After assimilating almost all of the essence that Asterios had shared with her, Miria felt greatly invigorated. These three days they had spent on resting, additionally allowed her body and spiritual system to get accustomed to the expansion. Wanting to see how much she had been actually affected, Miria received Ast’s approval to push herself a little bit more than usual during their journey back.
And thus, they covered the same distance in around five days instead of eleven. Miria kept her performance at the same level to gauge how exhausting it would be but learned that it was a new norm for her after the change, allowing them to use that speed as their new means of travel.
She grew tired much slower than before and could keep up a quicker pace than her previous go-to ride speed with ease. It naturally wasn’t her fastest, but for moving from one point to another without a rush and risking exhausting herself, it was perfect. She only wondered how far she could push herself when she tried her best, making a mental note to challenge some of the other Pantherkin later.
Arriving back in Tyrienheim, the first thing they did was visit Kindra to let her know about their return. Asterios confirmed that she was in Hestizo's mansion with Umbra’s help and they headed there.
The guards quickly let him and Miria in, who stayed in her panther form just because she was really enjoying Ast’s hand caressing her head, and a butler guided them to the lounge in which his mother was currently staying.
The servants had been informed about him and his companions, but it was still quite a sight for them to see a man with a huge black panther by his side stroll through the mansion like it was nothing.
One of the younger maids even gathered enough courage to ask if she could pet Miria once. Seeing the girl’s excitement, and how much effort she expended to hide it, they agreed to the request and the maid melted adorably while hugging Miria’s big and soft body.
Hopefully, it was worth it, because the older one accompanying her wasn’t too impressed with her junior’s behavior and practically dragged the young girl away after she and Miria parted.
Entering the lounge after being announced by the butler, they found Kindra sitting by a desk and working on some documents. Everything she had there was neatly arranged into various piles. She had always been a maniac when it came to organizing things, and that was something Asterios had managed to pick up after her himself.
He sat down on a sofa and waited for his mother to finish the current piece, knowing that she would address him after she was done. Kindra wrapped things up in a few minutes and sighed in relief as she moved the paper onto the pile of completed ones.
“Welcome back, Asti. You took way less time than I thought. Did you manage to find anything helpful there?” she asked, giving him a warm smile.
Asterios kept scratching behind Miria’s ears, whose head lay on his lap. “Nothing devoid of doubts and inconsistencies, unfortunately. But, we did get some more hints. I would like to ask you a few questions about… that night. If you are fine with it, of course.”
“Whenever you want. It was quite a bit ago, but I will try my best to be as accurate as possible.”
“Thanks. How exactly did you notice the fire? Anything weird or special you could point out?”
Kindra rubbed her cheeks with her hand, squishing them in the process. She always made this motion when thinking about something very deeply, unaware of how silly but adorable it looked.
“Hmmm… We were on the road… And we just noticed an orange glow in the night sky at some point… And then smoke when we got closer… I don’t think there was anything special about it… We then picked up the pace and arrived at the burning village… It was already in a horrible state… Literally everything was on fire and there was not a single person running around… And there were no corpses either, only some weird outlines on the ground… I guess that part was weird… How come literally everyone could die and disappear in a fire? It had to start somewhere and then spread, no? They had to notice… And how there was no struggle or blood around if it was a bandits’ attack...”
Asterios nodded in agreement. Knowing that the fire had started from a single point, made that look even more suspicious. No normal fire would spread so fast as to engulf a whole village before even a single person could notice and escape. Magical explosion, however, was a different thing…
“It wasn’t your usual fire. It was too powerful and… meticulous. But anyway, could you tell me how you managed to find me? The house wasn’t close to the outside border. I know that you are a very kind and compassionate person, but I don’t believe no one would have stopped a fifteen-year-old girl from running into an ongoing inferno.”
“Now that I think of it… I was sitting in one of the wagons belonging to my family, very shocked by the sight of the burning village… Many men ran into it to check for survivors… Then… I heard the cry of a baby… And not only I did... The other women with me also started looking around in confusion… But… Everyone seemed scared… They all kept glancing at each other or staring into the floor… I couldn’t stand it anymore so I jumped out and ran after the crying… I didn’t notice at that time, but it was always perfectly audible… And it like… guided me at every intersection… And I arrived at the building with you under a burning beam…”
~Spatial Sound Transmission or Directional Sound Emission would be nothing hard for someone as skilled in spiritual arts as Kaguya, my Lord.~
~Good to know. So, she possibly led my voice through something like a sound corridor back to the women in the wagons... This looks more and more like a setup… At least it doesn’t seem they were aiming specifically for Kindra.~
“I see. Thank you. Anything peculiar happened afterward?”
“No, not really. I quickly ran back to the transport. Until everyone returned from searching the village, I kept tending to you. As I said, they found no other survivors. It was all weird so everyone agreed to leave that place as we didn’t have the means to stop the fire or do anything. The best we could do was report it so we continued the journey. Nothing too peculiar, I guess. Well, maybe besides the two falling stars as we departed, but I already told you that story when you asked me about your name.”
Asterios nodded. “Right. But could you maybe tell me more about them? Anything?”
“They were very beautiful so I remember them clearly. One was bigger and red while the other was smaller, falling slightly under the first one, and with a light blue trail. I guess they must have been really big to be so bright while also so far in the sky since they left an arc actually bent upwards.”
~Master. The legends say that Princess Kaguya could fly around our realm at will. And it’s said that she was surrounded by a blue aura.~
~I can confirm that, my Lord.~
“Did any of that help?” Kindra asked after finishing, bringing Ast’s focus back to her.
“Yes. A lot.”
“I’m glad then! So, what did you learn from the trip?”
“Nothing concrete, honestly. But, I guess there’s a chance that my parents are actually alive.”
Kindra stood up abruptly and beamed a wide smile at him. “That’s great! I knew there had to be some survivors!”
Asterios showed a wry smile. “Well, not exactly. There’s also a chance that they were the ones to put me in that burning building.”
She quickly lost all the enthusiasm and approached him with a concerned face, sitting on his free side.
“What? Put you in there? What do you mean?”
“You could say that I had a flashback. A woman put me on the floor and a man rested that burning beam above my head before they both left. And I don’t think I come from that village. I’m sure you have noticed by now, but it all seems too deliberate.”
“We aren’t sure yet. It’s all too enigmatic. They could have used the bandits’ attack to drop me there, or they even were the ones who took part in causing the fire. They could not even be my parents and just random people in whose hands I had ended up somehow. Anyway, we need more information.”
They sat in complete silence for a moment. Kindra was staring at him with a sad expression. She then sighed and leaned onto Ast’s side.
“So… What now?”
“We are going to look for someone who knows a lot about seals.”
“Well, in short, there’s one in my head, blocking all the possible memories from before you picked me up.”
“What?! Why haven’t you told me about it?!” She jumped in shock.
“Calm down, Mom. I only noticed it recently, all thanks to our new friend. And he confirmed that it shouldn’t do anything else besides blocking access. I should be safe. I think.”
Kindra made a heavy sigh and slumped against his shoulder. “What kind of parents leave their baby alone and with sealed memories… I’m… so sorry…”
He started brushing through her hair. “Why are you sorry? You have done so much for me. I should be the one apologizing. Thanks to whatever they had planned, you have been forcefully pulled into it. Who knows what other secrets might my body and past hide.”
They stayed like that for a while longer until Kindra slowly stood up.
“Alright. I’m going to ask Dad and Mom to help you look for that person. Please, give us a week or so. I’ll make sure we reach out to everyone we can.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it. I’ll finish up some businesses during that time then. And look around too.”
He stood up, gave her a little peck on the cheek, and let Kindra jog outside. The information network of a merchant family definitely was a valuable help in something like this. And they should be in contact with some royal families too.
Since Kindra went to talk with her parents, Asterios didn’t want to bother them and headed to the Adventurer’s Guild branch to report the situation of Teira. Miria transformed into her humanoid form and Selene jumped out of the crimson gate to join them too, teasing the panthergirl at the beginning a little by closely hugging Ast’s arm to her body. He ended up with both of them linking arms with him, gathering quite a few stares, mostly from the male population.
They stopped acting clingy before entering the guild and walked towards Truvi’s spot, pretty much completely empty as usual. The cute dwarf waved at the trio after spotting them, excited to talk to them again.
Asterios told Truvi that when they had arrived at Teira, the curse must have been dealt with because it was nothing like she had described and there definitely was a lot of vegetation and old ruins or remains.
The receptionist just laughed at him while saying that it was not possible as they would instantly receive an update on that through their network unless it had happened very recently, which still was pretty much unthinkable.
She tried convincing Asterios that he was just mistaken until he brought out Suanori’s token and swore on it. Truvi went silent and glanced at the two girls by his sides, who nodded in sync. She then jumped off her little ladder and rushed off into the distance, screaming someone’s name, most likely her superior’s.
A moment later, they were brought into a sound-proof room and two other men showed up with Truvi, one of which turned out to be the guildmaster of this branch. After checking Ast’s token, they listened to his explanation and instantly sent Truvi to organize their fastest scout to check it out. The issue was too serious to leave it all to trust, even if the notice came from someone who was in possession of a guildmaster’s Token of Fealty.
Thanks to the fact that Ast’s party was at D-rank, they weren’t really suspected of lying about their involvement in the disappearance of the curse. And any doubts the guildmaster and his assistant had, were additionally cleared after Asterios had told them about the fresh remains of what looked like a high-tier Golem lying in a huge crater in the middle of the village. Low rank did come with the most unusual benefits.
The guildmaster wanted to at least credit them for the discovery if it turned out to be true, but Asterios insisted on leaving them out of that, saying that it would only bring pointless and unwanted attention to them and possibly result in many false rumors to begin spreading if the real person behind it wouldn’t be found quickly. And he was sure he wouldn’t be.
In the end, the guildmaster agreed and they were back in the lobby with Truvi. Asterios did not bring up the topic of the seal to either the guildmaster or her as it could potentially be possible to make some connection between his question and the curse. He didn’t know much about the guildmaster, but Truvi was a smart one.
They didn’t pick up any quests for now and went to visit Imadil’s smithy. Much more time had passed than what Cynthia had told them would be required for the father and daughter duo to finish his new weapon. Asterios was getting excited just by thinking about what it could be. Even though he hadn't had too many chances to test out his new gauntlet, he had understood how amazing it was after training with it for a bit.
The party entered the building and found the elf polishing a kite shield behind the reception desk. He noticed them and nodded with a faint smile.
“Asterios. Took you long enough. Cynthia has been eagerly waiting for your return almost every day to show you the finished product.”
“My apologies. We’ve run into some issues during our latest expedition. I hope it didn’t inconvenience you too much.”
He shook his head. “Of course not. Come. I bet she’s tweaking it again instead of working on other projects. She just can’t leave it alone for even a moment.”
Asterios followed the tall elf and chuckled. “Well, that’s understandable. It’s something she must have poured a lot of her heart into.”
“As every Spellsong should when making a Spellslinger. These weapons are our magnum opus. The whole realm trembled under their true might in the past. A single slash to decapitate a Dragon. Those were the times…”
Miria couldn’t hide her excitement when listening to Imadil while Asterios could only smile wryly. It was hard to imagine an artifact powerful enough to down a legendary creature, boasting unbelievable defensive power, in a single strike. Especially since half of that power came from replaceable Runic Chips.
They entered one of the workshops and found Cynthia sitting down over something with her back turned to them, clearly moving her hands. Imadil stopped and called out to her.
“Cynthia. They are back.”
“Hm? Ah, yeah, tell them that I ran into some problems with the circuit responsible for Sharpness and that I will deliver the shovel this evening myself. Say that I made some stupid mistake or something. I’m just an apprentice in the end.”
He shook his head. “Not the Ulrems. That was an order from three days ago, by the way. I’ve already handed it out. I meant Asterios.”
Cynthia’s body jerked and she froze. She then glanced over her shoulder and spotted the trio beside her dad. With one, swift motion, she turned around and hid behind her body whatever she had been leaning over before.
“Father! You should have led them to the exchange room or something! How can I show it to him just like that!”
“What’s there to prepare? Gift wrappings? It’s not a birthday present, Cynthia. Besides, you’ve been polishing it almost every day.”
“Ugh. Fine. Just… Give me a moment. I need to piece it together… Again…”
He sighed and gestured at the party to follow him to another location. This time, they ended up in the open area behind the smithy, looking like some kind of a testing range with many targets, both melee and ranged, stationed around.
While Cynthia was doing whatever she had to do, Asterios practiced with his gauntlet a little more. Miria was always very fascinated with it and observed him closely this time too, amazed how Asterios quickly made use of different hand signs responsible for activating the correct mechanisms inside the artifact.
Imadil nodded in approval when seeing the proficiency Asterios had achieved with Poison Fang. He could quickly switch between the equipped poisons and shoot the needles with great force, making it clear that his spiritual energy was top-notch. He was glad his creation had ended up in worthy hands.
Cynthia joined them after fifteen minutes, bringing a dark wooden box with her, something about a half arm’s size. She placed it down on a nearby table and stepped aside with a soft smile.
“I’m sorry for keeping you waiting, Asterios. I’m sure you know how it is. After finishing something, you always get new ideas on how to improve it. But anyway, here it is. I tested out many designs and concepts but finally settled on something more unconventional. Considering that your main fighting style relies on these magical circles on your gloves, I wanted to create something that would obstruct your casting as little as it's physically possible. I hope you won’t be disappointed.”
Imadil chuckled. “Yeah. You should have seen the pile of prototypes in her personal workshop. I think she went through like fifteen different models—umph!”
A sudden elbow from Cynthia stopped the older elf from speaking. She smiled at Asterios, encouraging him to open the box.
After lifting the lid, he certainly had to admit that he hadn't expected to see another gauntlet inside, even if the package wasn’t long enough for a common sword. It looked similar to the one he currently had on his left arm.
“Surprised?” Cynthia asked, moving to stand by his side. “I wanted them to match. I don’t know if you care about symmetry, but that’s just my little fetish. I’ll assure you though, this one is completely different. Put it on, I’ll explain.”
He allowed her to help him wear the gauntlet and strap it on properly. Right from the start, Asterios could notice the difference in weight. The new one was much heavier than the artifact he wore over his left forearm.
“Don’t worry about the weight. Does it feel right? Yes? Good. Now try checking your arm with your spiritual consciousness.”
Asterios closed his eyes and sent a pulse through the circuits in his arm, immediately noticing some weird, glowing point outside of his body.
“Looks like you can see it. Great. Reach for it and fill it with your mana.”
He did as instructed and the weird signature connected to his circuits. The moment it did, a very complex structure flashed in his mind, inside which he could clearly spot a short blade, covered in high-quality inscriptions.
Additionally, he felt as if the weight of the gauntlet disappeared. No, rather than disappearing, it matched the left one almost perfectly, creating a great balance between his left and right arm.
Cynthia moved his hand up and down. “And it seems that the Gravity Nullification and Counterbalance are working properly. So far so good. You should be able to notice a few square-shaped crystals inside the artifact. Fill them with your mana. They are batteries, allowing these two enchantments to run even after you get completely spent so that the whole thing won’t drag you down like an anchor in tough situations.”
“That’s quite amazing already,” Asterios commented. “How many things did you put in this?”
She showed a proud smile. “Not many, but for sure my most useful ones. Alright. Time for the best part. Similar to Poison Fang, the trigger is inside your palm. Use all four fingers to find it and pull the lever. And don’t aim your wrist at anyone. Or yourself. For safety reasons.”
Asterios took a few steps back from the table and turned around, positioning himself towards the open yard. He didn’t know what to expect so of course he would take a safe approach. Straightening his arm to the front, he fiddled with his fingers for a moment before finding the correct position and pulling the switch.
With a beautiful metallic sound, a black blade with a crimson edge slid out from an opening above his wrist. It was almost as wide as his arm and pretty much as long as his forearm. A thin trench ran over the whole blade, through the middle. Near its bottom, a circular recess had been carved, meant for a Runic Chip. The lower path was riddled with very detailed magical formations, also in crimson.
“I used Zerrenian Quarium as the base metal. You can’t find anything of better quality on this continent. It’s so tough and durable that even forming it into a blade and sharpening the edge is an unimaginable pain in the ass, not even mentioning the inscriptions. But, considering your spiritual energy, it was the only thing I could think of that wouldn’t get deteriorated in half a year of usage. Besides legendary and mythical grade ores, of course. ”
She let Asterios make a few practice swings to feel the weapon and walked to his side, grabbing his forearm and unfastening a few wraps. Cynthia then lifted the lid covering the insides.
“It’s so damn heavy because I fit a whole frame inside. The major problem of arm blades is the point of the connection while they are extended. As you can see, I created this three-level skeleton from the same metal and attached it to the blade at different angles so that the force of impact received by the sword can be spread over a larger area, thanks to part of it being still inside the gauntlet instead of fully revealed through the opening. You can now even use that blade to block much heavier weapons without worrying about it breaking off the mount.”
He glanced over the complex construction, spotted the three storage crystals, and many other mechanisms that operated the blade. Even though he didn’t know that much about this craft, it was clear that she had put a lot of thought and effort into his weapon.
Cynthia closed the bracer and fastened all the wraps again. “Alright. Take a few more swings and tell me if there’s anything that feels even a little bit off. Then, we’ll finally move on to the most important part. You can use one of the training dummies if you want.”
Asterios looked at the wooden target and got a better idea.
His own shadow fluttered and black smoke started enveloping Ast’s body, covering him whole after a short moment. Cynthia stepped back, slightly disturbed, not knowing if it was some spell she had never heard about or something else.
Ten seconds later, the weird mist moved off Asterios while still retaining a humanoid shape. The elves’ eyes widened in shock when the smoke imitated very fine details, creating a pure-black clone of Asterios. The only thing of different color were the duplicate’s eyes, which were glowing in an ominous shade of purple.
The spooky phantasm looked around and walked to the nearby weapon stand, picking up a practice sword.
“Do you have experience with weapons?” Asterios asked.
~I prefer shaping my body into whatever I need, but I watched enough of my opponents use various things in combat to learn a thing or two from them. And I had a peek at some of your memories related to swordsmanship. It shouldn’t be that different from what I’m used to.~
Imadil and Cynthia shuddered a little when they heard an ancient-sounding voice resound in their heads. Seeing that no one besides them reacted in any way, they knew there most likely was no reason to be concerned, but the being in front of them emanated a very bone-chilling aura.
Umbra took a defensive stance and Asterios started attacking. For the next few minutes, only his grunts and the sounds of metal clashing against metal could be heard. Asterios tried out as many different approaches as he could think of, based on his previous experience or theory.
His handling of the weapon was pretty good, but compared to Umbra’s swift movements, it was not even worth mentioning. Nevertheless, Asterios felt like the blade fit his arm perfectly and he truly perceived a connection with the weapon. He had mostly trained a bit with a shortsword in the past, but this wasn’t that different from what he had learned.
“Alright. That's enough. I’ll be training with it seriously at a later date. It’s good for now.”
Umbra nodded and his form shifted into that of a big raven. He carried the sword in his talons and dropped it back into the weapon rack, returning to perch on Ast’s shoulder.
Asterios turned to Cynthia. “I don’t think there’s anything I could point out. It feels good in my ha—... on my arm.”
“That’s good…” Cynthia nodded and approached him while not dropping her eyes from the shadowy bird. “So, last but not least, the actual core of the Spellslinger. I used the crystal tokens you’ve left us the last time to design the slot for them. It should be a good fit. Father helped me a lot with the inscriptions, even though I told him not to go overboard…”
“And I told you that I’m not letting you make a half-assed Spellslinger,” Imadil commented from behind them.
“Yeah, yeah. Just remember, if he blows up some city with it, you are going to be held responsible, not me,” Cynthia huffed back at him and returned her attention to Asterios. “In the current times, most Spellslingers you can find—good luck with that, though—are locked at a thirty-to-seventy ratio of power, with thirty coming from the user and seventy from the chip. But, this one is at fity-to-fifty from the get-go, with the possibility to crank it up to seventy-to-thirty like the ones from the age of Draconic Conquests. Father wanted to leave it at that all the time, but I couldn’t let an amateur accidentally wipe out a race or two when he trips and activates the stored spell. No offense.”
“None taken. I’m glad you put a limiter on it. How to operate it?”
Cynthia showed Asterios which lever inside the frame to pull and change the flow of spiritual power through the whole thing. She also explained to him a few rules on how to properly use and care for this particular Spellslinger.
“I think that’s everything. Now, time to test it out. I’d say, throw your strongest spell at it, but that’s not the wisest thing to do in the middle of a city. You have anything that isn’t extremely destructive but still can put a strain on the inscriptions?” she asked.
“I guess I do have something in mind.”
Asterios brought out a dark red crystal token with a complex pattern inside the ring and slotted it into the hole. Being spiritually connected to the weapon, he could sense the spell stored in the chip and activate it with ease at any point in time.
Cynthia asked Miria and Selene to help her drag a metal dummy into the open and told Asterios to use that one since it was much more durable. They made some space for him and waited for the show.
Asterios drew mana from his second source and began feeding it into the weapon. The crystal started glowing. Next, the inscriptions joined it. A moment later, they could notice the area around the slot changing color.
“Heat Metal? Even if it’s at seventy-to-thirty, it will take ages for the blade made of—”
“No. That’s not Heat Metal,” Imadil interrupted his daughter.
This time, she stopped by herself. The whole weapon suddenly turned dark red, then orange, and finally blindingly gold. They could even spot faint smoke coming out of the frame hidden under the hardened leather. A red flame enveloped the blade, finishing the process.
Asterios made a few test swings and pressed on the bracer with his other hand. He didn’t feel any discomfort. Everything seemed to be withstanding this level of heat, properly isolated and reinforced with magical formations.
He then glanced at the target dummy and made a diagonal slash from below, putting a lot of strength behind it.
Unfortunately, he had either overestimated the puppet’s durability or underestimated the effect of his own power on the token, and the blade cleaved through the opponent like through butter, causing him to lose balance and almost trip.
“That’s so cool, Master! It may be even stronger than what I used back then!” Miria started jumping in joy while applauding him.
“That much is only natural.” Selene showed a soft smile.
Meanwhile, Imadil and Cynthia were staring at the still-orange edges of the mannequin that was cut in half, with their jaws resting on the floor. The target was made of Mithril and survived tens of years of testing. It wasn’t that easy to put a scratch on. And especially not that simple to melt in a fraction of a second.
Then, a small explosion occurred and a puff of smoke shot out from the slot in the sword, spooking Asterios a little. Shortly after, he heard a whizz of pressurized air, and the broken pieces of the crystal were launched out of the hole, quickly turning into dust afterward. The blade started slowly cooling down.
“Looks like I’ll need higher quality monster cores for spells of this level…” Asterios sighed and turned around, noticing the shocked stares of the elves. “What?”
“Oh, Divine Treemother… I’ve single-handedly doomed this realm…”