Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
There was slight fear and anticipation in my heart as I stood before those huge doors.
A long wind billowed across the streets, bringing along a refreshing scent unique to the frozen lands of the North, while the illumination of the pyroxene lights would never quiver with the footsteps of bustling crowds. The special carriage that drove straight from the landing zone vanished from a junction under the setting sun of the evening, and I hence arrived at my destination.
The main gates of the Moldavian Liege’s Residence in the North. It was the doors of where the person whose name I kept recited inwardly lived: Count Radcliffe.
He should have noticed my arrival already. It was not difficult to a Legendary champion.
In fact, I have met Count Radcliffe a long time ago—on the day I returned from the battlefield to the Imperial Capital, in the Royal Library. He was not old, but his ability far eclipsed my own. His demeanor also appeared to bore an air of seniority to me instead of individuals who were of the same age, and he even showed me the source of his power.
Potestas of Pugna, the power of combat.
I always carried an unusual sentiment towards that generous but young Legendary champion… Fear? Reverence? Disgust? It was none of those. An illusory sensation that was hard to be described with words, it definitely contained respect over his personal integrity. Count Radcliffe was a powerful warrior, impeccable in both power and morals—as a matter of fact, I once saw on the battlefield countless morally depraved nobles and warriors who reveled in slaughtering women and children of the enemy. Though every orc deserved death, the act of slaughter was evil no matter who the target was.
“Please enter, Your Highness. The Count is waiting for you.”
The guards by the gates bowed and opened the gates reverently, and I hence followed a maidservant who had waited here for some time into the courtyard of the liege’s residence. I noted that there was no luxury item or plant here as I looked around, apart from a deep artificial lake that was probably the costliest facility. Leaving aside the fact that he was a Legendary champion, it was rather stingy even of a normal feudal count. Even if I was aware that he was a purist who cared for nothing save for combat, such a sight made me rather disappointed.
Champions should not be like this.
I have also perhaps found out the truth about that unusual sentiment.
Respect and a little disappointment , I thought as I reached the front doors of the liege’s residence and left the courtyard. Joshua did not fulfill his responsibility.
Though it was neither duty and obligation of a human or noble, Count Radcliffe did nothing wrong at all in that aspect. He watched over his citizens, banished the beast tides, slew frenzied dragons and ran around for the entire world. He was willing to protect the weak, cut down evil and do things that only those great storied heroes would. I would never doubt that the tale of Joshua the hero would spread across the land even centuries later.
It was precisely so that I felt it to be illusory.
In the liege’s residence, streaks of obscure shadows of ancient and imposing interior design were wrought out under dim fluorite glow. Such a scene instilled unexpected calm, however, while I did my best to conceal my emotions even if my thoughts kept moving further along in the darkness.
Yes. Exactly so. Too perfect, too unreal. In the battlefield, I have met quite a few war heroes who were rumored to be courageous and fearless were in fact drunkards, berserker, and bastards who lay their hands on their subordinates, as well as understanding how indecisive those reportedly brilliant generals became after losing their tacticians, becoming so useless they could do nothing. I already knew that there were immeasurably despicable truths behind the many tales where songs could be sung.
Which was why the greater Count Radcliffe’s accomplishments were, the more I could not help suspecting what kind of secrets lay behind him… Nobody is perfect—that’s the truth I devote my self too.
But that was also the most important point: there assuredly was nothing untoward about him. That, aside from earning my respect, gave me the sensation of being in a fantasy.
Under the dull light, I walked towards the guest hall while the maidservant led me past a narrow corridor. I could already see those half-closed doors, simultaneously sensing a profound pressure that made me want to bow. That pressure was not levelled at the ordinary beings who were merely serving here, but to an extraordinary individual such as I. It was the same pressure whenever I met father in the palace, equally profound and overwhelming.
At the very thought that I was about to meet a Legendary champion who was at once familiar yet unfamiliar, a darkness began to expand in my heart.
Why? As if razor teeth were biting down in my heart, the sensation of an infinite itch spread from the depths of my soul. I stopped in my tracks and took a deep breath, and the maidservant in front of me smiled in understanding. She might have sensed that I was a little nervous—which was definitely the truth albeit with slight discrepancy, for I was merely doubting.
A Legendary champion! The highest peak across the entire world! How could they coexist peacefully? Why would Joshua van Radcliffe be willing to stay in such a small place like the North? And how could my father, His Imperial Majesty who is famous for his iron blood, coldness, and whom never invested much love in his own son suffer the appearance of a Legendary who thinned his sovereignty? How could these two cooperate so peacefully and firmly, so much so that even those innumerable and wildly spreading rumors amongst the palace and the citizens could never instill any doubt in their partnership?
They should have been behaving like how those gossips put it—daggers drawn, tiptoeing against each other, even resorting to open hostility. They should have decided who was superior through one decisive battle—otherwise who would lead the Empire into the future? Who would hold the highest authority? I do not have the conviction of throwing the entire Empire into the flames of war; I merely feel that… the world should not be so perfect. It should be a little wretched—though all life would hence toil while I might die, it remained normal.
That was also the correct relationship between champions—things like friendship, affection and trust are all fake and meaningless. There should be a distinct hierarchy between men for that was the only way Order is maintained within this dark world.
This was a disease. A demon that lived for years hiding in my heart, the source of nightmares replaying the moment when my mother died. I know it was wrong but could never hold myself from overthinking. I do not wish to become the apprentice of a Legendary champion but I know how that man whom I once met but had become extraordinarily unacquainted with saw the world, along with how he gradually filled this world with hope and liveliness, despite it being brimming with war and strife while eroding from its very bones.
That was why I, Dimore Diamond, came here.
As the door silently opened, my nervous self could not stop myself from rising out of the armchair laden with lamb wool. But I soon realized that I forgot myself, and so slowly returned to my seat under the calm gaze of that Legendary champion, before looking toward that quiet newcomer.
It was Dimore Diamond. As expected, it was him—my brother.
The youth who had always appeared gloomy held a calm expression, although I could see that the corners of his lips were drooping. He was evidently not in a great mood, or maybe rather nervous.
Just like I am now.
Who could say otherwise? Apart from the people who were already very familiar with Count, anyone would be nervous when they meet a Legendary. It was something that could not be helped, as is the case when mortals run into dragons.
Despite sitting calmly on my chair, my thoughts could not be stopped from wafting far away.
Mother had been very happy towards Father’s decision. Even if she was a little disgruntled over the fact my second brother would be coming as well, she simply sneered later, claiming that it did not matter. “Arlwa, it’s impossible for him to compete against you,” she said nonchalantly as she arched her back to trim her new potted plant. “I know his personality, and always knew that he is the same like that insolent, indomitable mother of his.”
Of course, I do not know what kind of person the mother of my second brother had been—nor did I understand what kind of a person my second brother was, for that matter. But I knew that I was a weakling to him, which was I should neither feel proud or fortunate, and should merely do my best to be myself.
At the mention of weakling, I could not hold back from looking at the man who was slowly closing the book in his hand. Gods notwithstanding, who dared to call themselves powerful in front of people such as myself and Count Radcliffe? And yet, that book… [Cocoon of Time]? That new bestselling dark mystery novel? Never thought that the Count would like it too—it was truly unexpected.
And I had even always believed that, apart from being wrapped in mystery, champions only trained.
A simple but powerful voice wafted beside me. Pressure lightly extended but was controlled by the Legendary champion even as I sensed that Count Radcliffe’s mood was gradually turning serious. “Not being late—that’s a good habit. We shall start since everyone’s here.”
He waved his hand as he spoke, and a stool appeared behind my brother, who sat down, seemingly at a loss. “Israel, your father, and Emperor,” the Count continued, “has entrusted me to instruct you—two of his sons who he believes has a good future ahead. He wants it so that you two would become my apprentices, while both of you should be aware of what that means.”
Of course. My own mouth twitched—being an apprentice to a Legendary was akin to having a strong card, not to mention a quick path to power and a certificate of immunity. It was also why Mother wanted me to compete for that opportunity despite myself having no want for the throne.
To be frank, the only attraction the throne has for me was perhaps to change this world for the better. After all, there is much I could not do if I was a mere prince.
As if sensing my distraction, Count Radcliffe gave me a look that frightened me so much I sat upright and straightened my posture, even as he continued. “But please do not believe that I would simply take you in. My demand is great, and I’m not talking about talent but your wits. Even so, there’s no need for guesses—I’m bringing you two out for the day for your first lesson.”
It was already evening now, what was there to see out there? My mouth was already open but the words did not come out—not only out of respect for this man but slight expectation in my heart.
He was a completely different man from my father.
My heart could not help feeling excited at the thought.
The sun had set to the west, its dull orange glow dissipating over the towering iron pine trees by the edge of the summits. A winter sparrow was bounding in an out of a hole behind a branch, making the loose needles of the pine a part of its warm nest—but the diligent bird soon stopped because its acute senses picking up a behemoth that was passing by its surroundings.
Leading the two princes across the mountain forest, Joshua could feel both Dimore and Arlwa’s rising doubt but kept quiet, allowing that feeling to run wild.
“Where are we going?”
Dimore spoke first while they walked across the mountain road. He could sense that there was a familiar scent about all this—a similar situation had happened just recently which in turn baffled him. “My lord, we could fly there if we are in a hurry.”
On the other hand, Arlwa rolled his eyes and sighed—he has yet to reach Gold, flying was rather far-fetched for him.
“Well, we’re already there.”
Not minding the discreet interaction of the brothers, the warrior stepped over a hill, and their field of vision broadened at once.
Standing upon the ridge of the Great Ajax Mountains, Joshua looked around at the southern parts of the North. Night has already fallen, and there were starry specks as various mountain villages lit up their candles. “In fact,” he added nonchalantly, “just as you both know, this isn’t too different from the occasion where Israel led you two around the entire Empire. My goal is the same, to let you princes witness the true face of his world.”
“I have seen it.” Dimore frowned and shook his head disgruntledly once he remembered what he experienced. “I’m not that kind of person born in privileged and nurtured by noble ladies—I’ve been following the army since I was young, I definitely know the true face of this world.”
“Father has had let us seen it once,” Arlwa muttered as well. “I don’t feel that seeing it another time is meaningful—we can’t do a thing now anyway.”
Joshua took no offense at the two princes’ complaints and merely stared at those villages, a faint smile on his face. “In the past, you may have seen the darkness hidden beneath the luster of this world,” he said, as if speaking to himself. “Bosses who persecute fishermen, landlords who annex territories, traders who hoard rations and merchandises to cause uproars as well as all sort of spectacles depicting the sinister heart. But those were things that the Emperor should consider purging, completely unrelated the things I would teach today.”
The warrior’s words were calm. Joshua did not even especially demand that both Dimore and Arlwa listen to him, although the two unwittingly focused on what he was saying.
“Do you know what courage is?”
Courage? A familiar word. Dimore closed his eyes. Even if he emptied his mind, he could instinctively recite seven to eight definitions of the word and tell tales of its influence. It had been one of the emphases of the army during wartime, held in equal importance with discipline, as well as carved in the very first Royal Army training session. He was so familiar with the word that he was rather weary of it.
Courage… Meanwhile, Arlwa appeared thoughtful despite being also well-acquainted with the word. The word was repeated and given much weight whether in myth or legends, and although the Seventh Prince never had the opportunity experienced courage firsthand, there was a curious familiarity in his heart.
“My apprentice can be without talents or power. He could thirst to live peacefully like plants, or thirst for power and desire to stand above his fellow man.”
Joshua could tell that the pair were behaving differently without turning to look at their expressions. As always, his words were slow and flat yet extremely clear.”
“However, he must never be without courage.”
“You two have missed the Divine Dungeon Shroud. That had been the best method to determine courage, a test which several of my provisional students had passed. But that’s not important—what we have is chance.”
Withdrawing his gaze from the distant mountain village, Joshua turned back to Dimore and Arlwa, seemingly having found his target.
“Israel had assured me that you both are fine lads with courage, but I don’t think so.”
“Why is that so?” Dimore was not as brusque as he was a while ago despite Joshua’s belittling, replying with a question calmly instead. “You should know that I once fought against the orcs, facing the onslaught of stone rhino cavalry head-on—I don’t think that’s something a coward could do.”
Arlwa, too, shrugged. Even if he definitely had nothing to prove himself with, he did not feel that he was a weak fellow either.
Joshua simply smiled in return. He waved his hand, and a screen of light that was reflecting a distant mountain village thus appeared before them.
It was an ordinary village by the edge of a forest. Perhaps due to its proximity to a river there were three waterwheel mills, with a stone path stretching straight into the center of the village. In the screen, the gray sky over the settlement reflected an orange-red radiance of flames, shining through the thin damp vapors of the night and pushing them to several corners where abandoned houses stood.
The settlement was obviously a hunting village commonly found in the North that survived on hunting from the mountains and planting winter grains. It would take a dozen years for such a village to change significantly—apart from to other settlements to sell pelts, the hunters virtually never leave their home. They even genuinely abhor outsiders unless they came bringing benefits.
It was not an unfamiliar village to both Dimore and Arlwa. They have journeyed across more than half of the entire Empire with Israel over three days and nights and had seen over a dozen similar villages. Puzzled, they had wanted to ask Joshua why he was having them watch such an ordinary sight, before something happened that made both hold their breath.
In an almost dilapidated hut in the center of the screen, a young hunter who appeared perfectly plain was holding his bow and tossing about. There were pieces of salted fish and dried rabbit meet hanging beside his window, but his eyes were reflecting the flames outside the house as he stared blankly at the house that was empty save for him.
Evidently, his parents had left him forever due to some accident. It was not a rare case especially after the Dark Tide and Draconic Plague after the last few years. Most villages that were further away from the main city and where support forces could not reach and time had lost a significant portion of their adult labor. Many juvenile children were forced to survive on their own since life was equally hard for other villagers. They could not help them, while some vile characters would even exploit those young people to make a living.
Such days had clearly lasted for some time—anyone could tell that from the youth’s withered limbs and deeply sunken cheeks. Such a pitiful life was considered a slow form of suicide for a youth, and if he still could not gather enough food to undergo puberty he would not be able to hunt even when he grew into adulthood.
Dimore watched the scene coolly, his thoughts unfathomable. Meanwhile, Arlwa furrowed his brow. He opened his mouth for an instant as if to speak, only to close it again.
That shouldn’t continue.
Unable to sleep due to hunger, the unnamed young hunter abruptly sat up from his wooden bed made of dried weed. His mouth was reflected so clearly in the screen, while the glint in his eyes allowed everyone to understand his intent. In the very next instant, he quickly gathered the dried meat and fish hung by the window—the only food he had saved—and slipped into the night, following the stone path into the distance.
“Since those stone baths were built, there were almost dozens of mountain villagers who headed to the main city of Moldavia—that boy wasn’t the first, neither would he be the last.” Joshua stated calmly. “But I must tell you. Mountain villagers have a radical affection for their homes. They are so foolish it is almost adorable, never leaving their hometowns. In that village alone, almost thirty years had passed without anyone leaving. He was the first.”
“What does that mean?” Dimore appeared to have a hard time understanding it. “Even if he left the village and arrive at the main city he might not survive in comfort, not to mention the dangers lurking on the road.”
“And that is the point.” The warrior replied. “Courage.”
“He knows what he would face—an unfamiliar environment, a dangerous journey and every manner of accident. Despite that being the case he desires to take a look and was willing to bear the risk. That alone makes him different from the other hunter fellows who are still keeping to themselves inside their village.”
Joshua then laughed lightly at Dimore’s uncomprehending gaze, before looking down and staring at the youth who was heading for the main Moldavian city along the stone path. “You may see the ignorant and rash actions of a young man, but I see a man making the most important choice of his life. Dimore, you’re overthinking. Anyone could become anyone—it’s a mere matter of chance. With courage, even an orphan could become a true brave warrior, while an anonymous character could become Emperor as well.”
“I want to help him.”
Beside him, Arlwa suddenly spoke, having hesitated for some time. Though his voice was hesitant, he still uttered the words. “I feel…”
“Go. Your choice is your freedom.”
Joshua waved his hand at Arlwa without waiting for his explanation, indicating that he could move freely. Having received his approval, the Seventh Prince happily followed the instruction of the screen and ran towards the young hunter.
The warrior turned towards Dimore, who was still frowning in confusion—at the man who was Emperor in the pre-existence. “I could tell that you’re still doubtful… You saw that you have courage when in fact you were merely obeying rules. You advanced as the general orders you, you return when Israel calls you back. Dimore, that is not courage but merely going with the flow. You had never once made a choice that would affect your own life.”
“Israel told me that he had already told you both the path of kings; he wanted me to teach you what was the path of the powerful. It is in fact, very simple—to make the choices you want, and bear every consequence it brings.”
Dimore himself could not stop taking one step back at such solemn words from a Legendary champion, although he quickly paused. The Second Prince kept silent for a moment, his eyes glinting as he spoke. “But with certain choices come unbearable consequences… it was the same case for many wars, just as it was for murder.”
There was a deeper meaning to his words, but the warrior understood.
“It’s only because they were unwilling to think before the fact.”
Joshua withdrew his gaze, leaving Dimore’s question unanswered. He turned to watch the ever-present lights in the North, his heart extraordinarily tranquil.
The world was shifting with the advent of the Great Mana Tide, and in such an environment, many stubborn individuals and groups had changed as well. Many outstanding people broke away from the mundane, and though those future champions heroes began life with nothing, there was one thing that made them different from other ordinary people—they believed they could do even more, and dared to make a choice.
Joshua appeared out of it as he recalled the names that rose meteorically during the Abyssal invasion, although he collected his thoughts soon—he noticed that Arlwa was leading the young hunter who appeared lost back here from the foot of the mountain. “To help when you want to help,” the warrior said softly. “While Arlwa doesn’t know any of these he knows what he wants to do. He desired to lend a hand the moment he saw someone in trouble, while knowing the responsibility he would bear later. That is a form of courage.”
“I wouldn’t teach you two how to become a ruler; I would only have you both understand courage and choice. The strong does not need might, compassion or cruelty; he just needs to be firm on his goal and keep walking along that path. I hope that the both of you could become such champions, and stand shoulder to shoulder with your father and myself to stand against those calamities.”
Dimore leveled his gaze at Joshua, finding only indifference from those red pupils. There was no desire for power, no might and no thirst for dominance—the prince could only see starlight reflected within.
And that was the whole world.
I now understand, his heart suddenly realized. That man was never concerned with authority, sovereignty or being heard. Him, and his own father the Emperor cared for such things; they cared for the more profound, the future and safety of this world. They would never squabble because they never cared about reaching out for those meaningless things—they selflessly instruct themselves and themselves, for they, as pioneers, bore expecting hearts towards all.
And yet, those are my everything.
Dimore suddenly laughed and turned towards the little villages of the North as well.
There was a flame that could melt metal burning in the Second Prince’s eyes. He now understood the difference between himself and his father but was not ashamed of it.
For that was his choice.
My life is fated to never be so profound as to fight for Order, the world and everything in it. Even if that destined day comes, my reasoning must be even more realistic: to fight for my authority and desire.
Be it corrupt nobles, other races, other nations or otherworld demons—it’s the same no matter who my opponent will be.
“I mostly understand what my choice is,” Dimore said, and bowed lightly towards Joshua. “Thank you for your guidance.”
At the same time, Arlwa who had not caught on what happened arrived behind the Second Prince, leading the young hunter who was panting for air towards Joshua.
Several days later, news that Arlwa, the Seventh Prince was now an official apprentice of the Northern Count spread throughout the Imperial Capital.