16. Uncanny Little Secrets
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Dio felt betrayed. 

He learned that Kyrios had long returned to the duchy when he rushed back to the dormitory excited to travel back together. What welcomed him was a verbal message relayed by Irvin saying: 

"I went ahead since I gathered it would take a long time for you to be released by those vapid old folks." 

"Vapid?"

"Your brother's word, not mine dear boy." The blonde guy said generously spreading himself on the couch. 

"As if you don't call them any other names yourself. You were even brave enough to snore right in the middle of the Headmaster's speech." 

"Can't help it, they do offer an amazing amount of long insipid lectures." Irvin shrugged. "Are you heading home now?" 

Dio patted his satchel, "Since the eldest is no longer here, I should get going m'self."

"Good point, I'm heading out soon as well. It's less fun here without you brothers raising a ruckus. By the way, Kyrios must have forgotten to buy your youngest her favourite treat."

"Not at the moment, the sprout is still growing her lost teeth." 

Irvin raised a golden brow. "She's growing up so fast." 

And Dio is particularly proud of that. 

 

Days later at Nachtwald… 

Lyon and Dio issued a challenge of 2 vs 1 combat against Sir Ahmose which turned out to be in the old guy's favour with him thoroughly mopping the floor with them. They were brutally reduced in tatters after a long and arduous one-sided beating and finally stayed still. The result is no surprise, even the eldest Kyrios who has already reached Swordmaster class could not even dream of beating Sir Ahmose until now. What more for these two? An intermediate level Knight like Lyon and the Crusader class Dio would only look like unweaned puppies jumping in front of him. Especially Lyon who is yet to taste the old guy's style of teaching.

Kyrios shook his head and looked at the two without a trace of pity. 

"You could have gone into your normal routine but you choose pain instead," he remarked when he was about to exit the training field. 

Here in Nachtwald, what kind of normal routine was he referring to? Lyon grumbled secretly. 

"Where are you off to brother?" Dio asked.

"Just out to get something for the sprout." He wanted to personally investigate the matter in Aster town. 

Dio thought he was going to buy something for Sterne, like a piece of trinket or some kind of a new snack so he did not put too much thought about it and waved the eldest off. 

He and Lyon collected themselves barely crawling on all fours. He was used to this kind of training ever since he learned to hold the sword but the fellow beside him might not be able to endure the soreness after. 

Oh, the poor lad. Just look… look at him. He looked as if a group of muggers had ravaged his person. The more he pitifully screamed "Not the face!" the more Sir Ahmose aimed for it. The good thing about all these hardships is that, after training with Sir Ahmose, an ordinary apprentice could at least emerge into a decent peak level Knight or Swordsman.

These days, more and more apprentices are grinding hard to hit passable remarks in their ranking. The Lord Commander has implicitly told them that no one is allowed to venture inside Sleeping Forest until they hit intermediate Crusader and Swordmaster class. Hearing this order, the apprentices began to work double-time in hopes of fulfilling their dream of entering the land beyond the border. 

But it seems their father made adjustments to Sir Lyon and his squad, the reason? Only the high ranking officers know. 

This season, a huge number of apprentices have joined Obsidian due to the duke and his subordinates' accomplishments from the last subjugation. The kingdom of Aurum is known to value strength and aesthetics and a lot of aspirants wanted to follow the footsteps of the Four Great Swords.

Obsidian Order of Knights is known for nurturing individuals who possess the potential of being excellent seedlings regardless of their social status. Renowned for their unique fighting techniques and tenacity on the battlefield and their discipline in the court, they still remain close in the hearts of many. They are well-loved amongst the common people and it so happens that one to receive a Great Sword prestige with a Wargod rank is Duke Aldebrand Nachtwald.  

Unfortunately, an issue has cropped up a few years ago resulting in the recall of one-third of the original force. Now Obsidian is not as large as it used to be, the only compensation is that Duke Nachtwald managed to make the Order a lot more solid and loyal.

The kingdom has produced few Warlord and Wargod ranks over generations and an even rarer existence throughout history, the Sword Saint and Paladin. Whether it is a fortune or calamity, Duke Al's Wargod title became the very reason why he had to shoulder the burden of guarding the border of Sleeping Forest.

 

On the other side of the estate, after finishing her etiquette class, Sterne is now limping on her feet towards the stairs. She endured the abominable dance lessons for a week after her morning training with Sir Ahmose and somehow survived it. 

Sterne waited in the rear garden for the lesson to begin as usual but ran into Miss Amy first, which wasn't so surprising. Miss Amy is always tending to the flowers during those hours and always takes time to watch her spar before going back inside the house to wait for her. It had become such a habit that if she didn't see her when she came to the garden Sterne would think something was wrong.   

Today Sir Ahmose agreed to train Dio and Lyon so the lesson with Miss Amy was extended. It was the reason for her limping and groaning. She did well in table manners, walking and dancing but alas, she failed splendidly when maintaining an overall elegant air. Sterne lamented her fate, that's what you get for running along in the fields chasing chickens and piglets. It has been a while since the stick graced her beloved foot. They were sore to the point that it felt like she was stepping on hot coals.

Miss Amy, brutal as always. She detests poor posture apart from unkempt hair so she was drilled to the bone with the lessons of how not to act like a tomboy. She could sometimes imagine the lady leading an army of Obsidian laying waste to the demonic horde beyond beating them with her discipline stick alone.

The thought terrified her absolutely. Miss Amy might just march beside her esteemed father when given the opportunity. 

It was unfortunate that Sir Ahmose was snatched away, she could have had a long enjoyable spar. There were also questions she neglected to ask the other day that she just remembered at this moment. 

The history of the kingdom and how it came to be. The dusk of the ancient race and the reason why they went away. Both might serve as good discussion topics. She also wanted to learn more about the Hallowed Ones and the singularity. 

Argh, there's a lot of things she wanted to know! 

"Hello, Lady Sterne." Lyon greeted after catching sight of her crawling up the stairs like an old woman. "Wh-What's the matter?"

"Miss Amy!" She cried pitifully while taking note of the bruise decorating his left eye. "What about yours?" 

"Sir Ahmose."

The both of them let out sighs and collapsed at the middle flight of steps.

"I take it that you have done poorly in your lessons today?"

A twitchy smile appeared on her face. "A little."

There was an awkward pause in between. Both of them that could not find any more topic to discuss fell quiet. 

"Y-You know your house is really warm." Sir Lyon said awkwardly. "Different from what I expected before."

"It is old." She told him drolly but his face suddenly turned white as paper.

"No, I uh-- I didn't mean to offend you." He murmured rather embarrassedly. He seemed to have chosen a sensitive topic to start on. 

Sterne laughed all of a sudden. What was he getting so worked up for? The great house had seen better years and went through several wars. 

"It is true that the house is indeed old. There's no need to fret over it." From white, his complexion slowly turned crimson. "From the outside, the manor looks formidable and intimidating but the inside is even more shocking."

An old pile of huge grey stone sitting atop a waterfall, but instead of seeing heaps of skulls and large display torture devices who would have guessed that inside is as warm as one's grandmother's room?

He nodded while adding. "I have been to many houses but only a few feel welcoming and comfortable."

"Even if our house is old and crumbling, does that mean that you are sleeping well here?"

Again he nodded his head with a tinge of embarrassment. "I, I don't really care about appearance. I find your place very nice."

Sterne scratched her cheek with a finger trying to conceal her smiling face. Sir Lyon, like many of their guest apprentices, exuded an aura of wealthy young masters. Living in a simple abode might have disappointed them since Nachtwald has long fallen out of fashion compared to the current architecture but after hearing his compliment she realized that it was only her own insecurity that gave birth to these thoughts.

"I'm glad to hear that. I was often told by the staff that this is indeed a special place but hearing it from a visitor sure sounds good."

Lyon touched the stone steps, a hesitant smile lingering on his lips. Sterne figured he had something more to say. The choice of odd topic might have been done on purpose; it's only that he didn't know how to proceed. After about a couple of minutes, he resolved himself to sit upright and turned to her.

"Milady, this manor is rigged with a fortification spell."

"I don't quite understand."

"This house was designed by the Dwarven Lords, the masters of crafting."

Hearing that made her jaw drop. "It can't be. That's impossible."

Dwarves, huh. Those awfully picky creatures? They disappeared over a thousand years ago leaving so few traces. Wouldn't that mean that the great house is also over a thousand years old? It can't stand that long. And even if it is indeed made by them... how can something made by the ancient race appear so crude…? Excuse her language. 

It didn't even take a minute to fully sink in when Lyon refuted her answer by dropping another revelation.

"Sir Lyon, there must be some kind of misunderstanding." 

But he appears to be not listening. "Do you know what a [Fortification] spell is? Meaning the master of the house can upgrade not only its appearance but its defences as well provided he has sufficient magical energy and the terms agree by its land size."

"That sounds… amazing," Suddenly, there's a whirring sound in her ears due to the blood shooting up her head. "Wait... wait-- what do you mean change? You're poking fun at me. Aren't dwarves a nitpicky race? And how would you know that this place is…?"

Actually, her head's a little bit muddled as of the moment. All Sterne could think of was: impossible. Dwarves are known for their extravagant sense of art. Incorporating precious metals and jewels into everything plus the meticulous details on their craft. One could say that give a dwarf a simple stone and he will carve it like a flower to perfection. The house is just a humongous grey and black stone structure. 

Is Sir Lyon serious?

He smiled at her, with those clear sincere eyes devoid of any deceit. Now that he was staring she suddenly found his eyes… pretty. Like the warm colour of tea. 

Noooooo… she got sidetracked! "What about the dwarves again!?"

"I was serious. Also, this involves a [Fortification] spell."

Sterne swallowed. "I'm surprised at how well informed you are. You must love reading, no?"

"I used to." Sir Lyon replied with a chuckle. "I've learned about this in a book that is why I am sharing this with you."

"About the Fortification, are you sure?"

"Very."

Her palm slapped her forehead. "Fortification." Why does it sound so familiar?

Lyon added faintly, "The spell is no stranger to you, just like the walls where the barrier now graces."

Sterne jolted up in surprise as she gradually realized it. Oh, that! How could she even forget? The moment the rune ores were fixed in place the old walls evolved into a much higher and thicker stone rampart over thirty meters high and ten meters thick. Fortification.  

"B-B-But how can something come out of nothing?"

What's this? That's practically cheating!

"It is possible because of skill. The spell [Fortification] involves a high level [Crafting] skill."

Crafting, huh. Producing something out of nothing-- no! She stopped herself short. That's not it. Crafting is to create something new and better out of the materials available.  

As if reading her inner jumbled thoughts, Lyon provided the answer. "The Behemoth's rune ore provided a large reserve of mana to activate the spell and fortify the old wall. It pulled materials from the surrounding resources and rebuilt it to how it was before. Perhaps even better."

"Is that really how it should be…?"

He began chuckling. Right, the little lady looked so adorable like a flustered hamster. 

"Not everyone can dabble on [Fortification], especially when an omnipotent skill is involved. Only a select few are allowed to go beyond nature's law."

Wow, Behemoth you must have been something.

"I don't mean the Behemoth, my lady," He disagreed immediately, "Nature has long decided that the two omnipotent races would have power opposite each other. One was bestowed the power of destruction while the other was gifted the power of creation. So demons, monsters and the likes of dark beings have no power to create."

Her mouth flapped open and closed. If not the Behemoth then... 

"Who?"

"Only those who are favoured by the Herald can."

The person favoured by the Herald. He who was given the blessing. 

"There is no such..."

"Are you sure?" 

She was suddenly reminded of the singularity.

"There were records of them from hundreds and thousands of years ago. Those people are said to make simple spells that go beyond their limit without exhausting their mana. Imagine what the world could become if there is a person that can directly influence its law."

Sterne recalled the scroll she found in the library. "Sounds like a very admirable being." 

"Not necessarily." Sir Lyon shrugged. "What if the person turns out to be malicious? Having an insurmountable potential easily corrupts the mind. Greed for power is innate individual darkness. Every person has them. If not, there are still people around who harbour great ambition, they will do anything to manipulate someone with that kind of ability."

The surrounding suddenly felt stagnant. Tensed. If there really was 'someone' who can change the state of things on a whim the kingdom will finally escape the dark days. But if it falls into the wrong hands it might bring them endless despair.

Sterne's gaze drifted closely on Sir Lyon's plump and amiable face. At this moment, she renewed her impression of him. She thought he was just like the rest of the apprentices who were hell-bent on tempering their bodies and growing stronger. But after today, she surprisingly found out that the young sir has a scholarly air about him. 

"You're right, I also believe that absolute power corrupts if left unchecked." 

Sir Lyon smiled, "Power should have a purpose or else, it's nothing but tyranny."  

"Fortunately, nothing like the said individual has appeared yet, huh." She didn't know why but she was sweating coldly while saying this. 

Is the world ready enough to usher in change? 

Lyon gave a cryptic smile. "We don't know for sure."

The reason why magic has restrictions was because of the known law. You cannot create something out of nothing. For example, if one has a fire element attribute, his magic is limited only to fire. He can only enhance its usage, strengthen the magic or shape it differently.

If by chance one attempts to use a magic tool of different attributes his mana will drain rapidly, or worse a backlash may occur and harm the person. This seems to be the case even for those rare treasured scrolls her father mentioned. 

But the Lost Recipe states that it can be bypassed when you use a stabilizer. Sterne has no plans of revealing that yet because her experience is not enough to put it to test. On the other hand, magic is already being used as a tool for some; she didn't want it to be further abused. Exposing this secret unless necessary will not do this world any good. Sure magic has a lot of conveniences and the contents of Lost Recipe could revolutionize the current way of life, but only viewing it positively is just idealistic thinking. She had a feeling that once it gets out, the world will enter another era where many had to be sacrificed. 

Advancement comes with a price. In a way, an individual's limit acts as his restraints. Now if that person who can go beyond nature's law were to appear suddenly… 

Wait, why does Sir Lyon appear to know about the singularity? Sterne fell into thought. It started with a normal conversation about this house and the [Fortification] spell. How did they even come to this topic now? More importantly, are they even thinking of the same person? 

Sterne pinched the sides of her dress, "There are many talented individuals all over the land that had never been discovered." 

"That's true, commoners are a good example of it. They can learn multiple skills even the low to middle level [Crafting] skills are available for them if they take time to focus on it. In other kingdoms Master Craftsmen are highly valued by the state, they are also sought after by many powerful individuals. Only a fool would offend Craftsmen. Regretfully, most of the common folks who have normal amounts of mana can neither learn offensive or defensive magic."

"Here in Aurum, there is a serious lack of Craftsmen considering how it was called the cradle of civilization before." She said making the conversation lighter. "Our Junior Mage Viktor is of commoner origin, aside from the skill Crafting he is also blessed with light magic and he is very talented with it."

It's one of the many reasons why he was dubbed a genius! 

"Perhaps without the restriction, the craftsmen can do better than most mages." She added. 

"Well, that is a delightful possibility to look forward to," Lyon replied smilingly. "However, the one I was talking about is that person favoured by the Herald. Their ability is not only limited to high-level skills but also magic and creation as well."

Creation. 

Sterne's shoulders jumped up. He's really talking about the singularity! 

 

Plagued by the words she heard from Lyon, Sterne turned to her ever-reliable buddy, the library. Let see, the book about the ancient civilization before the kingdom's founding might be a good reference to start learning more about the singularity but what she found was different from what she expected. Instead of finding clues of the favoured person, she learned about the Aurum Kingdom's history.

The Hero King, the founder of the land, was from a country over the seas. He and his companions, The Great Sage, the Sword Saint and a young mage traversed the perilous seas, battled the monster and saved villages along the way.

When the prophecy of the Black Knight that will bring ruin to the world came, he and his companion bravely set forth to confront that evil.

But what's evil? Her mind was springing up with questions quicker than the words she can read, making reading a bit difficult.

Anyway, upon arriving there was no such thing as a place ravaged by monsters. Only a place bursting with life and abundant with resources. Disappointed that his journey had been all for nought, the Hero King convinced himself that the evil must have cast a spell that deludes the mind. After all, there is no such place with an idyllic environment. For the sake of protecting the people, he founded a kingdom under his name.

Determined to cut down the foe the prophecy promised, he searched this bountiful land. The Sword Saint, one of the oldest and most powerful people, advised the young Hero King that the journey had ended, but in the end, he ignored the counsel of his great friend and set forth on his quest.

His blind adventure led him to the former dwellings of the Golden Dwarves race.

The dwarves of the myth… Sterne muttered to herself. 

The next pages made her blood run cold. Her fingers shook as pressed upon the letter to confirm if what was written was really the truth.

After the Aurum Kingdom was formed four comrades sat as the Hero King's advisors. The Great Sage, a young knight, the Sword Saint, and the mage. Together they united the tribes near the Sleeping Forest.

United? The free people who only know one king refused the foreign one who sat on the throne with a golden crown. Met with refusal one by one he cut them down… the people, the dwarves… the mythical beasts… the ancient race… everyone.

In his blind search for the enemy, he has sacrificed many. From the bowels of the hell he created, the Black Knight of the prophecy emerged. Woken by the cries of oppression he stood alone and confronted the mad king.  

His true identity was…

"Milady?"

The call prompted her back to the present, Sterne looked over her shoulder. The first thing that caught her eyes was the likeness of her great-great grandfather mounted on the wall near the door. Clad in jet-black armour, he raises his sword towards an ivory white castle. 

The portrait was the life-like depiction of a rebellion, the images within it seemed to come alive the longer one stared at it. 

She blinked. 

"Everyone in the kitchen was looking for you, it's about time for lunch." Sir Ahmose stood by the door like an ancient imposing guardian.

"I… I was reading a book, and completely got absorbed."

"Is that so?" He smiled kindly. "But you shouldn't neglect your meals. Emilia was worried you might have gone to sulk because you did poorly at your etiquette lessons."  

Did they think I'm sulking? She giggled. That's absurd.

To show them she was doing nothing of the sort Sterne lifted the book she was reading and opened it.

"I was about to ask where this book came from--"

Huh? Wait, something's wrong, the covers are tightly shut. It won't budge! Oh no… she must have permanently closed it. 

But it was perfectly fine moments ago!

Sir Ahmose observed her minute expressions. She looked so panicked that he felt like comforting her. "Milady?"

"Ugh." I'm dead. I ruined it!

"It's alright," Sir Ahmose put a hand to stop the little lady from wrenching it open. "I believe you. The book must be terribly old; it couldn't be opened by normal means. Milady should leave this to me and run to Emilia and have your meal."

Scratching her head, Sterne reluctantly did as she was told. That was odd for some reason, suddenly closing just like that. Was someone playing a prank on her?

The moment her back was turned, Sir Ahmose held the book thoughtfully. Hardly suppressing the amused smile on his face. Lady Sterne, that precocious child, is indeed a good seedling.

Then with a wave of his hand, the book vanished. 

 

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