I wiped the sweat off my forehead and looked up: the sun was high up in the sky, and there was not a cloud in sight. It’s probably noon, time to go back.
I hefted the basket filled with herbs up from the ground next to my feet, and slung it around my shoulder. It was not exactly filled to the brim, but there were still plenty of herbs in it— a satisfactory amount to bring back for the day. I walked out of the thicket of trees I was in, taking no more than a minute to reach the clearing where the brown haired boy was waiting for me.
Adrian sat leaning against a fallen tree, with one hand right next to the holster hanging off his waist. When he heard me approach, he jumped up, reaching for his father’s pistol—
“Oh, you’re back,” Adrian said, visibly relaxing. Straightening, he lowered his arms and heaved out a sigh. “You scared me, y’know. You should’ve said something.”
“Sorry,” I spoke briefly.
But despite my quick response— which may have seemed ingenuine to most people— I actually was apologetic. The boy had been accompanying me in my gathering trips for a while, and I was grateful to him for it. Unfortunately, however, my antisocial tendencies to not announce my presence and my quiet footsteps led to him being jumpy around me whenever we went out, since he was always on alert for any Monsters or even wild animals in the area.
“It’s fine,” he said, dusting himself off. “It’s just— my dad brings me out when he goes hunting, and he makes me stay on guard at all times. He says one small mistake gets you killed, right? And, uh… I don’t want either of us to die.”
I nodded my head in response.
“In fact, I should’ve known better, since you always sneak up on me. But all habits die hard— that’s what mom says. So I guess my dad did a good job teaching me to be cautious, huh?” Adrian laughed.
“I won’t do it again,” I said.
“Oh, no, it’s really not a problem. I was just making a joke. It’s like if you say something that’s absurd— not that I don’t think you don’t understand jokes, I just meant...” the boy trailed off, as I gave him no reaction. He quickly tried to change the subject, pointing at the basket in my hand. “You sure you wanna head back now? It’s not even full.”
“We’ll be late for Mr Walden’s lesson.”
He gave me a weak grin. “I don’t see how that’s a problem…?”
It was another attempt at a joke, although he did not commit fully to it; I did not know how to respond to it, so I just made a noise. “Mhm.”
We both stood there awkwardly for another moment; it was not long, but it felt like forever for some reason. Finally, Adrian managed to mutter under his breath.
I nodded again. The boy led the way back as we made our way back to the village. We continued to walk together quietly for a few minutes, before a voice finally broke the silence.
The voice was hoarse and rough, definitely not belonging to the boy walking in front of me. It came from behind us, and we both whirled around to face the strange voice.
A suspicious looking man strode out from the trees behind us. No, not suspicious looking— he was literally just suspicious.
He was dressed in what was similar to a black trench coat, and wore a pointed hat like my mom usually did, except it was black, not purple. Its wide brim was twice as large too. He had both of his hands held out in a placating gesture, before either Adrian or I even saw him. Yep, definitely suspicious.
Adrian seemed to agree, as his hand was already on his holster, tightly gripping the gun. The man noticed our hostility as he took a small step back, speaking in as civil of a manner as he could.
“Now, now. I am just a traveler looking for a place to stay for the night. If you could just bring me to your village, I will truly appreciate it.”
It did not work. His gruff voice betrayed his attempt at a soothing tone, and each word he spoke was over enunciated; it sounded too forced— too fake. Somehow, this was enough for Adrian to change his mind as he relaxed.
“Sure, we were just on our way back. We can show—“ he started, but I didn’t let him finish.
Both Adrian and the man turned to me in surprise. Neither expected that response. And why would they? If we brought him to the village, we would be safe. He could not do anything to us there, in front of all the villagers. But it wasn’t my safety that I cared about.
This man snuck up on us without making a sound. And even though he was a ‘traveler’, he was alone and without a pack animal, in a world where Monsters roamed free in the wild. And worst of all, he was quite clearly hiding something with the way he was dressed. He could have been something like… a Witch hunter? That was a thing back on Earth, right? Not that Witches existed in this world. Powerful spellcasters were often called Dark Acolytes, apparently.
And if this man saw my mom and somehow recognized her... well, she would probably kill him. But then we would be kicked out of the village. So I was not letting this guy near Villamcreek.
“We’re not going anywhere until you leave.”
The man raised an eyebrow at that, seemingly amused.
“And if I just don’t move, would you just wait here forever? Surely you’d get tired after a while and return home. Then I can just follow you back.”
“Then he’ll shoot you.” I pointed at Adrian, who opted to trust me and slowly unholstered his gun. I gave the man an ultimatum.
“And if you try to follow us, we’ll tell everyone that a creepy guy tried to kidnap us in the woods. We’ll tell them that he’s following us, so when you try to enter the village, they’ll shoot you. So go away.”
I stood firm as the man stared at me. His eyes lingered on my face for almost a minute, before he finally broke off; he threw his hands up in resignation, sighing.
“Guess I’ll just have to find another place to stay.”
With that said, the man slowly turned around, and stalked away.
Adrian and I kept our eyes on the man in silence until he was finally out of sight. When it seemed like he was finally gone, Adrian turned to me.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” I said apologetically, “sorry about that.”
“You sure? That’s the most I’ve heard you speak in one go. I—” he paused, turning to face me. He looked me straight in the eyes before continuing, “What happened? What was wrong with him?”
Shrugging, I turned to look up at the sky like I was in deep thought. Then slowly, I lowered my gaze back towards Adrian, and grinned.
Adrian did not get my joke!
Of course he wouldn’t. Living in a small village, you don’t learn to be wary of strangers. I had to explain the joke to him on the way back, and got a polite laugh in return. I didn't even know why he bothered— that never makes things better when you fail at delivering a joke.
But at least I proved that I did have a sense of humor; even if he did not find me funny at all. I might have been incapable of basic social interaction ever since I came to this world, but at least I was trying.
It took us an hour to get back to the village. I didn’t drop the basket off at home, just in case the man decided to follow us. Plus, we were late for Mr Walden’s lesson. When we got there, the middle aged man was in the middle of teaching us some basic maths.
It was definitely something most kids my age should have learned years ago. Simple addition and subtraction. Nothing too complex, yet most kids seemed to be struggling with it; I quickly appeased Mr Walden’s ire at my tardiness by solving the rest of the math problems he gave us and explaining how I came to my answers.
By the end of the lesson, he seemed to have forgotten about my slight against him by being late, as he didn’t glare at me when I approached him. I told him about the suspicious man, and with Adrian’s help, managed to convince him that the man was probably some sort of criminal that wanted to harm the village, and definitely not some Inquisitor from the Church.
After that, Adrian walked me all the way home for the first time; he usually only followed me as far as the village walls, but he was worried for my safety. He insisted on staying over for a few hours, so I decided to tutor him for a bit..
I taught Adrian simple multiplication and division, since he was much smarter than most other kids. While the other kids struggled in Mr Walden’s class, he was always able to grasp everything quite quickly.
When that was done, I took out some of my mom’s books, and helped him improve his reading and writing. He was once again better than other kids at it, though he still struggled with the more complex words; I taught him a couple of words— even helping him learn some of the Venerable Language— before the sun finally began setting. It was then, he finally had to go back home.
I then spent the next hour messing with the lighter, refining my control over the mana crystal. As the sun set, and the day came to a close, my mom finally arrived back home.
“Welcome home mom!”
Aria was greeted by a cheerful Melas, as soon as she walked in through the door. She bent down to kiss her daughter, hugging her as she did.
“How are you, dear?”
The young woman began preparing their dinner as Melas started telling her about her day. Aria was making some mushroom stew, something which she knew her daughter liked. As she did, Melas got to the part where she decided to go home, before pausing. Being her mother, this did not go unnoticed by Aria.
“Is something the matter, Melas?” Aria asked, placing a lid over the boiling pot.
“It’s— nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”
Aria frowned. She knew her daughter well enough to know that something was in fact wrong, and it was not nothing. So she turned away from the boiling cauldron, and faced her daughter with concern.
“Melas, if something happened, you can tell me.”
“N-no, nothing happened!” exclaimed the little girl, before hesitating. “At least, not yet, I think…”
Blinking, Aria took a step back away from the kitchen. Now she was confused. Aria assumed that her daughter was attacked by some Monster or wild animal while out gathering, and did not want to say it in fear of being barred from going out again— not that it was something Aria would have done.
Melas was with Adrian, so maybe…
“Did something happen with Adrian?”
“It’s fine, dear. Adrian is a good boy. It’s natural for children your age to start feeling that way. Though you are still young, if you feel like you have thought it through, I will approve of any boy you bring home.”
“What?! No! It’s not that at all!”
“There was a man.”
This time, Aria did not approve. It may have been legal in some of the Free Cities and the Puer Kingdom, but an adult and a child should not be entering into that kind of a relationship. It was not right, and not in the 'it’s just wrong' kind of way to Aria. She could actually give a plethora of logical and moral reasonings as to why it should not be allowed. As Aria opened her mouth to speak, her daughter must have sensed what she was going to say and interrupted her.
“And I don’t mean it like that. I’m talking about a suspicious man. A complete stranger who showed up in the woods.”
Aria immediately clamped her mouth shut. Melas eyed her mom carefully, as if she was making sure her mom wouldn’t speak over her, before continuing.
“I think he might be an Inquisitor.”
Aria froze. Inquisitors? Here? If they found her here, they would kill her and her precious daughter. It did not matter that she was just living peacefully. To them, she was still a heretic, and they would not stop until she was dead.
They needed to leave. If the Inquisitors had indeed tracked her down to even the Rem Republic, then no place was safe. They needed to stay on the move, keep on traveling for the rest of their lives. They might even have to seek protection with the Dark Crusaders… if they would even take Aria in. But wait— an Inquisitor? As in just one?
“Melas, what did you say they looked like again?
“He claimed to be a traveller. He was wearing a thick black coat, and had an oversized black hat. He had grey hair, looked to be around 50 years old. He was alone— no companions, no horses, and no travelling supplies. There’s no way a random man could do that.”
“Ah.” Aria sagged in relief. “He is not an Inquisitor.”
“He’s not? Wait, do you know him?”
Aria shook her head. She did not know who that man was, but she knew that he was not an Inquisitor.
Inquisitors never traveled alone. They traveled in groups of four or more, and never separated from each other. Even when they went scouting, they would at least do it in pairs. That was par for the course of an Inquisitors training. Furthermore, they would never hide their distinctive armor, always bearing the sigil of the Holy Xan Empire for all to see. Whoever that man was, he was definitely not part of the Inquisitors.
So Aria told her daughter this. She reassured her daughter, telling her that her peaceful life would not go anywhere. Maybe the man was a Hunter, or a Mercenary. Or any other possible scenarios Aria could have thought of. But Melas didn’t believe any of it. She was too afraid.
“But he could be one! They could’ve changed the rules, made it so they could travel more discreet. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
“Melas, I know you are worried. But you have to trust me, he is not an Inquisitor.”
Her daughter was defiant. She was scared, bordering on paranoid even. Aria took a deep breath.
“You are right. It is indeed better to be safe than sorry. Even if he is not an Inquisitor, he could still be a danger to us. But if he is, what do we do?”
Melas spoke without a hint of hesitation in her voice.
“We leave the village, mom. Go far away from here. If we do, nobody will bother us for a while.”
Aria was shocked. She didn’t expect this kind of determination from her daughter. Even Aria, who only has a working relationship with the villagers would hesitate to just up and leave them. And Melas had… friends? Aria shook her head. No she didn’t, apart from maybe Adrian. And even then, she’s not too close to him.
Melas was a child. Even if she did not have any friends, the village was all she had known. To abandon her entire life up until this point, it should be ridiculous to even suggest. Yet, here she was demanding it. But why? Aria did not know the reason for her daughter’s behavior, and Melas seemed to realize that.
“It’s because I love you, mom. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Aria was stunned. She was glad— glad that her daughter felt so strongly about her. It made her feel like she finally did something right in her life, in spite of her past sins. But she also felt bad for her daughter, that she had to worry about such things because of her. Before she could voice her thoughts however, her daughter continued.
“Sure, I’ll be sad. Villamcreek is where I grew up, after all. Mr Walden, even though he can be a bit annoying with the way he teaches, is still a good guy. And Adrian and I only just started to become friends. But this place is not my home. My home is with you, mom. So wherever I may go, I’ll be fine as long as I am with you.”
Upon hearing that, Aria felt her chest grow warm. Warmer than it ever had been. Maybe only as warm as when she first gave birth to her child after all her struggles. Her eyes welled up, and tears started to streak down her beautiful face. She started crying, because now, her daughter was making her feel this way again.
Aria gathered her emotions, and wiped away her tears. Slowly, she looked her daughter in the eyes, and saw her resolve. With that, Aria made her decision too.
“Fine,” said Aria, smiling, “we will leave.”
Hearing that, Melas smiled too.
They were going to leave, but not right now. They still needed to gather their things tomorrow, and resupply in the village. Maybe even say goodbye to several of the villagers. Then, they would be gone.
And as the mother and daughter made their decision to leave, both felt only one thing. The same feeling which they had always felt for each other.