Hunt 3: Odds
While idly resting inside the tent, Azalea unknowingly dozed off. In a half-asleep state, flashes of her previous “activities” that exhausted her the day before kept playing in her mind.
Projectiles rain on her while she stays on defensive. A huge demon roars with all its might. At the sight of that menacing figure, she knows that taking four people with her would only get in her way. However, it is no longer a question of whether they are suited for hunting, because at this point it may be more dangerous to leave them behind. While still in the same dream-like state she recalls how she is not only a hunter but also the one being hunted for various reasons, some of which she may not know about yet. Just like why this group of four is sent to fetch her.
“Hello, Dad.” Hearing a nearby person’s voice pulls Azalea back from her trance. Lillian who is in a safe distance outside the tent is making a phone call. “I’d like to arrange some papers for a certain person.” A long silence follows after the first few sentences. The person on the receiving end must be talking a lot or taking his time to answer. Lillian’s voice trembles as she continues. “I want to take her in. I can already be her guardian.”
Azalea gets up. She looks around inside the tent. There are two bags, one seems to contain clothes, and the other has some necessities and toiletries. Before she got up, she notices a small bottle half filled with pills, immunosuppressant. She does not dare to be nosy over the matter, so she moves to peek outside. There, Lillian stands without her usual uniform. Watching her back turned away while talking on the phone, it feels somewhat lonely. There is a hint of awkwardness in the way she stands, gripping her phone tightly with her right hand while her left seems to be busily coiling her black hair that flows down on her shoulder.
“O-of course… well, she’ll be sort of… I want to welcome her like she’s part of our family… maybe you could come home when everything’s done and--” She is unable to finish her line. She pauses for a while. “But, Dad…” She sounds hesitant. “Mr. Su, I’m very grateful for all his help, but company matters and family… won’t you consider separating them even just this once, after all this time?” It sounds like she is almost choking at her own words. After the pause, her back falls slump. “Mhmm… I understand.” The call ends.
Silence engulfs the surroundings while the yellow-orange rays of the sun rains down on the trees and plants painting a scenery that looks like the forest is in fire. And the person standing amidst it all is being devoured by the flames.
Lillian heaves a sigh as she looks up to stop her tears from falling. “Do you hate me that much to the point that you can’t even bear to hear my voice anymore?” She whispers as the late afternoon wind blows.
A tear starts to fall from her eye. Such scenery made Azalea remember something she does not want to see ever again.
“Lillian!” She instinctively calls out. She then realizes as she makes a step outside that she has no idea what to say. “Ahh… H-hello, where are the others?”
“H-huh?” Lillian gets startled as she quickly turns away to secretly wipe her tear. “W-well, they’re preparing the bon fire over there.” She answers while pointing out the direction. She forces a chuckle. “Don’t you look pretty when you’re clean?”
“W-well.” Azalea moves closer and notices a scar peeking in the middle of her chest. “Did you get into an accident before?”
“Hmm?.. Yeah but it’s a long time ago.” She answers casually.
“Did it hurt a lot?” She gives off the sound of sudden curiosity.
Lillian pauses and then shows a kind smile. “Yes… I was with my mother, she died in that accident.” Then she takes her blazer which is hanging in the branch of a nearby tree.
“I see, sorry…” For a moment, she feels like she forgot to breathe as a flash of unpleasant memories resurface. Her eyes look blank. “I think, you’ll be better off not joining this hunt.”
“I was specifically chosen for this mission because you’ll need me.” Lillian says while looking at the smoke coming from the bonfire. “Let’s join Zharyx and company over there.” Then she grabs Azalea’s hand and pulls her to join in the others.
Azalea goes with the flow while talking softly to herself. “Mhm… You were chosen to catch me off-guard.”
Al Duran is a rank A demon who had been quiet these past years but out of the blue, he started venturing areas outside of his territory. This is not about why nobody should fight a demon alone but rather about the fact that nobody in their right mind ever hunts something that is classified as a demon alone. There is a large gap in the difference in power of a demon and a monster. Monsters may resemble animals and plants’ appearance but their main difference is that they could use their mana to support their survival. On the other hand, demons -- like monsters, may resemble other living organisms—but possesses great amount of mana and they replenish it via killing and absorbing the mana of other living organisms putting entire biota in immense danger. Demons usually avoid leaving their territory and only hunt sources of mana around it, but there are also times when they suddenly become aggressive and leave to quench their mana requirement from nearby villages. For this reason, the Hunters’ Council keeps a close eye on these “threats” and sets out large bounty once they become highly dangerous.
By the camp fire, Zharyx reviews the files they have about Al Duran. The information that the Hunters Council is able to compile in their database are limited to just a couple of skills it can use.
“Azalea, she was called bewitched.” Victor wonders as he takes a sit. “It was because everyone who hunted with her died. What if--”
“Those are just rumors.” Zharyx cuts him off.
“Okay then… What do you think of that demon?” He inquires changing the topic.
“Even if there isn’t much information about his weakness, I think we’ll be fine. There’s no way your attacks won’t reach him.” Zharyx replies while setting his tablet aside. “His armor is tough but he isn’t agile. He uses a mana imbued rock-hard projectiles called ‘Bullet Stones’ to attack but we could easily defend against that. The only thing we should be careful about is its illusion.”
Victor touches his chin while turning a little to the side. “It’s a rank-A demon but it somewhat sounded too easy.”
“You guys sure sound very confident in your skills.” Azalea blurts out as she arrives with Lillian. “Al Duran won’t be classified as rank-A if it could be that easy. Well, not that I expect you to know that much, you’re noobs after all.” She laughs.
“Now, now, don’t be rude.” Lillian says while taking a sit. “Sit down and let’s talk about this properly.”
Azalea sits beside Lillian and then the Sabercat follows sitting beside her leg. “Okay, here’s one thing you must remember when hunting demons.” She gestures. “Whatever the rank is, you must never underestimate a demon.”
“Wow, that’s quite helpful.” Earl Spade, who just arrives from behind, says as he walks closer carrying a bunch of dried woods.
“I’m not kidding.” She replies without looking at him. “Before we start planning, I’d like to know what kind of abilities you have.”
“That’s too one-sided. What if you use that information to ditch us later?” He drops the woods in the gap between him and Zharyx. “How about we tell you about us and you tell us about yourself?”
“This is turning into a let’s-get-to-know-each-other kind of thing instead of planning.” She mutters.
“I agree with that idea!” Lillian excitedly raises her right hand. “I’ll ask first, how old are you now?”
“Ah… About sixteen.”
“What do you mean by, ‘about sixteen’?!!” Earl Spade complains and then scoffs. “Don’t tell me, you’re into that emo stuff like ‘I don’t have a birthday’ or ‘I forgot when my birthday is because a lot of bad stuff happened in my life’ or something?!” He laughs mockingly.
Azalea snorts. “Don’t be too overexcited. I just don’t know what date today is.”
“It’s the twentieth day of Triini’xahr.” He responds.
“I see!” She flicks her fingers. “Yeah… I’m about sixteen.”
“You’re still not dropping that!” He revolts.
“She’s good at dodging some question. I can’t tell if she’s serious.” Zharyx evaluates.
“Okay, my turn!” She says ignoring Earl Spade. “Now, tell me what kind of powers you have.”
Earl Spade makes an uncanny smirk. “I’m a contractor. Zharyx is a mage. Lillian and Victor are both espers. Now, it’s my turn.”
“Hey, give me more details!” She frowns.
“What is your cat’s name?” Zharyx asks out of the blue.
“It’s supposed to be my turn!” Earl Spade is furious.
“It’s not my cat.”
“What is your cat’s name?” He repeats.
“Kyu? How lame.” Earl Spade snorts.
“How cute.” Lillian says while stroking the Sabercat’s fur.
“Huuu~h??? What’s wrong with your taste?”
“What is your favorite food?” Zharyx asks again.
“Hey, aren’t we supposed to take turns asking? And why are you asking stupid questions?!” Earl Spade grunts.
“Potatoes.” She answers.
“Favorite color?” Lillian follows after kicking Earl Spade’s leg.
“Red, yellow, green.”
“What kind of music do you listen to?” Zharyx’ turn.
“Rock. It keeps you awake.”
“Do you like dresses?” Lillian continues.
“Who is Samie?”
Azalea pauses at the mention of that name. She glares at Zharyx.
The crackling twigs from the bonfire sparks, spewing few ashes into the air. That sound takes over the moment while none of them utters a word.
Zharyx, with a serious expression, looks right back at Azalea. “Answer this one and we’ll tell you about our skills in detail.”
She brushes her hair with her hand. “Samantha Kano,” she says with quaky, soft voice. “She’s a year older than me and she sort of acted like an older sister to me back when I was still in the orphanage. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” Lillian narrows her eyes.
“Well…” She turns her face away from them. She lets out a deep breath. “She sort of… looked like Lillian.”
Lillian pulls her closer. “Really? Where is she now?”
She is hesitant but she figures that she cannot dodge the question. She keeps her eyes away from Lillian, hanging her head low. “Cappleasyo City West… Cemetery.”
Lillian gently pulls back. She is speechless. Suddenly, it is getting difficult to talk. It is as if they all have a lump in their throat. The silence continues while the surroundings gradually fall into the darkness as the sun teasingly disappears from the blazing horizon.
“Now, can we take this mission seriously?” Azalea gets back to her usual business smile.
Earl Spade gulps. “Is all that true?.. about what you just said a while ago?”
She answers with a wider, tricky smile. “Can we take this mission seriously, now?”
“As promised.” Zharyx responds politely. “I am a mage with low magic affinity. I run out of mana quickly, so I can only use low-level elemental spells.”
She crosses her arms and ponders. “That could be a problem. I wonder why he got chosen to join this mission if that headmaster had anticipated that we’re going to fight with the demon?”
“Our main offense will come from Victor.” He continues as everyone pays attention. “His ability revolves around sound wave manipulation.” He taps Victor’s shoulder.
“My Sonic Rage should be able to pass through Al Duran’s tough armor.” Victor adds. “I can directly attack him and damage his internal organs. However, the shockwave of this attack is so strong that, excluding me, it can also damage everyone around me.”
“That’s when you’ll need me.” Lillian joins in. “I am an esper. My barrier Dimension Lock, can protect us from the shockwave. My ability can separate a certain place from another without displacing it from where it really is.”
“That sounded more like a prison than a barrier to me.” Azalea whispers.
“And then there’s me.” Earl Spade confidently smirks while pointing his thumb to himself. “I am a contractor. My Yashou, Spirha will be there to heal wounds in case you guys get caught by the attack.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t let that happen.” Lillian interrupts wearing a playful smile.
“You’re pretty much useless, aren’t you?” Azalea looks at him with scorn.
Earl Spade’s glorious smile disappears as his lips curves downwards. “I’m not useless, I’m a healer. Are you deaf?”
“That doesn’t suit you at all.”
“So what can you do?”
She grins as she stands up. “I’m a genius mage. I am an expert for both healing and attacking. Furthermore, I have great magical affinity so you don’t have to worry that I’ll run out of mana in the middle of such death-defying battle.”
He snorts. “You’re a healer, too?” He stands up facing Azalea while pointing his index finger at her. “Well that doesn’t suit you either. Mage healers should go, ‘Kyaa~! Kyaa~!’ or ‘Teehee~’ acting all cutesy-cutesy and fragile.”
“Just what kind of shit have you been into?” She responds with disgust.
“That’s everyone’s image of a magical healer.”
“Stop clowning, Earl Spade.” Lillian commands as she pulls Azalea’s arm to make her take her sit.
Zharyx fixes his eyes at Earl Spade and gestures for him to sit down. “Our battle strategy will concentrate on defeating Al Duran as fast as possible to prevent him from using Illusion Break against us.”
“You might have a chance there… but there’s something that wasn’t included in the HC archive that you haven’t considered.” Azalea takes her sit slowly while rubbing her palm to her chin. “The fog around Al Duran’s swamp isn’t some ordinary fog; it’s the mask of his illusions.” She smiles confidently as she relaxes her back. “I’ve fought him twice this week already. Yesterday, I’ve just confirmed how his trick works, you guys are very lucky, you get to hunt him with me.”
“None of the scouts that were sent by HC was able to fight him for more than 5 minutes.” Victor says as he looks back to the information from the archives. “Are you telling us that long exposure to the fog triggers the illusions?”
“They could have figured that out easily. The records didn’t say anything about the possibility.” Zharyx adds with crossing eyebrows.
“HC sent scouts in a group of three, three consecutive times.” Azalea explains from memory. “They figured that the fog got something to do with Illusion Break. So, the third group of scouts tried to blow it away, however those scouts never returned. For some unknown reason, they all died. With such incident, HC classified Al Duran as rank-A, and had stopped sending more scouts to acquire information about his abilities.”
Lillian gasps. “You just said you fought him twice already. Are you okay?”
“Don’t worry; I won’t be here if I’m not.”
“Something killed them after they blew off the fog.” Zharyx ponders as he clenches his fist. He touches his chin while looking down.
“I can’t believe that you’ve fought this demon twice and survived.” Victor comments. “If you have already got a hold of this information, then… have you tried blowing the fog too? In that case, I recon you have that valuable information that HC wasn’t able to get.”
“The power of illusion,” Azalea answers with certainty. “It’s not from the fog around the swamp. Al Duran’s body discharges an invisible mana-imbued gas that mixes with the air around him. Continuous exposure to this environment affects your brain which triggers hallucinations.”
“They aren’t illusions?” Earl Spade asks as he throws a dried branch into the fire.
“It all happens inside your head.” She replies.
“So even if we clear the fog,” Zharyx analyzes while staring at the blazing ember. “That mana-imbued gas could accumulate again and we could fall into that Illusion Break anytime.”
“The mana-imbued gas will at least take five minutes to reach harmful level. During these five minutes, we must defeat Al Duran or we’ll have to retreat before we get caught under his Illusion Break.” Azalea continues to explain.
“I don’t even want to imagine how you were able to obtain such information after fighting him solo twice this week.” Zharyx mumbles in awe.
“Retreat?” Earl Spade snickers. “Can’t we just continue on blowing up the gas again and again as we continue on fighting until he’s defeated?”
“None of you could make large enough explosions to blow the gas.” She answers casually. “In our current party, I’m the only one who can do that but it’s too dangerous with all of you around. After five minutes, we are going to retreat, discuss our errors on our current plan, and then strategize for the next one.”
“I see, you are not willing to take any risky measures in this hunt.” Zharyx comments with a calculating smile. “Other than Illusion Break, Al Duran can also use Bullet Stones, with splash damage effect. If we’re not careful enough in handling these two skills, one mistake can lead to our demise.”
Lillian analyzes the situation. “The main reason for our retreat is not because we can’t win in one try but because there is a high possibility of having a casualty with us.” She concludes. “Just like what Azalea had been doing, we’ll attack with a plan in hand, retreat if it doesn’t work, review our information, evaluate and amend our strategy before proceeding with another attack.”
“Man, that sounds troublesome. What’s our plan, exactly?” Earl Spade asks.
“Okay, I’ll spell it out for you, so listen carefully.” She sighs. “First, I’ll blow up the fog… then, we follow Zharyx’ original plan.”
“You didn’t quite explain it.” He nags.
“Aside from Azalea’s addition, nothing much changed. Rest well tonight, we’ll leave early tomorrow.” Victor says while opening a canned food.
“The best time to attack is around noon, around eleven or twelve. The fog won’t be as thick and we’ll at least get clear view afterwards.” She adds.
“Here,” Lillian passes an opened canned food to Azalea. “Let’s eat dinner.”
“If it’s noon, then that means…” Earl Spade thinks loudly. “We can make it even if I oversleep a little.”
“Don’t you even dare, Spade.” Zharyx warns with his deep cold voice.
Azalea stares at Earl Spade with contempt. “You better not fuck up the pla--” Her statement is cut short because Lillian gives her a chop on the head.
“Watch your words, young lady.” Lillian scolds her furiously. “I swear, I’m going to pound some manners into that thick head of yours after we finish this mission.”
“Ouch.” She rubs her head at the part that was hit. “You all talk like you all can get over this hunt without losing your life or at least a couple of limbs.”
“It’s called optimism.” Victor answers while handing a canned food to Q.
“You should think the same, we may not have a license but we aren’t that weak either.” Zharyx reassures and then continues eating.
She hangs her head low. “The license is just an accessory.” She whispers in the air.
Lillian fixes her eyes on Azalea while trying to figure out what she just said. It is like the atmosphere around her suddenly turned cold. So cold, that it froze something from deep within the person sitting amidst this smoking cold air.
“Okay… just keep our plan in mind.” Azalea suddenly blurts out with a faint smile while putting the canned food down.
“You don’t have to keep repeating that, you know.” Earl Spade raises his eyebrow. “After all, we’re pretty badass when we get serious.”
She looks at Earl Spade with a stunned expression. “Yeah, I hope so.” It seems that she has gotten tired of making more arguments. “I’m going to rest first, you may continue on discussing stuff on your own.” She stoops down to pat Q’s head. The little cub purrs while rubbing its head against her hand. “Fill yourself up, Q. And don’t let your guard down.”
They were dumbfounded as they watch her return into the tent. She flips the cover of their tent and then rolls in, as if out of the blue, her body became so heavy. She lost her appetite all of a sudden, like she cannot swallow and digest the food anymore.
“It’s been four years.” She mumbles as she sits curled up in one side. She closes her eyes while keeping her other senses fully awake. “Will I be burying four dead bodies on that same day again?..”
Meanwhile, Zharyx and company continue on eating while feeling perplexed about Azalea’s reactions. That look, no matter how much they think about it, is very strange.
“How could she keep on insisting that that isn’t her cat, when they obviously care so much about each other?” Earl Spade blabbers while gulping and scooping his food. “So, what do you guys, think? It’s her cat, right?”
“Why are you so fixated with the cat?” Lillian forehead knits hearing him talk about trivial stuff. “And would you stop eating like a starved wild animal?”
Victor coughs to clear his throat. “Shouldn’t we be more concerned about her true identity? We just lost all of our chances to ask her about that. I know it’s just some rumor but I’m sure it also has some truth behind it.”
“Azalea: The Bewitched… also known as The Witch of the West.” Lillian whispers hanging her head low.
“The words like witch and hellion are associated with things that people of the past considered evil.” Victor adds lowering the tone of his voice. “In some places that the Five Divine Kings didn’t rule, reveils were less common. Knowledge about our existence is limited and many ubliss thought that it was some sort of curse or punishment. Today, those words are almost no longer used.”
“Those dumb primitive people.” Earl Spade mutters.
“Azalea is an infamous Demon Hunter; rumors say that everyone who teamed up with her in a hunt all died. Because of that she had been known as 'Azalea: The Bewitched.'” Zharyx narrates as he throws a couple of dried branches into the fire. “But did you know that a few groups of people also call her, 'Heaven's Wing Azalea'?”
“So, there’s a less popular alias for her too?” Victor wonders.
“It makes me wonder…” Zharyx looks up the sky. “Why is she called 'Heaven's Wing' instead of 'Heaven's Wings'?”
Lillian sighs and ponders. “Did someone break it? Or did she purposely tear it off all on her own?”
“Did you say something?” Earl Spade asks; his brows arc with worry.
“Hm?.. Nothing.” She forces a smile in response.
Just as the surroundings turn darker, the stars shine brighter. The more they try to dig into her past, the more questions they fall into. Even though they are acting nice and friendly towards a person they just met, the spiral of doubt and suspicion continue to strangle their conviction.
The location of the Demon's territory
Mountain of Crosspatch in Dimatagpuan Region
-> Ainu Village in south-west
-> Harlawon Village further south of Ainu
-> Magye Village around the south-eastern parts
-> Ainu Village in south-west
-> Harlawon Village further south of Ainu
-> Magye Village around the south-eastern parts
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The Bewitched Demon Hunter
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