Getting to Hillsdale from the Capital was a week ride one way. Since he only had two weeks remaining, he decided against taking the traditional route and just used magic instead.
Transportation magic was a highly guarded secret within the military. It could very easily be used to murder the Royal family or a high ranking official, so naturally they didn’t want anyone and everyone able to use it. Even in the Mage Division, the actual spell was strictly distributed. Master and below were given enchanted dog-tags which had pre-set destinations on them for instant travel. It was only once you reached the Scholar rank that you were allowed to learn the actual spell.
Thio took full advantage of his ranking to get around the country.
Since anyone would be surprised to see a man suddenly appear in the middle of the street, Thio transported to the rocky outcrop just outside the town. He stood there and inhaled. There was the slight smell of chimney smoke, but otherwise the air was clear. That’s the one thing the countryside had over the big city: breathable air.
He touched the giant rock next to him, feeling nostalgic. Four years ago he’d come out here and wept bitterly over his rejection letter from the Knights. The fact that he’d been accepted into the Mage Division had not taken the edge off the feeling of defeat back then. He’d set his heart on Knighthood and nothing else could satisfy.
Who knew, so many years later, he’d be one of the most powerful Mages in the country?
He couldn’t muster any anger now. While he’d glorified Knighthood, his real goal had been regaining his honor, and his family’s honor too, if he could. To the first, he had succeeded as a Mage. To the second, his family’s honor, he would only know by going back to Hillsdale.
Speaking of that, since he was coming back to his hometown, he’d gone all out. He was wearing his Archmage uniform, which was predominantly white with gold accents. Paired with his long black hair and green eyes, he looked like the very wealthy and powerful mage he was. Straightening his white jacket, he began to walk toward the town.
Everyone in Hillsdale noticed when an Archmage walked down Central Avenue. The uniform was flashy by the town’s standards and caught every eye as he passed.
Feeling nervous by the attention, Thio kept his face neutral and walked with a straight back. One thing he learned from the Army was to never look weak. Having traveled all over the Empire (and on occasion outside it), projecting confidence was important. Not only to the image of the Empire, but also for getting people to listen to commands. If people didn’t respect you, they wouldn’t listen. So you had to convince them you knew what you were about, even when you had no idea.
Since Thio had come last minute and on a whim, he had to think about where Caroline might actually be. It was after lunch, so he thought she might be out fulfilling a Request. In which case, the Guild was the place to go.
He entered the Guild building nonchalantly and was greeted with a squeal of surprise.
“THIO IS THAT YOU?” Mariel leaned out of the window, looking excited.
Squinting at her for being so loudly, he replied. “Yes, it’s me.”
“Lord, you’re all grown up now!” She left her desk and opened the door that lead to the waiting area. Coming over, she gave him a heartfelt hug. “You look amazing!”
“You look well yourself.”
Mariel gave a thumbs up. She was clearly pregnant once again.
Still smiling, she chatted. “This is great! Caroline was saying there’s no way you’d be able to come, but I’m so glad you made the time. After the beating she took, she really needs someone to watch her.”
Thio gave a deep frown. “Beating? What beating?”
Mariel froze. “D-don’t you know?”
Furious, Mariel stomped her foot. “SHE DIDN’T TELL YOU! Drat that girl, I swear I’m going to throttle her… once she’s better.” Sighing in deep frustrating, she explained. “A merchant Requested a team of Adventurer’s help him clear some old ruins he’d discovered to the west of here. If the merchant had been telling the truth, things would have been find but…”
“…he lied. The ruins were cursed. You were trapped inside unless you could break the stone tablet at it’s center. The problem was the ruins were crawling with powerful monsters, and the tablet itself was protected by some kind of ancient giant snake.” Mariel rubbed her forehead. “The merchant had cleverly let the party go in first, so he didn’t get trapped. He waited to see if they could break the curse, and when they did, he went in and took all the valuable treasure in the ruins and left the party to die.”
Thio hands balled into fists, knuckles white with rage.
“Caroline’s got a really hearty body, so she was the only one who could still stand. She actually walked all the way back to town, a six hour trip, to get help. I think if she hadn’t walked on top of the injuries, she’d have been… well, fine is too strong. Perhaps just alright? But she walked. So the injuries were much much worse. Her actions saved her party, but it’s put her out of commission for a while. Even with her body’s high recovery rate, she’s not going anywhere for at least a month.”
“And the merchant?”
Mariel tossed her hair, an angry frown. “He escaped, a pox on him! We’ve got every Guild in the Empire looking for him AND we put a bounty on his head. Just in case he got the clever idea of fleeing the country.”
“Good. Do you have a picture of the merchant?”
“Of course!” Mariel grinned wickedly. “I never forget a face.”
“I’d like a copy too, if you don’t mind.”
“Are you going to look for him too?”
“Yes. I know some people in high places that can help with the search.”
“Really? That’s great then!” Mariel went back to her desk and brought back the Wanted poster. “Take it.”
Thio looked at the criminal in question. He was surprisingly good looking for someone so evil. For some reason that annoyed him even more.
“Where is Caroline recuperating?”
“At your house of course.”
“…my house?” He asked slowly.
Mariel gave him a confused look. “Yeah, the one you use to live in?”
“Where did you think she was living?”
He rubbed his temples before shaking his head. “Never mind. I’ll be going then.”
And before Mariel could say another word, he used transportation, disappearing. Mariel stood alone in the Guild reception area, blinking.
“…wow… he really is an Archmage…”
Caroline was laying down, with so many bandages on she could have been mistaken for a mummy. The best Doctor in town, who specialized in natural and magic healing, had taken a look at her. The problem was a great deal of her injuries had curses on them. And not just one curse, but several stacked on top each other. Some where so old they weren’t listed in his books, so he had no way to make a cure for them. In the end, he’d patched her up the best he could, and recommended requesting a more skilled Doctor from the Capital come to treat her.
The problem was the price. It would have been expensive enough going to see a Capital Doctor, but having one come to her directly was obscenely pricey. In the end she could only feebly promise to think about hiring someone.
Any other person would have died under so many curses. But Caroline’s body was tough. It treated curses like a physical illness and fought them off naturally. Even ancient curses struggled to work properly on her. Walking six hours, however, had weakened her body substantially, allowing the curses a stronger foothold than they would normally have.
So she was weak, tired, and ached in every part of her body. Even in places she didn’t know could hurt. All in all, she was miserable.
She was only vaguely aware of the “click” sound of the front door’s lock being opened. When someone walked in, she didn’t have the strength to be alarmed.
“C-Caroline, is that you?” The voice might have been familiar, but it was hard to tell. One of the curses was making everything sound like it was going through a tin can.
A blurry white shape quickly walked over to her. Yep, yet another curse was interfering with her vision. If she concentrated really hard, she could make things focus a bit better, but she wasn’t so inclined.
With a prodigious amount of effort, she croaked out. “Who?”
“Oh God… this is awful.” Someone reached out to touch her, causing her to groan in pain. Yep, another curse. “Sorry, sorry.”
The person shuffled around for a moment and then came back.
“It’s me, Thio. Don’t you recognize me?”
Oh. So that’s why the voice sounded a little familiar. Amazing she could tell through the curse, since she hadn’t heard his voice in four years.
“Curse.” She managed to get out, and then went silent. Ugh, her mouth felt unbearable dry. Not that it mattered how much water she drank, because——of course——another curse was causing it.
“Curse? Are you cursed?” His fuzzy hand swept out and he cast a spell. “OH MY GOD.”
She flinched, thinking: Not so loud, not so loud!
“What the——how is this even——how are you even alive?” He was right to be astonished. It wasn’t just one or two curses, she was currently covered in over 20 curses. And, though he didn’t know it, that was after the Doctor had cured what he could.
Muttering in anger and fear, he read the list carefully. He recognized nine immediately. They were strong curses, but years of dealing with Demons didn’t go to waste. He knew how to cure them. The problem was the rest were so old he only knew about them in theory or completely new to him.
After thinking for a moment, he decided to cure the curses he had some experience with. He went through a series of counter spells, and by the ninth broke out in a light sweat. It was no small thing to deal with curses that strong, it took a lot out of him.
Caroline’s whole body relaxed. While the pain was still there, it wasn’t as intense (comparatively). Her hearing cleared up completely and the cotton mouth went away as well.
“Better?” Came a gentle masculine voice, no longer tinged with a curse.
She sighed in relief. “Yes, thank you.”
“Ah… thank God, thank God.” Her eyesight was still fuzzy, but she could see him put his hands on his face and lean back. He gave a shaky exhale. “I’ve never seen that many curses cover one person without instantly killing them.”
“Well, I’m known for my toughness.”
“This isn’t a time to be proud of yourself! You were a hair’s breath away from dying.”
“But I didn’t.”
“You could have.”
She shrugged and then immediately regretted it. Curse the curses!
He snorted in aggravation, but decided to move on.
“You have seen the town Doctor, right?”
“Alright. I’m going to go talk to him. You stay here.” He pointed at her threateningly. “Don’t move, you understand?”
“I don’t think I could even if I wanted.”
“Well, don’t want to!”
“I’m too tired from arguing with you to bother. Don’t worry.”
“…fine.” He said, still not trusting her, and then left.
She hadn’t been lying though. Even with nine curses gone, the ones left over were still terrorizing her body. Expending energy to talk had exhausted her. The moment he left, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.
Thio came back an hour later to find Caroline exactly where he’d left her. After getting the full diagnoses from the Doctor he’d felt bad about his contrariness earlier. She was really in no shape at all for it.
The Doctor had recommended taking her to the Capital for further treatment. Thio agreed wholeheartedly with his assessment. After some discussion, they both decided against using Transportation magic. There was no telling how the magic would react to the curses. But traveling on land didn’t seem like a good idea either.
Thio decided to call in some favors. First he contacted a Dragon Mage in Air Defense. Not all dragons were evil. The dragons that worked in the Army were a specific breed called Hawk Dragons. They were feathered, adventurous but friendly, and small enough to ride. Hawk Dragons (along with Griffins) worked in the Air Defense as air-fighters and rescuers. His second year in the Mage Division, he’d saved a Dragon Mage and his Hawk Dragon. As long as they weren’t on any missions, they would help.
Secondly, he contacted a Healer from his LDF days. They’d consistently gone on missions together for two years and frequently helped each other outside of work. The nice thing about Healers in the Army is they were far more informed about curses than civilians by nature of their job. Dealing with Demons made it necessary. So unless a curse was extremely obscure or unique, they knew the cure for it.
After he was done, he waited. It would take six hours for the Hawk Dragon to get to Hillsdale. Thio counted himself lucky the Dragon Mage was currently between missions. He was a little surprised at their enthusiastic agreement though.
While he waited, he looked around at “his” house. After four years, it didn’t feel like his anymore. Caroline had steadily replaced and improved everything. Even the windows had glass in them now, and the battered stove was replaced with a shiny knew one. The bags were now shelves, with wooden boxes of all sizes lined up neatly on the wall.
He was baffled as to why she’d pumped so much money into improving the place though. The improvements exceeded the value of the land it was built on. When she left, who would buy it? Who could afford to rent it even? This neighborhood was part of the slums. No one who lived here earned enough to buy or rent a house like this. She’d LOSE money no matter what she did.
Why hadn’t she moved years ago? Between her Adventurer’s income and the money he sent, she could have bought a small house in the town. But she continued to live in the worst part of town. Why?
At some point, Caroline woke up. She was thirsty and needed to use the bathroom. He helped her with both. He firmly resisted the temptation to scoldingly ask her how she’d managed to do anything on her before he got there. By the time she was back to her bed, she’d had enough energy to say thanks and fell back asleep.
He was incredibly relieved when the Dragon Mage and Hawk Dragon arrived. They landed in the backyard, which was technically several people’s yard. The entire neighborhood came out to see the Dragon. It was big enough to be scary so they didn’t get too close.
Thio cast a weight reduction spell on Caroline and picked her up with ease. She whimpered in pain from the movement in even her sleep, and his heart broke a little.
Seeing Caroline being carried out of the house and toward the Dragon. The neighbors began to kick up a fuss. Apparently none of them recognized the white clad man as the Thio from four years ago.
Already in a sour mood, Thio had no patience to deal with a committee. He spat out several spells in a row.
“I’m taking Caroline to the Capital for medical care. Don’t touch anything of her’s until she gets back, understand?” His magicked voice reached every ear that was listening. Since he’d cast charm on himself, not only did everyone nod in dumb agreement, but even after he left they’d be inclined to do as he said.
The Dragon Mage raised his eyebrows to his hairline when he saw Thio’s actions.
“Er, is it legal to be casting those kind of spells on citizens of the Empire?”
Thio shrugged. “Probably not, but I don’t care. Are you going to report me?”
The other Mage thought for a moment. “Naw, they’ll snap out of it eventually anyway. What about you?” The Dragon Mage spoke to his mount.
The Hawk Dragon gave a chirpy laugh. “My head was turned so I didn’t see anything worth reporting.”
Well, neither rider or dragon were known for their devotion to law and regulation. That was part of why they were always getting into trouble.
With that, the Hawk Dragon lifted off. As they rose farther into the air, the Dragon Mage began casting his unique magic. It was all specific for flight, including things like speed increase, wind protection, temperature regulation, and the like.
Despite his anxiousness, the flight to the Capital was pleasant. Both the Mage and his Dragon were good conversation partners, often feeding off each other. They reached the city by late evening.
“Thanks for dropping me off at my house.” Thio said before they left.
“No problem!” The Hawk Dragon clicked.
The Dragon Mage saluted. “Feel free to call on us again!”
Thio didn’t even have to knock on the door after they were gone to get inside. Metts had naturally heard a commotion outside and watched with wide eyed wonder as a Dragon landed in his Master’s front yard. When he saw Thio walking towards the house, he’d eagerly gone to open the door.
“Master Thio, welcome back!” Metts greeted, attempting to be professional but failing by his excited tone of voice. “Master, that was Dragon! I’ve never seen one up close before, why did you—— woah, who’s that?”
He’d finally noticed that Thio was carrying a person, not a thing.
“Ah, this is my wife.”
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