Boryslav silently slipped on his gas mask, breathing calmly.
The cloud was still thick as the lift progressed downward. He took the time to make one last checkup, looking into his magazines and rechecking his emergency strap. Everything seemed green. Another minute passed, the fog finally dissipating as Boryslav spotted the ground below. The elevator rapidly approached before settling down, rumbling as Boryslav held tight. Finally, it stopped, indicating that it was now settled.
He opened the cage door, walking out of it before tapping a small button on the outside to send it back up. There was a pause, before it stirred back to life, disappearing into the clouds above.
Boryslav turned back around, breathing comfortably behind his filters. In all honesty, he knew the chances of encountering poison clouds or even less likely, radioactive zones, was incredibly slim, but he was too used to wearing his gas mask. Oddly enough... it almost felt as if his senses were extended rather than prohibited. Just another byproduct of the environment he had to survive in.
Looking around, his tunnel vision allowed him to inspect the rocky crags that surrounded him. Here, he felt almost trapped, easy prey for an ambush. With that in mind, he picked up the pace by just a little. It wasn't until he encountered the first cliffside that he had to come to a stop. He reached into his backpack, producing one of the basic requirements for a Delver.
Finding a secured piece of rock, he tied the rope around it, clipping a carabiner that was attached to his Sunrise suit to ensure he would lose his grip. With that setup, he descended downward. Training as a Blue Beret, and the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan had prepared him for this, allowing him to traverse with ease.
Upon reaching the button, he unclipped himself, noticing that he had stepped on moss. They were moss-covered roots that he was walking on, giant ones that were the size of buildings. He then looked up, realizing they spanned on for miles, with trees and other giant flora growing off them. Rain could be seen in the distance, pouring down from the unnatural clouds above as the tree line stopped short of the gaping hole.
This was The Forest of Temptation.
And for a moment, he felt like a Young Pioneer again, back when his world was so young... and simple.
Yet he put his guard back up like a concrete wall, his perception going to work. Creatures flew in the distance, mere dots from where he stood, fluttering atop the center of the Abyss. He was definitely going to have to keep an eye out in case one of those dots became bigger...
With those thoughts in mind, he continued his journey, only stopping to occasionally rest from time to time. Boryslav was used to long bouts of walking, making good time through the forest. Pretty soon, even his own scenery began to change, gigantic leaf-like trees forming a protective canopy over him. It was upon reaching this section that Boryslav decided to rest, having already scaled one-third of the 2nd Layer.
Boryslav sat down to rest atop a log, noticing a few small animals running across the grass.
"And when your down in the forest, you should try hunting for some of these." Taro pointed out, "Scurryfeet. Really nimble but delicious."
Boryslav peered at the picture, "Is there anything bigger that I can hunt? With more fat possibly?"
"Why?" Taro asked.
"My father once told me a story, about what it was like fighting in sub-zero temperatures. One of the most haunting stories he told me were the soldiers that died because they hunted nothing but rabbit, an animal similar to this. By all means, they were well-fed... and yet they starved."
Taro seemed intrigued, "Really? How was that so?"
"We call it rabbit starvation. You end up burning more energy skinning and digesting it, losing more than you gain." Boryslav explained. "That is why, on long trips like these, you should avoid gamey meats."
"Huh... I guess that explains that one time." Taro seemed haunted. "When my group found a dead Delver who had clearly been poisoned by drinking lantern oil... I thought he did it to kill himself."
"Your body tries to seek out fats when it is on low supply. He must have reasoned that there were traces of whale blubber in that oil." Boryslav shook his head. "Poor bastard."
He turned his gaze away, noticing a faint trace of movement. The Stalker peered closer, noticing a strange-looking quadruped, it's legs like wooden sticks and body almost covered with leaves. However, a green deer-like head stuck out from the end of it's camouflaged body, feasting on the bark of what was called an Amagiri tree, an almost plant-like tree that consisted of a giant leaf on top.
Boryslav stared at the small herd of 'Leavidae', what were essentially camouflaged deer, pausing for a few moments. He finally decided that one of these creatures would be his next meal.
Of course, it would have been easy to simply shoot one of these creatures and take it down, seeing as they had not noticed his presence... but he quickly put down that idea due to two reasons. One was the most obvious, that being that he was trying to conserve ammo, so using it on an animal that was posed no threat would be a clear waste. And the other...
Well, it was very unhuntsman-like, using anything that was more lethal than his Father's old Mosin Nagant. Of course, that rule was null in The Zone... but here, with some animals actually being very similar and passive like their Earth counterparts, it had at least gotten him to brainstorm even more on how he would accomplish a hunt without even using a gun.
He watched them eat upon the Amagiri trees, biting away the trunk to feast upon the sweet sap within it.
An idea came to him.
Slowly standing up, he rotated until he felt the wind blowing on both ears, getting a general sense that it was coming from the north. Noting this info, he walked to a nearby tree that was perpendicular to the breeze, making sure it wasn't downwind from where the Leavidae would be coming from. He grabbed his machete and cut a giant gash into it, a fresh stream of sap pouring out as Boryslav quickly sat close to it, ensuring to cover himself with ample amounts of dirt and leaves. For a moment, he considered covering himself with the sap as well, yet he decided it wasn't worth it, as the mass of insects swarming the sweet source was ample discouragement.
And then he waited.
Hunting was all about patience.
Boryslav was a very patient man depending on the situation.
Slowly, the Leavidae approached, sniffing the air and lifting their heads every few seconds. It took about a few minutes before they finally arrived, lapping at the substance. Noticeably, they didn't seem as cautious as deer, one of them even sniffing the sap on the squarish edge of his machete. Unfortunately, and fortunately for Boryslav, that one also happened to now be the closest.
He immediately shot his arm forward, grabbing it by the antler as it let out a surprised yeep, the rest of them bolting. Boryslav took his machete by the blade and quickly pushed the end against its neck. That did the trick, its throat now slit as it weakly struggled, life leaving its body before slumping.
Not bad for his third time hunting without a gun...
The Stalker picked it up by the legs, hoisting it over his shoulder. It was around the same size of a large dog, but its body seemed to have plenty of fat and meat on it. Hauling it back to the log he sat on, he went to work, using his knife to skin the pelt off. Pretty soon, the mossy camouflage and fur gave way to the bare flesh, Boryslav already working to clean out its insides.
"It really is not that different from a deer." He inwardly commented, cutting at its thighs. He held the now disembodied leg up, inspecting it for a brief moment to figure out what he would do with it.
And then he heard something rustle.
He was still for a moment, propping the leg down against the log before brandishing his AK that hung from his shoulder, lifting it toward the bushes. He remained silent, waiting for whatever creature that had possibly picked up the fresh scent of dead Leavidae
A hat poked out, Boryslav instantly recognizing the shape to be that of a Delver's cap. Finally, the figure stepped out, sporting a look that spoke of sleep loss, heavy bags underneath his eyes, and a nonchalant look on his face as a black whistle hanged around his neck.
"Didn't expect to find another Delver up here. You alone?" The man asked.
The Stalker's eyes picked up the distant glare of a scope from atop one of the leafy trees in the distance, as well as a stir a movement from the same bush the man had stepped out of.
He was being watched by two other assailants.
Boryslav finally understanding what was happening, the ambush already prepared. "Damn it. Even with the whistle, they think I'm an illegal Delver." He supposed it was reasonable to believe, seeing as he didn't dress up like the typical Orthian Delver... or speak like one for that matter. "This is a dangerous misunderstanding."
Although Boryslav was confident that he would've been able to come out on top... killing fellow Delvers was the last thing he wanted to have happened.
"Dah, I am. I finished my first Delve as a red whistle."
"Really?" The man seemed to analyze Boryslav for a brief moment. "Who recommended you?" The tired-looking Delver asked, "And don't try to lie. I know every purple and black whistle in Orth right now."
"... A black whistle named Taro. He owns a house in the east district."
The Delver's tired eyes widened, "Then you must be the foreigner who was training to become a Delver." He seemed to relax. "Heard some news that you went straight from red to a blue recently."
"Dah." Boryslav simply answered, gun still trained. "Now tell the other two who are watching me to come out. I do not enjoy being watched by those who are hiding."
He seemed surprised that Boryslav knew, waving his hand to signal the treetop Delver in distance before turning to the bushes. "Yelme!" He called, the bushes stirring as a green-haired boy, Boryslav noting as 'Yelme', stood up with a pickaxe in his hands, signature Delver hat atop his head and giant backpack on his back.
Yelme walked closer, head turned toward the tired-looking Delver.
"You sure we can trust him Simred? He could have just taken that blue whistle off a body."
The tired one, now confirmed to be Simred, shook his head. "Not really. I'm just trusting the words of the Delvers who told me the news."
Boryslav narrowed his eyes behind his gasmask. "I am standing right here, Мудак." He finally lowered his rifle, "And you should be the last to talk about trust. You were clearly planning to ambush me."
Simred put up his hands, gesturing to calm. "Alright, alright. Sorry." He then scrunched his face, "What the hell is a Mudak?"
Boryslav said nothing, now convinced that he was no longer under threat. He holstered his rifle as he turned around to the Leavidae, going back to work as he cut it up. Simred and Yelme slowly approach, as well as another set of footsteps. The Stalker looked up to see the third member approach, the one responsible for the distant glare. It was an old man with a white choppy beard, with naturally wide eyes that seemed to be on constant alert and a pair of optical goggles resting on his forehead. A long arbalest was held in his hands, possibly for sniping.
"Hm." The old man stared at the butchered creature with an almost owl-like gaze. "A Leavidae. Tricky to hunt cause of their great senses. How d'you manage?"
"Lured it." Boryslav simply responded as he looked back up, pointing at one of the giant leaf trees. "I noticed they ate nectar that came from the bark. So I sat still next to an open seam..." He then went back to cutting. "Good senses do not always mean good instinct."
"... I suppose you're right." The bearded Delver paused for a moment, hiding away the crossbow beneath his long cloak. "My name is Zapo, and those other two are-"
"Yelme and Simred. I heard." Boryslav finished, "Are you three in a group?"
Simred nodded, "Kinda... we're on patrol, keeping a lookout for relics and Foreign Delvers." He then shrugged, "Though, I'm really not sure where to place you..."
Boryslav grunted, feeling slightly insulted as he held his whistle out. "Well, I like to think that I am one of you now, seeing as I earned this whistle." He then let it rest against his chest.
There was a pause, Zapo sensing the tension in the air as the old Delver sighed, stepping in. "Perhaps we got off to the wrong foot here, Sir...-"
The Stalker took a moment to answer. "... I am known as Worn."
"Worn..." Zapo seemed to wonder for a moment, "Strange name."
Yelme turning his attention to the butchered Leavidae. "Seems like you know your way around cutting it up..."
"Yeah." Boryslav spoke before he shrugged, "But I am still deciding how to cook it."
He then looked up, finally deciding to extend an olive branch as he took off his mask, revealing his chiseled yet worn features, dull blue eyes staring directly at the now surprised group of Delvers.
"You three have any ideas?"
Boryslav was definitely not the type to shun any possibility to learn.
He had pride, of course, but he was also smart. After all, those that rejected advice in The Zone tended to end up dead very quickly, so the Abyss was probably no different. They quickly set up a fire, hanging a crockpot with filled water over it as the sun slowly set.
For tonight's dinner, Leafidae stew.
Boryslav watched carefully as they cooked it, taking note of the color of the broth. Traditional venison stew and Ukrainian Borsch, were each meaty and sour respectively. But Leafidae stew was different as it was more vegetable-based, and surprisingly, utilized the literal herbs that were scraped from its hide.
Yelme finished dumping the ingredients into the crockpot, putting a lid over it.
"And now we wait..."
Boryslav nodded, sitting down on the log as Simred joined him, bringing out a small pipe. "So, what's your deal, Worn?" He lit the end of it, taking a quick puff. "Why'd you become a Delver?"
The Stalker shrugged, "Money..." He paused, "And the fact that I just love putting my ass in danger."
"I can't tell if that's sarcasm or the truth."
"Perhaps." He then turned his head, "What about you?"
Simred paused before looking away, "Oh, you know how it goes... A young boy wants to become a Delver-"
Already, Boryslav could tell something was up, as Simred seemed too playful with his own story
It was a common stereotype that most Stalkers were anti-social, preferring to shy away from social situations. However, and truthfully, Stalkers had an on and off switch when it came to socialization out in the Zone. When cautious, most Stalkers were hardasses, or at the very least, not too open to conversation. However, when comfy and sat down around a fire...
The average Stalker was no better, and possibly, less mature than a child. Thankfully, Boryslav was one of the more refined ones, at least refined in the sense that he knew a way around taking the piss out and get the info he wanted.
"Wait, hold on-" Boryslav looked to the side and spat, he then turned back. "Sorry, but I do not like the taste of bullshit."
Simred blinked, "Wha- how did you know I was lying?"
The Delver had fallen for it, hook, line, and sinker.
"You just told me."
There was a short pause before Yelme and Zapo burst out into laughter, the former giggling and the latter chortling as Simred seemed embarrassed. "Damn, fine, you got me... felled by the oldest trick in the book." He then leaned back, "I... used to get into a lot of shady business back in Orth, and ended up conning the wrong person. Got myself into a lot of debt and figured throwing myself into the mercy of the Abyss was the best way to escape it."
Boryslav raised an eye, "And they allowed you to become a Delver?"
"Not they." Simred said with a smirk, "She. Ozen, the white whistle. She's the leader of our group, the Subterranean Bandits."
The Stalker had heard that name before. It was a name that was held with great acclaim back in Orth. Even Taro had mentioned it, yet spoke it with a form of reverence. Boryslav was yet to meet one of these white whistles, but even he could already tell...
This Ozen was a legendary person, not too dissimilar like the Doctor, or hell, even the Marked One himself.
However, the name of the group admittedly caught him off guard, the mention of bandits stroking something familiar within his memory of all of his time within the Garbage back in The Zone. "You are bandits?"
"Not in the criminal sense. Our main objective working under Ozen is to hunt down Foreign Delvers and reclaim any relics they might've taken."
Boryslav nodded, "'I see..." He then paused, "And where is Ozen? She is the leader of your group, Dah?"
"At the Seeker Camp in the Inverted Forest, our base of operations. Every Delver- I mean, every 'legal' Delver visits it before descending further down." Simred explained. "Otherwise, they avoid it, and that's where we come in."
"Just like Duty." The Stalker silently thought, already comparing the small group to the paramilitary faction. But perhaps that was an unfair assessment, seeing as Duty tended to be 'anti-everything' if it involved matters regarding the Zone. The Subterranean Hunter's seemed to be more focused on targeting bandits and grabbing relics.
His musings were cut off as Yelme opened the lid, "Food's ready!"
Boryslav was immediately handed a bowl of the green broth, the Ukrainian looking closely at it as he grabbed a quick whiff.
It smelled delicious.
Taking up a spoon, he began digging in, vocalizing the deliciousness of the taste. "Mmm, this is good!" He then looked up from the bowl, "You people sure know how to cook."
Zapo nodded, "Indeed. There's a saying that the Abyss is not only home to Relics, but also many culinary recipes."
Yelme turned his head to the hung up meat. "Yeah... but too bad there's still a little bit of leftover meat. I'm not sure how we're gonna dry it. I guess we'll have to throw it out."
Boryslav took another spoonful before bringing the entire bowl to his mouth, gulping it down and bringing it back, his bowl already empty as the group stared at him, wide-eyed. He then stood up, walking up to the log before producing his machete, shaving long pieces of bark off. Once he had collected about 8 long pieces, he returned to the fire, placing them in a circle and allowing the tops to lean against each other, much like a tipi. Finally, he grabbed the sticks of meat and placing them over the fire, resting them inside the enclosed space.
"Oh, I see!" Zapo exclaimed, "You've made a small smokehouse."
"Dah." Boryslav confirmed, "The meat should be dry tomorrow if the fire is kept." He then turned to the three Delvers. "I will take watch. You three may rest."
"You sure?" Yelme asked.
The Stalker nodded, "I am used to it."
Yelme shrugged, sitting on his sleeping bag as the other two Delvers did the same. Gone was the suspicion of their first meeting, Boryslav grateful that now they had trusted him enough that he would watch over them.
And really, for a thing like him, that was all he could ask for.
Simred slowly awoke, stirring atop his sleeping bag. He rose up, yawning as he stretched his arms.
He looked around at the rest of the Subterranean Bandits before noticing that an obvious person was missing.
The Delver stood up, peering around before realizing that the strangely outfitted Delver was sitting atop the log, body turned away. Simred slowly walked forward, a smirk on his face. "You still awake-?"
He then froze up, his legs refusing to move on instinct.
"W-What the-" Simred felt sweat began to bead down his forehead, "This feeling..."
And then Worn slowly turned his head, shadows clinging to the edges of his hood. Simred's eyes widened, a feeling of unknown malice washing over him.
Boryslav simply stared at him, a piece of dried Leavidae in his mouth. "Hm?" He then ate it quickly. "Dah, I am." Simred paused for a second, Boryslav standing up and holding his strange weapon.
"... Oh." Simred simply responded, Boryslav nodding as he returned to his vigil. The Delver turned around, blinking. "What the hell was that just now?" He then calmed down, Yelme and Zapo now waking up. "Maybe it was just my imagination... but for a moment there..."
He turned back towards the seated foreigner, Worn looking over the clearing.
"I could've sworn that I was standing behind a body."
Boryslav leaned against the side of an Amagiri tree, the Subterranean Bandits finishing their packing as he watched.
"So where will you three go now?" Boryslav asked, Zapo lifting his head.
"To the outskirts of the forest, and turn back. Our patrolling is mostly limited in the 3rd and 2nd layers."
He nodded in understanding, "Then you must be doing too damn good of a job." Boryslav lifted his blue whistle, "I earned this by killing a few illegal Delvers in the 1st."
Zapo's eyes widened, "Truly?"
Yelme turned his head to Simred. "Sounds like the Foreign Delvers and getting braver." The young Delver then paused, "Er, no offense to you, Worn."
"It is alright." He then adjusted his backpack, putting his gas mask back on as he turned his head to the group. "Hopefully, we will see each other again before I reach this 'Seeker Camp'."
Simred crossed his arms, "If we do, that means you really need to pick up the pace."
Boryslav chuckled behind his mask before speaking a Russian proverb he had learned. "Ти́ше е́дешь — да́льше бу́дешь"
"What's that supposed to mean?" The Delver asked.
"Ride slower, you will get further. I would rather be steady and cautious then swift and dead."
Zapo nodded in agreement, "Indeed."
They parted ways, Boryslav continuing his journey downward and the Subterranean Bandits continuing their objective upward. It had been an... enlightening experience for Boryslav, a good look at what to expect from his fellow Delvers once he overcame the gap of suspicion. In all honesty, it was a similar feeling, similar to sitting down with a few other Loners, sharing a fire, drinking Vodka, and listening to songs if one had a guitar.
He trecked on, focusing back onto the environment around him. He had not forgotten the clear dangers that had lurked in the forest. That sense of being on edge was a permanent part of his psyche thanks to The Zone. Boryslav stopped for a moment, inspecting the sprouts as he recalled Taro's advice.
"Just remember, if you're ever lost, just check the sprouts of the Amagiri trees. Their leaves always point toward the center of the Abyss."
Boryslav kept that in mind, continuing in the right direction.
After a few hours of traversing and walking, he heard a distant call, Boryslav raising his head to the wind.
"Stop, stop!" There was a pause before it was heard again, "Stop, stop!"
"Who's shouting that?" Boryslav thought, quickening his pace only to slow down. "Wait... something's not right." The call was heard again, repeating the same words again. "Why does the poor bastard keep repeating the same thing over and over again. You'd think if he was fearing for his life, he'd be yelling all sorts of things."
Suspicion quickly took hold as Boryslav came to a stop, voice still calling as he thought for a moment.
Taro's words spoke the loudest.
Boryslav silently read atop the dining table, Taro and Orla sitting as they finished breakfast.
"... Corpse Weeper?" Boryslav asked, noticing the giant quills and three eyes on its head, the lack of a beak showing off powerful tongue muscles... almost similar to that of a- "Bloodsucker." Boryslav finished his thought, Taro perking up.
Boryslav looked up from the Delver's journal. "Just thinking how much this thing reminds me of a creature from The Zone."
"Oh?" Taro seemed intrigued, Orla listening intently. "Do tell. A name like Bloodsucker sounds quite dangerous."
"That is an understatement." Boryslav said with a sigh, "Their skin is ugly and as tough as boiled leather. They run like us, on two legs, and have claws that cut through armor like butter. But that is not what makes them a Stalkers worst nightmare."
Orla blinked, perhaps unable to comprehend something that would rattle the veteran Stalker. "Really? W-What is it?"
"Optic Camouflage. They can turn almost completely invisible."
Taro's eyes widened, "Truly?!"
Boryslav nodded, "You will never see them coming when they attack, and when they do-" He put the palm of his hand in front of his mouth, opening his fingers to paint an image within their minds. "That is where their mouth tentacles come in, wrapping your neck and sucking you dry of everything." Boryslav then shook his head, rubbing the hand against his own neck.
He then shrugged, looking back down and ignoring the looks they gave him. "Anyways, that is all in the past now. What does a Corpse Weeper do? Does it have something to do with sound?"
"You'd be correct." Taro answered, "Corpse Weepers mimic the dying cries of their prey. That's how they lure social creatures, like Hammerbeaks... or Humans."
Boryslav raised an eye, "Huh..." The ugly face of a Controller was the first thing Boryslav thought of, knowing the type of manipulation the two creatures shared. "Guess I'll keep that in mind."
Which he did.
Turning to an Amagiri tree, he climbed up, holding out his binoculars as he wrapped a leg around its trunk, trying to peer through the thick foliage. Sure enough, a giant feathery shape could be seen, with soft white feathers and its head slouched low as it feasted on a-
"Fucking knew it..." Boryslav muttered to himself, the giant avian creature lifting its head up from the Delver's opened up corpse, its tongues calling out.
Boryslav had seen enough, climbing back down the tree as he detoured away from the source, making a large circle around the creature. He felt sorry for the poor bastard... but satisfied as well, knowing that he had avoided the same fate due to his careful thinking.
It was midday by the time he arrived at the edge of the hole after traversing a steep dirt slope.
The Inverted Forest had lived up to its name, Boryslav peering down at the drifting clouds below as he stepped on a giant branch, realizing that it was a tree... an upside-down tree hanging from an overlapping root. Waterfalls were carried away by the buffeting winds, giving the appearance as if they were falling upsidedown. The climate had suddenly changed from subtropical to a cold continental, not too dissimilar to a night in Ukrainian autumn. Boryslav was glad that the rubberized fabric of his Sunrise suit kept him warm, feeling the chilly wind behind his gas mask as he smiled.
"Ha..." And then Boryslav began to laugh, holding out his arms as he took in the sight. "Ha, ha! Изумительный!"
Truthfully, it was amazing. Boryslav instantly knew he would be the only one from his world to ever see such a sight, not any explorer, traveler, hell, even Stalker. Taking out his PDA, he held it up, looking directly at the lens as he caught the entire background behind him. He took a photo, looking down to check the results before hearing a branch snap.
He immediately reacted, PDA in his pocket and rifle ready, scanning behind his gas mask. Boryslav quickly realized the source, glowing red circles staring from the trees around him. "Fuck! This is what happens when I let my goddamn guard down!" Boryslav silently cursed himself.
The peering animals looked to be similar to gibbons except incredibly intimidating, with long arms and freakishly long hands that seemed to taper away from each other, ending with two more fingers. Dark fur covered their bodies, and even their faces, their red lens like eyes simply stared at him, watching.
"Inbyos." Boryslav recalled, "Not good. They're incredibly territorial."
And as if to confirm that point, they began to screech and shout before throwing things at him. Sticks, pieces of bark, anything that could be picked up from amongst the trees as Boryslav quickly reacted, holding an arm up in front of his gas mask and turning away ever so slightly, the ballistic fibers of the Sunrise suit absorbing the impacts. The biggest of them seemed to run out of patience, slamming its long arms against the branch it stood upon. A common sign of aggression amongst primates as it leaped toward him, arms overhead.
Boryslav quickly raised his AK.
Marulk flinched as he dropped his spoon, wooden utensil landing atop the table.
"M-Master, did you hear that?" He asked, looking out the window of the Seeker Camp. "It sounded like a musket shot. Do you think it could have been a foreign delver?"
The imposing figure sitting across the boy simply paused for a moment before continuing to eat.
A loud bang echoed across the Inverted Forest, the Inbyo's body had jerked by the chest, falling down into The Abyss as it screeched. That seemed to buy him time as the pelting stopped, the rest of the Inbyos now startled from the sound as they momentarily backed off.
"Now's my chance!" Boryslav quickly clambered atop the branches of a nearby tree before climbing up its trunk. He wasn't a rock climber, but he didn't have to be, sticks and grooves in the wood providing natural grips as he reached the top of the roots. He then ran, balancing atop the roots as he held his AK-74 by the handguard and using his free left hand to cover the back of his hood, protecting himself from any more potential peltings. After passing a few trees, he finally stopped, turning around.
The Inbyos had ceased chasing, watching him with their red eyes before finally giving up, turning back the way they came.
Boryslav had finally exited their territory.
He let out a tired sigh behind his gas mask. "That could have been very dangerous." He then carried on his way, climbing up a few roots and using the trees as a way of traversing.
"Ah, Master. I see someone!" Marulk announced. "It looks to be a blue whistle... but I've never seen him before-"
The figure pushed Marulk to the side and slowly leaned forward to peer through the telescope. They then leaned back, turning around wordlessly and leaving the room.
The light in the inverted was beginning to turn a fruity red, meaning that it was currently sunset. A log path could be seen ahead of him, clearly man-made with rope and wood. "That must be the way to the Seeker Camp." Hanging his AK from his shoulder strap, he pressed on, now walking upon even path. It was only after an hour or two that Boryslav finally arrived.
The Seeker Camp was actually not a building, rather it was an inverted tree that had been hollowed-out. Gigantic telescopes could be seen amongst its leaves, and carved windows showed that there was light coming from the inside. A singular gondola could be seen hanging from the front, anchored above.
"Finally made it." Boryslav thought with relief before noticing the lack of presence, "Huh, seems like there's barely anybody here, not even a lookout-" The gondola suddenly activated, lowering itself down to the log path. Boryslav blinked, "Wait, those crazy bastards are gonna carry me up there? Past the 10 meter mark and right into the anomaly?" He had read that the anomaly apparently weakens the further away from the center it was. Perhaps the fact it was high up made it hard to attack, as any enemy would have to ascend in order to get at it. He then entered the gondola, awkwardly waiting before the machinery finally awoke, progressing upward. He subtly opened one of his lead packets hanging from his belt while looking up, exposing the Compass artifact.
It sprung to life, glowing as it opened a hole within the 'Curse' anomaly and let him through without any repercussion. Boryslav smiled behind his gas mask, closing the packet as he reached the top.
And then, upon turning is head, a figure stepped into the elevator, barely giving him a chance to react as a giant glove grabbed him by the scruff of his suit.
His eyes widened behind his gas mask, Boryslav lifted from the ground as if he were a child, AK-74 falling from his shoulder. He quickly reached into his side holster, lifting his M1911. Yet they seemed to anticipate this, using their free hand to slap the gun right out of his hand as if it were a toy, the weapon clattering on the metal floor of the gondola as his fingers stung.
"Motherfuck-" Boryslav managed to spit out before being carried out of the gondola and smashed against the wooden planks. Boryslav felt his rib cage rattle and back bruise, air being compressed straight from his lungs. He could barely see his attacker in his blurry vision, only able to discern the shadowy shape of a sadistic smile.
But he had the satisfaction to see that smile turn into a frown.
Boryslav had lifted his lower body off the ground, having quickly wrapped both his legs around the giant figure's neck before throwing all his weight to the right. For a brief moment, he was able to turn the figure to the side thanks to the positioning, gloved hand briefly relinquishing its grasp as the figure fell to the floor. He didn't dare attempt a full takedown, knowing that the figure in question had the strength of a Pseudogiant. He rolled away, quickly standing up and recovering himself. The figure stood up to full height as well, Boryslav getting a good look.
The first noticeable feature was the giant disc-like hat, and their intimidating presence. Their clothes were black, with a large cloak that rested atop their shoulders. The overall impression of the armor was bulky, yet smooth, gloved hands almost like cloth gauntlets. The boots were odd, almost hoof-shaped and something hanged from their neckline, yet Boryslav was unable to properly discern it.
Mainly because his assailant was already upon him again, stomping forward with both gloves balled into fists.
It would be too late to grab his machete and swing. So Boryslav relied on his other weapon.
It was a Russian martial art, taught when he was still in the Spetznaz. A style that had no real form, but rather was a hybridization. Grappling, takedowns, and strikes. His body relaxed, stance calm as all the stiffness seemed to leave his joints. The figure then threw a gigantic right fist forward, directly aimed at his chest.
"If this hits me... I'm dead."
So instead of bothering to block it, which would have been impossible, Boryslav took steps to let it continue, drawing the back of his wrist over the fist to guide both the arm and his own body, with the former continuing forward, and the latter pivoting to beside the arm as wind rippled past him. He balled a fist, raising it on reaction much like a boxer before striking, throwing his entire body into the attack as he leaned forward. His fist landed its mark against the figure's cheek, horizontal vector perfectly in line with a vertical collision. His assailant's large hat was literally knocked right off their head, body stumbling forward in a diagonal pattern from his position and grabbing onto a handrail, crushing the metal in their grip after momentarily having to recover. Boryslav was surprised in all honesty, knowing that anyone else would have been knocked out for sure, or at least fallen to the floor from such a powerful hit.
The figure then finally stood up, turning.
It was a woman.
Her face seemed emotionless, and her skin was a dull white, like the snow underneath a sunset. An ugly bruise could be seen where Boryslav had struck on her cheek, yet she didn't seem bothered by it in the slightest. Her hair was an odd monochrome mixture of black and white, with two bangs on the sides of her head, almost as if they were horns. She stared down at him with her black lusterless eyes, and while others may have found her gaze to be disturbing, Boryslav found himself oddly... allured, as if her gaze inspired a feeling of familiarity.
The facade was then dropped.
Boryslav blinked, realizing that her expression had changed. Now, it was... well, quite hard to say at first glance, almost as if inky blackness had dripped over her features, a feeling of cold contempt washing over him.
Finally, she spoke, her voice deep yet soft.
"It has been a while since someone struck me so..." She then outstretched her hand as if in trance, grasping digits facing Boryslav. "I truly despise you."
And to that...
Boryslav responded in kind.
"Oh? Very well then." His lens seemed to consume the lights around them, ready to draw his machete. "Иди ко мне..."
Two monsters had found each other, and only one would leave... had their standoff not been interrupted by a child's voice. "M-Master, wait! He's a licensed Delver!"
Boryslav blinked, the situation instantaneously defusing as the tension simply vanished. He noticed a young girl standing at the open wood doorway, her blue eyes wide and hands quivering as she wore the attire of what appeared to be a maid. The imposing woman peered to the side ever so slightly before peering back at Boryslav.
It was here he finally realized what hanged from her neck, a white whistle in the shape of a bovine with horns.
"So then that must mean she's-!"
Ozen 'The Immovable' spoke, "Hm. A shame then."
Boryslav finally came to his senses, gritting his teeth behind his gas mask. Legendary white whistle or not, he was enraged. "A shame!? What the fuck are you implying?!" He then grabbed the end of his blue whist with a tight fist, shaking it to show it off. "I have the blue whistle right here!? Does that not show I am a Delver?!"
"It was not unreasonable to assume that you could've easily have taken that from a corpse, many have tried before."
The Stalker gritted his teeth before pulling back his hood, wrenching his gas mask off, his worn features revitalized by sheer anger.
He then lifted both hands, now in a combat stance.
"Ну все, тебе пизда! Let us go again!"
Ozen wasn't sure if she was somehow suffering from the curse of the 3rd layer, or if what she was seeing was actually real. But one thing was for sure...
This man had caught her completely off guard.
She turned her head to Marulk, ignoring the furious blue whistle. "How do you know he's licensed?"
"W-Well, I heard a few Delvers talk about a strange foreigner in Orth who officially became a blue whistle recently." Marulk then motioned to the Delver. "He must be the one they were talking about."
"And you didn't tell me this before...?" Ozen asked.
"I-I'm sorry, Master! I just wasn't sure at first!" Marulk exclaimed.
She turned back to the blue whistle, the man goading her to fight. Ozen considered for a moment to continue fighting before the stinging bruise on her cheek gave her a gentle reminder. "His fighting... is unlike anything I've ever fought before." He should have been cowering before her, like every Delver that had arrived at the Seeker Camp... and yet... this meer blue whistle showed none of it. "He doesn't fear me at all."
That was almost like...
Ozen sighed, clutching her forehead lightly. "My... how bothersome." She then straightened her back, standing to full height as an echoing crack heard, the blue whistle blinking. "I'll be completely honest... I find apologies to be completely useless. Once something occurs, the words that come after hold no meaning." The foreign man raised an eye at that sentiment, "So how about a peace offering instead? A fight would inconvenience both of us."
"... A peace offering?" He asked, Ozen nodding.
"I could offer you artifacts, gold-"
"Do you have alcohol?"
Ozen blinked, "... Yes."
The man suddenly dropped the stance, anger literally fading in an instant as he smiled, his dull blue eyes lighting up. "Well, why did you not say just now?!" The man then walked past her, looking down at Marulk. "Thank you for the intervention, little girl."
Marulk stuttered, "U-Um, uh, actually I'm a boy."
Kept you waiting, huh? It took a while, but I finally finished this chapter... now if you'll excuse me, I gotta start working on my other stories. No extras this time, I'll try and post one next chapter.
Мудак - Mudak - Asshole
Ти́ше е́дешь — да́льше бу́дешь - Tishe yedesh — dal'she budesh - Slow and steady wins the race
Изумительный - Izumitel'nyy - Amazing
Иди ко мне - Idi ko mne - Come to me
Ну все, тебе пизда! - Nu vse, tebe pizda - That's it, you're fuck(in' dead)ed!