After I poured all of my mana in the crystal, Imane put the glowing rock in her satchel and left. But not without openly expressing her disdain for the warrior standing in the hallway by snorting as she trotted past him.
Luckily, he seemed to have enough on his mind to care about her lack of respect. His eyes met mine, but I raised a hand for a bit more time and closed the door once again.
While it was true that I felt better than when I had woken up... I still was in a bad shape. It was similar to a very bad hangover. The debilitating kind.
If there’s a fight...
I would have no means to defend myself.
There was no telling what Bokwen’s true intentions were, but I wasn’t going to take his word for it and assume he just wanted to talk to me.
No, I was going to assume the worst and hope to be pleasantly surprised. My usual demeanor couldn’t coexist with this feeling of absolute vulnerability.
I didn’t even know the actual reason Ardos was absent. Sure, we had common interests, but for all I knew, Bokwen could have made a deal with him.
The mustached bear was the leader of a group of delvers after all; he probably could arrange things for the instructor to get what he wanted.
How far-fetched was that theory?
I didn’t know. But there was one thing I had yet to test and I believed it was worth a shot.
None of the items I had bought from the terminal had descriptions, whether it was the Shuari set or the Green Blossom Broth. And of those items, there was one kind I had yet to ever use: the bottle of Siegbrau.
I had planned to eventually test its effects but ended up putting it off for a “better time” to do so. Then just forgot about it.
The main reason why I had originally stopped myself from doing so was that I only had three of the perfectly sealed wooden jugs. I had wanted to make the damn things count... and there could hardly be a better time than now. Possibly.
Fact was that it would be too much of a coincidence for the Siegbrau to be able to cure status ailments... but it was a possibility and I was willing to take a chance. I was desperate.
I summoned one of the wooden mugs similar to miniature barrels from my inventory and broke its seal. A fruity aroma immediately filled the room.
The liquid itself had a golden color and was reflecting light from the torches unlike any other I’d seen. I took a sip and was immediately shaken by a coughing fit as silky fire went down my throat.
Is this alcohol?!
It tasted nothing like it, but surely had twice the bite of vodka... Or at least it felt like it. I could very well have become a lightweight.
But my thoughts were clearer, so I stopped hesitating and drank it all in one motion.
By the time I swallowed the last drop, I was standing straighter and felt in control. I couldn’t yet say that my thoughts were clearer, but the nausea was gone. With my throat and stomach on fire, I opened my status and searched for any new additions.
Had I been carrying the panacea all along?
Minor HP regeneration.
Intermediate Respite of the Undead.
It was good to know that I had a way to deal with lesser injuries, but my improved condition was clearly due to the second status modifier.
Beside the uneasiness that the term “Undead” created, the fact that I had given myself a respite could only mean that my sickness wasn’t cured. Just postponed.
It wasn’t the best outcome, but it was a good one nonetheless.
I finally opened the door and faced the guard who would be my guide.
The tiger gave me a strange look, before shrugging and leading the way. I had been so out of it when I entered the guild that I had not realized the mound of people it harbored. And they weren’t just warriors.
Some of the doors we walked past were half opened, and I would catch glimpses of casually dressed people merrily chatting or see an adult taking care of a baby.
There also were other teenagers and young adults like my guide, warriors carrying blades of different shapes and sizes. They would grin and nod in his direction if they spotted us.
My senses were sharper than usual but oddly distorted. I could hear a woman tell her baby to be careful with his food behind a closed door, but could hardly make out the sound of my own footsteps. I could smell traces of tobacco from the main room and even see the faint trail of smoke, but people and moving objects had after images. Colors were much brighter.
It’s surreal. I need to be back to safety before the effects stop and I crash.
We arrived at the first room. It was very similar to my memories of Laure’s bar, except for the chalk written notes on the walls. Now that I could read them, I could see that they were quests.
They were all requests for items or creatures I didn’t know. There was no information about the rewards, so I assumed they were organized by difficulty.
I wondered if there were so many of them because they were too hard or because there weren’t enough people in the guild.
“You can check those later,” I heard the tiger say. “For now, we have somewhere to be and we’re already late.”
I looked around the hall.
“I’m not going to meet Bokwen here?”
“No, you’re not.”
Then they are not even trying to be subtle.
Bokwen had given his word that we’d be safe as long as we were under his hospitality. Having me meeting him outside of the quarters of the Red Cross implied that he wanted to be free of that promise.
We went back to the main square, and I noticed groups of people under the intimidating statue. Seeing how they kept their distances from each other, I figured they belonged to different delving factions.
One of those groups was finishing stacking wooden crates in front of the angel’s effigy. When the last one was placed, the leader gave a sign, and all of the boxes disappeared in a blue flash as large pouch appeared in his hand. He verified its content, nodded, then left with his men.
If this is how they do commerce with the rest of the world... I’d like to know the limitations.
It sounded too good to be true. Instantaneous exchange of goods and services? No delivery time between places that were far apart?
Those two things alone would have, at the very least, propelled Earth a thousand years in the future.
Then again, if that future was meant to be one of ruin in the first place...
I got a notification telling me I had left the guild and decided to put that line of thoughts on hold and bring my focus back to the current situation. We were back in the public area of the first layer of Bunker, and the flow of people leaving and entering the city was as strong as when I first arrived.
...Can I shake him off?
I didn’t feel particularly inclined to just follow him into the belly of the beast like a sheep, but, as if reading my mind, two beastkins moved in my peripheral vision with just enough out of place for me to notice them. A smoking man with the red-haired woman who had held a sword at Ardos’ neck... They weren’t kids like the other members of the Red Cross I had left behind.
They had the bearing of swift killers and I had no doubt they had made their presence known on purpose. The woman’s predatory smile as she stared at me was kind of a giveaway.
But how dangerous were they, really? I could see under their garbs that they were both missing an arm. The right one.
But there was something oddly pleasant in the way they moved and, with the warped way my brain currently worked, that couldn’t be a good sign. So I decided against provoking them.
Even if I could momentarily outrun them, I didn't believe that I could reach the temple before the end of my respite. So to my great displeasure, I followed the tiger back to the lower levels of the city.
It wasn’t long before I noticed people pointing at me and whispering in the ear of their neighbors. But instead of the hate and aggression I had anticipated, I was met with open curiosity mixed with fear I could spot in their eyes.
The numbers of onlookers quickly increased, to the point that the tiger had to command them to make way for us. But they were still close enough for their voices to reach my ears.
“... Heard he’s from the temple.”
“Is he one of the red crosses?”
“No, Genoveva’s rats have been scouring the layers to find him.”
“... He was taken by the mine...”
“... No one since he came back.”
Things were getting out of hand, and the two older warriors were now walking behind me to keep everyone at a respectable distance.
And it worked for a while until we reached the lift supposed to take us to the third layer. That’s when a someone broke from the crowd and fell to their knees in front of me. Before I could do anything, they wrapped their arms around me.
“Please!” the woman cried. “I’m begging you, bring them back to me!”
“M-Ma’am?” I blurted out, unsure of what to do. She didn’t seem dangerous, just... extremely upset. She was holding me tight and I didn’t want to hurt her.
“My sons... My sons!” she said. “The oldest, you’ve been searching for him, yes? They said you went in the mine by yourself when you saw him being taken! Did you see him? Can you help them?”
She then faced me and despite her tears and emaciated face, I recognized her.
She was the mother of that kid. Those kids. The ones who had been watching me leave a place they would most certainly never leave.
“I’m sorry,” I said as I tried to have her let go. “I’m sorry.”
I knew my words wouldn’t get to her. I could see it on her face. Losing her second son had pulverized the pieces of her heart that had remained from losing the first one. Few people could take such amounts of pain back to back without slipping into madness.
Needless to say, looking into her eyes made me uncomfortable.
“Did you try?" she screamed. "Did you try to save my babies? My... babies...”
Her tone was getting harder and I could feel her nails start to dig into my skin.
“Tell us what you’ve seen, tell us! No one... not one soul has been taken since you came out, your rightful rage spilling in the heart of the mountain! I know it. I waited at the door and counted them all. Five hundred sixty-nine in the Morning, two hundred twenty-three after...”
Her speech devolved into gibberish, and I glanced back to the woman standing behind me.
“You’re going to do something or not?” I said with annoyance.
The woman just watched, her smirk not leaving her lips. It’s the man at her side who approached us instead.
“Do not hurt her,” I said.
He unceremoniously pulled the woman away as I untangled myself from her arms. But her hands were still reaching out for me as I went to stand on the lift and the young warrior activated its mechanism.
“Please! My children, save them! Or at the very least avenge them! Oh, you carry their hate don’t you? We all felt it! Hate from the bowels of the earth! Fire from the depths!”
I could still hear her on the balcony of the third layer. But after a moment her voice quickly grew distant and I assumed she had been taken away.
“I am surprised that you were so gentle with her,” said the woman next to me. “All reports say that you were about to kill Dorak and little Tabu in cold blood when the boss arrived.”
I didn’t humor her with a reply and followed them through a wide passage that was framed with weapon merchants. It was one of the rare hallways in the city that went straight ahead without intersecting ones.
The walls were covered with blades, shields, armor pieces and gauntlets, and I noticed that the deeper in we went, the higher their quality seemed to be.
Fire from the depths...
It was hard to keep my thoughts from lingering on that poor mother... After all, I actually could have saved her oldest son.
But I didn’t know, I told myself. But it wasn’t very convincing.
Yes, I had not known, but it didn’t change the fact I had used him as a guinea pig in order to learn more about the dungeon. In the end, my whole success in the Undermine was built on his death.
Doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t know. And if I had to choose, it would still have been him in there instead of me.
But did I care?
It doesn’t matter. Feelings do not affect past outcomes and I did the best I could with what I knew. Nothing.
There were now few merchants around and I could hear a torrent of voices coming from the end of the tunnel... Cheers?
And then it came to me.
What would happen if someone put warriors in need of fast money in a city they can’t plunder?