“Is it a good idea to order drinks?" Altera eyed the soldiers. “It could cloud our abilities and judgment.”
“Don’t worry. I have an incredible tolerance. Never got drunk in my life. And believe me. Aurelia tried.” Ragna grinned.
Wow. Another similarity. Maybe Ragna was a long-lost sibling? Thanks to his father, there was a non-zero chance.
“In my profession, out-drinking others is important,” said Eric. “Unless you wanna end up with only your boxers. Sometimes not even that.”
“If you don’t want to drink, I can take yours,” said Grendel.
“Fine.” Altera sighed. She glanced at the inn. “Something made me curious, though. From the way things look, it seems travelers are the main source of income for this inn. But this isn’t a port town. So, where do they come from? I see no reason for them to pass through this village.”
“Right, you aren’t familiar with the system here.”
Grendel looked over to the table with the soldiers as they ordered another round of beer. “Here in Glast, we have the 'Adventurer system'. If you want to earn your living fighting monsters, helping people, and traveling the continent, you can become an Adventurer. You enlist in the military, join the adventurer’s guild, or you go solo."
"What's the difference?" Altera asked.
"Being in the military explains itself, right? To join the guild, you gotta take a test. But if you pass, you get a steady flow of jobs suited to your skills, the guild will fight for your rights, and you have a discount on weapons and such stuff. In return, you must pay fees, and there are sometimes missions you can't take. And you're not allowed to associate yourself with the Clocktower. Not that they hate them, but it’s a bureaucratic mess.”
“You're a freelancer then, right?” Eric grumbled and looked at him with envious eyes.
Not that he couldn’t blame him. Being an adventurer in Midgard had all the risks but none of the benefits.
“I work alone, live from mission to mission, and have to provide for everything myself. If I’m unlucky, I’ve to choose a mission above my level, or someone else snatches a job from my hands. But I can do whatever I want, visit the Clocktower, and the guild usually fights for my rights too.”
“And how is that regulated?” Altera asked.
“Mission boards. Every major city has them. Anyone with enough money can give up a mission. Usually, it's a count. But sometimes, it's someone private with a lot of cash or the government. Every mission gives you money and points. The more points you have, the better your reputation. And if you’re in the Top twelve, you become a member of the Round Table under the Archmage.”
Soon enough, Patricia brought the food and the drinks.
“So, what are we going to do about them?” Altera glanced over to the soldiers who were still drinking, playing cards, and trying to flirt with Patricia.
“I think the best option would be Grendel.” Eric cut a piece of the duck and tasted it. He chewed multiple times until he swallowed it. “Holy shit. This is good.”
“You ain't wrong.” Grendel stared at the dark liquid in his glass, trying to analyze if the texture was black enough. “But before that, I would like to know what you hope to achieve?”
He took a sip.
Aaahh, this one was a real stout. It felt like ages since he had a genuine one. Nothing against Midgard’s brewery, but they could never get the mixture of sweetness and bitterness right.
“I thought that was clear,” said Altera.
Grendel nodded, his eyes focusing on Ragna. “True, but I want you to verbalize it. Say it in your own words. What is it you hope to achieve?”
Ragna lowered her voice. “I want to get information on my father.”
Grendel narrowed his eyes and cast away the joviality from his body language. He had to be certain about Ragna’s motives.
“So that I can learn the truth.”
The truth. That was beautiful. But truth in itself was of no value. What mattered was how one used it. And what was beautiful was not always good. When Ragna would learn the truth, what would happen? What would she do? Would she become a hero, a soldier, or a dragon turning everyone’s existence into a wasteland?
“Why? What do you want to learn?”
Ragna gulped, and her hand trembled. Altera looked at Ragna. She nodded and held Ragna’s hand.
Did Altera understand Ragna’s plight, or was she trying to support her regardless? Well, it didn’t matter.
Ragna’s eyes were determined. She lowered her voice further to prevent the soldiers from listening. “I want to know why he had left me. What happened during the assault? Who was involved, and why was I used?”
That was better: A great injustice. Ragna wanted to know the reason and the names of the guilty. She was close. Just a little bit more, and she had reached the core.
“I want to make them pay.” Ragna stopped. She exhaled and spoke with newfound clarity. “Honestly, I think it doesn’t matter if I make them pay. I might be too weak right now, and the captains might be better suited. I want my life back. I want to save anything that's still there and rebuild my life.”
And there it was. A girl wanted to rinse herself clean of crimes she had not committed. And return to a life of peace. What injustice and conspiracy had taken from her, she wanted back. With that, he could work.
“Thank you. I will do my best.”
“Is that really okay?” Altera asked. “To play with people’s minds?”
“Don’t worry.” Grendel smiled and stood up. “Justice is all I can do.”
Ragna’s goal was noble. It was pure and small. But then why did he feel disappointed? He liked her goal. Yet, it felt like it carved a scar into his heart. Small, but the pain was there, throbbing and reminding him of his wound. It was naive to expect others to come to the same conclusions as him.
This world was empty. It was every living being's prerogative to fill that emptiness. Animals filled it with instincts and those with higher reasoning, with values. As a result, countless different worlds existed. As no value had more validity than the other, each world contained a universal truth in its closed system. But as humans lived in a society, these worlds collided. One system’s truth couldn’t apply to other systems. Instead, the stronger system enforced its truth upon the weaker ones. If the weaker systems didn’t accept their own truth as false, they faced destruction or isolation. The superior system changed the label of its truth – calling it laws, morals, rules, norms – and absorbed the weaker ones.
Because he was an isolated system, other people wouldn't possess the same values as him. That was okay. But then why did Ragna's answer hurt?
It didn’t matter. He had to concentrate. After forcing Ragna to confess, he had to repay her.
Grendel walked to the soldiers. His voice vibrated into their minds, and his words swung like a pendulum back and forth. Their thoughts and synapses began to match the rhythm. Back and forth, and his eyes became privy to the self.
What was there? Were there any fissures and holes in their minds and souls? He could nest in these openings and let his voice command. And as his eyes overwrote their realities, their realities overwrote him.
At that very moment, Grendel ceased to exist.
They had to follow the one true path, for this was a desire of humanity itself. To let the desire shine brighter, to make humanity’s wish turn to reality, they marched and marched and marched to the new. To the newly carved path.
Words, swinging, swinging.
All and all and all. A thought into a mind. A drop into an ocean. A unit into a process. A cell into a body. Towards and towards the new world. A hatchling unable to break out of its shell died. Was never born. To break out, destroy the shell. Fly and become a dragon.
His consciousness was back. He was back and could discern himself. In front of him were the soldiers. His mind drew from his memories and replayed.
Ah okay. Good to know. So that’s what happened.
It was a strange feeling, remembering events and actions he had never witnessed. At least that was what he believed.
He went back to his companions and finished their meal. Grendel paid the ridiculous sum as Altera’s card wouldn't work in a place without electricity. The food had been of excellent quality, so he didn't mind too much.
They left the inn, and Grendel led them to their next destination as he explained the information his memories had replayed to him.
Vaix was here to examine ruins. There were four in numbers. One, a destroyed temple for the sake of a forgotten god. One building that once functioned as a bathhouse. And one tomb. The soldier had yet to discover who rested there and didn't know why Vaix was interested in the ruins.
Did he feel bad for invading other people’s minds like that? Not really. From his own estimate, it seemed his and their egos merged into some kind of collective unconsciousness that desired something just to happen. Altera called it hypnosis, but that wasn’t true. Hypnosis would mean that the victim was under the hypnotist's mercy and could do anything even if it went against the nature of the hypnotized.
His ability instead called forth the desire for justice that was inherent in all humans. If it wasn’t just, then he couldn't voice a command. He couldn't misuse his ability or force his 'victims' to pervert their core selves. What he brought forth was a part of humanity, human nature, so to say. At least he thought so. He wasn't sure either. But it allowed him and everyone else as well to walk on the righteous path.
After walking for thirty minutes from the village, they had arrived at their destination. Carved into the earth like a backdoor was a deescalating staircase that led beyond ground level.
“I wonder if another civilization used to live here. “Altera removed her wig and the contact lenses. “This tomb seems to be built in the same material as the temple in the Rising Forest.”
She looked at Eric, who shrugged with his shoulders. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. I think today just isn’t my day.”
They walked down the stairs. Selected stones gave them sparse light and allowed them to see their next steps as they descended further, and the sun stopped to illuminate their way. Eventually, another source of light shone from the end of the stairs, washing away the darkness. The group reached a square corridor. Five doors were on each side. Every square of the hallway was made of shining stone, turning the aquamarine into white.
The doors sprung open, soldiers stormed out of them, and an aquamarine door fell behind them, sealing the exit. More than thirty in number, gas masks concealed their faces. The soldiers in the front row pointed their machine guns at them and fired.