“I think we’ve spent enough time doing nothing,” I said to the two girls appearing to still be under the lingering effects of their illusory experience. “There are four murderers on our trail… We need to figure out our next move.”
They barely reacted to my words. Only the wind and the sound of rustling leaves could be heard in the meadow. The stars shone brightly over our heads, and it could have been a perfect night if we weren’t aware that it was nothing but another one of the Garden’s deceptions.
Silent since she had come back to herself, Maru was sitting down on the grass with her arms wrapped around her legs. The breeze was strong enough to make even her short red hair waver, and the quickly rising moon shone on her dispirited face. All the fire usually animating her was gone.
Lima, on the other hand, was laying on her back with her arms stretched wide. She was chewing on a blade of grass as she stared at the moonlit sky, apparently making plans of her own. But it didn’t seem like her reveries were the kind that would be of any immediate help to us.
“Not much to do until the path to the boss opens up,” she mumbled. “Once it’s there, we just have to rush in and deal with whatever is waiting.”
I frowned. I didn’t remember her being so cavalier with danger.
“Get yourself together, Lima,” I said dryly. “There’s no way that Balrosh and his men haven’t noticed the moon coming out, so they know that we somehow dealt with the third knight and they won’t stay idle. We need to plan our attack.”
She sighed, but didn’t sit up.
“First of all,” I started, “how sure are we that the so-called boss is going to appear? You made it pretty clear that no one has ever gotten this far yet.”
Surprisingly, the one to answer was Maru.
“Scout,” she simply blurted out.
I waited a few seconds for more information, but she seemed to believe that she had said enough because her chin didn’t leave her knees again.
“It’s a class,” Lima explained. “They are popular with guilds because they can map out dungeons and find treasures and stuff… Some people say that the best of them can even predict the future.”
“I see,” I nodded. “So at some point, the hunters hired a scout to better understand Yaga’s Garden?”
“I don’t know,” the green-skinned girl said with a shrug. “She’s the one who said it was a scout, not me. To be honest, I never really thought about how the seniors knew about the three knights.”
I looked at both of them with disbelief. I didn’t know what they had seen during their hallucination, and I wasn’t sure if this was a good moment for delving into it. All I knew was that we were going nowhere and couldn’t afford to.
I opened my inventory and searched for the loot I had received from slaying the third knight.
Third Eye of Yaga – Active item
Once activated, grants user the ability to cast “Animal Awakening” on nearby targets as either a curse or a blessing. Only one blessing and one curse can be cast with each activation.
Animal Awakening (curse)
Target receives <Beast> status and their mental attributes are slightly lowered for an hour. Logic becomes increasingly beastlike the longer the curse is active.
Animal Awakening (blessing)
Target receives <Beast> status and their physical attributes are slightly increased for an hour. Movements become increasingly beastlike the longer the blessing is active.
The Third Eye of Yaga can only be reactivated either an hour after the last spell has been cast, or immediately after the user has killed a target.
Trinket of the Knight of Dusk – Single use
Allows user, and those in contact with them, to exit Yaga’s forest.
Those two items made me a lot more confident about our chances of survival. The trinket, a silver medallion decorated with flowers, was our ticket outside of the forest in case the “boss” of the dungeon turned out to be more than we could handle. Third Eye of Yaga… was the fastest way to turn our Lima into an irreplaceable asset against the warriors we’d have to face.
I took out the Third Eye and studied it for a moment. It was physically identical to the first one, but its description was worded in a way that made it clear that it was a better version.
I handed it to Lima.
“Take this,” I said. “It’s going to make you our trump card in the coming fights.”
She took the glass eye, stared at it for a moment, then sighed again. Probably because the item hardly seemed to be worth everything that had happened until now.
“You said that you had skills that can boost your allies, right?” I continued. “Do they work on people with the ‘Beast’ status?”
She shook her head, “The buffs only work on hunters or, at the very least, on a familiar… But I haven’t found a good one yet. Why?”
Oh, they can’t normally access descriptions, I remembered as I nodded toward the item she held, “With this one, you get two skills instead of one. A curse and a blessing.”
She frowned before focusing on the eye again. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that she was activating it, as the yellow pupil disappeared the next instant.
“It’s true,” she said. “I’ve just gotten two skills… this is incredible.” She raised her eyes and looked at me, “We can do this. I swear I won’t let either of you down, Edward.”
I nodded, “I’d rather you swear to stay ali-”
“What you are doing will ultimately be for nothing,” Maru interrupted.
We both turned in her direction.
“I thought we agreed that Balrosh needs to die,” I tentatively said. “Did you change your mind about that?”
She chuckled, “No Edward, I haven’t changed my mind about how much I want to slit the throat of the one who killed my dearest friend. But there is a difference between wanting something and being able to do it.”
She gave me an annoyed glance.
“I’ve seen your dance,” she said. “And even if I hate to admit it… I believe that we might have had a small chance of victory if you were able to wield that black sword yours.” She waved at the empty clearing. “But you can’t, can you? There is no magic well to heal your brittle bones. All you have is a human toy that can’t even wound one of our warriors and the means to numb your pain.”
“… I think I liked you better when-”
“And then we have Lima,” Maru continued, ignoring me with a forced smile toward our comrade. “… the huntress.”
I didn’t sense ridicule in her words, but there was a pause during which Lima finally sat up to get a better look at the delver of the Red Cross. I decided to sit back and watch how things would play out.
As far as I was aware, they had barely interacted with each other prior to Balrosh’s attack. It could be because they were holding positions on opposite sides of our formation, but the glaring differences in their personalities had surely played a part.
Along with her short stature, Maru seemed to have inherited all of her mother’s dignified presence and none of her father’s silliness. She was a delver supposed to become the next leader of the Red Cross, and that understandably came with a lot of pressure, pressure that had molded her into who she was today… But she obviously wasn’t prepared for what was happening, and the consequences of a possible failure were weighing too heavily on her shoulders.
Despite being taller, Lima was just a teenager. She was an orphan that had been forced to learn how to play with the cards she had been dealt in the cesspool of negativity that was this nameless shard. The world didn’t expect anything from her, but she still did her best to create her own happiness.
On one hand, her youth meant that the events of the days would probably have lingering effects on the rest of her life… but on the other, she probably didn’t fully grasp the gravity of our situation. Which was a good thing.
Her ignorance was what allowed her to still function with relative normalcy. Sure, she knew that we were in danger. But someone with standard morals and empathy would break after realizing that a single mistake could sign the death warrants of thousands of people of all ages. Maybe Lima could distract Maru from that very realization.
Children generally only had a vague idea of the value of Life. Which was why they made such good killers.
“What do you think you’re doing, saying that you won’t let us down?” said Maru. “Let’s not bother mentioning how underqualified you are to battle people… The ability to cast curses is just not going to be enough against them. They are used to taking people’s lives, and they love it. Have you ever killed anyone, Lima? Or at the very least, ever tried?”
“Only tried,” Lima simply said.
Maru scoffed at her answer and burrowed her face between her arms. “We’re going to die,” she said on a noticeably higher pitch. “Like Bali and your men did. And then the whole shard will follow.”
“What are you doing?” Lima asked.
Maru looked up, “Wh-”
“None of the things you have mentioned matters,” Lima said with a raised eyebrow, on a tone that sounded almost innocent. “Unless you’re planning to sit here forever, fighting is our only option. I was next to you when the illusion happened… so I understand your pain and your fear. But I can’t understand why you’re using them as ways to give up.”
Maru straightened her back.
“I am a child of the sands,” she said through gritted teeth. “We do not fear anything!”
“Lies and you know it,” Lima smiled. “I’m scared too, and that’s a good thing. I don’t know what people taught you in Nashran, but on this side of the realm being scared means that you still have something to lose.”
Maru had been glaring at Lima during her entire speech and opened her mouth to deliver what I expected to be a merciless rebuttal, but right then her gaze fell on the dried blood on Lima’s hand and she looked away.
When she spoke again, it was in a softer tone.
“There are… rumors that fighting alongside a blessed dancer can sometimes trigger insights in those who do not have a style,” she said. “I thought that maybe, I could learn a few things from… your friend. I asked Bali to join me to alleviate the boredom of exploring what I thought would be a minor dungeon.”
Lima glanced in my direction, “Did you know?”
Well, I knew that the older members of the Red Cross often displayed their styles to the younger generation for the same reason, but I wasn’t aware that I could have the same effect. Then again, if I had I would have probably refused to let her accompany us, and winning against Balrosh would have been a lot less likely.
Maru let out a sad chuckle, “I paid dearly for that trickery. As luck would have it, Deadeye didn’t even use his blade once since we left… My greed only served to kill Bali.”
Seems like I’m not the only one blaming myself.
“The more I think about it, the more I realize how bad our luck is,” Maru continued. “So many things had to go wrong for us to be in this situation… there’s no reason for the odds to get better now.”
Lima groaned and threw a fistful of grass at her surprised face.
“So what if the odds are not in our favor? We’re still here!” she said, pointing at me and herself. “Screw the odds, I will avenge my pack. I can’t die just yet. So I won’t.”
Laughter almost escaped my lips at such unreasonable claims, and the girls turned their heads in my direction. I waved at them to ignore me, thinking that such stubbornness to stay alive would definitively help.
… As long as it’s not combined with stupidity.
“He doesn’t look scared to me,” Maru said with an annoyed glance thrown my way.
“Yes, but… he’s a little strange, isn’t he?” Lima replied with a dramatic shrug. “I’m worried about him, but I guess… I’ll have to talk to him later.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” I said with a smile. “I’m just better at hiding the fact that I am terrified.”
“Well there you go, I guess,” Lima said to the red-headed girl in a tone that hinted that she wasn’t convinced.
Neither was Maru, but I didn’t bother to try to change their minds. Not only because it wasn’t necessary, but also because there simply was no sequence of words able to describe the perpetual terror that I had to constantly ensure stayed in the far reaches of my mind.
Death meant much, much more for me than them.
In a way, it was liberating to know that even if they were to perish in the upcoming hours, despite losing what their lives could potentially have been, their souls would certainly be welcomed into the Light. Unlike mine.
Repressed visions of madness resurfaced, goosebumps and cold sweat covered my skin.
Ceaseless scorching of the mind. Eternal grinding of…