Though the sun could still be seen over the horizon, the rest of the sky had already done the transition from the golden lights of the afternoon to the diffused purples tones of the coming twilight.
The spectators had left the training grounds, leaving me with Ardos and the horned instructor named Imane. I was sitting, recuperating from the sparring session with my feelings divided between wonder and annoyance.
Wonder at the instructor’s ability to heal wounds with her aura, and annoyance at my sword’s tendency to influence my thoughts.
“Imane’s aura trait is a rare variant, and we are lucky to have her,” Ardos said. “However she doesn’t have attributes, so using aura is very taxing to her. We only use her ability when necessary.”
The woman gave me a meek smile. She had both her hands on my chest, which meant I was close enough to see droplets of sweat appearing on her face.
I only nodded in silent gratitude. Though the stamina boost had ended when mine was already halfway full, I felt mentally drained. And for a good reason.
Realizing I was acting out of character, and then managing to pull back from the euphoria of the fight had been tough, to say the least. I wasn’t even feeling any pain before snapping out of it.
I was annoyed and aware that I should have been angry instead. But it was hard to be, when I had been the one to let go... Letting go of the little inhibitions I had left in exchange for the exhilarating pleasure of the dance.
Thinking of the soft whispers in my ears made me shudder. This couldn’t be allowed to continue.
“Does it still hurt?” Imane asked with her sweet voice.
“No. I’m much better thanks,” I said before turning to the tiger. “Ardos, do you know anything about bound weapons?”
“Hmm... They are weapons made by expert crafters, that can only be used by a single person as long as they are alive. They all have relatively interesting abilities. Are you thinking of binding a sword able to cut through aura?”
He stroked his chin with a pensive look. “It is an interesting idea, but finding such a sword would not be an easy task... I am certain that you understand that beastkins are making great efforts to limit their production. I doubt there is one in the Savage Lands; but if there is, it’s locked in a safe in Nashran.”
“Those guys again, uh.”
“Well, they do represent the strongest of our kind,” said Imane. “It would be strange for them to overlook the existence of such an item. There probably are several used in circulation in the other regions though.”
“What other things can bound weapons do?”
“Too many to name,” said Ardos. “From the most powerful to the strangest effect, since it depends solely on the artisan’s skill and intent. But as an example, my own bound weapons increase the impact of my blows.”
“What about talking weapons?”
The female instructor chuckled.
“Are you thinking of going on a quest to find a living weapon, young man?” she said. “Sadly, those only exist in stories and fairytales.”
“Don’t be so sure. I have seen one with my own eyes in the hands of a king, long ago,” Ardos said. “They do exist, but each one requires different qualifications to be used. And even then... one has to wonder if they really are a blessing.”
He stopped talking, his expression now somber. The instructor’s eyes were filled with admiration, and I wondered for a moment what Royin would do if she was present.
She did seem like the kind to just find it amusing though.
I wanted to ask Ardos more about the living weapons, but it seemed that the subject had brought back painful memories.
And Ikun Omi wasn’t really described as an item with the favor of the gods, so mentioning her to the member of an angel’s temple didn’t seem like a smart thing to do.
“You have done well. Much better than I thought you would,” he said after a moment of silence. “I may have been heavy handed on how powerless you are against our aura, but do not worry. Your current skills are enough to escape from most of the dangerous situations you can encounter on the way to the Undermine from the temple... and it’s only going to be easier once you raise your attributes. It’s just like you’ve said: it only matters if you are trying to kill the opponent.”
So this is what it was really all about. Not the dungeon but the other people.
It explained why he had been boasting so much about the power of their trait. He wanted me to have a sense of the danger I might encounter... and be confident I’d be able to survive in case I did.
“Then I guess it’s settled,” I said. “I’m going to the dungeon tomorrow.”
He put a hand on my shoulder, “Just be careful, and don’t go too deep once you’re there.”
The instructor was soon done with her healing, and we came down the hill with the help of the last lights of the day. Just like in the morning, large groups of people were moving through the valley, though this time they were heading back home from a day of work.
Some of them were cheery, moving fast despite carrying goods I couldn’t identify due to the distance. Others were dragging their feet, weighted down by whatever they had lived through during the day.
Tomorrow, I would be one of them. Part of a procession of souls hopeful for a better future, in a world in which one could become a swordsman by the end of the day.
I wondered what someone gazing down from this hill by the end of tomorrow would judge me to be.
Joyous or mournful?
Most of the children were back in the temple, which was made clear by how high the levels of activity had risen.
The passageways were crowded with dusty kids and the whispered prayers of the main hall had been replaced with animated chatting. I could feel a headache coming from having to dodge so many kids carrying buckets of water to the showers.
I should probably skip dinner and go directly to sleep. I’m not even hungry.
“Hey, Edward! How was your day?”
I turned to face the caller only to see Lima and Bo waving as they made their way through the sea of teenagers.
I couldn’t understand how they all still had so much energy... Hadn’t they been working the whole day?
“Oh you’re so grumpy and so small, it’s so cute!” the girl said as she went for a surprise hug that I easily dodged.
“We’re looking for Sarn,” said Bo. “He’s not in our room and I can’t find him anywhere. Any idea where he is?”
“Left him in my room,” I said. “Just follow me.”
The fact that I didn’t take the stairs to the boys’ aisle intrigued them, and Lima actually gasped when I opened the door to my room. Then again, it probably was because of the scene inside and not just because it happened to be mine.
Sarn had filled the room with clothes. Apparently, once the bed, table and chair had had no leftover space for his creations, he had started just throwing them on the ground.
The boy himself was sewing at the center of the room, apparently too focused to even notice us.
He blinked and looked up.
“Oh, hey guys,” he said. “I think... this is the most I have made in a day... or two.”
The two teenagers entered the room, mouth agape and their worry apparent.
“Is this... Is this what you’ve been doing since this morning?” Lima asked.
“What? No, I took many breaks actually, to read a bit, it was, uhm...”
His eyes were darting from them to me, indicating the conflict occurring in his head. Clearly, a lie from him in this situation would make me the guy who locked him up all day for slave work.
“I shared my food with him,” I said. “He had his stamina boosted and used it to work. I don’t think he’s been here more than three hours.”
“And it was sooo good, Bo!” he blurted out as he threw the pieces of cloth in the air, visibly relieved he could share his experience. “I don’t... I don’t think I can eat the kitchen’s food again!”
His two friends gave me strange looks, probably wondering what exactly was that food, and I just shook my head and waved toward the bed.
“Can you clear out the bed, please?”
“Oh, sure!” Sarn said before adding the piles of shirts, pants, and dresses to those next to him. “How did your spar with sir Ardos go?”
“... Went great,” I said as I flung myself on the bed. I couldn’t help but smile as I sunk into the soft bedrolls.
God, this bed is amazing.
“So y-you’re gonna go to the Undermine... right?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Lima said. “You sparred with the chief instructor?”
“Oh, yeah,” Sarn said. “Edward is actually a fighter! And he’s amazing Lima, you won’t believe it-”
“You’re a fighter,” Lima interrupted, “and you’ve been hanging out with Sarn? You don’t mind us being here?”
I actually did mind them being here in that instant, seeing how I very much wanted to sleep.
But it was obvious she meant it in a different way. Her tone and behavior were different than usual. Defensive.
And I still have to shower...
“Why would I mind it?” I asked. “Aren’t you a fighter yourself? You said you were going to hunt this morning or something.”
“Hunters aren’t warriors,” she said. “Everybody knows that. We’re only good at killing beasts, not other people.”
“L-Lima is actually pretty strong,” I heard Sarn’s voice say, though he was looking down. “She can kill monsters even warriors don’t want to approach.”
“Well, I didn’t know that,” I said to both of them. “What about you Bo?”
“Oh, I don’t have a class,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m forsaken.”
The silence after those words was a heavy one. Sarn just avoided my eyes while Lima did the opposite and glared at me with her fist clenched, as if daring me to mock her friend.
“Something to comment about that?” the girl said through her teeth. “Sir warri-”
Surprised by Sarn’s shout, she turned to face him.
“Y-you’re doing exactly what you say they do, judging before even getting to know him!” he said. “Edward is different. He’s my friend! D-don’t push him away...”
He started sniffing and the girl went to his side and hugged him, “I’m sorry Sarn... Forgive me, ok? You too Edward? It’s just that so many ugly things are done every day...”
Bo was just smiling as if he was the least concerned by the whole thing.
“Please forgive her,” he said. “Today wasn’t the easiest of days... and her emotions are always a mess. Which is weird, since she’s supposed to have cold blood.”
That had the merit of making the two other chuckle. “You moron,” Lima said.
I just sighed. I wasn’t a stranger to friendships like these.
When left to themselves and exposed to the toughest situations, people needed to know that at least someone had their back. These kids were each other’s family.
I didn’t have the heart to blame them for being overprotective.
“From what I’ve seen since I came here, I get the impression that people with warrior classes like to act like dumbasses,” I said. “I don’t plan to act like one, so you kids can just be yourselves without worrying, alright?”
They looked at each other for a second the exploded with laughter as I watched with confusion.
“... What’s so funny?”
“Ah... Oh man....” Bo said as he wiped a tear from his eye. “Sorry but the way you speak so seriously is just so funny... also did you really call us kids? Then what does that make you?”
“H-he did! And what’s a dumbass? A dumb ass? That makes no sense!”
“Aww, forget everything I said you grumpy tadpole,” Lima said as she attempted to now give me a hug, forcing me to use my foot to keep her at bay. Which wasn’t easy considering she was much taller than me.
“Oh, come on!”
“If you really have to go to the Undermine, I can take you,” Bo said amongst the commotion. “It’s not that dangerous as long as you follow the rules and don’t go too far, but you will have to take it very seriously. Every day, there are people going down the galleries who will never come back up.”
“There’s something I don’t understand,” I said. “You said yourself that going to the Undermine was for the fighting classes... So what are you doing there?”
Seeing how she couldn’t get a hold of me, Lima opted to just sit on the bed.
“Well, the Undermine, like its name says, isn’t just a dungeon,” Bo said. “It’s a mine spreading out under Bunker. People go to the upper levels every day for work.”
“Adults and children alike?” I asked.
“Especially children,” Sarn chimed in. “Adults can’t go too deep because they might pass out. So they work on the highest levels and we have to go lower. It’s more dangerous but it also makes more money... that’s why there are so many rats in there.”
“Why would the adults pass out?”
“I heard it’s because of the ether down there,” Lima said as she started studying my stacked bedrolls. “...No one really knows though.”
Then she gasped, “Edward, where’d you get these? It’s so soft!”
There were knocks on the door, and it revealed the face of a curious kid when Bo opened it.
“Hmm, where’s Edward?” he asked. “Tamie said to call him.”
I completely forgot about that one.
“Tell her I’m coming,” I said as I regretfully tore myself from the bed, wondering if I maybe should have been less social from the start.
“The bunny?” I heard Lima whisper to Sarn. “That girl...”
“Lima. You’re being a dumb ass.”
“Oh, never mind then! And who are you calling a dumb ass you little...”
I left the room and headed to Tamie’s. It seemed that it was dinner time already as the hallway was deserted and all the temple’s noise had been concentrated in the main hall.
I knocked and the door opened almost immediately.
“Hey,” Tamie said. “You’re here.”
She didn’t look very comfortable.
“I am,” I said.
“First, I want you to promise me to not be too surprised, okay?”
“Well, as long as you don’t have a dragon in here,” I said with an encouraging smile. “Sure.”
She had a nervous laugh.
“...You don’t have a dragon in there, right?”
“What? No... Alright, see for yourself.”
She moved out of the way and allowed me to enter. As she closed the door behind me, I looked around the room. It would have been a lie to say that I wasn’t surprised.
Her room looked like the lair of a mad scientist. I had a good feeling about this.