After a peaceful night’s rest at the inn, we make our way to the tavern to find we’re the first to arrive. Hachirou orders a loaf of buttered bread while I look over Takashi’s hand sketched maps in his notebook. Before long, two of our absent five enter the establishment to greet us: Sen and Norf.
“Good morning Enbos, Hachirou. I hope we didn’t keep you waiting.”
“Don’t worry, I just finished eating breakfast.”
“Ah, I see. Please take your time to finish your food, Hachirou.”
“Where are the others?”
“Minna and Lili are still at the inn. Minna can be quite grouchy in the morning so I don’t want to be the one to wake her, and Lili always offers a morning prayer. Since Mr Kell isn’t here yet, I guess it’s okay to leave them be a little longer.”
“I see. Well, you should go ahead and order breakfast for the rest of the party. I’ll get something for our guide.”
“Good idea. I’m sure it will lighten Minna’s mood. I know she’s still going to yell at me. Maybe I should order a little extra.”
“I’ll consider it a necessary expense when we split the reward.”
Speaking of cheering people up…
“Sen, about yesterday, on our way to the guide’s house… I’m sorry for brushing you off like that. It wasn’t your fault at all. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“Y-you don’t have to! As a matter of fact, I wanted to apologise to you last night, but you left for your room before I had the chance. I thought you were still bothered by me.”
Ah, because I didn’t want to spend dinner with them, he interpreted my departure as such.
“No, no, not at all! Let’s treat each other favourably from now on.”
And with that proclamation, Sen and Norf join us at the table and places the orders. After a while, the waitress arrives with a basket of bread and lays it on the table alongside a bowl of soft butter. A while later, she returns with our drinks and a small platter of berries.
“Um, Enbos? You said you just ate but the waitress offered you another loaf of bread?”
“Well, since you ordered several servings, she must have thought I wanted another helping.”
Close! That almost blew my alibi.
“Ah, that’s right Enbos! There’s something Norf has been meaning ask you, or rather, have me ask for him.”
“He wants to ask about your voice. At times, you manage to completely change it, like when we first met or our chance reunion. How are you doing it?”
Damn it, I was hoping they would overlook that! My bad habit of changing my voice according to the situation or personal convenience. What should I… Hrm?
“Why are you so interested? Could it be… you’re embarrassed about the sound of your voice?”
It’s just a casual guess based on a stereotype, and as expected, Norf doesn’t break his poker face. Unfortunately, Sen has a cramped expression which gives everything away.
“… I won’t inquire further. I’m sorry for asking such an insensitive question.”
“No, it’s alright. Thank you for understanding.”
Norf nods alongside Sen’s words, just as Minna and Lili enter the tavern. We immediately discard our current conversation to invite them to breakfast. While it’s good I managed to dodge the question, I’m starting to feel like a bad guy for playing with their emotions once again. Still, I’m now curious about Norf’s voice and I wonder if I’ll ever have the chance to hear it.
Soon after, our guide arrives and starts debriefing us as everybody else eats. He’s just rehashing what he said last evening, but I guess he wants us to understand just how perilous this trip really is. With one final gulp and a few coins on the counter, we disembark from the tavern and begin our expedition.
Walking along the western road, we greet at least a dozen lumberjacks as they head to work. A few of them even accompany our group to chat, which is convenient as it draws the attention of Sen and the others. For the next hour, we cross hundreds of acres of deforested land, with thousands of decaying stumps littering the scenery. We pass several abandoned logging camps that seemingly stand as testaments to both human progress and their dwindling regard for nature.
Leaving the main road, we part ways with the lumberjacks and walk along a small dirt path that leads straight into the yet-to-be-lumbered woods. As the shadow of the canopy envelops me, I instinctively begin to feel at ease. It’s not that I love nature, but I feel I’m on home ground whenever I’m surrounded by foliage. Then again, I should really be more vigilant as the very foliage can be life threatening in the Vivian Forest. The sounds of rushing water can be clearly heard, and sure enough, the dirt path leads us to a sizeable river. At the end of our road is a small wooden bridge which is no better than a few thick planks. Looking at the decaying wood, Sen raises his concern.
“Um, Mr Kell? I heard a trade route was being made through the Vivian Forest. Apart from clearing the trees on this side of the river, I haven’t seen anything resembling roadwork. Is this really the only bridge?”
“Can’t be ‘elped. Da fings in da Vivian Forest are dat dangerous. As matta fact, the trade route is supposed ta be built along da rim of da forest with fancy protecshun magic.”
“I-I see. So, this rickety bridge was made this way…”
“… ta not let da Treants get ta this side of da river. Can’t ‘ave our loggers being swatted by angry trees after all.”
That’s right. Treants. Mobile trees with natural magical mechanisms to move around the forest and dip their roots in the shifting mana streams underground. As a result, they’re as powerful as mid-tier B rank monsters and make the ecosystem of the Vivian Forest unlike any other woodland. Since Treants are only active during the day, the creatures of the forest are always on the move in order to seek refuge for the night. In addition, from what I can gather from Mr Kell, the biomagnification of mana due to the mana-rich treant leaves have mutated the predators at the top of the food chain into more dangerous variants.
It’s for these reasons that a guide is mandatory for crossing the Vivian Forest. The trip will take around three to five days, and from what I hear, only a handful of people make a living traversing this territory. That being said, Mr Kell didn’t charge us much at all, and when I run the costs in the head, I think he’s barely breaking even. Does he really have a spotless record? Well, it’s a bit late now to doubt his words.
We cross the bridge without incident, and as soon as we do, our guide assumes a cautious demeanour. The rest of the party assume the same alertness and quietly follow Mr Kell in formation.
(Like da animals of da forest, we hafta move b’tween safe places, maybe even fight for dem. Not only dat, dere’re predators dat only hunt in da night and stalk those areas. Dis is why I only bring dose dat can fight and pull dey’re own weight.)
(I see. By the way, how do we tell what a Treant looks like?)
(Well, ya can follow da tracks and guess which is which, but da animals do a much better job than humans. For example, look at dat tree. Howda know it’s not a Treant?)
Mr Kell points towards a random tree, and for a few moments, our entire party stares at it in silent contemplation. While I can tell it’s not a Treant using <Magic Perception>, I’m keenly aware it’s not the point of his question.
(Um, it has a hollow which is probably made by a woodpecker. If it were a Treant, it would have scared it away. Am I right, Mr Kell?)
(Exactly. Ya know, your pretty smart for a kid.)
(That’s because I’m not a child!)
(And dat is wat my job is like. I hafta keep an eye out for da measliest details, ‘cause it could mean da difference b’tween life and deff. Course, if ya wanna help, tell me anyfing ya see, espeshally you mages with <Magic Perception>.)
(True, it should be easy for me and Lili to spot one.)
(Well, I’d rather it not come ta dat. After all, we’re not ‘ere to hunt them. No, we’re tryin’ ta stay as faaaaar away as possible. Flattened earth, animal tracks and da way da mana stream moves are the fings I wanna know. Okay?)
(You may rely on us, Mr Kell.)
(Good. Now let’s keep going. I don’t wanna be out in da dark before we get ta first safe spot…)
And so, for the rest of the day, we followed our guide through the treacherous woods. It was a relatively uneventful journey, but the tension in the air was impossible to ignore. For the entirety of our trek, we never crossed paths with any animal apart from the birds that refused to land in our presence. Large footsteps of irregular shape were found every now and then, and tremors of indeterminate distance reverberated through our feet. Of course, it was difficult to openly chat given the constant pressure, which was actually a blessing in disguise. At times, our guide would climb a tree or suddenly halt our advance, before leading us in a completely different direction. He gave off the impression of the hopelessly lost, but the fact we didn’t encounter anything goes to show his true worth.
Finally, after five hours of walking with irregular breaks, we finally arrive at one of the much-vaunted safe spots of the Vivian Forest. It’s a small clearing with a underground foundation of stone that stops trees and Treants from taking root. The remains of a fireplace can be spotted at the centre, but more recent tracks suggest prior occupation by wild animals. Listening carefully, there seems to be a source of water nearby, making this the perfect location for a night’s rest.
“Hm, good. We don’t hafta clear out any Vivian Foxes for da spot, and we made a lotta progress. Let’s set up camp and call it a day.”
“Phew, that was exhausting! I’m glad we can finally take a proper break! All that pressure was giving me a headache,” exclaims Sen.
“Is it fine to start talking normally?” asks Minna.
“No problem. Around dis time of day, most of da animals ‘ave already found a place ta sleep and da Treants should be rooted too. Da only problem now are da creatures of da night. By my count, we only ‘ave a few hours or so before we’re back to biting our nails, so let’s make da most of dis time.”
Following Mr Kell’s prompt, we quickly go about establishing our camp and finish everything within the hour. Afterwards, we take turns wiping our bodies at the nearby pond, with me and Hachirou going last. Just in case, Mr Kell hands us a small, magical item called a signal baton to pass between us. The signal baton is enchanted in pairs, and by breaking one it will release a magical flare whilst destroy its counterpart. Of course, it’s not the first time I’ve seen this enchantment since it’s the same item I used to signal Si back in the Dellmore Forest. Thankfully, none of us had to use it, and by the time I return from polishing my ribs, everybody is sitting around the campfire, waiting for Norf to finish cooking.
“Ah, you’re back Enbos! We were just talking about the cursed quest, or rather, the rumours surrounding it. Mr Kell here thinks it’s because too many irresponsible adventurers go through forest while he isn’t around. Minna thinks it’s just a horrible coincidence, but…”
“Sen here thinks it may actually be cursed, that the resentful spirit of some adventurer is going around forcing others to experience the same failure.”
“Hey, don’t dismiss my idea so easily, Minna. It could still be true.”
“Um, Sen, if that were true, it wouldn’t be so much as a curse as a vengeful spirit. In that case, it’s fortunate we have Lili around to exorcise it.”
“Actually Enbos, I was trained as a healer to spread God’s teachings. While I do have light-based magic and God’s word, I was never trained in the spiritual aspect required for an exorcism.”
That’s certainly good to hear being an undead myself.
“Still, a restless spirit without a body can’t be powerful enough to kill a party of adventurers.”
“Then, could it really be a curse? I’ve heard of some nasty effects before.”
“Impossible,” I reply. “A curse is formed by attaching a part of a soul to a target. It’s pretty much a self-sustainable enchantment, and while it’s possible for the curse’s effect to spread via indirect contact, it has to be bound to something material, like a sword for instance.”
“I see. But if it’s not a curse, why have so many adventurers failed? I’ve heard of at least four different parties perishing from this very quest.”
“And that’s why I’m saying it’s a coincidence. In every case, they died from accidents or forces outside their control. There’s no deeper meaning behind it.”
“But Minna, if it’s not a coincidence, that would mean-”
At that moment, Norf taps his spool against the metal pot to draw everybody’s attention. It appears the soup is ready, and he’s already preparing the first bowl. While it looked as if the conversation was about to take an unknown turn, I guess everybody is too hungry to continue or care. In any case, I better stop worrying and think of something quick. This is the moment I’ve been dreading since yesterday, and I still have nothing convincing.
“Hrm? Is something wrong Enbos, Hachirou? You’re not touching your soup.”
Should I ask if we could eat away from them based on religious grounds? No, if I randomly create pagan practices right in front of a cleric, she might start asking for details. I guess we’ll have to feign illness and…
“Actually Sen, would it be okay if we ate by ourselves?”
Huh!? What are you doing, Hachirou!? That’s too much of a straight ball!
“Well, I guess it’s alright, but are you sure you can make do without the light?”
“Don’t worry, the moon is bright and my master and I can see in the dark.”
“Hm, if you say so, but promise to eat with us some other time, okay? We wouldn’t want you treating us as strangers forever.”
“Thank you, Sen.”
“Thank you. We won’t be far”
Huh, that was easier than expected. I guess it does pay to be sincere. Did Hachirou say that because he knew they would trust us? Then again, it could be because he didn’t want to see me playing with their heartstrings again. Still, I wonder… how do Sen and the others feel about us?
“… Wat was dat about?”
“It’s nothing much. I’m just… a little disappointed.”
“Well, what can you expect? We only became properly acquainted yesterday morning and it’s quite obvious they have something to hide. If they had started explaining things, I’d think they were lying.”
“It can’t be helped Sen, Minna. Regardless, I’m sure they will slowly open up if we spend more time together. Despite their questionable quirks, especially Enbos, I believe they are good people.”
“Of course, but… what do you suppose he looks like?”
“There are just as many rumours about him as this quest, but in nearly all cases concerning his appearance… they say he’s horribly disfigured.”
“What’s the matter, Sen?”
“I didn’t mention this to anybody yesterday, and Norf was the only person around who heard, but Enbos told me he’s from the Novuseus House.”
“Really!? I thought he looked like an official mage, but I didn’t think he was such a big shot.”
“That’s the thing Minna, he didn’t flaunt his status and wanted to be treated like the rest of us. He also admitted to spending half his life in the Dellmore Forest. I tried asking for more but I accidently upset him…”
“Well, you’ve always been thoughtless at the worst of times. Still, it sounds as if something happened to him in the past. Do you have any ideas, Lili?”
“Actually, I do have one idea. It’s a common story, but I don’t want to impose such an image on Enbos without being sure…”
“What is it? If you don’t tell us, I don’t think I can sleep easily tonight.”
“W-well, I believe one of Enbos’ spells may gone wrong during his training, causing his alleged appearance, and then… he was disowned by the Novuseus House.”
“Please don’t take my word as truth. I’m only saying this because my church has taken in those kinds of people before. They always need time to heal and to come to terms with their past.”
“But he has an apprentice! Surely he wasn’t discarded by his own family?”
“It’s entirely possible he redeemed himself later in life. After all, he does know several unique spells that appear to be custom skills.”
“But to spend half his life banished from his own family… How young must he have been? Fifteen? Twelve?”
“We don’t know, Sen. He seems good at changing his voice.”
“Actually Minna, I think he’s using a skill to accomplish that. It’s very faint, but his manipulating his mana to control his voice.”
“Then that means…”
“The voice he’s using right now could be imitating what he remembers. We’ve never heard his real voice.”
“I-it’s okay, Norf. You have your own reasons too.”
“Still, this is all speculation. We have to ask him to be sure.”
“I don’t think he will answer. His heart is closed off to everyone except his apprentice.”
“Then, should we ask Hachirou instead?”
“It’s a bit underhanded and I don’t want to use such a good-natured child to get to Enbos. Come to think of it, isn’t Hachirou more of a mystery than Enbos?”
“… Dere’s no need ta be so hasty. I’ve seen plenty of ragtag groups travel together and gradually come closer. I think ya all doing great as one-day acquaintances.”
“I see. You’re absolutely right, Mr Kell. If they ever want to tell us more about themselves, we’ll just have to earn it!”
“I guess we shouldn’t be too fussed over their circumstances considering they don’t know ours. Thank you, Mr Kell.”
“It would be nice if they told us of their volition, and when they do, I want to be there for them. For the sake of God and their own, I wish to realise their humanity.”
“Hahaha, I see Enbo and Hachirou haff some great friends in da making.”
“… Hachirou, are you crying?”
“I can taste your tears through our <Perception Link>. What’s the matter?”
“Oh, i-it’s nothing serious. By the way, have you activated <Equip Soul> to use <Enhanced Hearing>?”
“Sorry, I haven’t.”
I was too busy spoon feeding my “stomach” since pouring the contents from the bowl might cause a mess. While I could dig a hole then bury the soup, I didn’t want to risk leaving any traces when we take turns for tonight’s lookout. I’ll have to bind the waterskin extra tight and wash it tomorrow morning.
“I see… They’re really good people, Enbos.”
“Hrm? Well, I suppose they are. We’ll have to go back soon and turn in for the night. I’ll take the second shift. If you want, you can take the first shift and have me lookout for the both of us.”
“Thank you for the suggestion, but I want use the time to take off my mask and let out my tail. It’s been most uncomfortable binding it to my body.”
“Ah, that’s right. I guess you have your own set of problems to deal with. In some ways, you have it harder than me.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think what I’m facing could ever compare to you. Still, I’m sure things will only get better for us from now on.”