The two ‘trivial’ affairs— especially the scene he’d witnessed of Erin being intimate with another man— had actually greatly affected Richard. It was just that he had no clue of the extent of it at the time.
The next morning, the entirety of Floe Bay was still in a deep slumber. Winter was passing and the solstice was coming soon, so there was still time before the sun would appear. Still, this didn’t affect how brightly lit it was outdoors. Icicles filled the ground, the hills, the vegetation, and the river’s surface. Everything was frozen solid, reflecting blue and white light everywhere. Only the surface of the sea in Floe Bay was still rippling with waves.
Richard couldn’t sleep. Stood in front of the full-length window which was more than 10 metres tall, he silently observed the magnificence of Floe Bay in all its frigid and desolate glory. Spitting out a mouthful of foul air that he had kept repressed inside him, he suddenly felt as though his horizons had been widened and he had grown more open-minded. It was as though he could practically contain the entirety of Floe Bay within him.
The past few seasons had only left faint traces of darkness in such a massive space. Perhaps these feelings of gloom would linger in his own mind for a long time to come, or perhaps he would feel the ache whenever he thought of them for the rest of his life, but what followed every memory of suffering and pain was wealth.
Richard began to open his eyes and observe the world around him. The first thing that caught his attention were the various kinds of people in the Deepblue. He’d interacted most with his mage professors, and by now they weren’t refined machines that sputtered out knowledge any longer. Instead, they were living humans, elves, dwarves, even drow.
These mentors had their own share of emotions, and demanded their own benefits. They regarded everyone differently, and didn’t treat everyone the same as well. Every single action of theirs led to a different conclusion in Richard’s reality: waving a hand, throwing a kick, raising an eyebrow, or even adjusting their gaze. Even the same phrases, when spoken in different languages with different intonation, had different meanings behind them. Richard’s understanding of his teachers grew with each passing day, and he observed them with great detail, adding on to the number of samples in his memory that he could use for comparisons. He suddenly realised that most of his mentors’ words and expressions actually had hidden meanings behind them, which he was still gradually discovering.
The professors came from various fields, so their relationships were different as well. Some of these fields were located near each other, while others were probably worlds apart. Those who came from similar fields often didn’t share good relationships, and those like Popovich and Riley explicitly trampled on each other’s words. On the other hand, the ones who came from fields that had nothing to do with each other were on much better terms, and some of them were even close friends.
Contemplating these newfound observations of his, Richard discovered that the key to all these relationships was competition, something governed by benefits called coins.
After he opened his eyes, Richard gained more knowledge. For instance, he now finally understood why so many geometry, mathematics, drawing, and magic formation lessons had suddenly been added into his curriculum. He also found out about his future status as a saint runemaster.
‘So Master wants to groom me into a runemaster…’ Richard thought to himself. Although he was a youngster who had grown up in the mountains, Richard’s horizons had widened substantially after spending more than a year in the Deepblue. He was no longer that young boy who had no clue about how things worked. However, although the position of a runemaster surpassed many others, it was as insipid as water in Richard’s eyes. The boy had no idea how the decade of Elena’s implicit influence turned him indifferent to privileges or humiliation.
Regardless of his thoughts, he wouldn’t let his Master’s expectations of him go down the drain. Children who grew up in the mountains were often stubborn, but they were also clear about their preferences and dislikes. Richard was very intelligent, and having been exposed to a great deal of suffering and twists and turns in his life he was more mature than his peers. Now he knew well he had a special position in the Deepblue, and even better about how many people would go wild over the amount of ‘delight’ that he received from his master every month. Many gazes levelled on him came with hidden motives, containing envy, longing, and a desire to rob him of everything he had. Yet those kinds of people kept a distance from him, not daring to conspire against him as they wished. The incident with Papin was an accident; he was just one of those noble children who knew not how deep the waters he was treading in were.
He also realised that a couple of people always tailed him from a distance, wherever he went. Perhaps it was because of how those giving him the harsh, malicious stares always retreated in fear, or his own gut feeling, but he knew that these were protectors, not spies. Thinking of how carefree and thrifty his master was, these actions caused him to feel faintly warm and fuzzy. This was the only source of warmth that Richard received this winter.
Fortunately his studies weren’t affected at all even during these confusing times, and he instead made leaps and bounds in his magic progress. The newfound thoughts of his gave his maturing self some reassurance.
The winter passed as it should, and spring was somehow here again. After completing his studies for the day, Richard dragged his lethargic body back to his residence. When he passed by the steel doll that was standing upright and alone in a corner, he suddenly realised that it was his birthday again.
Apart from its intact head, the rest of the steel doll had already been distorted so severely that it was deformed, and it was practically impossible to envision how it used to look. This was the result of the numerous times that Richard had lashed at it with Eruption activated. The wall around it was also covered in bumps of all sizes, traces of the doll having rammed into it.
Richard walked next to the doll and gently caressed the motley indentations of all sizes. Some of the dents had pointed edges and razor-sharp crevices; it wasn’t just his fists that left these marks, but also his elbows, shoulders, knees, and even his head. Some of these dents were even tainted with dried-up bloodstains.
After experiencing the faint feeling of pain from his fingertips and seeing the patches of bloodstains, Richard finally understood how he actually wasn’t lonely at all throughout winter. He thought he had spent it occupying himself and passing the season in silence, but the pain was always lingering around. It was just hidden so deep that he nearly thought that he had forgotten it.
The head of the steel doll was in perfect condition. Its squeaky clean and round surface reflected Richard’s somewhat changed face, but the rest of it was utterly destroyed. Most of the parts were only held together by thin wire at this point, ready to disintegrate with just another blow to the main body. Richard smiled and patted the doll’s face, before taking big strides towards his bedroom.
The next day’s curriculum included a drawing class. After listening to an entire lesson about the theory of art appreciation, a dozen students courteously submitted their rough sketches, which were assigned as homework, before leaving one after the other. Richard was the last one to step forward.
For some reason the maestro felt extremely uncomfortable even if Richard still looked like a teenager. He subconsciously averted his gaze, the mere thought of Richard’s drawings making him feel like a moist, freezing creature was pressed up against his body. He couldn’t shake it off no matter how hard he tried, making him very upset.
The man’s gaze swept across the assignment that Richard was about to submit, and he heaved a sigh of relief when he realised that it was just a small drawing in a 30-centimetre-wide square.
It was a scenic drawing, depicting Floe Bay during winter. Through his usual brushwork, Richard had illustrated the bitter winter in its somber yet exceptionally magnificent beauty in great detail. In comparison to his previous works which were ominous and hysterical, this drawing finally marked a rare return to Richard’s normal works. However, the power contained in the lines of this drawing still sent a faint chill down the mage’s spine. After letting out a relieved sigh, he suddenly realised that Richard’s gaze was still fixated on him. The boy’s bottomless pupils were like blue gems.
“Does this painting look a lot more comforting?” Richard’s gentle words actually caused the maestro to break out into a cold sweat. He instinctively jumped up from his seat and almost tripped over the edge of his robe. He couldn’t be bothered about how unkempt he looked, and wagged a finger at Richard, “You… You….”
In contrast, Richard was as cool-headed as an iceberg. A graceful and beautiful smile was plastered on his face, yet it looked like the enticing expression of a devil trying to lure him in. But no matter how attractive the devil’s murmurs were, the maestro knew that there was a much more painful price to pay behind it: his soul would be lost in the deep abyss forever! Upon seeing that rare smile on Richard’s face, more beads of cold sweat started to drip down the man’s back. What frightened him the most was this— if he didn’t remember wrongly, Richard had only just turned 12!
The level 12 mage wanted to question how Richard had read his mind, but even if the words were at the tip of his tongue he held back. Regardless of how it was that this pupil of his had found out, he knew it all. The man calmed himself down, realising Richard still had more to say. He was only a 12-year-old child, yet it was so hard to fathom him. These paintings were constant reminders of how crazy it was in this young boy’s inner world.
The great artist took a deep breath. He straightened his clothes, adapting the proper demeanour of a teacher before sitting down and motioning for Richard to do the same. The boy didn’t take a seat, however, instead greeting him with a respectful bow just like any other acolyte consulting him about schoolwork. He then asked gracefully, in a practised manner, “Professor, first of all I would like to ask about how the world of a runemaster looks.”
The maestro was stunned by this question, but he shook his head in reply, “I’m no runemaster, just a useless level 12 mage. If you want knowledge about runecrafting ask grand mage Fayr, he teaches you as well. You could try Professor Huru as well, either of them has much more knowledge of runes than me…”
Richard interrupted the maestro, “No, I’m not looking for professional knowledge about runecrafting. I want to know more about the outside world: what a runemaster does, what duties they have, and how they live their lives. I’d also like to know which runemasters are famous right now, their lives before they made a name for themselves, their past achievements and so on. Professors Fayr and Huru both spent most of their time in the Deepblue, and aren’t well-traveled like you are. You were also an honoured guest at the royal families of the three human empires at one point in time, so you must certainly know more about these matters than others.”
Richard’s question startled the man once again. He didn’t understand why the boy wanted to ask about stories that had nothing to do with the matter at hand. Or rather, he’d thought of a possibility but felt like that was rather unbelievable. Conventional logic stated a 12-year-old would’t be considering things like that. He still asked out of prudence, “Why do you want to know about all this?”
“I want to become a runemaster, so I need to know about what the world of runemasters is like, and how I can gain an upper hand in that industry. Learning about the lives of historical and actual great runemasters will tell me about the setbacks and experiences that they once faced. At least I can learn from history and refrain from making the same mistakes that they did.” Richard replied. After a short pause, he added, “The world of a runemaster is probably different from what bystanders see.”
The great master instantaneously broke out in cold sweat once again. This was precisely the possibility that he had in mind.
Now, he couldn’t decline Richard. He was also willing to impart his knowledge to this young child in front of him, just because he felt like it. After those silent exchanges with Richard through his drawings all this while, he felt that the boy was rather different from the rest of his students.
He organized his train of thought, and slowly said, “Alright. Firstly, in my opinion, runemasters aren’t the creators of miracle, instead the weavers of nightmares. They’re the very reason that rune knights are armed to the teeth, able to crush forts, checkpoints, and mountain passes that were once considered infallible to smithereens under their iron hooves. Their appearance turned the world around, substantially accelerating Norland’s expansion into other planes. Without them, the world wouldn’t be the same, and so many lives wouldn’t have been lost…”
“In other words, the runemasters are actually the creators of the war corps,” Richard interrupted the artist, concluding his words concisely. The man sighed with deep sorrow.
“You could say that. But…” The great master was reluctant to have Richard arrive at such a conclusion, and he struggled to justify himself. However, after much consideration, he couldn’t help but say, “Fine, you’re right. It’s just like how legendary beings pose a fatal threat to royal families and other nobles. Legendary beings, regardless of occupation, can become the most dangerous of assassins. On the other hand, runemasters are held in high esteem because they can destroy countries. A small troop of rune knights can defeat a large army of thousands of people regardless of how small they are.
“Now, let’s start with Lord Rodandar. He was the first runemaster in the continent who actually had a sense of justice…” The maestro’s retelling was concise and animated. His few words made it seem like a once-almighty runemaster was standing right before Richard’s eyes.
Runemasters made use of their wisdom and talents to create countless troops of rune knights, each branded with the mark of the runemaster who created them. All runemasters had vastly different creations, allowing one to exhibit their personality and innate talents at will. The most famous runemasters of history had left behind their own masterpieces, like Lommen’s illusory suits, Ricardimo’s crimson knights, or Saint Peter’s holy equipment. Although these things had eventually been copied, they were never surpassed.
It took an entire hour for the maestro to draw a clear outline of the history of runecrafting. Had he spoken in any detail, it would likely have taken him ten days to a month.
Richard spoke once again after the maestro took a break, “Thank you, Professor. My second request is that you introduce me to someone.”
The artist nodded and replied, “I know of a lot of people in the Deepblue, one could say I know most of the special ones. What kind of people do you want me to introduce you to? Women? Haha!”
The maestro’s joke didn’t elicit a smile. Richard instead lowered his head, keeping silent for a long while before he looked back up with determination in his face, “I’m looking for someone who can teach me how to kill.”