A Summer Like Winter
Erin’s sudden change covered Richard’s vast summer sky with haze. Her teary face and bitter smile appeared within his mind every break he got, and he couldn’t rid himself of it no matter what he did. His heart was filled up by her image, and his gifts of wisdom and truth ensured that every word, every laugh, every move of hers had been recorded in his mind without any discrepancies. This included detailed images of every part of her body, including the mysterious bit he hadn’t uncovered completely yet.
The mind was always subject to changes. Just days ago every memory of Erin brought Richard warmth, joy and anticipation that had him looking forward to the next day. Now, as those memories grew day by day, those heartwarming moments became a scalding iron that branded his young heart, leaving a thin trace beside the gaping scar already present.
Richard knew that Erin had changed greatly, and also that something was bothering her, but he didn’t know the exact cause. She didn’t even reply whenever he asked her what it was.
It was only now that he realised he didn’t have a single friend in the Deepblue beside Erin. Even as Sharon’s apprentice he only saw her three times so far in the entire year he’d been studying, and outside of the grand mages who taught him now most of his time was spent with the girl.
The heartache grew even more vivid whenever he was alone, and sometimes it hurt so badly it felt like the raging flames that haunted his deepest nightmares. The only way he gained peace was by devoting himself to the vast world of magic and knowledge, putting all his focus into complex formulae, graphs, mana, and foreign creatures.
This summer, as far as Richard was concerned, was just as cold as winter. His performance was excellent in every aspect of his study, the standard of his works leaving even the experienced grand mages speechless regularly. The only thing they could do was praise the wisdom of Her Excellency, unable to comment further. His mana growth had doubled this summer, and he would likely become a level 2 mage by the end of it.
Even outside magic his performance was shocking. Philosophy, history, politics, economics, the young man was like a thirsty desert as he absorbed every single drop of knowledge sent his way.
One day, even the picky maestro who taught him art was sent into silence for a long while. Richard had turned in an image of a girl holding a huge thermos box, her back turned as she walked briskly towards a dark tunnel. That frozen silhouette completely brought across her depression, panic, and worry, the edge of the magic robe seemed to continue swinging with the wind. He wasn’t sure why, but the maestro felt like the thermos box was the central theme of the art, the strokes used for it different from those used for the girl. Although the girl seemed to be alive, the box actually seemed to be in motion, a heavy rock that dragged the viewer’s heart down. The colouring was simple and plain, everything drawn by a magic quill, but the numerous lines of varying depths made this piece of art breathtaking.
Even after an hour staring at it the artist found it hard to make a comment. He finally let out a sudden heave, telling the assistant by his side, “Even a depiction of reality, once it surpasses the limit, can become art. This is but a moment he caught in time, but it will be engraved in eternity!”
The assistant was left in great shock. Never had he expected that such a simple sketch would earn such great comments from the maestro, someone who was one of the few at the peak of the Sacred Alliance in terms of art. Something with such high appraisal from him would easily sell for millions in other worlds, the only restriction to the price being that Richard was still alive and would likely continue to be for a long time. But even then, the boy would perhaps not create something like this again in a long time.
The Maestro had mixed feelings. He shook his head heavily after a long while, waving to his assistant to leave before he sat down before the easel to stare at the work. Time passed, but as dusk arrived a mass of mana lights came into being around the maestro to add another source of illumination to the dim room. The dim light made the sketch seem even more infectious, having the viewer feel like they were in that dark, cold tunnel that was vast and endless.
“How long has it been since I last saw art like this? This kid… His heart must have been twisting as he drew her…” he murmured to himself. He was once young as well, and the peak of his own artistic career came in the midst of his worst devastation. He hadn’t been able to find the same passion and impulse he’d once possessed once fame and accomplishment came his way… He seemed to see Richard himself through this piece of art, a beautiful quiet boy who hid a wild passion within him.
The maestro felt a sudden urge of panic, unable to sit still as he stood up and paced to and fro. It took him an entire hour to make what seemed like a hard decision in his heart, and he eventually turned to look at a corner of the art room.
There was a delicate machine there that stood out from the casual surroundings. It was used to activate a month’s bill, and he was supposed to find a place to put it, but as someone who was easygoing he’d just let the expensive machine lie in the corner of the art room, only fishing it out of the scrap papers whenever it was needed. The sight of it naturally brought the monthly bills to mind, and Sharon’s Delight.
The legendary mage hadn’t been delighted with him in months…
This piece of art… it was far too realistic for him to pretend it didn’t come from a place of truth. This was an exception, and one that Her Excellency had explicitly told him to report if he saw it. Even if he only thought with his feet he’d know that a failure to report would garner the legendary mage’s anger. As an artist he would struggle a little to choose between his conscience and Sharon’s Delight, but there was no question about the choice between his conscience and Sharon’s Rage.
Full of misery, the Maestro took down the sketch, wrapped it up carefully, and left the art room in a hurry.
An hour later, the portrait was placed in front of Blackgold.
The grey dwarf had the maestro waiting almost forty minutes before he crawled out of the heap of gemstones which occupied the entire table and jammed half the entrance, only spending a minute to listen to the man’s explanation. The Deepblue was a world of magic and money, unrelated to art. Thus, even if the dwarf only came up to the maestro’s chest despite having one foot atop a mountain of gold and the other held aloft by magic, he seemed to tower over the artist instead.
The dwarf didn’t pay much attention to the maestro’s words, skipping everything to take a look at the piece of art which was the key point. Her Excellency Sharon had stipulated such things be reported, and because of that he carefully used his rough hands with calluses as thick as beast scales to unwrap the portrait.
Silence ensued as the grand mage started at the portrait with full concentration, his lips moving fast as he mumbled unknown words to himself. The maestro was astonished by the sight; he’d never thought Blackgold would be able to appreciate the beauty of this piece of art.
The dwarf eventually heaved out a gust of turbid air, rubbing his dry eyes, “Just this?”
“Huh? Yes...” The maestro was confused.
“The piece isn’t even coloured yet?”
“...” The man couldn’t keep a hold on his irregular heartbeat. He took in a long breath before he answered softly, “This is a sketch.”
The dwarf came to a sudden realisation, taking another look at the sketch, “Hmm… Not completely mature, and her face and figure should be average… Of course that’s from a human point of view, if I judge based on Stormhammer tradition… Wait, AHA! I see, the thermos box! That’s the one specially prepared for Richard, and the details are completely accurate without a single fault… So much like Richard, did you know grand mage Loton who teaches him spell formations came back to praise him thrice this week? This year… As I recall, it’s like fifty or seventy times… Whatever it is, it’s a lot! That old man hasn’t had this much praise to give out in the past ten years!”
The maestro couldn’t describe his feelings at that point, nor could he shout at Blackgold. He tried to guide the man patiently, “Take a closer look at the precious moment caught in this piece…”
The dwarf took a second look, and then a third… Still, he felt the piece was too dull without any colour. The artist’s mood was as dark as Richard’s by the time he left Blackgold’s office; he’d never faced such a setback that made him lose confidence in art itself before. He couldn’t understand; why did this master appraiser of jewellry, magic equipment, and antiques not have any flair for art? His comments as an outsider were so destructive!
The two simple yet elegant bronze doors of Blackgold’s office slowly closed behind the maestro’s back. The doors were double the height of normal ones in the area, representing high office, wealth, and status. They garnered the jealousy of many for the position they represented. Of course, there was no need to explain why a dwarf only half as tall as a human would want to have his office so tall.
Blackgold sneered once the doors shut, muttering, “How could it be so simple to make boss happy?” There were a total of 67 items in his cabinet vying for Sharon’s Delight, including this one.
The dwarf instantly made his way back towards the mound of gems, but then he frowned and stopped. He returned to his desk, unwrapped the portrait, and examined it for a little over ten more minutes before he stowed it away into a smaller cabinet after some hesitation. The small cabinet had the same kind of things, but there were only five items here; he put the art piece in second place. The difference between the two cabinets was that the ones in this one would soon be handed to the legendary mage for perusal, while the others would be thrown out like trash over the next few months.
Summer passed in the blink of an eye for Richard. The next day was already the autumn festival, marking the beginning of autumn where fish could no longer be found in Floe Bay. Millions of people living nearby would hold a grand celebration on this day, expressing gratitude to the god of the sea for granting them the food to survive the long winter. The Deepblue, located right next to Floe Bay, commenced autumn with this festival.
Of course that was all meaningless to Richard. All his time was spent either completing the heaps upon heaps of assignments he had, or meditating and practicing magic to increase his mana. He wished to fill up the entirety of his time; if he didn’t wild thoughts would bubble up in his mind that were hard to get rid of.
Erin reached his place on time the night before the festival. She already found it hard to carry the box with his dinner in one hand now, and one could imagine how much heavier it would grow in the future. She sat quietly by his side as he ducked between all the food, just watching him eat.
At this point the gold had stopped exchanging hands, and the two rarely spoke. Erin didn’t get a single coin from Richard, while eating for the boy had grown completely miserable. No matter how she tried the young lady couldn’t hide the fact that she was troubled, but she refused to tell him why no matter what. It left him with a pain he could not soothe.
Richard swallowed the last bit of dessert with great determination before he raised his head to really look at the girl for the first time that day. He wanted to thank her like he usually did, but the string of numbers that appeared on the girl’s body made him freeze on the spot. The girl’s figure had changed!
The minute changes were enhanced in his digital mindscape, the numbers aligning in front of him. Her breasts had grown larger, but they weren’t balanced. This wasn’t some natural growth, instead due to some external injury.
Her position was quite awkward as well, especially her trembling legs that caused her to shift her weight around subtly on occasion. It was like the cotton cushion of the chair was a bed of needles, poking into her down below. Her eyes were a little swollen as well, more red than normal seemingly from her crying just moments ago. Her robe was much thicker this time, wrapped tightly around her, but an accidental movement had exposed a hickey on her neck. Her heartbeat was much faster than usual, faster than his own. In fact, it was so fast that a serious event should have occurred.
Adding up all the traces and marks, an immediate answer welled up in Richard’s mind, one that he refused to believe.
“You… slept with someone else?” Richard’s voice was dry and husky, so much so that even he couldn’t recognise it. At the age of eleven he hadn’t known what nobles started to learn at the age of seven or eight, but in this past half year this girl in front of him had taken him halfway. He’d already learnt of how males and females could interact.
Erin trembled, her face turning white. Yet the truth being out somehow calmed her down, and she raised her hand to tidy up the messy hair by her cheeks, “Yes, last night.”
Richard took a deep breath and closed his eyes, refusing to see the devastating numbers stacking up in his vision. “Why?” he asked, his voice growing as calm as hers. He had become ice-cold.
“I need money.”
“I have a lot myself.” Ever since Richard started noticing Erin change, he was like a bird breaking out of its shell. He’d started to learn of the outside world, and that he couldn’t judge others by his own standard. Take expenses for example; his monthly income would be enough for over ten people to live a good life in the Deepblue.
Still pale, Erin looked deep into Richard’s eyes and shook her head with determination, “But I don’t want your money.”
She cleaned up the thermos box as usual. Walking towards the door, she turned and said, “Oh, I forgot to inform you. Someone else will be delivering your food from tomorrow. So, Richard… See you around.”
The gates shut slowly with a loud thud, and Richard lost all his energy as he leaned back into his chair. He pulled at his hair, trying to convince himself that nothing had happened just now, but both his abilities and the traits he’d developed in his childhood told him this was cold hard fact.
What he couldn’t understand was why Erin didn’t want his money. The boy still didn’t know that people insisted on things for unknown reasons when they were young, persisting with their emotions as they let go of whatever truly meant something to them.
The winter-like summer had just passed.
Even early in autumn Floe Bay was freezing cold, no different from the harsh winter. The only way to differentiate was that the colours of the vegetation hadn’t faded completely yet.
Richard was like a volcano that had been lying dormant for a long time, overflowing with great energy that had suddenly erupted out of nowhere. His craze for knowledge surprised his professors again, and they’d already been dumbstruck by his progress in summer! It was almost unbelievable that someone could do so much in such little time, but this tiny boy was living proof.
He’d already tweaked his schedule many many times, leaving himself no break to reflect. His schedule had been planned to the second, so whenever his fatigue peaked he just cleared his mind and collapsed on his bed to enter deep sleep instantly. He’d thrown out even the most basic vigilance he’d learnt by living in the mountains, the only way to sleep so soundly that three hours would be sufficient to pull him through a day of learning. That was also how his mana gain during sleep was no less than what he would get while meditating.
The reports Blackgold received were as abundant as the flakes of snow outside, causing the dwarf to rage. He spared no effort in ensuring as few made it to the legendary mage’s desk as possible, just in case Her Excellency grew overly ecstatic and disrupted the already-frail balance of expenses and income in the Deepblue. However, the grey dwarf’s powers failed him at times. Written records fluttered to every corner of the Deepblue like water gushing out of a geyser, and many of them flew so far that they bypassed him and delivered themselves to Sharon on their own.
The finances of the Deepblue began to shake with uncertainty once more. Thankfully Duke Solam had made it up to them with a huge support fee out of the blue for some reason, and they’d sold another spot as a paid apprentice to the Millennial Empire which was one of the three major human empires.
Although these events covered for autumn and winter, grey dwarves didn’t lack foresight. Blackgold was very good at financial speculation, and was used to worrying about the Deepblue’s situation 300 years into the future. Now, it looked like they wouldn’t be able to make it past spring.
The grey dwarf grew more haggard as the days went by. Some miracle had thinned his sturdy and stocky frame, making him a little bony. His coat evidently didn’t fit him anymore, fluttering slightly in the wind whenever he moved his arms to cast a spell. This was just like the unstable accounts.
Blackgold had to deal with a sea of numbers every day. He had a pretty steady income, but his expenses were always hard to estimate. They tended to exceed his funds rather than fall short, which made him upset. Every piece of his profit consumed was like a piece of his flesh gouged out while he was still alive. However, the legendary mage’s joy wouldn’t be put aside just because of the grey dwarf’s determination; at times, she would even celebrate the tiniest of Richard’s achievements.
This autumn, the grey dwarf was the only person in the entire Deepblue who didn’t want to see Sharon happy. At his most helpless, he’d even considered embezzling funds from Sharon’s personal stores. If Her Excellency deigned to open the slightest crack in her purse, the Deepblue’s finances would be solved with the snap of a finger. He had once been bewitched by this idea: who knew how many gigantic dragons’ worth of wealth Her Excellency had in her exquisite little wallet? However, it was fortunate that he quickly regained his senses and realized how silly his plan was. Even the mighty dragons dared not lay their hands on Sharon’s funds, what would a tiny dwarf be able to do?
However, he wasn’t intimidated, instead finding his own motivation in this. If he couldn’t solve the Deepblue’s finances right now, what was the use of keeping him as a treasurer? Any high-level elf could take care of accounting…
Richard and Blackgold were equal in their gloom, but while the dwarf was growing haggard the boy couldn’t be any more different. Stood in front of a full-length mirror on the last day of autumn, he carefully scrutinised himself.
He was growing into a model male form: broad shoulders, a muscular chest, a rapidly shrinking waistline, a tight yet powerful behind, and even a pair of elven legs that were slender yet toned. His face had changed a little as well. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t smiled in ages, or perhaps because of how much time he’d spent in a thoughtful silence. The remnants of his immature gentle youth were wiped away, being replaced by sharpened and obvious edges. It was much like a steely rock being shaped by a giant axe, flowing lava hidden within every single line. As for his eyes, they were peaceful as the depths of the world— gloomy, ice-cold, and bottomless.
A fleeting thought passed his mind as Richard turned his gaze towards his lower body. His member was already standing upright, ready to thrust and conquer at any moment. It still had room to grow in the future, but it was extraordinary even now. Laying eyes upon this proud, lethal weapon of his, a trace of a long-forgotten smile surfaced at the corners of Richard’s mouth. He was already a man.
At that moment, Erin’s sharp and clear yet serious voice suddenly sounded next to Richard:
“Yes, just last night.”
His body immediately started to shake. He raised both hands in an attempt to cover his ears, but put them down mid-way. He knew; no matter how hard he tried, this conversation would play out to the end once more.
“I need money.”
“I have plenty.”
“But I don’t want yours.”
He stopped looking at himself in the mirror, instead taking big strides towards the laboratory even as the conversation continued to ring out in his ears. In the corner of the laboratory was a steel doll, crafted for him to test the might of his spells. Right now, however, it served as a whetstone for his fist. This was what he did whenever his heart burned so painfully that he couldn’t contain it; using the doll to build his physical strength even as he tormented himself. This time was no exception.
Richard walked towards the steel doll, standing in front of it as was his usual practice. His legs were a shoulder-width apart, the perfect stance in preparation for a fight. He took a deep breath as he looked at the steel doll, its bright and clean surface clearly reflecting his face.
For some reason the sight of his face on the armour overwhelmed him with an uncontrollable surge of wrath. He loathed himself to the core, detesting how he hadn’t realised Erin’s embarrassment even more earlier. Instead he’d just indulged in his own loss, silently waiting for an outcome he couldn’t accept! His wrath set his veins on fire, and his blood boiled as it turned into waves of lava that crashed into the top of his head.
The burning blood suddenly bestowed upon him an endless strength. Every vein, every artery was so close to bursting open under immense pressure, and every energy channel of his meridians seemed to be broken by the gushes of blood. Richard let out a crazed, bestial roar and raised his fist, pounding it fiercely on the steel doll’s chest!
The refined steel caved in, leaving faint cracks on the surface of the doll. Richard’s entire forearm made its way through the doll’s chest, so strong that a subtle whirlpool of power formed as he clenched the doll tightly in his fist. The object got deformed further and further, and by the time his newfound strength was completely gone, he’d managed to throw the doll out behind him and crush it against the wall.
This was a standard magic doll, designed to emulate a knight wearing half-body plate armour. The damage done to it meant Richard’s single punch was strong enough to kill an elite knight in one shot, able to compare to the weakened fireball in terms of damage.
That was how, on the day autumn gave way to winter, Richard Archeron awakened his first bloodline ability: Eruption.
Winter passed just like it should have, a somber and desolate time for every being in the plane. Even the creatures that could survive freezing climates preferred spring and summer, because that was when they could seek out food, mate, and store up in preparation for late autumn and the next winter.
To Richard, however, there was no difference. The young bird staring at the world with an inquisitive gaze had shut its eyes completely, sealing off its senses. He no longer concerned himself about anything else in the outside world, only devoting himself entirely to the world of magic. His mana growth remained insane, and he even achieved 24 points of peak mana to exceed level 3. Nearly all of Richard’s professors grew wild with joy over his improvement.
There was one exception, the maestro who taught him art.
Every painting the boy submitted made him feel more and more suffocated. It was all sketched plainly, drawn stroke by stroke with a fine quill pen. His art had paid particular attention to the composition of light and shadows at the start, portraying all kinds of characters. The man had taught him that portraits were the soul of art, but the people in Richard’s art pieces grew fewer and fewer in number even as the environments grew more stifling and depressing. By the end the paintings were better off without any life forms in them, and even the scenery was gradually blurred. In the eyes of the maestro they’d only grown more powerful than before, like the surface of a dark ocean whose gentle waves didn’t warn of the upcoming storm.
Sometimes, the master couldn’t resist but analyze the lines in great detail. Every single sketch, every coil, every smooth line seemed to speak to him like a soul crying out from the depths of hell, each stroke holding great power. The artist couldn’t imagine how Richard felt as he painted them, and one day the man who was a mere level 12 mage found himself unable to bear the impact of these images.
It was his duty as a tutor to seriously examine every single painting that Richard had submitted, but the light in Richard’s paintings was growing fainter and fainter. The backgrounds were growing more fuzzy, huge shadows starting to devour large areas. There finally came a day when Richard submitted a ‘painting’ that was just messy lines. He’d smashed every single object he could destroy in the studio!
There were two trivial matters in the winter that slightly disrupted Richard’s life.
First, Richard had encountered that young mage called Steven once again during one of his lessons. The youth was so cordial and elegant that there was nothing one could criticise him about, fully exhibiting the etiquette of a child of nobility. As he was also another of Sharon’s personal apprentices, it was only natural for the two to not be estranged. Another of the legendary mage’s students was present as well, Minnie. The girl was usually reserved and dispassionate, but this time she was quite lively as she actively participated in the conversation after listening for a while, bringing some topics up herself.
Both Steven and Minnie were quite accomplished in their study of magic, so their discussion didn’t stray far from the field. Although Richard normally didn’t wish to speak to anyone, discussions about magic were an exception. He had to bite the bullet, chatting with them for a while. Thankfully the lesson started soon, so he managed to return to solitude quick enough.
Throughout that conversation he’d been able to feel a subtle hostility from them. Although they concealed it very well, Precision caught the tiniest movements of their limbs and his intellect allowed him to analyse the meaning of those gestures.
It was normal for rivalry to exist, and practically everyone in the Deepblue except Sharon and Erin viewed him with some amount of hostility. However, he didn’t understand why Steven or Minnie would see him as a threat even though their family backgrounds were much greater than his own. In any case, they weren’t actually important to him so they’d been mostly wiped from memory by nightfall.
The other trifle was that he had seen Erin again. It was just a glimpse of a silhouette far away in the trading area near the bottom level, where it was bustling with people. She had only flashed by, but Richard knew that it was her. Erin was accompanied by a guy who was openly grabbing her waist, and they seemed very intimate. It didn’t matter where they were going or what they were doing, because it was crystal clear that what had to be done was already done; it made no difference even if it was any more or less.
Richard didn’t chase after her, nor did he take a second glance. The young man next to Erin seemed to be Steven, but he didn’t care to continue along that line of thought either. Whoever it was was no longer important: Richard erased her and the man from his mind relatively easily.
It was still difficult to forget everything, but there were many ways to stop the pain. This was perhaps one of Richard’s takeaways that winter.