Chapter 72

I stood, and before I knew it, a sigh had escaped my lungs.

I could have told Maru about how stupid she and Bali had been to openly antagonize someone stronger than them, but that would have been useless. I could have wasted precious minutes reminding her that this whole situation had been made possible by the Red Cross’ overconfidence in the fear they inspired to the other factions. But those words would have just distracted her from what I was proposing her.

A simple goal she could focus on. Revenge.

“You never said anything about clearing the dungeon,” I heard Lima say as I searched our surroundings for the tiniest hint at a flower. But there was nothing, only darkness growing thicker.

“It only depends on how risky it will be to kill the witch,” I whispered as I opened my status. “We’ll see.”

HP: 521/670
Stamina: 578/725 (regen: 7.8/minute)
Mana: 376/1100 (regen: 4.4/minute)

Attributes

Vitality 64 (+3)
Strength 61 (+3)
Constitution 65 (+3)(+10)
Dexterity 38 (+3)
Agility 40 (+3)(+10)
Perception 61 (+3)
Intelligence 102 (+8)
Wisdom 36 (+8)
Tenacity 0 (+3)

Racial traits

Technopath 0/320
Summon: Drone
Summon: Intermediate Rooting Mine
AI Domination

Keeper of the First flame 0/800
Left eye of the nameless Djin
+ 30% resistance to fire in human form.
+ 30% reduced stamina usage in djin form.
Sun Avatar

Classes

Dreadnova Enforcer (3rd gen) – level 19

Machine symbiosis 0/1280
Hextech Mana Drain
Enforcer 0/1280
Kinetic charge
Sharpshooter 0/1280
Recoil absorption

Blade Priest of the Deep – level 8

Shuari Blade Dancer 0/60
Sunken dance [ Intermediate proficiency : 25%]
Mindscape Projection
Priest of the Deep 0/1920
Grasp of the Deep

Unspent Ether: 3310

“But what about the warriors of the shard?” Lima argued. “The other guilds?”

I hadn’t forgotten about them. I was aware that clearing a dungeon located inside the shard was essentially painting a target on one’s back, as it essentially deprived the whole community of renewable resources. Even if the hunters looked the other way us due to the circumstances, other warriors would probably feel entitled to our loot.

“It’s just a possibility for now,” I said.

It wasn’t, of course. To say that Barlosh was stronger than us would have been a severe understatement, and the amount of ether we could consume before getting sick was limited. Getting quality items would massively increase our chances, and clearing the dungeon seemed like an obvious answer to our current situation.

Still, I appreciated the fact that she could picture us surviving long enough to have such problems…

I already have a target on my back anyway, I thought as I turned my attention back to my status.

I had a lot of ether, but it was really only enough to gain two levels in either both my classes or just Dreadnova Enforcer. My issue, however, was that the only class I wanted to upgrade was Blade Priest of the Deep.

Balrosh was fast, but his speed itself was clearly derived from the combination of his Strength atrribute and aura. I couldn’t imagine myself competing with him strictly on that front, but with high enough Dexterity and Agilty the strength of his blows wouldn’t matter. Because they would never reach me.

Which only made the fact that I couldn’t infuse ether in the Shuari Blade Dancer skill tree more frustrating… along with the knowledge that if I had been using my sword instead of the rifle, my proficiency would be a lot higher. Maybe even at at a hundred percent already.

Realizing I was fussing over something out of my control, I added the required ether to Priest of the Deep and Sharpshooter.

HP: 528/673
Stamina: 631/755 (regen: 8.1/minute)
Mana: 430/1140 (regen: 4.8/minute)

Attributes

Vitality 67 (+3)
Strength 64 (+3)
Constitution 68 (+3)(+10)
Dexterity 42 (+3)
Agility 44 (+3)(+10)
Perception 64 (+3)
Intelligence 106 (+8)
Wisdom 40 (+8)
Tenacity 0 (+3)

Racial traits

Technopath 0/320
Summon: Drone
Summon: Intermediate Rooting Mine
AI Domination

Keeper of the First flame 0/800
Left eye of the nameless Djin
+ 30% resistance to fire in human form.
+ 30% reduced stamina usage in djin form.
Sun Avatar

Classes

Dreadnova Enforcer (3rd gen) – level 20

Machine symbiosis 0/1280
Hextech Mana Drain
Enforcer 0/1280
Kinetic charge
Sharpshooter 0/2560
Recoil absorption

Blade Priest of the Deep – level 9

Shuari Blade Dancer 0/60
Sunken dance [ Intermediate proficiency : 25%]
Mindscape Projection
Priest of the Deep 0/3840
Grasp of the Deep

Unspent Ether: 110

I was a bit disapointed that nothing special had happened upon reaching level twenty, but then again luck hadn’t been on my side recently.

Let’s hope that this make a difference.

There was almost no more light available, and seeing anything further than a few meters away was no longer possible. The girls were keeping to themselves, probably updating their status like I had just did.

I looked upward at the dark leaves over our head, “Lima, has anyone ever climbed these trees?”

“Of course,” she mumbled. “Lots of people. None of them ever made it back down though.”

“Summon: Drone,” I said.

The flying sphere appeared in front of me, a machine entirely made out of mana.

“Hello, Ed,” said the drone’s artificial voice.

“Hello Kirby,” I said, before frowning. “Why are you consuming more mana than usual?” It wasn’t much, but considering the little I had gathered, every bit counted.

“This is the usual rate of mana consumption for the speed at which you are moving,” the drone replied.

I looked around. Everything seemed as normal as it could be in the current circumstances. “… We’re currently moving?”

“That is correct.”

Whatever magic the dungeon used to make people lose their way in the forest was still at work, but it didn’t affect the machine in the same way. It also reminded me of something.

The reconfiguration.

I turned around and faced the green girl, “Had the trees already moved when we entered the forest?”

She paled.

We’ll be ground to dust if we’re still in here when it happens.

“Kirby,” I put my hand on the tree next to me, “Use this tree as a reference and fly up as fast as you can. Notify me as soon as you have a clear visual of the forest.”

The silver ball shot upward and disappeared in the foliage. My eyes fell back on the red-haired girl who certainly was reacting to the idea of killing Barlosh in a much more natural way than Lima.

She was eating the food I had given her with a resolute voracity. There was no hunger in her eyes, however, they were filled with something else, something that felt familiar. Something cold.

Good.

Lima walked to her, and after a moment of hesitation, crouched and put a hand on the delver’s shoulder. Maru froze and looked at her. Then she shook wiped her tears and shook her head.

“I’m sorry, I must have looked like a fool to you,” she said with a derisive chuckle. “Screaming as if you weren’t standing there. You’re so much younger than me, and you have… lost so, so much more…”

Kirby? I mentally sent to the drone through our mental communication channel. Anything wrong?

Nothing, Ed. I am still going up.

Lima gave Maru a smile, “Pain isn’t a competition. We weren’t as close, but I can say that I lost Bali too. She was the kind of person we don’t see every day.”

I am still going up, sent the drone.

Maru’s raised a shaky hand to cover her face.

“It’s just… She was more than a friend. More… than a sister,” she said. “We were supposed to make the Realm remember our names forever… but I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for someone I could trust with my life.”

I am still going up, sent the drone.

“And why did she die?” Maru’s fingers moved so that she could look at me. “For him. Someone who will never even be able to appreciate what was robbed from her and your men. ”

Lima, on the other hand, was making it a point to not look my way.

I have made it out of the forest, said the drone’s monotone voice.

Can you describe what you are seeing? I asked.

The reply came without delay. The forest is spinning on itself, funneling everything toward its center, Kirby sent. There are several sections, and the motion of the trees inside each one seems random. The only unmoving areas are those without trees.

I see. What’s at the center of the forest?

It appears to be a building made out of wood.

Any clearing near my position?

Yes, the drone sent. The section of the forest you are in just went past one.

Alright, now listen. I need you to guide me there.

That is not possible with the set of functions available.

Why?

With no sensors and my view obstructed by the trees, I cannot give accurate directions, said the monotone voice. I would also be unable to locate your position during the trip.

I once again noted the need to fix Kirby’s lack of problem-solving abilities and remembered the second device Tamie had given me. A mana based torch.

Can you still estimate ground distances from where you are? I sent.

I can.

I opened my inventory and started looking for the item.

A light should appear soon right below you marking my position, I sent to the drone. Give me directions assuming I’m still facing the same way I was when you last saw me.

Very well, Ed.

It wouldn’t be accurate, but it didn’t really need to be. The meadows were big enough to allow a generous margin of error.

The night had finally fallen over Yaga’s garden and the darkness was so thick that it felt tangible. The birds had quietened down, and in the corrupted forest who seemed to be waiting for our next move, the only reassurance I had that the girls were still there, was the sound of their voices.

“Lima, Maru,” I called. “Get ready.”

“Yo-you found the path? With your machine?” I heard Lima’s voice say in disbelief.

“Not exactly,” I said, “but hopefully we’ll be fine. What about the creature you were talking about? The Witch?”

“I don’t know… There should have been signs of her arrival by now but,” her voice trailed, unsure. “I haven’t seen or heard anything…”

I certainly wasn’t going to complain about the absence of an unkillable monster. Knowing that she was late made me more comfortable summoning the torch Tamie had made for me.

We owe her one.

I felt the small metallic cube in my hand and saw the tiniest amount of mana disappear from my reserves… but nothing happened. I realized that I had no idea how to turn it on.

“Edward?” I heard Lima’s voice call again, except it was slightly higher pitched than usual.

“Hmm?”

“Why is there… light coming from behind your eyepatch?”

Fuck. My fingers found something sticking out of the cube’s surface and I pressed it. The next moment we were illuminated by a white light shining in every direction from inside my hand.

The two girls were staring at me. Maru with her hand on the hilt of her blade, and Lima with a cocked head and narrowed eyes.

Should have known that an eye made out of living fire might be visible in perfect darkness, I thought as I raised both my hands in a calming gesture.

“I know that it’s strange, and that we’re all on edge for valid reasons,” I said without missing a beat. “But that wasn’t something we can afford to waste time on. We need to go.”

“He might really be a creature of the mist after all,” Maru said. I could see the muscles of her arm tensing.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, “Really? Do I look like a monster to you?”

“You know exactly the kind of creatures I’m referring to. The kind I’d rather not follow anywhere.”

I frowned, as I had no idea what she was talking about. The “creatures” I had seen until now couldn’t be confused with humans.

I crossed my arms, deciding to bring up something that had been on my mind for a while now, “So you actually do have an alternative, don’t you?”

She recoiled and lowered her eyes, but didn’t say anything.

“Edward isn’t a monster,” Lima intervened. “But wh-what is in your eye? Is it some kind of delver item?”

I sighed.

“It’s related to my racial trait. That’s all I can say. Now listen-”

“But aren’t you human? Is it a machine?”

“I am. But… I’m not just human.”

I noticed Maru relaxing her fingers.

“So you’re mixed then,” Lima concluded. “You have a variant trait, like Damien.”

Who was that again?

“Sure,” I nodded.

Kirby, are you seeing the light? I sent to the drone.

I am, Ed. Sending directions.

I glanced at Maru. “Are you coming?”

She straightened her back, adjusted the rapier on her belt, then looked at me with her head held high. There were still traces left by the tears on her face, but the coldness had left her eyes. Whatever Maru had said to make her feel better had worked.

… And she is debating whether she should use her trump card to escape the dungeon or not.

I raised a brow.

“I remember you saying that nothing would happen between us and Balrosh, because it would mean the end of the shard,” I said as I massaged my temples. “Now, I’m not yet privy to the politics of the Red Cross… so I’d like you to tell me something.” I opened my arms, “Is there actually a way Bokwen can keep the shard from being destroyed by Genoneva’s passive, despite what happened here?”

“Who knows?” she shrugged. Her stare hadn’t wavered, but her voice had. “The boss will ask for the life of her second in command for reparation, and she will obviously refuse. But that’s assuming the guild is able to restrict Bali’s mother. They won’t be.”

“Then you know that you don’t have a choice,” I said. “As Bali’s friend, and as the leader of the next generation.”

Her hands became fists. “You’re a disgrace,” she spat.

“Am I? In your scenario, Balrosh wins and a lot of innocent people die. You heard him yourself, that’s exactly what he wants to see happen,” I nodded to Lima and faced the direction Kirby had given me. “Make up your damn mind. Lima, let’s go.”

I walked past her then started running, seemingly done with the conversation. But I was soon able to confirm that two people were following me, and felt much relief to know that I wouldn’t have to turn around.

Ikun Omi’s clear laugh rang through my thoughts.

Why feign indifference? she asked me, visibly entertained. Why is it that you do not want these pawns to know how hurt you are by the deaths of their comrades? How eager you are to make the blood of their killers flow?

I ignored her once again and focused on Kirby’s voice.

Is it that you are still scared to revel in your bloodlust? she continued. Oh, Edward… Either acting detached when unnerved, or acting affected when numb to the pain around you. But you do not need tricks, toys, and allies. All you need is to wield me.

No, I said.

There was a pause. No? she repeated.

You heard me. This is what you wanted, isn’t it? You kept mentioning how I didn’t really care about anything, knowing that I would be stupid enough to try to change. And now… now I have the names of seven more dead people carved in my brain. Seven fucking names added to the pile!

I realized Kirby had told me twice to correct my trajectory, and veered back on track toward the clearing. I was breathing harder than I should.

When Ikun Omi spoke again, she sounded saddened. You are angry at yourself. You poor fool.

The blow came from the left. It came so fast from the darkness beyond the reach of the light in my right hand that I didn’t have any time to react.

I heard a crack, Lima scream my name, and was thrown off my feet. But there was no pain, and thanks to that I was able to land so that I wouldn’t get even more injured. Laying on my back with the wind knocked out of me, I looked at my arm.

… Broken. Again. But along with a few cracked ribs this time.

A giant putrefied hand, wearing steel rings too small for its fingers and dirty deformed nails, was floating a few meters away from me. And further away from it, still wrapped in the darkness but quickly approaching, were a pair of smiling yellow eyes.

I heard footsteps, and was forcefully brought to my feet, “Don’t stop running!” Maru yelled. “Go!”

We left, but I could hear the trees being torn not far behind us. That’s when the old witch let out a low, hearty laugh, “Young ones, you did very well hiding from my eyes! But little lambs, so fat and healthy, this is my garden… So long as you have lost your way, you shall find yourself on my plate!”

 

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Chapter 71

We kept walking like that for a while.

Lima with an unconscious Maru in her arms, putting one foot in front of the other like a prisoner heading for the gallows, and me glancing in every direction for the only path to survival. A path that was eluding me.

We can do this, I thought to myself. We can still make it out alive.

Of course, that wasn’t exactly true. When I looked at the girls in front of me, I did it with the knowledge that the versions of them that had entered the dungeon this morning had been killed in the carnage we had left behind.

The aura of death surrounding us was thick. The dead reminded us of their existence by their absence: the occasional wave of laughter, the jokes, the taps on the back, the awkward eye contacts, and the simple warmth of their presence… had all been replaced by a deafening silence.

However, outside of this dungeon were living people who would be swept up by the consequences of what Balrosh had done, unless the three of us did something about it. Unless we buried the truth along with the corpses. That alone was a good reason to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

How noble, Ikun Omi teased.

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s irrelevant, I thought, grimacing from putting too much weight on my wounded leg. I don’t see how wanting to save myself keeps me from genuinely wanting to save everybody else.

I sense anger, she replied. Aimed at me. Why?

I didn’t say anything, mainly because I knew that the sole intent of her comments was to make me doubt myself. I wasn’t going to waste time on her games anymore. She had done enough damage.

To avoid Genoneva and the Red Cross causing a bloodbath, I had to make sure that the real circumstances of Bali’s death never got out. And for that, we needed to kill Balrosh and the three warriors following him before they could spread the news… But there was a problem.

The second knight’s token was in their possession and they could use it at any moment to leave the dungeon.

No… they came here ready to die, so they will want to make sure that the job gets done. As far as they are concerned, the two delvers are still alive, so the Red Cross could still be reasoned with… They will either stay where we left them, try to chase us with Khat’s help, or wait outside for us to come out.

While waiting outside was the safest option for them, they had to know that the Red Cross would eventually send a search party for us. Which meant that there was a bigger likelihood of Balrosh only ordering one of his men to wait outside in case we somehow managed to leave the dungeon with the third knight’s token…

Assuming the third knight even had one.

“Lima,” I called.

There was only silence, despite the fact that there was no way she could have failed to hear me.

“Are there any info the hunters shared about the third knight?” I said nonetheless. “Or about the enemies we will face in the forest once night falls?”

“The witch,” she said. “The few that were dumb enough to stay until nightfall all say that she is the only one roaming the forest at night.”

Then again, it’s possible that she came after them simply because they weren’t on the path.

“… You’ve been watching me go without saying anything for a good moment now,” she said. “Are we somehow on that path that only you can see?”

“No. I just figured that since we’re lost, it doesn’t matter which way we go.”

“I have been trying to feel the wind… but there’s nothing,” she said in a murmur.

She abruptly stopped walking and I did the same. I could still see her slouched back shake despite the quickly declining light, and hear her trying to control her breathing. The dried blood of her friend was on her sleeveless leather armor and on her arms. It hadn’t fully dried yet and clashed violently against the green of her skin.

“Edward…” she said. “You’re a delver right? Everybody says that delvers have divine items they get from the real dungeons. Can any of your secrets help us get out of here?”

“No,” I sighed. “And even if they could, it would be a bad idea. There are too many ways things could go wrong outside. It’d be better to deal with Balrosh after earning more ether.”

She turned around. Her tears had stopped.

“You were serious,” she said.

“I still am.”

“Is it because… Do you want to kill th-them for-”

“I liked your friends, Lima,” I interrupted. “From the short time I spent with them, I can tell they were all good people, people you could trust to have your back. But I would not risk my life just to avenge them. Nor would I allow you to.”

“You are way too confident about what you can and can’t do, Edward,” She said with her head raised in defiance. “But if not for that, why then?”

“Because it’s the only way to make sure there is no war between the Red Cross and Genoneva. The little I’ve seen from Bokwen’s people tells me that they won’t hesitate to claim her throat for Bali’s death, and from what I’ve been told, no one in the shard would survive it. That includes anyone from the Temple.”

She lowered her eyes, and I felt like shit for using those words. But the fastest way to make her realize the gravity of the situation was to remind her that she still had loved ones she could lose, and her help was needed.

“So you’re telling me that the only death that mattered today was that girl’s?” she muttered.

“That’s not the point,” I said as I hopped to a nearby tree I could use to sit down, avoiding another truth that would have just caused unnecessary pain. “What I’m telling you is that there are too many lives on the line for us to not do what has to be done.”

Including ours.

“Let’s take a break,” I added, pointing at my leg. “I need to get this mess under control.”

To think that this was me after having almost dodged the arrow made me grateful to Kinoa for not having killed me despite her life being threatened. I had seen her use her bow on enough occasions to know that she could have done it despite the distance. She must have wanted to give me a chance.

“… Sure,” Lima said noncommittally, and a cloud of condensation formed in front of her mouth.

The temperature is falling, I realized as I slid down against a tree. It could mean anything, and whatever that is, we’re not ready for it.

We were losing time, but we’d be dead anyway if something caught up to us in our current state. I saw Lima carefully lay Maru against a nearby tree, and try to fix up the delver’s red hair in a useless gesture of kindness that made me hope she didn’t think the girl was now her responsibility.

I opened my inventory and summoned a few items that would definitely be of help: a can of Green Blossom Broth and one wooden mug of Siegbrau. I handed the can to Lima.

She looked at me with confusion as she took it. “What’s this?”

“That’s the stuff I ate with Sarn the other day,” I said as I fixed my bloody bandage as well as I could. The goal was to limit the bleeding to a minimum. “It will boost your stamina regeneration, but don’t eat it all. Take half, and give the girl what’s left.”

“What about you?”

“My stamina’s fine,” I said as I took off the mug’s lid and started to pour its content down my throat.

What I needed was some help with my wound.

The golden liquid felt like lave as it burned everything on its way from my mouth to my stomach. I had to stop drinking midway in a coughing fit I couldn’t repress anymore, then began drinking again until the last drop.

Minor HP regeneration

Intermediate Respite of the Undead

I threw the mug away, satisfied with what I was seeing in my status. The pain was gone, replaced with only slightly distorted senses. I was trying to catch my breath when I spotted Lima staring at me with a raised eyebrow.

“The hell… are you waiting for?” I managed to blurt out. “You haven’t even opened the can yet! I thought there was a witch after us?”

She tore open the can with just her fingers, and the delicious smell of the steamy broth filled the surroundings, making me realize how hungry I was myself. She had to close her eyes for a good moment after the first bite to savor the rich taste born from the harmonious marriage of vegetables and meat.

“Sarn wasn’t exaggerating,” she then said with a softer voice. “This is the best thing I have ever tasted.”

Slowly, I stood and tentatively put some weigh on my wounded leg.

Still no pain. Good.

The hole in my leg hadn’t magically disappeared, but at least the bleeding had stopped. Considering I only had one mug of Siegbrau left, the best case scenario would be for us to kill the third named creature before my status went back to normal.

Lima put down her can and glanced up at me, “Was that… Alcohol to numb yourself?”

“Kind of.” I cleared my throat and wiped my mouth. “It’s a drink that numbs and heals. I won’t get drunk, don’t worry.”

Speaking with each other felt difficult now. It could probably be attributed to how distorted my senses were, but each time our eyes locked, I saw what she wasn’t saying and then went on to wonder when she would let it out.

That your mere presence killed her friends? Whispered the foreign voice in my head. That if you had listened to her and not joined the hunt, they would all be alive?

Be quiet.

Again, anger and anguish… they are swirling inside of you more violently than usual, Ikun Omi noted in a detached tone. You would gain much from understanding their origin.

I know what your trying to do. Trust me, it’s not going to work.

My intentions have never been hidden. Not from you, my dear. But not only do I doubt you understand them… I have a feeling that your current distress has nothing to do with me.

“You know damn well that-” I stopped myself, realizing that my irritation had allowed my thoughts to escape my lips.

I looked at Lima. She had not stopped eating, but now had her eyes on me.

“What was that thing… you drank again?” she said between two generous mouthfuls of food.

I heard groans and saw Maru raise a hand to massage her temples. Then her eyes started looking for someone she knew she wouldn’t find.

“That was nothing,” I said. “Give me the can, I’ll make her eat. We need to get moving already.”

“If it makes you speak to yourself, Edward…”

“It doesn’t.” I summoned her glaive and handed it back to her. With its size, I could hardly picture anyone but her using it. “… But even if it did, it would be fine as long as it helped us come out of this alive.”

She took her weapon with a pensive look and I brought the warm broth to the delver. However, after crouching at her side, I stopped myself from handing it over.

The look of rage and pure hatred she gave me made it clear that it would have been a bad idea. But considering it was closer to the reaction I had expected from Lima, it felt normal.

“Listen-”

I saw her hand move but didn’t react. Sometimes you have to give some to get some.

The slap cut me mid-sentence and I tasted blood in the inside of my mouth.

“They killed her,” she said, “and you did this to me. You made me powerless and caused her to face them alone… Even though it was for you. Even though this is all for you!”

Her breathing was irregular and her hands were balled into fists as she waved at the trees.

“You’re right,” I said. “And I’m sorry for what happened to Bali. But what I did to you, was done to keep you alive.”

“Give me a fucking break!” She smashed her fists down and cracked the roots surrounding her. “All you care about is yourself! Am I supposed to thank you now? What’s the point of staying alive, if it’s in shame! Bali will be avenged, of that I am certain. But they were slaughtering your comrades back there and you turned your back on them… What kind of man does that?”

She put her face in her hands.

“You, Edward. The kind of person who’d sign any deal, and throw away anyone as long as it makes their life easier. Using logic to justify what you do doesn’t make you right… You’re heartless.”

“Are you done?” I said calmly.

Her hand shot forward again, but this time I caught her fist before it could reach my face.

“If you want to hit me once we’ve dealt with Balrosh, I won’t try to stop you,” I said. “But for now, we need to move forward.”

She opened her mouth, but failed to find the words to express what was boiling inside of her with enough accuracy and ended up just glaring at me. I put the can in her hand.

“It’s food, you should eat while it’s warm,” I said. I saw in the look she gave me that she was about to throw it away so I kept my fingers around her wrist, and added, “It’s one of the items I bought from the inn’s terminal. It will refill your stamina so that we can head to the third knight.”

“Let me guess,” she said with disdain. “You’re after his locket because it’s the only way to escape?”

“I’m actually after as much ether and loot as we can get our hands on,” I replied. “We are too weak to face them now, but if we clear this dungeon we will have a chance… There’s only death waiting for us if we allow them to go back to Bunker. We will do what has to be done.”

She stared at me with suspicious eyes before finally lifting the can to her lips, somehow convinced by what she had seen. Tears started silently rolling down her cheeks soon after.

 

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Chapter 70

“Bali! Don’t!” I screamed in her direction. “Get the fucking loot and come over here!”

Figures shot past me. Cairo, Timuk, and Vaunt with their weapons raised and skills activated. They ran past Bardath and the lama who seemed the most taken aback by the turn things were taking.

“Don’t let them go, you idiots!” Everything was heading for the worst and Maru was still struggling, cursing me to let her go. “For fuck’s sake… Lima, gather your men! Lima?”

I looked behind me and saw her in the exact same position I had last seen her. Crying silently as she held Viki’s now cold body.

“Deadeye. It is truly a blessing that I met the two delvers of the Red Cross the very day they would come to this specific dungeon…”

Balrosh’s low voice was strangely calm. Calm enough that it made even Maru suddenly stop her feeble attempts to push me off. I assumed he was using an enchantment similar to the fight club’s announcer, because his words resounded loudly through the clearing despite his mild tone.

“… I do not care about your origin, or why you came to this shard…”

“Bardath, Hammer! Go get the fuckin’ trinket from the horse!” I yelled. Coming back to their senses, they both looked at me, before dashing to where the mount had been slain.

“… I also could not care less about why Genoneva wants you,” Balrosh continued.

Bali and the three hunters had almost reached him. I was racking my brain for something I could do, but couldn’t find anything. Using the Djin’s Eye could cause a short distraction, but it would affect everybody. Not just the warriors.

I heard Ikun Omi’s teasing chuckle.

Should I get there and fight? I asked myself. Despite the leg? Despite me not knowing how strong the four of them are?

“What matters is that claiming your lives will allow us to avenge a man’s death.”

What the fuck is he talking about?

“You moron… He- he is bluffing,” I heard Maru say with ragged breath.

Had I killed somebody close to him? The only time someone on his side had died in my presence had been in Bunker’s theater, when Genoneva had… ordered a man to kill himself. An older beastkin who… did bear a strong resemblance with Balrosh.

Cold sweat ran down my spine as the realization set in. Bali was now only a few meters from him, walking with all the confidence in the world.

They really are here for me.

I finally understood the uneasiness I felt when looking in Balrosh eye’s. Those were the eyes of a man ready to set the world on fire.

The four warriors didn’t mind losing their lives, or causing Genoneva’s blessing to destroy Bunker and kill everyone in it.

That was exactly what they were after. No one was off-limits.

“Bali!” I screamed. “They are-”

It happened too fast for anyone to do anything.

Bali’s head exploded in a burst of crimson, and everything behind her was sprayed in blood. Instead of her disintegrated skull was now Balrosh’s fist. It took a few seconds for her body to fall.

The violence of the impact stopped all the hunters dead in their tracks. Maybe they had been close enough for some of the blood to land on them.

“Ba-Bali? NO. No, no, no! NOOOO! BALI!”

Maru’s heart-rending screams broke the silence, full of disbelief and anguish. She had no strength left to move, all of her stamina having been taken from her, but she still tried to crawl forward, crying and calling for her friend to stand.

“He was my brother and these men’s leader,” I heard Balrosh say, his enchanted voice covering Maru’s. “He was bewitched and made to take his own life by the heartless flower.”

The three warriors at his side moved for the first time. Like Balrosh, they were wrapped in their aura and didn’t carry any weapon. One of them dashed toward Cairo, Vaunt and Timuk, while the two others went Bardath and the Lama’s direction.

I have to help them.

I didn’t have much mana left, but with the Sun Barrel a bullet at the right time could create an opening for the kids. Slightly modifying the size of my spell so that Maru would still be under its effect, I stood, ignored the pain from my leg and went to pick up my rifle. I mounted the barrel and took aim, only to see that the three hunters were running away from their opponent.

“Don’t show your back! Fighting is our only chance!”

But it was too late, Bali’s death had replaced their rage with pure fear and despair.

“They’re going to kill us! Hel-”

Cairo tripped on something and fell. His fall caused Timuk to stop and look back with concern, but the warrior was already crushing his friend’s head with repeated stomps of his boot. Screaming, Timuk attacked the killer but he was too slow, even with his aura. Much slower and weaker than when he had been facing monsters in the forest. The warrior effortlessly dodged his fist, kicked him in the stomach and let him fall gasping for air. Then he finished him in the same way he had killed Cairo. By stomping his head until it was nothing but a pulp of flesh, bones, and brain matter.

Vaunt had stopped running. He was on his knees, staring down as he was waiting for his death.

I wanted to help him, but I couldn’t. Bardath and the Lama had been intercepted before they could reach the warhorse, but they hadn’t given up.

I will use my last bullet to save one of th-

“Now you know why you have to die. We cannot kill Genoneva, but the old warriors of the Red Cross can,” Balrosh said. “Thanks to your deaths she will have to pay. Thanks to your deaths, they will kill her. My brother died because he wanted to bring you to Genoneva’s feet… I will see him again on the other side, bringing both your heads to his.”

And with those words, Balrosh finally walked away from the tree line.

“Maru!” I heard a strained voice say. “You need to use it! Now!”

It was the lama. He was wounded all over, facing the two warriors by himself. Bardath was laying not far from him, his own greatsword stabbed through his chest.

“You’re all dead,” Maru said under her breath. “The Red Cross will skin you all alive.”

The ground shook and I saw Balrosh running in my direction, hundreds of meters from where he was before I glanced away. Before I could react, he jumped again and his leap took him to the middle of the clearing, making the ground shake once more. I could now clearly see that his aura was silver.

The only other instances of colored aura I had seen, instead of it looking like a transparent veil, were Ardos’ blue and Maboru’s red sword.

I headed back to Maru, picked her up in my arms and limped to Lima.

“There is no time,” I told her. “I know it hurts, but we need to go. Now!”

She slowly raised her puffy eyes and shook her head in disbelief. “Go where?” she said. “They are all dead. The trinket is on the other side of the meadow, you’re wounded and I can’t fight warriors. We can’t leave.”

I felt the ground shake once more. Closer this time.

“Stand,” I said. “leave your glaive on the ground, and stand.”

“I’m sorry Ed-”

“STAND!”

The tears came back to her eyes, but she did as told. I transferred Maru to her arms. She had lost consciousness, probably due to exhaustion.

“Run,” I said. “To the forest. Don’t look back.”

“Night is falling,” she sobbed. “No path.”

The ground shook again.

“Just go,” I said, cupping her face with my hands. “Dying later in there is better than dying now.”

She gave me a nod, took a deep breath then took off, with me hopping behind her as fast as I could after putting her glaive in my inventory and activating Kinetic Charge.

“You would choose to run away instead of dying with honor?” Barlosh chuckled. “Children masquerading as warriors, that is all you were.”

I was getting faster thanks to the skill, but my wound made the increase much less notable than normal. I glanced back and saw that the sprinting bull had reduced the initial distance between us to almost nothing. Another one of his monstrous jumps would bring me at arm’s length.

My eyes met his and, as if he had been reading my thoughts, the aura protecting him flared and he bent his knees. Right as he kicked the ground and propelled himself toward me, I summoned my rifle and discharged my remaining mana right at him. The rifle exploded again, but the impact was strong enough to send Barlosh crashing backward.

The Kinetic Charge ended, as I did not have enough mana to fuel it, but the scraps I had left were enough for the rifle to start rebuilding itself again. I hoped for a second that the warrior had been knocked out, but his hulking figure stood right back up, massaging his chest. The tree line seemed so far away.

“You have interesting tricks, human,” he said. “Now die.”

He took a step forward, and there was a sudden flash. The next instant, Barlosh was looking at himself with confusion, his movements altered. They didn’t seem sluggish, more like the movements of a character from a slowed down video.

The rooting mine. He stepped on it.

I summoned Ikun Omi and took a step in his direction, but noticed his comrades were already converging on my position. Even if I managed to kill him, I wouldn’t be able to escape them.

And Lima was waiting for me, right by the trees.

I turned around and started limping as fast as I could. Maru’s bandage hadn’t been able to hold up and blood was already seeping through it. I reached the tree line before the warriors could claim my life, and we dove deeper into the cursed forest.

The clearing quickly disappeared behind us, hidden by the trees, and for a while, we walked between them in silence, looking for white flowers invisible to regular eyes.

The day was still as beautiful as ever. The sun was shining. The birds were still singing. The world would still turn despite what had happened in this forest today. As if to prove that fact, the light was weakening and the shadows were getting longer. Night would soon fall in Yaga’s Garden.

At some point, I stopped hearing Lima’s footsteps behind me and turned around. She was still there. Crying.

I opened my mouth to speak, no words came out.

How could I tell her of a future in which she would hurt less, when Bali’s death had basically doomed us all? There was nothing anyone would be able to do against the Red Cross seeking retribution. As soon as the news would get out, it would be over.

I blinked.

They can only seek vengeance if they learn what really happened.

“Lima,” I said. “It’s going to be okay.”

Her eyes fell on me, hard and accusing.

You don’t have to say it. I know that my mere presence is why they died.

“We’re lost in Yaga’s Garden,” she said, not even trying to stop her tears. “We’re going to die, and you’re telling me that it’s going to be okay? There has to be a limit to your arrogance, Edward.”

“We won’t die,” I said. “You won’t die. They will. We will kill these warriors and leave this dungeon.”

She started laughing. “And how do you propose we do that? Do you have another conveniently hidden skill, uh? Something that could have saved my pack from being slaughtered like BEASTS AS WE WATCHED?”

She was shaking. It could have been due to her body getting rid of the adrenaline, but it probably was mostly because of barely contained anger.

“We will kill the third knight,” I said as calmly as I could. “We will use his loot to make you able to use your skills on warriors. We will use the well to heal our wounds. Then we will find these bastards and kill them.”

“… You must be mocking me.”

“I am not. And I want you to understand that it is not your fault in any way. You did not watch them die. There is nothing you could have done, and I’m sure that they would have rather-”

“Don’t you DARE tell me what they would have wanted!” she yelled, before staring right into my eyes with all the disappointment one could muster. “… You didn’t even know their names.”

She stormed past me before I could reply anything. After a pause, I followed her so that she wouldn’t get too far.

Bardath. Bali. Cairo. Kinua. Timuk. Vaunt. Viki… and the hammer-wielding Lama. I never got to ask his name.

I glanced at the stretching shadows and sighed. It felt like all my years were catching up to me.

I should have known better.

One moment they had been there, and the next they had been gone.

 

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Chapter 69

I was slightly confused by the strange turn of phrase, but figured she was simply trying to affirm her resolve beyond any possible doubt.

“Alright,” I nodded. “But I’ll go instead.”

I left before she could say anything. I was faster and stronger, I couldn’t have her roaming around the arena when she could somehow catch the Knight’s attention.

I cut straight through the clearing instead of running along the tree line, and got close enough to the fight to see the individual yellow eyes on the horse’s coat. The battle was raging on, the red knight holding its own against the hunters with surprisingly quick swipes of its glowing axe.

Unlike with the first knight, a single hit from that weapon was very likely to be fatal, and the brawlers couldn’t risk getting too close.

But it’s still much less versatile than the centaur’s tail, I thought to myself. Why are they struggling?

I aimed at the horse’s head and opened fire. The hole the bullet made through its skull closed itself instantly, and the “animal” didn’t even lose its balance. Shooting at other body parts or the rider herself brought out the same results, with a few screams from Vaunt, apparently scared of me shooting him by mistake.

They are able to brush off wounds… This might be a problem.

It basically made the Knight of Noon an unstoppable foe. The red-hot axe was still being swung as hard as when the fight had started, and our fighters had switched to a less offensive approach. It was turning into a battle of attrition and the hunters weren’t equipped for one.

I felt a familiar itch in my left hand, but once again repressed the urge. If possible, I wanted Lima and her team to feel like they deserved what they had done today, and me stealing the spotlight one more time would have the opposite effect.

What we needed was something the enemy wouldn’t be able to just ignore.

There won’t be a better time to use the mine, I realized. Summon: Minor Rooting mine.

It materialized itself in my hand in the same way Kirby would, except the amalgamation of black spots that turned into a smaller silver sphere that fit perfectly in my hand.

I tentatively threw the item on the ground and it started siphoning my mana, showing that it had been activated.

Now all we need is to bait the knight into getting close enough to trigger it.

I was weighing down our options when the lama interrupted my thoughts with a shout.

“I’ll create an opening!” he yelled as he raised his hammer and smashed it against the ground.

The surprise skill’s range was limited, but its effects were undeniable. As soon as his hammer came down, the earth shook and the ground around the warriors broke apart. It took the creature and most the hunters by surprise, except Lima. And that’s all that was needed.

Her glaive sliced the horse’s head off in a flash, and even if the beast immediately started regenerating a new one, it wasn’t fast enough.

Bardath swung his greatsword with all his strength, and while the knight managed to intercept the empowered slash that would have undoubtedly cut through its armor, the headless rider was unable to negate the recoil from the impact.

What is Kinua doing!

That would have been a perfect opportunity for one of her oversized arrows to finish the job, but thankfully the moment was seized by Vaunt, who knocked the knight off his horse with a spinning slash of his sword that made me raise an eyebrow.

Cairo and Timuk pinned the knight against the ground while the tigress, sitting on top of it, clobbered it with an unending barrage of punches.

“Someone, get the-” I started, but a hand fell on my shoulder as someone shot past me.

“On it, pretty boy!” Bali said with a wink as she went to tackle the powerful creature by herself. Even without its rider, the warhorse didn’t let itself be overpowered and dragged her away. But the horse was the least of our worries. All that mattered was that the knight had now lost its mount.

I once again raised my rifle, aimed at the floating head, and pulled the trigger. There was a now familiar detonation, and life left the woman’s tortured eyes right as the bullet tore through the space between them.

Nailed against the ground by our brawlers, the knight attempted one last swing of its enchanted axe, but Maru effortlessly parried it with her glowing sword and sent the weapon flying.

Cairo ripped the red breastplate off, and the steel gauntlets of the female brawler made a hole through the creature’s chest with a wet crunching sound.

The knight’s body went limp in the same moment the woman’s head reached the ground, and this time her wounds didn’t heal. We had won.

“We-We did it?” Cairo stuttered, eyes wide with disbelief. “We did it!”

We truly had. Now that the rider was dead, it was only a matter of time before its defenseless mount was killed.

I ignored the echoing shouts of victory, walked to the brawler whose fists were still dripping with blood, and offered my hand to help her stand. She didn’t seem bothered by the butchered corpse she was sitting on as the other hunters, looking forward to finally leaving the dungeon, started sprinting toward the horse who still hadn’t bowed to Bali.

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

Probably still too pumped with adrenaline to realized how strange my question was, she ignored my hand and glanced at me with a smile, “Oh? Did this make you fall for me, Deadeye?”

“Not really,” I said with a grin. “But I have to admit that it was impressive.”

She laughed heartily.

“My name is-”

****

Thanks to her class, the arrow in Kinua’s hand was as steady as ever, despite the battle that was taking place in her mind.

Her target could have been dead plenty of times already. The steel of her arrow had been tracking him since he had dared to show her his back, and it was aimed at him even now that everybody was celebrating their victory over the beast.

She wanted to kill Deadeye. She really did. There was no denying that he occupied a special place in Lima’s heart, while he clearly was just a privileged noble taking advantage of her. He had to be stopped before he could do something irreversible to her. Damned be the consequences.

But Kinua had never killed a person before, and now that the arrow was nocked and all her boosting skills were activated… she was finding herself faltering.

She was not particularly worried about Spice and her lackey, as she trusted her packmates to help her deal with them. All the hunters would need to do was to use the Knight of Noon’s locket and leave the pair trapped inside the dungeon. They would never be able to navigate Yaga’s Garden in the pitch black night.

However, there was something Kinua was unable to cast out of her heart.

What if Lima came to hate her afterward? Would she even have enough time to explain herself after the death of the delver?

No… I’m doing this for her, she told herself, steeling her resolve and adjusting her grip. Even if she doesn’t talk to me ever again… at least I will know that I protected her.

And Kinua would keep protecting her from the shadows if she had to. Lima was simply too good of a person for any monster to be allowed to toy with her. Too perfect.

Kinua smiled and aimed for the heart.

“It has to be do-”

A cold hand closed itself around her throat and yanked her from the ground. The arrow escaped her fingers, but Kinua never saw whether it had reached its mark or not. The man was forcing her to look into his eyes as she kicked and struggled in vain to free herself from his grip.

“Do not worry, child,” he said with a tone that betrayed his familiarity with murder. “They will all join you soon. But it has to be done by our hands.”

I heard Spice say that they would leave us alone! Kinua thought. Oh… She only meant the three of them. In that instant in which her lungs were on fire and her vision was darkening, tears came to her eyes as she remembered once again how unfair Life was to the likes of her.

I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die…

****

“You can call me Viki,” the tigress told me with the first genuine smile I had seen on her face since the hunt had started.

But I had almost missed it, distracted by a low whistling tune I had heard plenty of times already in the dungeon. Except the sound had always been growing faint. Not stronger.

What the-

My reflexes kicked in, too late to avoid injury but just in time for me to avoid ending up crippled. A steel arrow flew past me, tearing through a good chunk of my left leg with it.

Before I could even register the pain, the empowered arrow pierced Viky’s chest. The projectile lifted her off the ground and her head rocked forward, the cheerfulness of the previous moment still lingering on her face. She landed with a mat sound on grass a dozen meters away from her initial position. I looked away.

She’s dead.

One second she had been there, the next she was gone… and the day was as beautiful as ever. The sun was shining. The birds were still singing. The voices of the clueless hunters were still animating the clearing. They were so busy chatting as they headed to the knight’s mount that they hadn’t noticed a thing.

Gritting my teeth, I glanced back to Kinua’s position and was met with the confusing sight of five men standing with her under the shade of the tree line. My stomach fell when I recognized two of them.

One was Khat the senior hunter, beaten and bruised with his hands tied behind his back. The other was the burly black bull who had lifted our archer by the throat. A massive full blooded beastkin I had met in Bunker’s fight club and on our way to this very dungeon as he was leading a group of warriors back to the city.

One of Genoneva’s lieutnant. A massive black bull with branded fur. Balrosh.

He was staring right at me, causing me to experience a strange uneasiness similar to when I had met him this morning , only stronger than ever.

I heard footsteps, Maru appeared at my side and started inspecting my wound.

“These shameless bastards…” she hissed as she looked glanced a the girl whose death was still unnoticed by her friends. “It is pretty bad, but don’t worry, you will be able to dance again with your blade soon enough. The healers back home…”

I tuned her out as my brain went into overdrive. My eyes on the four immobile warriors who weren’t supposed to be there.

How?

Khat was the only one who could have led them through the forest. His bloodied body made it clear that he had been tortured. Since we technically still hadn’t completed the fight against the Knight of Noon, the path had naturally led them here.

Why?

The whole point of my deal with the Red Cross was that the threat of mutual destruction would protect me from Genoneva… but some of her men had followed us in the dungeon.

“What the-!” I heard Bardath suddenly exclaim. “Aren’t these the guys who stopped us on our way here? Why- How are they here?”

Unless everybody was critically wrong about Genoneva’s sanity and willingness to avoid a clash with the elders of the Red Cross, she hadn’t ordered these men to come after me.

“Edward?” I heard Lima call with concern in her voice. “Edward, what are y- Viki!”

When we met Balrosh and his squad earlier today, they did what they were supposed to do and let us all go. He then left his squad of warriors behind and came here with only three of his men.

“Angels! She’s dead!” I heard Cairo scream. “The fuckers they-… Gods, they made Kinua kill Viki!”

I glanced back and saw him and Lima kneeling over the corpse of their friend, shock and tears on their faces. The surrounding grass was now bright red.

I forced my mind back to the threat.

We had to get the hunters out of here. They would kill everybody who wasn’t off-limits if they were given the chance, and I wasn’t sure whether there was something I could do about it or not.

They are all protecting themselves using aura, I thought as I examined the warriors. They saw me use the rifle. Now it’s useless.

“Maru, do not waste time and try to talk to them,” I said as she was completing a decent bandage around my leg. “We need to kill the horse and use the trinket to leave the dungeon. Fast. They came for blood.”

She barely paused for a second before scoffing as she stood up.

“Don’t worry, we will take care of this,” Maru said with a nonchalant tone. I grabbed her wrist and only then did she stop to look at me.

“Are you blind or insane?” I hissed. “Two people are dead! It’s going to be chaos in a few minutes, I need you to protect the others!”

“Did you not understand anything from what we explained?” she replied without missing a bit, clearly irritated. “To Balrosh, they were just hunters! They won’t do anything to me, you, or Bali, because if they do then everybody dies! This is just Genoneva thinking she can intimidate us… And we’ll show them that they can’t.”

Fuck this.

Her eyes widened. “What are you-!”

In one swift motion, I activated Grasp of the Deep, forcefully pulled her toward me and pinned her against the ground with my knee and both her hands in the middle of her back. The ethereal black water rose around us and started absorbing the little stamina she had left after her extended battle with the knight.

As long as Maru and Bali were fine, the worst could be avoided for the shard. I would also need her close by so we could use the trinket as soon as possible.

“Get off! Wh-what are you doing! What is… Magic?!”

I ignored her and willed for the rifle to appear. I would kill the war horse myself, that way the loot would directly pop up in my inventory.

But my hand remained empty.

The rifle was a few meters away from me, where it had fallen when I almost got impaled by the arrow.

+500 ether.

+5 glory.

Iwin Town Quest update

You have freed 2 of the girls.

Horrified, I watched Bali walk away from the broken figure of the warhorse she had been battling until now, without even taking a minute to rest. She was heading straight toward the group of warriors. Balrosh finally took his eyes off me and let Kinua’s corpse fall like a puppet with severed strings.

 

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Chapter 68

As it turned out, there was a wide variety of monster cores, and their nature mostly depended on the habitat of the monster they had been carved from. There apparently was an entire industry out there, revolving around them and their uses in crafting.

Usually, the designated carver would be the one carrying the loot for the team, but since I had an inventory – and felt more comfortables carrying the goods I was risking my life for – I “volunteered” myself for the job. It also helped that no other parts of the disgusting creatures were considered “loot”. The fist-sized dark blue gems came out of the monsters cold to the touch and appeared in my inventory under the name “Middle-grade Arcane Core”.

The hours that followed our bear victims were filled with what could only be called a slaughter. It wasn’t that the bears were weak, but the fact that they came at us one after the other made the beastkin hunters a very bad matchup for them.

Their aura was simply too big of an advantage against anything that wasn’t magical, and all the bears had in their favor was their strength.

After the first few encounters, it was decided that only half of the team would fight each time, while the other would only intervene if needed. The team’s leader wanted to maximize ether gains for everybody and make sure that there would always be rested people, “just in case”.

It wasn’t needed, of course. Once we got into the rhythm, the amount of effort needed to kill a bear became negligible. They could be considered dead as soon as either Lima, Bardath, or Maru landed a clean hit on them. But it was good for our moral to give everybody a chance to land the final blow, as it was what granted the most ether. The number of monster cores in my inventory steadily increased as we progressed down the path and the tree line almost surprised us when it came into view.

“I have to say,” mumbled the tigress as she hurried forward, “I cannot wait to go back to camp and tell people about this hunt.”

“Hold on,” Cairo said, stopping as we had almost reached the edge of the forest. “Are we sure that we want to get to the second knight now?”

Everybody stopped as well and looked at him.

“… What do you mean?” Timuk said with a frown.

The half panda boy turned to me.

“How many cores do we have?”

“Forty-two,” I said.

Somebody whistled.

“See?” Cairo said, opening his arms. “Hunting packs usually go back with barely half that!”

Lima slightly cocked her head.

“Yes Cairo,” she said. “Those who come back alive.”

“Oh come on,” he said, with his eyes jumping to me and my guildmates. “Two delvers and Bali? Let’s not act like we don’t know we have something special here. Why not stay in the forest a bit more and-”

“Cairo,” Lima interrupted, shaking her head in disbelief. “This is not a game and I don’t want to push our luck. Things could take a turn for the worst in an instant… and I do not want to lose anybody. All you’re really saying is that you’re comfortable betting with the lives of your packmates on the line. I’m not.”

She turned around to leave, but panda boy’s feet didn’t move and his eyes didn’t waver.

“I’m the only warrior in my family!” he shouted at her back. “That means that I’m basically the only one with the smallest chance of making it out of here before the fog swallows everything. But if I’m able to get a bit more loot, I might be able to get enough coin to at least save my little sister too.”

Lima stopped in her tracks again and Vaunt put himself between them with hands gesturing for them to calm down.

“Please, guys…”

“Do you think that you’re the only one here with relatives they want to protect?” Lima asked dryly.

“What?” Cairo frowned. “No, we-”

“Then how the can you ask us to stay for your sister, Cairo?” she blurted out as she turned around. “You must believe that your sister’s life is worth more than our loved ones’, right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be using her as a reason to do something we decided was a bad idea.”

“We didn’t decide it,” he shrugged. “You did. And what do you know about family love anyway? You’re an orphan!”

There was a silence.

“Hey,” I called, and Cairo looked at me. “We’re not going to stay. Drop the matter.”

From his expression, I could tell that the boy knew that he had gone too far. However, his words couldn’t be taken back. Lima looked at him with disbelief.

“So the real reason why I should die for your sister is that I’m an orphan and I know nothing about love,” she said.

He closed his fists and looked down. No one said anything until he spoke again.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Yeah, next time think twice before opening your mouth to say something stupid,” she said before walking away followed by the rest of the party. “There are times when being this self-centered isn’t funny anymore.”

“Hey, that was something dumb to say, but keep your chin up,” Timuk said as I walked past him and his friend. “With the second Eye, we’ll all be able to compete with the warriors for better dungeons. We’ll get what it takes for your sister man.”

“You’re right. I got too much in my head,” Cairo replied. “I’m sorry,” he repeated.

I walked up to Lima who was heading to the tree line with giant strides.

“You’re doing great,” I told her. “It’s almost over, keep up the pace.”

She gave me a tired smile, “Thank you.”

How she had been acting during this hunt was radically opposed to how she behave back in the temple. Responsible, serious and firm.

Those were good qualities for a leader, but they also were exhausting to anyone who wasn’t born with them.

I wasn’t particularly worried about her feelings, though. Kids fought all the time and she was a strong girl… But I wanted to at least let her know that she wasn’t by herself.

“Is there something that keeps us from coming back after the dungeon resets itself?” I asked her.

“Not really,” she said with a grin. “But unlike the Undermine that does it every day, Yaga’s garden resets randomly. Last time was two years ago. Oh, and you can’t use the knight’s token to leave the dungeon and go through the whole path several times either. Once a knight is killed, the path doesn’t lead to their arena anymore. Entering the forest again would just lead you directly to the next knight.”

“… And don’t forget that night will fall when we slay the second knight,” Vaunt chimed in. “No light, no path… Only Yaga and the forest. I wouldn’t make my worst enemy stay.”

“I see,” I said. “On another note, I understand that you guys stormed away to make a point, but you should slow down now. Some people have short legs.”

“What do you- Oh Kinua, I’m so sorry!” Lima said after noticing our archer struggling to match her speed.

“It’s… alright,” the girl managed to say as she glared daggers at me for embarrassing her.

“Isn’t she the cutest?” Lima said as she patted her head. “She would go so well with Sarn!”

“Maybe. I think that he already has a girlfriend, though.”

She looked at me with wide eyes, took a deep breath as if she was about to scream then said in a low, menacing voice, “Who?”

I frowned, amused by her reaction, “I don’t know, she works in the kitchen. Are you trying to say that he can only date people you like?”

She sighed and brought the blade of her glaive closer to her face to study it. It certainly looked like she was debating a disturbing decision.

“You don’t know some of those girls, Edward,” she said absentmindedly. “When they see warriors, they become worse than flies around a piece of meat… Wait ’till we go back home and you’ll see.”

If this is how she reacts to news, then not telling her about Bo’s class was the right choice.

“Nevermind that,” I said. “We’re almost there. Focus.”

She shook her head, “You’re right, it can wait.”

…That’s not what I meant.

She collected herself and her eyes fell on the end of the path filled with resolve.

“This time, we’re doing this together,” she said. “And we’re all going home. Be careful and back off if you get hurt.”

She sighed then added, “Especially you Cairo, no more dumb ideas. I need to get you back to your sister.”

The boy reacted with surprise to the sound of his name, then let out a chuckle, “Promised.”

We emerged in a circular clearing vastly larger than the first one, with the sun seemingly hanging right above it. It would have been an idyllic representation of peaceful summer days in a forest if it wasn’t for what it harbored.

“There it is,” the tigress said with a nod toward the center of the meadow. Then again, there was no chance that any of us could have missed it.

There, amidst the tall grass gently swayed by the breeze, was a red armored woman sitting on top of a jet black steed. In one hand she carried a massive great axe with a glowing blade, and with the other, she held her own severed head by its red hair.

The Knight of Noon

I could see the head’s colorless lips move, but no words came out of them.

“Blade users will engage,” Lima said. “You know the plan. Everybody else, look for a chance to knock it off its horse.”

The “plan”, as she had called it, was a sequence of events recorded by generations of hunters as the only way to defeat the second knight. It had the ability to heal any wounds as long as its head was “intact”, and the head itself was immune to damage as long as the knight was sitting on his horse.

For our party to claim victory, we would first need to separate the knight from its mount, then destroy the head. Only then would the knight’s body and the horse be vulnerable, and they had been very particular about making sure the horse was killed too.

Lima, Maru, Bardath, and Vaunt dashed to meet their opponent, followed by our brawlers. In response to their approach, the knight threw the woman’s head upward, and wrapped both hands around the handle of its red-hot axe. The head eventually stopped its ascension but didn’t fall. It was stuck in the sky, and would watch the battle against its main body from a position only Kinua and I could reach.

The Knight of Noon was an enemy I would have hated to face by myself, but it wasn’t enough to cause me to worry in the current situation.

Our heavy hitters are capable enough, I thought with a smile, as I watched Bardath’s great sword repel the named creature’s weapon.

“I am going to the other side,” I head Kinua say. “Us staying at the same spot is senseless.”

I gave her a concerned look.

“Are you… sure about that?”

Not that she was wrong. Us standing in different spots would increase the chances for at least one of us always having a clean shot. But I wasn’t sure if leaving her by herself was a good idea after what had happened earlier.

“I was hesitating but now I am more than sure,” she said dryly. “It has to be done.”

 

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Chapter 67

Sitting on the well and studying the merry expressions of the members of my hunting party, I couldn’t help but think that things were going in a much better direction than anticipated.

By all accounts, the worst was behind us. Our wounds had been healed, our stamina replenished, and our bellies were now filled thanks to an impromptu picnic that had started with Lima begging for some of my supplies.

Even better, from what she had explained, the path through the forest was to stay visible as long as the sun stayed high in the sky. Which basically meant that we would be safe until the death of the dungeon’s second named creature.

No more high-speed chase through a dark lit forest, from now it would be a nice stroll in the woods.. with some occasional bloodthirsty abominations attacking us. Still, fighting in broad daylight made even that idea seem less horrifying than it really was.

Hell, it’s a pretty nice day.

The fight with the Knight of Dawn had made me confident in our ability to take on the next challenge, and that was despite how weak the hunters appeared to me. And the funniest thing was that I was far from being the most relaxed person present.

Remembering her outrageous feat, my eyes instinctively went to Bali. The big girl was getting her burnt clothes fixed with Kinua’s help. Apparently, our sweet archer had a talent for emergency sewing.

“Hey, are your magic reserves filled yet?”

I wasn’t surprised by the question. The only reason we were still on standby was the fact that I needed time for my mana to fully regenerate. As it turned out, magic wells were able to heal any wounds but couldn’t supply free mana.

The speaker was Cairo, the half panda brawler. More than the rest of the party, being reassured that he wouldn’t have to die today was all it had seemed to take for him to regain his wit and smile. It wasn’t really something he could be blamed for, but one had to wonder what they all expected to find in this dungeon.

“Not yet,” I simply replied, before wondering what a regular person would think of the wrestler’s last antic. “Can you guess what Bali was doing when we found her after the fight?”

“Sleeping?” he replied without any hesitation.

I blinked.

“Um… yes. She was sleeping,” I said. “Is that actually a common thing? To fall asleep in the middle of a fight?”

“Well, not in the middle of a fight,” he replied with a small smile while scratching the back of his head. “But it’s natural for people to collapse after using their aura for too long, and she had hers up the whole time we were running. I was wondering if she never tired, but… I guess she doesn’t worry much about things, right? Don’t humans get exhausted when they run out of mana?”

I frowned, “No… Not really.” With that new piece of information, to say that Bali was the carefree type certainly was an understatement. She was reckless.

She probably had to empty her stamina reserves to mitigate the damage from the knight’s tail. But if it was that strong, then…

My eyes shifted to Maru, who seemed perfectly fine after having been in contact with the magic tail for a much longer amount of time. I had heard her scream in pain, but she was in the exact same condition as when we had first set foot in the clearing, even though she had not used her aura to protect herself.

… Or at the very least, I haven’t noticed her use it.

What I had noticed, however, was how worried she had been for Bali when found her laying unconscious. It had been a nice change from her usual demeanor.

It’s probably a lot simpler than I think.

The red haired delver being unharmed could easily be explained by the usage of a skill or an item, even if that wouldn’t explain why she needed such things in the first place.

There were just too many things I was curious about, like the different classes of my teammates. The “brawlers” and “swordsmen” were all grouped together, but it wasn’t hard to see that they went about things in different ways, with different skills. Even though they were all hunters.

It was becoming more and more apparent that the term “hunter” didn’t really refer to a class, but was some sort of qualifier that changed the nature of someone’s class. It made me think of the terms “shuari” and “blazing” that appeared in my and Bo’s classes, and made me slightly anxious about their effects.

Then again, it was hard to ask questions when I had made it clear that I didn’t want to divulge anything personal.

“Hmm, you okay there?” Cairo said while waving his hand in front of my face. “Do you zone out like this often?”

“Pretty often,” I said with a chuckle.

“So… what are you?” he said. “I’m asking because Timuk is getting pretty nervous at the thought of hunting with a wizard. Not that we have anything against wizards, but the rumors said that you were a sword dancer. Then I figured that the rumors were fake and that you actually were some type of gunner but if you need mana to use your gun then-”

He stopped talking and sighed after seeing me smile.

“Sorry, I’m rambling,” he said. “It’s just not every day that you get to talk to a delver. And now I’m hunting with two!”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said with a dismissive hand wave. “Which one is Timuk?”

He looked at me, with a confused look on his face.

“Wait, so you don’t know our names?” he asked with disbelief.

“Typical Edward,” Lima said as she walked past us.

“Well, I know some of your names,” I said with a frown aimed at her. “Those I’ve heard, like yours. It’s not like you guys presented yourselves to me.”

“Sure, but still…” Cairo said with a confused look on his face. “Isn’t it weird to be risking your life with people you don’t even know the names of?”

“Not really,” I shrugged. “Do you think that Maru knows all of you?”

“I- I guess you’re right,” he said with a forced smile. “Well, I’m going to talk to the others. See you later.”

I gave him a nod and watched him leave visibly hurt. What did he expect?

“Did you forget who you are talking to?” I heard one of his brawler comrades laugh as he threw a comforting arm across Cairo’s shoulders. “He is a delver, and will have forgotten about this by tomorrow… That’s what you get for spouting nonsense about me being nervous.”

For a brief instant I was tempted to say something, but then I realized that he was right and shrugged it off. I couldn’t speak for all delvers, but I certainly had bigger things to worry about than this hunt and the people who took part in it. Minus Lima and Maru, for different reasons.

Well, at least now I know who Timuk is, I thought as I sized up the bearded grey cat with shifty eyes. Have I actually ever properly looked at him?

The pair sure made for an interesting sight. Especially when, like Cairo, Timuk gauntlets and the parts of his clothes that weren’t just leather had been reinforced with layers of green scales that gave the hunters a fierce appearance. It made me wonder why our remaining brawler had opted for gauntlets made of steel.

What was her name again? I found myself thinking as my eye instinctively searched for the female tiger.

No.

did have better things to worry about than the identities of the people I was hunting with. It’s not like with Imane. They are people I will probably never see again.

But was it really not?

I couldn’t even argue that I had always been that detached. In the past, the bonds I had shared with my comrades had been a large part of what had kept me mostly sane. But in my current situation… it just seemed unnecessary. Wasn’t it normal to become emotionally self-sufficient after a certain age?

Unless that’s just another way to say that they become “jaded”, I mused. Which isn’t even necessarily a bad thing.

But the vague term used to justify my presence in this world had been “karma”, after all. What if creating more healthy relationships with people turned out to be the way to save my soul all along?

Maybe I should try to give this a fairer shot.

I didn’t believe that there was a serious need for me to drastically change the way I did things, but “caring” a bit more couldn’t be that bad.

After a moment, I gestured at Lima that my mana was full and she rounded up her troops. It was time for the second phase of their trial to begin and for me to finally get my hands on some monster cores. From what I had been told, the cores had to be physically extracted from the dead creatures, but thankfully the hunters had a “Carving” skill that not only made the process easier but had the potential to somehow make additional rewards appear.

One could say that I was looking forward to seeing it in use.

This time, we had missed the theatrics of the dungeon. No one had paid attention to the moving trees or the screaming woman. We got into position in front of the stone arch with almost no visible signs of pressure and anxieties to speak of.

I found myself standing next to Kinua again. Our archer was a frail girl, but I knew that her appearance wasn’t to be trusted. After seeing her in action, even I wasn’t confident enough to say that I was strong enough to use her rather impressive bow.

“Feeling better?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said with a meek smile. “Clearing my thoughts helped a lot.”

“Good thing.”

The power of her arrows certainly was something our group would need this time.

We walked past the second stone arch just as one would walk past a sign, and while the meadow disappeared behind us, the path of flowers and candles stretched forward. And that was good enough for us.

The sun rays filtered through the roof of thick leaves over our heads and we could now hear birds chirping, even if we couldn’t see them. Everybody’s guard was up, but the fear had been replaced by the almost palpable certainty that things would be alright in the end.

“What will you guys do with your money?” The brawler I know knew to be Timuk asked after a moment of silence.

“Now you are just begging for everything to go wrong,” I heard Bardath say behind me.

“Bardath, how come you’re still alive with such weak nerves?”

“Weak nerves? I shall let you know that-”

“It depends on whether I have enough for the lottery,” the female brawler said. “If my share is big enough for that, then I will take a break from the dangerous stuff.”

That surely was different than what her fierceness suggested. Maybe tigers beastkins all usually have huge peaceful sides, I wondered. Even Ardos is a painter.

“Otherwise?”

“Otherwise, I will look for better equipment and join the hunt for Irura like everybody else,” she said. “There, I shall make a name for myself.”

Irura… I have heard that name somewhere.

“Yeah… the loot from killing it will be no joke,” said our swordsman with a chuckle.

He had been moved to the front, leaving only Bardath, Maru and the lama in back. Since he was the only hunter wearing a full helmet, I couldn’t tell if he was a full beastkin, but the two short horns that poked through made me guess that he had something to do with antelopes. His two-handed sword was very similar to the ones the Knight Of Dawn had been using. Thinner than a greatsword, but long enough to allow great reach and powerful swings. “Can’t be, all the big names are giving it a shot,” he continued. “Might even be valuable enough to convince the charon to make exceptions, you know?”

Bo told me about it, I remembered. It’s a giant hyena that comes out of the fog. Seems like it’s still alive.

“No way. You can’t bribe a charon, Vaunt,” Cairo said. “They aren’t even like regular people, to begin with. I’m pretty sure coins have no value to them.”

“Then why do they ask to get paid, hmm? You never even met one!”

“But my father has, when his family moved here,” he said and all the heads turned toward him. “He was young, but I trust him when he says that you have to be ‘different’ to enjoy going traveling through the Fog of War.”

“… I don’t think that they enjoy it,” Bali merrily chimed in.

“As different as Deadeye?”

I raised a questioning eyebrow at the speaker.

“Timuk,” Lima said with a menacing tone.

“What, we’re all thinking about it, right?” he continued. “He wasn’t in the shard a week ago, I think we can all agree to that. And even if he’s friend with the Red Cross, the fact that he joined them yesterday with all his limbs still attached kinda hints that he’s not from Nashran either.”

“You better keep the names of the Pearl and the Cross off your filthy mouth,” Maru hissed from behind me.

“S-sorry!” he said with a nervous laugh.” He certainly had ruined the cheerful atmosphere, but the tense silence that followed his words was mostly due to people reacting to movement on our left. Thanks to the abundant light and the spaced out trees, we could see a massive four-legged creature coming our way at high speed. It was a bloated adult bear with a discolored hide and limbs of different size. While it still had its head, I could see that it was fully covered with the lidless yellow eyes that seemed to be part of any living things in this forest.

“So Deadeye,” Timuk started, “are you actually a very sophisticated monster from the f-”

“Shut up and focus,” I said, and he did as told, ignoring the mocking taps from Cairo.

“Good call,” said Lima as she readied her glaive. “It’s one of the big ones, the thick hide might make this a long fight but we’ll have to hurry before the reinforcements arrive. Hammer, just try to find a window to knock it out. Brawlers intercept it, swordsmen try to get one of its legs so that it can’t run around. I’ll try to get the tail for better carving, but let’s not focus on that alright? What matters is that we get it before the next one arrives. Rangers, do your thing but try to stay on the path… We don’t want it to slither away.”

Bali had already launched herself toward the beast, quickly followed by Cairo, Timuk, and the tiger girl right after they used their boosting kills. The rest of the team fanned out on their trail, leaving Kinua and I by ourselves.

“Kinda feels like we’re having it easy,” I said as I watched the hunters make contact with the roaring creature.

“That’s because you have yet to use your weapon,” Kinua said. She had already nocked an arrow and the muscles of her arms were fully visible as she pulled on the bowstring. The arrow was shining, like Maru’s sword did sometimes.

There was a gust of wind when she released it, and the next instant her whistling spear was burrowing itself in the corrupted bear’s front leg, forcing the creature to bend the knee.

The lama leaped forward and bashed his hammer against the beast’s ribs. He had definitely used a skill, because the impact caused a shockwave that blew all the fallen leaves away and was strong enough to lift the bear off the ground and make it fall on its side.

Clad in aura, Bali wrapped her arms around the beast’s neck and kept it down in a vicious chokehold. I shot the creature a couple times for good measure, but it wasn’t at all needed. The gauntlets broke its bones and the blades pierced its flesh. After a deep thrust of Lima’s glaive, I received a notification.

+50 ether.

“YES!” Cairo screamed, standing on top of the beast, and the other hunters echoed him with shouts of victory.

I felt an odd sense of pride seeing Lima cheering with her team, and couldn’t help but appreciate how they respected her leadership.

I think I’m only missing two of their names.

However, the voices were soon drowned by the roars of two new bears heading in our direction.

“Vaunt, get to carving!” Lima commanded. “Faster we kill them, sooner we get to rest! Let’s-”

The blast from my rifle interrupted her, and one of the bears lost a good chunk of its deformed face, causing it to crash against a tree.

The hunters paused and stared at me.

I stared back.

“Get to carving,” I said with a smile.

 

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Chapter 66

This hunt was a life or death situation for Kinua’s pack, but these delvers clearly weren’t worried about getting out alive. They probably never had to really suffer for anything in their lives, yet Kinua was the one who had to enter this death trap for a slim chance of catching Genoneva’s eyes and being chosen to leave the shard… Preferably with her pack leader.

Another smaller detonation diverted her attention from the smoldering anger welling up inside of her.

“Wh-what did it do?” she asked Bardath. “Why did he shoot again?”

“Oh, I don’ know. He aimed at the ground, probably was checking something” he shrugged. “But are you… back? How are you feeling?”

“I’ll be fine,” she curtly replied, still ashamed of what she had shown them all. “It will not happen again.”

Confusion washed over his face.

“Again? You-you mean that you want to keep going?”

“Of course I am!” she blurted out, annoyed by the question. “Why would I leave now?”

He shrugged again.

“Just because we’re past the Path of Dawn doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy,” he said. “People still die at Noon.”

“He is correct, Kinua,” Senior Khat interjected. “This is the time for all of you to reevaluate your will to go deeper in this dungeon.”

She said nothing out of respect for him, but inwardly snorted at the “reevaluation” he was encouraging. The only reason why senior hunters always joined the expeditions to Yaga’s garden was to make sure that the young hunters would get some help to deal with the first knight, and in exchange, they got an Eye of Yaga. But not only had Khat not been needed, he had been saved by their party.

The next part was known to be a lot less dangerous. Only an idiot would choose to leave now.

“Ah! My heart!”

The grating voice of an aged woman echoed through the forest, seemingly coming from every direction at the same time. The sun, suddenly no longer anchored to the horizon, started an accelerated ascension of the sky. It would soon be noon, and apparently, Kinua’s presence was not needed.

This is all because they think I’m useless. They would never advise an archer to leave first if it was not for… him, she realized has her gaze fell once again on Deadeye who was doing his best to keep Lima from his injured arm as they came their way.

Spice was walking a few meters behind them, looking spectacularly unhurt by the Knight’s tail. Her burly comrade, on the other hand, had her skin and clothes covered with burn marks and seemed exhausted.

“Dammit Edward, stop moving! What will you do if it gets infected?”

“You need to listen to what I’m saying,” the boy said with his boring monotone voice. “Imane herself told me that using the ointment on me would be a waste. Just give me a bandage or something, you better save this for yourself.”

“Just… because it won’t instantly heal you… doesn’t mean… it’s useless!”

It took Senior Khat clearing his throat for Lima to let him go, and even then she kept glaring daggers at him. Not that he seemed concerned.

“Delvers of the Red Cross, I humbly thank you for your assistance. Had it not been for you, it is very likely that I would have lost my life today,” Khat said. “Though it would be hard for me to rejoice when so many lives have been lost.”

The boy noticed the three disheartened hunters sitting on the grass next to Khat and nodded.

“I understand,” he simply said. “Lima told me that you will need the locket to leave the dungeon… and that you really want to get your hands on the second item.”

“Yes… that is correct. I promise you that-”

“Here,” the delver said as he threw the Knight’s Locket and the Eye of Yaga like vulgar apples for Khat to catch. “I hope my compensation will be waiting for me at your camp like she said.”

“It surely will,” Khat said. Despite his sharpened senses, even the senior hunter had been surprised by Deadeye’s unpredicted compliance, and almost failed to catch the fragile yellow orb they all knew to be Yaga’s eye. “Do you… know its value?” he added after a short pause.

“Well, I know its value to you,” Deadeye shrugged. “An item that allows people to curse any opponent with a Beast status. It would be useless to me, but it doesn’t take a genius to guess how a hunter could use it.”

“Oh, that’s what it was?” Bali the giant wrestler realized with a dramatic clap of her massive hands. “Now I understand why they came here despite being so weak! They would be able to use their skills on anyone!”

Lima’s pack took the insult with grace. They had not really given their guests any reason to believe think otherwise, but hearing such words from privileged princelings only served to further fuel Kinua’s rage.

Do they even realize that people died because of them?

If they had not forcefully joined their pack, the composition of the teams and the order of entry would have stayed the same. Maybe they would have lost a few members, but senior Khat would have come out of the forest uninjured. With the first group taking out more monsters, the following two packs would have been fine, Kinua was certain of it.

And the three others only came because he wanted to come. It’s all… his fault.

“This would normally be the time to use the locket and let the remaining hunters proceed to the second half of their trial,” Senior Khat said. “However, since we are in the company of delvers, there is something I would like to find out… If you do not mind, of course.”

“Sure,” Deadeye shrugged. “I already agreed to help where I can.”

There was no real mystery to what senior Khat wanted to try. The old cracked well that sat untouched near the second archway had always been the subject of wild speculations from the hunters. Some said that drinking from it would cure any illnesses, others that its water could grant anyone a permanent skill. But as far as the hunters were concerned, no one with the necessary amount of glory had ever tried to interact with it. Until now.

Their group had moved as one, no one willing to miss what was about to happen. Dawn was long gone in Yaga’s garden, and the temperature was rising. Once they reached the empty well, Deadeye took a peek inside, his relaxed demeanor feeling like daggers to Kinua’s heart.

“Do you want to try?” He asked Spice, to which she replied with a snort of contempt. But far from being offended, he only chuckled and looked back at the senior hunter.

“I just received a notification,” he said. “Apparently, it’s called a Soul Mourning Well. Do you want me to activate it?”

“A Soul Mourning Well? Were you judged to be worthy?” Senior Khat inquired.

“Don’t know if ‘worthy’ is the right word, but it says I can use it once. Do you know what it will do?”

“We do not. No hunter has ever used it, or at the very least has revealed that they have.”

“Alright then. Let’s do this.”

However nothing happened, and the delver just kept staring at the well. The hunters had started giving each other questioning looks when Kinua’s ears caught a deep humming coming from the well and quickly growing in intensity.

They had always been expecting water, but it was a torrential flock of white birds that surged out of the abyss instead. Hundreds of birds flying upward before spreading out through the forest, showering them with weightless feathers that faded into nothingness as soon as they landed anything.

It happened so fast and ended so abruptly that Kinua wondered if it had been real.

“That… that was it?” She heard a bewildered Cairo ask.

“How do you all feel?”

“Nothing wrong. Actually, I’m feeling pretty- oh.”

Kinua realized it soon too. All of her fatigue had been replaced with renewed energy. Senior Khat removed his bloodied bandages as Deadeye was inspecting his left arm with a satisfied expression.

“Well… now we know what it does.”

Why is he is so smug? As if he hadn’t earned his glory in perfectly safe environments created just for him!

Kinua looked around as the members of her pack cheered and thanked their luck. Worst of all, Lima herself seemed oddly proud of Deadeye, as if he clearly was not an opportunistic noble who had come to their shard to mock them and get his ego stroked.

Am I the only one seeing it?

“You have my thanks, Edward,” Said senior Khat on a pensive tone. “It is humbling to think of all the warriors who died so close to such an outstanding healing method, or the frustrated hunters who had to leave the dungeon because of wounds that did not allow them to complete their hunt. It really… makes one feel bitter.”

There was a short silence that Kinua wished they were using to think about the unfair advantage they were shamelessly basking in, but when the senior hunter spoke again it was with a wide smile.

“However, I have no doubts that all of you will come out of this test unscathed. You are the future of the Hunters Den, and I hope that you learn through your cooperation with these two delvers that some warriors… are worthy of your trust.”

“Thank you sir,” Lima said with a respectful bow. “We won’t disappoint you.”

Baffled, Kinua watched Sir Khat and the surviving members of Jojo’s packs walk away. Some of her own packmates were also perplexed, but for an entirely different reason.

“Wait, Kinua is staying?” she heard someone whisper behind her.

“Yeah. I’m warning you, don’t bother bringing it up.”

“It’s fine. If she passes out again, we can just carry her.”

“Yeah. And I’m sure you’d volunteer for it, you sly piece of-”

A few meters away from them, Senior Khat raised the Knight’s Locket and instantly disappeared in a gust of blades of grass.

It was now noon, and just as the sun was as high in the sky as it could be, so was everybody’s morale. All their wounds had been healed, food was being unpacked and laughs were shared in response to bad jokes. It did not at all feel like they really were in a dungeon.

Kinua was silent, however. Her face felt as if it was burning.

“Hey… are you alright? You don’t look so good.”

She glanced at the speaker and saw that it was her dear leader. Lima. The only person her age worthy of her admiration.

“I… just remembered how it felt back there,” Kinua said with a meek smile. “But I will not disappoint you again, that I promise.”

“Aww, I was never disappointed in you, Kinua!” Lima said with a warm hug. “I am sure you’ll do just fine!”

She smells like those blue flowers…

“Don’t put so much pressure on yourself, okay?” Lima added with a bright smile. “Edward’s here, and I already told him I’d work him to the bone for refusing to share his meal. Cheer up, the next part will be a piece of cake!”

She then left to check on the others.

Where is his weapon? Kinua wondered as she studied him discussing with his wrestler guildmate.Now that I think of it, I did not see him search the creature’s body for loot… Gods under, does he have an inventory too?

Deadeye looked up, probably sensing her gaze, and their eyes locked. He smiled at her, and she smiled back.

One arrow. One arrow was all it would take.

 

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Chapter 65

Despite Lima’s reassuring arm laying over her shoulder as they watched the delvers of the Red Cross toy with the Knight of the Dawn, Kinua was unable to stop the flow of her tears.

Her most recent memories were a blurred mess of self-hatred and fear, but one thing was for sure: at the center of the carnage that took place in the dark forest, she had given up on life, persuaded that nothing she did mattered and that death was coming for her.

Why had she let her delusions of grandeur to trick her into believing that she was ready for Yaga’s Garden? Incoming Fog or not, she should have played it safe and stayed behind. No skills or abilities were worth this nightmare. She was going to die, just another hunter lost to the Garden… or so she had thought.

Deadeye and Spice, two of the three delvers of the shards had joined her pack. She had been skeptical at first, believing them to be frauds, but the miracles performed by Deadeye left no place for doubts in her heart.

They were ones of the lucky ones. People blessed by the gods for obscure reasons no one could really explain.

Senior Khat reached their group, followed by Jojo and two of his teammates wearing downcast expressions. Cairo went to his side, rummaging through his pack for first aid necessities.

Only four people survived of those who entered first? Kinua wondered.

“Sir,” Lima greeted him. “We were informed by Pohram that you had changed the order of entry and came in last as instructed. Everybody is accounted for…” after a beat of hesitation, she asked the question in everybody’s mind. “What happened?”

“First, explain how you managed to come out in such good condition,” said the old hunter without even looking at her. His eyes were on the three people now fighting the Knight of Dawn in his stead. “I assume the delvers are partly responsible, but I want to know how.”

The way he had phrased his question seemed to displease Kinua’s packmates. Timuk was the one to speak, his gauntlets still dripping with fluids that Kinua was doing her best to ignore.

“…Sir. You are speaking as if you did not expect us to make it out alive.”

“I am speaking as someone who is aware that casualties are expected and yet sees none in your group. Lima, explain.”

“We used a standard circle formation with Spice at the rear,” Lima said. “There is no denying that they saved our lives. Edward’s rifle was particularly useful, and was able to greatly decrease the burden that usually falls on the frontline’s shoulders.”

“… You mean the burden that usually falls on everybody’s shoulders,” someone corrected.

“I see…” Sir Khat mused. “Knowing that the human weapons have the potential to save the lives of future hunters is a valuable information.”

Kinua noticed that Lima had failed to mention Deadeye’s most impressive feat, the fact that he had been able to effortlessly guide them to the meadow, even though they had lost the path. But why?

They had always been taught that losing the path meant death. Of the few hunters who claimed to have been able to make it out alive despite getting lost, only Oju’s story was believable, and she had ended up becoming an Alpha Hunter. If Edward’s method could be shared, then it would be incredibly beneficial to the shard’s hunters.

But none of the members of her pack said anything, so she kept her thoughts to herself, biting her lip.

Is she trying to protect him?

“How did you… get hurt?”

“Changing the order was a grave mistake on my part,” senior Khat admitted. He did not tear his eyes from the fight, but a deep frown had now appeared between them. “Jojo’s team were much less qualified than I had anticipated, and I was stupidly injured while trying to protect them. Even then… I only managed to keep these three alive. And it would all have been for nothing if your team hadn’t arrived.”

“What about Pohram’s team?” Cairo asked.

“They haven’t emerged even though they entered the forest before you,” senior Khat said as he shook his head. “Consider them gone.”

There was a silence, and Kinua knew that her teammates were thinking of how awfully close they had been to be considered “gone” too. Especially if they had also thought of switching team at the last minute. Then it was interrupted by multiples detonations of Deadeye’s human weapon. It seem to wake a few of the party up.

“What are we doing, we should go help them!” Timuk exclaimed.

“Oh, really?” Cairo sneered. “Weren’t you throwing up your insides just know? Use your head, they are buying us time so that we can recuperate.”

“But we can’t just-”

“We’re all too tired or injured to do anything,” Vaunt interrupted. Seeing the stains on his sword, made Kinua realize how abnormal it was for her to be so… clean. “They clearly have skills or items helping them manage their stamina… they could even have the Constitution attribute.”

“That Bali girl clearly has it,” lamented Cairo. “Man, to be blessed by the gods…”

“But they will get the rewards!” Bardath suddenly panicked. “We should at least try to place a few hits in so that we can justify getting some of them!”

“That would be pathetic,” Lima said. “You can go, though. As far as I’m concerned, they deserve them.”

“What about the loot, then?” Bardath hissed. “What about the Glory? Lima I know that we would all be dead without them but-”

“But what?” Lima said as she finally let go of Kinua to face him. “There’s no but. You would have been dead if not for Edward, even though you’ve been nagging me about his presence all day. At least have some shame and show a bit of dignity.”

She has changed so much in so little time, Kinua thought has she looked at the face of her pack leader. Even the way she would now often raise a single eyebrow when mocking someone was something recent.

Lima had always been headstrong and driven, but Kinua had always been able to sense fragility hidden behind her determination. As if the tall girl did not really have faith in herself. It had made Kinua want to be her support.

But Lima was not putting a front anymore. The strength Kinua now felt behind her words could not have been faked, and it was not hard to guess what the origin of that strength was.

“Lima,” senior Khat simply said. He did not bother elaborating, his tone implied what everybody was thinking.

“I-I know,” Lima said with a sigh. “I’ll speak to Edward, I am sure he won’t mind.”

“He would be compensated, of course,” the older hunter assured. “As soon as your team decides to returns to camp.”

Khat’s interest in the Knight’s loot was expected, and not just because it included an item extremely valuable to hunters. If the two delvers were to refuse to cooperate, the senior hunter and the three survivors would be unable to leave the dungeon.

“I still think that we should help,” Timuk said. “Simply watching is shameful.”

“They do not need your help,” said senior Khat, and as if to confirm his words from the other side of the meadow, Spice tore a hole through the Knight with a single hit.

Kinua wondered how close the two delvers really were. Spice seemed to be angry at the human for some reason, didn’t that mean that there was something between them? Their teamwork while fighting the named creature surely was impeccable. Were they friends? More than friends?

As long as he leaves Lima alone.

“Th-the three of them can kill it?”

“More like the two of them, I don’t see the grappler. Lima, did you tell them to sever the two halves?”

Clearly not, thought Kinua, as she watched the delvers freeze in surprise at the sight of the monster surviving Spice’s blow. Their first mistake until now.

Lima cursed and snatched her glaive from Bardath’s hands, before dashing toward the fight. She was followed by the Timuk, Cairo, and the outsider, apparently the only ones able to react fast enough.

… or the only ones who believe those two are worth the risks, Kinua thought.

In the distance, Spice was struggling to free herself from the grasp of the knight’s tail while Deadeye showered it with bullets that seemed ineffective.

He may be able to shoot fast, but his small projectiles are just not enough against real foes.

“Oh, really?” Bardath yelled after the reinforcements. “Now joining the fight is fi-”

There was a roaring blast and, for a brief instant, the feeble lights of dawn covering the meadow were overpowered by a flash from Deadeye’s firearm.

“Gods…” Vaunt muttered.

The lies! He told me that he had no special skills!

However, that explosive shot might have been the delver’s trump card. Lima’s friend had ripped the knight’s arms in a shocking display of power and dexterity, but also destroyed his only weapon in the process, sending pieces of it flying in every direction.

Worse, the aggravated Knight Of Dawn was now galloping in his direction, howling in pain and ready to put an end to the one who had injured it so. Lima was screaming at the boy to run away, but Deadeye did not react to her words and stayed immobile, pointing his broken tool at the monster while his fuming arm was left limp at his side.

“They won’t make it in time,” Bardath said. “He’s going to die.”

Oddly enough, Kinua felt somewhat comforted by the thought that even a delver could be frozen in fear in face of incoming danger. If it could happen to them, then her shutting down in the forest could not be that bad.

But right at the moment of impact, there was a second explosion. The clearing was illuminated once more and the Knight of Dawn fell, cleaved in half by a single human.

I saw his weapon explode. We all saw it happen.

Deadeye was now approaching one of the knight’s halves, walking without deigning to show even a hint of excitement for his victory. Kinua caught a glimpse of his weapon and gasped in shock at the outrageous reason why it could still be used after being destroyed.

“His…. Am I seeing this right? Sir, are you seeing this?”

Senior Khat did not say anything, but Kinua knew by the way he had narrowed his eyes that he was as shocked as they were.

Deadeye’s weapon can rebuild itself.

No wonder he was so efficient with it. Only the angels above knew what the grade of that item was. Silver? …Maybe even Gold?

I have never even touched a bronze grade item…

Was that really all it came down too? Either one was blessed by the gods with a rare class and a powerful family with the right connections, or they were left to fight for the scraps like her?

How is this fair? She thought as she gripped her bow tighter.

 

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Chapter 64

I opened my status while the others were still hugging each other, and took a lot at my gains in ether.

HP: 312/580
Stamina: 585/585 (regen: 5.9/minute)

Mana: 500/500 (regen: 4.2/minute)

Attributes

Vitality 55 (+3)
Strength 52 (+3)
Constitution 56 (+3)(+10)
Dexterity 38 (+3)
Agility 40 (+3)(+10)
Perception 52 (+3)
Intelligence 102 (+8)
Wisdom 36 (+8)
Tenacity 0 (+3)

Racial traits

Technopath 0/320
Summon: Drone
Summon: Intermediate Rooting Mine
AI Domination

Keeper of the First flame 0/800
Left eye of the nameless Djin
+ 30% resistance to fire in human form.

+ 30% reduced stamina usage in djin form.
Sun Avatar

Classes

Dreadnova Enforcer (3rd gen) – level 16

Machine symbiosis 0/640
Hextech Mana Drain
Enforcer 0/640
Kinetic charge
Sharpshooter 0/640
Recoil absorption

Blade Priest of the Deep – level 8

Shuari Blade Dancer 0/60
Sunken dance [ Intermediate proficiency : 0%]
Mindscape Projection
Priest of the Deep 0/1920
Grasp of the Deep

Unspent Ether: 2230

Well, that’s disappointing.

I remembered having earned close to four thousand points right before my fight with Dylarel, and the knockers were definitely easier kills than the monstrosities roaming these woods.

Then again, I am probably the only person thinking that way in the whole shard, I mused. The people from Bunker didn’t even believe that they were real.

The effectiveness of the knockers’ weakness was proportionate to how unfair their strength was. Without a weapon in the same league as Ikun Omi, they were basically immortal creatures.

But in what league was she, really? There were so many titles tied to her, and a few of them I knew nothing about. I wasn’t optimistic enough to think that her being the “Last Sin” of the “Sins of Oriath series” would eventually turn out to be a good thing. Even now, I could feel her burning desire to put down the white centaur, its mere existence a blatant challenge to our abilities.

… And I had to admit that it was very tempting. I could feel my own hand itch at the thought of overwhelming the beast with my dance.

But now wasn’t the time to indulge. Now was the perfect time to use the ether, as I never wanted to be bedridden with Ether Indigestion ever again.

I was really curious of what the next skill from Priest of the Deep would be, but even if I ignored how expensive its upgrades were becoming, there was no way to predict when it would be awarded.

With that in mind, and seeing how the day’s little trip was dedicated to my rifle, I decided to focus on Dreadnova Enforcer for the time being.

With the amount of ether I had, I could either upgrade each of its skill trees once or a single one twice. But even if the lure of a potential skill was enticing, improving part of my stats thrice wasn’t something I could reasonably pass on.

As if to remind me to hurry, Khat’s heavy greatsword was knocked out of his hands by a brutal swipe of the creature’s floating tail.

Despite the fact that its armored humanoid half carried a sword in each hand, that tail had been the only mean of offense I had seen the centaur use. The sound that had echoed through the forest each time it met Khat’s weapon heavily implied that it was metallic.

“The huntress with the eyepatch warned us to not steal the spotlight from her cubs,” I heard Bali say on my side, once again surprising me with her ability to move without attracting attention. “Do you really think it’s fine for us to get involved with killing a named monster?”

“It’s either that, or he dies,” Maru said from the other side. “I do not care either way. If her people really mattered to her, she would not have allowed them to come here in the first place.”

“I already decided to help him,” I said. Lima’s comrades were either exhausted or still under shock. And since they were likely to not have the Constitution attribute, they couldn’t be expected to be in fighting condition any time soon. “How do people tell how much ether will make them sick?”

“Not being a mindless glutton should be suffi-”

“It depends,” Bali chuckled. “We were taught to avoid gaining more than ten levels in one go. A bit less if you won’t be active afterward.”

I almost killed myself in that mine, I thought as I upgraded each skill tree once and raised my Dreadnova class to level nineteen.

Attributes

Vitality 64 (+3)
Strength 61 (+3)
Constitution 65 (+3)(+10)
Dexterity 38 (+3)
Agility 40 (+3)(+10)
Perception 61 (+3)
Intelligence 102 (+8)
Wisdom 36 (+8)
Tenacity 0 (+3)

Racial traits

Technopath 0/20
Summon: Drone

Keeper of the First flame 0/100
Left eye of the nameless Djin

Classes

Dreadnova Enforcer (3rd gen) – level 19

Machine symbiosis 0/1280
Hextech Mana Drain
Enforcer 0/1280
Kinetic charge
Sharpshooter 0/1280
Recoil absorption

Of the attributes that directly influenced my shooting, only Perception was affected. But it was still nice to see my Constitution go up.

It’s almost as if I wasn’t just running like a-

As I raised my eyes, I was shocked to see Maru and Bali already halfway to the fight. One could have thought that they were dashing to Khat’s rescue, but I knew better.

… Damned sneaky brats are trying to keep the ether to themselves!

I put a knee down and aimed at the centaur’s head, but noticing how strangely slumped backward and inert its human half was, I switched target for the lower body and pulled the trigger…

… Only to see Maru’s spinning blade come out of nowhere in the same instant and deviate the projectile in a shower of sparks.

So much for an improved perception.

I cursed at the petty delver and started sprinting as I watched them engage the beast and give the wounded hunter an opportunity to perform a rough retreat. Shooting from this far when one of the girls was actually trying to wrestle the monster down wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.

But as I was quickly approaching, the centaur’s upper half came to life and its swords would have severed Bali’s arms if she hadn’t leaped away at the last second. And even then, a swift swat of the creature’s tail sent her flying before she could land to safely.

From the impossibly perfect hair overflowing from its helm, I recognized the human part as what was left of the woman we had all seen standing at the end of the path.

The Knight of Dawn.

Her alabaster torso had been sewn to a horse’s lower half using a kind of unholy magic I wanted to know nothing of, and gross stitches that where visible all over the uncovered skin. In the places where the stitches were particularly loose, yellow eyes could be seen peering out.

The woman was somewhat out of her previous torpor, but there was no doubt that the monster underneath was in control. Her head was violently jostled around at each swing of her swords aimed at Maru, who I was seeing fight for the first time. And I was impressed.

With precise movements of her rapier, she was able to expertly parry the twin swords’ savage onslaught, not backing up an inch against the imposing beast.

Judging that I was close enough for a clear line of sight in the event of Bali’s return to the fight, I raised my gun and quickly sent a volley of bullets. Three blood spurting holes appeared in the beast’s flank and it repositioned its tail so that it would work as a barrier before I could do more damage.

But I kept firing nonetheless. Sparks exploded into existence, blood flowed again, and the woman howled as the armor piercing bullets found their marks. The pain distracted the creature well enough for Maru to spin out of the way of its swords and thrust her shining blade into the beast’s main body with a shout of victory.

And with that exchange, I understood why dancers without styles were seen as inferior.

Anyone else watching her fight would probably have had no reproach to make. She was efficient with movements, smart with her actions and ruthless when on the offensive. And how could she not be? She was emulating her mother, after all.

But that was the problem. She was emulating a dancer, but she wasn’t dancing herself. She was using individual skills one after the other and filling the blanks in between with her own personal training.

Sure, it was done smoothly enough to make it seem like they were part of a coherent assortment, but it was obvious that they had been clumsily arranged by someone who had an incomplete idea of the theme. Obvious to me, and probably to every other dancer.

There was no covering puzzle pieces mashed together through force.

Her lunge had been a skill carrying considerable force, obliterating everything in a straight line. It pierced the centaur from one end to another and painted everything behind with a spray of crimson. It should have been the finishing move, but the centaur did not fall. Even with a gapping tube of falling entrails traveling down its abdomen.

Its tail shot to Maru who had been left wide open by her powerful attack and wrapped itself around her like a snake, binding her arms.

Expecting her to instantly free herself, I was shocked to see her scream in pain as the knight lifted her off the ground.

Why the hell is she not using her aura? I thought before realizing that the tail was probably imbued with magic. Which in retrospect seemed obvious, seeing how it was unaffected by gravity.

The monstrous Knight of Dawn was about to execute his now defenseless opponent, and I lowered my rifle. The fact that Maru’s attack hadn’t killed it meant that everything I had done until now had been useless. I had to try something else.

So I summoned the Sun Barrel from my inventory and slid it at the end of my weapon. I heard a click signaling it had been secured, aimed a slightly heavier rifle at the centaur who had swing both its swords, then pulled the trigger.

A muffled scream escaped my mouth as half of the rifle exploded and a wave of pain engulfed my left hand. I had missed its head, but large chunks of the centaur’s arms vanished, and his hands fell to the ground still holding onto the swords.

The enraged beast roared in pain once more and charged at me after having smashed its captive against the ground.

Now I’m really fucked, I thought as I watched the centaur’s tail wreck havoc as it approached.

Even though my stats, cloth, and glove had protected my arm from the worst, there was no way I could wield her correctly in its current state. She isn’t like the rifle, I can’t just hold her in my right hand-

I noticed that my mana being consumed and looked down at the remnant of the weapon I still held.

The rifle was rebuilding itself. The parts that had been obliterated in the explosion were being rematerialized using my mana.

Hextech Mana Drain, I remembered. It seemed to be working fast enough.

Using only my right arm, I raised Tamie’s creation once more and waited. I felt the earth shake each time the Knight of Dawn’s hooves hit the ground to propel its massive gutted body in my direction.

His tail was about to break my body when the reparation was completed and most of what I had left of mana was sucked away to fill the rifle’s chamber. I opened fire in the same instant.

The base of the human torso became a void, and the centaur’s body plummeted to the ground and tumbled past me, sawn in half.

A deep sigh left my lungs and washed all the tension away.

+1000 ether.

You have received 5 glory.

You have received an Eye of Yaga.

You have received the Knight of Dawn’s Locket.

Eye of Yaga and Knight of Dawn’s Locket have been moved to inventory.

I heard the hunters approaching, but I had other things in my mind. I walked to the woman’s torso and saw that even though she wasn’t moving or making any sound, she was still alive. She had lost her helm during the fall, and I saw tears streaming down her face from her vacant eyes.

The rifle was done rebuilding itself. I removed the Sun Barel, and the scraps of mana I had left were enough to form a single bullet.

Iwin Town Quest Update.

You have freed 1 of the girls.

Next, I headed to where Maru had been thrown, but she was already up and brushing her mostly torn clothes by the time I arrived. Our eyes met, and she gave me a challenging glare.

Behind that glare, I saw what she was expecting. Mockery, contempt and maybe even scorn.

So I just raised my charred thumb up.

“Good job.”

 

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Chapter 63

They smashed themselves against our flanks, their gaping maws searching for limbs to tear. Having the brawlers on the sides turned out to be a blessing, as their plated gauntlets made them an ideal defensive wall. They were able to grab on the tusks like Bali had shown to keep the monsters at bay, but they didn’t have the ability to finish them off while we were on sprinting.

That job was mine.

Using the brawlers as a shield allowed me to further decrease the number of enemies. Every time they found themselves struggling, having to resort to aura, or entangled with one of the creatures for too long, I would execute it at point-blank range and give the bile covered hunters an opportunity to breathe before the next one inevitable came.

Aim for the eye. Shoot. Aim. Shoot. Aim. Shoo-

I couldn’t think of much more. The stream of enemies seemed to never end, and the survival of the team was relying more and more on me.

Kinua’s projectiles were much more versatile than mine. Her arrows were able to change direction mid-course and their steel shafts hindered even the following creatures when the targets fell.

But now that we were up close and personal with the monsters, all that mattered was rate of fire, and she couldn’t keep up.

Left, right and center. I trusted Maru to take care of the rear. The goal wasn’t even to kill them anymore, but to keep my teammates from getting obstructed. Stopping now would mean death.

A quick glance showed me that the path was still visible, though the candles were now at a good distance from us. Lima and Bali were doing their best to at least keep the candles in sight, as they literally mowed down anything that came in their way. But it simply wasn’t enough.

We’re slowing down.

Even with all the skills they had used, the strain of fighting while running as fast as they could was starting to get to the hunters.

We kept losing speed and were eventually plunged into obscurity as the stone candles fully disappeared from our view.

We did not stop running even though we were in the shadows because Lima hadn’t. The unwavering shimmer of her glaive cleaving the monsters was enough to convince her fellow hunters to put one foot after the other. But there was no more heart in it.

They have lost faith.

I could hear sobbing. Every time I would pull the trigger the muzzle flash would reveal the pale faces of my closest allies, and they were covered in sweat, dirt, blood, gunk, and tears. Their spirits broken by the loss of the lights.

“Please, please, please, please-” I could hear Kinua repeat in a feverish mantra.

Something needed to be done.

Could I use Sun avatar to try to buy time? Maybe, but if the spell failed to incapacitate all of the monsters, then I’d be left defenseless with no stamina.

What about Kinetic charge? It required me to run in a straight line, and the path was anything but straight.

Was it time to ditch the rifle for Ikun Omi?

Not unless it became clear that I had to focus solely on saving my own ass. The rifle was the best way to support everybody.

The enemy numbers didn’t seem to end, our dispirited people were exhausted and the meadow was nowhere in sight. I was racking my brain in the middle of a brewing massacre when the hellish creatures suddenly took their distance.

In shock, I watched the monsters slow down and put an end to their chase. Suddenly aborting their assault and letting us go with no casualties didn’t make sense, and I found myself dreading to learn why.

“Hold!” Lima shouted with palpable weariness in her voice.

That order hadn’t been necessary as the hunters were already past their limits, with the exception of Kinua and I, who had received the less damage out of everyone present. Even Maru had a few scratches, though I figured it was because she wanted to conserve her stamina, seeing how she didn’t seem at all concerned by the situation we were in.

Even though it was a miracle that everybody was still alive.

Without missing a beat, I closed the distance to Lima in a few strides, ignoring how my teammates collapsed to the ground gasping for hair, “Why did they stop and why are we stopping?”

This wasn’t the time to beat around the bush. I was proud of what she had accomplished and felt bad seeing her having to rely on her glaive’s pole as a support for standing, but we weren’t out of the woods just yet. Literally.

“They let us go because we came off the path,” she said. “They are leaving us to Yaga. I’m… I’m sorry. I just need a little time to focus so I can find it.”

I frowned.

“… So that you can find it?”

My gaze wandered to the double trail of white flowers a few meters behind her. The stone candles were gone, but the path was still clearly visible.

Or at the very least, visible to me.

“Huh.”

One of the brawlers who had been on our archer’s side abruptly walked up to me, and without any warnings gave me a strong enough hug to knock the wind out of me.

“Thank you!” I heard him say through crying gibberish. “Th-thank you!”

“Just… did my job,” I said with a comforting taps on his back that really were an urgent requests to be released.

“You did much more than that,” I surprisingly heard Bardath say as he walked to me and put a solemn hand on my shoulder. His armor was in tattters, and the fluids covering his great sword showed that it had seen some use. “I appologize for doubting you earlier… we saw everything you did from the back. You kept us all standing. Thank you.”

There were nods of agreement all around, a few more words of gratitude from the brawlers and even a huge grin from Bali. It was amazing how she seemed unhurt despite having no protection and repeatedly coming into direct contact with the monsters. Her class had to be something very impressive.

“Well, then you’re welcome,” I said. “Let’s all get out of here alive.”

A sneer came from the half-panda. There was no trace of his earlier confidence left on his face. It was pale as a sheet and streak of blood he didn’t bother to wipe ran down his nose.

“Now let us not be overly optimistic, alright?” he said with a forced smile.

“By the gods under, won’t you stop CRYING!” one of the brawlers yelled at Kinua.

“Leave her alone,” Cairo said. “It won’t matter to the witch if you have snot all over your face or not.”

The poor girl hadn’t moved since we had stopped running, only rocking back and forth with her arms around her legs in fetal position.

“Talk for yourself, I’m getting the fuck out of this deathtrap,” the brawler said as walked away. “I’m not waiting here to die!”

“Sit down, you moron.”

I looked around for the origin of the voice, and noticed the hammer wielding lama glaring daggers at the troublemaker.

“You know perfectly how stupid you sound. You know this place. You know what’s going to happen if you leave. So sit your ass down, be quiet, and let your leader focus in peace.”

“Who the fuck do you think-”

“Just do as he said or leave,” Bali intervened with a grin. “Your choice.”

The troublemaker froze. He was a recent witness of Bali’s strength, and it his eyes betrayed his unwillingness to be on the receiving hand of her throws. Not that I could blame him for it.

Mumbling and cursing under his breath, he finally sat down and grabbed his head with trembling hands soon after.

“Lima,” I called. “How do-”

“Edward,” she said without opening her eyes. “This is reaaally not the moment to distract me. If I do not find the path…”

She wasn’t able to finish her sentence.

“I might be able to help,” I said with a glance a the flowers. “Tell me how you intend to locate the path in the first place?”

She opened her eyes with a frustrated groan, and I noticed that they were bright red. It wasn’t because of a skill anymore.

“The temperature in the meadow is lower than that of the rest forest,” she said as she wiped her eyes. “My skin is very sensitive, and with aura I can follow the cold breeze back to its source. But I have to find it first.”

… The breeze?

I looked at her with disbelief.

“Is that also how the other teams planned to do it?”

“There have been many ways used by different hunters,” she shrugged. “But I know that it is how Pohram is also doing it.”

They are insane, I thought before realizing that it had to be said.

“You’re all insane,” I said.

And so am I for not realizing it sooner. The real reason they were dying in masses in this dungeon was that they were unequipped for it. Anyone unable to receive the quest in Iwin town was.

She merely shrugged.

“It’s the most commonly used way, and I’m suited for it. But it’s good for not getting off the path in the first place. Once you’ve lost it… it can be hard to find it again.”

I didn’t bother asking why. I could see the path slowly drifting away from us with my own eyes.

“Will the monsters come after us again if we get back on track?” I asked her.

She shook her head side to side.

“We’re Yaga’s preys now. She’s the dungeon boss and is immune to damage as long as the three named beasts are alive. We need to leave before she-”

“She’s on her way here as we speak!” Cairo shouted with depressing cheerfulness. “Yaga… I always wondered how she could be so fast with only one leg… Guess we’ll find out.”

Kinua let out a drawn out wail or panic and the armored cat bared his fangs at his teammate.

“You really, really need to get a grip and shut the fuck up too.”

An argument started and I grabbed Lima by the hand.

“Come,” I said.

She didn’t offer much resistance as I literally dragged her to the flower outline and made her stand in the middle of the path.

“What now?” she said with barely contained annoyance.

“The hell do you mean? Do your thing, try to sense the cold wind or whatever you call it.”

She was about sigh when her face froze. Several emotions quickly appeared across her face one after the other, but in the end the one that one out was a mixture of confused wonder.

“H-how?” she managed to say.

“Did you find the path?” I asked, dismissing her question.

“I did,” she said. “I did. But how did you-”

I threw my hands in the air.

“Lima! How I did it doesn’t matter. You confirmed that this really was the path, so now I will lead us to the meadow. We can’t take the risk of getting lost again if anything happens.” I pointed at the people who were either watching our exchange or waiting for Death with empty eyes. “Got it? Gather your men!”

Her confusion was replaced by resolve, and she headed to speak to the drained hunters.

I sighed and looked down the path ahead. It was entirely possible that the flowers branched out from the candles at some point, but staying here wasn’t an option. No matter where they would lead us.

“What?” I heard Bardath blurt out as Lima gave him her glaive and lifted an unresponsive Kinua.

“Don’t just stand there!” yelled the half panda as he shoved everybody out of his way and he hurried to my position.

The hunters joined me with much more faith in their eyes than I had expected, and with Maru and Bali in tow. Their unbothered expressions convinced me that they had a way to bail out of this whole situation, but I decided to leave it to another time.

“Ready?” I asked her.

She nodded.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We ran in silence. I couldn’t imagine what went through the minds of my party members as I guided them deeper in the forest in a direction that must have felt arbitrary.

How come none of them even asked for an explanation? Were they so desperate and convinced of their demise that they would have followed any gleam of hope?

No monsters or witch came from the forest. Maybe because it was also curious to see if we really could follow the path of white flowers.

In any case, the edge of the meadow eventually appeared before us as morning light filtering through the trees and we emerged from the woods with shouts of victory. Being able to see the sky and fill our lungs with something other than stale air was invigorating. I watched my teammates revel in their new lease on life with a knowing smile. There were few better feelings than escaping a sure death.

Which was why I didn’t blame them for not noticing Khat’s death battle against an ethereal white centaur on the other side of the meadow.

The creature’s human part was carrying two broadswords and wore a medieval armor. The hunter was clearly wounded, and struggled to defend himself against the centaur’s long floating tail that it used as a whip.

Those monster cores better be worth it.

 

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