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"Does the bond influence feelings?" Kiel dreaded the answer.
Elaru smirked. "Don't worry. Your adoration and love for me are all your own."
He gave her an icy glare, but she just smiled innocently.
Kiel exhaled slowly. His anger had mostly evaporated and he should keep it that way. He should get used to her antics and learn to deal with them. After, all, they were stuck together for the time being. He had no choice.
She seemed to enjoy teasing him. Teasing wasn't something that he was used to, however, he was very much prepared to handle it. He was Kiel Rroda! Quick wit was his middle name. If he couldn't handle it, who could?
His eyes narrowed slightly as a battle plan flashed inside his head. Two can play that game!
"Adoration and love? You seem to be projecting your own hidden desires onto me. Could it be that you find me attractive?" He asked with a soft knowing smile.
It was impossible not to find him appealing. So he already knew the answer to that question. And he had prepared an appropriate response regardless of what she said.
If she said 'no', he would tell her that she can't lie to him because of the bond. Then he would continue teasing her asking "Why lie? Are you embarra.s.sed?"
If she said 'yes', he would continue to tease her with: "I see. So you show your affection by teasing the people you like. I had no idea you liked me that much."
If she refused to respond, he would tease her with "Why are you silent? Can't admit your attraction to me?"
Ideally, she would blush, which would give him more ammunition. In any case, in future conversations, he could use her attraction to him as ammo.
However, her reaction was, again, not something that he predicted.
At first, she was surprised at his question. Then she looked at him. Really looked at him, inspecting him head to toe. Then she walked up to him, closer, too close for his liking, and examined his face. This was the point where Kiel regretted asking that question, and his regret only deepened when she smiled and bluntly stated:
"Yeah. You're really pretty! You have a face that would make girls feel jealous!" Her response devoid of any intentional teasing stabbed Kiel right where it hurt.
If she weren't sincere, it wouldn't have been an insult but rather just her teasing him.
But since her words were earnest, it turned into an insult by truth! Critical hit!
Kiel had an undoubtedly male figure with well-defined muscles, he was in no way scrawny or female looking. His body was toned just the right amount, neither skinny nor bulky. It resembled a slim, graceful body of a feline (male feline!) rather than a body of a warrior.
The problem was his face. Kiel had one of those rare faces with refined and beautiful facial features, even more p.r.o.nounced by his thick black eyelashes, full lips, and shiny, silky hair. It was very popular with females, but jealous males would give him a t.i.tle of "pretty boy".
While his face couldn't be mistaken for a girl's at this point, back when he was little, adults often mistook him for a girl, later excusing their own mistake by saying he was too pretty for a boy. Which is why this unexpected hit hurt even more. Kiel never managed to get over it, just like most things, he buried and ignored it.
"Are you trying to pick a fight!?" And just like that, his mask evaporated without a trace. It was harder and harder to act in front of her. Harder and harder to keep calm. She knew exactly how to push his b.u.t.tons.
"No, no! It was a compliment!" She defended herself, confused at his fiery reaction. She really did mean it as a compliment.
"In which world is that a compliment!?" Kiel barred his teeth at her, glaring down at her ferociously.
"All worlds! It is the highest kind of compliment! You have one of those rare pretty faces that could even pa.s.s off as a girl's with a bit of makeup!" She suddenly realized that didn't come out right and attempted to correct herself. "Not that I think that you look like a female! You are undoubtedly male! It's just that you have that prettiness about you. You know what I mean?"
"Stop. Talking." Kiel's eyebrow twitched in annoyance. Elaru opened her mouth to continue, ignoring the red lights going off.
"Don't be mad! I'm not insulting you, your beauty is a good thing! Women love those types of faces! You're a female magnet, aren't you?"
She was about to continue talking before Kiel clasped his hand over her mouth. At this moment, he completely forgot that he disliked physical contact with others.
"Just… for the love of Origin… stop talking… before I end up killing you… "
Elaru stopped talking and a few seconds of silence pa.s.sed. Kiel watched Elaru closely, trying to determine if it was safe to remove his hand.
"You're pretty sensitive about your face, huh?" Kiel could hear Elaru's voice clearly, but he didn't feel her mouth move under his hand.
That's right… he had no way to shut her up… he was doomed...
Kiel frowned and removed his hand. It was pointless, even if she didn't voice her thoughts out loud, she would just enter his head.
Elaru chuckled at the doom written all over his face.
"Personally, I don't care how you look. Physical appearance is a fickle illusion that can easily be changed by magic."
That isn't a bad idea. Kiel thought. He should learn Light magic, which would allow him to alter the appearance of his face. It would be great if he didn't attract so much unwanted attention.
"But if it makes you feel better, yes, I think you are very attractive. So don't be so sensitive about it. If you hate people being attracted to you or jealous of you because of your appearance, just give them a taste of your cold and scary personality! Throw one of your signature icy glares and no one will bother you, male or female!"
Kiel threw her his signature icy glare as a response. "Cold and scary personality, eh? Are you incompetent of complimenting someone without insulting them?"
"That's the one! Perfect! Just like that!" She gave his glare a thumbs up.
"Doesn't seem to be working." Kiel growled.
Elaru chuckled musically. It was such a pleasant sound. It was as though at that moment all the birds in the forest had stopped their chirping to listen.
Kiel sighed in resignation, his initial intent long forgotten. How troubling. This woman is too difficult to deal with.
* * *
◈ Meanwhile in the Purge Headquarters ◈
Nelaira got up from the poor excuse of a bed made out of a single pillow, a blanket, and a futon. She stretched her limbs, trying to ignore the pain racking through her whole body. She briefly looked at her own reflection on the cold metal floor. She looked just as bad as she felt.
She didn't feel like doing anything. She felt too weak to do anything besides sleep. And yet, no matter how much she slept, she never felt rested.
But she couldn't just sleep. She had a mission that she had to accomplish no matter what.
Nelaira slowly walked up to the locked metal doors, which were the only way in and out of the metal box. Every step was harder than the last.
When she reached the door she coughed painfully a few times. She felt the air sc.r.a.ping her dry throat like a grater. She felt lucky that her blood no longer flowed, otherwise she would have spewed it all over herself.
She raised her hand and knocked on the door as hard as she could. Her fists felt numb, and she didn't know whether it was because she knocked hard, or because she was too weak. Dull thuds resonated in the air. They weren't as loud as she intended them to be.
There was no response.
Nelaira rolled her eyes and then winced, regretting the movement.
She might not have been able to use her magic, but her presence sensing capabilities were just fine. "I know you are out there." She was surprised by the raspiness of her own voice. Her long ears twitched painfully because of the unpleasant sound. She licked her cracked lips, hoping that moisture would make her voice sound less grating on the ears.
She didn't need to wait for long before an exasperated, deep voice responded: "What do you want?"
She went straight to the point. "I want to talk to your manager."
"What gives you the qualifications to talk to the manager? Should I bother him every time someone wants to see him?" The voice responded in a mocking tone.
Nelaira turned her back to the door and rested against it.
"What gives me the qualifications is the fact that I am the only one in this s.h.i.thole with a personal bodyguard. Now, why would a dying person need a bodyguard?"
The person snorted. "I am not your bodyguard."
Nelaira smiled. "I know exactly who you are and why you are stationed here. My point is, if I didn't hold some importance, the manager wouldn't have a.s.signed you to keep watch over me. Would he?"
The man didn't respond.
Nelaira waited a while before continuing. "Hey, it is your loss. I wanted to propose a time sensitive deal to your manager which would be of great benefit to him. He'll get word of it sooner or later. But if he hears of it too late, will you be able to take the responsibility for not notifying him of it?" She did her best to sound persuasive.
"Shut up." The man growled.
Nelaira didn't speak anymore. A small smirk sneaked onto her face.
He would definitely come to see her soon.
* * *
◈ Beyd ◈
If Kiel was going to go to Ashar, he needed to pack. Not just for his trip to the exams, but also, he needed to prepare everything that he would need for his stay in the Ashar university dorms. He had no doubt that he would pa.s.s the exam, now that he had enough mana at his disposal.
Kiel decided to not waste any more time and took Elaru with him to his mansion. He initially wanted to leave her in the forest to wait for him, but he didn't know the distance limit that their bond could currently handle. And he didn't think that he had enough time to test it. The exams were of utmost priority.
Kiel and Elaru approached the mansion through the forest and entered through the back gate. That way no one would have seen them together except the servants.
Rroda mansion was a large, two stories high building made out of the same orange canyon rock as the rest of the houses in the upper Beyd.
Mana Wyrms in all kind of poses were carved out in the frames of windows, doors and fences, giving them an irregular shape. The rock the house was made out of was carefully chosen to have an eye pleasing variation in color, which were manipulated by trans.m.u.tation magic to create beautiful shapes that truly resembled real Mana Wyrms. Everywhere on the walls, hundreds of wyrms were depicted slithering and dancing in perfect harmony with green vines, which grew from the roof, down the sides of the mansion. The green-orange contrast made both the leaves and the orange wyrms stand out even more.
Mana Wyrms were ethereal, translucent creatures that glowed in the dark. They came in soft pastel colors, usually shades of blue and purple. Mana Wyrms had small heads that somewhat resembled the head of a small dragon, and long tails that looked like they were made out of silken sheets or drapes. Not only did it resemble silk in appearance and behavior, it was also silky to the touch. They slithered through the air, drawn to places or creatures with abundant mana.
Because of their ethereal nature, they could not be damaged by physical objects, and to make matters worse, using magic around them was difficult because they would absorb the mana powering the spells.
Mana Wyrm was an animal representing the Rroda family, it was on their flag and crest. Thousands of years ago, when they were first established, choosing a Mana Wyrm as their animal was supposed to speak of their tenacity, grace, and refinement that brings them above all rest. However, currently, Kiel found it quite ironic that his family's signature animal was a mana leech... because that is precisely what he was now, a wyrm feeding on Elaru's mana.
The mansion was undoubtedly beautiful, and it was clear that the family it belonged to had n.o.ble blood running through their veins. Elaru examined it with interest, but her face contained no awe which most commoners would have expressed had they seen the exquisite mansion.
* * *
Dneth was born and raised in Beyd as a servant in the Rroda mansion. She had never left Beyd in all 63 years of her life.
She had been in charge of house ch.o.r.es even before master Kiel first arrived at the mansion, more than a decade ago. And in all of those years, master Kiel had never given her such a huge surprise as the one he gave her this day.
She didn't expect master Kiel to come home in the early afternoon. It was a regular working day, so he was supposed to be out questing until the evening.
If he came home early, it wouldn't have given her such a shock. It wasn't hard to accept, it happened from time to time.
What she did have trouble accepting was that he didn't return home alone.
Though he had many friends, master Kiel had never brought a friend home with him. Dneth felt as if master Kiel never truly thought of this mansion as his home in the first place.
Dneth wasn't sure if master Kiel was able to recognize the fact, but she always thought that he was very lonely. The fact that he didn't want to have an emotional connection to this place, didn't mean he didn't need one.
It was because she knew how master Kiel was purposefully distancing himself from everything, that she was so shocked to see master Kiel return with a guest. And what shocked her even more, was the gender of the guest.
Although master Kiel was very popular with the ladies, there had never been a lady that caught his eye. So naturally, he had never brought a lady home before.
The fourth surprise that made Dneth almost knock down the vase from the table she was standing next to, was the appearance of the girl. She was an elibu! Dneth had only ever seen pictures of elibu in books. She had never seen one in person, or from this close up.
Dneth had to urge herself, repeatedly, to look away from the girl. It was impolite to stare. But how could she not stare? The girl was an exotic beauty with lush curves, messy red hair, and intricate markings on the left side of her body.
Several n.o.ble ladies had visited this mansion before. They were beautiful too, but using the same word to describe this girl seemed like sacrilege.
Was this girl a n.o.ble? Dneth's eyes narrowed into a scrutinizing gaze.
The girl looked to be in a good mood, humming quietly, and following master Kiel gracefully. Her movements had a certain refinement to them, not like what Dneth was used to seeing from n.o.bles coming to the mansion. It was different. There was a certain air about it that Dneth couldn't quite define. The air carried power, but not frightening or cold power, it was something strangely warm and alive.
Dneth could understand why master Kiel would like this strange person. Men liked exotic and unique things, not to mention that she was a living piece of art. She gave master Kiel a quick knowing look and she noticed he looked messier than usual.
Strangely, even though ruffled, he seemed even more enchanting than usual. It was as if he returned more beautiful than he was when he left this morning.
Realization dawned on her.
Both master Kiel and his lady friend looked a bit ruffled. As if they had been rolling on the forest floor.
Dneth bit her lip to suppress her surprised gasp.
Were they rolling on the forest floor together?!
She didn't seem to be the only one that reached that conclusion because she could see the maid opposite of her blushing feverishly.
So it really was true that people looked more beautiful while in love?!
Master Kiel smiled politely and nodded at Dneth in greeting. He didn't make small chatter nor elaborate who the lady trailing behind him was. He didn’t need to explain himself to his servants.
Dneth pondered whether she should ask him if he needed something, or if his companion needed something. Her gaze landed back to the two, and her thought process was suddenly interrupted.
As she watched the two walking away, she felt as if she was watching a divine painting. There was something ethereal about them. True, both of them were creatures of extreme beauty that would draw attention wherever they went. But looking at them together, it was as if they enhanced each other's beauty even further.
Dneth could feel her hair standing on end. It was uncanny.
And that's when the fifth surprise hit her, making her hands reflexively clutch her chest... Master Kiel took the girl upstairs, to his bedchamber.
Were they going to his bedchamber to finish what they started on the forest floor?!
Dneth wasn't the only servant baffled by the turn of events. Younger and older, females and males alike, turned their heads and dropped their jaws in surprise as their eyes pa.s.sed over master Kiel. None of them made a sound, but they didn't need to, for the questions plaguing their minds were showing clearly on their faces.
Dneth glared at two younger male servants who seemed to be staring at master Kiel's guest inappropriately. Their ears reddened and they scattered back to work.
Other female servants avoided her eyes, pretending not to be interested in master Kiel and his guest, although the blush on their cheeks spoke otherwise.
Dneth waited a short while, before discretely moving towards master Kiel's bedchamber. She needed to be nearby if master needed her. Or at least, that's what she told herself.
She was actually worried about master Kiel. This turn of events might impact master Kiel's reputation! Servants will no doubt gossip about this for a long time.
She turned her head left and right, noticing the other servants nonchalantly following her, as if her movement towards master Kiel's room gave them permission to join her. They evidently wanted to douse their curiosity.
Dneth was about to shoo them away when she was interrupted by the noise coming from master Kiel's bedchamber. The exotic lady was speaking to master Kiel in an enthusiastic, warm voice:
"If you don't know how to do it, I'll do it!"
Dneth gaped like a fish, looking at the young maid on the right in shock. Her ears had already turned red from embarra.s.sment so they could only get redder as young master responded with:
"I can take care of my personal hygiene just fine on my own, thank you very much!" He seemed to be fl.u.s.tered, not emotion often heard in his voice, which made the entire situation look even more… unique...
"No need to feel shy, just let me do it!" The girl whined.
Dneth covered her gaping mouth shut with both of her hands in horror. The shock she was getting made it hard for her to catch her breath.
"Hands off! I do not want or require your help!" Master Kiel responded annoyed.
That was the last surprise Dneth got that day, and it was more than her old heart could handle. Her eyes rolled back, and she fell towards the second female servant making her stumble back into the third. Their robes tangled and the row of servants fell like dominoes. The noise startled all of them and they quickly scattered, two male servants quickly reacted, grabbing Dneth by her arms and dragging her away from the premises along with the remaining half a dozen servants.
They made a "just in time" escape because a second later, the door to the master Kiel's chamber had opened.
* * *
◈ 15 minutes prior ◈
Even though Kiel had entered the mansion through the back, several servants were already waiting for him. They bowed and greeted Kiel respectfully though none of them could hide their surprise of him bringing an elibu home.
Kiel briefly wondered whether he should leave Elaru to wait for him in the foyer. He decided not to, he had no idea what trouble she might get herself in without him to keep an eye on her. He didn't trust her one bit. Sourly, he decided that he had no choice but to take her with him to his bedroom.
Kiel's bedroom was large and relatively luxurious, with a large bed and a private bathroom. All of the furniture and decorations were expensive and pleasing to the eye. The room had soft gray and blue colors as the theme, which did nothing to lessen the feeling of emptiness and coldness.
The room was too clean and tidy, as if no one was living in it. There weren't any pictures, notes, mementos or any other personal items out in the open.
Elaru frowned. This wasn't a home.
She briefly glanced at Kiel, from the corner of her eyes, but said nothing.
Isn't this… too sad? To have such a beautiful home, yet not treat it like home. Kiel's room felt even less personal than a hotel room. It was glaringly clear how he never considered this place as his home.
While Kiel was quickly packing, Elaru's eyes glazed.
Was it worse to not have a home, or to have one but not feel at home? She spent her whole life traveling from one place to another. She never owned a house or a place she could call her own. No place to call home. Yet, she never felt homeless. She never thought about the significance of having a home.
Her eyes glanced at Kiel again.
No. It isn't that she had no place to call home, it is that she felt as if the whole world was her home. The open sky, the soft gra.s.s, the sand dunes, the cold cliffs, the noisy streets - it all felt like home. But if every place feels like home, could it be that she has no idea what a home feels like?
What is a home? Elaru wondered. A home… is where you feel happy, content, relaxed, safe.
Elaru's eyes lit up, the haze that had previously covered them vanished without a trace.
A home doesn't need to be a place. A home can also be a person!
A head full of blonde hair with several black locks flashed in her mind, followed by a head full of unruly red hair, just like her own.
She unconsciously smiled. That's right. I do have a home!
She looked back at Kiel, determination entering her eyes. If he doesn't have a home, then I'll be his home!
It didn't take Kiel long to finish packing. He didn't have any items which he held dear, so he packed only the necessities. He filled a large bag with things that he will need to move into the university dorms. He would tell his servants to send him this bag later. The most important of items he put in the little bags on his belt.
After he was done, he turned around and glanced at Elaru. She was giving him a rather strange look. What is with that look? He didn't know why, but he felt his hair stand on end. She didn't get any bizarre ideas, did she?
Kiel shook his head and discarded the thought. He didn't want to know what strange thoughts were flying around her head. Right now, there was one last thing he wanted to do.
Elaru looked at him like he grew two heads when he declared that he was taking a shower.
Kiel raised an eyebrow at her. "What?"
"We don't have time for you to shower! Why not just cast a Cleansing spell?"
He glared at her. Firstly, Cleansing was a trans.m.u.tation spell, and he was an argel - he could never cast trans.m.u.tation spells, and naturally he had never learned them. Secondly, even if he could have cast it, back then, he didn't have enough mana.
Though, both points were invalid right now.
So the actual reason why he never considered it was because he wasn't used to that way of thinking – using magic to do everything. And because, well, he didn't want to admit that he had no idea how to do it.
Elaru quickly caught on to his underlying reason.
"If you don't know how to do it, I'll do it!" She approached him, grabbing the front of his shirt with her hands.
"I can take care of my personal hygiene just fine on my own, thank you very much!" Kiel slapped her hands away and stepped back. He disliked people touching him.
"No need to feel shy, just let me do it!" Elaru grabbed him by his shoulder.
"Hands off! I do not want or require your help!" He shrugged her hand away.
Their bickering was interrupted by a thud outside of Kiel's door. As he approached the door, he could hear the sound of frantic footsteps running away. When he opened the door, no one was there.
He closed the door, annoyed by the interruption.
Elaru snickered. "Your servants are funny. Do you bring girls to your bedroom often?"
Kiel didn't dignify that with a response. He thought she might make fun of him if she knew the truth. He had never been interested in… relationships.
It took his mind a second to process what happened outside the door. It was something that Elaru could see because of her Aethernea, but regretfully, he couldn't.
When his mind connected the dots, he covered his eyes with his hand, vexed by the stupidity of his servants.
What the heck did they think Elaru and him were doing?!
He hated how noisy his servants were, always gossiping and b.u.t.ting in his privacy. He sighed in annoyance. He just hoped that this incident doesn't reach his grandfather's ears.
Suddenly, he didn't feel like taking a shower. He wanted to get out of this place as soon as possible. He couldn't wait anymore. It was finally the time for him to spread his wings and leave for the big city. It was finally the time for his life to begin. For what he had been living up to now couldn't really be called a life.
Kiel hesitated briefly before putting down his Mage Armor.
Mage Armor wasn't a spell; it was a layer of dense mana surrounding the mage. Its main purpose was to shield the mage from foreign spells. If another mage wanted to cast a spell on him, they would have to bring their mana inside Kiel's body. And that task would become very difficult if that mana had to pa.s.s through a dense layer of Kiel's mana. It would be as if a gust of air was trying to reach the bottom of a sea.
Mage Armor was the difference between a mage and a regular person. A person was considered a mage only when they could hold up their Mage Armor for the majority of the day. Although this distinction seemed insignificant, that wasn't the case. Most of the basic spells had the capability to mortally wound someone. For example, the simplest Augmentation spell - Accelerate, could be used to make a person slam hard into a stone wall, or raise them high up in the air and drop them to their demise. That simple layer of mana was the difference between life and death.
"Fine. Make it quick." Kiel sighed in resignation. He wasn't worried that Elaru would harm him. She wouldn't have gone through the trouble of binding her soul to his if she wanted him dead.
Elaru grinned and walked up to him. She extended her right arm and touched his chest with the tips of her fingers. She seemed to have a habit of touching the things she was casting magic on, even though it would be just as easy to cast it from a distance, without physical contact.
Suddenly, Kiel felt like he was standing naked in a soft breeze. It was warm yet surprisingly refreshing. He could feel little drops of mana capturing every particle of dirt on his skin and clothes, and then slowly, sliding away from him, taking the grime along. It was a pleasant feeling, like hundreds of little air kisses smothered his skin.
Kiel had heard that Cleansing could feel grating in cases of an inexperienced caster, leaving skin raw and red. He had expected Elaru to pull something like that on him and call him a 'wuss' if he complained. But instead, her spell was perfectly gentle and very effective.
She must have done it countless times to have such an exceptional degree of control of a level 5 spell such as Cleansing.
He doubted that she was taking extra care to be gentle with him.
Kiel liked being showered by her mana. It was such a pleasant and uplifting feeling. He would never admit it to her, but he didn't want to learn that spell so he'd have an excuse to make her do it. It wasn't just that the spell itself felt pleasant, the large part of the pleasant feeling came from the direct contact with her mana. Since it was very warm and comforting, it made Kiel feel content.
It was already afternoon. They needed to hurry before the exam entries closed.
"Are you ready to leave?" Elaru asked him to confirm it.
Kiel nodded and extended his hand.
He needed to be in physical contact with her to be brought along when she used the Beacon. And both of them needed to be in the air. Otherwise, the spell would attempt to take the ground along with them.
She looked at his hand like she saw a strange, wondrous creature. Then she looked back up to him.
"What is it?" He asked annoyed.
"Is that how you people teleport? By holding hands?"
"And how else would we teleport!?" He growled. She took every opportunity to annoy him!
"Why don't you just grab onto the beacon?"
Kiel was speechless.
The thought had not occurred to him.
He stood there like a statue, his hand in the air, his mind trying to come up with an appropriate response.
Elaru laughed a lovely musical laugh and took his hand in hers.
"I guess I'll do it your way then. It doesn't really matter."
Her hand was soft and warm.
Before he could respond, she Accelerated upwards from the balcony, taking him with her. As soon as his feet left the ground, she twirled the beacon in her hand. It activated when her mana entered it and blinded them with a quick and bright purple flash.