The spiral was made of several branches stretching over what was left of the forest, growing longer as new trees joined them.
All the branches met in a single point in the sky, the center of the spiral.
… And if that’s also the center of the forest, I thought to myself, then the wooden house that Kirby noticed earlier must be right under.
The exact purpose of that “house” was still a mystery, but I remembered Lima mentioning that wandering too long from the candlelit path could cause one to reach Yaga’s home. If those places were one and the same, nothing good could come from there.
“She is… building something,” Maru said, squinting as she tried to make out the nature of that “thing” was.
While not fully incorrect, her observation was an exaggeration. The tree trunks at the center of the spiral weren’t forming any kind of intricate structure. Each new one went to fill the space between two others, creating an expanding platform over what was left of Yaga’s forest.
“A stage for you to prove your worth!” the old witch laughed, sounding very satisfied with her work. “Obey me, and I shall allow you to keep your lives.”
In one motion, the trees that had yet to reach the center were all turned horizontal and stopped moving. The branches of the spiral now looked like rising suspended bridges… or stairs that weren’t actually suspended to anything.
The hag can’t be meaning-
“Come forward! Dare not test my patience…”
We waited for something more, but nothing else happened.
We had simply been told to come forward after the creation of a platform levitating several kilometers above ground. What the creature meant was obvious, but whether we had to go along with it or not was an entirely different thing.
“She wants us to get up there… using the trunks floating everywhere?” Lima asked with concern.
“I do not see any other way,” Maru said as she gauged the distance. “What about you, Ed-… Deadeye? Anything invisible?”
“No,” I said with a frown, my focus on the extraordinary monument solely made out of arcane power, searching for potential threats able to impede our ascension. “What you see is all there is.”
“Then let’s go,” the short delver said as she stepped forward. “Quick, taking our time despite what she said could negatively affect us. The difficulty of the boss battle might increase, or it could be the type to no longer be accessible after a certain amount of time.”
Lima glanced in my direction, looking unsure, “Really? It’s pretty high and it obviously sounds like a trap…”
“If a trap is the only way to reach a dungeon’s boss, then it’s not really one,” Maru replied as she effortlessly jumped onto a tree floating right over the ground. The trunk swayed a bit but thankfully didn’t spin on its axis. “You should be fine, especially after using the new blessing you got.” She turned in my direction, “What about you? Think you can do it?”
“… Don’t really have a choice,” I groaned, though the waves of pain from my wounds were getting increasingly harder to ignore.
I summoned my last remaining bottle of Siegfrau, and drank half of its content under the judging eyes of both girls. The effects of Respite of the Undead were suddenly brought back to their full strength, and I no longer felt any pain in either my arm or leg. Neither could I feel anything else.
I wiped my lips with my sleeve and nodded upward, “Let’s go. Focus on the trees but don’t look too far down.”
They didn’t bother making any comment, maybe because they couldn’t deny my drink’s effects, probably because they were aware that leaving me behind would only further complicate things.
I should be able to do this, I told myself, trying not to think about the importance of someone’s agility attribute in them not tripping and falling to their death.
The girls watched me hop on one of the trees closest to the ground, and once they were assured that I actually could handle myself, we moved to answer the witch’s invitation.
We rose quickly with Maru leading the way, quickly jumping from one tree to the next with surprising confidence. While it turned out that doing so required little thought since the trees were all equidistant from each other, I grew less comfortable the greater the altitude became. And it wasn’t just because there was no way to know what was waiting for us on that platform.
The hell is going on… Since when am I afraid of heights?
Not that it was particularly hard to think of a reason to be uncomfortable, we were climbing a magical structure made out of flying dead trees after all, with no guarantees that it wouldn’t collapse at any moment. But I had stood in relatively high places since my arrival in this world, and I didn’t remember my stomach feeling this heavy… and the cold sweat.
I checked my status and confirmed that Respite of the Undead was still in effect, which raised the question of how I could feel physical ailments like nausea.
… Unless it’s all in my fucking head?
A theory as disastrous as how plausible it sounded. I had almost allowed memories of my afterlife to resurface a few minutes ago, why else would the idea of a vast emptiness under my feet make me sick?
I looked around trying to think of something, anything, to occupy my mind, but the nightmarish world we were in could hardly inspire positive thoughts. Under the yellow gaze of Yaga’s eye, everything felt twisted… against nature. The branches of the spiral somewhat made me think of tentacles sucking the earth dry of its life.
But I did, however, end up finding something.
Something fast, going upward on a different branch. Frowning after the initial surprise, I realized that it wasn’t just one “thing”, but three.
The three warriors who had slaughtered the young hunters.
Two of them were moving diagonally in our direction. There were enough trees floating between the main branches of the spiral for the beastkins to cross over from one to another, though they weren’t as neatly organized. The warriors did so without any grace, but from each of their measured leaps emanated a strong determination to finish what they had started.
The third one, who I had spotted first, was rushing to the top like a loosened arrow clad in aura. He was faster than us, and while we were still closer to the platform, we wouldn’t be for long.
“Wh-what?” Lima blurted out, almost missing a step. “What’s going on?”
Balrosh had left the three men behind, certain that he would be able to handle us by himself if we ever left the forest. By all logic, that should have been a mistake dooming his followers to a useless death, stuck in the second clearing.
But Yaga’s floating monument now hovered over the whole damn thing. It didn’t matter anymore that the murderers couldn’t follow the path through the darkness. All they had to do to escape their fate was to hop on one of the trees and climb up to Yaga’s stage.
Fate seemed really hellbent on seeing us die.
“Deadeye!” Maru screamed from the front.
“The three warriors,” I said. “They are going up a different branch.”
Lima’s aura violently burst into existence, and Maru’s next words seemed particularly cold.
“Ah, I see them,” she simply said. “Good. It means that their leader won’t have any help. Lima, save your stamina until its actually time to kill them.”
No, I thought as the green huntress dispelled her aura. It was far from good and another glance at the warriors confirmed that sentiment.
Suddenly summoning my rifle, I opened fire on the two warriors. I had not used the Sun Barrel, and the bullets were deflected by their auras without doing any damage or even slowing down their approach.
“Maru,” I said. “You’ll have to keep going alone.”
“This is not the moment, Deadeye!”
“If we keep going like this that warrior will get to the top before us, and who knows what will happen then,” I replied as I kept shooting, forcing the warriors to burn through their stamina to keep up their auras.
We had yet to learn the nature of the boss, and we couldn’t give that warrior a chance to kill it before we even got to that platform. Without us to slow her down, Maru would be able to get there first and keep him from reaping the benefits of our labor… or at least I assumed so, from the few times I had seen glimpses of her true speed. There also was very little doubt that killing the boss would grant them a way to escape the forest, which meant that even if we used the third knight’s trinket now, Balrosh would be sure to receive some reinforcement during the inevitable battle waiting for us outside.
And then we would die.
Sure, there was a chance that the three of us could reach the platform before the boss’s death. But that would mean having to face it, along with the three warriors, in a very limited space, which sounded like a death wish.
No, the only path to victory I could find required Maru to press on and somehow face Yaga’s invitation by herself, while Lima and I dealt with the two warriors… Somehow.
I let out a curse again. The odds definitely weren’t in our favor, but Maru definitely was the most qualified out of the three of us. She also had a mysterious trump card up her sleeve, increasing her chances of victory against a single enemy.
Everything would hinge on Lima and I surviving, but I’d rather bet on us being able to outdo ourselves than on enemies screwing up.
I noticed the incoming warriors’ aura fading and immediately showered them with a new wave of bullets. Now that they were almost below us, however, actually landing a shot was becoming close to impossible.
“Lima?” I called.
“I know,” the young girl firmly said, understanding what needed to be done without me having to say it.
Needless to say, while I was glad that I wouldn’t have to convince a kid that she had to shield me, I would have done so if necessary. Hesitation wasn’t what we needed.
Lima stopped running, allowing me to put some distance between us as a buffer. Then, instead of following Maru upward, I moved against all of my instincts and leaped toward a lone tree floating in the negative space between the branches of Yaga’s spiral.
My stomach felt like a bag of rocks as I flew over the void under our feet. I wasn’t sure if a fall from this height could kill a beastkin with their aura, but there were no doubts about what missing my target would mean for me.
My boots scraped against the bark and I dangerously leaned over the precipice, pushed forward by my momentum.