Kieran got out of the car and slowly approached the armed figure at the entrance.
It was an extremely buff elderly man of average height with a long white beard. If he had been holding a battle axe, he would have looked like a dwarf from a medieval tale.
Although he was not holding such a weapon, the dagger at his waist was not to be underestimated. The dagger reeked of a hidden, faint smell of danger that faded one moment and then appeared again at the next one.
Kieran's Intuition had gotten higher, so he trusted it with his life. He was still more vigilant than ever though.
As he was scanning the elderly man, the man scanned him back. Then he grinned.
"2567?" the old man asked.
"Who's asking?" Kieran replied. He was not surprised that the man knew his name.
If he had gone there with malicious intent, then it made sense that he would be prepared. Kieran's nickname was a basic piece of information.
"I'm Charles, your armor specialist and Simones' good friend."
As he introduced himself, Charles extended his hand for a friendly handshake.
Kieran raised an eyebrow. Simones had said that he would introduce him to a master of alchemy and a craftsman that would repair his armor, but he hadn't described the person in detail. Kieran didn't know whether Charles was telling the truth, so he didn't take his hand.
"A vigilant young man!" Charles commented on Kieran's attitude. Before Kieran could answer, he said loudly, "Did Raul come with you? Raul? Raul!"
Raul instantly replied from behind them.
"Master Charles?" she asked as she approached Kieran. When she saw the elderly man, she gave him a happy hug.
"Master, it's been a while! What are you doing here in Johnny Town? I thought I'd have to go back to the West Coast to see you!" Raul greeted Charles in confusion.
"That old fella Simones called me, so I had to rush to meet you people. He was worried about 2567 not having proper armor and thought I might be of use on this trip. I came here earlier to wait for you, but it seems like you guys were late. Ran into some big trouble, did you?" Charles laughed as he took a look at the wrecked Picard.
"Yes, master! We were in a big pinch!" Raul nodded repeatedly, explaining about the earlier ambush.
Kieran glanced at Raul in surprise.
Maybe it was because of her scars and misfortune, but Raul had always been a quiet person. Most of the time she'd rely on her husband to communicate with others. She would only speak to a few acquaintances she was familiar with, but that was pretty much it.
This was the first time Kieran had seen Raul talk to someone like that.
"Strange, right? Truth be told, I am curious myself, but that's a good thing, right? Although Master Charles won't admit it, Raul treats him like a mentor," Cidney explained softly as he walked over.
Kieran and Schmidt nodded in realization.
Raul's explanation was very detailed. She actually went on for about 10 minutes. Charles asked a question from time to time as she elaborated even further.
"So this is really ancient alchemy!" Charles sighed.
"Ancient alchemy?" Schmidt muttered. This was not the first time he had come across the term.
"You must be the Chief Officer of the West Coast, Schmidt!"
Instead of answering Schmidt's question, Charles asked one of his own, trying to guess Schmidt's identity.
"Yes, that's me. Pleasure to meet you, Master Charles!" Schmidt nodded, greeting the elderly man politely.
"What about now?" Charles turned back to Kieran, extending his hand again with an amused expression in his eyes.
"Nice to meet you too, Master Charles."
Kieran's face was calm and still. He only smiled faintly as he shook Charles' hand, which surprised Charles.
"Don't you feel awkward?" he asked.
"I didn't know who you were, so I had to be vigilant. Now that I know, my vigilance is not needed anymore. Why would I feel awkward?" Kieran replied with a question himself.
He was a young man who had grown up in a foster house and had been working to make a living ever since he was 14. He had been through too many embarrassing situations. This was actually nothing in comparison.
"It seems like you are worthy of Rei's prophecy!" Charles praised Kieran. "Wait, are you feeling awkward now?" he asked when he noticed the unusual look on Kieran's face.
"2567 still won't accept his identity. He always feels embarrassed! I'm not laughing on purpose, 2567! I just can't help it every time you pull that face!" Schmidt said, laughing outrageously as he tapped the hood of the Picard.
The Picard was on the verge of breaking down after all that heavy tapping. It was completely wrecked now.
Not only had its engine died, but black smoke had also started to escape from the hood.
Kieran rolled his eyes at Schmidt. It was Schmidt's turn to feel awkward now.
"I bet there's a car mechanic in town!" Schmidt pointed out, trying to cover up his awkwardness.
"I'll save you the trouble! Come with me! Back when I was young, I had to use a couple of horses to carry all my things every time I went out! Now one car is enough for everything!" Charles said, leading the group into Johnny Town.
The group reached a garage, dragging the Picard with a limo before they stopped there.
The limo was pale blue in color. The car roof formed an arc, and clouds were drawn on the car doors. The rear of the car had a picture of a sun wearing sunglasses and chewing a cigar. It looked as if it had been drawn by a child.
Anyone who saw the limo would think that the owner was a fun person.
"If it's not a problem, I would suggest that we hit the road tonight. What do you say?" Charles suggested.
"That would be great!"
No one objected to his suggestion, as everyone was eager to reach Forende Town.
Raul and Cidney were itching to locate their friend Rukie, and Kieran wanted to discover Nikorei's whereabouts.
Schmidt was just tagging along with the group.
After moving all the stuff of the Picard into Charles' car, the group continued its journey.
Kieran wanted to fix his armor, so he went to the back of the limo.
"I can fix it before we reach Forende Town."
Charles' words made Kieran feel relieved. Although [Paul's Camouflage] was not some magnificent defensive gear, Kieran would not let it go before he had a better replacement for it.
Having some armor on when facing a group of enemies was a lot better than exposing his bare flesh. Even more so when said enemies ganged up on him.
Kieran unconsciously recalled the Black Knights.
"Master Charles, were the Black Knights created by ancient alchemy as well?" Kieran asked.
"Their creation was based on ancient alchemy and some other hidden knowledge. I never would've thought that such knowledge would be preserved..." Charles corrected Kieran.
"What kind of knowledge?" Kieran asked.
Charles just smiled in reply.
The average-height elderly man took a pipe out of the limo's glove compartment and slowly stuffed it with tobacco.
He didn't look around for a lighter. Instead, he just snapped his fingers and the tobacco was lighted.
Kieran squinted his eyes.
Was Charles not relying on Magical items, but magic itself? There had been no incantation or gesture. Just a snap of his fingers and a fire had appeared.
Even though the fire was as small as a lighter's flame, the [Mystical Knowledge] involved had made quite an impact on Kieran's mind.
According to his understanding, this was not possible.
Charles, who was looking at Kieran's puzzled face, took a puff and produced a couple of smoke rings. Then he looped the smoke rings around his hand and dissipated them himself.
His childish behavior might have made people laugh or cry.
Kieran was still recalling the previous scene though.
"Is this the hidden knowledge that you spoke of?" he asked after a while.
"Maybe..." Charles said ambiguously. Before Kieran could ask any more questions, the alchemy master added, "Simones was hoping that I could teach you a little about alchemy. I want to educate the king of Rei's prophecy myself. It's just that... "
"You need to answer a question for me first. What do you think alchemy is? Think before you answer. I am fair with everyone! You will only get one chance. If your answer doesn't satisfy me, I don't care if Simones begged me, I still won't teach you a thing!"
Kieran shivered silently at the test.
He was not sure if Raul had gone through the same test before getting taught by Charles, but he was sure that Charles was not joking.
If his answer didn't satisfy him, he would lose this opportunity.
After giving it some thought, Kieran said, "Alchemy is"
Just as he was about to spit out an answer, he held back his tongue.
Swallowing his noble, gracious words, he looked at Charles judgmentally. Charles was smiling. He had set up a trap for Kieran right from the beginning.
A word trap!
Everything had been meant to mess with Kieran's way of thinking and make him anxious about the things he would gain.
Charles had obviously succeeded. His lightning-fast move with his pipe and the snap of his fingers had broken Kieran's concentration completely.
Kieran's curiosity climaxed, making him almost lose his usual cool judgement.
If it wasn't for the mocking expression on his face, Charles might have succeeded in trapping Kieran.
He did not look like he was anticipating a serious answer though. His expression was that of someone about to make a joke!
Kieran drew in a deep breath, forgetting all the answers he had come up with.
He had come up with a new answer.
Alchemy is the prerequisite to learn mystical knowledge. Boom