“Good morning Sen.”
“Good morning Minna. Is Lili still packing up?”
“She’s finishing her prayers. Where’s Enbos and Hachirou?”
“They haven’t left their room just ye- Ah, there they are!”
“Good morning everyone. Sorry for the delay, but we’re finally ready.”
“W-we had to clean up the room before we left. I hope you did not wait long.”
“Not at all, Hachirou. Once Lili arrives we can finally head to Tiel Woods.”
After yesterday’s memorial party, everybody retreated to the comfort of their rooms as the rain continued to pour. While I do not know how the others spent their time, for me it was an incredibly productive afternoon. First off, I finally removed the stains from the Treant incident. The fabric has probably stretched and its self-repair effect is starting to wear off, but until I’ve replicated the enchantments onto something else, I’ll keep wearing this weathered cloak. As for my other achievement…
“Huh? Your walking stick, it’s…”
“Did you carve it into a staff!?”
“That’s right. I haven’t added any enchantments mind you, but I have high hopes.”
For my first staff, I think it turned out well if I do say so myself. I spent most of the night casting <Draw Water> to cure the wood without applying heat. It was such a long and repetitive process that my spell became the high rank skill <Command Water>. The new spell allows me to freely control water instead of using static points of magic, which helped accelerated the curing by leaps and bounds. Afterwards, I sanded the staff to shape and gave it a temporary rubbing of wax. It’s a simple design with a thin, slightly curved shaft, but the beautiful grain pattern and hardy material more than make up for it. Unfortunately, I do not have a high-level magic core to finish it, so I’ve left the head of the staff as an unfurnished block.
“Would you mind if we take a closer look?”
“Sure. Here you go.”
“… *Whistle* I’m really impressed. I can’t believe you did so much so quickly. It’s almost like you didn’t get a wink of sleep.”
“I’ve said this before, but your wood crafting skills are remarkable.”
“Hrm? Is something the matter, Norf? Where are you pointing at?”
“I think he’s pointing towards the Vivian- Wa~it a minute… Did you make this staff out of the Treant we took down!”
I don’t say anything and quietly take back my precious staff. With the Treant’s magic core destroyed, it was the next best thing I could salvage from the battle. I’m not sure if I broke any Treant harvesting laws, but the look on everybody’s face is almost comical.
“I didn’t realise you were such an opportunist.”
“Honestly, I was using it as a walking stick at first, but I quickly realised it was meant for greater things.”
“Sigh, so why did you keep quiet?”
“I thought everybody already knew.”
“Good grief. To be honest, I’m kind of disappointed we didn’t do the same. It would have covered a lot of our costs…”
In truth, I didn’t want to draw Lili’s attention towards my handicraft. If I had left as originally planned, I would have enchanted the hell out of my staff.
“Good morning, everyone. Please forgive my late arrival. I was praying for our success.”
Speak of the devil.
“No, no, you don’t have to apologise, but now that all six of us here, let’s check out and go adventuring.”
“Yes, let’s- Eh? Did you say all six!?”
“Yeah, I did. Is something the matter?”
“N-no, it’s nothing.”
Come to think of it, I never bothered to tell Lili about our change in plan. Despite her initial surprise, she looks at me with subtle delight while I can only offer an exasperated sigh. Reluctantly, I wait for Lili to approach me while everybody is checking out at the counter.
“Good morning, innkeeper. We’re here to…”
(You’re truly kind, Enbos)
(Don’t get used to it. This doesn’t change anything.)
(I know, but I’m still grateful. Thank you.)
“… for staying at the Whistling Willow, dear patrons. I hope to see you again.”
“We will. Hopefully the bridge will be completed by then.”
“One can only pray. Please return healthy and sound.”
We each return the innkeeper’s farewell before leaving his establishment. However, as I walk through the door, I suddenly realise… he may have said those exact words to every adventurer before us.
Leaving the quiet village of Kasseus, we make our way across the western plains and head towards the Tiel Woods. It’s hard to believe so many adventurers fell victim to such a short trek. Excluding Eric’s death by illness, I’ve heard of parties dying from bandit attacks, getting lost, drowning… Heck, I’ve even heard rumours of a party getting struck by lightning! It’s uncanny how such a beautiful day could feel as dangerous as a trip through the Vivian Forest. Still, as tense as we are, nothing has made us jump in the least. There are no animals big or small, the weather is clear and the terrain is level. Over the coming hours, we feel comfortable enough to begin discussing the job ahead.
“By the way Enbos.”
“You said you bought a few bags of bait from Catorrem. How many do you have?”
“After that run in with the Treant, I only have two satchels left. It should be enough for today and tomorrow.”
“Actually, I think we should spend the rest of the day scoping out the area and preparing traps. Will that be alright?”
“Of course. Come to think of it, how were you planning on hunting them without bait?”
“We didn’t. When we went to Catorrem we wanted to buy a few bags ourselves, but the specialty store had just sold out. I’m guessing you were that customer.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Nah, it’s fine,” says Sen. “We could have looked elsewhere, but we decided otherwise. After all, the subjugation targets are less of a threat and more of a nuisance.”
“True. The only dangerous thing is supposedly getting there.”
The monsters we have to hunt are called Boulder Beetles, and like their name suggests, they can grow up to a metre in size. While they’re a small threat in battle, they’re a major horticultural pest. The chain of bizarre deaths has left them untouched for a month, and if too many gather they’ll eventually swarm onto the farms around Kasseus. On the other hand, since we’re being paid for every kill, it’s become a lucrative venture for such a simple quest. Still, if there is any weight to this alleged curse, our seemingly peaceful walk could be the most dangerous part of…
“Huh, we’re here.”
Well that was anticlimactic.
“Are you sure this is the place, Sen?”
“Well, according to Norf’s map, this should be Tiel Woods. Looks like the curse really was a coincidence after all.”
“You know, after hearing so many horror stories for weeks on end, it’s almost disappointing.”
“I feel foolish for taking it seriously for even a second.”
“I understand what you mean Sen, Enbos, Minna, but we should be thankful it turned out to be nothing.”
“I-I don’t think we should relax just yet, everybody. Let’s keep being careful, okay?”
“You’re right, Hachirou. Let’s end the rumours for Eric’s sake once and for all.”
Unlike the Vivian Forest, the trees are thin and sparsely spaced with dense, low lying foliage. Staying within a hundred metres of each other, we spread out and begin scouring the place for any tracks. With every area explored we mark a few trees and proceed deeper into the forest. However, after a few minutes of scouting…
“Huh, why is this tree already marked?”
For some reason, despite being the first adventurers to get here, there’s clearly an arrow etched into the trunk ahead. Stranger still, the mark is less than a month old, which means somebody else got this far after the quest was issued.
“What does this mean? Did another adventurer party make it to the forest?”
“Maybe Hachirou, but the only question is… should we follow?”
Looking around, it seems everybody is in agreement to investigate the markings. We follow the arrows for several minutes before finally happening upon a large, excavated pit. It seems to be an abandoned quarry, but on closer inspection the half-excavated stones are actually ancient walls.
“A party of adventurers can’t be responsible for all this. This pit was dug out by a few dozen labourers, and the only one who could order such a thing is the head of Kasseus Village.”
“I agree Minna, but why would they dig up a bunch of ruins and then abandon it? It doesn’t look as if they were attacked.”
“Maybe they were looking for buried relics. Does anyone know what used to be here?” I ask.
“Well, since we’re in Tiel Woods, I think these ruins belong to the fallen city of Tiel.”
“Fallen city, you say? Can you you tell me more… about…”
Eh, why is everybody except Hachirou giving me a weird look?
“H-have you really not heard of Tiel, Enbos?”
“So, you really don’t know, huh. It’s a popular legend around these parts, but I guess it’s not widely known.”
“You see, two thousand years ago there was once another civilisation in these lands. It was a powerful country for its time, and its seat of power was the great city of Tiel. After the capital’s collapse, the country’s many states fell into anarchy and eventually reformed into the Reinsol Kingdom.”
“It’s an old story tied directly to the kingdom’s founding, which is why we’re so surprised you never heard.”
Oh shoot, it’s supposed to be common knowledge! I can feel Lili’s gaze boring holes into the back of my skull.
“I-I see. So, what exactly happened to Tiel? It sounds as if something happened to the capital rather than the country in particular.”
“Actually, nobody knows for sure. Some say it was a deadly plague. Some say the Earth fell beneath them. Some say a horde of dragons torched the place to the ground.”
“But what every story says in common is that the entire city perished overnight. However, as varied as the stories may be, there’s one account that’s widely circulated and accepted as truth… within the Church of Eden.”
Anticipating our reaction, we all turn to Lili as she takes out her tome and flips through its contents.
“Ahem, two thousand years ago, a terrible evil invaded the great city of Tiel. It was made by the most heinous of heretics with the blackest of magics, but not even they could control what they had unleashed. Unbound and unstoppable, the greatest city of the time was destroyed in a single night. The thickest of walls fell like reeds in a storm. The mightiest of armies were nought but feed before its endless hunger. The Lysium Theocracy sent their most devote followers to Tiel’s aid, but by dawn, every man, woman and child had already been lost. Unable to allow such a monstrosity to reign free, the champions of God bared their swords and attacked the dark being…”
Hrm, I can’t help but think the Church’s version of the story has been painfully doctored. Still, something about the monster’s description sounds awfully familiar…
“… For a day and a night, the holy warriors fought against the abomination. Much blood was spilt on that tragic day, but not a single drop was spilt in vain. Little by little, the great evil was whittled down and finally dealt a righteous blow. Learning of God’s might, it fled from human lands and succumbed to its own ceaseless hunger. The warriors of light returned victorious, but not without remorse and sorrow. To respect all the lives lost, Leon Iranor, leader of the divine force, recorded the tragedy in the Church’s annals…”
“… May the city of Tiel be forever remembered, the righteous forever honoured, and the sinners forever reviled.”
Finishing her story, she closes her tome before being rewarded with Hachirou’s soft applause. The story ended pretty much as I expected, and since every witness besides the rescue force died, there is no other way of verifying the story. The only things I could gleam are that the Lysium Theocracy is at least two thousand years, the Church of Eden has some kind of ancient library, and Lili and Leon from the story share the same surname. As much as I want to ask Lili for clarification, I’m afraid of saying another “obvious” question.
“By the way, Lili,” asks Hachirou. “I noticed the leader’s last name, Iranor, is the same as yours. A-are you a descendent?”
Good job, Hachirou!
“I am not, Hachirou, but please don’t feel embarrassed for asking. It’s a common mistake, but “Iranor” is an honorary name bestowed on all mages of the Church born outside a religious line. By bearing the name Iranor, people will know I come to spread God’s word.”
I see, so that’s why her real name conflicts with her current name… Wait a second. Doesn’t that mean she’s one of those children conscripted to follow the Church’s doctrine!? From the looks of things, it’s probably nowhere near as bad as I first thought.
“Hrm? Now that I think about it, your story never explicitly said what the monster was. Was it a mutated creature, or…?”
The blackest of magics… Not even they could control… Unbound and unstoppable… Succumbed to its own ceaseless hunger…
A finger of ice crawls down my spine, and long before Lili could answer, I realise its identity.
“No, the annals say the monster was an undead, and although the body was never recovered, it’s been long regarded as human history’s first recorded case of an Undead Ravager.”
After our investigation, we scouted the surrounding area and discovered several similar sites. Each unveiled a fraction of Tiel’s glorious past, but none could answer the excavator’s intentions. In the end, we left them be and decided to ask the village head once we returned.
Resuming our quest, we made significant progress in our hunt for the Boulder Beetles. Upon finding one such specimen, we first tracked it back to a water hole and then to a small shaded clearing where they gathered in the dozens. Concerned about their number, we decided to set traps at both locations to kill as many as possible. Of course, we could only work once the beetles left, and by the end of afternoon, we rendezvoused at one of the barren pits to establish comp.
Returning to the present, I’m now sitting on an eroded wall while everybody is busy preparing for the night. Looking at the ruins around me, I’m reminded of Lili’s story and my ultimate fate should I fail.
“The death of a city, the collapse of a civilisation… all because of one undead.”
The sound of the forest provides little comfort as the distant clicking is reminiscent of a ticking bomb. Ever since Takashi told me about the truth, I’ve limited the use of <Soul Eater> and kept the number of stored souls (including mine) to nine at most. But no matter I do, I can tell it’s not enough.
“Ah, hello Hachirou. I see you’ve finished setting everything up.”
“Actually, I wanted to help with dinner, but the others asked me to go fetch you. Are you alright?”
“It’s nothing, Hachirou. I’m fine.”
“… Enbos, I’m not your aide, but your friend and your companion. Please tell me what is wrong. I-I can only guess Lili’s story truly upset you.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly it. It scares me just how dangerous I can really be. To lose sight of everything I am and destroy everything I ever cherished. Even if it turns out to be a myth, I’m reminded of just how much everybody detests the undead, and for good reason.”
“Please Enbos, never lose hope. Everybody who knows your ordeal believes you can do this. You will never become the monster you fear.”
“Sigh, that’s the thing, Hachirou. Sometimes I think I already am.”
“It’s noth-… I’ll tell you some other time. For now, let’s return to the others.”
It seems Sen and the others have finished cooking dinner are waiting for us to arrive. Hrm, why are they giving me another funny look? Did I mess up again?
“Say Enbos, Lili just raised a good point but… Hachirou is your apprentice, right?”
“Yes Sen, that’s right.”
“Well, the thing is, we’ve never seen you teach him any magic.”
“Indeed. While I could understand why you didn’t during our jaunt through the Vivian Forest, I’ve never seen Hachirou read a book or scroll.”
“To be honest, I think he’s better suited to be a swordsman than a mage.”
Gosh darn it Lili, why did you have to point that out!? Since I won’t answer her, she’s changed her approach by involving the others to pressure me!
“I prefer to teach in private. Having people watch could prove distracting for Hachirou.”
“Oh, okay then.”
“Actually master, I think I will be fine. M-may we continue where we last left?”
Huh, what is Hachirou saying!? Does he really want me to teach him magic? To be honest, I had considered the possibility, but we both know the most he will ever achieve are a few greater rank spells. Regardless, if he sincerely wants to learn…
“… Sigh, fine. If you say so, Hachirou. You better pay attention.”
“Pardon me Enbos, but would you mind if I join?”
“Of course, Norf. I did promise I would- Eh?”
Norf’s sudden words stuns everybody around the fire. Lili in particular spits out her soup and starts coughing into her palm. It seems she never heard his voice until now.
“I’m sorry I never spoke to you before. It’s not that I don’t trust you. I didn’t think you would understand my distress.”
“… No, I do understand Norf. I’m glad you’re willing to open your heart.”
As Lili says this, she touches the hood covering her ears. She notices my gaze and stares at my mask with empathetic concern.
“Norf, I’ve ask you this before but are you willing to hide your voice for the rest of your life?”
“I have been thinking.”
“And your answer?”
“There will always be people who will ridicule me. But as much as I want to avoid their scorn, I-I want to sing to everybody while playing a song. I’m not throwing away my voice; I’m waiting to use it for my dream.”
As soft as his voice may be, I can feel the determination behind it all the same. I can’t help but empathise with his decision, which is why I want to help in any way I can.
“… Okay, I will teach you how use <Project Voice>. It may not be the best skill to change your voice and it may take a few years, but at least you will have a general idea where to go.”
“Thank you Enbos.”
“Um, excuse me, Enbos.”
“W-would it be alright if I help you with this lesson?”
As surprising as her proposition is, the look in her eyes is not of inquisitive intent but endless compassion. It seems Norf’s words really struck a chord with her too.
“Of course, Lili. I gladly welcome your assistance. Now, seeing as how Norf is joining us, we’ll be going over the basics. Let’s begin by getting a feel for <Magic Perception>. Will that be alright, Lili?”
“Yes, that would be a fine place to start…”
… How did things come to this?
When we began our lesson, I was hopeful Enbos would put aside his wariness and Lili her curiosity to get along for a single night. H-however, as soon as they tried teaching me and Norf…
“… Magic is not an act of faith, but one of understanding and logic! Don’t bring your religion into this!”
“How can you be so supremely arrogant!? It’s a fact you cannot learn magic without the World Stream, and is it not a majestic entity of His design?”
“It’s a natural phenomenon built from the collective consciousness of every living thing! God has nothing to do with it.”
“God has everything to do with it! The World Stream responds to the wishes of the living and helps us develop over the course of our lives. It’s only possible if it has a desire to nurture life, an edict bestowed by God Himself.
“It’s nothing but a reaction to predetermined procedures over countless lifetimes! The idea is so engrained that it’s basically programmed the World Stream to react as such! If it really had a will then spells like Necromancy wouldn’t exist, or does God secretly condone those skills?”
“How dare you! There is no such thing as perverse magic, only perverse hearts. If what you say is true, then how can magical plants exist? No man or living thing created those natural enchantments, and if it’s not them, then it’s obviously by the World Stream’s will!”
“It doesn’t need a will to pull that off! For all you know, the symbols that form those natural enchantments could come from, oh I don’t know, alternate worlds or later periods of time. Heck, for all you know magic may not have existed in any shape or form before the advent of conscious thought.”
“You must be at wit’s end to mention such ludicrous ideas! Honestly, a world without magic. Without mana, how can the soul…”
“… Are they still at it?”
Sen has just come back from washing his body to find Enbos and Lili still arguing over the nature of the World Stream. Norf and I have resigned all hope of receiving instruction and are watching over them in the company of Minna. With the moon shining above us, I hope Enbos recovers his composure soon.
“To be honest Hachirou, I thought this kind of argument would break out eventually.”
“It’s quite common for mages to clash with clerics over this issue. I’m more surprised it took this long to happen.”
“You’re not travelling with Enbos to learn magic, are you?”
“… No, I am not. I-In truth, I’m accompanying him to see his journey through. If I do, I’m sure I’ll discover my own path. That’s why I want to grow strong and help him.”
“I see, so you’re trying to catch up to him, huh. Well, I definitely know how that feels.”
Hearing Sen’s words and seeing his sentimental expression, I wonder if he’s thinking about his late childhood friend. He also chased after him as an adventurer, b-but in the end…
“I-I’m sorry for reminding you of Eric.”
“It’s alright. As much as Eric’s death is hurting me, I don’t ever regret going on this journey. I hope you don’t regret anything either.”
“Thank you, Sen.”
“Hachirou, why don’t you register as an adventurer? We can only offer a recommendation every two years, but I’m sure everyone would be more than happy to for someone as talented as you.”
“Please don’t Minna. Compared to my siblings, my talent is shallow. I still have a long way to go.”
“Do you come from a family of heroes? I think travelling with us through the Vivian Forest despite being a kid is plenty talented.”
“For the last time Sen, I’m not a child!”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure you’re not. Anyway, it looks like their argument is coming to a close.”
“Sen, Minna, c-can you hide the fact we had this conversation from my master?”
“We will, Hachirou.”
“… Good grief, just how stubborn can she be. She really is nothing but trouble for us. Come on Hachirou, let’s have dinner and get some sleep.”
Taking Enbos’ serving of soup, I turn away from the fireplace and chase after him. Reaching his side, I sit alongside him and look up to the stars in the night sky.
“Um, look Hachirou, I’m sorry I couldn’t teach you magic today. I swear we will have a few lessons in future.”
“It’s alright, Enbos. Even if you can’t teach me, I’ll get stronger in my own way.”