Chapter 6: Life or Death

"Th-Thanks… Kydan…" Auros seemed to be slightly lucid again for a moment when Kydan laid him down on the stone floor. They'd come to an open part of the cavernous Dungeon, a walkway between two cave mouths which overlooked a rapidly flowing body of water. Kydan wondered how far down that hallway had taken them from where they'd started, and what fresh danger might have lurked further down.

"Just rest up, okay?" Kydan said firmly, "I need you to be at top strength. I'll apply the ointment to your wound in a moment…"

He realised he was talking to no one, and his companion was out for the count again.

Auros… Damn it, please be all right…

He would be, or so Kydan had to keep telling himself. He hurriedly reached into the brown pouch secured to his belt, and fumbled around for the tub of ointment he'd bought in a town before heading to Mahernas.

The vendor guy said this stuff works on most poisons, Kydan reminded himself, Let's hope that wasn't just a false advertisement…

He felt Auros' body shake involuntarily as he began applying the ointment to the gash on his hand. It was still bleeding, but Kydan would have to wait for a sign that the ointment was working and the poison was starting to wear off before he bandaged it up.

"T-Try to stay still, Auros…"

The older man grunted in response, showing that he was slipping in and out of consciousness, as Kydan expected. He could only imagine the pain he was in- The ointment being applied probably stung, and who knew what the internal battle with the antidotal ingredients and the poison in his system felt like. Even if the ointment worked, he would probably still feel exhausted for a while after. Kydan knew that medicines like these were still in very primitive and speculative stages, so who knew if it would even work against the poison of a Fiend found in a Dungeon?

Can't have doubts. Not when the other option is another death on my conscience… At least it wouldn't be long before I followed, anyway…

Kydan involuntarily clenched the fist of the hand that wasn't still rubbing the ointment on Auros.

Why are you thinking like that at a time like this, damn it?!

Seeing Auros like this, looking deathly pale and barely awake, brought to the surface memories that Kydan was perpetually fighting off and pushing down to the back of his mind.

Damn it, he looks just like them… The ones who… ARGH!

He subconsciously slapped himself with his free hand, trying to snap himself out of it. He'd barely noticed that Auros was now making an effort to keep his hand steady like he'd asked.

"Th-Thank you, Auros…"

The bard gave a faint smile, which was all he could muster.

"Just pull through for me, all right? We're a team, remember? You're going to make a killing from folks in cities all over when you write that song about how we pried a Spirit Vessel from an Overlord's hands!"

He spoke optimistically, but Kydan's internal voice continued torturing him with quite the opposite.

You can't save anyone. If you couldn't save so many of the people who gave you a comfortable life back home, what makes you think you can save him?

"SHUT UP!" Kydan yelled out loud, only realising that there were tears running down his face when he felt a salty taste on the curve of his lips.

It looked like there wasn't much else he could do for the time being. The ointment was applied, and until Auros woke up fully or showed some other sign of improvement, Kydan would just have to wait.

#215 tried to put as much distance as possible between herself and the mysterious fourth companion ever since the incident between him and Overlord Lendras. It made her skin crawl when she thought about that intense feeling of bloodlust and rage she felt emanate from him only for that brief moment, and the knowledge of it made his regular attitude even worse.

"So what's your deal, huh?"

He was walking alongside the quiet swordsman, who seemed to also want nothing to do with him. Ever since the squabble he'd had with the mystery man, Overlord Lendras had stormed to the front of the group, his earlier idea of #215 leading them long abandoned. Almost like the dominant male in a group of animals or the strongest in a pack of Fiends, he now felt the need to throw his weight around and assert his dominance. This meant #215 had took a place at the back of the group, and could hear everything that was said between the men in front despite the loud crunching of their feet on the rocky ground.

"My 'deal'?"

"Y'know, where are you from? how many innocents have you cut down with that wicked-looking blade you've got there? That kind of thing."

The swordsman gave him a look of caution, "Why do you want to know?"

"Just making conversation, man. Are you this wary around everyone, or did I offend you somehow?"

The way the mystery man spoke to the swordsman didn't seem unkind on the surface, #215 thought, but she could definitely feel intense discomfort from the other man even though he was doing a good job of hiding it by acting standoffish.

Probably against his better judgement, the swordsman let his guard down a little, "Apologies. You haven't done anything to offend me- I hope I didn't offend you just then."

"Oh, nothing can offend me, so don't even worry about that," the mystery man laughed, "In fact I'm probably too thick-skinned for my own good. But anyway, you got a name?"

"… It's Hai."

"Nice to meet you, Hai, even if it's in a place like this. Call me V."

"Just V? What does it stand for?"

"Does it need to stand for something?" V looked amused at the notion.

"… I suppose not?" Hai answered, a little unsure.

"So, where are you from?" V continued questioning the swordsman, "My guess from that sword is one of the Eastern Islands, right?"

Hai began to speak in a different tone, a fonder one, when he spoke about his home, "I was born on Ashin Island, yes, but I grew up on the mainland of the Zhion Empire."

"Ashin… That's one of the Zhion's territories, isn't it?"

"Yes, I was moved to the mainland… Forcibly… when they took over. But it turned out to be a blessing. The Empire afforded me many opportunities."

"Were you ever in their army?" V asked, eyeing the light armour Hai wore.

"For a time, yes. I fought in a few minor skirmishes with rebels on some of the Islands. I never returned to my home island, though. It would be dishonourable to cut down my own people."

"A man of honour, I like it," V said, "But hey, maybe you should go visit home sometime. I'm sure there are people there who miss you, right?"

"I would like to see my original home again, yes," Hai nodded, "But… Part of me fears that the only thing I'd be met with there is disdain. The people of Ashin are very patriotic and a vast amount of them vehemently resist the Empire's rule. Back then, young men like me who willingly joined the Empire in pursuit of glory on the battlefield were regarded as traitors and cowards… Perhaps rightly so."

"I get that," V replied, "I can kind of relate to being the black sheep of your people. Hey, you and I have a lot more in common than we thought!"

"M-Maybe so, yes," Hai said, a little unwillingly, "Anyway… I'm a Dungeon Hunter now. I believe I've found my calling."

"That's good, man," V smiled that unreadable smile, "Hell, if you're good at it and it pays decent, what more could you ask for?"

Hai returned to silence, his eyes scanning the wall drawings around him attentively.

"At least there's someone here I can talk to!" V spoke loudly. If Overlord Lendras heard, he didn't give the mysterious man the satisfaction of a response.

Fool… Lendras really will go off on him soon if he keeps this up, #215 thought, This 'V' would be a dead man if he did…

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," V looked behind him, grinning viciously, and #215 jumped involuntarily, having forgotten all about the man's apparent mind-reading. She avoided his eyes.

"Did you say something?" Hai snapped out of his fixated examination of the wall drawings and glanced over at V.

"Nothing at all, Hai, old friend," V replied, "Nothing at all,"

Don't die here, Ky, you can't!

Live, live and become this place's future!

Hayvren's legacy won't die if some of its people still live!

Be strong, Ky… Be strong for all of us.

Kydan had his eyes tightly shut, a pained expression on his face as the memories encroached upon him still. He had no idea how much time had passed since he had laid Auros down and applied the ointment, and had been sitting next to his friend as he occasionally groaned but more often than not was forebodingly silent, leaving Kydan in a void of fear and worry.

Then the screaming started. Guttural, agonising, and just like what he'd heard as he left those brave people of Hayvren who sacrificed themselves for him and the other survivors.

"Stop thinking about it!" He said aloud, drowned out by the screams of Auros, "Be strong, Auros, please! I think… I think the ointment might be working!"

It was a fifty-fifty chance he was right, really. Either the new chemicals that had entered his body through the ointment were now fighting the poison off, or he was dying a very painful death.

"Auros, come on!" Before Kydan knew it, he was crying again, only having stopped a short while before, "You can do it! Don't die here, Auros… Please… My friend…"

A short break in the screaming punctuated by heavy breathing and was followed by the screams intensifying even more, and Kydan's stomach dropped when a second sound joined them.

This was a screeching the likes of which could not have come from any human, shriller and more haunting than those of the bats from earlier.

That's a Fiend!

Kydan didn't want to leave Auros unguarded, but he crept slowly to the edge of the wide walkway from the alcove he and Auros had been in the corner of, and peered down into the pool of water far below. The sound seemed to be coming from downstream.

Auros quieted once more, and Kydan no longer heard the horrifying mixture of Auros' intensified cries of pain and the alerted beast's shrieking before he saw the Fiend. Somehow the lack of noise from Auros made the situation even more terrifying.

Damn it, what if he's…?

The beast was flying low at a fast pace, so Kydan couldn't completely make out its form, but it was large, with leathery black wings and a jagged tail swinging behind it.

Kydan moved back from the edge, fearing he'd fall in from the force of the creature's ascent once it rose to claim its prey.

He hurried back closer to Auros, and for a moment knelt there, his sweaty palm clutching his knife.

Can't let it get near Auros… There's not a lot of room here to fight…

He formulated his plan in an instant as he looked at Auros, who was more or less hidden in the darkness of the alcove's corner, and luckily still remained quiet. There was a chance, a slight chance…

… The beast rose, and Kydan's mouth opened agape with fear.

It was like a larger, slightly more humanoid version of a stone gargoyle, except in place of a stone body were dark scales. It had thick arms and legs with clawed fingers and toes, and a fierce-looking visage- Eyes which literally burned with a red flame and black horns.

Damn it… I can't back down now… I have to protect… My friend!

"Hey, ugly!" He roared, brandishing his unlit dagger, "Come get me!"

It was a foolish plan since he had no idea what was beyond the mouth of the as-yet unexplored cave, but he had no other choice. He took of at a sprint, looking behind him to make sure the gargoyle was in pursuit.

Luckily for Auros, it did. Kydan was leaving his friend unprotected from other assailants, but this thing was an immediate threat, so there was no other choice.

"Come on, you stupid thing!" He called, and the sound of the creature's wingbeats intensified, so Kydan sprinted harder down yet another downward-sloping tunnel, almost taking a fatal stumble several times, before making it to the end of the corridor, panting. The Fiend was still following him, closing the distance fast.

How the Hell did I outrun that thing? He silently thanked the Dungeon itself for making the corridors as narrow as they were, posing difficult for a Fiend that large to fly in.

What awaited him there was a round room, with a lot more space than the walkway or the tunnel. The inscriptions here weren't drawings, but symbols of some ancient language. Tired from the chase, he tried his best to catch his breath.

Either I fight this thing and win here and now, or I die, he reminded himself, It's now or never.

The Fiend had finally caught up. It stood at its full height now, a good amount bigger than Kydan. It roared out as if to berate Kydan for trying to run and escape his fate.

"I… I'm not afraid!" Kydan yelled back, "Dagger of Sakhtras, Form of Flames!"

As usual, fire engulfed his knife, and this time more than ever before since he acquired the magic weapon, the surging flames gave Kydan a much-needed wave of determination.

Live for us, please…

Be strong, Ky…

To his shock, a new voice joined the others in his mind.

I'd much enjoy penning ballads about the boy who bonded with an Ancient and defied the State…

Kydan, my friend- We only just got here, but something tells me this is going to be the adventure of a lifetime…

The beast lunged towards him, clawed hand outstretched, and Kydan moved to meet it…