= [Leveling up the World] - Wilderness Arc - Chapter 570 =

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Previously on Leveling up the World…
News of a new awakened in the Gremlin’s Timepiece quickly spread throughout the Nerosal. Fury servants were quite common, but having an awakened one was enough to attract crowds. As a level one, Diroh was only able to upgrade one item per day, and Hannah had restricted mending to only a couple, but that wasn’t what brought customers in. It was more about seeing the fury in action. Even old regulars used to there being a fury in the inn were impressed, almost as if they were going through a nostalgia phase

Diroh, on her part, had a lot to get used to. Back in Halburn, she would frequently use air currents to serve customers, not to mention keep the place sparkly clean. While the latter was vastly appreciated, Hannah quickly shared that the former was a big no-no in the city. Officially, there were no laws in the empire against furies using their natural powers. However, there was an understanding that they were not to use them discreetly and not openly flaunt them. Since Diroh was new, mess-ups were forgiven, and even seen as interesting. It wasn’t rare that groups of new customers would arrive hoping to catch her using air currents openly. The demand was so great that occasionally the innkeeper asked the fury to “let it slip.” As usual, Hannah had an eye for money, and to compound matters, Diroh—effectively a former innkeeper herself—agreed

Despite Dallion’s questions and concerns, things seemed to get back to normal, when a captain of the city guard passed by. In itself, this wasn’t unusual. With Eury gone, and Dallion being the only hunter, it had become common for the city guard to approach him for occasional help, ranging from exploring certain artifacts to checking out food for traces of poison. With the plague all but gone, the star cults had apparently started using it toawakened in parts of the empire

When the captain said that the countess wanted to see Dallion, however, it quickly became obvious that this was all but standard. So far, the only time he had been called to see the noble was after the Star’s attempt to take over the city

There was no point in arguing or attempting to get around it. Leaving all his weapons in his room at the inn, Dallion followed the captain to the countess’ palace

The structure had changed considerably in the last few years. It had always been significant when compared to everything else in the city. Now, though, it was absolutely astounding, growing almost to the size of the Archduke’s palace in Linatol. What Dallion found even more impressive was that it had completely been made of stones collected from ruins, ensuring that it was completely guardian-free. Even smaller items such as doors, rugs, and statues had been made in such a way to be empty

There was no telling how much time and effort had gone into making that, but it had required awakened stonecutters and masons building it the old-fashioned way. When it came to expenses, that was only something nobles and few others could afford

Standard etiquette required that all visitors be escorted through the outer section of the palace by a standard set of guards to the inner courtyard. There, a steward would take charge of the guests, leading them to the countess’ personal chamber. This time, though, Dallion was greeted by none other than the city’s overseer. With a nod, she dismissed the city guard captain

“Hello, Dal,” she said in her typically calm voice. “You’re been attracting a lot of attention.”
The overseer had warned him that this moment would come. The mishap in Halburn had only accelerated things

“Just because you give someone a blocker ring, doesn’t mean they become invisible,” the overseer continued

“I thought they would.” Dallion attempted to bring in some levity to the situation

“People usually do. Come this way.”
They continued to the base of one of the towers, then started climbing

“You’re lucky she was Jiroh’s sister,” the Overseer said. “Nerosal has a soft spot for her. You still should have told the countess about it.”
The implication was clear—it was the countess who had called for him. That could mean mostly one thing: she was displeased about something and his recent behavior was an excuse to get Dallion dealt with. The hunter emblem protected him to a very large extent, though not against banishment. Realistically, Dallion doubted it would come to that. Banishment could be done from a distance. The countess wanted something. Given that she wasn’t in her usual chamber, this could suggest that it was a matter of considerable discretion

“I planned to,” Dallion replied. “I just wanted Di to get settled in a bit.”
The overseer said nothing

The stairs led to a single door at the top of the tower. The overseer didn’t bother to know, opening it, and walking inside the room. Dallion did the same. Other than an extremely intricate tapestry that covered the entire walls, the room was empty. There was no desk, no chair, not even a rug. Only the countess stood inside. Looking out into the distance through one of the small windows

“You’ve been quite busy lately,” the woman said, her back turned to Dallion. Despite that, both he and the overseer stopped three steps away from the noble and bowed. “Already an official hunter. I expected it to take you a bit longer. If I had taken part in the betting, I’d have put my money on next year.”
Dallion didn’t say a word, unable to tell whether that was a compliment towards him or not

“Reports came that you caused a bit of a scandal in my new town. In fact, one of my new subjects has come to me demanding your head on a platter.”
That hardly came as a surprise, although the pesky noble from Halburn had been faster than Dallion expected. It should have taken him at least a month to get to this level

“I made it clear that he’s not to touch my toys, no matter the iterations they cause. However, this leads to the real question.” The woman turned around, piercing eyes focusing on Dallion. “Are you my toy or not?”
“I remained in the city, countess,” Dallion said

“Yes, an admirable task, especially since you were offered to go to the provincial capital. However, does that have to do with your opinion, or on you humiliating the Archduke’s son in public? Such an action won’t be forgotten. Not until you become a noble as well.”
This was an obvious trap. If Dallion were to agree, he’d confirm that he was also aiming for the countess’ authority and, as such, fair game for reprisals

“I’ll go straight to the point. There’s a beast that I want caught.” Her eyes narrowed as she spoke. “I want it caught very much, and before anyone else does. And no need to worry. I know your issue with killing. I want the creature caught alive and brought here. Think you could do that?”
“That depends on the creature, countess. I’m still incapable of taking on a dragon.”
The overseer let out a warning caugh, making it known that Dallion was not to get too casual in the conversation. The countess herself, on the other hand, seemed slightly amused. Dallion was able to feel the emotion emanate from her, along with the conviction that she deserved more power

“It won’t be a dragon. If anything, the creature is said to be more elusive than aggressive. That doesn’t mean that it won’t fight if found or cornered. It might be even deadly.”
Normally, this would be the point at which Dallion asked for details. Sensing that she wasn’t particularly fond of or amused by him, he remained quiet, only nodding slightly to confirm he was following the conversation

“People have been trying to catch it for quite a while. Some claim since the early days of the empire. All of them have been only partially successful.”
“My apologies, countess, but should I be hearing this?” Dallion interrupted. “I have echoes and familiars, which I don’t want to.”
For a moment there was a faint whiff of appreciation emanating from the noble, before it vanished, flooded by her standard disapproval of him

“You don’t plan to be careless, do you?” she asked calmly. “There comes a point at which secrets are no longer kept. If someone else is strong enough to obtain what I’m telling you, they are welcome to it, just like I am repeating information that is decades old.”
Dallion nodded again

“I’ll even go as far as to provide some political protection,” she went on. “Not the least of which will be brushing away messes like the one you recently did. Despite that, it’s likely that you will be hunted by mercenaries serving other nobles.”
“Hunters don’t hunt hunters,” Dallions aid out of instinct

“Ah, yes. The hunter credo. Hunters don’t usually hunt others, but it’s not rare for some to receive offers that would make them risk that. The mentor of your fiancée did it.”
The revelation hit Dallion harder than he expected. It wasn’t that he doubted that people would break rules under certain circumstances. All the Star-touched and the cultists were clear examples of that. Having the hunter who trained Eury come up, and in such fashion, wasn’t something he had foreseen. Thinking about it, though, it was said that he had his name erased. If so, this could have been the reason

“You’re on your path to become a noble, or at least reach level eighty. If you do, you’ll learn that there’s a substantial difference between the two. Just as not all nobles are past level eighty, not all who get there are nobles. Politics plays part of that, but it’s not all. If you succeed in finding the creature, you’ll have my support before and after passing the barrier.”
At least, that was to be expected

“If you fail, your name will be erased throughout my domain. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, countess,” Dallion quickly said. Every promise was followed by a threat. This one was slightly more ominous than usual, though not by particularly much. “What is the creature you want me to bring you?”
“The phoenix,” the noble said. “Sometimes referred to as the aether-bird.”
*Should have known she’d go for that,* Nil grumbled

“I believe you saw a feather be sold when you took part in the night auction in Linatol. As you can guess, the feathers must come from somewhere.”
“With all respect, countess, won’t the Academy intervene?”
“Of course they will, but even they won’t risk openly attacking a full hunter. Why do you think I waited for so long before coming to you with this? And don’t think you’re the first one, either. Every hunter of character in Nerosal was made the same offer, including Euryale. Since you remember all of their names, it’s obvious that they refused.”
Refusal was an option? This would be a first. When such demands were made, usually the person in question didn’t have much of a choice. Then again, Dallion did get a lot more into trouble than any hunter he knew

“And if I were to refuse?”
“Normally, I’ll just say that you won’t receive any future jobs of such significance. However, past events make you a special case. You were in control of Nerosal. That makes you a future threat. Your current emblem protects you, but you’ve already messed up enough times to merit deleveling.” There was a long moment of silence during which Countess Priscord kept on staring right into Dallion’s eyes, as if wanting to burn them off his face. “Of course, I know full well what’s practical and what not.” She turned around again. “Time isn’t a factor. You can take on other jobs, you can even leave my domains, or the empire itself. You can even go to the Archduke for help. If you want, you can even become a noble and challenge me for my county. However, if someone else gets the creature before me, all your friends will burn, and do believe me, I know exactly who all your friends are. The same goes for your family members, Dallion Seene”
If interested, please check out my other stories on redditserials:
The Cassandrian Theory (a Space Opera Sci Fi)
The Impeccable Adventure of the Reluctant Dungeon (Dungeon Core Adventure Comedy)

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