With a creak, the great doors of the study swung open, and there in the doorway stood the stable master of the estate.
Bearing plain features and chestnut hair, the man stammered a polite greeting to Joshua, then proceeded to explain the reason for his visit, a reproachful expression upon his face. Stuttering and stumbling with his hands gesturing animatedly, it took him several minutes to get his point across. Apparently, for some unknown reason, Joshua's dragon-blooded warhorse Black had suddenly refused to eat, and then drove everyone from the stable with its tantrum.
"My liege, well, the situation, you see, is as I've said, more or less."
The stable master was covered in mud and also some hoof prints. For Joshua and Ying, one could easily tell by their faces that listening to him speak was sheer torture.
"Right now, Black, in the stable, that is back and forth, it's pacing, you see just won't eat, it seems, no matter what please, my liege, if you would"
"Alright, I understand."
Raising his hand to stop the stable master from speaking further, Joshua rose, his expression grim. "For now, go and get yourself a fresh change of clothes, while I have a look at what's going on. Ying, will you rest here a while more, or do you want to come with me?"
Though she wanted to follow the warrior to go and see what the matter was with Black, Ying hesitated to answer, her mind still feeling like a complete mess, as though all kinds of thoughts were running through her mind, but she couldn't catch hold of any of them.
"Never mind, just stay here for the time being."
Seeing that his Divine Armament really did seem a little out of sorts, Joshua declared, "If you're feeling sleepy, go back to the room and lie down for a while."
He added, "That's an order."
Having received the silver-haired girl's response, Joshua nodded his head in satisfaction, then promptly strode out of the study, heading to the stable outside.
It was not a long walk from the estate to the stable, and in no time the warrior arrived before the building, which had been constructed out of gray pine-wood from the north. It was evening now, the sun was setting, and the snow had yet to fully melt away. His footsteps crunched over the frost, and before he'd even entered, Joshua could hear an irritable snort and the sound of something being broken.
"Sounds like someone's mad, alright."
Muttering this under his breath, he sauntered into the stable. Glancing around, Joshua saw that the floor was littered with wooden splinters, while the magnificent black dragon-blooded warhorse was pacing around the cramped confines, its eyes bloodshot. Every so often it would give a snort, and then, with a toss of its head and a flick of its tail, it would wreak havoc upon its surroundings.
Oddly enough, though the warhorse seemed thoroughly consumed by its rage, the moment it caught sight of Joshua, its temper began to subside, such that when the warrior reached out a hand to pat its head, the wild stallionwhich had demolished the gate and fencing of its stallstuck out its tongue to lick his hand affectionately.
Stroking the horse's neck, Joshua looked around with some confusion. If he didn't already know that the splinters and broken fences that lay all around were this fellow's doing, no one would believe this amiable horse before him right now could have been capable of such carnage.
"What could have gotten you so angry?"
Murmuring this question to himself, he then tried drawing upon his Combat Aura to probe about inside Black's body, but the warrior couldn't find anything out of the ordinary. The horse's vitality was remarkable, but that came as no surpriseit was a known effect of the dragon blood. Remembering the time when Joshua rode Black from the canyon of beasts in the north-western plains back to the northern lands, a journey of seventeen days and nights, galloping non-stop without rest, the whole time Black never betrayed any sign of exhaustion, the blazing dragon's blood running through its veins providing it with unlimited vigor.
That alone was hardly anything too special. Some creatures, possessing more concentrated dragon's blood, could even emulate the ability of a dolphin to always keep a portion of their brain awake. That kind of extreme being, by all accounts, would never know a good night's sleep all their lives long.
The scan turned up nothing, so Joshua accessed the system to inspect the status of his horse unusually detailed data and reports scrolled across the screen, but there still seemed to be no errors to be found. However, according to the system's information, the warrior was pleased to find that, having accompanied him across various battlefields, and having experienced multiple conflicts, Black had risen through quite a few levels, and was now equivalent to a mighty Silver tier mount!
"Now that you've fulfilled the pre-requisites to be considered a more refined pure-blood, I can see that your innate gifts could prove incredibly useful."
Stroking the flanks of his warhorse, the warrior was satisfied by the feel of strong muscles and a powerful build. "Excellent, the stronger you grow, the more capable I'll become in turn. As long as you can handle my power, I'll be able to quickly improve my skills in mounted combat. Keep it up, and when you attain the higher ranks of the Silver tier, I'll have something nice for you."
As though able to understand his words, Black responded with enthusiasm.
Not merely paying lip service, Joshua genuinely knew various methods to further purify its blood. All he needed was to get his hands on some potent materials, and he would be able to help Black overcome the inherent factors limiting the potential of its dragon blood; it might even be able to achieve Gold tier.
All else notwithstanding, a Gold-tier mount would perhaps be one of the most luxurious indulgences one could get in this world.
Just then, having gotten himself a change of clothes, the stable master hastened back to the stable. Upon entering to see the sight of Black, docile as a kitten, whinnying softly at Joshua's touch, all the man could do was stare in bewilderment.
Dumbstruck, he could have sworn by all his thirty-two years of experience tending horses that the horse before him; which had earlier sent him flying with a hoof to the chesthad been behaving in a completely different way from this! In all his time looking after dragon-blood horses, it had been the greatest peril he had ever faced: if not for him being in the Steel tier himselfnot to mention the breastplate he'd been wearing underneath his clothinghe would surely have broken a few ribs from that!
Even so, that breastplate was now ruined by the grievous dent that kick had left behind. Thank goodness it had been as thick as it was, else the stable master had no doubt at all that right at this moment he'd be flat on the floor, unable to move.
"Oh, you're here."
Patting Black on the head, Joshua turned to address the stable master. "Looks like he was just in a bit of a mood earlier, or maybe the sudden increase in his abilities left him with a surplus of spirit in any case, the first thing you should do now is to check to see if you're alright. If you've been hurt, be sure to claim some medical fees."
"No, my lord, not at all no trouble, well, just a bit of pain, that's it been many years, you know, looking after horses, after all" The stable master stammered in reply.
"Well then, go prepare some horse feed."
Shrugging his shoulders, the warrior took a look at the feeding trough, which had been knocked over upon the floor, and added, "Use a little more meat I can see it no longer has much appetite for hay."
Now that he'd determined that there was nothing wrong, Joshua returned to his study to continue attending to other matters.
What the warrior didn't realize, however, was that his passive skill 'Flare of Purification' had activated just before he'd entered the stable earlier, thus banishing a certain something that had been there.
Back in the stable meanwhile, Black was heartily devouring the meaty meal which had been lovingly prepared for it. In its eyes, there would occasionally be a flash of scarlet-and-golden light, followed by a sudden pulse of force, but then the light would swiftly vanish without a trace.
The voice which had previously been whispering something odd in its ear had now also gone, while the power that thrummed in its blood had been calmed somewhat by Joshua's presence. Now it was finally able to settle down and have a little something to eat.
Ah, there was a bit of an itch on either side of its head, as though something was trying to grow out from there
the time moved on, and just like that a few more days had gone by.
Winter in the stronghold held nothing of great concern. When he'd finished settling the administrative matters that had piled up, Joshua was at last able to find a rare moment's leisure.
Starfall Year 831, the 31st day of the 12th month. The morning before the eve of the new year, another flurry of snow descended from the sky.
Coming out from the temple to behold the drifting snowflakes, whirling and dancing through the air, Joshua found himself in a rather pleasant mood.
Perhaps it was the systemor maybe his 'Steel Armor Kokyu-ho' technique which was augmenting his self-regeneration, such that the injury to his left arm was mending faster than the old priest had predicted. Rather than having to take it easy for a couple of months, he figured it would only take roughly two or three weeks to make a full recovery. The new bones had already set into place, so now the task at hand was allowing his Combat Aura to reinforce these newly re-grown bones, returning him to the level of tenacity worthy of a Gold-Tier warrior.
Out in the street, despite the falling snow, there were quite a few people bustling about.
It was really much too cold in the north. Going by the current weather, and the brush of the frigid wind against his skin, he'd estimate the temperature to be at least negative 30 or 40 degrees. In this climate, there was simply no way to hold a big new year's celebration. Nonetheless, everyone would be throwing their own parties back in their homes, welcoming the new year in the company of family and friends. Even the single fellows would gather together to bid farewell to the last night of the year.
The felled trunks of pine trees passed in an unending stream through the city gates, whereupon they were distributed to every household, to serve as an evergreen testament. The winter pines of the northern lands symbolized 'everlasting peace and prosperity.' It had always been the tradition of the northern people to use them as decorations for new year celebrations.
"Come to think of it, it's time to make some preparations myself."
Without noticing it, he was soon about to welcome the first new year since his transition into the world. Joshua couldn't help but smile. "If memory serves, as the count of the land, there's something more I'll need to do for the new year."
Looking around at this city that was his, as though he could see right through the solid stone walls to the blazing flame of each and every life within, the warrior nodded his head in contentment, then turned and headed off toward his estate in the western part of the city.
For this matter, he ought to have Ying with him.
and soon enough, the new year would be upon them.