2-11 Investigation of Ang
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Stahlia Ten Years Old, Eighth Month of 947

After a long and uneventful trip, we managed to arrive at the frontier village in question, the village of Ang. The village was situated at the edge of a large forest and was being established in order to cut lumber to feed into Drakas’ economy. Though there were monsters known to inhabit said forest, none of them should have been capable of overrunning the village by this stage, hence why the kingdom had gone as far as dispatching knights from the capital instead of leaving it to a nearby garrison force.

The trip itself was really was uneventful, we didn’t run into any bandits, orcs goblins, wolves, or anything fun at all. Dominic didn’t even do anything to embarrass me. Now that he think’s I’m a tsundere, maybe he’s trying for a “neglect” bent to make me fall for him. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I had been a bit concerned that my current physiological condition might negatively impact the journey for me, given the greater number of men than women, but it turned out that by having Sana and Sarala as well as Jacqueline I was able to cope. Whenever I would start feeling uncomfortable, I could simply retreat to one of my girlfriends and relax my mind a bit. Before I died, I would have loved a trip like this, if I had had any male friends to go with that is.

The village was small. Smaller than Ris village. I could probably count the number of buildings with fingers if I were to borrow Sarala and Sana’s hands. It was, as nihilistic as this would sound, frankly amazing that the kingdom put in as much effort by sending us and the knights. I had figured we were going to an established village, like Ris, but Ang was barely past what you would call a settlement.

As we came to a stop outside the fence that encircled the village, I couldn’t help but compare it to the wall that protected my home village, I wouldn’t even need physical enhancements to climb Ang’s wall. One of the knights called out in a loud voice. “Send word to the village chief and open the gate! We are knights of his majesty sent to root out the cause of your misfortune!”

After a brief moment, I heard the sound of a door opening and, by looking through the gaps in the wall, perceived a old man wearing what I suppose was technically armor. In the most generous meaning of the word. The man came out of what was most likely his guard hut and peered at us through the gaps. After confirming the crest on the two carriages in use by the Special Students and the Knight’s regalia, the man put his fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle. He then proceeded to unbolt the gate and swing it open.

We advanced into the village and people began to trickle out of their houses. I see, so the whistle was an “all clear” signal of sorts. I suppose when your village is this poorly defended and six heavily armed and armored men come up to it on horseback accompanied by two carriages and a wagon, you would get a little tense. Studying the people, the first thing I noticed was how destitute they looked. The second was the absence of men. Even in Ris village, where many men would go out into the fields or forest during the day, there were still some who remained in the village.

Among the many faces, I could count the number of men on one hand. That number included the gate guard, who had not followed us into the village proper. I spoke my thoughts out loud, hoping to get Sara and Sarala’s impressions. “There aren’t many men, are there?” Sana glanced around briefly before answering.

“Now that you mention it, I do believe that there should be more than this… I had assumed this was similar to Ris, however, you are right Stahlia, the number seems a bit too low.”

Sarala nodded and added her own thoughts. “While I cannot speak to the population of a small village, if both of you share that opinion, I would be inclined to agree… do you think that this has something to do with why we are here?” I could only purse my lips and shrug.

“I suppose we will find out when we speak with the village chief. Until then we can only speculate.”

Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait very long. We passed essentially straight through the village to the village chief’s home near the middle. As we were passing, I passed the short amount of time taking in the surroundings. Jacqueline had recently been teaching me a few tricks to quickly grasp my surroundings and draw conclusions based on quick observational evidence, which I was trying to employ here.

Like I had noticed earlier, the vast majority of people I could see were either women or girls. There were only a handful of men, but each one of them seemed to be older. There were some boys as well, but none older than eight or nine. So clearly, whatever is preying on the villagers is favoring men, which rules out goblinoids, And we came in a party with six male knights, two male students, and the male attendants of those students. I see this going absolutely perfectly and us having no issues.

Of the women we were passing, almost every single one of them looked gloomy, which made sense considering their men were missing. The homes themselves, while squat and made of cheap local material, were not showing any immediately visible signs of violent happenings. So, we’re after something that targets only men and boys between the ages of ten and roughly fifty, has seemingly no interest in women or girls, and is able to get into people’s homes without creating any signs of forced entry. Alternatively, it could be luring the targets outside of their homes without entering them themselves.

I spun through my memories trying to fit my observations with what I knew. Nothing from my memories of this life came to mind, though I hadn’t ever specifically studied monster ecology outside of what I was likely to run into locally so it wasn’t a long list. I could think of a couple of options from my previous life though. Some flavors of vampires would only drink the blood of the opposite sex, and they needed to be invited before entering a private building. If we were dealing with a female vampire, and vampires in this world worked like that, then it would fit with what I was seeing.

There was also a Succubus, and unlike with Vampires, I did know that demons existed in this world. They even had their own continent, and periodically fell under the rule of the Nine Hell Kings in order to invade the other continents in some grudge match against the Goddess of Light and God of Darkness. Assuming Succubi existed in this world and worked the same way, they should have the ability to charm men and get them to do their bidding. They would also feed on men’s vitality through sex, draining their victim’s lifeforce until they were a mere withered husk.

There was also a Siren, though modern folklore tended to depict them as a sort of mermaid or fish person, in their source, they were large birds with a woman’s head. Like Succubi, Sirens would charm and lure men to consume them. Though in this case, the consumption was in the literal sense, not a euphemism.

I made a mental checklist of my three candidates, but I wouldn’t be able to mention them, since I didn’t actually know if there were monsters like these in this world. It was possible there were, but they had a different name, or they had the same name but didn’t follow the conventions I knew of. If Dominic wasn’t here, I could get away with asking an innocent question about “something I read about” but I can’t risk him suspecting me. I made another mental checklist entry to do some reading on the less common monsters native to this world. Even if I might never encounter one, in retrospect it would be useful information to have.

As I was making my musings, we arrived at the village chief’s home, where an old man emerged to greet us. He was likely in his seventies or even eighties, with greying hair and a weathered complexion. The Knight Commander dismounted his horse and gave the chief a slight bow. Since Knights were technically the lowest rank of nobility, albeit a title that was not inherited, seeing the knight humble himself towards a commoner caused my personal impression of him to go up a few points.

Dominic Asten and I got out of our respective carriages and the commander introduced himself, as well as the three of us. Each of us accompanied his introduction with a bow of our own, or in my case a curtsey. “Chief Carl, I am Knight Commander Albert. I command five knights who have been sent out by our King Drakas to aid your village. Accompanying us are the Special Students; Lord Dominic von Francois, Lord Asten von Lambert, Lord Dominic’s fiancé Lady Stahlia von Ris, and their retinues.” Albert finished his incredibly long-winded introductions and inhaled deeply.

Of course I would be introduced as “Dominic’s fiancé”, can’t just leave that part out huh. Oh well, it still bothers me but I’m growing used to the label at this point… Still, “Lambert” huh? Pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve actually heard Asten’s last name… even at the meeting with Percius, it never came up.

Chief Carl nodded and bowed in response to Albert’s introduction. “On behalf of Ang Village, I thank you.” His tone sounded stiff as if he wasn’t used to speaking in such a manner. “Please, come inside so we can talk…” Carl trailed off as he glanced awkwardly at our large party. Picking up on his distress, Albert nodded.

“Certainly, Lords Dominic and Asten, Lady Stahlia, and myself will take you up on your kind offer. The rest of you men, begin setting up a patrol route around the village. Make sure the villagers can see you, it should improve their mood somewhat.” Since his plan made sense, I spoke up.

“Knight Albert, if it pleases you, allow one of your men to guard my companion, Apprentice Sana. She could perhaps offer some words of comfort in her capacity as a priestess.” After a moment’s thought, Albert nodded and jerked his head towards one of the knights, who in turn gave a crisp salute and made his way over to Sana.

I turned to head inside the building when I noticed Stil. My Hawri was standing perfectly still, with his neck feathers flared out around his neck, similar to a cat with its fur standing on end. His eyes were fixed in the general direction of the forest. I followed his gaze and studied the general area he was staring at. At first, I couldn’t see anything, so I used Blood Magic to enhance my eyesight.

I still couldn’t make anything out, but I didn’t want to write off what Stil was doing. I knew better than that. As I was pondering, I noticed another member of our party behaving oddly; Sana had turned slightly red and was short of breath. It was similar to how she looked after casting miracles consecutively. Dominic shot me a look and reached out towards me, likely planning to take my hand to escort me inside, but Albert stopped him.

“Lord Dominic, I beg your forgiveness for my impudence, but it seems Lady Stahlia’s Stawri has noticed something.” Dominic glanced at Stil then retracted his hand, though he looked a bit miffed about having been told off.

Thank you, Albert, glad to see you’re observant. Now, what has got Stil so riled up? With my enhanced eyesight, I could count the ridges in the tree bark even from where I was stood five hundred or so meters away from the closest tree. There should be no difference between my visual acuity and Stil’s. I could conclude it wasn’t something he smelled, because he was staring. If it had been an odd scent then he would be peering around, trying to spot the source. Since his gaze was fixed on a specific point within the forest, that meant he could actually see something.

Then there was the reaction of Sana, I highly doubted she had suddenly gotten sick, so her symptoms indicated there was something out there. So Stil can see whatever it is, and Sana is at least reacting to it. What do they have that I don’t? I had never actually used my Blood Magic Appraisal on Sana, so I wasn’t privy to any skills she had, but I did know Stil’s.

So, it’s a skill Stil has that I don’t. That’s basically all of his skills, but only two of them jump out at me. Keen Senses and Mana Sensing. I can rule out Keen Senses, I already know he doesn’t smell or hear whatever it is, and right now my eyesight should be equal to or better than his. That leaves Mana Sensing. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a way to sense mana myself. So there are things that are invisible without the ability to perceive mana. I’ll have to add mana sensing to the list of abilities I need to purchase a skill for…

For now, there was nothing I could do, so I shook my head and addressed Albert and those others who were watching me. “Commander Albert, it would seem there is something on the edge of the forest. Stil can sense it, but he doesn’t seem to be able to pinpoint its exact location… just that whatever it is, it is incredibly dangerous. I have not seen him react so stiffly before.”

Albert followed Stil’s gaze, then addressed his men, ordering them to pair off and investigate the forest around the area Stil had indicated before they went to conduct their patrols. The odd man was left with Sana, as Albert had noted her current condition, though he was delicate enough not to draw attention to it. With that, the three of us Special Students and Albert made our way inside Carl’s house.

Once inside, Dominic pulled out a chair from the lone table for me and the three of us sat down. Even though he was technically the host, because the three of us were full nobles and Albert was at least nominally a noble, Carl remained standing. This just feels… wrong? An old man is standing up in his own home while three kids are sitting at his table. Still, there wasn’t much I could do, other than try to guide our talk to a quick end. Of course, Dominic would be leading the talk, as he was the highest-ranking among us, so my influence would be limited.

Contrary to my worries, the meeting began and Dominic immediately turned over control to Albert. “Commander Albert, you handle the specifics since your men will be the ones primarily doing the investigation.” I can’t tell if he’s being intelligent and picking the best person for the job, or being lazy and delegating. Either way, it worked for me, so I decided to not say anything.

“Thank you, Lord Dominic.” Albert inclined his hand before stepping forward, like Carl he was standing. “Chief Carl, please, give us any details you can about the incidences.”

Carl gulped nervously and nodded. “Right, it started early last month, first it was just a hunter who didn’t come back outa the forest. Then a few days later, the hunter’s son didn’t come down to the well. We all thought he might have gone into the forest to look for his Pa, so we put together a search. Two of the men who went out on the search never made it back.” He paused, and went to take a sip of water from a jug that had been sitting on the table.

So, whatever it is, it’s strong enough to take on two presumably fit men with average levels, likely armed with a potential goblin or wild animal encounter in mind. I thought back over my previous three ideas. Well, assuming vampires have a sunlight weakness, it’s probably not one of those. Unless of course, the men wandered into a cave or something. Likewise probably not a Siren since two men disappeared at once, according to the accounts of Sirens they aren’t that strong and they have to keep the song going or their charm effect wears off. Of course, it still could be one of those things, it’s not like I actually know anything about those monsters in this world, or if they even exist at all.

I turned my attention back to Carl, as he had resumed his recounting of events. “After that, I declared that nobody should go into the forest alone and that anyone who enters should run as soon as something happened, but every few days, another couple of men would disappear. Finally, I decided to ban people from going into the forest altogether, and people started disappearing right outta their homes. That’s when I sent a request for help…” He fell silent, given how small communities like this tended to function, he was likely thinking of all the people who had gone missing.

Why did you wait so long to call for help then…? As far as I know, preparations to leave began as soon as the capital received your request but you had to have known the kingdom would still take a leisurely approach to the response. Since it didn’t look like he was going to continue of his own accord, Albert began asking him specific questions. Things like how far the villagers had ventured into the forest, whether or not anyone had reported noticing any changes in the forest leading up to the disappearances, and the locations of any notable features near the village.

After all of the more pressing matters had been attended to, Albert turned his attention to the three of us at the table. “Have any of you anything to ask?” He probably expected that given Dominic’s earlier action in turning over the meeting to him, that we would say we didn’t. Contrary to that likely expectation though, I did have one thing I was wondering about.

“I have one question I would like to ask. Carl, after people started disappearing from their homes, did any of the women or girls inside of said homes come to any form of harm? Additionally, did any of them report having heard or seen anything when their husband or father went missing?” This was one question I had been waiting for Albert to ask, but he had never wound up doing so. Albert gave a brief start when I finished, probably having realized he forgot something so obvious.

Albert touched his chin thoughtfully. “No, no injuries… I don’t know if this is what you mean, but the local crone has been babbling on about how death is passing through our village. I’ve been ignoring her though, she’s a bit funny in the head at the best of times and there’ve been no bodies, nor signs of struggle.” Inwardly, I facepalmed. Right, let’s just ignore the obvious plot hook… because she’s crazy! Outwardly, I politely thanked him.

“Thank you for your answer, Carl. I think I would like to speak to this “crone” at least once, just in case.” Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of Dominic Staring at Carl with his mouth hanging open. Even Dominic realized how much of a quest flag this is… what the hell Carl!? Of course, I couldn’t really blame him; without outside knowledge of fiction from my past life, I too likely would have scoffed at the notion that a crazy old lady had noticed anything important.

★★★★★★

Dominic and I arrived at the outskirts of the village just as the sun was starting to set. After the meeting had concluded, I had wanted to head to see the crone right away, however, I couldn’t think of a convincing excuse for why it was necessary. Not without risking tipping off Dominic to the fact that I had knowledge of the concept of flags. In the end, our group spent about an hour in discussions, wherein we determined who would be doing what in the coming days.

Carl had arranged for a building to be set aside for our use; the only occupant had been a pair of brothers, so it was currently vacant. We had decided that my group would use the smaller back room of the building, as there were only four of us and we were all female, while the men would use the larger common room.

In order to further save space due to a large number of men, some of them would be on rotation to guard the building and patrol the village, swapping out with the others periodically. Dominic and Asten were, of course, not part of this rotation.

 

Following the conclusion of said discussion, I bit the bullet and approached Dominic. Since I still couldn’t think of a decent excuse, I decided to try throwing it at him. I took a deep breath and called out. “Dominic, may I have a moment?” Dominic looked back at me and raised an eyebrow, then nodded and stepped to the side. Good, he picked up on the fact that I wanted to have a private conversation.

Jacqueline took up a post nearby, out of conventional earshot, but still close enough for her to hear our conversation. Sarala glanced at the two of us and smirked before saying she was going to go find Sana at the town square. Right, so now Sana is going to be convinced that I’m secretly deeply in love with this guy. You all are in for a shock when our engagement gets broken off.

“So, what did you want to talk about, Stahlia?”

I nodded. “You want to go and see the crone that Carl mentioned, do you not? I would like to accompany you.”

Dominic raised an eyebrow. “I do not believe I indicated as such… do you perhaps find the story about her ramblings suspicious?”

Right, I have to be careful about how I word this so I can avoid him becoming suspicious of me. “…No, not suspicious, more like I am intrigued about the woman herself rather than her ramblings. I saw how you reacted to Carl and assumed you were planning to go and see her.” Dominic looked like he was thinking about something, so I added one final touch.

“If you do not plan on going, that is fine as well, it is not like I wanted to go with you or anything.” I embraced my cringe-worthy line, and fully welcomed the blush it would cause; my face turning red would help sell my performance. I heard a sharp snort of air blow through Dominic’s nose, and he nodded.

“Right, we can go together then.”

The crone’s house was out on the very edge of the village, near the forest. I wasn’t particularly worried, but in order to avoid causing a fuss, I made sure to assure Albert that we would be back with the group before dark. I had expected that I would have to argue against being assigned one or more of the knights as a guard, however, Albert made no moves to do so.

After a bit of thought I realized that, due to Dominic and I both being deployed alongside the knights, the kingdom had essentially acknowledged our abilities. We would probably still be given a guard or two if we requested one, but not having one suited my needs perfectly so I chose to happily and conveniently ignore the fact that I didn’t have one.

As we approached the door of the crone’s shack and knocked, I heard a shriek from inside the building. “Death! Death has come for me!” Dominic and I looked at each other, while Jacqueline and Dominic’s manservant took up defensive postures. I had expected Jacqueline to react, but to my surprise, Dominic’s manservant was also fairly skilled. Though Jacqueline appeared to be superior.

Dominic saw that I was ready and nodded. He then kicked down the door. What the hell!? I was expecting you to open it slowly! Still, I was able to react to the unexpected action after only a slight pause. “[Light #####]” At my spoken command, a spell I had chant-held instantly deployed. It was a very simple White Magic spell of the Light Element, all it did was create an instantaneous bright flash.

After a significant amount of consideration over which chant I should keep prepared, given that I could only manage a single one, I decided that an on-demand instant distraction best meshed with my abilities. The light illuminated the interior of the room, and I swiftly cut inside, with Dominic following behind me. Due to our swordsmanship lessons, where we often spared together, we were more or less in perfect sync.

We quickly surveyed the room and confirmed that it was empty aside from ourselves. There was also a distinct lack of furniture. Other than a small table, a shelf with some cooking implements, a bedroll, and a rack containing dried herbs and some meat, it was barren. Dominic jerked his chin towards the only other door and we quickly formed up alongside it, while Jacqueline and Dominic’s manservant entered the room and took up vigilant positions near the front door.

I reached out my hand and pushed the door open. Dominic went in first this time and I followed. This door led out into a small garden behind the house. Fallen on her rear in a patch of what was probably basil, was an old woman. She was shaking and staring at a point on the opposite side of the yard from us. Following her gaze, I couldn’t see anything there, so I went to slowly approach her. As soon as I took a step forward, however, I was struck by an unsettling cold feeling.

It felt like a gust of cold air had blown from where the woman was looking. I should have brought Stil, something is definitely here! I chanced a glance at Dominic. To my surprise, he seemed entirely unbothered and was walking over to the woman, having sheathed his sword. So is it only women who can feel this thing? And that’s why it targets men? As if perfectly timing her entrance so as to dash my hopes, Jacqueline emerged from the building. Making her way over to me she, like Dominic, seemed entirely unaware of the presence that was in the yard with us.

I kept my gaze fixed at the source of the uncomfortable sensations that were plaguing me, and slowly worked my way across the yard until I was standing near the crone. Still keeping my eyesight locked on the spot, I knelt down near the crone and reached out a hand towards her. She had been shaking violently enough to where Dominic had opted to keep his distance from her, and Jacqueline had picked up on the way I was behaving and thus taken a defensive stance while watching the same general area as me.

As soon as my hand touched her arm, the woman froze still. At the same time, the feeling of unease emanating from the side of the garden abated. “Miss, are you ok? My name is Stahlia. My friends and I came here to help.”

The crone snapped her head around at the sound of my voice, revealing a pair of cloudy white orbs. She’s blind? But she told the chief and all the other villagers that she could see death walking through the village… Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain on my forearm which caused me to give a surprised cry. Dominic immediately came over and tried to drag the woman away, but she wouldn’t let go.

“Of all the insolence!” Seeing him making to draw his sword, I hurriedly moved and inserted myself between the two of them.

“Dominic, it’s fine! She is just scared; she also can’t see, so grabbing my arm is a natural response for her. Don’t be rash…” He kept his hand on the hilt of his sword, but didn’t draw it.

“And you are unharmed?” I nodded.

“Yes, I cried out because I was surprised; she hasn’t hurt me.”

Dominic nodded, then released his sword hilt and stepped back. The crone was glancing around. Strangely, despite being blind, her gaze lingered on each person who was in the garden. First, myself, who she had seen first. Then Jacqueline and Dominic’s manservant, who had arrived after hearing me cry out. Lastly, she turned her gaze to Dominic, and almost immediately recoiled away, hiding behind me as she did so. Lady, you're like, at least seventy years old, and you’re hiding behind a ten-year-old, from a twelve-year-old… She had started to shiver again and was now babbling incoherently.

I sighed. “Dominic, I think you should take your manservant and stand watch outside the front of the house… It would seem she is afraid of men. I can ask her a few questions and fill you in later… would that be alright?” Dominic had been looking at the woman intensely, with an odd expression on his face. Hearing my words, he shook his head a few times before responding.

“…right, that would probably be for the best. But Stahlia… be careful. There’s something about her that’s odd.” He then waved at his manservant and the pair left through the way we had come in. Something odd about her…? No shit! What’s odder is why she reacted specifically to you, not me. Both of us are reincarnations so it isn’t that.

Once Dominic had moved to the front of the building, the woman once again calmed down. I took the chance to reintroduce myself, and try and engage her in conversation. “Miss? My name is Stahlia. Can you tell me your name…?”

The crone snapped her eyes back towards me. “Name? My… name? I… What’s my?... Who, who are you? You look… look like him! Like that man! Oh keep him away! Away!” The woman began shivering again. Ugh. Yea so she’s completely crazy. Crone was an apt description.

I grit my teeth. For better or worse, this woman was able to perceive whatever entity was coming into the village, and I needed to do my best to get information from her. “My name is Stahlia, miss. Can you tell me, who do I look like?”

At the sound of my voice, the crone calmed down and looked me over from head to toe. It was a disconcerting feeling to say the least, given that her eyes lacked light.

“Sta..hlia.. hmm yes. You do, you do! You look like him! Like that man! But he was only one, you have two… no, three! Three stars! Oh, please, keep him away!” Three… stars? I have three stars? What the hell is she talking about? She can definitely see something when she’s “looking” at me…

“Miss, I’m afraid I don’t understand… what do you mean I have “three stars”?”

The crone looked me up and down again. “Three stars? You have three stars? Hmm yes… I see that! Most wonderful! You should be able to protect me from that man then! Oh please keep him away from me…” Right. This is going nowhere. She’s completely senile. I decided to try one last approach before giving up on her.

“Miss.. how do you see these “stars”? I look at myself every day, but I have never seen them.” The crone paused. “You… you want to see the stars? You just look at them! Look at them and fill your eyes with light!~” Her voice sounded almost rapturous by the end of her sentence. I won’t be able to get anything out of her about the man or the stars it seems…

“Jacqueline, can you block the sound from leaving this space, I want to try something, and I can’t risk any of the villagers hearing.” Really, I don’t want Dominic overhearing, since I’m about to ask about him. Hopefully, if he was eavesdropping, that excuse will be enough to satisfy him.

Jacqueline nodded, and talent cast her wind magic spell, cutting us off from the outside world. “It is done.”

I nodded my thanks and then turned back to the crone again. I was about to ask about Dominic when I realized her behavior had completely changed. She was now gazing around herself in wonder. “Ooohhh! The light! The light is so beautiful!” The light? The only thing that changed was Jacqueline casting a wind spell to enclose us… wait, so the “light” is mana? Then “stars” means mana vessels? I have three mana vessels? No. That can’t be right, otherwise, everybody would have a “star”. These “stars” are seemingly unique to me and this “man” she’s so scared of.

Still, this did give me a couple of hints. This crone definitely had some ability that let her see mana, and it presumably involved “filling her eyes with light”. If I interpreted that in the loosest sense, it meant “filling your eyes with mana”. But I tried that earlier, and all it did was give me beyond twenty-twenty vision… There’s still something missing. Other than that, I now could form a hypothesis about why Dominic had scared her.

I don’t think he’s the “man” she keeps rambling about. She’s been scared of him since before she first saw Dominic. No, it has got to have something to do with Dominic’s mana. From my reading, I knew that mana was just “mana”. It didn’t have any real qualities, though it could take on certain attributes when being used to cast spells. Dominic wasn’t casting any spells, so his mana should have been fairly clear, like deionized water. But she can only see mana, and something about how she perceived him scared her. That means that something was giving his mana an attribute when she saw him… A skill? Maybe he was using a skill when she saw him?

It was the only thing I could think of, and she was too incoherent for me to verify. There isn’t anything in any of the books that I’ve read about skills needing mana to function, and I haven’t noticed my mana getting consumed when I use my skills… “Miss, could you look at me for a moment…?” Thankfully, there was a simple way I could test my hypothesis.

The crone turned her head away from the light, her expression looked a bit sad at not being able to see it anymore. Right, so which one to go with… It’s also possible I’ll have to do more than one if she can’t notice a change in my mana after the first… for safety, let’s go with Anger, Remorse, then Fear. Empathy has too harsh of a blowback when I turn it back on, and I do not want to risk turning off love, given how Cold Hearted works with the other four. Right, here goes nothing.

I mentally triggered my skill, and instantly, the vague sense of irritation I had towards the woman vanished. Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to notice any change, or if she did, she didn’t react. Nothing huh? Well, here goes another one. I turned off remorse. This time the woman’s eyes narrowed a creepy spectacle, given that they were a solid milky white in color. So that confirms it. Using skills does affect mana in a perceivable way, but then why didn’t any of the books I read, or my instructors, mention it? Is the ability to perceive mana really that rare?

I decided not to risk turning off fear since it would cause me to let my guard down towards Dominic. Even if he was currently outside Jacqueline’s barrier, I didn’t want to take any risks. Besides, I had already gotten confirmation of my hypothesis. “Miss, is something the matter?” I’ll just get her to say it, and call the experiment a success.

“You… your light. It feels… cold…” That’s probably the most well-constructed sentence this crone has said so far. I nodded and turned off my skill. The crone’s eyes immediately softened, and after a few moments it was as if she had completely forgotten me; she was back to staring at Jacqueline’s spell. That just begs the question, if straight-up disabling your emotions is only enough to make your mana “cold” then what the hell does Dominic’s skill do to make her recoil like that? It was a terrifying thought.

★★★★★★

After reconvening with Dominic, I explained to him that I had been unable to get anything of value from her, simply that she was convinced something in the town was out to get her. Thankfully, he seemed to accept my excuse and we returned to the home that Carl was loaning to us. Dominic and I parted, and I reconvened with Sarala and Sana.

We filled each other in on what we had done since separating at Carl’s house early this afternoon. Sana had, after taking a moment to recover, gone to the village square and spent the day praying with various village women. Something that the villagers were very grateful for since the village priest was among the men missing.

Sarala had spent the day with two of the knights as they walked the perimeter of the village wall. As she put it, her individual talents were better suited for battle rather than reconnaissance. Neither of them had anything to report regarding any strange presences or happenings during their days. I filled them in on most of what had happened with the crone, though I omitted my discovery regarding skills and mana. Jacqueline had already agreed to keep that quiet as well, though since very little had been said out loud, she didn’t have the full picture in the first place. After our little meeting, we went to sleep.

I awoke sometime later in the middle of the night. I sat up in bed and glanced around uneasily. There’s that feeling in the air again... coming from outside… I glanced around the room, confirming that everyone was still sleeping. Fortunately, the light from the moon filtering through the boards on the windows was just enough to make out vague details. For the most part, my companions were indeed resting peacefully. Stil was twitching restlessly but hadn’t woken up. Sana was sweating somewhat heavily but was likewise still asleep. I debated waking them all up and getting the knights, but for some reason, I got the feeling that that would be the wrong thing to do.

Whatever this thing is, it only targets men. Getting the knights probably wouldn’t help unless they can perceive it. For the same reason, none of my group would be of much use either, other than Stil. I hope I don’t regret this, this is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I quietly slipped out of bed and tiptoed out of the room.

Arriving at the door into the back garden, I took a deep breath and pushed it open as silently as I could before slipping out. Well one upside of my small figure is I don’t have to open doors so wide… Accompanied by my distressing thoughts, I moved away from the doorway and out into the moonlight. The disconcerting feeling was emanating from the middle of the building’s garden.

Right, now what? I had come this far, but I didn’t have a way of seeing whatever this thing was, nor did I really have a way of hurting it. Although for some reason I didn’t feel like it was hostile. Now, I guess I should try and communicate somehow? “…Hello…?” Oh, great start me.

After a moment, I felt a strange crawling sensation over my skin. As if I was being watched or studied. The source of the presence still seemed to be sitting stationary. “No response huh? No, I guess that crawling feeling was sort of a response… I wish I was able to see whatever it looks like, then I would be able to tell if it even understands human speech…”

Fill my eyes with light was is? I tried pushing mana into my eyes. Instantly the world around me sharpened, and I began picking up more detail. But this isn’t mana, it’s just more physical detail… I pushed more mana into my eyes, to the point where I began to get a headache. Now I was able to count the scales on the wings of a nearby moth, but I still couldn’t see the thing that was standing in the middle of the garden. Clearly, there is something else beyond just filling my eyes with mana. I tried to think. If mana was really something that could be perceived just like that then everyone would be able to do it with enough training. Kell and Gustav would have mentioned it to me during one of our private discussions about Blood Magic. I pondered the question, all the while keeping my gaze fixed on the spot where whatever it was, was standing.

Presumably, I have to shape the mana somehow, or impart an attribute to it… I tried forcing the mana packed into my eyes into a “lens” shape, using the mental image of an infrared camera. Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to have any effect. Suddenly, the presence shifted. In an instant, it was standing much closer to me, in fact, it was right in front of me!

I jumped backward, but something caught my back, holding me in place. I felt an incredibly sharp pain in both of my eyes, and the world went dark as I screamed.

@0xFFF1 Offered a suggestion about the art work and monetary support in general. I spent Sunday thinking about it, and decided to add a PayPal link. My current plan is to do at least one insert and one character art a month out of pocket.

If people want to donate, the money will go only towards additional art commissions beyond what I am personally paying for. When enough money for a commission has accumulated, I'll make a public announcement on the next chapter, and run a poll of what character or scene to have done as the bonus.

This decouples the money from myself, thereby sidestepping the issues I have mentioned I have towards setting up monetization. Of course if I start having the problems I mentioned anyways, I plan on simply removing the link.

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