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.”
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-”
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.