The Carrion Beast crashed into a fallen tree, the wood splintering into pieces upon impact. Zero sped up her pace. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply as red fluid from her open wound trickled out and crystallised into a small blade. Blood continually dripped down her wrist, lengthening the size of the sharp blade. Once close enough—she leapt and plunged down.
The devourer rolled away from the attack and—instead of running again—rushed towards Zero, horns jutted out. Zero raised her weapon, deflecting the blow, the force of it shoving Zero inches away, shoes skidding through the dark soil. She bent her knees and dashed forward, blade at the ready when she saw it. The thick fog had obscured it from her view before but now that she had a closer view, she could see it clearly now: the ley lines were spreading.
Zero cried out—large curved horns suddenly enveloped her stomach. That one moment of distraction was all the devourer needed. Her back collided with a wall, sending a violent tremor throughout her spine. She landed firmly on her feet, she gritted her teeth and lifted her hand—seeing as the devourer was getting ready to go again—but the crystallised blood was melting back into her wrists—
Three consecutive explosives erupted at the devourer’s head. It burst apart like a hard-boiled egg freeing the heated energy pocketed inside its yolk. Brain matter, bone, and meat—the only remnants left of its head—showered down in fragments.
Rinko had thrown her starbursts to its head.
Zero gasped out in relief before slipping on the pool of blood beneath her feet.
Nahashi dropped Irish at her shock, expletives escaping her dried lips. Nokori turned green at the scene, bent down and dry heaved.
Shinichi gaped. He swivelled to Rinko. “Where did you get those?”
Rinko shrunk into herself. “The-the school provided it…”
“More importantly,” interjected Zero from where she sat. One hand clutched her bruised stomach and her back was somehow mysteriously supported despite there being nothing but the thick fog behind it. “We just stepped into an instance.”
Zero slammed her fist behind her. It made contact with the air and made an unmistakable noise. Below it was the glowing ley lines, creating a line where Zero’s hand couldn’t cross.
Shinichi closed his eyes. An invisible barrier. They entered a Special Instance Area. Not as straightforward as a dungeon or a raid, these zones were unpredictable in nature. Worse of all, it doesn't provide any loot. He covered his face with his hands and exhaled sharply. “I should have stayed at home,” murmured Shinichi.
“No shit,” agreed Zero, the humour out of her voice. She wiped at her face, trying to get rid of the drying blood. She sighed with her elbows planted on her knees. “…what the fuck is even happening right now? I woke up and everything was covered in smoke and fire and now instances are appearing where they shouldn’t.”
“B-but we should be alright if we clear it, right?” stammered Nahashi.
Shinichi turned to the students. Nokori and Rinko had huddled together, both looking like they were on the verge of dropping dead with their deeply seated eye bags and dazed expressions. Nahashi seemed to have become affected as well, her vigorous energy now curved with lines of uncertainty. Her fingers curled onto the sleeves of Shinichi’s shirt and she was staring at him unabashed at showing herself looking vulnerable, appearing to see him as their only hope.
Shinichi’s eyes softened. Why do children have to look so miserable and helpless? Their blatant misery could somehow sneak up towards the icy caverns of his ribs and squeeze his heart sporadically. The fact that they were in their pajamas and that all their hairs were in a mess was not helping. They’re devious little gremlins, honestly, using their suffering as weapons against his easily swayed heart. Shinichi averted his gaze as he was struck with those tear filled eyes, which seemed to sparkle at the moonlight, and exhaled through his mouth.
“We’ll figure it out somehow,” he said in a soothing tone. He felt like he’s played the comforter role a lot since he met these three. Shinichi’s face brightened. “Think of this as part of your training—although, admittedly, a bit advanced with the results being possibly death—but it’s always great to study pre-emptively before the big exam!”
Nahashi’s, Rinko’s, and Nokori’s faces dropped into a total blankness. Their stares bored through him and weren’t exactly calming.
“It’s a good thing!” claimed Shinichi. He clapped his hands and fought to keep his smile up. “I’ll even tell Bobu to let you become certified hunters after this—well, if he’s even alive cuz like, who’d survive through whatever happened here, right?”
Silence met him again. Long and disconcerting. Awkward and a bit embarrassing.
Then, sniffles pervaded the night air.
Whimpers and wails rose to a crescendo. Big fat tears rolled down Nokori’s eyes. Rinko rubbed his shoulder in comfort yet her dead eyes were glued onto Shinichi.
Smile still intact and sweat dropping down his temples, Shinichi spun to his only saviour. Zero was carving through the devourer. She stood up suddenly and delivered a heavy kick on its carcass. “Damn it! There’s too much blood, I can’t even see the mana stone.”
Shinichi glared and clicked his tongue. “Stop wasting your energy over a tiny mana stone! We have to ready ourselves for what’s to come.”
Zero scoffed. “I don’t want to hear that from a non-consumer!”
Shinichi’s brow twitched. That slip again. “Come on, everyone,” called Shinichi, his hand beckoning everyone to gather around him. “I’ve got a plan.”
“We don't even have a single clue as to what this instance is, what plan?” grumbled Zero. She ignored Shinichi’s gestures, settling for digging through the dead devourer again.
Shinichi presented the matchbox he took from Irish. It was a little red wooden box with golden scrolls adorning its edges. Shinichi flipped it open; uncovering the set of matchsticks nestled inside.
“How would that even help us?” Nahashi by his side asked.
“It’s an item that can open a portal to a sub space dimension,” explained Shinichi. He shook it, hearing the matches inside it rattle. “It's like an Inventory. Only bigger—way bigger. A little world made from a pocket of reality.”
The students’ eyes widened in surprise. “…what?”
“Basically, it’s the key to our survival,” explained Shinichi. He took out a match and struck it on the box’s course edge. “If—” The light flickered out. “—I can just—” He struck it again. “—get it to work…” The light was out.
“Is it that hard to light up a match?” Nahashi deadpanned.
“It’s very picky with its owners. This thing never liked me to begin with,” said Shinichi with a controlled smile. He tossed it to Nahashi. “You try it.”
Nahashi stared strangely at the matchbox. “You know, mister,” she started. “Considering your connection with Professor Bobu, I always just thought you were some unlicensed hunter. But this item…with a function like that, it has to be a 5-star, right?”
Nokori tilted his head at the small item. “The highest kind of rarity…” he murmured.
“I’m starting to believe my judgement was a bit naïve—” Nahashi looked up at him with wide eyes. “—who are you exactly?”
Shinichi pressed his lips together. “That’s not important right now—”
“No, no, I think it’s very important,” came Zero’s voice behind him. Her voice faded and dropped into silence. An eerie air hung in the stillness of the forest.
Shinichi heard the damp ground squelch on Zero’s shoes with each step she took, blood splattering as it was pressed together.
She stopped when they were just an inch apart, her shadow looming over his figure, her breath ghosting over the hair curling away from his skin.
The air behind him felt suffocating.
Nahashi gasped and stepped back.
The cold muzzle of his pistol pressed on his neck.
Shinichi stilled. He slowly raised his hands.