“Really!? You want to work with us after all?”
“That’s right. The reward isn’t a concern for us either. We figured it’d be best accept your original proposal. Of course, if you’d like, we can stop cooperating once we cross the forest.”
“No, no, no, we would be overjoyed to work with you! Heck, if you want, we could give you the entire reward!”
“You don’t have to go that far. I’m thinking of divvying the payment to cover all our expense. If there is any money left, we’ll share it fairly. What do you think?”
They heartily agree to my proposal with a handshake and begin writing a letter to the Catorrem Adventurer Guild to legitimise our new arrangement. After both parties finish signing the document (and Hachirou buys a bottle of ale), we depart from the tavern and make our way to the guide.
Quite frankly, I’m not completely sold on the idea of working together. The risk is high and I’m too much of a worrywart to think everything will go smoothly. In any case, the decision has been made and the next few days will serve as a valuable experience, even if I become more of a recluse.
While Hachirou leads the way, I walk alongside Sen with nervous tension as he continues to press me with questions.
“Say, you said the reward isn’t a big concern for you guys. Those that mean you have some other agenda there?”
“Actually, we’re planning to journey west along the Velvet Road. We took the quest as a small detour to earn some travel money.”
“I see, so you’re travelling to the Lysium Theocracy just like the rumours say! In that case, you might want to talk to Lili about her travels.”
“Lili is a native of the Lysium Theocracy, and she crossed into the Reinsol Kingdom through the Velvet Road. If you ask, I’m sure she can help.”
“I see. I’ll be sure to talk to her later.”
The Lysium Theocracy, eh? Well, considering the Reinsol Kingdom doesn’t train official mage-clerics, I shouldn’t doubt Sen’s words. Then again, why is she following a religion preaching human supremacy?
Looking ahead, I gaze at Lili’s hooded form as she chats with Minna, and recall what Hachirou answered mere moments ago in the tavern…
“No, she has small, rounded ears with attached earlobes.”
She’s disguising her pointed ears with illusion magic, but similar to my encounter with Si, my unique skill can see right through it. I’m almost convinced she’s not human, but she’s clearly not of the bestial tribes from the Wasteland… which means she’s a demi-human.
Of course, looking at her ears and inherent beauty, I’m tempted to instantly label her as an elf, but I shouldn’t be too quick to judge. The existence of elves is about as questionable as invisible fairies and migratory Japanese kobolds. Is it possible that there are demi-humans hiding within human society? Could a few of those fallout shelters have outlasted the Apocalypse, only for the survivors to step into a world ruled by man? These are questions I would love to be answered, but there’s one small detail that’s throwing me off.
<… 100%… Scan complete.>
Name: Liliana Ascleson
Max HP: 103
Max MP: 135
… It still says she’s human. While it’s possible to distort the information gained from <Analyse Soul>, she would need a high level of Integrity like me or Takashi to pull off such a feat… which she doesn’t. Her spiritual control is typical for an adventurer.
Am I jumping to conclusions? Is she just hiding her ears because it’s a rare trait? Then again, she could be masking her spiritual aptitude or using an enchantment, but if that’s true, why did she introduce herself as Lili Iranor? If she’s hiding her identity, shouldn’t she mask her true name as well?
Bottom-line is I have nothing concrete, and the more I look, the more questions I have. I should just end it at that and avoid staring at her ears. However, I’m tempted to keep observing her as the prospects of illusion magic are tremendous. If she’s non-human like us, it would be much easier to negotiate. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact she’s a cleric and I’m her natural enemy…
“By the way Enbos.”
“I’ve heard mixed stories about you being an official or unofficial mage. Which one are you exactly?”
Ah, here it comes. How should I answer this?
Since we’re travelling as a party, it’s my chance to introduce my own “facts” into the hodgepodge of rumours. On the other hand, I want to end this chat soon so that I have more cards to play in future conversations.
“I’m an official (illegal) mage of the Novuseus House.”
“T-the Novuseus family? As in one of the most influential mage bloodlines in the country?”
“Indeed. Do you want to see my seal?”
“You don’t have to! It’s an honour to work alongside you!”
“Please, don’t start treating me differently. I may be a Novuseus mage, but I’ve never viewed myself as such.”
“I-if you say so.”
“Is this your first time working with an official mage?”
“Well, most bloodline mages become vassals, enchanters or magical scholars. While you’re not the first official mage I’ve seen work as an adventurer, they’re rare and usually work in high rank parties.”
“By the way, did you come from the capital? I’ve never been there personally, but-”
“The Dellmore Forest.”
“I come from the Dellmore Forest.”
“Um, Enbos, can you be a little specific? After all, the Dellmore Forest covers more than a quarter of the Reinsol Kingdom. Were you living in a village next to the forest?”
“No, I spent half my life living in the forest before returning to society.”
“But… why would you do such a thing?”
I stay silent and deliberately create a gloomy mood. Pretending to be lost in sentimental thought, I softly touch my mask before subtly walking ahead. While the distance isn’t great, Sen interprets my behaviour as a product of his own thoughtlessness and naturally stops asking. Although I do feel guilty about fooling such a goodhearted guy, I’ve done it so many times that it’s now a momentary discomfort. Hachirou looks over his shoulder in slight protest, but to everybody else, he looks as if he’s filled with concern.
Yes, I know. I’ll follow up and clear up the mood later.
After the brief yet awkward trip, we arrive outside a small cottage on the edge of the village. Hachirou politely knocks on the door, and after a short wait, the resident opens the door to greet us.
“Ah, you again. Are ya here for da trip through da Vivian Forest?”
“Indeed I am, Mr Kell. I’ve brought my companions here to meet you.”
“Hrm, dat’s funny. There seems ta be more people than I remember ya saying… Ah well. Jus means more business fer me! The name’s Jacob Kell. Nice ta meet ya.”
“My name is Enbos the Black and I’m Hachirou’s master. It’s a pleasure to meet you too.”
As each of us go through our introductions, I judge our would-be guide. He’s a man of medium build with light clothing befitting a ranger. He has short brown hair with flecks of grey and a short goatee. His dark sunken eyes seem used to long sleepless nights, and despite his incredibly lax manner of speech, he has a stiff expression. His eyes settle on me and I realise he’s evaluating each of us just like I’m judging him.
“Hmmm. If it’s with a group dis big, then maybe it’ll work. Yer all look like decent fighters, but I still dun think da shortie can make it.”
“Hrm? What is he saying to you, Hachirou?”
“Well, you see Master Enbos, he said wouldn’t allow me to cross the forest. I thought if I introduced you to him, he would change his mind.”
“Ach’ly, I wanted te meet da heartless dastard who wants ta drag a child through such a dangerous place.”
“And for the last time, I’m telling you that I’m not a child!”
While the guide has an unconvinced expression, Sen and his band reel in shock to Hachirou’s proclamation. I can almost see his ears droop in depressing realisation underneath his mask.
“Hachirou, how old are you exactly?” asks Minna.
Too late, Hachirou! I know you’re doubling your actual age and it may be true mentally, but there’s no way anybody is buying it! Minna is now patting his head saying, “Yes, yes, I’m sure you are,” while Jacob crosses his arms and is waiting for the truth. Great, what should I do to persuade him?
“Look, I know yer trying to act all tuff and all, but dun bother lying. I’m not gonna let yer drag us down. Yer weak, kid. Too weak to help ya master or anyone in da forest at all. Jus take the long way around and yer master can wait for you on da yonder.”
I know our guide is saying this with the best intentions, but I don’t think Hachirou can take any more of his. Hachirou’s shoulders droop as he falls into a state of melancholy. Conversely, my own anger begins to flare at his demeaning words. He has no idea how hard he’s worked, or how strong he truly is.
I walk over to a nearby stump and pick up a large piece of firewood.
“Eh? Watcha doing?”
“Would you mind if I take this?”
“S-sure, I guess why-”
At that moment, I activate <Equip Soul: Winter Troll> and use <Great Throw> to peg the block of wood… at Hachirou. While everybody else widen their eyes in shock, Hachirou instantly snaps out of his mood and activates a skill. By the time anybody realises what’s happened, the firewood is in four cleanly cut pieces.
“His sword is not just for show, and neither did I make him my apprentice for nothing. Do not underestimate either of us, Mr Kell.”
With this, they have to acknowledge his reaction speed, judgement and technique, which is superior to many adventurers. For a moment, everybody gawks at Hachirou’s unexpected skill, but soon begin praising him. As expected, he starts to feel embarrassed by the sudden attention and keeps assuring he’s nothing special. I watch with a phantom smile as the guide Jacob bows his head to Hachirou and offers an apology.
“I, err… I’m sorry for lookin down on ya, kid. Yer more dan qualified to cross da Vivian Forest.”
“Th-thank you, Mr Kell.”
“As fer you, Enbos, I’m sorry for disrespectun yer disciple, but… man, ya really as scary as ya look!”
Are you trying to apologise or criticise me!
“Are you hurt at all, Hachirou? I can heal you immediately!”
“I-I’m fine, Lili.”
“Look, if you’re ever unhappy around Enbos, I can take you to the Lysium Theocracy to study magic instead…”
“What are you trying to imply!? I’ve never bullied him, and stop trying to convert him!”
“It’s true, Lili. You don’t have to worry. While Enbos may be a bit rash and awkward, he’s really kind at heart.”
“Oh, I see. Well, he certainly needs a different way of showing it. Have you ever considered volunteer work at a church?”
“Please, can you try not to convert me instead?”
I give a groan and turn towards the rest of the party. Unfortunately, all they have are more words of reproach.
“Seriously Enbos, that was really brutal of you. It’s no wonder you have <Intimidate>!”
“You didn’t hold back against your apprentice at all! What if it hit him!?”
“It wouldn’t have, Minna. If it’s Hachirou, I was sure he could react in time.”
“I see… You really have a lot of faith in him, don’t you?”
Well, it’s more of a cold, hard fact. Given what Hachirou has told me about his sibling’s Spartan-like training, what I did was akin to a light greeting. Still, since leaving his family, he has continued to train rigorously and grow at an impressive rate. If I were to compare his strength, I would say he’s as skilled as a high tier D-rank adventurer, and he’s still improving. I give a small nod to Sen in response.
“Regardless, you should never do something like that to a child under your care!”
Ah, they still think he’s a kid, and once again, Hachirou appears to have fallen into dejection. I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can help you there!
While I’m getting chewed out by a Minna, I notice Sen wear a serious expression and walk over to the guide. Minna notices the direction of my gaze and turns around to watch him question the guide.
“Tell me, Mr Kell, has anybody you escorted through the Vivian Forest ever died?”
“… No, not fer the last few year or so. If yer ‘ere fer the cursed quest like da rest of da adventurers for da pass few months or so, I’ve never let any o dem with me die.”
“I see… Well, that’s certainly reassuring! Shall we pay you and depart immediately?”
“Course not, ya fool! I jus got ere! We’re gonna go to da tavern, talk bout our skills and stuff, prepare supplies, den leave tomorrow mornun!”
“Ah, right. I’m so sorry. Hahaha…”
“… Excuse me, Enbos. I’ve got an overexcited friend to scold considering the fact we just got here ourselves. Don’t forget to apologise to Hachirou.”
In a way, she kind of reminds of Chiyoko, except with less uppercuts and a more ruthless tongue. As I walk towards Hachirou, I notice he’s apologising profusely to Norf while Lili is healing a bump on his head… Wait, when did you get here!? Just how quiet are you!? Somehow I completely overlooked your spiritual signature! Did a piece of the firewood fly off and hit your forehead? Why didn’t you make a sound or say a thing!? Sigh, it seems I have to apologise to him before anybody else.
Somehow, in my imagination, I’m starting to feel very tired… and not an entire afternoon has passed since joining their party.