“Hey, Deadeye! What ya doin’?”
I looked up and saw both my “bodyguards” approaching with curious expressions that mirrored those of the hunters further behind, with the muttering archers in particular.
From the way she was skipping in my direction, Bali also appeared to be slightly more interested in my weapon. Though the sight of her acting in such a carefree manner was fascinating in its own right.
“Is this your hobby? Looks fun,” she said as she leaned forward to study the rifle. “Humans make such interesting gadgets.”
“It’s not just a gadget,” I said. “It’s what I’m going to use in the dungeon.”
“What?” Maru blurted out in an uncharacteristic display of emotions that was soon replaced by a snarl. “Could it be that you think us unworthy of seeing your dance? You better take this dungeon seriously Edward.”
I looked at her with a raised brow, “Why would I think you unworthy of anything?”
“We heard that ya laughed at her parents’ styles the other day,” Bali chuckled. “… Never would have believed the story if it hadn’t come from that many different people.”
Maru, on the other hand, wasn’t amused in the slightest.
“Oh. Well, no. I don’t think anyone is… unworthy of seeing my dance,” I said with a slight pause, as I realized that, obviously, some people were unworthy of seeing me and Ikun Omi in glorious action. “And I didn’t mean to laugh, the dance makes you do strange things sometimes. I’m sure you know.”
“No I do not know,” Maru said with an oddly forced smile. “Because I do not have a style… but you knew that, right?”
She spun on her heels and walked away. I gave Bali a confused look.
“Have I ever done something that could explain this?” I asked her.
“I don’t know, maybe it has to do with you having the luxury to not even use your dance, when… having a sword dancing style is all we’ve ever wanted. It’s pretty frustrating news.”
I gave her a long look, “Seems like you actually know.”
“Don’t cha worry about it,” she said with a wave, before putting her hands on her hips and giving a nod to my weapon. “Show me how it works! Wait, where did you even get it from? Deadeye, do you have an inventory?”
It was concerning to know that the person who was supposed to have my back was jealous of me, especially considering where we were going. Then again, my fate was tightly linked to the fate of her people.
I was about to mount the Sun barrel, after shooting a few more rounds at my target tile to get a better feel of the weapon and coincidentally entertain Bali, when I noticed curtains of the house’s upper floor being swiftly shut.
I lowered my weapon in shock and glanced back to Bali.
“Did you see that?”
“See what?” She said, cocking her head.
“Something moved over there,” I said. “In the house.”
She gave me a concerned look, “Didn’t see anything. You sure you’re not just on edge?”
Empty dungeon my ass, I thought as I stood and walked toward Lima, scanning the surroundings with my weapon at the ready.
It seemed that the break was over, as the hunters were gathering in front of the stairs in a nervous silence. They had formed three more or less balanced teams and the snippets of discussions I caught were mostly strategy talks.
“You know what to do,” I heard Khat say as I hurried. “Once in there, take your usual positions and do not waver. Help each other as long as it does not require you to leave the path. Neverget off the path. No matter what.”
Lima was with her friends she met every morning and a few new additions, at the back.
It seemed that my earlier performance had influenced the team distribution, because only one of the five archers was standing with us, to the obvious displeasure of the fat cat. We also had four unharmed fighters -including Bali and the half panda kid, Two sword users -including Maru-, and a silent war hammer-wielding full blooded lama beastkin.
I would have certainly given more thought to how his threatening weapon didn’t match his peaceful appearance if my mind hadn’t been preoccupied with something else.
“Is it normal for curtains to move by themselves in this town?” I asked Lima once I reached her.
“What,” she absentmindedly said, more focused on making sure her armor and satchel were firmly strapped. “Oh, yeah. Things move around sometimes.”
I sensed that she was distracted, and realized as I looked around that this probably wasn’t the time to put any more stress on the shoulders of these people. They were already scared shitless.
They didn’t even need to say it, it was visible in their eyes, in how they passed around whetstones to needlessly sharpen their blades or the way their hands shook as they checked and checked again that everything was where it was supposed to be.
The leader made a sign, and the party started climbing the stairs. Maru walked past me with a snort. Bali followed her, with a questioning glance thrown in my direction.
“I’m fine,” I told her.
What a mess. I really need to get a hang on-
“Sir?” meekly called a voice right behind me.
My stomach dropped.
The whole party was climbing the stairs in front of me.
I spun around and took aim. And then let out a gasp.
There were people. Not a handful or a dozen, but enough people to fill a whole town.
Whole families and couples. Old people, adults, and children. All wearing rags. They were just standing, holding each other tightly. Staring at me.
The closest one was a blonde man wearing scraps like all the others did. But he also held a pretty blue dress tightly to his chest.
“I-, I knew it,” he said with teary eyes. “You can see us… You can see us, can’t you?”
I didn’t answer. At times, his body would flicker, like an image of something that wasn’t really there. Same with the other inhabitants of the town.
The goddamn ghost town has ghosts.
Were there similar to the knockers? Would any interaction curse me forever?
I didn’t really want to find out.
“Dude!” I heard Lima hiss from the stairs. “What are you doing?”
Most of the hunting party was already out of sight. The stairs spiraled around the plateau, and the only reason Lima was still in earshot was that she was causing her team to lag behind. Waiting for me.
The look of exasperation on her face and annoyance on the faces of her comrades confirmed that I was the only one able to witness the supernatural phenomenon occurring right in front of us.
Just like a lunatic.
I lowered my weapon to look slightly less insane in the eyes of the hunters and slowly took a step back.
“No, please!” the apparition cried out. “My- my daughter… the damned witch took her this morning, like so many other before! You have to help us! You have to help her!”
I paused. This could be a trap, but… it didn’t feel like one.
Do traps ever look like traps to those who fall in them?
“You do not have to say anything if that is your wish, but I beg you to lend a merciful ear to this peasant,” the man pleaded, wiping tears flowing out of his eyes. “To be able to survive in this reserve, we have always diligently paid the tribute. But this time… it was thrice the normal amount… and we realized that survival was not worth the hurt and the fear. Sin- since you are going up there… if you- if you see our girls… please bring them back.”
He got too choked up to speak, and I gave him a moment to gather himself. He wasn’t the only one overwhelmed by his feelings either, many members of the ethereal crowd seemed to be experiencing similar emotions. Assuming their emotions were real, in any of the senses of the word.
“And if… it happens that the ones you find in that wretched demon’s lair are too far gone… we want you to offer them your mercy,” the ghost finally let out.
You have received a quest from the inhabitants of Iwin.
Enter Yaga’s Garden and save the girls from their fate.
Reward will increase with each saved girl.
So this was why this dungeon had existed for so long. No one with the ability to even accept the quest to allow these poor souls to rest in peace had ever shown up until now.
While my last quest had been forced upon me, I couldn’t deny that it had resulted in me receiving valuable items. I didn’t expect these people to also reward me with a priceless relic, and that was a good thing. Something too valuable would only attract unwanted intention.
Still unwilling to openly speak to the ghost, I simply nodded to it and the prompt disappeared.
The man smiled through his tears.
“Thank you,” he said, as his image got even more unstable. “We will pray for your success.”
He flickered one last time then was no more.
It’s only a few seconds after the fact that I was overcome by the realization that these people had looked just like me. No scales, furs, tails or strange ears.
“What are you doing?” a frustrated voice said right in my ear.
Startled by how close she suddenly was, it took me a few seconds to answer Lima’s question. She was tapping her foot with her hands on her hips, while the rest of the team was gesturing for us to hurry.
“Nothing, just gathering my thoughts,” I said as I adjusted my grip on the rifle. “Let’s hunt some monsters.”