68 Under new managemen
"Finally, we can see the sunlight!!!"
Daren and Lilith were exhausted after finally managing to leave the maze. The two of them were relying on Lilith's ability to look into the future to try and predict which was the correct way to go.
"I- I can't believe it!!! I thought we would be in there forever!!"
The problem was, the maze was much larger than they expected. Even during times where Lilith would see a path that looked like the correct one, it still would take a long time for them to reach the exit.
Sometimes they would encounter traps or sleeping monsters and had to be extra careful not to waste too much energy or Lilith would have no stamina left to use her ability.
Other times, she would be confused when using her power and not being able to see any path that would lead anywhere. It was only by mere luck that they realized that some of the walls were fake and had hidden passages.
This ended up making Lilith's job much harder than it needed to be. Not only did she had to check even harder for possible outcomes, but she also had to be careful to protect Daren from any possible danger.
"Thank the heavens... I think this was one of the worst experiences I've ever gone through... And that's saying something considering our history..."
"Agreed... Daren, if you weren't with me the whole time I'm pretty sure I would have gone insane back there..."
"Same here... Please don't ever leave me alone in a place like this..."
The two decided to look for the path towards the demon kingdom and trying to get as far away from the maze as they could. This place proved to be a rather traumatic experience for the two of them.
"We should call Gustav..."
"I'll do that... Lilith you take a break and catch your breath."
Daren took a few seconds to enjoy the sunlight. He wondered how long he and Lilith were stuck inside the labyrinth. It felt like they have been in there for hours but the sun didn't seem to have moved that much from the last time he saw it. If he had to guess, they were probably wandering inside of it for about three to four hours.
[Gustav! We are finally out of the mountain's tunnel. Are you guys inside the demon kingdom already?]
[Daren!! I'm so glad to hear your voice! We are just outside of the kingdom's gates waiting for you two.]
[What...? Waiting...? Didn't we agree that sticking together was a bad idea?]
[Ashley decided that it would be better to reunite after all.]
[Then what the hell was the point of splitting up in the first place??? We should have just taken the same tunnel from the beginning! Let me talk with Ashley!]
[Ashley is not here...]
[She got tired of waiting and went after you two.]
[What?? Is she coming alone?]
While Daren was distracted talking with Gustav, a huge scorpion-like demon with the head of a dragon and four pincers spotted Daren next to Lilith on the snow.
[Daren...? Daren, what's wrong???]
[One of the demons saw me in my human form!!]
Lilith realized what was happening and tried to stand up to face the demon, but she was way too tired to even lift her sword due to the overuse of her future sight.
Daren watched as the scorpion demon started to approach him to eat him. He tried to escape but his body was too weak as well for running inside the maze for so long.
He tried to dodge the demon's attack but the creature grabbed his leg with his pincer.
The scorpion lifted him and was about to devour the poor young man when suddenly Daren found himself falling into the ground.
He smashed his head against the ground but didn't suffer any major injuries due to the snow softening the impact. He stood up to try and run away but quickly realized why the scorpion dropped him. His pincer had been sliced from his body. The beast was screaming with pain.
He stared at the demon and realized that there was something green on top of his head. A young lady covered in leafs with blades sticking out of her arms.
The strategist of the group was on standing on the demon's head and just finished stabbing it and killing him in the process.
The young man watched as she approached him covered in blood carrying two massive leaf-blades in the place where her hands should be as the huge scorpion creature started to fall dead on the ground. Ashley just saved Daren and killed the demon as if it was a regular occurrence to her.
"I was listening in the telepathic conversation... Do you have something to say about my decision of splitting us up?"
Daren gazed at her blade arms and at the dead scorpion and started to sweat nervously.
"None at all ma'am!"
"Good boy! Come on! Let's finally enter this bloody kingdom."
The group was finally reunited again and was about to open the gates to enter the south kingdom. Daren was observing the state of his teammates and was feeling rather worried.
"What's wrong with Ria?"
"She passed out while we were inside the spider's cave... She couldn't handle so many of them at once..."
"She used too much magic when we were inside the bottomless pit and now she has no energy left to even be awake..."
Daren was very, very worried about this recent news. Without Ria, they couldn't escape in case something went wrong, nor could Auren use the full power of his blessing. And without Evlin they had little to no means of defending themselves. Lilith was looking like she would pass out at any moment herself, and Daren couldn't fight as long as it was the middle of the day.
"Wait... So we don't have access to our divine shield nor to our best fighter? Are we going inside the kingdom in this state?"
Gustav and Auren shared a look as if they knew where this discussion was going to go.
"It's fine Daren, I'll take care of us!"
Daren turned around and gazed upon Ashley who was radiating with confidence right now.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"The group, I can protect us!"
"You? Protect all seven of us by yourself??"
"I mean... It's not like we have better options... Evlin is knocked out, Auren can't do anything without Ria, you can't access your lion form until night arrives, Lilith looks like she is going to throw up at any minute and Gustav is Gustav..."
Daren was not sure what to do anymore. This is probably the worst state his group has ever been. He wanted to wait for all his teammates to properly recover before advancing further but any minute they wasted was a minute that Marcus would get to come even closer.
"And you're sure that you can protect us? All on your own?"
"Of course, I've been doing that the whole day. I literally saved everyone present here in the last couple of hours."
Daren turned around to look at Gustav and Auren with a face that said "Is she serious??". The two simply nodded and agreed with her. Auren tried to reassure her statement.
"I don't really know how... But Ashley managed to tap into the powers of the dryad and has pretty much become a force of destruction."
Ashley heard that comment from Auren and release a small grin from being compared to a "force of destruction".
"So... It's ok to enter the kingdom like this...? With half of our team barely functioning?"
"For sure! Just trust me and I'll protect everyone here!"
Daren still wasn't sure about this but it's not like they had many options. Besides, this was Ashley after all. She was the member of the team who always would take the time to think before she acts. If that was her decision then there was nothing to worry about.
"All right then. Let's move on with this. Lilith, let me help you walk."
"Ugh... Thanks Daren..."
"Gustav, Auren, grab Evlin and Ria..."
Daren turned around to face the huge gates in front of him.
"Time for me to come back home."
Under normal circumstances anyone would be really happy to return to the place you were born in. Daren could see his old house, his old school, the old shop where his parents would buy some bread to eat in the afternoon after a long day of work.
But alas, these were not normal circumstances. The kingdom that he was once familiar with was complete chaos. All the buildings where completely destroyed and were filled with monsters lurking inside its shadows.
Demons and monsters could be seen walking around everywhere as if looking for the remains of any captured humans to use as snacks.
And the smell in the air was so terrible that would make the inside of a public toilet feel like paradise.
Daren thought he would be more devastated but honestly, this was pretty much what he expected the place to look like after being filled with demons for two-hundred years.
"... Good to be home I guess..."
Ashley was looking around trying to match the area she was looking at with the memories she could access from Drya's mind. She expected Daren to be releasing a lot of painful feelings right now but she couldn't feel any surge of power inside her body.
"You don't look very shocked..."
Daren noticed her surprised look and sighted a bit.
"I guess...? I left this place when I was very young... It's not like I had that many fond memories of it... I spent so much time chasing that dumb spirit that killed my wife that I kinda started to forget my old life in here..."
[Tch... How boring...]
[Drya, shut up...]
[This is his birthplace, would it be too much to ask for at least a few tears?]
Daren started to recollect the pathways from when he used to live here and got hit by an idea.
"Everyone, follow me."
The group was surprised by his sudden command. Gustav approached him to ask what he was thinking about.
"Daren, where are we going?"
"We want to make a deal with the south god right? So we need to find his church first!"
"The church of the south god?"
"It's the only thing I can think of. We need to talk with him to make sure he will favor us instead of Marcus."
Gustav was surprised to see Daren so calm towards the idea of meeting a god considering he was the one who hated East the most. Maybe he softened after West saved Ria's life.
"Ok, but slow down a bit. You are still the only one of us who looks like a human. Try not to let any demon spot you."
Ashley heard Gustav's concern and reassured him that there was nothing to worry about.
"Excuse me? Did you forget about me just wiping out an entire horde of demons a while ago? I'm pretty sure I can protect lion-boy over here from any threats."
"Thanks, Ashley, I'll leave my back to you!"
Daren seemed to be completely fine on depositing his safety in Ashley's hand. That only made Gustav become even more worried. It would be one thing if he had to protect the group from Ashley in case she started acting strange again. But if everyone else continued to let their guard down around her, how would he be able to guard them?
He could notice Ashley watching his every movement. If he started acting suspicious and tried to talk with someone using his telepathy, she would notice their reaction and be on her guard. He needed to find a way to warn the rest of them safely.
As he thought about it, he looked at Evlin still unconscious behind his back. He was desperately praying for her to wake up soon so she could bring Ashley back to normal. He tried to whisper in a low voice.
"Where are you when we need you the most?? Please wake up!!"