It had been three days since Amon set off on his journey through the forest and mountains. Every night, he practised air magic according to Crazy’Ole’s instructions. With the experience gained from learning water magic and the staff, Amon quickly learned primary air magic. After he had understood the methods and had succeeded in casting it, he no longer used the staff and tried to practice alone.
Schrodinger never walked by itself. When Amon travelled, it slept in his bag. When Amon had dinner at sunset, it ate with Amon, but Amon had to prepare food separately for it. Amon learned the cat’s habits quickly as well. He made food for it first and filled himself with other food later. Schrodinger seemed to be happy with the arrangement.
The air turned humid when they went deeper into the mountains. Although the change happened very slowly, as a newly minted water and air magic practitioner, Amon could still sense it.
To the north and east of Duc stood the Syah Plateau and the high mountains. The warm oceanic air from the west met no obstacles until it passed Duc and rose over the lofty mountains. As the air rose, it cooled and condensed into plentiful precipitation, breeding the thick flora as well as birthing the Euphrate River.
The mountainous landform wasn’t suitable for living, and neither was the Charcoal Forest and the desert. Duc occupied the transition area, at the edge of the mountains and deserts. The streams from northeast highlands only assured a supply of water, not fertile soil.
Amon climbed his way to the east and entered the rainy area. He had not seen much rain in Duc in the past, but in the jungle, he experienced several rainstorms. Sometimes the droplets dampened his clothes like fog, and other times the rain was so heavy that he could hardly find his way and the trail became extremely slippery.
Travelling in the mountains on rainy days was dangerous. Mud covered the trails, and the traveller could easily slide into deep cliffs. Common practice dictated that Amon should take cover and wait out the rain before moving forward, but he found that it never stopped for long. So he decided to travel despite the intermittent rain and moisture. On the other hand, Schrodinger sneezed whenever it rained. Amon assumed that it wasn’t catching a cold but was simply expressing a bad mood.
Amon did not want to put his life at risk. He found his own way to avoid danger. When he noticed a light drizzle coming, he would use the staff to spin away the raindrops. If the rain was heavy, he split the rain curtain by deflecting the rain around him. As such, he managed to keep himself mostly dry and clean. As an added bonus, it also allowed him to see the ground ahead. Other mages might faint if they saw Amon use magic as a raincoat while travelling.
Real mages should never even travel in the rain! Even if they had to, they travelled in comfortable carriages. When carriages were not available, there were still waterproof cloak and boots, and strong slaves holding big umbrellas. Magic power, like muscle strength, was exhaustible. Mages needed to take rest and meditate to regain magic power. Besides, mental exhaustion was much more unpleasant than physical. Esteemed mages wouldn’t torture themselves like this unless it was absolutely necessary.
Of course, there was also the matter of Amon’s staff. If those noble mages found out what kind of staff it was, they would immediately pass out from vomiting too much blood. Amon could not have travelled through the mountains and used magic power so easily without its help. At first, he did regard it as a crutch in practice, but quickly saw it as a practical need because of the bad weather, since Crazy’Ole had told him not to practice with the special parangons.
However, the water and wind came to him every now and then. It was the power of nature that obeyed nobody’s will. Walking along the path, Amon happened to recall Crazy’Ole’s last words, “When you practice the two kinds of magic, the first thing you should care about is not how powerful your magic can be, but how to use them to fight against the power of nature and protect yourself. Don’t say that you can control a drop of water until you learn to maintain it in a surging river.”
Amon felt that he found a new way to practice magic: not summoning the rain or wind, but learning to cope with the natural power of rain and wind. He tried to cooperate with them, using his magic to get through them without getting wet. He could only practice this way because of the powerful staff.
So Amon travelled three days and three nights in the rainy mountains holding a fine iron staff while carrying a lazy cat, casting magic to protect himself from the intermittent storms. It was a great challenge for his strength, stamina and magic power, a training that was more intense than that of any army on this continent.
Although he tried his best to keep himself dry and clean, he often had to climb the muddy slippy hills or chop his way through thick fauna, which demanded excellent explosive strength, endurance, dexterity and coordination. Thus, Amon forged his body through a very different kind of body art practice, one that was different than combat training, although he did have encountered some beasts. Even then, Amon found that it was not him who should be worried. A quick wave of the staff sending out some minor magic, and the beasts would all flee in fear.
Amon did not chase them, nor did he do any hunting. He remembered Crazy’Ole’s words and kept moving eastwards. Three days later, he came to a hilltop. Gazing at the landscape around him, he felt perplexed. According to Crazy’Ole, he should climb up the highest mountain he could find, but there were two towering mountains. One was on his left, the other on his right. He saw them yesterday, and he reckoned that even if he travelled eastwards for two more days, the highest mountains he could find would still be these two.
The problem was that Amon couldn’t tell which of the two was higher. He was at their base and all he could see were clouds hiding the peaks. The one on the left was steeper, full of grotesque rocks and cliffs. It was very hard to climb. The one on the right was grand and less steep, with various slopes and ridges.
Which mountain should he climb? Amon was still hesitating while Schrodinger suddenly jumped out of his bag and ran to the right. This fatty wanted to go by itself! Amon hurried to chase it, almost slipping over the muddy, mossy slopes. He cried out, “Schrodinger! Where are you going?”
The cat didn’t run very far. It stopped in a valley, pointed its paw upwards and meowed. Amon looked at where it was pointing and found a small winding path hidden in the thick bushes, carving a trail up the mountain. Schrodinger wanted to show him the way. But what truly surprised Amon was that there actually was a path on this remote mountain.
Amon found footprints too. There were traces of footprints left in the remnants of the last rainfall. Moreover, these footprints were those of bare feet, meaning they might belong to the cavemen Amon had been trying to avoid in the last few days. Now Schrodinger wanted him to meet them.
Amon couldn’t negotiate with the cat. He studied the footprints and found two of them with shoes! One of them was made by well-knit straw sandals, and the other by a pair of leather hiking boots.
Those kind of boots were waterproof and slip resistant, specially designed for mountain travelling. But only rich people could afford them. From the badly abraded pattern left in the footprints, Amon could tell that the boots were worn. The footprints had been left less than a day ago. How would anybody besides the cavemen arrive here, in the most remote part of the mountains and forests?
“Are we really going this way, Schrodinger? There seem to be cavemen living up there, and we just found some strange footprints. We don’t know what troubles would befall us if we meet them,” Amon had finally decided to negotiate with the cat.
Schrodinger threw a glance at Amon as if he was a useless coward, then sat on the ground and watched the path. Amon realized that it was asking him to climb. Putting Schrodinger back into the bag, he started walking forward with his stick.
When he picked up Schrodinger, he had a feeling that the lazy fatty had become thinner after three days of sleeping and eating. Its fur had become cleaner too. If he recalled correctly, he could vaguely see a little of the robustness and agility that a cat should have when it had jumped out from his bag.
Meanwhile, a noble lord arrived at Duc. Seldom would Duc have to welcome the high lords from big cities, but the recent months had borne witness to an unusual bustle in this remote mining town. Less than three months after the governor of Cape had left came the governor of Syah, Fermien Schmul.
The courier route in the Charcoal Forest could only allow two horses to walk abreast. Thus all the passengers had to dodge to the shrubs to give way to Schmul’s double-shaft carriage. It was a symbol of authority to drive a double-shaft carriage on the courier route; common people were not allowed to do this however rich they were.
However, Schmul’s carriage, with Morton, Schmul’s lieutenant, and Shog, the priest of Duc, was just clearing the way. In the carriage behind them was Misel Deere, commissioner from the capital. Being an official in the Justice Department of Hittite and a fifth-level mage, he was not a great personage in the capital, but in Syah, he was a high lord that local administration had to take good care of.
The last carriage was even bigger and cosier than the first two. It was made from top-quality snow fir, without too much decoration. Emblazoned on the black roof was the emblem of the Enlil Shrine. In the carriage was Golier, accompanied by priest Cosman, cavalrymen positioned in front and behind. The Charcoal Forest hadn’t seen such a splendid caravan in years.
Misel Deere was light-headed with self-satisfaction. Being the royal commissioner was more than he could have expected. He even had Golier, a supreme mage, as his guard for merely punishing a miner in Duc. Who could have a supreme mage follower as he had? And the governor of Syah had to follow Golier. It gave him the feeling that the whole universe revolved around him.
Even the view of the grotesque, desolate Charcoal Forest from the window of the carriage had no impact on Misel Deere’s good mood.
Sitting in the first carriage, priest Shog was happy too. Having completely recovered from the ‘illness’, he looked even better than before. His vacation to the city was fruitful, he had even had the honour to meet with Lord Deere from the capital. Though quite arrogant, Lord Deere was willing to have a pleasant conversation with him about the various productions in Duc, especially the parangons. He thought he had correctly perceived a note of appreciation in it.
Most importantly, he figured out the reason for Lord Deere’s visit — he had come to punish Amon; he was going to have the boy beheaded! For Shog, Amon had become a thorn in his side since Maqi’s disappearance, and he didn’t dare remove this threat himself. Now with the imminent arrival of Deere, the whole problem could be solved without staining his hands.
Misel Deere did appreciate Shog to some extent, especially when Shog told him that Amon had an Aquaticore. Misel’s eyes glowed and asked Shog, “In your opinion, what should we do with his belongings?”
The order from the capital only said that Amon should be publicly beheaded. Nothing was said about his belongings. The Justice Department did not care about the personal wealth of a miner from a remote town. Hence Shog had really brought him a surprise.
Theoretically, Amon’s belongings should be returned to his family, in other words, his father. But Shog blinked and replied, “I’ve paid for the tax of Amon’s parangons, thus they should be confiscated by the shrine. Of course, you should surely keep the Aquaticore because you are the one sent by the gods to eliminate this guilt.”
Misel nodded with satisfaction, “Mister Macrobe, I’ve been thinking that the shrine of Syah has underestimated your ability. You deserve a better position for your talent.” This comment was the source of Shog’s extra vitality today.
Hearing the big news from the early messenger, Dusti rang the bell in the Shrine of Mourrin early in the morning once again. The Ducians gathered at the western edge of the town and stood in lines beside the courier route, carrying basins with petals and clear water to spray on the incoming dear guests. Since there were not enough petals in a hurry, tender leaves and twigs were used as substitutes.
Shog almost felt that it was his day when he entered Duc in the carriage. In his trance, everyone, including Mayor Dusti, was welcoming his return. The lords established themselves in the shrine’s hall. Watching the maids and servants delivering wine and desserts and hearing the local officials’ greetings and compliments, Misel Deere asked scornfully, “Where’s that miner called Amon? Bring him to the shrine and gather the townies. I’m going to punish him right now!”
Misel Deere’s good mood was soon destroyed by the smoky air of Duc. He was not as patient as Rod Drick. He did not want to spend one more second in this dirty town. All he thought was to finish his business here and go back to Syah City to enjoy the delicacies and beautiful maids that Schmul had offered him.
Dusti started, recomposing himself and answering, “Amon? He left town three days ago. I sent him out according to the decree of the Kingdom.”
“What? He escaped? I know the law, the miners here can’t leave without the permission of the state! What happened? Are you people trying to fool me? I’ve come here with the direct order of the Kingdom!” Misel spluttered in a high voice.
Shog was exasperated too. Still in his trance, he yelled at Dusti, “You let him go? What the hell are you doing?”
Does he forget his pills? Dusti cast a stern glance at his clerk and said, “You must have misheard me. I sent him out according to the decree of the Kingdom. I didn’t let him go.” Then he turned to Misel Deere, “My dear lord, I am very sorry! I didn’t know that you would come to punish Amon. Please let me explain…”
Dusti recounted what had happened three days ago and finally said, “Everyone in this town can prove my words, except Shog, my absent clerk. This was simply a coincidence.”
“What’s this decree you speak of? Why have I never heard of it?” asked Misel Deere.
Dusti took out a parchment roll and handed it to Deere respectfully, “Please have a look.”
Misel was not born thirty years ago, neither had he ever heard of this decree. Staring at it for a while, he asked blankly, “Who is this Bair?”
“Oh, Bair the evil sorcerer?” Golier suddenly took the scroll from Misel and said, “Hmm… There indeed used to be a decree! I sent it here myself thirty years ago. I was just an ordinary priest in the shrine of Syah then. The mayor of Duc then was Dusti’s father.”
“Esteemed great mage,” asked Schmul, “may I have a look at this decree?”
Golier threw the scroll at him, “You don’t believe my words? Tell your clerk to check the archives, there’s one in Syah too.”
Schmul stared at it for a long time, then asked a crucial question, “Dusti, can you tell us why you’ve decided to execute a forgotten decree issued thirty years ago?”
[List of Characters]
Misel Deere: Commissioner from the capital of Hittite with the order to kill Amon.