11 Chapter 10: Enemies Old and New
Kira quizzically followed Diana out of the house. Stopping before they could truly leave the premises, she asked, "Why are we sneaking around?"
Diana considered the Hersha for a moment before waving the scroll in her hand. "We're going on a Quest!"
Kira looked a bit excited. "Oh, I've never done that before! I thought that normally, it's just adventurers who go on them..." Her confused look returned.
Diana suddenly covered the Hersha's mouth and crouched behind a few bushes as Howard clunked up the path toward his usual seat on the porch.
She whispered, "That there is why we're sneaking around. My grandfather just wants me to hang around the house until the trial. Can you imagine that? And, didn't you already know that I'm an Adventurer? Not just any Adventurer, I'm a fully sanctioned [Knight]. That means I can form my own parties with civilians."
Kira frowned. "But wouldn't it just be safer to stay here? We can Quest at any time we want."
"Ugh, come on, Kira. Don't just repeat Howard's words back to me. Besides, it's not like that [Lady] will dare to touch us. You're a fully recognized first-class citizen thanks to James's efforts, and I'm the daughter of a foreign [Duke] allied to the Kingdom. She'd have to be crazy to seek trouble."
"Okay, but why do I have to come along? There's a lot of paperwork to do around here."
Diana turned around to face the Hersha. "Are you kidding me? Don't you want to see the world, help the common people, earn riches?"
"Why would I want that?"
"Whatever. You got what I told you to, right?"
The Hersha paused. "Yeah, I grabbed a couple potions of healing, stamina, and mana regeneration, rope, three daggers, two days of rations." Kira hefted a brown backpack. Despite her scrawny frame, she easily lifted it. Diana nodded appreciatively. Oh, Kira, don't you know you're the most useful thing out of all the things you brought? A [Berserker] in battle could ignore almost all wounds and kill beings twice their level.
The oblivious [Berserker] continued, "I also brought a compass, bottle of eternal water, and some of Master James's special items that he had showed me before: one of his cold cubes and a few types of boom bags."
Diana quirked an eyebrow. "Boom bag?"
Kira proudly puffed up her chest. "Master James figured out how to store a level forty mages |Explosion| in a tiny bag. The other ones are… well, I don't actually know what Spell they correspond to." Kira paused, looking at Diana with grave severity. "No matter what though, you must not let him know that we have them or allow ourselves to use them except in the most vital circumstances. If Master James noticed them missing in the next weekly inventory check of his more dangerous items, well…"
Diana whistled in surprise. That was truly a game changer. Used correctly, the boom bags could probably take out a troll. Still, she then noticed something that was blatantly missing from an adventuring group of such high quality gear and Classes. "Did you grab any Spell Scrolls?"
Kira frowned. "No, I couldn't find any. I guess Master doesn't like them. Maybe he's afraid they'll go off or something."
"Huh, but he keeps all these volatile potions about."
"I dunno. Master can be strange sometimes," Shrugging her shoulders, Kira quietly commented.
Creeping through the bushes, they passed a bend in the road and finally walked toward the city out in the open now that they were beyond Howard's vigilant gaze. By the time they reached the city's outer gates, Diana had a bit of sweat on her brow: carrying her full armor set around wasn't easy. Kira easily walked by her side, happily regaling some of James's more interesting inventions and epic failures. Diana felt a bit of envy for the Hersha [Berserker]. However, the contrast between the easy smile a [Guard] gave her and the look of distrust they all shot at Kira quickly cured her momentary jealousy. Just as Kira's life had its advantages, the poor girl was also heavily discriminated against by society. Kira seemed blithely ignorant of the [Guard]'s hostility as they walked through the forest proper outside the city. Exhaling before she could confront them, she realized the futility of any attempt and followed Kira out.
Stopping outside the gates, Diana donned her armor and buckled her sword to a loose belt. Kira buckled a few of James's experimental weapons to a bandolier over her own clothes. Each inspected the other before pronouncing the other satisfactory. Taking a bite out of the hunk of bread they had brought, the two read the scroll one last time to make sure that they were approaching the right area. Kira pointed at a number on the bottom right, below the Quest's description. "What's that?"
Diana looked at it. "Oh, that's just the expected difficulty. It's a three out of ten, which means that according to a [Receptionist]'s predictions, a level-twentyish [Knight] could be expected to solo this on their own with minimal injuries."
Kira furrowed her brows. "Isn't that too easy? You're just barely at the requisite level, but you're a [Bloodline Knight]. Didn't you train since when you could first wield a sword?"
Diana nodded. "That's true, but you have to remember that we're going to be at a trial in a few days. I just wanted to pick up a mission so that we wouldn't just be twiddling our thumbs while we were waiting." Standing up, she brushed off some crumbs that had landed on her gear. Holding out a hand for Kira to use to stand up, the [Knight] pointed toward a cluster of trees in the distance that appeared to thicken into a sea of green a few miles away. With a grin, the [Knight] said, "I hope you don't mind a good march."
Kira laughed, bounding on all fours toward their destination.
Wiping away some of the sweat dripping into her eyes, Diana was glad she had forsaken to wear her helm during the run, instead having kept it in the pack on her back. Huffing for breath as she turned onto the side trail leading to where the small group of poor, mid-teen level [Hunters] had been reported missing, Diana saw someone unusual.
[Lady] Lloyd offered the two a tight smile. With a curtsy, she said, "[Knight] Diana and the Lady Kira, I wish to offer my greatest condolences about the court case. It seems that my best efforts were unsuccessful."
Diana was about to continue on her way, ignoring the troublesome woman when Kira glared at Lloyd. "Is that so? I heard from the Adventurer's Guild that you were one of the women who sponsored the complaint." Diana looked at Kira in surprise. Had the Hersha been faking her exhaustion? She seemed to be hardly panting right now. Internally, Diana felt a bit irate that Kira had demonstrated that they had actually been affected by Lloyd's schemes, but she guessed that Kira hadn't known of Diana and Howard's plan to merely ignore the whole fiasco.
Taking the time Kira spent talking to catch her own breath, Diana secretly listened even as she slowed down to a jog and continued down their previous path.
[Lady] Lloyd grimaced. "I know it doesn't mean much, but I can assure you that I was forced to do so by my Master. He thought that it'd be the best way to attract the attention of your family." Lloyd's words did not pick up on Diana's |Aura Sense|. Was she telling the truth?
That made Diana pause enough to turn around. Drawing her sword, she said, "Trust me, you got it. Well, what makes you think you can accost us in the middle of the forest? No one would ever know if you were to just disappear here."
Lady Lloyd paused. "First, I'd like to assure you that my Master is well aware of where I am and has the evidence necessary to prove that you are the most likely suspects, or at least, evidence enough that you'll be forced to enter a truth-potion trial. Second, I'd like to offer you my most deep condolences. Nevertheless, I feel that you must admit that I certainly did help you."
Diana growled, "Making me pay tens of thousands of Seedz is helpful? I fear what you do to your enemies."
Lloyd looked a bit sad for a moment. "So do I, but enough of that talk. I'm sure your aunt pointed out to you how badly this matter could have spiraled. A foreign daughter of a [Duke] attacking civilians? No less, in the presence of many Noble-Classes? Girl, even for a [Knight], you push the bounds of what your rank can cover up." A cold glint appeared in her eyes. "Your aunt could no less cover this up than a puff of cotton could move a mountain."
Diana fingered her sword's hilt, eyeing the [Lady]. "What do you want then?"
Lloyd smiled, holding out a hand. "I just want to be friends with you."
Diana turned around, deciding to ignore the dangerous woman. Lloyd chuckled. "From my sources, this Quest is quite a bit more troublesome than you think it is. I suggest that you either allow me to take over it or accept my genuine offer to help you in apology for my earlier perceived aggression."
Diana pulled Kira around before she could start hissing at the [Lady]. Without looking back the [Knight] replied, "Thanks, but no thanks. I think we've got it covered."
[Lady] Lloyd looked at her in surprise, watching the two disappear into the trail. After a few moments, she sighed and clapped her hands. Three black figures emerged out of the bushes lining the road. In a brisk voice, she commanded, "Don't engage them. See to it that their mission goes… successfully. However, if you find a good opportunity, you may take it upon yourselves to clear up the board."
With a nod at her, the three figures flitted into the shadows.
Kira perked her ears.
Diana warily turned toward her. "Did you hear anything? We're approaching the area where the first group was reported missing. Maybe a mile off."
Kira sniffed the air before her eyes widened. Pulling out her shortsword, the Hersha bounded into a clearing. Diana followed close behind, bursting into the clearing just behind her.
Wielding her own weapon and shield, Diana gasped as the smell hit her. She had to fight her instinct to kneel down and gag. Strewn across the clearing were a bunch of ripped up body parts, mauled beyond recognition. Kira didn't seem as adversely affected by their surroundings as she continued to warily scan their surroundings. Without turning around to focus on Diana, Kira said, "These are a few days old, but some type of animal came around here pretty recently and created this mess. I'm not sure whether it killed these people." She pointed at some of the wounds. "These don't exactly look like something a sword or weapon would do. It's like something small ripped through them with incredible force." She sniffed the air again. "There's a distinct smell, but it smells like no magic I'm familiar with…"
Setting down her pack so she could more easily react toward any situation, she walked over to Kira who sheathed her sword as she was more used to dealing with perilous situations with her fists. Controlling her disgust at the odor, Diana eyed the remains carefully. This amount of violent debauchery... she'd swear she hadn't heard of such things occurring since… the Wild Times. It seemed like something from eras past when the Dark Nobles had roamed and the Demons had raided across the land, a time of terror. She gulped and tore her eyes away from the carnage. With a hoarse voice, she asked, "Do you think we should bury them?"
Kira shrugged her shoulders. "Doesn't seem worth it. I could set this whole place on fire with an incendiary potion, but it wouldn't make sense. We can just report this to the Adventurer's Guild when we turn the mission in. Well, are you ready to head back now?"
"What? Of course not! We haven't even found out what caused this."
Ignoring Diana's disagreement, Kira reached into a bloody body part and started fishing around for something. Diana looked at her, aghast. "What do you think you are…" Her voice trailed off when she saw what Kira pulled out.
Covered in blood was a ring that still managed to glint in the faint sunlight streaming into the clearing. Barely visible was the holy symbol of three intersecting rings on it. Diana's hand covered her mouth. "That's!"
Kira nodded. "Exactly. Whatever came by here is way above our pay grade. I don't know exactly what it was, but I suggest that we get out of here as soon as we can."
Reaching down to pick up her pack, Diana hesitated. "Let's just scout out here a bit more. Whatever it was has probably already left. After all, you said the only thing that's been here recently is an animal. It can't be that dangerous. Maybe that's just a legacy ring or a ring belonging to a regular Devotee."
Kira arched an eyebrow, fingering the ring. Pouring a bit of her water from her enchanted eternal water flask over it, she revealed the golden color of the holy symbol. "You're telling me that whatever [Noble] or, even worse, [Priest] who could either afford this or have the standing within the Church to receive one of these is something we could stand against? Whatever it was that killed them left no traces of itself. None. That's not something I want to mess with."
With a reluctant nod, Diana recognized the logic of Kira's words and warily walked toward her.
Diana looked at the Hersha in surprise. Hersha tilted her head before coldly saying, "We're not alone." Pulling out her dagger in a blur, the Hersha bounded toward Diana before standing beside her, their backs facing each other. Kira whispered, "Whatever it is, it's big. Big enough to do the kind of damage we saw here."
Before she could ask, she felt her |Aura Sense| spike.
With a low growl, a huge black bear strode into the clearing. Diana stared it hard in the eyes, trying to ignore the blood staining its teeth or the femur it was chewing on. Hopefully, she'd be able to scare it away. Realizing the danger was facing Diana, Kira whirled around. "F*ck me. Welp, that's not going to be intimidated by this." The Hersha tossed her dagger to the ground. She reached for the sword on her back but also merely unbuckled it and let it fall to the ground. Instead, she flicked out her claws and widened her stance.
Diana mentally noted that the Hersha's physical skills were more Brawler-based. Shifting her stance, Diana prepared for fighting a beast rather than a fellow Warrior. She commented, "Well, at least we found out what caused the damage."
Kira pointed at its left hind leg, revealing why it hadn't just charged at them. "It's injured. The wound looks pretty recent too. It's even bleeding. You don't suppose?"
Diana cursed. "We can look for any survivors later."
Suddenly, Kira gasped, staring at the bear's injury. Writhing black flesh crawled around it, gradually mending the wound. While it looked like it'd take at least another hour or so, the beast certainly possessed healing capabilities. Kira thoughtfully asked while observing their opponent. "Is it a Magic Creature then? I thought those weren't usually violent."
Diana hissed, "It's a Demonic Beast. These aren't supposed to show up so close to society. Dodge left!" Kicking off Kira, Diana hit the ground to the right as a beam of darkness shot where they had just been standing. Kira stumbled but managed to catch herself. Subtlety gone, Kira yelled, "What the heck? It can heal and shoot magic?"
Diana took a quick stock. She guessed that Kira's max hit points were probably around 650 due to her Hersha constitution while she herself had around 350 due to her [Knight] training. Her |Warrior's Awareness| told her this opponent had easily fifteen times her own health even in its vulnerable state.
The two took a quick glance at where that darkness bolt had hit. Impaled through several trees were cylindrical holes that had a slight bowl indentation at the point of impact, exactly like the corpses surrounding them. Roaring the creature rose to its full four meter height before slamming to the ground as its left leg buckled. The pair had already given up the advantage of the first turn in hopes that they could intimidate the bear enough into leaving. It had been the wrong decision.
Flaring her |Aura Sense|, Diana sought to gain a greater understanding of the Demonic Bear. She warned Kira, "I don't know what its Demonic Awakening granted it, but based on its lack of true injuries even after fighting a Ranking Figure of the Church, expect some type of solid defense!"
Now that it was her turn, Diana cut toward its left side to try to attack its vulnerable flank. A wall of blackness flooded toward her in retaliation.
Gritting her teeth, she activated |Roll| toward the left, following what her |Warrior's Awareness| told her would happen. The bear lost its turn to retaliate as it tried to recover from the mana drain. Kira… Diana didn't know what Kira did. Maybe the girl was figuring out how to use one of her potions.
Banishing the thought, she activated her |Protector of the Innocent| Skill to try to take advantage of the slight boost to her speed. Popping up, she |Sprint|ed the remaining distance and |Thrust| into the bear's gradually mending wound. Her sword shuddered, and she nearly dropped it, but she managed to bring out a few more droplets of blackish red blood. With a roar, she drove the sword in halfway to the hilt using |Rigorous Strike| before the bear swatted her with a paw, sending her flying into a tree. Shaking her head to sweep away the daze, she watched in dismay as she realized that her knight sword was stuck inside the bear's thick hide. While the injury seemed to infuriate the bear even more, the effect to its vitality seemed negligeable. She guessed it had lost a couple hundred hit-points at most. She stumbled while trying to stand, eventually succeeding by leaning against the tree. Diana estimated that she was running on dangerously low HP, perhaps even below fifty. By then, another turn had already passed. Thankfully, her armor had protected her from its claws, though they had penetrated at least half through the durable metal. The bear ignored her efforts and turned toward Kira. Kira used her first turn in the battle to retreat toward Diana, seemingly concerned about the [Knight]'s condition.
Diana hollered, "What are you doing? Go |Berserk|!"
Even as she shouted this, Diana felt despair well up within her. The bear completely ignored the two for its next turn and focused on its passive healing, flaring the Skill until the bone nearly set. Now confidently ambling along, the bear picked up speed as it prepared to chase the Hersha down. Perhaps it thought Diana was down for the count or could sense the danger of the [Berserker] within Kira because either way, it completely ignored Diana.
Kira seemed to panic as her head swung around the clearing, watching everything but the death approaching her.
Just as the bear reached her, its turn ended.
Sighing in relief, Diana watched as Kira grabbed a potion instead of entering her [Berserker] form. The [Knight] cursed. What was the girl even thinking? While a potion might successfully injure the bear, it wouldn't mean anything if the girl ended up dying in the process.
With that thought, a second wind seemed to propel Diana forward, interrupting both the bear's and Kira's turns. She somehow found the energy to |Sprint| toward Kira's dropped sword. She swore she saw a vague golden aura covering her as she managed to raise the sword and begin hacking the bear's flank. The bear roared as it faced her. With a desperate yell, Diana activated |Sword of the Howling Wolves|. With a thunderous roar, a dozen strikes rained onto the bear, an wind-like aura extending past Diana's sword to further cut like a ruthlessly sharp blade into the bear's thick fur past the wounds left by the sword's passing. The bear yelped in surprise and tried to reach over to swat at the [Knight] once more. Then a flash happened on the other side of the field. Both the bear and Diana unconsciously turned to face it, wasting their turns. Boom!
Diana was thrown back by the concussive force. The last thing she saw before she blacked out was a massive bloody black mass.
[Knight] Level 22 Gained!
[Knight] Level 23 Gained!
|Protector of the Innocent| → |Savior of the Oppressed|
|Rigorous Strike| → |Fearless Sunder|
Groggily sitting up, Diana realized that Kira had removed her [Knight] armor to better examine some of her injuries while she'd fallen unconscious. Apparently, the bear's claws that she had thought hadn't pierced through her armor had actually successfully scratched a solid cut on her body, judging by the red bandages around her upper body. Diana looked at Kira who was eating an apple. Then, she turned to figure out where they were: they were a bit away from the clearing in a relatively hidden alcove between a few trees and bushes. Within the clearing, she could see a smoking still black mass. She struggled to stand up and examine the corpse of their defeated opponent. It would be best to collect the parts before any other wildlife got to them: all parts of a Demonic Beast's body were basically treasures, not to mention that there was a huge bounty rewarded for bringing in Demonic Cores.
Kira waved at her. "You feeling okay? Sorry about how close that blast was. I didn't think you'd get up like that back there! Actually, I thought you were down for the count! Thankfully, when the Combat Mode ended, I could read your HP with a monitor. You really shaved it close, you know? You were in the single digits. Thank the Gods for healing potions. Honestly, when I saw how close you were, I was terrified that I'd accidentally killed you."
Diana thought back to that flash of light and the explosion that had knocked her out. She massaged her temples and asked, "Well, you didn't. It would've been my fault anyway for interfering with your plans. What even happened?"
Kira looked around a bit shiftily. "Well, remember when James told everyone I was a [Maid], and a few people figured out I was also a [Berserker]?"
Diana nodded carefully.
Kira sighed. "Well, what most people don't realize is that I actually have a pretty low level as a [Berserker]. I'm only level 18."
Diana managed to contain her disbelief. What type of insane person thought level 18 at such Kira's young age was poor? Kira continued, "Compared to my 34 levels in the [Maid] Class and 26 levels in the [Bombardier] Class, it's really too disappointing. Hmm, my levels are different now though. I gained a few new levels and Skills from the battle. I was going to check them out once we were somewhere safer. Well, I guess there's my [Cleric] Class, but it's just level 5, so it doesn't really count. I know it's bad, but I only really level that one when I volunteer to help the Church's orphanage on my days off. "
Diana did not point out that at probably less than half her own age, Kira had quadruple her levels. Instead, she focused on the weird Class and not the undeniable fact that Kira was a prodigy. While Beastkin could generally learn faster due to their shorter lifespans, Kira's age was only proportionally equivalent to a forty-year old's at most. To gain over eighty levels by forty… "What's a [Bombardier] Class? I've never heard of it."
Kira shrugged. "I dunno. It's just something that appeared when I was helping James with some fun potions. I didn't really understand how they worked, but they were fun to throw around. One of them even filled half a room with bubbles! Anyway, one day, James teased me saying that I was trying to become a [Bombardier]… Then, I guess it actually happened. Anyway, James said it was cool, and that he'd heard of them where he's from, so I chose to get it. It's kind of sad though. Ever since then, he stopped telling me stories about his homeland as if he were afraid of something."
Diana frowned. New Classes did not appear that easily. In fact, this was the first one she'd heard about firsthand and not from a history textbook.
"Well, anyway, I thought my lower-level Class might not be that efficient in combat. Not to mention that my hands get too big, so I can't use weapons or potions very well when I'm in my [Berserker] form. Also, there's the fact that most of my [Berserker] skills are completely Brawler-based. Besides, [Bombardier] got the job done."
Diana could not refute that logic. While she still couldn't believe that they had killed a Demonic Beast that took out an, at minimum, level sixty Ranking Member of the Church, she reasoned to herself that it was possible if Kira had over eighty combined levels even if they didn't stack like Class levels did.
"Then that flash?" asked Diana.
"Just a simple trick from the Class, |Delayed Fuse|. It was pretty simple honestly, just a simple |Sort|, |Retreat|, |Lay Trap|, and an |Unerring Throw| right into its maw."
Diana suddenly realized that between the two of them, Kira was actually the far better adventurer. The Hersha could naturally link skills to form deadly combos and tactics. Just as she was about to comment on that, Kira gushed, "But your Sword-Skill! It was so cool! The blue aura flashes that sent the bear's blood flying! And that's not even mentioning that |Second Wind|-like skill you used? Those are super rare!"
"Thank you. It's just because of my family's advantages though. Nothing like what you've learned for yourself." Diana replied offhandedly, reverting to her usual response to praise.
Then, Diana paused, reviewing the battle in her mind. |Second Wind|? Wait, shouldn't she have been debilitated by that bear's first strike? As far as she knew, only the most elite Warriors could maintain top combat power when below fifty HP. Then, she realized that it had come from her |Protector of the Innocent| Skill. As long as she believed that she was protecting someone, she'd gain a huge boost to her common abilities! She was about to detail her newfound realization when Kira twitched her ears and surreptitiously grabbed something from her pouch. Before Diana could ask what was happening, she fell unconscious for the second time that day.