After the recent encounter, the trip to Linatol was long, but uneventful. There were times at which Dallion almost hoped that something would appear and attack, but the few wilderness creatures that he sensed were quick to move as far away as possible.
The new skill had changed Euryale, as Dallion knew it would. The gorgon kept her blocking ring on, but every now and again some of her snakes would twitch for no reason. If Dallion were to guess, he’d say she was going through personal awakenings while walking, possibly even attempting a trial or two.
Half a day from the city, a merchant party passed by. It was quite small—a single wagon, escorted by two mercenaries of mid level awakening. When they were near, one of them tossed Dallion a small wooden bag. Inside was a parcel wrapped in cloth and a piece or parchment that read “For Adzorg.” That marked one more promise coming to an end. Thinking about it, things had turned out rather well. Dallion had fulfilled both requests and had gotten something in return, including the item that was supposed to provide a level playing field against the Star. Hopefully, it was going to be a while before he’d have to use it. The encounter with the mage had told him, if nothing less, that he was far too weak to take on the Star alone.
“Something I should know about?” March asked, as Dallion placed the bag in his backpack.
“No,” he replied. “Nothing of concern.”
“Alright. When we get to Linatol leave me to do the talking. Don’t say anything unless asked directly. And try not to lie.”
That was new. Usually, the best advice was never to lie to a noble. Having March hint that Dallion could, if needed, suggested that she either had a high opinion of his abilities, or that she was willing to cover it up. Given what she had done to the rogue mage, that was understandable.
“What about the poison plague?” Dallion asked. Thanks to his new skill, and the explanation of events within the sword, Dallion had a basic idea of what had been done to the plants.
“What about it?”
“What do we do with the places that are already infected?”
“That’s a problem for the Archduke and the Academy. We’re just mercenaries and we’ve done our job.”
Somehow that didn’t sit well with Dallion. According to March, the mage had sworn that there was no way to create more matches without the skill gem and the sword. Even with their ability to spread rapidly in the world, they required awakened to survive for more than a week. Gassil had been experimenting with finding a workaround, using Starspawn to nourish the current crops. The sudden burst in the plague was mostly due to sound strategic planning on his part than anything else. With the awakened aware of the danger, and a large number of wilderness creatures already killed or fled, the plague plants were going to wither in a matter of years, or even sooner. However, Dallion found a few years to be far too long.
“Do you need me there?” he asked all of a sudden.
March didn’t respond.
“You’re the one who they really trust. You and Eury. I’ve created too many waves right now. I don’t need to be there.”
“Are you sure about this? Many spend their entire lives striving to earn an Archduke’s favor. You’re this close to achieving that, but you won’t if you aren’t there to claim it. There might not be other opportunities.”
“There will.” That was more a concern than a hope. Dallion was no longer naïve to think that the nobility would leave him alone. He had meddled in too many things, not to mention his level steadily approached the eighty-level point. When that happened, he was going to officially become both a rival and a threat.
“Eury,” March said loudly. “What do you think?”
“It might be a good idea,” the gorgon said, keeping a professional front.
That’s the thing about gorgons, the armadil shield said. You never know what they’re really thinking unless they tell you.
“The focus is the sword, so it won’t matter much. The fight with the Archduke’s son would be enough to explain him staying away. Nobles can be petty.”
“Are you really sure, Dal?” March shifted her attention again.
“I think it’s for the best. Someone needs to start taking care of the poison plants. And I’ve a few debts to pay off back in Nerosal.”
“Alright.” The woman nodded. “Go back. I’ll keep the secret regarding the sword, the fight, and the gem. You do your best not to stick out.”
Dallion couldn’t help but chuckle. He was going to try, but even he doubted he’d succeed.
“I’ll go ahead,” March said. “Catch up when you’re done,” she told Eury, then continued towards the city.
For over a minute, Eury and Dallion remained still. To a degree, Dallion was grateful that it took so long for March to get out of earshot. He knew what he was about to say, just as he knew it was the right decision. His only concern was what Eury would think.
“I’m staying in Linatol,” the gorgon said. “Not only because of my promise.”
“I see. Is it because of me?”
“No. I have some things I need to deal with. It’s not because of you or Jiroh. I just need to keep going along my path. But you probably know that.”
“You can stay with me. Once you give the package to captain Adzorg and repay your dept to the general you can join me in the hunter’s den.”
“You can come back to Nerosal with me,” he said. “You’ll get to chat with the animals I bring back?”
The joke was bad, but it still made Eury laugh. Even as he said it, Dallion knew what her answer would be. Their relationship was like a roller-coaster ever since they’d first met. There were several ups and downs, but both of them had soldiered on. The irony was that now, when they had cleared everything on an emotional level, they were aware that they’d have to spend a while apart. Both of them had their paths to follow and while they were intertwined, each thread had to take a different route in the short term.
“A long time ago, you asked me the significance of the stone orchid,” Euryale said. “It has a few uses. With a lot of effort and a bit of magic, you can turn it into a familiar. Someone probably tried doing that at Nerosal, then threw it away. However, that’s not what we use it for. Both here and in my world, the orchid represents an engagement ring, but not one humans are used to. Engagements are a two way street for us. The one who accepts it, takes on the obligation to tend for it until it hatches into a familiar. When you gave it to me, I wasn’t fully willing to commit. I am now.” She placed her hand on Dallion’s cheek. “I’m giving you the orchid and everything else I have in Nerosal. If you have the will and commitment, give me the familiar that comes from it. If you lose the desire, just give me the orchid as it is, so I can give it to someone else.”
As with everything else he knew about gorgons, this too was intricate in its simplicity. Their society was very much different from that of any other race Dallion knew. One thing he knew, though, was that commitment was a huge deal.
“You can count on it,” he said. “And when it’s ready, I’ll bring it to you.” Now he had proposed as well.
Nice, Ruby said from Dallion’s shoulder. Both he and Eury heard it, but only Dallion could understand. The gorgon must have had a good idea, though, for she pulled back her hand.
“Combine art with your other skills,” she said. “Thread forging is good. Thread fighting is better.”
“I will,” Dallion let out a laugh. Even in moments such as these, Eury remained the strict trainer. “What will you do? Climb up the hunter hierarchy?”
“Not only. There’s something I need to finish. I tried running away once. Now that I’m stronger, I’ll give it a proper go.”
“Good luck.” Whatever it is, good luck.
Looking at her one last time, Dallion turned around and walked away. She didn’t wish him the same. Sometimes he wondered if she believed in luck.
Smooth, Vihrogon said. You could have convinced her to come with you. If you had used your music skills, she’d be walking with you to Nerosal.
They wouldn’t have worked on her, Dallion said.
Probably not, but would have given her an excuse.
That just shows that you don’t know her at all.
For once, Dallion felt that the armadil shield’s advice was wrong. Maybe that was the problem being companion armor—everything was considered an art, but there never could be a final commitment.
Are you really going to remove the plague? The shield asked.
In that case, start slow. Just because you know what’s going on doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. The plague was deadly for a reason.
That was true, and to be honest, Dallion would have preferred a chance to talk to Gassil before March had dealt with him. Biochemistry aside, he wanted to know more about the group of otherworld mages. According to the rogue’s memories, there had been eight of them seventeen years ago. Now, the number could have increased. The larger question was, what were they playing? On the surface it appeared to be “normal” Academy intrigue, however, Dallion had a feeling there was more to it. Alien had specifically made his way to Nerosal for no apparent reason. Any mage could have been sent to protect the member from the imperial enemy, and after seeing how mages fought in practice, there was no doubt in Dallion’s mind that the death was anything but an unfortunate accident. Alien could have saved his charge at any time, but he hadn’t. More interestingly, he was one of the few people who hadn’t been punished as a result of the Nerosal catastrophe.
Nil, Dallion began, I know you’ve no intention of telling me, but there’ll come a point when I’ll have that conversation about your past.
I’m sure you will, dear boy, the echo didn’t sound surprised. However, even if I were inclined, I wouldn’t be able to tell you all that much. You’ll have to have that talk with my original.
Dallion had recently seen mages and high-level awakened create echoes who considered themselves separate entities. If Adzorg was who Dallion suspected he was, that would be a simple issue for him to do exactly that.
He’s the archmage, isn’t he?
The archmage isn’t the only mage banished from the Academy, dear boy. That too is a matter that you’ll have to discuss with my original in person.
What would you advise me?
Putting me on the spot? You’ve become sneaky. Sadly, in this case I won’t be much of a help. Talking with the captain would be the logical thing to do. However, he might not wish to see you.
He’ll have to, if he wants to get what I brought for him.
Once again, you’re wrong. He might have wanted it, but it was Hannah who made the request. Thus, she’ll be the one accepting it.
If my original is the person who you suspect him to be, he’d have taken precautions against something as simple. Of course, you could always insist on not handing over the item in question and force a conversation. Would that be the right way to go, though?
Probably not, Dallion replied.
There were other things of vital importance he had to deal with right now. Having Adzorg on his side was more important than uncovering the past. However, the moment was approaching when the mage wasn’t going to be able to avoid him anymore. The bigger question was how the real Adzorg would react. Whatever the case, Dallion was going to become stronger, no matter what.