Shog had been dispirited and listless for quite some time. He hadn’t sought a healer, because he was the only healer in Duc. Shog was qualified to learn curing magic, and magic practice was included in his daily duty as the priest. However, not all priests were excellent mages. It all depended on talent and one’s personal efforts.
Shog had spent several years to awaken his power. He finally passed the test in a ceremony held by Golier, the great mage of the shrine of Syah. He was still a second-level mage, mastering a few types of primary magic, including the theurgies. The magic he practised most proficiently was curing magic.
The curing magic was the most important magic in the repertoire of any local priest. It was not only a guarantee of respect from the locals but also a symbol of the gods’ miracle-working.
It had been nearly a month since he spat blood and passed out in public. Lord Macrobe had been using the curing magic on himself generously. His body was repaired to good condition after several days, but he was still low in spirits like he had a load on his mind. He had to end the anxiety to get relief. So today after breakfast, he called for his servant Maqi.
Shog was the only executive priest and clerk of the shrine, but there were other people who worked in the shrine, who actually did most of the work for him. The only daily work Lord Macrobe did was registering. Maqi was his most competent assistant of his, and he helped Shog deal with the daily work and manage other servants. Most importantly, Maqi was a third-level practitioner of body arts.
Lord Macrobe looked kind today. He smiled and greeted Maqi, “Please, come and sit.”
Maqi felt flattered, “Wouldn’t that be impolite, my lord?”
Shog acted displeased, “What are you talking about, my dear Maqi? You are my best and most trusted assistant. What’s wrong with you sitting with me? Please sit down! Or I’ll be angry!”
So Maqi bowed and sat down. Shog pushed a plate of dessert forward. It held pieces of wild fruit picked by the servant in the forest to the east of the town. Maqi took one and ate it carefully. The fruit was sweet and tasty. Shog smiled, “You are a third-level body arts practitioner, right? That’s only one step from the advanced level.”
Maqi replied instantly, “I was just a humble miner of the town. It was you, my lord, who brought me the knowledge of the similarities between body arts and the miners’ techniques, and has read the body arts training manuals to me, or I would never have achieved this level. Please rest assured, my lord, I’ve kept from telling anyone. ”
Shog laughed, “I am always assured of that. You are my most trusted friend. If you can become an advanced warrior, I can speak for you in front of the high lords in the state. If it goes well, I can get you a noble title. Then you can become a warrior of the shrine and have your own assistant too.”
Maqi straightened, stepped back and bowed, “Thank you, Lord Macrobe. I don’t know how to repay your kindness.”
“Sit down, sit down… I’ve asked you to check up on Amon. What have you got?”
Maqi sat down again and reported, “By your orders, I’ve been following Amon for the last ten days. He went to Crazy’Ole’s from time to time, but he often goes to the Charcoal Forest at night through a hidden trail.”
Shog frowned, “He really is adventurous. Entering the Charcoal Forest alone at night? What was he doing?”
“I don’t know,” Maqi felt his answer was lacking, so he added, “Maybe he was looking for ores there. Last time he found a pile of ores there, so he goes there to try his luck?”
Looking for the ores at night? Shog was not convinced. “What about the other thing I asked you to check?”
“I went to his home three times while he was out. That drunkard knew nothing about my coming. There wasn’t much in his house. I didn’t even need to turn them over. I found several dozens of silver coins and two gold parans. I did not move anything as you’ve told me. Amon must carry those parangons with him all the time. I remember, they are wrapped by a sheepskin.”
Shog stroked his chin and leaned in closer to Maqi, “Tonight, I want you to do one thing for me…”
After a brief moment of whispering, Maqi’s face turned pale and rigid. Shog stood up and walked around his back, patted his shoulder and said, “If you do this, those twenty parangons will be yours. Just bring the blue one to the shrine and put it on the altar. I won’t be there, and you have given me nothing, all of this is for our goddess. All you have to do is make sure nobody finds out what you’re doing. Am I understood?”
Before Maqi could reply, Shog squeezed his shoulder and continued, “If you can become an advanced warrior, I will get you an official position in the shrine. You won’t need to pay tax anymore, instead, you will get paid. If you endow those twenty parangons to the lords of the state, you may well become Duc’s third nobleman. You choose your life. But don’t forget, I see you as my most trustworthy assistant. ”
Maqi’s face twitched and his eyes turned cool. He nodded, “Yes, my lord. I’ll do what you say.”
Shog went to the corner of the room and poured two goblets of wine. He sat down, passed one to Maqi and shook his head seriously, “No. Remember, I said nothing. You followed him to where he found the ores. Nothing to do with me.”
Charcoal Forest, midnight. Amon sat by the spring and practised summoning the water element again. Although, he wasn’t practising in the manner taught by Crazy’Ole. Regardless of all that he had gone through recently, Amon was still a child, so he turned practice into a game. Controlling the water in the air around him, he turned them into tiny crystals and then moulded them into shapes floating over the water. Sometimes tiny drops, sometimes tiny crystals, he formed and dissipated them as he wished. It was so funny!
Amon was having fun when he suddenly felt the hairs on his back stand His shoulders tightened like he was being stared at by a beast. He stopped, took the Aquaticore out with his left hand and grasped the stick that he carried with him. It would be stupid to stay all night in the Charcoal Forest empty-handed. He brought with him a special stick, the most valuable thing in his family apart from the parangons.
Amon’s father became a hopeless drunkard after the death of Amon’s mother. Nevertheless, he used to be the best blacksmith in Duc. The stick was a souvenir Amon’s father had kept throughout his years. It appeared to be a slightly crooked branch. Covered by yellow rust and black ashes, it was nearly impossible to tell that it was made of the best-refined iron.
It was forbidden for the miners in Duc to make weapons out of the iron they refined, and so the miners were never taught to do so. They could only produce iron ingots. However, the best iron ore-sand was panned and washed from the excrement of the Ironbacks, a species of beasts that dwelled in the marshes of the mountains.
In order to test his skills in his youth, Amon’s father had once collected the finest iron ore sand to smelt and forge such a stick. He had never bought wine with this stick but left it in the workshop as a coal poker. Amon took it every time he went to the Charcoal Forest, not only as a crutch but also as a weapon.
The Charcoal Forest was gloomy, but it was not as dangerous as people thought as long as you know your way about. Indeed, it was mostly a quiet place. You might sometimes meet wild rabbits and wild dogs, but they would flee at the sign of human activity, though, starving wild dogs might attack a lone man or a fat sheep. It was always good to be careful.
Amon held the stick and carefully looked around. Moonlight reflected off the serene and quiet landscape, as Amon’s first careful look turned up nothing. Black strangely-shaped rocks and tall shrubs were everywhere, limiting his sight. It was the best place for an ambush. Amon felt worried for no reason, so he closed his eyes and gripped the Aquaticore tightly.
The Aquaticore was glowing, but the glow did not spread since Amon clenched it closely. Out of nowhere, a light fog rose from the spring and diffused into the jungle. With the help of the Aquaticore, Amon maximized his ability on water mastery, and he noticed a threat!
The water in the range of his magic was summoned and under his control. Using that, Amon could feel the shape of the rocks and shrubs in the fog. About 30 paces behind his back, there was a man! This man was hiding behind a huge rock, reaching out half of his head to peek at Amon through the shrubs. He was holding something in his hand. Something Amon was very familiar with: the big miner’s hammer that almost every family in Duc had!
Elemental magic was not used for detecting in general, because its range was much smaller than that of detection magic, and it could only be cast slowly. A smart mage could feel it before being detected. Detection magic was a kind of advanced magic. The most common detection magic was Detection Eyes, which could perceive information at long range.
Amon had no idea what detection magic was. He had never even heard of Detection Eyes. But his usage of the simplest of magic had yielded a similar effect. Maqi, who had followed him and hid in the dark waiting for the right moment, had no idea that he was now exposed.
Amon did not take any action, instead, he just sat quietly. As the night grew deeper, the chill grew stronger, and Maqi couldn’t wait any longer. Certain that Amon had fallen asleep, he tiptoed carefully towards Amon with his hammer at the ready.
First-level warriors knew how to surge with explosive strength. Second-level warriors learned how to move nimbly. Third-level warriors learned how to coordinate their strength and speed with stamina. The third-level warriors in Rod Drick’s escort could throw javelins that could penetrate through several bulls. Maqi had not received this kind of training, but he still walked noiselessly like a cat, even with a miner’s hammer in hand.
Maqi slunk through the shrubs and entered the small open ground beside the spring. When he reached twenty paces away from Amon, a ferocious light gleamed in his eyes. He accelerated and rushed towards Amon, raising his hammer above his head. Twenty paces were nothing for a third-level warrior. There was no time for Amon to react — actually, Amon did not react at all.
But something unexpected happened to Maqi right after he planted his left foot on the ground. He slipped and lost his balance. Though he tried his best to regain balance, he slipped again. The inertia dragged at him, and he landed flat on his back with a thud. His hammer flew from his hands, splashing into the spring. When he tried to turn over, something heavy pinned his shoulder down, almost knocking him out with pain.
Maqi struggled to turn his head up. He saw Amon standing right in front of him, pointing a branch at his face, one leg firmly bearing down on his shoulder. The boy was incredibly strong that he failed to turn over even when he exerted all his strength. The icy chill on the ground caused him to shiver. A tone of surprise colouring his voice, Amon asked, “It’s you, Maqi? Why are you following me here?”
Today really wasn’t Maqi’s lucky day. Generally, a first-level mage was no match for a third-level warrior if the latter was prepared and on guard. But Maqi had never thought that Amon could use magic. Thus, the simplest first-level water magic had produced an amazing effect.
Amon used the Aquaticore to stealthily pave a layer of ice on the path once he had noticed Maqi hiding behind him and covered its reflection with fog. Once Maqi raced for the kill, he slipped on the ice. This is magic, a different power from muscles.
Maqi’s embarrassment grew to anger. He reached for Amon’s ankle and cried, “Get off me, Amon! Where do you think you are, your home? It’s the forest. I can come here too! How can you be so rude, boy?”
“Of course you can come here, but why are you following me?” Amon did not remove his leg, smacking Maqi’s hand with his stick. Maqi felt like his hand had just fractured into shards. He gritted his teeth to get through the pain and realized that the stick in Amon’s hand was made of iron. No, it seemed even heavier and harder than raw iron.
Maqi lost his nerve. He suddenly realized that Amon could end his life in a heartbeat in this desolate place, and no one would ever know. It was his plan to kill Amon in a remote corner and now his plan had switched him from the predator to prey. He explained hurriedly, “Oh Amon, I was just tracking you to see if you were looking for more ores. I wanted to try my luck too.”
“And you think I am looking for ores at midnight?” Amon’s eyes narrowed.
“You are, aren’t you? Otherwise, you wouldn’t come here every night!”
Amon would surely not tell Maqi that he was practising magic illegally. He suddenly realized one more thing: He had used magic to make him slip. He must have noticed something! Amon raised his stick but did not strike it down. He asked coldly, “Every night? You’ve been following me for days? Why were you rushing at me with a raised hammer?”