As it turned out, there was a wide variety of monster cores, and their nature mostly depended on the habitat of the monster they had been carved from. There apparently was an entire industry out there, revolving around them and their uses in crafting.
Usually, the designated carver would be the one carrying the loot for the team, but since I had an inventory – and felt more comfortables carrying the goods I was risking my life for – I “volunteered” myself for the job. It also helped that no other parts of the disgusting creatures were considered “loot”. The fist-sized dark blue gems came out of the monsters cold to the touch and appeared in my inventory under the name “Middle-grade Arcane Core”.
The hours that followed our bear victims were filled with what could only be called a slaughter. It wasn’t that the bears were weak, but the fact that they came at us one after the other made the beastkin hunters a very bad matchup for them.
Their aura was simply too big of an advantage against anything that wasn’t magical, and all the bears had in their favor was their strength.
After the first few encounters, it was decided that only half of the team would fight each time, while the other would only intervene if needed. The team’s leader wanted to maximize ether gains for everybody and make sure that there would always be rested people, “just in case”.
It wasn’t needed, of course. Once we got into the rhythm, the amount of effort needed to kill a bear became negligible. They could be considered dead as soon as either Lima, Bardath, or Maru landed a clean hit on them. But it was good for our moral to give everybody a chance to land the final blow, as it was what granted the most ether. The number of monster cores in my inventory steadily increased as we progressed down the path and the tree line almost surprised us when it came into view.
“I have to say,” mumbled the tigress as she hurried forward, “I cannot wait to go back to camp and tell people about this hunt.”
“Hold on,” Cairo said, stopping as we had almost reached the edge of the forest. “Are we sure that we want to get to the second knight now?”
Everybody stopped as well and looked at him.
“… What do you mean?” Timuk said with a frown.
The half panda boy turned to me.
“How many cores do we have?”
“Forty-two,” I said.
“See?” Cairo said, opening his arms. “Hunting packs usually go back with barely half that!”
Lima slightly cocked her head.
“Yes Cairo,” she said. “Those who come back alive.”
“Oh come on,” he said, with his eyes jumping to me and my guildmates. “Two delvers and Bali? Let’s not act like we don’t know we have something special here. Why not stay in the forest a bit more and-”
“Cairo,” Lima interrupted, shaking her head in disbelief. “This is not a game and I don’t want to push our luck. Things could take a turn for the worst in an instant… and I do not want to lose anybody. All you’re really saying is that you’re comfortable betting with the lives of your packmates on the line. I’m not.”
She turned around to leave, but panda boy’s feet didn’t move and his eyes didn’t waver.
“I’m the only warrior in my family!” he shouted at her back. “That means that I’m basically the only one with the smallest chance of making it out of here before the fog swallows everything. But if I’m able to get a bit more loot, I might be able to get enough coin to at least save my little sister too.”
Lima stopped in her tracks again and Vaunt put himself between them with hands gesturing for them to calm down.
“Do you think that you’re the only one here with relatives they want to protect?” Lima asked dryly.
“What?” Cairo frowned. “No, we-”
“Then how the can you ask us to stay for your sister, Cairo?” she blurted out as she turned around. “You must believe that your sister’s life is worth more than our loved ones’, right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be using her as a reason to do something we decided was a bad idea.”
“We didn’t decide it,” he shrugged. “You did. And what do you know about family love anyway? You’re an orphan!”
There was a silence.
“Hey,” I called, and Cairo looked at me. “We’re not going to stay. Drop the matter.”
From his expression, I could tell that the boy knew that he had gone too far. However, his words couldn’t be taken back. Lima looked at him with disbelief.
“So the real reason why I should die for your sister is that I’m an orphan and I know nothing about love,” she said.
He closed his fists and looked down. No one said anything until he spoke again.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Yeah, next time think twice before opening your mouth to say something stupid,” she said before walking away followed by the rest of the party. “There are times when being this self-centered isn’t funny anymore.”
“Hey, that was something dumb to say, but keep your chin up,” Timuk said as I walked past him and his friend. “With the second Eye, we’ll all be able to compete with the warriors for better dungeons. We’ll get what it takes for your sister man.”
“You’re right. I got too much in my head,” Cairo replied. “I’m sorry,” he repeated.
I walked up to Lima who was heading to the tree line with giant strides.
“You’re doing great,” I told her. “It’s almost over, keep up the pace.”
She gave me a tired smile, “Thank you.”
How she had been acting during this hunt was radically opposed to how she behave back in the temple. Responsible, serious and firm.
Those were good qualities for a leader, but they also were exhausting to anyone who wasn’t born with them.
I wasn’t particularly worried about her feelings, though. Kids fought all the time and she was a strong girl… But I wanted to at least let her know that she wasn’t by herself.
“Is there something that keeps us from coming back after the dungeon resets itself?” I asked her.
“Not really,” she said with a grin. “But unlike the Undermine that does it every day, Yaga’s garden resets randomly. Last time was two years ago. Oh, and you can’t use the knight’s token to leave the dungeon and go through the whole path several times either. Once a knight is killed, the path doesn’t lead to their arena anymore. Entering the forest again would just lead you directly to the next knight.”
“… And don’t forget that night will fall when we slay the second knight,” Vaunt chimed in. “No light, no path… Only Yaga and the forest. I wouldn’t make my worst enemy stay.”
“I see,” I said. “On another note, I understand that you guys stormed away to make a point, but you should slow down now. Some people have short legs.”
“What do you- Oh Kinua, I’m so sorry!” Lima said after noticing our archer struggling to match her speed.
“It’s… alright,” the girl managed to say as she glared daggers at me for embarrassing her.
“Isn’t she the cutest?” Lima said as she patted her head. “She would go so well with Sarn!”
“Maybe. I think that he already has a girlfriend, though.”
She looked at me with wide eyes, took a deep breath as if she was about to scream then said in a low, menacing voice, “Who?”
I frowned, amused by her reaction, “I don’t know, she works in the kitchen. Are you trying to say that he can only date people you like?”
She sighed and brought the blade of her glaive closer to her face to study it. It certainly looked like she was debating a disturbing decision.
“You don’t know some of those girls, Edward,” she said absentmindedly. “When they see warriors, they become worse than flies around a piece of meat… Wait ’till we go back home and you’ll see.”
If this is how she reacts to news, then not telling her about Bo’s class was the right choice.
“Nevermind that,” I said. “We’re almost there. Focus.”
She shook her head, “You’re right, it can wait.”
…That’s not what I meant.
She collected herself and her eyes fell on the end of the path filled with resolve.
“This time, we’re doing this together,” she said. “And we’re all going home. Be careful and back off if you get hurt.”
She sighed then added, “Especially you Cairo, no more dumb ideas. I need to get you back to your sister.”
The boy reacted with surprise to the sound of his name, then let out a chuckle, “Promised.”
We emerged in a circular clearing vastly larger than the first one, with the sun seemingly hanging right above it. It would have been an idyllic representation of peaceful summer days in a forest if it wasn’t for what it harbored.
“There it is,” the tigress said with a nod toward the center of the meadow. Then again, there was no chance that any of us could have missed it.
There, amidst the tall grass gently swayed by the breeze, was a red armored woman sitting on top of a jet black steed. In one hand she carried a massive great axe with a glowing blade, and with the other, she held her own severed head by its red hair.
The Knight of Noon
I could see the head’s colorless lips move, but no words came out of them.
“Blade users will engage,” Lima said. “You know the plan. Everybody else, look for a chance to knock it off its horse.”
The “plan”, as she had called it, was a sequence of events recorded by generations of hunters as the only way to defeat the second knight. It had the ability to heal any wounds as long as its head was “intact”, and the head itself was immune to damage as long as the knight was sitting on his horse.
For our party to claim victory, we would first need to separate the knight from its mount, then destroy the head. Only then would the knight’s body and the horse be vulnerable, and they had been very particular about making sure the horse was killed too.
Lima, Maru, Bardath, and Vaunt dashed to meet their opponent, followed by our brawlers. In response to their approach, the knight threw the woman’s head upward, and wrapped both hands around the handle of its red-hot axe. The head eventually stopped its ascension but didn’t fall. It was stuck in the sky, and would watch the battle against its main body from a position only Kinua and I could reach.
The Knight of Noon was an enemy I would have hated to face by myself, but it wasn’t enough to cause me to worry in the current situation.
Our heavy hitters are capable enough, I thought with a smile, as I watched Bardath’s great sword repel the named creature’s weapon.
“I am going to the other side,” I head Kinua say. “Us staying at the same spot is senseless.”
I gave her a concerned look.
“Are you… sure about that?”
Not that she was wrong. Us standing in different spots would increase the chances for at least one of us always having a clean shot. But I wasn’t sure if leaving her by herself was a good idea after what had happened earlier.
“I was hesitating but now I am more than sure,” she said dryly. “It has to be done.”