Vampiric regeneration is rather impressive, and even the worst injuries might only require a good month of bedrest. That meant I had enough time to train a bit longer than two weeks For the moment though, both Mejg and Jakob needed someone else to balance on until we reached Herwitz.
We fished Gareth out of the river. He was still breathing and still retching, spitting out globs of blue and yellow lightning to expel the nasty mana potion from his system. It was going to be this way for the next week or so. He wasn't one for words, but he needed to know what happened.
"Amshy appeared right behind the Pontiff and stabbed him through the back!"
"And how'd he do-MHPHH!" Gareth motioned for the bucket once more and let loose.
"Shadow magic." I explained.
"Huh, you actually made use of that dumb lore?"
"Yeah, I did." I asserted.
"Good for you I gue-MHHHHHHPH!"
Nathaniel moved the bucket in front of Gareth's mouth just in time, turning his face away as the liquid sloshed its way out.
The small bucket filled up rather quickly, and Nathaniel held it at arms length as he dumped the liquid into the river to hopefully never be seen again.
"Well Amshy, you stood up against the evil we face. You definitely deserve a reward, although I don't know exactly what yet." Herzt said diplomatically as he slapped his hand down twice on my shoulder. That 'exactly what' became something that sent shivers down my armored spine. My question earlier definitely wasn't going to be forgotten or forgiven so easily but, for now, it looked better for Herzt to ignore it for now.
I was just thankful no one had seen me retreat briefly out of sight. If that happened, Herzt would tolerate no excuse.
"YOU KILLED A PONTIFF?!?" Inks cried out in the Golem Forge.
"Yeah, didn't anyone else tell you?"
"Nope, not a word. I mean, I doubt a bunch of soldiers would talk to a Demon like me in the first place, but still that's pretty fucking impressive!"
"All I really did was manage to get behind and stab him when he was gloating all over the place."
"Oh come on…" Inks rolled her eyes at my rationalizing, "Rat Society is literally built on the idea that no one can trust anyone! Especially the priest caste, and even more especially the crazy motherfuckers who manage to crawl their way to the top."
"Well there was something else about it, the way it looked at me… It wasn't just the Pontiff. There were… more of them… in his eyes."
Inks drew close to me.
"You killed an Amalgam?"
"I mean, it killed itself… kind of… I stuck a blade through its chest but it just looked back at me with this… stare… and it flung its Morning Star to flagellate itself. I leapt out of the way but had to leave my sword behind. The Morning Star got caught on the sword hilt as it tried to take it away and the Pontiff just burned itself alive."
"You know you could have just said yes, right?"
"Yeah, I think I killed this… 'Amalgam'. Is… that a big deal?"
"I mean, yeah it's a big accomplishment, but the thing about Rodiens is that their entire theology is based around avoiding another Nhym."
"Nhym was a word that the Pontiff used in an incantation. He said 'Become the Walls of Nhym'."
Inks raised her eyebrow.
"Something must be really off there if a Pontiff of all damn things talked like that."
"I imagine that Nyhm was a pretty important place of some kind?"
"Whats the biggest city you know?"
"Inks, do you think anyone actually cares about how exactly big the biggest city is?"
"Okay okay fine, but Nhym was a big fucking city a couple of centuries ago full to bursting with the classical definition of Rodiens, literally just any kind of rodent you can imagine and then some. Loads of corruption, loads of ethnic problems, loads of disease, you name it, Nhym had it. That changed when, one day, a Necromancer managed to ignite a soul."
"Yeah the Pontiff had this sort of phantom wall that looked like this transparent oil which looked like… Screaming Rats…"
"Yeah, that's usually how Necromancy manifests on a battlefield. Depends on the environment, but Necromancy usually works best around masses of free-floating souls, which is often a battlefield, but an overcrowded city can also work given certain circumstances. In any case, we can't really know what exactly happened there, but Demons did plenty of research into the topic and what likely happened was a chain reaction that ended up igniting souls that were still locked inside a living being, the mechanism for which is too specific to not realize what you're doing. Therefore, a lot of the researchers believe in the conspiracy that it was very much intended by some idiot who just wanted it all to burn."
"Why would someone do that?"
"Honestly I think a better question when you're talking about some crazy idea is why wouldn't you want that. Sure, there might be people you care about, but what if there wasn't anyone who cared? If enough people believed so strongly that no one cared, then no one will care which leads into a feedback loop. If no one cares, then why should you ever exist in a city, a place designed to be gathered in? Or, alternatively, why should this city even exist at all?"
"Yeah… sorry I think I need some wine now because that was depressing as FUCK."
"What's depressing?" Teia asked in the doorway.
The air froze me to a statue. Teia really shouldn't listen to this sort of thing.
"We're talking about history and magic and stuff."
"Magic? I know a bit of magic!"
"Yeah! It's… uhm… Wind magic though."
"Ah yes, the butt of the joke. Blow enough wind at your opponents and maybe something will happen!"
Teia shrank away at Inks' joke.
"Well Shadow Magic is also pretty useless compared to Fire, and yet I managed to beat a Fire user in the battle we just had so… it just needs to be used a bit differently." I chimed in.
"Yeah, I guess." Teia said.
"Uh… I'll move some chairs around if we're going to have a long chat about magic because I've read fucking all of these books and I regret reading just about every single one."
We set out three chairs, only for Teia to sit herself on my lap with a smile. She was small, but I'm about 180cm. When you're 180cm, most girls are pretty damn small.
My arms crossed around her and just let Inks talk for a bit.
"Okay, so, where to start…"
"You were talking about Ratmen, right?" Teia asked.
"I mean, we were, but…" I griped.
"Oh stop being so protective of her!" Inks moaned, "Ratmen are pretty relevant nowadays anyway. Better know the enemy than not I'd say."
"Wouldn't that actually convince me to become a traitor or something?" The words left my mouth without me realizing it.
"Oh god, what did Herzt say now?"
"When we'd... slaughtered… so many Rats, I asked afterwards if…" I looked down at Teia, anxious at how she'd react. She just looked up at me, as if she didn't know what was coming.
"Look," Inks knew what I was trying to say, "I know what you mean. It's tough getting slammed into this sort of thing. But give me like five minutes and I'll turn your entire opinion around."
"You sure about that?"
"Hey, sit back and learn, okay? Okay, so, the whole Nyhm situation obliterated the Rodien world at the time, and the first thing that the Rodiens believed was that this simply should never happen again. The idea manifests in a couple of ways, which eventually grew into the idea of 'the Exodus'. The Exodus was based around the idea that if a population became too numerous then an internal problem would arise and decimate it. So, just expel some of them and have them take on a big adventure and maybe create a place to settle somewhere else. If they fail, well their sacrifice was a noble cause. If they succeeded, good on them. At the same time though, the cost of settling somewhere makes them relatively weak, so a Baron offers them vassalization, thus expanding his borders. If the original inhabitants die, then the Barons still win because they now own the land."
"That's… pretty scummy."
"Oh that's just the first part! In order to reduce the population even further the clergy reserve the female population for themselves or the nobility. The workers can go fuck themselves, because that's literally the only thing left for them."
"Yep, they've completely stopped the worker caste from making babies."
"Wait, wouldn't they rebel at that?"
"I mean yeah, they have, and they do get access to women here and there, but because they are so deprived of the experience and the birth ratio is like twenty to one or something crazy, the clergy has had centuries to demonize the worker caste as rapists, eventually converting the workers to the idea that the only way they could ever have sex is through ****."
"But that doesn't-"
"It doesn't, but belief is more powerful than the brutal complexity of the truth. And the clergy have converted that belief into a reality. Trust me and the accounts of at least a hundred other sources that are stashed… I can't remember where. But anyway, if the Rats manage to get inside here they're literally going to **** every girl and woman in here, which is a very fun thing to think about."
Inks coughed to get over the idea.
"So, that's the general idea, so… uhm��� anyone have any questions?"
Inks then realized that she had just made the whole thing even more awkward, and her arm scratched her neck as she looked away in anxious guilt.
"M-My…" Teia started.
We both looked at her and she seized up.
I nudged her and smiled down at her. She was safe with us.
Teia tensed her shoulders, relaxing as she sighed.
��My Mother told me about the Rats. How they'd use us, use both of us, until we had no use left. Never trust them, never talk to them, never look at them. My Dad said she was exaggerating. They caught us, they killed Dad, they killed Mom, and… and… and…"
She went quiet, curling up in my lap.
I placed a hand on her head, letting her nuzzle against it as she blinked away at her reddening eyes.
This conversation was better off happening another time.
It was dark in the courtyard, the cold clouds ready to deliver another layer of snow that was still able to melt in the heat of the day.
I'd lit a single torch in the middle of the courtyard, its dull light providing plenty of shadow for me to practice Wick Step, the technique that had saved my life in the fight against the Pontiff.
Depending on how much magic I used with Wick Step, the stronger the reaction it had to light. The full plate armor I had back then was heavy enough that the force of the Wickstep only pushed me back a meter, but without that weight using Wick Step at full strength meant that it became something like a typhoon wind. But that was only an unfortunate problem with Shadow in general. What I was after was different.
I wanted to control the direction the Shadow took me. Now that may actually be very simple and it was something I could already technically do, but holy shit was it finicky.
Imagine you were swept up in a typhoon wind. Great, now imagine doing that intentionally to save your childhood friend from being isekai'd by Truck-kun, only to then realize that your voluptuous teacher was next on the isekai list. If you've played enough hero games then you should know that you need at least five dashes in order to be a viable character. If even one of those requires a target though, then you immediately drop into unviable territory because the devs can't balance targeted abilities.
The practice though was rather simple.
Getting the Shadow to take me through the light and out the other side while staying upright.
I shivered in my cloak, the heavy winter clothing hopefully being enough to prevent any sort of injury. Pacing a few steps backward, I broke into a run towards the light. Shadow folded around me, smothering the sounds of my shoes in the gravel. As I hit the torchlight, I forced the Shadow to carry me through.
Instead it suddenly ejected me at an 80 degree angle, sending me careening into the courtyard gravel in a shower of tiny pebbles.
"MASTER ASH ARE YOU ALRIGHT!"
I got to my feet just as Diana rushed over to me, making her way underneath my arm to support me even if I didn't need it.
"Oh, hey Diana."
"Master Ash, what just happened there?" She inquired in her heavy winter dress.
"But I've never seen anything like that!"
"I had to research it quite a bit for the actual name, but it's called the Vetroian horizon. It's the light density that Shadow magic immediately ejects itself away from a light source."
The Vetroian Horizon described a similar phenomenon to the Rutherford experiments, which had led to the discovery that atoms weren't like masses of plum pudding, but instead were mostly just empty space with an incredibly dense and charged nucleus. I'd basically been ejected like a magnet with the wrong charge.
Then again, science really wasn't Diana's strong suit with the face she was giving at the moment.
"But you're alright then?"
"Yeah, I'm alright. Just need to figure out how to make sure that doesn't happen."
"Why don't you just go around the torches instead?"
"I mean, I was trying to simulate what it'd be like if I was stuck inside a corridor with a lot of torches and needed to move through them in a hurry. If I had done that then I'm pretty sure with the force I was thrown with just now that I'd plant my body into the wall."
"Why don't you just put them out?"
Honestly I hadn't even thought of that.
"What-what about you?" I stammered, "How have you been doing, aside from how cold it's getting?"
"I heard a bit about what happened in Herwitz, at least from Herzt's perspective…"
"You don't like him too?"
"You don't, I know that much, and I know I wouldn't trust him. He's too boisterous for one. Apparently you killed a Priest while you were there."
"I killed a Pontiff."
"Herzt said it must have been only a Priest, that he didn't gloat enough to be a Pontiff. You held your own though."
"I think that was mostly my armor."
"Maybe you were so skilled that you didn't realize it." Diana smiled.
"It's not that much skill…"
Diana thumped my chest with her wingtip.
"You're better than that." She declared before composing herself.
Diana cleared her throat.
"It's getting cold. I was thinking of making some supper if that was fine with you?"
"I think Lady Seraien got under Teia's skin again." Diana said as she stirred the pot of steaming oatmeal.
"She's my sister, I know when she's thinking hard about things."
I hung my head in shame.
"I think you were there when it happened too." She chuckled.
"I really shouldn't pry into what happened-"
"Teia was talking about her parents," I said, "About before you came here."
Diana stopped in her tracks.
"I just… feel like I should know about what she, what both of you, went through."
Diana chuckled with a somber smile.
"A lot of things happened in Eridea. Too many things for either of us to ever really know what was going on. Father decided that the tribe should flee before we were caught up in the tide of refugees. Outpost after outpost we tried to settle down, but then Father said that our only chance was inside the Vampire Kingdoms, something my Mother and many others objected to. We pushed through the Rodiens lands, but were caught at the last possible moment. We were about to fight them when Mother betrayed us, declaring that no daughter of hers would ever fall into the corrupting hands of Vampires. The Rodiens gave her an ultimatum, kill Father and his loyalists, or be wiped out. Mother agreed to the terms. Those few days that passed before Vampires saved us were… hell. Trial after trial, Teia had already given up hope."
Diana swiftly turned towards me.
"Master Ash, Teia has never been as happy as she is with you. No matter what happens in the hell that is to come, remember how happy you made her. That tiny candle will mean much more in the depths of winter than it ever will in the warmth of the summer sun."
The oatmeal foamed over, dribbling down the side and hissed into the flame.
Diana yelped, lifting the pot off the stove and stirring frantically to recover as much of the oatmeal as she could. Instead, she scraped off charred oats and milk that soaked into the oatmeal and ruined it.
I lay down on my bed, my head swirling in an attempt at understanding everything. I wasn't used to thinking about such heavy things. I'd been a coddled child, always able to just say no to things I didn't like. My parents really didn't mind or really care. They always had their own priorities. I knew that they always had things on their mind, so I always avoided talking about what was on mine.
I'd always lied about how things had been going. After all, I could deal with things right? I had to deal with these things because they were my own problem. And if I didn't lie properly, then things would get out of hand. The problem wasn't the problem, the problem was that everyone else broke down the door, waving hands, pointing fingers, but their priorities always won out at the end. No one had time for me.
Now obviously there are actual good things to be worried and concerned about. Finances, Medical emergencies, stuff at your job… the list could go on and on. I had been blessed enough to never have to deal with that stuff.
"Or maybe you have been cursed…"
I sharply rose from my bed. That had been someone, something else.
"My my, hearing voices now aren't we?"
"Who are you?"
"Don't worry, traveller, you aren't insane. Not yet anyway. I just came here to say… 'Hi'..." It said, Its voice curdling into a malicious smirk.
I think I saw it in one corner of the room, a darkness in the darkness.
I jumped off my bed and made my way towards It.
"A good instinct, I like it. But one such as I is not bound by such petty laws. Perhaps, instead, you should check the other corner…"
I looked behind me.
Indeed, there was something, someone, in the opposite corner of my room.
Lots of exposition this chapter, hopefully it didn't bore anyone.
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