Book 1, Chapter 41

Subject

The grey dwarf proposed a six month grace period for both Steven and Richard, after which the two would compete again in a subject of Sharon’s choosing. Hopefully, both would use the extra time to improve on and refine their preparations, the outcome of the battle determining which of the two would eventually inherit Sharon’s runecrafting expertise.

The grand mages all realised that Blackgold’s proposal for a six month grace period was self-serving. In all honesty, this proposal would give him an extra half year of fees from Steven. Could it be that Her Excellency’s finances had deteriorated to that extent? Yet, such doubts were immediately rebuffed. The legendary mage’s finances were robust; it was only the Deepblue that was struggling to make ends meet.

For many materialistic people whose primary objective in life was to amass wealth, time was an extremely precious resource. This was especially true for time in a primary plane like Norland, so without a split second to spare in the legendary mage making decisions a delay was inconceivable. The subject of the competition was decided in that very meeting.

Both this decision and the topic of the competition were sent to the participants the same day, a copy sent to Minnie as well. Of course nobody harboured any hope for Minnie; the top hierarchy of the Deepblue had long since received news of Marquess Niall’s defeat. The news had spread from the grand mages to the outer circle of disciples, and Richard was starting to be viewed in a new light. Before he’d just been a fellow with some talent who’d had the good fortune to win Her Excellency’s affection. Now, with the explosive rise of the Archerons, nobody in high society would dare look down upon him. At the very most, they would only scoff behind his back about his upstart origins.

As day turned to night, explosive cheers burst forth from within Steven’s mansion. Clutching the documents with some disbelief, the dragon warlock read over them again and again to confirm that it wasn’t a dream. For the first time, he felt Sharon had affection for him as well. Forget any penalties, the bloody conspiracy hadn’t even been brought up once.

Just like that, the affair he was most concerned about passed. Since the top hierarchy of the Deepblue had agreed upon the result, the Archerons or even Richard himself would not pose a threat of retaliation. The thing giving him most jubilation was that the doors of runecrafting had been opened to him once more, giving him and Richard a fair fight.

Was that even fair? Steven didn’t think so for a moment.

He was a seventeen-year-old dragon warlock over level 10, with the financial backing of his entire family. More important was that he had a true blue runemaster backing him, and while the competition was six months hence the subject had already been made known. Everything worked to encourage him to cheat! He could leave any manufacture of components and purchase of materials to his family, and the development and design of the rune itself to Saint Klaus. Six months would be enough for him to improve on any weaknesses and manufacture a proper magic rune!

Two metal cages were added to his residence. One was built to contain magical beasts, specifically a powerful winter wolf. The winter wolves of the north were two metres long, and this one was amongst the most ferocious of its kind. It had tough flesh alongside the natural ability to cast frostbite and ice arrows. Old, powerful wolves could even spout freezing breaths!

In the other cage were a few strong, stout, polar snow rabbits. This particular type of rabbit had snow-white fur that gave it excellent defence against the cold, and they bred extremely quickly. However, apart from being lightning fast on their feet, they did not have any real means of attack. Snow rabbits were a common beast in the north, amongst the most elementary of prey on the food chain. They made up most of the winter wolves’ diet.

This was Sharon’s competition: craft a rune that would allow a snow rabbit to defeat a winter wolf. Although it seemed deceptively easy, it was not easy to resolve.

The winter wolf was far stronger in battle, and it didn’t even fare too badly in terms of speed. The rabbit was weak and small in front of the wolf that could attack upto thirty metres away, and its frail body made it difficult to slot runes on it. The rabbit was literally hapless in the face of a winter wolf: this task was clearly not something an elementary runemaster could succeed at.

Yet, even the most difficult of problems had their solutions. If even Saint Klaus couldn’t solve this, Steven believed Richard wouldn’t be able to either. Moreover, the rules had been made very clear: if the snow rabbits of both parties failed to defeat the wolf the winner would be decided upon at discretion.

After a period of initial ecstasy, a calmer Steven begin to seriously consider the topic assigned by the legendary mage. On the day of the competition, the winter wolves provided by the Deepblue would definitely have similar strengths, but the participants would choose their own rabbits. Like any beasts rabbits varied in size and strength, and because they needed to withstand a rune they would eventually undergo several rigorous rounds of selection to result in rabbits of different power. Six months would be enough time to breed two generations of completely new snow rabbits, and the accumulated knowledge of the Solams could easily produce beastly rabbits in that time. Steven was confident that he could definitely have a very surprising edge over Richard.

Even though breeding a beast with a new genetic make-up required heavy investment, that would not deter Steven at this juncture. Were he to win the battle, all his efforts would have paid off. Of course, the beasts in the two cages had been provided by the Deepblue free of cost for experimentation, but after that buying more would definitely be a huge expense. It would be more feasible to catch his own.

When one was in desperate straits, even a slight mirage of hope would allow them to burst forth with the full extent of their capabilities. This was something Steven was experiencing right now; although he’d already accepted his loss in terms of talent, in the face of this new opportunity his family’s status and finances forced some determination into his path as a runemaster.

A note about the latest developments had been sent back, along with a letter expressing Steven’s resolve to devote himself to magic once again. It didn’t take long for the magic communication array to light up, sending a leaf with a magic letterhead back over. This was written by the duke himself, concise and straight to the point. The Solam Family would henceforth wholly support Steven’s endeavours for the competition, on the one request at the end that Steven wouldn’t commit such a folly again.

Steven understood what that meant— Gaton’s deeds had already spread through the mainland, and now the Archerons were no inferior to the Solams in status. If he did something foolish like try to assassinate Richard again, nobody would be able to save him.

And Steven was determined to beat Richard this time fair and square, with proper means. Sharon may favour the boy, but her taste… was a little strange. The dragon warlock felt like since the legendary mage would let Richard in, he himself could have a chance in the future. He had absolute confidence in himself, so he would wait for such a day. However, one thing was that he would find it impossible to put on a manly front with her unless she was willing to contain her dragonslayer aura. However, it seemed quite improbable for such an aura to even be contained.

……

Richard was crouching down in front of two metal cages in the basement of his residence, observing the snow rabbit and the winter wolf. Sharon’s decision had definitely thrown him off, even made him feel wronged and resentful initially, but once he got to solving the problem he slowly pushed those things to the back of his mind. He immersed himself into the world of runes.

Having already gone through the entire dictionary of elementary runes, he hadn’t found any that could allow a snow rabbit to defeat the winter wolf. The wolf had a strong resistance to poisons, so even if it were to swallow one infected with a potent poison it would only feel some mild discomfort in its stomach with no serious repercussions.

Richard continually flipped through the thick pages, unable to find any usable rune even at grade 2. It wouldn’t be until grade 3 that multiple attributes could be added, and only at the fifth grade could one stimulate the blood. An example of the latter was the holy equipment crafted by Saint Peter, able to strengthen all divine creatures.

Richard closed the book, taking his eyes off the dazzling names at the back to train his attention on the cages once more. He’d only crafted a half-finished rune at best so far, and even with his rate of progress he’d barely be able to make grade 1 runes in half a year, forget grades 2 or 3. However, Sharon would definitely not have given him an impossible challenge; it left Richard pondering.

There were endless possibilities in the world of runes, the existing runes but a small and insignificant part of the whole. All runemasters who left their own indelible marks on the world had one common characteristic— they were unique in their own ways, without imitating anyone else. This had made Richard grow pensive; since it was impossible to solve the problem with normal runes, he would need to think out of the box.

Innovation was an everlasting theme in the world of runes, and Richard’s thoughts eventually gained some clarity. This was only a test from Sharon, to ascertain whether he possessed the one quality that would allow him to grow beyond even a saint runemaster— innovation.

Becoming a saint runemaster could not be the end of his progress— the Deepblue Aria exceeded the scope of fifth grade runecrafting. Even if he was only a humble apprentice of Sharon’s, Richard’s pride motivated him to dedicate his entire life to fulfilling his promise to her. To him, this promise was second only to his mother’s dying wish.

It would take a long time for the boy to realise that this sort of pride, radiating from his very soul, came from his Archeron blood.

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