Chapter 61+62

“Faster! Did you forget that we were supposed to go first?” the armored Siamese cat shouted from the front of the party.

You have left Iwin Town

The notification came after a few steps up the plateau’s stone stairs, one last reminder to the hunters that they were leaving the last harbor of safety behind. To me, it came more as an invitation to put all the theories about humans spinning in my head to the side… Until I assessed the dangers of the dungeon at least.

“Anything you want to tell me?” Lima whispered next to me. “I don’t know what you were doing over there, but it was weird as-”

“Told you, I was gathering my thoughts,” I said. “Just think of it as a strange human ritual.”

She rolled her eyes and I could see that she was still worried about me having second thoughts. Thankfully, she didn’t press the issue any further.

Can’t tell her I was speaking to ghosts when she already thinks I might be under too much pressure.

“Hey,” she started,”did I mention that-”

You have entered Yaga’s garden.

The notification came with a sudden darkening of the sky, as if most of the world’s light had been sucked out of existence.

Lima’s hand landed on my shoulder, “Sorry! I totally forgot about the whole sun thing… Look!”

Still under the effects of the surprise caused by the strange phenomenon, I lowered my guard and looked at what she was showing me.

It was the sun, back to being right above the horizon. It was morning again.

“Nothing has changed outside, but Yaga’s garden function on its own twisted time,” she explained. “It’s going to be morning until we kill the first named creature.”

I can’t believe they barely reacted to this, I thought as I rubbed my eye. It had adapted fairly quickly to the loss of light, but I could still feel a certain discomfort as I looked at the gold tinted eastern sky and the shadows stretching across the barren stone lands.

How real were the things that happened in dungeons? It wasn’t hard to accept that the monsters and beings they hosted were as real as I was, as I could interact with them.

But if it was possible for them to have their own “time” without the help of any illusions, then dungeons could very well be some types of parallel worlds or pocket dimensions. And that was definitely out of my realm of expertise.

Would someone age if they stayed in a dungeon with fixed time? Could time even be considered to be fixed, since we were all able to move? If not, then were we currently in a world in which the planet had somehow stopped spinning?

Wait… I don’t even know if we’re on a planet to begin with…

I found myself letting out a sigh of resignation. It was hard to justify making theories when the logic they were based on was probably null and void, however, I couldn’t simply turn a blind eye to this world’s wonders. No matter how many times my thoughts would lead me to this exact same conclusion again.

It didn’t take a genius to sense that there was an underlying set of rules for all of this. One that I simply had yet to grasp.

We climbed up at a fast pace, the stairs increasing in verticality every few meters. After almost an hour of huffing and puffing, we reached an old stone arch at the edge of the sinister forest. There was only one party waiting for us in front of it, and the senior hunter was nowhere to be found. At the top of the stone arch was the bust of a beautiful woman holding a candle. There was a real white flower in her hair, though the way it shone made me question how natural it really was.

Probably not at all, I chuckled. We were in a dungeon after all.

The gigantic trees had strange knotted trunks that shot straight up to the sky. There were too similarly spaced out for it to have been a coincidence, and there was a thick layer of dark leaves covering every inch of the ground. Every inch, except for the seemingly innocuous path that slithered deeper in the woods.

“Oh? Guess, I lost the bet,” said a young scaled beastkin with a laugh who did a pretty bad job at hiding the nervousness in his voice. “I was pretty sure you guys had given up.”

The more I looked at his concentric scales, the more I found myself wondering which animal he was supposed to share traits with.

Aren’t all beastkins mammals?

I had seen a few mixed people with scales, but now that I was thinking about it, the only snake person I had seen until now was that girl I had once seen talking to Sarn in the temple. I figured that she probably was a Tasel folk.

“You wish,” Lima said as she and nodded at those that stood behind him. “Where’s Khat?”

“He went in with Jojo’s party,” he said. “Same plan, but he will be taking the brunt of those things with them instead of yours.”

Lima let out a heavy sigh.

“Fair. It’s our fault for being late,” she said before turning to us with her hands on her hips. “You heard him, boys. No time to rest, we’re going in right aw-”

The scaled boy put a hand on her shoulder, “Not so fast.”

Lima turned around with raised brows.

“He did not go with them because your team was late. He did because of him,” he said as he pointed at me. “His weapon would ruin the element of surprise for everybody. So it was decided that your team would go in last.”

“Pohram, you can’t possibly be serious!” Fat Cat yelled with a raised fist. “We earned the right!”

“Hey, if you insist I will let you guys go before us,” Pohram said with his hands raised in mock surrender. “It would be a very good reason for me and my buds to sit this one out, and I really would not mind. Well, you will eventually have to explain why you went against Khat’s orders, but I am sure that you do not mind. Assuming you make it out.”

There were mumbles of discontentment from my teammates, but it seemed that the decision clearly was out of the hands of anyone present.

“Got it,” Lima said with a neutral tone. “You guys can get in, we’ll follow as soon as possible. Good luck.”

“Aww, too bad,” Pohram shrugged. He made signs to the hunters standing behind him to get ready. “It’s almost time.”

Their party gathered in front of the arch in a loose formation, with the archers at the rear.

I had heard it too. Something was moving in the forest, causing a swishing sound that was growing in intensity. Then it got closer, and I realized that it wasn’t something moving in the forest, but the forest itself was moving.

In expanding increments that seemed to have started outward from the center of the forest, the trees were being reshuffled in yet another absurd display of the dungeon’s total disregard for what I assumed to be possible. They moved fast enough to appear blurry, but with no apparent resistance from the ground.

The motion reached the trees at the edge and a cold gust of wind carrying a vortex of black leaves rushed through us. When it settled down, the forest was back to being immobile, but past the stone arch was now a pathway that led straight to what appeared to be a meadow barely lit by the first rays of dawn.

“Lima,” I said. “Are there other things you didn’t mention? Because I never heard of this.”

“It’s just part of the dungeon’s narrative,” she whispered. “Just another proof of the host’s twisted mind. You might as well ignore it, you won’t find real people in there.”

A woman wearing a snow white dress was standing at the end of the path, her silky hair undulating under the same cool breeze I could feel on my skin. She was facing us with both her hands covering her mouth, but even with the distance I could see the terror on her face.

She noticed something hidden to us by the trees and ran away as the forest resumed its dance and hid the meadow. But there was little doubt that her fleeing attempt was unsuccessful, as a gut-wrenching scream rose high enough to pierce the whirlwind’s muffling sound.

“Pohram, wait!” I heard one of our sword wielders call from the other side of the team. “Take me with you, please!”

The half panda boy grabbed him by the shoulder, “Oh, you son of a bitch. You’d betray us now? Right before the trial?”

There was no shame on the traitor’s face when he looked back at him.

“It’s nothing personal Cairo, you know that. Call it a gut feeling or whatever, but I do not trust our current team to make it back to the camp. First, some of our members are switched for people with no knowledge of the hunt, then we suddenly have to go last? It’s too messy, and that calls for bad luck.”

He swatted his ex partner’s hand off his shoulder and went to stand in front of the arch with the other team.

He glanced back.

“Sorry Lima, but I’ll take my chances with them.”

He might as well have kept his mouth shut, because Lima didn’t react in any way to his words and kept her eyes on the moving trees. The maze reconfiguration had begun to slow down and came to an abrupt stop as a bright flame appeared on the stone maiden’s candle.

A new path into the forest had appeared, one made of candles and white flowers.

With a shout, Pohram plunged dashed through the arch with his men right behind him. The arch’s candle went out, and a few seconds after, those demarcating the path did the same in quick succession, crumbling into nothingness.

We were now the only people standing in front of the arch and lifeless forest, with a heavy silence eventually interrupted by the curses of our greatsword wielding Persian cat.

I probably should ask for his name.

“It will be easier to see that this whole scene was made up to scare us the next time you see it. It becomes a lot less impressive,” Lima said with a casual tone that felt unnatural. “The candles show us the way, but they won’t last long enough for us to reach the meadow. Once they are all gone, I’ll lead us for the rest of the way.”

I almost asked “how”, but decided against it at the last moment. I trusted her abilities, but with the current mood of the team, any hint of uncertainty in her answer would probably be the last straw to send the other hunters home.

Fat cat stared at her with eyes wide with disbelief, “You cannot be serious. You still want to get in? After all of this?”

“Bardath, if you’ve changed your mind you’re free to go,” she shrugged. “As a matter of fact, if anyone else is having doubts and wants to bail, then leave now… Except for Edward, you’re still coming right?”

I gave her a look. Her teammates couldn’t see it since she was facing the forest, but her knuckles were white from how tight her fingers were wrapped around her glaive.

I knew what she was trying to do and considered intervening, but it wasn’t my place to do so. People were likely to die after all.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m here for the cores.”

“We’ll be able to harvest them during the second half of the hunt, which means that I have two titled delvers with me, and an additional Red Cross warrior. I do not need anyone else. So yeah, bye.”

The trees started moving again.

“This is insane,” said the armored cat. “Our whole strategy started unraveling when this human showed up out of nowhere. And now you’re going to die, just to-”

“Bardath,” the half panda interrupted. “How long have you known Lima? It’s obvious that she’s trying to play the hero.”

Oh yeah, I had heard his name already, I mused.

“Wh-”

“She is too bullheaded to give up,” Cairo continued. “But Lima believes that the hunt is likely to end badly, just like you and Pohram. So now she tries to make us run away.”

“That… Is that why you did not try to keep that jerk from leaving?” asked a female tiger with heavy-looking steel gauntlets.

“… If he really thinks he has better chances there…” was all I could make out of the Lima’s embarrassed mumbling. I did not miss the red that had come to her face, however.

“Tsk, tsk,” I heard from the taciturn lama in the back.

“You need to lose that habit, Lima,” Cairo doubled down. “We came here together, we’re leaving together.”

“I fail to understand what it is that scares you people like so,” the archer chimed in. “We have delvers! This will be a piece of cake!”

“Do you think you want this more than us? This is what you get when you let the senior hunters fry your brain-”

“Alright, alright, enough!” Lima blurted out with a raised hand. “I get it and I’m sorry.”

I gave her a tap on the back. She did the same thing this morning when she tried to go without me.

She’d eventually have to learn that leading doesn’t mean making every decision for other people.

There were a few chuckles here and there, and with them some of the group’s nervousness was gone. When the woman in the white dress appeared for the second time at the end of the path, her scream seemed to have less effect on the group.

“We only have two rangers, so let’s try to keep them alive,” Lima said with newfound confidence. “I’ll lead with the Red Cross grappler and the brawlers will take care of the flanks. We’ll leave the rear to the swordmasters and the hammer.”

“My name’s Bali,” the heavy grappler said, cracking her knuckles as she approached.

“Nice to meet you, Bali,” Lima said with a slight nod to the horned girl who was even taller than her. “The plan is simple, we have to get as far down the path before the candles go out. After that, our job is to manage our stamina and get everything we meet out of the party’s way until we reach the meadow.”

“Seems simple enough,” Bali said.

The team had followed Lima’s instructions and put up a defensive formation around the archer and I, with the exception of the Fat Cat, who she had not included in her directives.

He was standing awkwardly to the side with his great sword in hands. It seemed that he wanted to say something, but no words were leaving his mouth. The rest of the team behaved as if he did not exist. It might have been due to disappointment, but I had a feeling that it was because they did not want to influence his decision in any way.

“Hello Edward, we haven’t had the pleasure to speak yet,” said my ranger colleague. “I’m Kinua. Are there any skills with your weapon that I should be aware of? Any flares? Critical strikes”

She also was the kind of mixed beaskin whose origin was difficult to identify, but something about her big eyes and striped tail made me think of a lemur.

Despite her relatively small size, her quiver held impressive steel arrows, one of which was held at the ready against her bow.

“Not really,” I said. “All I can do is shoot. I won’t have to manage my bullets though.”

“Oh. Um… That is a good thing, indeed,” she said with a forced smile, before looking at the moving trees with much more resolve in her gaze than before.

While it hadn’t been my intention to make her feel like she was the only real ranger present, there was nothing bad with a little extra sense of urgency. So I looked back searching for Maru, and saw her standing right behind me, her sword still sheathed.

“What?” she barked with obvious contempt.

“Just don’t die, alright?” I told her.

I couldn’t even begin to fathom of the mountain of problems that would fall on my shoulders if anything serious happened to her.

However my worry seemed to only serve to irritate her more, as her frown turned into a scowl.

“I do not need your concern, Deadeye,” she hissed with enough anger to make the lama look at her with wariness. “I suggest you worry about yourself.”

“It’s coming,” warned Cairo.

As the forest was finishing shuffling the trees, the fat cat cursed and went to take a spot at the rear, with his sword resting on his shoulder.

“I’m activating Hunter’s persistence,” he grunted. “I’ll cancel it as soon as speed will stop mattering to save my stamina, so don’t be surprised when you suddenly lose the boost.”

“Such a shame,” lamented one of the brawlers. “I was looking forward to you calling me senior when we’d get back.”

Lima glanced back amidst the ensuing laughter, her normally black eyes now fully red. I noticed the same change with the other hunters. “Give us some lead so that we don’t obstruct your aim,” she told me. “Also-”

“Hey,” I interrupted as I put a hand I hoped to bed comforting on her arm. I had noticed her shaking despite her efforts to conceal it. “It’s going to be fine.”

She smiled and looked straight ahead, her back slightly straighter.

Of course, she couldn’t know that it was only meant for her. There no saying how much help I would be, but there was no doubt in my mind that the lives of her nameless friends wouldn’t mean much to me if we found ourselves in the worst case scenario.

“Just like we practiced,” she said. “I’ll use Thrill of the Hunt, as soon as possible.”

Whatever the effects of those skills were supposed to be, they seemed to only work on hunters as there were no changes to my status… and those weren’t the only ones they were under either. Brief flashes of light around their fists and unnatural sparks flying down the edge of their blades indicated that each hunter had also activating one or several individual skills.

The trees stopped and I adjusted my grip on the rifle one last time.

“Don’t stop running until I do.”

The flame appeared at the top of the stone candle, and we took off.

For a moment nothing could be heard except for heavy breathing, the sound of wind whistling in my ears and boots thumping against the ground and crunched leaves.

They are fast.

Not so fast that I struggled to keep up, but I was pushing myself.

Lima and Bali were leading the charge just as planned, with only a few meters between us.

Vision of our surroundings was bad but not yet an issue, as the filtering dawn’s light and the flickering candles were enough for us to make out incoming obstacles and depressions in the terrain.

We probably all realized that we had been found at the same time. The unmistakable sound of hooves echoed among the trees long before we could see its origin.

I didn’t even see the first one, as a lightning fast arrow from Kinua left it whimpering behind us.

But a group of three appeared on my left right after, galloping alongside us at enough distance that they would be cloaked in the shadows but not so far that I wouldn’t spot the irregularly placed yellow eyes on their grotesque silhouettes.

I couldn’t search for vitals, as I didn’t even know what they were. So I simply aimed for a yellow glint and pull the trigger.

My target fell, left trashing against the ground by the two others with no visible reactions. Past them, more clusters of eyes were approaching.

They are waiting for the rest of the pack.

They would then try to overwhelm us with their number and that couldn’t be allowed to happen. Unfortunately, only two people in our party had the ability to thin out the herd before contact.

“Take as many as you can!” I yelled at Kinua.

My rifle roared in quick successions, dropping two more of the closest assailants and making intercepting tree trunks explode in splinters.

The rate at which the candles were going out had increased, and despite our own speed, the path of lights between the main group and the front runners was gone.

No roars, no cries, nothing. I kept shooting and the mute beasts simply kept edging closer. I had already lost count of how many I had downed, and it didn’t seem to matter, seeing how there were dozens of spares coming our way.

“Come here!” I heard Bali shout, and I looked forward only to see two of the beasts rushing toward her, the feeble lights revealing crooked horns covering their bodies.

“Care!” Lima warned, but her request fell in deaf ears as the horned girl leaped toward the first enemy and elbowed it with enough force to make it burst against a nearby tree, without slowing down in the slightest.

“Woohoo!”

She intercepted the second one with her bare hands and laughed as she sent it flying in one fluid spinning motion.

As it flew over us, followed by a trail of broken bones, I got my first real look at the enemy. The parts of its festering cancerous flesh that weren’t pierced by bone growths and lidless eyes were vaguely shaped like a boar’s. But that’s where the similarity ended, as there was nothing but a gaping hole lined with tusks where the head should have been.

I tore my eyes from it hoping that the rest of the team had not been as curious as I had been, but the pale faces of the two brawlers at my side hinted at the opposite.

The abomination crashed somewhere behind us, and that was the signal for its brethren to attack.

 

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