Hearing someone call my name helped me escape my torment for some time again, and I raised my eyes to both girls still staring at me. Although with very different expressions than I remembered them wearing.
We were still in the peaceful clearing, though the moon was much higher in the sky.
How long had I been lost in my thoughts?
“Angels, he was serious,” Lima whispered, before speaking louder at my attention, “Um… You’re alright?”
“Just thought of something. I’m fine though,” I lied, perfectly aware that I hadn’t been “fine” in a while. “Maru… can we count on you to give your best?”
She sighed and looked away, brushing grass off her hair, “I do not really have a choice, do I? Even if we fail, I’d rather not die knowing a young girl was braver than me.”
Lima frowned, “I just told you that we won’t-”
“Yes, I know,” Maru said, rolling her eyes.
I guess she’s feeling better, I thought, trying to shake off the insidious feeling permeating my mind.
“So there’s little doubt that Balrosh and his crew know that the third knight has been killed and that we can leave the dungeon whenever we want, right?” I said, massaging my temple. “Seeing how little he thinks of us as ‘warriors’, I bet that he assumed that we immediately used the trinket. Which means that if they hadn’t used the one they got from the second knight already, now they have for sure.”
Lima nodded but Maru didn’t seem convinced.
“No matter who stayed behind, they know there’s a chance that we might attempt to clear the dungeon,” she said. “They will try to stop us.”
“Except they can’t, remember?” I said, gesturing at the trees. “They are stuck in the second clearing and if they enter the forest, the witch will deal with them for us.” I then asked her the question that had been on my mind, “What happens to people who stay in a cleared dungeon?”
“They usually get a notification to leave, and…” A glimmer of hope appeared on her face. “… and if they fail to do it before the dungeon disappears, they vanish with it.”
“Which would be perfect for us,” I said with a closed fist. “Now that they are separated, we have better chances to deal with whoever is waiting outside.”
“Wait, that’s assuming they left someone in here with us,” Lima said. “Why would anyone agree to stay behind knowing they won’t have a way out?”
“To make sure that our chances are as close to zero as possible,” I said. “I don’t exactly know how devoted they are, but we know that they gave up on their lives the very moment they decided to kill us… death is the last thing they’d afraid of. It will probably be only one of them though, or at most two.”
Though they might have realized it by themselves, I didn’t mention the possibility of Balrosh being the one stranded in the forest, simply because I didn’t want to needlessly get their hopes up. The universe, or “Fate”, had already proven that it wouldn’t make things that easy for us.
All we needed to focus on was killing the boss and then use the ether and loot to face the warriors lying in wait for us outside.
“Killing Balrosh isn’t going to be easy,” I said. “But if we can make him run out of stamina, we win.”
My audience looked fairly unconvinced.
“That’s valid for literally anyone else,” Maru said.
“Sure,” I nodded, “But as far as I know, most people do not have a mean to drain someone of theirs.”
“Are you always so humble?”
“Point is,” I continued, “One way for us to win is for me to stay next to him without dying. Also, he stepped on my mine earlier and it rendered him helpless, so keep an eye on where I’ll throw it.”
They glanced at each other, clearly thinking what I already knew: restraining Balrosh through force wouldn’t be possible. But having them aware of a particular path to victory couldn’t be a bad thing.
“Well, I might be able to do something too,” Maru said after a moment of hesitation. “If we can somehow get him to stay still, I mean. I have been working on a skill, but it’s not ready yet.”
I frowned, “A skill that isn’t ready? I thought the whole point of those skills was that they all came ready to be used.”
She snorted, “Oh, you are one to talk. Have you mastered Mindspace Projection yet?”
“Oh. I had… forgotten about that one,” I said, realizing that it could actually be very useful against a warrior mourning his brother.
Except the girls are mourning much more recent losses, and I can’t focus on a specific target. Hell, even I would be affected.
“In any case,” Maru continued, “the ability I am referring to isn’t related to my class. It’s something I worked on to close the gap between me and other… gifted blade dancers. The problem is that I will need time to focus before using it.”
“Alright,” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s, um… my mantra.”
I frowned and waved at her to continue, but she was interrupted.
“Can’t believe it,” Lima blurted out, strangely excited. “You? But-”
Maru raised her hands in a calming gesture. “It’s very far from being complete,” she said. “But even in its current state, it could probably… No, I am certain that it would dispel most of his aura.”
Lima whistled in admiration, and I had to snap my fingers for them to remember I was there, “Care to explain?”
“It’s just an empowered atta-,” Maru said.
“It’s what the heroes used!” Lima almost yelled. “You’ve never heard the tales of the Martyr’s companions?”
“No,” I said. “I heard some of it from Bo, though.”
She shook her head, visibly pained by my ignorance, “We’ll have to fix that when we go back. Only the most famous figures through history have been recorded to have mantras, and with them they can defy the rules of-”
“What made them special is the fact that they had powerful ones,” Maru interrupted. “Plenty of arrogant people have developed useless mantras across the Realm.” She raised her hand to prevent Lima from interrupting her again, “We do not have time for this. You should be telling us about what your hunter skills can do to the people trying to kill us.”
Harshly brought back to reality, the green girl glanced my way. I gave her an encouraging smile.
Her eyes became distant as she opened her status, then she took a deep breath.
“I will use the curse on Barlosh as soon as I have him in range,” Lima said. “I don’t think that my tracking abilities are going to be useful, but I have a taunting skill that forces surrounding animals to switch target for me. That way one of you can take him down while he’s distracted, right?” she went on before we could say anything, “One of my passives, “Predator Aura”, is supposed to make targets wary of me, but I don’t know how well it will work-”
I cut her off with a raised finger.
“First of all, don’t think of taunting Balrosh unless it’s to get him off someone else’s back. Second,” I raised a second finger, “take the time to breathe and just list what you think is relevant in order of importance.”
I didn’t know exactly how many skills she had, but randomly going through the list didn’t at all sound efficient to me.
She looked down at her hands.
“It’s just… there are a few things that could be useful with the right timing, but I don’t know if I can pull it off in the middle of a fight against people… But we have the blessing, so I can make one of you stronger for… an hour?”
“That blessing you mentioned… what does it do?” Maru asked.
“It says that it increases physical attributes, I think that-”
“Then use it on yourself.”
Lima frowned, “What?”
“Use it on yourself,” Maru repeated. “It might make you strong enough to bridge that gap in experience.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“Your job is to make sure it is,” said the delver with a snort. “Didn’t you just say that you wouldn’t die?
The green girl looked at me with serious eyes, “Edward. I want to help. I can help.”
“Yes, but you will help more by staying alive,” I replied. “Maru is right. And don’t forget that you can reactivate the eye after killing a cursed target, so you might want to first use it on the enemy who appears to be the weakest. Then you can buff one of us.”
She didn’t seem to be done arguing, “Lima,” I said. “The skills. Then we’ll have all the time to-”
Without any warning, the pale light of the moon illuminating the clearing shifted to a yellow hue, and the three of us simultaneously raised our heads.
The lunar disc was high in the sky, as high as a midday sun. But it had lost its milky color for one that made me realize that we were out of time.
“Get up and grab your weapons,” I said, and as I stood, the yellow moon blinked and became an eye.
A giant bloodshot eye at the center of the now sullied tapestry of stars, frantically searching the forest like an offended deity.
Most likely searching for us.
The ragged voice of the Yaga boomed, full of barely contained fury. The earth moved under our feet and the trees heavily swayed.
“I smell… that which is human.”
The gentle breeze was replaced with powerful gusts of wind. Unintelligible voices came from the forest along with the cracking sounds of branches breaking from a physical pressure that made it hard to stand. Male and female voices, screaming in agony. I looked around for a new path, a hint of what we were supposed to do. But there was nothing other than grass and dark leaves spinning around us.
I glanced at Maru and screamed so that she could hear me over the windstorm we had entered, “Is this normal for a boss?!”
She didn’t answer, but if the look of shock on her face was any hint, then the answer was “No”.
“Though you are nothing more than cattle I sheltered from the righteous wrath of the gods,”the witch continued, her voice coming from every direction at the same time, “you trespassed upon my domain… You destroyed my hearts!”
The tremors coursing the earth were becoming too strong for us to keep our balance, but it wasn’t like experiencing an earthquake. The ground was undulating like a sheet of cloth over tumultuous water, waving instead of breaking.
Chaos was everywhere, the kind of chaos no sane mind would ever wish to experience.
No wonder they all avoid clearing dungeons, I thought as I summoned the knight’s trinket and struggled to get closer to Lima and Maru. It’s not about preserving resources, they just want to stay alive!
“I know the blessing of that girl to be the source of my torment, I know it!” screamed the witch.“Nothing has been the same since she entered my oven and refused to die… but if I cannot rid myself of this thorn…”
Everything stopped. The wind, the waves, and the screams. There was only silence, barely perturbed by the soft sound of falling leaves.
“Grab my arm,” I told the girls as I raised the trinket.
Lima immediately did as she was told. Maru only raised her hand, “Wait.”
“Are you insa-”
“I know, but I doubt that she’s the boss,” she said. “She might think that we are in her domain, but dungeon creatures do not even know that they aren’t real. Their words only make sense in the context of the dungeon’s narrative.”
Not real? I thought with disbelief. How can something with real consequences not be real?
The witch’s distorted laugh rose before I could say anything.
“Indeed,” she said. “If I cannot rid myself of this human infection, then human hands shall do it in my stead!”
I stared at the bloodshot eye in the sky, bracing myself for an incoming attack, but all it did was stare back.
“Angels,” I heard Lima mutter under her breath.
I looked down thinking that it was the fear getting to her, but then saw what had caused her to mention the divine. The barren trees were being lifted off the ground.
It wouldn’t be correct to say that they were being uprooted, as the ground offered absolutely no resistance to whatever force was pulling them upward. There was no cracking barks, no snapping roots, not even holes left behind them. The trees were rising from the ground as if it wasn’t solid, leaving its surface completely smooth.
As hundreds of trees were taking to the skies one after the other, the closest ones slowly passed over our heads, making my fingers nervously tighten around the silver medallion. They didn’t fall, however, they simply joined the slow procession of trees spiraling up toward a single point in the sky, under the watchful gaze of a gigantic piss-colored eye.