“My Prince,” repeated South Wind, who was now named Eternal Stream.
“But how?” Hadjar asked while clumsily attempting to get his Mentor to stand back up.
Finally, after hugging, they sat down on a long, narrow bench. Neither of them wanted to ponder why it had been placed next to the bed and what sort of acts were usually performed on it.
“First, I must tell you a story, my Prince,” and so, South Wind began to talk. “I managed to escape from the palace the same day the coup happened. For six months, I traveled alongside a trade caravan. We went to the Hot Valley…”
Hadjar’s eyes opened wide in surprise. The Hot Valley wasn’t just far away, it was unimaginably so. How could they have possibly gone there in just half a year? Apparently, South Wind had gotten lucky by joining up with a rich trade caravan that had strong and durable animals who were perhaps more than mere horses.
“What happened to Nanny and the Master?”
“I don’t know,” the Scholar answered sadly. He continued talking. “A terrible storm struck. The caravan was almost completely destroyed, but some lucky people, including me, managed to hide from it in a cave. Unfortunately, the exit out of the cave ended up completely blocked off, so we ventured deeper into it. We had been walking for almost a month and had run out of food and water, but then we stumbled upon a city.”
They walked through the cave’s tunnels for a month?! How deep was that cave?! And they found a city? Hadjar thought in astonishment.
“I won’t go into all the details, but I’ve managed to become the student of a great scholar, an adept of the Lord rank.”
“Lord rank?” Hadjar asked. “What's that?”
“A rank most Imperial adepts can only dream of. A level that almost borders on the magical. Look here, my Prince.”
The Scholar took a rectangular piece of yellow paper out of his pocket. Unknown symbols were inscribed on it in red ink.
South Wind held it between his index and middle finger, and began to murmur something. At some point, the talisman flashed and a ghostly, golden diagram began to circle above their heads.
[The request is being processed ... The request cannot be processed. Error —’Unknown Object’]
“What was that?!”
“Don’t be afraid, my Prince, it’s only a small spell. You see, even though I’ve only reached the stage of Transformation, it’s not difficult for me to use the knowledge of the great sage.”
‘A spell? There are spells in this world?’ Fortunately, the neural network had managed to record everything in great detail for later.
“As you can see,” South Wind pointed at his strong, young hands and smooth face. “The great Scholar can easily rejuvenate a person. He did it as soon as he accepted me as his disciple. But, alas, I am only talented by the standards of our Kingdom and cannot do the same for you.”
The Scholar looked longingly in the direction of the East, where the vast desert lay.
“My abilities are below average by the metrics of this world as a whole. I learned only a little from the wise man, and that knowledge was enough to make me the ‘Honorable Eternal Stream.’”
“And why have you returned?”
“To find you, my Prince,” the old man responded with a nod toward Hadjar. Admittedly, he now looked young and was very handsome. “During my apprenticeship, a caravan came to the city. As it turned out, some cunning merchants knew about his existence and had decided to bring him goods that can’t be acquired underground. Some of them had heard about the situation in our Kingdom.”
There was a pause.
“Please, will you allow me to examine you, my Prince?”
The Scholar reached for the black cloak covering Hadjar. He hesitated, but eventually allowed him to pull off his hood.
“I hope demons eat Primus’ body and soul!” South Wind breathed out, lowering his hand. “After bribing some greedy officials, I managed to find out about some of the things that happened to you, but this…”
“How did you know where to find me?”
“I didn’t,” the Scholar smiled for the first time that evening. “But I’d guessed that you would decide to make a living out of this.”
“Because music is the only thing I can do now.”
“Exactly. And so, for seven years, I wandered around the Kingdom, and everywhere I went, I asked people to play ‘Six Moments before Life’ for me.”
“Well, I would think that, among the millions of musicians, you surely found a few that were capable of performing it.”
The smile on the Scholar’s face became even wider.
“But no one, except Elizabeth’s own son, could’ve played her version of the song for me.”
Hadjar blinked and smiled warmly as well. Even after her death, the Queen was still trying to help him and doing her best to protect him.
“That helped me recognize you. Although, to be honest, finding you wasn’t easy. I’ve heard about almost two dozen different Hadjars. It’s like Her Majesty had foreseen the future and thus chosen a suitable name for you.”
The former Prince couldn’t disagree with that. Walking around the city, he often heard his name being called out multiple times. Perhaps that’s why Primus’ secret service hadn’t been able to find him all these years.
“Esteemed mentor,” the smile vanished from Hadjar’s face, giving way to a heavy, resigned sigh. “Primus destroyed my nodes and burned the meridians in my body. All this time, I’ve been trying to find a clue about the potion I need, but...”
“But I got lucky and found it!” And with these words, the Scholar took out a scroll from the depths of his clothes. “Take a look, my Prince.”
He unfolded the map. Along its edge, among the designations for valleys, there were several circles. One circle was quite small, the size of a small coin. The second circle had been drawn around the first one. It was wider, about an inch in diameter.
There were also other ‘larger’ circles, from one to three inches in diameter.
While Hadjar was examining the map, he gave the order for his neuronet to record it. In this world, maps were valued almost as much as some of the techniques. It was very difficult to get a hold of some of them.
“That’s strange, Teacher,” Hadjar suddenly said. “I remember all of your lectures, but I can’t remember these designations at all. These mountains, these forests... All of it’s foreign to me”
“That’s because it’s not a map of our Kingdom.”
Hadjar looked at him.
“Observe this area,” South Wind pointed to the smallest circle, the one that was no larger than a coin.
“Is that Lidus?”
“No,” the Scholar shook his head. “That is the Empire of Darnassus.”
“The Empire of Darnassus?!” Hadjar practically shouted.
The Darnassus Empire was a huge territory that united numerous sects, family clans and kingdoms. It was almost endless, but on this map, it had been designated as something small and not worthy of attention.
“What is that around it?” Hadjar pointed at the outer circle, which was several times larger than the Empire itself.
“An organization that controls our Empire and some others as well.”
The Scholar sighed.
“This world is truly enormous, my Prince. Living in the palace, we didn’t get to see even its smallest part.”
“And the other circles are also organizations?”
“Yes,” the Scholar nodded. “The sage gave me this map. He said that it’s the simplest one he has. That day, he changed my view of the world by showing me his personal map. It occupied a wall the same size as mine had been, in the palace. But it was on the same scale as this scroll.”
Hadjar stopped breathing. How abnormally gigantic was this planet? Or was it even a planet? After all, if the Earth were to become several times larger, it would cease to be ‘solid’ and would become a gas giant instead. And this world was thousands, no, tens of thousand of times larger than the Earth.
“Now direct your attention here, please,” the Scholar moved his finger farther and farther East and then poked at a lake designation. In reality, that lake was probably larger than the ocean. “This is the lake of Forgotten Hopes. The sage told me that the Flower of Hope grows there. If a person picks it during a day when both the sun and the moon have appeared in the sky, then boils it in the lake water and drinks the concoction, they’ll be reborn. Their fate will change. Their appearance will change as well. At the same time, their body will be rebuilt, completely.
“So… My nodes and meridians...”
“Will be reborn along with your body,” South Wind nodded.
Recording the route in the neuronet’s database, Hadjar gave the order to calculate the approximate path length and travel time.
[Estimated time of arrival, excluding possibilities of unforeseen circumstances, is 79 years. The calculation was made with a mode of transport at the Awakening stage of power as the baseline.]
“We have to travel a long way, and, seeing as you’re not a practitioner, your main enemy will be time itself,” the Scholar said and then took out a flask with several red pills from his pocket. “The alchemists of the underground city made this for me. Each of these pills can extend the life of a mortal by twenty years.”
“When are we leaving?”
“Today, my Prince! A wagon drawn by very powerful horses is already waiting for us at the…”
At that moment, a thin arrow pierced the paper partition, flew through the air and stabbed into South Wind’s back. Carving a hole through his body, it ended up embedded in the floor, just a few inches from Hadjar’s ‘legs’.