This hunt was a life or death situation for Kinua’s pack, but these delvers clearly weren’t worried about getting out alive. They probably never had to really suffer for anything in their lives, yet Kinua was the one who had to enter this death trap for a slim chance of catching Genoneva’s eyes and being chosen to leave the shard… Preferably with her pack leader.
Another smaller detonation diverted her attention from the smoldering anger welling up inside of her.
“Wh-what did it do?” she asked Bardath. “Why did he shoot again?”
“Oh, I don’ know. He aimed at the ground, probably was checking something” he shrugged. “But are you… back? How are you feeling?”
“I’ll be fine,” she curtly replied, still ashamed of what she had shown them all. “It will not happen again.”
Confusion washed over his face.
“Again? You-you mean that you want to keep going?”
“Of course I am!” she blurted out, annoyed by the question. “Why would I leave now?”
He shrugged again.
“Just because we’re past the Path of Dawn doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy,” he said. “People still die at Noon.”
“He is correct, Kinua,” Senior Khat interjected. “This is the time for all of you to reevaluate your will to go deeper in this dungeon.”
She said nothing out of respect for him, but inwardly snorted at the “reevaluation” he was encouraging. The only reason why senior hunters always joined the expeditions to Yaga’s garden was to make sure that the young hunters would get some help to deal with the first knight, and in exchange, they got an Eye of Yaga. But not only had Khat not been needed, he had been saved by their party.
The next part was known to be a lot less dangerous. Only an idiot would choose to leave now.
“Ah! My heart!”
The grating voice of an aged woman echoed through the forest, seemingly coming from every direction at the same time. The sun, suddenly no longer anchored to the horizon, started an accelerated ascension of the sky. It would soon be noon, and apparently, Kinua’s presence was not needed.
This is all because they think I’m useless. They would never advise an archer to leave first if it was not for… him, she realized has her gaze fell once again on Deadeye who was doing his best to keep Lima from his injured arm as they came their way.
Spice was walking a few meters behind them, looking spectacularly unhurt by the Knight’s tail. Her burly comrade, on the other hand, had her skin and clothes covered with burn marks and seemed exhausted.
“Dammit Edward, stop moving! What will you do if it gets infected?”
“You need to listen to what I’m saying,” the boy said with his boring monotone voice. “Imane herself told me that using the ointment on me would be a waste. Just give me a bandage or something, you better save this for yourself.”
“Just… because it won’t instantly heal you… doesn’t mean… it’s useless!”
It took Senior Khat clearing his throat for Lima to let him go, and even then she kept glaring daggers at him. Not that he seemed concerned.
“Delvers of the Red Cross, I humbly thank you for your assistance. Had it not been for you, it is very likely that I would have lost my life today,” Khat said. “Though it would be hard for me to rejoice when so many lives have been lost.”
The boy noticed the three disheartened hunters sitting on the grass next to Khat and nodded.
“I understand,” he simply said. “Lima told me that you will need the locket to leave the dungeon… and that you really want to get your hands on the second item.”
“Yes… that is correct. I promise you that-”
“Here,” the delver said as he threw the Knight’s Locket and the Eye of Yaga like vulgar apples for Khat to catch. “I hope my compensation will be waiting for me at your camp like she said.”
“It surely will,” Khat said. Despite his sharpened senses, even the senior hunter had been surprised by Deadeye’s unpredicted compliance, and almost failed to catch the fragile yellow orb they all knew to be Yaga’s eye. “Do you… know its value?” he added after a short pause.
“Well, I know its value to you,” Deadeye shrugged. “An item that allows people to curse any opponent with a Beast status. It would be useless to me, but it doesn’t take a genius to guess how a hunter could use it.”
“Oh, that’s what it was?” Bali the giant wrestler realized with a dramatic clap of her massive hands. “Now I understand why they came here despite being so weak! They would be able to use their skills on anyone!”
Lima’s pack took the insult with grace. They had not really given their guests any reason to believe think otherwise, but hearing such words from privileged princelings only served to further fuel Kinua’s rage.
Do they even realize that people died because of them?
If they had not forcefully joined their pack, the composition of the teams and the order of entry would have stayed the same. Maybe they would have lost a few members, but senior Khat would have come out of the forest uninjured. With the first group taking out more monsters, the following two packs would have been fine, Kinua was certain of it.
And the three others only came because he wanted to come. It’s all… his fault.
“This would normally be the time to use the locket and let the remaining hunters proceed to the second half of their trial,” Senior Khat said. “However, since we are in the company of delvers, there is something I would like to find out… If you do not mind, of course.”
“Sure,” Deadeye shrugged. “I already agreed to help where I can.”
There was no real mystery to what senior Khat wanted to try. The old cracked well that sat untouched near the second archway had always been the subject of wild speculations from the hunters. Some said that drinking from it would cure any illnesses, others that its water could grant anyone a permanent skill. But as far as the hunters were concerned, no one with the necessary amount of glory had ever tried to interact with it. Until now.
Their group had moved as one, no one willing to miss what was about to happen. Dawn was long gone in Yaga’s garden, and the temperature was rising. Once they reached the empty well, Deadeye took a peek inside, his relaxed demeanor feeling like daggers to Kinua’s heart.
“Do you want to try?” He asked Spice, to which she replied with a snort of contempt. But far from being offended, he only chuckled and looked back at the senior hunter.
“I just received a notification,” he said. “Apparently, it’s called a Soul Mourning Well. Do you want me to activate it?”
“A Soul Mourning Well? Were you judged to be worthy?” Senior Khat inquired.
“Don’t know if ‘worthy’ is the right word, but it says I can use it once. Do you know what it will do?”
“We do not. No hunter has ever used it, or at the very least has revealed that they have.”
“Alright then. Let’s do this.”
However nothing happened, and the delver just kept staring at the well. The hunters had started giving each other questioning looks when Kinua’s ears caught a deep humming coming from the well and quickly growing in intensity.
They had always been expecting water, but it was a torrential flock of white birds that surged out of the abyss instead. Hundreds of birds flying upward before spreading out through the forest, showering them with weightless feathers that faded into nothingness as soon as they landed anything.
It happened so fast and ended so abruptly that Kinua wondered if it had been real.
“That… that was it?” She heard a bewildered Cairo ask.
“How do you all feel?”
“Nothing wrong. Actually, I’m feeling pretty- oh.”
Kinua realized it soon too. All of her fatigue had been replaced with renewed energy. Senior Khat removed his bloodied bandages as Deadeye was inspecting his left arm with a satisfied expression.
“Well… now we know what it does.”
Why is he is so smug? As if he hadn’t earned his glory in perfectly safe environments created just for him!
Kinua looked around as the members of her pack cheered and thanked their luck. Worst of all, Lima herself seemed oddly proud of Deadeye, as if he clearly was not an opportunistic noble who had come to their shard to mock them and get his ego stroked.
Am I the only one seeing it?
“You have my thanks, Edward,” Said senior Khat on a pensive tone. “It is humbling to think of all the warriors who died so close to such an outstanding healing method, or the frustrated hunters who had to leave the dungeon because of wounds that did not allow them to complete their hunt. It really… makes one feel bitter.”
There was a short silence that Kinua wished they were using to think about the unfair advantage they were shamelessly basking in, but when the senior hunter spoke again it was with a wide smile.
“However, I have no doubts that all of you will come out of this test unscathed. You are the future of the Hunters Den, and I hope that you learn through your cooperation with these two delvers that some warriors… are worthy of your trust.”
“Thank you sir,” Lima said with a respectful bow. “We won’t disappoint you.”
Baffled, Kinua watched Sir Khat and the surviving members of Jojo’s packs walk away. Some of her own packmates were also perplexed, but for an entirely different reason.
“Wait, Kinua is staying?” she heard someone whisper behind her.
“Yeah. I’m warning you, don’t bother bringing it up.”
“It’s fine. If she passes out again, we can just carry her.”
“Yeah. And I’m sure you’d volunteer for it, you sly piece of-”
A few meters away from them, Senior Khat raised the Knight’s Locket and instantly disappeared in a gust of blades of grass.
It was now noon, and just as the sun was as high in the sky as it could be, so was everybody’s morale. All their wounds had been healed, food was being unpacked and laughs were shared in response to bad jokes. It did not at all feel like they really were in a dungeon.
Kinua was silent, however. Her face felt as if it was burning.
“Hey… are you alright? You don’t look so good.”
She glanced at the speaker and saw that it was her dear leader. Lima. The only person her age worthy of her admiration.
“I… just remembered how it felt back there,” Kinua said with a meek smile. “But I will not disappoint you again, that I promise.”
“Aww, I was never disappointed in you, Kinua!” Lima said with a warm hug. “I am sure you’ll do just fine!”
She smells like those blue flowers…
“Don’t put so much pressure on yourself, okay?” Lima added with a bright smile. “Edward’s here, and I already told him I’d work him to the bone for refusing to share his meal. Cheer up, the next part will be a piece of cake!”
She then left to check on the others.
Where is his weapon? Kinua wondered as she studied him discussing with his wrestler guildmate.Now that I think of it, I did not see him search the creature’s body for loot… Gods under, does he have an inventory too?
Deadeye looked up, probably sensing her gaze, and their eyes locked. He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
One arrow. One arrow was all it would take.