Emperor Marcus divided his battalions up according to their skills; therefore, the Imperial Knights’ training facilities were likewise “differentiated” to the point that it was a bit unfair.
To begin with, the sunny lodgings and training facilities of the 1st through 3rd Battalions were arranged into a neat triangle around the Imperial Palace. The remainders—the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th Battalions1—guarded the outskirts of the Palace. A unique formation, to be sure, but it was undoubtedly the most practical approach to guarding the Palace; each Battalion worked as a single organism to protect the Imperial Palace.
That aside, Joshua was headed towards the massive Imperial Fortress, directly opposite from the Imperial Palace. He could hear the crowd’s cheering growing louder as he approached.
It’s been a long time, Joshua grumbled—but he was grinning. In some ways, his plans weren’t so different from what he’d done in his previous life. I also came here before entering the Imperial Palace, before becoming particularly powerful. Joshua cast a hazy glance into the horizon, much like his old mercenary buddies. I could proudly say that it was a job that was ours—perfectly.
Two massive training halls appeared as he closed in on his goal; they were the training grounds of the 11th and 12th Battalions. Despite their reputation as “bastards” with no connections, they had remained here without change for several decades.
“ARGHHHH!” Weapons clashed.
“AHAHAHA! Are you feeling good, Ranger? Is that it? Does it feel good to have a bastard pinning you now?”
“Do you hear yourself? You’re in the 12th Battalion—lower than mine.”
“What? So how do you differentiate the top battalions from our bunch? You prideful bastard—”
“That’s exactly why His Majesty said that all the fools must be mercenaries! You don’t even know how the battalions are divided up!”
“What? Did you just call me a fool? Scum!”
“There’s one thing that never changes,” Joshua remarked with a hearty chuckle as he passed by the boisterous voices and clatter of metal.
Eventually, Joshua arrived at his destination. One of the two enormous training halls, fit to house dozens of people, was empty, as if it had been shut down for the day. The other hall was packed to the brim; hundreds of people watched two men exchanging blows.
“Looks like today is the day,” Joshua muttered, running his eyes over the hall.
The audience was split in two, each cheering for a different knight.
“Hey Ranger! I bet all of this month’s pocket money on you, so you’d better win! Slam that guy into the ground! Show them how the 11th Battalion plays!”
“Kases! If you lose, I’m gonna be kicked out of the house! I bet everything my wife and I have! Save me!”
The raspy voice made Joshua smile. The lowest battalions, the 11th and 12th, used to have regular fights like these. It was supposed to foster companionship through competition—but it backfired.
“Ah, it’s been so long…” Joshua smiled warmly and nodded. “I’ve missed this badly.”
As he was musing, one of the swords was launched away and went crashing into the corner of the training hall. The victor pointed his sword and laughed, while the loser looked desperate.
“I knew it! I knew Ranger wouldn’t let anyone from a lower battalion sully the 11th Battalion’s honor! But, uh… this is very shameful.”
The loser threw away his pride and clutched at the victor’s pants.
“Brother Ranger! Save me just this once—I mean, you know my wife, right? Everything I do annoys her and I can feel my dick shrinking in shame. Since I lost, she’s going to take everything from me. I don’t know what to do!”
“What? Look at this dunderhead, heheh. You willing to take a chance?”
“Oh, sorry.” Ranger looked down on Kases mockingly. “I didn’t notice you, I thought you were a bug. What were you saying? Do you a favor, hmmmm?”
“Ha! Ranger, you do realize that if you save him, he’ll have more chances to attack you in the future?” One of the other knights patted Ranger on the shoulder.
“I know how to repay my favors, so please,” Kases begged. “Help me, Brother Ranger, please…”
The audience on one side was laughing their heads off; on the other side, they were shaking their heads.
“Kases is a disgrace to the 12th Battalion.”
“Ugh, that thing isn’t a knight. He’s worse than a bug.”
Joshua slowly made his way into the middle of the mob.
“Oh? Who is this kid?”
“Where did you come from, kid?”
“Did some noble brat get lost on the way to the playground…”
“Kid…” Ranger eyed the boy. “This is not a playground for the likes of you. Did you get lost?”
“No, I’m in the right place.”
Ranger scowled at him. It was clear he didn’t understand.
“I’m here for a reason…” Joshua smiled cruelly, capturing the mob’s attention. Their faces lit up, eager to see what he had to say. “I’m here for… Berche’s Bloody Battle.”
The atmosphere was instantly dampened, as if they’d been splashed with cold water.
Two men were hiking through the dense woodlands near the eastern gates of Arcadia. They arrived at a small, vacant lot.
“This is it,” the huge, middle-aged man on the left whispered, picking up a handful of dust. He had a low-pitched, pleasant voice that suited his stature nicely. He had a body like a boulder and a strong, plain demeanor. However, his true identity was hardly pleasant: this was Marcus Lindblom, the Earth Magician.
“Huh.” The other man peered at Marcus’s palm. “The dust is different here.” He smiled.
This man looked to have not yet reached his 30s. He had cool features, light-green hair, and a face that promised mischief. Theta Leyers—he, like Marcus Lindblom, was one of the Seven Magicians. Theta held the Storm seat, earning him the epithet “Magician of the Wind.”
“It’s not dirt, Theta,” Marcus said.
“I suppose not. Would it make you feel better if I called it ‘ash?’”
A sudden gust of wind blew the dust out of Marcus’s hand, drifting into the air as the Earth Magician watched.
“May Damocles’s blessings be upon you—”
“That’s too much!” Theta clapped his hands together in emphasis. “Your prayers are disrespecting the dead. May his soul stay with us even if his body is now dust.”
“Theta.” Marcus chastised Theta in hushed tones.
“Let’s just go and investigate, shall we?” Theta shrugged. “I haven’t been out in a long time.”
Marcus frowned. “You want to ditch so soon? The identity of the murder is not yet revealed.”
“What’s bothering you? There’s a lot of evidence out here.”
Theta straightened up.
“Close your eyes and imagine the wind rushing past you,” he instructed Marcus. “Don’t you feel it?”
“What do you mean?” Marcus looked bewildered, but when he saw Theta’s solemn expression he slowly closed his eyes. Theta was perpetually naughty, Marcus knew, but every now and then he could be deadly serious.
His eyes were only closed for a moment.
“There’s no mana?”
Mana is naturally distributed throughout the atmosphere. It would be normal for mana to be concentrated in the heart of a dense forest like this—however, there was not a smidgen to be found. What’s more, it was only in a single place, about 10 feet away from the pair.
“No way… A mana vacuum…” Marcus was incredulous; he was well aware of the significance of this phenomenon.
“A vacuum manifests itself in two ways. One is a naturally occurring phenomenon—however, in a forest like this—right next to the capital no less—there’s no way it wouldn’t have been discovered already.”
“There’s only one possibility. Circle rush.” Theta nodded firmly. “If the heart of a Class 6 or higher magician is severely wounded…”
Theta mimed an explosion with his hands.
“Total obliteration in a one kilometer radius. The problem is, this area is too clean; it only happened once, and recently.”
“Stone…” Marcus groaned.
“Yes… It’s like the Primordial Stone Magma’s effect.” Theta’s eyes glittered. “This is his destination, and where he died… but this is a forest. If he was pursued, he would’ve left traces. He came here of his own will.” Theta gestured wildly.
“Do you understand? The perpetrator—it was an individual, not a group. Jack was following Bronto. The vacuum indicates he found it. Assuming the worst case scenario…” He looked around. “The person who killed him was the one who took Bronto. By finding the stone, we find the murderer.”
No idea what happened to 4-6. ↩️
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