(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you spot them, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!!)
Jonas Bremble nervously paced about the solemn corridor of the Imperial Institute. It had already been a fortnight since his return to the Capital Metropolis of Argos with the recovered Aerinite. He wasn’t expecting an overnight promotion but, something akin to a recognition for his successful sojourn into the unknown; yet not a single word came. So naturally he became restless.
Then all of a sudden, he received summons from the office of His Holy Grace Marquis Phillips. He was feeling agitated with a lack of news, and now he was rather beset with unnerved apprehension.
In all honesty, he was just a lowly Associate noble, not even a baronet yet, although he had acted haughty and mighty in front of everyone – in front of those whom he thought were not significant enough, at least.
Marquis Phillips was a wholly different kettle of fish altogether to the usual riff-raff he was used to until now; that man was, by blood, related to His Holy Emperor Titus Hyperion de Argos, the undisputed current ruler of the continent of Noa’s biggest and most formidable union of races.
Meeting a real big shot like that face to face, there was some amount of pressure on Jonas to present his utmost best behavior, for the sake of securing a financially comfortable future for himself.
What he couldn’t figure out, though, was the reasons for him being here. Well, he did submit a completion report to the person above his immediate rank that detailed what had gone down in the Riverfield’s Sacred Acre, but the chances of that being the catalyst seemed slim.
Reality was, Jonas couldn’t have been the only guy searching and locating the Aerinites all over the continent – not to mention, to submit a report on the findings. Never mind the fact that Marquis probably had his hands full dealing with other, more urgent businesses for him to read all the reports coming his way.
Actually, if a report did end up in Marquis’s hands somehow, then it would certainly warrant a more in-depth scrutiny. Jonas understood this; he also understood that perhaps the ordeal he had to go through in order to procure that lump of accursed Aerinite was unusual enough to cause this meeting.
The corridor he was pacing around in, certainly didn’t help with his nervousness; it was just too damn quiet. Other than his own footsteps echoing on the massive marble walls and the impressively decorated pillars, there were only two Imperial Guardsmen standing impassively by the side of the grand oak doors. They made not a sound, leading Jonas to question whether they were living beings, or some elaborate dolls created especially to unnerve visitors. Like him.
The gilded carpet that lined the length of the floor was also clean enough to make him doubt if anyone actually had stepped on them before.
He heard the hourly bell ring twelve times, denoting the beginning of the afternoon. Raising his head, Jonas gazed outside the open windows, towards the endlessly expanding sea of the colorful city. The Marquis’s office was situated on the fifth floor of the Institute’s main building so was the corridor he stood in which led to the office itself. He was offered a grand view of the sprawling urban jungle.
Midday smoke rose from various chimneys poking out from the skyline; most likely from people preparing lunch. The harsh sun cast a shimmering mirage-like image over the bustling city below. Even though he was in an isolated place, this building, this floor, he could still feel the pulse of all the people living down there.
Mismatched architecture of the city was always eye catching to him, but not in a good way; there were more than 600 thousand souls living in the boundaries of Argos and it was not too hard to see that all of them offered their own take on how an ideal house should be like.
Some buildings were tall, but not ‘too’ tall, unless their wealthy owners end up buying the wrath of those who rule.
If Jonas had his way, he’d raze all those ugly, haphazard dwellings to the ground and form a cityscape that better suits the glory of the Empire. And of himself, obviously.
What a miserable pile of excrement, the lot of them, Jonas snorted inwardly. He cared not one jot for the masses; never did, and never will. Such sentiments did him no favors at all.
Looking after himself first and foremost, was the one truth he adhered to quite strictly. Everything he had done, was for the sake of that.
Because he was different from the rabble shuffling like undead on the streets. He was not going to live his life as a commoner, no. He had ambitions. He was going to go places, high up.
The words his granddad spoke rang around his skull as clear as the day he heard it. You’re better than them. Show them your worth. Become a great man, Jonas.
By a stroke of good timing, the great doors creaked open and as if they had been waiting, the Imperial Guardsmen stepped aside promptly while holding their glimmering halberds at attention. From the open gap, a strikingly attractive, hazelnut-haired slender woman in her early twenties appeared, and spoke in a business-like tone.
“Sir Jonas Bremble, please follow me.”
Wordlessly nodding, Jonas slipped past the woman and entered. He noted the immense heft of the doors and couldn’t help but wonder how the hell someone as slender and delicate looking as her could’ve operated them. The thickness alone was as much as a length of a person’s forearm, never mind the height of them easily surpassing that of two men combined.
The answer came to him soon after; she touched the doors, and chantlessly Invoked, causing wooden branches to sprout out from her own hands, and connecting with the heavy doors. She then effortlessly closed them as if it was as easy as moving an empty plate.
Wood Elements, eh? Huh, that is a rare Affinity. As expected of someone working for His Grace….
Jonas thought bitterly. Only if he had an Affinity with one of the Elements within the system of wielding Aeterna, Invocation. Not any Elements, no, but something rare and high class; then his life would have been set from much earlier on, instead of him going through all this hassle.
He had his analytical skills as well as his sword arm which was not inconsiderable so, he guessed he wasn’t all that hopeless. Worth indeed.
But he was unprepared for the sight that greeted him as soon as he entered. What awaited him was a sparse office, a couple of bookshelves, clean but austere desk; and no Marquis to be found anywhere. It sure didn’t look the part of someone holding a powerful station.
Confused, Jonas turned to look at the woman, but she ignored his doubting eyes and instead reached out with both her hands towards him.
“Please relinquish your weapons,” she said.
Unsure of where this situation was going, he hesitated briefly – before handing over his sword and the dagger. If his life was threatened by this female for some reason, then he’d surely overwhelm her in no time. Even with her rare Affinity, he was quite confident of his skills. He did survive the hellhole that was the Riverfield Sacred Acre, after all.
The woman received them with care, and carried them to a large wooden chest near the desk. Using her Affinity, she operated the heavy lid, and deposited her cargo gently.
Once that was taken care of, she wordlessly approached the wall on the right side of the office. There was a small, ruby-like gemstone embedded into the marble surface, which she pressed with her palm.
A small amount of Aeterna flowed in, and the wall itself began to creak.
Alarmed, Jonas took a step back, only to have his eyes fall out of their sockets.
The previously solid wall suddenly began to divide into dozens of smaller blocks in a flash. And as if guided by some invisible hands, the blocks shifted to the either sides swiftly and remained suspended in the air.
What the opened wall revealed was, a very spacious, opulently furnished chamber.
The space was a big. It must have occupied the entirety of the floor, at first glance. Grand paintings of all the Emperors, past and present, adorned the walls; the carpets expensive enough to buy a house with; and thick drapes hanging from the ceilings, etched with the crest of the Argos Empire.
Oddly though, it all felt a little cold in here.
There were five Imperial Guardsmen present here as well, but even Jonas could tell these guys were several steps higher in terms of ability than the ones guarding the corridor. As a matter of fact, they seemed to be the members of The Divine Knights Order, judging by the crest of exploding sun etched to their cuirasses.
Jonas couldn’t see but, from the guardsmen’s weapons, faint traces of Aeterna were leaking out. Kain might’ve been able to see that. But not everyone was like him in that department, so there’s that.
Anyways, there was one other man in this chamber that exuded a different kind of pressure from the others. This one was far greater, greater than all five guards combined. Even Jonas, who couldn’t discern Aeterna’s flow, felt the overwhelming presence of this man.
So that is Marquis Gregor Arterus de Phillips, one of five Mythic ranked Divine Knight in the entirety of Noa continent. What a suffocating, overbearing presence.
Jonas gulped down involuntarily as he saw Marquis Phillips. The man was in his late fifties but you wouldn’t have known that, seeing how large and solidly built he was, sitting behind a huge desk that dwarfed the one outside.
His shoulder-length, almost white hair was cleanly swept back, his chiseled jawline adorned with the similar colored, closely cropped beard. His verdant eyes focused and darting between several documents he held in his gloved hands.
His huge chest muscles rippled underneath the silk shirts every time he moved; he scowled at the document briefly as if something on it displeased him, and that increased the pressure by ten fold. Unable to resist, Jonas ended up groaning out a little. Still, no attention was paid to him.
The woman walked past trembling Jonas completely unaffected by the strong pressure and approached Marquis with ease. She leaned in close and whispered that the subject of the current appointment has arrived.
Phillips raised his head and stared at Jonas for a moment. Then he motioned him to come closer.
Jonas’s feet felt quite heavy, as he dragged himself forward. The pressure increased gradually as he got closer.
Cold sweat was pouring from the back. He swore he’d need a new shirt as soon as he leave this chamber.
The suffocating pressure was suddenly lifted from his shoulders as if it were a lie when Marquis’s eyes softened.
“You are Jonas Bremble? The one who submitted this report?”
Phillips asked in the baritone voice that suited his physique to a T, his eyes not leaving Jonas.
“Yes, your grace. It is I, Jonas Bremble, son of Matthias Bremble of the Chivalric Order of Blue Moons. It is my honor to be in your presence.”
Still sweating, Jonas managed not to stutter or bite his tongue. He didn’t forget to bow courteously too. He felt that he scored some points with that.
“You had to go through quite an ordeal to procure the Aerinite, haven’t you? Well done, Sir Jonas Bremble.”
“Th- Thank you, your grace!!” Jonas smiled happily. Finally, he had received acknowledgment, from a marquis no less!! Things were looking up.
Phillips nodded at the woman and she then brought out a parchment from a bundle of documents in her bosom. Looking at how she was acting in front of the Marquis, it seemed more than likely that she was his personal assistant – no wonder she wasn’t affected by the pressure at all.
“Take a look at this, and then sign it.”
Phillips said bluntly as the woman handed over the parchment to Jonas.
When he looked at it, he narrowed his eyes at the content. It was a written agreement to be signed into action, stating that everything spoken within these walls will stay here. The penalty of death awaited those foolish enough to break the agreement.
A non-disclosure agreement, in other words. Feeling the intense stare of those present, Jonas put forth his name on the dotted line, inwardly wondering just what he had gotten himself into.
Once that was done, the assistant took away the agreement and placed it within the bundle once more. She then left the chamber swiftly, and the floating blocks of the wall quietly reverted back into their original positions.
It didn’t simply end there, as the wall suddenly became nearly transparent, allowing Jonas to see into the smaller office space where the assistant was. This also made him speechless, seeing that he had never even heard of such Invocations before.
Phillips stood up from the desk as if that was nothing to be surprised about, and began to speak.
“I’ve read your report with great interest. You have performed a wonderful service for the good of The Empire by recovering the Aerinite. I’ll let you know, the material you have personally recovered is by far the biggest, most intact sample of Aerinite ore ever found. Be proud of this fact, Sir Jonas.”
“Yes, your grace.”
“I’m sure you have questions. And I shall answer some of them, in due time. But first, I want you to regale me the details of the hidden chamber, or the vault, where the Aerinite was found.”
Why does he want to hear that? It’s all written in the report. Jonas hid his confusion and nodded solemnly.
“Yes, your grace. After my group defeated the unnatural abomination acting as the Final Guardian of the Sacred Acre, the remaining, able-bodied men proceeded into the newly excavated passageway. This led into another chamber which differed greatly in appearance from all the others before it.
“The dimensions of the chamber was about the same as your grace’s office, but instead of metal panels that adorned most of the Acre’s interior, the walls were seemingly made out of crystals of unknown origin.
“A single light source was rotating on the middle of the ceiling and the crystallic walls reflected the resulting light, causing the chamber to be lit brightly.
“Upon closer inspection, the crystal wall was slowly revolving somehow, even taking into account the entrance. The Journeyman-ranked Invoker whom I had selected personally for this venture, Lady Helga, recognized presence of an unknown Invocation cast on the chamber itself.”
Jonas took a breath, and licked his dry lips. Then he continued.
“The Aerinite, shaped as a rod, was placed on a pedestal-like protrusion situated in the middle of the chamber. The suspicious blue lights that had previously appeared in the walls, ceiling, and the floors of the Acre also were visible on the rod, snaking around it in a thin stripe. The rod itself looked metallic, perhaps of similar composition as the panels on the Acre’s walls.
“After examining it for a few moments, Lady Helga reaffirmed the belief that the Aerinite was responsible for the blue lights, and the curse that had befallen on the hired help.
“It was also determined that the bandits had unwisely touched the rod and thus activating it without realizing what it was. The cloth provided by the Institute was barely enough to wrap the Aerinite rod and, its anti-Aeterna property have prevented a mishap in handling from occurring while in transit.
“The rod was proved to be surprisingly heavy as its dimension was not much bigger than that of a regular sceptor or an Invocation wand used by Invokers of the SOIR, Society of Invocation Researchers.
“The moment the Aerinite rod was removed from the pedestal, words of the ancient civilization appeared one after another in the air, as if being projected by an advanced level Invocation. They flashed past too quickly for me or Lady Helga to perform a close inspection, regrettably.
“As soon as the words stopped appearing, all functions of the Sacred Acre ceased, including the revolving crystals and the blue lights. The curse was immediately lifted from the afflicted members, and the previously blocked passages were reopened again, thus enabling the group to return safely.
“That is all, your grace.”
Jonas finished his story, and bowed.
“I see,” Phillips nodded. “You have not left out anything else?”
“No, your grace. I give you my word.”
“You didn’t recognize any of the words that had appeared?”
“No, your grace. I did not recognize any.”
Phillips nodded again.
He then opened a drawer of his desk, and produced a lengthy blue roll.
“For now, I shall answer one question, Sir Jonas. If you have any, ask.” Phillips said as he stood before Jonas.
Marquis was tall. Easily seven feet, he towered over Jonas like a parent would a child.
Doing his best not to be seen as easy to cower, Jonas steeled his wavering heart and tried to find a question to ask. A question that wouldn’t make him look like a fool in front of Marquis, that was.
“Your grace, just exactly what is an Aerinite? What is its purpose?”
This was the one question he felt was safe to ask, out of all those he could come up with; if Marquis Phillips don’t want to talk about it, then he’d shut it down immediately; if not, then he’d show him the inner workings of the Imperial Institute’s secretive laboratories.
Either way, nothing would be lost, and possibly, he would be gaining instead; Jonas could live with that no problem.
“Sir Jonas, what is the objective of the Imperial Institute?”
Phillips asked as he began to unroll the large blue parchment slowly.
“It is to research and create tools to protect the future of the Empire,” replied Jonas without hesitation.
Phillips looked satisfied at the prompt answer, and nodded accordingly. “Indeed. We, the members of the Institute, are the true vanguards in charge of upholding the value of this great nation, where more than one and a half million subjects call home.”
After fully unfurling the blue document, Phillips straightened his considerable frame and motioned Jonas to come closer.
“Tell me Sir Jonas, what do you think, is the most effective way to uphold our values against our enemies?”
“Sir? …. Well, the easiest would be to arm ourselves accordingly, and visibly, as a deterrent.”
“I wouldn’t say that is the easiest path, but indeed, Sir Jonas. Weapons, either visible in plain sight or only whispered behind closed doors, are the most effective means to uphold the Empire’s values from the assault of our enemies.”
Jonas didn’t say anything, but slowly approached the grinning Marquis. He may have a rather disarming smile on his lips but his eyes weren’t laughing; no, they were hard and calculating. Jonas felt a chill down his spine, simply by looking into those eyes.
“To answer your question, Sir Jonas, take a good look at this document, which is called a Blueprint.”
“A blueprint, your grace?”
Jonas peered over at the document, and his eyes narrowed at the drawings depicted on it. He had seen enough documents during his tenure as the Institute member so he recognized what this mysterious Blueprint was supposed to be, regardless of its foreign name, but what was drawn on it was something he could not understand at first glance.
There were very detailed diagram-like drawings of a structure that could only be described as huge. The drawings were of its front, back, left, top and the bottom view.
There were letters written here and there, but he didn’t recognize them either; neither did he, with what seemed like a precise measurement written alongside the drawings.
“This… this is?”
Jonas stuttered softly, confused and awed at the same time.
“This, Sir Jonas, will change the shape of this continent. This will change the flow of history. This is where the recovered Aerinite goes into. The one you have recovered, the biggest, most intact example yet, will become the heart of the Imperial Fleet.”
“Fleet, your grace? Is this a drawing of a ship?”
“A ship, that’ll fly in the sky.”
The smile pasted on Phillips’s lips was genuine this time. There was pure joy in his eyes, Jonas was sure of it.
A ship that can fly in the sky? Jonas couldn’t picture it, no matter how hard he tried. Looking at the Blueprint, it certainly had some resemblance with grand ocean liners that were in operation South of the continent but to think, these heavy, sea-going structures would take to the skies? With what exactly?
The obvious answer was by using Invocations, but Jonas couldn’t even begin to imagine the amount of Aeterna necessary to just lift one of these ships. It would be enormous, and tens of Expert-ranked Invokers may struggle in vain.
Unless, the Aerinite held the key.
“Your grace, can the Aerinite be the reason why these large vessels can fly?” Jonas asked carefully, wondering if he’d get a reply. He was permitted a single question, and he’d exhausted it already. Asking another could cause trouble if not handled right.
“Aerinite is an artificial conduit. It acts as a funnel that guides Aeterna from the Ether and converts into Aeterna in our world. The larger and more intact one is, more Aeterna it can convert and put to use.”
Jonas was glad that he got a reply. More to the point, he was right about Aerinite’s usefulness.
The Ether, the world hidden beneath the current one that supposedly was the realm of the Twelve Gods of Creation, and where Aeterna was reputedly originating from.
“An artificial creation…. Was it the Ancients who created Aerinite, your grace?”
“Who knows. But one thing’s for certain; more Aerinite has been recovered, and will continue to be so. That means the building of the flying ships must take precedence above all else.
“Thus, we come at the juncture where the real intention of your presence here is discussed, Sir Jonas.”
When he heard that, Jonas stiffened up and stood at attention. “By your order, your grace, command me and I shall fulfill.”
“Good. When I read your report, I sensed a certain kindred spirit in you, Sir Jonas. You’re a man who never does things in half measures, correct? You are a kind of man who is not afraid of getting dirty, rolls his sleeves up and jumps straight into the crux of the matter. You are someone I need.”
Phillips said those words without a hint of sarcasm in his voice. To say Jonas was moved beyond words was an understatement of the century.
“Yes, your grace!! I am truly honored at your generous evaluation!!”
“Now, the job I have in mind for you, is to become an overseer for one of the teams that will construct the ship at a secret location. Of course, utmost secrecy is required, and for the duration of the job, you will be forbidden from making contact with outside. This will be very arduous even for the strongest of nerves. But if it is you, I feel you’ll ensure the success of the project. Do you not agree?”
Phillips said, as his smile became a little more crooked. Jonas didn’t notice it however; he was too busy trembling in excitement for that.
“Good. You’ll be reassigned in one week. See to your affairs before then.”
Phillips observed Jonas with his cold eyes, thinking that he was going to be a useful pawn. A person like him was easy to manipulate, as long as the right trigger was used. In this case, judging by the way the report was carefully tilted to his own favor, plus the demeanor showed in his conduct as a member of the Institute, gave Phillips enough to play with.
Man like Jonas, needed a promise of bright future as a bait. Even though Phillips hadn’t promised anything about what’d happen after the construction of the flying ships were completed, Jonas would simply assume he was now set for life because of the job’s brevity at hand.
Phillips sighed, and while watching Jonas, another matter entered his thoughts. “Sir Jonas, tell me about how the Baron of Riverfield was, before your departure from the village. In your report, you stated he lost an arm due to a carelessness.”
“Your grace? Uh, Baron Lomax seemed to be of ill health when I departed from the village. The curse was indeed lifted but the lost limb could not regenerate. Also, there was another upheaval during his absence. I only learned of it after fact, but apparently there was a break-in and an attempted assassination of the Baron’s young daughter.”
Phillips raised an eyebrow at that, a small flicker of anger in his eyes. “Was there an investigation? Do you know of the results?”
“No, I do not know if there were any investigations, your grace.”
“I see. How did the Baron handle the news?”
“Uh, he was…. distraught, I believe. The, ah, atmosphere at his home was not inducive for a peaceful stay, forcing me to hasten my departure from the village.”
Jonas didn’t understand this sudden interest in the Baron of the hick village by the Marquis. Yes, Damien was a Lomax, but from a branch family not the main one, so the chances of the two knowing one another was basically none. Especially, Jonas always assumed that the man was quite likely demoted, vanished by his own family; and thus had ended up in Riverfield, not in some mid-to-large town.
“Is that so,” said Marquis Phillips.
At that moment, Jonas saw a very brief flash of what looked like pity in his eyes. But that was so quick, he wondered whether he made a mistake.
“If nothing else, Sir Jonas, then our meeting has come to an end,” Phillips coolly said and motioned one of the guards with a wave of his hand.
The guard walked to the transparent wall, and was about to press the gemstone embedded on the surface when Jonas felt a rare compulsion to speak without permission.
“Your grace – there is one matter bothering me. Just who exactly designed this vessel? I do not recognize any of the writings on it.”
“…. For now, don’t pay it any mind Sir Jonas. The translated blueprints will be available for you by the time you’re ready to set off.”
And that was the one and only time Jonas ever got to have an audience with the Marquis.
Silently, Damien woke up from his fitful dream. It was quite early. In fact, there weren’t a single trace of sun’s rays reddening the dark sky yet.
Carefully, he slipped out of the bed, trying his hardest not to rouse his sleeping wife, or his kids. Kain by the cot, and Kaleena between himself and Lizbeth. The family, spending time together, an idea Damien insisted on; he wanted to be close to his kids – and yes, wifey too.
He had been waking up before everyone else for a couple of days now, all in order to get better used to not having two arms. With his dominant right hand gone, he had to adopt to using the left which was proving to be rather challenging.
The phantom pain persisted even after a couple of months had passed since the expedition to the Sacred Acre, and it kept on plaguing him ceaselessly. Everyday, he thought there was a progress with him adapting to his new situation, then he’d make the same mistake of trying to carry heavy items with both of his hands, as he did in the past. His heart trembled in anger whenever that happened, as it was a reminder of his failure at being a leader, a fighter, a protector.
While he was coming back from the Sacred Acre having recovered the Aerinite, he had no time to grieve, as arriving at their destination quickly was more important than anything else. And when he did come back, there still wasn’t enough time for him wallow in self pity, as the news of his daughter getting hurt by an unknown assailant was waiting for him.
With no time to process everything that had happened, all he could do was to fly into rage at every little thing. To prevent himself from going out of control he poured all of his available energy at uncovering the identity of those bastards responsible but during the past two months, the trail went too cold to pursue it anymore.
After successfully slipping out of the bedroom, Damien headed downstairs to the backyard. He stopped by his office to grab Frostbane out of the weapons chest on the way.
The Monsoon season was in full swing, and it had been pummeling with incessant raindrops the whole night long. Early mornings, however, were the only time during the day guaranteed to have no rain. It’d only last for a few hours at most, so he had to make the hay while the sun still shines.
Without unsheathing the saber, Damien began to practice swinging the weapon with his left hand. Nothing fancy, just simple vertical, downward swings, repeated hundreds of times.
Then, horizontal swings, left to right, right to left, then back again, hundreds of times, until his shoulder felt like it was on fire.
Sweat pouring out of his bared torso, dripping down until soaking through his pants. But he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. No, not yet, not until he becomes familiar with his favorite sword once more and wield it like before.
Like a possessed man, Damien swung the saber. He didn’t even notice the eventual rise of the sun. Didn’t notice that Rosy was up now, and was watching her boss from the side without interrupting.
Soon enough, Lizbeth came down too. She carried a complicated expression, that of a woman worrying about her husband’s wellbeing, but not knowing what needs to be done.
Before anyone noticed, this style of morning practice had become the daily routine. Somewhere along the line, two different Damiens emerged. One, where he was a kind, attentive father and a husband who tried hard not to burden the others around him with his disability.
And the second, where he’d stare at a wall in complete silence, unmoving, while his eyes swam like a madman. Or when he obsessively does one thing and one thing only, as if he’d forgotten about everything else.
At the moment, it was Lizbeth who took care of administration of Riverfield. No choice there, as when her husband tried to sign a document with his left hand, he flew into a sudden rage and nearly hurt himself. Ever since then, the only time he entered his office was to retrieve Frostbane, or to store it.
The administration of the village couldn’t wait and after receiving the advice from the village elders, Lizbeth took over, at least for temporarily.
It’s been like that for many days now. Having heard of what had happened from those who entered the Acre, she understood the ordeal the group had to go through.
And the loss to the village was unexpectedly large; the compensation given to the grieving families after the funeral nearly had almost run the available finances to the ground. The money received from Jonas barely kept them above water. It was a godsend, that’s how Lizbeth felt, but she didn’t say that out loud.
When the raindrops fell on Damien’s face, he finally stopped the practice, and went back inside to have breakfast. He happily fawned over Kaleena and cooed at Kain as if the morning’s obsessive sword swinging was nothing but a lie.
Lizbeth was at two minds; on one hand, she felt it might be necessary to talk to her husband, but at the same time, she wasn’t sure how he’d react. In the past, when they were still adventuring, when they came to this village for the first time to subjugate the fledgling Sacred Acre, they lost people too.
People like Rosy’s father. People who were very close to Damien and Lizbeth. Their loss was the catalyst in them deciding to settle down. Back then, when it all happened, Damien was nearly out of his mind and it took a great deal of healing to get him back to where he was.
Now another, similar tragedy was eating away at him and she felt helpless to act. The advice she was given by Delilah, was to give him some space, before finding out if he wanted to talk. For now, Lizbeth decided to follow the older woman’s words. But her patience was running out.
After the breakfast, Damien didn’t remain idle and tried to help here and there. His excuse was to get better at using his left hand. When that was done, then he’d walk around the estate with an umbrella, minding the horses by the stable.
And when that was done, then he’d aimlessly stare at the rain. And stare. And stare.
It so happened that Kain was with him during this time. Watching his new father behaving like this, he couldn’t help but feel bad for not being able to help; it looked like a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome to him but wasn’t sure how to deal with it.
Kain mulled if there was some way to help Damien. It just felt bad looking at the normally happy, relaxed man looking so damn miserable everyday. The dude looked too damn pitiful to him, really. Not a nice thing to say to a guy who was going through some tough sh*t, but it was what it was.
He may not know all the facts about PTSD but, as far as he could remember from those TV shows and movies, it didn’t seem like a good idea to let it brew all on its own and then go off without a moment’s notice, especially near young kids such himself and Kaleena.
Kain’s options were still way too limited for his liking. Trapped in a toddler’s body, all he could do was to observe. He thought long and hard on how to help, until smoke rose from his head. Figuratively, of course.
Then finally he remembered one important detail from that night; seeing the trace of Aeterna leaking out from Damien’s office. Based on nothing but his gut, Kain felt 100% confident that the thief-cum-assassin was after that. If he could somehow direct Damien’s attention to that, then maybe that might help, even if he didn’t know for sure. He was operating under the assumption of distract and conquer, for some reason.
Distract Damien long enough, he might be able to bury the pain deep under his skin – or that’s what Kain thought would happen.
Now it was about how to skilfully guide Damien’s attention towards the mystery object in the office without setting off any alarm bells. That was going to be tough.
But luck seemed to be on his side; Lizbeth, Kaleena and Delilah had to go out for some reason or the other, and Rosy was at the stable, tending to the horses, leaving Damien and Kain alone in the house. This sure was a very convenient development,.
His body had developed to the point where crawling was possible for him. So then, the plan he cooked up was to make Damien lose sight of him for a second, and then let him search – until he’s led into his office, where Kain would be waiting for him, tapping the exact spot where the trace of Aeterna was with his fat baby hand.
After that, he’d have to play it by ear but it sounded like a decent enough plan. In the absence of another, it was as good as any. At least for something he came up with, that was.
They were in the upper floor nursery, idling away doing nothing much, when Kain decided to begin his operation. He threw a small tantrum and caused Damien to go downstairs to fetch milk and a bottle. That was perfect.
The kitchen was on the ground floor, along with Damien’s office. Kain followed his dad down and made sure the old man was out of his sight. He quickly crawled to the office with all his might, while leaving the door ajar, as well as a wooden toy block on the floor.
That was very tiring.
Once he was in the office though, he was slightly taken aback. He couldn’t sense that Aeterna anymore. Recalling the exact spot was proving to be difficult, so Kain began to wander about trying to jolt his memories into gear.
The spot was near the back, so he crawled there and tried to check all the nooks and crannies, but predictably there were some problems. There was thick carpets on the floor and it turned into quite a bothersome opponent.
Previously there weren’t any in the office, but Lizbeth wanted to cover the blood-stained floorboards until the end of the Monsoon season so the new floor could be installed.
Another problem was the furniture; Kain couldn’t look behind them for obvious reasons.
Finally, there was Damien himself.
“Oh, hey you. What are you doing in here, you naughty kid?”
He found the bottle much too fast for Kain’s liking. Upon seeing the discarded toy block, Damien bent down to pick it up, and noticed the office door open. He was somewhat bemused to see his toddler son wandering in his office willy-nilly, but that was as far as it went.
Damien bent down to pick up his son, who looked quite disappointed, and tried to evade capture.
“What the…. hey stop, Kain. What’s gotten into you?”
An adult’s speed always was going to be faster than that of a toddler; Kain had no chance of escape. Damien easily blocked his route and lifted him up. Frowning, Damien asked his pouting son.
“Seriously now, what’s the matter, son? You’ve always been such an obedient child. It’s not like you to misbehave like this. Looks like I might need to keep a closer eye on you.”
Chuckling, he brought Kain into his arm and held the boy. As he turned, he noticed the chest that stored Frostbane wasn’t closed properly. The latch of the locking mechanism had been damaged by the assassin who was looking for something inside the office.
Damien wanted to have that fixed but it kept on slipping out of his mind. There were no locksmiths in the village so it was going to be a hassle just to repair such a small thing.
He probably could get away with tying it tight with a leftover rope or something, he figured. No, that would be inconvenient if he were to practice left hand swings with the saber every morning. Besides, tying a rope with only one arm was going to be another hassle too.
Thinking about how his missing arm was giving him more unneeded hassles, his blood began to boil suddenly.
He angrily kicked the chest hard, and forced it back against a shelf with a loud bang.
The saber clattered inside the chest loudly too, complaining of the mistreatment it didn’t deserve. Kain too, jumped up in his arms, alarmed. He thought the fuse had finally blown or something similar.
Anger was clouding over Damien’s eyes, but as soon as he saw baby’s frightened face, he instantly calmed down from the red mist.
“Sorry about that, son. My fault entirely. Will you forgive your old man?”
He apologized wholeheartedly, not really caring if the boy understood him or not. He noticed the furniture had shifted slightly because of the impact, and decided to fix it – after he had secured his son inside the cot. He didn’t want to risk the crawling baby to go wandering around the house unattended.
He quickly went upstairs, secured the baby, left the milk bottle alongside, and descended back to the office. And yes, he didn’t notice the grumbling Kain as he left the nursery.
As soon as he entered his office, unwelcome sight greeted him: a rodent, frozen to the spot for an instant, before scurrying back behind the moved furniture with haste.
Oh, that’s not good, Damien winced at that. Lizbeth hates rodents with passion. If she finds out there’s a rat in the house, she’s going to blow the roof off!! I better catch that thing before that happens. I wonder, didn’t I store away a couple of traps somewhere? Where did it go, anyway?
Damien leaned and peered into the gap between the shelf and the wall. Sure enough, there was a hole there, just big enough to let a rat go through.
Oh hell, so that’s how the little critter got in, Damien sighed in his heart. Last thing he wanted was another hassle on top of the ones he already had.
He too began to grumble, and pulled the shelf out further. He knelt down to take a closer look at the hole, to see the inside if possible, and instead saw something strange.
The lighting within the wall was of course not so good, but nevertheless he saw what looked like another wall behind the one with a hole.
To make sure, he took the wooden practice sword out of the weapons chest, the one he had kicked earlier, and poked the hole. Sure enough, there was small gap, where it shouldn’t have been.
He heard his own voice telling him to investigate. He didn’t want to know what was hidden, as the very thought of knowing itself became scary but if there was a false wall here that he wasn’t aware of after living in this house all this time, he had every right to be worried.
Lady Valette, just what the hell were you hiding in here?
Damien frowned deeply, and stood up slowly from the crouching posture. Right, he had made up his mind; he was going to do it.
He went outside and called Rosy back from the stable, asking her to look after Kain. Then he retrieved from the storehouse the sledgehammer he used back in the spring to drive the stakes on the ground.
Rosy looked confused herself when Damien began striking the wall. With only one hand he could only exert half the strength, but thanks to all the morning practices, the accuracy was good.
While holding Kain, Rosy watched her boss destroy the wall in his office, wondering what she should do. Kain, on the other hand, was watching the scene unfold with some interest. He didn’t know why Damien was demolishing the wall, but if it was because he found something, then all the better for it.
Soon, the wall, originally made of mud and brick, came down.
And there was an empty space. No, it wasn’t completely empty – as there was a dusty wooden lever coated in cobwebs on the wall staring at them.
All those present silently stood there, staring back.
“….Boss? What the heck is that?” Rosy asked in her old manner of speech, when she was still an active Adventurer.
“…I’m not sure. Well, shall we find out? To be on the safer side, can you take Kain and step outside for a bit?”
Rosy looked disappointed but consented and went out of the office, leaving Damien behind.
Confirming that the girl and his son was gone, he reached in and pulled the lever, while bracing for the unknown, the sledgehammer acting as his sole weapon.
He heard a soft but distinct click below him, and felt the floor jiggle ever so slightly. Then he heard another click, this time a bit away from him, below his desk.
That was it.
….That can’t be it.
Damien approached the oversized desk carefully. This desk came with the house when he became the owner. The village elders told him that this very desk had served each succeeding lords of Riverfield throughout generations so he didn’t have the heart to throw it away and get a smaller one.
It was a bit sentimental thing to do, but since the desk had some history, he thought it was the right thing to do at the end of the day. Anyways, one thing he had never done was to move the desk into another position, seeing that it looked really, really heavy.
When he touched the corner of the desk, he felt the whole thing give as if it was on skates.
His frowns got deeper, but he resolved himself already, so he pushed the desk. It glided quite easily to the side, and a gaping hole appeared there. A ladder was visible too, on the side.
A basement? What the…. the houses around here doesn’t have basements built into them, because of the annual Monsoon season could end up flooding them. But why is one right under my feet?
This was going to be difficult, with only one arm. He saw that there wasn’t any light under there, and although he didn’t want to believe it, but he could not discount the possibility of something not very nice lurking down there.
One arm meant he couldn’t hold a torch and a weapon at the same time. He needed an extra set of hands, in other words. Rosy was with Kain, so that was not going to work.
He decided to wait for his wife to return. Until then, he’d stand and guard this hole, whatever it led to.