The Black Monster Forest Expedition assembled in short order, led by Duke Agnus himself. The expedition was quite modest for a group led by a duke of the Empire—it consisted of only a hundred people, including Armand, the only 4th-Class wizard in the Duchy, the Red Knights, and the two Young Masters.
Naturally, the vassals—particularly the commander of the Golden Mane Corps, Armstrong—were fiercely opposed. Were something to happen to the Duke's personal health, the entire Duchy would be shaken to its roots.
"Who is protecting whom?" Duke Agnus silenced the opposition just like that. After all, Duke Agnus only allowed the strong to participate in the expedition; in fact, the initial plan was for the Duke to take his two sons into the Black Forest with no one else, but his vassals' objections were too strong.
There's no denying he's a great person, muttered Joshua as he watched Duke Agnus walking ahead of him. He was the worst father, but there was no better superior—his personality was superb, to say nothing of his skills. The present aristocracy was locked up in their sense of privilege down to their bones; only a few people treated their subordinates like actual human beings.
That's probably why so many people gathered under him.
Joshua fiddled with a small ring the Duke of Agnus had given him the day before. It was a "Deon Ring", a family treasure. This ring, smaller than a finger knuckle, was created by the Magic Tower Master at immense cost. It was known as the "Masterpiece of the Magicians", but its function was simpler than one might think: infusing mana into the ring would instantly provide the wearer with armor; it also amplifies magic, and provides the ability to ignore magic below a certain level.
All existing Deon Rings were divided into ranks similar to those of the knights. Even the lowest level C-Class Deon Ring could buy an entire castle. But Deon Rings could not be purchased with wealth alone—as if to capitalize on their scarcity, their creator would sell them only to nobles with a reputation to match their money.
Later, a Knight made the ring so popular that it became a necessity… but that was a long time ago. The important thing is… Joshua glanced awkwardly at the ring in his hand.
A golden border around a flawless white body; a flash of purple brilliance in the center.
…this Deon Ring is an A-Class. There were less than ten A-Class Deon Rings in the entirety of the Avalon Empire.
Each family owned at least two rings: one, of course, was for the head of the household; the other was for the family's heir, the next chief of the household, although there were times when nobles and the Imperial family would give their spare Deon Rings to their most trusted knights.
However, no family on the continent could boast of two A-Class Deon Rings—the family's second ring would always be of a rank lower than the ring the head wore.
And yet, a second A-Class Deon Ring lay in Joshua's palm.
"It's called a Deon Ring… It's not mine, of course. There was a time when I helped the Master, and he gave this to me; he said that I should give this to my child when he was born. I won't go into detail on how it functions… just put a little bit of your mana in here, and you'll understand everything."
"This… Deon Ring—wasn't this artifact supposed to be passed to the successor?"
"Don't get me wrong." Duke Agnus had burst into laughter. "I'm not giving this to you. I'm just… lending it. It would just rot in the corner otherwise."
Joshua had been dumbfounded. He couldn't believe the Duke would treat this precious artifact like a commonplace product.
"Well, that's not all. The armor the Deon Ring creates bears the insignia of the family it belongs to. Above all, I really hate when someone covets what's mine."
Is he marking me as his own?
"If you go to Arcadia, you will need to give up the name 'Joshua von Agnus'. Your false identity is the heir of an anonymous author. It would be good to come up with a good name for yourself."
Joshua sighed. Why did he have to hide his identity? It had to be the same reason the Duke was "lending" him the ring: it was the best way to prevent any complications.
I don't think he's considering my training at all. Joshua smirked. Indeed, the Duke was forged from iron, and his bloodline was no different. He had no time to spare to take care of Joshua.
But, the Duke was right: he had to hide his identity.
If someone of noble blood tries to hit me, I should use the Deon Ring. "Don't mess with the Agnus family," is what the Duke implied by giving him the ring. The Imperial family wouldn't dare recruit Joshua when they knew he already belonged to the Duke.
"Do you resent me?"
Joshua had lifted his head to regard the source of the quiet yet dominating voice. Then, for the first time, the Duke had laid his emotions bare for Joshua to see—and then it was gone as quickly as it appeared.
"...Ah, you know what? Let's just go out."
Joshua had saluted the Duke and quickly left the room.
Am I resentful? Joshua pondered, quietly repeating the Duke's words.
Do I resent the Duke?
I honestly don't know.
Joshua's memories of him in his past life had faded into a blur. He certainly hadn't wanted to see the Grand Duke die in vain.
If I had to say, maybe his crime of neglect? He'd left Joshua and his mother alone, causing his mother's early death; however, he'd had so many enemies in his last life that the resentment faded away.
Time is the best medicine, but that doesn't mean his neglect can be forgiven so easily.
More importantly… Joshua could feel a hot gaze probing him from the side. It'd been like this the entire expedition. Babel, walking side by side with Joshua, eyed him from head to toe; Joshua was starting to wonder if there was something on his face.
This is uncomfortable. Joshua frowned.
This is exactly why Joshua hadn't wanted to participate in this expedition in his first life. Now, however, Joshua desperately needed to buy time.
A vessel sufficient to hold the power will be created naturally as my body grows, just by standing around and doing nothing. But that was not enough for Joshua. He needed to push his young body to the limits and to understand this new power.
He needed to contemplate himself—all he needed was time on his own.
If I hadn't recalled my distant memories, I would have avoided this expedition at any cost. At this time, monsters would rampage simultaneously across the continent. From his past life, Joshua knew why.
The stones of origin. One of them must have been in this place, the Black Monster Forest.
Attribute stones differ from the mana stones wizards refine; in other words, it was a completely different material than what was used in magical objects. Unlike the mana stones, which only contain "mana", the origin stone has each "attribute". Only five such stones were found in his previous life—such a powerful object would obviously attract Joshua's attention. The stone of origin would be of great help to him one way or another. It could even amplify his potential power once again and control the boundaries that only he knew.
"From here, we ride horses."
Joshua was shaken from his thoughts by a voice.
The expedition silently departed their home and found their way to where horses were prepared for them. The family servants who managed the horses had bowed their heads from the moment they spotted Duke Agnus approaching in the distance.
"How are the horses?"
"I have prepared the best for you, Duke."
Duke Agnus nodded and mounted his white horse.
"Each one of you, choose a suitable horse and mount immediately! From here on, we need to speed up our march!"
"Yes!" The knights sprung into motion in unison, leaving Joshua standing blankly by himself. Chiffon saw him and burst into laughter.
"Duke, it seems that Young Master Joshua does not know how to ride a horse. Perhaps he never learned."
Duke Agnus frowned. It seemed as if the issue hadn't occurred to him.
Chiffon had spoken with a large voice, allowing everyone to hear him. He smiled winningly when the other knights glanced towards them.
"Actually, he hadn't lived with the family until not too long ago—"
"You said you lived in a stable? You lived with horses all your life—shouldn't you know how to ride?"
"You shovel horse manure, right?" But… surely you don't think it's that easy to ride a horse?"
"Wouldn't it be better to send Young Master Joshua back?"
Some of the knights sounded concerned, but most were just ridiculing. For a knight, horseback riding was as natural as breathing—was there anything more shameful for a proud knight?
Only when all the knights were mounted, did Joshua begin to move. He padded quietly towards a horse, with Chiffon watching eagerly.
"I'm only bluffing, sorry." No, you should give it a try… Hah! Horses are not that easy, you bastard. Chiffon grinned snidely.
Joshua stroked the horse's nose, drawing a happy rumble from the animal. Joshua gave a satisfied smile and leaped off the ground, landing neatly on the saddle. His movements were light and acrobatic—even the horse didn't react to the sudden weight.
Chiffon and the Red Knights were astonished.
"What is this—?" Chiffon choked on his words.
Duke Agnus loosed a hearty laugh.
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