151 The Flaming Hand (Part 5)

 At the Morani Castle.

Wharton was so enraged that he'd lost all his reasoning capabilities. All he wanted to do now was to attack Link somehow.

Link was quite surprised at the degree of his brother's wrath. He'd always known that Wharton had a bad temper and that he was always the boss in the castle where his words were the law. But he didn't expect Wharton to descend to such a tyrannical point. This was no longer just haughtiness and arrogance - it was madness!

Link felt he must teach Wharton a lesson in place of their father, in case one day he might step on the wrong toes and cause irreversible damage to the family.

It was true that Wharton was a Level-4 Warrior, but he wasn't holding any weapons at the moment, and neither was he wearing his armor. Link, on the other hand, had a whole arsenal of spells at his beck and call to choose from - Glass Orb, Whistle, or even Flame Blast - either one of these would've killed Wharton in less than a second.

But of course he couldn't, and wouldn't, do that. After considering it for a while Link decided to use the latest spell he'd learned - the modified version of the Flaming Hand, Vulcan's Hand. This spell would completely overpower his bastard of a brother and immobilize him without hurting him.

But then, just as Link had come to his decision, a figure appeared out of nowhere and was lunging towards Link and Wharton. The figure's body was shrouded in Battle Aura of exactly the same color as Wharton's, only even more intense.

It turned out that the figure wasn't aiming at Link, though. Instead, the mysterious figure went straight for Wharton.

Wharton was caught unaware himself and didn't have the time to defend himself from the assailant. He was forced to step backwards for five or six steps, after which the assailant pinned him down against the wall behind him.

Wharton did not expect it to be shocked, and then he was knocked back by the figure. He took five or six steps back and was finally hit by the figure on the wall.

It was then that Link could finally make out who this figure was. He was over six feet tall with a body as sturdy as a bear and a rough and craggy appearance that seemed to be about 25 years old. He was Link's second brother, Clyde Morani.

"This is the first time we three brothers are reunited back at home," he said angrily, staring straight into Wharton's eyes, "yet this is how you, the eldest brother, welcome us?"

"You bastard, let me go!" By now Wharton had calmed down slightly. He continued to struggle but Clyde had eased his grip on him. Soon enough Clyde let his brother go and took a few steps away from him.

Now that Wharton was free from Clyde's grasp, he suppressed the burning rage inside him with all his might and shot daggers at him with his stare. Then he straightened his clothes and turned back to Link.

"So you think you can play me like a puppet now that you've learned a few tricks in the magic academy, huh?" sneered Wharton. "Don't you forget that I'm the master of this castle and no one is allowed to disobey or disrespect me. If you've got a problem with that then you're welcome to bugger off!"

Then Wharton turned around and strutted out of the hall without waiting for Link's reply.

Link frowned deeply as he massaged his eyebrows. In this brief interaction with his eldest brother he could clearly see that Wharton was pompous and arrogant, impulsive and impatient, and worst of all, ignorant and unwilling to compromise his needs for anyone else. In short, he was just like those typical spoiled sons of noblemen.

Meanwhile, Link's second brother Clyde apparently couldn't stand Wharton as well as he spat on the spot where Wharton had stood.

"Sooner or later the family will fall in his hands!" shouted Clyde.

He was a knight of the kingdom who was stationed in the White Silver Fortress which was a hundred miles north of the Black Iron Fortress, and the second largest fortress in the kingdom.

He had heard that his father had fallen seriously ill, so he asked for special permission by the captain to come home in time for the Winter Veil Festival. He'd also got wind of the rumors about his little brother on his way back that he had shown exceptional progress in his magic skills and was about to come home as well. So, Clyde was very much looking forward to seeing everyone back together for the first time in a long while.

Although he hadn't liked Link much in the past, it was only because he despised his little brother's weakness and passivity. He would never bully Link himself. Now that he was a knight of the kingdom and had been stationed away from home for a long time, he had started to value the unity and strength of the family even more than he had ever done.

The reason was simple. If the bond within your family wasn't strong or if none of your family members was a prominent figure, you could be easily manipulated by another more powerful family and be robbed of all you had.

The appearance of a prominent figure within a family depended entirely on luck, which was very hard to alter. The unity among the family members, though, could be worked upon. This was the reason why Clyde highly valued the importance of love and harmony in maintaining the strength and position of the family.

And yet, the first thing he saw after rushing back home was the sight of his elder brother in all his arrogance bullying his little brother in front of the rest of the family. This angered him very much and triggered him to act out in the way he did.

Now that Wharton had left, Clyde then calmed himself down for a while and turned to his little brother.

"Not bad, kid," he remarked.

Clyde had been out in the world for many years, so his mind had been broadened unlike Wharton who had remained here all his life. Clyde could easily see from that little trick his little brother had used on Wharton that Link's spellcasting was impressively swift. He even had a decent control of the spell that he cast. To have achieved this much within a year was really not bad at all.

However, in Clyde's view, Link's magic aura was still very dim, so his level mustn't be all that high at present. He'd managed to fend off Wharton probably because the latter had been caught off guard. Still, it was more than enough for now. They finally had a Magician within the Morani family, and this pleased Clyde very much.

Link, on the other hand, had known Clyde to be a frivolous man who loved to chase after women. He remembered how he would flirt and try to court every beautiful lady he met. But apart from that there was no serious flaw in him at all. He'd ignored Link in the past but had never done anything to make his life miserable the way Wharton had been, so Link had no hard feelings for Clyde at all. He saw Clyde smiling at him so his expressions softened as well and finally ceased the Edelweiss shield.

"It's just a little trick I learned," he told Clyde with a smile. He then turned to his mother and patted her hand gently. She was pale and shaken by what had just happened.

"It's alright, Mother," Link reassured her, "Wharton was just confused for a moment."

"I heard Trevor say that father's body is getting weaker," said Link. "Is he ill? What happened?" He hadn't received any news from home lately and had no idea at all what was going on within the household.

"Father fell off a horse two weeks ago," said Clyde, his face now turned grave and glum. "He was relatively fine when it happened, but his injuries worsened the next day. The priest had visited him several times now but there still wasn't much improvement in his conditions. I hear his body was too weak to withstand a strong healing divine spell."

The basis of divine spells was to stimulate the body's own potential to repair and heal itself. The priest would only say someone could no longer withstand a healing spell when that person was nearing their limit and could no longer be saved.

Link was understandably shocked at this revelation. He hadn't expected to come back at such a crucial time. He'd assumed that Wharton was preventing himself from seeing the Viscount because he didn't want Link to develop a close relationship with their father. But now it seemed that he might just be worried about the old man's health and didn't want Link to disturb him. Now it's no wonder why Wharton's temper had been so explosive.

"Let's go see him," said Link.

Clyde nodded, and the two brothers then made for the old Viscount's room together.

Their father's room was on the second floor of the castle just a few steps away from where they were. Just as they were approaching the door, Link saw the priest walking out of the room followed by the castle's servant, though they didn't seem to notice the two brothers approaching yet.

"The Lord of Light has summoned the Viscount," said the priest to the servant, "he might stay alive for another week but no longer. You must all be prepared for what might happen soon."

Clyde had heard the priest's every word loud and clear. He quickly rushed up to him in long strides.

"Is there no way to save him at all?" he asked with a pleading voice.

The priest was initially shocked at Link and Clyde's presence. He then looked around and realized that they were all members of the Viscount's family, so he shook his head gently in reply, with an expression on his face that signified helplessness.

"The Viscount is already unconscious and his Life Aura is now almost extinguished," he said. "I'm afraid I am powerless against the will of the Lord of Light."

The priest then gave a slight bow and left.

Clyde let out a long sigh and they all stood there silently. The two brothers then entered the Viscount's room. Link saw his white-haired father lying almost lifelessly like a sheet of paper on the king-sized, carved oak bed. His breathing was irregular and very slow, and his face was ashen and pale. He didn't look much different from a corpse.

Link knew at a glance that the priest had overstated his father's condition. By the looks of it, the Viscount wouldn't last much longer than three days, and there was no longer any hope that he would ever rise from his coma. Wharton shouldn't have bothered preventing him from seeing his father as it would've made no difference at all.

The two brothers stayed in their father's room for a while without uttering a single word. They still stayed silent as they walked out of the room. Link didn't exactly feel sad, but he did feel the depressive air that was clouding the atmosphere.

They then passed the time wordlessly for a while. Then the clock chimed six in the evening - it was now dinnertime in the Morani castle.

Although Link's eldest brother wasn't exactly keen on celebrating his return to the castle, he still ordered the servants to serve up quite a lavish meal for everyone.

There were only five people in the dining hall - the three Morani brothers, Molly and Link's mother Lilith. Wharton sat at the head of the dining table while Clyde was sitting on his right. Link took a seat in the middle of the table's length. He then turned to his mother and sister and was shocked to find that they were standing aside timidly with uncertainty, looking at Wharton as if afraid of his disapproval.

"What are you standing there for?" Wharton barked. "Sit down!"

Only then did Lilith and Molly dare to take their seats. Link frowned at this sight as it made him suspect that Molly and his mother weren't even allowed to sit at the same table with Wharton when he wasn't home. It was only his speculation, though, so Link decided not to say anything about it for now.

A few minutes later, Wharton broke the silence of the dining hall.

"Molly," he began, taking his time with each word, "Father's health is deteriorating as we speak, we mustn't delay the engagement any longer. It is what he had decided on before he collapsed into unconsciousness."

Molly was slowly cutting up the venison steak on her plate when she shuddered suddenly at the mention of the engagement. Her face instantly turned white as a sheet and she was so upset that not a sound escaped from her lips.

Lilith seemed like she had something to say but she stopped herself before she opened her mouth. The doleful crease between her eyebrows was even deeper now.

"Wharton," said Link after putting down the knife in his hand, no longer able to hold in his thought, "what engagement are you talking about? Why don't I know anything about this?"

Wharton harrumphed and continued to chew the piece of meat in his mouth slowly, making no haste to answer Link's questions.

"It is father's decision," he said finally. "The man asking for Molly's hand is the eldest son, Baron Arrow from Delta County. It is father's last wish."

"No!" Molly shrieked suddenly, finally finding her voice. "It is not father's wish! You've coaxed him into it!" Her eyes were just as deep and dark as Link's and they were now brimming with tears, making them look just like pools of ink.

She then turned to Link and looked straight into his eyes.

"That Delta County Baron's eldest son is a madman!" she told him. "He suffered a serious injury from a horse-riding accident and ever since then he's been torturing women for pleasure. He's had three wives and they all died because of his barbarous treatment! I will never marry a man like that!"

Molly had been observing her brother ever since he arrived. She found that there was something different about him now that made her trust him even more than she ever did when he was just her baby brother. He seemed much more like a leader and a reliable man. She might just be grasping at straws, but she felt that only Link could save her from this cruel fate.

The crease between Link's brows deepened as he listened to his sister, though he made no replies and just sat there brooding. Wharton, on the other hand, couldn't take it much longer.

"Shut up!" he yelled as he slammed a fist onto the table.

Molly stopped speaking immediately and bit her lips so hard they started to bleed, though she dared not defy her brother's command. He was still the most powerful man in the castle after all.

Wharton sniggered derisively, then he turned to Link.

"My dear brother," he said, "Baron Arrow is so kind to welcome our sister into his household without a dowry. Not only that, he even offered us a thousand gold coins in return. His son may have misbehaved from time to time but I'm sure he's no madman. Molly will be fine as long as she is careful. Anyway, this is what father wanted."

Link paid no heed to Wharton's words. He looked over to his mother and sister and saw how one was sorrowful and the other tearful. Link put down the fork in his hand and wiped his mouth with the napkin beside his plate. He knew what he should do now.

"I disapprove of the arrangement," said Link.

Wharton was visibly seething with anger, his eyes bulged out as if they were about to explode out of his head.

"Come on, let's not quarrel," Clyde interrupted. "We'll talk about it after the meal. Let's enjoy the food for now, alright?"

Wharton snorted at Clyde's remarks. He still resented his brother for the opportunity he had to go off into the world and become a chivalrous knight while he was stuck in this castle.

"My dear brother," he began, "you mustn't forget that your armor and weapons had cost the family 1500 gold coins. That's three years' worth of our income! Think of how much our family had to sacrifice for you, we've even gone into debts with -"

"Alright, that's enough!" Clyde slammed his knife and fork onto the table and stomped out of the dining hall. He had no plan to stay there and suffer through another one of Wharton's dreadful lectures.

Wharton burst out in laughter like a child who'd just won a fight. Now it's time to deal with the other younger brother.

"The decision is final," he told Link. "What you think of it means nothing whatsoever."

"I think you've got it wrong, brother," said Link with a laugh. "I wasn't telling you what I think, I will act on it too. I will bring my mother and Molly back with me."

"Don't be silly!" Wharton retorted disdainfully. "How do you plan to take care of them? You're just a Magician's Apprentice who's only been learning magic for a year. I doubt if you could even take care of yourself! What...what is that?"

"You obviously haven't noticed this ring on my finger, have you?" said Link, smiling as he raised his hand to show Wharton the Baron seal from the king. "King Leon has given me this ring as proof that I am now a Baron with my own estate. Now that father will soon be gone, I will bring my mother and Molly back to my estate with me and take care of them myself."

Link's words hit Wharton like a ton of bricks as he sat there dumbstruck and unable to make any reply. Meanwhile, Link's mother and Molly's eyes shone with jubilant surprise.

Just then, they were interrupted by Clyde's urgent scream from the outside of the castle.

"We're under attack!"