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.