Chapter 83

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. 

“IKUN-”

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.

She frowned.

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.

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Chapter 82 : Fata Morgana

I can touch them.

My hand had come into direct contact with the rabbit, and, as I was just realizing, I had grabbed the tiger’s arm earlier.

The fact that I was now unhindered by their auras could either be related to their weakness against magic, a result of some element inherent to a djin’s nature that I wasn’t aware of, or both.

Wasn’t there a notification saying that physical attacks would burn them? I remembered.

But my opponents had obviously not been set ablaze, so there was a chance that it had been referring to something completely different.

Still, seeing how the rabbit’s feeble aura hadn’t even been dispelled, it seemed that the tradeoff was that direct attacks wouldn’t weaken their stamina reserves anymore… and that was a price a was more than willing to pay.

I could hurt them. It had not appeased my hunger, but still felt… unbelievably good.

Is this how I burn?

I jumped forward and so did the tiger, anticipating my movements. It probably was an attempt to give his ally enough time to gather himself, but I didn’t care. Actually, I did not care about much at all at that moment.

Instincts I never knew I had were telling me that all I needed was something to kill. Rabbit or tiger, it made no difference.

I landed on the tree an instant before he did and immediately closed the distance. However the tiger was prepared this time around, and I was met with a tight defense that quickly made way for a shower of punches packing a devastating amount of power behind them. Devastating enough that even the thought of blocking one of them was out of the question.

My body was simply too light. If I took a hit from him, I’d be launched off the spiral.

I clicked my tongue, disappointed that the same trick wouldn’t work twice in a row, but unsurprised.

The beastkin’s monstrous fists were the size of my skull and, forced back on our small foothold as I used my superior agility to dodge them, I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to use his hulking stature at my advantage.

His class must be giving him some kind of boost, I thought with annoyance. No matter how good I was at unharmed combat, this fight was turning into a comparison between my acquired fighting experience and the classes’ miraculous ability to instinctually fill the gaps in one’s skill, and that did not seem to be a good thing for me.

That was despite the fact that the tiger’s attacks did not even utilize the reach of his long legs. Instead, his quick footwork was only interrupted to transfer the power of his lower body into punches I could almost see radiate death as they flew past me.

His rhythm started matching mine, some of his jabs grazed my skin, and I felt a pang of unease.

I thought of my sword. Using it would allow me to also take full advantage of my class…

But I couldn’t. Even if I could have managed to dance unaffected by the wound on my leg, my left arm would have still been broken. Me swinging Ikun Omi with the right one would have been a disaster.

Then again, the longer the fight went on, the less I felt inclined to use her help. Relying on a weapon against a barehanded fighter would have felt like an admission of my defeat.

And I wasn’t going to lose face. The current amount of conceit in the bastard’s expression was already infuriating enough.

I’ll show him his place.

Twisting myself over the void, I finally dodged the tiger’s punch in a way he wasn’t able to anticipate. I then used his own extended arm as support to propel myself upward and throw a wide spinning kick. My boot went through his aura without meeting any resistance, and my heel violently connected with the side of his head.

The blow would have beheaded any “normal” person and certainly made my opponent stagger, but it wasn’t enough to make him lose consciousness.

However, I now had the advantage. I was already about to follow up when I caught the tiger’s eyes still trailing me.

I caught the murderous glint they held just in time for me to release his arm and let myself drop on a tree right under the one he was still standing on.

Could djins feel shivers?

Did I almost just di-

Reacting before I could even finish my thought, I jumped backward and the tiger landed heavily where I stood a moment ago, sending a hail of splinters to the winds.

“Hmph.”

I was elated to see that the fur on one side of his face was burnt, but that didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest. He cracked his neck before confidently walking forward, and something in my mind screamed for me to take my distances.

I was aware that it was just my lingering human side. All this time it had been nagging me to strategize, to use my items and avoid a direct confrontation against the enemy despite my hunger… and I couldn’t fully ignore it. Not yet.

At some level, I understood why it could seem like I was the one needing to be careful. Constricted to a single line, unable to maximize my speed and move around to attack from different angles… a lesser fighter would have been doomed for sure.

But I wasn’t that fighter. I had an unshakable feeling that I would definitely be fine. That I would win.

Crouching as to appear even smaller than I already was, I begrudgingly opted to wait for my opponent to make a move. Even with just one functioning arm, there were various ways to deal with muscle heads.

I flexed my fingers with anticipation. Your eyes are mine.

But instead of attacking me, he stopped and stared back at me with a strange expression.

I could barely contain my smile. Had he realized his foolishness? Was he going to plead for his life?

The blow came from the left. I was so blindsided that it took me a second to understand why the world was in motion even though I was supposed to be standing. But someone screamed my name, and I remembered that I had left the rabbit alive.

“Fuckin’… HELL!”

It was great that I was unable to feel any pain. It allowed me to immediately focus on what mattered as the wind filled my ears.

A tree barely entered my reach and I extended my hand. The hardened fingers dug into the wood but no deep enough, only leaving gashes of embers as I plummeted down.

Sets of exposed roots failed to impale me as I fell through them.

However, they slowed me enough that, when I fell feet first on a different piece of floating wood, my bones didn’t break.

I just sat there for a moment, disoriented. The bandage on my leg became imbibed with blood, indicating that the wound had been reopened. Not that I could feel it.

Not that I cared.

“You can die proud to have hit me,” I said.

Already there to finish the job, the rabbit pounced forward so fast that I almost failed to react in time. It might have been too late to dodge, but the fact that I was still alive proved that he wasn’t too strong for me to block.

But instead of trying to reach past my guard, the rabbit grabbed my wrist and flared his aura, locking us in place.

What the-

More than the vice-like grip, it was the warrior’s willingness to leave himself wide open that alarmed me. I looked at his face and saw that my palm had burnt most of it. Only the crazy eyes were still recognizable.

I looked up, to where I had been a few moments ago, past the fire that was quickly spreading from one tree to the next. The tiger was standing with his feet wide apart and a fist rocked backward, incredibly still at the center of his boiling aura.

He then punched in our direction and everything that way was torn to shreds.

The wave of energy was similar to steam, in that it was almost invisible. Flesh, bones, wood, and everything else it washed over was torn apart, as if it had been exposed to the blast of a fragmentation grenade.

But he needs some time to focus before he can use it, I thought as I spat the rabbit’s fingers, glad that I had managed to jump in time.

The repulsion I felt from the blood in my mouth indicated that I had definitely not become a cannibal. But the rabbit’s sacrifice had not been in vain. While I was watching him being reduced to almost nothing in an instant, I had caught a glimpse of what I was yearning for.

It was gone before long, lost to the void like the rest of his remains. But now I knew that I wasn’t losing my mind over nothing.

It was there, waiting for me at the threshold between a mortal’s life and death. Ecstasy.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell whether it was blood or saliva running down my neck as I climbed back up the spiral as fast as I could.

Sprinting through the flames, jumping from one tree to the next, dodging the waves of aura the tiger threw at me. It seemed that the spiral was spinning even faster, rising even higher in the sky as I was getting closer to my prey.

Once I got too close for him to channel his aura again, the tiger came to meet me with both fists raised in front of him.

He looked calm and collected, his eyes showed a killer’s cold confidence. It was clear that he felt in his element and, to him, there was no doubt that the conclusion of this fight would be the same as all the others.

And why would he think otherwise? He either had a balanced set of attributes, or the ability to make his aura correct his deficiencies. Fighting on that floating tree, it was obvious that he was clearly stronger and more durable, while I was barely faster.

But he had been so shamelessly relying on his aura to kill me that I now felt comfortable using one of my skills.

“Grasp of the Deep!” I roared as we once again both landed on the same tree for our final showdown.

It didn’t matter whether I was on land or not. Grasp of the Deep was a skill that drained the stamina of any opponent in the vicinity, at the sole cost of interrupting the regeneration of my own.

The tiger had to have used up most of his energy already, but he couldn’t afford to disperse his aura while facing me.

The first punch came. Then the second, the third, and the countless ones that followed. I weaved through the onslaught without taking a single step back, facing his savage methods with my superior skills.

He probably thought this to be a final contest of skills that would end with the death of whoever would fail first. But I now held all the cards and would force him to burn through his reserves of stamina until the last drop, and then, exhausted, he would kneel in front of me. Ready to die.

Defeated.

I smiled, seeing his aura gradually shrink and lose its vigor. I was soon to be satiated.

But at that moment, I became lightheaded and my body inexplicably failed to move as ordered.

Only then did I notice that the bar representing my stamina was blinking. It was almost empty.

A momentary moment of weakness before complete exhaustion, the kind that I might have been able to brush off if it hadn’t taken me by complete surprise. However, at that moment, it was a death sentence.

All strength having left my limbs, I fell forward, basically right into the tiger’s hand. He closed his fingers around my throat and yanked me upward.

Victorious.

We locked eyes and panic made way to mind-numbing fear as I realized that he could snap my neck like dry wood at any moment, sending me back to face the sentence waiting for me in the afterlife.

I wasn’t a djin. Lost in the thrilling taste of this power, I had forgotten that simple fact. Simply staying in this form consumed my stamina, and apparently, it did so even faster than a beastkin’s aura depleted their.

None of the defense mechanisms I would usually rely on to protect the illusion of my sanity were in place, and as I face imminent doom, unrestrained visions of horror raced through my mind, so vivid in what they promised that they allowed me to forget even the maddening for a second.

The gears of my reason started to turn once again, and years of conditioning kicked in.

Pure curiosity was the only reason I wasn’t dead yet. I could see it in his eyes as he studied me like a predator playing with exotic food. He had never seen or heard of anything like me before, and it would all end as soon as he got bored.

Maybe it was because he wasn’t as experienced as he believed he was, or because being on a suicide mission had made him careless. I would never know.

Sun Avatar, I thought.

The spell had been ready for a while now. With its second activation, all the energy it had gathered was released at the same time, and I became a sun illuminating the dark sky of Yaga’s Garden.

The flames engulfed us both, and though I was at the center of the inferno, I was left unharmed. Overtaken by pain, the warrior’s first reflex hadn’t been to squeeze his fingers but to grab his own face in agony.

For a while, the tiger’s screams were all I could hear, and they resounded until his throat was no longer able to make sounds. And even then, he kept jerking and flailing, probably trying to find a way to make it all stop. I doubt he ever realized that we were falling.

The wooden trunk he had been standing on had been incinerated, leaving both of us at the mercy of gravity. But if I was really going to die, at least it wasn’t going to be with my insides twisted in hunger.

The tiger stopped moving, and something emerged from his corpse at it was turning into cinders.

I could not parse any features, but I could tell that it was him, or a version of him, made out of blinding light. Pure, and defenseless.

I reached out to take it. More than anything, it was what I wanted, but my hand moved through it and my eyes welled up with tears.

In some way or another, it was out of reach.

I’ll admit that I was curious, but is it not ironic? An amused Ikun Omi whispered in my ear. So close, yet so, so far away…

The tiger’s soul soon disappeared, as real as a mirage on the other side of the shore.

But we do now know why you were sent to me my love, she continued. You are incomplete.

 

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Chapter 81

Breathe in… Breathe out. Breathe.

I flexed my fingers in muted awe, trying and surely failing to estimate how significant the changes to my body were. Things were unfolding in a… much different manner than the last time I had become a djin.

Fighting the winds on one of the countless trees spiraling in the nightmarish sky of Yaga’s forest, I had been forced to use what I considered my final trump card. I couldn’t have let Lima lose her life at the hands of those two murderers. Not right in front of me.

Though the injuries I had sustained earlier that day were still there, the pain had all but vanished, except for a slight discomfort in my stomach. I made sure to not let my eyes wander too far into the distance, making it easier to tune out the visual “noise” that came with having true perception of the world around me.

Still, I had no doubts that if I ever dared to take in the scenery, even the hellscape we were trapped in would appear beautiful, before inevitably overwhelming me. And that was despite the fact that I had no interest in looking at the bloodshot eye the goddamn moon had turned into.

In fact, our current situation should have made it impossible for me to enjoy being a djin again.

But I do, I frowned. Too much, even.

That moment of self-awareness, however, was short-lived, as strange notifications caught my attention.

Taboo has been lifted.

Attribute coefficients updated.

Warning
Vessel has been outgrown.

Physical attacks will inflict Primal Burn to lower ranked beings.

It was hard not to think that I was being rewarded for bearing with the added discomfort of my transformation.

Part of it had been physical, just enough for me to notice that opening my left eye was harder than it should have been.

Then sounds had grown quieter, giving me the surreal impression that Creation itself was holding its breath. Cold air filled with electricity rushed toward me from all directions, as if nature was trying to fill a vacuum that it had never noticed before.

And then, as the culmination of a crescendo of unseen forces clashing onto me, I opened my eye like one would flick a lighter and became living fire.

Breathe in… Breathe out… Breathe, I told myself again, as I noticed the thin layer of frost that had formed on my skin and clothes quickly melting away.

Suddenly, my metamorphosis was complete and all the tension was gone… but I could still feel my heart beating as if trying to escape my chest.

My emotions were a mess and, strangely enough, the first one to emerge from my confusion seemed to be pure satisfaction.

It felt as good as the first breath taken right after being on the cusp of drowning, except that this wasn’t just some quickly forgotten euphoria.

It was a pleasure derived from simply existing, and it was erupting with so much violence that the rest of my emotions were left scorched.

How did I ever live differently? I wondered as I looked at my arms.

The skin covering my forearms, my upper chest, and my neck, had hardened into an almost rocky material. It was darker too, but not so much that it could hide the network of faintly glowing veins spread under its surface. Somehow, I wasn’t horrified by the thought that my heart was probably pumping something other than blood. Fire would actually be a plausible explanation to what I could feel inside of me.

I had never really turned into a djin until now, I realized. This had to be what it felt like to be more than just a pawn on the cosmic chess board.

The previous times I had opened my left eye, the only change had been to my hair. It had looked like the embers of an old smoldering fire, emitting just enough light to illuminate my room before sunset. But something was different this time, something that seemed to be related to that nonsensical notification claiming that the Flame had outgrown me.

My hair had fully turned into unnatural flames, slowly undulating tongues of pale fire that seemed to react to my curiosity as I studied my reflection in a fragment of the frog girl’s glaive embedded in the closest floating tree.

Even my right eye seemed to have taken the color of the strange fire, while the one gifted by the Nameless Djin barely seemed to have a physical form. It looked more like an opened window into the furnace that my insides now were. Furnace whose secrets were still hidden from me.

I do not seem to project heat, at least not as much as I should, I mused. The girl is right behind me and seems fine… Hold on, the girl?

I glanced back and, sure enough, my eyes met those of a beastkin teenager, her green skin covered with cuts and bruises of varying severity. Dark eyes wide with shock and concern.

My earlier wish to protect her immediately seemed odd to me.

Why would I ever worry about the safety of a random beastkin kid?

The more I thought about it, the more the concept seemed absurd to me. I quickly came to the conclusion that the only plausible explanation was that I had been under the influence of a spell able to compel a human to defend her.

There was a lingering feeling of emergency that was somewhat hard to shake off, but there was no chance a mortal this weak could have survived any real danger and she seemed fine to me. That irrational fear was probably how the little sorceress had controlled me until now.

Might as well make sure it doesn’t happen again.

But before I could take a step in her direction, I was almost folded in half by a sudden wave of sharp pain and was forced to put off her judgment to a later time. A new issue was quickly evolving from a mild annoyance in the back of my mind to the top of my priorities.

My hand almost unconsciously went to my rumbling belly. It hadn’t been just any kind of discomfort in my stomach, nor just fire I had felt inside of me.

I’m starving, I realized with a mixture of disbelief and fascination.

The shock came with a brief moment of complete uncertainty as to what I was hungry for. But then my gaze fell on two full-blooded beastkin warriors staring at me from a distance… and it had to be the first time I had ever really looked at them, because right then, I knew I had found what I was searching for.

“-telling you, he was right!” I heard the grey rabbit scream to his comrade. He was thinner than most of the members of his race I had seen until then, and also in much worse shape. The mangled stump in place of his right hand certainly stood out among the various open wounds that covered his body, making me doubt he’d survive a minute if his aura gave out. “Fucking kid was a homunculus all along!”

The other one shook his head and replied with something I couldn’t hear through the howling wind, but was visibly enough to relieve the rabbit of most of his concerns.

The tiger had an imposing figure, and while the aura raging around him certainly didn’t match his calm demeanor, it surely added to his presence. Almost as tall as his partner, but with lean muscles that could be seen twitching under his striped fur, he had the bearing and eyes of one convinced that they were at the top of the food chain.

It was annoying, of course, but had nothing to do with the fact that their sight made me even hungrier.

Them? I wondered, narrowing my eyes. No. No way.

I had trouble believing that I had gained an appetite for people, but in that instant, all of my instincts were telling me the same thing… that their deaths would be one step toward being free from the hunger, and that was all I was able to focus on.

It was more than just wanting to kill them. I needed to.

I have to stop thinking like a human, I told myself as I moved toward the edge, this isn’t even hunger as I understand it. The Djin said it himself, I am fire now… and it’s in a fire’s nature to want to burn. I just don’t know what that means for me yet.

That conclusion felt like a fitting one. Burning… Well, I did have a spell that involved literally creating fire.

Sun Avatar, I thought.

The light I emitted flashed brighter with the skill’s first activation, and the rabbit flinched back. I looked with dissatisfaction at the bar representing the mana I had recovered… At the speed it was being drained, it would take some time for the spell to be ready.

But the craving was only getting worse.

This probably isn’t it, I thought with frustration as the feeling of comfort was quickly making room for something else, something uglier. Never mind, I’ll deal with this the old fashioned way.

The beastkins had yet to move, however. They were still standing at a safe distance, where my transformation had left them frozen.

Frozen in awe, as they should be.

Captivated, like moths graciously allowed to witness the flame of all flames.

“Oh, I understand,” I told them, taking it as granted that my voice would reach them. “But it’s time to fulfill your purpose.”

I felt my guts twisting themselves and I raised my unwounded hand in front of me.

“Come,” I demanded.

Apparently shocked by what I was saying, the rabbit blinked and the tiger frowned. They threw glances at each other but didn’t obey, clearly not daring to make the first move despite their numerical advantage.

Their caution was understandable, but only adding to my irritation. Even though time was on my side, I couldn’t stand to wait for their silent conversation to end.

“COME!” I screamed with a voice I didn’t recognize.

My insides were grinding against each other. I needed to feed myse- to burn. I need to burn.

With a kick to the tree trunk I was standing on I launched myself down the floating stairs, toward the worthiest of the two opponent. The eyes of the tiger opened wide as he realized that I was right in front of him. As I had hoped, his surprise triggered his fighting instincts and he attacked me purely out of reflex.

I grabbed his arm as I spun to avoid his fist, and used his own momentum to send him crashing against a tree flying nearby.

I could have tried to throw him down once again, of course… but that option seemed like such a waste. It wouldn’t have helped me satiate my hunger and at that moment, that was all that mattered. Nothing else seemed like a viable alternative.

The air shifted around me and I ducked right in time to avoid the rabbit kicking my skull in. His leg swept over my head as I turned to face him, leaving him defenseless if not for his aura. But even I could tell that it had been severely weakened already.

It had the appearance of a thin membrane of water ready to break under the smallest pressure, the opposite of the energy literally churning around the other warrior. The rabbit clearly was much less enticing, but food was food, especially if it was delivering itself on a silver platter.

I punched the rabbit’s stomach before he could pull back his leg, grabbed him by the face and hurl his head against our foothold.

It wasn’t enough to knock him out so he basically bounced from the bark thanks to his aura. But instead of struggling, he curled himself up with his hands around his belly, throwing up and gasping for hair.

Stepping back from that pathetic display to avoid being stained by his bile, I raised a brow and looked at my hand.

“Oh?” I said with a toothy smile.

Movement on my left forced me to jump away before I could go for the kill, dodging the tiger’s hand as its fingers closed onto nothing but air.

I landed a short distance away and I saw him stand over the rabbit, examining him. He glanced at his own wrist, then looked up at me with an expression at the opposite of the bored one he had been wearing all this time.

Curiosity.

And it was more than warranted, because we had just realized that I could touch them.

 

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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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Chapter 78

Regaining my balance using a single arm wasn’t easy, but I would have been a poor blade dancer if I couldn’t at least do as much. Carefully spinning along the length of the tree to reposition my center of gravity, I stopped right at the edge, heart pounding in my chest.

I glanced back at Maru, she was looking at me with furious eyes. Lima was a bit further down, and the two warriors who had now reached our bridge were on their way.

“The hell are you doing!” I screamed at the red-headed delver. “You don’t see what’s going on? Go!”

“No,” she started, as she began to draw her sword. “We could-”

“Just… Go! Dammit!” Lima screamed in frustration. She had tried to use a commanding tone, but her voice broke mid-sentence, revealing all the fear she was trying to keep in check.

Yet, it was probably more effective. Maru flinched back, before looking at me, “Do not let her die, Edward.”

I ignored her and focused on mounting the Sun Barrel while I still had the opportunity. She clicked her tongue and resumed her ascension. The sound of her light feet tapping against the wood quickly became distant.

The barrel mounted, I aimed at the assailants. There was no way to tell how large their stamina reserves were, but it couldn’t hurt to have them constantly deplete them until contact. I didn’t pull the trigger though, and decided to wait for them to get closer. Each shot would now consume a full tank of mana, and had to matter.

I glanced at the gangly girl. She held her glaive with two hands, knees slightly bent in a familiar stance. Waiting. I almost questioned her decision to use that weapon against members of her race, but figured a polearm would prove useful in keeping the two men at a distance.

“Did you use your buffs already?” I asked her.

“Hmm.”

“All of them?”

“Well… those that do need conditions to be met.”

There was absolutely no wind and the yellow night was perfectly silent. The only living beings seemed to be those closing in to kill us.

“It’s going to be alright,” I said. “All we have to do is make them fall. Then we can run after Maru and help her kill the boss.”

She nodded. Even from the back, I could see her nervously shift her grip on her weapon.

“I don’t want to make them fall,” I heard the girl say. “I want to kill them.”

“They will die if we clear the dungeon.”

“No, they would just cease to exist. I want them to be scared and suffer.”

Was her anger something I should have encouraged to make her forget about her fear? Probably. Balrosh might have ordered the massacre of her friends, but those two… monsters… were the ones who really had the blood of the hunters on their hands, and Lima seemed so fragile as she stood to face them. She was just a kid.

She’s never killed anyone.

However, that was the exact reason why the thought of using her as a shield weighed so heavily on my conscience, and I wouldn’t have done anything else to make me even more similar to the monsters who had ruined my childhood. So I stayed silent.

“Can you do it?” she asked after a moment.

“Do what?”

“Can you make them suffer?”

I wondered what expression she wore as I answered.

“Yes,” I said. “And I will, if I get the opportunity.”

“Good.”

The tip of my rifle was still following the warriors. They were both mixed, one had obvious tiger features, the other one those of a wolf or some kind of dog breed. They were now close enough for me to see the amusement in their eyes.

I narrowed mine.

They are so sure that luck is the only reason we’re still breathing.

They were taking their time closing the distance now that they knew that we were waiting for them. It probably also had to do with how they had seen me manage to push Balrosh back during one of his giant leaps.

I opened fire as soon as I felt confident in my ability to not miss, aiming at the first tiger’s head as his foot was about to land. His comrade paid him no mind as he was blown away by the impact, thrown off the bridge before he had any chance to react.

Instead, he started running even faster, dangerously getting closer to Lima as my rifle was rebuilding itself. I saw her extend a hand in his direction, prompting a cloud of purple particles to briefly emanate from his body.

The curse.

Some of my attention had remained on the warrior plummeting to the ground, and while I hoped to make him lose consciousness, his aura was still active. He violently dug his hand into the first tree he got close enough to, putting an abrupt end to his fall.

He then looked up and gave me a predatory smile before launching himself upward to a different tree.

We won’t be able to make them fall, I realized. Too many trees around.

The Patchwork Riffle finished its reconstruction right as the second warrior was attacking Lima. Her massive glaive slashed toward his throat in wide arc, and was it not for his aura, he would have lost his head. Unfortunately, he did have a sheet of mystical energy preventing harm from regular weaponry, and a raised arm was all it took to block the curved blade and enter the girl’s guard.

However, Lima had the same trick at her disposal. Her hands moved with unexpected speed as her aura flared, her glaive spun and she smashed the other end of the pole into the warrior’s chest.

There wasn’t enough force behind the blow to send the wolf flying, but it managed to push him away from her. Right as he was about to attack her, I pulled the trigger again.

His head violently rocked sideways and he was sent spinning like a ragdoll. As I narrowed my eyes to see if his aura would vanish or not, I heard a scream.

“Edw-, Jump!”

The urgency in Lima’s voice made me leap toward a tree floating in the corner of my vision without any second thoughts. I heard the sound of rushing wind, but had no time to even consider what was going on behind me.

I had jumped too far and was about to miss the floating tree, which would result in me either breaking something else on a trunk too far below for my human bones, or simply falling to my death.

The thought made my stomach churn, and I realized that my only working hand was holding onto my weapon.

Aware that succumbing to panic would only make things worse, I repelled the first instinct to dismiss the rifle back to my inventory, since it could have broken the conditions for Hextech Mana Drain to work. I quickly tucked what was left of it in my clothes, and, after a split second of uncertainty, managed to catch one of the tree’s exposed roots.

There was a crack, but it didn’t break.

I pulled myself up using brute strength, rolled onto the tree shaking and out of breath, and threw a quick glance toward my previous position. It revealed nothing but shredded wood.

Whatever did that would have killed me.

As I pulled out my weapon, not thinking about the burn marks it had probably left on my torso, I searched for the tiger and spotted him further down than he should have been at his current speed. He was right behind his comrade, who was as alive as one could be.

“What the fuck did he do?!” I yelled at Lima who was staring at me with wide eyes.

“Not sure!” she said. She had watched me almost die and what she had gone through was still visible on her face. “It’s aura! He threw a punch and something flew out!”

A punch?

I racked my brain for an explanation. An item? A skill from his class? Advanced use of aura? I gritted my teeth, Fucking hell, can we last if they also have long-range attacks?

The simple fact that they hadn’t finished me off while I was hanging by the root was a confirmation that it couldn’t be used in quick successions and that his comrade didn’t have something similar in his arsenal, but that hardly was reassuring enough. Our strategy assumed that we’d be safe as long as we kept our distances.

All I could do was hope for those attack and my bullets to burn through a large amount of stamina. Lima and I were clearly stalling and that would make our opponents think twice before risking exhaustion.

But what if he had simply used an item? What if he could it again without any penalty?

Before I could think of any necessary adjustment to our current strategy, my thoughts were interrupted by Yaga’s raspy voice once more resounding through the dungeon.

“There you are!” She said with palpable eagerness in her voice. “Though not of human blood, your kind surely is better suited for grunt work. But I cannot help but wonder…”

Maru reached the top, I realized.

The yellow light was already messing with my vision, but it was now getting even darker with each new word spoken by the witch. Except for the stage at the center of the spiral.

It was illuminated by a beam of light descending directly from the eye in the sky, which made sense, in a way. As far as Yaga was concerned, that was where the main characters of her twisted play were located.

“… Wonder if you have the tools to undo human blasphemy. No matter. I have restrained the blight that girl left upon me, but cannot destroy it. It requires… something I have too much of. You shall do so in my stead.”

I was jolted by a sudden movement of the tree I was standing on, and instantly put a knee down. Thankfully, the witch hadn’t decided to drop us all to our deaths. The force keeping all of the floating trees anchored had been dispelled, and the spiral was beginning to spin once more.

I perked up at the sound of an unfamiliar voice calling for help in the distance, but after a moment, dismissed it as another trick of the dungeon. There were already enough things on my plate without me having to worry about wailing specters.

“Now… face it!” Yaga ordered. “Kill it and earn the right to live!”

This is good for us, I told myself after inwardly wishing good luck to Maru.

The bridges were spinning fast and spinning faster. I glanced at Lima and saw her standing tall, using her glaive as support. The two warriors, on the other hand, were being forced to advance more carefully, meaning I’d have more time to fix my rifle between each shot.

And seeing how even I had trouble seeing anything, I doubted they would be able to stop their fall next time I’d try to blast their heads off.

Of course, it had gotten more dangerous for us too, but the signs of irritation on the bastards’ faces made me feel somewhat better about our chances. Those were the expressions of people who couldn’t have fathomed having a hard time against the “lesser warriors” that we were.

They ran with their arms raised in order to protect their heads, but I knew that it wouldn’t make much difference against the Sun Barrel and took aim nonetheless.

“We’ve done it once, we can do it again!” I screamed at Lima’s attention. “I have your back!”

Those words had only been meant to strengthen her resolve. Which is why my heart dropped when I saw her launch herself at the warriors with a roar of fury.

It was already too late to say anything else.

 

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Chapter 77

The spiral was made of several branches stretching over what was left of the forest, growing longer as new trees joined them.

All the branches met in a single point in the sky, the center of the spiral.

… And if that’s also the center of the forest, I thought to myself, then the wooden house that Kirby noticed earlier must be right under.

The exact purpose of that “house” was still a mystery, but I remembered Lima mentioning that wandering too long from the candlelit path could cause one to reach Yaga’s home. If those places were one and the same, nothing good could come from there.

“She is… building something,” Maru said, squinting as she tried to make out the nature of that “thing” was.

While not fully incorrect, her observation was an exaggeration. The tree trunks at the center of the spiral weren’t forming any kind of intricate structure. Each new one went to fill the space between two others, creating an expanding platform over what was left of Yaga’s forest.

“A stage for you to prove your worth!” the old witch laughed, sounding very satisfied with her work. “Obey me, and I shall allow you to keep your lives.”

In one motion, the trees that had yet to reach the center were all turned horizontal and stopped moving. The branches of the spiral now looked like rising suspended bridges… or stairs that weren’t actually suspended to anything.

The hag can’t be meaning-

“Come forward! Dare not test my patience…”

We waited for something more, but nothing else happened.

We had simply been told to come forward after the creation of a platform levitating several kilometers above ground. What the creature meant was obvious, but whether we had to go along with it or not was an entirely different thing.

“She wants us to get up there… using the trunks floating everywhere?” Lima asked with concern.

“I do not see any other way,” Maru said as she gauged the distance. “What about you, Ed-… Deadeye? Anything invisible?”

“No,” I said with a frown, my focus on the extraordinary monument solely made out of arcane power, searching for potential threats able to impede our ascension. “What you see is all there is.”

“Then let’s go,” the short delver said as she stepped forward. “Quick, taking our time despite what she said could negatively affect us. The difficulty of the boss battle might increase, or it could be the type to no longer be accessible after a certain amount of time.”

Lima glanced in my direction, looking unsure, “Really? It’s pretty high and it obviously sounds like a trap…”

“If a trap is the only way to reach a dungeon’s boss, then it’s not really one,” Maru replied as she effortlessly jumped onto a tree floating right over the ground. The trunk swayed a bit but thankfully didn’t spin on its axis. “You should be fine, especially after using the new blessing you got.” She turned in my direction, “What about you? Think you can do it?”

“… Don’t really have a choice,” I groaned, though the waves of pain from my wounds were getting increasingly harder to ignore.

I summoned my last remaining bottle of Siegfrau, and drank half of its content under the judging eyes of both girls. The effects of Respite of the Undead were suddenly brought back to their full strength, and I no longer felt any pain in either my arm or leg. Neither could I feel anything else.

I wiped my lips with my sleeve and nodded upward, “Let’s go. Focus on the trees but don’t look too far down.”

They didn’t bother making any comment, maybe because they couldn’t deny my drink’s effects, probably because they were aware that leaving me behind would only further complicate things.

I should be able to do this, I told myself, trying not to think about the importance of someone’s agility attribute in them not tripping and falling to their death.

The girls watched me hop on one of the trees closest to the ground, and once they were assured that I actually could handle myself, we moved to answer the witch’s invitation.

We rose quickly with Maru leading the way, quickly jumping from one tree to the next with surprising confidence. While it turned out that doing so required little thought since the trees were all equidistant from each other, I grew less comfortable the greater the altitude became. And it wasn’t just because there was no way to know what was waiting for us on that platform.

The hell is going on… Since when am I afraid of heights?

Not that it was particularly hard to think of a reason to be uncomfortable, we were climbing a magical structure made out of flying dead trees after all, with no guarantees that it wouldn’t collapse at any moment. But I had stood in relatively high places since my arrival in this world, and I didn’t remember my stomach feeling this heavy… and the cold sweat.

I checked my status and confirmed that Respite of the Undead was still in effect, which raised the question of how I could feel physical ailments like nausea.

… Unless it’s all in my fucking head?

A theory as disastrous as how plausible it sounded. I had almost allowed memories of my afterlife to resurface a few minutes ago, why else would the idea of a vast emptiness under my feet make me sick?

I looked around trying to think of something, anything, to occupy my mind, but the nightmarish world we were in could hardly inspire positive thoughts. Under the yellow gaze of Yaga’s eye, everything felt twisted… against nature. The branches of the spiral somewhat made me think of tentacles sucking the earth dry of its life.

But I did, however, end up finding something.

Something fast, going upward on a different branch. Frowning after the initial surprise, I realized that it wasn’t just one “thing”, but three.

The three warriors who had slaughtered the young hunters.

Two of them were moving diagonally in our direction. There were enough trees floating between the main branches of the spiral for the beastkins to cross over from one to another, though they weren’t as neatly organized. The warriors did so without any grace, but from each of their measured leaps emanated a strong determination to finish what they had started.

The third one, who I had spotted first, was rushing to the top like a loosened arrow clad in aura. He was faster than us, and while we were still closer to the platform, we wouldn’t be for long.

“Fuck!”

“Wh-what?” Lima blurted out, almost missing a step. “What’s going on?”

Balrosh had left the three men behind, certain that he would be able to handle us by himself if we ever left the forest. By all logic, that should have been a mistake dooming his followers to a useless death, stuck in the second clearing.

But Yaga’s floating monument now hovered over the whole damn thing. It didn’t matter anymore that the murderers couldn’t follow the path through the darkness. All they had to do to escape their fate was to hop on one of the trees and climb up to Yaga’s stage.

Fate seemed really hellbent on seeing us die.

“Deadeye!” Maru screamed from the front.

“The three warriors,” I said. “They are going up a different branch.”

Lima’s aura violently burst into existence, and Maru’s next words seemed particularly cold.

“Ah, I see them,” she simply said. “Good. It means that their leader won’t have any help. Lima, save your stamina until its actually time to kill them.”

No, I thought as the green huntress dispelled her aura. It was far from good and another glance at the warriors confirmed that sentiment.

Suddenly summoning my rifle, I opened fire on the two warriors. I had not used the Sun Barrel, and the bullets were deflected by their auras without doing any damage or even slowing down their approach.

“Maru,” I said. “You’ll have to keep going alone.”

“This is not the moment, Deadeye!”

“If we keep going like this that warrior will get to the top before us, and who knows what will happen then,” I replied as I kept shooting, forcing the warriors to burn through their stamina to keep up their auras.

We had yet to learn the nature of the boss, and we couldn’t give that warrior a chance to kill it before we even got to that platform. Without us to slow her down, Maru would be able to get there first and keep him from reaping the benefits of our labor… or at least I assumed so, from the few times I had seen glimpses of her true speed. There also was very little doubt that killing the boss would grant them a way to escape the forest, which meant that even if we used the third knight’s trinket now, Balrosh would be sure to receive some reinforcement during the inevitable battle waiting for us outside.

And then we would die.

Sure, there was a chance that the three of us could reach the platform before the boss’s death. But that would mean having to face it, along with the three warriors, in a very limited space, which sounded like a death wish.

No, the only path to victory I could find required Maru to press on and somehow face Yaga’s invitation by herself, while Lima and I dealt with the two warriors… Somehow.

I let out a curse again. The odds definitely weren’t in our favor, but Maru definitely was the most qualified out of the three of us. She also had a mysterious trump card up her sleeve, increasing her chances of victory against a single enemy.

Everything would hinge on Lima and I surviving, but I’d rather bet on us being able to outdo ourselves than on enemies screwing up.

I noticed the incoming warriors’ aura fading and immediately showered them with a new wave of bullets. Now that they were almost below us, however, actually landing a shot was becoming close to impossible.

“Lima?” I called.

“I know,” the young girl firmly said, understanding what needed to be done without me having to say it.

Needless to say, while I was glad that I wouldn’t have to convince a kid that she had to shield me, I would have done so if necessary. Hesitation wasn’t what we needed.

Lima stopped running, allowing me to put some distance between us as a buffer. Then, instead of following Maru upward, I moved against all of my instincts and leaped toward a lone tree floating in the negative space between the branches of Yaga’s spiral.

My stomach felt like a bag of rocks as I flew over the void under our feet. I wasn’t sure if a fall from this height could kill a beastkin with their aura, but there were no doubts about what missing my target would mean for me.

My boots scraped against the bark and I dangerously leaned over the precipice, pushed forward by my momentum.

“D-Deadeye!?”

 

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Chapter 76

“Edward?”

Hearing someone call my name helped me escape my torment for some time again, and I raised my eyes to both girls still staring at me. Although with very different expressions than I remembered them wearing.

We were still in the peaceful clearing, though the moon was much higher in the sky.

How long had I been lost in my thoughts?

“Angels, he was serious,” Lima whispered, before speaking louder at my attention, “Um… You’re alright?”

“Just thought of something. I’m fine though,” I lied, perfectly aware that I hadn’t been “fine” in a while. “Maru… can we count on you to give your best?”

She sighed and looked away, brushing grass off her hair, “I do not really have a choice, do I? Even if we fail, I’d rather not die knowing a young girl was braver than me.”

Lima frowned, “I just told you that we won’t-”

“Yes, I know,” Maru said, rolling her eyes.

I guess she’s feeling better, I thought, trying to shake off the insidious feeling permeating my mind.

“So there’s little doubt that Balrosh and his crew know that the third knight has been killed and that we can leave the dungeon whenever we want, right?” I said, massaging my temple. “Seeing how little he thinks of us as ‘warriors’, I bet that he assumed that we immediately used the trinket. Which means that if they hadn’t used the one they got from the second knight already, now they have for sure.”

Lima nodded but Maru didn’t seem convinced.

“No matter who stayed behind, they know there’s a chance that we might attempt to clear the dungeon,” she said. “They will try to stop us.”

“Except they can’t, remember?” I said, gesturing at the trees. “They are stuck in the second clearing and if they enter the forest, the witch will deal with them for us.” I then asked her the question that had been on my mind, “What happens to people who stay in a cleared dungeon?”

“They usually get a notification to leave, and…” A glimmer of hope appeared on her face. “… and if they fail to do it before the dungeon disappears, they vanish with it.”

“Which would be perfect for us,” I said with a closed fist. “Now that they are separated, we have better chances to deal with whoever is waiting outside.”

“Wait, that’s assuming they left someone in here with us,” Lima said. “Why would anyone agree to stay behind knowing they won’t have a way out?”

“To make sure that our chances are as close to zero as possible,” I said. “I don’t exactly know how devoted they are, but we know that they gave up on their lives the very moment they decided to kill us… death is the last thing they’d afraid of. It will probably be only one of them though, or at most two.”

Though they might have realized it by themselves, I didn’t mention the possibility of Balrosh being the one stranded in the forest, simply because I didn’t want to needlessly get their hopes up. The universe, or “Fate”, had already proven that it wouldn’t make things that easy for us.

All we needed to focus on was killing the boss and then use the ether and loot to face the warriors lying in wait for us outside.

Pretty straightforward.

“Killing Balrosh isn’t going to be easy,” I said. “But if we can make him run out of stamina, we win.”

My audience looked fairly unconvinced.

“That’s valid for literally anyone else,” Maru said.

“Sure,” I nodded, “But as far as I know, most people do not have a mean to drain someone of theirs.”

“Are you always so humble?”

“Point is,” I continued, “One way for us to win is for me to stay next to him without dying. Also, he stepped on my mine earlier and it rendered him helpless, so keep an eye on where I’ll throw it.”

They glanced at each other, clearly thinking what I already knew: restraining Balrosh through force wouldn’t be possible. But having them aware of a particular path to victory couldn’t be a bad thing.

“Well, I might be able to do something too,” Maru said after a moment of hesitation. “If we can somehow get him to stay still, I mean. I have been working on a skill, but it’s not ready yet.”

I frowned, “A skill that isn’t ready? I thought the whole point of those skills was that they all came ready to be used.”

She snorted, “Oh, you are one to talk. Have you mastered Mindspace Projection yet?”

“Oh. I had… forgotten about that one,” I said, realizing that it could actually be very useful against a warrior mourning his brother.

Except the girls are mourning much more recent losses, and I can’t focus on a specific target. Hell, even I would be affected.

“In any case,” Maru continued, “the ability I am referring to isn’t related to my class. It’s something I worked on to close the gap between me and other… gifted blade dancers. The problem is that I will need time to focus before using it.”

“Alright,” I said. “What is it?”

“It’s, um… my mantra.”

I frowned and waved at her to continue, but she was interrupted.

“Can’t believe it,” Lima blurted out, strangely excited. “You? But-”

Maru raised her hands in a calming gesture. “It’s very far from being complete,” she said. “But even in its current state, it could probably… No, I am certain that it would dispel most of his aura.”

Lima whistled in admiration, and I had to snap my fingers for them to remember I was there, “Care to explain?”

“It’s just an empowered atta-,” Maru said.

“It’s what the heroes used!” Lima almost yelled. “You’ve never heard the tales of the Martyr’s companions?”

“No,” I said. “I heard some of it from Bo, though.”

She shook her head, visibly pained by my ignorance, “We’ll have to fix that when we go back. Only the most famous figures through history have been recorded to have mantras, and with them they can defy the rules of-”

“What made them special is the fact that they had powerful ones,” Maru interrupted. “Plenty of arrogant people have developed useless mantras across the Realm.” She raised her hand to prevent Lima from interrupting her again, “We do not have time for this. You should be telling us about what your hunter skills can do to the people trying to kill us.”

Harshly brought back to reality, the green girl glanced my way. I gave her an encouraging smile.

Her eyes became distant as she opened her status, then she took a deep breath.

“I will use the curse on Barlosh as soon as I have him in range,” Lima said. “I don’t think that my tracking abilities are going to be useful, but I have a taunting skill that forces surrounding animals to switch target for me. That way one of you can take him down while he’s distracted, right?” she went on before we could say anything, “One of my passives, “Predator Aura”, is supposed to make targets wary of me, but I don’t know how well it will work-”

I cut her off with a raised finger.

“First of all, don’t think of taunting Balrosh unless it’s to get him off someone else’s back. Second,” I raised a second finger, “take the time to breathe and just list what you think is relevant in order of importance.”

I didn’t know exactly how many skills she had, but randomly going through the list didn’t at all sound efficient to me.

She looked down at her hands.

“It’s just… there are a few things that could be useful with the right timing, but I don’t know if I can pull it off in the middle of a fight against people… But we have the blessing, so I can make one of you stronger for… an hour?”

“That blessing you mentioned… what does it do?” Maru asked.

“It says that it increases physical attributes, I think that-”

“Then use it on yourself.”

Lima frowned, “What?”

“Use it on yourself,” Maru repeated. “It might make you strong enough to bridge that gap in experience.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“Your job is to make sure it is,” said the delver with a snort. “Didn’t you just say that you wouldn’t die?

The green girl looked at me with serious eyes, “Edward. I want to help. I can help.”

“Yes, but you will help more by staying alive,” I replied. “Maru is right. And don’t forget that you can reactivate the eye after killing a cursed target, so you might want to first use it on the enemy who appears to be the weakest. Then you can buff one of us.”

She didn’t seem to be done arguing, “Lima,” I said. “The skills. Then we’ll have all the time to-”

Without any warning, the pale light of the moon illuminating the clearing shifted to a yellow hue, and the three of us simultaneously raised our heads.

The lunar disc was high in the sky, as high as a midday sun. But it had lost its milky color for one that made me realize that we were out of time.

“Get up and grab your weapons,” I said, and as I stood, the yellow moon blinked and became an eye.

A giant bloodshot eye at the center of the now sullied tapestry of stars, frantically searching the forest like an offended deity.

Most likely searching for us.

The ragged voice of the Yaga boomed, full of barely contained fury. The earth moved under our feet and the trees heavily swayed.

“I smell… that which is human.”

The gentle breeze was replaced with powerful gusts of wind. Unintelligible voices came from the forest along with the cracking sounds of branches breaking from a physical pressure that made it hard to stand. Male and female voices, screaming in agony. I looked around for a new path, a hint of what we were supposed to do. But there was nothing other than grass and dark leaves spinning around us.

I glanced at Maru and screamed so that she could hear me over the windstorm we had entered, “Is this normal for a boss?!”

She didn’t answer, but if the look of shock on her face was any hint, then the answer was “No”.

“Though you are nothing more than cattle I sheltered from the righteous wrath of the gods,”the witch continued, her voice coming from every direction at the same time, “you trespassed upon my domain… You destroyed my hearts!”

The tremors coursing the earth were becoming too strong for us to keep our balance, but it wasn’t like experiencing an earthquake. The ground was undulating like a sheet of cloth over tumultuous water, waving instead of breaking.

Chaos was everywhere, the kind of chaos no sane mind would ever wish to experience.

No wonder they all avoid clearing dungeons, I thought as I summoned the knight’s trinket and struggled to get closer to Lima and Maru. It’s not about preserving resources, they just want to stay alive!

“I know the blessing of that girl to be the source of my torment, I know it!” screamed the witch.“Nothing has been the same since she entered my oven and refused to die… but if I cannot rid myself of this thorn…”

Everything stopped. The wind, the waves, and the screams. There was only silence, barely perturbed by the soft sound of falling leaves.

“Grab my arm,” I told the girls as I raised the trinket.

Lima immediately did as she was told. Maru only raised her hand, “Wait.”

“Are you insa-”

“I know, but I doubt that she’s the boss,” she said. “She might think that we are in her domain, but dungeon creatures do not even know that they aren’t real. Their words only make sense in the context of the dungeon’s narrative.”

Not real? I thought with disbelief. How can something with real consequences not be real?

The witch’s distorted laugh rose before I could say anything.

“Indeed,” she said. “If I cannot rid myself of this human infection, then human hands shall do it in my stead!”

I stared at the bloodshot eye in the sky, bracing myself for an incoming attack, but all it did was stare back.

“Angels,” I heard Lima mutter under her breath.

I looked down thinking that it was the fear getting to her, but then saw what had caused her to mention the divine. The barren trees were being lifted off the ground.

It wouldn’t be correct to say that they were being uprooted, as the ground offered absolutely no resistance to whatever force was pulling them upward. There was no cracking barks, no snapping roots, not even holes left behind them. The trees were rising from the ground as if it wasn’t solid, leaving its surface completely smooth.

As hundreds of trees were taking to the skies one after the other, the closest ones slowly passed over our heads, making my fingers nervously tighten around the silver medallion. They didn’t fall, however, they simply joined the slow procession of trees spiraling up toward a single point in the sky, under the watchful gaze of a gigantic piss-colored eye.

 

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Chapter 75

“I think we’ve spent enough time doing nothing,” I said to the two girls appearing to still be under the lingering effects of their illusory experience. “There are four murderers on our trail… We need to figure out our next move.”

They barely reacted to my words. Only the wind and the sound of rustling leaves could be heard in the meadow. The stars shone brightly over our heads, and it could have been a perfect night if we weren’t aware that it was nothing but another one of the Garden’s deceptions.

Silent since she had come back to herself, Maru was sitting down on the grass with her arms wrapped around her legs. The breeze was strong enough to make even her short red hair waver, and the quickly rising moon shone on her dispirited face. All the fire usually animating her was gone.

Lima, on the other hand, was laying on her back with her arms stretched wide. She was chewing on a blade of grass as she stared at the moonlit sky, apparently making plans of her own. But it didn’t seem like her reveries were the kind that would be of any immediate help to us.

“Not much to do until the path to the boss opens up,” she mumbled. “Once it’s there, we just have to rush in and deal with whatever is waiting.”

I frowned. I didn’t remember her being so cavalier with danger.

“Get yourself together, Lima,” I said dryly. “There’s no way that Balrosh and his men haven’t noticed the moon coming out, so they know that we somehow dealt with the third knight and they won’t stay idle. We need to plan our attack.”

She sighed, but didn’t sit up.

“First of all,” I started, “how sure are we that the so-called boss is going to appear? You made it pretty clear that no one has ever gotten this far yet.”

Surprisingly, the one to answer was Maru.

“Scout,” she simply blurted out.

I waited a few seconds for more information, but she seemed to believe that she had said enough because her chin didn’t leave her knees again.

“Scout… meaning?”

“It’s a class,” Lima explained. “They are popular with guilds because they can map out dungeons and find treasures and stuff… Some people say that the best of them can even predict the future.”

“I see,” I nodded. “So at some point, the hunters hired a scout to better understand Yaga’s Garden?”

“I don’t know,” the green-skinned girl said with a shrug. “She’s the one who said it was a scout, not me. To be honest, I never really thought about how the seniors knew about the three knights.”

I looked at both of them with disbelief. I didn’t know what they had seen during their hallucination, and I wasn’t sure if this was a good moment for delving into it. All I knew was that we were going nowhere and couldn’t afford to.

I opened my inventory and searched for the loot I had received from slaying the third knight.

 

Third Eye of Yaga – Active item

Once activated, grants user the ability to cast “Animal Awakening” on nearby targets as either a curse or a blessing. Only one blessing and one curse can be cast with each activation.

 Animal Awakening (curse)
  Target receives <Beast> status and their mental attributes are slightly lowered for an hour. Logic becomes increasingly beastlike the longer the curse is active.

 Animal Awakening (blessing)
  Target receives <Beast> status and their physical attributes are slightly increased for an hour. Movements become increasingly beastlike the longer the blessing is active.

 

The Third Eye of Yaga can only be reactivated either an hour after the last spell has been cast, or immediately after the user has killed a target.

 

Trinket of the Knight of Dusk – Single use

Allows user, and those in contact with them, to exit Yaga’s forest.

 

Those two items made me a lot more confident about our chances of survival. The trinket, a silver medallion decorated with flowers, was our ticket outside of the forest in case the “boss” of the dungeon turned out to be more than we could handle. Third Eye of Yaga… was the fastest way to turn our Lima into an irreplaceable asset against the warriors we’d have to face.

I took out the Third Eye and studied it for a moment. It was physically identical to the first one, but its description was worded in a way that made it clear that it was a better version.

I handed it to Lima.

“Take this,” I said. “It’s going to make you our trump card in the coming fights.”

She took the glass eye, stared at it for a moment, then sighed again. Probably because the item hardly seemed to be worth everything that had happened until now.

“You said that you had skills that can boost your allies, right?” I continued. “Do they work on people with the ‘Beast’ status?”

She shook her head, “The buffs only work on hunters or, at the very least, on a familiar… But I haven’t found a good one yet. Why?”

Oh, they can’t normally access descriptions, I remembered as I nodded toward the item she held, “With this one, you get two skills instead of one. A curse and a blessing.”

She frowned before focusing on the eye again. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that she was activating it, as the yellow pupil disappeared the next instant.

“It’s true,” she said. “I’ve just gotten two skills… this is incredible.” She raised her eyes and looked at me, “We can do this. I swear I won’t let either of you down, Edward.”

I nodded, “I’d rather you swear to stay ali-”

“What you are doing will ultimately be for nothing,” Maru interrupted.

We both turned in her direction.

“I thought we agreed that Balrosh needs to die,” I tentatively said. “Did you change your mind about that?”

She chuckled, “No Edward, I haven’t changed my mind about how much I want to slit the throat of the one who killed my dearest friend. But there is a difference between wanting something and being able to do it.”

She gave me an annoyed glance.

“I’ve seen your dance,” she said. “And even if I hate to admit it… I believe that we might have had a small chance of victory if you were able to wield that black sword yours.” She waved at the empty clearing. “But you can’t, can you? There is no magic well to heal your brittle bones. All you have is a human toy that can’t even wound one of our warriors and the means to numb your pain.”

“… I think I liked you better when-”

“And then we have Lima,” Maru continued, ignoring me with a forced smile toward our comrade. “… the huntress.”

I didn’t sense ridicule in her words, but there was a pause during which Lima finally sat up to get a better look at the delver of the Red Cross. I decided to sit back and watch how things would play out.

As far as I was aware, they had barely interacted with each other prior to Balrosh’s attack. It could be because they were holding positions on opposite sides of our formation, but the glaring differences in their personalities had surely played a part.

Along with her short stature, Maru seemed to have inherited all of her mother’s dignified presence and none of her father’s silliness. She was a delver supposed to become the next leader of the Red Cross, and that understandably came with a lot of pressure, pressure that had molded her into who she was today… But she obviously wasn’t prepared for what was happening, and the consequences of a possible failure were weighing too heavily on her shoulders.

Despite being taller, Lima was just a teenager. She was an orphan that had been forced to learn how to play with the cards she had been dealt in the cesspool of negativity that was this nameless shard. The world didn’t expect anything from her, but she still did her best to create her own happiness.

On one hand, her youth meant that the events of the days would probably have lingering effects on the rest of her life… but on the other, she probably didn’t fully grasp the gravity of our situation. Which was a good thing.

Her ignorance was what allowed her to still function with relative normalcy. Sure, she knew that we were in danger. But someone with standard morals and empathy would break after realizing that a single mistake could sign the death warrants of thousands of people of all ages. Maybe Lima could distract Maru from that very realization.

Children generally only had a vague idea of the value of Life. Which was why they made such good killers.

“What do you think you’re doing, saying that you won’t let us down?” said Maru. “Let’s not bother mentioning how underqualified you are to battle people… The ability to cast curses is just not going to be enough against them. They are used to taking people’s lives, and they love it. Have you ever killed anyone, Lima? Or at the very least, ever tried?”

“Only tried,” Lima simply said.

Maru scoffed at her answer and burrowed her face between her arms. “We’re going to die,” she said on a noticeably higher pitch. “Like Bali and your men did. And then the whole shard will follow.”

She’s afraid.

“What are you doing?” Lima asked.

Maru looked up, “Wh-”

“None of the things you have mentioned matters,” Lima said with a raised eyebrow, on a tone that sounded almost innocent. “Unless you’re planning to sit here forever, fighting is our only option. I was next to you when the illusion happened… so I understand your pain and your fear. But I can’t understand why you’re using them as ways to give up.”

Maru straightened her back.

“I am a child of the sands,” she said through gritted teeth. “We do not fear anything!”

“Lies and you know it,” Lima smiled. “I’m scared too, and that’s a good thing. I don’t know what people taught you in Nashran, but on this side of the realm being scared means that you still have something to lose.”

Maru had been glaring at Lima during her entire speech and opened her mouth to deliver what I expected to be a merciless rebuttal, but right then her gaze fell on the dried blood on Lima’s hand and she looked away.

When she spoke again, it was in a softer tone.

“There are… rumors that fighting alongside a blessed dancer can sometimes trigger insights in those who do not have a style,” she said. “I thought that maybe, I could learn a few things from… your friend. I asked Bali to join me to alleviate the boredom of exploring what I thought would be a minor dungeon.”

Lima glanced in my direction, “Did you know?”

“No.”

Well, I knew that the older members of the Red Cross often displayed their styles to the younger generation for the same reason, but I wasn’t aware that I could have the same effect. Then again, if I had I would have probably refused to let her accompany us, and winning against Balrosh would have been a lot less likely.

Maru let out a sad chuckle, “I paid dearly for that trickery. As luck would have it, Deadeye didn’t even use his blade once since we left… My greed only served to kill Bali.”

Seems like I’m not the only one blaming myself.

“The more I think about it, the more I realize how bad our luck is,” Maru continued. “So many things had to go wrong for us to be in this situation… there’s no reason for the odds to get better now.”

Lima groaned and threw a fistful of grass at her surprised face.

“So what if the odds are not in our favor? We’re still here!” she said, pointing at me and herself. “Screw the odds, I will avenge my pack. I can’t die just yet. So I won’t.”

Laughter almost escaped my lips at such unreasonable claims, and the girls turned their heads in my direction. I waved at them to ignore me, thinking that such stubbornness to stay alive would definitively help.

… As long as it’s not combined with stupidity.

“He doesn’t look scared to me,” Maru said with an annoyed glance thrown my way.

“Yes, but… he’s a little strange, isn’t he?” Lima replied with a dramatic shrug. “I’m worried about him, but I guess… I’ll have to talk to him later.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” I said with a smile. “I’m just better at hiding the fact that I am terrified.”

“Well there you go, I guess,” Lima said to the red-headed girl in a tone that hinted that she wasn’t convinced.

Neither was Maru, but I didn’t bother to try to change their minds. Not only because it wasn’t necessary, but also because there simply was no sequence of words able to describe the perpetual terror that I had to constantly ensure stayed in the far reaches of my mind.

Death meant much, much more for me than them.

In a way, it was liberating to know that even if they were to perish in the upcoming hours, despite losing what their lives could potentially have been, their souls would certainly be welcomed into the Light. Unlike mine.

Repressed visions of madness resurfaced, goosebumps and cold sweat covered my skin.

Ceaseless scorching of the mind. Eternal grinding of…

 

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Chapter 74

They kept running in silence until Edward spoke again.

“I think I messed up,” he said. “We should have already-”

Their entrance into the clearing took them all by surprise. It was still as dark as it had been between the trees, dark enough that Lima could not even see herself. But not only had the oppressive atmosphere of the forest vanished, so had the cover of the leaves, revealing a beautiful starry sky, one like Lima had never seen before.

No, she realized after a moment. These stars do not exist outside of the dungeon.

“Where’s the knight?” she heard Spice ask somewhere on her right.

The apprehension in her voice made Lima’s blood freeze. She could sense the presence of a single creature somewhere in front of them, but there was no way to make out anything. Were they supposed to fight like this?

“Fuck,” Edward said. “You can’t see it?”

“What do you mean? Can you? Can you see anything?”

“Should have known that it was too dark for it to be natural,” he said, and Lima caught the strain in his voice. Had the effects of his drink ended already? “It’s some other kind of shiny horse freak sitting on a throne, but it hasn’t reacted to us in any way. If you can’t see it even though it looks like a damn lightbulb at the center of the clearing…” There was a pause, “Then I might have to do this one by myself.”

Feeling far too mentally drained to worry about what a “lightbulb” was, Lima focused on pointing out the obvious.

“You can’t do this by yourself,” she said. “This knight might be stronger than the previous ones.”

Talking in the dark was starting to frustrate her. She could not accurately convey what she thought of his plan if Edward was not seeing her expression.

“This isn’t a dungeon,” Spice muttered. “It’s a death trap. No wonder I couldn’t find its rank in the guild.”

There was a click, and Lima was able to see again, though in a very limited area. It was as if the light from Edward’s torch suddenly ceased to exist a few steps away from its source.

She looked at him and saw pain. He was using his sleeve as a sling for his arm, but it was far from even looking effective. He gave her a small smile after noticing her stare and handed the torch to Spice.

“Since you only need one hand to fight,” he said. “The two of you will have to work together if something happens.”

The red-haired girl had not wasted time to draw her rapier, and seemed ready to use it. Eager, even.

“Hold on,” Lima said as she stepped toward Edward. “Are you really thinking of going alone? I can sense it with my skills, I can help.” She then added, “Stop trying to shoulder everything, Edward.”

However, he did not seem willing to compromise, “If you can, then that’s one more reason for you to stay with Maru. I’m just going to shoot at it and see what happens. If it dies, then great. If not… well, we don’t really have that many options.”

Lima did not miss Spice’s narrowed eyes as she took the light after a moment of hesitation, “We don’t even know if the thing can be seen with regular light yet!”

“I’ll step in if it goes your way instead of mine,” he shrugged as he walked away.

He stepped out of the light and was no more, swallowed by the opaque darkness. Spice let out a curse and threw her hands up in frustration, “How are we supposed to know if something happens?!”

“I can still hear you,” Edward said from behind the veil of shadows. “But you’re correct. I’ll leave you guys with Kirby, he’ll transmit whatever I say.”

There was a moment of silence, then Edward’s flying machine entered the light from where its master had left. Then Lima heard his footsteps as he quickly moved alongside the trees. Even if she couldn’t see him, she found it reassuring that she could at least follow his progress in some capacity.

Spice studied the silver sphere with a look of disapproval, before clicking her tongue and looking away, “What a waste of mana.”

Lima raised a brow.

“Do you not like machines?” she asked

“I dislike the ones made by humans,” the delver said without turning around. “I have seen human servants before, and I find the way their kind talk to their automatons… abnormal. As if they were people.”

“I think it that it has to do with their racial trait,” Lima said.

“Sure, they are an unlucky lot, but one cannot argue that it isn’t strange,” she nodded toward the sphere, “Did you not hear your friend? He even took the time to give it a name. ‘Kirby’.”

Is it really that strange? She wondered. It isn’t very different from giving a name to a pet or a toy.

Even if it was, Lima knew that “Kirby” had somehow helped Edward guide them to the forest path. For that alone, she would be willing to call it whatever it wanted.

Time slowly passed and Lima started feeling uneasy. She had not heard noises from Edward in a while.

Suddenly, there was a loud detonation that she recognized as Edward’s rifle second mode of firing. The one that seemed too powerful for the device itself and reduced it to pieces each time he pulled the trigger.

She exchanged an unsure glance with Maru and strained her ears for some clues, but she heard nothing but the howling wind.

There was another detonation, though slightly weaker this time, and the drone disappeared without having once relayed any of Edward’s words. Lima felt a weight fall in her stomach.

It’s happening again, she thought. There is nothing I can do. He will die like them and there’s nothing I can do about it.

“He-he probably just ran out of mana,” Spice tentatively said, probably having caught her change of expression. “Do you hear anything?”

She only shook her head, feeling too sick to speak.

There’s nothing I can do.

It was a simple thought, but that realization hit her with the violence of divine lightning. She had to close her eyes to try to regain her composure, but it was hard to deny reality.

What had she been thinking? Edward and Maru were delvers, individuals chosen to save the Realm itself. They did not need her help.

In fact, she was clearly holding them back as they were trying to save the people of the shard. They were real warriors, and she was just masquerading as one.

Why would she think that she was living her own tale? There was no version of this story in which she ended up being the hero.

No, she told herself. Classes and attributes alone do not win battles. Once we get the next Eye, I will surely be able to help Edward protect everybody back home.

She opened her eyes, and for a second was confused to see that Spice was no longer standing in front of her. She looked down and, sure enough, found the delver laying on bloodied grass with a steel pole coming out of her chest. Her eyes were wide open, but they had already lost their spark. They were glassy.

“No,” she said as edged closer and her glaive fell off her hands. “No, not again, please…”

She tried to look for a pulse. She tried to pull out the spear, but stopped when she saw that her pitiful efforts only caused even more damage, as usual. She tried to nurse her back to life. But it was too little too late.

There was nothing she could do.

“You failed, again. Just like you failed as a leader,” she heard a familiar voice say. “You tried to take more than you deserve, and we paid the price for it.”

She looked up and saw the members of her pack. But worse than the resentment on their faces, were their broken bodies. She lowered her eyes.

She heard Cairo’s chuckle, “Oh? You won’t even look at us? Lima, I know you’ve always been the type to scare easily, but that’s a bit unfair, don’t you think? You did this to us, after all.”

She did not bother questioning how he could possibly speak with his skull smashed open. She gritted her teeth and looked up again. He was right, and she would not look away. She would not even blink, despite the tears.

“We came to take you with us,” Kinua said. Her broken neck could not support her head, so it laid on her own shoulder. “You always said that pack members must stick together.”

Viki extended an open hand. Blood was still gushing out of the hole in her chest.

“That’s the least you can do,” she said.

But Lima did not grab it.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t die just yet.”

Simply getting the words out was made difficult by the lump in her throat, but she had to give her reply.

“How shameful,” Bardath spat. His whole middle section was torn open. “Are you implying that we were ready to die?”

“Yes,” Lima said. “You were ready to die when you stepped on the path… and I was too. But if I die now… then what happened to all of you will be meaningless.”

She delicately laid down Spice’s head, grabbed her glaive, then stood as tall as she could.

“I will make your killers pay, I promise. Then I will live for all of you.”

“Lima…”

Viki folded her arms, “… that choice isn’t yours to make.”

I can’t move, she realized as her arms failed to swing her glaive. Her body wasn’t reacting to any of her commands.

Timuk and Vaunt’s headless corpses grabbed her by the arms to pull her into the shadows, and she could not even scream.

“No need to be scared,” Cairo whispered in her ear, and his rotten breath sent her mind reeling. “Soon, there will be no-”

***

I watched Lima come back to her senses in a very similar way to how Maru had a few minutes ago.

First, her vacant stare was replaced by one of confusion. Second, her hand instinctively went to massage the area of her face where I had just slapped her.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She looked at me and recognition lit up her eyes, “I’m… fine. I think. What happened?”

“I killed the knight,” I said. “It was immune to long range damage, so I had to get close. There wasn’t even a fight, he just… watched me approach from his throne, and then took the bullet.”

It would be an understatement to say that I had been shocked to find the two girls in a catatonic state on the ground, covered with rapidly growing plants. Thankfully they didn’t seem hurt anywhere.

Well, physically at least, I thought as I examined Lima.

She looked as if she was waking up from a very bad nap… red eyes, and apparent difficulty to grasp what was actually going on around her.

But at least she was able to communicate, unlike Maru. She had simply sat up, covered her face with her hands, and then proceeded to ignore me. Which, ironically, was an improvement over her recent interactions with me.

I grabbed Lima by the shoulders, something I wouldn’t normally be able to do, and looked at her in her eyes.

“Do you remember what did this to you?” I asked.

With my wounds and how they had barely regained consciousness, a hidden enemy certainly was a cause for concern, but it would certainly explain why the knight had been so easy to take down. However, the green girl shook her head left to right.

“It was some sort of illusion,” she said. “I think it had to do with the darkness, but- wait.” She blinked. “How come I can see you without your light?”

“Oh,” I pointed at the sky. “The moon came out after the knight’s death.”

The third knight was a master of illusions, I mused. No wonder I’m the only one who was fine.

She looked up the pale disk rising among the stars, and a tear rolled down her cheek.

I tapped her shoulder.

“Listen, I checked and there was no magic well around this time, but we should have some time before whatever is supposed to happen next… happens. Use that time to gather yourself, alright?”

She shook her head again and wiped her tears.

“No, I still have some balm from the temple. Let’s use it to make you some real bandages. Your arm needs something better too.”

I sighed. The effects of Respite of the Undead had been decreasing, and I was open to anything that could help me ease the pain, but anything actually “good”, would seriously limit my mobility… and that wasn’t really an option for me.

“Look,” I started, “I already told you that the blue stuff just doesn’t-”

“Edward.”

Our eyes met as I was getting up, and I couldn’t help but notice that the determination in her gaze hadn’t been there a few moments ago.

“It’s not like you have anything else to do,” she said. “Just sit and let me help you.”

I paused for a second, then sat back down. As she was searching through her bag for the blue ointment, she asked me with a smile, “What happened to Kirby, by the way?”

“Oh, I just sent him back,” I said. “I thought he had a speaker, but after a moment of you guys not answering his questions, it came to me that he probably could only be heard by humans.”

… And Old Gods, I remembered.

 

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Chapter 73

Sweat was getting in her eyes despite the freezing cold and she was struggling to secure her glaive on her shoulder, but she kept running nonetheless because the Cursed Hag herself was breathing at her heels.

With her heart beating as if trying to escape her chest, the only thing keeping Lima from falling into complete despair was the sight of Edward running in front of her and haunting words she had heard a long time ago.

The hunters had many stories about Yaga’s garden, stories that were told in hushed tones around campfires. The life-changing loot one could get from that dungeon had made it essential to their community, and in the years leading to their own trial, Lima and her packmates had heard plenty of tales about the old crone waiting for the fools daring to walk off the elusive forest path. Tales about Yaga the witch.

Her description would change depending on which senior hunter had been drinking too much that day. Some nights, she was a disfigured woman who moved around by jumping on her sole leg. Others, she was a half snake monstrosity able to swallow warriors whole.

Of course, one had to keep in mind that the one spreading those rumors had never seen her personally. Otherwise, they would either be dead or too busy to waste their time telling old tales to junior hunters. No one was ever forced to enter Yaga’s Garden, but those who did and came back alive experienced a vastly improved status in the camp’s hierarchy… and for good reasons. Years later, some of them still had nightmares about what they had seen her do to their friends.

Oftentimes, a young hunter would gain just enough interest to try to discover her origin. But beyond the fact that she possibly predated the shard, there was nothing but speculation.

The allegations that the dungeon’s host was a fair maiden killed long ago in the woods by a rejected suitor, or a lost child who had been torn apart by starved beasts after a hunt gone awry, were all met with skepticism. No one could know for sure since it was such an old place, but it was generally agreed that whatever had caused Yaga’s Garden to spawn was something too horrible to be talked about on the open.

However, no matter how horrifying the stories described Yaga, there were always at least a handful of people eager to enter the forest each time the dungeon would reset itself. Of course, that was due to the things it contained and how they had changed the lives of their users.

The Eyes of Yaga. To most people in the Shattered Realm, they were completely useless items that allowed one to cast a meaningless curse… But to the hunters of this nameless shard, they were akin to divine items that made them able to experience life as fully fledged warriors.

The Eye taken from the first knight was a single-use item allowing the user to cast a curse that simply gave a target the “Beast” status effect. It made people a valid target for hunter skills… It made hunters able to fight back against warriors.

The drawback, of course, was that it could only be used once. For that reason, it was left to seniors hunters who had not dared to enter the Garden during their youth but were willing to protect the new generation on the first half of their trial.

The Eye produced by the second knight was the real reason why so many people had risked their lives trying to not lose the candlelit path. Not only did the effects of its curse last longer, but it could also be used repeatedly. It essentially turned a regular hunter into a warrior with devastating skills most people weren’t expecting.

And for that reason, no matter how horrifying the witch’s appearance was said to be, there would always be frustrated young hunters willing to try their luck in Yaga’s Garden.

Still, despite all the descriptions being different, they all shared one key detail about Yaga. Her giant bulbous eyes the color of piss, eyes that would never stop following intruders until she had gotten ahold of them.

As Lima fleed from them, her body aching from the battles it had been put through, she could not help but notice that the bloodshot eyes were also glassy. Like the eyes of something that had been dead for a long time already.

She had entered the world of the stories and was now fleeing for her life, chased by the very creature she had been trained to avoid above all else.

“Lima! Watch out!”

The warning made her snap back to reality just in time to react to a severed hand shooting out of the shadows with its putrefied fingers reaching for her.

Flaring her aura, she intercepted it in the same way she had beforehand: with a heavy slash of her glaive. But even if her blows were enough to send the witch’s claws flying back into the darkness, she knew it was ultimately useless. Each time had felt like hitting stone, leaving her hands numb and spreading the cracks along her blade. Each time, panic rose higher in her heart has she pictured the moment when her arms would be too tired to swing her weapon.

But even more than her fear of what would happen if she stood still, what pushed her to keep putting one foot in front of the other was the sight of the person fleeing at her side. Edward.

Even though there was a poorly covered hole in his right leg, and his left arm had been rendered useless by a single swat of Yaga herself, he still kept running. And maybe it was because he did not fully understand what Yaga represented, but seeing his confidence as he led them through the darkness somewhat calmed her.

However, there was a possibility that confidence was a trait shared by all delvers. The few glances she had bothered to throw at the girl known in the shard as Spice – who Edward was allowed to call Maru – had revealed a collected red-haired warrior whose thin aura-coated blade was able to gracefully repel Yaga’s assaults.

She seemed to have gained control of the negative feelings created by her loss, unlike Lima who was alternating between not being able to repress her tears and doubting that any part of what she was experiencing was real.

In the pitch black forest, there was no way to tell where they were going, or even if they really had a destination. Edward would run in a straight line for a while, only to take a sharp turn for seemingly no reasons. With no landmark and only identical trees coming in and out of their reduced field of view, she felt as if she was stuck in an endless loop.

Don’t stop running. Dodge. Attack. Don’t stop running. Dodge. Attack. Don’t stop-

It felt as surreal as a nightmare, one that would continue until her legs stopped moving. Of course, the broth she had eaten earlier was making her feel as if she had an unlimited well of stamina, but sooner or later her status would return to normal. Then she would die a horrible death.

Would her eyes become glassy and yellow like those chasing her?

There was a story like this, weren’t there? she remembered. The lost hunters screamed and flailed, and ran, only to realize at the very last moment that they hadn’t moved an inch. The witch had been manipulating the forest around them the whole time.

Cairo had been the one to tell her that story, even though she had made it clear that she was not interested. He had always been the type to enjoy messing with people, though it was always in good fun. But now he was dead.

Like all the other members of her pack. She could not have predicted what had happened, but that did not change the fact that it was all her fault.

With the shard’s demise drawing near, Lima had expressed her intentions to enter the Garden and they had blindly followed her because they trusted her as their leader.

Even Edward only came because of me, she thought. I’m the reason danger found him. I’m the reason danger found my pack.

And now they were gone. Their bodies broken and mangled beyond recognition, left to rot out on the open. What had been their last thoughts? Curses aimed at her?

Thankfully those thoughts would not be eating at her for long. She would soon join her pack in whatever lied after death.

“We’re almost there!” Edward said.

It took Lima a few seconds to register the meaning of his words, and when she did, she suddenly felt so strongly aware of the life coursing through her body that she had to fight an urge to throw up.

The maddening laughter behind them turned into a growl.

“For mere lambs, hiding from my eyes certainly was a feat worthy of praise,” said the witch, “but you will pay dearly… for daring to navigate my garden as if you had been invited!”

“Trying something, don’t be surprised,” she heard Edward say. “Use your aura, listen to my steps… You heard me, Lima?”

Confused, she nodded before realizing he could not see her, “Y-yes!”

She was neither skilled or leveled up enough to improve a single one of her senses, and had been trained to use her aura to defend herself, but thanks to her boosted stamina, maintaining her aura for an extended period of time should not be an issue.

She wondered for a moment if Edward was aware that Spice could not use her aura the regular way, but the delver did not bring it up so Lima pushed that thought aside.

There was enough to worry about already.

“I will peel your skin, I will drink your blood,” the Yaga sang behind them. “I will lick your bones, I will smack my lips-”

Lima gasped when the item in Edward’s hand disappeared, depriving them of the only light source available and plunging the three of them into complete darkness.

Why? she thought with alarm. Now we can’t even see the trees!

The witch roared and cursed them, but to Lima’s surprise, her voice was growing distant.

And then she felt it, thanks to her aura vastly improving her sense of touch. A light breeze coming from straight ahead. They were back on the path.

“You found a path?!” she blurted out.

“Yeah, I’ve been lucky,” said the most wounded member of their party. “… Got rid of the light because I wasn’t sure whether she would keep chasing us. Maru, are you the reason she can’t find us?”

No answer came, then Lima heard Spice’s voice, “I didn’t realize that it would be able to see your mechanical light.”

That half baked apology was basically her admitting that she had been the one keeping the witch away all this time, and it made Lima realize just how out of her own depth she had been all this time. These were delvers, people with the tools to force the odds in their favor.

“You couldn’t have told any of us?” she said in Spice’s direction. “Do you know how important that information is?”

“… There was no guarantee that it would work,” the delver replied in a much more civil manner than when she had spoken to Edward. “I thought being on high alert was better for the team.”

My team was terrified-”

“It’s fine,” Edward interrupted. “I would have used the light anyway. What we need to focus on is the third knight. Any ideas or other things we should know?”

“Why don’t you start?” Spice hissed.

“Sure,” Edward said without missing a bit. “You’ve already seen most of my abilities though. If I ever ask you to get away from me, it means that I’m about to use one of my spells. One decreases people’s stamina,” There was a snort from the other delver, “and the other… protects me with fire.”

Lima had to exert all the restrain she had left in herself to not ask questions that would end up being wastes of time.

Magic spells? Fire protection? How many classes does he have? … How many attributes?

“Unlike you, Deadeye, I’m just a regular Blade dancer,” Spice said in a way that made Lima think that she was mocking her. “I do have a few useful items, however.”

“I see. What about you, Lima?”

Surprised that he would even ask her, she raked her brain for something meaningful to say, but found nothing. Her satchel was filled with common consumables and her class was useless to them.

“Other than what I can use to intimidate or track beasts, I have skills that can boost me and my allies’ for a moment, but… it only works on hunters,” she finally admitted.

“Good,” he simply said, before adding. “We have no idea what it’s going to be, so your safety comes first, alright?”

“Edward. You’re the one who needs to worry about themselves, not me! Can you even feel your arm anymore? Your leg?”

“I’ll be fine. All I need is-”

“No, you won’t be,” she interrupted. “Whatever the third knight is, make sure to stay away. You have your rifle, help us from afar.”

“No need to worry for him,” she heard Spice chuckle. “Did you forget about his eye? He still has a few more tricks under his sleeve, he’ll be fine.”

Lima took a deep breath. Running in absolute darkness was strange enough, but talking while they did it made the whole thing even weirder.

“With all due respect, Spice, he may be part of your guild now, but I know him better than you do. Your anger isn’t directed toward the right person.”

There was a snort, “You know him? Didn’t he basically spawn a week ago?”

“Sure,” Lima said. “But he’s my friend.”

Silence fell, and she braced herself for the consequences of saying something so insensitive to a warrior who outclassed her in every imaginable way, barely an hour after Bali’s death.

However, nothing happened and Lima got to experience the slow realization that she had beaten the stories. She had reached a point beyond the tales and was now walking on uncharted land with two delvers.

… But at what cost? She wondered.

 

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