The Doll didn’t answer right away, and for a few seconds, there was only the sound of raging fire to fill the silence.
“You being as coherent as you are is an anomaly in itself,” it finally said. “But you are correct in that I cannot afford to delay her rescue.” She looked up at the bloodshot eye in the sky with a determined expression. The yellow moon was barely visible behind the rows of floating trees, but even though she was now silent, the fact that the giant eyeball was staring right at us made it obvious that we had all of Yaga’s attention. “The aberration is gathering her strength, while mine is declining. There won’t be a better opportunity to strike.”
With those words, her body started emitting a faint golden light.
Maru immediately raised her rapier with apprehension, ironically ready to strike too. “Edward?”
“Don’t,” I said through gritted teeth. She backed away from the boss with her guard up as the phenomenon gained in intensity. The light had quickly got bright enough for the machine to have seemingly been dissolved in it.
“So you want to fight Yaga,” I said in a hurry. “You can lead the way, but you’ll have to help us get ready first. Weapons, armor, whatever you have, we’ll take it.”
Something big was about to happen, but I couldn’t let it happen before we received something, anything, that would help us defeat Balrosh. Otherwise, all of what we had gone through would have been for nothing. But the light kept swelling, pulsating as it gained terrain, forcing the three of us to retreat toward the edge of the makeshift stage.
“Edward, you need to tell us what’s going on!” Maru screamed with a hand partially shielding her eyes.
“We’re in bad shape, and there’s danger waiting out there!” I told the Doll as my panic rose. “Any kind of support-”
“It is true that your strength is inadequate, but I cannot be blamed for your inability to exchange data in a civilized manner,” it interrupted. The light was growing stronger, making it hard to perceive more than her outline. Her voice now reverberated across the stage. “Time is of the essence, you said it yourself. Now go.”
I saw something move in the light and took a step forward, “Wait!”
The world shifted around us as if we were points fixed in space, so fast that for a brief moment, reality became a muddled mess of shadows and colors.
And then I was laying out of breath on my back, shivering on a bed of grass. Far in the blackened sky, I could see Yaga’s eye focused on a pillar of flames with light bursting from within. I thought of the depraved beauty of that vision before even realizing that we had been teleported back to the ground.
I heard frantic rustling at my side and a voice full of barely contained tears.
More rustle, and then Lima’s face appearing over mine. So much pain and concern overflowing from her eyes. I could see anger too, but not the kind to consume everything in its path. It was cold, quiet anger, the kind that one was left with when everything else was gone.
The kind of anger you can only taste when stuck under the uncaring heel of Life, when it seemed like any kind of justice you had thought existed was only an illusion you tricked yourself with.
Is it really possible to see all of that in someone’s eyes? I mused. And if not… then where is it coming from?
“Edward, what’s going on?” she asked. “The fight is over, but… the loot? The ethe-” she kept her voice from getting too high by bitting her quivering lip. “Balrosh is out there,” she said after a pause. “Waiting for us.”
“It- I don’t…” I couldn’t speak, which was strange because my mind felt so calm. But my body was finally failing on me.
I’ve felt this way not too long ago… strange that I can’t remember when.
The girl looked away and closed her eyes. Then she left my field of view and there was the pillar again, now looking like it was cut in half by a sphere of light pulsating on the rhythm of a heartbeat.
I didn’t want to look away, but I knew I had to. Even if my soul was doomed, I could at least prepare the girls. Dying could be a lot less difficult with the certitude of an afterlife. Since I had seen a glimpse of it, maybe I could help them with that.
Maybe we don’t have to die here, I thought. Maybe Maru really has an item that can take us all out of here.
Then again, even if she could magically take us home, we’d eventually have to explain what the hell had happened inside the dungeon. Whether we told the truth or lied for a short delay wouldn’t matter. At some point, someone would check Yaga’s Forest and find the bodies, assuming Balrosh wouldn’t have already announced what he had done as an order from Genoneva.
Then the two strongest factions in shard would cause its destruction, and we would die then.
I tried to look for an option I hadn’t seen until now, but couldn’t find any. Sooner or later, the truth would come out and Balrosh would get what he wanted.
Indeed, I heard Ikun Omi say in my ear. You have spared no efforts in your attempt to save them.
Oh, you, I thought. I’m still angry, it’s just a bit hard to care right now.
Is it really? she laughed. And here I was, about to show you a way to stay alive.
My heart skipped a beat then started pounding harder, revitalized by the sliver of hope injected into my veins.
A way for us to stay alive? I asked.
A way for you to stay alive, she replied nonchalantly. It was always going to be only the two of us in the end, Edward. It matters not if it comes now or later, because when it does, it will last forever.
She sounded casual, but I knew that she had never been as serious as she was then. Ikun Omi was asking me to make a choice. I could either die here and suffer in the afterlife until the end of all times… or just go along with whatever she wanted me to do.
A simple choice, and I wasn’t even ashamed to know my answer. The only thing that made me hesitate was an awareness of the weight behind it. The weight of untold amounts of dark water waiting perfectly still for the dam to be opened.
A crystal clear laugh resonated before I could say it, however. Loud and defiant.
“Well fuck you too, bastard gods and crying angels!” Maru laughed somewhere outside my field of view. “Fuck your war, and fuck your glory! Hope you get your fix out of wh-”
Maru’s voice died in a surprised gasp. The voice of the Doll was booming from the stage, reverberating through what was left of the forest in a similar way to how Yaga would threaten us. Except this time, it was clear that the girls could hear it too.
“Through my veins electric
I beg thee to peer in from between the folds of matter
Deus ex Machina!”
With those words, the sphere of light changed hue and lost of all its warmth. It became pure white.
In a sudden expansion, the light swallowed everything.
I felt nothing when it reached us, and felt nothing afterward. Not even my pulse. I couldn’t breath, and didn’t need to.
I looked around and saw an unmoving world of black and white. The ashes, the spiral, the flames, everything was frozen in monochrome.
The girls’ faces were stuck in different variations of shock. Maru in exasperated confusion. Lima in wide-eyed awe.
“Restore,” said the Doll’s voice, before adding:
And the flow of things was free to resume its course. I could breathe, taste, and feel alive again.
Unlike before the light had touched me.
Something’s different, I realized through my confusion. The pain? It’s… gone?
I propped myself up and raised my arm into the yellow light of Yaga’s eye. The bandages were still soaked with blood, but the limb itself wasn’t swollen anymore. I unwrapped them off with ease, and was able to see with my eyes what I could already feel. My arm was fine.
“Look,” I heard Lima whisper.
There wasn’t even a scar, and same for the hole that had been torn in my leg, or any of the other cuts and bruises I had received while defending my life in the dungeon. My wounds hadn’t just been healed, it was as if they had never existed in the first place.
“Is this real? Are you seeing this?”
“Yeah,” I said as I glanced back her. “We may have not found new weapons but…”
I trailed off. The girls weren’t looking at me. They were still looking upward.
There were cracks spreading on the surface of Yaga’s moon-eye, large enough that we could see them from where we stood. The fractures went in every direction, birthing multiple smaller ones when they crossed each other. An agonizing screech rose as the eye lost its structural integrity, then abruptly stopped when half of the moon’s mass drifted away from the rest.
Yaga’s eye was shattering before us.
The yellow light flickered and then disappeared as the eye became just rocks again. We weren’t instantly plunged into darkness, however. The veil hiding the celestial tapestry of stars had been taken off, and their soft light gently washed over the peaceful meadow we stood in.
You have slain The Witch, alternative boss of Yaga’s forest.
You have received the Corrupted Wood Witch set.
Corrupted Wood Witch Dusk Hat
Corrupted Wood Witch Noon Cloak
Corrupted Wood Witch Dawn Gloves
Corrupted Wood Witch Needle Staff
You have received 3000 Ether.
You have received 75 Glory.
You have received a note from Doll of the Beautiful:
Tell my master that her mother would be proud.
The three of us were stunned into silence, and for a moment nothing else could be heard in the meadow beside the sound of the wind weaving through the tall blades of grass.
“I just… I just received more ether than I have ever seen” Lima said, her gaze seemingly unfocused as she probably stared at her notification. “It says that I… that we defeated the boss?”
“Yes,” I said. “And we got loot for it.”
Maru finally looked down from the sky, and looked at me with welling up eyes, “Loot?” she said. “There’s loot?”
“We did,” I nodded uncomfortably at her pure joy. “We have a better shot at this, but don’t relax just yet. It’s just clothing though…. and a staff? But I think that the three of us can make it work with their effects.”
She nodded quickly in response and blinked her emotions away, leaving only the faint trace of a smile on her calmed face. “I knew I was right, I just… knew it. Maybe I should insult the gods more often,” she said with a pensive tone, before adding with her chin up, “Cleared with an alternative route, I’m a damned legend.”
It was a good thing that she wasn’t letting the euphoria of survival cloud her judgement. Relief was understandable, but dangerous. All we had done was earning the qualifications to hope for a victory against Balrosh. We now had to carefully prepare to make it happen, and the items had to be divided in a way that would make the optimal strategy succeed.
Lima, on the other hand, seemed unable to stop her tears and kept sniffing as she unsuccessfully wiped her face with her hands. But it had to be fine to give the kid a few minutes to gather herself, especially considering what she had no choice but to head toward.
“What the Doll did,” I said after a moment of contemplation. “Is something like that really possible?”
Maru let out something halfway between a snort and a chuckle, “Possible? Are you asking if a machine can destroy the moon with a spell in the real world, Edward? Come on, it’d probably need mana reserves as big as the thing itself. We are in an instant dungeon, remember? Everything here is made up. Even the grass and the air we breathe.”
She pulled out a fistful of grass and threw it at nothing in particular. Then she watched the wind carry it away with a disgusted expression, “A made-up death trap. I cannot wait to clear this shit. Then… Then I can get my hands on him.”
“It wasn’t just any spell,” I heard Lima say through her tears. “It was a miracle.”
I was about to chalk it off as her being emotional, but saw Maru’s frown.
“A miracle?” she asked. “How do you know?”
“They invoke small ones at the temple during the festival,” the huntress said. She had almost fully regained her composure. “It’s usually very weak, but I’d recognize that golden light anywhere.”
“An interesting theory,” Maru shook her head. “I admit that the automaton acted as if it was praying… but a real machine cannot have the Faith attribute, LIma, because they have no souls. And even if they did, which angel would answer a machine’s prayer?”
Lima shrugged and offered an apologetic smile, “I don’t know. Our temple is dedicated to Umion Ji, so during the festival, the light turns blue, not white.”
“So miracles are spells that use divine power?” I asked.
“Yup. Anyone can cast a few specific ones as long as they join a temple and receive the Faith attribute, even forsaken people. But they are all useless, to be honest,” Lima said as I watched her walk to me and put my arm over her shoulder to help me walk. “Yaga’s scream came from the center of the forest, we should start searching for the host there… then try to heal you with that well from the first meadow.”
“Sure,” I smiled. “I don’t think that we’ll need to use it again though.”
She was confused for a second, then took a step back and scanned me from head to toe.
“Oh, cool,” she said mildly, just now realizing that I had been fully healed. But then her eyes went to Maru before darting back to me, and she put a hand on her hip.
“Why didn’t we get healed too?”
They probably didn’t want to hear that it was because I was the only human here, so I just raised my hands in mock surrender before finally retrieving our loot from my inventory.
As the girls examined the gear we had bled so much to acquire, I couldn’t help but look up at the sky in wonder.
The people of this place were so convinced that a human couldn’t have the Wisdom attribute… yet here I am. Would it really be that much stranger for a machine to have faith?
Lunar fragments entered the atmosphere, painting the sky with streaks of white.