When I came to, I was in the medical bay. White ceiling, white bedsheets and white curtains boxing me in. Couldn't they add some colour to the décor? You’d think that some peppy hues would cheer the patients up.
Sigh. I was getting quite familiar with this place, wasn’t I? Even thinking of changing up the colour scheme. Did I plan to visit here often?
Well, considering everything, I couldn't really be blamed for my frequent hospitalization, now could I? I kept running up against foes way out of my league, resulting in situations where I had to overexert myself to just eke out a livelihood.
The Geas, the Elemental and now, the ant queen. Really, I was just nineteen years old and already meddling in the battles of Tier 5s. Something I was sure I would find incomparably admirable on someone else, but when it involved my own person, I couldn't help but bemoan my misfortune.
At least it appeared that father had disposed of the flying queen and with that, our victory against the Calamity was almost ensured. It was just a matter of time before the ants were repulsed back to their nest and we could put this behind us.
And deal with the Duchess – and the Shogunate behind her.
It never did end, did it? Staring blankly up at the pristine ceiling, I tried to search for some answer to my frustrations in the grain of the plaster. Nothing. There was no answer. No easy answer anyway. I would just have to buck up and soldier on. Deal with whatever new adversity life tossed my way.
Aah… I just wanted to roam the world with my wives. Explore every corner of the Continent. Meet new people, observe sights unseen, unearth secrets lost to the march of time… I wanted to live a life without any care beyond what to eat next meal and where to lodge next night.
I just wanted to be what a Tamer was actually meant to be.
Like what Master was doing now. Come to think of it. What was he doing now? He had left with grand plans to explore Regiis and beyond. Did he get caught up in the turmoil of the Duchess’ rebellion? I hoped not. He started off a few weeks before I left home for Firang. If he’d chosen to travel by the most conventional means, he should have been out of the range of the unrest or at the very least at the fringes. I could only pray for his safety.
That thought made me feel stuffy. It was like so many chains twining around me, shackling me in place. I was just so helpless.
No! It wasn’t that. If I’d been a proper Tier 2 like others my age. If I’d been truly helpless. Then I wouldn't feel so awkward. Then I could just give up and rely on the elders. Leaving the tough decisions and worrying to them, I could just follow my orders.
Instead, the explosive expansion in my strength and capabilities had placed me in this strange sort of limbo. I wasn’t strong enough to play a truly decisive role but I wasn’t weak enough that I could shirk all responsibility.
Just like the war with the ant queen, it was father who injured it. It was father who killed it. But if I hadn’t been there to assist, to delay its escape with my life on the line, we wouldn't have achieved this victory.
And that was the source of my frustration. I didn’t want to risk my life. I didn’t care for the so-called glory. I would much prefer a long life with my loved ones rather than a shortcut to a gilded grave. No matter how grand the epitaph, it just wasn’t equal in my heart.
In the end, I just didn’t place the appraisal of strangers on par with the affection of my family. I would have the latter any day.
The only solution placed before me was to get stronger… and that wasn’t happening anytime soon.
I’d already squeezed out all of my potential, every single bit. I’d survived each life-threatening situation miraculously, breaking through at critical moments. But that had to stop.
My ceaseless practice of the Thunderclap Samsara Palms. Father’s notes on the Void. The experience of altering my mana to match others’ during contract ceremonies. The inspiration I’d obtained from the Elemental.
Every eruption, every comprehension had a firm basis in my education and preparation. The shadow of death had just forced me to condense them into their essence ahead of time. Now, after several epiphanies, I was like a dry well in the heart of summer. Until it rained and I was able to accumulate more knowledge and experience, the next time I was in a critical situation, it might very well be my last.
Just as I wallowing in my perceived misery, the curtains around my bed were suddenly drawn apart and mother appeared. She was shooting off rapid-fire instructions to another medic mage who was furiously jotting down notes in shorthand.
“Now go and check up on patient twelve in ward four. I want a report on my desk by tonight.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The medic saluted and hurried off. Only then did mother turn to me.
My heart clutched when I noticed how thin and pale she looked. There were worry lines forming on her forehead from frowning so much. Seeing me awake, some of the tension drained out of her shoulders.
With a deep sigh, she sank into the chair beside my bed. Reaching out, she lovingly brushed my hair back with her fingers.
“Really, child. You never stop worrying me.”
I couldn't help but feel guilty. Noticing, she smiled. Leaning forward, she kissed my forehead before slumping back into her chair exhaustedly.
“We dealt with the Calamity. The main force of the ant legion has been repulsed. The flying queen died. The land queen was seriously injured. You’d think we’d get some reprieve? Noo. Apparently, it’s too much to ask.” she said, frustration clear in her tone.
“We just received the news – the outbreak of the Tomb of Koschei is related to the Duchess. She somehow helped Koschei sober up and subdue the elemental he is fused with. He took on two Demigods at once and though he was forced to retreat back into his Dungeon by them, they couldn't dispose of him permanently. Ships carrying the Shogunate’s soldiers have been seen to dock at the ports of the Southern District. It’s official… the Duchess is their traitor in Regiis. We are at war.”
Inclining her head back against the backrest, she looked up at the ceiling and muttered.
“It’s not your fault you keep nearly dying. We parents are the ones amiss. We failed to protect you. If we were more capable then you wouldn't have to risk your life again and again and again. Where’s the truth in the child making up for the parent’s incompetence!”
The wooden armrests of the chair splintered under her grip. I could feel the anger and frustration radiating off her. When she sat up and met my gaze, her eyes were blazing. Determination etched in every line of her face.
“I’ll impact Tier 5 tomorrow. The trick with the Doppelganger was feasible. Without the support of my bloodline it will be a bit tougher to promote but at the same time, I won't be shackled by it either. I have prepared long enough. My accumulation is deep. I can't delay any longer – not when it means you have to pick up my slack.”
“Mother!” I exclaimed, sitting up with a jerk. How could she be this reckless? Promotion to Tier 5 was no joke. Many, many mages had perished impacting this barrier in their cultivation and she wanted to rush it?
“Mars!” she barked, interrupting my protests. “I’ve decided. If I delay it now, I’ll never gather the courage to attempt it. No amount of preparation will seem sufficient. If not tomorrow, then never. Don’t dissuade me. Please.” The last was spoken in the tone of an entreaty.
Mother had never asked something of me. Never. And the first thing she did request was for a chance to risk her life. What the hell! I stared at her stubbornly, my lip quivering as I tried to come up with some argument to convince her.
But I could see it in her eyes. If not tomorrow, then her path of magic would end at the peak of Tier 4. Magic was very closely linked to the mental state of a mage. Very often, a failed promotion or a botched spell was the result of the incorrect mental state. Mother had somehow convinced herself that she just had to clash her bottleneck tomorrow and succeed.
In the end, I couldn't prevent her. Stop her and block her road to Tier 5? Truncate the potential fifty extra years of her lifespan that she could have gained from her promotion?
I felt like crying. Damn it! Another thing I was helpless against.
I was angry. Angry at my spiritless whining from before. What good would complaining do? Knowledge? Experience? If I lacked them then I should just try my damnedest to obtain them!
Clenching my fists, I fought back my tears and forced myself to smile at her encouragingly.
Tonight, would be the longest night of my life.