“Shen? That’s a strange name..” Lia said while testing his name on her tongue.
“Yes, well.. My master gave me that name. I was an orphan at a young age, living on the streets. I never knew my parents or where I came from. I have no memories of that time, just that my master found me and raised me from when I was very young. I didn’t have a name that I remembered either, and he gave me that one. It was supposedly the name of an ancient hero named Shen Long.”
Although his words sounded convincing, it was in fact a story he had fabricated without very little thought. There was some truth in it, however. While he may not have been separated from his parents while he was young, he had in fact been disowned by his family and chosen to exile himself out in the wilderness. As for the name Shen, it was indeed the name of a mythological hero, it just wasn’t his real name.
“Shen Long you say?” Lia began, ”I don’t recall ever hearing that name before, although a lot of history has been lost since the great event.”
She paused for a moment, lost in thought, “well what you have said does makes a bit of sense, but I thought you said that you didn’t have a master and that this place was yours,” A small grin was now visible on her face.
“My master is … no longer here, only I am left now.” Shen had never considered himself to be much of an actor, but as he answered he looked down and spoke in a soft miserable tone.
Lia was mortified, she had thought that he was playing her for a fool but how he reacted convinced her, that he had indeed been speaking for the most part truthfully.
“Shen, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean … I’m sorry for your loss.” There was a moment of silence for a brief while, but Lia felt compelled to break it ”Shen, thank you again for allowing me to stay here, but is this facility safe? Just because you haven’t been outside, doesn’t mean that the things out there will not try to get in. I think I may have brought unwanted attention to this place and I don’t think it will remain safe for long.”
Lia’s voice held a certain amount of urgency and slight fear as she spoke. She had momentarily forgotten her plight due to the strange circumstance she found herself in. Shen on the other hand was only slightly troubled about the entrance to his sanctuary having become unsealed, due to the fact that he was awake, however he was still curious as to what lurked outside.
“The Mana within the facility will soon be fully restored now that I am… now that I am aware of the problem. Once power is fully restored, the entrance can be sealed again….”
He had almost slipped and mentioned his awakening, but caught himself without her being any the wiser.
If there is danger outside this facility, I need to know, but how do I go about asking her without drawing too much suspicion? Well, I suppose I could mention my master was a recluse and I know nothing about the outside world. She seems somewhat gullible…
“Uh, Lia. I know this may sound strange, but you see… my master was a recluse. He never allowed me to leave this place, so I don’t know anything about the outside world… Nothing at all actually..” Shen said awkwardly.
Shen didn’t have a master, but he himself was in fact a recluse. The day he chose to abandon society and civilization, he never turned back. Even when he was young, he spent much of his time pursuing his studies. He had more contact with books than he had with people.
No, that’s not entirely true. There is also Mariam and the other spirits that kept me company in my solitude.
Lia’s reaction to Shen was expected.
“Wait.. you can’t mean that you don’t know that this place is in the Outlands? It’s infested with the Defiled! It’s impossible to live here.. How can you not know this?”
Nothing Lia said made sense to Shen and he listened to her indifferently. Lia, noticing this, gave a resigned sigh.
“Wow, I can’t believe this….”
She was completely dumbfounded.
“Well, I’m sorry for my ignorance.” Shen replied with a bit of sarcasm.
“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have acted like that. It’s just unbelievable.”
It was at that time that a strange disembodied voice suddenly interrupted their conversation.
“Master, the mana core lacks sufficient mana to restore full functionality to the facility, your instructions?”
Lia jumped when she heard the voice which seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
“Who was that!?” She said excitedly.
“Ah.. that was Mariam.”
“Oh.. who is Mariam? Was that magic!? Why was the voice so strange…..”
Her curiosity was piqued and she began to continuously ask question after question. All Shen wanted to hear from her, was what exactly did she mean by ‘Outlands’, and what were the ‘Defiled’, but much to his frustration, Lia was an annoyingly curious person.
“Just calm down! Before you ask me anything else, I need to know about the situation outside. Mariam, please wait for further instructions, until I have finished speaking with Lia.” Shen said rather flustered as Lia leaned in a bit too close.
“Awaiting instructions.” Mariam’s voice replied.
After hearing Mariam’s acknowledgement, Shen turned to Lia who had backed off a bit but was watching Shen with keen interest.
“So, now tell me. What is this ‘Outlands’ as you call it, and what do you mean ‘infested by Defiled’?”
“Hmm… how do I explain?”
It looked as if she were struggling with how to explain something which was common sense. While she collected her thoughts, Shen watched her carefully. He hadn’t been this close to a woman in a very long time and especially none who were as beautiful as Lia.
He had of course seen beautiful women from a distance, but when he was in the academy and even after that when he was a researcher, he had very little contact with women in general. It wasn’t as if he intentionally avoided them, it was just that he spent so much time on his studies and research that he had so little time to socialize.
He did remember one particular woman who was a fellow researcher like him. They had often shared theories and commented on each other’s research papers. Shen had considered her to be something like a friend, but even she had turned her back on him once he became ostracized for his research on the relationship between the soul and mana.
“You see, this area here is part of what we call the ‘Outlands’. I was trying to think of the best way to explain it to you, but no one really knows what exactly the ‘Outlands’ is or how it came to be. The thing is, most of our historical records only recount the past few hundred years, and none of them hold an explanation as to how this area appeared when put to scrutiny. There are traces of things here and there, and recently many scholars have begun to discover more and more of our lost past by undertaking dangerous expeditions into this area. For now, all that we know is that the ‘Outlands’ is a place that shouldn’t exist in our world. It is an extremely dangerous place where monstrous creatures known as the ‘Defiled’ live. Well, some areas of the ‘Outlands’ are worse than others… “
Shen, who had been reminiscing, was brought back to the present by Lia’s melodic voice and as she spoke, his expression changed from one of lax attention to one of serious concern.
“As for the ‘Defiled’, they came into existence some 400 years ago, we do not know what created them, but whatever did caused great damage to the two warring empires. After the initial phenomenon which is believed to have wiped out most of their armies, instead of brokering peace, they begun a war of attrition with their remaining forces. Unfortunately for them, when the defiled emerged from the outlands, neither side were able to put up much resistance. The Empire that used to exist to the west of this valley was completely destroyed by the initial wave of ‘Defiled’, and since then the lands have been uninhabitable. As for the Eastern empire, while they did not suffer an immediate incursion into their territory by the defiled, the loss of their armies caused the empire to plunge into civil chaos. Quickly after the fall of the Eastern empire, many small countries such as my own, the Kingdom of Cal’An emerged. “
When she finished her explanation, Shen was at a loss for words. He knew which Empires Lia was talking about, in fact he knew a lot more about the war between them than anyone living in this time. Afterall, he was their undoing, but it was necessary in order for him to achieve his ambitions. He needed the Mana Well to be stimulated by an enormous influence of souls. He had dedicated decades of his life to his research and had spent many years in preparing the proper spell formations necessary for his ritual..
Thinking back, he started to feel some regret for his actions. There was a point in the past, where he had lost his mind and had become obsessed with the potential power held within the Mana Well. And while he had successfully completed his objective of absorbing the source of limitless Mana, he had taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Not directly, those who set forth on the battlefield on that fateful day would have likely died regardless of his actions, but the demise of the empires and civil strife it caused was not intended. But, such foresight was impossible seeing that back then he was only driven by madness.
Somehow, his mind had been healed through the process of absorbing the Mana Well and subsequent transformation of his body and soul. He was no longer the insane old man that he once had been. And while he could remember everything, what he felt back then, what his thought process was, it now seemed so irrational to the present Shen.
Why had he sought such power? No, that was simple, his anger and rage had been stimulated by his madness and he had thought he could achieve some form of revenge. However, It was too late to change the past, and all he could do was move forward with these feelings of regret. He had been filled with such hatred towards those who had scorned him and ruined his life, but now he just felt loneliness for all that he had lost.
“Um….. are you okay?” Lia asked, feeling uncomfortable with Shen’s strange silence.
Shen shook his head and collected himself as best he could, “Uh, yes, sorry about that. Anyway, that is a lot to take in. I wasn’t aware of any of it. Well, for now, you are safe here. Mariam, you may use my mana to fuel the mana core, activate the remaining facilities and bring the defense system online.”
“Command acknowledged, absorbing mana…..”
Only one accustomed to magic and who had gained the ability ‘Mana Sight’ could see the movements of Mana within the environment. It was even more difficult to see the Mana circulating throughout a person’s body. Lia had no such skill, so to her, it was as if nothing were happening at first, but soon the mana became thick enough that even she could feel the power that began to circulate throughout the facility.
Lights which had been dim while running on low power, became brighter. Sounds from various machines, devices, and other strange contraptions mingled together to form a continuous stream of hums and beeps. It sounded to Lia as if an enormous monster were waking from its slumber. She was mesmerized by all the lights and sounds which hadn’t been there a moment ago. She had seen wizard labs and other facilities before, but none with such a variety of gadgets and devices of unknown purpose.
But most of all, she was amazed by something else.
“Is Mariam a Genie!?!?” She practically shouted.
Shen looked at her with a strange expression. He had no idea what she was talking about.
“Yes, a Genie. You know, a Genie!”
“Even if you say that, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Lia gave Shen an even more perplexed expression, just how ignorant is this guy, she thought.
It was difficult for her to imagine that there was such a person so out of touch with common knowledge, and sense, as him. Of course, she was only beginning to get to know him, but his way of speaking, mannerisms and peculiar behavior was foreign to her. In her rational mind, she could only imagine it as being a product of his strange environment.
Just who was this ‘master’ that had taken him in? She could only shake her head at the thought.
“A Genie is a being constructed from magic and can be used to enchant various things. Wizards use them for enchanting armor, creating undead, etc. The most famous use of Genies are in Magitabs! Everyone knows this, how is it that you don’t know this even though you seem to have a Genie managing this facility? Although… it is quite amazing to have a Genie running a facility like this, only the greatest wizards can afford something like that… Your master must have been a famous wizard, but I can’t understand why he didn’t explain any of this to you..”
As Lia rambled on about Genies, Shen smacked himself in the head, causing her to look at him as if he were a complete idiot, and then groaned.
“I can’t believe this, even in this time these idiot wizards still do not understand…..” Shen mumbled.
He let out a sigh, before shaking his head.
“Did you say something Shen?” Lia asked.
“No.. not really. Anyway, I understand what you are talking about. I just wasn’t familiar with the term Genie, Mariam is… something like what you describe.”
Shen felt no need to explain Lia’s misunderstanding. She wouldn’t believe him anyway. It seemed the world still hadn’t accepted the reality that was right in front of their eyes.
Even after 400 years, do the so called gods still hold such influence over people? It looks like I won’t be able to stay cooped up here. I need to find out the situation of the world, and also what caused this area to become the way it is.
Although Shen thought that, he was anxious about once again entering society.
“ … Mariam is it? Your Genie is quite amazing to be able to run a facility like this… let alone being able to absorb a person’s mana. There are way too many weird things here… Just what is this place?”
“Let’s just leave that to one side for a bit. While I now have a better understanding of what is going on, I still know very little about you. If this area is so dangerous, why is it that a young woman such as you, came here all by yourself? How did you even make it here alive?”
Shen leaned closer to Lia in interest without realizing what he was doing. His gaze was intimidating, but he wasn’t aware of it. Lia felt uncomfortable as he stared at her with such an intense gaze and she was also at a loss for what to say. There was a mysterious power in his eyes that she couldn’t understand, and she wasn’t sure that she could trust someone she had just met even if he had shown nothing but hospitality to her.
“It wasn’t as if I wanted to come here, but I had no choice. There were… people chasing me. I was forced to escape into the ‘Outlands’ and I … wasn’t originally by myself. I was the only one who made it, though…” Lia said knowing full well there were many holes in her story.
He leaned back in his chair and listened thoughtfully. While he wasn’t entirely sure of the woman’s origins, he could imagine it had something to do with a power struggle.
She must be the daughter of a noble family or some other influential house. Was her family wiped out?
Shen could see through such things as he had himself once belonged to a noble house. In his first lifetime, most noble families were powerful clans of wizards. He did not know if this was still the case, but he could sense great magic potential within Lia. She hadn’t yet manifested her power, but he had the ability to see the flow of Mana within her. Her spiritual nodes were somewhat active. With time, she could become a relatively powerful mage.
This could be troublesome, do I really want to get involved in another’s struggle again?
Shen had no particular interest in getting involved in power struggles, but a part of him also didn’t necessarily want to abandon a helpless woman. He had heartlessly already caused the deaths of so many, and he knew that some of those who died were probably even old acquaintances. At that time, he hadn’t even felt an ounce of guilt due to his madness, but now that his mind was clear his thoughts had changed.
The truth is… I committed a horrible atrocity. Can I even call myself Human anymore? No, I must regain my Humanity. And so with those thoughts, he had gained some determination. He wouldn’t abandon this woman who had called out to him for help so callously. At least, not until he knew more of her situation. He was well aware that in politics, things weren’t always so black and white. For all he knew, her family could have been the villains of this story.
“It seems you don’t trust me, but that is understandable. We just met and we know very little about each other. I won’t pry too much into your affairs, but then I won’t necessarily help you either. Well, don’t be too worried, I will let you stay here for now. That is, as long as you make yourself of use around here for the time being.”
Lia sighed in relief and thanked Shen profusely. She was overjoyed that he hadn’t asked more of her and taken advantage of her helplessness.
“Shen, I was wondering” Lia said after thanking him.
“What is it?” Shen replied.
“Um… do you plan to stay here forever? I mean, do you have no interest in ever leaving this place?”
Lia had worked up the courage to ask and of course her intentions were quite transparent to Shen. It was obvious that she wanted to return and was hoping Shen would help her do so.
“Hmm….well, I have everything I need right here, you could also stay here. The two of us could live out our lives in this place!”
Shen felt a sudden urge to tease her and chuckled inwardly as he gave Lia a teasing smile. This behavior was somewhat unlike him, but it seemed that he had regained some of his youthful vigor.
“Wait, what!? The two of us, living here our entire lives!?” She exclaimed once she realized what he meant.
Lia had become somewhat flustered by his response which brought him a certain amount of amusement. He never would have normally spoken to a woman like this, but for some reason he felt compelled to do so in this situation. He wondered if it had something to do with changes to his mind due to his age reverting. He even felt like teasing her more.
“Well, you are a beautiful woman… and we are both young and healthy.. I don’t see a problem with it?”
“I can’t believe you would say something like that in this situation! Even if you saved me, that doesn’t mean I am some play thing for you!” Lia jumped up from her chair in embarrassment and spoke rapidly.
Her cheeks reddened and her reaction was cute which only made Shen laugh, while he himself felt that this interaction was strange, surprisingly to him, he somewhat enjoyed it.
“Sorry! Sorry.. I am only joking. I don’t know what suddenly came over me…”
Shen shook his head and thought, I only just woke up not that long ago. There may have been some side effects from the long sleep and extended Mana exposure. Or perhaps it has something to do with my emotions due to chemical changes in my brain.
While he calmed her down, Mariam’s voice interrupted them.
“Master, the facility is secure and I am detecting immense Mana reactions throughout the area. There appears to be many lifeforms within a 10 mile radius of the facility. Threat level has been increased to maximum. The facility may come under attack from foreign entities. What are your orders?”
“Ah, those are most likely these creatures called the ‘Defiled’ that Lia mentioned already. It seems there are quite a lot of them in the surrounding area. How you made it here alive is a mystery Lia.” Shen replied while watching Lia’s reaction.
She hadn’t yet calmed down from his teasing, but she became somewhat depressed.
“Those who accompanied me protected me…. But they’re all gone now…”
Shen felt a little bad for her, but there was nothing that could be done about it now.
“Well, you made it here alive so I am sure they can rest in peace knowing that.” Shen said that, but it didn’t seem to help.
“Mariam, increase the facilities defenses, maximum Mana output. You can decrease output from the research facilities since I won’t be needing them currently. Continue to monitor the immediate vicinity just in case.”
“Command acknowledged.” Mariam’s monotone voice replied.
After instructing Mariam, Shen stood thinking he would retire for a short while to rest, but he suddenly had an interesting thought.
“Lia, I know I said I wouldn’t pry, however, I have changed my mind. Let me share what I believe has happened to you.”
He watched her briefly after saying that and anxiety once again returned to her face. She looked up at him with an expression that reminded him of a frightened small animal. He didn’t look down on her for that, he actually admired her bravery.
“Hmm…. after being involved in some form of power struggle, perhaps between noble houses or on an even grander scale, you were forced to leave the safety of civilization along with your remaining loyal retainers. Unfortunately, they were all killed while protecting you, and here you are, a lost sheep.”
Shen could tell his words had hit the mark as her face paled..
“How… how do you know…” She replied cautiously.
“Oh come now, don’t look at me like that. It doesn’t take much to see what is going on here. A young woman with no ability to protect herself wandering into the outlands, barely escaping with her life. Comrades willing to die to protect you and being chased by some unseen enemy. It’s such a cliché that only a moron couldn’t surmise this much at least.” Shen said arrogantly while giving Lia a smug smile.
“How dare you belittle those who gave their lives for me!! How dare you!! So many people died…. My friends… my family… Wipe that smug smile off your face!!” Lia angrily shouted while abruptly standing and knocking the chair to the floor.
Shen was surprised by the fire in her voice and her sudden change in temperament. Perhaps I took things too far, he thought to himself, but he had no intention of apologizing.
“Hmph… Fine, calm yourself and sit!”
Lia was startled by his commanding tone, but her anger had not abated. However, she realized that she was in a precarious situation and that if this man turned her away, she would die. She forced her emotions to calm down and she picked up her chair and sat once more while glaring at Shen.
Shen hadn’t intended to insult her, but there were still aspects of his personality that had become somewhat cynical and cold due to his lack of contact with other people. After watching Lia’s reaction, he found his own actions regrettable, but he didn’t want to admit it.
“Good. Now listen well. It seems to me that without my help, you will not survive. I can see that the fire in your eyes has not died down at all. So tell me, what do you plan to do from now? No, let me guess! You were hoping that I would help you? Help you return back to your country so that you could continue whatever nonsense it is that you got yourself into? Am I correct?”
Lia looked as if she might shout again, but she calmed herself quite admirably. Shen didn’t know exactly why he had been as abrasive as he was, but there was a part of him that wanted to see her determination and her anger. She somewhat reminded him of his own former circumstances a long time ago and he wondered if her determination would take a different turn from his.
“Well, what you said is not wrong….” She finally said, although reluctantly.
“Hahaha…. Good. It’s good to see that you can be humble.”
“Tell me everything and I might just agree to help you.” Shen said while returning to his seat.
He had no obligation to help her, but he found that his interest was piqued.
Lia sighed and then decided told him everything. She could already see that he had no connection to her enemies and that he knew nothing of the circumstances of her kingdom, so what harm would there be in telling him? She was already at his mercy and he could do what he wished with her.
“I am the only daughter of the former King of Cal’An, and the legitimate heir. My mother and my father had no other children and so I was to eventually be married as a woman cannot inherit Cal’An’s throne by herself. Usually I would have been wed to a some noble’s son, maybe even a foreign prince, who would thus rule through me. However, I have an older half brother. He is a bastard child, born before my parents were married. Before they officially met, my father was in love with another woman, but my great grandfather, the king at that time forbade my father from interacting with this other woman.” Lia paused for a moment.
“But love will always find a way, and unbeknownst to the king, my father and this woman had a child in secret. These events unfolded long before I was born, but because he was illegitimate, even after my grandfather passed away, the succession laws still prevented him from being able to inherit the throne.”
Lia paused for a second time, and rubbed her now red eyes, “A few years ago, my parents were murdered in the night. I would have been killed too, if not for loyal retainers who kept me safe and helped me to flee. My half brother had received the support of many noble families, some of which boasted of the kingdom’s most powerful Wizards as members. During his reign, my father had attempted to centralize power which earned him the ire of many other nobles, who were more than happy to remove him. Although, my half-brother would not have been able to accomplish this if he hadn’t somehow gained the support of the Ard’Rein family…”
“Wait!!!” Shen unexpectedly interrupted her and a glint of insanity crept into his bright hazel eyes.
“What did you just say?”
Lia shrunk back in fear at his reaction without realizing it. She couldn’t understand why he had reacted in such an extreme way.
“Umm… My half-brother, he received support from a powerful family of Nobles, the Ard’Rein family. They are one of the most powerful wizard families….”
No, it can’t be!! I can’t believe this. How the hell are they still around!? Even after all this time? Those bastards, I will kill all of them with these hands….
Shen’s murderous intent leaked out of him unintentionally which only frightened Lia even more, but it disappeared almost as quickly as it had come.
“I’m sorry, continue.” Shen had regained his composure.
His abrupt changes in behavior were quite startling and Lia couldn’t keep up. She considered whether there was some connection between Shen and the Ard’Rein family based on his reaction, but she couldn’t understand how that could be given his background. He had told her that he had never left this facility, but she was beginning to wonder whether he was lying.
After calming her nerves, she continued.
“Well, the story is mostly over. I fled the castle and was hunted for almost three years. Those who were loyal to my father, many of them died trying to keep me safe and hide me from my half-brother. We were trying to escape further east and seek asylum from another kingdom, but we were trapped and forced to flee west. That is how I ended up here…..”
Before Lia had begun her story, Shen was mostly just curious. With his second chance at life, he wasn’t about to waste it living in this facility forever. He was considering whether he would help this woman, at least until they returned to civilization. If anything, she could provide him basic information about the kingdoms, and other necessary knowledge he would need to assimilate into modern society. With this much, he felt it wouldn’t be too much of a burden to have her tag along with him.
But now, things were different. He had a new goal in mind.
Hahaha, who would have thought that my family would still be alive. And not just alive, but even have gained such power, how did that happen? My family was nothing more than a weak wizard house, barely able to keep themselves afloat. They must be my sister’s descendants then, since my parents had no other children.
“Tell me more about this… Ard’Rein family… How exactly did they gain such power?”