Archmage Deirus and Orion were starting to get seriously worried. Half of the academy's break was almost gone, but Friya and Yurial were only getting worse. Yurial would rarely come out of his room and almost refused to eat.
Before every meal, Yurial had to take a bland sedative or he would throw up immediately. He needed a potion to sleep, another for waking up and many others not to jump at every noise he heard.
Friya on the other hand, was restless. She would barely sleep, focusing all her energies on training without a care for her own body. Friya had also put up a constant frown and during her spar sessions she often injured her partners by launching every attack like her life was on the line.
She would easily fall into a frenzy and only Orion could stop her from doing something that she would have regretted later. The worst thing was that she didn't show any remorse afterwards, blaming her opponent for being weak.
"If they can't even match a fifteen years old, they should stop calling themselves sword practitioners and dedicate their life to knitting." Was what she said every time, making Jirni proud and Orion frustrated.
After changing her nightwear, Phloria had recovered very quickly, but whenever someone asked her why and how, she would just turn beet red and refuse to answer. In her case the new shame had driven away the old one.
Quylla had completely recovered on her own, but she was deeply worried for Friya, that was changing into someone Quylla could hardly recognize as the kind and thoughtful girl she loved so much.
"F*ck Linjos and his idiotic ideas." Velan Deirus was considering following Orion's lead and challenging the Headmaster to a duel.
"He turned my poor son into a larva and to add insult to the injury his group was the only one facing that trial. If only they reached the goal second, this would be someone else's problem." He sighed.
"This is partly my fault too. After all his siblings grew up as profligate spoiled brats, I was so afraid of being hurt again that I always kept my distance. All these years, I kept myself so busy with my scheming and experiments that I never established a proper father-son relationship with him, more like master-apprentice.
Now he doesn't see me as a worried parent but as a disappointed teacher, so my words are unable to reach him.
If Yurial doesn't manage to snap out of it, my son's career is as good as over."
Orion poured an amber-coloured liquor in two glasses and then offered one to his fellow sufferer. It was the new world's equivalent of whiskey.
"I have your same problem. I managed to catch Friya off guard right after the exam and she opened up. Now she refuses to listen to me though, it's like talking to a wall. If I send her back to the academy, she is bound to get expelled because of her violent behaviour.
She doesn't trust me enough to share her burden with me and I can't blame her for that. I was so busy with my duty that even the few times I was at home, I just checked that Jirni wasn't going overboard and left without even saying goodbye.
In hindsight, leaving my new daughters so much personal space was a mistake. It grew into a gap that I don't know how to cross over. That's why I was thinking of asking their friend's for help."
"What friend? Are you talking about the lich?" Velan curled his upper lip in disgust.
"What lich?" Orion almost jumped from his chair hearing that word. Lichs were the Kings and Emperors of the undead. Mages that had sacrificed their humanity in exchange for infinite life, allowing them to hoard infinite knowledge and power.
"You should really work less and attend more to social events. That's how the little Lith of Lutia is known among the nobility." Velan explained with a worried look.
"He appeared out of nowhere, with a ridiculous baggage of knowledge and experience for someone his age. Some of my friends that worked together with him during the plague, reported that he is a ruthless killer capable of intimidating even veterans and has displayed a terrifying mastery of darkness magic, hence his moniker.
I think your wife could take a liking to him." The simple thought sent a shiver down Orion's spine.
"I ran a background check on him, but it never reported something so extreme. Nonetheless, I know by experience that traumatized soldiers have an easier time opening up with their comrades. Maybe they will listen to him."
With no other option left, Orion used his royal pass to access from the personal Gate of house Ernas to the Mage Association's branch located in Derios, the capitol of the Marquisate where Lith lived.
Not knowing the region, he was forced to fly and ask for directions from time to time. When he reached Lith's house, Orion was pleasantly surprised by it. It was a smaller cottage than the one he had assigned to his gardeners, but it was in a lot better shape.
The house had clearly been renovated multiple times over the years, it didn't look like a farmer's home, more like the cozy countryside love nest of a minor noble. The walls were entirely made of stone instead of wood, and the sloping-roof was being covered with high quality tiles.
- "The boy must have spent quite a lot for materials and manpower. Someone who takes care of his family like this can't be as bad as Velan said. Unless it's Jirni."–
Orion laughed at his own joke, drawing Elina's attention.
"Good sir, are you lost? There is nothing here for a nobleman like you."
The woman in front of him was stunning. She had to be in her mid twenties, about 1.62 metres (5'3") high with shoulder blades long hair of a beautiful light-brown which red shades danced under the setting sun like a wildfire.
She had such fine proportions and a smile so kind that a lesser man would have been tempted to flirt with her despite the dire circumstances.
- "If I wasn't already married with the most beautiful and loving woman of the Kingdom and my daughter wasn't in need of help, I may have courted Lith's sister… Wait, what's that?"–
The contrast between Elina's gentle voice and the long black stick she held made it appear even more ominous. Judging from the number of yellow runes engraved on its surface and it's humming sound, Orion determined it had to be some kind of lighting based weapon.
- "The design is so rough and amateurish to give away the element of surprise, but I bet it packs quite a punch and from this distance dodging is not an option. If Lith made that thing, Velan could be right."–
"There's no need for violence, ma'am. I mean no harm."
Elina emitted the cutest chuckle while covering her mouth with her hand, but never lowered the stick from her unexpected guest.
"I'm sorry, but I trust a noble only as far I can throw him. What business do you have here?"
"I'm Orion Ernas, the father of Lith's classmates. I need his help for one of my daughters' sake."
"Do you have proof of what you say?" Her hand trembled a little.
"I'm sorry?" Orion was flabbergasted.
"My son is pretty famous around here. Everyone knows he goes to an academy, so anyone can say to know him. If you can't prove your claim, I must ask you to leave."
"Your son? Aren't you his sister?"
Elina's smile disappeared.
"Flattery will not get you my trust. I don't want to use this thing but I'm ready to!"
Her trembling intensified, but Orion knew that look. She wasn't bluffing. Luckily Phloria had told him about her meeting Lith's parents, so all he needed to do was to call his daughter and make her vouch for him.
"Sorry for earlier." After speaking with Phloria, Elina went back to her normal self.
"But after a noble tried to kill my son, I don't trust any stranger, no matter their social status. Lith should be back in a while."
The house was a little miracle of magic, which only made Orion's fears grow. The air lacked the humidity and heat of summer.
The fireplace was empty, yet the room was perfectly lighted by some small glass containers emitting a warm light and no bug or mosquito pestered him once he stepped inside.
Lith had used Forgemastering to recreate air conditioners, lightbulbs and bug spray by devising small elemental stones respectively of water, light and darkness attribute. They were a lesser version of magic holding rings, that could store only first magic spells and needed to be recharged often.
Orion and Elina talked about their respective children, sharing anecdotes and happy memories until Lith arrived. The youth looked like a dejected miner that barely escaped from the collapse of a tunnel, he was completely covered in dust and debris.
After Elina introduced Orion, Lith immediately cleaned himself up with a spell before giving him a deep bow.
"Duke Ernas, I heard a lot about you. It's a pleasure finally making your acquaintance." Both his choice of words and etiquette were flawless, turning his fears into horror.
- "I knew it, he felt familiar the moment he walked through the door. He's exactly like my wife when she was his age! If Jirni sees him, she will never let me hear the end of it. I don't want any of my daughters to go through what I had to before managing to reason with her!"–
"What can I help you with?" They sat at the table while Elina went to the kitchen.
Orion snapped out of it, remembering why he was there.
"Well, as you surely know, both Friya and Yurial are in a bad shape after the second exam. The final test took a heavy toll of them…"
Orion saw Lith's eyes widen, quickly pointing at his mother and then pressing the index finger over his lips.
"Yes, I know." Lith cut Orion short.
"Getting rid of so many pests was a dirty job. I'm sorry they got the short end of the stick."
"They have lost most of their confidence and are in a rough patch." Orion caught Lith's drift and kept vague to prevent Elina from finding out the real nature of the exam.
"I would like for you to try to talk to them. They need all the help they can get."
"I don't think it's a good idea." Lith lowered his gaze in embarrassment.
"I'm not really good with people. Also, I feel I have failed them by not noticing their distress until it was too late. I'm afraid they might be quite angry at me. Anything I say is likely to backfire rather than help."
Thanks to his years together with Jirni, Orion was able to see past masks and charades, noticing that Lith's words were sincere and so was his concern.
- "If you really feel guilty, you should go." Solus said. "If you face them now, you can still make up with them. Abandon them again and they will never forgive you."–
"That's not true, dear." Elina chimed in.
"You always did an amazing work with your patients. All the farmers love and respect you. Your friends saved your life, whatever they are going through you must help them at the best of your capabilities.
I don't remember raising an ungrateful son."
Finding himself between a rock, a hard place and his mother, Lith accepted.