The cold winter wind brushed across the flatlands. Sometimes, they were gentle enough to make dried-up leaves sway. Sometimes, they were cruel. Blankets of snow would fold and stack on each other to make room for new snow to pile up. However wild or calm the wind might be, the snow would continue to fall from the sky. Joshua clutched his thick winter clothes closer to his body. It had been some time before he could get use to the cold even though he was born there.
As he continued his way on the route, Joshua had not seen any other like him, riding a majestic warhorse. He reached the borders of Moldavia and slowed down. There were more and more people on the route he was using. Excluding the merchants with the land drakes, there were many other caravans with all sort of flags. They could be merchants, or they could also be rich folk trying to escape the cold. What was certain was that the locals there would not want to waste any body heat doing things that would only wear them out.
There were folk traveling in the snow with winter wolves pulling their sleigh. Those were most likely veteran fishermen and old-time hunters. The route to head over the river and the forest were more treacherous than ever. Hence, the best means of transportation were snow sleighs.
"Huh Winter wolves"
Joshua noticed the four-legged, furry mammals that were pulling the sleigh. They were large and looked exactly like regular canines. Joshua scoffed. The name may sound majestic and all, but their behavior was exactly that of a Husky. Hold on. Perhaps an Alaskan Malamute would fit the description better. He remembered the difference between the two species since he had a Husky and thought it was a Malamute back then. Either way, the one he had, was extremely cool. A long time ago, when he had just entered the newly launched game, he was alone and was grinding in the far north. There, he spotted a winter wolf at the auction house. He was unable to suppress his love for pets and immediately bought it.
Hmm? Joshua narrowed his gaze as he spotted a lone human figure that was walking alone where everyone else was riding or mounting on a vehicle. He immediately stopped reminiscing the past and focused on the shadowy figure. Just then, he felt nostalgia and a sense of familiarity. How strange
It was strange indeed. How could a shadowy figure invoke his sense of familiarity? Joshua then focused hard on it and moved his horse towards the shadow. As he got closer and closer, the sense of familiarity got stronger. Yet, he could not figure out who was the person was. It was until when he got close enough that his vision was no longer obscured by the snow, he recognized the person. Shocked, he gasped. "Old butler Fang?!"
The man responded to the name Fang and lifted his head when he heard the call. The old man lifted his head higher to meet Joshua's gaze and bowed politely.
"It's been a while, Master Joshua."
Without replying, Joshua got down from his horse swiftly and quickly greeted the old butler as his equal. When he had the chance to properly examine the old man, he noticed two aspects that made him feel incredibly aggravated. "What happened?! Your hair! Your hands!"
Joshua held the old man's hands in his own and examined them. The old man merely smiled and allowed the young master to do as he pleased.
The hands that had taken care of him for yearswere now aged beyond comprehension. Veins were popping out and the muscles he once had, had degenerated. The man had lost his youth and strength. His skin was now wrinkled. There were wrinkles on his forehead.
Looking at the pair of hands and the old man's happy face, Joshua could not return the smile. He was angry. And that anger belonged to this world's Joshua.
Fang was the butler of the Radcliffe family. He was there when Joshua was born. They had been living together for as long as he could remember. In fact, he was so close to Joshua that Joshua did not see the difference between Fang and his own father. Still, Fang was more caring than his own father. It was because of the years of affection he displayed to Joshua that made him angry.
The man that was standing feebly in front of him was the man that had taken care of Joshua. The cruel scars of time could be seen all around him. The white hair, the feeble smile, the countless wrinkles on his face and handsIt did not take a genius know that the man was now old.
If everything was normal, according to the rules of the world, Fang, the middle-aged man, was supposed to be the same as the other butlers of other families. His appearance and age aside, he was supposed to be the same age as his father, both were about to pass the age of fifty.
A man of that age, that had been through hell and back, growing a full head of white hair should not be something weird.
That was the abnormality. Neither his father nor Fang were normal to begin with!
Aside from the other humans, the Winter Count, Beirut de Radcliffe was a Gold-tier knight. It meant his expected lifespan was as long as 200 years. If one were to take good care of one's health, a Gold-tier knight could live as long as 300 years. Fifty or sixty years old should be the peak of their life. YetF ang had gotten old.
When Joshua was a year old, Fang looked and behaved like a young adult around the age of eighteen or twenty. When Joshua still running around in his mismatched clothes and a wooden toy in his hand, Fang looked and behaved like a young adult around the age of eighteen or twenty. When Joshua was training with his father with a huge steel sword in his hand, Fang would be sitting at the side of the training ground, with fresh hot tea prepared for the both of them. Fang looked and behaved like a young adult around the age of eighteen or twenty. Even when Joshua had entered the military training academy, the one that would greet him at the front gates, with a genuine smile and a head full of rich black hair, was Fang. He looked and behaved like a young adult between the age of eighteen to twenty.
In the past, Joshua used to ask his father puzzling questions. Even in a magical world of dungeons and dragons, eternal youth was something mystical. Excluding the elves, he could not find a race that could have eternal youth and vitality. Even though the head of the Radcliffe family had never answered his question, Joshua knew that a man with black hair, gold with a crimson hue eyes, and a regular appearance of a human, could not possibly be an elf. Yet, in the same manner of speaking, Fang was not a human as well. Without a doubt, he must belong to a mysterious race with an extremely long lifespan.
Still, even after so many years, the Winter Count never answered his question.
"You'll know it someday."
"I have no time to grace that question with an answer."
Many a time, he would simply shrug it off and say those things.
However perplexing it may be, such a species had never brought trouble to the land. In fact, many humans like Joshua were never interested to find the answer to that question. There were just too many beings around them with long lifespans. The barman that served drinks in the local pub could be an elf, the fisherman that sold fish in the market could be an elf as well. No one had the time to discover the truth.
The problem with Joshua's butler was the fact that he had the same appearance for such a long time yet in his absence, Fang had aged so drastically. It begged the question that something must have occurred recently. It could have a connection to the death of the Winter Count, Joshua's father.
The land of providencewhat had taken place when he was serving in the south?
"Fang, explain to me what had happened while I was gone," asked Joshua. His tone was firm and commanding. "Answer me!" he yelled, when Fang remained quiet.
After moving through worlds, the man had a sort of disoriented, mixture of feelings. Even though everything around him was without a doubt, real, he could not grasp what was real. Everything was familiar yet alien, some lost, and some remained. Joshua was determined to get answers from the old butler there and then as he had enough. His heart was pumping blood to all the veins in his body at an alarming speed. His cold glare was so sharp that it could pierce through all the realms to search for his nameless enemies.
"The territory" Fang was stuttering. He was not sure of what to say. After a long silence, the man spoke again. "My young master, I'm afraid it is not time for you to know."
"Why is that?" asked Joshua. His words were deep and stern. He took a step forward and glared down at the old man with a ferocious expression that could frighten any criminal.
"That is because young master is not yet 'qualified'."
Both of them remained quiet for a long time. There were other passersby that were busy with their own business and paid no attention to the conversation with the son of the late Winter Count and the family's butler.
"If you wish to know the truth, you would have to inherit your father's position and title. Become the master of Moldavia. Protect the land as its master and owner. Such a rule cannot be broken. It is what that had been written in the contract."
"Qualified?!" Joshua bellowed.
Joshua was stunned. He felt a sudden epiphany to the truth that he did not want to believe. "The Winter Count has only one son. Without a doubt, I will be the count, for I am the only successor! There's no mistake that even after his death, I would be the one to obtain the title! Not even the emperor would acknowledge that. The master of this land should be me! Joshua van Radcliffe!"
"That would seem to be the truth as well."
"Yet you're here telling me otherwise?! That I am not qualified to the know the truth until I am the count? Who else had the qualification to know? That uncle who came from nowhere?"
When he mentioned about his uncle's matter, Joshua unconsciously grinned with an eerie aura around him. With a glare, he said, "That's right. He does have the authority to take up the title of count. In that case, everything can be made right by ending his life."
Even when he had said something that would have gotten him arrested, the old man refused to answer him. The old man made a quick check on Joshua's wrists and frowned. He averted his golden-crimson eyes immediately before Joshua could notice.
"Qualification is not something as abstract as a title or status. It is a thing," said Fang as if he was reciting a speech that was premade. Joshua listened to him patiently. "It is not that I do not have the information of the location of which your father had hidden it. It is hidden in a place that you should know of."
"What is it? Where? How would I know something that I don't even know?!"
"Young master. Even if it pains me to keep it from you. I am not allowed to. I can't speak of it."
Joshua was not the kind that would wrangle information from a person. He was not that patient. He began to accept the fact after he had noted Fang was in fact being restricted from telling him the truth due to some sort of contract. He sighed and drew out the system window to cast an "Identification" skill.
[Identifying Level Suppression: Advantage Attribute Suppression: Advantage]
[Name: Fang Amos]
[Race: Divine ArmamentRacial Skill: Divine Armament Transformation, Resonate with the blood-bonded contractor and transform into a weapon]
[Level: Force Reduced to 1, Death of the Contractor]
[Attribute: Force Reduced to Minimum Basic, Death of the Contractor]
[Physique: Average Alternate World Humanoid]
[HP: Forced Reduced to Minimum Basic, Death of the Contractor]
[Vitality: Force Reduced to Minimum Basic, Death of the Contractor]
[Transformed Weaponry: Amos Dragon-Slaying Blade]
[Status: Life Force Failing (Remaining Lifespan: 10 days)]
[Class: Sixth Generation Anti-Aragami Divine Armament / Butler]
[Innate Ability: Force Deletion, Death of the Contractor]
[Skill: Force Deletion, Death of the Contractor]
[Equipment: Black Butler Uniform]
[A powerful weapon. A loyal butler]
Hold on. What the f*ck is going on?!
Joshua's heart sank when he saw the bunch of information that was projected before him.
Joshua could remember discussing something of that sort back when he was socializing within the gamers' circle. There were even threads on the forum that blasted with heated discussion. It was said to be a powerful and rare contract-based race. However, he had no information about their capabilities since back then; he was new to the game and only focused on information about the legendary dungeon, the [The Ancient Multiverse Bridge's Sacrificial Ground].
His memories had begun to return to him. The contractor's quest for the Divine Armament could be found in the Empire's northern territory. The difficulty was considered to be impossible since there was a time limit. With his capabilities, he could clear the dungeon however, he would exceed the time given and fail the quest as a whole. There were no more than ten players that had managed to find a Divine Armament and form a contract. Those lucky, strong players had purposely leaked the information about it and told the world about the difficulty of the dungeon. As such, the Divine Armament had become a myth among players.
If he was right, he remembered that the place to start the Divine Armament quest was Moldavia city, through the Radcliffe family!
All the passive memories started to resurface and Joshua had begun to understand more and more about his status in the world. After cross referencing the information from both worlds, he had found out that the Radcliffe family had been involved in the game's progress. Through the fragmented memories, he should have guessed that was the 'thing' that his family was protecting, and all of the strange events that had unfolded!
If he guessed it rightthe 'thing' would be something truly bad.
No matter what, the current crucial situation was Fang's depleting life force.
"Fang." Joshua frowned and sighed. He tried to think of a way to phrase it but had chosen to come clean. He already knew the truth.
"Yes? Young master?"
"Your time is short."
The old man twitched a little and remained silent.
"Even if you choose not to answer me, I would have guessed the truth about you. However, that is the past. Right now, I have been thinking of the same thing since I have the intention of taking my father's place. I want you to continue to be my butler. I want you by my side when my future son takes my place."
Fang remained silent.
"Fang. I have you know that you're an important person to me. You're family to me. I only want to know what happened to you! That is all!"
Fang met Joshua's heated eyes. His once golden-crimson eyes had lost its luster, due to his depleted life force. They were now old, dull, yet still as sharp as ever.
"I'm touched at the thought, young master." Fang finally replied. The old man straightened up and took a deep breath as to prepare himself. "A contract is a contract. There are things that I cannot break even though I voluntarily want to. I I could tell you things that are not of importance."
"As you can see, I am not human. A long time ago, my ancestors and I made a contact with the Radcliffe family. We pledged ourselves to serve the family. The contract binds our life force, hence, when Master passed away, I too, will soon join him in eternal slumber."
The old man bowed suddenly. Joshua could see the man was trembling a little. "I'm sorry for not being able to protect the Master."
"This is the limit to which I can reveal to you. The rest of which you have guessed but I cannot confirm that information. Unless you become the head of the family, unless you become one of the Radcliffes that accepts the responsibility that had been accepted by all Radcliffes. Unless you do that, I cannot tell you anything."
The two men stared at each other for a long time. The snow had started to pile on the shoulders of both men.
After some time, Joshua reached out his arms to dust off the snow that was on his head and shoulders. "I understand. Partially."
He sighed again and his breath was immediately crystallized by the cold wind.
"In that case, what are you going to do for the next remaining ten days of your life? Where are you going?"
"There's no need to weep for me, young master," said Fang as he examined the horse that Joshua had rode. He turned to the emotionless Joshua and smiled. "It's a fine horse."
"" Joshua kept quiet. He wanted to hear what Fang had to say.
"Death in the line of duty would be a warrior's greatest honor. Both your father and I have no remorse for that belief."
Fang turned to his back facing Joshua and said, "I have only one thing to say." His voice was deep and solemn. "We have uninvited guests in the house now." Fang emphasized the word guests with a certain tone. "Regrettably, I am not in the best condition to 'treat' them well."
"In that case, I'll take the responsibility to clear the garbage. Like what you used to do back then." Joshua understood what he meant. "Clean and spotless."
"Very well. I will pray for your well-being, young master. Good luck."
The old butler took the reins of the horse and sped off in the opposite direction of where Joshua was headed; where he was staring at then.
Sigh To be the owner of the Sealed Land? Bah. Joshua scoffed then laughed coldly.
The snow got heavier by the minute and his vision became more obscure. All he could see then was the silhouette of the gigantic city walls. The walls that protected the place where he had traveled more than a thousand kilometers, the Sealed Land, the place where his uncle was going to seize the Count of Moldavia title.