(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thank you!!)
Damien wrecked his brain the whole night, thinking of a good place to stash the journal. There were a few places that came to his mind but none of them were truly ideal.
In the end, not only did he lose a considerable amount of sleep, but he couldn’t even come up with a good hiding place either. All in all, a total waste of his time.
His worries didn’t end with the safe keeping of the journal. The big issue here was that Jonas successfully tailed Damien without being discovered. Now that was a troublesome matter in itself.
His pride was properly shattered by this revelation. He was a hardened Adventurer, a Gold-ranked one, even – yet, a snooty noble with no training in subterfuge was able to observe him unnoticed? That was one mean sucker punch to his guts. Was he getting old and his senses dulled? Whatever, he was not happy about it.
And thanks to this blunder, Damien felt more cautious of his surroundings. While walking through the streets of Marlborough on his way to the Count’s mansion he was really conscious of everything going on around him.
Damien felt doubly exhausted by the time he got to his destination. Coupled with the mental fatigue and lack of good rest, he was in a wry and irritable mood. At least the sun was out and about, which was nice.
Cassius the ever-faithful butler was waiting for him at the entrance of the mansion with a warm, expectant smile. Damien found this expression welcoming, and to him, it was exactly what the doctor ordered for his tired mind.
After exchanging some light pleasantries, Cassius led him into the mansion’s audience chamber and served a plate of sweetly scented tea as well as tasty biscuits.
Although the treats didn’t cure all of his weary bones, Damien still felt a whole lot better after snacking on them. The tea was particularly nice, with a breezy, light feel to the taste, making him want to drink it more. He wasn’t a tea connoisseur, but hell, even he could tell how good this stuff was.
As he snacked, Cassius informed Damien that Dukakis was in the middle of a meeting with military advisers and thus he had to wait a bit. A consequence of not making a prior appointment, or so he was told.
Damien came this close to making a snide retort about the fact that he needed to seek permission before speaking to his own brother but since he knew such a thing came with the territory, in the end, he firmly shut his mouth.
So, he quietly sat on the large couch in the chamber, eyeing the decoration that hadn’t changed in years.
Right in front, there was a large painting of the legendary mountain, The Helix. The story went like this:
There was a land where deities descended on the mortal world. The Gods wanted to teach the ignorant masses the correct way to live the precious lives granted to them.
And after doing their teaching bit, they supposedly raised a massive mountain where they had landed originally as a reminder of their divine message that would withstand the passage of time.
Funny thing, though, was no one knew where this mountain was supposed to be. So, ironically, the reminder could not perform its intended job. Still, fables kept the spirits of the story alive and passed it down to the younger generations, so there was that.
However, the mountain being “missing” from the world didn’t stop the enterprising artists to come up with their own ideas of how the majestic landscape should look like. As a matter of fact, Damien was staring at one right now. And it was rather a nice painting, too. Must’ve cost a fortune.
There was a family portrait hanging on another wall. Perhaps tellingly, there were not a single group portrait – Count Lomax was always alone while Dukakis and Donatella shared a frame. There was one for a very young Damien as well, along with his dearly departed mother.
He grimaced a little at that. It had been a long time since he thought about his mom. Ages, actually.
And just by thinking of her and the complicated childhood he went through, Damien was reminded of his dead son. And the unborn child in Lizbeth’s womb.
He suddenly felt real melancholic and lonely.
What the hell am I doing here?! He sighed wearily. I…. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do anymore. How…. tiring.
Damien blinked his eyes as the view became misty. The images of his wife and daughter filled his mind. He missed them. A lot.
He counted the days in the head and concluded that the pregnancy was at an advanced stage. Fortune willing, Lizbeth would give birth to another life soon.
Damien swore to himself that he’d be there, no matter what. Even if it was the end of the world. Even if the civil war broke. Hell, even if those silly Visitors abducted him, he would find a way to come back.
Thinking this, he felt at ease. He glanced around some more, and saw a rough approximation of the territories governed by the House of Count Lomax displayed proudly on the largest, most spacious wall in the chamber. It was another one of those artistic reinterpretations of a real map, its only purpose to grandly inflate the significance of the land belonging to this family.
As his eyes traced the lines of the map that wasn’t a map, he saw the undulations that represented the border walls.
Unconsciously, Damien began comparing the map Jonas drew on the pages of his journal to this painting. He began matching the landmarks that were on both of the maps. Before long, his eyes stopped moving as the map of the territory ended before he got to the “X” in Jonas’s handiwork.
However, this gave Damien an idea.
Hmm. Maybe I should go and look for that metallic rings Jonas described. He did say it couldn’t be moved, that it looked ancient and whatnot. Or did I read it wrong?
If those things are still there, then is it safe to assume everything I read in the journal, although not entirely convincing, has at least a kernel of truth?
Damien nodded his head slowly as he made up his mind. Jonas jotted down the place where he slipped in through the borders; he could use that to sneak across.
He’d have to prepare well, however. The Winter was coming, and it was going to be another harsh season of white blizzards and howling winds. And there was the Tigris Barbarians to look out for, never mind the hungry Fiends intent on having a feast with human flesh. Damien would prefer it was not his.
The question was, though, whether he could make the trip in time for the birth of his child. He still had to go back to Argos on a Sky Ark. And get on a carriage, travel like a madman across the gridlocked city, go through the Academy’s entrance procedure – all that took time.
Could he be able to arrive in time?
If he was just going to take a look at the site where those rings were, then he could. He might be cutting it close, but as long as he hurried, then sure, he would be there for the birth. That he was sure of.
Once he computed all this, Damien began planning. He thought about the equipment he’d need, the provisions, maybe even hiring help – the important question was about procuring the necessary finances first.
Dukakis should compensate him handsomely for the job well done, so Damien was confident that as far as money was concerned, he was fine. As for the help, he’d go with the Adventurers he worked with while checking out the borders. The Barbarian terror threats have largely been suppressed by now, and the most of the infiltrators have been apprehended and taken care of. So, there should be a fair few Adventurers free to take on another assignment.
And having extra eyewitnesses seemed like a good idea. Who knows what might happen out there.
He was beginning to feel rather excited for some reason. The mere thoughts of exploring the vast, hostile wilderness on a yet another adventure were making him happy. It was right up his alley, so to speak.
As he was chuckling to himself, Damien heard footsteps. When he looked up and checked to see who could it be, a group of unfamiliar faces in a jovial mood walked past the hallway visible via the open doorway.
Since this audience chamber was near the entrance of the mansion, these people had to walk past Damien’s scrutiny if they wanted to leave.
“Who are they?”
Damien asked Cassius, slightly curious about their origins. They sure didn’t look like military advisers to him.
“They are weapon merchants from the Capital Argos, my lord. They arrived three nights ago, and were negotiating with Lord Dukakis until now.”
The old butler informed him quietly, as if he didn’t want others to hear.
Nodding his head, Damien resumed his snacking after losing the little interest he had. However, he then had a lightbulb moment.
Wait a minute. That unnamed noble must’ve come via a Sky Ark. That means he had to register his arrival via a Truth Board at the Station.
That means there are records of his identity.
Damien’s eyes flashed with the realization. If he could take a look at the records then he’d able to largely confirm Jonas’s story. Couple that with him personally checking out the site where the Visitors entered this realm, then he had his proofs.
Where are the records kept, I wonder? It should be either here in the mansion, or at the City Hall’s archives.
Damien furrowed his brows. He was sure of the records being there in the City Hall, but the problem was accessing it. He could flex his familial connections and gain an entrance that way, but that would mean providing adequate reasons for wanting to see the records to Dukakis.
Since Damien wasn’t sure of the ones responsible for the blockage of the flow of information, he didn’t want to alert anyone just yet of his discovery. In other words, he didn’t want to lie to his brother.
Hmm. Should I sneak in? No, that wouldn’t work. The security around the City Hall should be too tight for me to break in. And I’m not a rogue to begin with. Infiltrations were never my forté. Yeah, never mind that. Let’s think of another option.
As he sat there contemplating, this time another round of clamoring footsteps could be heard. They sounded urgent.
The figures flashing past the open doorway were soldiers. The looks of consternation were palpable on their faces. Quite obviously something bad had happened.
Instinctively, Damien got up and followed the soldiers to their eventual destination.
And that was Dukakis’s office.
The soldiers hurriedly entered without even knocking and announced loudly.
“My lord!! There’s a trouble down at the City Hall!! It’s the Barbarian agents!!”
Meanwhile, Kain was trying to drag his sluggish feet over the broken cobblestones that lined the streets of the dead city.
The sun mercilessly beat down on his tired body. There were no shades to cool his burning muscles down either, as the buildings all around him were all in the states of demolition.
A small and fluffy brown-colored squirrel squinted its eyes at him inquisitively, before energetically sprinting away and disappearing behind some broken structure.
Yeah, sure. Abandon me and go away. Like I care.
He grumbled inwardly as his feet continued the excruciatingly slow march forward. Behind him, a large rubble the size of a car’s door, tied to his waist with a vine. A ton of sweat fell off his head, soaking the thin and tattered tunic the boy wore.
Yep, he was training. Like a slave. Emma’s idea.
He has been dragging this large and heavy chunk of what was, in essence, a small boulder back and forth for a couple of days right after his internal injuries were more or less healed up. Not that he was injured too badly from the beginning, though – just the case of extreme Aeterna drainage which could be cured by a good, long rest.
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After coming this close to crossing the river Styx in the underground research facility, Emma decided that Kain was too weak physically and it was about time she put him through some spartan training.
The kind that easily matched the Old Man’s own hellish regime, and then some.
The boy just wanted to kick back and relax, maybe throw in Aeterna and ch’i practices via the prolonged meditation sessions now and then, but that plan got shot all to hell.
Just how long are you going to make me drag this damn thing around for?!
Kain groaned aloud as he trudged forward until the edge of the rubble caught on an outcropping of some sort. And it refused to budge. Not even an inch.
Too wasted to complain, he sat down on the ground and heavily panted. Emma told him not to use any ch’i or Aeterna with this training so it was proving to be doubly difficult considering his tiny physique. Not to mention cruel, too. Just how the hell was he to endure this torture?!
This was not possible for someone as small as he was. No way he’d be able to develop enough muscles like this. After all, he was not a protagonist from a Japanese Shounen manga who was endowed with a convenient plot device like some.
Sighing, he finally gave up and lied down on his back, watching the Autumn clouds slowly drift away in the crisp blue sky. One of them looked like a vanilla-flavored marshmallow. Oh, how he craved for something artificially sweetened, right about now.
Another one floating lazily by, kinda looked like a slick sports car. Oh, how he wanted to drive one. The car, not the cloud, obviously.
He knew very little about cars or how they worked, but at least his sense of aesthetics was just fine. He knew a nice looking piece of kit when he saw one. Didn’t really matter now, though. It was unlikely that he’d ever get to see a car in this lifetime. Unless he straight up went and invented it, like so many of the transmigrated MCs tend to do….
Next, he saw a cloud that sorta looked like…. Emma’s face, of all things. It was right above his head, actually, peering at him curiously. Just like that squirrel from earlier. He thought that was one funny coincidence.
“Hey, whatcha doing, little master Kain?”
The Emma-shaped cloud opened its mouth and asked him. He wasn’t prepared for that sudden event and jumped up surprised, banging his forehead against the cloud Emma’s with a dull thud.
Turned out, it was real Emma after all.
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Both saw a cluster of stars swimming in front of their eyes for a few seconds, before she smacked him in the back of the head, irritated at the uncalled-for assault.
“Hey, what was that headbutt for?! It hurts, you know!!”
Kain rubbed the front and the back of his head, apologizing. “Sorry. You startled me, that’s all.”
After all the wringing went away, Kain finally noticed two sets of bows slung over Emma’s shoulders so he asked her about them.
“Oh, these? They are for you, little master. Well, one of them is.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course, to shoot arrows. What else? I’m gonna teach you archery from now on.”
Kain raised an eyebrow. “Eh? You want me to practice one more thing on top of all the others?! Are you trying to kill me?”
“Awww, don’t be like that. It’s for your own good, you know. Look, you’re too short and small so you can’t swing a sword in a fight and hope to hit something. So, why not use a bow from a distance? I think it’ll be much, much better for you like that.”
Kain hesitated for a second, before nodding his head. After giving the matter some thought, he had to admit what she said made sense.
As things stood currently, getting up close and personal to deliver a satisfying smackdown was simply out of question. Besides his short reach, he just lacked enough strength to deal any fatal damage. Besides, he’d only get in the harm’s way, trying to act like a hero.
But if he was a bit far away and continue to pepper his targets with arrows, especially if those said arrows were coated in deadly poison….
Just thinking about this brought a creepy smile on his face.
Seeing this grin, Emma backed off slightly, feeling just a bit scared at the evil leer.
Ignoring her, Kain immediately consented for the archery training to be added to his already taxing regime.
However, almost as soon as he decided to do this, a big problem arose.
“Uhm… hey, Emma. Don’t you think all of these bows are a bit…. on the big side for me?”
“What are talking about?! These are fine!!”
Emma grabbed the bow she’d been using until recently and handed over to Kain.
But then, she saw the problem herself, too.
The bow was taller than Kain. There was no way the boy would be able to carry it around, let alone pull the string and fire an arrow with it.
Silently, she looked at the bow, then at Kain. Then, she looked at the other bows she brought with her. And she kept on alternating the end of her gazes at the bows and Kain, her head bobbing up and down repeatedly.
Soon, her cheeks reddened in embarrassment as the awkward atmosphere descended on the area.
Kain stood there, not saying a word but inwardly amused of the proceedings so far.
Emma lightly coughed and cleared her throat. “Uhm. Right. So, ah. Yeah, I see what the problem is. So, ah…. Hmm. Oh, I know!! Why don’t we go and find out if there’s a bow for your size!!”
“Hmm? Where? In that underground facility again? No thanks.”
“No, no, no. Not there, but there!! In the armory, inside the fort!!”
Last time Kain entered the depths of the fort, he took the passage on the ground floor to the right because of stupid reasons.
This time, after being urged by Emma, he went upstairs by the grand staircase and to his left. Even here, vines were everywhere but to his surprise, they were not as prevalent as on the lower floors. If anything, the decay and the damage done by the passing time were a lot less severe.
There were many other rooms here, with plenty of sunlight coming in through the open windows. As he advanced slowly, he even began to find ones with locked doors. On top of that, there was a faint but still present Aeterna coming out of these inaccessible rooms.
He did his best to pry open one or two, and every time the result was the same – the door broke open, he’d find a well-preserved room with all its furnishing intact, but then, whatever Invocation that kept the place pristine would end due to his presence, and everything crumbled to dust in a single heartbeat.
This pattern repeated itself for a while longer, until he got towards the back of the fort, which meant he was getting nearer the top of that huge black doors with the ancient battlefield depicted on it.
Here, the Aeterna flow was a lot stronger and the Invocations supporting the preservation of the rooms were that much stronger as well.
And as the natural light faded with him moving closer to the interior of the fort, small crystals emitting soft blue glow acting as light sources in many of the preserved rooms began to appear frequently. If Damien, or for that matter, any experienced Adventurers, saw those crystals, they might have recognized them as the ubiquitous Lazulites found in many Sacred Acres around the continent.
As the luck would have it, he even found several chests full of kids’ clothing. Some of them even fit him perfectly.
He couldn’t say no to a new set of duds since his current wears were all full of holes. Even better, none of these turned to dust the moment he took them out of the Invocation spell’s area of effect.
He did feel a bit morbid about snatching stuff off some dead kid, but now wasn’t the time to be squeamish about things like that. If he did, then that nice pair of leather shoes, which he wore without reservation, would have to endure rotting in solitude for all eternity, never knowing the pleasant sensation of a person’s toes wriggling within their innards.
With his actions, he had liberated them all. That’s how Kain decided to look at it.
After going through more rooms, he finally got to the pair of pretty large, dark metallic doors with quite a huge amount of Aeterna oozing off them. Since he could see the emblems of shields and spears and swords carved on the doors, even he could tell this was his destination, the armory.
But getting here and entering were two different problems. Emma had gotten this far before, and according to her story, she had opened the door to take a peek inside so Kain believed he should be able to do the same as well.
Although he wondered how the hell did that Elf woman even got this far – after all, she was the one insisting on not coming anywhere near the fort, saying the whole place was sacred or some such.
When he asked her about this inconsistency, she blamed her impetuous youthful attitude.
Well, that’s not important right now. Let’s see, how do I open this heavy doors? There isn’t a doorknob or a place to slot in a key… Do I just push them in?
Kain leaned over one of the doors and gave it a small shove. And it opened easily enough. All that worry for nothing in the end.
In front of his eyes, an expansive armory stretched far. He saw so, so many weapons, all waiting for someone to come and take them away.
There were no vines here; the walls were rough and unadorned, save for a handful of large, red flags hung on the walls. The emblem on it was a foreign one to Kain. There was some kind of writings on the flags but the alphabets were foreign, too.
Immediately to his front, he saw a giant Invocation array carved on the floor. There was a matching one on the ceiling as well, which was high enough to let the tallest giraffe trundle around no problem. Aeterna flowing off these two told him they were the ones keeping everything fresh and usable until now. What a preservation spell this was.
They emitted an eerie glow, blanketing the armory and all its contents. Those crystals with blue lights were present in here as well, sensibly placed on top of each stack of carefully sorted weapons.
Kain stepped cautiously inside, checking out the state of each displayed weapons. Spears and lances of various lengths and thickness were propped up against the walls on either side in the wooden racks. Shields were hung on the walls, plain steel swords, placed in leather scabbards lining the tops of many stone plinths.
There were fewer bows here then other types of weapons, though. Like the shields, they were hung on walls by their limbs – frames – and not by the strings. Quivers of fine arrows were located below; Kain estimated there were at least ten thousand of them here. Whether that was a lot of arrows or not, he couldn’t tell.
He went around inside the armory, carefully feeling the sharp edges of all the blades; not a spot of rust or decay was present – as if they were manufactured only yesterday.
As he walked forward a bit, he saw a display cabinet that was different to the others. Many cabinets were filled with majestic swords and armors and other assortments of cool, fantasy-spec weapons, but this one cabinet gave off a slightly more somber atmosphere. When he looked in, there was a gleaming dagger placed inside.
A medium-sized dagger if an adult held it, but a full-size sword for Kain’s diminutive figure, for some reason he could not tear his eyes away from it.
Kain carefully lifted it out, feeling its substantial weight. He was equally careful as he slid the scabbard off the blade, revealing the ultra-smooth, beautifully polished surface. It was even shaped like the claw of a bird of prey.
Both the hilt and scabbard also had elaborate, minutely detailed carvings and decorations of a large bird-like fantasy creature etched on the tough leather, showing off the kind of care and craftsmanship commonly seen in a super-expensive item.
He clearly saw his own reflections on the blade. In that moment, he knew he wanted this dagger. He wanted it more than he wanted the next breath.
So, he tucked it in the belt. This dagger was his now. And no one was going to stop him from claiming it so. Once so equipped, the heaviness of the weight seemed to disappear.
And as for the bows, his original reason for coming here, they were all too darn big for him. Hell, there was a batch of bows so gigantic, it seemed like only the giants could use them – each bow was as tall as two Kains stacked on top of one another.
And as for the arrows, he decided not to take them either, as they were all designed to be used in conjunction with the large bows. In other words, he couldn’t use them.
He could take a few for Emma, but she didn’t seem to be left wanting for the extra quantity of arrows, so it wasn’t really necessary. Besides, even a single quiver full of arrows looked pretty heavy. So, he’d rather not.
Smiling contently, he left the armory and the door closed by itself behind him.
Kain no longer saw the point in staying there anymore. So, it was time to leave.
However, he wasn’t disappointed at all. Nope. He was as pleased as a man could get, actually. That dagger felt so right in his hands, it was as if the weapon was meant for him. That a blacksmith from the distant past knew Kain would come so he prepared it for that eventual day.
As crazy as that might sound, that’s how Kain felt about it.
Walking on light steps, Kain leisurely made his way out. In the meantime, he took out the dagger to examine it closely. He swung it around, taking a mock battle stance, thrusting it forward and following it up with a well-practiced kick.
Oh, man, this thing feels so good!! Boy, am I glad that I went there or what. What a find.
Normally, a man’s desire would be to hold a gleaming, heroic sword, like say, Excalibur or some such, but for Kain, he preferred this over those showy weapons. For one, he couldn’t even wield them in the first place, so unless he was looking for an expensive paperweight, he had no business with them.
And two, this dagger, size-wise, was perfect for him. The blade itself was made of a metal Kain couldn’t recognize, probably the genre-trope magical metal only found in the realms of fantasy.
He swung it one more time, smiling, then by accident he struck one of the countless vines in the passageway.
Kain knew how sturdy these vines could be, so he wasn’t too disappointed to see only a small nick on the dark green surface, but that made him wonder.
If he could reinforce his body with ch’i or Aeterna, or both, then could he do the same to weapons in his hands?
He even scared himself for thinking of stuff like that. Could a regular person even dream of such a thing in the first place? Not likely, unless he/she was deeply invested in becoming a fantasy hero in a near future.
Taking a deep breath, Kain tried to infuse just a tiny bit of ch’i into the dagger. To his surprise, it was like trying to fill up a bucket with water when there was a massive hole on the bottom. It was literally an endless black hole, continuously demanding the nonstop flow of ch’i into it.
No, this is wrong. This can’t be right.
Kain frowned and stopped what he was doing. After giving it some more thought, he then decided to infuse the dagger with Aeterna from his own Pool instead. Since his Affinity lay with Earth Element, that was what he went with.
The dagger became incomparably heavier. He nearly dropped it because of that. But thanks to the added weight, the impact behind each thrusts were greater. In other words, he just haphazardly found a way to increase the damage of each of his swings.
Kain chuckled loudly as he swung the heavier dagger around after bolstering his arm muscles with the Body Enhancement spell. It was still heavy, but not unreasonably so. He could definitely use this.
As for the mystery of ch’i being swallowed up, he’d need to investigate more thoroughly later on.
He believed that the golden disc and this nameless dagger would serve him real well in the future.
Happily, things were looking up for him now.