It was his first minute in this world all over again. With the difficulty ramped up several times over.
He couldn’t move for several minutes. His entire body felt like a literal car drove right over him. He felt a blood on his head. His skin was red and felt unbearably itchy.
He tried to get up, and he couldn’t. His brain was loudly protesting, before Joe was pierced with the pain again, causing him to fall down, hitting his head on the ground.
The flames were surrounding his landing spot. As fortune would have it, his body was in a somewhat safe area.
He didn’t see his companion anywhere.
The mask was in the way. He forced himself to get up. When he sat on his knees, he had barely any energy left. The world still was blurry and wobbly. The fires were wavy, bringing back the memories of the night attack. He moved his shacking and burning hands to his face and slowly removed the mask, wincing and growling from the pain.
Joe slowly crawled to the building ahead. Using it as a support, he leaned on it and managed to get up on his feet. The smoke in the air invaded into his dry throat, causing him to violently cough, almost collapsing his body all over again.
“Irfan! Irfan!! Talk to me, Irfan!!!”
The hell… Where are you, mate?!
The vision was returning bit by bit. He could pick out some details again.
He briefly glanced at the remains of the warehouse. The only things left standing were four supporting pillars, barely taller than him now, with pieces of concrete walls here and there, and one giant crater, filled with remnants of the fire. Joe was not even sure how he managed to survive, let alone not get his back broken by a blast wave, or not burned to a crisp by the hellfire.
He struggled to move. He barely managed to make a first step.
Then another one. He hesitated before letting the wall go. He pushed himself off the wall, somehow still keeping balance. His stomach revolted, forcing him to stumble and throw up.
His walk was unsteady, but at least he could move around. His first task was to find his fallen teammate. His second task was to get to the doctor.
Joe noticed a body around the corner of the building he was standing at.
“Irfan! You alright?!”
It was an extremely dumb question to ask, and he knew that, but it was better then nothing. Hunter looked way worse than Joseph himself - he had visible charred stains on his skin. Joe pressed his fingers to his neck and felt a wave of relief. The hunter was breathing, albeit very quietly. The first aid book helpfully reminded him to remove anything restrictive. He did just that, weakening his belt and removing his leather jacket with his backpack. He had nothing clean to cover his burns, and his only hope was reaching the mansion in time.
“Come on, let’s get you some help… come on…”
He picked his friend up, threw his hand over his shoulder and carried him, and his stuff in another hand, down the road with every bit of energy he could muster.
He was almost out of the territory, when he heard a sound of approaching engine.
Doctor quickly jumped down from the vehicle.
“What in the void just happened over there?!”
Then he saw what state the arid was in, and his face quickly changed into a stone cold mask.
He pulled out bandages and couple of extracts.
“Put him down there. Yes, on the ground. Hold him like I do. Take this, bandage this burn this way. Yes, alright…”
Together they managed to stabilise Irfan. His breathing has calmed down, his pulse normalised. He was still knocked out, however, so they had to transport him back.
Joseph opened the tailgate. Together with Pat, they loaded him inside. Joe remained in the back to keep an eye on Irfan, while doctor returned to the driver seat.
“Ouch, ouch! Pat, watch where you put your drugs!”
“These are extracts, you dumb arse! Stop acting like a toddler, and turn around!”
“Pat has a good point, Joe.”
Right now they were beneath the base. Lade Edna wasn’t lying one bit - the size of the underground facility was enormous, with two floors and wider than mansion itself. She was also there, patiently waiting for their treatment to end.
The arid has recovered pretty fast. Actually, both of them healed up unexpectedly quickly. Joseph’s red skin turned back into normal pink, besides a couple of spots, the bump on the back of his head was gone already and his body was feeling fine overall. The doctor pointed out that the armor he picked up earlier had saved him from the worst of the impact. He was immensely glad for his own thieving hands.
Irfan was feeling fine too, if a bit groggy. Lady Edna and Pat brought them some food, and they were happily chewing on it at the moment.
“So, how about you tell me what happened back there?”
“Archrhyder ambushed us. We hid in a warehouse full of Nature’s Bane. I blew up the warehouse. That’s it.”
Pat was stunned.
“Astonishing. You hid in a place full of toxic and explosive gas?”
“That was my fault. But Joe shot a barrel.”
Doctor glanced at Joe, completely bewildered. Joseph shrugged.
“Either I blow up this beast, or we become it’s food. Neither option was nice, so I went with the one that at least offered a chance to survive.”
“Did you actually think it through before, or just fired recklessly and made up your reason afterwards?”
Joseph was looking away from the doctor. Pat sighed.
“I guess, you can count it as a win. Somewhat. Still, you were not the only one in danger, Joe. Irfan didn’t have the fancy shiny armor protecting him from the harm, and he got the worst of it. Next time, do take it into consideration, before you activate a weapon of mass destruction on accident. But yes, I am glad you both survived.”
“It is fine, Pat. Joe did right thing, it was the beast or us.”
He may have done the right thing, but Joseph couldn’t just let the doctor’s words go. He did tell him to take responsibility. Joe blew it the same way he blew both of them up. He stood up.
“Irfan. I… I am very sorry.”
The pair of unblinking eyes was staring at him.
“For… for blowing you up.”
And for endangering the brother-in-arms, he wanted to add. But for whatever reason, he just couldn’t force those words out. Joe felt embarrassed for a moment. Then he was became angry at himself.
Hunter waved his hand.
“I told you it was fine. We got the Archrhyder, it’s all that matters. The beast will hide now, to heal it’s wounds. I say we are free to do whatever now.”
“Maybe, maybe not. We still have some things to sort out. Me and Lady Edna were searching a mansion for the Dead Weight. We already threw a lot of things into oven, nothing worked.”
Joseph thought he heard something wrong.
“Wait, you have decided to die again, Lady?!”
The Ghost was in deep thought.
“My feeling are conflicted still, but my head keeps telling me to get a rest. Doctor said that my Soul is already out there, in another world, Reincarnated, and I am but a shadow of a former Lady Edna Fox, made from her memories and personality. I do wish there was a way to get into the world, even as a Ghost, but I hate, hate, hate! …The feeling of being completely unable to change my fate… I am but the only living- well, partially living being on this land. I was willing to wait for your doctor’s master, but I am not sure if I am patient enough for that anymore…”
Joseph ran his hand through the hair.
“So you want to control your fate while you still can. This is why you are asking our help to find this Dead Weight and destroy it, right?”
She was silent for a moment, then smiled.
“I suppose you are correct.”
All of them turned their attention to Irfan.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Foolishness. I have a story for you, Lady. When I was thirteen, my parents went into mountains to hunt a Treyar. A giant, poisonous snake with a breath of an acid. They never found it and returned back.”
“...It was the snake that found them instead. They led it straight to our home. And when the night fell, it broke down the door, tore apart my mother and poisoned my father, before we drove it away…”
He stopped for a second. His eyes flared up.
“...he never recovered. He died in my hands, two days after, leaving me alone in the broken house. And I… I went to train. I was hunting down the most dangerous beasts. I was crawling in the mountains during a night, I was chasing animals that even a squad of soldiers wouldn’t touch. I kept going at it for four years, being one leg in a grave every other month, just to get strong enough…”
He closed his eyes. The next time he opened them, Joseph felt a presence of Death in the room.
“I was a fool, but I was a stubborn fool. And I got my prize. I tracked this Treyar down to it’s lair at the highest point of the mountain. I stabbed it during the night, while the snake was happily snoring away all of it’s problems. I kept stabbing it, until my hands went completely dead and numb… That night, I slept in the lair of the beast, surrounded by it’s remains.”
Irfan exhaled. His eyes were calming down, his face returned to a stoic mask he was always wearing.
“I am not saying you should keep living against all logic and sanity. All I am saying is to wait. We will talk to Roth, we will explain it to him and if he doesn’t come up with solution, we return and finish the job.”
Joe was speechless.
“I… I never heard you talk like that before.”
“I prefer it simple.”
Lady Edna slowly nodded.
“It was… a good story, Sir Irfan. You do have a point. I will prey that your Roth person will find the solution - or at least, will make it easier to figure one out.”
“Now that you mention it, he should be able to. I forgot back then, but Roth does know an awful lot about Death Affinity. I have met him before - as a researcher, in my university of medicine. He was an already accomplished doctor by then. After my graduation, we went our separate ways. My path has led me to a merchant ship, where I served for half a year, then went through several other “nice” companies - mercenaries, treasure hunters, other walking gold bags, you name it. My third year of practice was almost over, when Threshold abominations caught the ship - that I was flying on back then - near a wild island. We crash landed. Half of the crew became a meal for a wildlife. The supplies were running out… And then Morning Star came to us after a week on this island, like the Divine Saviour out of it’s Plane.”
Pat stopped to catch his breath.
“And Roth was already on board?” Joseph inquired. Doctor nodded.
“Then I became his assistant. That happened almost exactly one year ago.”
Ghost raised her head.
“A year… what time is it now?”
“Year 961, 16th of July.”
“The night attack took place on 12th of July… Four days has already passed since my anniversary of death. Quite ridiculous…”
The room went silent. Then Joseph jumped up and pulled out his watch.
“It’s already ten of night… Pat, you left the car near the main gate, right?!”
“Yes…” Doctor was confused. But then he jumped up too. “Oh, Curses!! We have to move! Now!”
All three of them dashed out of the room, followed by a bewildered gaze of Lady Edna. But then her eyes widened in realization. She hurried up after her guests.