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Chapter 279: A Social Gathering
The first rays of dawn peeked above the horizon by the time Regis and I had climbed back from the beast-riddled hill just off of Town Maerin. I had focused solely on practicing God Step—falling more times than I could count in the process—while Regis scouted around the area, doing a bit of hunting on his own.
Though progress was slow, I was still proud of the visible growth in the mastery of my first official godrune. I was able to reach the destination I had determined, using God Step with much better precision than I had at first.
That is, with no obstacles, of course. Taking into consideration the obstacles blocking my ‘path’, God Step became exponentially more difficult to use.
There were several ways around this, of course. I could use God Step in a straight line, much like I had with Burst Step, but doing so would be basically using the blunt edge of the sword.
Alternatively, I could spend a prolonged period of time focusing and mapping out the ‘path’ I could take in order to arrive at my intended destination… but that was a little hard to do while a two thousand-pound mana beast charged after me, and changing positions even slightly altered the ‘path’.
The silver lining behind all this was that my initial development of Burst Step back in Epheotus had served as training wheels for God Step. Along with my augmented reflexes from my aether core and a dragon of the Indrath Clan’s physique, I knew that mastering this was only a matter of time and effort.
Regis, on the other hand, had yet to gain the insights in activating the rune of destruction despite my guidance.
I knew that if I used the destruction rune one or two more times, he would be able to gain insight into the edict, but I was honestly afraid of what might happen while I was under the pseudo-psychotic state that the edict evoked.
Still, thanks to the fact that unlike mana, ambient aether was everywhere, Regis managed to make strides in strengthening his own aether reserves. Through this, his strength had not only increased, but the range that he could be apart from me had expanded.
His entire form seemed to illustrate his growing strength as the two horns that twisted and gnarled behind his ears had become even more intricate. Not only that but his entire form seemed to become more corporeal and real as the purple fire that made up his mane looked like real flames instead of smoky wisps.
With my head cleared of the events during the bestowment ceremony and my aether core empty, I neared the stone sign that indicated we were back within the ‘safe’ zone. To my surprise, there was someone waiting for me just beside the carved boulder in the clearing.
‘Isn’t that the kid…er, Velma? From last night?’ Regis asked, his form hiding within me.
Are you sure you’re an intelligent weapon? I teased, before calling out to the boy. “Belmun?”
‘Sentient weapon,’ Regis corrected with a grumble.
Belmun shot up to his feet at the sound of his name being called. He bolted toward me, the wind tossing back his long unkempt hair to reveal a busted lip, bruised eye, and a swollen cheek.
The boy shot me a wide grin as he waved his hand. “Mister!”
Belmun skidded to a stop in front of me and plopped down to his knees. “Please teach me how to fight!”
Noticing the bruises and welts all over his exposed arms and the hardened look on his face, I couldn’t help but admire the boy’s determination.
“No,” I answered, walking past him.
“W-Wait!” Belmun scrambled back in front of me. “I don’t have anything to offer now, but I’ve been bestowed a crest earlier today!”
I raised a brow. “So?”
The boy scratched his head. “S-So I have incredible talent! I don’t have anything to offer you right now, but in the future, when I’m a famous or even ranked ascender, I’ll pay you back!”
I don’t know what came over me as I saw the confident—almost smug—expression on Belmun’s face but I released a wave of aetheric force, lacing in just enough killing intent to bring the boy on all fours while choking.
Withdrawing my intent as well as the palpable pressure exerted through the ambient aether around us, I stared deadpan at Belmun, now gasping for air. “Don’t be so ignorant. The world’s a large place and your talent in this small town might be comparable to the street rats of a major city.”
Arriving back at the manor, Regis emerged and jumped on the leather couch. “I didn’t think you’d get so emotional with the little boy.”
I frowned. “I wasn’t emotional.”
“Please. You barely care for the people here enough to exchange more than a sentence with them unless you’re prying for information,” Regis replied, laying down. “But you not only helped the kid, but you gave him advice.”
Taking off my shirt, I retorted, “That wasn’t advice. His smug attitude after getting a bit of recognition annoyed me.”
Regis rolled his eyes as he curled up into his ‘meditative’ state.
I let out a sigh as I sat down on the ground. I knew why I acted like that—I just didn’t want to admit to myself that the little boy reminded me of myself in a lot of ways. Slapping my cheeks to focus, I closed my eyes as the warm blanket of the morning light enveloped me and began refining my aether core once more.
Over the next several days leading up to the annual exhibition, Regis and I had fallen into a comfortable rhythm largely away from the curious denizens of Town Maerin.
Without the need to sleep aside from a few hours once every three days, I had been using my mornings refining my core in order to replenish my aether reserves enough to study the cuboid relic in the afternoons. In the evenings and overnight, I would stay near the peak of the tree-filled hill practicing not only God Step but also fighting with aether in general.
Mayla had stopped by the first day after the bestowment but I told her I wouldn’t be going anywhere and made her go back home. I didn’t want her to spend the majority of the day with me when her time with her sister was so limited now.
I did find out from her later on, though, that Belmun had started training seriously at the striker until he would enroll in Stormcove Academy. It turned out that the bruises he had received the night after the bestowment was because he got into a fight with some of the striker students.
While progress had been made in both studying the cuboid relic as well as God Step, I was slowly growing more and more impatient staying in this small town.
So when the day of the annual exhibition finally came, I was actually excited.
“Are you sure you want to do this now?” Regis asked, staring at me.
I held Sylvie’s stone tenderly in my palms. “It’s been a while since I’ve tried and my aether core has gotten stronger after practicing God Step.”
“I know, but didn’t your last attempt almost completely suck your aether reserves dry? Will you be okay during the exhibition?”
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“Exactly. I can’t train today because of the exhibition anyway so I might as well. Now shush.” I replied, focusing on the translucent stone as I released aether from my core.
I was met with the same sensation of the aether draining from my body as a shroud of purple enveloped the stone. Unlike last time when it felt like I was trying to fill a pond a few drops at a time, I could now feel an actual stream of aether reaching the inner dimension within the stone. With my aether purer and denser than before, there was even less aether being wasted through the ‘filtration’ process that occurred within the stone as well.
Still, while definite progress was made, by the time I was left sweating and gasping from the strain of having nearly all of my aether sucked out of me, there were no visible changes to the translucent stone.
I put the stone back into the extradimensional rune and fell back on the cold floor.
Staring at the ceiling, I thought of how far I still needed to go. Even after I had gotten this far, it felt like I had barely taken a step forward in this leg of the journey. But what I feared most was what would happen after I reached the last leg.
Would fulling imbuing aether into the stone truly bring back Sylvie? She had given me her physical form in order to save me. Would she truly come back as the same Sylvie I knew and loved? Would she come back at all?
My chest ached at these thoughts and it felt like my body had just grown several times heavier as my motivation and determination wavered.
No. You’ve come this far, Arthur. You can’t stop now.
Letting out a sharp breath, I got up and changed. The sensation of the black leather-like armor clinging to my skin was a welcome change after the previous cloth outfit.
The gentle knock on the door told me it was nearly time for the exhibition to begin.
“Let’s go,” I said to Regis. With a nod, his form disappeared into my back.
After pulling the teal robe over my shoulders and inserting the white dagger within the hidden pocket on the inner lining, I headed toward the door.
I was greeted by a somber Mayla. She gave me a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Good Morning, Ascender Grey.”
“Mayla?” I raised a brow. “I thought I said to send over someone else to escort me.”
The girl that looked to be just a few years younger than my sister shook her head. “I couldn’t do that. My mind would be more at peace guiding esteemed ascender myself. Thank you for your consideration though. I have enjoyed the last few days with my sister.”
“It’s good if you’re fine then,” I muttered, scratching my cheek.
The two of us walked down the hill leading to the town proper in silence. The once talkative girl seemed to be lost in thought, stumbling several times on the uneven road.
“Ah, I almost forgot,” Mayla suddenly said, turning to me. “Chief Mason has your runecard prepared with the money you’ve earned from selling the mana beasts. He figured since you lost your dimension ring that even with the fee, it’d be more practical than carrying around a bag of gold.”
‘Runecards are physical cards linked to a banking institution using runes so that you don’t have to carry physical money around,’ Regis explained simply after a quick mental nudge from me.
“I’ll be sure to pick it up before I leave,” I answered, impressed once again by how advanced Alacrya was compared to Dicathen. I was tempted to figure out how to subtly ask more about how the banking institutions here worked when we arrived at the town proper.
The atmosphere today was much livelier than it had been a few days ago and it only grew worse as we reached the arena. The din of dozens of conversations all fighting for supremacy overpowered the soldiers trying to manage the growing crowd.
Luckily, we didn’t have to take the main entrance. The two of us were escorted by one of the guards toward a side entrance leading to the area.
“I will take my leave here, esteemed ascender,” Mayla said, lowering her head. “Only officials of the towns and guests from Stormcove Academy are allowed inside this viewing room.”
Watching her walk back, leaving me with the guard in the well-lit corridor, I cursed inwardly for thinking that I’d be able to watch the exhibition in peace. I could already guess how stifling a room filled with town officials brown nosing the Stormcove Academy representatives would be.
The usher standing at the far end of the corridor hurriedly opened the cherrywood door and directed me inside as he called out, “Ascender Grey has arrived!”
I walked into the open-air room that looked over the arena that had rows of preadolescents in uniforms that distinctly highlighted their towns.
The room was decorated modestly with vases of flowers on dark wood furniture. The lack of seats in this ‘sitting area’ seemed to suggest the promotion of walking around and getting to know each other.
Inside were distinguished individuals of varying ages all garbed in lavish suits or dresses. They each held a wine glass in their hand like they were posing for a picture as they stared at me.
“Esteemed ascender!” a familiar, booming voice called out. Chief Mason wore a fitted suit that highlighted his broad frame. His salt and pepper hair was slicked back while his beard was properly combed and tied near the end.
He handed me one of the many wine flutes displayed on the cocktail tables arranged throughout the room before turning to the rest of the people present in the room. “We’re all so excited to have you with us today!”
“Thank you for having me.”I accepted the glass and turned to the staring individuals, raising my glass and presenting a smile. “I must’ve gotten a bit excited myself, seeing as how I’m dressed to join the kids down there rather than to drink here.”
Laughter rang, breaking the tension as the officials present began flocking us.
‘Wow. Who is this smooth-talker and what have you done with the angsty Arthur that I grew to tolerate? I thought you said you were bad at social gatherings,’ Regis said.
Shut it. And I said I didn’t like social gatherings. That doesn’t mean I’m bad at them.
“As expected of esteemed ascender. Not only is your presence so imposing, but your looks are stunning as well,” a woman that seemed to be in her early twenties said with a giggle, brushing her hand against mine.
I smiled back as I took a step toward her. “Please. Call me Grey.”
Not bothering to learn her name, I made my way through the crowd of over twenty. Dismissing their overeagerness to introduce themselves to me and flaunt whatever morsel of power they had in order to appeal to me, I kept a charming and lighthearted air.
I had gone through several glasses of wine as I exchanged greetings and a drink with the people present while learning more about the three neighboring towns when my entire body suddenly shuddered.
Regis felt it too as my entire attention was suddenly pulled toward the door we had entered from.
“Elder Cromely of Stormcove Academy, students Aphene and Pallisun of Stormcove Academy have arrived!” the usher announced, opening the door.
The chatter and laughter surrounding me was soon drowned out by the blood pumping in my ears as both Regis and I focused on the lean, grizzled man garbed in a dark suit.
More specifically, what caught our attention was the unassuming stone that lay mounted on the sleek obsidian cane in his hand. The unassuming stone that held a considerable amount of aether within its decrepit surface.