Chapter 26 - Phantom Realm
The Crusader Eminence had a dissatisfied expression on her face. "Most people treat the Immortal Crusade with more respect."
"It's not my problem what everyone else does," Aaron replied. "Are you attacking, or are you not?"
She looked ahead and didn't reply, but her firmly set jaws said enough. She was downright pissed with Aaron's attitude, but he still hadn't broken any law and she wouldn't do it either.
That was answer enough for him. She was just as bound by the rules as he had hoped; just like everyone else was forbidden from killing him while he was under investigation, so was she.
Of course, he wouldn't bet his life on that; that's why he had bought enough counter-measures before allowing himself to be found by the Crusade. If she attacked him head-on, he had confidence that he had at least eighty percent chance of killing her and a hundred percent chance of fleeing.
And he had no doubt an attack would come. He had learned in the memories he had watched, that the Crusade liked to use mind-reading to assert whether someone was a demon or not. He had a grade 12 soul resistance though and whatever spell she tried on him was bound to fail unless he allowed them to work.
There was no way he would allow her to read his memories though. His value as an encyclopedia couldn't be resisted by anyone and if his secrets were exposed, the entire world would compete for a piece of him.
As for only showing her part of his memories, it was pointless, since she wouldn't be able to determine if those memories held the secret of him being a demon.
He was actually anticipating the battle, but first, he would try to lure her into a trap, which was difficult to set up without her noticing due to her being by his side. Especially since it wasn't a simple trap, but one that could determine if she was friend or foe and force her to become a friend if it came to it or kill her if needed.
As for the reason the Crusader wasn't trying to read his mind yet, it was probably because protocol dictated that she tried a plethora of other spells first. As they walked, he could feel her casting the spells in a way that she thought was stealthy.
Whatever the future held, he was prepared. For now, though, he kept moving toward the city gates.
Helina Chosen had no idea why she was following the boy.
Maybe it was the way he spoke, maybe it was the fear that had rooted into her heart when he effortlessly killed the two Eminences from the Temple of Time, or maybe it was simply that she had nowhere else to go.
She felt dazed, as if she was living a dream, or maybe a nightmare. Her body moved, but her mind kept replaying the scenes from a few moments ago.
Sara felt herself getting numbed to surprises the more she followed Aaron.
He had an Eminence Prophetess whose destiny was protecting him? Nothing much.
He, a Champion, had killed two fully armored Eminences and knocked out another one with a single spell? That was just natural.
He, a twelve-year-old, talked to a Crusader Eminence without a care? There was no other way for him to talk to Crusaders.
She couldn't deny that a small part of her still whispered that these things could only be accomplished by a demon, even though she was free from the Ancestors influence. But Aaron's had called her narrow-minded before as if whatever he was could be explained in other ways.
If only he would explain it to her...
Mark couldn't stop thinking about the Herald's words about honor and survival in battle.
He had often wondered why he should care so much about the pride of his officers when his life was on the line. Why should he care for the shame of the mages to whom his life was worthless anyway?
Now, the Herald had revealed how such thoughts only led to death and had also wondered out loud who benefited from it.
If it had been a few weeks ago, Mark wouldn't have cared about such thoughts. After all, it was just mage politics, nothing he should worry about, even though he had committed the stupidity of touching politics before.
But now that the Herald had shown just how a bit of tactic could change a battle so much, Mark couldn't stop himself from thinking that, indeed, maybe the mages weren't as evil as he thought.
Oh, they were evil enough, they cared nothing for the warriors. But they, too, were being used by powers greater than them.
Mark had never even considered such a thing. In his heart, mages had always been almighty existences standing at the peak of the word.
But the Herald was expanding Mark's horizons. He kept changing the warrior with simple words.
He was, indeed, the Herald of Change.
The Queen was sitting on her throne, reading a few relatively unimportant reports just to make sure they were indeed unimportant; one had to make sure their subordinates were doing their jobs properly.
A shadow materialized on the room, in kneeling position.
"Yes?" She asked, without raising her eyes.
"Shadow One found the boy," the shadow said with its genderless voice.
"Oh." This time she did raise her eyes. "Elaborate."
"Shadow One was in Lamia, running the information network to find him when he appeared in the city. He sold and bought many things, here's the complete list." The shadow waved its hand and an envelope materialized on the ground.
The envelope looked inconspicuous but had been enchanted to only accept the Queen's touch. Not even the shadow could touch it anymore, even though it had been the one who put the paper sheets inside.
The shadow also didn't dare use a spell to send the envelope to the Queen, as doing so was an offense punishable by death. Only the spells that made the shadows appear and disappear were allowed in the Throne Room.
The Queen, who was obviously exempt from her own rules, used a spell to make the envelope float to her and started reading its contents.
The shadow continued with her report. "His butler's martial foundation is gone, and the boy is now also harboring a traitor Prophetess for unknown reasons. It led to a... Situation."
Again, the Queen raised her eyes with interest, and now they were shining. It was rare for her darlings to hesitate when giving a report. Speaking about 'a situation' was an obvious way of stalling for time.
"Explain," the Queen demanded.
"Shadow One was disguised as a local Champion Mage from Lamia and promised to protect the boy on his way to the Three Towers, when a group from the Temple of Time appeared, intent on capturing the Prophetess.
"Shadow One chose to act on behalf of the boy, since he is under investigation and thus under the Crusade's protection. The Temple's group attacked Shadow One without forewarning and resisted imprisonment when they failed. There was even a battle, which revealed Shadow One's status as a Crusader. She's now overtly following the boy for investigation, only hiding her true level. Overlord Azure Silver is very upset, I heard that he might push for war against the Temple of Time in the next seating of the Immortal Council."
The Queen put a hand to her chin. "Interesting. Not the war; such a minor offense like this cannot escalate that much. At most, the Temple of West Valdian will be eradicated, nothing much, but it's only proper for Overlord Azure Silver to verbally announce adequate fury when being humiliated like this in his own city. Where was him at the time of the battle?"
"In a pleasure house."
"I imagined as much. His life is coming to an end and he just wants to be left alone. If he doesn't push for war after such offense, he won't find the peace he so desires since everyone will think they can play with him. Now, about the traitor..." She closed her eyes, getting in deep thought for a long time, then opened them. "Kill her. Overlord Azure Silver is old, but he still has connections that might benefit me. I want to present the traitor's head to him as a gift."
"The traitor is an Eminence, the only way to swiftly kill her is for Shadow One to show her true power as an Ascender," the shadow said.
"An Eminence?" The Queen asked in surprise. "Wait for the investigation to complete first, then kill her."
"What if the boy is found innocent but tries to protect her?"
The Queen smiled in a malicious way. "We can't touch him while he's under investigation, not with the Warden of the East watching us so closely, but if he dares to stand against the Immortal Crusade after such protection is removed, only death awaits him."
"Doesn't it mean he'll die either way?" The shadow asked with an approving tone.
"Probably," the Queen said, "but the rules set by the Immortals are not to be questioned, only obeyed. Anything else?"
"The purge of the capital of the West Dukedom has been completed. Shadow Two has the Valdian Kingdom in lockdown. Quasi-Overlord Firestar is cooperating fully."
"Unfortunate," the Queen said, the meaning obvious for the shadow.
A Quasi-Overlord was only one step away from joining the upper echelons of the Immortal Crusade. The Queen wanted nothing more than for him to do something stupid like resisting the Crusade and getting himself killed before he could become a political opponent.
"Order Shadow Two to provoke him in non-incriminating ways. Nothing over the board, however, for the Council is paying close attention to the Valdian Kingdom. What else?"
The shadow hesitated before speaking. "The Orb of Skellage was recovered by Overlord Fleeting-Leaves." Its voice was whispered in fear.
"What?!" The Queen yelled, raising from her throne. "How?"
She was counting on presenting the Orb to the Immortal Council to get rid of the Warden of the East once and for all.
"We're not yet sure but everything points towards the Seven Isles betraying us."
"War!" The Queen yelled. "Ready the troops, we're removing the Seven Isles from the map!"
"At once, my Queen," the shadow said and vanished.
Aaron went to the city gates only to find out that the city was in lockdown due to the situation with the Temple of Time.
"Can you help?" He asked Shadow One.
She said nothing, only looking ahead without any emotion visible on her face.
"If you aren't going to make yourself useful, could you just leave me alone?" He asked, only to be met with the same response.
He sighed. If he had to stay in a city which had an agent of the Immortal Crusade on the city troops, he would rather do it on a safer environment. As for forcing his way out, it would expose his strength too much, he wouldn't do so unless needed.
He turned back without saying anything and went directly to the White Lotus Inn.
"We're finally sleeping in a bed!" Mark whispered excitedly as they approached the place.
"Why did you choose such a bad place, Master?" Sara asked with disgust in her voice.
"First, because this was plan B," Aaron replied. "Second, because I must teach you that there's always more to things than meet the eyes."
"Plan B, Young Master?" Mark asked, interested.
Aaron smiled as they entered the inn. "We left the Royal Capital without extra protection for my own reasons, but there are some safe houses waiting for us on the way to the Three Towers in case we need it."
The moment they entered the inn, every single one of the nine drunkards and the innkeeper looked at them then faked disinterest. That didn't go for long though. Aaron raised his hand high, snapped his fingers three times and said, "Cell activation!"
It was as if he had cast a spell that made magic armors immediately materialize around the bodies of the ten people. One of them pushed a table out of the way and pulled a fake section of the floor to reveal a stairway downwards, a few others locked the door and windows, and then, they all stood at attention in a row in front of Aaron.
"Reporting for duty, First Elder Champion Aaron!" The innkeeper said.
Check Level, Aaron thought.
Level: 7 — Champion Mage
Level: 6 — Notable Mage
Level: 6 — Notable Mage
The leader was a Champion, the other nine were all Notable mages.
"What's your name?" Aaron asked the leader, who wore an armor with common metallic color and white gemstones.
"I'm Intelligence Agent Champion Darkfox, sir!" He said, almost yelling.
Aaron nodded. "You're a very professional man. Don't it bother you to take orders from a kid?"
"Yes, sir!" He replied with honesty. "But I was informed of your brilliant mind and I'm willing to give you a chance."
"Oh," Aaron said and smiled. "Aren't you worried that I might be a demon?"
Darkfox smirked. "I'm usually active outside the Valdian Kingdom, sir. I've seen stranger things than a genius kid who thinks like a grown man."
"Did you, now? What kind of things, if I may ask?" The boy asked curiously.
"In the White Forest to the north, every tree can speak while they eat you. Is the entire White Forest filled with demons? On the Endless Desert to the west, the sand itself can take human form and use innate skills to show fake skin. Is a walking, talking, and thinking sand creature necessarily a demon? Dwarven kids are born with the size and knowledge an adult should have. Are all dwarves demons? Sentient herbs and medicine, beasts that can understand human speech from the moment they are born, fire elementals that can win in chess against human masters; this world is filled with things we don't understand, sir, and the Crusade doesn't seem to care about them. There are demons too, but just because something is different, it doesn't mean it's a demon."
With a smile, Aaron turned to Sara. "See? A wise man once said there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy."
And it was in a much more boring world than this, too, he completed in his mind.
Shadow One sneered. "This talk is borderline treason. It's because of people like you, who think like this and don't take the right precautionary measures that demons managed to run rampant in the past."
"Oh, right," Aaron said. "Darkfox, meet Shadow One. She's with the Immortal Crusade, as showcased by the black cross and the 'Immortal Crusade' written on her armor. Shadow One, meet Darkfox."
They stared at each other without saying a word.
"Darkfox," Aaron continued, "I hope you can protect us this night."
"Yes, sir!" The man said.
"Good. Down we go, people. This is a one-use-only safe house, especially now that it has been exposed to the Crusade. We better use it to the maximum. I heard you have mattresses and pillows made of Wind Fairy Wings in here?"
Aaron started going downstairs, closely followed by Darkfox.
"Yes, sir!" The man replied. "A lucky side acquisition from an operation in the Phantom Realm."
"Oh, Phantom Realm?" Aaron said with interest. "That spatial realm controlled by the Dreamers? Tell me everything about it!"
"Everything pertaining to the Phantom Realm is confidential information, sir."
"Not anymore!" Shadow One suddenly said from behind them. "The Valdian Kingdom never received permission to enter the Phantom Realm! Under the authority of the Immortal Crusade, I order you to tell me everything you know about this unlawful invasion!"
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I'm Ed, a writer of GameLit. So far I have released only two books, but I'm working on increasing this number by tens! No, by hundreds! Maybe thousands! xP
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