“Yes, you were in a very bad shape, Edward,” she said. “And you still are, so you better stay in bed and take it easy for a few other days. Here, you need water and something solid in your stomach.”
She was speaking as she gave me a plate, but the sound of her voice progressively grew distant, drowned by the sense of urgency of own thoughts.
Three days. Three whole days, for fuck’s sake... Anything could have happened. What if it had been time for me to face the tribulation? Is it possible for it to happen while I’m unconscious?
I had strong suspicions that the answer to that last question was “yes”, even though I knew close to nothing about what exactly was the nature of the trials that awaited me.
How much preparation was required? I assumed I had to get stronger but was strength really all I needed? For something supposed to fix my karma, it felt unfitting.
And there was a chance that the difficulty would match my abilities, which would make everything pointless.
Realizing I had lost time that could turn out to be invaluable was baffling, but the worst was that there were too many unknowns and they were starting to get to me.
I knew nothing. Nothing of what was coming for me, following the stench of past sins.
Was it possible that my ignorance itself was part of the tribulation? Most people’s nerves wouldn’t last long with the knowledge that they had a literal sword of Damocles dangling over their head, ready to fall at any moment.
And maybe it was due to the current feeling of fatigue permeating my body, but I could feel the terror slowly creeping in from the recesses of my mind I had managed to seal it in.
And I’m probably the only person aware that there’s a whole other kind of madness under our fee-
“Edward! Are you listening to me, young man?”
My thoughts were interrupted by the instructor’s calls. She had a hand on my shoulder and seemed worried.
I was reminded of what Ikun Omi had said during our fight. That I was only pretending to care for those I had met until now.
Seeing how I couldn’t even name this woman who had probably saved my life, I couldn’t deny it.
Had I even really looked at them until now? I didn’t remember noticing that she wore the same blue and gray clothes as the other instructors, that her horns went straight up like a gazelle’s and that her round face gave her gave her a chummy vibe.
And to be honest, do I care?
“You don’t look so good...” she said. “Are you getting worse?”
I gave her a smile I hoped would be comforting, “I was just lost in my head. Do you have any idea of why I’m still tired after resting so much?”
I’ll just talk to Ardos about what’s in the Undermine, and let him figure out what needs to be done. And for the rest... I’ll deal with it.
She let go of me and changed her expression for one of reproval. It was amusing to think that she was terrified of me the last time I had seen her.
“Tired. You say tired... You should be happy to just be tired! Do you realize what could have happened to you in there? If you want to be a delver, you have to be aware of your limits. I don’t even want to know what’s in there...”
You’re lucky you don’t know.
“I never even heard of someone making it back after so many hours by themselves! And the killing intent? It was horrible! The whole city is talking about the ghost who escaped the mine!”
“I understand,” I said calmly. “But could you answer my question? There is nothing in my status about it and I really need to know how long it’s going to last.”
She snorted and crossed her arms.
“You’re not planning to go back in there are you?”
I chuckled at the thought.
“No. No, I can assure you I’m not.”
The gains in ether were massive, but I knew the dungeon would muster all of its resources to end me if I ever set foot in the mine again. The prayer beads around my neck were an obvious threat to the being hidden behind the veil... I had no doubts it would have killed me if it wasn’t for the fact that forcing me to kill Dylarel had restricted him in some ways.
And to be honest, I didn’t even want to be in Bunker anymore.
“Hmm... Well first, your body is getting a lot less receptive to healing,” she said. “There was the time after your enlightenment, the one after your sparing with sir Ardos and then...”
She rubbed her tired eyes, clearly still lacking sleep.
“Look, I just fail to understand just how you managed to make it all the way back to the first layer in the state you were in... Your muscles and joints were so damaged that, by the time I was done with them, your broken arm was just not responding to my aura. We had to use the mistress’ ointment, and even then it took days.”
“So is it not possible to heal me anymore?” I asked as I looked at my right forearm. It looked normal to me.
“It would be very, very difficult, and not without great help from the temple or some expensive item. And it’s going to be like this for at least weeks, maybe even a month. So I suggest you do not take any risks in the meantime.”
Assuming I stay alive that long.
“Alright,” I said. “You said that it was the first reason. What’s the second part?”
“You... Earned a lot of ether in the dungeon, right? And you used it all at once?”
She didn’t seem comfortable asking that question but clearly felt like it was important. Like a doctor asking for a question that would be weird in any other context.
“That is... not a safe thing to do, to say the least. Gaining several levels too fast makes your body have to go through great changes in a very short time. It’s often done by rookies in dire situations for a quick boost, but the thing is that the burden will make you pass out for a few hours before you can make use of the leveling gains... Or at least it usually does.”
That was something I probably should have been told before going in a dungeon, but they simply couldn’t have predicted that I would do what I did.
It was interesting to note that, assuming the trance was the reason I was able to remain conscious after using all my ether, the dance had kept me from being defenseless in front of the Custodian.
“So the recommended way is to add ether in small doses?” I asked.
The woman nodded. I could tell that she didn’t know what to do with me. But while she might have gotten attached after taking care of my unconscious self, she had to understand that one of her responsibilities.
Nor did I want to be.
“When’s Ardos coming back?” I asked. “And what’s the situation with our host?”
Since Ardos hadn’t carried me back to the temple while I was unconscious, it was safe to assume that he wasn’t allowed to. I had to understand how bad the situation was.
“I don’t know for sure, but he said that everything should be fine. And we have been! We are in the headquarters of the Red Cross after all. They are a weird bunch, but Bokwen is one of Bunker’s leaders. No one will dare to hurt you as long as you are under his protect- what?”
Apparently, my dumbfounded expression had been too much of a bother for her to continue her explanation.
“Why are you talking as if they weren’t a threat themselves?” I asked her.
“Why would they be? Edward, we’re no one to them. Bokwen seems to think you are related to Nashran somehow, but that misunderstanding should be cleared up as soon as you speak to him... Also even if Laure isn’t a member of their guild, she grew at the temple with me and was taken under his wing. The temple has a good relationship with them, so they won’t offend mistress Royin for no reason by hurting us.”
Ah, so she didn’t realize I was a delver.
That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She seemed like the gentle type, and she might have needlessly put herself in danger if she had been aware that the leader of this “guild” had taken a dangerous interest in me.
“I have to say, the first layer looks even better than I have heard,” she said as she looked around the room. “And the delving guild is so refined! Well, what I have seen of it anyway... But seeing the angel’s statue alone was worth coming here. Delvers really are something.”
“Most people can’t come here because of the glory requirement, right?”
“No one would live in the lower layers if it was possible. So they either join a guild or try to get close to someone who is in one. I know some girls who...”
She stopped herself, apparently remembering how young I was supposed to be.
“Ahem, anyway. The first layer has the best of everything Bunker has to offer, but the guards only let you through if you have connections... I wonder if they would let us take a quick look around since we’re already inside.”
She started thinking to herself, probably formulating a plan to make her idea reality.
“Talking about Bunker, can you tell me why that notification said the city was abandoned when it’s clearly not?”
She raised her brows in surprise.
“You... hum. Alright. Well it is because we are in a lordless shard. Did you never even wonder why the fog is able to gain terrain in the first place? Without a lord, there is no spirit protecting the shard, and it simply doesn’t exist in the eyes of the gods...”
Lords and spirits, uh.
“So these lords, they are the ones who usually run things in the shards,” I said. “Where is the previous one and who is ruling in his place?”
“There is... no previous one. The guild leaders and the merchants are the ones in control,” she said as she leaned closer and put a hand on my forehead. “Don’t seem to have any fever... Did he hit his head?” she muttered.
I repressed the impulse to roll my eyes. Though she was more dramatic than most, her reaction was understandable. And I couldn’t avoid similar ones if I wanted answers to know more about this world.
Her being worried for me was appreciated, but not helpful.
“I’m not sick,” I said as I moved her hand away. “I just have my own circumstances.”
She sat back and studied me with a finger on her chin.
“There are many places like this in the fog,” she said. “Shards that were created long ago, then abandoned by their lords for whatever reason. In the other regions, people living in lordless shards are mostly criminals trying to escape the law or refugees. They live in there and move to a different shard when they are about to collapse.
But in the Savage Lands, the only shard with a lord is Nashran and they only accept strong people and their families.
Everybody in Bunker is either someone related in some way to the Pearl of the Desert or the descendant of someone who had to run away from a different region... Unless they are the one who was in a desperate situation.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant for the city. While it did explain how diverse its population was, it clearly wasn’t a lawless den of thieves I would expect it to be. That made me wonder about the ones in charge.
“So if I understand you correctly,” I said between two bites of leathery meat of unknown origin, “everybody in Bunker is trying to make enough coin to move to the closest lordless shard?”
Should someone sick eat something this hard?
She shook her head.
“No, they are trying to make money to travel to the closest region. The other known shards are instant-dungeons, and even if they were just oases, without a delving guild to trade goods with the rest of the world, we would starve to the last one. There are too many people and no time.”
Which means that moving from one region to the other is what’s really difficult, not just going through the fog.
Someone knocked at the door and the instructor invited them in before I could say anything.
The door swung open, revealing the very same young tiger who had attacked me when I was about to leave the city. The dark pockets under his eyes were even worse than the healer’s.
“I see you’re awake,” he said. “I was told to bring you to the guild master whenever you would open your eyes.”
“Really?” the woman said. “He still needs some rest though, can’t it-”
“He will be able to rest as soon their meeting is over,” the young man said without any energy.
“One would think that you would have learned not to be so pushy by now.”
I looked at her with shock.
Is this how she talks to other people?
It was the tiger’s turn to frown as he looked at her.
“Aren’t you forsaken?” he said.
That question seemed to hit a nerve and I saw her narrow her eyes until they were thin lines.
“Don’t worry about it,” I hurriedly said as I put down my plate. “I actually wanted to talk to Bokwen as soon as possible and I’d like you to do me a favor. Well, another one.”
She didn’t immediately turn to face me. Instead, she slowly looked away from the man at the door only after glaring at him for a solid minute of silence.
“What do you need?” she said with a certain edge to her voice.
“I need you to go back to the temple and bring the crystal with you,” I said. “Tamie is working on something very important and she needs it.”
By sending her away I would only have to worry about myself. And if she could alert Ardos about me being awake that would be a great bonus.
“I do not mind,” she said. “But that crystal-”
“Give us ten minutes,” I told the tiger. He sighed and closed the door.
I tried to stand for the first time. My legs felt like they were made of cotton, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would have been.
I was already feeling better than when I just woke up and assumed things would keep improving. Hopefully.
I walked toward the empty crystal. It was roughly shaped like a brick that was currently transparent, but I knew it would soon take a blue tint because of my mana.
“As I was saying,” I heard the instructor say, “that crystal is empty. It won’t be of any help to her.”
“It won’t be empty for long,” I said.
I put my hand on the block and got the same notification as the other day.
Allow mana transfer to foreign device?
I answered with a "yes".
The instructor gave me a look, then shook her head with a smile.
“You really are full of surprises, aren’t you?”
Didn’t someone say the same thing recently?
Shoving that thought to the side, I looked at the healer in the eyes and asked her, “Could you tell me your name again?”
With her finger tapping her chin, she pondered my question for a few seconds before speaking.
“Now that I think about it, I think I actually never told you my name.”