Sitting on the well and studying the merry expressions of the members of my hunting party, I couldn’t help but think that things were going in a much better direction than anticipated.
By all accounts, the worst was behind us. Our wounds had been healed, our stamina replenished, and our bellies were now filled thanks to an impromptu picnic that had started with Lima begging for some of my supplies.
Even better, from what she had explained, the path through the forest was to stay visible as long as the sun stayed high in the sky. Which basically meant that we would be safe until the death of the dungeon’s second named creature.
No more high-speed chase through a dark lit forest, from now it would be a nice stroll in the woods.. with some occasional bloodthirsty abominations attacking us. Still, fighting in broad daylight made even that idea seem less horrifying than it really was.
Hell, it’s a pretty nice day.
The fight with the Knight of Dawn had made me confident in our ability to take on the next challenge, and that was despite how weak the hunters appeared to me. And the funniest thing was that I was far from being the most relaxed person present.
Remembering her outrageous feat, my eyes instinctively went to Bali. The big girl was getting her burnt clothes fixed with Kinua’s help. Apparently, our sweet archer had a talent for emergency sewing.
“Hey, are your magic reserves filled yet?”
I wasn’t surprised by the question. The only reason we were still on standby was the fact that I needed time for my mana to fully regenerate. As it turned out, magic wells were able to heal any wounds but couldn’t supply free mana.
The speaker was Cairo, the half panda brawler. More than the rest of the party, being reassured that he wouldn’t have to die today was all it had seemed to take for him to regain his wit and smile. It wasn’t really something he could be blamed for, but one had to wonder what they all expected to find in this dungeon.
“Not yet,” I simply replied, before wondering what a regular person would think of the wrestler’s last antic. “Can you guess what Bali was doing when we found her after the fight?”
“Sleeping?” he replied without any hesitation.
“Um… yes. She was sleeping,” I said. “Is that actually a common thing? To fall asleep in the middle of a fight?”
“Well, not in the middle of a fight,” he replied with a small smile while scratching the back of his head. “But it’s natural for people to collapse after using their aura for too long, and she had hers up the whole time we were running. I was wondering if she never tired, but… I guess she doesn’t worry much about things, right? Don’t humans get exhausted when they run out of mana?”
I frowned, “No… Not really.” With that new piece of information, to say that Bali was the carefree type certainly was an understatement. She was reckless.
She probably had to empty her stamina reserves to mitigate the damage from the knight’s tail. But if it was that strong, then…
My eyes shifted to Maru, who seemed perfectly fine after having been in contact with the magic tail for a much longer amount of time. I had heard her scream in pain, but she was in the exact same condition as when we had first set foot in the clearing, even though she had not used her aura to protect herself.
… Or at the very least, I haven’t noticed her use it.
What I had noticed, however, was how worried she had been for Bali when found her laying unconscious. It had been a nice change from her usual demeanor.
It’s probably a lot simpler than I think.
The red haired delver being unharmed could easily be explained by the usage of a skill or an item, even if that wouldn’t explain why she needed such things in the first place.
There were just too many things I was curious about, like the different classes of my teammates. The “brawlers” and “swordsmen” were all grouped together, but it wasn’t hard to see that they went about things in different ways, with different skills. Even though they were all hunters.
It was becoming more and more apparent that the term “hunter” didn’t really refer to a class, but was some sort of qualifier that changed the nature of someone’s class. It made me think of the terms “shuari” and “blazing” that appeared in my and Bo’s classes, and made me slightly anxious about their effects.
Then again, it was hard to ask questions when I had made it clear that I didn’t want to divulge anything personal.
“Hmm, you okay there?” Cairo said while waving his hand in front of my face. “Do you zone out like this often?”
“Pretty often,” I said with a chuckle.
“So… what are you?” he said. “I’m asking because Timuk is getting pretty nervous at the thought of hunting with a wizard. Not that we have anything against wizards, but the rumors said that you were a sword dancer. Then I figured that the rumors were fake and that you actually were some type of gunner but if you need mana to use your gun then-”
He stopped talking and sighed after seeing me smile.
“Sorry, I’m rambling,” he said. “It’s just not every day that you get to talk to a delver. And now I’m hunting with two!”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said with a dismissive hand wave. “Which one is Timuk?”
He looked at me, with a confused look on his face.
“Wait, so you don’t know our names?” he asked with disbelief.
“Typical Edward,” Lima said as she walked past us.
“Well, I know some of your names,” I said with a frown aimed at her. “Those I’ve heard, like yours. It’s not like you guys presented yourselves to me.”
“Sure, but still…” Cairo said with a confused look on his face. “Isn’t it weird to be risking your life with people you don’t even know the names of?”
“Not really,” I shrugged. “Do you think that Maru knows all of you?”
“I- I guess you’re right,” he said with a forced smile. “Well, I’m going to talk to the others. See you later.”
I gave him a nod and watched him leave visibly hurt. What did he expect?
“Did you forget who you are talking to?” I heard one of his brawler comrades laugh as he threw a comforting arm across Cairo’s shoulders. “He is a delver, and will have forgotten about this by tomorrow… That’s what you get for spouting nonsense about me being nervous.”
For a brief instant I was tempted to say something, but then I realized that he was right and shrugged it off. I couldn’t speak for all delvers, but I certainly had bigger things to worry about than this hunt and the people who took part in it. Minus Lima and Maru, for different reasons.
Well, at least now I know who Timuk is, I thought as I sized up the bearded grey cat with shifty eyes. Have I actually ever properly looked at him?
The pair sure made for an interesting sight. Especially when, like Cairo, Timuk gauntlets and the parts of his clothes that weren’t just leather had been reinforced with layers of green scales that gave the hunters a fierce appearance. It made me wonder why our remaining brawler had opted for gauntlets made of steel.
What was her name again? I found myself thinking as my eye instinctively searched for the female tiger.
I did have better things to worry about than the identities of the people I was hunting with. It’s not like with Imane. They are people I will probably never see again.
But was it really not?
I couldn’t even argue that I had always been that detached. In the past, the bonds I had shared with my comrades had been a large part of what had kept me mostly sane. But in my current situation… it just seemed unnecessary. Wasn’t it normal to become emotionally self-sufficient after a certain age?
Unless that’s just another way to say that they become “jaded”, I mused. Which isn’t even necessarily a bad thing.
But the vague term used to justify my presence in this world had been “karma”, after all. What if creating more healthy relationships with people turned out to be the way to save my soul all along?
Maybe I should try to give this a fairer shot.
I didn’t believe that there was a serious need for me to drastically change the way I did things, but “caring” a bit more couldn’t be that bad.
After a moment, I gestured at Lima that my mana was full and she rounded up her troops. It was time for the second phase of their trial to begin and for me to finally get my hands on some monster cores. From what I had been told, the cores had to be physically extracted from the dead creatures, but thankfully the hunters had a “Carving” skill that not only made the process easier but had the potential to somehow make additional rewards appear.
One could say that I was looking forward to seeing it in use.
This time, we had missed the theatrics of the dungeon. No one had paid attention to the moving trees or the screaming woman. We got into position in front of the stone arch with almost no visible signs of pressure and anxieties to speak of.
I found myself standing next to Kinua again. Our archer was a frail girl, but I knew that her appearance wasn’t to be trusted. After seeing her in action, even I wasn’t confident enough to say that I was strong enough to use her rather impressive bow.
“Feeling better?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said with a meek smile. “Clearing my thoughts helped a lot.”
The power of her arrows certainly was something our group would need this time.
We walked past the second stone arch just as one would walk past a sign, and while the meadow disappeared behind us, the path of flowers and candles stretched forward. And that was good enough for us.
The sun rays filtered through the roof of thick leaves over our heads and we could now hear birds chirping, even if we couldn’t see them. Everybody’s guard was up, but the fear had been replaced by the almost palpable certainty that things would be alright in the end.
“What will you guys do with your money?” The brawler I know knew to be Timuk asked after a moment of silence.
“Now you are just begging for everything to go wrong,” I heard Bardath say behind me.
“Bardath, how come you’re still alive with such weak nerves?”
“Weak nerves? I shall let you know that-”
“It depends on whether I have enough for the lottery,” the female brawler said. “If my share is big enough for that, then I will take a break from the dangerous stuff.”
That surely was different than what her fierceness suggested. Maybe tigers beastkins all usually have huge peaceful sides, I wondered. Even Ardos is a painter.
“Otherwise, I will look for better equipment and join the hunt for Irura like everybody else,” she said. “There, I shall make a name for myself.”
Irura… I have heard that name somewhere.
“Yeah… the loot from killing it will be no joke,” said our swordsman with a chuckle.
He had been moved to the front, leaving only Bardath, Maru and the lama in back. Since he was the only hunter wearing a full helmet, I couldn’t tell if he was a full beastkin, but the two short horns that poked through made me guess that he had something to do with antelopes. His two-handed sword was very similar to the ones the Knight Of Dawn had been using. Thinner than a greatsword, but long enough to allow great reach and powerful swings. “Can’t be, all the big names are giving it a shot,” he continued. “Might even be valuable enough to convince the charon to make exceptions, you know?”
Bo told me about it, I remembered. It’s a giant hyena that comes out of the fog. Seems like it’s still alive.
“No way. You can’t bribe a charon, Vaunt,” Cairo said. “They aren’t even like regular people, to begin with. I’m pretty sure coins have no value to them.”
“Then why do they ask to get paid, hmm? You never even met one!”
“But my father has, when his family moved here,” he said and all the heads turned toward him. “He was young, but I trust him when he says that you have to be ‘different’ to enjoy going traveling through the Fog of War.”
“… I don’t think that they enjoy it,” Bali merrily chimed in.
“As different as Deadeye?”
I raised a questioning eyebrow at the speaker.
“Timuk,” Lima said with a menacing tone.
“What, we’re all thinking about it, right?” he continued. “He wasn’t in the shard a week ago, I think we can all agree to that. And even if he’s friend with the Red Cross, the fact that he joined them yesterday with all his limbs still attached kinda hints that he’s not from Nashran either.”
“You better keep the names of the Pearl and the Cross off your filthy mouth,” Maru hissed from behind me.
“S-sorry!” he said with a nervous laugh.” He certainly had ruined the cheerful atmosphere, but the tense silence that followed his words was mostly due to people reacting to movement on our left. Thanks to the abundant light and the spaced out trees, we could see a massive four-legged creature coming our way at high speed. It was a bloated adult bear with a discolored hide and limbs of different size. While it still had its head, I could see that it was fully covered with the lidless yellow eyes that seemed to be part of any living things in this forest.
“So Deadeye,” Timuk started, “are you actually a very sophisticated monster from the f-”
“Shut up and focus,” I said, and he did as told, ignoring the mocking taps from Cairo.
“Good call,” said Lima as she readied her glaive. “It’s one of the big ones, the thick hide might make this a long fight but we’ll have to hurry before the reinforcements arrive. Hammer, just try to find a window to knock it out. Brawlers intercept it, swordsmen try to get one of its legs so that it can’t run around. I’ll try to get the tail for better carving, but let’s not focus on that alright? What matters is that we get it before the next one arrives. Rangers, do your thing but try to stay on the path… We don’t want it to slither away.”
Bali had already launched herself toward the beast, quickly followed by Cairo, Timuk, and the tiger girl right after they used their boosting kills. The rest of the team fanned out on their trail, leaving Kinua and I by ourselves.
“Kinda feels like we’re having it easy,” I said as I watched the hunters make contact with the roaring creature.
“That’s because you have yet to use your weapon,” Kinua said. She had already nocked an arrow and the muscles of her arms were fully visible as she pulled on the bowstring. The arrow was shining, like Maru’s sword did sometimes.
There was a gust of wind when she released it, and the next instant her whistling spear was burrowing itself in the corrupted bear’s front leg, forcing the creature to bend the knee.
The lama leaped forward and bashed his hammer against the beast’s ribs. He had definitely used a skill, because the impact caused a shockwave that blew all the fallen leaves away and was strong enough to lift the bear off the ground and make it fall on its side.
Clad in aura, Bali wrapped her arms around the beast’s neck and kept it down in a vicious chokehold. I shot the creature a couple times for good measure, but it wasn’t at all needed. The gauntlets broke its bones and the blades pierced its flesh. After a deep thrust of Lima’s glaive, I received a notification.
“YES!” Cairo screamed, standing on top of the beast, and the other hunters echoed him with shouts of victory.
I felt an odd sense of pride seeing Lima cheering with her team, and couldn’t help but appreciate how they respected her leadership.
I think I’m only missing two of their names.
However, the voices were soon drowned by the roars of two new bears heading in our direction.
“Vaunt, get to carving!” Lima commanded. “Faster we kill them, sooner we get to rest! Let’s-”
The blast from my rifle interrupted her, and one of the bears lost a good chunk of its deformed face, causing it to crash against a tree.
The hunters paused and stared at me.
I stared back.
“Get to carving,” I said with a smile.