Regaining my balance using a single arm wasn’t easy, but I would have been a poor blade dancer if I couldn’t at least do as much. Carefully spinning along the length of the tree to reposition my center of gravity, I stopped right at the edge, heart pounding in my chest.
I glanced back at Maru, she was looking at me with furious eyes. Lima was a bit further down, and the two warriors who had now reached our bridge were on their way.
“The hell are you doing!” I screamed at the red-headed delver. “You don’t see what’s going on? Go!”
“No,” she started, as she began to draw her sword. “We could-”
“Just… Go! Dammit!” Lima screamed in frustration. She had tried to use a commanding tone, but her voice broke mid-sentence, revealing all the fear she was trying to keep in check.
Yet, it was probably more effective. Maru flinched back, before looking at me, “Do not let her die, Edward.”
I ignored her and focused on mounting the Sun Barrel while I still had the opportunity. She clicked her tongue and resumed her ascension. The sound of her light feet tapping against the wood quickly became distant.
The barrel mounted, I aimed at the assailants. There was no way to tell how large their stamina reserves were, but it couldn’t hurt to have them constantly deplete them until contact. I didn’t pull the trigger though, and decided to wait for them to get closer. Each shot would now consume a full tank of mana, and had to matter.
I glanced at the gangly girl. She held her glaive with two hands, knees slightly bent in a familiar stance. Waiting. I almost questioned her decision to use that weapon against members of her race, but figured a polearm would prove useful in keeping the two men at a distance.
“Did you use your buffs already?” I asked her.
“All of them?”
“Well… those that do need conditions to be met.”
There was absolutely no wind and the yellow night was perfectly silent. The only living beings seemed to be those closing in to kill us.
“It’s going to be alright,” I said. “All we have to do is make them fall. Then we can run after Maru and help her kill the boss.”
She nodded. Even from the back, I could see her nervously shift her grip on her weapon.
“I don’t want to make them fall,” I heard the girl say. “I want to kill them.”
“They will die if we clear the dungeon.”
“No, they would just cease to exist. I want them to be scared and suffer.”
Was her anger something I should have encouraged to make her forget about her fear? Probably. Balrosh might have ordered the massacre of her friends, but those two… monsters… were the ones who really had the blood of the hunters on their hands, and Lima seemed so fragile as she stood to face them. She was just a kid.
She’s never killed anyone.
However, that was the exact reason why the thought of using her as a shield weighed so heavily on my conscience, and I wouldn’t have done anything else to make me even more similar to the monsters who had ruined my childhood. So I stayed silent.
“Can you do it?” she asked after a moment.
“Can you make them suffer?”
I wondered what expression she wore as I answered.
“Yes,” I said. “And I will, if I get the opportunity.”
The tip of my rifle was still following the warriors. They were both mixed, one had obvious tiger features, the other one those of a wolf or some kind of dog breed. They were now close enough for me to see the amusement in their eyes.
I narrowed mine.
They are so sure that luck is the only reason we’re still breathing.
They were taking their time closing the distance now that they knew that we were waiting for them. It probably also had to do with how they had seen me manage to push Balrosh back during one of his giant leaps.
I opened fire as soon as I felt confident in my ability to not miss, aiming at the first tiger’s head as his foot was about to land. His comrade paid him no mind as he was blown away by the impact, thrown off the bridge before he had any chance to react.
Instead, he started running even faster, dangerously getting closer to Lima as my rifle was rebuilding itself. I saw her extend a hand in his direction, prompting a cloud of purple particles to briefly emanate from his body.
Some of my attention had remained on the warrior plummeting to the ground, and while I hoped to make him lose consciousness, his aura was still active. He violently dug his hand into the first tree he got close enough to, putting an abrupt end to his fall.
He then looked up and gave me a predatory smile before launching himself upward to a different tree.
We won’t be able to make them fall, I realized. Too many trees around.
The Patchwork Riffle finished its reconstruction right as the second warrior was attacking Lima. Her massive glaive slashed toward his throat in wide arc, and was it not for his aura, he would have lost his head. Unfortunately, he did have a sheet of mystical energy preventing harm from regular weaponry, and a raised arm was all it took to block the curved blade and enter the girl’s guard.
However, Lima had the same trick at her disposal. Her hands moved with unexpected speed as her aura flared, her glaive spun and she smashed the other end of the pole into the warrior’s chest.
There wasn’t enough force behind the blow to send the wolf flying, but it managed to push him away from her. Right as he was about to attack her, I pulled the trigger again.
His head violently rocked sideways and he was sent spinning like a ragdoll. As I narrowed my eyes to see if his aura would vanish or not, I heard a scream.
The urgency in Lima’s voice made me leap toward a tree floating in the corner of my vision without any second thoughts. I heard the sound of rushing wind, but had no time to even consider what was going on behind me.
I had jumped too far and was about to miss the floating tree, which would result in me either breaking something else on a trunk too far below for my human bones, or simply falling to my death.
The thought made my stomach churn, and I realized that my only working hand was holding onto my weapon.
Aware that succumbing to panic would only make things worse, I repelled the first instinct to dismiss the rifle back to my inventory, since it could have broken the conditions for Hextech Mana Drain to work. I quickly tucked what was left of it in my clothes, and, after a split second of uncertainty, managed to catch one of the tree’s exposed roots.
There was a crack, but it didn’t break.
I pulled myself up using brute strength, rolled onto the tree shaking and out of breath, and threw a quick glance toward my previous position. It revealed nothing but shredded wood.
Whatever did that would have killed me.
As I pulled out my weapon, not thinking about the burn marks it had probably left on my torso, I searched for the tiger and spotted him further down than he should have been at his current speed. He was right behind his comrade, who was as alive as one could be.
“What the fuck did he do?!” I yelled at Lima who was staring at me with wide eyes.
“Not sure!” she said. She had watched me almost die and what she had gone through was still visible on her face. “It’s aura! He threw a punch and something flew out!”
I racked my brain for an explanation. An item? A skill from his class? Advanced use of aura? I gritted my teeth, Fucking hell, can we last if they also have long-range attacks?
The simple fact that they hadn’t finished me off while I was hanging by the root was a confirmation that it couldn’t be used in quick successions and that his comrade didn’t have something similar in his arsenal, but that hardly was reassuring enough. Our strategy assumed that we’d be safe as long as we kept our distances.
All I could do was hope for those attack and my bullets to burn through a large amount of stamina. Lima and I were clearly stalling and that would make our opponents think twice before risking exhaustion.
But what if he had simply used an item? What if he could it again without any penalty?
Before I could think of any necessary adjustment to our current strategy, my thoughts were interrupted by Yaga’s raspy voice once more resounding through the dungeon.
“There you are!” She said with palpable eagerness in her voice. “Though not of human blood, your kind surely is better suited for grunt work. But I cannot help but wonder…”
Maru reached the top, I realized.
The yellow light was already messing with my vision, but it was now getting even darker with each new word spoken by the witch. Except for the stage at the center of the spiral.
It was illuminated by a beam of light descending directly from the eye in the sky, which made sense, in a way. As far as Yaga was concerned, that was where the main characters of her twisted play were located.
“… Wonder if you have the tools to undo human blasphemy. No matter. I have restrained the blight that girl left upon me, but cannot destroy it. It requires… something I have too much of. You shall do so in my stead.”
I was jolted by a sudden movement of the tree I was standing on, and instantly put a knee down. Thankfully, the witch hadn’t decided to drop us all to our deaths. The force keeping all of the floating trees anchored had been dispelled, and the spiral was beginning to spin once more.
I perked up at the sound of an unfamiliar voice calling for help in the distance, but after a moment, dismissed it as another trick of the dungeon. There were already enough things on my plate without me having to worry about wailing specters.
“Now… face it!” Yaga ordered. “Kill it and earn the right to live!”
This is good for us, I told myself after inwardly wishing good luck to Maru.
The bridges were spinning fast and spinning faster. I glanced at Lima and saw her standing tall, using her glaive as support. The two warriors, on the other hand, were being forced to advance more carefully, meaning I’d have more time to fix my rifle between each shot.
And seeing how even I had trouble seeing anything, I doubted they would be able to stop their fall next time I’d try to blast their heads off.
Of course, it had gotten more dangerous for us too, but the signs of irritation on the bastards’ faces made me feel somewhat better about our chances. Those were the expressions of people who couldn’t have fathomed having a hard time against the “lesser warriors” that we were.
They ran with their arms raised in order to protect their heads, but I knew that it wouldn’t make much difference against the Sun Barrel and took aim nonetheless.
“We’ve done it once, we can do it again!” I screamed at Lima’s attention. “I have your back!”
Those words had only been meant to strengthen her resolve. Which is why my heart dropped when I saw her launch herself at the warriors with a roar of fury.
It was already too late to say anything else.