“Antonius, this is Sir Leon Ursus, one of my knights,” Trajan introduced Leon to Prince Antonius. “With the duties I’ve taken on with the advisory council, I won’t have enough time to conduct my investigation personally. Thus, I’ve placed Sir Leon, one of my most trusted knights in charge of this matter.”
“It’s good to meet you, Sir Leon,” Antonius said with a bright smile on his pale face. His features weren’t as chiseled and defined as Trajan’s, with his round, flat face and small nose, but he was still possessed of a certain boyish charm. He wasn’t too tall—Leon was several inches taller than him—but he wasn’t short, either. He had a slender frame that well-complimented his scholarly disposition and his dark brown eyes glittered with intelligence. His dark brown hair was relatively long and unkempt for a man of the Bull Kingdom—the fashion for the past few hundred years had been short hair, but Antonius’ practically covered his eyes and down the back of his neck, as if it had been months since it had last been cut.
“And you, Your Highness,” Leon replied with an obligatory bow.
“Oh, please, that’s not necessary when we’re not in public,” Antonius said with a wave. He may have given up his claim to the throne, but he was still a Prince, so those of lower station were obliged to bow to him. However, he preferred to have a looser and more laid-back attitude not too dissimilar to Trajan’s, so he didn’t mind if people didn’t honor such ceremonies in private.
“You’re now introduced. Leon, I’ll leave the investigation up to you. You may act as you see fit, invoke my name if you must, but I want to know everything to do with the fall of House Raime,” Trajan commanded. He trusted Antonius, but he wasn’t going to tell Antonius Leon’s real name; he regretted being so open with August and the three Paladins when Bronze so quickly guessed Leon’s identity, and he wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
“I think we can handle this, Uncle. You go get some rest, we can catch up later,” Antonius said. He could see just how tired Trajan was from riding the last leg of the journey to the capital, the triumph, and then staying up all night tending to council business.
When Leon nodded in agreement, Trajan sighed and said, “Good.” He then turned around and left the office, leaving Leon and Antonius alone together. A long, deeply awkward silence followed with neither Leon nor Antonius quite knowing how to speak to one another.
“Soooo, Sir Ursus, how long have you been in this Kingdom?” Antonius asked, trying to break the ice a little.
Leon, wanting to get to their business as quickly as possible, wasn’t too appreciative, but since Antonius was a Prince, he had little choice but to humor him. “About two and a half years,” he answered.
“Hmm,” Antonius hummed as he nodded, hoping that Leon would give him a little bit more than that. Unfortunately for him, Leon did not, instead standing and letting his gaze wander around the office in clear discomfort. Antonius couldn’t let Leon’s awkwardness discourage him, though, especially since they were going to be working together a lot for the foreseeable future. “Well, I have to say that it’s rare to see someone so young possess fifth-tier strength, especially from such a desolate and barbaric place. I mean, I hope I’m not being presumptuous as to your age…” the Prince said.
Leon easily could’ve taken offense to Antonius’ casual dismissal of the Northern Vales, but that would’ve required him to care a lot more than he did about the Vales. He really only cared about the Forest of Black and White, and even then, he knew exactly how uncivilized of place it was and his nostalgia wasn’t going to keep him from acknowledging it.
“You, yourself, seem to be possessed of the same amount of power, and you don’t look significantly older than I am,” Leon observed.
“You can’t really compare what I’ve accomplished with Royal resources with a Valeman who did the same after starting with nothing,” Antonius replied with a smile and an averted gaze. He didn’t notice Leon’s own slightly troubled look as response.
Leon had done his fair share of training to get to where he was, but he would also be foolish to deny the advantages he had in that regard. His progress in the magical arts had stalled when he was younger at the first-tier, his dormant blood preventing more than his lungs from adapting to magic. Once his Thunderbird blood was awakened, however, his power almost instantly jumped to the second-tier, with his muscles adapting on the spot. After that, he was aided in further ascensions by the power boost he received any time a thunderstorm rolled through his vicinity, not to mention the Cradle, the building that housed what seemed to be a massive training chamber left behind by the Thunderbird Clan.
It wasn’t like he relied upon outside power to grow stronger, but he certainly had a few advantages that couldn’t be ignored. Of course, he wasn’t in a hurry to inform Antonius about these things, but they deserved his consideration.
As all these thoughts flashed through Leon’s mind, Antonius continued, “My family, like most wealthy noble Houses, demands a certain amount of power from the members of its main branch in order to maintain our position as the Monarchs of this land. To that end, the heads of my House—the reigning Monarch, in other words—have rarely shied away from spending a great deal of money on their children’s development. My power isn’t the result of hard work, but of the expenditure of millions of silver coins and an ocean of potions and salves.”
Leon frowned. “That seems a horribly inefficient way to give the members of your family power…”
“And you wouldn’t be wrong,” Antonius said. “However, to awaken the Bull’s blood within all of us would be even more expensive, and as such is reserved only for the designated heir and maybe one or two other siblings—I don’t even think anyone in my generation save for my eldest brother have had their blood awakened, and this years after my elder brother renounced his claim to the throne. Without awakened blood, progress for the rest of the main branch of the Royal Family quickly halts at the first or second-tier. Flooding our bodies with magical potions is the only way to force us to advance through the magical tiers, and even then, that only works for the first four tiers.”
Leon nodded in understanding. The first four tiers were little more than letting the human body grow used to and adapt to magic power. With the proper training, time, and patience, then anyone could easily advance through these tiers. For those lacking in one of these resources, but endowed with great wealth, then their tier could be forced to grow with potions that flood the body with magic power, but this was an undirected and chaotic method, causing small parts of the body to remain un-adapted to magic. These small flaws would slow down and obstruct the mage as they advanced through the tiers, eventually halting the mage’s progress until they could be resolved. However, the longer the mage has gone without dealing with these flaws in their magical foundation, the more difficult and time-consuming they would be to fix.
Such a method of forcing a mage to gain power was one that only exceptionally rich families would take, and even then, usually only for their scions who lacked the will or want to grow in magical power. In that respect, Leon could understand why the scholarly Antonius was made to go through this process.
“Your Highness still made it to the fifth-tier, though,” Leon said. “No magic potion can teach elemental magic.”
“True enough, but five thousand years of Kingship can,” Antonius replied. “I work in the Royal Archives, I’m surrounded by the recorded experiences of not just my Ancestors, but nearly every important person who has ever lived in this Kingdom. I and all of my siblings were forced to laboriously study ancient texts on magic, especially earth magic which our blood allows us to excel at, so learning how to utilize elemental magic isn’t the hardest thing for us to do. Advancing from the fifth to the sixth-tier, however, becomes nearly impossible with all these things put together. Only awakening our blood would allow us to advance further.”
Antonius looked a little depressed, but he explained these things in such a matter-of-fact tone that Leon was certain he had long ago made his peace with his situation; he was a young man, probably barely thirty years old and with at least a century and half of life ahead of him, but he was most likely never going to see the sixth-tier before his death, even if he diligently trained every day. The flaws in his body from overuse of various magic-enhancing potions were too deep, and he would require serious and expensive medical attention to even attempt to fix them, if fixing these flaws was even possible at this point.
Unfortunately—or, perhaps, fortunately—no such potions existed to assist Leon in his ascent to the sixth-tier. If such things did exist, he might’ve been tempted to use them, regardless of the consequences. As it was, even in his conversation with Antonius, Leon was still diligently training by slowly trapping magic within his bones, though he obviously wasn’t training as intensely as he would be if he weren’t busy with other things.
“There… is one thing I was curious about, if Your Highness would indulge me…” Leon hesitantly said. “I would understand if this isn’t something Your Highness would wish to explain, though…”
“We won’t know unless you ask,” Antonius said with a jovial smile. “And please, call me Antonius. ‘Your Highness’ is so damned formal; I hate it when people call me by that title.”
“Antonius, then,” Leon said. “Feel free to call me Leon, I have a similar distaste for formal titles.”
“I think we’ll get along famously,” Antonius replied. “Your question?”
“Right. Back at the Bull’s Horns during a battle with a seventh-tier vampire that was working as one of Talfar’s Marshals, I saw Prince Trajan do… something, channel his magic in some way or other, and it caused his muscles to grow… He’s already a giant of a man, but that was something else.”
“I see,” Antonius said knowingly. “Out of curiosity, any reason why you haven’t asked my uncle himself about this?”
“Other things were on my mind, what with the war and all. Made such a small thing easy to forget…” Leon answered with a slight smile and a shrug.
“So, you know that as magical beasts grow in power, they gain intelligence, correct?” the Prince asked.
“I’m aware of this,” Leon said.
“Around the eighth-tier or so—depending on each beast’s individual circumstances it might be the seventh or ninth-tier, maybe even the tenth—they can transform into humans. We’re not quite sure how this process works, or why it’s humans of all things they turn into, but the fact remains that it happens.”
Leon nodded, showing that he was following along.
“Well, for those of us with Inherited Bloodlines, something similar can happen in reverse, we can stimulate our blood and take on some of the characteristics of our Ancestors. In the case of my family, we can take on some bullish traits, most notably a temporary increase in muscle mass. It’s extraordinarily taxing on the body, though, and even more so on our magical reserves. Someone like me could never utilize such a power, I would probably tear every vein and artery in my body should I attempt it. Only someone as physically robust as my uncle or my Royal Father could ever hope to achieve it.”
Leon’s eyes almost popped out of his skull. “I’ve never heard of something like that before!” he excitedly exclaimed. In all his years learning under Artorias, in all his studies of his family’s magical arts, he’d never come across even a faint allusion to this kind of technique.
“It does make a kind of sense, though, doesn’t it?” Antonius asked, reveling his chance to finally share his knowledge with someone who so obviously cared about it. He didn’t get a lot of visitors to his corner of the Royal Archives, and his family wasn’t the most academically minded, so he rarely had a chance to flex his knowledge. “If a beast can transform so completely into a human that they’re capable of interbreeding with humans and then shift back and forth between their beast and human forms at will, why should something similar not apply to their descendants?”
“I don’t… it’s not something I ever considered,” Leon admitted. For perhaps the first time in his entire life, he almost wished he was able to reveal his identity and power to someone, but too many people knew of at least some of his secrets already, and he clamped down on his want to reveal his power until reason came back to him and that want died down.
“I’ve heard that some of my most powerful Ancestors, some of the most famous Bull Kings, could even grow horns in that state,” Antonius said, enjoying the look of shock that crossed Leon’s stoic face.
‘If I could learn such a power, what might it do for me?’ Leon wondered. ‘What might the Thunderbird give me? Wings? Claws? Something I can’t even imagine?’
Whatever the case, his resolve to ascend to the sixth-tier so he could finally begin consulting the Thunderbird about these matters grew immensely, and it had already been almost overpowering.
“Well, I could talk about magic all day, its study is part of why I joined the Royal Archives to begin with, but that’s not what you’re here for, is it?” Antonius said now that the ice between him and Leon was thoroughly broken.
“No, it isn’t,” Leon said with a smile of anticipation. With some difficulty, he put away his excitement and refocused on the more important issue at hand: all the information Antonius had compiled relating to the fall of House Raime.
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