My butt landed on the hard ground after Cornelius threw me outside.
“What the hell! I’m not in any mood to deal with you!” At the moment, I preferred to be left wallowing in my own misery. I did not need another person scolding me of my own inadequacies.
“So that’s it? All that time as her partner, and I find you doing nothing to help her? What happened to our promise? What happened to protecting her?”
Cornelius punched me in the face. Though I punched back in reflex, my fist simply bounced off his face. I stretched out my fingers to poke him. Having been the recipient of the attack before, Cornelius knew to dodge this time. He spun his body and punched me in the gut with a fist encased in ice.
With the wind knocked out of me, I had no choice but to kneel before him, clutching my stomach. Yet, I couldn’t give up. What right did he have to accuse me of abandoning her?
“What choice did I have? She CHOSE to be with him. She CHOSE to marry the Duke. Who am I to argue that? I’m just a normal person. What could I possibly offer to compare?”
“Did she really?”
I looked up at Cornelius with tears of frustration, but he simply repeated himself again, this time with more force.
“Did. She. Really?”
“I wouldn’t be like this if she hadn’t. I mean, she explicitly told me that I was no longer her familiar and that she never cared for me in the first place.”
“That’s odd. You can’t just give up a familiar, especially not one of the chosen Electi.”
Cornelius’s statement made me pause.
“Wait, you can’t? Eryn told me that there was nothing binding me to her. That I could just leave whenever I wanted to.”
“Oh, did she now? That’s new information to me. I’ve always been taught that the Electi are a special existence. Their contracts are unbreakable unless one side is no longer amongst the living.”
What? Eryn had always led me to believe that I had a choice. Had she been lying to me all along? If so, then for what reason? The wheels in my head started to turn as I tried to recall any other inconsistencies in our conversations. In fact, there were several occasions where she had been extra nice and clingy to get me to do something. And times where she had dodged my questions or left some information out. I thought nothing of it at those times, but maybe I shouldn’t have shrugged them off.
“My my, how surprisingly naïve you are. Did you really think someone as proud and determined as Eri was that generous without seeking something in return?” Cornelius said while circling around me.
Of course, I had hoped that Eryn would have been that kind of heroine. Being an otaku had certainly warped my perception of female stereotypes.
He suddenly bent down and whispered in my ear.
“If I had come upon your useless self as my familiar, chances are I would have summoned another one after your body turned cold.”
Cornelius’s words made me shiver. In that case, Eryn at least held enough patience and compassion to stand by me, despite how worthless I had been initially. Still, that made it even harder to accept the rejection I had received.
“To be frank, I find this whole series of circumstances to be quite suspicious,” Cornelius said, rubbing his chin with one hand and gazing upwards. “The Duke’s sudden announcement of marriage to a lower nobility, Eri’s resignation when a higher title would soon be granted to her, the absorption of a house who had lost all suitable successors, when it was on the rise – hardly a coincidence, I might say.”
Due to the dramatic turn of events, I had failed to piece together the recent happenings that now felt out of place. My mind had been caught up solely in my own problems. It was sounding more and more like some nefarious plot by an evil protagonist that was typical in my games.
“Then…was it against her will?” I said slowly, my mind fixated on the details as if grasping for some hope.
“It’s certainly not the Eri I know, now is it?”
“Well, what can we do? Isn’t the Duke some high and mighty person?” Even knowing there was something suspicious, it was not like I had the power to change anything.
“He is. Which is exactly why I have been keeping tabs on him. Control over money. Control over the military. He has been amassing quite the power. But for what purpose, I wonder? I have an inkling that he may be planning something bold, but I know not what it is. If only we could gather some evidence, then perhaps, I could mobilize some of the nobility to act.”
“Is that a hint that you want me to do something?”
“Well, there just happens to be a request to gather suitable workers to prepare for the wedding ceremony and banquet. If you were able to slip into the Duke’s mansion and discover some incriminating evidence, that would be ever so helpful.”
“Slip in? I’m not a spy. And won’t they know who exactly I am? I’m not exactly an unfamiliar face around here, you know. And even if they don’t, how the hell am I supposed to sneak around like a thief without being detected?”
Cornelius grabbed my face for a moment and stroked his hand across my cheeks. I felt a chilly sensation spread all over the front of my head. Unable to pull away from his grip, I had to tolerate the stinging cold until he let go and stepped away. Afterwards, he formed a mirror of ice in front of me.
“Hey! What the hell did you do…to me?” The latter words came out strangely as I saw an unknown face in the mirror.
Though the reflected person was wearing the same clothing as I did, the face was completely different. It was pudgy and the bone structure was different. The skin tone was lighter. The face in the mirror followed along with the facial movements that I made. I reached up and touched my own face. Instead of soft skin, it gave off a cold and hard feeling.
“Is this ice?” I said in wonder.
“Correct. With my ice magic, I have created an illusion to hide your looks. No one will be able to recognize you until the magic is dispelled.”
“Amazing… But won’t it melt?” I continued rubbing the hard coating of ice over my face. My cheeks felt a bit cold, but it wasn’t something intolerable.
“You should be fine as long as you don’t get hit by magic. I can keep it active remotely, so no worries there.”
Cornelius waved his hand, and the face distortion magic dissipated, returning my looks to normal.
“Well, that solves one problem, but I still wonder how I can keep myself from being caught.”
Stealth games were certainly not my specialty. I don’t know how many times I’ve accidentally triggered the ‘!’ above enemy characters. This was no game. If I was caught, there would be no do-overs.
“I see that you’ve regained your motivation to a certain extent, Sir Claude.” Pietro approached us. “I overheard the conversation. Looks like it’s time.”
“Time for what, Pietro?” I looked at him strangely.
“Why, it’s time for another training session with this gentle, old butler,” Pietro said matter-of-factly. One hand which had been behind his back came forward, presenting me with the knife that I had left behind in the kitchen.
“Gentle, old man, my ass.” I still recalled the painful training that he put me through when I had first arrived.
“Come along now. If you don’t learn what I have to offer, then you won’t stand a chance sneaking into the Duke’s mansion,” Pietro said while walking toward the courtyard. Cornelius and I followed along.
I swallowed the lump that formed in my throat as I watched Pietro pull out a sharp, metal sword. I had wrongly assumed that he’d be wielding a training sword.
“I’d even prefer the radish at this point,” I joked nervously.
Not knowing what I meant by that, Cornelius tilted his head in wonder.
“Oh come now, you’ve faced plenty of real battles already. Surely, an old man with a sword is the least of your worries.”
If only he were just any old man. Still, what the hell was I supposed to do? I normally poked people into submission. I held my knife and got into a defensive stance.
As Pietro calmly walked towards me, I felt a strange tingle in the air. It got stronger as he got closer. Just before Pietro got within striking distance, he brought his sword down in a swift motion. Before my mind could ponder why he had swung early, a strong force crashed into me, sending me sailing back.
‘Well, isn’t this a familiar feeling?’ I thought as my back met the ground. Though my front ached a bit, it didn’t seem like I took heavy damage. I quickly bounced back.
“What was that you hit me with? I couldn’t even block it.”
“That was a blade of condensed mana. In other words, I focused my mana into a sword that struck you instead of my physical blade.”
“So…it’s like getting hit by Ki?”
“I know not what you mean by that term, but mana exists in every person. Though I am not educated in the art of magic, I can still cultivate my raw mana into a focused attack,” Pietro said while rubbing his chin.
“Mana isn’t the same as magic? I thought they were one and the same.” I scratched my head. If anything, my experience had told me that mana was the fuel for magic spells, but I had no idea that it could be used on its own.
“Mana is a physical component that is housed in one’s own body. Properly converting mana into a magical spell requires a high amount of control. Those inexperienced will end up wasting much of their reserves as the mana disperses into the air. In contrast, mages with excellent control such as myself are able to even draw the residual mana in the environment to amplify spells,” Cornelius said with a smug look.
“You must learn to feel the sensation of mana given off by others. By doing so, you will know when someone is near. Now, get up, and let’s try again.” Pietro motioned for me to get ready with his sword.
As he continued throwing mana strikes at me, the only thing I could feel was the aching from my progressively battered body. Though it seemed like I could sense a spike in Pietro’s direction, I could not physically see nor feel the strike coming before it made contact. As such, I found it difficult to defend against such an invisible attack.
“Hmm…seems like we are not getting anywhere. From what I recall, this kind of training normally takes months to manifest results, does it not?” Cornelius became bored with my repeated abuse.
“That is quite true, but I had hoped that Sir Claude would be a fast learner. After all, the amount of focus required to constantly hit weak points is no small matter. If only we had time,” Pietro sighed in resignation.
“Time, we do not have. The hiring is in less than a week. I have enlisted for some help already, but it is a shame that Eri’s own familiar isn’t up for the task.” Cornelius started getting up to leave.
“No, wait! Just a little more! Please, I can’t just sit still anymore! I want to do what I can!”
I knew it was a bluff. I had gotten no closer than at the beginning of the training. Yet, I felt something spurring me on. Something told me, if I had any hope of taking Eryn back, then I had to push on.
Once again, the invisible strike hit me. Then, a second. And, a third.
I smacked my fist on the ground. If only I could see it…If only I had the skills to overcome this one thing…
“You shouldn’t continue today. You barely have the strength to stand.” Cornelius walked forward to convince me to back down.
Yet, I stood up. I screamed to tear away the weariness from my body. “AGAIN!”
Pietro launched another attack in my direction. Even he started looking doubtful of my success.
Suddenly, I felt my vision blip. My belly felt hot, and time seemed to freeze. As I stood there wondering what had just happened, I felt a searing pain in my head which then spread to my eyes.
Slowly, the surroundings warped in front of me as I clenched my teeth to fight back the pain. My eyes were fixated on the scene in front of me, unable to blink. In front of me, an arc, purplish in color, phased into existence, suspended in the air.
I put strength into my legs as I prepared to move out of the way. As time seemingly returned to normal, I dodged the purple arc that came towards me.
Cornelius and Pietro had a look of surprise on their faces.
Pietro sent another strike to confirm.
This time, I was able to see what appeared to be mana collecting around the blade, before being launched forward. I dodged that one too.
“What about this?”
Rather than a straight trajectory, this one curved around before homing in on my location. I stepped back, allowing it to smack the ground where I had been standing.
“Remarkable…” Pietro lowered his sword.
Only when he had stopped sending those mana strikes did I notice something else. Purple lines had appeared along Pietro’s sword and outfit. Looking closely, it was as if a purple haze slowly seeped out of these cracks and escaped into the air.
Turning to Cornelius, I saw similar lines traced across his knight armor.
Something compelled me to dash forward at Pietro with my weapon at the ready. Too tired to fight it, my body moved forward seemingly with a will of its own.
Surprised at my sudden charge, Pietro blocked my knife swing with his sword. His gaze became fixated on mine.
“Purple eyes?” He exclaimed before launching himself back.
My body moved forward to chase. This time, Pietro was the first to strike. As the metal blade came within reach, I stabbed my knife into one of the purple lines that decorated the blade. The knife sank in, and with barely any resistance, the sword snapped in two.
Instantly, Pietro abandoned his sword and swung his fist faster than I had ever seen before. The blow collided with my cheek and sent me flying. I had completely blacked out from that impact, feeling nothing afterwards.
If he had not told me later, I would not have known about how I crashed into the house and shattered the wall. Nor would I have known the damage that Pietro’s accidental swing at full strength had caused. Cornelius had rushed me to the main cathedral after encasing me in ice, finding the best healers to revive me from my injuries.
During the last part of the fight, I never once noticed the message that was in the top right portion of my vision that read ‘Skill Activated’.
Not until I woke up the following day that I decided to check my status menu. My heart jumped as a single line had appeared where it was empty before.
Skill – ‘Eyes of Providence’