Chapter 72

I stood, and before I knew it, a sigh had escaped my lungs.

I could have told Maru about how stupid she and Bali had been to openly antagonize someone stronger than them, but that would have been useless. I could have wasted precious minutes reminding her that this whole situation had been made possible by the Red Cross’ overconfidence in the fear they inspired to the other factions. But those words would have just distracted her from what I was proposing her.

A simple goal she could focus on. Revenge.

“You never said anything about clearing the dungeon,” I heard Lima say as I searched our surroundings for the tiniest hint at a flower. But there was nothing, only darkness growing thicker.

“It only depends on how risky it will be to kill the witch,” I whispered as I opened my status. “We’ll see.”

HP: 521/670
Stamina: 578/725 (regen: 7.8/minute)
Mana: 376/1100 (regen: 4.4/minute)

Attributes

Vitality 64 (+3)
Strength 61 (+3)
Constitution 65 (+3)(+10)
Dexterity 38 (+3)
Agility 40 (+3)(+10)
Perception 61 (+3)
Intelligence 102 (+8)
Wisdom 36 (+8)
Tenacity 0 (+3)

Racial traits

Technopath 0/320
Summon: Drone
Summon: Intermediate Rooting Mine
AI Domination

Keeper of the First flame 0/800
Left eye of the nameless Djin
+ 30% resistance to fire in human form.
+ 30% reduced stamina usage in djin form.
Sun Avatar

Classes

Dreadnova Enforcer (3rd gen) – level 19

Machine symbiosis 0/1280
Hextech Mana Drain
Enforcer 0/1280
Kinetic charge
Sharpshooter 0/1280
Recoil absorption

Blade Priest of the Deep – level 8

Shuari Blade Dancer 0/60
Sunken dance [ Intermediate proficiency : 25%]
Mindscape Projection
Priest of the Deep 0/1920
Grasp of the Deep

Unspent Ether: 3310

“But what about the warriors of the shard?” Lima argued. “The other guilds?”

I hadn’t forgotten about them. I was aware that clearing a dungeon located inside the shard was essentially painting a target on one’s back, as it essentially deprived the whole community of renewable resources. Even if the hunters looked the other way us due to the circumstances, other warriors would probably feel entitled to our loot.

“It’s just a possibility for now,” I said.

It wasn’t, of course. To say that Barlosh was stronger than us would have been a severe understatement, and the amount of ether we could consume before getting sick was limited. Getting quality items would massively increase our chances, and clearing the dungeon seemed like an obvious answer to our current situation.

Still, I appreciated the fact that she could picture us surviving long enough to have such problems…

I already have a target on my back anyway, I thought as I turned my attention back to my status.

I had a lot of ether, but it was really only enough to gain two levels in either both my classes or just Dreadnova Enforcer. My issue, however, was that the only class I wanted to upgrade was Blade Priest of the Deep.

Balrosh was fast, but his speed itself was clearly derived from the combination of his Strength atrribute and aura. I couldn’t imagine myself competing with him strictly on that front, but with high enough Dexterity and Agilty the strength of his blows wouldn’t matter. Because they would never reach me.

Which only made the fact that I couldn’t infuse ether in the Shuari Blade Dancer skill tree more frustrating… along with the knowledge that if I had been using my sword instead of the rifle, my proficiency would be a lot higher. Maybe even at at a hundred percent already.

Realizing I was fussing over something out of my control, I added the required ether to Priest of the Deep and Sharpshooter.

HP: 528/673
Stamina: 631/755 (regen: 8.1/minute)
Mana: 430/1140 (regen: 4.8/minute)

Attributes

Vitality 67 (+3)
Strength 64 (+3)
Constitution 68 (+3)(+10)
Dexterity 42 (+3)
Agility 44 (+3)(+10)
Perception 64 (+3)
Intelligence 106 (+8)
Wisdom 40 (+8)
Tenacity 0 (+3)

Racial traits

Technopath 0/320
Summon: Drone
Summon: Intermediate Rooting Mine
AI Domination

Keeper of the First flame 0/800
Left eye of the nameless Djin
+ 30% resistance to fire in human form.
+ 30% reduced stamina usage in djin form.
Sun Avatar

Classes

Dreadnova Enforcer (3rd gen) – level 20

Machine symbiosis 0/1280
Hextech Mana Drain
Enforcer 0/1280
Kinetic charge
Sharpshooter 0/2560
Recoil absorption

Blade Priest of the Deep – level 9

Shuari Blade Dancer 0/60
Sunken dance [ Intermediate proficiency : 25%]
Mindscape Projection
Priest of the Deep 0/3840
Grasp of the Deep

Unspent Ether: 110

I was a bit disapointed that nothing special had happened upon reaching level twenty, but then again luck hadn’t been on my side recently.

Let’s hope that this make a difference.

There was almost no more light available, and seeing anything further than a few meters away was no longer possible. The girls were keeping to themselves, probably updating their status like I had just did.

I looked upward at the dark leaves over our head, “Lima, has anyone ever climbed these trees?”

“Of course,” she mumbled. “Lots of people. None of them ever made it back down though.”

“Summon: Drone,” I said.

The flying sphere appeared in front of me, a machine entirely made out of mana.

“Hello, Ed,” said the drone’s artificial voice.

“Hello Kirby,” I said, before frowning. “Why are you consuming more mana than usual?” It wasn’t much, but considering the little I had gathered, every bit counted.

“This is the usual rate of mana consumption for the speed at which you are moving,” the drone replied.

I looked around. Everything seemed as normal as it could be in the current circumstances. “… We’re currently moving?”

“That is correct.”

Whatever magic the dungeon used to make people lose their way in the forest was still at work, but it didn’t affect the machine in the same way. It also reminded me of something.

The reconfiguration.

I turned around and faced the green girl, “Had the trees already moved when we entered the forest?”

She paled.

We’ll be ground to dust if we’re still in here when it happens.

“Kirby,” I put my hand on the tree next to me, “Use this tree as a reference and fly up as fast as you can. Notify me as soon as you have a clear visual of the forest.”

The silver ball shot upward and disappeared in the foliage. My eyes fell back on the red-haired girl who certainly was reacting to the idea of killing Barlosh in a much more natural way than Lima.

She was eating the food I had given her with a resolute voracity. There was no hunger in her eyes, however, they were filled with something else, something that felt familiar. Something cold.

Good.

Lima walked to her, and after a moment of hesitation, crouched and put a hand on the delver’s shoulder. Maru froze and looked at her. Then she shook wiped her tears and shook her head.

“I’m sorry, I must have looked like a fool to you,” she said with a derisive chuckle. “Screaming as if you weren’t standing there. You’re so much younger than me, and you have… lost so, so much more…”

Kirby? I mentally sent to the drone through our mental communication channel. Anything wrong?

Nothing, Ed. I am still going up.

Lima gave Maru a smile, “Pain isn’t a competition. We weren’t as close, but I can say that I lost Bali too. She was the kind of person we don’t see every day.”

I am still going up, sent the drone.

Maru’s raised a shaky hand to cover her face.

“It’s just… She was more than a friend. More… than a sister,” she said. “We were supposed to make the Realm remember our names forever… but I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for someone I could trust with my life.”

I am still going up, sent the drone.

“And why did she die?” Maru’s fingers moved so that she could look at me. “For him. Someone who will never even be able to appreciate what was robbed from her and your men. ”

Lima, on the other hand, was making it a point to not look my way.

I have made it out of the forest, said the drone’s monotone voice.

Can you describe what you are seeing? I asked.

The reply came without delay. The forest is spinning on itself, funneling everything toward its center, Kirby sent. There are several sections, and the motion of the trees inside each one seems random. The only unmoving areas are those without trees.

I see. What’s at the center of the forest?

It appears to be a building made out of wood.

Any clearing near my position?

Yes, the drone sent. The section of the forest you are in just went past one.

Alright, now listen. I need you to guide me there.

That is not possible with the set of functions available.

Why?

With no sensors and my view obstructed by the trees, I cannot give accurate directions, said the monotone voice. I would also be unable to locate your position during the trip.

I once again noted the need to fix Kirby’s lack of problem-solving abilities and remembered the second device Tamie had given me. A mana based torch.

Can you still estimate ground distances from where you are? I sent.

I can.

I opened my inventory and started looking for the item.

A light should appear soon right below you marking my position, I sent to the drone. Give me directions assuming I’m still facing the same way I was when you last saw me.

Very well, Ed.

It wouldn’t be accurate, but it didn’t really need to be. The meadows were big enough to allow a generous margin of error.

The night had finally fallen over Yaga’s garden and the darkness was so thick that it felt tangible. The birds had quietened down, and in the corrupted forest who seemed to be waiting for our next move, the only reassurance I had that the girls were still there, was the sound of their voices.

“Lima, Maru,” I called. “Get ready.”

“Yo-you found the path? With your machine?” I heard Lima’s voice say in disbelief.

“Not exactly,” I said, “but hopefully we’ll be fine. What about the creature you were talking about? The Witch?”

“I don’t know… There should have been signs of her arrival by now but,” her voice trailed, unsure. “I haven’t seen or heard anything…”

I certainly wasn’t going to complain about the absence of an unkillable monster. Knowing that she was late made me more comfortable summoning the torch Tamie had made for me.

We owe her one.

I felt the small metallic cube in my hand and saw the tiniest amount of mana disappear from my reserves… but nothing happened. I realized that I had no idea how to turn it on.

“Edward?” I heard Lima’s voice call again, except it was slightly higher pitched than usual.

“Hmm?”

“Why is there… light coming from behind your eyepatch?”

Fuck. My fingers found something sticking out of the cube’s surface and I pressed it. The next moment we were illuminated by a white light shining in every direction from inside my hand.

The two girls were staring at me. Maru with her hand on the hilt of her blade, and Lima with a cocked head and narrowed eyes.

Should have known that an eye made out of living fire might be visible in perfect darkness, I thought as I raised both my hands in a calming gesture.

“I know that it’s strange, and that we’re all on edge for valid reasons,” I said without missing a beat. “But that wasn’t something we can afford to waste time on. We need to go.”

“He might really be a creature of the mist after all,” Maru said. I could see the muscles of her arm tensing.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, “Really? Do I look like a monster to you?”

“You know exactly the kind of creatures I’m referring to. The kind I’d rather not follow anywhere.”

I frowned, as I had no idea what she was talking about. The “creatures” I had seen until now couldn’t be confused with humans.

I crossed my arms, deciding to bring up something that had been on my mind for a while now, “So you actually do have an alternative, don’t you?”

She recoiled and lowered her eyes, but didn’t say anything.

“Edward isn’t a monster,” Lima intervened. “But wh-what is in your eye? Is it some kind of delver item?”

I sighed.

“It’s related to my racial trait. That’s all I can say. Now listen-”

“But aren’t you human? Is it a machine?”

“I am. But… I’m not just human.”

I noticed Maru relaxing her fingers.

“So you’re mixed then,” Lima concluded. “You have a variant trait, like Damien.”

Who was that again?

“Sure,” I nodded.

Kirby, are you seeing the light? I sent to the drone.

I am, Ed. Sending directions.

I glanced at Maru. “Are you coming?”

She straightened her back, adjusted the rapier on her belt, then looked at me with her head held high. There were still traces left by the tears on her face, but the coldness had left her eyes. Whatever Maru had said to make her feel better had worked.

… And she is debating whether she should use her trump card to escape the dungeon or not.

I raised a brow.

“I remember you saying that nothing would happen between us and Balrosh, because it would mean the end of the shard,” I said as I massaged my temples. “Now, I’m not yet privy to the politics of the Red Cross… so I’d like you to tell me something.” I opened my arms, “Is there actually a way Bokwen can keep the shard from being destroyed by Genoneva’s passive, despite what happened here?”

“Who knows?” she shrugged. Her stare hadn’t wavered, but her voice had. “The boss will ask for the life of her second in command for reparation, and she will obviously refuse. But that’s assuming the guild is able to restrict Bali’s mother. They won’t be.”

“Then you know that you don’t have a choice,” I said. “As Bali’s friend, and as the leader of the next generation.”

Her hands became fists. “You’re a disgrace,” she spat.

“Am I? In your scenario, Balrosh wins and a lot of innocent people die. You heard him yourself, that’s exactly what he wants to see happen,” I nodded to Lima and faced the direction Kirby had given me. “Make up your damn mind. Lima, let’s go.”

I walked past her then started running, seemingly done with the conversation. But I was soon able to confirm that two people were following me, and felt much relief to know that I wouldn’t have to turn around.

Ikun Omi’s clear laugh rang through my thoughts.

Why feign indifference? she asked me, visibly entertained. Why is it that you do not want these pawns to know how hurt you are by the deaths of their comrades? How eager you are to make the blood of their killers flow?

I ignored her once again and focused on Kirby’s voice.

Is it that you are still scared to revel in your bloodlust? she continued. Oh, Edward… Either acting detached when unnerved, or acting affected when numb to the pain around you. But you do not need tricks, toys, and allies. All you need is to wield me.

No, I said.

There was a pause. No? she repeated.

You heard me. This is what you wanted, isn’t it? You kept mentioning how I didn’t really care about anything, knowing that I would be stupid enough to try to change. And now… now I have the names of seven more dead people carved in my brain. Seven fucking names added to the pile!

I realized Kirby had told me twice to correct my trajectory, and veered back on track toward the clearing. I was breathing harder than I should.

When Ikun Omi spoke again, she sounded saddened. You are angry at yourself. You poor fool.

The blow came from the left. It came so fast from the darkness beyond the reach of the light in my right hand that I didn’t have any time to react.

I heard a crack, Lima scream my name, and was thrown off my feet. But there was no pain, and thanks to that I was able to land so that I wouldn’t get even more injured. Laying on my back with the wind knocked out of me, I looked at my arm.

… Broken. Again. But along with a few cracked ribs this time.

A giant putrefied hand, wearing steel rings too small for its fingers and dirty deformed nails, was floating a few meters away from me. And further away from it, still wrapped in the darkness but quickly approaching, were a pair of smiling yellow eyes.

I heard footsteps, and was forcefully brought to my feet, “Don’t stop running!” Maru yelled. “Go!”

We left, but I could hear the trees being torn not far behind us. That’s when the old witch let out a low, hearty laugh, “Young ones, you did very well hiding from my eyes! But little lambs, so fat and healthy, this is my garden… So long as you have lost your way, you shall find yourself on my plate!”

 

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