Incomplete? What was this parasite now insinuating, after having watched my struggle without even offering some kind of help?
Still, my mind hadn’t been so dulled by exhaustion that I couldn’t draw obvious conclusions. Since the moment I had opened the Eye of the Djin, my craving, and everything I had done to satisfy it, had been for the warrior’s souls.
The maddening hunger could be something permanent, assuming it hadn’t been triggered by the mere proximity of living people. Those possibilities alone weren’t much of a concern to me, but Ikun Omi’s words hinted at something that could actually be important.
Was I missing a part of my soul? Had it been damaged by what I had gone through while dead? So mangled by the process of reincarnation that it tried to steal from others what it-
An interesting theory, though incorrect, whispered the being bound to my sword. You are only incomplete in your current form, as a djin… Yours is the soul of a mortal, it lacks the ability to sustain such an existence. However, your patron found a possible workaround, one proving that fate itself has orchestrated our meeting.
Enough with the fluff, creature, I thought with frustration. Tell me how to fix this!
… Ah, she let out with a disappointed tone. This might be a subject for a later time, after your head has cooled down a little… Hopefully, you won’t land on it.
My fall came to an abrupt end and I had the wind knocked out of me. However, no matter how disoriented I was, me being conscious at all meant that I hadn’t fallen all the way down to the ground.
That, and the fact that the squishy surface I had landed on seemed to be moving… twitching. The dry sound of things breaking had reached my ears upon contact, and now a horrible burnt stench was being added to my agony.
I had to close the Djin’s eye. I had to. I knew it, and I had known since way back when I had first felt that something was going wrong. But I couldn’t close it, even now that it was consuming the last scraps of energy I had left. I didn’t want to.
Because underneath the maelstrom of emotion that already crippled most of my judgment, the initial feeling of ecstasy was persisting.
Beyond the pure pleasure, it was – above everything else, a respite from all the mental scars I had received during my life. It had turned me into a diametrally opposed existence, entirely focused on the present moment. In that cocoon of flames, I was free of regrets, sadness, and shame.
Free of sins. Free of guilt.
Growing old meant learning to live with it all, but now that I was getting a new taste of unapologetic self-love, not even this torture it came with was enough to make me willingly go back to being myself.
I did not want to, even if it meant suffering for a bit longer, before being stranded in a nightmare with no means of protection. Which is why it was a good thing that I didn’t have much choice in the matter.
My eyelids felt heavier from one second to the next. And while I could at least struggle to keep my right eye open, the one made of fire was completely unresponsive to any of my commands.
Before long it closed itself, and as it did, the hunger subsided as a wave of painful clarity hit me. The whirlwind of fire and cinders faded away just like the fog that had been plaguing my thoughts, allowing me to witness a strange scene.
Maru, dashing toward me with her sword drawn and a stern expression on her face.
I had, somehow, fallen on Yaga’s stage.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire… or was it the opposite?
My horror at the sudden realization of what I had turned into for a brief moment, the sharp awareness of the wounds plaguing my body… the fear of what was waiting. My stamina bar was basically empty and it was taking all I had to keep a single eye open, defending myself was impossible.
If the red-haired delver really had decided to use this opportunity to make me pay for the heartache I had caused her, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. But while it felt a teensy bit more deserving for me to die at her hands than at the tigers’, that wasn’t really a consolation.
Maru’s fight against the dungeon boss was far from an easy one, and for several reasons.
The first one obviously was the difficulty of the task itself. Destroying one of the six deformed hands floating around the Doll of the Beautiful had turned Yaga herself into her opponent, and triggered madness of the kind the delver never could have predicted.
Ignoring the curses the moon-eye was throwing at her, Maru had to defend herself against unrelenting assaults from the bloated hands trying to pierce her with their deformed nails, swat her off the wooden platform or smash her against it like an insect.
Thankfully, she did not have to face all remaining hands at the same time, as two of them kept hovering over the Doll at all times to maintain whichever kind of control Yaga had over it… but it still meant that she had to survive against three flying opponents aiming for her life at the same time.
She was able to rely on her self created “dance” to help dodge their attacks long enough for an opening to show itself, allowing a flawless flash of her blade to reduce their ranks once again. However, as opposed to what one might think, that did not make the fight any easier.
Traitorous rats! The witch screamed, her magically amplified voice making Maru’s ears ring. Ungrateful mortal, have faith in the fact that soon your brain will be branded with the-…
Maru had to make the conscious effort of ignoring her threats, just like she was doing her best not to glance at the sky. Real or not, the moon’s current appearance and the witch’s extremely detailed descriptions of what to expect in case of failure might affect her focus.
Not only did the attacking hands gain in speed, but the giant bloodshot eye in the sky started manipulating the floating stage itself, suddenly tilting it to one side or the other, sometimes even forcing Maru to grab onto branches or roots sticking out of the makeshift stage to avert a deadly fall.
“…Even flipping the whole fucking thing over won’t work!” she growled in a way that would have made the eyes of her old teachers roll back in indignation. But as she tightened her bruised fingers around the hilt of her blade, she couldn’t have cared less about sounding unladylike. There was just something about throwing insults at the incarnation of the forces trying to destroy her that made her feel better.
Maybe there was more to the obscenities the witch had been yelling all day, after all.
The increased difficulty of the battle had made Maru even more aware that she was basically gambling her life, and that of every other person she loved, on a “hunch”. After all, the Doll of the Beautiful was the designated boss of the dungeon, as proved by the colored title over its head, and even though it had felt right to attack Yaga, there was no way to know if it had been the right move.
At the time, the witch’s generous offer to attack the defenseless automaton had seemed like a trap, but now that she was dealing with the consequences of her choice, she felt utterly stupid.
Yes, there were stories of dungeons with atypical clearing methods, – sentient doors that would never open unless they were told a great joke, bosses that couldn’t be defeated in any other way than to be completely ignored… but with her current luck, it seemed very probable that she would end up having to defeat the Doll itself after having been through the trouble of destroying the hands that had been restraining it.
That was just the way things had been going that day -from bad to worse, and as the stress piled on, she found herself more and more detached from reality. The foul smell of pus occasionally bursting from the bloated hands when she sliced them seemed to no longer affect her, as even her own body felt foreign.
That can’t be a good thing, she thought to herself with the mild interest of someone thinking of a stranger’s issues. But it surely is better than completely losing it.
And then, bringing with them the howling wind, the floating trees that had been spiraling beneath them until now suddenly rose past the stage, some of them on fire.
There was no point even acknowledging what seemed like yet another attempt to break her spirit, so Maru did not. She kept fighting instead, fighting at the center of a vortex of spinning flames for something she never thought she would have had to shoulder before leaving the shard… the lives of her people.
“Stone Maiden Kiss. Slash.”
She whispered the skills’ names one after the other and watched her body and blade move to slice two fingers off one of the hands with barbaric efficiency.
She had discovered the hard way that, as they did not have any organs, the only way to make the floating hands vanish was to inflict large amounts of trauma. As a blade dancer focused on dealing lightning-fast precision strikes, she was at a clear disadvantage. But Maru was fortunate enough to possess “Stone Maiden Kiss,” an ability that could momentarily make her rapier heavier.
Combined with the boring reliability of “Slash”, one of the most basic skills to exist, it gave her feather-light rapier the brutish bite it lacked. But while that combination was still much less exhausting than coating her blade with aura, it still didn’t spare her from having to strictly manage her stamina.
The unstable stage made it too hard for her to quickly find a blind spot in Yaga’s attacks without getting skewered by her dirty nails first. She threw a few glances upward, worried about how her companions were faring against the two warriors, refusing to even consider that they might have been long thrown to their deaths already. At the very least, it did not take her long to find one them. All she had to do was spot pale fire jumping from one tree to the next, right before they were shredded by powerful blasts of aura.
Her focus wavered, she blinked, then did a double take.
Is that really… him? Edward?
At first, she hesitated to identify him as the fiery being. Sure, their clothes, physical build, and height matched, but that was where the similarity ended. Even when disregarding the fact that the… creature seemed to have tentacles of fire for hair, the way it behaved was the complete opposite of how Edward did.
… Or at least, opposite of how he behaves in front of people.
Maru had yet to see him in real combat, one with his ominous pitch black blade in hand, but she had seen him fight for his life first hand. And all the human boy had shown was a calculating mind in whatever he did, paired with such a grotesque a disregard for honor, tradition, and decorum that it almost felt unintended.
However, what was currently screaming as it leaped over Maru’s head appeared more like a ravenous beast than one of the People. It reminded her of other stories she had heard, ones darker than the cautionary tales told to young warriors.
She felt herself shivering despite the rising heat.
Did Lima use her blessing on him after he was forced to use his trump card? she wondered. But for the huntress to use it twice in a row, a kill was required… and no matter how Maru appreciated the young girl, she did not think that she had it in her.
There can only be that many monster children running around the shard.
After having lost two fingers and failed to tear Maru apart in the chased that had followed, the damaged witch hand was now attempting to retreat back to the Doll.
Blue Dancer’s Grace, she thought.
The hand was too slow to react to the sudden increase in speed. Maru’s weighted blade cut it half before its reinforcements could arrive, and she prepared herself for whatever tantrum Yaga would make in retaliation.
Only three left to go.
But then a blood-curdling scream, from a voice she thankfully did not recognize, rang through the night right as a blinding light shone on the stage, and Maru was forced to look up again.
Falling from the sky, was a ball of fire aimed straight at her.
She lost a precious second trying to process one more absurdity launched against her brain, but with most of her passive movement skills already activated, she was able to barely jump away to safety.
She let out a grunt when her body hit the stage and scrambled up to see what was going on.
By what seemed to be the first twist of fate in her favor since she had woken up that day, one of the witch’s hands was burning to crisps, caught in the sphere of fire persisting on the stage.
She must have tried to kill me while I was distracted and got hit by the spell instead, she figured as she shielded her face from the heat. I wouldn’t have lasted a single breath in that thing!
Thankfully, the magical fire soon faded and, to Maru’s shock, revealed a wounded Edward laying among charred wood and cinders.
He now looked as defenseless as any other human, and she had to dash in his direction before she could even consider how he could so drastically alter his appearance. The boy had caught the attention of the glassy eye in the sky, and one of the remaining hands was already looking to plunge its nails in his battered body.
I cannot let him die, was all she think as time seemed to stretch.
He might have not been fully responsible for Bali’s death, but there was no denying that Maru would have never attempted to clear Yaga’s Forest if it hadn’t been for him. This was all his plan, and she’d be damned if she would let it all go to waste after everything.
With Edward alive, there was a chance for Maru to kill Balrosh with her own hands. Be it a mad dungeon, a gigantic eye in the sky or the rules of the shard, she would not let that chance slip away.
However, something else fell from the trunks overhead and landed on Yaga’s hand so heavily that it crashed against the wooden stage. Lima, enraged and fully clad in aura, proceeded to break and tear off its blotted fingers with her bare hands with a raw violence Maru would never have expected from the girl.
… She did not use the blessing on the boy, but a second time on herself.
The freakish teen already was physically imposing, and while size did not mean much amongst warriors, the barbaric manner in which she dealt with her opponent almost made Maru recoil.
But she did not, for the simple fact that now that Edward was safe from immediate danger, the only entities left with them on the platform were the Doll of the Beautiful and the last remaining witch-hand. Now alone, it seemed stuck with its fingers tightly wrapped around the machine, the witch’s desire to keep it restrained seemingly greater than her wish to see the three mortals die.
Then again, Yaga’s failure to complete either task was already assured.
“Razor Focus!” she screamed, creating an intimate awareness and control of each of her movements.
Emboldened by a glimpse of the nightmare’s end, Maru coated her sword with aura and, with a wide swing that left the Doll of the Beautiful untouched, severed four of the hand’s fingers.
Fountains of repulsive liquid burst out of the wounds, and like the five before it, the last witch hand quickly broke down as soon as it fell on the stage. Yaga’s voice echoed in unintelligible screams of rage, but Maru had no time to consider it.
The Doll of the Beautiful was the marked boss of this dungeon, and it was now free… They would soon know if she had made the right choice, even if the fact that she had yet to receive any gains in ether already hinted at a negative.
But in the event that she had made the right choice, she’d probably be one of the boldest delvers to walk the Savage Lands, even if the circumstances made it impossible to be excited at the prospect. Still, she’d eventually have to slap herself awake.
Maru wanted to fully enjoy every single second she would spend watching the Spark of Life leave the real monster’s eyes.