Most of the trees had been used to create Yaga’s spiral, and then lost to the fire currently consuming the structure. What was left was the desolate sight of sparsely spread trees, either bent or broken, now too far apart to ward off the starlight washing over those traveling between them.
Finding our way to the center had turned out to be much easier than expected. A few minutes into our search, a familiar trail of glowing white flowers had caught Maru’s attention, and it didn’t take much thought for us to decide to let them lead us again. To follow this lovely forest path to the very end, and see what had been waiting there all this time.
The dark outline of a structure soon appeared, much smaller than the twisted flora still surrounding it. The trees in this area seemed to have been spared by the spiral, but that might have been because they weren’t fit to be called trees anymore. They were just giant naked stumps coming out of the ground, creaking as we ran past them, bloated things with a disgusting rosy color where the bark was peeled off.
No doubts that this is the dungeon’s core, I thought with disgust. The depraved atmosphere is ten times worse here.
Thankfully, the white flowers covered the closest ones, growing impossibly fast as we approached the witch’s dwelling, though not fast enough to spare us from the sight of its grotesque appearance. We paused to give them the time.
Yaga’s home was a simple run-down cabin surrounded by a fence entirely made out of bones. It was eerily reminiscing of the hunter’s intimidating settlement, except that in this case, it didn’t even seem that the goal had been to incite fear.
It was just a short fence, that happened to have been created by a terribly twisted individual using the mismatched remnants of hundreds of people. Most of them being humans, like the two skulls framing the open gap where a gate should have been.
I blinked, thinking I had seen something spark to life inside their empty sockets. But the next moment, blooming flowers were sprouting from the bone itself, covering the cracking skulls like they had covered the rest of the fence.
“Summon drone,” I called, and the floating silver sphere appeared in front of me.
“Pretty…” I heard Lima say under her breath.
“Hello, Ed,” it said.
“Hello, Kirby. Could you fly around this house? Notify me if you see anything move.”
“Ed, I see white flow-”
“Any potential enemy,” I pointed out. “Try to look inside through a window too, or some hole in the roof.”
I watched Kirby fly away with satisfaction. The reason why it wasn’t “infected” by my thoughts probably had to do with how basic its A.I. was.
Then again, the “root access” requested by the Doll sounded like a much superior type of connection compared to the simple Mental Communication Link between the drone and myself.
“The air is so thick I can feel it when I move,” Lima said as she wrapped herself in her cloak before adding, “And it’s getting colder again.”
I wondered if she was nervous. I wouldn’t have blamed her if it was the case.
She’s been taught to always stay on the path precisely to avoid being dragged to this place.
“That’s normal, we are standing in the core after all,” Maru said with narrowed eyes focused on the ominous building and a hand on the pommel of her sword. “Think of it as the heart of the dungeon, with ether continuously being pumped in and out.”
“It was even worse in the Undermine,” I added. Back then, even my clothes’ ability to mitigate ambient temperatures had been outmatched by the freezing air. Even though I still had to walk past a veil to meet the boss.
“Ah, yes. The concentration of ether tends to affect reality in odd ways, and you had to have gone deeper than anyone else before to manage to make the mines safe,” Maru mused as she turned to me. “Everybody was telling me about it… it was pretty annoying. Care to share your secret?”
“Just got lucky,” I said with a dismissing hand wave. She rolled her eyes.
Her explanation had reminded me of the thin layer of ice that had briefly covered my skin during my transformation into a djin, and the quick glance Lima threw my way probably meant that she had thought of the same thing.
I decided to not breach the subject. I had yet to even fully process the experience, let alone feel like speaking about it with anybody.
Ed, I have not been able to identify any potential threat, the drone finally sent to me.
What about inside the house?
I am unable to scan inside the house.
I do not know, it said matter of factly.
I sighed. It wasn’t the first time something similar had happened.
Got it, I sent. Thanks Kirby.
You are welcome, Ed.
I canceled the spell and faced the girls, “Can’t tell what’s inside, but at least there’s no monster waiting behind the corners.”
“Nothing invisible either?” Maru asked.
I shrugged. “Not as far as I can tell,”
“Am I the only one smelling something burnt?” Lima interjected with a wrinkled nose.
“I did too. Hopefully, this cursed shack won’t catch fire,” Maru said without much enthusiasm. “Well, let us kill a dungeon then.”
We went past the flowery fence, up a few creaking stairs and cautiously advanced on the rotten porch.
Killing a dungeon. It certainly sounded accurate.
The more I learned about the dungeons of this world, the more they resembled living organisms. They were born, they grew old, and, sometimes, they died.
But it wasn’t a sad death. Dungeons were carnivorous after all, and fed on people. It was only fitting that they would meet their end at the end of people.
Almost like a karmic retribution.
I raised a finger for the girls’ attention, then slowly pushed open the door of the cabin. Which turned out to be completely unnecessary, as the door’s rusted hinges shrieked loud enough to alarm anything in a kilometer radius.
I glanced back the girls. Lima was grimacing, and Maru let out an amused scoff.
Still, even that much noise hadn’t caused any movement, so I shrugged and stepped inside Yaga’s home.
Not too fast, of course. The last time Kirby had been unable to see something, I had found Ikun Omi.
Maru wrinkled her nose has she followed Edward and the white flowers into the dilapidated chamber of the dungeon’s master.
A quick scan of the candle lit room revealed no immediate threat, but in addition to the burnt smell, she had recognized the scent of dried up blood mixed with… other foul things she thankfully was unable to identify.
“Cover your nose,” she whispered to Lima, knowing that the stink would be even worse for the poor girl because of her keen senses.
The centerpiece of Yaga’s home was a large circular table, with a fire pit in the middle. The table was already set, with candles and four empty plates patiently waiting next to rough wooden cups. Maru briefly eyed their content then resumed looking for signs of the host, revolted by the shiny pink slush.
On top of the crackling embers was a lidded cauldron, stabbed in several places with rusted knives.
The rest of the room was a filthy mess of cobwebs and dust, filled with the kind of clutter one could only expect from a degenerate cannibal. Eyes, fingers, noses… floating in jars of various sizes. They filled uneven shelves on all sides, a few even hung to the roof-
Maru narrowed her eyes. The cabin’s entire ceiling was a dull mirror, hanging between them and the actual wooden roof. She studied it for a moment, wondering if it could be a trap, before quickly lowering her gaze.
She disliked how alien her own reflection felt.
The apprehension she had done her best to hide was only growing, so she tightened her hand on the grip of her rapier to calm down. But that was a tall ordeal, considering the whole cabin shook and creaked as the sound of ever approaching explosions reached their ears.
They are getting more violent, she thought. It’s the dungeon’s last-ditch attempt at killing us intruders.
Immediately on the right stood a massive steel mortar, too tall for Maru to see what it contained without getting close to the mirror ceiling. It was covered with crude runes and bumps that could only have been made from the inside.
The smell of blood came from the left, where was an incongruous pile of stained clothes and cheap weapons. It seemed to have caught Lima’s attention, as the young huntress was crouching in front of it with her lips pressed into a thin line.
Ah, them, Lima remembered as she noticed the girl’s controlled breathing and repressed tears. They had initially entered the forest with two other hunting squads. The first was decimated by the monsters on the path, and the second one had seemed to have simply vanished.
As she had assumed, they had lost their way in the forest and had ended up… here.
Maru threw a questioning glance at Edward as she carefully walked to put a comforting hand on Lima’s shoulder. The boy was staring at the cauldron with a somber expression.
“…Are you in there?” he asked to no one in particular.
The crystal clear voice of a young maiden answered him.
“Yes,” said the host of Yaga’s Garden. “I hope you can excuse my silence, it had not come to me that I would have to make contact without scaring the three of you.”
Lima let out a whimper, and Maru instinctively covered her mouth. The voice was speaking from inside the cauldron. The beaten up cauldron from which the burnt stench came.
“I am glad you could find me,” their hostess continued. “I had almost lost all hope of being saved. The flowers are just a trick, and I worried that it would not be enough.”
There was a short pause, only interrupted by Lima’s silent sobbing, the scene having squandered her efforts to keep it together.
The girl’s heart is too big for her own good.
“So you’re The Beautiful,” Edward tentatively said. “The Doll’s master?”
“I suppose I was, at some point, though I never really did deserve either of those titles. I simply inherited both from my mother. I admit that when I felt the death of her doll, I was relieved. Albeit kind, she was a heavy burden. One I am happy to trade for the witch’s death.”
With her free hand, Maru drew her blade as slowly as she could. She was not going to exchange pleasantries with a fragmented shade, especially when it was responsible for the much more recent deaths of countless people…
Bali’s body is still somewhere outside and clearing this dungeon will be her funeral pyre.
“I have to say, I am surprised to meet an unknown human so far from civilization,” the charming voice continued. “My father and I came all the way to these remote lands to escape from… hum…”
… And this is why trying to extract information from a dungeon is pointless, Maru thought as she gave Edward a pointed look he did not even notice. It was just lingering will. Unreliable and incomplete.
“I think I met your father in Iwin Town,” Edward’s words carried a strange reassuring warmth to them. “He asked me to save you.”
Is this related to that mission he spoke of with the automata? She wondered. At the time, she had assumed that the boy was bluffing, but it seemed that there really was more to it. What does he expect to hear?
“Of course, I knew he would not abandon me,” the girl replied. “My… apologies, it seems that my memory is failing me,” she added. “I hope you can forgive me considering my circumstances. I am… in quite a lot of pain after all.”
Maru felt her body tense up and her gaze slowly drifted to the flames licking the bottom of the cauldron. Surely, she could not be saying-
“The witch has tried… very hard to end my life. Using various… and creative ways. How ironic that we traveled all this way to seek her help, unaware of what she had become. However, I could not allow her to take what she wanted, lest calamity befalls my people. So I refused to die, and to my surprise, it worked!
She created a world in which she keeps relieving those atrocities. Again, and again…
“Ho-, how can you?” Lima cried out, stuttering with a shaking voice. “How can you sound so normal if it hurts so much?!” There was an animosity to her that Maru did not recognize.
The host paused.
“Does my tone upset you, young friend? I have been raised to be lady, you see. And a lady’s heart must always remain strong… or at worst, seem like it.”
“But aren’t you angry?”
Maru heard the words before even realizing she was the one to utter them. She could not stop them from pouring out, because somewhere in her heart, a dam had been broken.
If Bali could talk to her now… would she also sound so casual?
“You did not deserve it, and neither did she!” she screamed. “Neither did any of them… it’s just… so not fair!”
Hearing herself, she could not help but think that her words were ridiculous. When had things ever been fair?
“Oh, do not be sad on my account,” the dead girl said to cheer them up. “Because I am angry. Angry enough that I cannot die.”
And her fury violently rippled through the room, carried by ether, the life-blood of what she had become. This was not “The Beautiful”. It wasn’t even a dead girl. They were speaking directly with Yaga’s Garden, and Maru felt her hair stand on end.
“When all had seemed lost, this feeling overtook me and consumed everything I thought I knew,” said the dungeon. “Anger so strong, that it could persist until the death of the last star. Could I really die, when I was all that stood between this monster and my people? So I rejected it. No matter what she did. No matter what she cut, no matter what she broke, no matter what she scooped out, no matter what she bit off.”
It let out the purest laugh of delight, and it trailed off into a deep sigh after a few uninterrupted minutes.
“I felt her… malice, you know. Oh, so intimately. I sometimes even feared that I would not be saved before it fully changed what was left of me. But here you stand! And this sorry state I’m in is nothing my daddy cannot fix. He will fix me. So now that you’ve come, my heroes, could you please bring me back home?”
There was another silent pause, though it felt bitter this time.
Thank you, Maru thought. And sorry. I will use the love you had for your people to protect mine. I guess that’s also unfair, but I promise you that it will not go to waste.
“Yes,” Edward finally said. His expression was unreadable. “It’s time.”
Maru watched him climb on the table through her tears, crushing a few flowers under his boots. His sword was already in his hand, and he put the tip on the cauldron’s lid.
“Wha-, what are you doing?” the young girl exclaimed, her fear and anguish displayed for the first time.
“You can rest now,” he said.
He then firmly pressed down using both hands.
An external force is causing a coalescing of your inner ether. Allow refinement? Y/N