Gonell did, in fact, return to the settlement when she and Fran Fan were done with their investigation. Theora was sitting in the tavern part of the inn, trying to eat a salad, although her thoughts kept veering off and distracting her.
Then, the door swung open, and Gonell stepped in.
It hadn’t been too apparent during the last night, but her style of clothing had changed. Three months earlier, she’d worn a tight and thin crimson metal armour, but now, it was a simple black cloak made of stiff and thick fabric. She scanned the half-full room until she found Theora, then walked over, threw her cloak on an empty chair, then sat down on another, arm hanging over its back, folding her legs.
“Excursion was a total failure,” she said. “Fran Fan went back home. So, you wanted to talk?”
Theora put her fork down. “Total failure?”
Gonell shrugged. “We have most of the picture. Apparently, that child you had with you made a large commotion, putting everyone to sleep? You could have told us. I guess that’s why Lostina was out? Either way, during that time — don’t ask me how — that damn coffer was apparently stolen. Fran Fan’s trailing spell was on cooldown because he’d investigated the sleep incident first. Whoever mounted this whole operation must have known exactly when and how to strike. Some kind of genius, covering all tracks.”
“In any case, we’re launching a search for the coffer, though that’s not the highest priority. It cannot be opened without a key, so we are focusing on that first. Whoever this meddling party is can’t be allowed access to both. Once we have the key, the current keeper of the coffer will come crawling to us anyway.”
I have it, Theora wanted to say, but, unsurprisingly, was met with an error.
“I see,” she said instead. “The key is hard to find?”
“Very much so. Granted, if someone is able to fetch that coffer, they must be incredibly capable, but the key is hidden in the highest-level dungeon on the planet. I’m the only one who can clear it.”
This was rapidly moving far beyond Theora’s preferred complexity level. Dungeons? Keys?
Her confusion must have become apparent on her face, because Gonell gave a little sigh, and then added, “Dungeons. Sometimes, rifts appear in very far-off places. Magical seals, terrain, weather phenomena — imagine a myriad of external forces that would make it impossible, or at the very least, unlikely, for an automated creature to get out. So, they fill that little space, and only the strongest Errata survive.”
“And a key happens to be there?”
“It’s not a guarantee, but there is some evidence in old documents. Apparently, that specific dungeon has been created artificially — a high-level [Summoner] left it there, then opened one or more rifts, and engineered for it to keep Errata stuck.”
“So, you will clear that dungeon next?”
Gonell bit her lip. “Honestly, I want to leave everything behind and go there already,” she said. “But, preparations are in order. Typically, my task is to purge high-level rifts all over the continent. I protect an asylum too, so I need to be seen around that location often, or the effect of my deterrence will stop working. And, today’s mission was of high importance, so I had to act as a bodyguard to Fran Fan, meaning I had to neglect both other tasks in the meantime.” She sighed. “Wish I could split myself in two. Or, that someone else was around who could close S-Rank rifts. Or clear that damn dungeon. Most likely, I’ll have to continue my travels until the weather is right, and then go and clear it.”
She shook her head gently. Somehow, this monologue had given an entirely new meaning to the circles under her eyes, and the many folds across her lids. Did she ever sleep?
Theora swallowed. “Do you… need help…?” Oh, she was being so selfish. Offering help in order to get closer to the key that would open the coffer she really wanted to look inside… She immediately felt bad for asking.
Gonell raised her brows. “Can you help? Dema did claim you were strong, and the fact that she’s incredibly powerful herself lends a bit of credence to that, I suppose. On the other hand, she’s head over heels, so…”
Theora hid her face behind her hands.
“Why don’t we spar a bit?” Gonell continued. “I sure wouldn’t say no to your help if you can beat me.”
Oh, no. This was going in a terrible direction. If the two of them sparred, the book would be cut in two. “You said you were going to purge rifts,” Theora murmured reluctantly. “We could spar by seeing which of us…”
“Which of us closes one faster? Sure. Why not. Don’t complain if you get yourself killed, though.”
Based on her tone, Theora could tell that Gonell wasn’t taking this seriously at all. There was a certain bite of cynicism to her words that had been absent the last time they’d spoken. She didn’t seem to really care about her words at all.
After that, Gonell fetched a map from her bag, and started making little markings with a pencil. She’d completely lost interest in the conversation.
Gonell was a [Berserker]. That meant her strength was tied to her emotional state, as Lostina had explained. Seeing her be so different now was a bit worrying. It was possible that the destruction of the village had hampered her in some way.
According to Lostina, Gonell would die a few months from now. And, her death would be in some part caused by what had happened in that village. So, it was possible that the incident left scars in her emotional state that would make her weaker, and lead to her death.
Or, the slightly scarier option, was that it had made her stronger. Being too strong could, after all, also lead to one’s destruction.
After a while, Theora couldn’t help but want to know.
“May I ask you a question?”
“Sure, why not,” Gonell murmured, not looking up.
“I was told that your Class is [Berserker]. I used to have a similar Class.”
“I was wondering if you would share with me which emotion you picked.”
Gonell pulled her brows together incredulously, and puffed air out of her nose. “Oh? Want to get at my secrets before we spar?” She finally looked up, then laid back in her chair, exhaling deep. “I won’t tell you, but I suppose I could let you guess. You had a similar Class? Then, what do you think would be the very worst state of mind one could possibly choose?”
Theora recoiled a little at the implied hostility, and looked down at a tomato slice on her plate while thinking.
Back then, Theora’s main state of mind of choice had been joy. That was, without a doubt, a bad one.
It had served her well when fighting Afterthoughts and solving quests that were far beneath her ability. Fights were fun when nothing was on the line, because even at a very young age, albeit not the strongest in the world, she was still unparalleled compared to her peers. It had been a thrilling experience to defeat a mindless blob of data hundreds of Levels above her own, and thus, joy had been her best source of power.
Obviously, joy was not a good one to choose if matched against opponents of similar power, or matched against opponents who had intelligence, and could exploit one’s state of mind. All they needed to do was kill someone dear to the user, and they’d never feel joy again, and be left weakened for the rest of eternity.
In contrast, anger was useful, because it was more resistant to these kinds of manipulations and moods. One would be stronger when it mattered. Still, it wasn’t necessarily the best, because anger could puff out into desperation, fear or sadness given the right circumstances.
If Theora had to guess, the strongest emotion to tie to once strength would probably be fear. Fear typically occurred before things went bad. That said, it was still finicky, because obviously, confidence might taint one’s fear if one was too aware of this interaction.
Confidence, as a state of mind, was therefore another strong option, but still exploitable.
In the end, there was no single state of mind Theora could deem the ‘best’, but there was certainly one she considered the worst.
“Apathy,” she said.
At that, Gonell’s wry smile waned. She wet her lips, and folded her arms. “Close enough, I guess. The one I chose was calm.” She laughed at herself ironically. “I thought if I tied my strength to how calm and poised I am, all I ever had to do is take a deep breath, and win.”
Theora felt a shiver run down her spine. If this was going where she thought it was, then Gonell needed a serious hug.
“But turns out, forcing yourself to be calm when you should be filled with anger or sadness doesn’t actually make your actions more reasonable, it just mutes your sense of reality. I managed to make myself the strongest not when I care about what’s happening the most, but when I care the least.”
She shrugged bitterly. “You know. I don’t quite remember that moment back then too clearly. I realised there were two extremely strong rifts, so I knew I had to calm myself down in order to win. But, back then, did I miss the possibility of a recoil of my Skill? Or did I simply not care?” She threw the map on the desk dismissively. “To be strong only when I’m calm is fucking scary. I never should have made that choice.”
Theora really wanted to hug her.
Gonell was probably at most about 30 years old. All things considered, she was extremely young. In the end, the choice of which emotion was best and which was worst was mostly a theoretical exercise. For a [Berserker], getting to know oneself was more important, and that came with time.
“I’m not sure if those words will mean much to you, coming from a stranger,” Theora eventually said, “But I think all hope might not yet be lost.”
“What? How so?”
Theora tried putting the words she wanted to say together in her mind, but it was rather difficult. She’d never tried to communicate such a concept to another person before. Eventually, she settled on her best result.
“Calm can be cold. But it can also be warm.”
Gonell let out a pained, muted laugh. “I see. Thanks. Don’t think I’ll ever feel warm again, though.”
With that, her eyes flickered to the side, and when Theora turned around to follow the gaze, she could see Lostina, rubbing her eyes, looking around confused. She’d just stepped into the hall, still wearing her pyjamas. When her eyes fell on Gonell, she jerked up, her eyes widened, and she scuttled back into the corridor.
“Huh.” Gonell gave a short sigh. “Guess that makes sense. Wouldn’t want to see me, either.”
“I think it might be the opposite,” Theora murmured.