I woke up the following day in the same way I had the day before. To the sound of bells and running children.
To add to my confusion, the dream I woke up from was the same, and even my sword was once again next to me. I experienced a strange feeling of deja vu until I noticed the piles of clothes that had been folded and placed against the wall.
It truly was a new day. One that would have me face the first real obstacles of my new life. I had an objective and the drive to achieve it.
Completing my ablutions was a simple process this time, and I found myself taking the last bites of my breakfast in the main hall in no time.
The other children were there too. Those who had callous hands but weren’t one of the fighters still soundly sleeping upstairs. They had patched up clothes and their expressions stayed serious even when they spoke to each other.
I didn’t even sense any anticipation from them.
In comparison, two of the three kids next to me were in much higher spirits.
“It might take some time to clear out the new stock, but once everything is sold we should be left with a decent amount of coins,” said Bo. “You did well Sarn.”
Visibly happy with himself, the blond boy asked, “Will we have enough soon?”
“Not yet. I doubt we have enough for even one person... But soon. We just have to persevere.”
Lima groaned again.
“What are you saving for?” I asked.
“Spots in the caravan leaving the region,” Lima said in a bored tone. “There are rumors that they would auction them, so you better start doing your best now.”
If the fog is a real threat, that means they are auctioning people’s lives.
I was almost amazed by how unscrupulous the people in charge were.
Tempted to tell the kids that Ardos and I were working on a way to allow them all to travel at no cost, I figured that it would make a good surprise. And the reality was that there was no guarantee of our success.
Dying after I made them waste all their money was a possibility. And that wouldn’t improve my karma.
But is that even really the case? I wondered.
I frowned, realizing that I didn’t know for sure what actually made karma good or bad. Some of the words the Djin had said made me doubt that the common definition of Karma was accurate.
“What’s up with you?” he asked.
I was about to say an appropriate variation of “nothing” when I noticed he wasn’t talking to me.
Lima had been about to groan again but it seemed like Sarn had had enough.
“You got to have Edward for yourself yesterday, and today it’s Bo,” Lima sighed. “When’s my turn, uh? When? Everybody is so serious during the hunts these days, I need some change!”
“You know I’m not doing any of this for fun, right?”
“Doesn’t matter what your intent is! Sarn told me about that food you gave him, and I swear Edward, if-”
“I think you should take the hunts a bit more seriously, Lima,” Bo interrupted. “I’ve heard what people say about Irura and it’s nothing good.”
“Ugh, I’ll be fine,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand as she laid back on her chair. “For some reason, there are some pretty strong outsiders who are also tracking it. I might not even get to do anything.”
She didn’t actually sound happy about that.
“The important thing here is that you’re taking Edward to the Undermine...” She gave me a concerned glance. “Are you sure about that? Even the idiots upstairs avoid it. And even if I hate to admit it, they are probably the most qualified to go there in the whole shard.”
“Ardos recommended it to me,” I shrugged. “There shouldn’t be any issues.”
The kids in the back stood up and started heading for the door. It was time.
“No need to worry,” Bo added as we stood as well. “You’ll stay with me for the first half of the day so that you can get a real idea of what that place is about. Then you can decide if you really want to explore it alone. Hmm, Sarn?”
He had been walking with us and looked at his feet when he put on the spot.
“I-hum... I was thinking that I could come with you guys... for once? Even Edward is going... I can’t be too young.”
Bo smiled and put a hand on his head.
“You know that Edward is a special case, though I agree that you’re more than old enough to come with us now.”
Sarn’s face lit up, “Then-!”
“But, we need you to focus on your craft. You improved a lot yesterday, which means that we can sell your stuff at higher prices. The more clothes there are to sell, the more likely we are to leave the shard together.”
Sarn looked away with disappointment as he nodded.
“We’re counting on you,” said Bo before walking away.
Lima gave him a long hug then left after him.
I held out my room’s key.
“You can work there or just sleep if you don’t feel like it,” I said. “And no one will be able to annoy you.”
He took it and gave me a forced smile, “Thanks.”
Then I turned around and walked away.
Bo and Lima were waiting for me in the hallway. We left the temple before the sun had even risen from behind the horizon and hurried to rejoin the group that had left before us.
In the distance, I could see the lights of Bunker, beckoning.
“Why do you not want him to come?” I asked after a moment. “Pretty sure he is tougher than some of the other kids.”
Lima sighed and Bo shook his head.
“It’s not because I think it would be too hard for him,” he said. “I know Sarn, I know him well. He would adapt to it. And that’s the problem.”
Lima looked at me, “The Undermine... is a horrible place. It takes people. And if it can’t take them... it changes them by taking something from them. And that’s just for those who work on the upper levels... The rats mine lower than most, and those who come back up take drugs to forget. I don’t even want to think about how it must be for delvers who go even deeper...”
“The point is,” Bo continued, “that even if Sarn’s clothes made no coin at all, I would never let him go there. Thankfully, they do.”
Kids protecting kids. Seems familiar.
I was starting to see him in a different light, even though it was debatable whether what he wanted for Sarn was more important than what Sarn wanted for himself.
I was just an outsider after all... but there was something I was curious about.
“What about you?” I asked Bo.
“Yes, you. Why do you go to the Undermine despite what you know?”
He thought about it for a few seconds then just shook his head, “I don’t know, the coins I guess. It’s the best way a forsaken can make a living around here, and I do what I have to do.”
“I do what I have to do”... He reminds me of someone, but I can’t remember who.
On the surface, it sounded like a great mindset for a young person to have, even if they didn’t have to work for their survival every day.
The problem was that sometimes people can be wrong about they believe is necessary.
“I see,” I simply said.
We walked silently in the receding darkness when a powerful shriek, loud enough to be heard in the whole valley, resounded for close to a minute. It was as strong like a distorted air-raid siren but chopped. Jerky.
Like a laugh. A laugh from something not human.
“Alright boys,” said Lima in a different tone than usual. “Now I need to hurry, see you later.”
Fast as the wind, she dashed in the direction of the shriek, to a hill on top of which were waiting figures. They disappeared to the other side when she reached them.
“The hell was that?” I asked Bo.
“That’s Irura... it’s a skinwalker.”
I had heard of those, but in stories told to scare children. Not as something people hunted.
“A skinwalker,” Bo repeated. “It used to be a person with the ability to transform into a giant beast, but they got lost in the fog a long time ago and forgot who they were... Or so I’ve heard. No matter what the real story is, now they are just a violent creature that can’t be killed for good. Every time they take it down, it emerges back from the fog after a few years. The last time it was around was a bit more than ten years ago.”
Monsters. Real monsters just outside their doors.
I wasn’t particularly surprised by the existence of strange dangers... I was about to face unknown creatures in a mine after all. But I felt a tinge of concern. Maybe it had to do with how nonchalantly this boy was speaking about all of this. He had built a tolerance and that spoke volumes about how commonplace such things were.
Not at the point where you saw and dealt with death every day, but still pretty far from “normal”.
“Irura mostly roams in the shallow fog though, so don’t worry about it,” he said.
“Do you know what it looks like?”
“It’s a giant hyena.”
The mountain harboring Bunker was deceptively far, and it took us a bit more than two hours to reach its nest between hills. It was still technically morning by then, but the sun was shining brightly in the sky.
Our group had fused with others and we all went up a trail leading to a massive entrance on the side of the mountain, framed with the several torches that would be visible all the way back to the temple when night would fall.
There were guards, and even though only a few of them had weapons, they were all recognizable by their armors. They were made of dark leather and steel, and had different emblems stitched on their shoulders.
Strangely enough, while adults were checked before their entries in the city, children were simply ignored.
We crossed the entrance and the earth engulfed us. For several minutes the sound of hundred footsteps on a paved road was all that could be heard, with regularly placed torches giving just enough light for us to not trample each other.
Then we reached the end of the passage and Bunker revealed itself before me.
The mountain, that might have been a volcano in a distant past, had been hollowed out in rings following the length of a well that plunged so deep into the earth I couldn’t see where it ended.
I could count at least twenty rings from where I stood, each filled with people and illuminated with countless torches. Each ring was a floor, and each floor seemed to be organized around a certain idea, though I couldn’t make them out before Bo pulled on my sleeve.
“We’re getting late. We still have to pick up our gear and drop the clothes.”
He led me to an elevator that utilized a complex system of pulleys and counterweights to lower a platform down several rings.
“The rules of the Undermine are pretty simple,” Bo said. “But if there is only one thing you have to remember, it’s to never, under any circumstances, talk to anyone or anything.”
“... What happens if I do?”
He gave me a look that didn’t leave any room for a misunderstanding about the gravity of the situation.
“If you do,” he said calmly, “the Undermine will take you. Forever.”