༺ Real Laborer, Fake Warden ༻
“Hughes. That man is a laborer assigned to this facility. He was apprehended during a gambling incident in Amitengrad District 13-3, and subsequently sentenced to labor in Tantalus.”
Tyr was caught off guard. She already knew that Hughes was a laborer, so she observed Shei’s reaction cautiously. Fortunately, the latter didn’t immediately go rushing off in a frenzy. She merely narrowed her eyes and made a thoughtful sound.
“…I see. That explains it then.”
Shei had already been harboring doubts about Hughes for some time. His inexplicable array of abilities, his casual and friendly demeanor that didn’t match that of a Military State officer, and his peculiar habit of willingly intervening in personal matters while ignoring official duties.
Hughes had never provided any identification or rank, only relying on his way with words. Overall, he was far from being an ordinary warden, displaced by several decades at that.
More than anything, setting aside the matter of rescuing Tyrkanzyaka… the act of reviving her heart made the least sense. If the Military State had known how to do it, they would have used it as leverage to control her instead. It was the military’s rationality.
Therefore, his actions were entirely uncharacteristic of the State, and that had prompted Shei to suspect ulterior motives.
‘Though I could never be sure. He always got away like a slippery eel whenever I tried to confirm!’
For the Military State, which sought to standardize everything, including humans, having such a chaotic individual as a warden was inconceivable. It contradicted the ideals of the Military State. It would be more convincing to consider him a criminal with bizarre and extraordinary abilities, deserving confinement in Tantalus…
“Wait. A laborer? Not a criminal who should be imprisoned in Tantalus?”
Laborers and prisoners were completely different. Prisoners had their freedom completely stripped and were incarcerated, while laborers served within the facility, undertaking various tasks as a form of punishment. Hence, those who received the labor sentence were relatively minor offenders, treated as semi-workers.
Hughes wasn’t a warden, nor a significant criminal deserving imprisonment in Tantalus, but just a petty criminal?
“He was brought in for just… gambling?”
“Indeed. Like a worthless level 0 citizen, he’s a parasite who seeks quick fortune without considering hard work.”
Callis displayed open contempt on her face, rousing Tyr out of her cautiousness. She came to Hughes’ defense in anger.
“Calling him a parasite merely because he indulges in card games? Your words are harsh!”
Callis immediately responded as if she had a prepared answer.
“Of course, if it were only that, he wouldn’t have ended up in Tantalus. But during separate interrogations with the other four individuals involved in the gambling, it was revealed that he was a habitual gambler who would lure innocent people into playing.”
“Games are nothing more than amusement. How can you speak of crime on such a matter?”
“Furthermore, the other four accused him of using tricks. They claimed that on that very day, he achieved a 90% winning rate by himself.”
Tyr paused then. No matter how skilled a gambler was, a 90% winning rate was abnormal. This fact wasn’t lost on Tyr, despite her limited knowledge of the world.
She responded with a faltering voice.
“…I would say those four were simply incompetent.”
“They suffered so many successive defeats that in the end, all four banded together to cheat against him. And they still couldn’t win. It was the point where they became convinced.”
“…Banding together and cheating, that is nothing to be proud of…”
Despite her deep sympathies toward Hughes, Tyr found herself unable to continue defending him and faltered.
Callis shouted confidently, having completely dismantled their argument.
“The lowest of the low try to use their circumstances as an excuse for their crimes, but the Military State does not tolerate such behavior. To prevent them from testing the boundaries of military law by using compassion, even the crimes committed by level 0 citizens must be addressed with exemplary punishment!”
With her head held high, Callis called out in a powerful voice.
“Level 0 Citizen Hughes! Your days of carefree indulgence cease today. The supervisor is here. Come out immediately and report the current status! Failure to comply will result in punishment for the dereliction of duties!”
Her booming voice echoed through the depths of Tantalus, but there was no response. Instead, it was Tyr who stepped forward to speak.
“He will not be able to answer. He has lost his memory and is nearly half mentally disabled.”
“Lost his memory?”
Callis retorted with a sneer.
“Does memory loss excuse one from responsibilities? It cannot. Were that true, one could commit murder and simply claim amnesia to become innocent.”
“It is not about ignoring past events, but rather about being unable to fulfill present responsibilities. They are completely different, just as the past and the future are.”
Tyr’s tone was measured yet also held a hint of reproach, embodying a sense of sophistication. As Callis fell silent, unable to find a retort, Tyr carefully took hold of the mana herbs and prepared to move.
“This provision is for him. If his mind returns, I shall continue the conversation.”
However, just before heading back into Tantalus, she suddenly stopped and asked a question.
“Wait. Did you say his name is Hughes?”
“Indeed. Is there a problem?”
“…You are not mistaken?”
“Before taking up my assignment in Tantalus, I conducted a thorough review of the records pertaining to the inmates. There is no room for doubt.”
Tyr’s expression grew troubled, while Shei snorted as if she had seen this coming.
“See? I told you his replies were strange. Liking beans doesn’t make sense to begin with.”
“…We can inquire directly with him. But right now, our priority is to wake Hu.”
“Let’s go together. I also have some questions for that guy.”
Shei’s eyes were alight with fiery excitement.
“Finally, a clue…! He won’t be able to escape anymore…!”
Tyr couldn’t blame her eagerness. Regardless of the circumstances, this was a problem Hughes had to endure. All she could guarantee was his safety.
Tyr and Shei walked off side by side, heading toward the man whose name had once again become a mystery.
* * *
Callis was a prime example of a Military State officer, but like any human, she valued her own life. She had followed orders to come to Tantalus and was warned of the mortal risk involved… but dying a dog’s death was certainly not what she wished for. Hence, when Shei exuded murderous intent, Callis had been gripped by suffocating fear.
“The Progenitor may be one concern, but that man poses a security risk on par with a general officer… Who knew he’d show such immediate aggression?”
The Progenitor’s fame extended throughout history, likened to a force of nature. Is it necessary to confront a typhoon? Must you bravely endure a lightning strike? No. You only need to hunker down and wait for the furious winds to pass and the storm to subside.
As a centuries-old vampire, Tyr was indifferent to most things and cared little for her surrounding circumstances, no matter how much they changed. Even when the Military State moved her to the abyss, as she slumbered in her coffin, she took no action at all.
She merely asked only once, “Where are we headed?” And upon hearing the unwitting reply of the soldier carrying her, she mused that she wouldn’t see the sky there and fell silent. This incident was quite famous within the Military State.
As long as one didn’t touch a nerve with the Progenitor, such as by praying to the Sky God in her presence, there would be no immediate danger. It was even possible to become allies, perhaps.
“However, the problem lies with that irregular.”
Although she was technically ranked as Level 3… Shei was a mysterious and formidable figure of unclear identity and origin. She was such a dangerous individual that one of the Military State’s Six Generals, Sunderspear Patraxion, had to personally apprehend her.
Having a monster nearby who could kill her at any moment was far from pleasant. However, there was some relief in knowing that the laborer they had sent ahead, the litmus, had yet to be stained red with blood. If even a petty criminal could manage to keep his life, there was no reason an elite of the Military State like Callis couldn’t do the same.
“… Although it’s a wonder what happened to make him lose his mind.”
Callis took a deep breath and removed her service cap. She prided herself on being quite strong-hearted, but her body seemed honest, as a bead of sweat rolled down her neck beneath her short hair.
“My duty is to survive and report.”
Due to Shei’s destruction of all the golems, there wasn’t enough information gathered from within Tantalus. As a result, Callis’ superior, who was originally supposed to come, sent her instead. She was instructed to go first and gather information, and if there was any danger, she was to face it head-on.
Callis knew that her position wasn’t much different from the litmus’, but she had no choice. It was for this moment that she was raised through the ranks, surpassing numerous other officers to become a Lieutenant Colonel.
“To restore greatness to humanity.”
Recalling their creed, she hardened her resolve.
* * *
The fourth floor of Tantalus was reserved for the laborers. It housed spaces like the cafeteria and laundry room where they had to work, and also their resting quarters.
Shei chatted with Tyr as she made her way to one of those rooms.
“Come to think of it, this guy was staying in the laborer’s quarters? I never knew.”
“You did not even know where Hu was staying until now?”
“How would I know that when I didn’t even know his name?”
As Shei looked around curiously, Tyr rebuked her.
“How truly indifferent. After spending all this time together too.”
“Eh? But honestly speaking, weren’t you the same until you regained your heart?”
Tyr wordlessly opened the door to the room Hughes occupied.
He was still sitting on his bed, looking dazed. When the door opened, he briefly turned his head in that direction, but it was no more than a reaction to a stimulus. He would answer questions and respond to someone’s actions, but he remained passive, never taking the initiative.
The man had yet to find himself, but nevertheless, Tyr greeted him as warmly as ever.
“Hu, is everything all right?”
The cramped room of the laborer’s quarters felt even more crowded with just the addition of two people. Tyr crossed the narrow space and sat beside him. Shei leaned against the door, murmuring.
“It gives me chills when I think about it. Turns out he gave an alias despite his current state, right?”
“There must be a reason for that. Here, Hu. Look at this. It is the supply you needed…”
Tyr took out a cigar rolled from mana herbs from its paper pack. However, she suddenly realized that she didn’t know how to use it. To a vampire naturally immune to diseases, toxins, and drugs, the finger-sized cigar posed a perplexing enigma. She hesitated awkwardly, holding the cigar in her hand.
“Its usage… How should one wield this stick? It does not seem like something to be eaten…”
What would be the most common way to use a long stick like this? Based on Tyr’s experience, there was only one course of action: she raised the mana herb cigar and, with a hesitant cry, lightly flicked his shoulder a few times.
“Pull yourself together!”
Despite her spirit, she couldn’t bear to even hit him on the head. Not to mention, she put no strength into it at all. He wouldn’t have reacted much to this blow even if he hadn’t lost his memory.
Faced with this childlike farce, Shei was dumbfounded and turned speechless for several seconds.
“…That’s not how you use it. And even if it was, what would change by hitting his shoulder so gently?”
“How is it done, then? There is no other way, am I not right?”
“That’s for smoking… Oh, what’s the point of explaining it in words. First just put it in his hand.”
Feeling dubious, Tyr cautiously placed the mana herb cigar into his hand.
There was a reaction. As soon as the mana herb touched his palm, his hand instinctively twitched and his fingers rolled around the cigar on their own. Then, he slowly brought it to his nose and took a few sniffs, as if to ascertain its quality.
Tyr could tell that much even without Shei’s words. She observed his movements silently. The way he held the cigar seemed as if it was second nature to him. He raised a finger and enchanted his nail with a standard ignition spell, then grazed the flame-tinged nail against the cigar’s foot, allowing the fire to take hold.
The fire, creeping deep into the cigar’s body, grew in strength within the darkness, and soon cast unto the world a vibrant crimson glow.
“Shei? He has lit that thing on fire. Should we not stop him?”
“No, that’s how mana herbs are meant to be used. It’s like scented candles, if you think about it.”
A belated cremation for the dead leaves had begun. Those who claim to have seen the souls of humans describe them in various ways, but the soul of a tobacco leaf has only one appearance: a winding gray snake of vertical stripes.
The smoker embraced that soul with surprising reverence, while the slithering snake ascended through the unseen, enveloping the world in its color and scent. Once enough smoke had accumulated, he followed the tradition of delicately holding the cigar between two fingers and bringing it to his lips. His movements flowed like a natural stream, allowing anticipation of his next actions with vivid clarity.
Shei nodded to herself.
“Ah, I get it now. That’s what he was aiming for.”
As a practitioner of the Qi Art called Heavenly Counter Domain, Shei immediately grasped the man’s intentions. The essence of Heavenly Counter Domain was imprinting movements onto the body, enabling it to react faster than the mind. Thus, it was possible to maintain mental stability in any situation.
His actions resembled the somatics of Heavenly Counter Domain, with a similar emphasis on countering mental attacks.
“The rising smoke resembles incense. Does it embody a ritual for restoring the mind?”
“I’m sure the smoke from the mana herb has an effect, but that’s only a part of it. What he’s doing now is a form of self-suggestion. He’s trying to rekindle the memories of his mind through the memories of his body.”
From drawing the flame with magic to inhaling the smoke into his mouth, the entire sequence flowed too smoothly for someone with amnesia. It was evident that he had discovered the optimal routine after tens of thousands of attempts and imprinted it into his body.
“He ingrained these movements into his being by smoking hundreds, even thousands of mana herbs. They linger deep in his subconscious now, which is why his body instinctively reproduces them even in his current state. He’s stimulating his dormant ego through these actions.”
“Then, will this truly awaken Hu?”
“Yes. Seeing how he emphasized it in his note, I’m certain of it.”
The cigar grew shorter with each passing moment. It was serving as a clock at this point, marking the minutes through its dwindling burn. When the room was filled with pungent smoke and the ember, which had consumed over half of the cigar, flickered against his fingers… he placed the cigar on the desk.
As Tyr watched with anticipating eyes, he…
He coughed loudly and continued to gaze dreamily into the distance.
Tyr cried out in a voice laden with betrayal.
“It did not work!”
“Eh? Weird. This isn’t it? Is it a different mana herb? But it looks like the right one, judging by how he smokes it…”
While Shei examined the mana herb, Tyr looked around. Then, her eyes caught sight of a small bell resting on the desk.
“In the first place, I have never seen him put any incense in his mouth! It is not even in my memory, so how could his body remember?”
“Well you can’t get smokes in the abyss… He probably could back on the surface…”
“Perhaps he requires a different trigger? Well, since we are done with the incense, let us try shaking the bell this time.”
“Ah? No that bell is for calling Az—”
Ignoring Shei’s objection, Tyr shook the bell like she was grabbing at straws. Dingle-dingle. Soft chimes resonated, and a few seconds later…
A dog’s barking echoed from the distance. Azzy, responding to the bell, was dashing down the corridors toward them. The beast’s cries grew nearer, accompanied by the pitter-patter of four feet.
Reacting like this when it’s not even mealtime… Is it a testament to good training, or is she just a glutton?
Sighing, I proceeded with my customary routine and called out to Azzy.
“Azzy, let’s eat!”
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