Chapter 27 – Interference
“Where is Aien?”
“I don't know.” The woman replied absentmindedly. Zeristin tried not to let the increasing frustration impact him from finding out more answers. But what he got wasn't all that he'd hoped for.
“You need fish to stay healthy. If you are healthy, you'll be happy. That's common sense, right? Isn't that something you want?”
Those were the words of Aien when the woman had first met him. Despite them being strangers, the woman had immediately opened up to him and listened to his every word. She hadn't known at the time that she had already fallen prey to the drugged food. After being reminded of it, Zeristin did remember some drivel along those lines he'd initially dismissed as nonsense.
As for the making of the food, Aien had barely done anything to leave behind traces. From what Zeristin could gather from the woman, Aien had distributed the recipes to numerous tavern owners for a small fee. He'd promised them that their taverns would be filled with customers should they follow his secret recipes. After a few had tried their luck and realized that Aien had told the truth, it didn't take long for the recipe to spread like wildfire on its own. There had only been one catch.
A secret ingredient that Aien hadn't divulged to anyone could only be obtained from him. It hadn't cost much compared to the increase in business the food brought. So, the tavern owners hadn't questioned anything with the prospect of increasing their earnings. Maybe if there had been more time, some magi would have eventually realized that something was going on.
But, in the end, nothing was giving Aien away in the short-term. He'd talked about daily life and chatted idly with his victims through which he seemed to test the waters. Some of these conversations also came back into Zeristin's mind from the time he'd half-listened in. Eventually, all of this had spiraled into the recent days. The supply of food and the ingredients for the recipes had suddenly been cut off.
Shortly after that, the following rumor had filled the city. 'When the sky is lit up in red, food will be provided for free in various houses.' The people, who had grown accustomed to the consumption of their favorite food, became restless with each passing moment, eagerly awaiting for that day to arrive. Everyone was trying their damndest to find out which were the houses in question. The rest of the story ended with the whole mess the city had turned into, which was no longer in Aien's control. He'd merely pushed a few people in the wrong directions, and created a chain reaction that was capable of sustaining itself.
This gist of it from what he could get from the woman. Zeristin left her to her own devices and headed for one of the storage places. It was a regular building with a small shop that sold clothes for the winter. Again, Zeristin faintly remembered that Aien had visited this place a few times in the past.
He went inside and walked down the stairs that led into the basement, where he found dozens of boxes neatly lined up. Aside from them, he found a familiar construct in the corner of the room. It had already lost its function since no one reinitialized it. This was a construct used to protect against divinations, the same one he'd found in the hidden basement inside the forest. The light of the rune was no longer shining, leaving behind a dim crystal in the corner. Since there was no possibility of Aien creating it himself, Zeristin soon came to the right conclusion, and it left him somewhat helpless.
No doubt, this was provided by Aien's backer, which was most certainly a Noble House. The possibility of someone infiltrating was something Zeristin was very well aware of. Still, one couldn't completely control each person unless you wanted the populace to rise up in dissatisfaction. Everyone needed their privacy, alas, it would lead to situations like these, where the lack of tight surveillance was the root of the problem.
Regardless, he'd never thought his lack of security would turn into a problem of this magnitude. Having gained at least some answers, Zeristin left the building after incinerating the entire basement. He connected with the sentries once more to search for Aien, but as he'd expected, there were no new clues.
Fifteen minutes had passed since Zeristin reappeared in the city, until finally, a hint to the answer he was looking for, descended through the ceiling of the dome.
“What is the meaning of this, Zeristin Wezlak!?” The voice of a man resounded for everyone to hear. Even those that were in the midst of their fighting couldn't ignore the voice that was carried by the wind into every corner of the city.
“You trapped innocent people inside this dome of suffering and still refuse to let them out! What you are doing is inhumane, and there is no excuse for the anguish you have caused!! Open up the dome at once, and come forth to meet the proper punishment you deserve!”
Zeristin nonchalantly looked up at the group of four who stood in the middle of the sky. Of course, Aien was not the sole cause of this attack. Zeristin thoroughly realized that, and naturally, the nobles would seek this chance to weaken his standing and influence.
But what the nobles hadn't accounted for was that Zeristin no longer cared about things like that.
Without a word, the ring on one of Zeristin's fingers glowed, signifying the release of the first stage of his Outer Focus construct. As the glowing intensified, the ring grew in size until it transformed into a gauntlet. Layers of stainless steel overlapped each other, tightly adjusting to the form of his right arm. Clad in a fiery red-aura that surrounded the gauntlet, it emitted a screeching sound as steam burst out of the gaps of the layering metal. Together with the constant influx of wind, it created the illusion of a living metal that breathed to sustain itself.
The noble who had held his little speech noticed the sudden outburst of mana and turned over to look in the direction of Zeristin.
However, it was too late, and there was no time for regrets.
Zeristin showed no restraint. He wordlessly shot through the air, in the shortest path possible, completely catching his target off guard. The lightning in his body made his muscles contract to their utmost limits. Both of his legs jumped off the whirlwinds to gain momentum, and the reddish aura increased in intensity, rising to a smoldering heat that refracted the air in its surroundings.
His victim didn't have the time to talk. Neither did he have the time to properly prepare himself. The only thing he could do was to watch petrified as a bloodthirsty bull rushed towards him.
Human magi, especially Outer Focus magi like this particular noble, were helpless without their construct. Another flaw of human Magecraft, as each stage of their Prime Construct took time to prepare. A rank 7 magus couldn't simply unleash the full might of his construct at once.
The group of magi hadn't come here to start a fight. Although they had come prepared for an emergency, they had no intention of ever starting one. What they'd hoped to achieve was to gain the advantage through discussion and undermine Zeristin's authority. They'd wanted to play the heroes, who'd come to the people's rescue and turn Zeristin into the villain, who was the sole cause of this tragedy.
For Zeristin to drop all pretense and attacking them in public while the city was under attack was unimaginable for them.
The moment Zeristin's fist connected with the noble's face, all of the accumulated might inside the gauntlet combined with the momentum of his body. The resulting explosion deafened the ears of anyone present. They were forced to gain some distance as Zeristin's construct let loose all of its energy into a single point.
The noble futilely braced himself as much as possible for the strike that sent him through the skies. Swatted away like a fly, he crashed into the dome of sentries that didn't budge an inch against the impact. The rest of the three nobles looked on in disbelief as they watched their companion being turned into a human projectile. The entire city was filled with the hollow sound of a dampened bell as if announcing the death of their fallen comrade.
Thankfully for them, it didn't come that far. There was no telling how injured the man falling from the sky was, but they could hear some faint breathing amongst the coughing stream of blood. He was still alive, but he might as well be dead when he crashed into the ground where he remained unresponsive.
“Seryl, Tyres, stop gawking, and prepare yourselves!” The man who was in the most dangerous position gathered his wits first. That noble was a Rank 7 Outer Focus magus just like him. Getting caught off guard was unacceptable for a human magus, so they could only blame themselves for acting rashly. Still, they couldn't believe that Zeristin would lash out at them like that.
Seryl and Tyres did as they were told and prepared themselves. As Inner Focus magi, there wasn't much they had to do, and instead, vigilantly focused on Zeristin's next movements. To their surprise, however, Zeristin remained where he was, instead of continuing his assault. The noble who had given the orders prepared himself as well and took hold of his own construct. He tore away the necklace with the seven emeralds on his neck while infusing them with mana.
Directly afterwards, a ring of fierce wind encircled him in its center. Traveling at astonishing speeds, the current became visible to the naked eye as it threatened to tear through anything that approached it. While continuing with the activation of his construct, he tried to reason with Zeristin, who had seemingly lost his mind.
“Don't make this any worse than it already is, Zeristin! Back down, or don't you care what happens to the city!?” Naturally, he sill augmented his voice so that it could be heard by everyone that was trapped inside this city. “Don't do something that will make you regret your actions of this day!”
In response, a peal of chilling laughter that had lost all reason escaped from his lips. There were no traces left of the previous headmaster who fondly cared for this city he'd painfully built up. Within moments, his gauntlet grew into a metal skeleton that built the foundation of the pieces of armor that appeared next. Contrarily to his opponent, Zeristin released his construct far faster as he clad himself in the battle-armor that was his construct. It didn't even take more than a few seconds until a second gauntlet appeared, and soon, a pair of boots followed, ending with the appearance of the leg armor. Donned in five pieces of armor that signified the release of the fifth stage of his construct, Zeristin stood opposite to them.
“What is there to regret? I have nothing left. Congratulations, you vicious bastards. You succeeded. The days of my academy are over just as you've wished for it.”
What followed next, left the three nobles reeling. Although they were certain that five pieces should have been the limit, the living metal on Zeristin's body continued growing. It only subsided after a breastplate appeared that connected each part of his armor into one entity.
“The breastplate!? You finished it!?” The noble magi almost couldn't form the words that sounded far too ridiculous and unreal to him once they actually left his mouth. The meaning behind that was too unfathomable for him to believe.
“This is impossible!! Absolutely impossible!!!”
Zeristin's path as a magus was to create a construct that would support the strength of his body. His Prime Construct would become the supplement to his Inner Focus, turning him into a one-man army. A simple yet effective approach. As such, it was well-known that Zeristin had always reached an advancement in the Inner Focus before he did so with the Outer Focus. In other words, the appearance of the breastplate meant that Zeristin had fully reached the sixth step towards becoming an Archmagus.
“You were only seventy-six years old when you reached the 5th Rank.” The man uttered more to himself than to Zeristin. This was no longer a matter of talent. No matter how hard Zeristin worked or how talented he was, reaching this rank before he turned a century old was impossible. The fact that Zeristin was already at the 5th Rank on his path to becoming an Archmagus was a once in a millennia talent. The last Archmagus in recorded history had needed more than two centuries before reaching the 6th Rank, and he was already an exception to the previous Archmagi.
“Unless...” A thought flashed through his mind that had gone through every possibility to explain this sudden turn of events. His eyes widened when the scales fell from his eyes as only a single idea seemed plausible. “You didn't!”
Aghast, he stared at Zeristin before looking over at the central tower of the city. If his guess was right then... a secret, that would render the matter of the blueprints utterly meaningless, was hidden in Zeristin's treasury. But even if his hunch was right, it left too many questions open. What could have possibly been enough to attain this sort of strength?
“We have to stop him!” At first, he'd thought of retreating. After all, with the conversation that had already transpired, they reached their goal. They came as a group of four magi to prepare for the worst-case scenario, but one was already incapacitated, and Zeristin's might exceeded their calculations. Yet, the conceit within him obstructed his reasoning when he saw victory in his grasps.
'Buy him some time, and the rise of our houses will be assured for years to come!'
“So, that's where he is!!” Zeristin connected the dots. He was unable to hear the noble's voice, but it didn't matter when he saw their reactions. Their ploy had been to keep him busy by restraining him through openly denouncing him in public, so Aien could sneak inside his treasury.
His construct began operating. One day this heroic figure would have written history as he led humanity into a new age of prosperity against the other races. But on this very day, the battle-armor of the future Archmagus solely prepared itself for a manhunt. The air surrounding Zeristin crackled, heralding the beginning of a storm that would devastate anything in its way. His armor turned into an engine of war as steam left through its openings, accumulating fiery energy to its utmost limits.
The construct was made of metal that was condensed to its utmost limits. Several times smaller than its original size, the metal became an impeccable defense with the earth element as its foundation. It weighed multiple times his own weight, resulting in the usual lack of speed that was characteristic of the earth element. However, this was counteracted by the lightning and wind element that accompanied each of Zeristin's movements.
On top of that, the immense fire energy within would no longer overheat as the water element supported it, enabling the continued use of the fire element at its full might. Even if, by some miracle, the nobles could damage the construct, it would surely recover with the properties of wind and water. All flaws that were attributed to each element complemented the other as the construct came full circle.
Seryl and Tyres gulped audibly when they thought about confronting the monstrosity in front of them. They knew there was nothing they could do to stand in its way. The 6th step of the Prime Construct seemed to increase the entire strength of the construct far more than the other parts, as the breastplate became the connection between them.
Considering all that, they only had one chance, and that was to target the head that was missing its helmet. However, Zeristin would never give them the opening.
Becoming the embodiment of a tempest of the elements, Zeristin set off. Unfortunately for the nobles, Zeristin didn't just want to pass through. For this short period, his wrath had switched its focus from Aien to the three nobles who each stemmed from a different Noble House. They were just as guilty in causing Lea's misfortune as was Aien.
Turning into an arrow of lightning, Zeristin targeted the noble who was the last Outer Focus magus among their group. The two others were unable to react in time as they watched their companion facing the entire might of Zeristin alone.
The recipient noble swallowed the desire to curse the Gods as fear overwhelmed him. He had underestimated the power difference that was created through Zeristin reaching the 6th Rank. Earlier, he'd thought that the worst-case scenario was failing to stall Zeristin long enough, forcing them to give up on unraveling his secrets.
But that didn't matter anymore, because at that moment he was staring death in the face.
His own construct was stuck in the 4th release and confronted with the towering bloodlust that Zeristin exuded, he lost all hope. The four rings of wind posed no threat to Zeristin, who reached out his arm. Supported by the elemental might and his strengthened body, he lashed out at the walking-dead man in front of him.
For the third time, a voice interrupted the chaos in the city. This time, the eyes of the common people and magi alike lit up in hope as they recognized who the voice belonged to. Standing on top of the dome was Kaemir Lorak, the emperor himself. His gown flattered in the wind as he steadily swung his sword, gathering the wind in its surroundings. It had already circled once above his head, removing the first sheath. A second swing followed after that before his time had run out, and he thrust his sword into the dome.
Nothing hindered the sword that was still sheathed five times as it traveled through the barrier without resistance. Following that, he activated his construct.
Electricity rushed in between Zeristin and his target in the blink of an eye, creating a tree of lightning that spread out into numerable branches. Immediately after that, the wind in its surroundings gathered in between the net of lightning to form a shield that split the city in half.
Zeristin didn't intend to stop his attack, but as he heard the familiar voice echoing within the city, he sighed heavily in his heart. His momentum couldn't be stopped entirely, but he still forced himself to reduce most of his strength. The fist strike connected with the tree of lightning and wind, shattering it with effortless ease. Behind that, the noble was sent flying into the distance by the impact of the destroyed shield. Aside from a few shallow wounds, he remained mostly intact.
“Zeristin Wezlak, cease your actions at once!” The decree of the emperor traveled through the city. Those that had the spare time to follow the aggressions between Zeristin and the nobles breathed out in relief. Regardless of who was right or what was going on, this wasn't the time for enmities. People were still dying in the city while Zeristin and the nobles were having a seemingly petty argument. It left the populace more than just outraged at their conduct, but there was nothing they could do.
'What's gotten into you, my friend?' The worried voice of the emperor was silently carried by the wind into Zeristin's ears. In front of the eyes of the public, he wasn't allowed to take a stance. Especially since Zeristin had become a suspicious figure, almost an enemy. He had to remain impartial, but that didn't mean he wouldn't care for his friend. However, even if he cared for the well-being of his friend, he couldn't allow for the might of his empire to take another hit. One Rank 7 magus was already incapacitated for an unknown amount of time. If they lost three more magi, especially if they died, the other countries would surely take action to seize the advantage of their internal turmoil.
With the appearance of the emperor, Zeristin controlled his bloodlust. He closed his eyes in deep thought before opening them again to watch the turmoil in the city. Naturally, the people were still suffering in the streets. The defense was unorganized and could barely hold itself together from collapsing entirely. Meanwhile, the plant infestation showed no signs of stopping, instead, growing with each passing second.
Having calmed himself slightly down, Zeristin deactivated his construct. The pieces of armor folded themselves together before turning back into a regular ring.
“Your Majesty!” The noble who caught the brunt of their clash came back. He tried to ignore the cold sweat running down his back after surviving what he'd thought was certain death and began complaining.
“Zeristin has betrayed our people! Not only has he shirked from his duties in defending the people of our country, but he also raised his sword against those that had come to help! He even raised his sword against Your Majesty himself! This can not go unpunished!”
“I said, that's enough!”
The emperor shot a fierce glance at the noble, forcing him to take a few steps back and shutting his mouth. Zeristin had already briefly told Lorak what was going on, and it left him furious. But he had to keep his position in mind. He was the emperor, and thus, he had to act like one.
“Who will be punished or not, is not for you to decide! Much less should you argue about such worthless matters when the people of the city are still in danger! Put your petty conflict aside and work together to quell this turmoil at once! Zeristin that goes for you as well!”
Zeristin gave one last exasperated sigh before the dome of sentries opened up. Without any hindrance left, the people stormed out of the city, trying to gain as much distance from this infestation as possible. And among them, there would surely be Aien.
But Zeristin knew he'd already gone too far. The unbridled fury remained, but with the appearance of a dear friend, some clarity flowed back into his disturbed mind. When he looked at the fleeing people, he not only saw faces filled with fear but with scorn. Hateful gazes that were directed at him. Regret welled up within him due to his rash actions but not for long. All of the blame, the cause of suffering, and everything else that had happened was the fault of Aien and the nobles.
'I'll leave the rest to you.' Zeristin said to the emperor.
'Are you sure you want to let him leave? We can order for the people to be searched through thoroughly.'
'Don't bother. After all, that's happened, we can't put the trust of the people even more at risk, and I doubt he'll get caught that easily. In a sense, you can consider all of the remaining people his hostages... You don't need to worry about me. No matter what, you have to take a stance against me in this matter. Regardless, the academy is done for.'
The emperor scowled and was filled with a sense of helplessness and foreboding. What Zeristin said was true. There was no way for him to spin the matters in his favor. Disregarding that, the reputation of the academy was irreversibly damaged and its future unknown. News of this would travel far and wide, possibly starting a series of events he didn't want to imagine.
'What are you going to do now?' The emperor asked, his voice filled with concern. He'd never seen Zeristin this disturbed before.
'I'll borrow your observatory.'
With these last words, Zeristin headed towards the south, leaving the chaos in the city for the emperor and nobles to handle. Although the divinations of the magi he'd forced to inquire about Aien couldn't find him, he didn't completely give up on that approach.
Divinations for Aien himself had born fruitless, but the same couldn't be said for his belongings. For that, he'd use the strongest divination construct in the country. If that didn't work, he'd never cease trying until he got his revenge on everyone that was involved. Zeristin no longer cared about anything else. To hell with the city. To hell with his secret. Let them all know for all he cared. Let that fool Tristan ignorantly drag down humanity with him. What did it matter to him...
Because once more, he'd lost everything dear to him.
Minutes before the outbreak.
Thanks to the spider construct, Aien knew about the headmaster's whereabouts. It used its legs to communicate by carving simple words into the ground, letting him know when the right time had come.
After leaving his prison, he first headed towards the room that housed the magical plants. Using the construct, the lock was quickly broken. Following that, Aien left the door wide open to cause chaos before igniting the flare he'd hidden in one of the plants beforehand.
As the turmoil ensued and Zeristin closed off the city, Aien headed towards the headmaster's office.
The nobles hadn't lied when no traps could recognize his existence, and the rest was all taken care of by the spider construct. It didn't take long for it to reveal the cavity behind the bookshelves. There wasn't much inside it. Aien could recognize some of the constructs which were taken apart by the spider that wobbled its head, apparently very satisfied with the work it had done.
But Aien ignored it as all of his attention was focused onto something else. He didn't even care when the spider took a stack of papers and swallowed them whole into its tiny head without letting him take a look at it. Shortly after, the spider disappeared from the room, leaving Aien alone with what had grasped his attention.
Hung into the back of the cavity was a piece of paper. It was blood-red, shining in a luster that made his blood boil in excitement. Aien was unable to suppress his desire to reach out. When he was about to touch the paper, however, his hand merely passed through. No matter how much he tried, he was unable to grasp it. A strange feeling within him told him beforehand that he couldn't touch it, yet he still continued trying.
Slowly, Aien awakened from his trance and quickly pulled his hand back. This was reckless of him. There was no reassurance that the spider had successfully disarmed all traps or that there was indeed nothing capable of recognizing him. Despite fearing that, for that single moment, Aien was unable to suppress the longing in his heart and lost himself within it.
Anyone had a wish. Regardless of what it was, it would always be there, deep within the heart where it cried out in a desire to be heard. This paper in front of him amplified this shouting desire. Aien's eyes widened with shock as he realized what it was. At the same time, as the realization hit him, the words written in white shone brightly, imprinting themselves into Aien's mind. He almost couldn't endure the assault and sunk to the ground as the words translated themselves from the Divine Language.
I, Seri Taer Lya Alyu, will hereby offer my soul. In exchange, I demand assistance to my love, Zeristin Wezlak, so that he may walk the path of a human Archmagus. I demand that he shall attain the strength he needs to overcome that which stands in his way. I demand that he shall regain the past glory of humanity's lost brilliance.
The world acknowledged your plea.
To grant what you desire, I was born as Ygsyl, a devil under the Law of Power. I will heed the world's call to take it upon myself to honor the contract.
The devil was born, and the contract was made.
I have received your offering, and therefore, I will uphold my part of the deal.
Your wish shall be fulfilled.
After taking a few heavy breaths, Aien regained his calmness and looked at the paper in disbelief. The implications were obvious. But he didn't dwell on them too much as a different realization hit him.
Humans could not help him.
Aien knew of this option beforehand, but he was too wary of the associated and unknown dangers. That's why he'd spent his time studying Magecraft to find a more reliable method. Even so, it was futile. The possibly only solution was right in front of him, and the living proof was right outside this building, hunting him down. Next to the paper, there was a single book, covered in a white cloth that hid its cover. Without hesitation, Aien grabbed the book after skimming through its contents and left the office.
Among the escaping river of people, there was a single man who resisted the upward stream that led away from the city. A brown coat was draped over his shoulders, and a hood covered most of his face. He looked down around his neck with a slightly disturbed expression. During some point of his apprehension, his necklace must have come off due to the force of the speed. He hadn't noticed that until the whole ordeal was over. Aside from that, however, everything had turned out surprisingly smooth for Aien.
Thinking back to his stay at the academy and the way things turned out, Aien had doubts, regrets even. A lot of things went out of his control. He hadn't accounted for most of this in the beginning, when he'd first come to the academy. Regardless, he'd steeled his mind and made his decision, yet he had to admit that he couldn't forget the days he'd spent in peace. The figure of Lea, who had accompanied him for a year, occasionally flashed through his mind against his will. He didn't know what had become of her. He'd never intended to escalate her imprisonment to this degree.
But these tiny doubts in his heart were crushed by his iron-will that desired for strength. He would not let himself be held back by his morals or his conscience. Thanks to that, he was one step closer to his goal. At least, that's what he had repeatedly told himself.
This was the path he'd chosen. This was what he'd wished for. There was no turning back.
But even so, the whole time, a tiny voice in the back of his mind was asking.
Was this the right thing to do?
Therefore, before doing anything else, there was one last matter he had to attend to. Bearing these thoughts, Aien headed towards the north.