Chapter 77

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hag can’t be meaning-

“Come forward! Dare not test my patience…”

We waited for something more, but nothing else happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… Unless it’s all in my fucking head?

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

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

But I did, however, end up finding something.

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

The three warriors who had slaughtered the young hunters.

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

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

“Fuck!”

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

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

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

Fate seemed really hellbent on seeing us die.

“Deadeye!” Maru screamed from the front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is not the moment, Deadeye!”

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

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

And then we would die.

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

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

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

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

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

“Lima?” I called.

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

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

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

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

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

“D-Deadeye!?”

 

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Chapter 76

“Edward?”

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

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

How long had I been lost in my thoughts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lima nodded but Maru didn’t seem convinced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty straightforward.

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

My audience looked fairly unconvinced.

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

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

“Are you always so humble?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright,” I said. “What is it?”

“It’s, um… my mantra.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cut her off with a raised finger.

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

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

She looked down at her hands.

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

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

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

“Then use it on yourself.”

Lima frowned, “What?”

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

“And if it isn’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most likely searching for us.

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

“I smell… that which is human.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you insa-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Chapter 75

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sighed, but didn’t sit up.

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

Surprisingly, the one to answer was Maru.

“Scout,” she simply blurted out.

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

“Scout… meaning?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Third Eye of Yaga – Active item

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

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

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

 

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

 

Trinket of the Knight of Dusk – Single use

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

 

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

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

I handed it to Lima.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both turned in her direction.

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

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

She gave me an annoyed glance.

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

“… I think I liked you better when-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only tried,” Lima simply said.

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

She’s afraid.

“What are you doing?” Lima asked.

Maru looked up, “Wh-”

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

Maru straightened her back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death meant much, much more for me than them.

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

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

Ceaseless scorching of the mind. Eternal grinding of…

 

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Chapter 74

They kept running in silence until Edward spoke again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lima raised a brow.

“Do you not like machines?” she asked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s nothing I can do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was nothing she could do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Lima did not grab it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lima…”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Are you okay?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tapped her shoulder.

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

She shook her head again and wiped her tears.

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

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

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

“Edward.”

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

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

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

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

… And Old Gods, I remembered.

 

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Chapter 73

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lima! Watch out!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re almost there!” Edward said.

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

The maddening laughter behind them turned into a growl.

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

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

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

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

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

There was enough to worry about already.

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

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

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

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

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

“You found a path?!” she blurted out.

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

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

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

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

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

My team was terrified-”

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

“Why don’t you start?” Spice hissed.

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

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

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

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

“I see. What about you, Lima?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be fine. All I need is-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… But at what cost? She wondered.

 

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Chapter 72

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

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

A simple goal she could focus on. Revenge.

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

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

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

Attributes

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

Racial traits

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

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

Classes

Dreadnova Enforcer (3rd gen) – level 19

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

Blade Priest of the Deep – level 8

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

Unspent Ether: 3310

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attributes

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

Racial traits

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

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

Classes

Dreadnova Enforcer (3rd gen) – level 20

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

Blade Priest of the Deep – level 9

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

Unspent Ether: 110

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

Let’s hope that this make a difference.

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

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

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

“Summon: Drone,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“That is correct.”

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

The reconfiguration.

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

She paled.

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

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

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

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

Good.

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

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

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

Nothing, Ed. I am still going up.

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

I am still going up, sent the drone.

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

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

I am still going up, sent the drone.

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

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

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

Can you describe what you are seeing? I asked.

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

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

It appears to be a building made out of wood.

Any clearing near my position?

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

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

That is not possible with the set of functions available.

Why?

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

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

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

I can.

I opened my inventory and started looking for the item.

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

Very well, Ed.

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

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

“Lima, Maru,” I called. “Get ready.”

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

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

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

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

We owe her one.

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

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

“Hmm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed.

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

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

“I am. But… I’m not just human.”

I noticed Maru relaxing her fingers.

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

Who was that again?

“Sure,” I nodded.

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

I am, Ed. Sending directions.

I glanced at Maru. “Are you coming?”

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

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

I raised a brow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ikun Omi’s clear laugh rang through my thoughts.

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

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

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

No, I said.

There was a pause. No? she repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Chapter 71

We kept walking like that for a while.

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

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

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

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

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

How noble, Ikun Omi teased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assuming the third knight even had one.

“Lima,” I called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned around. Her tears had stopped.

“You were serious,” she said.

“I still am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Including ours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about you?”

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

What I needed was some help with my wound.

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

Minor HP regeneration

Intermediate Respite of the Undead

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

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

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

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

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

Still no pain. Good.

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

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

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

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

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

Be quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She put her face in her hands.

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

“Are you done?” I said calmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Chapter 70

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I heard Ikun Omi’s teasing chuckle.

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

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

What the fuck is he talking about?

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

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

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

They really are here for me.

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

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

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

“Bali!” I screamed. “They are-”

It happened too fast for anyone to do anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to help them.

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

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

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

“They’re going to kill us! Hel-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry Ed-”

“STAND!”

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

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

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

The ground shook again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rooting mine. He stepped on it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked.

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

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

Her eyes fell on me, hard and accusing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… You must be mocking me.”

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

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

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

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

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

I should have known better.

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

 

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Chapter 69

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Kinua doing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

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

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

She laughed heartily.

“My name is-”

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kinua smiled and aimed for the heart.

“It has to be do-”

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

What the-

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

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

She’s dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How?

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I forced my mind back to the threat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck this.

Her eyes widened. “What are you-!”

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

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

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

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

But my hand remained empty.

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

+500 ether.

+5 glory.

Iwin Town Quest update

You have freed 2 of the girls.

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

 

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Chapter 68

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody stopped as well and looked at him.

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

The half panda boy turned to me.

“How many cores do we have?”

“Forty-two,” I said.

Somebody whistled.

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

Lima slightly cocked her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, guys…”

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

“What?” Cairo frowned. “No, we-”

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

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

There was a silence.

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…That’s not what I meant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Knight of Noon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave her a concerned look.

“Are you… sure about that?”

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

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

 

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