“Explain,” I said without ceremony.
“You told your plans to the boss,” Maru said matter of factly. “You should have lied, but you did not. Now I am stuck on babysitting duty.”
“Well… you did not have to come, and also do not have to stay. You’re free to go.”
“Too late,” she said with the same deadpan expression. “Direct order. I can’t let myself be held responsible if you get yourself killed and no one knows what happened.”
I grabbed the bridge of my nose and slowly exhaled.
“I thought the whole point of my deal with Bokwen was that Genoneva wouldn’t dare try anything.”
“That only works if there are witnesses,” she replied. “Accidents are common outside of the valley, especially for half-baked dancers like you. It would be easy for the plant lady to silence a party of young hunters and make it look like an accident. Unless there’s an undeniable proof that she was responsible, the elders won’t believe they were openly disrespected, and everything will have been for nothing. You could really get killed by a stupid monster, after all.”
“Stop with the name calling. It’s getting old fast.”
She went back to her book.
“No idea what you’re talking about.”
I rolled my eyes. This wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience.
“So you’re here because-”
She pointed at her flaming red hair.
“Because I’m easily recognizable. If they know I’m here they won’t try anything funny.”
Not necessarily because they are scared of her, but because it would be hard to keep her from reporting back.
As a delver who surely had time to raise her abilities far above mine, I did not doubt that she would be able to take care of herself. But it was hard to see her as more than a very annoying liability.
I can somewhat understand the logic, but there has to be something she isn’t saying.
Maru was the most important individual of the Crosses’ next generation. Bokwen putting us both in the same potentially dangerous situation was the equivalent of putting all his eggs in the same basket.
A heavy hand landed on my shoulder and I glanced back and saw Oju.
“Is everything sorted out? The kids are about to leave,” she said. “Unless you three changed your minds, you should meet them outside.”
“I haven’t,” I begrudgingly said as I watched Maru kick the desk to wake her snoring comrade. She sat straight in surprise and rubbed her eyes while I wondered how much neck strength was needed to support her horns.
“Um, wh-… Oh, are we leaving?” She noticed us standing at the door and frowned. “Oh, it’s Deadeye.”
I almost chuckled at the ridiculous name then realized she was talking to me.
“What did you call me?” I asked with disbelief.
“Deadeye,” she yawned. “It’s your delver name, right?”
“No. No, it’s not.”
“It is,” Maru said from behind her book. “That’s how everybody calls you. It’s not even about your wounded eye, by the way, it’s just that there is no emotion in your stare… or so I’ve heard.”
That’s the name that stuck? Really?
“I’m Bali, nice to meet you…” the new girl started, but then she frowned and her eyes kept darting between Oju and I. “Wait… Are you guys related? Are the eyepatches fashion statements or…”
I sighed and Oju stepped in.
“See lads, I have no objections to you going with the brats, but one thing has to be made clear,” she said. “This expedition isn’t about either of you, which means that you better not try to hog all of the ether. These kids spend enough time at home being told that they are worth less than regular warriors.”
“There’s nothing they can handle that can be useful to me,” Maru said as she stood.
“You won’t have to worry about that,” I added.
“Good, good…” Oju nodded. “Truth is, it’s likely that a few of you won’t make it back. Yaga’s Garden is a vicious place, even for a dungeon… but so is the rest of the world.”
For a moment it seemed that she wasn’t looking at us, but through us. However, she then smirked and continued, “You will be lead by a hunter named Khat. He is very familiar with the dungeon you’re headed to, and he’s aware of a few mysteries that only people with the favor of the gods could uncover, so if you’re in the mood to once again reach places no one ever has before… feel free to help.”
She stood aside and I walked past her with a nod.
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
I left Oju’s cabin and was met with a mostly deserted camp, with the exception of the party I would join.
A few other groups had joined Lima’s and there were now twenty-five armed hunters standing right outside the main building, with Maru and her friend Bali standing to the side. I spotted Lima at the back, with a glaive twice her size casually laying on her shoulder.
What size are those monsters? I wondered.
The Rottweiler guy was talking to them facing away from me, and I couldn’t help but notice that he now had the biggest greatsword I had ever seen strapped to his back… If it even could be considered a sword, considering it seemed to be a single gigantic scale with sharpened edges.
It was no Ikun Omi, of course, but at the very least it made back in intimidation what it lacked in style.
“… And never forget that there will always be a risk, even if I am present. Do not hesitate to sit this one out if you’re having second thoughts,” the man I assumed to be Khat said. “There is nothing to be ashamed of, it would simply mean that you were aware of your limits sooner than those who will unfortunately not be standing here tomorrow morning.”
He gave them a moment to consider his words, but even if there clearly was fear in their eyes, no one left.
“Very well,” the khat said. “Let’s go.”
We left the camp in a more or less orderly fashion, seemingly organized by what we brought to the group.
At the front was a mix of close quarter hunters who probably all had mastered the use of their aura in an offensive manner to boost their strength and speed. Heavy gauntlets, for the most part, a few swords here and there. There was a man on the higher end of the group’s age curve carrying a war hammer.
They represented half of the whole party.
Then the archers. We had six of them, with compound bows that made me realize that the hunters had access to very talented craftsmen. The arrows were more similar to harpoons used to kill whales and gave me a general idea of how much strength needed to operate the bows.
Last were the polearms and long blades, and that was the group that included Lima and the fat cat. Him and another guy had a spear, the remaining three members carried greatswords.
Needless to say, I was concerned with the composition of the party but decided to put my faith in the “experts” they were supposedly surrounded with.
There were several other groups heading in different areas of the shard, planning to face dungeons or even the Shallows, that zone of the Fog that was the closest to the hospitable lands. The warriors that headed toward the horizon without any trace of hesitation in their steps had rough appearances under their quality gear, and didn’t spare us any glances. Any time we would cross the path of such a party, we’d have to be the ones to wait until they were gone first. Then again, we weren’t the only ones.
“Hey,” I said to Lima after having left her to sulk for a while. “Are you still ignoring me? Because I’d rather not go there unprepared.”
It took her a few minutes to reply.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “We usually hunt creatures that live out in the open, or in regular dungeons. This expedition isn’t just a regular hunt. It’s a rite of passage that takes place in one of the most dangerous dungeons of the shard for warriors. You can probably beat most of the people here in direct combat, but they are way more likely to survive today. And some of us will die, I guarantee it. A swordsman without aura is suici-”
“Oh, I’m going to be fighting from the back today,” I said.
“I brought a rifle Tamie made for me. I need monster cores for a different weapon, and me using this one should help her gain a few levels.”
“Oh. Um… Well, I didn’t know that. Wait, you can shoot too?”
“You would have known if you had spoken to me instead of trying to run away. What are you, a kid?”
“First, I’m still older than you,” she said with a finger to my chest. “Second, it only makes it a little bit safer for you.”
I smiled and opened my arms.
“Then why not improve my chances by telling me what I need to know?”
She groaned and shook her head.
“We’re going to Yaga’s Garden. It’s a cursed forest that acts like a maze. It is important to us hunters because it’s filled with monsters of all kind and level, and that kind of variety isn’t common. Besides the hunt, simply spending the day there will require a lot of teamwork, so don’t get too far from me, alright? I’ll make sure we don’t get lost.”
“Is that really the only reason why the dungeon matters to you guys? This doesn’t seem to be a usual day.”
… Looks more like an initiation.
“There are… very valuable items that can be gained from slaying one of the most powerful beasts,” she whispered, before continuing with her regular voice, “… But that’s not why we’re here. Today we’re just doing a reconnaissance, believe it or not, the real challenge is for tomorrow. Hunting in Yaga’s garden without supervision is what it takes to become a core member of our guild. That’s what we’re all after.”
I felt something pull on my sleeve and frowned when I saw Bali walking next to me with a nonchalant Maru on her other side. While it was surprising for someone her size to be able to move without making a sound, I was more interested in why they would suddenly want to “mingle”.
“Aww, don’t make that face,” Bali said. “Things are gonna get a lil’ bit interesting,” she added with a nod to a group of rowdy warriors coming our way.
It was the biggest group we had seen until now, and though many were injured, that didn’t seem to be enough to tarnish their good mood. They laughed and wrestled with each other without care for the blood occasionally dripping to the ground.
As we got closer and caught their attention, the expected laughs and jeers started being thrown.
“Hey, what if you were a hunter?”
“I’d kill myself. Ain’t nobody gonna call me a sheep lover.”
However, it was nothing we hadn’t already heard and we ignored the words like we had before. But this time something different happened. The eyes of one nosy warrior fell on me and got wide with surprise.
“Bal-Balrosh!” He yelled as he drew his sword and pointed it at me. “He’s here! The boy’s here!”
More blades were revealed amidst shouts of confusion and I also summoned Ikun Omi, but then Maru and Bali stood between us.
“You better put those toys away,” the red-haired delver said. “Fast.”
Her own hand was on the guard of her own weapon, a lengthy rapier very similar to her mother’s. Bali was cracking her neck right behind her with an uncaring expression. She wasn’t armed, but the way she flexed her bandaged fingers hinted at the fact that she didn’t need to be.
“Spice and the young Deadeye at the same spot,” a deep voice said. “The Red Cross is getting too confident for their own good.”
The warriors made way for their leader, and I felt the ground shake at each of Balrosh’s steps. He stopped in front of Maru, and while this was my first meeting with him since that confrontation in Bunker’s theater, I could tell that something had changed about him.
The full-blooded black bull was still taller and bigger than everyone around, and the scars and markings on his shirtless body were still as intimidating as ever. But he was less… intense. His breathing was controlled. His eyes weren’t bloodshot like last time, but narrowed and calculating.
Somehow, it made me more wary of him.
“Didn’t my mother teach you not to get in our way?” Maru said.
“Your mother… is a fine warrior indeed,” Balrosh said, slowly stroking his shin. “But she would be a fool to believe herself able to threaten me, like you are a fool for standing in front of me, now. You are nowhere ready.”
I have a bad feeling about this.
“This is waste of time.”
Heads turned in my direction.
“Genoneva herself gave up when she realized what was at stake,” I said. “What makes you think she’ll be grateful if she finds out you provoked us?”
Some of his men glanced at each other.
“She will probably order you to slice your throat, like that one guy who annoyed her yesterday. If you ever survive that long, that is. Because the Red Cross won’t let it slide, and then we’ll all die with your mistress when her blessing destroys the shard.”
I opened my arms.
“You lose no matter what. So let’s just stop this nonsense, you forget about me and we can all go back to more productive things.”
People on both sides gave me confused looks. Maru seemed annoyed, Bali was clearly amused, and even if I couldn’t decipher his expression, I assumed that Balrosh’s silence was him taking a moment to consider the options before him.
“I wonder,” he said. “Why is it that you are so against answering her call? Has she ever wronged you in any way?”
You mean, except trying to mind control me?
“I simply like my freedom,” I shrugged.
He frowned and turned away. “An interesting answer.”
There was a moment of hesitation among his men but they quickly followed his lead, with empty promises to one day teach me my place left behind. I let out a sigh of relief.
“Tsk, might as well kneel and beg while you’re at it,” I heard Maru mutter as she walked away with her friend.
“It was boring, but I kinda like his style,” Bali argued.
Nervous chatter could be heard from the group of hunters. Except for Lima who had stayed next to me with her glaive at the ready, they had all taken their distance during the encounter.
Can’t blame them.
I watched Genoneva’s men leave thinking that the instinct of self-preservation was a beautiful thing, and noticed that those in the back were carrying large containers from which an unnatural smoke was rising.
“What’s that?” I asked Lima.
“Probably their new shipment of black rocks,” she said with disgust as put her glaive back on her shoulder. “They get it from a dungeon in the shallows over there. The profit they make off it is the only reason these bastards haven’t cleared it yet.”
“We are late,” said Khat. “Let’s up the pace.”
I looked at the direction she had indicated and saw nothing at first. But then I noticed a strange portion of the blue sky beyond the wall of mist. It had the appearance of shattered glass, and beyond the missing pieces, was a kaleidoscopic storm of colors. There was something sickening about the way they meshed together, almost like-
… an oil spill.
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