Arthur and the Mystery of Reincarnation (Arc I)

Synopsis

In the end, we only regret the chances we didn't take...

28-year-old Arthur Mondragon lived a satisfying life. He had a happy family and a promising career ahead of him. However, everything began to fall apart when the love of his life announced her engagement to a different man. A few months after her wedding, the girl tragedically died at the hands of her husband.
Heartbroken and filled with regret, Arthur made poor decisions one after another, resulting in his untimely death. When he woke up, he found himself in the magical world of Cleo.

Arthur and the Mystery of Reincarnation follows Arthur as he ventures through the world of Cleo, trying to understand the mystery behind his reincarnation. However, the road will not be easy as he tumbles through turbulent events in Cleo, over and over again.

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  • Prologue

    One Regret [Part I]

     

    "In the end, we only regret the chances we didn't take," the phrase repeatedly echoed inside Arthur's head. He emptied the bottle of brandy in his hand, leaving a burning sensation on his throat. He gently lifted his gaze. His dead brown eyes stared at the moonless and starless sky. Dark clouds hung overhead and shaded the night more gray than the nights before. Few lampposts glowed in the sea of darkness. And besides one of them, he sat at the corner of the road. The busy streets that once buzzed with life, now fell almost dead silent.

    Arthur threw the bottle away. A sound echoed as it shattered against the asphalt, breaking the deafening silence. Then a cold breeze blew. The leaves of a nearby tree rustled while his hair danced before falling behind his ears.

    A mouthful sigh left his mouth open. He was barely sober, and yet, everything returned with clear retrospect.

    Arthur Martinez was born in the summer of 1991 from a young couple in Metro Manila. Carmela, his mother, was only nineteen when she conceived him. 

    A few months before their marriage. She ran away with Cristian. Her parents strongly opposed their relationship because Christian was a high school dropout. Still, they were happy and she never regretted following her heart. Christian may not be the most handsome or educated, but he was the most responsible and sweetest man she ever met. However, Arthur's delivery caused massive complications to her already weak heart. After spending a few days in the ICU, she passed away without seeing her son.

    Her death left Christian with a broken heart. She was the first woman he loved and probably the last. He was reasonably young, and with enough effort, he could have moved on and found someone else. But he immersed himself with work during the day and drowned with alcohol at night.

    As Arthur grew up, his striking resemblance to his mother continued to develop. But Christian looked at it differently. The more he looked at him, the more it reminded him of the pain of her death. His big and bright brown eyes, sitting delicately within their sockets, especially pained him. He looked at him with great regret as anger grew in his heart.

    Christian began hitting Arthur at age four. But what started as random blows soon worsened to excessive violence. Until now, Arthur could vividly remember the times his father poured boiling water on his back or the times he burned both his palms and soles with cigarettes. As a child, he failed to understand his situation fully. He could only wail, cry, and shout his heart out as Christian threw countless punches and kicks all over his body.

    At age seven, Arthur fled from the grasp of his father with nowhere to go. He wandered the streets for a few months and learned the ways of the world: how to survive on his own; how to fight other homeless children for 'territory' where they could beg people for money or food; how to pickpocket; and how to take advantage of other people's kindness.

    Even now, he regretted none of his actions to survive. With nowhere to go and no one to depend on, he had to brace himself and throw away his morals.

    A few days after the New Year of 1999, Arthur stood in front of a big church in the city. He narrated an exaggerated version of his short life as he begged people for food or money.

    Arthur hadn't eaten for the past few days, and his stomach grumbled loudly. In desperation, he stripped his dirty worn-out shirt. He showed the scars on his back, unveiling the cruel past that he experienced. Many people glanced at him. Some looked with sympathy, some with disgust, and others with indifference. But he couldn't care less, the people who pitied him gave him either coins or the food in their hands.

    As Arthur collected the fruits of his labor, a couple of elderly people exited from a car and quickly approached him. The expression on their faces couldn't be painted as their eyes lingered too long than intended. He gave them a puzzled look, noticing that the woman was visibly disturbed, some tears even fell from the rim of her eyes. When they asked him his name, Arthur immediately answered, causing the man to tear up as well. Then they asked him what he was doing on the streets or if his story was true. He told them nothing but the truth, and by the time he finished, the two were barely containing their tears.

    After a while, she offered him to live with them. However, he immediately refused. People may think that what he did was stupid. But for a child who had always been depending on himself and trusted nobody, it seemed the best decision. As soon as he picked up his loot, he immediately snatched the woman's bag and ran away while shouting, "I'm a bad kid. You shouldn't take me in."

    Arthur raced at full speed, fully believing that the old couple could not catch up to him. But after a few moments, a hand grabbing his wrist stopped him from his tracks. He gasped in horror, nervously turning back. The old man gave him a blank look for a few seconds. Then, he kneeled on the dirty sidewalk and hugged him. "It's alright. It's alright," he said while brushing Arthur's hair. "We won't hurt you."

    Arthur looked up as the old man continued to brush his hair, trying to stop his tears from falling. For the first time after escaping from his father, he cried helplessly in front of an old stranger. Amid the busy streets of the city, he cried until his eyes couldn't produce any more tears, savoring the kindness that the world deprived him for years.

    The couple brought Arthur to a luxurious restaurant when he calmed down. Some customers gave him weird looks, wondering what a homeless child was doing at such a fancy place. The couple didn't care about them, however. They didn't want to ruin this opportunity that reunited them with their only grandson.

    If Arthur had not escaped from his father, they'd probably wouldn't have known about his misery. If only they supported their daughter, maybe their lives wouldn't lead to this. Both of them fumbled over these things, but they pushed it away because none of their regrets mattered.

    The couple then led him to a wooden table near the window and ordered a lot of food which he didn't even know exist. They shared the food with him, not minding his dirty appearance. The two happily watched as Arthur ate to his heart's content and relished his innocent smiles and laughs.

    What happened next was a blur to all of them, though Arthur could remember that they brought him to a mall after the meal and bought a lot of clothes for him. By dusk, they arrived at a large mansion that would become his home for the next twenty years of his life.


  • Prologue
    One Regret [Part II]


    The old couple, Renato and Clarissa, sheltered, fed, and clothed Arthur. They treated him with great care. When they found out that he had never gone to school, they immediately hired a home tutor since it was almost the end of the school year. By May, a month before the new school year began, he had already learned most of the elementary lessons about Language, Math, Science, and Social Studies.

    One night, a week before his eighth birthday, Arthur, Clarissa, and Renato were comfortably sitting on the couch. They were watching a newscaster told a story about a drug-buy-bust operation in a nearby City. As they flashed the images of the suspects, Arthur immediately spotted a familiar face.

    "Dad?" he blurted out.

    The other two in the living room immediately looked at him. Clarissa tenderly embraced him while Arthur stared somewhere unseeingly. He could only hear the following passages of the news. The police caught Christian selling marijuana, shabu, and cocaine.

    In hindsight, Arthur failed to understand his emotions. Was it joy, sorrow, ease, fear, hate, or pity? He didn't know. Christian had never been a father to him, but he told himself that his father still fed and clothed him for the first seven years of his life.

    He wanted to cry but couldn't, for there was only an indescribable emptiness within him.

    On his birthday, he received a lot of gifts from the couple. They took him out to a family restaurant and announced that they wanted to take his legal custody. He couldn't react right away, thinking that since his father was in jail, he wouldn't have any guardian to look after him. And even if he's free, he would never live with him again. In the end, he agreed with a little hesitance washing over him.

    When Arthur began attending school, the couple also started to ask him to call them grandma and granddad. All this time, he had been addressing them as Sir Renato and Ma'am Clarissa, even though he already knew that they were his grandparents. It was initially awkward, but after a couple of years, he felt thrilled to have people he could call family.

    The first time he called them Lolo and Lola, he saw them turning away while wiping their eyes. Since Arthur was a little mischievous, he pulled a chair, climbed over, and playfully kissed their cheeks. They both smiled and embraced him, and he knew that they truly loved him.

    Before the end of 1999, his grandparents completed the adoption papers. They wanted to file a lawsuit against Christian for child-abuse but decided not to push the case. They wanted Arthur to move on from everything he experienced, and bringing him to court could bring him more misery. Soon, Arthur Martinez changed to Arthur Florencio Mondragon, and for them, that was enough.

    Responsibility and pressure came with the comfortable life they gave Arthur. Clarissa and Renato were retired biochemist and doctor, respectively. Learning that, Arthur always strived to be the best in his class. Both of them never pressured him, but he wanted to prove his worth. He didn't want them to regret adopting him.

    Throughout his elementary years, he mostly spent his free time studying and rarely went outside. When his grandparents realized that, they talked to Arthur and told him that they'd love him no matter what. Still, he continued because he enjoyed studying and reading.

    In fourth grade, Renato introduced him to archery. He initially found it boring. But as he learned more about archery, he grew very fond of it. Soon, it became his and Renato's bonding habits.

    During his last two years in primary school, Arthur divided his attention to the bow and books. And his hard work paid off. He won some minor competitions when he was twelve and also graduated in elementary at age thirteen with the highest honor.

    The first two years of his high school life wasn't something interesting. Nothing eventful happened aside from the fact that he entered many Archery competitions. He won some but also lost more.

    In the middle of his junior year, a girl named Claire Hernandez transferred into his class. She was petite, standing a few inches shorter than Arthur, who already reached 5'8". She wore black eyeglasses that made her look smart, though she didn't particularly look nerdy. She wasn't a girl that would make every guy in the room turn their heads. But when she beamed a timid smile in front of the class, slightly bowing her head, everything changed for Arthur. His heart pounded. Sweat rolled down on his back as he swallowed a mouthful of saliva down to his parched throat.

    Arthur was delighted when he learned that Claire was also an archer. It was a nice coincidence. Because of it, they became friends after a few weeks. As they got to know each other, they found themselves very similar. Not only their friendship grew, but his feelings also became stronger with each passing day. He tried to hide it, but it only became obvious. It was funny to think that the whole class knew his feelings, and only Claire was oblivious to it. Days, weeks, months passed, and the situation stayed the same.

    Arthur wanted to confess, but there's also a large part of him saying that he should forget about it and move on. "I had no time for romance," he kept telling himself. Believing that, he immersed in his studies and archery. Arthur also limited his interactions with her, avoiding his feelings to develop deeper.

    Arthur won two national competitions in archery and graduated in high school as the valedictorian, again. "Many things worked out in the end," he convinced himself.

    As he started pursuing a degree in Biochemistry, he fully believed that he would soon forget about her. But the wheels of fate played a game with him.

    The two accidentally bumped into each other in the university library during their freshman year. Arthur could only curse at the back of his mind as he realized the same effect of her smile to him. They exchanged phone numbers. Though they have different programs and departments, they managed to meet and hang out a few times.

    At the time, it was especially hard for Arthur. It always occurred to him that he shouldn't waste his time. He wanted to confess, but fear consumed him, so he kept on making excuses.

    It was both stupid and amazing, but the same thing repeated itself for years. For more than a decade, Arthur loved the same woman and never dared to admit it. The only time he could muster the courage to confess, a single text tore it apart. "Hey, Art. Look, I'm getting married," it read with an image attachment of Claire's hand and a ring.

    Tears continuously flowed from Arthur's eyes as he read the text repeatedly. He couldn't breathe. His knees faltered while his whole body trembled. There's nothing he could feel but searing hurt and an enormous regret.

    He distanced himself from her after that. He didn't even attend her wedding. Claire tried to call him a few times, but he ignored all of it. Amid all the pain, he could only blame himself for all of it.

    One day, he received a phone call from Claire's sister. As he pushed the answer button, a sudden chill ran down on his spine, as if he already knew that something happened.

    What awaited him on the other line shook his world to the core. Arthur immediately raced his car to the hospital, but when he arrived, Claire's family was there, weeping, crying, and bawling. He wanted to shout, but he had no right. He wanted to cry, but no tears fell from his eyes.

    "It was my fault," he kept muttering to himself.

    Claire's husband was a drug addict, and he became violent whenever he was high. That day, he was so high on drugs that he planted dozens of stabs to his wife.

    Yeah, it was my fault.

    Arthur couldn't stop blaming himself. Those many times that she tried to contact him, maybe she was trying to seek help.

    If he had only confessed to her, maybe they would have been together, and she wouldn't die in the hands of that man.

    Arthur ran out of the hospital and started his car. He needed a drink. Anything. Anything that would make him forget. Funny, however, even though he had already drunk so much, his mind could still clearly remember.

    Arthur stood from the sidewalk and approached his car on the other side of the road. He was barely carrying himself, and everything slowed down. He blinked, but when he opened his eyes, the blinding headlight of a truck came into view. A loud horn resounded through the streets as he covered his eyes. He tried to run away, but his body wouldn't budge. His feet felt heavy, and he just wobbled in the middle of the road. For a moment, extreme pain ran over his body, and after only half a second, his consciousness faded out.

  • Chapter 1
    A New Universe [Part I]

     

    Arthur woke up to the sound of faint sobs from nearby. When he opened his eyes, he saw an unfamiliar old woman who had long and lush white hair pinned behind her ears. She was wearing an emerald velvet satin cloak and a long white evening gown strewn with pearls and diamonds. Her face was wrinkled, but the lines on her face made her look gentle and kind. Her emerald orbs looked straight into Arthur's face as her tears fell on his cheeks.

    "Who are you?" Arthur gently asked, but what came out was a silent and stifled muffle.

    Katarina caressed his face tenderly while her gnarled fingers trembled at the touch. She smiled, but the tears that continuously fell betrayed her every emotion. Arthur felt the longing in them. Like a mother who had lost its son and then found his way back.

    After a few moments, her hands slipped under his back and legs. Her hands were careful as though she was holding something fragile. Then with ease, she brought Arthur into her arms.

    Arthur's composure was gone in an instant. He tried to move his arms and legs in confusion, but he couldn't. They seemed shorter and heavier than usual. A barraged of questions ran through Arthur's head like an avalanche. He searched for answers, but the more he looked, the more he realized how powerless he was. Not only did his body fail to respond, but all the natural and subconscious reactions also malfunctioned. He felt his heart thumped a drumroll, and his blood surged to his veins as he imagined the worst-case scenarios.

    But all of it faded like an illusion.

    While his mind was in panic, his body, his heartbeat, and his breathing remained calm. This frightened Arthur even more, causing him to cuss loudly in his mind.

    Katarina spoke solemnly, catching every inch of Arthur's attention. He followed her lines and words. For someone who knew multiple languages like his mother tongue, English, Mandarin, and a little German and French, he still didn't understand any of it. It was entirely foreign.

    Then she lifted Arthur a little higher, placing his head over her shoulder as she stood. She pinned him in place and took careful steps to walk out of the dim room.

    And before Arthur, what surfaced was a place only seen in movies.

    A small wooden box sat between two identical large triangles that formed a regular six-pointed star. Around it, twelve candles stood over flattened disc-like gemstones with varying colors in each corner. A circle encircled the star with strange text written along with it.

    It gave Arthur mental goosebumps just looking at it.

    Arthur averted his eyes. It was the only part of his body that he could move without effort. He scanned the room for any other clues to know where he was. His eyes laid to enormous shelves of books in the room. With the faint light coming from the candles, he also saw a long sword, a spear, a long wooden staff, and a bow hanging on the walls in the far corner of the room. The wand particularly grabbed his attention. Smaller stones that resemble those on the floor, embedded the wand and emitted a white-bluish light.

    Arthur looked at the box again and its immediate surroundings, noticing a piece of cloth that covered the box.

    A sudden realization struck him.

    "No! That box is so small!" he dismissed, trying to convince himself of an already obvious fact.

    Arthur desperately tried to move his body, but he only wiggled, followed by a low and strange cry that echoed in the room. The sound frightened him. Not because it was unpleasant, but because he knew where it came from.

    His low cries echoed. He tried to stop the tears, but he couldn't. He tried to suppress the sound but failed miserably. At that moment, he couldn't deny it anymore, he had turned into an infant.

    As Arthur's desire to know accumulated, the louder his cries became. Katarina stopped on her tracks in the stairs and patted his back. She said something, trying to comfort him, but his thirst for answers couldn't be quelled. His cries continued as he rationalized everything in his head.

    Arthur found it extremely hard to accept since he didn't believe in anything supernatural. Besides, he was lucky enough to be born in an era where people have a basic understanding of how life, the universe, and physics worked. He wanted to believe that it was merely a dream, but everything seemed too real and authentic.

    After a while, he sucked a mental deep breath and pushed the questions away. First, he needed to stop his cries that seemed to worsen as he looked for answers. Strangely enough, he was getting annoyed while listening to his wails for a long time.

    Unsurprisingly, Arthur stopped crying when he cleared his head. Not long after that, tiredness suddenly consumed his body. In a matter of seconds, he fell again into a deep slumber.

     


  • Chapter 1
    A New Universe [Part II]


    By dusk, Arthur woke up again from a very long sleep, his lips sucking on a gray horn that seemed to drip milk inside his mouth. It touched his tongue, but Arthur tasted nothing. He was resting inside a wooden cot with Serpent sculptures in each corner. The slats were shaped like a snake coiling around a circular column.

    As he looked around, he noticed that the room was out of ordinary. The white walls were rough and made of stone. The foundation and frames were made of dark wood and dappled with light gray. Round ashen stones arranged on the wall formed a snake's head, pointing to the door. The snake's body ran towards the floor and circled the room in ever-smaller circles, creating a spiral pattern. Dark wooden slabs neatly covered the ceiling while silver spherical gemstones hang in each corner.

    He also noticed that not a single electrical device could be found. All the furniture in the room was made of wood and stones and had an intricate design of a serpent, including the small shelf of books, the large wardrobe, and a small rectangular table.

    Two red velvet silk curtains hung on a wooden stick to cover the sides of a wide-open window. And since there was no glass, the wind blew freely from the outside as the curtains flew midair.

    An endless number of gigantic trunks stood behind the window. Thin and long vines clung to the trees, and flowers of all colors bloomed from them. It was dim, though a streak of crimson light occasionally escaped the large canopy that covered the forest. A medley of faint animal noises, mostly from birds and insects, accompanied by the sound of the gentle breeze, added more life to the woods.

    It was very surreal, but Arthur didn't feel uncomfortable. As he enjoyed the peculiar scenery of the woods and the subtle design of the room, the door suddenly swung open. Katarina emerged inside the chamber. A man wearing a gothic full plate armor followed behind her while carrying a wooden crate. She waved her hand to the doorway, and the man immediately exited after placing the box on the table.

    Katarina looked at Arthur, giving him a warm smile. Though Arthur initially felt uncomfortable with her stare, he couldn't brush off the warm feeling. She reminded him of Clarissa. She then approached the window and pulled the exterior window shutters. The light in the room instantly faded.

    In the darkness, he heard Katarina mumbled a few phrases and ended it with, "Explosé Lumeré." And the stones in the four corners of the room lit up.

    A cold sensation ran down on Arthur's spine.

    Then Katarina walked beside the crib and gently held the wooden frame. She muttered another phrase, and the box opened on its own. The contents, which were wooden sculptures of birds, stars, moons, and sun, flew and floated half a meter above the crib. She touched one of the birds, and it began emitting a faint light. She also touched the other birds, the moons, the stars, and the sun – one after another – all of them shone as she did so.

    Arthur stared with little fear. Now, he was looking at everything with brimming awe and wonder. "How could these things happen?" he asked himself.

    Katarina waved her fingers, and the horn floated too, soaring behind her. After some time, it glided back to his mouth as he felt its weight above his chin. Then he realized, all these things that hovered midair were embedded with similar stones.

    Arthur swallowed mouthful saliva as the milked dripped on his mouth, even without him drinking on it. He could barely contain the excitement. He shifted his gaze again, trying to understand everything, but none of it made sense. Still, it filled him with wonder.

    Magic, huh?

    Arthur didn't believe in magic. It didn't exist in the real world. He used to think that magic was one of the things that ancient humans use to explain anything which was outside of their comprehension. Yet, here he was, witnessing a power that couldn't be explained by any scientist of Earth.

    At the time, Arthur already realized that he reincarnated. However, to think that he was reborn in another world was outside of his wildest imagination. No, not merely another world, but he was born in another Universe. After all, his previous universe was bounded by the same law of physics. Those laws didn't apply in this little room.

    Still, he couldn't understand the reason why he retained his memories.

    Arthur was contemplating such things when he felt an unusual presence. And for the first time, his body didn't betray him. He was so startled that he had peed on himself. After a moment, a knock echoed from the door.

    The smile on Katarina's lips disappeared, her whole body straightened with elegance, and her green eyes became devoid of any emotion. Her behavior changed, as though she had turned into a different lady.

    After Katarina's brief answer, the door opened, and a man entered. He was slender and tall, standing more than six feet. His long silver hair was neatly tied, but it nevertheless touched his waist. He wore a black cape and a white tuxedo with a tail behind. It matched with white trousers and black leather shoes. He had thick and dark eyelashes, where a piercing sapphire situated below.

    Leomord gently closed his eyes, then placed his right hand over his left abdomen and slightly bowed upon seeing Katarina. Despite being shock at the severe sight of the woman he served, he remained expressionless. "I have arrived, Lady Allegia," he said. Then he looked at Arthur who was now looking at him with his light jade eyes. Leomord lost his cool for a moment and gasped. That Signum, he thought, a cold sensation running down on his spine.

    "Manners, Leomord," Katarina said irritably, giving Leomord a severe stare.

    "I apologized, but that Signum, and your–"

    "Drop it," she urged.

    He nodded solemnly, "Kus Gramus."

    "Sares," she said, her lips arched into a half-smile. "Now, follow me," she added and exited the room, immediately followed by Leomord.

    Arthur was left dumbfounded with their conversation, but he could feel the tension building up on the other side of the door. By the time the man was gone, Katarina began to cry silently, whispering something to herself.

    He wanted to comfort Katarina because it reminded him of his grandmother. But he couldn't. It was a mundane yet Arthur's earliest concern in that world. In the meantime, he'd wait until he was old enough. He promised himself that in this new life, he would live without a single regret.

    Magic, huh? I wonder if I can be a powerful wizard in the future, he thought. His eyes sparkled with excitement as he watched the wooden sculptures float overhead.

  • Chapter 2
    Determination


    Waiting couldn't have been more painful for a toddler who already had an established consciousness. Time flew ever slowly for Arthur, both literally and figuratively. A full day was barely less than a whole and a quarter of the previous world. And the months too, he had lost count once he reached the one-hundredth day or so.

    When Arthur developed some muscles and sturdier bone structure, he began stirring his arms and feet in the morning every day. In the afternoon, Katarina would always accompany him. And although he never answered, she often talked about her day or some trivial things before leaving at dusk. Arthur took advantage of it to learn the verbal language as he continuously obtained some power to move. As he picked up new vocabularies, he also began to recognize that Katarina spoke two different tongues.

    He worked hard every day until he was able to turn around his body. A small feat, yet he felt very pleased. Katarina was also inside his chamber and usually talking about her day. In delight, she carried him and kissed his forehead multiple times.

    "Just like your father," she said, a smile curving her lips from ear to ear. "I knew you'd grow strong and become a great wizard."

    Arthur let out a soft childish giggle at her words. It wasn't conscious, but he didn't mind. His joy overflowed that even his cheeks blushed, and his green eyes sparkled.

    The sense of achievement boosted Arthur's morale. Day after day, he started his morning routine by moving his arms and legs, sometimes rolling inside the crib. Then after only a few weeks, he was able to crawl and support his weight.

    Arthur would have jumped in joy if he could. He felt a sense of freedom surging in his veins. He never knew such happiness from just having the ability to move. With his newfound strength, he grabbed one of the columns and pulled up his body. He tried and tried, but his arms weren't strong enough.

    Now, intending to support his body on two feet and strengthen his arms to climb, Arthur's days of rigorous body exercise began again. However, saying it was hard was an understatement. It was the slowest process, and he nearly thought that he reached a point of stagnancy. The only saving grace was he was learning languages pretty well. He didn't understand how, but he learned them together. But since he grew up bilingual in his past life, it didn't surprise him too much.

    ***

    At age one, Arthur finally learned to walk on two feet with ease and climb the crib. His only problem was he couldn't get down to the other side. Many times, he would often cry from the fear of losing his balance and falling on the floor. Katarina always came to his rescue and always put him back down inside.

    "Kon–" he stuttered, pointing at the floor. "Konso... Konso..."

    Arthur unconsciously clapped his hands when he finally said the word for the first time. Even Katarina picked him up right away and put him down on the floor with a smile on her face. He walked inside the room in delight, sometimes he fell, but he would always stand back up.

    Suddenly, a realization struck him. Arthur looked up to the small wooden shelf with children picture books. "Tasa," he said, pointing at the books. "Tasa."

    Katarina looked at him, surprised. "You want me to read the books for you?"

    "Resa... Resa..." He nodded profusely.

    Katarina obliged and sat Arthur on her lap, then she read the eight picture books. The art style was clunky but it had its own charm in his eyes. His favorite story was "The Legend of Hula Duliri," a story of a tribal hero from a certain archipelago in the South. Duliri defeated an evil and powerful chieftain in one of the islands and united the tribes from the archipelago.

    ***

    By the next day, it was unusual for Katarina, but when she got out, she left the door slightly open. Tempted to go outside, Arthur approached the door and walked out carefully.

    The living room was big and brightly lit, bathing in the morning sunlight that passed through the window. The carvings on the rough white wall were magnificent, a symphony in stonework forming a serpent. Various gemstones piled over the cupboard to his left while a long wooden chair adjacent to two shorter chairs laid across the center.

    There were two Goth full armor men, one beside a staircase and the other standing in front of a large door. They didn't move, didn't even twitch. But what amused Arthur the most were the brooms and dusting sticks that move on their own to clean the room. His eyes followed them attentively, not minding the metals clattering not too far away.

    Suddenly, a hand touched his shoulder. Cold and unnerving. Arthur was so startled that when he backed away, he fell flat on his back. It didn't hurt much, but he could feel his heart thumping. The man arched his back and carried him.

    The third wave of shock washed over him. He saw that the armor was empty and a small jewel inside the helm emitted a faint light.

    Damn! This one is moving on its own.

    After a few moments, his fear faded away as awe began to spark in his eyes.

    On that day, his daily routine changed. Before Katarina left in the morning, she would always put Arthur on the floor and let him play inside his room. But he would sneak out and watched the morning ritual of enchanted objects in the living room. The gothic armor would then pick him up and put him back inside his chamber. After a few weeks, its behavior changed and began to put him on its shoulders as he watched everything in awe.

    Katarina regularly returned in the afternoon and would always read him the eight picture books on the shelf. Arthur took the opportunity to learn more vocabulary, master how to make sentences, and in some way, memorize the letters.

    ***

    When Arthur turned two, he gained more strength to run and crawl on the staircases. He then decided to roam the house and discovered two rooms upstairs. One was Katarina's bedroom, which had the same theme as his room, and the other was a large dark room that had no window. The walls were dark gray. The frames were reinforced with copper and bronze plates, embedded with black gemstones. Aside from a six-inch hole in the upper corner of the room, there was no other way for fresh air to come in. A rounded stone hung at the center, shedding the room with a faint light.

    Five Gothic full armor set stood in front of each tool rack. There were a lot of metallic tools in the racks, some looked familiar like the rake, hoe, shovel, and chisel, while others appeared very foreign. A lump of metals was also lying in the far corner of the room. Arthur approached the nearest armor and gently tapped its right leg. He waited for a few seconds, anticipating its movement from the stimulus. Seeing that it remained still, he hoisted his gaze to see if it had a stone. It didn't, so his interest waned right away.

    Arthur began following Katarina whenever she went into the workshop. He wanted to uncover the secrets of enchanting stones to the armors and tools. After seeing it a few times, he memorized the incantation and attempted doing the enchantment himself. But all of his hard work failed. In the end, he gave up and just dedicated himself to learning the languages.

    Learning the languages distracted Arthur since he had always been fascinated by them. Within the next few months, he mastered the languages and learned their equivalent writing systems.

    Katarina's more frequently used language was neither hard to use nor its handwriting hard to learn. Its grammatical structure resembled his first language. Emphasizing a syllable, inserting affixes, or simply repeating the first syllable produced different meanings.

    The other was different, however. The structure heavily resembled French and English, while the writing system was complicated and required greater effort.

    By the time he was able to hold a proper conversation with Katarina, he had discovered that the house was a two-story building with five rooms. He already explored the first four, except for the chamber where he first woke up. He tried to go in, but one of the Gothic Armor heavily guarded it.

    ***

    On his third birthday, Katarina prepared something that looked like corn kernels sweetened with honey and milk. He saw mashed potatoes, salted vegetable salad, and meat-barbecue, which released a strong aroma. He never ate much since his body was still relatively small, but just looking at it made him salivate as he gulped mouthful saliva down in his throat.

    Arthur would have devoured all the corn and even licked its container if Katarina hadn't stopped him. And since both of them knew how heavy the corn was for a kid, he didn't. Still, he would love to taste them again in the future.

    "Wow!" Arthur exclaimed as he stared at a dancing wooden puppet in his room. "Is that mine?" He asked, looking back-and-forth from the puppet to Katarina.

    She nodded. "Do you like it?"

    "Resa, but can it run too?" he asked again, his eyes hoping for a positive response. He didn't understand how, but it seemed that after becoming a child, his mind became a little more childish. Not that he minded. He convinced himself that perhaps, there was a god out there who let him grew from a child again for him to experience what it meant to be one.

    Then at the wave of Katarina's hand, the puppet began running after Arthur. He ran away in delight, and it chased him all over the room. She watched him contently, a smile creeping on her lips.

    Arthur panted as he lunged on his bed. When he caught his breath, she moved closer to him and kissed him good night.

    "Granny," Arthur called out before Katarina could walk out of his room, pulling the hem of her nightgown.

    She turned around and gave him a gentle smile.

    "Can you teach me magic tomorrow?"

    "Magic?"

    "Yeah. Like lighting a fire or making objects fly and stuff."

    Katarina gave him a half-smile, gently cupping his face with both hands as she sat on his bed, "Sorry, honey. But you're too young for that."

    "Am I?"

    "Yeah," Katarina assured him. "Maybe we can do that when you're a little bigger."

    "Okay..." Arthur pouted, turning his eyes away in disappointment.

    Seeing his sudden change in mood, Katarina heaved a sigh in defeat. "How about going outside tomorrow? How 'bout that?"

    His face brightened, his smile curving his lips from ear to ear. "Really? I can finally go outside?"

    "Yeah, but only when I'm around. Okay?"

    "Okay," he nodded as he hugged her childishly.

    Arthur couldn't contain the happiness within him. After being inside the house for the first three years, he had been dying to go outside and see everything, not just from the window. Like most children, the excitement kept him out of bed until he heard a noise coming from the living room. He stood and peeked behind his partly open door.

    It was dark.

    Arthur took some time to adjust his vision. He could barely see Katarina as she came face to face with a Goth Armor standing in front of a door.

    Isn't that the door to the secret chamber, he thought while his heart raced in anticipation.

    She placed her right palm on the armor's tummy and said, "Funtore!" The armor stepped aside, and the door automatically slid to the side.

    "So, it had a password all along!" Arthur whispered, covering his mouth with two hands. His blood pumped up, his heart raced. All the while, Katarina looked back. As she slowly approached the door, he ran to his bed and dived under the sheets.

    "Finally!" He whispered many times as Katarina walked away.

  • Chapter 3
    Crimson Sky


    Arthur woke up to the scent of breakfast from the kitchen. For the first two years, he had been getting nutrition from animals' milk that Katarina was raising. Animals. He almost laughed, remembering how bizarre they looked. A small cow with a duck's beak, an elk's horns, six legs, and a tail with three fingers, acting as a hand. Just remembering it made his stomach curl. Besides, he was getting sick of sucking on the semi-rigid horns, so he had been eager to eat solid food for the past few months.

    Arthur shut his eyes again, tired from the sleepless night before. Then he opened them again, a sudden realization lighting his eyes.

    "Oh," he exclaimed as he stood excitedly from his bed. "I can finally go out of the house in the morning after breakfast," he said, starting to fold his white wool blanket. With his short arm span, he had to lay it on the bed and pull one corner to the other, and he did it multiple times. "Then I can sneak on the secret chamber tonight to learn magic," he murmured like a child, who seemed to think that he had a perfect plan.

    The living room was the same as usual. The brooms and dusting sticks flew from each corner while the three Goth Armors stood unmoving from their place. Arthur walked passed them, however, lost in his world.

    "Mornin', Granny," he greeted, walking straight to the dining table as Katarina busied herself in the stove.

    She turned sideways. "Mornin', sunshine. Did you sleep well?" she asked, noticing the bags under his eyes.

    Arthur shook his head. "No, I was too excited to go out today."

    "That isn't good," her forehead crumpled a little, though she still looked sweet. "Did you know that children should get enough sleep so they'll grow faster and stronger?"

    "Really?" he feigned being in a shock. "Then I'll sleep early tonight."

    Katarina beamed a smile, then finished her work in the kitchen.

    Arthur ate but tasted nothing. He was too preoccupied with thoughts of going outside and even more so, learning magic. He had been eager to learn it more than anything else since the first time he saw it. He had tried it many times, memorizing the incantation that Katarina used to enchant objects in the workshop upstairs. But everything resulted in utter failure.

    Can I do it? Can I use magic? He thought as he swallowed a spoonful of vegetable soup. There was a part of him that was afraid to know. What if I couldn't? After all, I don't come from this world. A despairing feeling crept up to his face, which Katarina immediately noticed.

    "Arthur," she called out.

    "Yes?" he asked in surprise.

    "Are you alright?"

    Arthur nodded, then he said, "I was just thinking if I can use magic like Granny."

    "Of course, you will," Katarina smiled, assuring him. "Just wait when you're bigger. Okay?"

    "Okay..." he said in a low voice.

    Observing Arthur's sullen demeanor, Katarina immediately led him outside after breakfast. The moment he stepped into the sun, the morning breeze blew on his skin. He smiled from ear to ear. He looked around, even turning his body around to see everything.

    Outside of the house was a clearing big enough for Katarina's garden. He ran towards it and gently touched the budding flowers and vegetables. His steps were fast but careful, not wanting to ruin its beauty. Then he ran towards the weird-looking animals called Hazu. Some were lying on the ground while others were pecking on the grass. Arthur laughed a little as he approached the nearest one.

    "You sure look weird, brother," he said laughingly. Then he looked back to his grandmother and shouted, "Can I pat him?"

    When she nodded, he immediately patted the Hazu's head. After a while, he turned to her again and yelled, "Can I ride him too?"

    Katarina didn't answer. Instead, she swayed her hand. The Hazu picked him up with its tail and put him on its back. He grabbed its horns with both hands as it supported him from behind with its tail. With another wave from her, the Hazu ran around the garden at full speed.

    Arthur laughed and screamed in excitement while everything blurred in his view. He closed his eyes, relishing the moment. The sweet scent of fresh air caressed his nostrils while the warmth of the morning sunlight touched his pale skin. It was exhilarating. Arthur felt lost at how beautiful it was to be free.

    A smile lingered on Katarina's lips as she watched the smile on his face. She then sat on the ground, making sure to burn this memory forever in her mind.

    When the Hazu lost some breath, it stopped and put him back down on the ground. It tilted and brushed its beak on Arthur's arm. He beamed and said, "You like me?"

    It screeched, letting out a high and loud 'quack' sound.

    "You're sound is weirder than I heard," he laughingly said as it was the first time he heard it quacked up close. "So I'll name you..." he paused, pressing his lips together, tapping his temple with a point-finger. "Alberta! How about Alberta?"

    Alberta quacked again, now, louder.

    "You like it?"

    It didn't make another sound. Instead, it picked him up and raced around again. When both of them exhausted their energy, Arthur laid on the grass beside Katarina. He stared at the blue sky and the clouds, making out some shapes and images in the cloud's pattern. "Isn't that Alberta?" he blurted out with a sheepish grin.

    "Where?"

    "There!" he exclaimed, pointing at the southern sky.

    "Is it?"

    "Yes! There's her beak, then the horns and the tail!" he answered, closing his right eye as he traced the shape of the cloud.

    Katarina laughed, "It is!"

    "I wonder if I can go to the fore–"

    "No!" She interrupted, her voice straight and clear.

    "Why not?" Arthur looked at her, his gaze searching for an answer.

    She sighed, brushing his golden hair. "It's dangerous, Arthur. Many monsters lurked around here."

    "Monsters? Like those things in the book?"

    "Yes," she paused, looking straight into his eyes. "They love to eat us, especially children like you."

    "Eh?" Arthur tilted his head to the side, his forehead lightly crumpled. "But couldn't grandma just shoo them away? Grandma is strong!"

    Katarina laughed, her giggle lingered more than she intended.

    Arthur then stood up, wiping the dust and grass on his back. He spun his waist a little, "Are my parents strong too?"

    She froze, her smile dropped. An air of silence brushed between them before she responded. "Yeah, yeah," she said, her voice filled with tremors. Her feeble hands clenched into fists.

    "Sorry," he said, then hugged Katarina. "Did they ditch us here, alone?"

    "No!" She bit her tongue, barely containing her tears. "No, they were strong and wonderful – especially your father."

    He let go and grinned innocently, "Then where are they now?"

    "Somewhere," she began, searching for the right words. But it was hard. How could she explain it to a child, to a three-year-old boy? "Your father's not here anymore. Superus Dupulu has taken him away to a very happy place."

    "Superus Dupulu?"

    "Yeah," she paused, putting Arthur on her lap. He slightly looked up. "He created everything – you, me, and even Alberta."

    "Like a God?"

    She nodded.

    "So, God took my father to heaven?"

    "Yes."

    "How about my mother?"

    She took a deep breath, "We'll talk about that when you're old enough."

    "Why?"

    "It's kind of complicated," she said, standing up while carrying Arthur with ease. Then she smiled at him, "How about I'll show you how strong grandma is?"

    He nodded eagerly, his eyes flaming in excitement.

    Katarina closed her eyes as both their bodies began to glow. She opened her eyes and stomped her right foot. After a brief delay, they soared a few hundred meters from the ground. Arthur clutched her arms in reflex, even shutting his eyes tight when he looked down.

    "Open your eyes, honey," she laughingly said.

    He took a deep breath and obliged. He never regretted it. He stared awestruck. The forest stretched as far as his eyes could see, and in the west, a mountain stood proudly among the clouds. The woods were teeming with life, and he could see a lot of animals, microscopic from his point of view. The plants, the birds, the flowers – everything – glistened under the sun, now a quarter before reaching the middle of the sky.

    "Please watch thoroughly, Arthur," Katarina said as though there was something that could impress Arthur more than this, more than flying, more than this scenery.

    Katarina murmured words from her second language. It was faint, but Arthur could feel a warm sensation that radiated from her body. As it grew, Katarina held him with one hand and raised the other towards the sky. After a few seconds, she muttered in a loud but soft voice, "Cosana Sherisque!"

    A blast of scorching fire exploded from her hand to the sky. The fire was so gigantic that Arthur thought that he'd burn just being near it. The light emanating from his body, however, that originated from Katarina – warm light – acting as though it was a coating or a shield, protecting him from its heat.

    Arthur shifted his gaze to the forest. His eyes widened, his heart stopped, and his breathing paused. The greenery of the leaves and trees, even the sky and the mountain, had mirrored a crimson hue, dreadfully bloody, yet, stunning and perfect.

    Tears fell, one after another, and began to form a river, springing from the rim of Arthur's eyes. He didn't notice until Katarina stopped the spell and descended to the ground.

    "Honey," she said, her voice sounding remorseful. "Did I scare you?"

    He couldn't answer. He stared at the trunk of the trees as he cried mutely.

    She got down on her knees and hugged him tight, but he didn't react. Her hands found his back. She brushed carefully, afraid of him slipping away. Did I overdo it? I only wanted to distract him. He's too young to understand, she thought, her movements becoming more desperate to get a reaction from him.

    As Arthur's cry became more audible with each passing moment, she let go and cupped his face. "Arthur, honey, are you alright? Did I scare you?" she asked him again, staring straight to his jade orbs.

    He shook his head, then he hugged her and cried helplessly on her shoulder. The crimson sky, yes – awfully bloody yet so perfect and stunning. And for the first time since Claire's death, he cried the pain, the sorrow, and the regret. She was the most beautiful thing that happened in his life, and also the most tragic, the most regretful.

    When Arthur calmed down, he looked sheepishly at Katarina and said, "Granny is strong, right? So she'll live until I become strong too."

    "Of course, darling," she lied. They both knew she lied, but she smiled nonetheless. "I'll even live longer than you will."

    "Yes!" Arthur exclaimed. "Then, I'll be with you until I die!"

    "Yes, you will." Katarina snickered, though a dreading feeling loomed over her. She would love to see him grew up, to see him ascend to greatness, to be his friend, to be his guardian, to be with him, and so much more. But only time can tell – time – that which she didn't have much.

  • Chapter 4
    Enchanted Staff


    The clear sky darkened in the afternoon. Thick nimbus clouds from the Suza Ocean in the East accumulated above. The breeze blew, urging every wildlife to shelter under the rattling leaves of the trees. Many flowers fell from their vines while the wild fruits barely hang from their branches.

    Arthur sat in his room, looking at the window. With his gaze slightly raised, he watched the rain as it pelted the woodland, the sound ensnaring his consciousness.

    He yawned, then dove on his bed. "Still no snow, huh," he mumbled groggily, discontent marked his voice. "Maybe, this is really a tropical forest."

    ***

    Tap. Tap. Tap.

    Mild knocks, accompanied by a low metal clatter, awakened Arthur from his sleep. He had been sleeping for a few hours, and the wooden sculptures shone above, greeting him for the night. The windows were already shut, but he could still hear the rain outside. He got up as the Goth Armor, which had a small helm and two curled horns atop it, entered the room.

    "Hi, Pirro!" he greeted, but the armor didn't respond. Pirro marched towards him as though a robot without sentience. Arthur didn't mind. He smiled at Pirro as it took his hand and carefully guided him out.

    "Hi, Garo! Hi, Servo!" Arthur also greeted the other two when passing through the living room. All of them had identical plates made from plain metal sheets, but their helms were different. Garo had the biggest headgear, adorned with a dark long pointed horn, while Servo had a smaller helmet than Garo, adorned with two short pointed-horns.

    Katarina was sitting in the kitchen when he entered. Arthur salivated at the sight of corn soup, sautéed mushroom, meatballs dipped in tomato juice, grapes, and cheese. After taking a seat, he delved into the food like a hungry cub.

    "Does it taste good?" Katarina asked, watching him devoured a meatball.

    He nodded as he munched the food happily.

    She smiled, "Arthur, tomorrow, we'll start having lessons in the afternoon, okay?"

    "Lessons?"

    She nodded, "Yeah, honey, we'll be learning reading and writing."

    "I already know how to read and write, though," he replied, not diverting his attention from the meatballs.

    "You do?" Her forehead crumpled a little. "But I haven't taught them to you yet."

    He stuffed more meatballs to his wooden plate, then look at Katarina, his lips bent into an innocent smile. "I memorized them!" he said heartily.

    The lines on Katarina's face grew again, "How did you memorize them?"

    "When Granny's reading the books to me."

    "Are you sure?" She asked with a doubtful stare, her voice slightly firmer than usual. "Are you telling this to me because you don't want to study?"

    Arthur shook his head, "No."

    She heaved a sigh and gave him a half-smile. "Arthur, you can tell me if you don't want to. We can always do that when you're older."

    He pouted and said in a low voice, "No, I promise."

    "Okay, I understand," she said, brushing his hair. "Finish your food first."

    Following their dinner, Katarina wiped and cleaned the table, and waved her hand. Then Pirro appeared with eight books and put them on the dinner table.

    "Honey, can you read this title for me?" Katarina asked, tracing the title of a book with her fingers.

    He nodded, "King Garo, the Kind King of Hareo."

    Katarina was stunned for a moment. Then she flipped the pages and turned to him, "How about this part?"

    A smile surfaced on Arthur's lips as he saw that it was his favorite part, "The soldiers of Morvolo advanced to the city of Luna. But the kind king marched with his knights to thwart the enemy before they reach the city. His bishop said, 'My King, please don't leave the cast–'"

    Katarina closed the book, her eyes larger than usual. She searched for a particular book written in Si'rosé, her second language. "How about this one, Arthur?"

    "That's my favorite!" Arthur exclaimed, his smile growing wider. "Hula Duliri retrieved the Shard of Immortality from the tomb of his father and traveled south to take the Serpent Sword of the Moon Dwellers," he read as her fingers traced the texts of the book.

    For a few seconds, Katarina stared at Arthur with a blank expression, closing the book again in awe, her mind trying to comprehend what happened.

    Yes, he did read them impressively, my Arthur! She beamed a smile and pulled Arthur into a tight hug. "Wow!" she exclaimed. "Honey, you are a genius!"

    She let him go and met his eyes, "That's amazing, Arthur. I can't believe it!" She embraced him once again while Arthur's face blushed.

    "Does that mean I can learn magic tomorrow?" Arthur asked once she calmed down.

    "Arthur," Katarina patted him. "We talked about this yesterday, right? It's too dangerous. Maybe in two years."

    "Two years? Isn't that too long?"

    "No, I honestly feel like you were born just yesterday. Two years not very long, Arthur."

    "Alright," he replied, feigning a wide smile. "I'll wait by two years then."

    Arthur went straight to his room. For a few more hours, he played with his toy puppet, which he named Hans. Then, he faked being asleep when Katarina came to his room and kissed him good night. Arthur watched the night passed by, staring at the shining sculptures above. Before midnight, he rose and placed his ear against the door.

    Sorry, Granny, he thought.

    He anxiously pulled the wooden door and peeked outside. Good, no one's here. He crept with both arms and knees on the floor. Though it was very dark, he had stayed there for a few years that he maneuvered through the living room without bumping into any furniture.

    "Hi, Servo," he whispered as he stood on his toes, staring straight into the armors helm. He gently touched its tummy and said, "Funtore!"

    Arthur almost jumped on his feet when Servo's feet clattered and its breastplate clang. He looked around, praying that the sound didn't awaken his grandmother. Not long after Servo stepped aside, the door slid open. Arthur placed both hands on his chest, still searching for any signs of life. When he was sure that Katarina wasn't there, he stared in the sea of darkness ahead.

    "Whoa!" Arthur shut his eyes when he stepped inside. Several stones that hovered overhead flashed into blinding lights. He was so startled that he had forgotten the weight of his shout for a moment. He gently opened his eyes to let his vision settle. Then he looked back, a breath of relief leaving his mouth as he saw that the door was closed.

    Another mouthful air left Arthur's mouth as he stared at the wooden stairs leading below. It had a crude design of a serpent's body, and he could feel the wall compressing to crush his hopes to go down further. He treaded downwards while clenching his fist, his heart thumping.

    After the first turn, the walls and stairs, built from gray stones, were unusually different. The serpent's body split into three separate bodies, the design became even rougher and the lights dimmed each time he took a turn.

    After two turns, Arthur stood in front of a tree-meter rusted iron door. Twenty-six serpent heads pointed towards it while the main body at the center stretched across the metal door. Its eyes, embedded with red stones, faintly glowed.

    Arthur tried to push the door, but it wouldn't budge. Then he jumped and tried to touch the eyes, but it was out of reach. After a deep breath, Arthur made some distance and dashed forward. He jumped, barely touching the eyes, and the door swung open.

    His body hair stood stiffly from the sight. The chamber was dark, and it was bigger than Arthur remembered as though he hardly saw a quarter of it when he first woke up. Six enormous wooden shelves in the western wall towered more than five meters from the ground, stacked with books, thick and thin, big and small.

    Arthur walked to the eastern walls, where several large cabinets stood. He examined the one at the center without cover. A long black wooden staff inside emitted a dazzling light and hovered several centimeters from the ground, shaking as though a heart beating.

    Just what is this? He thought.

    Arthur bent his neck closer, noticing that the staff's pole was carved into a serpent's body while the tip formed its head, and thing furry coated its back. A perfect spherical white gemstone, where the light came from, laid on its open mouth.

    He stretched his arms to touch the staff, but an invisible screen stopped his palms. It was extremely transparent and didn't refract the light emanating from the stone. He traced the surface but failed to find the edge after searching for a few seconds.

    "So magic can be used like this..." he mumbled, still staring.

    Suddenly, a low voice echoed from the cabinet, "Who are you?"

    Arthur blinked many times. Did the staff speak just now? No, it couldn't be, he convinced himself, shaking his head. I must be very tired.

    "Who are you?" it asked again, now, clearly coming from the staff's gemstone.

    Arthur froze on his feet for a moment, his eyes widening every second. That thing spoke, didn't it? He stepped back, sweat oozing from his forehead and back. He didn't even realize that he already tripped and fell in the marble floor, his hand moving in reflex to support his weight.

    "Who are you?" it asked for the third time, now, evidently enraged.

    Arthur tried to stand, but his legs trembled. The dry air seemed to choke his airways, and even his bladder felt like bursting. He stared at it as the light it emitted gradually faded.

    "Ar- Arth- Ar-" he stammered, gulping some air between his breaths. "Arthur," he finally muttered, his lips trembling.

    "Oh!" the staff exclaimed. "I am sorry for my rudeness, Sir Arthur," it said, its voice suddenly becoming overly familiar and jovial.

    Arthur didn't respond. As he took the deepest breath of his life, he readied himself to jump up and run out for his dear life.

    "Please, do not be scared. I will not hurt you."

    Arthur gulped the remaining saliva from his parched mouth. "Will you not?"

    "Of course," it exclaimed. "I could never do such a thing."

    Another dry gulp went down on Arthur's throat, "Then what are you?"

    "Me?" the staff laughed as though it was a funny question. "I am nothing more than a staff, of course."

    "A staff that can speak?" Arthur commented thoughtlessly, his mouth moving faster than his mind. He would have killed himself if only the staff didn't speak again with courtesy.

    "Well, I was a special staff, I guess," it paused as it got out of the cabinet and glided towards Arthur. "Your father is very talented to have created me."

    "My father?"

    "Yes, though it's a shame that he died because of me."

    "You killed my father?" Arthur asked in disbelief.

    "Ah, no, no, no, no... I can never do such a thing. After all, I am nothing but a staff," it laughed again, gliding around Arthur. "Let's just say, he sacrificed his life to craft me."

    Several more lines appeared on Arthur's forehead. "Why would he do that?"

    "You want to know?" the staff asked playfully.

    "Not really," he answered with a sigh. "I feel like you're just messing with me."

    "I am not!"

    Arthur shrugged. "Okay, then spill it." It didn't answer. Instead, it glided around Arthur again as he looked at it with tired eyes.

    "Well, if you insist," the staff said. "I am your father's last memento, Sir Arthur! I am created for your use!"

    "Yeah, right." Arthur rolled his eyes, "You're messing with me."

    "I am certainly not, Sir Arthur. I know it because he enchanted some of his memories to me. I am sure that he created me for your use."

    "Me?" Arthur asked, his face frowning, pointing at himself.

    "Yes! Who else?!" it exclaimed, getting closer to Arthur.

    Arthur shrugged, gently pushing the staff away. "You are creeping me out. I guess that's the reason why granny locked you in here."

    The staff dropped on the floor, though still stiffly standing. "Why are you, Sir Arthur... and Lady Allegia... so cruel to me? I am nothing but your staff and yet... and yet..." it paused melodramatically as though it was genuinely hurt. "I have no doubts that you really are her–"

    "I am what?"

    "Nothing, Sir," it said in a fake nervous voice. "You are his three-year-old grandson, just a few months older than I am."

    "I thought you're gonna say something else," Arthur said, scratching his head.

    "I am!" it said, now, in a completely different tone, inching closer to him again. "Interested?"

    "Nah," Arthur shoved the staff away. "You're just messing around and spout nothing but nonsense," he added, turning to the direction of the door and then began to walk away.

    "I was gonna say that you're her mischievous grandson who sneaked in the secret chamber," it said desperately, realizing that Arthur completely lost his interest. "Are you sure you want her to know about this?"

    Arthur turned coolly, "Sure, though I am gonna tell her myself that, but," he paused, an evil smile curving his lips. "I will also tell her about a certain weird staff that scared the hell out of me, and have it burned by tomorrow."

    The staff raced unto him in panic, "No, please, no, Sir Arthur! Mercy, please, have mercy on me."

    "Get away from me!" Arthur cried out, and to his surprise, the staff halted and hurled itself on the ground, a few meters away from him.

    As the sound of the impact echoed, he had turned around and stared at it with querying eyes. "What are you doing? Tormenting yourself?"

    "No!" it said with a defensive tone. "I moved away on my own."

    He grimaced for several seconds. Then after a while, a smile crept on his lips. "Hey, Mr. Staff," he called out. "Smash yourself on the floor three times."

    "NO!" the staff shouted as it crashed again on the floor, thrice.

    Arthur's smile widened. It can't be, he thought, visibly amused. "Now, throw yourself to the wall until I tell you to stop."

    As Arthur anticipated, the staff began lunging itself on the wall continuously, and even after half a minute, it showed no signs of stopping as it begged him for mercy.

    "So this is magic," Arthur mumbled, his eyes twinkling, as though the staff wasn't suffering from it. Though, he wouldn't have gone too far if it wasn't unusually fishy in the beginning.

    "THIS IS BARELY MAGIC," the staff screamed. "THIS IS CRUELTY! IF YOU WANT, I CAN TEACH YOU REAL MAGIC!"

    Arthur stiffened for a moment. Then he said, "Okay, you can staff now."

    "Hu!" the staff let out a sigh of relief as though it had lungs and mouth before gliding in front of Arthur. "I thought I was gonna die."

    "Die?" Arthur looked in disbelief, scanning the staff's body. "You didn't even have any dent."

    "Yes! I wouldn't break! It didn't hurt!" The staff burst out. "But smashing to stone walls still scares the hell out of me! At least consider my feelings, you, child fiend!"

    "Fiend who?" Arthur asked, raising his right brow.

    "No, no, no, no, I mean, child friend of mine," it said with nervous laughter.

    "Yeah, right." Arthur shrugged, heaving a sigh. "By the way, what's your name?"

    "Name?" it replied, now back to being proud. "I don't need such lousy hum-"

    "Then, let me call you Duliri," Arthur interrupted, beaming a smile.

    "I don't need such-"

    "Duliri or floor smashing?"

    "Okay, okay. Duliri it is."

    Arthur smiled again, and as innocent-looking as it was, Duliri could only tremble at its sight. How could this child be only a three-year-old? He thought, cursing the gods for his future misery.

  • Chapter 5
    Ancient Pact


    "Tell me the truth, Duliri," Arthur declared as he approached the stack of books, seizing Duliri on his right hand. "Did my father really created you?"

    "He did!"

    "And he sacrificed his life to do so?" Arthur grimaced. "That doesn't make any sense."

    "I know, however, as you've seen with your eyes," Duliri said earnestly. "Your words are absolute. I couldn't lie."

    Arthur sucked a tired breath, gently letting Duliri go. "Then, I order you to answer my questions truthfully." He treaded to the nearest shelf from the door and picked up a book. His hand traced its title before he looked back to Duliri. "Why are my commands absolute?"

    "Well, to put it simply, your mother cast the Enchantment of Absolution on me," Duliri said as Arthur picked up another book from the shelf.

    "C'mon Duliri!" Arthur grunted, pushing back the book to where he took it. "You're making me more confused. I said make it simple, but please, make it clear too."

    Duliri laughed, "My bad, I never thought that you are as impatient as your father."

    Arthur darted a glare at him, not saying anything.

    Duliri immediately stopped and cleared his nonexistent throat. "For starters, I believed that the Enchantment of Absolution makes an object exclusive to a particular being. And once enchanted with sentience, then any wish of that user becomes absolute. The item couldn't–"

    "Wait!" Arthur interrupted, looking back at him. "It's possible to enchant sentience to an object?"

    Duliri laughed, "Of course, Sir Arthur–"

    "Drop the courtesy. Arthur is fine."

    "Understood, Sir Ar… Arthur," he paused, verbally clearing his throat again. "Anyway, it is possible. Though to make one, one needs a soul."

    "A soul?" Arthur laughed dryly. "You are a soul in a staff?"

    "Exactly!" Duliri exclaimed. "Though I'm nothing more than a Pseudo soul."

    "Pseudo Soul? Okay," he paused, taking another breath. "What is this pseudo soul?"

    "Essentially, Superus Dupulu created souls to inhibit living organisms that capable of thinking and intelligence. When the material body dies, the souls leave and undergo a cycle of reincarnation," Dupulu explained. "Pseudo souls, on the other hand, are artificially created. And once the vessel dies or gets destroyed, we will only disperse to magical energy. Unfortunately, we couldn't reincarnate."

    "Understood…" Arthur nodded, staring somewhere unseeingly. Then after a while, he asked, "Duliri, is it possible to retain your memories upon reincarnating?"

    Duliri didn't reply for several seconds, but once he did, he began laughing. "You have a very wild imagination, Arthur. That's a good question, indeed!" He glided, drawing closer to Arthur. "I have to disappoint you, however. Because briefly after leaving the body, all the memories of the soul will be erased. The soul will be nothing but a Tabula Rasa."

    "That makes sense," Arthur nodded. For the time being, he pushed the questions about his reincarnation away, not wanting Duliri to surmise unnecessary details. Then he got back to business and read the titles of many books on the first level of the first shelf. "Anyway, back to the first question." Arthur paused and glanced at Duliri. "I still don't understand why my father has to sacrifice himself to create you?"

    "As I've said, Lord Leon created me for your use. However, we can deduce that he also did it for other purposes. Those, of course, I have no recollection of. Perhaps, Lady Allegia or Lord Leomord can answer your questions."

    "I don't think granny will answer any of my questions," he answered, hesitance washing over him.

    Leomord? I heard that name before, Arthur thought. He tried to recall his memories. It was at the corner of his tongue, but he couldn't figure it out. "Who is this Leomord guy?" he finally asked.

    "Leomord guy?" Duliri laughingly said. "Now, I had no doubts that you are Lady Allegia's blood."

    "Just answer my question!"

    "Yes, yes, Arthur. If there's someone I fear more than Lady Allegia, it would be Lord Leomord. He's just no guy. Lord Leomord is your father's best friend and most trusted aid."

    Arthur gave him a questioning stare, as though he made him more confused.

    "Come here a minute, Arthur. It would be best to show you." Duliri hovered to the southern wall and opened a wooden chest with serpent carvings. Then, he urged Arthur to get three large paintings inside.

    The first one was an image of a woman, who looked very similar to Katarina in her younger years, and a man. The man smiled awkwardly at the painter as he stiffly sat inside a wide ballroom. But what intrigued Arthur the most was his facial features. Arthur had only seen himself a few times in the mirror from Katarina's room, but he could clearly see himself to the man. The golden hair, the emerald eyes, even the mole below his chin – everything – reflected him as though he was staring at himself many years in the future.

    "Is this my father?" Arthur asked, pointing at the man.

    "Yes," Duliri replied. "And the woman is your mother."

    "My mother? What's her name?"

    Duliri didn't answer for a second, and with hesitance, he answered, "Lady Mondragon, yes, your mother is Lady Mondragon."

    Arthur glanced with doubtful eyes. "Are you sure?"

    "Yes! You know I couldn't lie to you."

    "Alright!" Arthur sighed in defeat. He didn't want to encourage more questions as there are too many to process. He put the first picture back into the chest and examined the second one. The same man sat in a golden chair, shaped and sculpted with two serpents, their mouth meeting at the center of the chair's back support. However, this time, as he glimpsed at the man behind his father, a chill ran on his spine. The man stood elegantly and wore no expression. Arthur stared at him with trembling hands. That silver hair, that body frame, he thought. His body hair stiffly stood.

    "What's the problem, Arthur?" Duliri suddenly asked, taking him back to reality. Still, he was so anxious that he lost the ability to speak for a few seconds. "Oh! That man behind Lord Leon, that's who I am talking about. That is Lord Leomord."

    "This is Leomord?" Arthur managed to ask, his voice trembling.

    Duliri snickered, "I see. So you are also afraid of him."

    Arthur didn't answer, but his silence confirmed it.

    "Well, I can't blame you," Duliri inched closer and moved the second painting to show him the third one.

    Arthur's eyes widened as a painting of an enormous beautiful white dragon filled him with awe. It wasn't the typical western dragons that he was used to seeing in movies. Instead, it had a striking resemblance to Chinese dragons. It flew in the starry sky with elegance, the hair on its back dancing against the wind. Two pairs of claws crossed on its chest and lower body.

    "Beautiful, isn't it?" Duliri commented.

    "Yes," Arthur said mechanically, not taking his eyes away from the picture.

    Duliri laughed again, and only Superus Dupulu knew how many times that night. "Beautiful, yes! But very deceitful, for that is Lord Leomord's true form."

    "I can see that," Arthur replied, then he finally turned his eyes away and looked at Duliri. "But how did he became my father's aid?"

    "That is a funny question," Duliri said. "Lord Leomord is your father's Tamed Dragon."

    Arthur's eyes sparkled. "Tamed Dragon? As in my dad defeated a dragon and made him his pet?"

    Duliri laughed his heart out, "No, no, no, Arthur, though your father do have the ability, he didn't. Lord Leon got his dragon from an Ancient Pact. Your father, grandfather, and great grandfather; all of them obtained a contract with a dragon at age ten," he paused and hovered a few inches from the floor. "So even you, Arthur, shall have your dragon in the future."

    "Yeah right," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. "You're messing with me again."

    "Arthur, I am not," Duliri said seriously. "If your father's memories don't betray me, what I'm saying was nothing but the truth."

    Arthur sighed, "Then, I'll take your word." But as he thought more about it, he felt the excitement building up on his chest. Dragon pet, huh? He thought, a smile gradually curving his lips as he returned the paintings on the wooden chest.

    "Anyway, let's get back to the real business," Arthur said, going back to the shelves. "Where do I find the books for elementary magic?"

    "Here," Duliri replied, gliding to a nearby shelf. "Just scrim through it again, and you'll find one."

    Arthur obliged and took one book, one after another. He searched for a title that might contain the basic principles of magic. Though he was quite annoyed at Duliri, who promised to teach him the fundamental laws of magic, he couldn't understand his teachings. It was excessively verbose, and his instruction was ridiculous. In the end, he decided to find a book to teach him the ideas, which was his original plan.

    "Small but Terrible, the Art of Insect Taming," he read, tracing the letters on the title page. He heaved a sigh and returned the book to the shelf, before glancing at Duliri behind him.

    "Duliri, are you sure it's here? I'm almost done at the first level of this shelf, but I still couldn't find it! All of them are insect taming books!"

    Duliri backed away. "Well…" he stammered. Arthur could see him looked away, if only he had a face. "It might be on that shelf, I'm pretty sure Lady Allegia said that she stacked the books based on difficulty. Books about Elementary Magic should be on the first level of these shelves."

    "Okay, but do you think I should start looking there?" Arthur asked, pointing at the shelf in the far corner of the room.

    "Maybe," Duliri answered. "She might have also sorted them from right to left, not just from bottom to top."

    With a sigh, Arthur stood up and marched to the farthest shelf. He took the first book from his right, his eyes immediately lit up.

    "MANA: The Fundamental Energy and Particles of Magic, Understanding the Principles of Perceiving and Controlling Mana, Volume One, by Cruxio Haftal."

    "I found it, Duliri! I found it!" he exclaimed, jumping in delight, raising the book into the air. "I guess you are useful, after all."

    Duliri laughed at his remark, "That's right, Arthur, you should trust me more."

    "Nah," Arthur refuted with a sarcastic half-smile. "I'm good."

    Arthur carefully placed the book on the floor. His eyes studied the cover, his eyes thumping. He took a breath before gently pressing his fingers to the title page. This is it, he thought. However, as soon as he flipped to the first page, footsteps echoed behind the door of the basement. Arthur and Duliri stared at each other for a second. Then, he closed the cover nervously and placed it back on the shelf.

    "Where should I hide?"

    "Come here," Duliri led Arthur in front of a large cabinet. "Open it, you can hide inside."

    "Won't she notice?"

    "I don't know," he answered truthfully. "Let's just hope that she wouldn't."

    "Fine," Arthur uttered in defeat. "Just close it properly, okay?" He added as he sat inside and embraced his folded knees. The light escaped his eyes after a brief delay as Duliri anxiously closed the lid, leaving it partly open. Arthur wanted to pull the tiny gap, but the iron door already bolstered forward.

    "Serpent staff, are you there?" Katarina called, prompting Duliri to approach her. Though Arthur could barely see anything, he could picture Duliri trembling and sweating profusely, if only he had a body.

    Good thing, he didn't have, Arthur thought.

    "Yes, Lady Allegia, how can I help you?" Duliri answered with his usual playful voice.

    "What have you been doing? I was hearing some vague noises when I was going down in here."

    "Nothing, your ladyship," Duliri said. "I was only gliding around to soothe my boredom."

    "Gliding around?" she grimaced. "Maybe you should try doing something more noteworthy."

    "I'm afraid that I am nothing but a staff. I couldn't do anything without a master."

    "Master? You mean my dear Arthur?" Katarina laughed. "You think I'm gonna entrust him to the likes of you?"

    "Lady Allegia, with all due respect, the sole purpose of my existence is to be of use for Lord Arthur," Duliri said, his voice sounded so out of character that Arthur covered his mouth with both hands to contain his laughter. "If you truly believe that I am unworthy of him, then, I shall ask you to put a stop in this existence without a purpose," he added, then let himself fell on the floor as though a man prostrating.

    Katarina, who witness the farce, couldn't contain her laughter. Arthur laughed discreetly as well, but he made the sound louder than intended. Katarina stopped and looked at his direction, which made him stop as well. She approached the cabinet, her steps unsure and slow. Arthur watched nervously. Please, no, he prayed. She held the rim of the parted lid while he gasped in horror, casting all the curse words he knew in his mind.

    "They're moving," Katarina suddenly released the lid from her grip and turned to Duliri, looking at him severely. "You are permitted to leave the basement for now and command the Arisen," she added in a commanding voice, racing towards the Western corner of the room and grabbed a wooden staff. "Protect the house while I take care of some pesky spies from the Kingdom."

    "As you wish, Lady Allegia."

    As soon as Katarina left the room, Arthur emerged from the cabinet and asked, "What's happening?"

    "I could answer your question, but now is not the time," Duliri answered, the color of the gemstone atop him changing to a reddish hue. "Go back to your room, Arthur, and do not leave," he paused, emphasizing his last words. "It's very dangerous outside."

  • Chapter 6
    Master Enchantress


    Following the rain that stopped before midnight, a stillness enveloped the Eastern Celure Forest for the rest of the night. The trees stood droopily, their leaves barely moving. The strong wind that once washed away the blossoming flowers – had now completely gone. A wild yet eerily soothing howl of nocturnal beasts occasionally echoed. But when they stopped, the looming silence crept back.

    "Explosé Lumeré," Katarina whispered as she hurried outside the house. The ruby on her short wooden staff gleamed in the darkness, lighting the front yard of her house.

    She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. "Where are they?" she mumbled. Her body hair stood. Her skin faintly glowed. After a while, her head snapped to the west. She raced. The dried leaves rattled with each step. Several small animals also awoke from their sleep, crawling to the treetops.

    Once Katarina secured her first target, who realized her aura too late, she stomped her right foot and leaped to the air. "Good evening, gentleman," she whispered behind the man's ear. She wrapped her arm around his neck and pointed the lower tip of her staff below his jaw.

    "Rest in peace," Her hands pushed the staff that pierced through the man's flesh with ease. Katarina released her grip, a loud thud resonated as he fell to the forest floor.

    Her gaze dropped. A wooden log about a human in size rested on the ground. It had a small cut near one of its ends. A bait?

    Katarina was about to stomp her feet again when several blue fireballs caught the corner of her eyes, traveling at an alarming speed. With a sigh, she spun her body and tightened her grip. Then she elegantly raised her arms, twirling the staff with her fingers. When the fireballs hit her wand, all of them bounced and started a fire after landing on the trees. Finally, her head snapped to where the projectiles emerged.

    A young boy no more than a twelve-year-old stood on a branch a few meters away from her. "A child?!" She grimaced. With little illumination from the fire, a magic circle glowed on his forehead. Katarina clenched her left hand and bit her wrinkled lips. "Why does the Kingdom keep sending children?!"

    Then without warning, the boy launched another barrage of fireballs in her direction. But now, with seething rage, she stomped her foot and lurched to the boy, dodging all the shots. After closing the distance, she struck his nape and knocked him unconscious. Then she let go of her staff and caught his scrawny body.

    Katarina stared at the boy, some tears falling from the rim of her eyes. "Just how many?" She lifted her gaze to the starless sky, tightly shutting them while biting her lower lip. Her knees faltered and not a second later, she sat helplessly on the ground. "Just how many innocent lives should I take?"

    Her hand traced the magical array on the boy's forehead, fumbling over her choices. Should I risk it? She asked herself. But a resounding 'no' echoed beneath the question. The risk of disenchanting the slave contract from the boy was far too great. It would require almost all her Mana. Besides, she might die while doing so.

    Katarina bawled in despair. Her cries resounded through the still air in the forest. Now that the world turned its back against her, she had no one but Arthur – Arthur who couldn't defend himself. She couldn't afford to die, nor could she play favoritisms right now. Taking a deep breath, she began murmuring the spell – Mercy of the merciless – that she originally created for this moment.

    "Cos'cosa!" she finished, her voice barely audible. Then after a few seconds, the boy disintegrated into ash, and not a single sound of pain escaped from his lips.

    "Bravo! Bravo!" a familiar voice of a man suddenly echoed behind her, accompanied by clapping hands. "You're still as marvelous as ever, Lady Allegia!"

    Katarina immediately stood up. She wiped her tears and faced the other intruder. "Daedalus!" She gritted her teeth in anger. Both her hands and feet trembled. Her green eyes ignited in the darkness.

    "Yes, your ladyship," Daedalus smirked. He placed his left arm on his right shoulder and gently bowed, his red curly bangs falling to his forehead. "I'm most delighted to see that you are in good health, Lady Wizardess of Florence. No…" He met her eyes, glaring smugly. "Master Enchantress of the fallen Allegia Dukedom."

    "Such insolence." Katarina straightened her body, removing all the expressions she previously held. Then she clicked her fingers. The staff hovered back to her grasp while the wrinkles on her body disappeared.

    "You looked better in that appearance Lady Allegia. I was wondering before if you are truly Count Florencio's daughter or his moth–"

    Katarina didn't let him finish. She leaped and stabbed her staff forward, aiming straight at her opponent's neck. Daedalus parried her from below after briefly pulling out his sword. Then they both backed off and assumed a high guard.

    "A wooden staff against a platinum sword?" Daedalus scoffed before throwing an overhand cut, but Katarina avoided swiftly. Then he cut from the other side which she parried with ease. "You never change. Your enchantments are as troublesome as ever."

    "Back at you, sly fox!" she hissed as she parried another attack from him.

    Daedalus sent a barrage of stabs, cuts, and thrust while Katarina continuously stepped backward as she deflected or parried his attacks. "Losing our ground, are we?" he mocked, seeing that Katarina had her back against a large tree.

    Katarina remained silent. Instead, she smiled wryly. "Los'Seijis," she uttered in a low voice. Seven ice swords formed above Daedalus and came crashing down.

    Realizing his predicament, Daedalus leaped backward. "Shit!" he cried out as blood gushed from his left arm. The long sleeve of his top garment dyed in crimson. He glowered at Katarina and clicked his tongue. "That talent of yours still disgusts me."

    "Don't worry." She glared back. "The feeling is mutual." Then she hurled another intermediate spell at him.

    Daedalus stepped back again, now coming out unscratched. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't dodge. After all, his barrier could normally deflect simple spells. But his opponent was Katarina, the one in a million genius who could imbue enchantments to a spell.

    "Truly troublesome!" Daedalus declared as he raised his right hand, pointing his sword to the sky. A large chunk of ice, at least five meters in diameter, formed above him. Then he gestured his hand towards Katarina, prompting the ice to pound on her.

    The orb on her staff changed from red to lime green. It shone as Katarina poured her Mana on it. She stabbed her staff forward, stopping the ice midair when it collided with her staff. After a few more moments, the ice vanished completely.

    "You enchanted Dispel Magic on that staff?" Daedalus scoffed, raising a brow.

    "And you healed yourself quite quickly," Katarina refuted, seeing that his wound already stopped bleeding. Then she stomped her foot and lunged, aiming to stab his heart.

    But Daedalus simply laughed as he jumped back further away. "Playtime is over," he declared as he stood above a tree branch. "I have accomplished my goal, Lady Allegia. I'm afraid that we have to bid our farewell now."

    "Goal?" She raised her chin a little, feigning a laugh. "You really think that you've measured up my whole strength?"

    "Certainly!" He smirked. "Now, I wonder, how long can you protect the boy?"

    "Daedalus!" Her lips straightened, her eyes flaming. Her fingers pressed deeper on her staff. "Do you truly wish to die?"

    "Will you kill me too?" He paused, his smirk began to show his teeth. "Like how you kill the child before?"

    Katarina stopped breathing for a moment. Then she gently blinked and sucked an audible deep breath. Her face turning emotionless. "No." She shook her head. "You deserve no mercy."

    "As clever as ever, Lady Allegia. My provocations still don't work on you." Daedalus returned his sword to its scabbard, then smiled wryly. "But sooner or later, you'll either die or break." He placed his right hand on his left shoulder and bowed, his body becoming translucent. "I'll be watching in the shadows." Not a second later, his body disappeared completely.

    "That cunning fox," Katarina mumbled as she tried to detect his presence. She scanned the surroundings but the forest remained still, the field remained dark. The fire on the trees had dissipated, unable to burn further into the damp leaves.

    Suddenly, she felt a portion of her Mana continuously pouring out, burning as though someone was sucking out her energy. What is that serpent staff doing? She thought. She stamped her foot on the ground. Then she soared diagonally into the sky and flew back to her house.

    "What's happening here?" she cried out, sending Duliri a severe stare.

    "Apologies, Lady Allegia," he answered, his voice evidently disturbed. "The spy is a child again!"

  • Chapter 7
    Extreme Emotions


    The stillness of the woods made Arthur restless in his room. His foot steadily tapped the floor. His fingers alternately pressed his upper legs as he sat on the mattress. Dangers prevailed outside, and he was asked to stay indoors for safety. "Just how powerless am I?" Arthur bit his lower lip, lifting his gaze to the gleaming sculptures overhead.

    "Hans!" Arthur called. The wooden puppet heeded his call and walked from one corner of the room. He patted the bed and said, "Sit." Hans did so and sat stiffly beside him – unmoving – being lifeless that it was.

    Arthur sighed several times, then he stood up and dashed away. "Hans, run after me," he commanded, pausing after each word.

    Creaking sounds filled the room as Hans ran after him. Arthur jumped away every time it was about to catch him, but laughter never escaped from his mouth. His lips stiffly pressed against each other. He tirelessly ran to clear his head despite his breaths becoming erratic. Sweat dampened his back. His heart pounded, partly from the exhaustion. But for the most part, it was the vibe of that night. The peculiar peace outside filled him with a sense of foreboding as though something was going to happen.

    An earsplitting noise resounded outside. Metals clattered as though they were folding and breaking like a ceramic jar. Arthur stopped from his tracks, his body clenched like a fist. His sudden pause, causing Hans to bump behind him and fall backward. Arthur stayed unmoving, carefully observing the same noise that echoed.

    It took him a full minute before he recovered. He hurried to the door and tiptoed. He turned the knob, pulling the door. "Why?" he cried out. He pulled some more and exerted greater force, yet the door didn't budge, not even a bit.

    In desperation, he raced to the windows and pushed its shutters. "What is happening?" he exclaimed, seeing that the windows also didn't move.

    Arthur then began going back-and-forth from the windows to the door, trying to open them, but his every attempt failed. Suddenly an idea dawned onto him. He quickly towed the wooden chair and brought it near the window. He climbed. Once at the top, he sucked a deep breath and kicked the shutters with all his might. Since he was holding the back support of the chair, his kick only recoiled. The chair slid backward and tumbled.

    "Ouch!" He cried out, but the same noise outside silenced his crash.

    Arthur sat on the floor. Then he blew on his left elbow while gently wiping the blood that flowed from the bruise. Tears accumulated below his eyes. They wanted to fall, but he stubbornly refused to let them. His body betrayed his will, however. So while sobbing, he stood and crept under the comfort of his blanket.

    Tears formed a river, wetting the mattress. Arthur didn't bother anymore to stop them. It was out of his control. The pain already dissipated so he didn't even understand why he kept crying. Besides, he was too preoccupied with the noises outside. "Why am I so powerless? I can't go outside. I can't control any situation. Now, I can't even control my body," he grumbled, frustration growing even further. And as strange as it was, his cries became louder.

    "Arthur, just give up! You'll just be a burden outside anyway," he convinced himself, speaking the words in between sobs. "Just think that you'll learn magic sooner or later." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "Just think about what Duliri said, you'll be taming a dragon someday. How about that?" With his mouth agape, he sucked another mouthful air. "Yes, yes, like that. Think about the things you could be. A great wizard like Granny!"

    Arthur repeated the same words. As his aspirations replaced the frustration on his chest, his cries began to subside.

    "So overwhelming emotions still conjure my tears…" A satisfied smile curved his lips once he completely settled down. He rolled over and took down the blanket from his face. "I thought that only worked when I was a newborn."

    Arthur stared at the ceiling, giving his best not to mind the noise outside. Duliri and Granny can take care of it, he kept telling himself. Then, he turned over again and urged himself to sleep. But his senses remained alert, not allowing him to rest.

    Another metal clatter echoed, catching Arthur's attention. It was barely audible, yet he recognized it. The sound was not the same metal ramming or breaking, but the same sound produced when Pirro, Garo, or Servo moved. Arthur advanced to the door and pressed one ear against it, the faint noise in the living room getting fainter with each passing moment. After sucking a breath, Arthur attempted to open the door, and his gut feeling didn't betray him.

    The darkness shrouded Arthur's movement as he sneaked to where the noise originated. A few more heartbeats and he reached the backyard. The light coming from Duliri cast three large shadows.

    Arthur inched closer. His eyes widened as he peeked behind the wall. "What the hell?"

    A small girl with long black hair stood in front of the three Goth Armors. Both her bruised hands and legs glowed briefly. Then she jumped forward and punched Garo, who stood motionless. Her fist pierced through his helm, and with another blow, it broke to pieces as though a brittle glass. A few more punches and his whole upper body dismembered.

    The girl panted while small metal debris showered around her. After catching her breath, she turned to Servo and sent him powerful and quick kicks and punches. In a few breaths, he also fell apart.

    Arthur covered his mouth, gasping. His cornea almost left their sockets. He was so wrong to think that he couldn't be more surprised.

    The metal pieces hovered a few centimeters from the ground and flew over Servo's and Garo's lower body. They melted, then after a short delay, they reformed the armors' body and head. The scene reset to when Arthur first saw them. The Armors stood completely still while the girl panted.

    The girl engaged one more time but the same thing happened again. It was as though they were simply holding her back. They never move nor dodge and the only time they did was when she tried to run past them.

    Arthur wanted to stop the fight. It was gruesome for both the armors and the little girl who appeared to be only six years old. However, Duliri warned him before not to get out of his room. While Arthur thought that he was extremely fishy, he had been most serious when he warned him. With a heavy heart, he decided to wait a little long–

    Longer? No! Are you seriously going to be silent and stay idly! The words echoed through his head. Arthur clenched his fist and was about to race towards Duliri when Katarina suddenly appeared and quickly descended from the sky. She approached Duliri from behind. "What's happening here?" she cried out, sending Duliri a severe stare.

    "Apologies, Lady Allegia," he answered, his voice evidently disturbed. "The spy is a child again!"

  • Chapter 8
    Demon Girl


    The girl huffed, her knuckles bleeding, and her eyes half-closed. Sweat rolled from her back, chest, and forehead as she shuddered on her feet. She was arching down, barely keeping her consciousness from slipping away. Sucking her deepest breath, she poured most of her remaining Mana on her feet.

    The loudest clatter of that night echoed. Katarina turned her attention from Duliri to the source of the noise, her composure almost vanished. The small girl had lunged forward. Her aerial kick blasted like a bullet, piercing through Garo's chest and continued to penetrate through Servo and Pirro as well. All three shattered like glass, causing small and large chunks of metal to fly everywhere in the back yard.

    The girl took the opportunity to engage on Katarina. She jumped one more time and threatened to punch the old woman on her cheeks. Katarina sidestepped, her body spinning with elegance. Then she raised her left hand to chop the child's nape. The girl jerked her shoulders midair and dodge her strike on time. Her body wildly twirled as she felled to the ground, caused by the force of her initial jump.

    Before she could stand again, Katarina leaped to her side. She sat on the girl's stomach and pinned both her wrist in place. Katarina steeled her heart as she chanted the same spell that she used before.

    "Let me go! Let me go!" the girl pleaded, kicking her feet in the air while her hands stayed unmoving on the ground. She gritted her teeth, glared at Katarina, and pushed down her stomach and abdomen. After a breath, her shoulders and head lurched forward. It was so forceful that her bones creaked, followed by a disturbing scream.

    Katarina almost turned away, but she stubbornly refused to. It was a sign of her respect to remember the faces of young lives she took. She lived because they died – because children died. And she distinctly remembered all five of them, each of their faces etched in her memory. Now, they'd become six.

    A tear fell while she stared at the magic array on the girl's forehead. It was identical to the boy's brand before. Then she noticed something – something ominous – as the girl struggled left and right. Two short black horns erected on her head, veiled by her dark hair. But the more the girl moved, the more she noticed something worse. "Why would they do something so horrible to this demon child?" she muttered, audibly disturbed. Needless to say, now, she had already stopped chanting.

    Katarina lowered her back and embraced the child. She whispered a different chant on her right ear. A few more words and the girl began to calm down, gradually losing consciousness.

    "Did she passed away?" Duliri asked in a low voice.

    Katarina shook her head. She stood up, carrying the girl in her arms. "I don't know anymore," she said as she looked above. "The kingdom that I once served with utmost loyalty had been corrupted. They enslaved the young ones and made them spies and assassins. They betrayed the former King." She looked back to Duliri and let out a tired sigh. Then she smiled bitterly. "And now, this demon child... They severed her horn."

    Duliri hesitantly flew to her side, confirming her statement for himself. "She's indeed a demon. Did they forcefully evolved her into a vampire?"

    "Evolve?" Katarina scornfully laughed at his remark. "Hardly… They degenerated her into a killing machine."

    "Is this why–" Duliri stammered. "Just how many–"

    "Probably almost a hundred… She's monstrously strong compared to demons her age."

    "If I knew, I would have ordered the Arisen to kill her. And now that she's still breathing, we should kill her before she wakes up. It's too dangerous."

    She shook her head. "No, we're going to save her."

    "With all due respect, your ladyship, you can't possibly be thinking that! It'll endanger the Lord's life."

    "You don't understand." Katarina gave him a bitter smile. "Back in the Kingdom, I only sought to build a place where everyone could be treated equally. I loathed most noble houses that extorted and coerced the common people to achieve their goal." She briefly glanced at the girl, biting her lip. "But now, how am I any different from them? In desperation to protect Arthur, I had thrown away my humanity and killed innocent lives that I could have saved." Her eyes looked intently from Duliri as though looking for comfort. "Tell me, how am I different from them?"

    An air of silence brushed between them. Duliri didn't know what to do nor what to say. It was the first time he'd seen her vulnerable side. Katarina was a severe woman, he had always believed. But now, it was as though she was barely containing her sanity, her tears – and herself.

    Arthur emerged from the shadows and raced to Katarina and Duliri. "Granny is very different from them," he shouted his lungs out, catching both their attention. "Granny is kind, caring, thoughtful, smart, selfless, and Granny never take advantage of other people," he added, his tears streaming on his cheeks as he hugged her legs.

    Katarina started at Arthur who looked up to her. Her face couldn't be painted. Different sensations flared in her heart like the first time she tasted tea with milk and coffee. A brew of various emotions blended. But more than anything else, she was happy, her lips curved into a smile. And despite the bitter taste of guilt, his words made her feel extremely grateful.

    Katarina gently waved her hand and for the first time after their last regeneration, the Armors moved towards them. Katarina gave the girl to Servo, then she bent her knees and held Arthur's shoulder. She smiled and wiped his tears. She embraced him tightly, not saying a single word. Once he calmed down, she let go and kissed his forehead. "Are you okay now, honey?"

    Arthur nodded as he wiped the remaining tears. Then he looked at Duliri and winked discreetly. "What's this staff, granny? He can move like Pirro, Servo, and Garo, but he can talk?"

    "Let's just say he's a talking staff." Katarina laughed. "He's pretty useless."

    Duliri cleared his nonexistent throat but didn't join the conversation.

    "Eh?" His head tilted a little. "He seems cool though. Let's name him Duliri."

    "You aren't afraid of him?"

    Arthur shook his head. "He looks scary but I don't think he's a bad guy."

    "Alright honey, let's name him Duliri." Katarina turned to Duliri and gave him a menacing smile. "Do you like that?"

    "YES!" He exclaimed as he backed away a little.

    "How about that girl, granny?" Arthur changed the subject, pointing at the other kid.

    Katarina knit her brows. "What about her?"

    "Don't we need to heal her? I wanna see it!"

    "Sorry, honey, but we can't. Not right now."

    "Why?"

    A warm smile arched her lips as she brushed his hair. "Because she'll wake up once we heal her. And if she wakes up, she'll be very dangerous."

    "Is that because she's a vampire?"

    "Vampire? How did you know that? How long have–" she stopped, meeting Arthur's eyes as it finally sank in what time of day it was. Her gaze suddenly turned severe. "Arthur…" she said, her voice straight and sharp.

    Arthur froze like a statue. "Yes?"

    A few more sharp glares and her expression loosened. "Come here," she said softly, carrying Arthur on one arm; the other guiding his head to her shoulder. "Sleep now, honey." She swayed as she hummed a lullaby.

    Arthur involuntarily closed his eyes. He stubbornly fought the sleepiness but after a few minutes, his consciousness fell into slumber.

    Once Katarina confirmed that he's asleep, she turned to Duliri and whispered, "Duliri, command the Arisen to bring the girl in the secret chamber."

    "Understood," Duliri replied hesitantly. "But Lady Allegia, are you sure about this?"

    "Yes," Katarina nodded. "It's about time anyway. Arthur needs someone his age. Having a demon friend doesn't sound that bad."

    "Kus Gordoa!" [I understand!]

    "Heras!" Katarina smiled. "We'll start the disenchantment once I dropped Arthur in his room."

  • Chapter 9
    Partner


    Arthur woke up before noon. As soon as he got out, he immediately noticed that Garo stood in front of the room adjacent to his. He looked up and knocked on its upper leg.

    "Is the vampire girl inside?" he asked, but the Armor didn't react. So he advanced to the door and tiptoed to reach the knob. Before he could turn it, Garo picked him up and brought him to the kitchen, sitting him to the dining table.

    "Hi, sunshine," Katarina greeted like usual, as though nothing happened the night before. Dark bags hung under her eyes. Sweat rolled on her forehead due to accumulated fatigue and lack of rest.

    "Are you alright?" Arthur asked in a low voice.

    "Of course, couldn't be any better." She beamed, but her heavy breathing betrayed her every word.

    Giving her a doubtful glance, Arthur stood and held her hand. "You're not fine. Please, take some rest granny. I'll take care of myself."

    Her laugh echoed as she brushed his hair. "Aw… my Arthur is so sweet." She bent her knees and looked straight into his eyes. "But don't worry honey, I'm fine. Granny is strong, right?"

    "Alright," he said hesitantly, pouting, before going back to his seat.

    "Anything you want to eat?"

    "Can I have corn again? With honey and milk?" Arthur's eyes sparkled, his mouth watered just from the thought. "And meatballs too!"

    She smiled again. "Anything for you, honey."

    Arthur read the books that Pirro brought in the dining table as Katarina busied herself in the stove. Halfway through reading Hula Duliri's Legend, he peeked at her back. "Granny," he called. "Where's Duliri and the vampire girl?"

    Katarina turned, "Duliri's somewhere. The girl is in the room next to yours."

    "Can we eat with them?"

    "Maybe next time, the girl needs to rest."

    "Okay... But how about Duliri?"

    She let out a nervous laugh. "You don't need to meet him again, Arthur. I'm afraid he'll be a bad influence for you."

    "I don't think he's a bad guy though."

    "He's not. But he's kinda creepy, don't you think?" She knit her brows jokingly. "And he has a weird sense of humor."

    "He is," Arthur merrily replied. "But I still want talking-friends. Pirro, Servo, Garo, and Hans never talked to me. Even Alberta won't."

    "What I should do to you, honey?" Katarina sighed, shaking her head in defeat. "Okay… Granted. I'll get him after we ate and he can stay in your room if you want."

    Arthur blushed in delight, jumping from his seat. "Really?" He ran to Katarina and hugged her legs, looking up. "I promise I'll tell you if he's teaching me weird things I don't want to know."

    Katarina only laughed and patted his head before she continued cooking.

    ***

    After the meal, Arthur stayed in his room before Katarina entered with Duliri in her hand.

    "Hi, Art–" Duliri was about to greet him when Katarina clutched him tighter, sending a deadly glare. "Sorry… Sorry… I mean… Lord Arthur, I heed your call."

    Arthur stood from his bed. He smiled innocently, yet Duliri felt an ominous feeling from it. "Arthur is fine. It's uncomfortable calling me lord."

    "I apologized, but I have to address you with proper etiquette to show my re–" he stopped again as he felt his pole trembled and his body cracked from where Katarina held him. She was grinning but he sensed the same vibe of Arthur's smile from it. "Alright… alright… Arthur, it is," he added nervously as though he was about to cry. If only he could run, he would have the moment he saw the two of them.

    Duliri thanked the Almighty God, Superus Dupulu, once Katarina let him go. Then he glided to a corner and remained silent while trembling, not wanting to disturb the two and incur their wrath.

    "Arthur, honey," Katarina called, guiding Arthur to sit in his bed again. "I'll be out in the woods until dinner. Don't go outside or to the room next to yours, okay?"

    A few seconds of silence and Arthur asked, "Why?"

    "Granny has to gather something out there." She smiled warmly. "So you have to stay inside."

    "Alright…" He nodded before his head snapped to the staff that remained shuddering. "Will Duliri accompany me?"

    "Yes, he will." Katarina also looked at him, beaming. "Right Duliri?"

    "YES!" Duliri exclaimed in reflex, further backing away into the wall, which he was sure would break if he was strong enough.

    They exchanged a few more words, then Katarina finally set out into the forest. Once she's out of their sight, Arthur raced in front of Servo.

    "What do you think you're doing?" Duliri asked, following him inside.

    "Going in the secret chamber," he said before placing a hand on Servo's stomach. "Funtore!" he declared.

    "Are you crazy?" Duliri blurted out as Servo stepped aside and the door slid open. "What if Lady Allegia comes back?"

    Arthur glanced back. "She wouldn't. Granny may not be young anymore, but she never forgets anything."

    "Well, you know, just what if?"

    "She wouldn't," Arthur smiled. "Trust me."

    Duliri could only voice a sigh before he and Arthur descended through the stairs. "I'm telling you, I'd be dead if ever she finds out."

    "Don't worry." Arthur stooped on his tracks, grabbing Duliri in his right hand and began to walk again. "If granny finds out, you can put all the blame on me. This was because of my stubbornness, anyway."

    "You'll really do that?"

    "Sure, why not?" Arthur briefly looked up, smiling.

    "That's a little reassuring."

    "Still… I think Granny may break you a little while leaving you barely useable," Arthur said honestly, laughingly.

    Duliri would have stopped if Arthur wasn't holding him. "NO! NO! Let's go back, Arthur! Let's go back!" He screamed tirelessly while his master continued to laugh, even wiping some tears from his eyes.

    "We're here!" Arthur declared, just a moment after using him as a hook to touch the serpent's eyes in the door.

    "Are you going to study magic here today?" Duliri asked as Arthur dashed to the far corner of the room and pulled out the book they found yesterday.

    "No," he answered, pulling out other books. He read the titles and confirmed the two other volumes of the book in his hand. "I'll take them to my room."

    "What?" Duliri exclaimed. "Are you crazy?"

    "No," Arthur answered with tired eyes. "I'm pretty serious about it."

    "You can't be. Lady Allegia will find us out."

    "With these many books? No, that can't be. Oh, well, unless," he paused, giving Duliri a suspicious glance. "Unless you tell."

    "Of course, I won't tell! I would never sell you out!"

    Arthur shrugged. "Then, there's no problem…"

    "There is, Arthur! There is!" Duliri glided to him in frustration, now trembling. "You are too optimistic. And you're underestimating Lady Allegia too much. I'm telling you, she'll notice."

    "Please?" Arthur said, looking at Duliri with pleading eyes. "Trust me. I promise I'd take responsibility if she finds out."

    "Fine…" Duliri sucked a breath. "But promise me this too, you'll never practice or use magic without my supervision. Because while magic is wonderful, it's also extremely dangerous."

    "I promise…" Arthur beamed a smile. "Partner!"

    "Partner?"

    "Yes, buddy! From this day on, we are partners in crime."

    "Does that mean that you trust me?"

    "Of course! So trust me on this one."

    Duliri would have blushed and smiled widely if he had a face. To hide his embarrassment, he laid on the floor while saying, "Praise, Superus Dupulu. After all this time… After all this time…" He paused, rising diagonally. "Finally, someone saw how trustworthy I am." By the time he ended his monologue, he stood straight from the floor.

    They both snickered briefly before hurrying outside of the chamber.

  • Chapter 10
    Absolute Magic


    In the eyes of a child, nothing was more fascinating than knowing the unknown or understanding that which was thought to be a coax, a fake or a fantasy. It was especially true for Arthur who previously lived in a world where the ways of magic did not exist. He stared at the closed book laying on the floor. His fingers trembled as he traced the thick brown cover. Though stored so deep under the ground, there wasn't any dust on its surface. Then his hand stumbled over a very tiny mound. He picked up the book and observed it closely.

    "Hey, Duliri," Arthur called, cocking his head behind him. "Why is there a small gemstone in the cover?"

    "Oh! That?" Duliri inched closer. "Lady Allegia must have enchanted the books. You know, to keep away the dust and stuff."

    "We can use magic that way too?" Arthur's eyes sparkled. "Wicked…"

    "Are you really going to study magic?" Duliri laughed at his remark. "Or notice every little detail?"

    The lid of Arthur's eye lowered a little as he remained silent. His lips pressed outward and his head shook while giving Duliri a pitiful look.

    "Why are you looking at me like that?!"

    Arthur returned the book on the floor and extended his right arm towards Duliri. He brushed his fur. "You must be sad, buddy. You can't appreciate little things. Must be why you turned out creepy."

    A gasped would have come out, and a devastated face would have surfaced if only Duliri was human. Instead, he hovered motionlessly. His pole began to tremble. "Why you… I thought we're partners. And yet… and yet…" he mumbled as though he was about to cry while Arthur snickered. "You're so heartless and cruel!"

    "Am I?" he replied, still laughing. Then he redirected his attention to the book and turned around while Duliri continued his melodramatic jest.

    A flare of determination ignited his eyes. Though it used to be fueled by fascination, he had now realized the weight of magical knowledge. More than fascination, he didn't want to be a burden to Katarina. But as he was now, he couldn't do anything; he needed power – a power that now laid so close within his hands.

    With thumping heartbeats, Arthur read the title again. He was about to open the book when he looked back. "Duliri!" He glared. "Are you ever going to stop? You know you'd be useless if I don't know magic, right?"

    Duliri paused. He floated over the book and opened it, "My bad, Arthur. This proud staff shall aid you as much as it can."

    "Good." Arthur sardonically beamed, then he glanced back to the book. His hands began to shake again, his bladder felt like they were about to burst. C'mon, Arthur. Calm down! He rebuked himself.

    "His–History… of Ma–Magic…" he stuttered, his lips also trembled. He gently closed his eyes and released a massive breath. You can do it, Arthur! You can do it!

    A few more seconds and Duliri lost his patience and nudged him. "Arthur! Stop being so tense! Just read it!"

    Arthur sighed one last time and steeled himself. "Millions of years ago, a hundred thousand years after the Eleventh Glacial Period, as intelligent, sentient life began to emerge, the usage of magic developed…" He lifted his gaze and looked at Duliri, "Glacial Period? What is that?"

    "I don't know. Just skip the history part."

    "C'mon Duliri, where's the fun in that?"

    "Fun? You think history is fun?" Duliri chuckled. "You're the only child I know who'll like that part."

    "Of course, all the amazing people I know other than grandma are historical figures. Duh?"

    "Don't tell me, you believed those things in your picture books?"

    "Granny told me they're true." His glance sharpened. "She's not a liar."

    "Alright…" Duliri glided towards the window in defense. "I'm not particularly interested. But if you needed my help, just call for me." He went out and laid on the grass, bathing with the afternoon sunlight.

    Arthur rolled his eyes. "Yeah, ignorance is bliss," he mumbled and continued to read. "Many believed that before the use of stone tools, the first humans, demi-humans, demons, and magical beast already understand the use of elementary magic. As they concentrated into bigger communities, wizardly practices developed."

    Arthur moved over and laid flat on his stomach. "The development of magical knowledge led to the foundation of many countries. However, this power also led to the destruction of many." A dry laugh left Arthur's mouth. So even in this world, humans are still the same humans.

    A few hours and Arthur began to shout, "Duliri! Come here! Duliri!"

    Duliri hurried to his side, the gemstone atop him had changed to golden yellow. "Yes, Arthur?"

    Arthur sat and raised the book. "Look," he urged, his fingers tracing the letters. "The Legend of Siglein Ariston who many believed to be the first man to reach Absolute Magical Rank…" Lines wrinkled his forehead. He looked up and stared at the staff's gemstone. "This one! It said Absolute Magical Rank. I read a while ago that there are six ranks, but this one isn't mentioned…"

    "Arthur," Duliri said in a low, yet amused voice. "Absolute Magic is a hypothetical status where one could essentially utilize Superus Dupulu's power." Duliri backed off a little. "Well, it's a legend. No one knew if that is true."

    Arthur gave him a skeptical look. "But it said in here, 'A very few accounts were documented and archived in Dupulu Papal Library. Though it remained unproven until this day, all the accounts contained consistent testimonials about Illiseo, the strongest and oldest being in existence. They stated that the Star Dragon was Siglein's tamed dragon.' And when I skimmed through the book," Arthur paused, catching his breath while flipping the pages. "Here, this page, 'The Great Tragedy of Hansen… In 2363, during the prolonged invasion of the–"

    "My god, Arthur!" Duliri inched closer and shut the book. "The way you talk and read is astounding enough, but I ignored it, thinking you're just a genius. But to analyze history this way is beyond me." Duliri tilted, moving his upper end near Arthur's face as though looking him eye-to-eye. "Tell me, how are you a three-year-old?"

    Arthur tilted his head. His gaze turned innocent and puzzled. His lips pursed like a paperclip. "I don't know." He smiled. "Does that mean I'm amazing to understand?"

    "Yes!" Duliri grunted in disbelief. "But this is too strange!"

    Arthur's expression suddenly changed. "Strange?" He glared, his eyes sending daggers. "Are you telling me I'm strange? That's the most unfunny thing you ever said."

    "Because it's not a joke, Arthur."

    "Yeah, right, maybe you're weirdness is contagious."

    Duliri gasped. "I'm not weird… How could… How could you say that?" He shook, beginning his melodramatic act again.

    Arthur smirked discreetly. Duliri's so easy, he thought. Still, he had many questions in the book, yet the details were too compressed. But if he asked too many questions, he knew that his partner would get suspicious. But he didn't want to cry due to extreme curiosity either. He sighed, wondering when the day would come that curiosity would get the best of him.

    "Alright, Duliri, you can stop now," he declared, and Duliri immediately obliged. He opened the book and looked back-and-forth from the page to Duliri. "So aside from elementary, intermediate, advance, superior, sovereign and extreme magical ranks, absolute rank hypothetically exist, correct?"

    "Yes," Duliri replied mechanically. "And like sovereign and extreme levels, absolute rank aren't divided into five sub-ranks."

    Arthur nodded slowly, hesitantly. "Given that absolute magic only exist hypothetically, the highest rank I can aim for is Extreme Magic, correct?"

    "You're aiming to be a King Warlock?" A loud laugh echoed from Duliri. "You, Arthur, sure are ambitious."

    His left brow rose. "Is that impossible?"

    "No," Duliri replied, still snickering. "But it will be hard, extremely hard."

    "Obviously," Arthur rolled his eyes. "Anyways, what's granny's and my parents' rank?"

    Duliri became silent for a moment. "I believe your mother and Lady Allegia are superior magicians, both in platinum sub-rank… Your father…" he paused, thinking though he only appeared motionless above the ground. "As far as memory is concerned, I think he's advance, copper. I don't know–"

    A loud crashed echoed to the room next door, interrupting the conversation. The two exchanged confused looks. Several more stares and Arthur dashed out of the room.

  • Chapter 11
    Despair


    "Let me pass, Garo!" Arthur declared. His chin raised proudly, his jade orbs burned with grit.

    Garo didn't move, however. Instead, the gemstone inside his helm began to glow faintly. He was about to step aside out of the door when Duliri flew between him and Arthur.

    "Garo, this is Lady Allegia's will, you have to guard the door," Duliri uttered, his voice was loud and hard. The topaz atop him transformed to ruby. "Don't let the young master enter!"

    "Let me pass, Garo!" Arthur repeated, his stares piercing through Duliri. Perhaps, if there's one thing that Arthur realized in the past year was that though the Goth Armors have no sentience, he could bend their will into his own if he willed it so strongly. Several more stares and Garo stepped out.

    With a sigh, Duliri steeled himself and tackled Arthur with all his might before Arthur could advance to the door. "Stop being a spoiled brat!" Anger was evident on his voice though he almost softened seeing Arthur lying flat on his back. "The girl is most dangerous right now! Stay in your room!"

    He stood up, glaring at Duliri. "How could I? She's banging her head against the w–"

    A sudden silence enveloped the house as the banging noise stopped. Duliri backed away from the door. Arthur's senses sharpened. Low footsteps, barely audible, filled the quiet. The interval remained slow, making his heart pound against his chest. Even with the walls separating the girl, he could still feel a foreboding danger.

    Bang!

    Arthur stepped back, a loud thud knocking on the door. He felt the enormous killing intent from the other side as though a deadly miasma leaking over. Touch it and he'd die.

    Silence wrapped the house again and it was more terrifying than before. A few more erratic breaths and a loud horrendous shriek resonated, followed by constant headbanging.

    Duliri glided over to Arthur, leaning in the air diagonally. He readied to fight for him if the girl ever got out. He highly doubted it though, thinking that Katarina wouldn't leave them in a dangerous situation.

    "What's happening?" Arthur muttered, his voice barely above a whisper.

    "The girl is hungry," Duliri replied. "She wanted to feast on you."

    "What?" Arthur grimaced, his face couldn't be painted.

    "She's a demonic vampire, Arthur. She needs blood to survive. And if you open that door…" he paused, voicing out a sigh. "She'll kill you almost instantly and go on a rampage in the forest for more food."

    "Is she…" Arthur hesitated. "Is she really that dangerous?"

    "Yes, right now, she's more than we can handle. After the fight this morning, she dried up almost all her mana. She'll be acting like that – like a mad monster – until Lady Allegia comes back with food that can satisfy her thirst."

    Arthur despaired at his words, his gaze falling to the floor. "Isn't there anything we can do to help? She's hurting herself." The loud banging on the door almost silenced his already low voice. His mouth dried from the feeling of powerlessness.

    "There is only one thing, Arthur." Duliri nudged him, trying to lift his mood. "Please, stay in your room. Maybe you can continue reading to distract yourself until her ladyship returns."

    Please? Such a funny word. Arthur would laugh sardonically if not for the feeling of helplessness that halted his every word and action. All this time, Katarina had done everything to protect him – even taking the lives of the innocents.

    Arthur let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Then he smiled warmly at Duliri. "Thanks, buddy," he said as tears fell from his eyes.

    Amid the despair for being weak, Arthur found something important. Perhaps, he had been acting too spoiled to realize. He wasn't being protected because he was weak, but because he was loved. Arthur wiped the tears and beamed again, nodding at Duliri.

    Blood flowed ever so weakly in his mouth when he bit his lower lip. He sucked a mouthful breath and steeled himself as he tasted its salty metallic flavor. With semi-closed eyes, he turned away from where the sound came from and began to tread back to his room. Yes, Arthur, you are loved. So care for your life a little; if not for yourself, but at least for those who love you.

    Arthur was fumbling over such things when the door flew behind him. It released a massive air pressure, so strong that it felled Arthur on the ground, a few meters away from where he stood. He rolled over.

    Arthur gasped, his mouth agape. His eyes widened as they met the monster's orbs, dyed in crimson – dyed in her own blood. Arthur could only tremble at her stares. She wasn't the kind of monster who had multiple limbs or rotting skin but a nameless blasphemy of child. The blood trickled, from her forehead to her cheeks before falling to the floor. Even from a distance, he felt that he could hear the dripping sound.

    The girl took a step, her saliva falling from her open mouth. Her head twitched slowly, continually. Duliri hovered obliquely in front of the girl as though threatening her not to take another step. But the girl ignored him, her stare never left Arthur, not even for a second. He gulped, sliding his bottom against the floor. His elbow moved on its own to get him out of her sight.

    Arthur never blinked since the first time he saw the girl. Once he did, the girl jumped, only to be stopped by the Armors. A loud screech resonated from her lips as her whole body faintly glowed. Much to his surprise, she began to grow and he could hear her muscles twitching.

    "Shit!" Duliri hissed as he glided towards Arthur the fastest he could ever be. "Arthur, run!" Before Arthur could stand, Duliri dropped his whole body and slid beneath him. He soared once more as Arthur grabbed the pole in reflex. The girl who had grown into a sixteen-year-old caught the tip, however.

    Duliri shook his body. "Arthur, hold on tight," he cried out, evidently disturbed. Arthur tightened his grip and within the next second, Garo raised his left hand and clutched Duliri's lower end with all his might. It broke, followed by a moment of silence. Duliri didn't waste a moment. He flew higher and dashed towards the window. Yet for people who's life was endangered, time seemed to pass more slowly.

    "What's happening?" Arthur asked, his breaths becoming erratic. The girl, or now the lass, had turned the armors into small chunks. Her shoulder-length hair now stood firmly atop her head, looking like sharp spikes.

    "The girl used her life force to regain some mana!" Duliri clicked his nonexistent tongue. "To think that the kingdom would teach such forbidden art. What a deplorable king!"

    "You mean she aged because she turned her time into mana?"

    "Exactly!" Duliri said in a pained voice. "But shush for now, Arthur, she's gaining on us."

    Finally, Duliri got out of the window and flew higher than the highest trees. He wanted to search for Katarina but inside the forest isn't any safer. Shit, what to do now?

  • Chapter 12
    Dilunelle

     

    The girl roared, her voice resonating through the forest. The birds that once rested on nearby trees frantically flapped their wings and flew into the sky. Some wild beast in woods howled one after another like a frenzy of an orchestra. Each sound sent a shiver down on Arthur's spine. He watched the girl who jumped towards his direction desperately, barely reaching a quarter of their height. A few more jumps and the three armors came out of the door.

    "Slow her down!" Duliri ordered with a shaky voice. "But do not kill her!"

    Servo and Garo immediately lunged, their feet sinking on the ground where they landed. They seized both her arms, while Pirro tried his best to pin her down. Unlike the night before, they made an effort to stop her. The girl resisted, glaring at them with enormous bloodlust. An ample amount of mana pulsated on her arms, then she released massive blows with her fists. The three armors dodged, jumping back. Her eyes widened from their sudden change in technique.

    On instinct, knowing that the armors weren't just letting themselves get destroyed, she ran to the woods at an alarming speed. The armors chased but their slow movements couldn't keep up.

    Her steps trampled the grass and soon, now out of Arthur's and Duliri's sight, her chilling shrieks echoed through the forest. She went around the clearing for a minute. The trees shrouded her movement as dried leaves rattled against her sole.

    Arthur kept following the sound until it completely disappeared. A dry gulp ran on his throat. His eyes shifted to every corner, his head snapping to any change of pattern. His stomach rumbled, but he remained unblinking. Just where are you?

    His head cocked almost a hundred and eighty degrees, his waist turned to make up for the difference. Even Duliri was forced to move so he wouldn't lose his balance.

    The girl had climbed on one of the trees. Her forceful grip sent its bark into the air, accompanied by sinister giggles. Once standing, her feet faintly glowed before she repeatedly leaped from one branch to another.

    "Can you flew us higher Duliri?" Arthur exclaimed, his throat couldn't be any drier. "At this rate, she will bolt herself on us!"

    "I can't! My powers are highly dependent on yours. We're lucky enough that I bathed in the sunlight earlier. If not, I won't even have enough mana to keep us up here," Duliri replied, gliding on instinct once the girl jumped on them.

    Arthur shouted his lungs out though he had been anticipating it. His gaze met a pair of crimson orbs when he barely escaped her body projectile. Sweats oozed from his palms, dampening Duliri's fur from where he held him. He bit his lip in fear. Even if she escaped her jumps, if ever he fell out of his staff, it would certainly result in his untimely death.

    "Duliri," Arthur called out as he watched the girl who landed successfully on the ground. Even with such a predicament, Arthur had tried his best to keep his cool and act accordingly. Now is the time, he told himself. "Can't we just escaped in the for–"

    "NO!" Duliri interrupted. "That place is more dangerous than her. Besides, look at the moons, there will be two full moons today, monsters and beasts will be more– Wait!" Duliri paused, a realization struck him.

    Twilight was promptly concluding. The sun crept over the western horizon, painting the sky in yellow, orange and red. Two large full moons also shone far in the sky. Their golden glow brightened the sunset with more light than usual.

    "Shit! Shit! Shit!" Duliri cussed repeatedly, barely keeping his composure. He watched the armors that had now engaged on the girl again as she tried to run past them. With a heavy heart, he shouted, "Garo, Servo, Pirro! This is your final order! Even if it's against the young master's will, you must protect him! You are permitted to kill the girl! The lord's safety is our utmost priority right now!"

    "DULIRI! WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?" Arthur protested while the armors' whole body began to glow.

    Mana flowed from the gemstone to their shoulders, arms, hands, legs, and feet. Garo and Servo leaped, now leaving a crater on the ground from where they once stood. And their speed, it was incomparable from before.

    "I'm sorry, my lord." Duliri hovered atop the roof of the house and dropped Arthur. "I couldn't afford you to die. It was my and Lady Allegia's mistake not to realize that it will be a Dilunelle tonight."

    "Just what are you saying?" Arthur said in a low voice, his words hardly cohesive and recognizable. His eyes stared at the girl who dodged the punches from the armors, their fists left an even bigger crater when they hit the ground instead.

    "Demons are naturally attracted to the moons. While the sun radiates mana to all species, they're the only one who can seep mana from lunar light."

    "Still!"

    A loud metallic rattle echoed, pulling their whole attention. The girl's fist rammed against Servo's head. Much to Arthur's and her surprise, this time, the blow didn't make any dent. It only halted upon impact. She jumped back in reflex, seeing from the corner of her eyes that the other two were quickly approaching. They were clearly trying to corner her.

    "Duliri," Arthur pleaded. "Make them–"

    "NO!" Duliri didn't let him finish. He couldn't afford to, not right now. "I'm afraid that as the night gets deeper, she'll gain more powers from the moon. It will be easier to defeat her now!"

    Arthur closed his eyes, slowly shaking his head. His hands found their way to his hair before he realized. He cuffed a fistful and immediately let go. He couldn't get angry at Duliri. He knew just how much the staff was trying to protect him.

    A few more heavy breaths and he opened his vision again. The figure of the girl began to disappear in the dark forest. The three armors that were once held with limitation easily kept up with her maximum speed now. After a loud bang, Arthur heard a tree falling from a distance.

    "I'm sorry, Arthur," Duliri said beside him. "Even if you loathe me after this, I will never take back my orders."

    A bitter smile curved Arthur's mouth. He sat on the roof and embraced his knees. His chin hoisted a little, staring at the sky. "Do you think she ever regretted being born?"

    Duliri didn't answer for a moment. He couldn't quite understand how a child could ask such a question, but after a few more trees fell, he decided to answer. Perhaps, it could distract the boy for a little bit. "Maybe," he said earnestly. "In this cruel world, she is forced to take on one of the most carnal forms of the demon species. She probably killed around a hundred at age six too..."

    Arthur remained silent, his eyes briefly glancing at Duliri before looking at the two moons again.

    "But maybe not…" Duliri inched closer to Arthur, hoping that the noise from the forest fell on deft ears. "Outside of her demonic instincts, I can see her will to survive– no, her eyes flared a will that she wanted to find a reason to live. Besides, she's even willing to reduce her lifespan to survive."

    With a sigh, Arthur stood up after hearing his answer. He looked at him and gave him a warm smile. "Then, let's save her!" he declared.

    "Pardon?"

    "This isn't an order, but a request from a friend. Let's save the girl."

    A laugh echoed from Duliri. "I always knew you'd say that."

    "So you're doing it?"

    "No, we're doing it together."

  • Chapter 13

    Awakening

     

    Arthur looked up one last time, a heavy breath leaving his mouth ajar. The clear skies vastly extended on both horizons. Thousands of stars glimmered, along with the moons that showered the land with golden light. It seemed as though he could feel their warmth despite the calm, yet chilling air that blew.

    The forest bathed in the rich lunar glow. His jaded orbs reflected its golden greenish hue. It was a rare view; the first time he saw the moons shining in both their glories. Such a waste that he had no time to enjoy the scenery.

    Arthur rode Duliri. With a nod, the staff flew over the direction of the noise. A distinct metallic smash echoed, then a wooden creak, and ultimately, a massive thud on the ground followed. Duliri accelerated, though making sure that it wasn't too fast that Arthur might fall on the ground.

    A few more breaths and they reached the vicinity, seeing several trees that had been felled to the forest floor. The armors had been ganging up on the brown girl for a little while, but their fight had now turned into a stalemate. Garo engaged once more and leaped to her side as the leaves below his feet rattled. With an empowered fist, he sent a massive blow to her left cheeks. The girl dodged on instinct, then she backed a few meters away to avoid another blow from Servo.

    Once Arthur set his feet on the ground, the girl immediately noticed his presence. Her crimson eyes flared in the darkness, glowing under the shadow of massive trees nearby. The looked she sent in his direction numbed Arthur to his feet for a moment as though she's looking at someone who would become her saving grace. Perhaps if there was one thing that moved Arthur's heart to save the girl, it was the fiery resolve he saw from her eyes. Her dead red irises radiated something peculiar – so foreign yet so familiar.

    The girl shrieked, so disturbing that the nocturnal beasts howled from a distance while running away in terror. She took a swift step towards Arthur but Pirro grabbed her shoulder before she could even take a second one. The armor raised his other arm, a faint light emanating from his fist.

    "Don't kill her, Pirro!" Arthur shouted, his voice filled with conviction. The armor complied, immediately stopping his fist an inch before it hit her jaw.

    The corner of Arthur's eyes caught the girl's face that softened for half a second. A chill ran down his spine. That expression, just where did I see that before? Brushing off the question, he shifted his gaze to the other two armors. "You too, Garo, Servo, hold her down! You can use magic but do not kill her!"

    Garo and Servo weakened the flow of their mana before launching an attack, both their left arms aimed at her legs while Pirro kept her pinned in place. However, given that their power was limited once more, even with some magical supports, the girl broke free from Pirro's grasp with ease. She leaped to the right. The other two's fist unintentionally landed on their deserted friend. Metals clashed, releasing a deafening sound in its wake.

    Pirro's lower body turned to pieces, but the two didn't mind. They turned to their left and faced the girl who had her back against the biggest tree in the vicinity. Garo ran forward and rammed his body in her direction. She jumped, her body soaring high. Much to her surprise, Servo had also flown and pulled her. His arms and legs wrapped around her whole body. The armor fell first, softening the impact. Its sound was silenced by the tree that tumbled behind them.

    While Servo had crumpled slightly, he managed to retain his form to trap the girl. What everyone didn't expect was the moonlight that escaped through the roof of the forest. All the previous trees that fell were nothing but minor ones. Now, as a large trunk at least two meters in diameter rested on the ground, lunar light touched the girl's skin, filling her with more mana. Her raven hair turned to golden yellow, her eyes changed to topaz orbs.

    "Arthur!" Duliri exclaimed as he hovered to the ground. "Ride me again! This is bad news."

    "No," Arthur replied calmly as the girl broke free from Servo's grasped and shifted her glance at him.

    "I'm telling you this is bad news. Let's botch the plan!"

    "Sorry, Duliri," Arthur sighed. "This is an order. Stay where you are until I'm done." Then he began walking slowly towards the girl who glared at him, her look seemed like piercing daggers.

    "Don't be crazy, Arthur!" Duliri did his best to move but he only trembled, his pole remained unmoving with every attempt. "Come back in here!"

    He gently glanced back and gave him a reassuring smile. "Trust me, she will not kill me."

    "How would you know that? Just get back in here!"

    "I just know." Arthur took a mouthful breath and returned her attention to the girl who stood up. Her hands clenched into fists. "The moon already sated her thirst. She has been sane for a while now. She had no reason to kill me anymore."

    "You don't know that, Arthur. That. Demon. Girl. Is. Dangerous."

    "Trust me. Children are fragile," he said solemnly, his eyes fixed at the girl who began to run towards him at an incredible speed. "But we're stronger and more earnest than you think."

    "Arthur! Listen to me! Arthur! Please! Come back!" Duliri shouted but all his words fell on deft ears.

    "You can stop now…" Arthur said, looking straight in her eyes. His face was devoid of any emotion. He was neither smiling nor wearing a grimace. He stood with a blank expression, wondering if he had the same expression when he first met his grandfather, Renato. Did my eyes look like her before, Lolo?

    Then finally, his lips curved into a half-smile. "We wouldn't hurt you."

    But the girl only screamed as she raced towards Arthur. Her body crushed against his, so strong that he lost his balance. Though very light, Arthur felt powerless underneath her frame that was more than twice his size. Still, he never looked away.

    The girl glared and the answer became more vivid for Arthur. Yes, this was the same eyes he had before. The eyes that looked at the world with distrust and hate.

    She raised her right arm and threatened to punch his head. If it connected, he knew it'd be crushed like a balloon and his brain might even splatter around the place. Still, he didn't shift his gaze.

    An inch before the collision, his eyes shut tightly in reflex. Even though he was so sure she wouldn't do it, his body reacted on its own. A warm sensation developed in his chest, streaming all over his body. When he opened the lids again, his cornea almost leaped out of its socket. His heart raced, seeing that his whole body glowed faintly. He felt power growing from within.

    But his shock quickly dissipated when droplets of tears fell on his cheeks. The girl atop him cried, her fingers clutching the soil above his shoulders. She pushed herself upwards as tears formed a waterfall on her cheeks. She skidded away and embraced her knees, her cries becoming louder.

    Arthur sucked a mouthful air before standing up. "Don't worry, I'm weak and my granny is kind. We wouldn't hurt you. Duliri might be a creep but he wouldn't hurt you as well." He smiled warmly at her and tousled her hair. "Don't worry, you can trust us."

    It might have been insensitive words, but Arthur truly meant what he said. For someone who had been robbed of his childhood, there's nothing more reassuring than knowing that there's someone he could depend on.

    The girl didn't say a word. Instead, she gave him a doubtful glance.

    "By the way, what's your name?"

    "Vlanca," she replied in between sobs, her answer barely recognizable.

    "I'm Arthur." He beamed. "Nice to meet you."

    Vlanca continued to cry for a while, then she bawled and then cried some more. She cried her heart out, releasing the pain she probably had been holding on for a long time.

    Meanwhile, Katarina never arrived at the fiesta.

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