They smashed themselves against our flanks, their gaping maws searching for limbs to tear. Having the brawlers on the sides turned out to be a blessing, as their plated gauntlets made them an ideal defensive wall. They were able to grab on the tusks like Bali had shown to keep the monsters at bay, but they didn’t have the ability to finish them off while we were on sprinting.
That job was mine.
Using the brawlers as a shield allowed me to further decrease the number of enemies. Every time they found themselves struggling, having to resort to aura, or entangled with one of the creatures for too long, I would execute it at point-blank range and give the bile covered hunters an opportunity to breathe before the next one inevitable came.
Aim for the eye. Shoot. Aim. Shoot. Aim. Shoo-
I couldn’t think of much more. The stream of enemies seemed to never end, and the survival of the team was relying more and more on me.
Kinua’s projectiles were much more versatile than mine. Her arrows were able to change direction mid-course and their steel shafts hindered even the following creatures when the targets fell.
But now that we were up close and personal with the monsters, all that mattered was rate of fire, and she couldn’t keep up.
Left, right and center. I trusted Maru to take care of the rear. The goal wasn’t even to kill them anymore, but to keep my teammates from getting obstructed. Stopping now would mean death.
A quick glance showed me that the path was still visible, though the candles were now at a good distance from us. Lima and Bali were doing their best to at least keep the candles in sight, as they literally mowed down anything that came in their way. But it simply wasn’t enough.
We’re slowing down.
Even with all the skills they had used, the strain of fighting while running as fast as they could was starting to get to the hunters.
We kept losing speed and were eventually plunged into obscurity as the stone candles fully disappeared from our view.
We did not stop running even though we were in the shadows because Lima hadn’t. The unwavering shimmer of her glaive cleaving the monsters was enough to convince her fellow hunters to put one foot after the other. But there was no more heart in it.
They have lost faith.
I could hear sobbing. Every time I would pull the trigger the muzzle flash would reveal the pale faces of my closest allies, and they were covered in sweat, dirt, blood, gunk, and tears. Their spirits broken by the loss of the lights.
“Please, please, please, please-” I could hear Kinua repeat in a feverish mantra.
Something needed to be done.
Could I use Sun avatar to try to buy time? Maybe, but if the spell failed to incapacitate all of the monsters, then I’d be left defenseless with no stamina.
What about Kinetic charge? It required me to run in a straight line, and the path was anything but straight.
Was it time to ditch the rifle for Ikun Omi?
Not unless it became clear that I had to focus solely on saving my own ass. The rifle was the best way to support everybody.
The enemy numbers didn’t seem to end, our dispirited people were exhausted and the meadow was nowhere in sight. I was racking my brain in the middle of a brewing massacre when the hellish creatures suddenly took their distance.
In shock, I watched the monsters slow down and put an end to their chase. Suddenly aborting their assault and letting us go with no casualties didn’t make sense, and I found myself dreading to learn why.
“Hold!” Lima shouted with palpable weariness in her voice.
That order hadn’t been necessary as the hunters were already past their limits, with the exception of Kinua and I, who had received the less damage out of everyone present. Even Maru had a few scratches, though I figured it was because she wanted to conserve her stamina, seeing how she didn’t seem at all concerned by the situation we were in.
Even though it was a miracle that everybody was still alive.
Without missing a beat, I closed the distance to Lima in a few strides, ignoring how my teammates collapsed to the ground gasping for hair, “Why did they stop and why are we stopping?”
This wasn’t the time to beat around the bush. I was proud of what she had accomplished and felt bad seeing her having to rely on her glaive’s pole as a support for standing, but we weren’t out of the woods just yet. Literally.
“They let us go because we came off the path,” she said. “They are leaving us to Yaga. I’m… I’m sorry. I just need a little time to focus so I can find it.”
“… So that you can find it?”
My gaze wandered to the double trail of white flowers a few meters behind her. The stone candles were gone, but the path was still clearly visible.
Or at the very least, visible to me.
One of the brawlers who had been on our archer’s side abruptly walked up to me, and without any warnings gave me a strong enough hug to knock the wind out of me.
“Thank you!” I heard him say through crying gibberish. “Th-thank you!”
“Just… did my job,” I said with a comforting taps on his back that really were an urgent requests to be released.
“You did much more than that,” I surprisingly heard Bardath say as he walked to me and put a solemn hand on my shoulder. His armor was in tattters, and the fluids covering his great sword showed that it had seen some use. “I appologize for doubting you earlier… we saw everything you did from the back. You kept us all standing. Thank you.”
There were nods of agreement all around, a few more words of gratitude from the brawlers and even a huge grin from Bali. It was amazing how she seemed unhurt despite having no protection and repeatedly coming into direct contact with the monsters. Her class had to be something very impressive.
“Well, then you’re welcome,” I said. “Let’s all get out of here alive.”
A sneer came from the half-panda. There was no trace of his earlier confidence left on his face. It was pale as a sheet and streak of blood he didn’t bother to wipe ran down his nose.
“Now let us not be overly optimistic, alright?” he said with a forced smile.
“By the gods under, won’t you stop CRYING!” one of the brawlers yelled at Kinua.
“Leave her alone,” Cairo said. “It won’t matter to the witch if you have snot all over your face or not.”
The poor girl hadn’t moved since we had stopped running, only rocking back and forth with her arms around her legs in fetal position.
“Talk for yourself, I’m getting the fuck out of this deathtrap,” the brawler said as walked away. “I’m not waiting here to die!”
“Sit down, you moron.”
I looked around for the origin of the voice, and noticed the hammer wielding lama glaring daggers at the troublemaker.
“You know perfectly how stupid you sound. You know this place. You know what’s going to happen if you leave. So sit your ass down, be quiet, and let your leader focus in peace.”
“Who the fuck do you think-”
“Just do as he said or leave,” Bali intervened with a grin. “Your choice.”
The troublemaker froze. He was a recent witness of Bali’s strength, and it his eyes betrayed his unwillingness to be on the receiving hand of her throws. Not that I could blame him for it.
Mumbling and cursing under his breath, he finally sat down and grabbed his head with trembling hands soon after.
“Lima,” I called. “How do-”
“Edward,” she said without opening her eyes. “This is reaaally not the moment to distract me. If I do not find the path…”
She wasn’t able to finish her sentence.
“I might be able to help,” I said with a glance a the flowers. “Tell me how you intend to locate the path in the first place?”
She opened her eyes with a frustrated groan, and I noticed that they were bright red. It wasn’t because of a skill anymore.
“The temperature in the meadow is lower than that of the rest forest,” she said as she wiped her eyes. “My skin is very sensitive, and with aura I can follow the cold breeze back to its source. But I have to find it first.”
… The breeze?
I looked at her with disbelief.
“Is that also how the other teams planned to do it?”
“There have been many ways used by different hunters,” she shrugged. “But I know that it is how Pohram is also doing it.”
They are insane, I thought before realizing that it had to be said.
“You’re all insane,” I said.
And so am I for not realizing it sooner. The real reason they were dying in masses in this dungeon was that they were unequipped for it. Anyone unable to receive the quest in Iwin town was.
She merely shrugged.
“It’s the most commonly used way, and I’m suited for it. But it’s good for not getting off the path in the first place. Once you’ve lost it… it can be hard to find it again.”
I didn’t bother asking why. I could see the path slowly drifting away from us with my own eyes.
“Will the monsters come after us again if we get back on track?” I asked her.
She shook her head side to side.
“We’re Yaga’s preys now. She’s the dungeon boss and is immune to damage as long as the three named beasts are alive. We need to leave before she-”
“She’s on her way here as we speak!” Cairo shouted with depressing cheerfulness. “Yaga… I always wondered how she could be so fast with only one leg… Guess we’ll find out.”
Kinua let out a drawn out wail or panic and the armored cat bared his fangs at his teammate.
“You really, really need to get a grip and shut the fuck up too.”
An argument started and I grabbed Lima by the hand.
“Come,” I said.
She didn’t offer much resistance as I literally dragged her to the flower outline and made her stand in the middle of the path.
“What now?” she said with barely contained annoyance.
“The hell do you mean? Do your thing, try to sense the cold wind or whatever you call it.”
She was about sigh when her face froze. Several emotions quickly appeared across her face one after the other, but in the end the one that one out was a mixture of confused wonder.
“H-how?” she managed to say.
“Did you find the path?” I asked, dismissing her question.
“I did,” she said. “I did. But how did you-”
I threw my hands in the air.
“Lima! How I did it doesn’t matter. You confirmed that this really was the path, so now I will lead us to the meadow. We can’t take the risk of getting lost again if anything happens.” I pointed at the people who were either watching our exchange or waiting for Death with empty eyes. “Got it? Gather your men!”
Her confusion was replaced by resolve, and she headed to speak to the drained hunters.
I sighed and looked down the path ahead. It was entirely possible that the flowers branched out from the candles at some point, but staying here wasn’t an option. No matter where they would lead us.
“What?” I heard Bardath blurt out as Lima gave him her glaive and lifted an unresponsive Kinua.
“Don’t just stand there!” yelled the half panda as he shoved everybody out of his way and he hurried to my position.
The hunters joined me with much more faith in their eyes than I had expected, and with Maru and Bali in tow. Their unbothered expressions convinced me that they had a way to bail out of this whole situation, but I decided to leave it to another time.
“Ready?” I asked her.
“Let’s go,” I said.
We ran in silence. I couldn’t imagine what went through the minds of my party members as I guided them deeper in the forest in a direction that must have felt arbitrary.
How come none of them even asked for an explanation? Were they so desperate and convinced of their demise that they would have followed any gleam of hope?
No monsters or witch came from the forest. Maybe because it was also curious to see if we really could follow the path of white flowers.
In any case, the edge of the meadow eventually appeared before us as morning light filtering through the trees and we emerged from the woods with shouts of victory. Being able to see the sky and fill our lungs with something other than stale air was invigorating. I watched my teammates revel in their new lease on life with a knowing smile. There were few better feelings than escaping a sure death.
Which was why I didn’t blame them for not noticing Khat’s death battle against an ethereal white centaur on the other side of the meadow.
The creature’s human part was carrying two broadswords and wore a medieval armor. The hunter was clearly wounded, and struggled to defend himself against the centaur’s long floating tail that it used as a whip.
Those monster cores better be worth it.