Chapter 86

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Gloves of the Corrupted Wood Witch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noon Cloak of the Corrupted Wood Witch

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

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

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

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

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

Dusk Hat of the Corrupted Wood Witch

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve met real witches!?”

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

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

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

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

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

I raised a brow, “Your mantra?”

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

Oh, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged.

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

I frowned. The situation seemed oddly familiar.

Am I afraid?

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

Maru took a few steps back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us, I noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corrupted Wood Witch Needle Staff – Unholy

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

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

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

Using it will add the Unholy attribute to spells.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Yaga did? I asked.

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

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

I frowned. Did he?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have to go,” I finished. “Now.”

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

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Chapter 84

“No, I… I don’t need you to carry me,” I managed to grunt to the green girl. “Just- Maru could need some hel-”

“You’re about to faint, Edward,” Lima said as she made a noticeable effort to avoid meeting my gaze. She was breathing heavily, and the words weren’t coming as easily to her as they should have either. “I don’t know what she did, but something is going on… and you’ll need help if it starts attacking anyway.”

I couldn’t blame the girl for having difficulties interacting with me. Hell, more distance between us probably was for the best. I had been on the verge of killing her a few moments ago, and though I had thankfully not been able to follow that impulse, she had to have sensed it somehow.

The fact that the girl was able to put it all aside and keep her efforts focused on improving our chances of victory was a testament of how determined to survive she was.

Maru’s keeping her shit together too, and I need to do the same, I thought. For now, at least. Then we’ll have to talk, Ikun Omi.

There were so many benefits to being young again that I rarely missed my older body. But in my first moments back from being a djin, all I could think of was that at the very least, a broken body couldn’t feel pain this intensely.

We reached a compromise with me being held up with an arm flung across her shoulders. It was inconvenient because of her height, but I was struggling to stay conscious and being picked up like a princess would only make the task more difficult.

On Yaga’s stage, now a warped oasis at the center of a spinning sea of crackling flames, noises were muffled and the three of us were standing still.

I was still alive and the girls had taken care of the witch’s hideous hands, but there was no time for us to rest just yet. Even if I couldn’t feel the heat, the sweat and coughing from my comrades said enough about how they were faring. We had to leave this hellhole as soon as possible.

In front of Maru was a tall woman sitting with her legs pulled under her and her hands joined in a silent prayer. Her otherworldly features alone almost made her seem as out of place as the bright red words floating right above her heads.


Doll of the Beautiful


She’s the fukin’ boss?

“Glad to see that you guys won. How bad is it?” the red-haired girl said with a quick glance my way. Her sword was pointed at the praying woman, and the visible tension of her body made her relaxed tone sound even more forced.

“It’s…” I heard Lima hesitate. “He’ll be fine if we get help soon. Maru… What’s going on? The witch-”

“The witch never was the boss,” Maru said with the same oddly calm voice. “Well she might be now, but until we get some confirmation, this… thing is the boss of Yaga’s Forest,” she added with a wave of her sword toward the praying woman.

“Okay…” the huntress whispered with confusion, before repeating with more assurance, “Okay. How come it’s not attacking? What do we do?”

The mix of desperation and frustration in her voice made it sound like she would have actually preferred for the named creature to mindlessly attack us without any further delay. And maybe that really was what she hoped.

After all, the goal in a fight usually was a simple one: winning. This unforeseen situation, on the other hand, only created more stress when she was way past the point of wanting anything but the end of this day.

And this was supposed to be the last step before the end, I thought. The boss, and then Balrosh.

Maru simply shrugged.

“Not sure, I am attempting an alternative clearing method. We know that Yaga wanted it gone, so at least there is a good reason to keep it here as long as it stays inoffensive… I think. I was hoping for Edward to inspect it but… I guess he is the one in need of inspecting right now.”

There was silence.

“An alternative…” Lima repeated with boiling disbelief. “This isn’t the time to be trying things. This isn’t some epic, some story people will tell around campfires! Did you lose your damned mind!?”

The delver frowned, but otherwise ignored the girl’s frustration and kept her focus on the Doll of the Beautiful, allowing me to cut in.

“I’m not dead yet,” My throat was as dry as sandpaper, but at least my words made sense. “But you’ll have… to be more clear. What do you want me to do?”

“Really?” exasperated, she waved the tip of her blade toward the boss. “Sure, Edward, there is no need to still pretend that you are human after… all this,” she gave a half-hearted wave at the torrent of fire overhead, “but it is clearly trying to speak and, out of the three of us, you still seem like the most knowledgeable about machines.”

I had far too little energy to feel insulted by how little she thought of humans, so my brain completely dismissed the first half her comment.

Why even mention machines?

“Can you hear me, user?”

A strange question suddenly asked by a familiar voice would have confused me at any time, but the effect was even greater when I realized that it came from the dungeon’s boss.

Though the only other boss I had “met” had also been able to hold a conversation, it had turned out to be the failed re-creation of an Old God of this world, determined to free itself from the bowels of a mountain. Hopefully, this one would be easier to deal with.

Hopefully, I thought. I can’t even see straight.

Giving the Doll of the Beautiful a better look allowed me to understand why Maru thought me better suited to interact with it, even if my racial trait really was the only advantage I had over these kids regarding technology.

Not just a tall woman, I thought as I studied its appearance. An advanced robot? Or were they called android?

The Doll was a machine, and not just any kind. There was a grace to its posture, and a pull to its presence. Even I could tell that each line carved in her alabaster skin served some purpose.

Though it was perfectly still, I could sense the intensity of her inner workings, a soft buzzing that was only a byproduct of an unknown number of functions and spell operating simultaneously, with infinite precision, all for it to be able to exist.

All of it happening quietly behind an elegant design that I probably wasn’t worth appreciating. But it was the kind of beauty that sobered one up.

No, it couldn’t be just any machine. Standing that close to it felt like being in the same room as things like biological weapons, or armed nukes. Manmade Pandora boxes that arguably transcended their creators because of an ability to reshape humanity’s shared consciousness through how permanently they could alter the physical world.


The Witch and the Doll were keeping each other in check, I realized. And now that the other one is weakened, the Doll is free.

“User, can you hear me?” it repeated with its eyes still closed.

Though I was now close enough to tell that it was digitalized, I recognized the voice as the one I had heard asking for help as we progressed through the dungeon. Back then, I had dismissed it as the wailing of lost souls dwelling in the forest. However, now that I could hear it clearly, it sounded more like the firm voice was demanding my assistance.

No wonder no one else heard it. They can’t hear machines.

Now that I thought about it, Maru and Lima barely seemed intimidated by the boss. It was very likely that the awe I felt at the blurry sight of the Doll of the Beautiful was caused by my “Technomancer” racial trait. And if that was the case, maybe the situation wasn’t so dire.

“I can,” I finally replied. “I heard you ask for help.”

Maru opened her mouth to speak, but Lima stopped her with a raised hand.

The doll slightly tilted its head, startling the three of us with the sudden movement.

But it only spoke, “Good. I was beginning to suspect a trick, as I cannot detect a single augment in your body. Truly, this chance encounter must bear the touch of The Process, as the probabilities of a hippie being our salvation were low enough to be disregarded.”

Another insult, I noted in the privacy of my mind before blurting out, “What do you want?”

“By destroying her hearts, you and your comrades have allowed me to gain the upper hand in my fight against the aberration,” the machine declared, confirming my suspicions. Of the gorgeous mask it used as a face, the lips were the only part that moved when it spoke. “However, the one in need of help is my master, held captive for no reason besides her perfection. I have managed to protect her from the aberration, but I have been doing so for a long time, and her organic limitations make me fear for her health.”

As I listened to the Doll, I found myself wondering if the concern she expressed really was nothing but a clever emulation performed by a program.

It would be tragic otherwise.

“However, I do wonder,” the Doll continued. “In your current state, how did you survive in base reality?”

I could only answer with a blank stare.

Surviving in base reality? The hell is that supposed to mean?

“Edward?” Lima called next to my ear. “Something wrong?”

She sounded tense, and Maru was listening to me with matching focus.

I must have made a weird face, I thought.

Which was understandable, considering how, for all I knew, our three lives depended on the outcome of this conversation. I had to guide it toward safer subjects.

“It’s ok,” I said to the girls. “Just give me some time.”

But there was no time left.

“Verbal communication is inefficient,” the Doll said. “Requesting permission to set up Mental Root Access Connection.”

Yeah, that’s a no for sure. I wasn’t sure what Mental Root Access Connection meant, but any request with the words “mental” and “connection” from the boss of a dungeon couldn’t possibly be trustworthy.

A notification window popped up in front of me, however, it was covered by another one so fast that I didn’t even get the time to read it. The second one read “Request canceled”.

“Did you… change your mind?” I asked.

The machine tilted its head by a few more degrees lower, “The request triggered my anti-malware and self-preservation protocols,” it said matter of factly. “It seems like your mind has been severely infected, quarantine is recommended.”


“Well, I’ll pass on that,” I said. “But I heard your request for help and it seems like something my partners and I can handle. As you can tell, they can’t hear machines… Could you make it so that th-”

“I am an Inquisitor of the Nova,” it interrupted. “I am more, so much more than a machine. I am sentient,” the Doll said with enough emphasis on the last word for me to just accept that she was saying the truth. Not that a thinking machine could phase me at that point. “Your mind is a Trojan horse for potential threats to city centers and unprotected people. Within any other parameters, I would have already smitten you where you stand!”

Her words as a relic left by the humans of the past picked my interest. This dungeon, or at least the story it contained, seemed to date from a time before this world had been turned upside down, but I didn’t have time to ask for a history lesson. The Doll of the Beautiful was debating dealing with a perceived threat, and as said threat, I wasn’t going to just wait for an unfavorable decision.

What can I say? Come clean and admit that I was soul bonded to a sword that made regular people lose their mind?

“We probably want the same thing,” I said. “I came from the village outside this forest, Iwin Town. They… asked me to free the girls Yaga took away. If your master is one of them, then helping her is why I got here in the first place.”

The girls exchanged looks. They couldn’t hear the machine and weren’t aware of the quest I had received in Iwin Town. What I had just said had to have sounded like nonsense to them.

“There is no time,” I pressed on. “Will you help us save her?”

It wasn’t an outright lie, but it wasn’t the truth either.

If her master was the host of this dungeon, then she had been dead in the real world for a while already. She had died while her protector was stuck in a deadlock with Yaga, and whatever fragment of herself had remained, it had birthed this perpetual loop of her last moments.

As mere guest actors in her tragedy, it couldn’t hurt to play the part. At the very least, clearing this dungeon would bring them both peace.


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Chapter 83

Incomplete? What was this parasite now insinuating, after having watched my struggle without even offering some kind of help?

Still, my mind hadn’t been so dulled by exhaustion that I couldn’t draw obvious conclusions. Since the moment I had opened the Eye of the Djin, my craving, and everything I had done to satisfy it, had been for the warrior’s souls.

The maddening hunger could be something permanent, assuming it hadn’t been triggered by the mere proximity of living people. Those possibilities alone weren’t much of a concern to me, but Ikun Omi’s words hinted at something that could actually be important.

Was I missing a part of my soul? Had it been damaged by what I had gone through while dead? So mangled by the process of reincarnation that it tried to steal from others what it-

An interesting theory, though incorrect, whispered the being bound to my sword. You are only incomplete in your current form, as a djin… Yours is the soul of a mortal, it lacks the ability to sustain such an existence. However, your patron found a possible workaround, one proving that fate itself has orchestrated our meeting.

Enough with the fluff, creature, I thought with frustration. Tell me how to fix this!

… Ah, she let out with a disappointed tone. This might be a subject for a later time, after your head has cooled down a little… Hopefully, you won’t land on it. 


My fall came to an abrupt end and I had the wind knocked out of me. However, no matter how disoriented I was, me being conscious at all meant that I hadn’t fallen all the way down to the ground.

That, and the fact that the squishy surface I had landed on seemed to be moving… twitching. The dry sound of things breaking had reached my ears upon contact, and now a horrible burnt stench was being added to my agony.

I had to close the Djin’s eye. I had to. I knew it, and I had known since way back when I had first felt that something was going wrong. But I couldn’t close it, even now that it was consuming the last scraps of energy I had left. I didn’t want to.

Because underneath the maelstrom of emotion that already crippled most of my judgment, the initial feeling of ecstasy was persisting.

Beyond the pure pleasure, it was – above everything else, a respite from all the mental scars I had received during my life. It had turned me into a diametrally opposed existence, entirely focused on the present moment. In that cocoon of flames, I was free of regrets, sadness, and shame.

Free of sins. Free of guilt.

Growing old meant learning to live with it all, but now that I was getting a new taste of unapologetic self-love, not even this torture it came with was enough to make me willingly go back to being myself.

I did not want to, even if it meant suffering for a bit longer, before being stranded in a nightmare with no means of protection. Which is why it was a good thing that I didn’t have much choice in the matter.

My eyelids felt heavier from one second to the next. And while I could at least struggle to keep my right eye open, the one made of fire was completely unresponsive to any of my commands.

Before long it closed itself, and as it did, the hunger subsided as a wave of painful clarity hit me. The whirlwind of fire and cinders faded away just like the fog that had been plaguing my thoughts, allowing me to witness a strange scene.

Maru, dashing toward me with her sword drawn and a stern expression on her face.

I had, somehow, fallen on Yaga’s stage.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire… or was it the opposite?

My horror at the sudden realization of what I had turned into for a brief moment, the sharp awareness of the wounds plaguing my body… the fear of what was waiting. My stamina bar was basically empty and it was taking all I had to keep a single eye open, defending myself was impossible.

If the red-haired delver really had decided to use this opportunity to make me pay for the heartache I had caused her, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. But while it felt a teensy bit more deserving for me to die at her hands than at the tigers’, that wasn’t really a consolation.


Maru’s fight against the dungeon boss was far from an easy one, and for several reasons.

The first one obviously was the difficulty of the task itself. Destroying one of the six deformed hands floating around the Doll of the Beautiful had turned Yaga herself into her opponent, and triggered madness of the kind the delver never could have predicted.

Ignoring the curses the moon-eye was throwing at her, Maru had to defend herself against unrelenting assaults from the bloated hands trying to pierce her with their deformed nails, swat her off the wooden platform or smash her against it like an insect.

Thankfully, she did not have to face all remaining hands at the same time, as two of them kept hovering over the Doll at all times to maintain whichever kind of control Yaga had over it… but it still meant that she had to survive against three flying opponents aiming for her life at the same time.

She was able to rely on her self created “dance” to help dodge their attacks long enough for an opening to show itself, allowing a flawless flash of her blade to reduce their ranks once again. However, as opposed to what one might think, that did not make the fight any easier.

Traitorous rats! The witch screamed, her magically amplified voice making Maru’s ears ring. Ungrateful mortal, have faith in the fact that soon your brain will be branded with the-…

Maru had to make the conscious effort of ignoring her threats, just like she was doing her best not to glance at the sky. Real or not, the moon’s current appearance and the witch’s extremely detailed descriptions of what to expect in case of failure might affect her focus.

Not only did the attacking hands gain in speed, but the giant bloodshot eye in the sky started manipulating the floating stage itself, suddenly tilting it to one side or the other, sometimes even forcing Maru to grab onto branches or roots sticking out of the makeshift stage to avert a deadly fall.

“…Even flipping the whole fucking thing over won’t work!” she growled in a way that would have made the eyes of her old teachers roll back in indignation. But as she tightened her bruised fingers around the hilt of her blade, she couldn’t have cared less about sounding unladylike. There was just something about throwing insults at the incarnation of the forces trying to destroy her that made her feel better.

Maybe there was more to the obscenities the witch had been yelling all day, after all.

The increased difficulty of the battle had made Maru even more aware that she was basically gambling her life, and that of every other person she loved, on a “hunch”. After all, the Doll of the Beautiful was the designated boss of the dungeon, as proved by the colored title over its head, and even though it had felt right to attack Yaga, there was no way to know if it had been the right move.

At the time, the witch’s generous offer to attack the defenseless automaton had seemed like a trap, but now that she was dealing with the consequences of her choice, she felt utterly stupid.

Yes, there were stories of dungeons with atypical clearing methods, – sentient doors that would never open unless they were told a great joke, bosses that couldn’t be defeated in any other way than to be completely ignored… but with her current luck, it seemed very probable that she would end up having to defeat the Doll itself after having been through the trouble of destroying the hands that had been restraining it.

That was just the way things had been going that day -from bad to worse, and as the stress piled on, she found herself more and more detached from reality. The foul smell of pus occasionally bursting from the bloated hands when she sliced them seemed to no longer affect her, as even her own body felt foreign.

That can’t be a good thing, she thought to herself with the mild interest of someone thinking of a stranger’s issues. But it surely is better than completely losing it.

And then, bringing with them the howling wind, the floating trees that had been spiraling beneath them until now suddenly rose past the stage, some of them on fire.

There was no point even acknowledging what seemed like yet another attempt to break her spirit, so Maru did not. She kept fighting instead, fighting at the center of a vortex of spinning flames for something she never thought she would have had to shoulder before leaving the shard… the lives of her people.

“Stone Maiden Kiss. Slash.”

She whispered the skills’ names one after the other and watched her body and blade move to slice two fingers off one of the hands with barbaric efficiency.

She had discovered the hard way that, as they did not have any organs, the only way to make the floating hands vanish was to inflict large amounts of trauma. As a blade dancer focused on dealing lightning-fast precision strikes, she was at a clear disadvantage. But Maru was fortunate enough to possess “Stone Maiden Kiss,” an ability that could momentarily make her rapier heavier.

Combined with the boring reliability of “Slash”, one of the most basic skills to exist, it gave her feather-light rapier the brutish bite it lacked. But while that combination was still much less exhausting than coating her blade with aura, it still didn’t spare her from having to strictly manage her stamina.

The unstable stage made it too hard for her to quickly find a blind spot in Yaga’s attacks without getting skewered by her dirty nails first. She threw a few glances upward, worried about how her companions were faring against the two warriors, refusing to even consider that they might have been long thrown to their deaths already. At the very least, it did not take her long to find one them. All she had to do was spot pale fire jumping from one tree to the next, right before they were shredded by powerful blasts of aura.

Her focus wavered, she blinked, then did a double take.

Is that really… him? Edward?

At first, she hesitated to identify him as the fiery being. Sure, their clothes, physical build, and height matched, but that was where the similarity ended. Even when disregarding the fact that the… creature seemed to have tentacles of fire for hair, the way it behaved was the complete opposite of how Edward did.

… Or at least, opposite of how he behaves in front of people.

She frowned.

Maru had yet to see him in real combat, one with his ominous pitch black blade in hand, but she had seen him fight for his life first hand. And all the human boy had shown was a calculating mind in whatever he did, paired with such a grotesque a disregard for honor, tradition, and decorum that it almost felt unintended.

However, what was currently screaming as it leaped over Maru’s head appeared more like a ravenous beast than one of the People. It reminded her of other stories she had heard, ones darker than the cautionary tales told to young warriors.

She felt herself shivering despite the rising heat.

Did Lima use her blessing on him after he was forced to use his trump card? she wondered. But for the huntress to use it twice in a row, a kill was required… and no matter how Maru appreciated the young girl, she did not think that she had it in her.

There can only be that many monster children running around the shard.

After having lost two fingers and failed to tear Maru apart in the chased that had followed, the damaged witch hand was now attempting to retreat back to the Doll.

Blue Dancer’s Grace, she thought.

The hand was too slow to react to the sudden increase in speed. Maru’s weighted blade cut it half before its reinforcements could arrive, and she prepared herself for whatever tantrum Yaga would make in retaliation.

Only three left to go.

But then a blood-curdling scream, from a voice she thankfully did not recognize, rang through the night right as a blinding light shone on the stage, and Maru was forced to look up again.

Falling from the sky, was a ball of fire aimed straight at her.

She lost a precious second trying to process one more absurdity launched against her brain, but with most of her passive movement skills already activated, she was able to barely jump away to safety.

She let out a grunt when her body hit the stage and scrambled up to see what was going on.

By what seemed to be the first twist of fate in her favor since she had woken up that day, one of the witch’s hands was burning to crisps, caught in the sphere of fire persisting on the stage.

She must have tried to kill me while I was distracted and got hit by the spell instead, she figured as she shielded her face from the heat. I wouldn’t have lasted a single breath in that thing!

Thankfully, the magical fire soon faded and, to Maru’s shock, revealed a wounded Edward laying among charred wood and cinders.

He now looked as defenseless as any other human, and she had to dash in his direction before she could even consider how he could so drastically alter his appearance. The boy had caught the attention of the glassy eye in the sky, and one of the remaining hands was already looking to plunge its nails in his battered body.

I cannot let him die, was all she think as time seemed to stretch.

He might have not been fully responsible for Bali’s death, but there was no denying that Maru would have never attempted to clear Yaga’s Forest if it hadn’t been for him. This was all his plan, and she’d be damned if she would let it all go to waste after everything.

With Edward alive, there was a chance for Maru to kill Balrosh with her own hands. Be it a mad dungeon, a gigantic eye in the sky or the rules of the shard, she would not let that chance slip away.

However, something else fell from the trunks overhead and landed on Yaga’s hand so heavily that it crashed against the wooden stage. Lima, enraged and fully clad in aura, proceeded to break and tear off its blotted fingers with her bare hands with a raw violence Maru would never have expected from the girl.

… She did not use the blessing on the boy, but a second time on herself.

The freakish teen already was physically imposing, and while size did not mean much amongst warriors, the barbaric manner in which she dealt with her opponent almost made Maru recoil.

But she did not, for the simple fact that now that Edward was safe from immediate danger, the only entities left with them on the platform were the Doll of the Beautiful and the last remaining witch-hand. Now alone, it seemed stuck with its fingers tightly wrapped around the machine, the witch’s desire to keep it restrained seemingly greater than her wish to see the three mortals die.

Then again, Yaga’s failure to complete either task was already assured.

“Razor Focus!” she screamed, creating an intimate awareness and control of each of her movements.

Emboldened by a glimpse of the nightmare’s end, Maru coated her sword with aura and, with a wide swing that left the Doll of the Beautiful untouched, severed four of the hand’s fingers.

Fountains of repulsive liquid burst out of the wounds, and like the five before it, the last witch hand quickly broke down as soon as it fell on the stage. Yaga’s voice echoed in unintelligible screams of rage, but Maru had no time to consider it.

The Doll of the Beautiful was the marked boss of this dungeon, and it was now free… They would soon know if she had made the right choice, even if the fact that she had yet to receive any gains in ether already hinted at a negative.

But in the event that she had made the right choice, she’d probably be one of the boldest delvers to walk the Savage Lands, even if the circumstances made it impossible to be excited at the prospect. Still, she’d eventually have to slap herself awake.

Maru wanted to fully enjoy every single second she would spend watching the Spark of Life leave the real monster’s eyes.

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Chapter 82 : Fata Morgana

I can touch them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this how I burn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll show him his place.

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

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

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

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

Could djins feel shivers?

Did I almost just di-

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


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


“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.”


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.


“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.



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Chapter 76


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

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

How long had I been lost in my thoughts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lima nodded but Maru didn’t seem convinced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty straightforward.

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

My audience looked fairly unconvinced.

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

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

“Are you always so humble?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright,” I said. “What is it?”

“It’s, um… my mantra.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cut her off with a raised finger.

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

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

She looked down at her hands.

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

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

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

“Then use it on yourself.”

Lima frowned, “What?”

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

“And if it isn’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most likely searching for us.

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

“I smell… that which is human.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you insa-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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