Hefting the final box onto the wagon, James turned to Diana. “You got anything else you want to bring? I’ve got the luggage you left downstairs and a few samples I can use to entice buyers along the way.”
Howard slapped James’s back, winking at Diana. “Such a strong, responsible man! Don’t worry though, Diana can handle herself.”
Nodding at the old [Knight], James helped Diana and Kira onto the wagon while Howard settled in at the front. One of his [Knight] Skills was |Cavalry Affinity|, which let him expertly guide beasts of burden. Despite his relative age, Howard had happily agreed to take the job as the driver.
James poked his head out, “Howard, are you sure you’ll be fine in that armor?”
Howard laughed. “Don’t worry, Master James. A good [Knight] is always prepared for anything. Besides, once we get moving, the breeze will keep me cool.”
James pointedly glanced at Diana who was wearing a leather jerkin but wore no armor, wondering what Howard would think of his granddaughter’s attire.
Without looking back, Howard seemed to have known what had gone on and yelled, “Some [Knight]s though find that armor interferes with certain civilian duties.”
With a weary sigh, James turned to find Diana glaring toward the front of the wagon. Surprisingly, the girl hadn’t blushed for once. She spoke through gritted teeth, “Ignore him, please. He has some… old fashioned values.”
James grinned. “I know how it is. My grandfather was much the same actually.”
Diana quirked an eyebrow. “Oh really? You’ve never told me much about your family.”
“Well then, let’s try to correct that on this trip. And let’s see, yeah. Well, I guess it’d be pretty weird to you, but my father believed that men and women shouldn’t have sex until they’re at least forty and are married. Then again, the place I come from had a lot of crazy ideas like people who believed in only one god who was actually a trinity combined as one being. Although to be fair, even that religion was sorta dying out as technology began to supersede everything. No one really wanted to believe in something that wasn’t visible.”
Diana paused, gazing at him curiously before deciding to ignore the part about his father. Having sex for the first time at four decades of age? Even she thought that was crazy late; the odds of someone surviving to thirty-five were already just barely over half. “How could there be only one God? Don’t they know of the others? Actually, how can one being be three Gods? Wouldn’t that make him the King of Gods or something? Also, how can people just stop believing in a good? Wouldn’t they see all the miracles he performed?”
James opened his mouth, closed it, and sighed. Then, he pulled out a paper and quill, preparing to attempt to succinctly explain the concept of Christianity.
By the time, he’d succeeded in moving on from the concept of Adam and Eve and had now begun trying to remember the differences between all the factions of Christianity, they’d already approached the towering gates leading to the exit of the city. James popped his head out, hoping to find the emblem of the Queen somewhere nearby, indicating that an official of high standing was available to perform a check on his goods. Unfortunately, no such flag was present.
Diana looked out from the side of the wagon as well. “What are you looking for?”
A collective gasp interrupted James before he could reply. Then, a shadow covered half the street, and people stared up at the sky, negating the need for him to answer.
“That. I suppose. Of course, the official had to be a dragon. Actually, of course, it had to be Marximus.” James now wished he’d just gone to the Queen.
After all, she, at least, was reasonable enough to just refuse to let him leave the city if he failed to provide useful research. Meanwhile, depending on his mood, Marximus could very well decide to have “Toasted James” as a snack and maybe a few of his companions to make it a full meal.
A red dragon thudded in the clearing just inside the gate, normally used to mount an active defense against invaders. As the dust settled, Marximus rumbled, “Where do you think you’re going, little human? Your letter was rather… insufficient.” Howard warily put a hand on his sword in case the dragon decided to take a hostile action. Diana did much the same, feeling the thrum of fire attributed mana around her flamberg.
“Little [Knight]s, draw those swords, and I’ll raze your dukedom to the ground. Master James here is already on thin ice.”
Howard gulped and apologetically glanced at James before removing his hand, but Diana kept her hand resting on the pommel of her sword.
James frowned. “Was a way to enchant weapons using blood not a sufficient amount of research?”
The red dragon grumbled before morphing into his draconic form, standing on two legs at just eight feet tall rather than his previous clearing-sized dragon body. Even with Marximus’s signature red scales and golden eyes, he could have been mistaken for a common drake, or rather, an old-blooded one due to the smoke rising from his nostrils. Nevertheless, the formidable aura that the dragon emitted made many spectators tremble and fully revealed his true identity. Pulling out a scroll from a pouch wrapped around his red body, Marximus threw it at James.
Opening it, James realized it was a copy of the letter he had sent the Queen a few days ago detailing his research.
“The Queen received your latest data and was quite interested in it. To summarize, you discovered a simple way to provide enchantments by using beast blood and mana crystals. It’s a shame that the dragon blood went to waste though because the enchantment works either way. Even normal beast blood suffices so long as it’s from a sufficiently advanced creature. Still, are you sure the creation of the fire elemental failed?”
James carefully kept any traces of falsehood from his voice. After all, he might even be able to pass a truth-seeking Skill since he was just lying by omission by refusing to mention the creation of Bloodline-quality blood. “I believe I observed the formation of an elemental as my notes showed that some of the vitality appeared to be congealing with the fire elements into something animate…”
“Well, the Queen received your latest data. To be honest, you might want to consider buying her a present or presenting her with some new interesting research the next time you see her. She was actually a bit miffed that you were too scared to return and report on your findings.”
Nervously smiling, James bowed his head. “I’m grateful that the Queen deemed my research interesting and important.”
Marximus in drake form waved his claws. “It’s nothing. Still, we both agreed as your sponsors that you deserved a reward. Since you fled though, it’ll be a fair bit less in order to incentivize you to never hide away again.” He handed over a bag of holding that seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.
Hastily reaching inside, James discovered that it contained two rings. James whistled in surprise. Despite his insensitivity to magic, he could sense the mana radiating off these simple bands, not to mention that the vast space within the bag of holding made it clear that it was of high rank. The dragon smiled. “While your innovations aren’t up to pure with [Archmage] work or even comparable to [Dragonmage] work, they do represent a great step in the history of enchantment. My wife and I offer you our most sincere congratulations for both your discovery in science and in love. It was meant to be a wedding present, crafted by a true high-ranking enchantment, and, thus, one of a kind.”
While saying all this aloud, Marximus sent a telepathic message to James. ‘We both know that something very different occurred. I want to know what really happened. I replicated the experiment myself and obtained some rather interesting results… I’d like to hear your side of the story first.’
James hesitated, due to his body’s unique constitution, he was unable to use magic, so the only way he’d be able to respond would be through directly saying his results. The dragon’s eyes narrowed. “Ah yes, I forgot that little conundrum about you. It’s quite interesting though that you’re so easily squished, yet so… impervious to more advanced methods.”
With a few muttered words, the dragon |ward|ed their surroundings, preventing nosy eavesdroppers from listening in. James hesitated before figuring that he might as well tell the truth if the dragon knew of the results already. While truth spells would fail on him, Skills that allowed the user to better read facial expressions or become more perceptive certainly would still function at perfect capacity. When dealing with a centuries-old dragon who had a wealth of Skills and Artifacts at hand, it simply was not worth the risk. “I purified beast blood using dragon blood as a catalyst for removing pure Bloodline quality blood from organic liquid fire essence. Also, I observed the transformation of vitality into nature magic, which created the explosion I mentioned before.”
The dragon hummed. “For this, I will not punish you. While I’m allied with the Queen, I too do not deem such knowledge good in her hands. Who knows what humans would do if they learned of this secret. Perhaps, the times of Dragon Hunting would begin once more.”
James scrunched his brows, trying to remember what Dragon Hunting entailed since dragons were literally some of the most powerful beings in existence.
Noting James’s confusion, the dragon snorted out a puff of smoke. “Human, if you have questions, just ask. At the very least, an inquisitive mind should never be afraid to question. Basically, even a dragon will falter before a Kingdom, and some of the great heroes of mankind have been a match for many a dragon…” Marximus scowled and shook his head, trying to wipe away the memories.
“As for that transformation… Hm. It would explain the explosion I observed. I suppose that transforming the fundamental building blocks of life could excite the mana enough to cause an explosion of that level. I see why you took that out though. Neither the Queen nor I would’ve been very pleased to hear you wasted all the dragon essence because of a flimsy vial.”
Something about the way Marximus commented on his true research drew James’s suspicions. Staring at the red dragon, he asked, “Wait, didn’t you say you’d already done this experiment?”
The red dracon chuckled. “No, please. Even I am unwilling to easily part with that much essence blood. I knew you lied because you didn’t mention the mess you made. While I was scrying, I noticed that your concealed lab was dangerously messy and that broken vials littered the floor. You can thank me for cleaning that up for you, by the way. The ambient mana alone could have blown up half your labs. Well, I suppose that your two feats of keeping this hidden from the Queen and presenting me with interesting ideas to think about shall spare you the sin of keeping a few droplets of dragon essence to yourself. I saw that too on one of my rounds, you know. That was almost ten droplets!”
Suddenly, everything became clear. James thought to how his memories had seemed mysteriously altered, and how the room had been cleaned before Howard had found him to notify him of Kira and Diana’s disappearance. Still, that was all besides the point; he glared at the dragon. “Why were you spying on me? And, did you alter my memories? Actually, how’d you even do that; that’s supposed to be impossible according to your previous studies.”
The dragon looked affronted and stared at James. “Why I’d never try to scramble anyone’s memories. I’d just kill and eat them if it came to it.” Sniffing at the attack on his dignity, Marximus then paused, examining James curiously. “Wait, you said you lost your memories?” Feeling a slight prickly sensation, James knew the dragon was conducting some sort of appraisal, probably to determine whether there were any lingering malignant effects on himself. James shivered beneath that gaze: it felt as if the dragon were trying to delve into his deepest secrets by carefully examining each molecule composing his body. After several minutes of this uncomfortable scrutiny, the dragon exhaled a long plume of smoke. Marximus opened his mouth. With a serious gaze, the dragon mused, “No, I didn’t do anything, but you’re right: there’s a very distinct flavor of mana about you… When you were first introduced to me, you definitely did not have such a thing… In fact, all mana surged away from you.”
Deeply sniffing James, the dragon noticed something before quickly scanning each of the party members in the wagon.
With a confused frown, Marximus commented, “You smell different… the Hersha is also different, but not in the same way… You smell like a dragon but not. She smells like something… other, something I only know of through |Ancestral Memories|. How can this be?” Suddenly, the drake’s muscles all tensed, revealing the full extent of how ripped this dragon’s form was. Marximus stared west, toward James’s home. “Interesting; I can now see how this could have all come to pass.” the dragon trailed off, clearly getting distracted.
The red dragon smirked and growled at James. “I believe you’ll owe me something the next time we meet. While I don’t know what you and that lizard are, your cat girlfriend’s Bloodline can only come from one thing… awakening after being invigorated by another ancient bloodline. In this case, my dragon essence. You owe me her life.”
James frowned, wondering how to deal with this. Kira, he understood, but why did Jeffry and he appear different to Marximus? Perhaps, constant exposure to the blood essence had altered their physiologies in some way? That ought to have been impossible though because he was immune to mana. After all, Jeffry did occasionally patrol the basement by entering through the trapdoor in the barn. James tapped his lip. He couldn’t remember whether he’d locked it since only Jeffry really used it as it had originally been meant to provide the Queen easy access to his labs from the landing pavilion at the barn. It’d be fine… probably. The basement wards and Jeffry’s vigilant guarding would keep away all but the most tenacious thieves. James refocused back onto his current problems; he still had to convince Marximus not to eat him.
Suddenly, Marximus flinched before grumbling something beneath his breath. Then, the red dragon seemed to imperceptibly pale and deflate. Apologetically facing James, the red dragon complained, “Sorry, Thalia is requesting I help out with the kids again, and she isn’t taking “no” for an answer. Well, I guess you’ll figure out how a wife can ruin your life pretty soon!”
James watched in bemusement as the once fearsome dragon now revealed himself to be a henpecked husband. Marximus leaped into the air, sending gusts of dirt billowing around the gate before turning back to the Castle.