I followed the imposing tiger-man wondering if the anthropomorphism of this world could be explained from a scientific point of view.
Some of them looked like regular humans with animal limbs, others looked more like actual animals who just happened to be able to stand upright and speak.
What was the popular explanation? I remembered the barkeeper calling me a “full” human. Did it mean that there was some interbreeding at work, and if yes... How in the world was it possible, at a genetic level?
I shook my head and put those thoughts under my “ask later” mental folder. The logic and physics of this world were obviously different from mine in a way I had yet to grasp.
For all I knew, instead of DNA, a microscope would just reveal dancing and laughing gnomes. There were several things that required my immediate attention.
One of them being the growing doubts that the man leading me was the kind of man someone would send to guide an orphan to his new room.
Everything about him screamed violence.
Killers were usually good at spotting other killers and it wasn’t something most could explain if asked to. My best guess was that the subconscious mind would recognize micro movements and mannerisms we had seen on the battlefield at some point.
Then again, it usually was just a hunch. Not a feeling of certainty that someone was looking for a kill. Like the one I had now.
I stopped walking and readied myself for whatever would come, but the man seemed to sense it somehow, and stopped as well.
“Oh, my apologies,” he said, and the feeling of danger simply vanished.
He turned around and displayed an apologetic expression, “That anger wasn’t directed at you, but myself. It’s surprising you could sense it at your age... then again, it makes sense.”
There was something else on his face now. Something that looked like guilt or shame, but it was quickly replaced by a neutral expression and he nodded for us to keep walking.
“I am Ardos,” he said. “This institution’s combat instructor. And since you’re now one of us, it’s “sir” Ardos to you.”
“You teach combat?” I asked, still on my guard. “So there are firearms available?”
He glanced back at me.
“... What a stereotypical thing for a human to say,” he said. “If by that you mean rifles and guns, the answer is no. I teach our students barehanded fighting and how to use common melee weapons. It’s enough for most of them to unlock a fighting class, though the classes of this shard are nothing extraordinary. But at least they allow the kids to make a living and have some future prospects.”
The hall that served as canteen was the heart of the temple, and it seemed that the layout was organized around it. From the sculpture that was in the front, I concluded that it also doubled as a praying room, or that it at least was its original function. Ardos guided me to a hallway on its side and after passing several doors he stopped at one right before the corner and handed me a key.
“Your room.” he said. “This section is actually reserved to the younger children and some of the personnel, but since there isn’t any more space upstairs it will have to do. You get to be by yourself so it’s a good trade, I would say.”
I unlocked the door and looked inside.
The room was a spacious and simple one, which was totally fine by me. It had a bed, a desk and a wardrobe; all made of wood. Quite an upgrade from a bar’s closet. But it made me wonder...
“Mrs Royin didn’t mention any payment,” I said to Ardos who was just standing with his arms crossed. “This seems a bit too generous.”
The tiger shook his head.
“We usually make students sign contracts that have them pay a set amount for the number of years they were under our care. Though if Royin didn’t mention it, it means she intends to simply help you at her own discretion, for now at least. There are a few other students in a similar case.”
“However...” he hesitantly continued.
Here it comes, I thought.
Stating whatever he had to say seemed to cause Ardos a great deal of discomfort, however. He was almost fidgeting as he finally let it out.
“I will cut to the chase: Royin informed me of your situation, and that you were a titled delver. I humbly request your assistance in getting the same title, not without compensation of course.”
I raised a brow. “I don’t think-”
But I was interrupted by a raised hand.
“Before you say anything,” Ardos said, “Let me explain to you how much this would mean to me. Please.”
To talk that way to a boy so much younger than him proved that he was nothing if not determined.
“Alright then,” I said. “But let’s go inside at least.”
I entered the room and sat on the chair by the desk. He hesitated a moment but ended up closing the door behind him.
“From what Royin said, you are in a state of... confusion regarding delving matters, even though you have the title. Is that true?”
Talking while standing in front of a sitting kid seemed to make him uncomfortable, which I understood but chose to ignore. There was only one chair in this room and considering how dead tired I felt, I wasn’t going to give it to him.
“It is,” I said. “Just assume I know nothing.”
“There are many people across the shattered realm who call themselves delvers,” he started, “but at most only a tenth of them received the title that makes someone a real one. It is an honor that the old gods only give to those who have proved their ability to bring back the glory of the days before the end of the world.
That title allows one to freely enter and leave dungeons, along with a party. Items recovered from dungeons are often valuables and the coins earned from sales would be a great help to the orphanage, but that is not the most important part. Dungeons are a straightforward way to earn ether and Glory. And I am in need of both.”
“Glory,” I interrupted, caught on the word. “What is it for actually?”
His eyes widened, “You don’t know?”
“I don’t. And the better informed I am, the more likely I become to not refuse your request.”
He closed his eyes with a sigh, “I don’t know if the fact that you were ignorant makes your ostentatious spending at Laure’s inn feel better or worse. Glory... Is a form of currency.”
“...So that’s it? It’s just money? What’s the big deal then?”
“No. It’s not the kind of money that is exchanged between mortals. It’s the only offering the old gods and their relics recognize.”
I frowned. “Gods?”
The word “terminal” had made me come to the conclusion that the statue was connected to something. However, never would have thought that this world’s version of the internet was of divine nature. Maybe I should have.
“And their relics, yes,” he waved a tired hand. “I shall let someone else tell you of the story of the Shattered Realm and its gods; and how they came to consider mortals useless unless they chase after the glory of the past. Theology isn’t my strong point. What matters here is that Glory is earned by achieving any kind of notable feat, and the amount awarded depends on what was accomplished. It is extremely valuable for adventurers and royals alike. The reason why I need to earn Glory is that it is needed to travel between shards.”
Ardos’ fingers went to massage the bridge of his nose.
“Royin and I have been on this forsaken shard for more than a decade,” he said with a bitter tone. “Without enough Glory, traveling to a different one is impossible unless you spend a fortune, and with the orphanage, saving up is just a fantasy. There is always someone sick, or something to fix... And even if we somehow did have the means... My current strength isn’t enough to face what would await us at the end of the journey.
So for a decade now, I have tried to get the title of delver. Among the titled delvers I have met, very few even entertained the notion of assisting me without an oath of servitude. They basically have a monopoly on the dungeons, you see, and they fear I would become harsh competition if I could enter them. In the end, those who didn’t outright refuse only wasted my time and coins, getting much amusement as they made a fool out of me.”
“Isn’t there a way to get the title without any outside help?” I asked.
“I am only aware of one,” he replied without opening his eyes. “That method is to sacrifice two hundred Glory points to a dungeon. Fifty to be allowed to enter, a hundred to face its boss and fifty to be allowed to leave. I wasted my life’s work by attempting to get the title that way and failing.”
Only two hundred?