Just Like Winter
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.