Cleaned up and wearing my new clothes, I was back on the road. To be more precise, I had left the actual road a few minutes ago for a small path that went up one of the many surrounding rocky hills.
When I glanced back, I could see people and trucks coming back from wherever they had been rushing to earlier.
Some went in the bar I had just left but most were headed much further down the road, toward the mountain at the end of the riverbed. I could see torches being lit up on its side.
It is worth mentioning that the ease with which I made my ascension made me appreciate my leather boots even more. The rest of the shuari set was made of loose fitting cotton shirt and pants, over a tighter long sleeved undergarment.
It even included gloves, but I decided against wearing them as it felt a bit too much.
I reached the top of the hill and saw the temple. It was less of what I imagined a temple would look like and more of an old manor, or a religious boarding school; which it probably also was. What made me raise a brow was that it had a front garden with flowers.
It was simple and surely well looked after, but what was surprising was that the frail flowers were able to grow on such inhospitable terrain. As far as I could see, the ground was mainly made of red rocks and sand.
There is probably some magic involved, I figured.
I got to the door, knocked and waited. After a moment I knocked again -louder- and still got no response, so I pushed it open on a well lit hallway.
“Hello?” I called. “Anybody here?”
The floor was made of wood and creaked under my feet. I noticed several pairs of dust covered shoes placed on the side, some in boxes stuck to the wall. The walls were made of metal, with rust showing on the few spots where the blue paint had come off. Still, the inside looked nice; well as nice as covered poverty could look anyway. There wasn’t much furniture, but it was clean.
Like the garden outside. Simple, and clearly well looked after.
I thought of going upstairs, but was stopped by the sound of movement in a room on the left and a sliding door revealed a stern aged woman with graying hair pulled in a tight bun.
If her hard gaze and straight posture weren’t enough, her clothes and the way she held her nose up and hands behinds her back told me she was a “no nonsense” kind of person.
“Well,” she said coolly. “Who do we have here?”
“The name’s Edward Lee,” I said with maybe more assertiveness than a kid would normally show when talking to an elder. It was fine with brats, but I couldn’t help refusing to act like a kid in front of someone close to my own age. “I’ve been told by Laure from the bar down the hill to look for Mrs Royin.”
“Were you, now?”
She narrowed her eyes and looked me up and down, while I did my best to not roll my eyes.
I knew that look. She was searching for obvious red flags marking what old people like us love to call “troublemakers”. It may not have mattered, but I was glad I had insisted to take that shower and had tied my hair back. After a brief moment she moved to the side.
“Lima, you can go,” she said at the attention of somebody inside the room. “We shall continue this discussion some other time.”
There was the sound of a dragging chair and a green skinned lanky girl in her late teens came out of the room.
Her attire looked like a worn out leather armor that seemed to have been designed more for fashion than protection, considering it had no sleeves covering her tattooed arms and not much padding over vitals area.
Then again, being fully covered in leather armor in the heat of the desert would be suicide.
She gave me a curious glance as she went past me and I noticed her pupils were similar to some frogs’ : more horizontal than round.
“Come in Edward,” the older woman said. “Take a seat.”
Her simple office was embellished with flowers spread around it and a large window that let the light from the setting sun tint everything in a dark red.
She closed the door after me and sat down with a sigh.
“I am Mrs Royin, the priestess of this temple. If Laure told you to come here and even gave you her real name, I suppose I can make an effort and take you in. However...” she paused, seeing my expression. “Is there something wrong?”
Now that I was in that chair, I was starting to wonder if this was a good idea. What I wanted was some sort of refuge, a place where I could stay until I got my bearings. I wasn’t looking for someone to impose restrictions on me.
Then again, what the hell did I know about how things worked in this world.
“Hum,” I hesitated. “She didn’t say much about this place and... Sorry, but I’m not sure about what it actually means for me to be accepted here.”
“You didn’t know? Are you not from the bunker? Well... The more I see you, the more I doubt you are.”
If the way I look is that much of a giveaway, that Bunker place has to be all kinds of messed up.
“Things are... complicated,” I said.
She laid back in her chair and joined her hands, “Dear, I run an orphanage in the savage lands; I think I can handle “complicated”. Why don’t you tell me why Laure recommended you to me?”
“Because I bought things from her store.”
“Is that all? Are you serious?”
“Yes,” I said. “Well, not directly from the bar, from the... terminal statue she has in the back.”
At that moment, a light of understanding seemed to lit up in her eyes.
“You used glory at a terminal.”
“I did. Is that considered a bad thing?”
I was starting to believe that it wasn’t just money, as I had thought. Or was money so rare that a kid having much of it was strange?
“Not necessarily,” she said. “But it can certainly attract unwanted attention. Only delvers can use the type of terminal Laure has, before going on their way to clear dungeons. Real delvers, with the actual title.”
Well, that... was a lot of information I had given by just buying random things. But what were the implications?
Before I could say anything, she raised a finger.
“While it can happen, it is rare for a child your age to have that title, unless they are a noble. Assuming they are of noble blood, some people would be tempted to capture them, hoping for a ransom. I assume Laure thinks you’re a lost noble child ignorant enough to use a random terminal. Is she wrong?”
The thought of me, of all people, being a noble made me mentally shake my head.
“I am not a noble,” I said.
“No you’re not. I doubt even a noble would be that ignorant,” she said. Her finger was now tapping her desktop in rhythm. “Laure’s inn is in the last camp before the shallow fog, and a meeting point for adventurers. A defenseless human noble would never enter that place. Especially now that there will be a lot of dangerous outsiders sniffing around because of the old instant dungeon that got cleared.”
I stayed silent.
The sun had come down and dancing flames had risen by themselves on candles placed around the room, which gave me just enough light to see mrs Royin’s inquisitive look.
I am the one who caused all the activity I have seen on my way here. And there’s even more supposed to be coming.
I thought about the people driving and running past me as I nonchalantly went through my status. Anything could have happened.
“What can I say,” I started. “I’m not looking for trouble and I won’t bring you any. I don’t know anything about this place and just need time to figure things out. I don’t expect you to do it for free, so-”
“Do not worry Edward, you are not my first charity case and you certainly won’t be the last,” she said, interrupting me. “I have been running this place for a long time after all. The children here came from every background and I have for policy to not ask more than they are comfortable saying. You are free to stay, but of course there are rules and you will have to leave if you disrespect them. Understood?”
“Now,” she continued, “different optional courses and apprenticeships are taught in the mornings to make it easier for some of the children to find work when they ultimately have to leave when they are eighteen years old. The afternoons are free, but you are expected to either help around or find work to alleviate the expenses. Unless under special circumstances, spending your nights outside is forbidden. I have no tolerance for drugs, so if any is found in your possession, you will be expelled. Is that clear?”
The way she was patronizing me was slightly getting on my nerves, but I didn’t let it show and simply nodded. I was nothing more than a new kid to her eyes after all.
“Good. Those are the basics, you will eventually learn the rest as you go. Now would you pick a flower from this vase?”
Intrigued, I did as told and took a flower from those on the desk. “You will learn the rules as you go” wasn’t something I really was expecting to hear from anyone in charge of anything.
“I am a blue priestess and this orphanage is under the protection of the angel Umion Ji,” the woman said. “It means that few people will dare to treat the children unfairly, but you have to declare your desire to be under her protection and hope for her to answer. All you have to say is ’Umion Ji, allow me to join your bouquet’.”
I glanced at the flower, “Is this a permanent engagement?”
“It isn’t,” she said dramatically rolling her eyes, apparently used to the suspicion. I figured Laure picked up the habit from her. “Unless you decide to enter priesthood, the blessing will last until your eighteenth birthday and can be canceled if you wish to leave us before then. And in any case, you are asking for an angel’s protection. It would be in your interest for it to be permanent.”
I could not read her expression, nor discern any hint of trickery. But she had been recommended by Laure, someone I could easily read as being genuine.
I studied the blue flower between my finger then said, “Umion Ji, please allow me to join your bouquet.”
At first nothing happened. Then the flower lost its vibrant color and quickly dried up as if it had been left under the midday sun.
You have received the minor blessing of Umion Ji.
It might have to do with the nature of everything I had seen that day, but I was far from impressed. Mrs Royin gave me a smile from behind her desk.
“Great,” she said. “This means that your character has been judged decent enough, and that I can officially take you in. And right on time for dinner, so you should go to the cafeteria down the hall and meet Patty, our cook, on the way. Then all you will have left is to be assigned a room. I will send someone to help with that.”
I stood up, went to the door and paused, a hand on the doorknob.
“Thank you,” I said.
I then left the room, glad things had taken a turn for the best. Candles on the walls offered a dim light, allowing me to progress further inside the manor without any issues. It was strange to see no electricity in a seemingly modern house, but it fit my earlier judgment of the place.
Now that I don’t have to worry about having a roof over my head, I can focus on getting stronger and finding a firearm. But in any case, this Royin... sure is interesting.
Her mannerisms, speech, and the way she held herself didn’t fit this patched up place. The people I had seen until now were rugged both in their appearances and behaviors, but she was the opposite and exuded a sense of dignity.
She must have an interesting story, I mused.
I moved among the shadows, the old wooden boards creaking under my feet, and soon started hearing the sound of excited chatter and utensils hitting plates. I leaned against the wall for a moment, reminiscing of my own past as I stood at the threshold of my future and I felt the weight of the years on my soul.
Was a second life really worth going through all of the games of fate once again?
I was crashing from the excitement of the day, and realized that being physically fit wasn’t enough. I was still tired and weary inside.
No matter what kind of life I would manage to live, it would be made of ups and downs, happiness and sadness. Even if the “good” somehow ended up outweighing the “bad”, how long could I still endure oscillating from one to the other?
I wasn’t even told the reason for my reincarnation. The motive behind the strange request.
At some point in life, what keeps you going are your close ones, engagements and goals you once set for yourself in a time when you were younger and naive. I didn’t have any of that anymore.
All I had was the certainty of an incoming danger and that failure wasn’t an option.
Yes, it didn’t matter whether this life was worth it or not. What mattered was that my eternal after life was in peril.
I had to do my best at life... for my death.
There is no way I am going to pass as a kid, I thought to myself with a sad chuckle.
Then again, it wasn’t as if I had ever planned to behave like one.
Lost in her thought, Royin didn’t move until long after the boy had left.
She hadn’t seen a titled delver that young since she had left her birthplace all those years ago, and even then, they had been heirs of the most prestigious families who now ruled the region.
Was it a trap? Had they been found out after all this time? And if yes, why send such a precious child? Was it related to the instant dungeon that had been cleared and the outsiders supposedly searching for breadcrumbs? There was too many questions that lead to even stranger conjectures.
The child wasn’t a noble, she was sure of it. Their was no trace of the etiquette in him, or of an attempt at hiding it.
But in his eye she had caught a glimpse of something that was definitely noble, depending on who you asked. Something that had reminded her of her late master.
The cold and detached way they seemed to view the world.
Her gaze landed on the dead flower on top of her desk. She would have to take precautions and maybe even contact old friends.