1.7 Being Down Is No Reason To Give Up

Randel
Level: 29
Endurance: 5
Strength: 3
Dexterity: 10 + 1
Magic: 0
Spirit: 10
Most used abilities: Dark Bond
Most used weapon skills: Dagger Throw, Sneak Attack, Lunge, Spear Throw, Throat Slash


When I teleported to the dagger, I plopped into the water with a gentle splash.

The first part of the plan was a success. I knew that I could reach the water relatively safely by throwing down Soul Eater and shifting myself to it. Even if Devi’lynn had hit her head and was unconscious, I would be unhurt and able to help her out. The only difficult part had been the timing. It would have been bad if Soul Eater had hit Devi in the water.

I am the only one with the Ability that’s suited for this rescue mission, I tried to remind myself as I began to swim, teeth chattering from the cold water. More power equals more responsibility, blah blah blah. I have to do this. I still couldn’t really convince myself that this was a good idea.

I heard the Sylven girl trashing in the water on my right, but I didn’t see the light coming from her collar. It was probably her frantic movements that turned the projection off somehow, because these devices were waterproof. I had already tried submerging mine in the river (it was actually quite difficult to do so in that shallow water), so I knew it wasn’t that easy to make them malfunction.

Dismissing the Dark Bond,  I began to swim and found Devi’lynn just in time. She was flailing with her arms, but her head couldn’t reach the surface of the water as she began to sink. I didn’t know whether she had injured her legs or just simply couldn’t swim, but I was glad to see that I hadn’t followed her in vain. Even though my clothes were in need of a good wash for a while now, the water was too cold to make this little trip worth the effort… if Devi’lynn hadn’t been in trouble. I bit down on my dagger and grabbed her arms with both hands, pulling her up.

D-Dinner,” Devi’lynn said, after coughing up some water and grabbing my shoulders. Or maybe she said ‘Thanks‘. These two Sylven words sounded too similar for me to determine which is which, especially when the speaker was trembling and barely had enough breath to speak.

“Are you alright?!” Imaya shouted from above, voice full of concern.

“Yeah, both of us are fine!” I shouted back. I tried to look up but could barely see their light. The distance from down here appeared to be even bigger. Teva’ryn was shouting something too, but I couldn’t understand it because of the echo.

There was one more tiny problem, though. I wasn’t a swimming champion. I wasn’t even an average swimmer. Which meant that I was already beginning to tire, my arms and chest aching. I really should have worked out more when I had the chance. I hoped that we weren’t too far from some dry surface. Sadly, all I could see was darkness in every direction.

I began to swim in a random direction. Devi’lynn was coughing a lot and had a death-grip on my shoulders which was so strong, that I actually had to ask her to ease up a bit. That only resulted in her loosely draping her arms around my neck and my shoulders. I had to admit that the contact felt nice, especially her warmth in the chilly water. Still, I wasn’t too happy about it. This position wasn’t better either, with Devi’lynn slightly dragging my head downwards and her elbows hindering my arm strokes. There had to be a proper technique for doing a swimming rescue, and I was sure as hell that this wasn’t it. It was a slow process to swim like that, but thanks to some kind of miracle I found some solid surface before my muscles gave out.

I had been lying on the wet stone for a few minutes trying to catch my breath, when Imaya interrupted my panting with a shout.

“You still there?!”

Teva’ryn, use Ability here!” I yelled weakly. I wasn’t going to have a conversation with Imaya while shouting. Especially not when I was already out of breath.

Teva’ryn guessed correctly what I wanted, and after a few tries managed to open a portal relatively close to us. Devi’lynn was sitting in silence in the whole time. She didn’t turn on her screen, so I couldn’t even see her expression, but I saw that she still had her rapier. I stepped closer to the portal to see Imaya’s worried face on the other side.

“Okay, what do we do now?” she asked.

“Hmm… first of all, give me my flask. It should be able to pass through this portal, but be careful not to touch the borders,” I said. I had taken off my bag before jumping after Devi’lynn, so most of my stuff was with them now. After Imaya handed me the already empty flask (it was a tight fit), I refilled it with the water and passed it back to them.

“I hope it is drinkable,” I said. “Devi’lynn already had a taste, and she hasn’t died yet, at least.”

“Yeez, thanks,” Imaya replied. “How are you two gonna get up from that chasm?”

“Well, with a little trick, I could teleport to Nosy,” I said, “but that would mean leaving Devi’lynn here. So instead I’m gonna bring him to me, I think. Then we would have to find our way to the surface separately.”

She didn’t look happy when I said that. Actually, I wasn’t happy either. In my opinion, they had definitely better chances of making out from this cave alive. The path we had been previously following – the tunnel, one would say – was leading somewhere, I was almost certain. At first glance the cave looked like a natural phenomenon, and I was almost fooled into thinking so. The walls were irregular and there weren’t any traces of someone digging either. But the fact that there was always some way to move forward – not downwards, not upwards, but remaining on the same level – just seemed too perfect. It was going on for too long and too evenly, for me to think that it was just coincidence.

By contrast, the chasm I was currently in appeared to be more natural. Well, I couldn’t actually see anything, but I could faintly hear the water flowing from somewhere. As I opened the Map menu on my screen, I could see that we were directly underneath the river. It seemed to be an obvious explanation for this underground lake.

“Look, it seems to be that we were roughly heading in the same direction as the river up above. When we reach the surface, we could meet at the water. But if we don’t see each other after emerging, let’s meet at the place where you guys rested last night, alright?”

I was a bit worried to say anything that would remind Imaya of Tobias or the others, but we needed a location that any of us would certainly find. Luckily, Imaya took this in stride, so I began to repeat everything to Teva’ryn next. He offered to wait before moving on, in case there was no way out of the pit and I wanted to teleport up. I could pass the dagger through his portal any time, after all. However, I didn’t want them to waste too much time here. The area of the underground lake was too large, it would have taken too much time to explore it thoroughly. And I wouldn’t settle for anything else than an exhaustive search, if it meant leaving Devi’lynn behind to die here alone.

My eyes found the bird that I caught earlier that day. Imaya still had Stabby so they could cut the meat up, but it would be difficult to find anything to burn down here. I suddenly realized that they didn’t even know about the flint stones in my bag. With Nosy on my side, I had never thought about using them. It could have saved me a lot of time and a lot of saliva – which I had spent for demonstration to make Nosy understand – but where would be the fun in that? Besides, it’s an unwritten rule that when someone has something as cool as a fire-spitting pet cat, they cannot just simply use mere flints to light a fire.

“How are you gonna get Nosy down, anyways?” Imaya changed topic after I explained her the whereabouts of my flint stones.

“With my second Ability. It’s called Animal Conduit. Umm… It is apparently a passive Ability, which costs me nothing to use. It-”

“Duh, obviously it costs nothing! That’s why it is called passive, you silly,” Imaya lectured me.

“Yes, well, what it does is that I can change the focus of any of my Abilities from me to any of my animal companions. So… with my other Ability, I could make the dagger teleport to Nosy, or make Nosy teleport to the dagger.”

“Hmm, interesting. Even more interesting, that I don’t remember you ever mentioning us that you could also teleport to your dagger, not just the other way round!” she said with a stern look.

“R-really? I m-must have forgotten…”

“Just make it out of there alive, Randel,” Imaya told me seriously, “I won’t forgive you if you don’t.”

“Yeah, sure, I wasn’t planning otherwise. Keep my bag safe in the meantime! Oh, and you could make use of the dictionary while you have it. Perfect occasion to pick up a few words!”

“Pfff, I’ve been hoping that being sent into a whole new world was a good excuse to ignore my studies, but nooo, apparently that’s not the case,” Imaya complained. After a little pause she added, “Fine, I’ll try. Take care.”

She tapped the outer edge of the hole, and the portal collapsed immediately. Interesting way to ‘end the call’, I had to admit. I used the Bond on my dagger once again, put the weapon down, and teleported Nosy to me. He arrived with one paw on the hilt and immediately freaked out. We have tried this a few times already, but the animal just couldn’t get used to the abruptness of it. I’d have to make up some kind of signal so that he could prepare himself. A whistle, maybe.

After calming down Nosy, I looked towards Devi’lynn. She saw me looking and spoke up.

What do we do now?

We look for way out. You should use this too,” I pointed at my collar, indicating that it would be easier to see if both of us had our lights on. “First we...”

I have trailed off as she opened up her menu. Had I actually though her situation through beforehand, I wouldn’t have been surprised… but my thoughts hadn’t been in that direction. The thing was, that we were given quite baggy shirts and shorts at the start of our adventure. Although the boots were designed to fit (or at least they fit my feet well), the other parts of the set was rather plain and simple, able to fit several different body types. Simple, not form-fitting at all, but modest.

It was not the case when our clothes – especially the shirt – were wet, like now. The material stuck to her dark blue skin everywhere, accentuating her rather considerable curves. Not to mention, the shirt was also partially see-through.

I had no excuse, right there and then, I forgot what I was about to say and became incredibly flustered. Eventually I took off my cloak and handed it to her, while looking at her nice pair of… horns. Yes, I could admire how beautiful those horns were, and stop my eyes from wandering.

Put this on, please,” I muttered, tugging down my cloak.

Why? Those are wet too.

Just do it!” I said, stretching out my arm with the fabric in it. Was she really this clueless, or was she just playing it up and enjoying my reaction?

As she took my cloak from me, I looked at her… What the fuck, brain! …looked at her expressive eyes, and I could see some curiosity and maybe slight confusion in them. Which still didn’t totally convince me that she didn’t understand the situation. She couldn’t have missed that I had been staring at her.

Finally, she put on the cloak… but didn’t close it on the front.

Good?” she asked innocently. I couldn’t keep myself from burying my face in my hands.

Yes, good,” I said with a sigh.

So… what do you plan to do now? Even this much light is hardly enough to see anything,” she said. I couldn’t understand every word, of course, but it was getting easier for me to fill in the holes and deduce the meaning.

I look for way. Find where water go. Find where water come.” I didn’t know exactly the right words for it, unfortunately. I was hoping that we could find where the water came from, then trace it backwards. If we were lucky, it wasn’t just seeping through the ground and there would be a large enough crack to climb through. If we weren’t lucky… we could still try to find where all of this water went. If it went anywhere.

The third option was to find a gap or a tunnel somewhere higher on the side walls, and the fourth was to try to climb back up. All four of the options seemed equally unlikely to work, but at least the first two were relatively safe things to try. Despite everything, I tried to keep a positive attitude. The chamber was large, this chasm was even larger, there was bound to be a way out of here.

My mood turned a bit sour at the thought that I would have to do all the exploration by myself. There weren’t many places to inspect on the patch of dry surface we were currently on, so finding our way out would probably include a lot of swimming. I sighed, then told Nosy to guard Devi’lynn while I went to swim. He didn’t get what I was saying, but at least he readily accepted the petting that the Sylven girl had offered him, so it was a good start. I dived into the water to face my most intense workout of the last few years.


This time when I teleported Nosy to me, I earned several scratches for my trouble. Such an ungrateful animal. He didn’t even have to get his paws wet, and this is how he thanked me. I looked around, trying to decide which direction to go in the tunnel. Or was this an underground channel? The walls were more or less rounded and smooth, and the stony ground was flooded by water – which was actually flowing somewhere – but on the sides there were areas where the floor rose above the water level. It reminded me one of those large sewers that big cities had, only a bit less artificial-looking. And a lot less smelly.

I felt very lucky that I had managed to find this tunnel. That luck was mitigated by the fact that this new area could only be reached by diving under the water and swimming through a large gap in the stone.

I tried explaining Devi’lynn that she could cross the gap even without swimming – she just had to cling onto the stones and push herself across – but she didn’t even want to hear about it. Alone, I had no problem holding my breath while I made it to the other side. With the Sylven girl clinging to me like a leech, the operation was a bit more exciting. In the end, however, we managed to get across without any of us getting stuck or suffocating in the process.

In the tunnel, I decided to follow the water in case we became thirsty later on. Though if this place turned out to be a sewer for real, I would have some reservations about drinking from it. I wouldn’t have minded some input from Devi’lynn, but the Sylven girl seemed to be content with deferring to my decisions. At least this way it was less likely that someone would hear us talking. I didn’t rule out the possibility that whoever had built this place was already gone, but there could still be any number of creatures dwelling down here, so it was better to be safe than sorry.

It turned out to be a very good mindset, because soon we heard the faint sounds of someone weeping. It wasn’t actually a scary sound, but the circumstances made it so. I was concentrating on stepping extra silently, when Devi’lynn grabbed my shoulder so suddenly, that I almost jumped out of my skin. She was pointing at a smaller side-tunnel. I nodded to her. Yes, that’s the tunnel we should be cautious of. I turned to go but she didn’t let me.

Someone might need help,” she whispered.

Yes, and we might need to live,” I whispered back. If anyone needed help, it was us. We still didn’t know how to get back to the surface before we starved to death.

Come see if we can help,” the Sylven girl said, tugging on my shirt.

What, me? Your idea. You want to help, you go there,” I declared. Devi’lynn was looking at me incredulously.

You are the man. You should check first if it’s safe.

“Nuh-huh. What matter if I am man? Your idea, you go. If danger, you risk yourself,” I said.

Alright,” she said with a defiant flash in her eyes. She let me go and stormed towards the source of the weeping sounds. Damn. This wasn’t the outcome that I was aiming for. I was hoping that she would change her mind if she had to go in alone.

I cursed inwardly, then slowly followed her steps. I had no idea why she was so adamant about helping someone. It could be that she was counting on me coming after her, so I made sure to give her a head start. I didn’t want her to get that notion into her head that I would come to her rescue any time she was in trouble. Especially not when she chose to jump into danger on her own volition. Nevertheless, I readied Soul Eater with a Dark Bond.

It occurred to me that this was very similar to my negotiation with the Shrissten. I had basically done the same back then, though there were some very important deciding factors there, which we were lacking here. We had spied on the lizardmen beforehand, and I could see that they are civilized. By contrast, being able to cry wasn’t a sure sign that we would find someone intelligent. But I had to give it to Devi’lynn that if we wanted to reach the surface, one way to do it was to ask a denizen and hope that they would lead us upwards and not into their cooking pot.

I also had an idea which was a bit far-fetched, but seemed to fit my companion. What if she had enough of being saved all the time? What if this time, she wanted to save someone instead?

I didn’t know much about Devi’lynn’s feelings – the language barrier made sure of that – but I could easily imagine she felt like that. When we saved Teva’ryn from the giants, I could see the shame on his face and feel his disappointment towards himself. If that was common Sylven mentality, then it would explain Devi’lynn’s determination in this situation.

After a while Devi’lynn’s light seemed to have stopped moving. I glanced at Nosy, but he was following me calmly. He focused on something up ahead, but otherwise wasn’t preparing to fight, which was a good sign.

The crying suddenly stopped as well. When I caught up to Devi’lynn, I immediately saw that this was a dead end. The tunnel had collapsed and there was rubble everywhere. My first thought was that someone was stuck under the rocks, but then I saw the figure in front of Devi’lynn. He looked like a child about 5 or 6 years old, dressed in comfortable clothes. I could see that he wasn’t human, more like a strange crossover between a human and a rat or some other kind of other rodent. His face was a bit elongated and he had whiskers. Little triangular ears were peeking out from the grey hair on the top of his head, and a long, naked tail was curled around him as he was covering in his fear from Devi’lynn.

Devi’lynn was eyeing the reason of the rat figure’s distress: a leather ball, stuck between the rock too high up for the child to be able to reach it. While she tried to get the ball down, I studied the child. His eyes were really small, almost just a simple dot, and he wasn’t looking directly at us. Probably he didn’t use his eyes much anyways. After all, he was playing with the ball in complete darkness, so he likely had some other means for taking in his surroundings, like echolocation.

Devi’lynn managed to get down the leather ball, and offered it to the rat child with a smile. The child didn’t move for it, but Devi’lynn was patient.

Just put it down and we can leave,” I told her.

No, I want to — to know him better. — his — can help us.”

In my opinion instead of helping, his parents or relatives or whoever else would probably just misunderstand the situation if they saw us. I really hoped that the child would hurry up and take the ball already so we could be on our way. I was glancing around nervously, although if no one else came to the child’s rescue when they heard him crying, it wasn’t likely that they would find us now.

Come on, take it.” Devi’lynn’s soothing tone finally spurred the rat-human into action. He snatched the ball lightning fast, then retreated as far as he could. I sighed.

He is very fear. This don’t work,” I told Devi’lynn and tugged at her borrowed cloak. She was pouting, but reluctantly followed me back to the main tunnel. We hadn’t been walking for more than a few minutes when I noticed that Nosy was glancing backwards unusually often.

I think he follow us,” I told Devi’lynn.

Really?” she perked up, looking back.

Keep moving, or you… umm… make him fear. Again.

I know that!” she retorted. “And the word you’re looking for is scare. I scare him.” I could see her pause for a moment, looking at me from the corner of her eye with a smile on her lips. She decided to correct her earlier statement.

Actually, no. You scare him!” she said, poking me in the ribs. “Ugly Human.

Well, this was an entirely new kind of challenge: try to banter on a foreign language, of which you don’t know more than a few dozen words. At least Devi’lynn was also similarly handicapped, because I wouldn’t be able to understand anything too complex. I opened my mouth to answer, but in that moment several small, shady figures emerged from the darkness. Some of them were holding spears, while others were aiming bows at us. I realized with rising dread that we wouldn’t even be able to run. There was no way to outrun the arrows.

“Stop right there!” one of them shouted.

“Granpa wait, I know them, they are good guys!” an incredibly high-pitched voice spoke up behind us immediately.

“Koppi is that you?” a gravelly voice answered. “Where the hell have you been, you spawn of a mouse? Are you bringing foreigners to our village?!”

“Wait, why can I understand you?” I blurted out, the realization hitting me too suddenly.

“Eiiii, he speaks Common!” squealed someone behind me in surprise. At this point it was a safe guess that the owner of the voice was the rat-child from earlier.

“What the smelly hell are you talking about, kid?” the owner of the raspy voice stepped forward. “He is Human, of course he speaks Common.”

I could see him clearly now. With white fur and long, drooping whiskers, the figure was an older version of the rat-child. Do all of their people look so much alike? The old man was leaning on his spear and studying me with a hostile expression. If this was a fairy tale, the kindness that we (or at least Devi’lynn) had shown towards the child would save us now. I didn’t believe in fairy tales though, so I spoke up to save our hides.

“I’m sorry sir… for intruding,” I said a bit nervously. “We were… running from the octopus giants, t-that’s how we found our way here. We just want to find our way back to the surface now.”

The old man was just staring at me silently. It honestly felt more uncomfortable than the bows aimed towards us. Only his whiskers were twitching, otherwise he stood still as a stone.

“M-my name is Randel, and this is Devi’lynn. Umm… We don’t have much we could offer in return, but we would appreciate if you could show us the way up.”

After another long pause, the elder turned his head towards Koppi.

“What do you say, kid?”

“I-I think they mean us no harm!” he answered on his shrill voice. “My football got stuck in the rocks, and they got it down for me! They didn’t hurt me!”

The kid was kinda naive, but it was good that he spoke in our defence. I guessed it still wouldn’t make the rat-people trust us, but at least they wouldn’t kill us outright.  Maybe I should be grateful for Devi’lynn that she had helped the kid… but this whole series of events happened only because she had fallen down, so it was a moot point.

“Greetings, Randel,” the old man said after staring at me a bit longer. “I am called Vuplu. I’m sorry but I cannot let you advance further this way. Let me show you an other, safer place where we can talk, alright?”

He was actually speaking quite well, with just a hint of accent. After the Shrissten, I didn’t expect this. My surprise was even greater when instead of waiting for me to reply, he turned to Devi’lynn and repeated the introduction on her language with perfect  fluency. By the looks of it, Devi’lynn was taken aback as well.

“Sallo, Nallo, you are with me,” Vuplu said. “Koppi, go to Etlu and tell her you are volunteering for washing duty. The others, get back to your posts!” After barking his orders, he began shuffling in the direction we had come from. Two other figures – one with a spear, the other with a bow – made their way towards him. I fell in next to Vuplu, while still keeping a respectful distance. I didn’t want to agitate the bodyguards, but there was a burning question I needed to ask right away.

“How many languages do you speak?”

“Five,” he grunted.

“And this language, why is this called Common? Is this the mother tongue of your species as well?”

“Yes.”

“How come the Shrissten have never mentioned anything about this Common Language? They had their own language and only a few of them could speak to me, despite being travelling merchants.”

The old man stopped with a sigh and then turned to me.

“Listen, son. Let’s hold the questions till we are somewhere safe, alright? You think you can manage that?” he asked, raising one of his rather bushy eyebrows questioningly.

I really had to concentrate not to ask why he couldn’t just walk and talk at the same time. That, and the reason why exactly this place wasn’t considered safe.

“But to answer your last question,” he added, “Those bunch of stoners are one of the eldest races in this world, believe it or not. Many centuries ago, most of Niaz was speaking the Shriss language. The Shrissten are stubbornly holding on to their old ways, refusing to acknowledge your tongue as the Common one,” he snorted. “Their culture is dying out, and barely anyone understands Shriss anymore.”

“So are the-”

“Enough! We should get moving, before one of the alutnarat finds us here!”

He is doing this on purpose, I grumbled internally. Now I really wanted to know what those alut-whatever things were. But I also knew that he was lying. If this tunnel was indeed that unsafe, why would they let one of their young play around all alone? It was more likely that we were so close to their settlement, that it made the old man uncomfortable. Players were dangerous, after all.

We were going through smaller and smaller tunnels. I didn’t really bother to memorize our route, since Vuplu’s intention was obviously the opposite. Soon, the ceiling of these smaller tunnels became so low that I had to bow my head a bit. After a few more turns, we finally arrived to a chamber where I could stand upright once again. There were a few chairs, a round table and a fireplace, all of them looking fairly unused and abandoned. Vuplu and us Players settled down around the table (though the chair was uncomfortably small), and the two bodyguards remained standing on the two sides of the doorway, behind my back.

Nosy jumped into my lap and curled up to sleep. It reminded me that I was really tired too. I had no idea what the time was, but I guessed that outside it would be night already. We also hadn’t eaten all day anything. In the end, the lack of food always showed up on our ‘current problems’ list. It was really frustrating. Where were those fast food restaurants when you actually needed them?

First, I’d like to tell-” the old man began, but I interrupted.

“Uh, sorry, I know that your… grandson said that I was speaking with Devi’lynn, but I’m still learning her language. I won’t be able to understand what you are about to say.”

“No problem, no problem. I always appreciate someone who is dedicated enough to learn another’s tongue!” Vuplu said, and for once didn’t seem so grumpy. “I’ll repeat everything twice, then. That way, you can even learn something.

“First, I’d like to tell you about the situation of our people. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be newly arrived to this world.”

Yeah, it wasn’t hard to guess. One just had to take a look at our ragged clothing that we were wearing from Day 1. My unshaved state and messy hair added a lot to the impression as well.

“So! I guess I should explain a few things first. Me and my people are the Thardos, an ancient race living underground. My ancestors were Players, transported here against their wills, just like you. It is known that they were the first Players to arrive to this world, and also the first to stop coming. Many decades have passed since we last saw a Thardos Player.

“But I digress. What I wanted to say was that we have been living underground for centuries. We were mostly undisturbed, as there were no other races that could contest our territories. But the situation changed a few month ago, when the alutnarat began attacking our settlements under the Western Woods. You Humans gave an other name to these creatures: armored spiders. They are beasts with low intelligence, and they are usually hunting alone. They can grow about as large as I am, and-”

“No,” I interrupted.

“-they, err… sorry son?” the old man sputtered. He got into his speech so much that it took a few moments for him to register that I said something.

“I said no. We are not going to go monster slaying,” I declared. I had enough of these stupid jobs that Players were supposed to take.

“What are you talking about, son? Obviously, I won’t send you to fight all of them. There are hundreds of the invading creatures! No, what I had in mind was a reconnaissance. It is rather uncharacteristic behavior of these beasts to band together, and this full-scale attack is even more unnatural,” he explained. “Oh, and of course you wouldn’t be going alone! I have the right men for this task. You just need to support them if anything goes wrong.”

“I still don’t like the sound of that,” I replied cautiously. “It promises us great danger, and we aren’t fighters. ”

“All Players are fighters,” Vuplu said with a snort, but then quickly continued before I could object. “Alright, alright! Let me repeat what I’ve just said to your companion, and you can think this through in the meantime. Don’t forget that if you help us, we help you find the surface in return. ”

There wasn’t much thinking to do about this. I didn’t like the idea, but I knew I had to accept. We also needed food, and they were much more likely to provide it for us if we agreed to accompany them on their mission. So I turned my full attention to Vuplu, trying to understand the words he was using. It helped a lot that I already knew the gist of what he was about to say.

Devi’lynn listened to the old man patiently, and when he finished talking she decided to agree for me as well. I could clearly understand her saying that both of us would help them. What the hell? She looked towards me with an innocent smile, just to meet my narrowed eyes. Damn her, she knew very well that I understood that last part. She had surely seen my reaction to Vuplu’s deal and knew what it meant, but she was having none of it.

“Devi’lynn here accepts the deal,” Vuplu announced, “but she asks one more thing in return. She wants me to be an interpreter for her, because she would like to ask a few things that you wouldn’t normally understand. What do you say, Randel?” Well, that was new. I hadn’t even caught anything about that interpreter part during their conversation.

“I accept as well, but I also have an additional term. I’d like to ask for food, enough for all three of us, from now on till the end of this mission of yours.”

“Hmm… alright,” Vuplu said, but his tone suggested that he wasn’t finished yet, “For Devi’lynn’s additional request and for yours, here is mine: the recovery of a magical staff, an heirloom which we had to leave behind upon escaping from the village. The observatory – where the staff is stored – is on the very edge of the infested area, so this shouldn’t be a difficult task.”

Damn. I had the feeling that the old geezer was planning to convince us to recover that item anyways. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have included demanding food as part of the deal. It was a pretty obvious thing, because they wouldn’t expect us to help them if we were starved to death. I tried not to feel too disappointed of myself, but this blunder really bothered me.

“What does the staff do?” I asked.

“Couldn’t resist to ask that question, eh?” he said, scratching his chin. “It’s an air purifier. An item of great use down here, wouldn’t you say? Only me and a few chosen elders can operate it, though,” he chuckled. “So, will you accept my offer?”

“Sure, I accept,” I said bitterly. My collar updated my Quests with a ping right away, along with Devi’lynn’s device. Why did hers wait for my approval before giving her the quest? Was it because the deal was officially between three people, not two? Vuplu nodded to me, then turned towards the Sylven girl to translate her questions right away.

“First of all, I wanted to thank you properly that you helped me and Teva’ryn. A single ‘thanks’ wouldn’t suffice. I’m really grateful for what you did,” Devi’lynn said solemnly.

“It’s nothing,” I brushed away her gratitude, a bit embarrassed. I was never good at receiving praise. “I’m sure you would have done the same in my shoes.”

She made a funny face upon hearing that. Uh-huh. Was I wrong?

“Well, yes, this brings us to my first question. Why did you help us?” she asked, her tone strangely more accusatory than curious.

“What do you mean?” I asked, just to get a bit more time. I wasn’t sure where she was heading with this.

“What I’m getting at is that me and Teva’ryn are not Human. You barely knew anything about us, but you aided Teva’ryn when he got injured. You dragged him away from the battlefield, you were bringing us food for days, and you never even asked for anything in return! You could have just left with Imaya. You would have reached that Human town already, the one you were talking about.”

Devi’lynn was leaning forward on the table, fists clenched, with an intense expression on her face. I didn’t get the reason why this got her so worked up. Was compassion such a foreign concept to them?

“I think the answer is pretty obvious. My conscience wouldn’t let me rest, if I just left you like that.”

“But you barely know us!” she insisted. “This is not normal,” she said, shaking her head. “Something feels off. You didn’t accompany us through the forest, we didn’t see each other for weeks, but when the next time we meet you already began learning our language? Why would anyone do that? What’s your goal?”

“Oh, the answer for that is pretty simple too,” I replied. “I like learning languages. By receiving that book, I had the opportunity. By travelling alone, I had all the time I wanted.

Devi’lynn huffed, either not liking, or not convinced by my reasoning.

“Just spit it out already what you want as compensation,” she said. Something was on her mind, but she wasn’t saying it outright.

“You aren’t telling me something,” I said instead of repeating what I said earlier. “Even if my actions seem odd to you, they wouldn’t warrant this questioning. So, what’s up? What are you upset about?”

As she heard the translated version of my question, her face became even more grim. She hesitated for a few seconds, but then she answered.

“I’m asking these questions because I don’t know how much you know about us Sylven,”  she said slowly. “You could have heard things from the reptile-people, or the other Humans that we’ve met. Things like how to tell if a Sylven woman is unmarried.”

During this, I was watching Vuplu closely as well. I could see his mouth twitching into a smile, and had a bad feeling about where this was going. Devi’lynn continued speaking.

“So if you were planning to ask for my hand in marriage, don’t. I’m not going to marry you.”

Wow. That had to be some next level of ‘sorry, I have a boyfriend’ kind of reply. But why would she jump into this conclusion? I wasn’t even Sylven. Have I done something that would indicate my interest of marrying her?

“Sorry, Vuplu, I don’t think-”

“No, no, son, that was what she said, word by word,” he reassured me. “Well, actually she said ‘ask for my horn’, but I took the liberty to translate it into our relevant term.”

I just sat there for a few moments wearing a frown, not understanding why she would assume such a thing. Was she trying to test me somehow? She was just sitting there with a straight face, patiently waiting for my answer and looking as this had been the most ordinary thing to say. Wait, that’s it! She was a woman in a society full of men. Of course it was a common occurrence for her to reject a suitor! Surely her life had been full of men doing favors for her, hoping desperately that in return they would be the lucky one chosen as a husband.

Was this how it worked for them? I had no idea. It fit the picture more or less, but it could be more complicated than I imagined. Still, it felt nice to figure out this much. Now I understood the reason why my help bothered her so much.

“No, I still don’t know how to determine if you are married or not,” I said, clearing my throat, “but even if you were unmarried, I can assure you that I had no such intentions. It never even came to my mind.” I didn’t want to make fun of her assumption, so I had planned to speak seriously. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really manage to do it. It was such a ridiculous topic that I couldn’t keep a slight mocking tone creeping into my voice.

Upon hearing the translation, her face twitched a little, but she quickly reverted back to her impassive demeanor. However, her eyes were uncomfortably cold now.

“This still doesn’t explain why you helped us.”

Uh-huh. Her voice was even, but I could feel the underlying anger. I fidgeted uncomfortably. Did I screw up by insulting her as I said that I hadn’t even thought of her that way? I was losing now my patience about trying to figure out what she wanted to hear.

“I don’t know what else to say so that you will believe me. I don’t need to ask for something in return every time I help somebody,” I told her. I should have been trying to defuse the situation, but I was hungry and tired and not exactly in a good mood. My bitterness about the failed bargain and the ‘recon mission’ didn’t help either.

“I don’t know if you’ve realized this,” I continued, “but Humans don’t have the same male/female ratio as you do. Even if a Human-Sylven pairing wouldn’t be so ridiculous, I can promise you, that in this world you won’t be bothered by constant proposals.” This was the point where I should have stopped, but I just couldn’t resist to stick one more little needle in. “I know that getting transported to this world is horrible, but at least here you don’t have to be afraid of marriages anymore.”

“Oh? Care to enlighten me why would you think that I am afraid?” she asked icily. Even though she tried not to admit it, I felt like I was onto something.

“Sure. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life birthing children,” I said. Vuplu raised a bushy eyebrow at me, but translated my sentence anyways. Devi’lynn clenched her fists as she heard my answer, several different emotions flashing through her face. She was angry, that much I was sure of, but it was more complicated than that.

“You think you know me?” she managed to ask through gritted teeth. In a weird way, it fascinated me. I had never seen her like this, not even when she had been arguing with Teva’ryn. It was a different kind of anger, one that was making her blood boil under the surface, instead of bursting forth instantly like a geyser.

“Honestly, it wasn’t that hard to figure out,” I said. “With a 20 to 1 female birth ratio, it is pretty obvious that you need to constantly try to have offspring, so that your species doesn’t die out.”

I actually took a leap there in my conclusion. Teva’ryn hadn’t explicitly said that the birth ratio was such, only that there were currently twenty men for every woman. The imbalance could have happened due to… some disease, maybe? An infection targeting only women, most of them dying from it. Either way, my original statement was still valid. Whether the skewed ratio was temporary or permanent, they needed to work on maintaining their population.

“I see. So you are implying that I should be happy, because here I can neglect my duty.”

“What? Duty?” I asked. “Don’t you mean obligation?” I let Vuplu translate it precisely, then continued before Devi’lynn could answer. “If you ask me, yes, you should be glad for this chance. But who am I? Just an ignorant Human who doesn’t know a thing about what your life was like before arriving here. You don’t have to care about what I say. Oh, and look at how lucky you are! You have arrived here with Teva’ryn, so you can go and perform your duty and populate this planet all you want!”

I took a few deep breaths to calm down. It wasn’t typical for me to get this worked up. I didn’t even understand why I let myself be drawn into this conversation. A simple ‘No, I’m not interested.‘ should have been more than enough as a reply. After that, who would have cared what she thought of me? Not me, that’s for sure. I really need some rest now to clear my head before I make things even worse, I thought with a tinge of uneasiness.

When Devi’lynn heard the translated version of what I said, she slapped her hands down on the table and pushed herself up. I could imagine that if she were human, her face would be red from anger now. I had to admit that I really got carried away, especially with the remark about Teva’ryn. I didn’t understand the full extent of their arguments, but I could clearly tell that they weren’t at all in good terms with each other.

Devi’lynn opened and closed her mouth several times, looking as if she was about to began shouting, but in the end she made no sound. She turned and was about to storm out of the room when she remembered where she actually was. She reluctantly sat down once again and began glaring daggers at me.

Well, she didn’t correct me or deny any of my statements, though maybe she just didn’t want to share anything about herself to the old man and me. After a few minutes of sitting in silence, Vuplu cleared his throat and spoke up.

“Well, I suggest you eat and rest for now,” the old man said. “My vocal cords are getting tired anyways. We can continue the… questioning later, if you wish. Drama aside, I have to say that the conversation was most interesting, even for me.” He struggled to his feet and headed for the door. As he reached me, he stopped and looked up to study me up close.

“I have a good feeling about you, Randel,” he said. “Rest well, and the expedition will be a piece of cake tomorrow!” With that, he left the chamber. His cheery tone couldn’t improve my mood the slightest. The bodyguards told us to stay and they will bring food, then left as well.

Taking a furtive glance at Devi’lynn, I saw that she was still glaring at me. I sighed and leaned back on the chair.

I’m sorry,” I said reluctantly. My weak apology didn’t solve anything, but it was all I could offer at the moment.

Devi’lynn said nothing else, and neither did I. Scratching Nosy behind the ears lazily, I stared upwards. There was a single torch in the room, no doubt for our convenience. The light was barely enough to reach the uneven ceiling, casting strange shadows that were shifting and swirling in time with the flames. They reminded me of ominous phantoms, always lurking around the corner and preparing to strike down those who grew too trusting to close their eyes.

I was trying to decide whether Vuplu was actually this bad at concealing the fact that there was a catch in his mission, or he just didn’t care to hide it too much. After all, we had to play his game. We were more or less forced to.

I thought back about our conversation with Devi’lynn. Could he intentionally misinterpret anything for his own benefit? I was paying close attention to what he said to Devi’lynn, and with my limited knowledge I found everything correctly translated. The conversation wasn’t that important to the old geezer anyways. Although, if he wished us ill, now he would be satisfied by seeing us going at each other’s throats.

Even if Vuplu planned to betray us, he wouldn’t do it before we recovered his staff. He mentioned it very offhandedly, but I had a feeling that it was really important to him. It could be the whole point of this so-called recon mission. Why else would he need two Players? He didn’t even bother to ask about our Abilities. For all he knew, my Ability was to gather sunlight and grow flowers!

No, he expected us to fight, that much I was sure of. That was the only advantage of sending two untrained people to ‘scout’. Probably we didn’t even need to fight to win. They could just use us as a bait, grab the staff and run.

I closed my eyes with another sigh. It seemed that I was going to feed Soul Eater once again.

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