The entire city block was walled off to house the Lafayette branch of the Society of Invocational Research. It wasn’t some insignificant, small sized block either – perhaps as big as that of a modern world’s idea of several meshed together. Scale of the whole thing was very impressive.
The walls surrounding the massive property were tall and wide, and quite uninviting, with a thin layer of Aeterna moving in unnatural wave-like motions above it. Only Kain could see that, of course. He felt strong urge not to touch the walls haphazardly, lest he no longer liked his hand to remain attached to his arm.
The white and smooth walls were so amazingly pristine, it was as if there were invisible cleaners tirelessly mopping away any and all grime on the surface. Not only that, the surrounding streets were spotless too, not a single trash dancing in the wind or some such. And no civilian traffic too. It was all so quiet. Like a church.
The opposite of the SOIR branch was an empty plot of land, although it was lightly fenced off. Signs of destruction on the upturned soil were abundant, making Kain wonder why.
The carriage stopped in front of the large pair of metal gates. There were a guard station built into the wall, and a half dozen soldiers keeping watch. Their steely, somewhat disapproving looks directed at the trio dismounting from the taxi.
Their equipment, somehow, looked expensive. They were certainly better kitted out then their Lafayette counterparts, with all their armors enhanced with Invocation – Kain could see faint traces of Aeterna on all the pieces – and the flowing indigo-hued mantles imparted a feeling of luxury.
The city guards in comparison certainly seemed shabbier, but just as well organized. Kain thought that either these guys were not part of Lafayette and were instead privately-hired, or because of their place of work, received favorable treatment.
A couple of the guards walked closer, alert and scrutinizing. Kain could see the crest on their armors were different to that of Lafayette’s, the eagle, and instead it was three swords and a shield intersecting one another. So, a different brigade altogether, then.
The air of superiority oozing from the approaching guards rubbed off on him the wrong way. Their condescending eyes, especially; it was as if they were sizing up Kain and his group on appearances alone, deciding in an instant they were beneath them or something.
Basically, the kind of eyes that makes one want to slap the living daylights out of.
Fortunately for Kain, he had just the right kind of man to deal with these type of irritating small fries. And that man’s name was Derrick Septima Lomax.
“We’ve come to speak to whoever is in charge.” Derrick said to the approaching guards without skipping a beat, not even leaving an opening to ask the first question. “Time’s of an essence so, hurry up.”
“Well, sir, do you have any prior appointments? If not, then we don’t have any obligation to hear your requests,” said one of the guards, barely containing his irritation.
Derrick coolly replied while paying the carriage driver for his services. “Obviously I have business here. Why else would I have come? Do not waste my time if you’re unable to assist me.”
“You….” The guards frowned, their lips pursing in displeasure.
But not giving a toss, Derrick produced a folded leather item that kind of resembled a billfold from under his chestplate, his facial expression one of not caring what other party was thinking of.
The guards tensed up right away, becoming wary of the item. Even Kain had never seen it before.
“I am 357th Silver Ranked Divine Knight Derrick Septima Lomax, of 196th Battalion, Argos Division. This here is my identification. Now, let us through so I can speak to someone who can get things done.”
He lightly flipped open the leather flap and revealed a magnificent golden medallion hidden within. It was shaped like a radiating sun, and a silver motif carved in the middle. Small amount of Aeterna leaked out from it too. Kain saw it as plain as day. Then Derrick poured a little of his own Aeterna on the medallion, and it glowed even brighter, with words floating up above it like a hologram display. The words were the exact same thing Derrick said, just now.
The medallion denoted those of different ranks in Divine Knights. It was an Invocation Tool, a sure-fire way of identifying its owner to prevent fraudulent claimants trying to pass off themselves as Knights. Those who weren’t a Divine Knight couldn’t even carry it around due to Invocation cast on it, never mind hold it and show it off openly.
“Sir!!” Immediately the arrogant guards sobered up and stood at full attention, performing a military salute of placing right fist over the crest on the chest armor. The rest followed suit as well, one or two sweating a little. “Sir, please wait here a moment, while I call for a representative to come and assist you.”
“Very well.” Derrick nodded dismissively, and tucked his leather billfold away.
The guard hurried toward the in-built guard station to the left of the grand gate and ducked in. Kain thought he was going to hoof it to the main building just visible beyond the gates but no, it seemed there was some kind of alternative method to get messages across.
Kain didn’t have to wait long. The guard nearly stumbled out of the station, and dashed in closer. He was out of breath when he relayed the instruction he received – he was to escort the group to the foyer of the main building. The large metallic gate didn’t open, but the smaller side door was used instead to let them in.
As the they walked past, Kain peeked past the ajar door of the guard station and noticed a murky brown crystal the size of an adult’s fist sitting atop a sundial, glowing weakly with a trace of Aeterna swirling about.
Naturally, he asked the guard about it.
“That is a communication crystal. We use that to communicate with the reception.”
The guard answered quickly. Kain waited for further explanations but none came. He was slightly frustrated at that, but he had to let it go, as they already had stepped into the inner sanctum of the SOIR. His curiosity would be sated later on.
The main building was designed a bit differently compared to the rest of the city’s architecture. It even looked modern, the way it rose from the ground like a square peg, gleaming under the early afternoon sunlight like a marble monolith. Except, with windows spoiling its smooth surfaces like pimples on a teenager’s face.
There was another building behind it, obscured from Kain’s view. Perfectly manicured lawn painted the ground green, with smattering of trees providing cooling shades. Benches were placed underneath for the tired bums to occupy. There were even water fountains and elaborate sculptures of animals and men doing various poses.
Overall, the space inside the walls were huge. Enough to think of it as not a mere city block but maybe several of them joined together, as Kain had noted earlier.
People of various races were mucking about on the grass. Their age ranged from early to late teens, some in their twenties. There were older men and women too, almost all of the men sporting the kind of lengthy beards often seen in cartoonish depictions of wizards, while the ladies were thankfully spared of unsightly facial hair growths.
The kids were decked out in neat, school uniform-like matching apparels while the older men and women had on the kind of robes Ahres wore. Some of them stared at Kain and his group but soon lost their interest and returned to whatever they were doing previously.
The whole place had this atmosphere of an exclusive prep school where, plebeian like Kain wasn’t welcome. Well, he wasn’t one, so his sudden lack of confidence blooming in his heart had no basis.
Huh. Wow, so this must be a wizarding school, eh? Wouldn’t it be a funny development if I’m to be sent here to study, like in that famous British novel? Heh.
Kain mused to himself as he continued to look around. Every single one present here leaked of Aeterna like crazy. The air was thick with the mysterious substance, so much so, in his eyes it was like small rainbows dancing all over the place.
He saw kids ten, eleven years old practicing Invocation with what seemed like teachers alongside them. There were people standing around debating quite heatedly about something, arms moving about in wild gestures and voices raised, trying to subdue the opposition with sheer loudness of their volume.
And a few were having lunch, sitting on those benches. All in all, a pretty relaxed scene, at least on the surface. Kain noted there weren’t any children as young as him here, so he figured one had to be of a certain age before being admitted to this institution to study.
Regardless of all that though, Kain felt deeply pressured. From all that oozing Aeterna, he sensed several real monsters among the populace here. These people were, judging by their emissions alone, stupidly strong. Kain thought that they’d be able to fling man-killing spells all day long and not even reach the half of their Aeterna Pool reserve. It was hard to tell whether one or two of these fellas should be classified as humans, even.
He was going to ask the guard about the identities of these men and women, when he heard a heavy breathing coming from Gabe. His face was turning pale, and he was sweating quite profusely.
“Hey, what’s the matter? You don’t look so good,” Kain tugged at Gabe’s pant’s leg.
“I, uh, don’t…. feel so well. I’m really sorry ’bout this.”
His face was apologetic, but it was quite clear he was barely holding on from passing out.
Is it because of the roadside food? Was it bad? But I feel fine. Derrick looks okay too. What’s going on?
As Kain watched him confused, Derrick grabbed Gabe’s shoulders and squeezed strongly.
“Gabe, listen. You are under what’s known as an Aeterna pressure. Normally, Invokers living in general society will instinctively suppress their overflowing Aeterna as to not suffocate regular people. The low concentration of Aeterna in the air pooling around Invokers also contributes to that. However, in here that is an altogether different matter. Even the soldiers stationed in and around the entrance are equivalent of Iron Rank Divine Knight or higher, in order to cope with the powerful aura accumulated from all the Invokers gathered here. At this rate, you’ll faint. Here, I shall lend you a hand.”
Kain frowned, hearing the explanation. So uh, is it kinda like Haki? I get why Derrick’s fine, but what about me?
He got more confused at Derrick’s assertion when trying to figure out why he was fine and Gabe was suffering like that. Physically speaking, Kain was far, far inferior to Gabe’s constitution so, he should be even more woozy and sick, from all the accumulated Aeterna pressure emitted from the Invokers that had gathered here.
“By the look of things, you seem to be doing quite well, Kain.”
Derrick changed his focus to his nephew and nodded. “If you are this unaffected, then it could mean you possess substantial talent yourself. Hmm, this trip might turn out as not a total waste of time after all.”
“Are you saying you weren’t expecting much from me?!”
Kain raised a shocked voice.
“Well, you didn’t seem to show much interest in Invocation and also, not much reaction to Aeterna before. But, watching you in this environment, perhaps you do possess a modicum of talent. If so, it’ll bring great relief and prestige to your parents, having two children with Invocational talent.”
What he said was true. Kain always hid what he was doing, trying to act like a five year old, or at least what he thought was the behavior expected of one.
He wondered whether he made a mistake in concealing what he had done so far in private. Sure, he had an Affinity with Earth Element, and over the last couple and a bit years he worked on increasing his Aeterna Pool so if he got tested now, he’d be seen as a genius, a natural born talent, just like Kaleena was.
But that wasn’t the case. He just worked his butt off to get this far. He wasn’t a god-given talent, he was simply born with a twenty something (now thirty something) year old’s mind and his thought process. He wasn’t a kid, not at all.
Suddenly, he didn’t feel so confident at getting his abilities tested. Never mind the results of the said test, he was now more worried about the expectations that might arise afterwards. Because he didn’t deserve it.
This is stupid, Kain groaned inwardly. Why am I hesitating over this? I just need to get tested and then, go from there. It’s not difficult. Wake up, me.
Because he was distracted, Kain didn’t hear what Derrick muttered in surprise right next to him, nor did he see what made him so in the first place.
But the sudden surge of powerful, oppressive aura coming from Derrick was unmistakable, for anything else other than that of an intent to kill. It chilled him to the bones, making him raise his head and see the cause of this hostility.
Before Kain’s group, standing in front of the grandly designed and decorated doorway of the SOIR’s main building, a man was waiting with a thin smile. He was tall, lanky and had a balding crown. His thin eyes were studying them carefully.
Kain pegged him as middle-aged, but it was hard to tell, since his skin was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. No beard either, on the chiseled square jaw. But one thing’s for sure, his attire showed off how highly ranked officer this man was. Or a noble, which ever applied first.
The white robe he wore were fundamentally different in design from what Kain had seen from pretty much everyone so far, Invokers or not. A pair of polished pauldrons – armors that covered each shoulders – holding a matching mantle, and a great number of small medallions affixed to the left chest area, with the same crest as it was seen on the side of the Sky Ark all conspired to give this man the air of authority.
If Kain were to make a comparison, then it reminded of him the formal uniform of a highly-decorated colonel, or maybe even higher military rank. More importantly though, that incredible amount of Aeterna Kain sensed on this man; he might be the strongest monster of all here, by some margin. He felt slightly queasy just by being near him.
Kain tensed up instinctively. Just who the hell is this guy?!
“It is indeed, a pleasant surprise, Sir Derrick, to see you all this way out here in Lafayette,” said the tall and lanky man. “When the guardsman spoke of your name, I couldn’t believe my ears – so I had to see for myself.”
“….Master Dawson, it has been a while.” Derrick replied curtly, his anger quickly cooling off behind a cold expression. “What brings you this far from the Capital and her political infighting?”
Dawson seemed to have a thin smile permanently plastered on his face. In fact, when he spoke, the smile never went away.
“My work has brought me here, to this beautiful city. As you very well know, my work has many layers, one of them requiring me to travel extensively. With the advancement of the Sky Ark, my life has become just a tad easier.”
He might be smiling, but the eyes weren’t.
Those sharp eyes came down on Kain next. The boy felt a creepy chill tickle down on his back. It was rather an unpleasant sensation.
“And now, what do we have here? I don’t remember you having a son. Hello there, child. I am Master Marcus Dawson of the Special Bureau. You are?”
“This child doesn’t concern you.”
Derrick stood in front of Dawson, blocking the view. It was also to stop Kain from answering the man unnecessarily.
Dawson wasn’t undeterred, however. “Hmm, if I remember correctly, Lord Dukakis’ younger brother, a certain Sir Damien Lucius Lomax, resides within the village of Riverfield, which is nearby, no? Could this adorable boy be your nephew, then?”
“What of it? If you were on your way out, please, let us not stop you.” Derrick stepped aside with Kain still behind his impressive girth, away from Dawson’s view.
The lanky man chuckled but it clearly had no mirth. “Very well, Sir Derrick. I shan’t keep you from your business with the Society. It has been a pleasure seeing you again after all this time.”
With that, he began to walk leisurely past Kain’s group.
By this time, Gabe had already fainted with bubbles forming in his mouth. His carcass was being supported by the escorting guard, irritation writ large on his creased face.
Kain noticed that Dawson’s gait was unusual, as if his feet weren’t touching the ground. It was impossible to tell, as his robe extended well down past his feet, brushing the floor as he moved.
Whew, that was really frothy between the two of ’em, wasn’t it?
Kain breathed a sigh of relief as Dawson’s back drifted farther away. But then, a sliver of voice, carried on the wind, reached his ears.
“We’ll see each other again, young Kain, son of Baron Damien Lucius Lomax….”
It was so small and fleeting, momentarily Kain thought he misheard the murmur of a passing breeze. But no, it was Dawson’s voice, he was sure of it. Looking at Derrick, he realized he was the only person here who had heard it.
Kain deeply frowned, slightly freaked out at this new development. Dawson used some sort of Invocation to convey a message to him, that sounded rather ominous for its own good.
Determining that he needed more information on this Dawson character, Kain asked Derrick on the identity of the man.
“Who was that, uncle Derrick?”
The question broke the brooding silence of the big man.
“A very dangerous man, someone you will need to be wary of in the future.”
“He said he’s from the Special Bureau? What’s that?”
Derrick turned his gaze down to his nephew. He wasn’t sure if he should tell the boy what the Bureau was on the surface, and what they actually did behind the scenes.
On one hand, to his eyes the boy was obviously far too intelligent for his age, the way he acted and spoke on matters a child shouldn’t even care about. But, on the other hand, he acted so oblivious to most mundane things, it was almost to the point of mistaking him as a blithering idiot.
In the end, he decided to tell a little. It wouldn’t hurt, he thought.
“The Special Bureau is tasked with liaising with various other entities not affiliated with the Government. They are basically inspectors of sorts, making sure organizations have the best interest of the Empire at heart. Well, that’s on the surface, at least.”
“On the surface, is it? And underneath? What are they suppose to do?”
“….That’s the part of the world you’ll learn of, as you get older and start moving in the circles of nobility. For now, do not pay any heed to this Dawson or to the Special Bureau.”
Derrick cut this conversation here. No need to tell a five year old kid that Bureau’s top agents were actually skilled assassins and infiltrators.
Kain read the mood and figured he should drop it as well. It was just that, he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he’d see Dawson again sooner or later.
As far as ominous event flags go, this one was certainly too big and shouty to ignore, just like that. The fact that he knew his name was also a matter of concern.
It wasn’t like Kain didn’t have an inkling of what the Bureau might be, as insinuated by Derrick. His gut feeling told him that it was not something all fluffy and cuddly.
What does he want with me, then? He has history with Derrick – even I can see that. Man, I better not get dragged in whatever this thing is. That’d be so uncool.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of their troubles.
The receptionist at SOIR’s main building informed Kain and his group that Ahres was no longer in the city. He was dispatched to the nearby town of Somerset out East on an assignment, a week’s travel on horseback away. The worst bit of the news regarding that, was he wouldn’t be back for months, maybe up to a year, even.
Now normally, that shouldn’t be a troublesome matter. The real trouble came after.
Derrick made a request for someone else to perform the Affinity Test on Kain, which was an obvious thing to do under this kind of situation. After all, they were in an institution where it’s filled to the brim with Invokers, top to bottom. Finding one to do a simple test procedure didn’t sound so difficult.
The answer they got wasn’t good. Those permitted to perform the test were not on the premise at present, that most were on their own individual assignments. The timing itself was rather strange, thought Kain. What were the odds of every single one of ’em not being here at the same time?
The receptionist’s recommendation was to wait a fortnight and then see if anyone was available then.
At this point, Kain got impatient, and grumbled out aloud. “It’s just a test, you know. How come it’s so complicated?”
“It isn’t just a test,” the receptionist rebuked him sternly. “Only the qualified members of SOIR are permitted to carry out the Affinity tests with the special Modified Truth Boards.”
“Modified Truth Boards?” Kain tilted his head, and glanced over at Derrick.
The older man nodded. “Yes, modified. It works in largely the same manner as the normal Truth Boards used by the guards. But it has been changed in order to perform Invocation talent tests.”
“That is correct,” the receptionist chimed in. “The Truth Board used for the test procedures has operational requirements that are far higher than regular items. And let’s not forget,, the information disclosed on the test apparatus is exceedingly important, and not to mention, private. Only the trusted members of SOIR hierarchy are issued with a single Board per person.”
“That’s all good and well,” Kain continued to groan. “But how does that help me right now? Even if we come back in two weeks’ time to find someone to do the test, I still have to wait yet another week for the result, right? That’s almost a whole month gone by then.”
“That won’t be necessarily true,” the receptionist curtly stopped him from complaining further. “The members of Lafayette SOIR branch has been issued with an improved version of the Board, thus acquisition of the test results will not take more than two days. It’s the verification process that will take another day, two at most.”
Four days, huh. Kain sighed inwardly. A grand total saving of three whole freaking days. Yay.
Kain of course understood the reasoning for all the secrecy and caution with this seemingly simple test. Recalling the time when Kaleena got her results back, it contained sensitive information on the amount of Aeterna Pool as well as her various Affinities. If her enemies got a hold of that, than they would be able to find vulnerabilities to exploit. He could imagine that a bunch of villainous guys doing whatever it takes to acquire such knowledge.
Let’s say, a royalty got tested on the Elemental Affinity. It then determined this important personage had an Affinity with Lightning Element and possessed X amount of Aeterna Pool. The assassins coming after the royalty could use this info and plan out a sure-kill strategy by attacking with opposing Elemental Affinity Invocations, like Earth, thereby nullifying whatever advantages Lightning Invocations had. The end result would be, that royalty was going to be screwed royally.
Of course, there were other variables in play, but the gist of matter was something like how Kain had envisioned.
So, the need for the operators of these Modified Truth Boards to be honest, above-board, and also discreet was totally understandable.
Regardless, it still didn’t improve his situation not one bit.
“Uhm, so what should we do, sir?” Gabe asked anxiously.
Derrick glanced over at the receptionsit. “Very well, we shall return and reschedule when there are invokers available.” Then, he turned towards his companions and said. “For now, we still have time before Sir Damien completes his task. Let us leave and find a place to wait.”
Gabe’s still-pale face brightened up a little. “Sir, can we perhaps use this opportunity to explore the Adventurer’s Association next door?”
Derrick was undecided, but only for a moment. Poor Gabe had been suffering badly from the Aeterna Pressure, and he looked like someone who had just seen a ghost. Or lost twenty years of his life. Whatever the case may be, it was true the boy suffered, even if it was for briefly. Thinking about him, Derrick chose the next destination easily enough.
“Very well. We shall head there. There is a canteen within the Association. We’ll grab a table and discuss our plans there.”
Kain and his group left the Society’s gates and headed straight for that of the Adventurer’s Association building, located on the city block right next door. Although, it was theoretically next door, the distance between the two wasn’t a joke.
But the difference in the atmosphere was readily apparent once the trio crossed the street on foot. There were immediately lots more people walking about, busy doing their chores and whatnot, unlike the front of SOIR, where hardly any souls could be seen. Even the street itself was grimier.
If one was all about maintaining a tranquil, relaxed, school-like facade, then the other was a traditional street-side market choke-a-full of daily necessities on sale.
The Association’s building was a five stories tall structure, with tiled roofs and robust brick walls. Unlike SOIR, there were no sky-high walls to keep out passersby, as if to send out a message of everyone’s welcome. On the other hand, SOIR was all about you’re not welcome.
The contrast continued inside as well. While the reception area of the Invokers’ union was sterile and joyless, kinda like what one might find in a slick accounting firm’s waiting area, here it all felt more rowdy, like a cafeteria during a lunch break.
The noise wasn’t deafening but it was certainly pretty lively. Lizbeth would’ve hated this place. She did enjoy a bout of peace and quiet, after all. Kain wondered how exactly Damien and her plied their trade here. Not necessarily here as in Lafayette, but somewhere else. He had no doubt that other Association branches were just as lively as this one.
No one really paid any minds to the new arrivals pushing through the Wild Wild West Saloon style ‘batwing’ doors. Civilians often entered to post a job or a request so the presence of Kain’s group didn’t attract too much attention.
He curiously looked around the interior, hoping a little bit that the place operated like something out of a video game. That’d be cool. Immediately, he found something useful.
It was the fact that Derrick was the definition of The Perfect Fit, especially for this place. Everywhere he looked, the Association’s first floor was brimming with scary looking mugs. Almost all of these faces were accompanied by equally sinister weapons, upping the intimidation factor by a few notches easily.
Gabe was taken back by the aura of the place. Slightly terrified, but also intrigued, he steeled his trembling legs – and his heart – and studied his surroundings. It was his wish to become an Adventurer so, he knew he had to man up here and not falter. What he was seeing, and soaking in, was a good experience for him, without a doubt.
The immediately visible interior space of the Association was divided into two floors. The upper three were accessible via a staircase but only the qualified personnel were allowed up there, no civilians permitted.
Of the two open floors, the ground floor had the most traffic, somewhat reminiscent of a bank full of customers waiting in line to see a teller. There were benches where people sat, there were stern, guards-looking men, and this smoky, late afternoon bronze-like sheen permeating the air throughout like a lazy haze.
As far as Kain could see, there were no open seats, which was unfortunate. Nor did he spot a corridor leading to a john. The upper floor utilized only a portion of available space, perhaps half that of the ground floor. The wooden stairs with thin guard rail were on the left hand side, seemingly the only way to go up there.
Other than that, it was hard to get a good look at the place – Kain was far too short for that. Still, he got a fairly okay-ish gander at the layout of the place.
“Let’s go upstairs,” said Derrick as he grabbed Kain’s hand. “Don’t let go, now.”
For a guy who hardly talked to him before today, he certainly was being assertive, Kain mused slightly.
Not saying anything, he followed, with Gabe taking up the rear. Past the jostling bodies they arrived safely on the second floor. The breathing room up here allowed them to take a deeper breath, which, Kain instantly regretted doing.
The stench of heavy body odor hit him like a falling sack of potatoes. He quickly covered his nose but alas, it was too late. The smell wasn’t so bad down on the ground floor, where there were many, many sweaty bodies yet weirdly it was worse up here, a floor with barely a dozen people. So he wasn’t prepared for the assault on his senses.
Large windows on the floor were all wide open, and a woman in her forties wearing a fading red bandana was constantly casting an Invocation of Air Element to circulate the foul air. It seemed she was in charge of ventilation, causing all that smell to concentrate up here before she could drive it all away.
However, she was alone, and one person couldn’t make too much of a difference. She looked over Kain, sweating heavily herself, and gave the boy an apologetic smile. Kain shrugged his shoulders and returned a smile of his own that said, oh well, what can you do, eh?
The second floor was laid out like a restaurant. This place was what Derrick talked about earlier when he mentioned a canteen. A dozen round tables with oil lamps in the middle dotted the space. Directly in front of the stairs, a single piece bar with various bottles of booze lined up behind. Beyond that, a kitchen was visible, with cooks moving about.
“Let’s sit over there.”
Derrick pointed to one of the unoccupied tables.
It was well after lunch yet half the tables were still home to hungry men and women furiously slurping down food and drink. Kain didn’t know, but this restaurant was quite famous in Lafayette for providing tasty meals for a very reasonable prices. It was therefore, popular, with tons of customers fighting for a seat during peak hours.
The table Derrick chose was right near the railing, offering a good view of the floor below. Up high Kain was afforded a better view of the layout. To the right hand side of the entrance, there was a massive wall mounted notice board. A countless papers and memos of varying sizes were plastered on it.
Alongside it, on the next wall, two more boards of equally impressive dimensions. One of them had rough drawings of men on it, with large descriptions on who they were, and how much their respective bounties were. The another one simply had more memos and stuff.
Unlike majority of those throwaway Jap Web Novels featuring some rudimentary Adventurer “Guild”, there weren’t any so-called request or job windows with pretty girls manning them. If that were the case, it’d be too cliched.
Here, things seemed to work a little differently. There were two passageways, one right next to these boards, while the other below where Kain was.
Normal people, people that weren’t Adventurers, entered the first passageway, sometimes carrying boxes or rolled up parchments. Those looking to place requests entered the offices there.
The second passage was for the ones looking to take up a job listed on the boards. An Adventurer would tear out the request paper or a memo, and approach the Association official to arrange the signing of the contract between the potential employee and the employer.
The Association’s role was not only to manage the Adventurers but to play the middle man in establishing contact between those who were looking for work and those looking for help. All the contract signing and negotiations were done behind closed doors in order to lessen the intrusion from the prying eyes and keen ears.
Kain was able to discern quite a few men and women walking around holding what looked like paperwork on them. Lots of them, as a matter of fact. Somehow, he had this image in his head, of Adventurers buried in a pile of paperwork as tall as a small mountain, slowly being forgotten by everyone.
Certainly, not something he imagined what an Adventurer should be doing.
“Haven’t seen you guys around here before.”
A sturdy looking middle aged woman came over to Kain’s table and asked in friendly enough manner.
“What can I get you?”
Derrick answered first. “Tea.”
Gabe followed up. “Uhm, not sure but something cheapest?”
And Kain said, “The most tasty one, of course!”
The woman chuckled. “Well, I can’t guarantee you’ll like the food here, but you got it, youngster. As for the cheapest, it’s ale, and you don’t look old enough to sprout hairs down there yet, so no, you ain’t having that. As for you, sir, what kind of tea would you like?”
“Either Lyden or Blackwood will suffice.” Derrick replied.
“But of course,” said she, her words slightly tinged with sarcasm before walking away.
Derrick didn’t really mind the needle in her words. The establishment like these didn’t have a high number of patrons asking for tea, never mind the more exclusive Lyden, or Blackwood brands. Nevertheless, he was thirsty, he missed the fragrant scent of well cultured tea, and in a city as big and strategically important like Lafayette, he sure as hell was going to have it, sarcasm be damned.
Not really caring about that, Kain and Gabe kept on staring at the floor below and all the hubbub going on there. It sure was a fun way to pass the time for them. The variety of races in the crowd was just way beyond that of what he had seen in Riverfield.
The sleepy farming village may be a good example of harmonious mix of all the races but, nothing beat a big city like Lafayette for a true melting pot of diversity. Kain felt pretty happy that he came.
Oddly though, he didn’t notice any long eared Elves. They were genre staple like dwarves and so-called beastmen yet he hadn’t seen one so far. He wondered why. Could there be that no Elves existed in this world?
If so, that’d be crushingly disappointing.
“Hey, young master Kain, what do you think is going on today? I doubt it’s this crowded everyday.” Gabe asked the boy next to him, without taking his eyes off.
“Beats me,” Kain shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe today’s a payday?”
“What’s a payday?”
Realizing that there was no such concept as monthly wages paid out on a specific day in Riverfield, Kain decided drop the subject before he ends up needlessly explaining it. Everyone there worked for their own keep, and at the end of the day, got their fair share. Maybe the concept had taken root in cities like Lafayette, but as far as his little hometown was concerned, it was still very much a backwater, rural place.
Then Kain suddenly smelled something indescribably delicious, something roasted, something beautiful. The terrible body odor had been somewhat cleared out, and his nose had gotten used to the rancid aroma so the intrusion of a new stimulant caught his attention greatly. He turned his head to see the woman carrying plates of their order from the kitchen entrance.
She was dexterously balancing a small plate of teapot and its cutlery, and on the other a hefty, steaming meat on a large plate. Kain could see that she was using Aeterna in some capacity to help with the balancing.
Obviously he was surprised to see that. Besides him knowing that the number of people capable of using Invocation were low, it was that he couldn’t really understand the concept of this particular spell.
And on top of that, he couldn’t fathom what Element it was, although it could’ve been Wind.
Anyways, he wondered why on earth an Invoker was working as a waitress in a smelly joint like this.
“Here you go.”
She placed the tea plate in front of Derrick, and the meat in front of Kain. The aroma of roasted meat chased away what little foul smell remained from his memories, and caused both him and Gabe to salivate like a pair of starved hyenas staring at a prey.
The dish’s main attraction was a big slab of reddish brown meat, garnished with potatoes and carrots, dressed in thick sauce that vaguely smelled like creamy mushroom. Looking at this, Gabe swallowed quite hard.
“Wow, that looks incredible.”
He wiped the drool with his sleeve, only to notice that his spot was empty.
Confused, he asked. “Uh, ma’am, where’s mine?”
“Told you, cheapest here is booze,” she chuckled. “And you’re too young to drink. Better order something else.” She then handed him a wooden board, a menu.
Looking at the prices on it, tears began to appear on Gabe’s eyes. He just had no money to spend on eating out like this, and the prices of even the cheapest dish were out of his budget.
“Oh hey, we can share. I mean, look how large this dish is.”
Quickly judging the situation, Kain came to his rescue.
“It’s too big for me to finish alone. So, let’s share. I’ll eat first, and give you the rest. That’s cool, right?”
Gabe smiled radiantly, a drop of water still lingering on the corner of his eye. Kain sighed inwardly, thinking he somehow averted a small crisis just now.
“Suit yourselves,” the waitress said.
Kain then dug into the meat. It was good. No scratch that, it was freaking fantastic. Probably the best steak he’d ever have the pleasure of putting inside his mouth.
He wolfed down the food like a madman. The potatoes were baked pretty nicely too, although it was a bit too thin on the palate. Delilah made a better baked potatoes in comparison. The carrots too, they were good but just not as much as the home cooking.
None of that mattered with this meat as the center piece, however. The mushroom sauce was the perfect companion for this juicy and tender steak. He could very well see why this was the tastiest dish in this place.
He lamented the fact that he had a small stomach and thus unable to enjoy the meat longer. He became full soon enough, and had to pass it over to Gabe who was staring at the boy with a pair of bloodshot eyes, barely containing his drool.
Derrick just sat there, and drank his tea without saying a word. Kain thought that he truly was made of seriously stern stuff if he was not in the least tempted by the sight of this magnificent dish and its rousing aroma.
While Gabe was tearing into the steak, Kain asked Derrick about something that had been bothering him, but not clarified it yet. And since the big man seemed to be in a deep contemplative mood, he thought it’d be easier to catch him off guard with a question.
“Uncle Derrick, who is Lord Dukakis? That man, Dawson, mentioned something about him being my dad’s brother?”
“It’s true. Count Dukakis Lucius Lomax is your other uncle. He is currently the lord of the town of Marlborough, up in the Northern Territories.” Derrick answered nonchalantly. “Did your father not tell you about him?”
“Nope. I don’t know anything about my family on either side. Excluding you and Katrina, I’ve no idea how many cousins and uncles I have. Heck, I don’t even know whether I have grandparents or not.”
“I see. It seems your father wishes to insulate both you and Kaleena away from the bitter bickering within the Lomax family line.” Derrick sipped his tea like a proper gentleman that he was and sighed for some reason.
After a short while, he spoke to his nephew.
“Listen well Kain. Soon, you’ll become a piece in the ugly and often brutal hierarchy of the Empire’s political system. Your parents reserve the right to tell you more about the situation within your branch of Lomax bloodline, which is Lucius. But, knowing the machinations of the Capital is vital for you, going forward. Especially so, since you’re a male heir.”
“What do you mean? Isn’t Kaleena the heir? She’s a first born, right?”
Derrick kept silent, but he glanced over at Gabe who was still munching through the steak with tinkling eyes full of bliss. He was waiting for the teen to finish up, so he can be sent away for an errand, reducing one pair of ears listening in on his tales.
Not reading the flow, Gabe took his his time savouring the taste of the steak. While chewing, he muttered.
“What kind of meat is this? Honestly, I’ve never ate anything like this before. And trust me, I’ve eaten all sorts of stuff over the years, I’ll have you know.”
“It’s the belly meat of a fiend known as Grell.” The waitress sauntered up with a medium sized wooden tankard, and placed it on the table before Kain. Smiling, she said kindly. “Here, it’s on the house, kiddo.”
Kain peered over at the content, but the aroma rising from the white-ish liquid inside confirmed his suspicion – it was goat milk, but nicely warmed up. He returned a bright smile and thanked her.
“What’s a Grell?” Gabe asked, while still chewing vigorously.
“….Let’s just say, you don’t want to know. Not now, anyway,” said the waitress. “Call me, when you guys are done.”
Watching her walk away, Gabe mumbled between the bites. “But I want to know….”
A Grell, huh. Now where did I hear that name before? I swear it wasn’t too long ago.
Kain frowned a little, wrecking his brain for an answer. Then he recalled an information regarding a certain disgusting monster, which he read from a missive sent to all the rural villages from the Capital, warning the residents of a man-eating monster living in densely wooded areas.
A multi-limbed land creature the size of a raging bull that favored dark depths where sun rarely shined on, and preying upon pretty much anything but still partial to human flesh; covered in slick, oily black skin; a single, large eyeball, and a mouth located near the belly with rows of razor-sharp teeth; and to top it off, feeler-like tentacles growing on its back.
That was a Grell.
Kain felt queasy recalling that.
He made a mental note never to ask for the origin of unknown meat in this world. There was a chance that he might end up eating something even worse than a Grell meat. Ignorance was, indeed, bliss.
Since Gabe hadn’t finished yet, Kain asked something else.
“Uncle, did you see that lady when she was carrying the food? I think she was using some sort of Invocation to balance the plates.”
Derrick raised a surprised eyebrow. “Well, that’s certainly possible. If true, then it is most like a some form of Body Enhancement Invocation.”
Eh? So that’s a Body Enhancement?
Intrigued, Kain sat closer. “What’s that, uncle?”
“It’s a field of specialized Invocation spells. Or rather, skills. Most people living in this world possess some amount of latitude with Aeterna. However, it’s far too minute most of the time to let the person become a full fledged Invoker. Still, with a right type of training, that amount can be utilized in any number of ways.”
He pointed at his left, to his giant sword, now resting against the sturdy wall. “Imagine, you want to swing this weapon around in a battle. Under normal circumstances, that won’t be possible no matter how hard you train your muscles. But, by using a Body Enhancement skill, you will be able to use a weapon that weighs as much as this. There are many other uses outside of simple strength enhancement as well.”
Oh, this is good. I was trying to copy your Body Enhancement from before, but it was too darn hard. Maybe now I’ll get some pointers like this. Keep going, big fella.
Kain grinned and leaned forward. “Are you going to teach me that skill?”
“Not yet. You and Kaleena are too young, physically. You need to build your core muscle strength first before learning the Enhancement skills, as it would be dangerous to over rely on them and neglect your own body’s growth.”
Oh well, that was disappointing. Kain shrugged his shoulders again. Didn’t expect a smooth sailing so he wasn’t that gutted.
“It is rather surprising that you thought the waitress was using an Invocation. What gave you the idea?”
Derrick narrowed his eyes and proved.
Feeling a slight panic, Kain mumbled out some words. “Uhm, ah, you know, Rosy can’t balance so many plates well but that aunty did. So I thought, you know, this being an Adventurer’s Association and all, so uh, she must have been using an Invocation.”
“Hmm. I wonder.”
Derrick didn’t look too convinced in Kain’s eyes. Panicking a little more, the boy tried to steer the topic away.
“The waitress lady using the Body Enhancement skill, does that mean she trained before? Is there a school for waitresses?”
“Most likely, she is an Adventurer, although, probably not an active member.”
“What does that mean, not active? My dad’s a retired Adventurer. Is she something like that?”
“No, not like that. There are no retirements once you become an Adventurer. You’re either inactive, or expelled. That’s it. Your father is inactive, but he is still recognized as an Adventurer.”
“Can I become one too?”
“It is better you don’t.” Derrick shook his head. “Your father went and became an Adventurer only because he was being rebellious. And that complicated matters later on.”
“I don’t understand.” Kain tilted his head to the side.
“Look, Kain. An Adventurer has no allegiances except to themselves, and to the laws binding them. They may be of noble goals, but once you sign up to become one, you must be ready to give up on your own country. You answer to no one other than to those of the employers, or if you’re in a Guild of Adventurers, then to a Guild Master. You are sworn to uphold the values and rules of Adventurers – which, sometimes, doesn’t line up with the ideals of the rulers of nations, this Empire included.”
Taking a long sip of his tea, Derrick sighed. “Your father becoming an Adventurer caused a lot of trouble for him and for his family, precisely because of his background.”
“But he’s a lord of a village now, isn’t he? How did that happen?”
“Well, your father, being a person from a privileged backing, had enough fortuitous encounters, which lead to a decisive moment when he achieved a meritorious deed for the citizens of Empire. Thus, he was rewarded. And persuaded, to settle down.”
Kain was going to ask what kind of deed but with a good timing, Gabe was done licking the plate clean like a hungry dog, and let out a loud, satisfied moan. His eyes moistened fondly at the lingering aftertaste, and sorrowfully gazed at the clean plate, looking rather pitiful.
“Gabe, I want you to go and wait for Lord Damien by the front gates of the SOIR branch. I wish not to miss him. When he arrives after the conclusion of his task, guide him here.”
Derrick told the sad-eyed boy.
Gabe stood up wearily and dragged his feet out the door. He was increasingly looking more pitiful by the second.
Derrick turned to Kain, and finally spoke where he left off earlier on.
“There are six major bloodlines in the Empire. The ancient bloodlines, that stretch back to the founding of our nation.”
Kain took a big gulp of the goat milk, settling down for a long lecture.
“Those are the House of Hamilton, the House of Lafayette, the House of Bloemgardtner, the House of Lomax, the House of Phillips, and the House of Argos.”
Kain didn’t miss the Lomax being mentioned in Derrick’s speech. It obviously meant his family was a real big shot in the Empire. Which he had no idea of until now.
“The six Houses are the founders of the Empire, with Argos bloodline acting as the glue that holds the various factions together. But for so long, unity has been lost between the major families. And there are numerous other minor Houses that wish to become the force to reckoned with in the Imperial Court.”
“How does our family work? You’re my uncle, but there’s this Septima and Lucius thing.”
“I’m a member of the Septima branch of the Lomax bloodline. While you Kain, belong to the Lucius branch. We still come from a single forefather, the founder of the Empire.”
“How far are we removed from each other, uncle?”
Derrick leaned back, contemplating his answer for a short moment. “It’s far enough, but, also quite close. The main issue is this. You. You are the only male heir currently in your generation within the entirety of Lomax bloodline.”
“Eh? Why is that a pro….”
Before finishing his sentence, it hit Kain. He was the only boy born in this generation. Tradition dictated that only a male heir could inherit the family name. So, unless there’s another son born in the House of Lomax, then the family name would come to a dead stop, disappearing into the ether. Well, at least not the Lucius branch, that’s for sure.
“If that’s the case, then why not just have more children?”
Kain asked, trying to sound as innocent as possible.
Derrick shook his head. “It isn’t such a simple matter. There are other factors at play here.”
“As I mentioned before, the unity between the major bloodlines have been strained. It’s only natural that enmity is formed under such conditions. Hostilities that are sometimes beyond our control to manage.”
That sounded rather ominous to Kain.
“I’m sorry Kain, but you need to ask your father for more clarity. I’m not in the position to fully disclose this matter, which affects you. Only your father and your mother reserve the right to tell you what your future might entail.”
Those words signaled the end of this conversation tree.
But just from this exchange, Kain realized there were enemies of his family out there. Remembering the night when Kaleena was nearly killed, he felt chill crawl up his spine. Did the assassins come for him instead, that night? Did Kaleena got involved inadvertently? Or did the bastards aimed to take out everyone while they slept?
Somethings still didn’t make sense, like why there were no other male heirs born into the current Lomax household. Just chalking it up to the outside interference didn’t sound right to him. If that was the case, then how did he survive?
He definitely wanted to ask Damien about this, as soon as possible.
Preferably, when they were alone.
Suddenly, Derrick looked behind Kain, at the staircase, and slowly stood up. Kain too, gazed at the direction, and saw Damien climbing up with Rolf and Gabe in tow.
“That didn’t take long,” Kain exclaimed.
“Ah, right. Duke Lafayette was more than happy to provide assistance. Our talk was suitably short because of that.” Damien smiled. “I didn’t expect you guys to be slumming here, however.”
He sat down next to his son and brushed the boy’s hair. “Hey little man. Sorry about the test. And you came all the way out here.”
“It’s alright.” Kain shrugged his shoulders. Again.
Damien looked around, and when he spotted the waitress lady that served Kain before, he called out to her. “Hey, Maria, can you get me the usual? Thanks.”
“Ho, look who it is, if it ain’t Damien Lucius. You back to Adventuring yet?” Maria the waitress chuckled as she brought him a tankard of what Kain assumed to be ale.
“Nah. I’m too busy taking care of my two kids. Here’s one of ’em.” Damien smiled and lightly slapped the boy’s back. “Did you say hello to Miss Maria here? She’s a real big shot in this place, you know.”
“No, I haven’t, but thanks again for the milk, Miss Maria.”
Maria made an astonished expression and looked closer at Kain. “So, this here is your son? Now that you mention it, he kinda looks a little like you. Honestly though, I thought he was this sturdy gent’s child.”
Maria was pointing at Derrick, who wasn’t really listening to this conversation.
“Your son even had a gall to wolf down a Grell steak and Toxic Mist Mushroom sauce!”
Maria happily added, finally revealing the full name of the dish.
“Oh no, you didn’t.” Damien looked at her dismayed. “You gave him a Grell steak? No doubt you told him what it was after he finished it.”
“That I did. And your son didn’t even flinch. And I think he knows what a Grell is already. While that young ‘un didn’t even have a clue.”
This time, she pointed at Gabe.
“But of course Kain would know. He’s the smartest kid in the world. So smart in fact, sometimes he scares me half to death.” Damien smiled and squeezed his son’s shoulder.
Meanwhile, Gabe’s expression was turning sour, after hearing the words Toxic Mist Mushroom sauce. It certainly didn’t sound like something that would be good for one’s vowels. He still had no idea what a Grell was, but he felt like throwing up quickly to counteract whatever poison he might have ingested.
“Please excuse me,” Gabe said, and quickly got up, running outside in a hurry.
Damien and Maria shared a long chuckle at that.
She left, saying she’d bring Damien’s usual grub. Rolf just sat on his chair pensively, his nostrils plugged with pieces of cork. Kain sniggered at that.
Derrick explained what happened in detail at SOIR branch, including the encounter with Dawson.
After listening it all, there was some worried frown on his crease, but eventually, he brightened up and spoke.
“Well, that puts us in an awkward position, doesn’t it. So, what are our current available options?”
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.