It’s our second day in the village of Uradale, and like the morning before, I’m reviewing my findings in the tavern while Hachirou sits quietly by side. This village is a simple logging outpost and it’s the closest location to our client settlement. There are plans to establish a new trade route to the Lysium Theocracy that runs through these places, making it the most efficient path to complete our quest before crossing the border. However, the road between Uradale and the client settlement is still unfinished, and reaching our destination will require crossing the infamous Vivian Forest.
From what little I could gather, the Vivian Forest’s dangerous wildlife and rough terrain claim many lives every year. It’s probably the reason why a number of adventurers failed to reach the subjugation area, thus giving the impression that the quest is cursed. Then again, it’s not the only way to reach the client location, and there’s a guide that regularly crosses the forest. As a matter of fact, for the past two days we’ve been waiting for the guide to return from his latest trip. According to the locals, he should be coming back today, and when he does, he usually heads straight to this tavern.
Given this information, I’ve asked Hachirou to stay on the look out for anybody fitting the tavern owner’s description. However, it’s already been several hours and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hachirou wants a breath a fresh air. I briefly look away from my notes and take a quick glance at my friend, but notice a small peculiarity.
“Huh? Hachirou, are you still drinking the same mug of ale?”
“Um, actually this is my fifth one.”
“I see, it’s your… Y-your fifth mug!”
“I-I’m sorry for indulging! The taste has such a strong yet nice balance between sweet and bitter. In fact, I feel like taking a bottle once we depart. Is that okay?”
“H-hachirou, don’t tell me…”
… you have <Lord of the Pub> as well!
“Is something the matter?”
“Oh, uh. No, it’s nothing. By the way, do you feel like taking some fresh air?”
“I should be directing that question towards you! Ever since that “incident”, you’ve spent all your time outside of travelling doing nothing but research! I know your body is more durable than most, but I really think you should take a step back.”
“I can’t Hachirou, not when I’m so close to another breakthrough. I’ve made progress over the past five days, enough to start modifying <Reconnect Soul> and <Equip Soul>. If I have just a bit more time…”
“Enbos, there’s no need to be desperate. I understand you can’t do your research once we hire the guide, but please use this moment to take a break. Even for you, I wouldn’t call it a waste of time.”
“… Sigh, I guess you’re right. Maybe single-mindedly obsessing over the same issue won’t necessarily lead to anything. What time is it?”
“Um, I think it’s almost noon.”
“Already, and he’s still not here?”
“Just in case, I think it’s best if I go check his house. I’ll be back shortly.”
Hachirou finishes his drink before getting up and stretching his back. I watch as he walks out of the establishment and leaves my line of sight. However, as soon as he does, I look down at my open tome.
… No, meeting the guide is more important for now. I can’t risk missing him. With some reluctance, I gather my notes within my book and return them to my bag. As I do, I hear the tavern owner welcome a bunch of visitors, to which I raise my head.
…. before immediately lowering it to avoid meeting their eyes.
It’s them! The four-man party from that night! Of all the places they could reach from Catorrem, I never thought they would come here! Despite wearing rain cloaks on that night which obscured most of their features, I can still recognise them by their mana signatures. It also helps that the cleric is wearing her white embroidered cloak, with the hood still draped over her head.
Should I call out to them? No, the resulting conversation will be unavoidably troublesome if I do. More importantly, the cleric witnessed my <Reconnect Soul> which is based on the art of necromancy. I never planned on meeting her again and I wanted what I did to become a distant memory. It would be far better if they overlook me, but I don’t think they can miss somebody with two great big antlers stuck to his head!
Wait a second, come to think of it, I was wearing my other mask at the time, and my own rain cloak was hiding my trademark black outfit. Given it was raining and it was dark, maybe they won’t recognise me?
“Huh? This vague feeling of unease and menace. C-could it be… Are you the guy we met five nights ago in the rain!?”
You can identify me with something like that!?
“… I apologise young lad, but have we met?” I reply in an elderly and distinctly unfamiliar voice.
“Oh, I-I’m sorry elder. I must have mistaken you for someone else. Please enjoy your day.”
Yes, I managed to fool them! Now all I have to do is wait for them to finish, or I can leave the tavern in an inconspicuous manner. I secretly watch as they sit at a nearby table and order a round of drinks. They’re still giving doubtful glances in my direction and begin whispering amongst themselves.
(I was a bit hasty, but I was so sure it was him.)
(I don’t blame you, Sen. He has a similar height and weapon to the guy we saw, but apart from those two things, we can’t compare anything else. For all we know, he could be faking his voice and wearing a different mask.)
Scary! Her intuition is scary!
(What do you think, Lili?)
(I also share Sen’s first impression. His mana flow and signature is similar as well, but I can’t say I’m sure.)
Yes, keep doubting your greater rank <Magic Perception>, even though I identified all of you with the same skill.
(Hrm, on second thought, I’m certain he’s somebody else. This guy is clearly older. There’s no way he’s the same man who singlehandedly parried my thrust, not with that withered body.)
Are you trying to pick a fight, you hot-headed leader!?
Actually, I better stop here. If I keep eavesdropping on them with <Enhanced Hearing>, I might just burst out with an unintended quip. I have to carefully make my way out while they’re busy. I don’t have to be sneaky, I just have to act as naturally as-
“I’m back, Enbos! I checked his house and met him at the door! He says we should come back later to… Enbos?”
The four gawk at Hachirou’s canine mask with sudden recognition, before turning in my direction to see my open palm rest upon my ceramic face.
“By the spirits, I never thought you were Enbos the Black! In Catorrem, someone said you were 9 feet tall with boulder-like fists, but you’re completely different from everything I’ve heard!”
“What did you imagine I was? A giant? I swear, with every town the rumours make me sound less and less human.”
“Well, judging by your aura, the way you dress and how secretive you appear to be, it’s no wonder these outlandish rumours started popping up. But regardless of your reputation, I’m really glad we could meet again.”
As I resign myself to their goodwill, the four adventurers push their table to ours with blatant curiosity driving their intentions. This is bad. I can tell this overtly familiar bunch will start probing my character using the rumours as a conversation starter. I turn to Hachirou for support, however…
“… Where did you get that mask? It’s a very nice piece of woodwork.”
“Actually, Master Enbos carved it himself. He even enchanted it with magic to help me see in the dark.”
“Wow, I never knew he was such an artisan. By the way, why do you…”
… I find he’s already engaged in conversation with the red haired lady. It’s no use, I can’t escape. Should I be assertive and drive them away? No, ever since that incident in the Golden Griffin Inn in Catorrem, I vowed to make an effort to improve my public image. If I refuse them here with so many witnesses, it’ll drag my pitiful reputation into murkier depths. I have to lead the conversation and end it as smoothly as possible!
“By the way, why did you try to avoid us? You even changed your voice and feigned ignorance.”
Already, you’re hitting me with a difficult question! What are you, an inquisitor?
“It was for your own good. Those I talk to are usually viewed with the same suspicion as me. I was planning on talking to you later in private, but I guess that failed.”
“I see! So you were trying to be considerate. I’m thankful for your concern.”
Well, at least their party leader looks convinced, but the same can’t be said for the others. While the two women appear sceptical, their third and largest member is as passive as a stone. It looks like I’m in for the long haul.
“In any case, let’s start over and introduce ourselves. My name is Enbos the Black. I’m a C-rank adventurer and travelling mage.”
“I-I’m Hachirou Nomura and I’m an apprentice travelling under Enbos’ wing. While I am not an adventurer like everyone else, it’s a pleasure to greet you all.”
“No, no, the pleasure is all ours Enbos and… Hacheerow, was it?”
“Right. I guess I’ll go next. My name is Sen Carris. I’m a C-rank adventurer from Travallis and the leader of our party. Well, lead spokesman is a better description since Minna and Norf manage almost everything. I’m only ever good in battle, so I’m really blessed to have such good companions.”
He’s a young man with spiky brown hair and vibrant blue eyes on a narrow face. Apart from the iron plate on his chest, the rest of his body is dressed in leather armour. He seems to be an good-hearted and simple person.
“I’m happy you feel that way about us Sen, but you should try to be more confident, with you being our “lead spokesman” after all.”
“Y-yeah, I guess…”
“Anyway, moving onto me, my name is Minna Lochswald and I’m a C-rank adventurer from Travallis as well. It’s nice to meet you both.”
Looking at the red haired women, she has bright green eyes and a button nose. Her slender body is protected by light leather armour, but for some reason, she has thick studded arm guards and no discernible weapon. She seems to be of similar age to Sen, and the way she acts is akin to a sensible childhood friend.
Looking over the remaining members, I direct my attention to the hulking man sitting opposite to myself. From the very beginning, he hasn’t uttered a single word. In fact, if he wasn’t so big, I would have forgotten he was even there. He has pale, beady eyes, a muscular face with a 5 o’clock shadow and short grey hair wrapped in a bandanna. Since grey is a natural hair colour in this world, he’s not necessarily an elderly person but he’s definitely older than the rest. He looks built to be an ideal warrior, but contrary to his burly form, he’s armed with a large bow and is wearing a padded vest.
The rest of their party notice the target of my gaze, but instead of urging him to speak, they ask if he would like Sen to speak on his behalf, to which he gives a silent nod.
“This man is my good friend Norf Aber, and he’s a C-rank adventurer from Kiem. Although he acts like a mute, he’s actually a quiet guy. Also, please don’t think he’s belittling or intimidating you. He’s really just shy.”
“Don’t worry, I know what it’s like to be misunderstood.”
“I-I see… Look, I’m really sorry about raising my spear against you.”
“Don’t worry, it’s all water under the bridge. Anyway, now that Norf has been introduced…”
“I am the last. Hello Enbos. Hello Hachirou. It’s nice to see you again.”
I turn to face the female cleric who’s been patiently watching with a smile. I can’t shake the feeling she’s been scanning me with <Magic Perception>. While she shouldn’t be able to discern anything, I can’t help but feel nervous. I calm my non-existent nerves and put on a relaxed front.
“Indeed it is.”
“It’s nice to meet you too,” says Hachirou.
“I hope you’ll forgive us for leaving without giving our names.”
“It’s alright. After all, it’s far better we’re facing each other under the light than on that stormy night.”
“Well, you say that but…”
“… you’re still wearing your cowl.”
“Ah! I-I’m so sorry! It’s a terrible habit of mine.”
Actually Hachirou, I was about to say we’re wearing our masks, but I guess that’s true as well. With careful movements, she removes her hood and composes herself to…
“My name is Lili Iranor. I’m a C-rank adventurer and a cleric of the Path of Eden church. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“A-are you an-”
No, wait a moment and give this a bit more thought, Enbos! Even if she was one, why would she reveal it so easily and why isn’t anybody saying anything? Not even Hachirou is reacting. It’s entire possible that this is something as normal as Norf’s grey hair. On the other hand, I haven’t seen anybody else with the same trait. Should I ask after all?
“Enbos, are you listening?”
“You’ve been quietly staring at me for a while now. Is something in my hair?”
“Ah, I-I’m sorry. I guess that was quite rude of me.”
“By the way, it sounded as if you wanted to ask a question.”
“No, it was nothing. I was just, erm, taken aback by your appearance.”
“Don’t worry Enbos, I know how you feel. Lili is so beautiful it’s like she stepped out of a fairy tale. Norf and I were also captivated by Lili’s charm when we first met her.”
That’s not the issue here! Stop nodding like you get me, you walking tree! Don’t give me that apologetic look, Lili! Why are you hitting Sen over the head, Minna!?
Sure, Lili has long golden hair tied in a side ponytail, and big, crystal-blue eyes on an unblemished, porcelain face, but it’s not like I have any hormones to feel infatuated in the first place! Admittedly, when I saw her uncovered face I also thought she stepped out of a fairy tale, but not in the way you think!
Hrm? Speaking of fairy tales, am I really just unaware, or could it be…?
No, never mind. It’s best to let sleeping dogs lie and focus on the conversation at hand. As reluctant as I was at first, there is something I want to hear from them. I “clear my throat” and begin speaking in a serious tone that draws their attention.
“Anyway, now that our introductions are out of the way, I have something I want to ask you, Sen. The travellers from that night… Are they alright?”
“Yeah, they are. We escorted the survivors safely to Catorrem. They really wanted to thank you two for saving them, and for helping one of their own find peace. Of course, we didn’t accept their gift in light of what we did, but now I wished we had so we could have passed it onto you.”
“We didn’t save them for any reward.”
“Yes, I know. I heard from Lili of what you said. Nevertheless, what you two did was truly a heroic and selfless act. I promised the survivors that should we ever meet again, I will say this on their behalf…
Thank you for everything.”
The four adventurers give a deep and sincere bow that draws the attention of others in the room. Hachirou appears flustered, while I feel greatly humbled by this act. They’re not just showing the gratitude of those we saved, but their own gratitude as well. They’re genuinely good people and I want to get along with them, but my rational side tells me to end it soon.
“T-that’s enough. we were guilty for leaving them afterwards.”
“I think your party deserve as much praise as you are showing us.”
“You’re too kind.”
“I’m glad we could meet once more, but it’s time for us to go. You see, we have to hire a guide and prepare to cross the Vivian Forest.”
“The Vivian Forest? Enbos, don’t tell me… did you accept the cursed quest as well?”
Hearing Sen say that, I almost fall on the spot as I sense something incredibly troublesome coming up.
“Yeah, the quest didn’t have a limit on the number of acceptors, and we’re also planning on travelling through the forest.”
“Which is a problem seeing as Uradale only has one guide.”
“I know! Minna, Enbos, since we have the same quest, why don’t we work together!”
Ah, damn it, that come out far harsher than I intended. Travelling with a guide is risky enough, but adding more people will only make things even harder.
“Huh, why not?”
“Of course he wouldn’t, Sen! If four more people suddenly joined, his reward will be split six ways instead of two! It may not be enough to cover his expenses!” explains Minna.
“O-oh, I see. I’m sorry for not taking that into account.”
“It’s alright, but now this means we’re competing on the same quest.”
“By the spirits, what was the client guild thinking? Normally you wouldn’t issue such a thing in order to avoid these kinds of problems.”
“Then what should we do, Minna?”
“Excuse me, but even if we’re competitors, can’t we travel together with the same guide and share the fee? Also, since we’re visiting the client settlement, we can always renegotiate the payment.”
“That’s it, Lili!”
Don’t “that’s it” me!
“Still, there’s no guarantee they will agree to a higher reward, and if we go together, we will end up competing at the same time.”
“I-I see. In that case, I guess it can’t be helped… we’ll let you go first.”
“… Say what?”
“In all honesty, the quest isn’t the reason I’m visiting the settlement. There’s something far more important I need to do there. We’ll probably lose at least a week of time, and by then you may already be finished. What do you think, everybody?”
“True, we’re in no rush and the quest isn’t our greatest concern, but you do know this is going to dig into your coffers, right?”
“Haha, I’m prepared for that. Is it alright with you, Lili?”
“Of course. I promised to help you in your goal, not to complete the quest. I’m not going to abandon you now.”
“Thank you, Lili. And you, Norf?”
Norf says nothing, but he gives a firm nod in response to his friend. Looking at them rally around their “lead spokesman”, I can’t help but feel a bud of guilt.
I was ready to concede the trip, even outright drop the quest, in order to avoid travelling with his party. Instead, he’s offering to stay behind when he could have easily negotiated to go first. Actually, he could have asked to travel together but relent the quest. Did he realise my intentions and tried to respect my wishes?
“Please give me a moment to discuss this with my apprentice.”
“Ah, of course.”
Me and Hachirou rise from our seats and walk over to the corner of the tavern. Once I’m sure we’re out of earshot, I begin whispering in Japanese.
(Personally Hachirou, I think we should abandon this quest and let them go instead. Waiting for the guide to return or taking a detour will be a waste of time and money.)
(What about the bait you already bought?)
(I’m thinking of giving it to their party. They deserve to take this quest more than us. What do you think? Should we go first?)
(Actually, I think we should work together with Sen’s party.)
“Wha-!” (… Are you sure?)
(I know about the risks, but if it’s with these adventurers, I’m sure they’ll respect our secrecy. Also, this quest is perilous enough to earn the reputation of being cursed. Surely travelling with more people will be safer?)
(You mean safer for them. When you put it like that, I do begin to worry. Still, it’s nothing but a rumour and they’re experienced adventurers.)
(I-I suppose, but there is one more thing we have to consider…)
Hachirou points to the other customers in the tavern. They’re speaking in hushed tones and giving scornful looks in my direction. Replaying our conversation with the party in my head, I realise they must have heard Sen’s invitation, followed by my brutal refusal. Now, there are vague insults being thrown around about me being some arrogant, uncooperative miser.
(We can’t keep avoiding people forever, and we’re going to be just as vigilant around the guide anyway.)
(Sigh, I guess you’re right. Also, if we do get exposed, at least it’ll be in the middle of a forest with no bystanders)
(True. At least we’ll have the chance to explain everything.)
(Or we can silence them without drawing any suspicion…)
(Don’t worry, I’m only joking. Let’s go back to the table.)
I turn on my heel and begin making my way to Sen’s party. However, looking at each of their watchful expressions, I suddenly freeze mid-step and lead Hachirou back to the corner.
(Before I forget, can you tell me about Lili’s appearance?)
(Um, I guess she’s attractive by human standards?)
(No, that’s what I meant! From your perspective, I want to know… do Lili’s ears look long and pointed?)