Chapter 2 – Graduation
“Listen very carefully, my dear.”
Mother Catherine and Michael sat within the guest room, where they had spent most of their time during the last year. It didn't take long for Michael to acquire decent language skills at a frightening pace that left Mother Catherine quite astonished. In turn, she lavished the child with praise, something Michael was very fond of (despite his mental age) further motivating him to give his best. Regardless of what it was, he'd absorb all of the knowledge Mother Catherine would throw at him while also spending the rest of his time reading lots of books about various topics. From fiction to Herbalism to Magic, there wasn't anything he wasn't interested in. He'd never understand how the other youths could waste their free time with meaningless games and idle talk when such an exciting world was surrounding them.
“A magus is to be respected under any circumstances. It doesn't matter what race he is. What his background is or what he did in the past. Even criminals would be pardoned by the Crown if they swore fealty. Of course, that has its limits too, but it shows how the world values capable magi. A powerful magus can always make things work out in their favor. Especially in recent times, Ethena is desperately trying to increase its military might. After all, depending on the magus, their prowess could equal dozens, hundreds and even thousands of men, if not more.”
As always Michael paid rapid attention, especially when Mother Catherine talked about Magecraft. This wonderful subject filled him with boundless excitement and daydreams about the possibilities of Magic. Unfortunately...
Astute as she was, Mother Catherine realized that Michael had recently gotten easily depressed if she mentioned the topic of Magecraft - even if he didn't let it show on the surface. Therefore, she quickly changed the subject, and for the first time during their lessons, she became very serious and stern.
“Remember this very well, Michael. If there is only one thing you take away from my teachings, then it should be this.”
Michael was a little surprised to find out how... scary Mother Catherine could be. When she turned serious, she no longer looked like an old woman in the last stages of her life. Instead, there was something surrounding her. An air of force – like an invisible might, that could crush him with ease if she so desired. In the back of his mind, Michael wondered whether that was Magic or not. Then, he quickly put the matter aside, and earnestly listened to her, aware of the importance of the subject.
“In our world, many different minor races exist. We, humans, are only one of them. There is conflict, but we mostly stand on equal footing. The higher races, however, border on the Divine and are not to be trifled with. As for the Divine, repeat what I say and ingrain it into the depths of your mind.”
Fear the Demon, for he is the harbinger of chaos.
Don't trust the Devil, for he is as lawful as he is deceitful.
Respect the Fairy, for they are the Protectors of the Forest.
Show faithfulness to the Gods, for they are the Parents that govern our lives.
The Devils uphold the order. They must be followed.
The Gods uphold the laws. They must exist.
They are the Gate.
Neither is evil. Neither is good.
The mortal's concepts can not comprehend that which upholds the world.
But know this.
Nothing can exist without the other.
Any average person that didn't know much about Magecraft would at least know the first part of this rhyme. Variations differ from children's songs to the text of scholars, but the content and messages were mostly similar. Demons were a dreadful omen, the contracts of the Devils bring misfortune, and the Fairies were... Well, you just didn't mess with them. This was the overall consensus accepted by all humans and minor races as a matter of fact.
Michael was entranced by this short rhyme and it didn't take long for him to remember all of it, but not without leaving him with several questions. He'd heard stories of the Devil's temptations. The invincible Fairies. But...
“Do Gods really exist?” Michael asked, not for the first and most definitely not the last time. While the other Divine Beings had recent events that proofed their existence in this world, the Gods...
“Well, of course, my child!” Mother Catherine returned to her kind self as she chuckled quietly, almost sheepishly. Michael had already asked the same question multiple times and she'd always answer the same. “How else would that which surrounds us exist? Who would guide us through life? The Gods most certainly exist, and they will be your beacon, wherever you are. That reminds me, we should continue our religious studies. I've already told you of the Second Beginning. Thus we'll continue with what must inevitably follow, the Second End...
Yikes. If there was one topic that'd bore the hell out of him, then it was religion. Sure, mythology was as interesting as the books of fiction he'd read, but he couldn't help but think that the stories of legends and myths of time unknown were somewhat... ridiculous? If any of those were true, then the Gods should be considered pitiful, for their boredom knew no bounds...
Regardless, Michael would power through and listen to Mother Catherine's teachings as he'd always do, and soon it was time for their lessons to come to an end for the day.
“Come on, Mike! It's not that hard!” A cheerful voice aroused Michael from his daydreaming. His mind was still dwelling on his latest lesson that he almost forgot what he was supposed to do at the moment. Next to him was a young woman, close to him in age. Her blonde hair loosely flowed down to her shoulders and her gentle voice was like music to a weary traveler. Possessing eyes as blue as the clearest sky; sparkling with an excitement for life that rivaled that of a child's curiosity. Like all of the orphans in this church, she wore a tattered grey robe, that had been white before its years of taking on dirt. Despite that, everyone could see her beauty that was unrivaled within this small town, only comparable to her talent and intelligence.
Michael sighed as he looked down at the feather pen he was holding in his hand. Dark ink from its tip dropped onto the paper below, on which Michael had just written a few words in etha. A flurry of words flowed into each other like the waves of the sea, connected by a string from beginning to end. Exceptional handwriting for a youth his age but except for that, there was nothing else standing out.
“Alice... It's fine. I've already given up, there's nothing I can do. It's not like Magecraft is all there is to this world.”
“But this doesn't make any sense!!” The girl Michael called Alice ruffled her hair in frustration.
“Anyone can do this! Even if you didn't have the slightest bit of talent, it would still show changes! Are you sure you are doing it, right? I showed you the process several times already, don't tell me you still don't understand?” Alice shot him a fierce glance. For some reason, she was more disappointed and angry than Michael himself. Wasn't their reactions reversed?
“I've told you dozen of times already...” Michael let out a heavy sigh. This stubborn brat just didn't want to listen. And he was supposed to feel the most down about this. “I don't feel anything. You tell me to sense Mana, Aer, Eden, and whatnot but there just isn't anything!”
In response, Alice slid closer to Michael, and after putting her hand on his neck, she looked him deep into the eyes. Awkwardly, Michael averted her fiery gaze while trying to calm himself down. Despite his age, he didn't have much experience with women.
“You have a pulse! You are not dead!” She said matter-of-factly before releasing her hand from his neck.
“Any living being should at least feel something even if they had the worst of talents. Hell, even the Stone Dwarves of Old would be able to do this!” Alice continued, refusing to accept defeat. On the other hand, Michael didn't share her enthusiasm anymore.
The exercise was simple. Pick up the feather pen and write anything down on a piece of paper. To put it simply, the pen was an amplifier to one's senses and helped sense the Mana that filled their surroundings, or that within their bodies. It was also a device designed to help make the connection between the ink and your Mana.
Depending on various circumstances, Mana was split into several subparts; Aer in the case of humans. Some exceptions and variations were resulting in different kinds of Mana, like Eden, but it was a very rare occurrence for humans and easily noticeable - Nothing that could be hiding within Michael without anyone realizing.
Anyhow, usually the (special) ink would then mix with the different kinds of Mana and react accordingly, for humans most often turning into a bright white color, almost indistinguishable from the paper.
In Michael's case, however, the dried black words were a testament to his utter lack of talents. If Alice's talents defied the natural order of the world, then Michael was the same – just in the opposite direction...
“Alice, it's fine. It's better to let go instead of chasing the impossible.”
“Don't think like that! What was impossible yesterday might be possible tomorrow! But, well... yeah, in your case... Maybe giving up is really the right decision.”
Damn it, girl! Make up your mind!
Alice had helped him for quite some time after Mother Catherine decided that Michael had no talent in Magecraft and stopped teaching him as such. Michael was grateful for Alice, but it didn't change the results in the slightest.
Although Michael said he'd given up, he couldn't hide the trace of disappointment on his face. No matter how often he'd failed, there was a slight glimmer of hope that this time it would be different. But slowly he'd come to accept things as they were.
Magecraft was impossible for him.
“Don't bother worrying so much about me. I'll be fine. You should focus on your own studies. No matter how talented you are, Magecraft is built on the accumulation of experience. Don't waste your talents.” Michael said, more solemnly he had intended to.
“Look at you! Lecturing me like some adult.” Alice huffed.
“Alicia, the Captain is here! Hurry over!” One of the orphans shouted from a distance.
“I'll better get going then. I'm fine with angering Mother, but the Captain... Hell no. See ya later, Mike!” Alice soon hopped away with a jump in her step while Michael couldn't help but sigh again. The girl was the definition of cheerful and optimism. Then again, maybe she just hadn't known real struggle yet.
Alicia von Regea.
Despite being an orphan of unknown origins, her talents in Magecraft created a big storm within Ethena. Michael could swear he had seen bodyguards hiding in their vicinity more than once. The only reason she hadn't left yet was that the Crown wanted her to stay low-profiled, but that sure as hell didn't work out. It didn't take long for numerous persons to recruit, or even try to adopt her, into their noble houses. In the end, she'd chosen the house of Regea under Mother Catherine's supervision and advice, earning her a standing high up the social ladder. After serving her mandatory military service (most likely in a distant but safe region), she'd have smooth sailing through life with her status as a talented magus.
Time passed peacefully for Michael except for his daily interactions with the giddy Alice. These past years had been the greatest time of his two lifetimes. After some thinking, he also wasn't too sad anymore about not being able to learn Magecraft. All he wanted was a peaceful life within a community that supported each other. He dreamed of calm days as a farmer or maybe a merchant, traveling the continent.
There was no need for any adventures and the like, just because he had been reborn with his previous knowledge of a lifetime (that was mostly useless).
Magecraft wasn't the only difference from his previous life. He had never seen the night before in his last world, but he knew that there was supposed to be only a single moon and not three. This and the concept of Magecraft told him that he wasn't just reborn or on another planet. He was in an entirely different world. Nothing was indicating that humanity had traveled among the stars. While biding his time with learning about this new world, he couldn't help but reminisce about his past. Was his past world as exciting as this one? He had never gotten to know anything about it after all, except for the flying metal ships and weird metal tubes.
Mother Catherine was also delighted with him, seeing his improvement as well as his unending curiosity. However, she didn't forget to remind him about the current state of the world.
“An unseen storm is brewing behind the curtains. It might change the entire world, or nothing might happen. No one can really tell. From the news, we have heard, apparently a fourth Magus...”
Michael attentively listened to the story. There were many details he remembered, but the gist of it was quite simple. The Emperor of a major empire was always a magus, and more often than not, the strongest of the empire. With there being a total of three major countries and the appearance of a fourth magus at their level, dark clouds on the horizon began to appear. Many small fiefdoms hoped to rise along a Fourth Empire to gain better status while the other countries definitely didn't want to see another power rise, yet were obviously too divided to cooperate. And this was disregarding the external conflicts between races.
Michael couldn't help but think what a farce all of this was. As if the existence of Demons and Devils threatening humanity wasn't enough, no, they even had to fight among themselves, dragging down the civilians with them.
If nothing else, humanity's greed and desire for power was something Michael was only too familiar with...
In the following lessons over the years, Mother Catherine tried to prepare him as much as possible. The other children would spend a lot of their time learning Magecraft as well as military tactics. Since Michael didn't have to bother with any of this, his lessons were more focused on other mundane things and the social aspects of life.
A group of young adults, wearing red uniforms walked out of the two rooms they had spent all of their life. They walked in pairs, except for a single man at the back. Unlike the others, he wore shabby trousers and a shirt that was clearly too large for him; thus, he bound it with a makeshift belt. His dark hair was the shortest among his brothers who preferred to grow their hair long as it was more common in the country. He wasn't particularly handsome, but the calm within his eyes brought a sense of reliability with them. The way he carried himself as he walked at a steady pace was much more refined than other people his age, displaying his maturity. Striking was also the confident smile he'd always have on his face that radiated an air of charisma, only rivaled by the devilish charm found in stories. Despite all of that, the other youths didn't seem to bother much with him.
Michael was now eighteen years old, and it was time for all of them to leave the orphanage. During these years he hadn't interacted much with his fellow brothers and sisters. Only Alice was keen on talking with him, mostly annoying him with nonsense. But he had to admit that he quite enjoyed their time together, bantering about everything and nothing.
For their celebration, there was a small ceremony as they 'graduated' to step into their respective lives. Inside the hall, there were the Captain and the few Sisters who had trouble holding back the tears in their eyes. The person Michael was most grateful for, Mother Catherine, stood at the front and greeted all of them with her usual smile. Unlike the other sisters and youths that still treated him with some distance, Mother Catherine had spent most of her time with him. She took care of him and also raised him to her utmost capabilities. For him, she truly was the mother he'd never had. As he looked at Mother Catherine with gratefulness in his eyes, she returned him a loving smile. However, there was a trace of concern hidden in her eyes. She'd talked to the Captain several times and also reported Michael's rapid growth, comparable to academic geniuses. Yet the results were the same. No matter how talented he seemed to be, the shadow of being mentally unstable still followed him.
“Congratulations my children.” Mother Catherine greeted the group with open arms as they finished lining up before her.
“You have already lived here for many years, and now it is finally time for you to start your own lives. You all know Captain Reynold, he is...” Mother Catherine continued talking, but Michael didn't pay her any attention anymore as he felt as if the floor was breaking away underneath him, plunging him into the depths.
That name was too much of a shock from him. He could never forget the man who had stood in his way at the last moment of his way to freedom. It took him a few moments to gradually calm down his exaggerated breath. The two of them had no similarities except their status, yet he couldn't help but change the way he looked at this Captain. He felt his heart sink at an ominous premonition which he quickly dispersed from his mind. Ridiculous! They weren't the same! Why was he thinking that just now?
No one had ever called him by name inside the orphanage. Instead, he was only referred to as a Captain of Ethena, a proud title of address that by itself would earn him respect wherever he was in this empire.
“I have watched all of you grow over several years.” Captain Reynold said after Mother Catherine had finished. “Each of you has worked hard, reaching the first step towards becoming a magus. I truly am happy for you.”
Michael had always wondered why all of his peers were capable of Magecraft when it was considered somewhat rare. Apparently, he was an exception to this orphanage that usually only took in the children showing promise during their early stages of life. Typically, the likely less talented children would've been sent to a different orphanage.
“I'm also proud to announce that all of you will join the military under my command. Continue to work hard, and you will receive prosperity. Money, fame, name whatever you desire. Or become mediocre and die meaninglessly on the battlefield. The chance is yours. All of you will follow me to the Northern Garrison, where your training will continue under my tutelage.”
Except for Michael, each of the youths were awarded a bronze medal in the form of a cross.
“This is the mark of your hard work and pride that represents a Knight of Ethena. You can now leave and prepare yourselves. Tomorrow morning we will leave. You stay here.” He pointed to Michael.
Michael knew he wasn't able to join the military. Or more likely, he shouldn't. However, Mother Catherine had never told him what his future path would be.
“There is a carriage waiting for you outside. Say your farewells.”
“Y- yes, Captain,” Michael answered with an awkward voice as if he'd forgotten all of his teachings from the past few years. He had yet to calm down from the earlier surprise and the previous thought still simmered at the back of his mind.
The Captain gave him a curt nod and evicted him from his memory. He bade his farewells to the Sisters and left the church to finish his preparations. Michael didn't have any package to bring with him, so after he thanked each of the sisters and especially Mother Catherine for their care, he left the church while holding back his tears. Mother Catherine had done too much for him, and he would surely repay her kindness one day.
Outside, there was a carriage waiting. It spanned two horses and its driver was an old man with his entire face covered with his beard. He also had long hair that had already begun to turn white. This appearance was awfully familiar to Michael as he couldn't help but remember how he and every person he knew back then used to look like.
Hastily, he shook his head again. Why did he remember these useless things about his past life? Things were different now. He had to finally let the past go, regardless of how hard it was to forget.
He proceeded to get onto the carriage when...
“Mike, wait!” Alice hurried out of the church and grabbed him by the shoulder. On the red military uniform she wore, there was a bronze cross, slightly different from the others that represented her noble status.
“If you ever run into trouble, come to the Northern Garrison. I'll help you. If you don't find me there, I'll be at the House of Regea in the capital. I'm sure at that time they'll listen to a measly request or two of mine.” Alice said hurriedly with sincere concern in her voice.
“Thanks, Alice. Take care of yourself. I'm sure we'll meet again someday.” Michael smiled and gently released her hand from his shoulder. After a short silence, the two averted their gaze from each other and went their separate ways.
Michael walked up next to the driver, where a middle-aged man sat with his eyes closed. He wore a similar military uniform as Captain Reynold, but instead of fancy ornaments, it was clearly designed for battle. No robe that would get in the way of fighting and perfectly tailored to the man's stature, nothing without a purpose. In contrast to Reynold's focus on leather armor, the man had an entire set of heavy plate armor, partly worn and a few parts next to him. Even as he noticed Michael approaching, he still didn't bother to open his eyes or show any signs of courtesy.
“Are you Michael?” The man asked in an uncaring voice.
“Yes, Sir,” Michael answered respectfully. He would always show respect to others to avoid possible trouble regardless of how bad their first impressions were. One of many of Mother Catherine's teachings he would always abide by.
“Sit on the back. Hurry it up. Driver, we are going back, this should be the last one.” The man continued in an annoyed voice. He was already traveling for days for this damned assignment.
“Sir, may I know your name? Aren't you-”
“You don't need to know. Now move!” He interrupted Michael before he could finish his question.
Wasn't he going to work for him? He should at least make simple introductions. Regardless, Michael didn't bother arguing and got onto the carriage. It didn't have a roof and it must have usually been used for simple deliveries and goods, definitely not meant for passengers to travel on. Several youths were squeezing into each other with barely any place for him.
“You actually asked such a stupid question. What's wrong with you?” One of them asked Michael with a tone mixed between surprise and ridicule.
“Stupid? Why? Shouldn't I at least get to know my boss a little more?” Michael said with sincere confusion.
The other youths looked at him as if they saw a ghost but didn't continue. They minded their own business, longingly looking into the distance or mumbling to themselves. There was even a language or two mixed in the constant grumbling and moaning that Michael wasn't familiar with. But what he was very familiar with was the apparent trace of despair in their eyes.
“What's with the mood?” He tried to warm up to them. Maybe they were his future co-workers, so he decided to build a good relationship from the start by making some small-talk. But the stares he got this time were even stranger.
“You... Don't you know where we are going?” The one from earlier asked him with much more surprise this time.
As Michael shook his head, all of the other youths looked at him with pitiful eyes.