Sitting among the blue flowers under the shadow of the temple, Sarn had trouble focusing on his work.
The various people coming in and out of the building probably thought that he was simply working on a strange reddish woolen cap… and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong if they did.
Unlike most of what was worn around these parts, the hat had no visor and was even equipped with a stretchy headband, added to make sure it wouldn’t fall off the wearer’s head when performing sudden movements.
Strange as it looked, that hat was the cumulative result of everything Sarn had learn since he had gotten his class. All of the techniques, all of the skills and, more importantly, his best fabric. The one he had been reserving for “the right time”.
Back when he had first put this fabric away, “the right time” had meant “when I will be skilled enough to not feel like I’m wasting it”. Now its definition had changed to “when there’s nothing better available.”
Not that he wasn’t vastly more skilled than he had been just a week ago.
Thanks to his new friend, he had first been able to quickly raise the proficiency of all his skills. It had allowed his stamina usage to be much more efficient and made him able to create more clothes in less time.
Then three days ago, there had been the deluge of ether that had seemed to come out of nowhere.
For a moment, he had been worried of being the target of a facetious spirit’s joke, but a disturbing sound from Tamie’s room made him realize that Edward probably was the source of the windfall.
As if on cue, a maniacal laugh identical to the one he was recalling made him look up from his work.
“She really needs to take a break,” he whispered to himself. “She sounds crazy.”
“Someone, make her shut up or I’ll do it myself!” he heard Ormidillo scream from the roof. Sarn just shook his head, knowing the boy would never actually do anything.
The mistress would be merciless with anyone daring to attack a member of the staff and Ormidilio wasn’t someone who would survive long without the temple’s protection.
On the other hand, things were starting to look like Tamie was the one doing the bullying. Many people had already placed complaints to the mistress, but it seemed that whatever the young girl was doing in her room made it impossible for her to restrain herself.
Figuring he was already too distracted, he tried to spot a familiar traveler among the distant figures drifting on the road from Bunker. Sadly, he did not find any. With a disappointed sigh, he went back to work.
I need to make it perfect, he thought with determination.
Until now, Lima had been his only reliable source of ether. The guys from the fighters’ group just laughed at what he made and the instructors never used what he gifted them, despite thanking him with a smile for it.
So ignoring the random ether he occasionally received from what got sold in Bunker, he would only get a couple dozens of points whenever Lima went hunting. It wasn’t much, but it had been enough for him to slowly increase his skill levels and he could not thank her enough.
But the other day Edward had been wearing a coat he had made.Sarn did not know how many creatures he had killed, or the actual nature of what he had killed… but by the moment the ether stopped trickling in, he had around six hundred of it. Probably more than he had ever had his whole life.
After the shaking of the excitement faded out, he came to realize that this could easily be the last time it happened.
“Do I even deserve to be his friend?” he had asked himself.
Edward was something special. Sarn had known that since the first time he had seen him enter the temple’s hall wearing those divine clothes.
He let out a deep sigh. Even just thinking about them made his stomach drop.
There had been an opportunity to get a closer look at them when Edward was lying unconscious in Imane’s room. With his class, he could analyze most clothes he came across and learn from how they were made. Not these ones.
They first made him recoil with shock then lower his head in shame.
Minor self-repair. Intermediate temperature regulation. Major self-cleaning. Major quicksand immunity. Major sandstorm immunity.
It was too much. Every single one of those attributes would ruin the richest merchants in the shard, but here was someone his age wearing garments with all of them combined.
Who was he, really? Where did he come from, if not from Nashran? Why was he alone?
Aware of how out his league he was, Sarn had given up on trying to learn anything from Edward’s clothes. Instead, he had put all of his focus on figuring a way to prove that he was worthy of being his friend… He didn’t want to be left behind.
After all, Edward was clearly destined for greatness. How could Sarn stand next to him as an equal if he stayed the way he was?
Edward’s equipment was great. But no matter how great it was, it was not equipment fitting for a warrior. It provided no protection or increased stats. So Sarn invested all the ether he had gained into areas that would help him create items that would do just that.
He had been rewarded with a skill named “Golden thread”, an ability that allowed him to see the ideal path for his needle, depending on his current mastery of the craft, at the cost of stamina. It was incredibly taxing and could only be used for a few seconds before forcing him to take a break. But Sarn could sense that leveling it up would give him the edge he needed to create his own masterpiece.
And this hat, however strange its appearance, was his first attempt at it.
The sound of hurrying heavy steps made him glance at the door, only to see the sir Ardos, still wearing his leather armor and shielding his squinting eyes from the sun as he stared down the valley.
Is he looking for…
After a moment, the chief instructor smiled and shook his head. He seemed to have gotten years younger when he noticed Sarn as he was going back inside.
“Seems like your friend is a lot more resourceful than I gave him credit for, Sarn. I still have a few things to take care of, but tell him that we can talk about his adventures after he has gotten some much deserved rest.”
The warrior left and Sarn stood from his chair, his gaze aimed forward.
“What… did he mean?” he wondered as he strained his eyes on the valley.
But despite his best efforts, he was unable to find what he was looking for… for a good thirty minutes. Only then, as he was debating using his aura to boost his vision, did he notice the short figure walking straight toward the hill their temple was placed on.
He realized that he had been unable to see him until then because Edward had been walking at a slow pace with a group of other people Sarn doubted he was even acquainted with. Now that he was by himself and clearly visible from afar thanks to his very distinctive hairstyle, he was moving much faster. As if being standing out made him uncomfortable… Which was ironic, Sarn thought.
Humming to himself, he went back to his chair and focused as much as he could on finishing his best work to date.
Now that Edward was back, Bo would finally revert to his old self. He would stop putting up a front when they were together and go back to work every morning like he used to.
In the past few days, Sarn had seen the other miners change from lethargic husks that moved in silence, into talkative workers with eyes sparkling with hope. Some of them even came to him asking about Edward’s whereabouts, even though they never spoke before.
In any case, only Bo seemed to have had his mood deteriorate and Sarn was convinced that it was because he didn’t believe Edward to be safe and sound.
Sarn chuckled. Bo really was a dummy. Edward was a warrior, a sword dancer! What could possibly happen to him? Sure, the Undermine was dangerous, but Bo had clearly never seen their new friend use his black sword.
After what seemed an eternity, Edward finally reached the temple and Sarn jumped off his chair, ready to give him a big welcome hug. But he stopped himself before he could take the first step.
“He’s here!” someone screamed from one of the temple’s window. Apparently, he hadn’t been the only one on the lookout.
He is… different?
Even though Edward looked exhausted, it wasn’t anything physical that had given Sarn pause. It was just… the atmosphere around him.
He noticed the odd belt and necklace he had on and his stomach fell. He couldn’t be sure about the white spheres with faint gold details that Edward had around his neck, but he could sense that the threads that formed the belt were charged with ether. They were items crafted by someone better than him.
Which meant that Edward had already left him behind.
“Hey kiddo,” Edward said as he mustered a tired smile. “How have you been?”
“I’ve… been doing well,” Sarn said as he hid the hideous hat behind his back. How could he have thought of giving it to him?
Edward frown and took a closer look at him, “Is everything okay?” he said. “Did anyone hurt you? Heard there was an attack, but since I couldn’t spot any damage, I figured…”
“Oh don’t worry, no one got hurt!” Sarn said with a smile. “Well, no one on our side. The instructors kept them at bay until sir Ardos came, and then they just all ran away.”
For some reason, that seemed to give him some relief. Was he already that attached to them? But there was still something on his mind.
“Talking about Ardos,” he started, “I need to see that piece of- ahem. Well, I need to talk to him, do you know where I can find him? Royin would be fine too.”
Sarn gave him a look of disbelief and a playful push on the shoulder, “Are you really not swearing because of me? How old do you think I am?”
“Ah, yeah you’re right,” he said as he scratched the back of his head. “I’m just really tired. Anyway, do you-”
He was interrupted by the sight of several people rushing over. The orphans hadn’t gone to work recently because of the attack and most of the miners were now surrounding Sarn and Edward, some of them stuck in the hallway because of those standing at the door.
Sarn frowned. He disliked them since they singled out Bo for hanging out with him and Lima. Did they now have something against Edward because of whatever he had done at the mine?
“Yes?” Edward simply said.
One of them walked to Edward with eyes full of determination and, to Sarn’s surprise, hugged him.
Edward awkwardly stood there for a few seconds, then wrapped his hands around the boy.
“Thank you!” the boy blurted out with a trembling voice.
“I… There’s no guaranty that it’s going to last,” Edward said.
“Still! Thank you!” the boy managed to say before his voice broke.
Sarn looked around and saw how they were all either struggling to contain their tears or wiping them and felt a complex mix of pride and shame.
Pride, because his friend was being recognized and accepted by the others. That was something that usually took between a few months or a year.
…Or longer, in his case.
Shame, because while he had been aware that Edward had somehow managed to make the Undermine less dangerous… he had not realized it was something worth this sort of reaction.
They would not do all of this just for being able to talk while working.
If working at the mine was this hard, why did Bo not take me with him? Did he think I could not be of any help? Or that he did not need my help?
Even though he had been the one to tell Sarn that true friends help each other.
All these years, the few times Sarn had expressed any interest in the Undermine, Bo had made sure to dissuade him. Coupled with the fact that Sarn mostly stayed at the temple, it had been easy for him to tune the mine out, confident in his “brother’s” judgment.
So he had known that it was a bad place, but just how bad was it, really?
Sarn’s fingers tightened around the hat. How many other things was he blissfully ignorant of?
… And what exactly did Edward do? He wondered as the kids started leaving after expressing their thanks.
As if vocalizing his thoughts some asked, “How’d you do it?”
Sarn frowned and began searching for the speaker.
“Well, it’s kind of complicated,” he heard Edward hesitate.
“Did you get any loot?” someone else said.
“What are you two doing here?” Sarn bluntly asked the kids who had been hiding at the back.
Surprised by the question, the perpetrators fumbled with their words until one of them took a step forward and snorted, “We can be anywhere we want. What of it?”
“You guys are fighters,” Sarn said calmly. “You were sitting with Damian when he told Edward to stay away and said nothing. Have some shame.”
Their faces became red and he saw the threat of violence in their eyes. But he also knew that they wouldn’t act in front of so many people, on the temple’s very doorstep.
And he did not feel like playing it safe anymore.
They opened their mouths to say something but were interrupted by Tamie’s crazy laugh. So they just snorted and left, probably to report back to their leader.
“What the hell was that laugh?” Edward asked, apparently not at all interested in the fighter’s group curiosity on his success. “Was it…”
“Tamie,” Sarn completed. “And it’s been that way… since you gave her your help. Please go talk to her? She’s making it very hard to sleep…”
Groans and mumbles of agreement from the last leaving miners followed his words.
“There was an explosion the other day!” someone said.
“Alright, I needed to see her anyway,” said Edward. But it was visible that he would have rather done that at a later time. “Good job with those two, by the way.”
“Eh, it was nothing.”
“Oh? When did you get cocky?”
Sarn managed to avoid a hand trying to mess his hair, but in the process revealed what he had been hiding this whole time.
“Hmm?” Edward frowned. “Where’d you get that?”
“Oh! I… I made it. I was supposed to give it to you, as thanks for the ether.”
There was the tiniest flash of confusion in his eyes, but then he shrugged.
“Ah, I see.”
Knowing it was too late to backtrack now, he handed over the horrible black hat.
What had he been thinking? He had been focusing so much on utility that he hadn’t realized what the thing looked like.
Sure, it gave the wearer 10 points to Agility, but what was the point if no one would wear it?
But after verifying his hair was tied back low enough, Edward put it on his head like it was the most natural thing in the world. He then pulled the top portion and folded it to his left, before smoothing it over with his hand.
“And it has bonuses too?” he said, apparently impressed. “It feels pretty… weird for me to wear a beret again though, so I’m probably only going to wear it for fights. Thanks.”
“Oh, don’t-… No worries,” Sarn managed to say, dumbfounded. “You’re welcome.”
Sarn then watched the sword dancer enter the temple with tired steps, not even realizing a wide smile was forming on his face.
What did he call it? A beret?