Staring down the dozen trainees lined up before him, Red felt more excited than he had been since - well, forever. As a spirit weapon, he couldn’t actually get tired, and there were another dozen trainees for him to spar with on the opposite side of the field.
He grinned at them wildly, his sheath placed in the center of the field. Each and everyone eyed it, but none of them made a move.
Hendricks saw this, and called out to them, “If you don’t get a move on, you get double training! Also, if anybody gets ahold of the sheath, you get the day off!”
That prompted a response. A trainee rushed forward, his heavy wooden training sword slashing toward Red. He held a similar wooden sword. It was heavier than his own blade, but it didn’t matter much to him. It just means it’ll sting a bit more when I hit them.
Red allowed the trainee to get close with his reckless strike before he lashed out with a stab, stealing the trainee’s momentum to forcefully slam into the leather and chainmail that layered over a simple tunic.
A pained grunt escaped the trainee, but Red wasn’t finished. Stepping in close, he slammed an elbow into their jaw and slashed three times on the sword arm. The trainee had left himself wide open, his shield an afterthought.
“Sloppy,” Red grunted as the trainee collapsed bodily to the ground, holding their sword arm as they curled up into a ball. He ignored the pained sobs, he pointed at another one. “If you don’t come to me, I’ll come to you.”
The trainee glanced at his fallen comrade and gulped, stepping forward with his shield raised high. Rolling his eyes, Red rushed forward and closed the distance before the trainee could react.
The shield was too high, blocking the vision of the trainee and leaving his legs exposed, and Red made sure to take advantage of this. Sliding forward, he slammed his blade onto both of the trainee’s legs. He yelped, falling forward onto his knees and slamming forward at Red with the heavy kite shield.
Leaning away to diffuse the blow, the trainee fell forward prone. Red struck three times onto the exposed back, eliciting pained cries from the trainee.
Returning to his starting position, he glared at them all. “Is this all you have? I’m disappointed, honestly. If this is all you have, then send forward two at a time. Maybe your teamwork can compensate for your lack of skills.”
Two of the trainees glanced at each other and nodded, stepping forward with their shields raised. They wouldn’t make the same mistakes, or at least that’s what Red imagined they thought.
His ears rang as the battle lust made his heart race excitedly. The trainees split, taking to either side of him in an attempt to flank him.
They slowly stepped closer to him. Once they were close enough, he dashed at one. They stabbed forward, and he parried the blow, sliding his own sword up the length and rotating it with a powerful wrench. The blade flew free of the trainee’s hand, and Red side-stepped the blow from behind into the disarmed trainee’s weak spot.
Three blows disabled the first one, each blow finding its mark on the unprotected ribs. Whipping around, Red parried another strike from the flanking trainee and stepped back to avoid a powerful shield slam.
He kicked the extended shield powerfully, launching the second trainee off balance. Pressing the attack, he rushed forward and slammed into the flailing limb that held the training sword, forcing the trainee to drop the weapon.
Now disarmed, Red used three more strikes to make sure that the trainee stayed down.
“Remove them from the field,” he ordered the other trainees, and they snapped into action quickly. Once the downed trainees were taken away, he prompted two more forward. “I hope you’re learning from the failures of your comrades, otherwise…” He flashed a bloodthirsty grin.
Two female trainees stepped forward and approached him from the front, steady steps carrying them forward confidently. Their shields were raised high enough to protect them while not inhibiting their ability to see.
“Looks like a couple of you are learning,” he praised. “Let’s see if it’s enough.”
Never once did they rush forward; never once did they overcommit themselves. Red found it impressive how quickly these two learned.
But it wouldn’t be enough.
Rushing forward, he leaped over the raised shield, using it to propel himself into a flip. Landing flawlessly, he slammed into one of their exposed backs while the other tried to react. By the time she oriented herself, her comrade had already fallen and she was left face to face with Red.
Resolutely, she feigned a forward stab toward his chest, bending her wrist to convert the momentum into a slash toward his sword arm. That left her sword arm crossed with her shield. Red moved his arm out of the way of the slash, pushing forward with his off-hand to press her extended arm into her shield.
Pirouetting, he swiped her legs out from under her and lashed out three times in rapid succession.
Routinely, he returned to his starting spot. As he spoke, he made eye contact with the remaining half-dozen. “Let me tell you this - and make sure somebody tells your friends when they wake up - you will never beat me if you fight so plainly. Your ability to adapt is limited. You’re limiting yourselves to the techniques you’re comfortable with, and that means you’re predictable.”
“Start caring, or you will never survive out there,” he said, waving past Vanguard’s walls. They all turned to look at the world outside with fear and hopelessness, their shoulders slumping forward. “If you won’t make yourselves care to get better, then I’ll just beat it into you!”
The latter half of the first group had fought with helplessness he’d never known, lacking any will to fight. The second group that came had heard or watched the first. Red was disappointed with how they performed, each trainee resolved to get beaten and put forward as little effort as possible.
His battle lust was barely satiated, and he felt unspeakably aggravated. Looking up from contemplation, he met Hendricks’ gaze. They sat at his dining table in his suite.
The suite was located on the second floor of the building and the trainees were on the floors above. Hendricks had shown Red a room that had different displays similar to the one that Mira used, and they monitored the happenings of the trainees.
There were two floors for women - the top two below the training field - and three for the men, and fraternization was strictly prohibited. There was a dining hall on the first floor that Red hadn’t seen for the trainees.
“Why are they like that?” he asked, genuinely confused.
Hendricks paused as he was about to take a bite of buttered bread and sighed. “Red, are you afraid of dying?”
“Not at all,” the spirit immediately responded.
“That’s why you’ll never understand why they are how they are,” Hendricks reasoned, taking a bite of the bread.
“Give me more credit than that,” Red disagreed. “I understand the concept of death and why someone would be afraid of it, but I’d think that would incentivize them to fight harder. Not to just give up and roll over.” Red groaned in frustration as Hendricks chomped down on another mouthful of the bread. “Like, I don’t even know why I care so much, truly. It’s just -”
“You don’t want them to end up like Vaughn,” Hendricks said with a sigh, setting down the bread onto a simple plate. He pushed the food away, his appetite gone. “You really care for my brother.”
“I only exist because of him,” Red said, shrugging. Brimstone burned in his eyes as he spoke with conviction, “I owe him that much, even if I don’t care about these trainees. If that means I have to beat the will to fight into every last one of them, then I will.”
Hendricks half-smiled, “It’s not that easy, Red. It’s a matter of perspective. These trainees, they’re just kids taken from their homes; taken from their lives as bakers, maintenance workers, and all kinds of different jobs, they were told to fight and die for their people. They do it, but they are not happy doing it.”
“But if they do, they’ll be able to live a better life. With Essence, they’ll be able to get stronger,” Red countered. “They’re all so defeated.”
“We all are,” Hendricks admitted with a sad smile. “We’re the last bit of hope left. Those kids? Half of them will be dead before the end of the first month, less than a quarter will remain the next month, and if they’re lucky, at least four or five will survive the third.”
“Why?” Red simply asked.
“What do you mean ‘why’?” Hendricks retorted. “The world has outgrown us. They’ll be forced into subjugation missions that are far too dangerous, but there is no other choice. There will never be a chance for them to gain Essence to grow strong enough.”
Red pondered that, wondering if there was something they could do. “Is there any other dungeon nearby? Is there any way for them to gain Essence or real training so that they’re stronger and more prepared?”
Pursing his lips, Hendricks stared back at Red. “There’s one, but -”
Hendricks paused and Red leaned forward, very much interested. “What is it?”
“I have no power here,” Hendricks gave a defeated sigh.
“Aren’t there more people we could bring? Roland said there were archers, priests, and mages that would team up with the warrior trainees.”
“I suggested something before, but -”
“No!” Red shouted back. “You’ve given up just as they have.” Leaning back in his chair, Hendricks glared back at Red. “Next I see Roland, I’ll speak with him about this. Even if I have to drag him down there myself, this will happen.”
The night passed and morning came, but the day’s training session went no better than the last. Red wondered if he’d been too harsh with his initial administrations, beating them down as he had. He shook the doubt from his mind, making eye contact with each and every one of them.
“Let me be fully honest with you all,” he started, walking down the line, “I don’t want you to die.”
The first trainee he sparred with the day before scoffed, “Like I’d believe that. You’re a wild weapon spirit that loves to fight, why would any of us believe you care.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Red said, stopping before the trainee, “I don’t care about you personally. I just don’t want you dying without putting up a fight. It makes me angry to see how easily you all accept a beating. You have no fight in you, and that is what I care about.”
“Forget about us then,” the same guy said. “We’re already dead, it’s just a matter of time.”
“You truly believe that, don’t you?” Red asked, frowning. “Do you want to die?”
“Of course not,” one of the girls from the day before answered. “But what can we do?”
Red nodded, “Yes, what can you do?”
“There’s nothing we can do. None of us will be alive in six months,” the guy responded. “Quit wasting your time. You’re gonna give someone here a false hope, and that’ll just make everything worse.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong. I’ll be speaking with the Royal Heir.” That piqued their interest. “I’ve been informed there’s a dungeon nearby, a dungeon that will allow all of you to grow stronger if you work together and fight like you want to see another day.”
“He’s talking about the Devil’s Lair. We’re trainees, and he wants us to go into a dungeon that a Silver adventurer group failed to clear,” the guy said, sarcasm lacing every word.
Devil’s Lair? Hendricks never told me what was in it, but it should be fine either way, Red thought.
“So, instead of taking a chance at gaining strength, gaining enough Essence to grow to a higher capability than you ever thought possible, you’ll just accept death?” Red asked them.
“Going into that dungeon is the same as a death sentence!” the guy shouted.
“What’s your name?” Red asked the guy.
“Arnold,” he quickly responded, sticking his nose into the air. “My name is Arnold Valeya, and I’m the son of the best baker in Vanguard.”
“Arnold. This is happening, so if you don’t want to die, I suggest you give a hundred and ten percent of your best effort today and every day after if you want anything better than a guaranteed death. Half-assing your training only dooms you from the start, so,” Red turned away and assumed a fighting stance at his starting position, “who wants to come first?”
Before each bout, he asked the names of each trainee and learned a bit about them, then mercilessly beat them into the ground. Unlike the day before, he saw half of them giving far more effort, struggling until their bodies couldn’t move anymore.
Arnold was one of them, much to Red’s surprise.
Now that he’d instilled some fighting spirit into the group, he had to do it again with the second group. Not only that, he had to convince Roland and everyone else to back his plan.
After the third day’s training, Roland returned for Red, and the spirit nervously approached the Heir.
“No,” Roland deadpanned.
“Why not?” Red demanded, pacing around the Heir’s suite. “If you don’t do anything, then they’ll inevitably die anyway. Do you not care for your people?”
Roland sighed, rubbing his temples as he sat forward at the edge of a couch, his arms resting on his knees. “It’s not that I don’t care. We just don’t have the people to send into Devil’s Lair to make sure that everybody that goes doesn’t get slaughtered.”
“We can go then,” Red stubbornly refuted. “I need to get stronger, and so do you.”
“Red, you don’t understand, the boss of that dungeon is a Gold aura. There’s no way we can clear it.”
“Why do we need to clear it? If the upper floors give enough Essence, then why would we go lower?” he asked, confused. It seemed like he was missing information.
“The boss roams, Red. There’s no way I can stop something like that from killing everyone. The average monster there is a Silver aura. You’re just asking too much of those trainees.”
“No, I’m giving them a chance to grow and learn in a real situation,” Red refuted. He racked his brain for some kind of solution, there had to be a way. “What about Mira?”
“Mira wouldn’t be enough to kill the Devil Lord,” Roland said, shaking his head.
“We don’t need to kill it. We would just need to buy enough time to escape.”
Roland stared back at Red, the gears grinding as he tried to appease his weapon spirit. “Red, how about this. Before we continue this talk of sending trainees into a dungeon, I want to train with you. Let’s go.”
It was late into the evening, but at Roland’s behest, they found someone to spar against fairly easily. However, it wasn’t what Red expected.
Their opponent stood in front of them, a heavily enchanted mythril blade in-hand with steel armor protecting their body. Red couldn’t make out any of the opponent’s features, their helm obstructing any of their facial features.
Roland wanted to test their full capabilities, so he’d requested the use of Emperor Abernathy’s training room. The Emperor watched from outside with Valerie, recording the session.
In his sword form, Red hummed with glee as Roland charged a condensed orb of Essence in his off-hand. The armored opponent held a broadsword with two hands, their stance flawless.
Are you ready, Red? Roland mentally asked.
Always ready, the spirit responded.
The mythril blade didn’t give Red any pause, his confidence in his passive Reinforced skill and Bronze aura Durability unshakeable.
Thrusting his hand forward, Roland sent the ball of Essence forward and charged after the attack. It flew over their opponent’s shoulder, exploding, but the sword flashed. An enchantment on the side of the blade - one five - faded away, though it already began to refill as Roland stabbed forward.
Red cut through the air, but he internally winced when their opponent deflected the blow and pushed him aside, pirouetting into a massive slash. The length of their broadsword far out ranged them, but every time they tried to close the distance, the sword would flash with one of its continuously recharging enchantments to propel them backward.
As the last enchantment winked out, the next still having several moments to recharge, Roland rushed forward close to their opponent and them relentlessly. Now that they were in range, their opponent struggled to fend them away with their larger weapon.
Just as an enchantment was about to refill, Roland slammed forward, leaving a golden handprint. The enchantment flashed, but it was too late. Their opponent ragdolled through the air, slamming into the far wall. The dreamscape didn’t fade, so they knew the battle wasn’t over yet.
Gripping their broadsword in one hand, the opponent slashed the air four times with incredible speed, Essence fueling a skill of some sort. Two horizontal and two vertical lines intersected, flashing as the skill completed, and flew forward toward Roland and Red far too fast for them to dodge.
An incredible torrent of Essence flowed through Red, and then Roland slashed forward, a golden blade tinged with crimson flecks collided with their opponent’s attack. A massive blast of force sent Roland sliding back several paces, but he managed to remain on his feet.
Woah, Roland thought in shock, looking at his weapon spirit in awe. That - I’ve never done that before.
Mist wafted from a diagonal cut in their opponent’s chest armor, and they stared down at it in surprise, looking up and tilting their head. They shrugged, assuming another flawless stance, and then rushed forward.
Rushing forward to clash once more, Roland’s eyes flashed in surprise when Red cut through empty air. Then, the dreamscape ended.