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Much had changed in Hadjar’s life over the past year. He wasn’t bedridden now, at least. However—that bed had been so multifunctional that it had even massaged him.
And now he was forced to accept the fact that, in the future, he would not only have to sleep on a cold mattress, with preheated coals in an iron box stuffed underneath for warmth, but also… that he’d have to pee in a wooden outhouse. Upholstered in velvet, decorated with mosaics, but still wooden!
Life hadn’t prepared him for this…
It hadn’t prepared him for the fact that, after his death, he would find himself in another world, either. Fortunately, he wasn’t a farmer, but a prince. Still, he wasn’t sure about what awaited him in the future. There were some strange rules regarding inheritance and the throne of his country.
“…but our Northern neighbor, the Kingdom of Balium,” a white-haired old man was standing near the huge map which covered the entire wall. He delineated the boundaries of different states with a pointer and explained something to the children of the nobles. They were sitting at their desks and sketching something, using feathers to write on scrolls.” … is under the protection of ‘The Black Gates’, and that’s why we’re not at war with them. It would be tantamount to suicide.”
“Record,” Hadjar ordered mentally.
[Processing the request… the request has been processed. The data has been included in the database ” General information about the world”]
“Why don’t they attack us?” the owner of the surprisingly beautiful eyes and thin wrists raised her hand to ask.
“What could a vassal of ‘The Black Gates’ possibly need from a small kingdom such as ours?”
Hadjar, lurking in the corner of the hall, tried to roll his eyes, but his body didn’t obey him. In addition, it had taken him almost two hours to crawl from his chambers to the hall with the map, where the lessons for future officials and scholars were being held. Not because he’d crawled slowly, he’d just fallen asleep periodically.
The neural network would inform him about his lack of energy, and then he would fall asleep.
Now he understood why babies loved to sleep; crawling a few yards had taken a lot out of him.
“We’re all within the sphere of influence of The Darnassus Empire…”
The first court scholar continued speaking, but Hadjar was looking at the map greedily. He’d almost fainted when he’d first seen it. His mother had been holding him in her arms at the moment. Admittedly, he’d probably just gone back to sleep, but it didn’t matter.
In general, the Palace alone was larger than several city blocks. City blocks back in his old world, of course. Furthermore, the ceilings were so high and the walls were so long that he often felt his head spin. And the map, sewn from the skins of various beasts, was stretched along the width of the entire marble wall, which looked like the wall of a fortress.
The seams were the mountains, and the veins were rivers. This didn’t mean that barbarians lived in Lidus, just that the map was very old. It was extremely old, even by the standards of the locals: several million years old. And yes, the lifespan of people was abnormally long here.
And so, new areas would be sewn into the map, to honor the memory of the ancestors. Since Hadjar had been a highly educated man, he’d used his knowledge of geometry to calculate that Lidus was three times larger than the Eurasian continent.
Surely, this had to be a huge piece of land, even gigantic, right? But it was impossible to find the kingdom on the map, at least without using a magnifying glass. It looked like nothing more than a village, and was just a small piece of land in this vast, titanic world.
Even with the help of his neural network, Hadjar couldn’t understand why the day lasted the same 24 hours, on such a different world. He’d lost most of the functions it had. All that was left after his rebirth was the ability to record and play those recordings back, as well as very basic analytical mechanisms.
Still, he wasn’t complaining, since he shouldn’t even have that much.
“Which sect’s sphere of influence is our kingdom in?” the impudent-looking boy asked.
“That is a very good question,” the scholar put the pointer down and returned to the Department. “The sects aren’t interested in us for exactly the same reason that the Kingdom of Balium doesn’t attack us. The level of martial arts in our lands is very low. For example, to become just an ordinary disciple of ‘The Black Gates,’ one should have reached no less than the 8th stage of the Bodily Rivers.”
The students all exhaled at once, and Hadjar gave the neural network an order to record this. The locals had some strange, fetishistic obsession regarding the subject of martial arts, which the local magic had probably been transformed into sometime in the past.
And yet, he still believed that living in a world of might and magic was better than being a vegetable.
This strange quirk in the evolutionary path of these people could be explained by the fact that war, and the constant struggle for survival in general, were more common here than a trip to the store on a Friday had been, back in his old world.
“And that isn’t even the most difficult part,” the scholar continued, “it needs to be reached by the time they turn 16, otherwise the adept won’t even be accepted.”
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A wave of gasps swept through the classroom again, if this room could even be called that.
“I have to remind you that this path of cultivation is a long and winding one. Each student begins at the level of the Bodily Nodes, which is divided into nine levels. Then you advance to the level of the Bodily Rivers with its twelve steps. And only after you step over that threshold, which separates the mortal from the adept, will you reach the stage of Formation, when you become an adept and a part of the world of martial arts.”
All of them were sitting with their mouths wide open in astonishment. They had certainly already known these facts, but the scholar was able to convey the information in a manner that made the old subject seem very interesting, especially to Hadjar. Every ounce of knowledge was important for him.
“Can anyone tell me at what level a warrior can become a junior officer in our army?”
A lot of the disciples raised their hands, wanting to answer the question. Almost half of the two hundred children knew the answer.
“Please, Viscount Vale,” the scholar nodded.
A red-haired boy, about ten years old, stood up. Hadjar himself was only a year and two weeks old.
“At the eighth stage of the Bodily Nodes.”
“That’s right, sit down,” and the boy lowered himself back onto the stool, looking at his companions rather arrogantly. “And this is considered to be a good level. To become a mid-level officer, you need to cross the threshold and reach the level of the Bodily Rivers. The ones who become senior officers in the army are the few who’ve managed to reach its third stage. Our generals are at the fifth stage of the Bodily Rivers.”
The children scribbled with their feathers on the scrolls and listened to the mentor carefully. Now, in their crazy fantasies, they were probably dreaming about becoming the strongest adepts of the kingdom. Fortunately, there were no inequalities between the genders here. Hadjar saw a charming lady, wearing armor and with the regalia of a general.
If you can do it, if you know how, if you want to, go ahead—all the roads are open to you. And why shouldn’t you? After all, this lady could not only easily stop a running horse, but also lift said horse with one hand and then throw it a couple of yards away.
“And so, you can imagine how difficult it is to reach the required level of development, not only so that ‘The Black Gates’ will be interested in you, but to even be allowed to take part in their entrance exam.”
“You said ‘an ordinary disciple’. Are there any other types?”
“Of course,” the scholar nodded. “In most sects, disciples are divided into the following groups: the external or ‘ordinary’—there are a lot of these.”
The children looked at each other. So many young boys and girls were at the 8th step of the Bodily Rivers?! But they hadn’t even started to train, because their bodies were too weak for it. And that was in spite of all the stimulants and drugs which they’d been crammed full of since birth.
“Next are the students of the inner circle, or the ‘closest’. I don’t know about other sects, as they are either too far away or aren’t interested in us at all.”
Hadjar whistled mentally. ‘Too far’ in this world was approximately the distance from Earth to Mars.
“But in ‘The Black Gates’, only those who have reached the Formation stage before the age of twenty are allowed to take part in the inner circle exam. For the sake of comparison, our two strongest fighters—King Haver IV and his brother, Warlord Primus, reached that stage by the age of sixty. And they are considered to be the strongest warriors of their generation and the whole country.”
This time, the wave of sighs turned into a tsunami of whispers, and Hadjar tried to keep his mind from experiencing cognitive dissonance. A year ago, he’d thought his mother was only twenty years old. But, as it turned out later (when, thanks to the help of the neuronet, he’d been able to understand the local language), she was about a hundred. As for his father, he was about three centuries old.
It was scary to think about how old Primus was, considering the gray hair in his beard.
“So, what’s next?” The girl with the beautiful wrists asked.
“Next come the Senior students. These are the ones who deserve personal attention from the teachers in the sect. To get this honor, you need to be an extraordinary person. I know of only one such adept. And by the age of twenty-five, he was at the level of a Heaven Soldier.”
This time, the children couldn’t resist asking their questions all at once. Is it true that a Heaven Soldier can fly? That with a wave of their hand, they can create fire? That their sword can cut an enemy from a distance of two hundred steps? That they can send an arrow through the slot on a helmet from a distance of 3 miles? That for a Heaven Soldier to live a hundred years in solitude while meditating is as easy as living for a day is to a simple mortal?
“Silence,” the scholar slapped his hand down on the pulpit.
And this slap produced a wave of air, which overturned some scrolls and ruffled the hair of even the children in the back rows. The children immediately fell silent.
“That’s right, children,” the scholar nodded. “After an adept passes the Formation and Transformation stages, and manages to break through the second serious barrier between the stages, they will be able to reach the real level of an adept. They will cease to be an ordinary mortal, and will touch eternity, becoming a Heaven Soldier. And, according to many, only then can a person really be considered an adept.”
The kid from before raised his hand again, but he had, probably, been planning to ask a stupid question. Since it was that arrogant Viscount, most likely something about the bedroom prowess of a Heaven Soldier.
Hadjar, forgetting himself, raised his stubby hand and asked, “And what exactly should be formed and transformed? What are these ‘nodes’ and ‘rivers’? What kind of sick fantasies did the creator of all this have?!”
The classroom got very quiet.
Standing on all fours, dressed in silk and velvet, Hajar slowly lowered his hand back down on the floor. He’d forgotten that his questions sounded more like: “Agu-gaga-gu? Aglu am saaaaaa-Maglu? Ha-ha-gagumaaaa-g.” [The host’s level of speech distortion: 100%. Possibility of correction: 0%]
Some of the smart ones jumped to their feet and, pressing their hands to their chest, bowed. These were the most notable—the children of the dukes. The ordinary nobles collapsed to one knee, and the future ladies sank into deep curtsies.
The scholar bowed deeply.
“Your Highness,” he said. “How did you…”
The doors of the classroom opened, and the person that even some generals were afraid of appeared on the threshold. The elderly, but very energetic royal Nanny. She was called ‘royal’ because she’d once nursed Haver IV and his brother. There were legends that, before that, she’d been a general in the cavalry. The elite among the elites.
“Your Highness!” She roared with such force that the giant map began to shake. “How have you managed to escape again?!”
Hadjar wanted to answer that, for a week now, he’d been able to use a hole in the door to his chambers, but, most likely, they would guess that on their own later. Also, he couldn’t answer, despite the fact he wanted to.
“I beg your pardon, professor South Wind.” The names were kind of ridiculous around here.
The nanny held Hadjar in her arms. Despite her stern expression, she did it as carefully as if he were not a human, but a fragile vase. She wrapped him in the blanket she’d prepared. Hadjar protested, but couldn’t deal with her. And as soon as he was back in its warmth and comfort, he couldn’t resist his natural desires and immediately fell asleep.
The soldiers had already appeared from the hall by then. They surrounded the nanny in a ring of bodies and left the room with her, leaving the shocked disciples and the professor alone with their thoughts.
The nurse sighed, imagining how the king and queen would surely make a big deal out of this. No wonder the soldiers were checking their armor and shields. If Elizabeth started throwing plates again, it would be necessary to call the architects and builders to take them out of the walls.
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