Chapter 82 : Fata Morgana

I can touch them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this how I burn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll show him his place.

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

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

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

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

Could djins feel shivers?

Did I almost just di-

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

“Hmph.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuckin’… HELL!”

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

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

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

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

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

Not that I cared.

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

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

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

What the-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defeated.

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

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

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

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

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

Victorious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun Avatar, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Chapter 81

Breathe in… Breathe out. Breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

But I do, I frowned. Too much, even.

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

Taboo has been lifted.

Attribute coefficients updated.

Warning
Vessel has been outgrown.

Physical attacks will inflict Primal Burn to lower ranked beings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun Avatar, I thought.

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

But the craving was only getting worse.

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

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

Frozen in awe, as they should be.

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

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

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

“Come,” I demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” I said with a toothy smile.

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

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

Curiosity.

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

 

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Chapter 80

Did this thing really exist in the past?She wondered as she unsheathed her rapier. Or is it just the spawn of yet another demented host’s mind?

“There you are!” Yaga’s voice greeted her as if the witch had never been the main force after their lives. “Though not of human blood, your kind surely is better suited for grunt work. But I cannot help but wonder… wonder if you have the tools to undo human blasphemy.”

The moon-eye seemed hesitant, staring at her as if it was searching for something else. Had the presence of a human in the dungeon triggered some special event? Probably, but assuming that Maru was the only person to ever make it this far, there was no way to know how far from the “regular” route they had deviated.

Nor would anyone ever know, since if she did her job right, this dungeon would soon cease to exist.

“No matter,” the witch continued. “I have restrained the blight that girl left upon me, but cannot destroy it. It requires… something I have too much of. You shall do so in my stead.”

The irony that she was being threatened to defeat the last obstacle to the dungeon’s heart by one of its very own creatures was not lost on Maru.

Intertwined circles of light filled with runic symbols appeared in the center of the wooden platform, and three pairs of deformed hands, identical to those that had tried to capture them in the forest, came into existence one after another. Then, a female figure slowly emerged from the light with its arms outstretched.

Maru frowned. Some kind of summoning?

“It” looked like a woman but could never have been mistaken as one, even without taking into account how the yellow light of Yaga’s moon seemed unable to tarnish her otherworldly appearance.

Her long hair looked like liquid gold and her skin could have passed has porcelain. Though there was a piece of cloth covering her eyes, the rest of her face was visible and Maru could tell from the pink on her cheeks and lips that it was the kind to enrapture hearts with a mere glance. The apparition seemed to be speaking, but no words reached Maru’s ears.

She wore a seemingly simple white dress, but even Maru’s untrained eyes could sense the pulsating ether trapped into the exquisite material it was made of. It was not the kind of items that had survived the cataclysm.

The “woman” moved her arm in a gesture full of grace, and if all her perfections had not been enough indication that she could only have been fake, then her artificial joints would have. Her skin did not simply look like porcelain, it literally was, and stopped were her limbs connected to reveal the small pellets they pivoted against.

Some higher type of automaton,Maru guessed. No wonder she is designed to resemble a human.

However, whatever the machine had meant to do was not allowed to happen. One of the six putrefied hands floating over her made a sudden pulling motion, and the arm returned to its original outstretched position.

Doll of the Beautiful

Her title appeared in bright red letters as opposed to the common silver, and Maru assumed her stance.

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

Trying to test the waters, Lima activated Fading Steps and Storm Lunge, granting some of her movements the support of the skills.

She crossed the space to the boss in an instant, and thrust her blade toward its chest. The doll was not impaled but was still revealed to be weaker than expected, as the attack sent it sprawling to the wooden floor with a crack where Maru had aimed.

What in the…

Maru skeptically watched the three pairs of floating hands force the machine back on its feet as they pulled on invisible threads. The doll once again tried to move by itself, but they subdued like the first time.

“Again!” yelled the yellow moon with palpable hunger.

Maru stared at the immobilized “boss” and, after a short moment of contemplation, sighed.

She assumed her fighting stance again and activated Razor Focus.

“Show me the path to victory,” she whispered, before coating her raised rapier with aura. The blade shone as brightly as ever.

Right as she was about to launch herself toward one of the witch’s hands, she heard a sound coming from the edge of the platform.

A glance revealed that the third warrior had finally reached her. The man was out of breath and his aura seemed like it would disappear with the lightest tap of Maru’s scabbard.

Under different circumstances, the correct following action would have been for the two of them to join forces in order to defeat the boss, and only then worry about who how to share the loot. After all, Maru didn’t know how Yaga would react to her planned “betrayal” and bosses were definitely not existences meant to be faced by a lone warrior. It was common for delvers from different creeds to put aside their differences for mutual benefits.

However, there was still dry blood on the man’s boots from when he had merrily crushed the head of a young hunter for absolutely no reason. Maru saw death a better option than allowing him to breathe the same air as her any longer.

Grace of Steel. Blue Dancer’s Balestra.

They ran toward each other, but with her now improved agility, Maru reached him before he could take three steps. He stepped back in surprise, which caused the tip of her coated blade to only lightly cut his neck.

But he was already on his back foot and Maru was not going to let him recover. She pressed on, cutting through his frail aura so fast that her opponent did not even have the luxury to think of retaliating.

To his credit, the warrior managed to avoid any lethal wound, dodging her shining blade as well as he could. But he was just like most opponents Maru had met outside of Nashran. Their fighting styles relied on being almost immune to wounds, and few were able to adjust to a thin blade piercing their aura. And this man was not one of them.

Ugly gashes soon appeared on his arms, his legs, his torso, his face… anywhere Maru’s rapier could sink its cold teeth in.

His wounds quickly multiplied as she unleashed a shower of steel on him, methodically pushing the warrior back to the edge of the Yaga’s stage.

She saw the confidence in his eyes being replaced with growing concern at first and then outright panic, and felt nothing.

Fear dulled his movements and Maru’s rapier finally pierced his abdomen as easily as if it had been butter, but there was no blood, to Maru’s great dissatisfaction.

Using aura to not bleed out… let’s see how much you can handle.

She thrust her sword at his heart, but the warrior’s aura suddenly flared, revealing that he had been sitting on a reserve of stamina all along. Maru’s rapier was repelled by the sudden increase in resistance, and one of the warrior’s hands shot forward as he tried to grab her wrist.

It would all be over if he simply caught her. Her sword immobilized, Maru was no better than a human. The weakness of her body was the price she had to pay for being able to cut through aura at such a young age, meaning that a single clean hit from him could kill her.

But unlike her opponent, Maru was familiar with her weaknesses. Even more so now than usual.

Fading Steps.

The warrior’s hand grasped at nothing as she gently spun and, with a swift upward slash of her rapier, severed it from the rest of his body.

“How does it feel,” she asked him, “to have wasted your life?”

Before he could say anything, she kicked him off the spinning stage and watched him fall to his death with cold satisfaction. But, even as he was being swallowed by the darkness below, she knew that it was far too little blood to wash away her pain.

She turned around to face Yaga’s puppet, animated by a new fire. She would not rest until Balrosh died an equally meaningless death at her sword, and then…

… And then I will make sense out of all this chaos.

***

The sound of breaking wood reached my ears and got closer as something kept hitting different trees as it fell. The figure finally came to a stop against one of the surrounding trees and wasted no time to get on its feet, revealing a heavily wounded beastkin.

The warrior who Maru had been racing to the top. He was a full rabbit beastkin.

It wasn’t hard to see that she had used him to vent some of her anger. He was missing his right hand and his whole body covered with deep laceration marks. This was someone who had just lost a fight.

However, Maru hadn’t needed to exhaust her opponents to deal damage, unlike us. The warrior was still covered with his aura. It was faint, but still there, and probably the only reason why he wasn’t bleeding to death.

Goddamit Maru, don’t send us more trouble when we just got a break.

My first instinct was to immediately shoot him down, but then I heard Lima whisper with a trembling voice.

“I… I don’t have enough energy to bring up my aura.”

It stopped my finger to pull the trigger.

“Can you move?” I asked without taking my eyes from the crouched Rabbit.

“I’m sorry… Y-you should run. Things will work out as long as you survive. It won’t… make any difference if I die.”

“It’s going to be fine,” I said, and she started weeping.

But those were empty words. The rabbit was the fastest and most agile of the three. If he managed to predict and dodge my shot, he would reach us before I could fire again.

And then what?

Ikun Omi,I called.

Now you come to me?She sounded displeased. Had you not decided to not rely on me anymore?

I groaned.

I did, and I am sorry,I told her.Is there any way you can help?

Even if there was, why would I? You cannot be defeated by those two.

I can’t just run away, Lima is here and I need to prote-, I frowned. What do you mean, “those two”?

I glanced down the bridge and saw the tiger walk out of the darkness. His expression was cold, but the aura around him violently undulated.

A wave of exhaustion wash over me.

You cannot avoid it any longer,I heard Ikun Omi whisper.Familiarize yourself with the power, lest it consumes you when it becomes too great.

Fucking hell.

The warriors took the moment I dismissed my rifle as a signal for charging at full speed.

I took off my eyepatch, and for the first time since my arrival in this forsaken world, opened my left eye in the presence of other living souls.

 

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Chapter 79

My eyes shot toward the men, and against all odds found the wolf frozen in place. The one Lima had cursed.

I let a curse of my own and opened fire on the one still immune to Lima’s skills as he was about to smash his fist into the green girl’s guard. She ignored the man who had suddenly been flung off the bridge right in front of her, and kept rushing toward her target.

He was still petrified, and only watched Lima with wide eyes as she raised her glaive over her head with both hands, and swung it so hard toward the base of his neck that its blade shattered against the aura.

The shock was enough to shake the man out of his trance, but Lima didn’t give him enough time to gather himself. The girl had discarded the vestiges of her weapon and swiftly leaped over the remainder of the distance with a closed fist rocked backward. But something was off.

She stopped using her aura!

She was lunging at a cold-blooded monster with no mystical energy to protect her, and in that instant, she appeared to me as I must have always appeared to her. Fragile and defenseless.

But then her fist met his face. She had to be using several skills at the same time, because her punch created a strange shockwave I felt from where I stood.

But even then, it wasn’t enough to make the warrior budge. He hadn’t moved an inch after taking her punch head on and was towering over her menacingly. Afraid that I wouldn’t be fast enough to prevent the worst from happening, I scrambled to aim with my now fixed rifle, but stopped my finger right as I was about to pull the trigger.

The wolf was perfectly immobile, and from where I stood I could only see the white of his eyes. This had to be different from when she had first made unable to move, because his aura was scattering like steam, leaving him fully vulnerable.

Did… Did he pass out on his feet? What did she do?

“Stay away from him!” I said before jumping to a closer tree.

Lima took a step back from him, her expression a mixture of triumph, disbelief and fear. Then it was all replaced by pure hatred. She grabbed the man by his collar and slammed him down against the trunk they were standing on. Then she punched him.

“Lima… stop! Wait!”

But I was once again too late. Her fists repeatedly fell hit the unconscious warrior, again and again… and again.

+20 ether.

Even the wind couldn’t drown out the sound of breaking flesh as I jumped from one tree to another. I kept hearing it as hurried up the bridge, until I finally grabbed her bloodied wrist.

Maybe she could have overpowered me in that instant, but she didn’t try to. Probably because she had wanted to stop, but found herself unable to. In any case, she simply looked at me as if surprised to see me there.

“He’s already dead,” I said.

“Yeah.” She stared at me for a moment, out of breath. “Why am I crying?”

I should have been the one to kill him.

“It’s just all the stress you’ve been ignoring,” I said. “Take a minute to breathe, then we’ll go help Maru.”

She nodded and moved away from the corpse. I kicked it off the bridge and it disappeared in the void below us.

“I don’t think he felt any pain,” I heard her say.

“I don’t think it matters,” I replied.

I did not believe that killing was in itself something able to turn us away from the light, nor that it invariably opened the door for evil. But there was no denying that it caused a certain loss of innocence.

I simply hoped that, after weathering whatever it had made her feel, she wouldn’t gain a taste for it.

***

Rushing to the top of the witch’s wretched monument, Maru, proud daughter of the Laughing Blade and the Frost Queen, felt like she had been trapped in some horrible nightmare meant to break her sanity.

A quick glance toward a neighboring bridge informed her that she still had a substantial lead over the failure she was racing against. Not that she was surprised. He probably only had one or two speed-related attributes and clearly lacked the ability to fine tune his aura to make up for his deficiencies.

Me beating this trash wasn’t worth leaving them behind, she thought with frustration. This makes no sense, I should have stayed with them.

Not that she really failed to see the logic behind her comrades’ decision… but it was only valid if one assumed Edward and Lima able to fend off two experienced killers. The weight in her stomach only grew heavier every time she thought of how unlikely that was to happen.

There was a saying ushered by the common people claiming that once the veiled angel requested a mortal’s presence in the great beyond, even the stars would make way for it to happen. And it truly did seem that death was trying to close its cold fingers around their throats, because everything that could have gone wrong that day, had gone wrong. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore.

And now everything hinged on her being able to quickly defeat the boss so that she could run back to save the two orphans.

Her hand disappeared in the bag of holding hidden behind her clothes and came out with a small seed. It was the seed of a Bard’s Flower, a fairly common item beloved by delvers all over the Realm for its ability to tell how far along the narrative of a dungeon they were. After a few seconds of air exposure, the seed went through all of the stages of a well-watered plant, but stopped right before it could blossom. Now convinced that she was about to face the creature guarding the host of Yaga’s Garden, Maru threw the stunted flower with a sullen look.

She had always thought of herself as a strong person. While many would consider her current life to be far from stressful, her younger self had managed to survive brushing shoulders with the nobility of the Pearl. The fact that she had made it out alive of that den of scorpions was enough proof of her resilience.

However, even the ruthless court of the only shard allowed to exist in the “Savage Lands” operated following a familiar, albeit twisted, logic. A logic molded by centuries of tradition that made it possible to rationalize even blindsiding betrayals from the closest allies.

Thanks to that logic, even the few scandals of the palace made “sense”. They were the logical conclusions of several key events that had been carefully tracked since the Sundering. Surprises were rare in Nashran because everybody followed the same set of unspoken rules enforced by an immortal ruler.

But Maru was now bitterly aware that strength earned in a controlled environment was an illusion. Barring a few exceptions, it ultimately required people’s actions to follow rules and events to fit what was considered possible.

It was the kind of strength that fell apart when those rules were broken, and that realization felt like a knife being twisted in the wound left by Bali’s death.

Their common hatred for Nashran and the torments it had inflicted to their close ones was what they had first bonded over. Many in the Red Cross longed for a glorious return to their homeland, but the two had dreamed of severing all ties with the Pearl and creating a place where their people would be able to break free from the chains of its evil traditions. The kind of traditions that turned honest people’s honor against themselves and somehow managed to convince them that rotting away in a forgotten corner of the region was a proof of virtue.

Yet, Maru’s sense of worth had remained tied to that place, to its rules, and because of her obsession with obtaining a style, because of her arrogant confidence in the rules warriors were supposed to follow, Bali had been killed along with innocent people.

The guilt was too much for her to bear, especially after experiencing the third knight’s spell. The vision of a headless Bali forcing Maru to face her sins had broken her.

How come the innocent Lima had come out of a similar experience more determined than ever? Was it because her young mind had not been unable to conjure horrible enough apparitions? Maru did not know, but to her, it was just another confirmation that she had been after the wrong kind of strength.

Her hand instinctively grasped the guard of her rapier for comfort, but it felt cold. For the first time in years, she was doubting the decision to unbind her aura.

I should have known that I can’t ever be like mom without half of her skill.

But her heart was still beating, so Maru kept running toward the center of the spiral as fast as she could. She had not suffered any serious damage since they had entered the dungeon and Edward had seen to it that she would be full of energy with his extravagant food.

She nervously bit her lip. Edward.

He represented everything wrong with this day, and maybe even everything wrong in her life.

An unbound human delver in the Savage Lands. That notion alone was nonsense, but the one in question did not even pretend to be self-conscious!

Consuming his mana with reckless abandon one would only expect from a brahnan noble -even though he should not even have a Wisdom attribute in the first place, treating the region’s regal class with so much disdain one would assume he saw it as an embarrassment – despite being blessed with a majestic style, using glory to buy consumables like some scion of the Lotus Empire – but living in a run-down orphanage!

And that glowing eye he always hid behind crude leather… Was it what allowed him to see what was invisible?

His existence seemed like a direct offense to the rules the world itself was supposed to follow. A catalyst for chaos.

No wonder the watchers sent someone to keep an eye on him.

He did not make sense, just like the sheer amount of improbable events that had needed to occur for this day to unfold the way it did.

Yet here she was, now racing for the opportunity to clear an unranked dungeon kept hidden by one of the shard’s minor factions.

She finally reached the stage created by the witch, but the boss was nowhere to be seen. The lack of reaction from the eye in the sky reminded her that she was still wearing her shrouding ring. She felt physical pressure as soon as she took it off. It was as if the air around her had been charged with electricity.

She had become the sole focus of the moon-eye, and seeing it seemingly grow closer made Maru oddly conscious of her own mortality.

 

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Chapter 78

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm.”

“All of them?”

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

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

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

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

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

“They will die if we clear the dungeon.”

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

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

She’s never killed anyone.

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

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

“Do what?”

“Can you make them suffer?”

I wondered what expression she wore as I answered.

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

“Good.”

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

I narrowed mine.

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

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

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

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

The curse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Edw-, Jump!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever did that would have killed me.

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

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

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

A punch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maru reached the top, I realized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was already too late to say anything else.

 

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Chapter 77

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hag can’t be meaning-

“Come forward! Dare not test my patience…”

We waited for something more, but nothing else happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… Unless it’s all in my fucking head?

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

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

But I did, however, end up finding something.

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

The three warriors who had slaughtered the young hunters.

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

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

“Fuck!”

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

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

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

Fate seemed really hellbent on seeing us die.

“Deadeye!” Maru screamed from the front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is not the moment, Deadeye!”

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

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

And then we would die.

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

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

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

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

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

“Lima?” I called.

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

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

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

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

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

“D-Deadeye!?”

 

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Chapter 10: Tamie part 1

Tamie was the first one to see him enter the hall the orphanage used as a cafeteria. Damian’s group was being as loud as usual, captivated by some heroic retelling of a fight against some Bunker rats while the younger children at her table were too busy arguing with each other.

A boy who was at most fifteen, and held a plate filled with the diner of the day, stood at the door. His clothes were in perfect condition and fit him well. She wondered for a second why he kept his eye closed, but such injuries were common in this region.

Continue reading “Chapter 10: Tamie part 1”

Chapter 9

Cleaned up and wearing my new clothes, I was back on the road. To be more precise, I had left the actual road a few minutes ago for a small path that went up one of the many surrounding rocky hills.

When I glanced back, I could see people and trucks coming back from wherever they had been rushing to earlier.

Continue reading “Chapter 9”

Chapter 8

“There you have it. It’s a bit dusty, but I’m sure you’ll manage. Now I gotta go.”

My new boss had led the way through a hallway with closed rooms and, after fumbling with several keys, opened the squeaking last door.

It was more of a storage room than an actual place anyone would sleep in, and was full of what looked like old miner equipment and machine parts randomly thrown in. It didn’t even have a mattress or something I could sleep on. Beggars shouldn’t be choosers, but I really wasn’t satisfied with this arrangement.

Continue reading “Chapter 8”

Chapter 6

I would have thought I was in the middle of an ocean if it wasn’t for the fact that I had footing; as the pitch black water seemed to stretch forever and I couldn’t see where it ended.

All I could see was a gigantic double door covered with symbols very much similar to those that were on every door of the ruined city.

And in front of it was the armored knight that I had seen dead with a sword through his chest. Except he didn’t have a blade piercing him anymore, nor was he on his knees.

He was standing tall, apparently studying the strange monument.

Fucking hell, I spoke to myself through gritted teeth. I was once again in a completely unknown type of situation, with no information regarding how to navigate to safety.

However I knew being shy wasn’t going to help, so I started moving toward the door. Doing my best to not look in the water.

It was so dark I couldn’t see the submerged part of my body, but the few times I had looked down I had seen ghostly hands reaching up, desperately grasping for something.

Even though I knew they were there, I never came in contact with anything while I slowly walked in the water, and I was thankful for that.

Once they were only a few meters between me and the knight, he glanced back at me.

“Ah, there you are,” he said. His voice was calm, and not at all the kind I would associate with a knight. It was more of a monk’s voice. “The Djin sent word of your arrival, but I didn’t dare hope I would finally be relieved of my burden after so long.”

There was a thunderous clamor, an explosion on the other side of the door and cracks ran through it as pieces fell into the water.

“As you can see,” the knight continued unperturbed, “I was not going to last much longer.”

“Wait,” I said, raising both my hands in what I hoped was calming gesture. “I don’t know what’s going on, but it seems dangerous so please don’t be too rash. You said the Djin told you I was coming?”

“Indeed. He wished to gift you the blade, assuring me you would be able to handle her. Many fools have come here, thinking of seizing this power for themselves. I made them all face their arrogance. Are you not his champion? I have to admit that you do seem a little young, but I trust his judgment.”

There was another explosion, stronger than the first one and causing a shockwave strong enough to almost make me fall.

The cracks on the door became even more pronounced, and there were now streams of black water gushing through them. From the force of the streams, I finally understood that this wasn’t a door at all.

It was a dam holding massive amounts of water and we were right in front of it as it was breaking apart.

“The sword? Her?” Was this man insane? “Never mind that, you need to tell me what I can do so that we can both make it out of here!”

“No need to worry, you ought to be fine and I am already dead,” he said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Have you seen the city? It used to be the heart of the Shuari kingdom, with people that were so full of life and happiness. Now it is nothing but a mirage that will soon fade. If I had not used my life as a seal, the rest of the world would have probably suffered the same fate… and maybe I shouldn’t have. The gods do not care after all.”

Tentacles as dark as the water slowly emerged from under him, some climbing up his legs like snakes and others wrapping themselves around them. Chills of disgust ran down my spine.

I took a step back.

The knight chuckled then look at me, as unperturbed as ever. I couldn’t see his face under his helm but I sensed that, despite the urgency of the situation, his expression was probably one of complete peace.

“Of course, even if you are somehow gifted enough to be able to contain the flood, you cannot be allowed to wave her around like a vulgar stick. My ancestors would roll in their graves. So I shall give you a nudge in the correct direction. I only ask one thing.”

Each of his limbs had at least one of the long tentacles firmly wrapped around it.

“If possible, do what I did not. Reach out to her and try to make her know peace.”

That’s when the door exploded in a thousand pieces, and as I braced myself to receive the torrent of water I saw him being yanked underneath.

I waited for the shock, expecting to be torn apart like a rag doll by the churning wave… but nothing happened.

Half-surprised, half-curious, I opened my eyes to find myself fully underwater but still able to breathe. The water surging out of the door had had no effects on me.

Strangely, I wasn’t worried anymore. Being underwater felt familiar though I couldn’t quite place the feeling. I could even see my surroundings, though they were empty. The knight was gone.

The door was gone, but its frame remained and gargantuan tentacles were coming out of the other side.

It’s that sight of horror that made me realize what was so familiar about this situation and why I wasn’t losing my mind over it.

It reminded me of what I had seen at the bottom of the abyss of souls, but it was nothing close, not even comparable.

A normal person would have lost their sanity inside these waters, but something in my soul was already fundamentally broken by something far worse. Which is why I was unaffected.

And the nameless djin knew, which is why he sent me here.

I walked toward the door armed with new confidence. Because on the other side was where she was, waiting for me. I was sure of it.

At first, nothing happened. But as I got closer the tentacles started going back inside, as if startled by my presence. By the time I reached the vestiges of the door and crossed the threshold, they were too far for me to see.

The other side was different from what I had expected. It was a wide grassland tinted in a spectral blue by the waters, with trees, herbs, and flowers undulating with the currents.

In the middle of it, there she was, dancing.

A chunk of starry night sky, stolen from the heavens then molded vaguely in a female form.

She stopped her gracious spinning when she noticed me. She paused for a moment, measuring me. Then she held out her hand and tilted her head. Inviting. I took it with both of mine.

In her emerald eyes was a question, and my answer was, with no hesitation, yes. Gods yes.

Because she offered what the monster I really was yearned for.

“…D? Can you hear me, Ed?”

I was snapped back to reality by Kirby’s calls and the warm afternoon sun inundating the ruined room I was in.

My fingers were wrapped around the wooden hilt of the sword, my face too close to the helm of the dead knight for comfort. Unlike what I remembered, his own hands were on both sides of his body.

I was drenched in sweat, and my eyes were sore. Had I been crying? My vision was blurry enough to make me wiped it with a shaking hand.

It felt like I just woken up from a particularly insidious nightmare.

Testing the resistance, I lightly pulled the sword toward me, and it followed the motion without making a sound. Taking my time, I slowly pulled it all out as to not desecrate the knights remains. Then I examined it.

The curved blade was now uniformly dark, which I didn’t even know was possible. But besides that fact, the sword didn’t look extraordinary. It had a wooden hilt with only one symbol I didn’t recognize engraved on it.

You have bound the living weapon “Ikun Omi”.

You have unlocked the class “Blade Priest of the Deep”.

Through history, only the most outstanding worshipers would receive the honor of becoming blade priests, to serve the Old gods and be able to wield their powers in their names.
It is truly a shame that the abomination that is the Deep could soil this holy title and bestow it to its pawns.

Blade Priest of the Deep claimed the following attributes: Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Agility.
+4 points to claimed attributes per level.

You have learned the skill “Sunken dance”.

You have received +250 glory.

Certain entities have taken interest in you.

Ikun Omi has been moved to your inventory.

The sword instantaneously disappeared from my hands with a deluge of notifications.

“Ed? Ed, can you-”

“Yes, Kirby,” I basically whispered. My mouth felt dry. “I can hear you. What is it?”

Learning that I apparently had an inventory the least of my concerns.

In the last moments of the dream, something had definitely happened, something that felt bad and beyond my control.

But I did not want to think about it, because if I did, it would mean having to confront things I had built my whole identity around.

So like any other nightmare, I decided to push it to the back of my mind in the hope that I would quickly forget about it.

I just wanted to get out of here.

“ I have only five minutes of presence left under current parameters before dismissal.”

“Alright then. Let’s go.”

I glanced outside with caution but there was fortunately no shadows.

My stamina bar was back to full so I broke into a sprint and followed my drone’s instruction.

The sun was much lower in the sky, which implied I had been out for several hours. I ran, wondering if there even was a reason for me to run anymore.

The streets and alleys I went by were spotless.

“Less than a minute before dismissal,” said Kirby’s bored voice.

“W-wait, what the-” I stuttered. “It hasn’t been five minutes yet!”

“I said five minutes under current parameters. I am no longer stationary and thus consume more mana,” he -I had decided this tin can was a ‘he’- said like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Which it probably was.

“Then quickly tel-”

But before I could finish my request, the silver drone turned snow white and was blown into dust by the wind. I couldn’t help but let out a few curses.

Then again, I was aware of the general direction we were going in, so I figured I would be fine as long as I didn’t end up in dead ends.

And I was right.

There didn’t seem to be any more danger so I joined a particularly wide paved street and simply walked it down to the city’s exit.

The shadows- or should I call them tentacles?- were all back where they belonged. In the black blade of a banal-looking sword.

The inner city was in better shape than the piles of rubble of the outskirts. But I paid it little attention, amazed by the view.

I was on the edge of a plateau that was towering a desertic valley, and for the first time, even if it was from a distance, I could see signs of human activity.

The valley had several settlements sprinkled along the bed of a river that used to snake around until it reached far away mountains but had long since dried up. Vegetation was scarce, but I could see trails of smoke coming from the villages, and people traveling from one to the next.

I had made it out and would soon rejoin society. It couldn’t be that hard to find a way to make a living here, could it?

The region seems pretty dry, but maybe it can’t possibly be too hard to find someone willing to give me some water… I thought to myself as I went down a set of cracked and broken stone stairs leading to the valley that had surely been an impressive sight in the distant past.

I hardly kept myself from whistling with satisfaction with anticipation as to what the future held. Many dangers? Sure. But I was young and -almost- with no responsibilities.

But the most important thing right now-

You have cleared the instant dungeon of the Sunken City.
+1000 glory.

For clearing a dungeon for the first time, you have earned the title “Dungeon delver”.
+10 glory.

For clearing a dungeon by yourself, you have earned the title “Lone wolf”.
+25 glory.

For clearing the first dungeon you have ever entered, by yourself, you have earned the title “Worthy delver”.
+500 Glory.

You have been awarded participation to the next Assembling of the young talents.
Rank: 1

I blinked, frozen by the sudden wave of notifications. Then I nervously laughed as I dismissed them all.

As I was about to say, the most important thing right now is to find food and water.

Technically, I hadn’t eaten anything my whole life!

 

 

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