Reinhardt lay to the east of Arcadia, the heart of Avalon, along the border with the Hubalt Empire. The distance it took to get there was substantially longer than it appeared on a map. The Avalon Empire, as one of the three great powers, had an expansive territory; duchies and estates, as major cities, had warp gates, while other cities did not. The quickest way to get from Arcadia to Reinhardt was to take the warp gate to the eastern Duchy of Tremblin, then travel the rest of the way by land.
There was one portion of the path that couldn’t be avoided; a desolate area of cast-aside baronies.
“Tripia…” Joshua’s eyes threatened to overflow with guilt as he examined the looming blue jaws of the warp gate.
“I… Baron Joshua,” the dispatch wizard said anxiously, “Haiburi castle is quite far away so the ride will be a bit bumpy. Please be careful.”
Joshua simply nodded and stepped through the warp gate. The warp gate encompassed Joshua in a flickering blue glow… and then it was gone, along with Joshua.
“Hahh…” The dispatch wizard sighed. “I heard the rumors, but I haven’t felt like this since meeting the Thunder Wizard.” Shaun, the same dispatch wizard who ushered through Jack Steropes, flashed a tired, relieved smile.
He didn’t know how to put the feeling into words.
What am I supposed to say? If Steropes was frightening because of his notoriety, then the most talked-about person in Avalon… He needed a moment to process his feelings.
“I almost fell to my knees… and for some reason, it feels like that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” It was like standing in front of a monarch—bowing was instinctive. How far would he go in the future?
Of course, it didn’t make him feel pitiful or humiliated.
“This is embarrassing. I’m terrified of a 15 year old lad,” Shaun groaned. He was having trouble matching the Joshua he saw with the one from the stories.
“Well, they live in a completely different universe than I do.” Shaun shrugged and went back to his work.
Haiburi Castle was second only to Trember Castle, the Duke’s estate, within Tremblin Duchy.
A boisterous inn in the heart of the city’s busiest district was packed to the gills. Three of the loudest men were congregated at one table.
“Hey! Did you hear me?” a rugged man in light armor with a scar across his cheek said.
“What? What are you talking about?” A man with a bushy beard tilted his head at the first man.
“It’s all about this Master Battle! They said the application deadlines will close and Reinhardt will release this list shortly, but everyone says it’s going to be big!”
“The Master Battle roster?” A polite, bearded mercenary looked up. “So who’s going to be there?”
“Without payment? This is valuable information that only high nobles have access to.”
“Come on.” A gleaming coin went tumbling through the air.
“Always a pleasure to work with you.” The rough-faced man snatched the coin and grinned.
“Tell me, quickly.”
“First and foremost,” said Bera, the man with the scar, “they say it’s going to be the biggest Master Battle ever—more than twenty participants.”
“How many? More than twenty, really?”
To join the Master Battle, you had to be A-Class at the bare minimum, and then pass their sponsor nation or organization’s rigorous screening. As a result, the Master Battle averaged at about ten combatants—A-Class knights, high-ranking wizards, and high-level spirits couldn’t be found just anywhere.
Bera was ecstatic to see his colleagues hanging on to his every word.
“From Babylon, Kingdom of Hearts: Red Heart; from Terra Kingdom, the First Magician, Force Magician Astello; the pride of our mercenaries and the keeper of two diamonds, the mighty Akschuler…”
The mercenaries gulped as the prestigious cast grew.
“Not only that, but one of the Seven Magicians said that one of them would be participating in the Master Battle, for whatever reason. There’s also rumors that the Duke of Altsma, the Wild King, the northern ruler of the Swallow Empire, will be there.”
“Is that true?” One of the mercenaries sprung to his feet in amazement. “The Wild King is fighting?”
“First off, sit down. They say the Wild King is out for revenge. Ulabis, Prince of Thran and the Knight of Red Flame is going, too. There’s even whispers that the Hubalt Empire is sending a secret talent this time.”
“Oh my God.” The man flopped back into his seat, overwhelmed. This mercenary, like most, would never participate in a competition as exclusive as the Master Battle. All he could do was listen to stories to quell his boiling blood.
In the corner, a figure silently listened to the men talk. More accurately speaking, this person was not actively listening to the men; rather, they were so loud that anyone in the vicinity was forced to listen. They wore a ratty gown and ate an equally ratty salad as if the taste meant nothing to them. Dull, empty eyes lay behind the torn robe, filled with absolutely nothing.
“Wait, wait, wait… The great kingdoms have someone, but what about Avalon?”
“They’re…” Bera’s voice dropped to a whisper. “This is top secret: Avalon’s participant is a 15 year old boy.”
“Bera, we paid too much to be listening to this nonsense—”
“Let me finish! If I told you…”
“Go on, let’s hear it.”
Bera hesitated, letting the words linger on his lips.
“Avalon’s monster? Joshua Sanders?”
“I’m so excited, I can’t—Oh my God.”
Bera’s mouth stretched into a toothy grin as his peers broke into whooping and hollering.
“Greg…” He noticed one of the men kept drinking, disinterested. “Are you not interested?”
“It’s no use talking about men you’ll never see, right? I’d rather talk about the ladies.”
“Oh, oh!” The bearded man’s curiosity was piqued. “The Empire’s three most beautiful women.”
“You curious, Dirk?”
“Huh? Of course I am.”
Greg held out his hand, grinning widely.
“Here!” Dirk’s wallet got a little lighter again.
“He’s gonna be rich at this rate,” Bera said, shaking his head at Dirk. “At least we can listen for free, though.”
“You won't be disappointed,” Greg said cheerfully. “I won’t be talking about the two popular ones, I’m talking about someone else.”
“Do you mean…?”
Greg nodded knowingly at Bera.
“Nonsense! How can you know, if a lady has been gone for more than three years and her family is devastated? …Is it possible that there are three new beauties I haven’t heard of? I heard Avalon’s great strategist, Icarus is really—”
“No, are you talking about the lady who went missing?”
“My information is accurate,” Greg claimed with confidence. “It came from the priest who investigated the site. He found traces of black magic.”
“Ohohohoho…” Dirk smiled.
The figure in the corner stood up, paid and left. No one paid attention, and the discussions in the inn continued unabated.
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