"It was a castle," Derivan began. He remembered that much. "A place of cold stone and dark skies. I did not know it at the time, but it is what I now know you call an open dungeon — the kind with unclear boundaries, that draws adventurers in without their realizing. The kind that never breaks, and only grows. The dungeon had secrets, I believe, and a fabricated tale involving an old lord of the castle. But I was not privy to many of those secrets. Before my upgrade to infiltrator, I was considered a low-rank monster. A guard, meant to stop the first waves of adventurers."
"...Aren't you kind of... unreasonably strong?" Misa said, blankly. "You were level 86. You could absorb skills. Or did that happen after you left the castle?"
"No. I started at level 86, though the skill you speak of came to me with my elevation to Elite. The dungeon itself is... ancient, and it is deep in the Outskirts; though I was stationed to guard against adventurers, and the dungeon itself was set up to draw them in, the truth is that we did not encounter a single one before Sev." Derivan shrugged slightly. "It is for the better, I think."
"It was in the Outskirts?" Vex asked, sounding horrified. "That's... no one goes to the Outskirts!"
"What the fuck was Sev doing there?" Misa muttered, looking slightly aghast. And maybe a little bit jealous, actually. Derivan saw the way her eyes gleamed.
"He may have been searching for me," Derivan said. "He mentioned that he was left with fragments of knowledge, yes? It is... the impression that I got, although I have no true knowledge of this; I have never asked. At the time, I considered it my good fortune to have encountered someone that could help me escape the dungeon; I never considered why he was there. Now that I know what I do..."
"You think it's part of the knowledge he was given?" Vex frowned. "But that doesn't explain how he survived. The Outskirts are... they're the Outskirts. They're the places we gave up on."
"We did?" Misa glanced sharply at Vex. "Why?"
"You don't know?" Vex blinked. "It's... the Outskirts form the border of our continent. They're where a bunch of dungeon breaks happened and merged, and became too dangerous for even our Platinum rankers. It's the whole reason we haven't explored past our continent. I mean, I guess we haven't completely given up — the Kingdoms send in teams to try every so often — but we haven't made any progress for years."
"Shit," Misa said. "No, the Outskirts were too far away from my village for us to really care about. We heard about them, but I assumed we were making progress. Beating them back or something, I don't know. I don't like the idea that we're trapped."
"The Kingdoms don't, either," Vex said, grimacing slightly. "But... sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt, Derivan."
"It is fine." Derivan inclined his head. "The Outskirts are foreign to me, too. It is good to know more about them. As for Sev... I do not know how he was able to reach the dungeon, and I did not think to wonder. It is something to ask him, I suppose." Derivan shrugged slightly. It was a mystery, and now that he thought about it, it was something he was curious about as well. "He was remarkably stealthy, however. I found him hiding in one of the secret passageways of the castle; one I was designated to patrol."
"Did you attack him?" Misa asked, and Derivan shook his head.
"By that time, I had already acquired [Disguise Status]. I simply pretended to be another adventurer and offered to escort him out, on the premise that the dungeon was too dangerous for either of us. He accepted immediately." Derivan paused. "I suppose I should have found that suspicious. But I was new and inexperienced and eager to leave, so I did not."
"You couldn't leave without him?" Vex asked.
"I could not," Derivan agreed. "Monsters do not travel far past their dungeons, if they originate from one. They are unable to; it is a rule of the system. Infiltrator types are the sole exception, but even then, it only works if there is a party to infiltrate." A small, rueful sort of tilt to his head. "I waited a long time for that opportunity. I was eager."
"Why did you want to leave so much, anyway?" Misa asked. She and Vex had apparently an unspoken agreement to take turns asking questions, a fact which Derivan noticed and found amusing. He hesitated a little bit before answering.
Part of it was that he wanted to see more of the world, it was true. As the magic within him grew, he found more and more that he wanted to see beyond the confines of the castle; he could see so much, from the top of the walls, and it made him wonder what more there was to see. That sight and yearning had been what allowed him to transition from a simple Enchanted Armor into an Infiltrator in the first place, the system answering to his wishes in a way he hadn't even known was possible.
But wanting to see the world wasn't the true reason — wasn't the big, driving force. He sighed, casting about for the words to explain how he felt.
"I was... not alone, exactly, in the dungeon," he began haltingly. He'd already explained this part to Vex, but he repeated it here for Misa's benefit. "There were other enchanted armors that grew in mind and body over time, and I enjoyed their company. They are quiet, but thoughtful; when they speak, it is with measured words and careful certainty. The ones that speak and grow, anyway. Each of them are different, with different thoughts and insights. And yet I was different. Though we always began our journey curious, we would find ourselves confined by the dungeon we were in.
"The others all grew to accept that reality." Derivan paused again, trying to remember the intensity of emotion that had initially prompted his evolution. It seemed so far away, now. "I did not. I suspect that desire to leave is part of the reason I evolved where they did not."
"Seems we're all the type of people to reject what the world gives us," Misa offered with a wry smile — but there was a deeper understanding in it. She'd felt the same way, if not about the same thing.
"It does seem that way," Vex agreed. He sighed softly. "I have so many questions, Derivan. But I think there's an important one that I haven't asked yet, and I'm sorry I didn't ask it sooner. What did you do? Outside the view of adventurers and researchers, when left alone in your dungeon?"
"What do you mean?" Derivan didn't quite understand the significance of the question.
"What do you do?" Vex repeated. "You're... you're people. You, specifically — you're a person, and you always have been, no matter what the system tried to tell you. You think and speak, just like I do; you just told me that you're all individuals. But you can't tell me that all you do is walk in predetermined patterns, talking whenever you happen to pass one another."
"That is what we did," Derivan said, still unsure where Vex was going with this, though he thought he almost understood. "Most of us, anyway."
"But there should be culture," Vex insisted. "Art. You must've created something, right? Invented something."
"Oh!" Misa suddenly said, her back straightening. Her eyes narrowed. "Oh. Shit. I see where you're going with this."
"You had instincts," Vex pressed. "Instincts from the system that were preventing you from even considering telling us about what you were. It's barely even that; it's mind magic. It takes the possibilities that your mind can see and narrows them down for you, preventing you from growing. You were a people, but you weren't allowed to grow, and that's..."
Vex shook his head. "I don't have the words for it. But it feels wrong."
"Ah." And now Derivan saw where Vex was going with this — felt that he understood, at least. He had never reflected much on culture or art, having never felt a particular urge to create himself.
And yet those words struck a chord within him, and made him wonder what he could have been. Perhaps it wasn't too late?
"I... cannot say that you are wrong," he said cautiously. "Though I do not know that you are right, either."
He didn't know what it would mean if that were true. There were implications, for sure, but those implications were out of reach for him; his home, if it could be called that, was too far away and too dangerous to try to reach again. Not as he was now.
"And it's not just your dungeon," Vex said quietly. "How many dungeons are like this? What if the dungeons in the Prime Kingdoms... I know you said earlier that the beasts were still beasts. But there have to be other intelligent species out there that the system categorized as monsters, right?"
"If that's true, that's fucking bullshit," Misa declared. She saw the distress in Vex's eyes, and the concern in Derivan's, and she amended her words just slightly. "But... we can't do anything about it now. We'll just have to look into it, like everything else."
Her eyes hardened. "And if it's true, then we've just got another shitty system we need to break. Nothing new for us, right?"
"...Yeah," Vex said after a moment. Derivan nodded in agreement.
"It's gotta be pretty high fuckin' priority, though," Misa added.
"We're relying on getting a lot of answers from the dungeon," Vex said. "If we don't get it there..."
"We'll find it somewhere else," Misa said with a shrug. "Break into the Outskirts if we have to. Sev did it, I'm sure he can teach us how."
Vex snorted a weak laugh. "I can't imagine just going up to him and demanding he take us into the Outskirts."
"I mean, if we have to..." Misa trailed off, frowning. "Where is Sev, anyway? Think he's in the lobby? We might have to go down and meet him."
"He'd probably send us a message if he was down there already," Vex said, checking the system. "I don't see anything."
"Perhaps we should look for him?" Derivan suggested. "We will see if he is in the lobby, and find him in the temple if not."
"I don't think anything bad's happened to him," Misa said. "So we don't need to." Then she grinned. "But you know what, I don't think I've ever seen Sev talking to other priests. The guy reacted to a god by deciding to hang out with him. We should definitely spy on him."
"Misa!" Vex said, shocked. Misa's grin only widened.
"I've known him longer than you have, and if there's anything I know about him, it's that he is very annoyed by people being preachy. I've literally never seen him talking to another cleric, and I've just now realized that this is something I really want to see. You can decide whether you want to come with me or not, but you can't stop me from going."
"...Now that you mention it," Derivan said, his eyes flickering with amusement. "I think this is something I wish to see as well."
"Derivan," Vex said, although with much less heat. Then he sighed. "...Okay, yeah, I want to see it too. Let's go."
Sev had a headache.
He'd had a headache for a while now, except it was refusing to go away, and unlike most clerics he couldn't simply heal away his headache. It wouldn't matter if he could, anyway; not when the source of his headache was still there, talking to him.
He hated saying no to people, but this was really getting to be too much.
"...for it is only within Hystia's Light that we can see the truth," the priest continued enthusiastically. He didn't seem to notice Sev slowly massaging his head, trying his best to ignore what the priest was saying. "It is only with Her Light that we may scour away sin. So if the system told you to repent, you must turn to Hystia, and allow her Light to burn away your sins! Do you not see, my friend? You follow a heretic god, an untrue shadow!"
The poor man was staring at him so earnestly, too, like he was expecting Sev to... give a shit.
He did, really. He was doing his best to give a little bit of a shit. He made it a point to care about what people had to say, even if he didn't really agree, or like people preaching at him. But the priest had just insulted a friend that he'd last seen hurt and dangling from chains, and his patience was fraying.
"You need to leave," Sev said bluntly. "I have a very big stick, and I'm not afraid to use it."
The priest opened his mouth to speak, and Sev promptly shoved the tip of his staff into it.
He wasn't looking to hurt him. Just to make him leave. In all fairness, he'd expected the priest to flinch back, but the man's reaction time had been terrible. The poor man sputtered, looking flabbergasted and looking increasingly furious — and then, as Sev raised his staff again, decided this wasn't worth his time, and promptly left.
Sev wiped it off, grimacing. Sometimes he really hated how well-informed priests were. They didn't get prophetic dreams, exactly, but their gods did their best to keep their most devoted followers up-to-date on important events; apparently, many of the gods had decided whatever happened at the dungeon was an Important Event, with capital letters.
Except the gods had apparently left out the very crucial information about what had happened with Onyx. He wondered if that meant that they didn't know — perhaps all the priests were approaching him precisely because they needed more information about what had happened?
What a shit way to get information out of him, though. They could have just asked. Then again, most of the gods were more limited in the ways they could communicate with their followers... The priests here had probably only gotten a vague impression that they should approach him.
"Holy shit," came a familiar voice — along with the scandalized looks of several nearby priests. Misa smirked at him as she approached. "I can't believe you actually did that."
"He was preaching at me," Sev grumbled.
"And he was rude about Onyx!" Vex said, with a little more heat than he intended; when the other two turned to stare at him, the lizardkin shrunk into himself slightly. "...Sorry. Onyx seemed nice. And it was rude of him to call him a heretic."
"I mean, you're not wrong there," Sev said with a small smile. His headache was already starting to abate. He glanced at Derivan, who was standing slightly behind Vex, expressionless. "What, no commentary from you?"
"I would have picked him up and placed him within a barrel," Derivan told him. "I believe you handled it better than I would have."
Sev snorted out a laugh. "I kinda wish you did. Maybe I should ask you along next time, get your help to stuff priests into barrels."
"There's still time," Misa said with a grin. "I can help. You haven't gotten all the potions yet, have you?"
"No," Sev said with a groan. "The priests keep approaching me. Apparently they all got some kind of vision and they all think it means I need to be saved or whatever."
Sev grumbled under his breath, then looked up. "Okay. We're going straight to the next stall. If the priest tries to preach at me... Wait, are there even any barrels here?"
"No," Derivan said, sounding amused. "For the record, I do not actually think that doing that would be appropriate. We will have to use our words, I am afraid, and not your big wooden stick."
"It's a staff. Staffs are cool," Sev huffed, glaring around just enough to make some of the nearby priests rethink their decisions to approach him. It was really too bad this branch of the Guild didn't have a dedicated alchemy section. There was a multi-faith temple nearby, so all the potion supplies were handled instead by that temple and their priests. Healing was the domain of the divine, after all, so that made sense, but still...
"Honestly, I'm surprised they're not bickering more," Misa said, glancing around in mild amusement. "They all believe in different gods, right?"
"They believe in looking united in front of adventurers, so most of them don't preach openly while we're around," Sev said. "That's why they don't usually bother me. Unless their gods decide to send them visions. I guess."
"You're very grumpy," Vex commented. Sev just stuck his tongue out at the lizardkin.
Okay. Next stall. Hopefully this vendor would prove less of a problem.