“What about the food supply?” Rowan asked. “That problem won’t just go away; things may have begun to settle now, but it’s possible that we’ll eventually run out of money. Supplies from Verdant Grove were cheap, but that was only because of the sheer number of crops they had to sell. It won’t be the same elsewhere, especially if their own supplies start to take a dip. Selling the [Little Guardian’s Totem]s will only go so far to help with that.”
They were finally closing in on the Artisan district, the group still unable to come to a unanimous decision on the Core’s fate. The formerly-broken district, once so full of dust and debris, had been transformed over the recent days. Changed from a ramshackle and dangerous ruin into something better.
A memory of better times.
Because that’s what it was, she realized. Maybe not for her, but for the people that had been saved...it was all they had to cling to. The idea that they hadn’t lost yet. That things could change, that things could become better than before - and maybe better than they ever had been.
Under the influence of the Guardian Statue and their personal [Little Guardian’s Totem]s, those that they had been able to rescue quickly bounced back. Physically, anyway. The horrors they had experienced would take longer to fully recover from, and Valera more than understood that.
There were still times that she saw a dying little girl’s face when she closed her eyes, all covered in green and black. When her fingers shook and her palms sweated against her blades’ handles. When her stomach tried to jump its way out of her throat.
No matter how much she wished that she could forget, or go back, or do anything to change it.
There would be things that they couldn’t forget or change either. That they couldn’t forget, no matter how much better things got. Some things just stuck with you, burrowing into your mind as they shattered your heart, and all that you could do was hope that you could put it all back together again.
Her eyes flicked towards Elara, the newest Seeker that walked through Verdant Grove’s ruins. One shattered by its demise, and then shattered again by the horrors that came afterward. Reshaped into something horrible, twisted, and self-hating. Forced to accept that she was a puppet until she did something completely, utterly stupid to prove that she wasn’t.
And then there was Garric, whose fingers moved day in and day out to carve more [Little Guardian’s Totem]s, as if afraid of what they would do if he only gave them the chance to do something else. Valera had done what she could in the free time that she had, letting him know that she was there should he need her. All he had to do was let her know.
He never did, but she had found him once anyway, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Guildhall - one hand running itself against the scales of a tiny snake and the other running against a carving of a woman.
Valera hadn’t seen it before, but she knew who it was.
She had carried that woman’s corpse to the null-water herself.
Elara and Garric weren’t the only ones dealing with such things, just some of the first. All of them - each and every one - had come out of Verdant Grove with some sort of trauma, something to keep them up at night.
Yet, in a way that was what made their home in the recovered Artisan’s district so beautiful. It was like them - almost broken, almost destroyed, but rebuilding.
As if to emphasize that fact, a cluster of tiny gremlins burst out of a nearby building, skipping and jumping around. One of them tripped over his own feet and fell, skinning his knees against the ground. He wailed for a brief second, only to quiet down right afterwards. Valera felt herself involuntarily rush forward to pick him back up.
“Are you okay?” she asked, one hand wiping at the dust that clung to his - somewhat ruined - clothes. Looking down, she saw a bit of blood leaking from his knee. She wiped that away too, leaving whole skin underneath.
“Yeah!” he said. “I’m better now!”
And then he sped off, leaving Valera with an idea.
It wasn’t a revolutionary idea. Then again, they didn’t need a revolutionary idea. They just needed to look at what they already had. She turned back towards the others.
“The Guardian Statue,” she said, triumphant. “There’s two of them.”
“And?” Rowan asked, obstinately refusing to admit her victory. “What about it?”
“And if there’s two, why can’t there be three? Four? Five, even?” Her words spilled out of feverish lips, almost stumbling over themselves in her excitement. It felt as if there was a fire in her chest, boiling her blood and burning her skin. Pure excitement.
“You mean…” he continued, brimming with far less enthusiasm than her. Doran on the other hand, sweet lovable hunk of muscles that he was, understood what Valera was hinting at.
“You mean that we should sell them,” he said. She pointed at him, flashing her brightest and most appreciative smile in his direction. His cheeks flushed slightly and he looked away.
“Exactly! Healing, the ability to communicate at a distance, and a way to always find home again. We couldn’t have been sure before recently, but now we know that the Little Guardian can create more of them. What city wouldn’t pay whatever it could to get one for itself? That’s worth more than food alone ever could be, and would even help make sure that cities could keep getting food by healing anyone that gets hurt in trying to get it,” she said, her mind still whirling with the possibilities.
It was perfect; not only would it mean that [Little Guardian’s Totem]s would be needed to receive the effects of the Guardian Statue, driving demand for them up and thus providing more trade for Orken, but it also meant that they could help the people of other settlements at the same time. Just like they had been able to help the people of Orken and Verdant Grove.
Just like they were meant to, maybe? The thought nudged at her just as a tiny forked tongue flicked against her skin. She glanced to the side, eyes taking in the little snake on her shoulder.
Was that confirmation?
It seemed like a ridiculous thought, but sometimes the little guy just noticed things. Things that even a human wouldn’t have been able to notice - and, more often than not, he tried to fix them. He didn’t need to do that, but he did. He didn’t need to roam around Orken to cuddle a nightmare-ridden child at night, but he did. He didn’t need to heal the injured, but he did.
He didn’t need to make so many [Little Guardian’s Totem]s, but he did - creating more of them than Orken could have ever possibly used on its own. Why?
Maybe it was for a reason. Maybe he wanted them to spread. Maybe he knew that they needed to. Saw that they needed to.
For a while now, Valera had been wondering where the little guy’s future sight had been focused. She knew that it existed; it was the only reason that she was still alive, that she hadn’t died in the Dungeon battles that seemed so long ago now. There was no denying that, even with as absent as it had been lately.
Maybe she just hadn’t noticed the bigger picture, too focused on the turmoil around her. And maybe...
One of her hands absentmindedly stroked the Little Guardian’s scales. He gave a cute and distracting little hiss, still tired by whatever he had done earlier. She forced herself to refocus and continue with her previous thought, one that had been at the back of her mind for a while now.
And maybe there was even more to it all than she realized.
After all, who was to say that the Guardian Statues were as strong as they would ever be? The abilities that they had were too convenient to be a coincidence, too close in nature to other abilities that the Little Guardian actually possessed.
Valera didn’t know how it worked, and she could very well be wrong. Still, a part of her couldn’t stop thinking about it. If the Little Guardian took the Nature Core and gained a new ability, would the Guardian Statue’s abilities be changed to reflect that?
Again, she had to remind herself that she could be wrong. Maybe the Guardian Statues were as strong as they would ever be. Even that, though, deserved something in return.
It deserved a proper reward.