Rhynne was slightly worried. That's what she'd answer with if someone pressed her for an answer to 'why do you look so worried?' The truth was that she was almost blowing a gasket. It was already late at night and four delvers didn't return. It could only mean two things. They were either taking a holiday inside the Dungeon or... NO! She couldn't even consider that.
What kind of mother wouldn't worry if her son willingly went into a den of murder with little hope of growing strong enough to conquer it? To the point of almost ripping her hairs out?
But Rhynne was a seasoned adventurer. Actually one of the highest leveled ones outside of either nobility or the Knight Corps. She found the custom of pressing any youth with a cap over 200 into service by any means disgusting but it wasn't the time or place to discuss such things. She leaned on Byron for moral support but she knew he wouldn't move. He could be petrified, a sign he was worried in his own way. The best way he found to not burst and destroy everything in a dozen meters was to keep still.
Their precious Nero and his equally precious girlfriend were AWOL. Inside said den of murder.
They could take as much time as they wanted and could inside the Dungeon and they would still come out on the same "day" so to speak. The Dungeon had some elastic time constraints and really didn't play by the rules. To a point, because those that spent too much time inside would usually return late in the day. Never before midnight so there were still a few hours of hope. It was a rank I Dungeon and Byron did a good job of teaching their son the sword. Altia had a very good head on her shoulders so the two should be okay.
She looked around. Two other couples waited. Altia's father was away on business so they were there for her too. Rhynne waited for some more minutes, she willingly stopped tracking time to avoid uncontrolled anxiety.
The portal wobbled, shimmered a bit more and two figures crossed it back into the surface world. Caked in grime and gore, and baked in the sand like a fried escalope coated in egg and bread crumbs. The two were absolutely disgusting but they looked healthy. That they were tenderly holding hands didn't escape her notice.
"Don't worry, mom. None of this blood is mine!" Nero shouted as their eyes met.
Altia chuckled. "Some of this blood is mine, but I took a [Healing Potion]."
Byron unfroze. "How long did you spend inside?" His deep voice asked, like a keeper of deep secrets.
"four days, I guess? Hard to track time, we didn't have a watch. We camped three times though."
In the corner of Rhynne's eyes, the other two couples took the declaration in another tone. There was hope for their kids. She knew the truth. The other two were delving solo, even if they survived long enough to sleep, they couldn't camp and risk a wandering monster finding them in their sleep. It was a death sentence.
"Say, young lad, did you meet any other... friends down there? Do you know if anyone is still there?" One of the fathers dared to ask.
Both of the youngsters' heads dropped. Nero removed his backpack and fished inside. Everyone recognized what he took. And what it meant. An Arbitrium without a person attached to it could only mean the owner was dead.
"We only found this. The monsters..." Nero stopped talking when Altia tugged his arm. Good girl. It wasn't the time for detailed explanations. "I don't know whose device is this though. It could be Clark's or Bruce's."
The last statement was truthful but also very cruel. Rhynne had no idea Nero knew how bad it was. It gave the two other couples a shard of hope. It could be the other kid. She saw that happen more than once, it never ended well.
"Nero, did it have a Class card slotted?" She asked. Any clue to the identity of the Adventurer that wore that contraption could help. But if they spent four days inside, and left in that sorry state of being, the other two Adventurers going solo were as good as dead.
She felt a nudge on her back. Glancing up, Byron discreetly nudged at Nero's waist. She saw a sword's sheath, too big to be a normal sword. Squinting, she could see a gear motif engraved on the pommel. Remembering they gave him a [Permanency I] card, it could only mean they found a good weapon card and decided to use it.
It was a good sign. Nero's level cap greatly limited his gear options but clockwork devices usually had no enchantments and no level limit. She made eye contact with her husband and nodded, daring a faint smile.
"No Class cards here," Nero declared.
By the looks of it, it didn't help. Altia took the Arbitrium from his hand and offered it to the two couples.
"I am sorry to tell you this, but we spent four days inside. We went through terrible ordeals. We stopped hearing other Adventurer's struggles echoing in the caverns by our second day. Take this and consider this device as belonging to both your kids. I doubt it can be salvaged for parts. We would bring the remains but there was little to bring back. I'm sorry for Clark and Bruce. We grew together."
The mothers broke, the tears they, just like Rhynne, were holding back on a sliver of hope broke like a dam. The fathers got angry as they should but their anger was misplaced. Before she could talk, Byron took a step forward.
"It is harsh but that's a truth every family with an Adventurer has to face," He said, measuring his words. "Dungeons are not flower gardens. I'm sorry for your loss but it is not blaming the messenger that you will avenge your children. That these two Adventurers brought the Arbitrium back is a sign that they are in the clear. They would never bother and lie if they had any responsibility. That's how it is for us." He lifted his forearm, showing his own device. "that's how it was for your children. We die a little with every Adventurer that meet their doom. I lost many a companion and friend, I got something to bury from very few of them. I wish you can find peace."
Rhynne winced at the veiled threats. Byron had almost no Persuasiveness, just a point or two that he was "unlucky" to get in his Class cards. But even if she didn't agree with what slipped into his argument, she agreed fully with the main points. Adventuring was a deadly endeavor. One they took only because it was the only way to become someone in this world. It was the only way to ensure the People Races would keep their way of life without being swallowed up by a stampede of ravenous monsters. Dungeons had to be culled regularly. Even this one, the weakest of them all.
"Let's go home. There's nothing for us here," Byron declared with a tone that had no room for arguments.
"Martha, Thomas, Johnathan, Lara. We are sorry for your loss," She said and meant it. "Please count on us for anything."
Martha was hugging the bracer but she nodded. Rhynne didn't wait and went home with her family. The kid's biological clock was messed up and they would need more than a day of rest to cope with the side-effects of the Dungeon's time dilation powers.
None of the parents could sleep well that night. The scare of losing their only child was too strong and they were used to sleepless nights. Rhynne returned to the kitchen after tucking in both kids, Altia in the guest room. The two kids were wasted and she knew by the two sorry excuses for blankets they had they didn't get any proper rest in the Dungeon. In fact, she had half a mind to just incinerate all the things they brought from the Dungeon, except for the cards, crystals and that strange sword. She found Byron sitting at the kitchen table with said sword unsheathed in front of him.
"What do we have here, husband?"
"Clockwork Sword. It seems he used four pinks on it, all four stuck. Most of the gore on him is from the splatter of the weapon. Gruesome little thing."
Rhynne puckered her lips to suppress her mirth. "It was never a popular weapon. Too brittle and prone to breaking. But this one seems to be in pristine condition... Self-repair?"
"Seems so. I wasn't able to get much from him during the walk here. Poor kids were exhausted. How's the girl?"
"Altia," She put emphasis on the name, "had some nasty blisters on her feet but our son did his best to treat them. I'll call the healer tomorrow, she'll heal."
Byron chuckled. "Did you see the bulging crystal pouch Altia," He mimicked Rhynne, "carried? These kids spent four days down there and I don't think they were goofing off."
Byron's pride was visible, his innuendo regarding what the Adventurers were doing in the Dungeon just a bit veiled. She knew the fiber of the two youngsters and doubted they'd done anything improper. Rhynne was proud of their achievements as well but she had the decency of hiding it.
"I hope they got some Accolades. It is the only way Nero will grow."
That soured the mood and Rhynne regretted the moment she finished her sentence. it reminded Byron of the "failure" their son was. Their only son, as Rhynne had complications during labor that made it impossible to have another child. She bitterly stared at the ceiling while Byron just clenched his fists. At least she survived, while Altia's mother, Vana, died delivering the girl. But Byron was behaving erratically ever since their hopes were dashed by the reveal of Nero's level cap. It was one of the two worst outcomes she could think of, in hindsight. Too low a cap and you won't be respected, too high and the Royalty will make you disappear. But Nero's?
It was unknown how the world would react beside scorning him, but his condition was so unique it was valuable for certain parties. One that made Glom "waste" three Anima on Nero. She wasn't fooled that these must've been the lowest-grade Anima crystals he had but that issue never came into the discussion. Anima crystals came in grades, just like some pink cards. An adventurer couldn't use an Anima crystal of a grade lower than their level divided by five. Rounded up because the universe was a jerk. She would have to go to Honeywitch to visit a trader. Byron couldn't complain, that crystal was hers.
"Rhynne, what do you think is going to happen?" Byron asked.
"Support your son. The world will be harsh enough on him, mocking him and trying to take advantage of his perceived weakness. But if the weapon in front of you can prove anything, is that he is capable. Altia was a godsend. Make sure you treat her like a princess."
Byron chuckled. Rhynne's memory was stimulated and she remembered.
"Okay. Do not treat her like that princess. One disaster was enough. And don't play dumb, you know very well what I meant," She sighed, then collected her strength. "Treat her like the daughter I couldn't give us."
That was a low blow and Rhynne knew it. But she had to play the cards she was given. Keeping Byron from rampaging has been hard these last two days, the man's temper worse than she ever remembered.
"The Anima crystals. Should we get some for him?" He suggested.
Rhynne smiled. It was as if he could read her thoughts but after almost three decades together, they knew each other.
"Yes. We should visit Honeywitch and see if we can trade in the few we have for grade I crystals. He won't get a level up so he can use as many of these as he can get. But it is our retirement nest egg. Keep that in mind."
At their Level, delving was a risky business. Spending four days as the kids had was just an above-average delve, for them. And while they had good gear and cards, they didn't have the support of the Kingdom like the Royal Knights or most nobles. The gap of power was unsurmountable and the game was stacked against anyone disturbing that balance.
Nero woke up and his first instinct was to reach for his weapon then check if Altia was safe. He found neither and then noticed he was in his bed and it was afternoon as his bedroom faced west and sunlight was filtering through the window shutters. The scare was so real he forgot what he was dreaming about. It involved the Dungeon, that's the only certainty he had. He rested his forearm on his temple and tried to remember. They were so tired and relieved to be finally out of the Dungeon that what went outside was hazy. But he was home and it meant he was safe. He wanted to see Altia, to check on her feet. Healing potions couldn't help with those as the foot blisters were the body's natural reaction to the chafing.
He stood up and grimaced. His mother should've cleaned him but Altia was right, he needed to scrub his body clean. He was still dirty and his skin was shedding flakes of whatever was stuck to him. His bed sheets were stained as his sweat mixed with the gunk. He pulled everything out and stripped his bed to the mattress. Then he took his cleaning supplies, a towel and a fresh set of clothes from his dresser.
"A long bath is what I need."
His house had an Essence-powered heater and water circulation system. The pump was old and clunky and made a lot of noise in the backyard shed but there was enough straw to act as padding to muffle the sound. He left his room wearing only his boxers and went to the bathing room. He felt some moisture underneath the door and stopped before he opened the door. He focused and heard the sound of water splashing. Their parents didn't have the habit of taking baths in the early morning so it could only mean he almost did something really bad.
Walking absentmindedly into a maiden's bath.
He knocked on the door. "Altia, are you in there?"
A splash and then her voice. "Nero? I'm sorry, I was about to leave. Are you okay?"
He laughed in relief, his tension draining faster than the tub water. "I am fine, and I should be the one asking you how you are? Take your time, I can wait."
"Mrs. Rhynne changed my bandages and used an ointment. She asked why we didn't take some with us and it made me feel really dumb."
"That makes two of us. I'll be in my room, just knock to tell me the bathing room is free. I have to marinate for two days in soap, remember?"
"Don't be. Take care of yourself, I wasn't offended. I am still disgusting."
He went back to his room. Walking around wearing only his boxers wasn't the brightest idea, he was an adult now.