Chapter 86

“So that’s it?” Lima said, frowning deeply as she mentally revisited our entire conversation. “That’s the plan?”

We had just finished eating after the girls had taken care of their wounds to the best of their abilities.

It was easy to forget that side of her, the one that surely had inspired her late hunting comrades to make her their leader. An eagerness to shield her allies from potential danger, to make them tread the safest path possible.

But with a battle plan containing so many moving parts, success would rely more on our ability to grasp the situation, adapt to variables, switch from one contingency to the next… and luck.

Which would normally make for a bad plan, so I understood her wish for clear orders. As it stood, the only constant in our plan was “…and then we kill him.” However, time was of the essence and our knowledge of the enemy was severely limited.

“It’s the best we’re gonna get,” I said as I took another look at my new gloves, my temporary share of the loot.

They were dark purple like the other items of the Corrupted Wood Witch set, with white flourishes on the back. They certainly looked feminine, but that was probably to be expected of the gloves of a witch. I wondered how much their softness would affect their durability as I put a hand on Lima’s arm, “He’s alone, while the three of us… have each other. It won’t make things right again, but I promise you Lima, he will die today.”

Dawn Gloves of the Corrupted Wood Witch

The gloves of a resentful human of old who succumbed to the temptation of the taboo.

Her bright white days, she would have given everything to relive them.

Knowledge does not always lead to good. The wrong kind shall make a mortal mind wither.

She smiled half-heartedly and shrugged, before taking the Needle Staff from my other hand to “get a better feel for it”. True to its name, it was a long white staff that ended in an extremely sharp stained point. At the top, the wood formed a knot in which a fist-sized purple gem was encased.

I keep forgetting that she’s not just a fragile kid, I thought as I watched her skillfully spin the artifact as if it was a polearm.

We had distributed the loot according to the role it would play in our plan to kill Balrosh, regardless of the attributes the Corrupted Witch set provided.

Each piece of gear also granted its wearer with unique abilities reminiscent of those the knights had. Needless to say, a good chunk of the strategy relied on our enemy not being able to predict the new skills we would use against him.

Attributes and various spells. The complete set could basically give someone a class, minus the ability to level up.

Lima was currently wearing the cloak. The details on the hem were bright red, and with the hood on, it could cover her from head to toe, making her look even more imposing than usual. But that certainly wasn’t ideal for a physical fighter, so the girl had decided to wear it like a cape to keep her ample movements unhindered.

Noon Cloak of the Corrupted Wood Witch

The cloak of a resentful human of old who succumbed to the temptation of the taboo.

A scorching red sun, her anger would not let her embrace weakness in the broken world. The Empty One came to her, and made an offer for what she had left.

Knowledge does not always lead to good. The wrong kind shall make a mortal mind rot.

“He is- wait. Ok, yes, he is right,” Maru said to the green girl as she once again adjusted her headpiece, “But don’t worry. victory will go to whoever has the strongest spirit, and it’s not that honorless bastard.”

She had received the witch’s hat, though she had made it clear that she disliked its appearance. It had a ridiculously wide brim and a pointy end, which apparently made it “shameful for a blade dancer” to wear. But I hadn’t missed the glimmer of excitement in her eyes when she had seen its abilities.

Dusk Hat of the Corrupted Wood Witch

The hat of a resentful human of old who succumbed to the temptation of the taboo.

A pitch black night, endless regrets. All the powers she received could not fill the void left by what she had given, so she began stealing it from others.

Knowledge does not always lead to good. The wrong kind shall make a mortal mind decay.

I was tempted to agree, seeing how she now looked like someone wearing a mismatched Halloween costume. But I kept the jokes to myself, as I didn’t think they would translate well.

“It looks cute on you,” Lima blurted out to the delver. “I’m sure you could be mistaken for a real witch.”

Maru blinked in confusion, but the girl simply stared back with bright eyes. She ended up being the first one to break eye contact, “Ahem, well… I have seen real witches, and their clothes weren’t so frivolous. But… thank you.”

“You’ve met real witches!?”

“Well, not exactly… They were part of an escort. I was too young back then, and they were pretty far so- Edward, why are you smiling?”

“Nothing,” I said, regaining my composure. “She’s right, the hat does look good on you.”

She scoffed and Lima threw me a stealthy wink, “I cannot say the same of your gloves. Too bad there isn’t an item better suited to you.”

“I have to agree” I conceded. They were just means to an end anyway.

“Speaking of items,” the red-haired girl continued on an unnaturally casual tone, “There is still one thing we need to verify before we head to the core.”

I raised a brow, “Your mantra?”

“No,” she sighed. “We dealt with that already. I meant your sword, Edward… You should at least try it now, so that we know for sure.”

Oh, right.

Both girls looked at me expectantly, Lima with a hint of hope, and Maru with slight concern. I could see why she’d be worried, as she had been present during my last dance with Ikun Omi.

But wasn’t the whole point of that ceremony to get my Mindscape Projection under control? I thought. There’s no reason for anything to go wrong again.

I toyed with the idea of summoning the dark blade right that instant, but ended up fighting the impulse.

“Let’s get to the core first,” I said as I took a step toward the edge of the meadow. “I don’t want to be here when it starts raining moon cheese.”

Lima abruptly stopped her routine to giggle, “Moon cheese? Oh, Edward… where do you get those ideas?”

Maru tucked rebellious strands of hair under her hat and put a hand on her waist, “There is no need to be afraid. You have it mostly under control, don’t you? That alone is impressive for someone your age. But we need to know for sure how badly your untamed projection will affect us.”

Confused, I raised a brow and barely repressed a smile. Afraid of using my weapon? Me?

If anything, it was the opposite. Even now, despite everything, I missed it.

As a djin, I had turned into something dominated by its instincts and desires, closer to an animal than a real person. But while performing the Sunken Dance with her…

I shrugged.

Well, sure, there was no way to know if Ikun Omi was going to drag me into the inner world again as soon as I touched her… And it certainly wasn’t helping that she had been silent since the ominous proposal she had made when all hope had seemed lost. But…

I frowned. The situation seemed oddly familiar.

Am I afraid?

After a brief moment of silent contemplation, I summoned my sword and held it in front of me with both hands, my fingers tightly wrapped around the hilt.

Maru took a few steps back.

The first time I saw her, I thought she looked rather unoriginal, I thought as I studied the nondescript wooden scabbard. I couldn’t have been further than the truth.

We might disagree on a lot of things… But you and I, we’re on the same team, right?

Without waiting for an answer, I drew the black blade in one swift motion and felt shivers from the faint sound of its exposed steel moving through the air. The sheath dissolving into smoke made Lima audibly gasp and Maru narrowed her eyes, but nothing else happened.

At the very least, the girls didn’t appear to be assaulted by unrestrained waves of killing intent or deeply buried sadness. I took it as a win.

“So pretty. If I saw it in the market, and someone told me it was an artifact that can cut aura,” Lima said while playing with the fading smoke, “I’d believe it without hesitation.”

“Yes, it’s almost… mesmerizing. I cannot believe he…” Maru trailed off, before shaking her head and raising her hands in deafeat, “No, we do not need to know how you stabilized the skill so fast.” She glanced at Lima, “He has never used it against a beastkin before, so… Please, can you-?”

“No worries.” The huntress cut the delver off by almost carelessly throwing the staff in her general direction, then extended a closed fist in front of me. She then took a deep breath, and as she exhaled, her aura came into existence.

It didn’t flare up like the tiger’s, or behave like water. It was just… there. A calm and stable layer of protection over her green skin.

I blinked at her, and she looked back with clear eyes, “What? We’re testing it, right?”

“Right,” I simply said as I raised my sword and slowly approached the blade closer to the boundary of her aura.

Is she just incredibly innocent? I wondered. So trusting, after everything she’s seen. Not even a hint of hesitation?

The blade went through Lima’s aura without any resistance, and I kept it right over her arm.

“How do you feel?” Maru asked the girl. “Any pain? Your stamina?”

“I’m fine,” she said, watching the sword with a strange expression. “My stamina too. It’s like there’s nothing.”

I pulled the sword away, glad to be done with the experiment. “Well, that’s settled then.”

Beastkins as strong as Balrosh had too much control over their auras to be defeated by a barehanded human with attributes as low as mine. But with Ikun Omi’s help, I’d be able to defend myself without having to worry about the worst aspect of their Racial Trait.

Lima released her aura and reflexively massaged the part of her arm over which Ikun Omi had been hovering a second ago, “This is great for us,” she said, looking at me. “It’s another thing… he won’t see coming. But weapons that can harm us like this are… pretty rare, right? ”

Us, I noted.

“Any blade can cut through aura in the hands of a master, Lima” Maru said dismissively, though she wore a pensive expression as she walked away from us to try out the Needle Staff again. “That fear you feel is a sign that you rely too much on yours, but don’t worry, our enemy is the same.”

She raised the Needle Staff like she would have raised her rapier, by pointing its sharp end at an imaginary opponent, then struggled for a moment to balance the heavy gem at the top.

Yaga must be rolling in her grave, I thought. Good.

“But I have to admit that his black sword is without a doubt a very valuable artifact,” she continued, displaying her fencing skills with the witch’s staff. “Created by a reclusive genius or stolen from a lord’s armory. In any case, it will cause the Red Cross a few headaches if greedy people ever learn of its existence… Especially if told that it is in the hands of a chil- of a very young human.”

She dropped her guard and sighed as she came to hand me back the staff with a meek smile, “Not that I could ever consider you ‘defenseless’ again. Give me a moment, I need to work on my status.”

Good thing that she can picture us living long enough to have those problems, I thought, as I immediately put the most essential piece of our plan back into my inventory.

I couldn’t risk any other “weapon” triggering Ikun Omi’s jealousy and mess up our reunion.

Corrupted Wood Witch Needle Staff – Unholy

The magic tool of a mortal who wanted that which she did not deserve.

Originally a solitary scholar who lived in harmony with her environment, this foolish mage used this staff to wield magic again.

She spent the rest of her life trying to make herself whole once more. But her tainted hands could no longer mend. Only warp.

Using it will add the Unholy attribute to spells.

Slightly amused by Maru’s attempts to spare the feelings of the teenage boy I appeared to be, I let my fingers gently run across the cold black steel of my sword.

I didn’t know much about swords, but I knew well that the one I had in my hand was more than that. It was a lock, a seal protecting this realm from an ancient power.

And I could work with that. I didn’t really mind.

If I knew one thing for sure, it was that I was far from being a saint. So who was I to judge her? Sure, I didn’t have the knowledge and skill necessary to bring out her true potential, which probably was for the best of this world, but I wanted to believe that the two of us could work as partners. Who knows, maybe I could even change her mind about destroying the world.

There is no need for mere belief, Edward, she softly spoke to my mind. Search your heart, you know it to be true.

Then why would you try to make me fail on purpose? I answered.

She paused, shocked and offended by the accusation. Fail?

You know that I have to deal with unresolved karma. Whatever your proposal is, it sounded a lot like something that would have made things worse.

Made things worse? According to your torturers? She scoffed. Playing their games, following their rules… it will doom you, Edward. There is no objective good or evil in this realm. No perfect judge! As you currently are, I worry that the weight of your karma will break you… you care too much about useless things! So the only way to win is to not play. To forge your own path.

Like Yaga did? I asked.

The description of her items had almost seemed like personal warnings. At this point, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that I was being set up by… something.

The failure of an arrogant mortal, she dismissed. Have you not been warned to be skeptical of those records? My words are true, and your patron understood that truth. That is why he brought us together.

I frowned. Did he?

The Nameless Djin wasn’t the entity responsible for my resurrection, he was another cog in the machine, a chained up being who had seen my circumstances as an opportunity, and, more importantly, had explained how important it was for me to survive the coming divine tribulations.

I found it hard to believe that he would have wanted me to basically make things worse for both of us.

Earlier, I said to the other presence in my mind, you figured something about how I could master the First Flame. What was it?

You think I misunderstood the Djin, she chuckled, before simply adding, There will be ether at the core. Consume it to become a better Bladepriest, and you will understand.

She retreated to the recesses of my mind and the conversation was over. I let out a heavy sigh.

Regardless of her concerns, if there truly was a way for me to atone for my past crimes… then I owed to those I had hurt to at least try, and hope that the strength I had gathered would be enough to face the challenge.

It has to be enough, I thought before exchanging a look with Lima and Maru. They seemed as ready as they could be. “We’ll have plenty of time to worry about the future,” I said. “I’m focused on the present, and we have to-.”

There was a flash of light and a rumbling noise. Somewhere in this illusory world, beyond the massive plateau on which Yaga’s Garden stood, one of the countless pieces of the moon hurled through the atmosphere had reached the ground.

“We have to go,” I finished. “Now.”

The delver and the huntress both nodded, and we went on our way. Heading toward the center of the forest at a pace that would allow them to recover what was still missing of their stamina.

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