I had to admit to myself that I was glad to see Ardos reenter the candle-lit office, because the tension between Royin and I was starting to get uncomfortable. I could tell that the circumstances of my presence in the temple were the main reasons why she did her best to keep her anger at a “reasonable” level during the tongue-lashing she had given me.
But I had given her a piece of my mind too.
Royin’s office hadn’t changed in the slightest since my last visit. It was already dark outside, but the blue flowers in the shadows of the candle flames gave it a cozy feeling that I sadly couldn’t experience to the fullest. The two adults were calmer now, but the first few minutes of my interrogation had me worried for my well-being.
However, the tiger seemed infinitely more tired than when he had left, massaging the bridge of his nose as he went back to his seat.
“It was Merle,” he said, revealing his daughter as the person who had been furiously knocking at the door. “I took the opportunity to talk to her and Tamie. They are both confirming Edward’s words.”
“Oh, so the veracity of my words were in question?” I said with a frown.
“Once again, that’s not the point Edward,” the Head Priestess interjected. “A boy’s future was thrown into jeopardy, you should know better than to imply that a single retelling of the facts should be sufficient to decide that it was justified.”
“Fair,” I said with a nod.
“… And it never can be justified,” she continued.
“Well, I beg to differ,” I added.
“You should not,” Ardos said. “This is serious Edward. You cannot simply be allowed to hurt members of the temple.”
I looked at him in disbelief and then pointed at myself.
“Does it look, like it’s what I’m trying to do?” I said. “And wait, this is not what this discussion should be about. It should be about both of you admitting that you’re partly responsible for what’s going on with these kids! The only ones that do not hate themselves are the warriors, and that probably has to do with the fact that they are too busy bullying the others.”
“We might have… expected too much from some of them. I do not deny it,” Ardos said with a weighed look toward Royin. “But there will always be a natural divide between forsaken and warriors. You do not seem to understand that there is a baggage that just comes with being one or the other… and that is disregarding the inherent issues they deal with due being orphans in the first place. Coddling them more than we already do will not change the way the rest of the world sees them.”
“We have no idea what Ormidillio could have done to Tamie up there…” I said. “But you think that what I want is you coddling the kids more?”
“I understand what you are trying to say, Edward. After my discussion with Merle, I agree with the fact that the education of the warriors left a lot to be desired and will have to be revisited.”
The priestess gave him an inquisitive look, probably wondering what he meant, but he simply shook his head.
Not that I had any interest in their personal lives. I trusted Ardos to be true to his word and felt a bit of satisfaction to know that the kids would soon have to worry a lot less about the warriors. How the outside world treated them might not change, but at their age, it was important to know that Home was a safe place.
“That still leaves one thing needing to be settled,” Royin said as she interlinked her fingers on her desk. I could easily picture her crossing her legs in the same motion as well.
“Oh for f-,” I started, before reining in my exasperation. “What was I supposed to do? Leave and look for help?”
“That would have been a good alternative to what you did,” she said with a nod. “We had just talked to each other, you knew I was in my office. You could have quickly found me and explained the whole situation.”
“… You’re serious,” I said, baffled. “Anything could have happened in the meantime.”
“I doubt much could have happened in the time it would have taken you to come down a few flights of stairs, Edward. The whole situation would have been resolved with no blood being spilled.”
“I’d rather make sure that the innocent person in distress doesn’t suffer any kind of damage,” I said with a raised brow. “Your argument assumes that Ormidillio’s arm is worth Tamie potentially getting hurt and I disagree.”
She sighed deeply, making it obvious that I wasn’t the only exasperated person in the room anymore.
“That is not what I am saying,” she said. “What I am saying is that between that scenario and the one you chose, the amount of life-altering damage caused is vastly different. If Tamie had somehow gotten hurt before I got on the roof, it would have been…”
She laid back on her chair with her eyes closed, massaging the bridge of her nose exactly like her husband had minutes before, and said “Never mind.”
I glanced at Ardos and saw that he seemed weirdly amused.
“Let’s put all the hypothetical to the side,” Royin said with a tired voice. “You could clearly have neutralized Ormidillio without hurting him as much as you did. Even throwing him over the rail guard would have been better. So why did you did do it?”
“You’re assuming I was in full control of the situation,” I said with the most neutral voice I could manage. “I’m sure you know that we don’t always see all the options while in the heat of the moment. I still gave him many chances to back down, but he refused to take them.”
“I’m not assuming,” Royin said. “I know you were. Do not hurt one of the children again. Edward, I understand that you think that Ormidillio deserved what you did to him but, not only was that not for you to decide, harboring that much violence in you is not healthy.”
I blinked in surprise.
Wait, is she worrying about me?
“I’m not sure I get it,” I said. “What do you think happens in dungeons? There are enough violence and weirdness in there to turn everybody crazy. Which I’m not, for the record.”
“Of course not,” she said with an irritatingly soft voice. “Yes, the life of a delver often includes atrocities, but that is why seeking balance once you are back in the regular world is important. Every delver is encouraged to pursue a hobby of their choice, through which they can safely release their pent-up aggression.”
In my old age, my personal hobby had been to get my hands on the best or rarest alcohol my savings could afford. However, I doubted money was all it would take to find some quality booze in this world.
Wait, no. She’s just trying to play the shrink. This a typical bad cop, good cop routine, except she’s both of them.
“Oh really,” I said with a smile. I nodded toward Ardos, “What’s his hobby?”
“I paint,” he said as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
“Wait, what? You paint? You?”
“What?” he said somewhat on the defensive. “Is there something wrong with me enjoying painting?”
“Well, no, but…” I fumbled. “Actually, can I see your paintings?”
“Oh come on, you can’t just drop that bomb and then-”
“Edward, this is not about him, it’s about you,” Royin interrupted with a raised hand. “I want you to find something interesting that you could enjoy doing to relieve some of your stress. Anything, as long as it helps you remember that violence stays outside of the temple. No matter what.”
I almost snorted. On one hand, I could seewhere she was coming from. Stress management was an important aspect of mental health that people had to eventually master if they wanted to work long-term in certain fields, after all. But on the other hand, thinking “long-term” wasn’t really a luxury I could afford after sleeping for so many days.
But this very discussion seemed like a very good opportunity to relieve myself of some of the “heavier” baggage I had accumulated recently.
“On the subject of ‘stress’,” I started. “I have to admit that these past days were incredibly stressful, starting with the time I spent in the Undermine.”
“I had meant to broach the subject as soon as possible,” Ardos said as he joined his hands and leaned forward on his chair. “Your first day was supposed to be a simple test run, but seeing how much you’ve improved, you obviously went much deeper than we all thought it to be possible.”
“Do you… want to talk about you saw down there?” Royin attempted.
“What? No,” I said, caught by surprise by her meddling tone.” I mean, yes, but I want to talk about something in particular and spare you the details. I did reach a very low level somehow, and… well, I discovered that there’s an Old God in the Undermine.”
They looked at each other and then back at me.
“An Old God…” Royin said.
“… in the mine,” Ardos finished.
I could already see where this was going and I didn’t like it. That encounter had been too dangerous for me to allow them to doubt it ever happened.
“Listen,” I said. “I know it sounds crazy, but- well, I’m actually assuming that it sounds crazy since I don’t know how frequently it is for dungeons to have one. But I’m telling you the truth. The Undermine is a warped copy of a church that was dedicated to it. It’s in there, and it’s growing stronger. Now, when I got back to Bunker, I-”
“Stop,” said Ardos. “Are you seriously thinking of just glossing over what you just said?”
“I’m not trying to do anything about it, alright?” I said with my hands raised. “I just wanted to make sure to at least pass the information to someone. You guys are free to do whatever you want with it.”
“How can you be so sure that it really was an Old God?” Royin asked with narrowed eyes. “To my knowledge, no one has ever reported any connection and after all, the Undermine’s main trait is to be able to fool people with illusions.”
“Which it doesn’t do anymore, right?” I said. “So unless the dungeon takes regular breaks, you will have to accept that I did something no one ever did before.”
They took a moment to process what I had said.
“What was its name?” Ardos finally asked.
“It called itself the Keeper of Secret.”
They glances they threw at each other clearly indicated that they didn’t recognize that name.
“Look,” I said. “All I know is that it is able to alter the dungeon in a way that can bypass the daily reset and that it wanted me to do something very specific that would allow it to regain its strength.”
“And you did it?” Ardos asked.
“Hell yeah, I did it. I would have died otherwise and I’m not trying to become a martyr.”
“While I am convinced that you are not lying to us,” Royin started, “you’ll have to admit that it is still very hard to believe that whatever you met in that dungeon was… what you think it was. Old Gods are mythical beings. Beings of legends from the age of Glory.”
That caught my interest, as it seemed contradictory to what I had seen until now.
“There are many people who do not even believe in their existence,” Ardos added. “If it could be proved somehow that there really was one here… well, you would without a doubt be the cause of the last great war.”
“Wait, why me?”
“Well dear, you are the one who discovered it, aren’t you?” the priestess said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Assuming it is real, of course. And if it is, I do not believe that there is anything any mortal can do about it. However, that would also mean that there are probably genuine Old Gods watching, and if there is someone qualified to act in this situation, it has to be one of them.”
“I don’t understand,” I said with a frown. “You’re the Head Priestess of an angel, but you somehow talk as if Old Gods were less real?”
That seemed to make her think for a while, while Ardos showed an obvious disinterest for the subject by walking to the window and staring into the night.
“The Old Gods… exist. They always have,” Royin said, carefully weighing her words. “But to us, they might as well not, since they turned their backs on our existence. To them, we are nothing but maggots on the corpse of a beautiful world they once decided to destroy. The angels… are the only reason we survived to this day. But they did not help us out of sympathy, originally at least. As lower divine beings, the extinction of Life would also mean their End. For they were birthed by the fears and desires of mortals.”