(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thank you!!)
(Yes, I changed the above notice just a wee bit. I’ve been using the very same one for the last 38 chapters, so it was about time I mix things up a bit. Lol.)
“So…. it was true,” muttered Lizbeth in shock as she sat down on the comfy couch, her hand absent-mindedly rubbing her gently-swollen belly. The faces of friends and acquaintances flashed past in her mind – the memories of people she cherished rather deeply.
The news of the destruction of Lafayette was not new to her. Not really. Earlier in the day, when she went to the Andrea L. Pressario School to fetch the children home, one of the noble ladies waiting for her son informed her in a hushed tone, as if to divulge a grave secret between the two intimate friends. Lizbeth’s and her daughter’s reputations meant people were actively trying to get close to them. So on a daily basis, Lizbeth encountered such folks frequently. So much so, she had trouble remembering them all sometimes.
It’s just that, at the time Lizbeth thought it was nothing more than an idle gossip, a flight of fancy between the bored housewives lacking excitement in their lives. But now that her own teacher, Michelle, confirmed it, there was no doubt anymore.
Currently, they were in the living room of Michelle’s residence, some time after dinner. Most of the maidservants had gone home with the exception of those lived here. Kaleena and Katrina were studying in their shared room, while the adults were enjoying a cup of finely cultured tea. And yes, Rosy was considered an adult too, as she there quietly sipping her share, her whiskers occasionally twitching.
Although, now with this rather upsetting and a sudden news, it was pretty hard for everyone present to enjoy the bitter yet relaxing taste any longer.
Lizbeth patted her belly, a habit that became the norm before she had noticed, and steadied herself. Then, turning to face her teacher, she asked for more information.
“The collated eyewitness testaments confirms that it was a fierce clash between two Divinity-class beings over the skies of the city. The report I received indicates that the collateral damage is enough to almost completely bankrupt the House of Lafayette. Over two-fifths of the city is now in complete ruins,” said Michelle with a long sigh.
Lizbeth’s eyes twitched at the words “two Divinity-class beings.” The mere mention of these mythical creatures in serious conversations would raise quite the amount of ire and ridicule.
That was actually understandable – in the recorded history of the entire known world, the sightings of a Divinity-class being was rarer than rare, to a point where people thought that it was all made up b******* to scare small children at bedtime. Or not.
Only those who fought and studied Fiends for a living – like Invokers – had some generalized idea of what a Divinity-class being was like. The most popular creature that fit this description was an Elder Dragon, an existence that had evolved past being a mere dragon.
There were also demi-gods as well as The Remnants of the gods but these two were even rarer than an Elder Dragon. Although, rumors stated that there was a land which was an exclusive domain of all dragons, where all sorts of those scaly, gigantic kings of the beasts roamed without a care. It was just a rumor, though. since no one had yet to find it.
Whatever the case may be, a Divinity ranked being was powerful enough to level mountains, scorch the lands and annihilate armies of a million. Good thing that they were such a rare existence. Otherwise, this world would’ve seen destruction on the unimaginable scale more often than most people would care for.
But now, two Divinity-class beings were seen fighting each other. The whole spectacle was witnessed by the certified Invokers at the scene. It was no longer at the scale of a fanciful boast from a drunkard trying to impress his buddies down at the local pub.
Michelle lightly dusted herself off and stretched her arms, yawning out loudly in the process. “Well, I’ll get to see it with my own eyes soon enough. I’ve been asked to head over there on the very first available seat on a Sky Ark tomorrow.”
“Teacher? You are going over there?!” Lizbeth’s eyes lit up after hearing the unexpected announcement. “Did the SOIR branch in Lafayette fall victim to the destruction as well?”
“No, that’s not it,” shaking her head, Michelle scratched the side of her face, her expression slightly uneasy. “On the aftermath of the battlefield, the resident Invokers recovered several small but significant biological samples left behind by both Divinity-class beings. They, the upper brass of SOIR, wishes me to take a look, maybe try analyzing what they’ve got on their hands.”
“That is…. an incredibly good fortune, teacher,” said Lizbeth, her eyes now as wide and bright as the pair of full moons in the darkened night sky outside. She couldn’t help but feel very proud of Michelle, whom she thought of as a close family member. Finding the intact samples was an amazing feat without a doubt, but to possess the level of recognition and respect from her peers to be entrusted with the analysis of something so important – now that was irreplaceable prestige. A matter to be truly proud of.
But Michelle’s facial expression was less than that of a happiness. When Lizbeth looked at her confused, with another sigh Michelle began explaining her situation.
“I get that understanding the compositions of the samples precedes all else. I really do. But I have my own things to do and promises still left to fulfill. I… I’m not sure whether I should go or not.”
She held the head and massaged her temples. Lines of weariness dyed her face in a shade of pale.
Over the last few months, she had been trying to work out just who was responsible for the deaths of innocent citizens via malicious, so-called medicines. She could’ve have left everything to the investigative team led by the decrepit Grand Elder Grisham but, she felt compelled to unravel the mystery behind this case. After all, it involved her profession, the honor of all Invokers around the world. Not to mention, she had to bear the witness to it all, the grief of fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters.
If a no good son of a mud slinging Goblin dared to tarnish that most exalted of callings, being an Invoker, then she’d flail him, or her for that matter, alive until there was not a drop of blood left.
Lizbeth too would react poorly against anyone looking to harm the Invokers and all the hard work they do as well, but perhaps not as violently as her teacher might.
“How far did your own investigation progress? Last time, you had identified over two-thirds of the ingredients used in the toxins. I thought you were getting quite close to identifying the suspects.”
Lizbeth recalled the contents of the last conversation she had with Michelle regarding the disturbance. At the time, Grisham did allow her teacher to take a closer look at the victims’ remains but after she began identifying the ingredients, for some reason Michelle was asked to kindly leave the investigating process to the pros.
It was all rather very abrupt, to say the least.
That didn’t stop Michelle from poking her nose in, though. If anything, people telling her to drop it spurred her on even more. Utilizing her long-established contacts and favors, she went snooping around.
Specifically, who in the corridors of SOIR might have access to certain types of materials required to concoct the toxins.
Of course, Michelle was no blithering idiot, going around asking anyone she met willy-nilly. Oh no. Rather than that, she did not ask direct questions that could raise suspicions. What she went for was information, or to gain access to the said information. In other words, access to the records.
SOIR kept a sensibly organized, properly archived records of every research being done by the numerous Invokers residing within its walls. After all, a great deal of money was required to perform any types of research, and keeping tabs on the spending activities of an Invoker was, at the end of the day, a prudent thing to do.
Indeed, there were hundreds of these researches going on around the entirety of the Empire at any given moment. As a result, the sheer quantity of the records kept was ridiculous. Not possible for a single person to sift through, no matter how much time he or she had.
But for Michelle, the scope of her search was far narrower to begin with. She knew the Invoker in question had to be an alchemist. She knew the person, or persons, had handled rare medicinal plants that even she struggled to recognize at a single glance. And some of those plants had to be procured via the services of Adventurers. In order to hire external help, that had to go through a certain approval procedure if it involved something harmful or/and dangerous.
Those who fell under these criteria weren’t too many to begin with – although, having said that, the number still exceeded three figures. So for the past few weeks, Michelle had been carefully going through the records, hidden from the eyes of the investigation team, trying to narrow the suspects even further.
As for Grisham and his posse, they were doing their own thing. Michelle paid a closer attention earlier on in the investigation but as there was a constraint with time, she lost track. Now, she had no idea how far they had come. Or how stuck they were.
Anyways, the not-so-shortlist of names she compiled contained some bigwigs of SOIR’s organizations. Serious big hitters, who had nothing to gain from the fall of the Society, both politically and financially. Still, humans’ hearts marched to their own strange drum beats, so Michelle never discounted anyone off her list. Not yet.
There was also the matter of motive that needed figuring out as well, but for now, she’d identify the culprit or culprits first, and then move on to solving that topic afterwards.
Michelle nodded and responded sourly at Lizbeth’s query. “Mmm. It was going rather well. There were a few likely suspects I was interested in, and fit the profile I’ve constructed but with this request from up above, looks like I have to hold it for a while.”
She then crossed her arms and chewed on her lower lip for a second or two, deliberating. Lizbeth saw this and carefully spoke to her teacher.
“Teacher, I know that this investigation is important, but the samples of the two Divinity-class beings are just as important as well, if more so. Why don’t you go on ahead and oversee the process? Or…. couldn’t they transport the samples over here via a Sky Ark? Surely, the facilities here in the Academy would far exceed those in Lafayette.”
“I asked the very same thing,” replied Michelle. “The Invokers on site couldn’t tell whether it’s alright to move the samples long distance. They want me down there to ascertain that, too. If it’s safe to transport, I accompany it back here. If not, then I need to buckle down over there.”
Two stayed silent for a period of time before Michelle finally sighed and stood up. “Oh, well. Guess I…. sigh. I will go and pack up. Should I get a big luggage or a small one?”
“Well, you could use a medium one,” joked Lizbeth, her voice gentle.
Chuckling, Michelle stretched her arms and yawned loudly again. After her opened mouth closed, she waved her hand as she began walking out of the living room. “Yeah, well. I’m going to turn in for the night. Get a good sleep yourself, Lizzie. Right now you have another life to look after. Fatigue is the last thing anyone needs, especially in your condition.”
Lizbeth smiled and rested her hands over the belly. “Do not worry, teacher. The pregnancy is progressing well. I should know. As my husband might say, this isn’t my first ‘Sacred Acre exploration,’ you know.”
Mentioning Damien briefly stiffened her expression. But it returned soon after that.
Lizbeth had been in touch with him recently. She was adamant that he needed to see to his family first. Not the ones up North, but the ones right here, but he said there were some men that needed his careful attention. He said that things were going well and could not vacate his position just yet.
She wasn’t happy about this, but shouting at him over a borrowed communication crystal linkage was a waste of energy so she simply had reminded him of his priorities. Vengeance was important, but protecting the loved ones was much more so.
“If I leave and stay there for a while, watching over the kids might get tougher,” said Michelle as she leaned against the living room door frame. “Perhaps, I could call for a favor? There’s someone who’d be perfect for the job.”
Lizbeth nodded. “If it’s someone you trust, it should be fine, teacher. Good night.”
After Michelle left, the pair of Rosy and Lizbeth sat there, conversing about this and that. Nothing in particular was important enough to discuss in detail – the happenings around the neighborhood, in the school, around the house, in the local markets. It was all quite mundane and comfortable.
Lizbeth hoped that it’d remain that way as long as humanly possible.
In the following morning, Lizbeth and Michelle learned that the number of commercially available flight to Lafayette became extremely limited. Besides the area being declared a disaster area, the Emperor also saw fit to declare a temporary state of emergency on the province of Thousand Heavenly Mountains, where the city was located at. Quite a fitting name for a land filled with many majestic mountain ranges, including the likes of Tetamus as well as many others similar in size.
Not many in the capital knew about the Emperor’s orders initially, but what with the travel restrictions put in place, it was only a matter of time before rumors spread around like a wildfire.
For now, there were no flights available for those not approved by the army bureaucrats. No exceptions even for a highly-respected member of SOIR. But to a person like Michelle, such a thing was not an obstacle too difficult to overcome.
Since the Imperial Military was sending out Sky Arks filled to the brim with emergency rations and supplies – appropriated with utmost haste from the aviation company in charge – all she had to do was speak to her old acquaintance within it. This person also happened to be that “someone” Michelle had mentioned the night before.
“How do you do, Lady Lizbeth? It’s my pleasure and honor to meet you like this. I am Count Martinus Beaufoy Trentham the Fourth. Please, allow me to say that I’ve been looking forward to this day for a very long time.”
A devastatingly handsome young man bowed respectfully at Lizbeth. He exuded a confident aura of an ages-old aristocrat, with a cultured facial hair, swept back light brown hair, gentle and warm blue eyes and a dashing perma-smile seemingly forever etched on his face.
Lizbeth came to the grand estate of the House of Trentham, located Northward of the Capital, accompanied by Rosy and her teacher, Michelle. This place wasn’t the ancestral home of the Count’s family, but merely a small residence for him to rest and stay while conducting business in the city. Their territory was reasonably close, though.
Count Martinus slowly but suavely took Lizbeth’s hand and kissed the back. At this gesture, she couldn’t help but look at her teacher with weird eyes, wanting to question her who is this man?! Where have you been hiding him, teacher Michelle??
Obviously, Lizbeth didn’t want to jump to hasty conclusions, but the reverence in the eyes of this handsome young man was rather too bright to not notice. And that shine was directed at much older Michelle and herself.
Although it’d be rude to say so, the Count was probably barely old enough to grow a mustache naturally, even if he was giving it a good go of it.
As for Michelle, she was clearing her throat with a light cough, slightly embarrassed. Kissing the hand of a lady was not a violation of common etiquette, but depending on the occasion it was indeed seen as a bit excessive. Right now was just such an occasion.
Still, the young Count’s eyes shone brilliantly and earnestly. Lizbeth couldn’t really bring herself to correct him and cause embarrassment like that. Also, there was his station to consider – as a Count, he was way above her proverbial pay-grade.
Cordially, Lizbeth returned the greeting with a smile and a smart curtsy. “Thank you for your generous words, my lord.”
Seeing her smile, Martinus beamed, his face lighting up even more. He proceeded to squeeze Lizbeth’s hand, not out of malice or any other unsavory emotions, but with a heart full of admiration and enthusiasm.
“No, not at all, Lady Lizbeth. This is truly my great happiness to receive honored guests such as yourself. Your past exploits as a Gold-ranked Adventurer are legendary. I’ve heard and studied a lot of it. That is how I was able to make an acquaintance with Master Banovsky. I’ve been requesting Master for an audience with you and Baron Lomax for ages but only today do I get to speak to you like this.”
Lizbeth’s weird expression became deeper. “I beg your pardon, but may I hear of exactly what exploits?”
Martinus’s face was full of excitement as he began recounting all the amazing adventures she and Damien allegedly enjoyed in the past.
“The very first tale I’ve heard was of the battle involving hundreds of Adventurers of various ranks and that of Fiends numbering the thousands. The battle lasted for the duration of one whole week before the Imperial regiments came in as the reinforcement, finally routing the enemy’s position comprehensibly. In this fierce battle, you have saved the lives of over half the combatants with your stunning healer’s touch!!”
Lizbeth tilted her head, confused. It took a moment or two before she placed this tall tale to an actual event in the past. There indeed was a skirmish between a band of Adventurers and a small group of lost Goblins. Normally, such an encounter wouldn’t have been a problem as the number of Adventurers at the time easily exceeded that of Fiends but the funny thing was, there was a stomach bug going around at the time and more than a few fell victim to it. The actual villain of the story was a doe that the Adventurers had successfully hunted the night before, cooked on a middling fire and consumed in great joy.
She was still an apprentice in need of an employment at the time, and only tagged along because Michelle said the experience would do a world of good for her. Nothing so grand about thousands of Fiends and Imperial reinforcements routing the positions and whatnots. What was plentiful, though, was the pained and no doubt embarrassed cries of grown-up adults seeking some privacy to relieve their bowels.
Lizbeth winced a little after recalling that rather traumatic event.
Martinus didn’t stop at that one. “And then there was the heroic tale of conquering the fatal Sacred Acre in order to save your beloved. My personal favorite, though, is the one where you stood up against the corrupt local governor and brought justice to an impoverished community!!”
On and on, young Count Martinus Beaufoy Trentham continued with the descriptions of Lizbeth’s past exploits that not even herself knew about.
The end result was that her face began to cramp up uncomfortably. More memories flooded in, clearing the cobwebs from her mind and the events described in his tall tales coming back one by one. None of them was as grand and thrilling as Martinus was making them out to be.
Lizbeth took a long, hard look at Michelle, silently demanding an explanation. This was the first time she heard of such a preposterous nonsense regarding her life. Not even a drunk, third-rate bard couldn’t have dreamed up such impossible stories like the ones this earnest young man was believing in.
Michelle gave her a deep shrug of her shoulders and shook her head. Her eyes were saying, Oh, hey. Just roll with it. Too late fix all the misunderstandings now, Lizzie.
Gritting her teeth, Lizbeth did her best to fix a pleasant smile and calmly replied. Well, at least she tried to, anyway. “My lord, most of those stories have been greatly embellished. Please do not pay much mind to them.”
Laughing heartily, which didn’t fit his young and handsome face, Martinus shook his head. “Not at all. I do understand that the reality is somewhat more mundane than it is. But having witnessed your conviction and strength first-hand, I believe that those tales contain a large slice of truth in them. The crux of the matter is that you’ve performed many meritorious services to the Empire and to humanity in general, eschewing your humble beginnings and therefore becoming an inspiration to the younger generations.”
Lizbeth was surprised, but soon after, felt rather relieved to hear that the young man was not a blinded idealist, easily swayed by simple, enticing tales whispered by a passing stranger. Which was good, if she were to ask for his help in protecting her children during their stay here in the Capital.
“Master Banovsky, as requested, I’ve arranged a safe passage for you on the Lafayette-bound Sky Ark. The departure is scheduled for tomorrow morning. Please prepare accordingly as well. As for you, Lady Lizbeth, I shall dispatch a suitable batch of men to discreetly monitor your surroundings. Hopefully, that satisfies your current needs.”
Martinus smiled warmly. But there was a hint of anger flickering past his eyes as he spoke the next line. “How dare they target your children like that in the open? When my men apprehend them, I shall make sure they pay dearly. I swear it.”
Lizbeth nodded softly. She could tell that he was serious about this commitment, which was another good news. And judging by the estate belonging to his family, she figured that the influence wielded by Martinus was not inconsiderable as well. The protection offered by him would be better than good.
After exchanging more pleasantries, a pair of well-built men entered the audience chamber they were conversing in and informed that the batch of men was ready to accompany Lizbeth, Rosy and Michelle back to the trio’s residence. With that settled, they parted ways there.
On the way back, Lizbeth inquired as to why they haven’t sought out the aid of the young Count until now.
“Because, quite frankly, I didn’t want to owe that guy,” sighed Michelle.
“What do you mean? I thought he owed you a favor instead. Was it not?”
“No, no, no. Not at all like that,” hurriedly, Michelle denied it. She then grumbled lowly to herself and shook her head. “Please, Lizzie. Don’t ask anymore. It’s already embarrassing as it is. Please drop it. For my sake.”
For some reason, Michelle’s face was dyed in the shade of crimson. Seeing this expression, Lizbeth felt incredulous. Blinking for a few times, she made sure she wasn’t hallucinating things out of the thin air.
But no – the slightly bashful expression remained on her teacher’s face. Finally, it was Lizbeth’s turn to carry a complex expression on her own. Rosy looked at the two women, herself confused at the suddenness of this awkward atmosphere.
Rosy was this close to saying something, but then she saw Lizbeth giving her a glance, her eyes urging the young Pantherikin girl from uttering out things aloud that could create an even more uncomfortable situation.
So that was that.
The following morning, Lizbeth saw to her kids safely entering the school. Then, she accompanied Michelle to the Sky Ark station to see her off.
Michelle was excited. It was clearly showing on her face. Only a couple of days ago she was reluctant to take the trip but now, she was raring to go.
Lizbeth thought that was just like her teacher in the old days. Never dwelling too long on the past indecisions, always looking forward to the next adventure or whatever journey awaiting for her.
“Take care of yourself when you get there,” cautioned Lizbeth gently as she nodded at her teacher.
“Mmm. I shall. No, hang on, why do you sound like my mother all of a sudden?!” Chuckling, Michelle shook her head. “Am I that unreliable in your eyes? Oh, Lizzie. Your words of concern are like the edges of a sharp knife. Anyways, I should say the same to you as well. Even with Count Trentham’s aid, keep your wits about you, alright?”
And with that, Michelle, carrying her medium-sized bag of holding, entered beyond the entrance of the station, disappearing among the throngs of military hardmen busily rushing over here and there.
With Rosy’s urging, the two returned to the carriage with its canvas roof tilted back to let in the Autumn sunlight, and headed back home.
The ride was as uneventful as it got. Lizbeth glanced at the driver of the carriage, an agent dispatched by the Count, and tried to study him. The man was definitely a soldier. Maybe even a mercenary. Well-muscled, with an air of sharpness about him. A pair of calloused and worn hands indicated that he saw enough action in his lifetime. While driving the carriage nonchalantly, he was remaining wary of the surroundings, his eyes always flitting and searching, scanning, observing.
Seeing a man like this next to her, she did feel a bit more relaxed than before. Being so high-strung almost all of the time was certainly not good for the baby developing inside of her. With several layers of extra protection, now there was some breathing room for her.
Damien did say the men involved in Kain’s demise was a well-connected bunch, but she was pretty sure of their reluctance to tangle with a Count’s men so openly and in the process buy the enmity of a powerful figure.
However, she couldn’t really shake the feeling of this uneasiness. All this time, barring the incident at Kaleena’s school, there hadn’t been any attempt at her kids’ lives. Not even once. It was as if the culprits had given up. Or were they biding their time? Lizbeth couldn’t tell. That’s what made her so uneasy about these peaceful days.
As for Damien….
She sighed deeply, thinking about her faraway husband with the misplaced priorities.
Did he lose himself chasing after the shadows? Is he feeling as anxious as I am? Just what is that man thinking now?
She slowly massaged her belly, looking distant. It’d be still a few months until the arrival of the joyous day. She’d have to make sure there were no dangers around by then.
By the time the two of them returned to the Banovsky residence within the Academy’s grounds, there was an unexpected person waiting for them inside the house, sitting on the couch in the living room, sipping on the cup of tea as if he was the owner of the house, all comfy and the like.
Even before Lizbeth and Rosy could take action, the man apologized profusely and introduced himself.
“How do you do, Lady Lizbeth. It’s our first meeting so you may not know of me. My name is Agent Marcus Dawson of the Special Bureau. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, even at this late stage. Do forgive me for this unexpected intrusion.”
Meawhile, Damien was walking towards the workshop of Ged the blacksmith by the outskirts of the city of Marlborough. His reason was simple enough – to perform maintenance on the mechanical prosthetic arm. And also, to see if that guy was working hard now, trying to reform his formerly wicked ways.
As he walked up the muddied road, white breaths escaped from his mouth. The air was now quite cold, but not yet freezing. Still, there were hints of snow in the shapes of slits fleeting about in the air. He knew that at the rate of the temperatures dropping every passing day, this upcoming Winter would be a harsh one indeed.
Pulling the coat over his collar a bit closer, he hurried his steps.
As he neared the blacksmith’s workshop, the metallic sound of a hammer hitting hard anvil surface echoed relentlessly. Damien knocked on the door and waited until a little girl of around ten opened it and looked at him inquisitively.
“Hey there, Gemma.” Damien greeted the girl and peeked around her. “Is your grandpa in? Can I speak to him?”
“He’s in, but too busy. Busy fixing stuff Uncle broke while training.”
Damien chuckled. “Oh, is that right? Poor guy. Well, he did want me to track your uncle down and set him on a straight path, so all the hardship that follows are on him. Anyways, can you tell your grandpa Damien’s here for the arm’s maintenance?”
Gemma nodded then ducked behind the door. Shortly thereafter, Ged emerged, his face dirtied with soot and grime. He motioned Damien to enter after perusing him for a bit.
The former bandit-for-hire, now an apprentice working under Ged, looked up at Damien and shuddered with fear after recognizing him. Damien, for his part, waved his hand at the shivering man with a refreshing smile.
Damien then proceeded to remove the prosthetic arm. The process itself was quite quick – all he had to was disengage his own Aeterna flow from the mechanisms hidden within the arm.
Of course, as simple as it was, for someone who couldn’t wield Aeterna at all, it took a lot of practice to get it going. Since it didn’t take too much talent to control the minute amount of Aeterna, Damien got the hang of it soon enough and now, he could use this arm like as if he was born with it. His combat prowess had increased several folds, too. Always a good thing, that – any boost in strength was appreciated, no matter how small.
Ged took a close gander at the arm, its joints, the state of the armor plating, and the mechanisms inside. After a short while, he went to work, brushing the former bandit-for-hire away from the messy worktable.
And as he began hammering and tinkering, Damien tried to engage in a conversation with the former bandit as he had nothing much to do anyways.
“Hey, man. You doing alright?” asked Damien casually.
“Uhm, ye… yeah, it’s kinda alright, I, uh, guess.”
The bandit stuttered, sweating heavily. He was backing away a little, but Damien reached out and grabbed him by his shoulder and pulled the terrified man closer.
“Hey, has your injuries heal yet? I mean, I did go a little overboard with you back then. I apologize for that. See the thing was…. I was actually in a bit of hurry at the time, you know. You understand, right? We cool?”
“Yea, yeah. We cool. No problems, man.”
Patting the back of the man Damien grinned. “Good to hear. Oh yeah, sorry but, I seemed to forget your name again. Uh, it was Jon, wasn’t it?”
The former bandit nodded nervously. “Uhm, yeah, it’s not important. Don’t, ah, don’t worry about it.”
The former bandit-for-hire Ged wanted Damien to locate was actually his wayward nephew. Not a real blood relation, no, but someone the old blacksmith happened to look after in this little hamlet.
After he grew some hair on his man-sack, Jon thought it was a swell idea to become a bandit and earn coin that way, figuring that blacksmith work was too harsh a life for someone as talented and dapper as he was.
Damien set him on a straight path, as he claimed before, so all was well now.
As Ged’s hands busily moved about, suddenly Jon remembered something and spoke. “Ah, that’s right. Uh, Sir Damien, there was a man who came here a few weeks ago looking for you.”
“Who was it? And why are telling me this now?!”
Damien loudly smacked Jon on his shoulder, making the former bandit grimace in pain.
“Well, that’s because, uh…. because, sir, you haven’t come here to sort out your equipment for a while.” Jon rubbed his sore shoulder and was about to speak testily, but after receiving Damien’s narrow and piercing gaze, he changed his tone to a more respectful one right away.
“So, who was it? Why didn’t you send me a message? Huh?”
“Uh… sir, I did go to see you at the inn you were staying in. But I was told you were away on a mission.”
Damien raised an eyebrow. If this timeline was right, this must’ve been right after he got the prosthetic arm and went off to check up on the borders up North. That round trip did take three weeks of harsh mountain trekking, so it was understandable he couldn’t be reached.
“Alright, fine. You still haven’t told me who it was.”
When Damien leaned over Jon like a bully, the former bandit sweated even more and raised his hands defensively. “He didn’t tell me his name, other than saying that the two of you recovered an Aerinite or whatever together. He left me a letter…. Wonder where I left that thing.”
Hearing this, Damien’s face darkened.
Jonas Bremble, is it? So, he’s still around? And why the hell is he looking for me?
Damien felt rather uneasy at this unexpected news. He had half forgotten about encountering Jonas in front of that gin joint until now since he had too much on his plate at the moment. And to be perfectly honest, he didn’t want to get involved in whatever craziness that snooty Capital-bred noble got himself into.
“You know what, Jon? If you can’t remember where you stored that letter, it’s fine. Forget about it.”
Damien waved his hand dismissively.
“Uhm, you sure, sir? It could be important. I mean, that man looked very desperate, you see. He wanted my absolute word that you get the letter no matter what.”
“And you don’t even know where it is now. So, I’m telling you, it’s cool. Don’t. Worry. About. It.”
“I know where the letter is.” Gemma unhelpfully pipped in, her eyes shining in curiosity. “That dirty man, I remember too. Uncle Jon, he said it was a matter of life and death, didn’t he? He said the whole Empire might collapse if the letter couldn’t reach Mister Damien’s hands.”
“Yeah, that he did, but don’t you believe everything a crackpot tells you, little Gem.” Jon shook his head lightly. “If I get a single small Bronze coin every time a fool utters the words ‘life and death’ I’d be a gazillionaire by now.”
Puffing her cheeks, Gemma bounced up and down on her feet. “But, but!! That man was serious, you know. Really serious. He wasn’t joking at all!!”
Ged then turned around from the workbench and approached his noisy granddaughter, smacking her on top of her head. Then towards the teary gazes of the girl who was crouched down while holding her aching head, the old master blacksmith motioned her to keep quiet. After that, he returned to the work he was doing before he got interrupted.
Somewhat bemused at the scene, Damien chuckled and decided to humor this little girl. After all, she got smacked because of her desire to fulfill the promise her uncle made with Jonas Bremble, a complete stranger.
“Alright, Gemma. Let’s take a look at this Empire-shattering letter, shall we?”
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.