The Legion headquarters in the independent underground city state of Rylleh was a place that Morrelia had never been. This deep into the first Strata, on the very border between the layers, was a dangerous place only the very powerful would tread in small numbers. Her own small mercenary team had certainly never delved this low, choosing to hone their skills in those expanse that they could reach. Compared to her own small team and their desperate struggles to hunt and descend the Dungeon as best they could, the extravagance of power and wealth on display in Rylleh made her sigh with irritation. All that time she’d spent battering away on her own, trying to struggle without relying on anyone, the Legion had a fully functioning fortress down here to muster and launch delves from. It was connected via a functioning Gateway to boot! Even this was only a small part of the large and vibrant city that lay spread out beneath her.
She had to ask herself if she’d wasted all that time for nothing. Running away from the Legion when her brother had died, had it been the right choice? She’d been so confused, consumed with grief and unable to believe that her brother, always so capable and strong, so personable and careful, could have failed and died. Her father’s face when he’d told her had been pale and his voice had quavered ever so slightly, the only sign of weakness she had ever seen from him. Perhaps that, more than anything, had shaken her. She wasn’t afraid to die fighting the Dungeon, she risked death every time she set foot beneath the ground, but it was crushing to see and feel what that death would mean to those left behind.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Morrelia started at the unexpected voice. Somehow Titus had managed to sneak up on her as she was thinking. She cursed under her breath. How did a man that large move so soundlessly! Just what sort of Skills was he training? She turned as the familiar figure of the commander walked beside her and leaned on the stone rampart that lined the outer wall of the fortress, overlooking the city.
“The first time I came here, I couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible. So many different people, coming together to form a city in the Dungeon of all places.” Titus shook his head at the memory. “That it was so prosperous, so safe. I didn’t understand it.. Of course, I went on to learn that many such places exist in Pangera. Many of them much larger and more grand than Rylleh.”
“How deep are they?” Morrelia asked, taking her father by surprise.
“The cities? Depends on which ones you mean. Most of the time, the depth depends on the people who founded it. Independent cities like this one are usually in the first and second layer. There’s one in the third that I know of. I haven’t been there myself but I know the Legion has a presence in that area.”
“Really? The third?” Morrelia was surprised. The third layer was supposed to be an inhospitable place of fire and ash, hardly the sort of place you would expect to see anyone living. “Wait a second,” she considered for a moment, “does that mean that there are cities even deeper? Non-independent ones?”
Titus smiled down at his daughter. Just talking about the depths of the Dungeon had her eyes afire with the thirst for battle and adventure. He couldn’t help but reminisce about his own youth, he’d been much the same, hungry to push further, to delve more, level up and overcome all challenges. That fire had driven him deep, as far as any human had been, alongside his brothers and sisters of the Legion. He’d wanted to experience it all again with both of his children, the death of his eldest son had been a savage blow, but there was a chance that Morrelia might come back around. He resisted the temptation to push her to join once more. He knew her mentality, it was far too close to his own. Pushing her hard would only make her run away. She was stubborn as a brick baked out of a stone that was formed in the core of another brick.
“The Dungeon has many secrets to reveal. There are great cities in the fourth and fifth strata. There’s an entire empire that exists in the fifth strata. On flying islands.”
“How the heck do you have flying islands under the ground?!” Morrelia was flabbergasted.
“Ha!” The commander barked out one pure laugh before he reined himself in. He snuck a quick glance at the ramparts around them to ensure he hadn’t been seen. It wouldn’t do for his reputation to crumble because he was caught laughing. He looked back toward Morrelia as she stared at him, disbelieving. “Nobody ever believes me about the islands,” he chuckled.
Morrelia’s head was spinning. Information of the deep Dungeon was so rare in Liria, these sorts of topics were just not discussed. Anyone who had this information kept it to themselves and used it for the benefit of their own organisation. Even the Legion wouldn’t share it with mere recruits. It was beyond strange that Titus would be so talkative about the Dungeon. He’d been close lipped about it since she was an infant, no matter how much she’d begged, he wouldn’t say a word. Her eyes narrowed a little.
“What are you scheming, old man?”
Titus’ eyes opened wide innocently.
“Who? Me? You accuse me of scheming?”
“I know what you’re doing. Do you really want me to join the Legion again that badly? Appealing to my sense of adventure?”
The eyes of the commander glittered.
“I do,” he readily admitted it. Now that it was in the open, he wouldn’t step down. “Not only for me, but for your mother as well. It’s not easy for us to have a life separate from our children. We wanted to share it with you, but we didn’t choose to force you. Instead, we were delighted when both you and your brother leapt headlong into the Legion. What happened was a tragedy, but what made it worse was that you leaving made it feel as if I’d lost both of my children instead of one.”
These were dangerous topics, things they’d not spoken about, ever. Emotion surged inside Morrelia, things that she’d suppressed for years came rushing to the surface.
“And can you tell me now, what happened? I know you were there. I know that you know! Do you know how hard it’s been, not being sure how your own family died?!”
“He died during the delve. That was the official word of the Legion. You have reason to doubt it?” Titus demurred.
It was painful for him. So painful he felt as if his chest were being torn out, but he didn’t let any of it show on his face.
“Of course I doubt it! Do you really think he would have failed in the first strata?! He was far too strong. And you were there. How could he die!? How could any of them have died?!”
This was the reason why Morrelia had left the Legion and fled from her father. She simply couldn’t believe what she had been told about her brother’s death. It just didn’t seem possible. It didn’t even seem plausible.
Titus took a deep breath and blew out the air in his lungs. He could see the pain in his child’s eyes and it tested him like never before. No matter how hard it was, he had always shouldered the burden and done his duty. No matter what it cost him, he would follow through. He could only hope that his daughter was strong enough.
“If you want to know,” he spoke slowly and Morrelia hung on his every word, “then you must re-join the Legion.”
She stared at him with a cold intensity that crackled in the air. This was the first time Titus had deviated from the official line, even in the slightest. It was the only concession she would receive and it was confirmation that she hadn’t been told the entire truth. This was it. She would have the answers she had sought for so long if she signed back up. She turned to face her father squarely and snapped a Legion salute, fist to her heart.
“Reporting for duty, commander.”
Titus nodded and returned her gesture.
“Welcome back, cadet.”
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