For a moment I just stood there, watching the aftermath of what had just happened.
The girl was on the floor, shaking like a leaf but crying without making noise. Her friend had a powerless hand on her shoulder that might have been an attempt to console her, but his red eyes and gritted teeth said a lot about his own pain and frustration.
And the closest witnesses to this scene were all too busy working to care, Bo included.
I couldn’t really fault them since there wasn’t anything they could do. And in all likelihood, being careless could cause them to be taken by the mine as well.
No wonder all the people working here look so dead inside.
It was a seemingly simple thing to keep your mouth shut. But the miners had all seen horrible things happen right next to them, and it was gnawing at them from inside until they broke.
There would probably be fewer people down here if it wasn’t for the threat of the fog.
That was another thing I needed more information about. I couldn’t stay in the dark regarding something that was dangerous enough that it made going in the mine an option.
But now wasn’t the time.
I took advantage of the everyone’s lack of awareness to put my pickaxe in my inventory, then I tapped Bo’s shoulder.
He stopped trying to lose himself in his work and gave me a glance as he wiped the sweat from his face. He looked like he had gotten years older.
I waved him goodbye and he gave an understanding smile and a slight nod.
However, I saw his eyes get wide with surprise when I walked past him in the direction the knocker had come from. In the opposite direction of the mine’s exit.
It was time for me to do what I had come here for. The way I saw it, the sooner I started the faster I’d be done with this place.
The further I went the fewer miners there was, and those who caught sight of me made sure to bring their attention back to their work.
I paid them no mind since there was no way to confirm whether they were real or not to begin with. I saw a worker hurt himself and start bleeding profusely from his hand and just kept walking without batting an eye.
I soon reached the elevator at the end of the tunnel. Unlike the previous ones it had wooden seats, but I stood tall as it took me deeper underground.
With a mere thought, I summoned Ikun Omi and struggled to resist a sudden urge to immediately unsheath the dark blade.
You will have to learn to stop trying to influence my mind so heavily, I thought to her attention. I am the one leading the dance.
There was a mix of amusement and mockery, but the pressure on my thoughts was somewhat weakened.
But the hunger stayed… though I couldn’t tell if it was mine or not.
The platform stopped moving and the fourth level revealed itself to me.
It was similar to the previous one except for a couple details. The light wasn’t coming from crude torches anymore, but from what looked like oil lamps. Bits of ore were visible in untouched sections of the walls.
But the most different aspect of this floor was the behavior of the miners. The “rats”.
Sure, some of them were working; and with a mechanical fervor at that. But the rest were incredibly lax.
There was a few of them playing tag who would zigzag between their comrades. Many were just laying on the ground, apparently sleeping, while some just stood with their eyes spinning in their orbits, foam coming out of their mouths and goo dripping from their black noses.
The worst was that even with all of that, their carts were fuller than those upstairs.
I walked through them wondering how they managed to survive for so long and soon started catching their attention.
They wouldn’t do anything when they noticed my presence, but I could tell that some of them had dropped their tools and started following me.
This kept going on for a while until a shirtless half-cat teenager covered in tattoos and piercings stood in my way. His veins were visible under his skin and they were too dark to be filled with nothing but blood. I noticed that he didn’t seem affected by the cold but figured the black substance on his nose might be responsible for his lack of sensitivity… and the rest.
He leaned close to my face and studied me with a disgusted expression, then spoke.
“The hell you doin’ here, mute?” he said. “Tryin’ to steal our spot?”
I waited for the long arms to come take him away, but nothing happened.
However, in the corner of my vision, I saw a kid try to get the attention of his sleeping friend. As soon as his hand touched him the sleeping one’s mouth became an impossibly big smile and they both disappeared.
I see. He’s being used as a distraction. We both are.
The rat opened his arms wide in provocation.
“What?” he screamed. “You surprised we can speak when you’re too scared to even breath! We ain’t afraid like you trash! We’re the enlightened… We’re the chosen!”
The kids around him echoed his words, and more of them ceased to exist.
Just have to be too fast for him to use aura.
The rat leaned closer.
“When we’re done with you fucker,-”
My elbow came into contact with his chin so hard his teeth cracked and his head was flung upward.
Not sure if that was enough to take him out, I swung my sheathed sword at his neck and the impact sent his body to the stone floor, as limp as a rope.
I didn’t feel comfortable killing exploited drugged kids. So I figured that if I wanted to keep this situation from escalating any further, I would have to crush the leader so efficiently that its gang would have second thoughts about attacking me. But I had overestimated the awareness of the black nosed kids surrounding me.
Some of them took a few steps back, but the rest was so far gone that they just watched everything with bored indifference.
I could probably kill them all without much effort.
Stopping that line of thoughts I hoped didn’t belong to me, I moved forward, and the rats made way.
This was probably the last floor of the mine to have been cleared by the warriors, which meant that my search for ether would start on the next one.
There was something nerve-wracking about the thought of entering a den of monsters, but my swords anticipation for the dances to come was slowly becoming mine.
I couldn’t hear the miners anymore, but I walked a bit faster.
Every time the tunnel would divide itself I would pick a random path, and soon an elevator came into view. It raised the question of what was at the end of the ones I had ignored.
Was each floor of the mine made of different parts that were only accessible from the previous one? If yes, didn’t that logically mean that the layers got bigger the deeper we went?
Considering that every path branched out at some point and depending on how many layers there were… it was possible that the dungeon spread under the whole valley.
I was lost in my thoughts when I noticed a crouching man between me and elevator.
Not even bothering to take the appearance of a child anymore, uh?
Not that it mattered, as I was planning on ignoring every pesky illusion on my way. But I felt insulted by the half-hearted attempt.
“No… Turn back, don’t come any closer,” I heard him say. “You fool… It’s listening, waiting… Even now!”
The man stood and the demented expression on his cracked face made me slow down.
Bo had told me that I would be safe as long as I didn’t interact with these “knockers”… But what if they were the ones to interact with me? To touch me?
He had said they weren’t aggressive, but there was no way to confirm that his knowledge was still valid on the lower floors.
“Mister, are you looking for my brother?”
I turned around to see the white-eyed boy with an abnormally big smile on his face. Ikun Omi asked me to draw her.
“I took him to a better place,” he said. “Do you wanna come?”
That makes it two. Two odd things happening at the same time.
The man standing between me and the elevator wasn’t doing anything and the tunnel was wide enough for me to walk past him if I stayed close to the wall.
That’s when I saw something I hadn’t noticed on the wall. A circle of opened eyes, staring at me.
That makes it three.
The knocker lunged at me, but I was faster.
Ikun Omi’s blade whistled in the stone passage and both his arms were cleaved in a single swing. Before he could overcome his surprise, I spun and took his head off.
There was no blood. Only black sand that the corpse instantly turned into.