~~Faltown, Highway Entrance-Exit~~
Wha… what in blazes… It’s all in ruins…
The outer wall… or rather where it was supposed to be, had almost completely crumbled away, and the gate itself barely served its function. The stone-built house within the perimeter were all ruined, too. Wooden houses could be seen built on some of the demolished sites. They, too, were badly damaged, with some even missing a roof and completely exposed to the elements.
Pochi and I were agape in surprise, and Lina looked at us, seemingly embarrassed. Right, so this was what Reid meant by it not being not much of a town.
“Sir Asley, the only combatants remaining in this town are us three, some of the younger children, and our Chief and his personal guard. And without any traders coming by, this town is practically abandoned by the Guild.”
“We’ve sent requests for aid on carrier pigeons countless times, but the Nation in control of the Guild only returned with dismissive replies…”
Lina cast her eyes down, and Mana did not shy away from expressing her anger toward the Nation. Still, the Nation did give a reply at all, so that means… How’s that even supposed to work?
“We’re sort of a commando unit that takes out monsters as they approach the town. We’ve never been ganged up on like we had just now, though… Things sure are getting worse and worse. We’re low on food and water… and most of the capable men had died defending the town. That’s why the town is mostly women, children, and the old folks.”
This is the first time I’ve seen a town without an operating Guild branch. For me, who had always lived life as I pleased, the situation they are in is just too much to bear.
“Asley, I’d like to introduce you to the Chief. Will you come?”
“I understand, sir. I’ll keep watch at the gate.”
“I’m counting on you.”
“We’ll hang around here as well. Brother, Asley, you two go ahead to see the Chief.”
Hearing Mana say so, Lina proceeded to sit down to Pochi’s side.
Leaving guard duty to Pochi, I walked with Reid to go meet the town’s Chief.
Looking around as I went, I saw that the inside of the town was in the same shape as the gate. Relatively low damage, but damaged nonetheless… so to speak. I’m not one to talk, having lived in a dungeon for the longest time, but here really is not a place people should live in.
The so-called Chief’s house was unexpectedly close, taking us only a few minutes’ walk. I’d thought it would be in the deepest part of town, but considering that they did not have many combatants available, it might actually be more appropriate to live near the gate.
The house was large, but full of holes just like the rest; if I were to be told to live here, I would strongly be against it.
Reid lightly knocked on the door, which half-open and practically hanging loose anyway. The answer from inside was a young woman’s voice, an unexpected one.
[Please come in.]
Reid fully opened the door and greeted the beautiful blonde woman who stood there.
She was slender, and was wearing quite the revealing outfit. An apt description would be an ornamented leotard, I suppose. It seemed even more lightweight than the tattered vestment I had on.
Her eyes were relatively large, and her eyelashes long. She had blue pupils and quite the sharp jawline. Her appearance gave the impression of goddess statues in temples.
“Reyna, we just got back. I’d like to report to the Chief, and also introduce this man to him.”
“And who might he be?”
The woman with quite the attractive eyes, apparently called Reyna, stared at me as if in scrutiny.
“This is Asley, a mage. He’d saved our lives out there just now.”
“I am the one called Asley. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“My, I meant no offense… Please do pardon my rudeness, sir. Come, let us head inside.”
Reyna promptly apologized, then proceeded to guide us into the house.
The interior was a single large room, though by no means with an abundance of space. A man was sitting at the table to our right; that was probably the Chief.
The place was overall in a bad shape, and the pieces of furniture in my immediate sight fared equally as bad.
“Welcome, good traveler. I’ve heard the conversation from in here. First of all, let us thank you for saving Reid and his siblings.”
This middle-aged-looking man, sure enough, had the disposition and aura befitting one called a Chief.
Seeing me, the Chief promptly stood up and gently bowed down.
“My name is Ryan. I am very pleased to make your acquaintance…”
“I am the one called Asley, sir. We are on a journey to broaden our horizons and practice my craft as a mage.”
From the perspective of these people, me being on a journey might be considered a luxury.
However, it just didn’t feel right to lie to them as I introduced myself.
“That is wonderful indeed. We may not be in the condition to give blessings, but may your way ahead be pleasant.”
“Chief, you gotta hear this! Thanks to Asley and his friend, we managed to destroy the Chimera!”
“Wh-what did you say!? The Chimera that has been tormenting us for so long…”
“You speak the truth!?”
Ryan and Reyna, half joyful and half shocked, approached me an Reid.
“Oh, you bet it’s true! Asley’s magic might even be on the level of the Six Archmages!”
I’ve never heard of that term before. The world’s most powerful mages… or something like that, I guess?
Does that mean the ones who’ve earned such a title are a part of an organization?
“Have you never heard of them? The most powerful mages the Magic University has ever produced…?”
“The title is supposed to be known throughout the world… It is considered to be one half of a whole, together with the Six Braves of the Warrior University.”
“Err, I’ve lived in seclusion for quite a while, you see… So, well, I am not aware of any of them. Ha ha ha…”
“Is that so… It seems I’ve inquired too much. Please do pardon my boorish conduct.”
“Ah, please do not lower your head, sir. You are the town’s Chief, after all. It reflects badly on my character, too…”
If I say so myself, I’m so very bad at receiving thanks and apologies, yet today it’s been all thanks and apologies…
“Hah hah hah! It is most mysterious, but it does not feel like I am talking to a young fellow at all. Your parents must have raised and educated you well.”
“A ha ha… It is very kind of you to say that, sir.”
“Your mannerisms are impeccable. A rare sight for young ones in this day and age, indeed. Reyna, I remember there being a vacant house out west — Please lead Sir Asley there.”
“All right, I’ll go switch with Pochi.”
Reid said before running off, and I thanked Ryan before heading out west together with Reyna.
In the dark of the night, I surprised Reyna by casting the Light Source Spell. As we walked on our way, we came across a plaza, albeit one with no sign of people around.
“What’s the deal with this place…?”
“Ten-odd years ago, I used to play and run all around here as well. After the town’s collapse, people instead gathered here for reasons other than to draw water.”
“…Please take a look.”
What Reyna pointed at was a large unused well. To its side, a bottomless bucket had been left lying around, and the rope hanging from its pulley was all but torn apart.
“The place is low on water supply… I do remember Reid saying that.”
“Yes, besides drawing water from the river 10 kilometers away from here, we do not have a reliable method of securing drinkable water. Those who head out to obtain water are constantly at risk of facing danger. Currently, it is either Reid or the Chief who make several round trips each day.”
Though Reyna said all that so easily, she had quite the bitter expression on her face.
That’s a great deal of both physical and mental fatigue… Now that I think about it, from how Reid and Ryan’s faces looked, they must have been going for days without proper sleep. I just can’t imagine how tired they must be.
As if to break the silence between me and Reyna, Pochi ran into the plaza.
“Master, sorry to have kept you waiting… Oh, who might that be?”
“Pochi, this is Reyna. And Reyna, this is my Familiar, Pochi.”
“I am Pochi. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all mine. I am Reyna. I must say, this is the first time I’ve seen a Familiar. What a charming and adorable little thing you are.”
Reyna is very adorable, too, what with her smiling as she stooped down to look at Pochi… not saying that out loud, of course.
“I hate to ask this of you, Pochi, but can you be the gatekeeper for the rest of today? I want Reid and the others to get as much rest as they can.”
“Whoa, Master, you’re reluctant to ask for favors!? I swear, it’s going to rain first thing tomorrow morning!”
“Look, just… get going, all right?”
“Hu hu hu, yessiree!”
Pochi turned around and ran off, back the same way she had come.
“Sir Asley… Will she be fine?”
“Oh, please don’t worry. Familiars restore their strength just by staying still, so they don’t necessarily need sleep.”
“……Thank you very much for all you have done for us, sir.”
The ones who would dare turn a blind eye to such a town must be devils. I couldn’t help but be irritated by how the Nation has been handling things.
The house Reyna guided me to was, as expected, in bad shape.
While passing the night there, Reid, Mana, and Lina came to visit, wanting to thank me properly, but I turned them away and told them to go get some rest… I sure got thanked a lot in just this day alone.
Though often not the case, humans were the kind to take appropriate action without seeking such rewards. The ones who deliberately do not take action at all, however, are nothing but “evil” in my book. The things I’ve been seeing truly makes me question the current state of the Guild and the Nation — the question that persisted through the whole night.
~~The Next Morning~~
Pochi came to me, seeming to have exchanged shifts with Reid.
“How was last night?”
“Bloody cold, that’s what!”
“Ah… I was cold, too… It’s practically the same as outside in here.”
“But you had a blanket, Master! I was outside the whole time!”
Great, now Pochi’s complaining. Familiars are supposed to be more resistant to changes in atmospheric temperature than humans, but I suppose not having fire around would be cold nonetheless.
And Reid has always stayed out like that… Must be hard.
I do know why it’s so cold around. Of course, there’s the problem with the buildings themselves, but the biggest issue is that they don’t make fires.
It’s not like they can’t, either. They probably don’t have the resources to spare, and are saving what little they have for cooking procedures. Ryan’s house also had a fireplace, but it didn’t seem like it’s been in use for quite a while.
The temperature was around 10 degrees, so it’s not deathly bad, but that’s different when they’re out all the time… They must have been freezing to the core.
“What is it, Master? You’re looking… relatively quiet today?”
“Let’s make this place our base of operations for a while. I’d like you to keep watch on the surrounding area. I’ll get something to keep you warm.”
“Well, well… We’ve not been out for long, but you’re already showing good development, sir. This is a far cry from you before we set off, don’t you think?”
“Look, just take this blanket for now and go keep watch at the gate! And tell the people on duty now to gather at the plaza!”
I threw the rolled-up blanket at the grinning Pochi, and she held it in her mouth before running off.
I heaved a sigh at Pochi’s arrogant attitude just now, then stood up, grabbed my staff, and left for the plaza.
Perhaps because I didn’t remember the way from last night well enough, or perhaps because I just walked too slowly, Reid, his sisters, and Reyna were already there by the time I arrived.
“Thanks a million for yesterday, Asley. It’s been a long time since I last got a good night’s sleep.”
“Nah, it’s Pochi you need to thank. She told me it was super cold out last night.”
“Ha ha ha, Pochi told me to thank you instead, too, and now you’re telling me to thank her instead, eh?”
Damn, she sure takes the weirdest pages from my book… Hmm, or is it me taking a page from hers in this case?
We’ve been friends for more than 800 years now, so there’s probably no clear distinction at this point.
“By the way, what are you calling us to this run-down place for?”
“Sorry to say this after all you’ve done to help us, Sir Asley, but we do have a list of ongoing tasks that need to be done…”
“We went out to quell the monster activity earlier in the morning, and it was all small fries, so we thought we’d go draw water.”
So Reyna and Mana were planning to go, too… they’re quite hard-working, considering that they’re probably just around 20 years old.
“You won’t be drawing water from the river anymore. From now on, you’ll get water here.”
“Hey hey, I know you’re a mage, but is there even magic that generates water?”
“You’re right, water magic spells can’t be used in places that don’t already have water. Which means I can’t use magic here, but with magecraft, it’s a different story… Rise, A-rise, A-rise! Ice Horn!”
I sent a hexagram Craft Circle flying above the unused well, then invoked it. A giant ice pillar materialized and dropped onto the hole.
“Oh, that’s the spell you used yesterday! But now it’s blocked the well off… That’s going to take a long time to melt.”
“Rise, A-rise, A-rise! Transient Blades!”
Sending another, identical Craft Circle above the well, this time I invoked a hail of bladed flashes of light.
Manipulating the slashes with my staff, I finely shredded the ice into the well.
“No way… The pillar that pierced the Chimera’s body, cut to pieces just like that?”
“So this is what magic is capable of… Or, no, did you just say ‘magecraft,’ Sir Asley…?”
I then proceeded to repeat the process a few more times, eventually filling most of the well with ice crystals.
“That was amazing, Sir Asley! “
“Now, Lina, this isn’t even the end of it yet, you know?
“Huh — We’re not going to just wait for it to melt?”
“Rise, A-rise! Fire Stamp & Remote Control!”
This time using magic, I materialized a stamp seal-shaped mass of fire that matched the size of the well, and directed it to slowly descend into the well with a control spell.
The ice that filled the hole started to melt, steadily dripping water to the bottom.
The fire stamp seal descended the well, melting and cracking the ice as it went. Water eventually filled the bottom, and the level further rose up as more fine ice and water dropped down. As I finished, the people who had gathered around were agape in silence, and I was drenched in sweat.
“How’s that? The well is now put to use well, right? Heh heh… Well, if I regularly drop more ice in, they’ll melt on their own, so the big show’s just for today. I wouldn’t want to do that again, either. Ha ha ha…”
Cheers of joy filled the plaza, so loud that my eardrums might have ruptured.
Some took each other’s hands, some smiled, some cried, all were delighted… or so I remembered from before I had passed out.
When I came to, I saw that Lina, Mana, and Reid were watching over me.
“Huh, what was I…?”
As I got up, Reid immediately kneeled in apology, with his head on the ground.
“Er, Reid? Why’re you prostrating yourself like that?”
“W-well, I won’t blame you if you don’t remember! Sorry, I was so happy and… hugged your neck a bit too hard…”
I see, I see… a hug, eh? So that’s what it takes for Reid to lower his head…
“Right, I do remember being in pain… That’s just for a bit, though.”
“I’m terribly sorry…”
“Our brother really messed up this time, Asley. We’re sorry.”
“Not you too, Mana. Please, get up, both of you — I really don’t like this kind of thing. And I’m fine now, so there’s no need to worry. That aside, how’s the well? The water didn’t disappear or anything, did it?”
“Y-yeah, everybody’s been using it without issue. Thanks a million for that.”
Lina and Mana followed him in thanking me once again.
Essentially, ice conjured with magecraft spells like Ice Horn would disappear if left around for a fixed period of time. But that did not apply to the water produced from the conjured ice by external methods.
I had read that trick from one of the old books, and it sure came in handy this time.
“That’s good to hear. Please do tell me if the water supply is running low. I can add to it anytime.”
“What, wouldn’t that mean… You’re going to stay here for a while?”
“Yes, that’s what I meant. This might sound hypocritical, but I don’t want to leave you people behind in this state. As long as Pochi is in action, we can relieve you of quite a lot of your immediate burdens, too.”
Reid, still sat down, started to tremble as he expressed his thanks once more, and as drops of tear dripped onto his legs.
Feeling a tad bit awkward, I averted my eyes to Lina, who was doing the same… then to Mana… who also did like the other two.
Perhaps the human heart was much more fragile and vulnerable than I had given them credit for. I wonder when was it that I had last shed tears… Living long months and years, spending long days and hours, I had absorbed a great deal of technical knowledge, but at the same time, I might have forsaken other things instead.
And was it truly awkwardness that I had felt just now…? Or had I simply become incapable of looking people in the eye to accept their thanks and apologies?
I do remember feeling all sorts of frustration from the quarrels I’ve had with Pochi, but perhaps to just a barely recognizable degree.
Perhaps this was the start of my journey to reclaim “what I had lost”.