Chapter 79

My eyes shot toward the men, and against all odds found the wolf frozen in place. The one Lima had cursed.

I let a curse of my own and opened fire on the one still immune to Lima’s skills as he was about to smash his fist into the green girl’s guard. She ignored the man who had suddenly been flung off the bridge right in front of her, and kept rushing toward her target.

He was still petrified, and only watched Lima with wide eyes as she raised her glaive over her head with both hands, and swung it so hard toward the base of his neck that its blade shattered against the aura.

The shock was enough to shake the man out of his trance, but Lima didn’t give him enough time to gather himself. The girl had discarded the vestiges of her weapon and swiftly leaped over the remainder of the distance with a closed fist rocked backward. But something was off.

She stopped using her aura!

She was lunging at a cold-blooded monster with no mystical energy to protect her, and in that instant, she appeared to me as I must have always appeared to her. Fragile and defenseless.

But then her fist met his face. She had to be using several skills at the same time, because her punch created a strange shockwave I felt from where I stood.

But even then, it wasn’t enough to make the warrior budge. He hadn’t moved an inch after taking her punch head on and was towering over her menacingly. Afraid that I wouldn’t be fast enough to prevent the worst from happening, I scrambled to aim with my now fixed rifle, but stopped my finger right as I was about to pull the trigger.

The wolf was perfectly immobile, and from where I stood I could only see the white of his eyes. This had to be different from when she had first made unable to move, because his aura was scattering like steam, leaving him fully vulnerable.

Did… Did he pass out on his feet? What did she do?

“Stay away from him!” I said before jumping to a closer tree.

Lima took a step back from him, her expression a mixture of triumph, disbelief and fear. Then it was all replaced by pure hatred. She grabbed the man by his collar and slammed him down against the trunk they were standing on. Then she punched him.

“Lima… stop! Wait!”

But I was once again too late. Her fists repeatedly fell hit the unconscious warrior, again and again… and again.

+20 ether.

Even the wind couldn’t drown out the sound of breaking flesh as I jumped from one tree to another. I kept hearing it as hurried up the bridge, until I finally grabbed her bloodied wrist.

Maybe she could have overpowered me in that instant, but she didn’t try to. Probably because she had wanted to stop, but found herself unable to. In any case, she simply looked at me as if surprised to see me there.

“He’s already dead,” I said.

“Yeah.” She stared at me for a moment, out of breath. “Why am I crying?”

I should have been the one to kill him.

“It’s just all the stress you’ve been ignoring,” I said. “Take a minute to breathe, then we’ll go help Maru.”

She nodded and moved away from the corpse. I kicked it off the bridge and it disappeared in the void below us.

“I don’t think he felt any pain,” I heard her say.

“I don’t think it matters,” I replied.

I did not believe that killing was in itself something able to turn us away from the light, nor that it invariably opened the door for evil. But there was no denying that it caused a certain loss of innocence.

I simply hoped that, after weathering whatever it had made her feel, she wouldn’t gain a taste for it.

***

Rushing to the top of the witch’s wretched monument, Maru, proud daughter of the Laughing Blade and the Frost Queen, felt like she had been trapped in some horrible nightmare meant to break her sanity.

A quick glance toward a neighboring bridge informed her that she still had a substantial lead over the failure she was racing against. Not that she was surprised. He probably only had one or two speed-related attributes and clearly lacked the ability to fine tune his aura to make up for his deficiencies.

Me beating this trash wasn’t worth leaving them behind, she thought with frustration. This makes no sense, I should have stayed with them.

Not that she really failed to see the logic behind her comrades’ decision… but it was only valid if one assumed Edward and Lima able to fend off two experienced killers. The weight in her stomach only grew heavier every time she thought of how unlikely that was to happen.

There was a saying ushered by the common people claiming that once the veiled angel requested a mortal’s presence in the great beyond, even the stars would make way for it to happen. And it truly did seem that death was trying to close its cold fingers around their throats, because everything that could have gone wrong that day, had gone wrong. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore.

And now everything hinged on her being able to quickly defeat the boss so that she could run back to save the two orphans.

Her hand disappeared in the bag of holding hidden behind her clothes and came out with a small seed. It was the seed of a Bard’s Flower, a fairly common item beloved by delvers all over the Realm for its ability to tell how far along the narrative of a dungeon they were. After a few seconds of air exposure, the seed went through all of the stages of a well-watered plant, but stopped right before it could blossom. Now convinced that she was about to face the creature guarding the host of Yaga’s Garden, Maru threw the stunted flower with a sullen look.

She had always thought of herself as a strong person. While many would consider her current life to be far from stressful, her younger self had managed to survive brushing shoulders with the nobility of the Pearl. The fact that she had made it out alive of that den of scorpions was enough proof of her resilience.

However, even the ruthless court of the only shard allowed to exist in the “Savage Lands” operated following a familiar, albeit twisted, logic. A logic molded by centuries of tradition that made it possible to rationalize even blindsiding betrayals from the closest allies.

Thanks to that logic, even the few scandals of the palace made “sense”. They were the logical conclusions of several key events that had been carefully tracked since the Sundering. Surprises were rare in Nashran because everybody followed the same set of unspoken rules enforced by an immortal ruler.

But Maru was now bitterly aware that strength earned in a controlled environment was an illusion. Barring a few exceptions, it ultimately required people’s actions to follow rules and events to fit what was considered possible.

It was the kind of strength that fell apart when those rules were broken, and that realization felt like a knife being twisted in the wound left by Bali’s death.

Their common hatred for Nashran and the torments it had inflicted to their close ones was what they had first bonded over. Many in the Red Cross longed for a glorious return to their homeland, but the two had dreamed of severing all ties with the Pearl and creating a place where their people would be able to break free from the chains of its evil traditions. The kind of traditions that turned honest people’s honor against themselves and somehow managed to convince them that rotting away in a forgotten corner of the region was a proof of virtue.

Yet, Maru’s sense of worth had remained tied to that place, to its rules, and because of her obsession with obtaining a style, because of her arrogant confidence in the rules warriors were supposed to follow, Bali had been killed along with innocent people.

The guilt was too much for her to bear, especially after experiencing the third knight’s spell. The vision of a headless Bali forcing Maru to face her sins had broken her.

How come the innocent Lima had come out of a similar experience more determined than ever? Was it because her young mind had not been unable to conjure horrible enough apparitions? Maru did not know, but to her, it was just another confirmation that she had been after the wrong kind of strength.

Her hand instinctively grasped the guard of her rapier for comfort, but it felt cold. For the first time in years, she was doubting the decision to unbind her aura.

I should have known that I can’t ever be like mom without half of her skill.

But her heart was still beating, so Maru kept running toward the center of the spiral as fast as she could. She had not suffered any serious damage since they had entered the dungeon and Edward had seen to it that she would be full of energy with his extravagant food.

She nervously bit her lip. Edward.

He represented everything wrong with this day, and maybe even everything wrong in her life.

An unbound human delver in the Savage Lands. That notion alone was nonsense, but the one in question did not even pretend to be self-conscious!

Consuming his mana with reckless abandon one would only expect from a brahnan noble -even though he should not even have a Wisdom attribute in the first place, treating the region’s regal class with so much disdain one would assume he saw it as an embarrassment – despite being blessed with a majestic style, using glory to buy consumables like some scion of the Lotus Empire – but living in a run-down orphanage!

And that glowing eye he always hid behind crude leather… Was it what allowed him to see what was invisible?

His existence seemed like a direct offense to the rules the world itself was supposed to follow. A catalyst for chaos.

No wonder the watchers sent someone to keep an eye on him.

He did not make sense, just like the sheer amount of improbable events that had needed to occur for this day to unfold the way it did.

Yet here she was, now racing for the opportunity to clear an unranked dungeon kept hidden by one of the shard’s minor factions.

She finally reached the stage created by the witch, but the boss was nowhere to be seen. The lack of reaction from the eye in the sky reminded her that she was still wearing her shrouding ring. She felt physical pressure as soon as she took it off. It was as if the air around her had been charged with electricity.

She had become the sole focus of the moon-eye, and seeing it seemingly grow closer made Maru oddly conscious of her own mortality.

 

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