“Wow, thanks for this. It’s amazing,” Dario stated honestly. It truly was a stunning piece of artwork.
“Thanks. I drew it myself.” NIghtingale smiled.
Bright Star rolled her eyes and coughed in annoyance. “Anyways you two, where’s the rogue’s body?” Bright Star impatiently asked her compatriots.
“Blink took it and went to find a carriage to store it in,” Nightingale replied.
“Good. How about the supply caravan? Are the civilians alright?”
“Yeah, the rogues were only after the girl so everyone is pretty much safe and sound, if not a little rattled,” Soldier Smolder said after blowing out a puff of smoke. “Some of the carriages were destroyed, but none of them had any civilians. The supplies that were intact have already been moved to other containers.”
“Alright, the caravan should be okay to keep going, so there’s no need to stop and take camp. We’ll continue heading back to the city.” Bright Star turned and started walking towards the nearby carriage with her limp passenger in tow. “I’ve had enough for today.”
“Is he gonna be alright with the whole 'no-foot' thing he got going?” Soldier Smolder asked in between hits of his burning pipe.
To Dario, his concern was understandable since he probably did look out of sorts, seemingly fading from sleepiness to drowsy awareness. Thankfully, the sun was slowly rectifying his situation.
“Yes, Smolder, I’m gonna put him in the carriage so he can sleep it off. He apparently has regenerative powers that keep pain away, isn’t that right?” Bright Star asked, shaking the limp body on her shoulder.
“Yeah, but lay it easy on me will you? I’ve had a rough few days, and I’ve spent most of it living like a hermit,” Dario complained.
“Alright then.” Soldier Smolder nodded towards them. “He’s your responsibility now,” he said before turning away to continue smoking.
“See you later, Mr. Sindred. Thanks again for the save!” Nightingale smiled and waved at him, her cape billowing in the wind as Bright Star continued carrying him towards the carriage.
Dario waved back with a grin. Being appreciated by such prominent Superiors felt quite surreal.
“So, you said you’ve been out here all by yourself for the past few days?” Bright Star asked curiously.
“I find that a bit hard to believe, but if true then that’s quite an impressive feat for a newbie,” Bright Star said, somewhat impressed.
Dario preened under her praise and was eager to tell his tale.
“Yeah, and honestly, I still can’t believe some of the stuff I went through. I was only out here for a few days, but I managed to encounter and take out this really big ogre and giant slime. There was this area in the forest where a colony of monster arachnids lived, and damn, you wouldn’t believe the amount of ambushes I had to deal with. I even fell off like a three hundred meter tall cliff and survived!” he exclaimed, feeling happy at finally being able to talk about it. “It’s been a crazy few days.”
“Okay, now I don’t believe you.” Bright Star snorted at what she perceived to be tall tales.
“Heh, I don’t blame you.” Dario chuckled. “Even I wouldn’t believe me, but it really did happen.” He paused in thought. “At least I think it happened. Maybe I ate some bad shrooms and hallucinated the whole thing.”
“It wouldn’t be the strangest thing.” The tall blonde shrugged. “There’s all kinds of plants and fruits that would mess you up out here in the Wildlands. If you really did live out here for a few days, then you were really lucky.”
“I wouldn’t attribute it all to luck, though I guess there was a bit of it involved,” Dario admitted. “In truth, I survived because I didn’t have to eat as much due to me having some... unique light abilities.”
“Really?” she asked, intrigued.
“Yeah,” Dario said, feeling both proud and smug before coming to a realization. “Wait a minute… your powers are based off of light too, right? Do you think you can give me some pointers?”
She very likely wasn’t an Assimilator like him, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t teach him a thing or two since their powers were somewhat similar from what he remembered about her. Anything he could do to get stronger was always a good thing, and it didn’t hurt to make social connections with people in high places.
“Hmm, maybe,” she said after a short pause. “But now isn’t really the time, and I tend to be pretty busy anyways.”
“Alright,” Dario muttered dejectedly. “I’ll try again another day.”
Bright Star rolled her eyes. “Please don’t,” she said as they approached the carriage. “Now hush.” She turned to face the man leaning against the wooden transport.
“Augur, did you check on the girl?”
“Yeah, she’s doing just fine, and the carriage seems to be all in one piece,” the red-haired Superior drawled. Augur then spoke into the wagon he leaned upon, “I think you’ve had just enough fresh air, don’t you think so, princess?”
“Don’t call me that, and no, I don’t want to go back to the city just yet,” replied a feminine voice from within. “Can’t we stay out here for a bit longer and set up camp?”
Bright Star walked up to the carriage with Dario over her shoulder and opened the surprisingly ornate door.
“Amara, the agreement with your father was that you were allowed to travel outside the city and visit your aunt so long as you weren’t in danger. We were just attacked by a bunch of rogues who were specifically after you, so I think that counts as you being in danger,” Bright Star said to the person within. "You should be satisfied with having seen your aunt as is."
Dario couldn’t see who it was inside the carriage, but he could still hear their reply.
“They’re gone now though, right? You guys took care of them so everything should be completely fine now.”
“Too bad. We had a list of terms and conditions for this trip and one of them was crossed. No more diddle-daddling out here, we’re continuing back to the city,” Bright Star stated. “Oh, and you’re going to have a cabin mate for the rest of the trip.”
Dario was then unceremoniously dumped inside and placed on a comfortably soft seat. Sitting across from him was a young woman, around his age, in a plain maroon dress with her arms crossed in front of her.
He instantly acknowledged her as a fellow Superior with how striking she looked.
She had vivid blue eyes and bright red hair styled in the waterfall braid popular amongst noblewomen. Her face reminded him of the few nobles he’d met, with her high cheekbones and straight-edged nose. She even had the same glaring, narrow-eyed look!
“Who’s this vagrant?” she asked in disgust. “Did you find him sleeping in the woods or something?”
Dario was about to reply with a sardonic remark when he paused and realized how his appearance made him look. He glanced down and saw the scorched and dirtied plates of his armor. Near his legs and missing foot were splatters of dried blood and earth covering most of the white metal. His face was no better having been attacked by the vengeful slime.
Overall, he probably did look like a hobo or a hermit, but the very thought of it only incited amusement.
“This is Dario and he’s a new supe like you. He says he got lost in the woods here for a few days so we’re bringing him back with us,” Bright Star explained.
“You? You were out here by yourself?” she asked him skeptically. “And you survived? I find that hard to believe. You look like you couldn’t survive a short walk, let alone a night in the Wildlands.”
Dario’s eye twitched in annoyance. Nobles were truly something else — they really needed to chill out.
“Oh, I survived alright.” Dario grinned evilly as he raised his dirtied hand. “See this hand? I’ve been out here toiling away at the dirt for a few days just to survive.” He slowly started reaching towards her with said hand, intending to tease the uptight girl. “Here, take a closer look.”
Her eyes widened in alarm. “Get that away from me!” she yelped.
Instantly, Dario felt some kind of force press against his arm, pushing and expelling it back towards him. His hand smacked his face with a meaty thwack as Bright Star laughed in the background.
“Oh yeah, she’s a telekinetic so I wouldn’t mess with her if I were you.” The older woman chuckled.
“Don’t tell him my powers,” the redheaded girl admonished after recollecting herself. “That’s rude.”
“Sorry Amara, but I think he already figured that one out,” Bright Star said, pointing towards the purple-eyed teen rubbing his nose. “Anyways, Dario, meet Amara. Amara, meet Dario. Behave now you two.” She smiled at the both of them before closing the door shut.
The elegant redhead and unkempt stranger simultaneously turned to stare at each other from across the cabin.