Despite Lima’s reassuring arm laying over her shoulder as they watched the delvers of the Red Cross toy with the Knight of the Dawn, Kinua was unable to stop the flow of her tears.
Her most recent memories were a blurred mess of self-hatred and fear, but one thing was for sure: at the center of the carnage that took place in the dark forest, she had given up on life, persuaded that nothing she did mattered and that death was coming for her.
Why had she let her delusions of grandeur to trick her into believing that she was ready for Yaga’s Garden? Incoming Fog or not, she should have played it safe and stayed behind. No skills or abilities were worth this nightmare. She was going to die, just another hunter lost to the Garden… or so she had thought.
Deadeye and Spice, two of the three delvers of the shards had joined her pack. She had been skeptical at first, believing them to be frauds, but the miracles performed by Deadeye left no place for doubts in her heart.
They were ones of the lucky ones. People blessed by the gods for obscure reasons no one could really explain.
Senior Khat reached their group, followed by Jojo and two of his teammates wearing downcast expressions. Cairo went to his side, rummaging through his pack for first aid necessities.
Only four people survived of those who entered first? Kinua wondered.
“Sir,” Lima greeted him. “We were informed by Pohram that you had changed the order of entry and came in last as instructed. Everybody is accounted for…” after a beat of hesitation, she asked the question in everybody’s mind. “What happened?”
“First, explain how you managed to come out in such good condition,” said the old hunter without even looking at her. His eyes were on the three people now fighting the Knight of Dawn in his stead. “I assume the delvers are partly responsible, but I want to know how.”
The way he had phrased his question seemed to displease Kinua’s packmates. Timuk was the one to speak, his gauntlets still dripping with fluids that Kinua was doing her best to ignore.
“…Sir. You are speaking as if you did not expect us to make it out alive.”
“I am speaking as someone who is aware that casualties are expected and yet sees none in your group. Lima, explain.”
“We used a standard circle formation with Spice at the rear,” Lima said. “There is no denying that they saved our lives. Edward’s rifle was particularly useful, and was able to greatly decrease the burden that usually falls on the frontline’s shoulders.”
“… You mean the burden that usually falls on everybody’s shoulders,” someone corrected.
“I see…” Sir Khat mused. “Knowing that the human weapons have the potential to save the lives of future hunters is a valuable information.”
Kinua noticed that Lima had failed to mention Deadeye’s most impressive feat, the fact that he had been able to effortlessly guide them to the meadow, even though they had lost the path. But why?
They had always been taught that losing the path meant death. Of the few hunters who claimed to have been able to make it out alive despite getting lost, only Oju’s story was believable, and she had ended up becoming an Alpha Hunter. If Edward’s method could be shared, then it would be incredibly beneficial to the shard’s hunters.
But none of the members of her pack said anything, so she kept her thoughts to herself, biting her lip.
Is she trying to protect him?
“How did you… get hurt?”
“Changing the order was a grave mistake on my part,” senior Khat admitted. He did not tear his eyes from the fight, but a deep frown had now appeared between them. “Jojo’s team were much less qualified than I had anticipated, and I was stupidly injured while trying to protect them. Even then… I only managed to keep these three alive. And it would all have been for nothing if your team hadn’t arrived.”
“What about Pohram’s team?” Cairo asked.
“They haven’t emerged even though they entered the forest before you,” senior Khat said as he shook his head. “Consider them gone.”
There was a silence, and Kinua knew that her teammates were thinking of how awfully close they had been to be considered “gone” too. Especially if they had also thought of switching team at the last minute. Then it was interrupted by multiples detonations of Deadeye’s human weapon. It seem to wake a few of the party up.
“What are we doing, we should go help them!” Timuk exclaimed.
“Oh, really?” Cairo sneered. “Weren’t you throwing up your insides just know? Use your head, they are buying us time so that we can recuperate.”
“But we can’t just-”
“We’re all too tired or injured to do anything,” Vaunt interrupted. Seeing the stains on his sword, made Kinua realize how abnormal it was for her to be so… clean. “They clearly have skills or items helping them manage their stamina… they could even have the Constitution attribute.”
“That Bali girl clearly has it,” lamented Cairo. “Man, to be blessed by the gods…”
“But they will get the rewards!” Bardath suddenly panicked. “We should at least try to place a few hits in so that we can justify getting some of them!”
“That would be pathetic,” Lima said. “You can go, though. As far as I’m concerned, they deserve them.”
“What about the loot, then?” Bardath hissed. “What about the Glory? Lima I know that we would all be dead without them but-”
“But what?” Lima said as she finally let go of Kinua to face him. “There’s no but. You would have been dead if not for Edward, even though you’ve been nagging me about his presence all day. At least have some shame and show a bit of dignity.”
She has changed so much in so little time, Kinua thought has she looked at the face of her pack leader. Even the way she would now often raise a single eyebrow when mocking someone was something recent.
Lima had always been headstrong and driven, but Kinua had always been able to sense fragility hidden behind her determination. As if the tall girl did not really have faith in herself. It had made Kinua want to be her support.
But Lima was not putting a front anymore. The strength Kinua now felt behind her words could not have been faked, and it was not hard to guess what the origin of that strength was.
“Lima,” senior Khat simply said. He did not bother elaborating, his tone implied what everybody was thinking.
“I-I know,” Lima said with a sigh. “I’ll speak to Edward, I am sure he won’t mind.”
“He would be compensated, of course,” the older hunter assured. “As soon as your team decides to returns to camp.”
Khat’s interest in the Knight’s loot was expected, and not just because it included an item extremely valuable to hunters. If the two delvers were to refuse to cooperate, the senior hunter and the three survivors would be unable to leave the dungeon.
“I still think that we should help,” Timuk said. “Simply watching is shameful.”
“They do not need your help,” said senior Khat, and as if to confirm his words from the other side of the meadow, Spice tore a hole through the Knight with a single hit.
Kinua wondered how close the two delvers really were. Spice seemed to be angry at the human for some reason, didn’t that mean that there was something between them? Their teamwork while fighting the named creature surely was impeccable. Were they friends? More than friends?
As long as he leaves Lima alone.
“Th-the three of them can kill it?”
“More like the two of them, I don’t see the grappler. Lima, did you tell them to sever the two halves?”
Clearly not, thought Kinua, as she watched the delvers freeze in surprise at the sight of the monster surviving Spice’s blow. Their first mistake until now.
Lima cursed and snatched her glaive from Bardath’s hands, before dashing toward the fight. She was followed by the Timuk, Cairo, and the outsider, apparently the only ones able to react fast enough.
… or the only ones who believe those two are worth the risks, Kinua thought.
In the distance, Spice was struggling to free herself from the grasp of the knight’s tail while Deadeye showered it with bullets that seemed ineffective.
He may be able to shoot fast, but his small projectiles are just not enough against real foes.
“Oh, really?” Bardath yelled after the reinforcements. “Now joining the fight is fi-”
There was a roaring blast and, for a brief instant, the feeble lights of dawn covering the meadow were overpowered by a flash from Deadeye’s firearm.
“Gods…” Vaunt muttered.
The lies! He told me that he had no special skills!
However, that explosive shot might have been the delver’s trump card. Lima’s friend had ripped the knight’s arms in a shocking display of power and dexterity, but also destroyed his only weapon in the process, sending pieces of it flying in every direction.
Worse, the aggravated Knight Of Dawn was now galloping in his direction, howling in pain and ready to put an end to the one who had injured it so. Lima was screaming at the boy to run away, but Deadeye did not react to her words and stayed immobile, pointing his broken tool at the monster while his fuming arm was left limp at his side.
“They won’t make it in time,” Bardath said. “He’s going to die.”
Oddly enough, Kinua felt somewhat comforted by the thought that even a delver could be frozen in fear in face of incoming danger. If it could happen to them, then her shutting down in the forest could not be that bad.
But right at the moment of impact, there was a second explosion. The clearing was illuminated once more and the Knight of Dawn fell, cleaved in half by a single human.
I saw his weapon explode. We all saw it happen.
Deadeye was now approaching one of the knight’s halves, walking without deigning to show even a hint of excitement for his victory. Kinua caught a glimpse of his weapon and gasped in shock at the outrageous reason why it could still be used after being destroyed.
“His…. Am I seeing this right? Sir, are you seeing this?”
Senior Khat did not say anything, but Kinua knew by the way he had narrowed his eyes that he was as shocked as they were.
Deadeye’s weapon can rebuild itself.
No wonder he was so efficient with it. Only the angels above knew what the grade of that item was. Silver? …Maybe even Gold?
I have never even touched a bronze grade item…
Was that really all it came down too? Either one was blessed by the gods with a rare class and a powerful family with the right connections, or they were left to fight for the scraps like her?
How is this fair? She thought as she gripped her bow tighter.