Chapter 221 – False appearances
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“It’s been a while since I last saw this scene,” Rosa said, standing beside Scarlett, both of them overlooking the expansive glade before them. A winding river traced the outer edge of the glade, disappearing into the forest to the north, while timber-roofed homes were nestled within a low stone wall on the far end.

Bathed in the ever-present light of the summer sun, the glade was awash with warmth. Near the village, a flock of sheep munched on the grass inside their enclosure, with tiny figures moving about the animals.

Freymeadow was the same as always.

Rosa, stretching her arms beside Scarlett, had a subtle grin playing on her face. “You know, I’ve been thinking about it, and I think a short, dreamlike stint to a place just like this might be exactly what I need after everything that’s happened.”

Scarlett glanced at the woman, then redirected her gaze towards Freymeadow. “Our stay will hardly be a leisurely escape. Do not forget that you must still familiarise yourself with your new abilities, and that we only have two days before the current loop ends.”

The brightness in Rosa’s expression faded slightly. “Yeah, I know…”

The two of them set out, following the beaten dirt path that led to Freymeadow. As they reached the village, they found its residents immersed in their daily lives, working outside their homes and moving about between the buildings. While Scarlett and Rosa’s arrival did attract some notice, no one seemed surprised.

As they began navigating their way through the village, Scarlett noted a change in Rosa’s demeanor. The bard’s usual vivacity was replaced by a more pensive attitude, her gaze lingering on the villagers they passed. Perhaps her thoughts lingered on Crowcairn, and its parallels to Freymeadow. Despite Rosa’s claims to the contrary, her concern for others was evident.

Reaching the village square, they found the village children playing on the woode platform at the centre. They all looked excited upon spotting Rosa, and the smile finally returned to the woman’s face as she greeted them with a wave, though she didn’t immediately head over to say hello. Instead, she followed Scarlett to the opposite end of the square, where Arlene sat on a house porch, her striking raven hair highlighted by a streak of grey.

“Oh? Back so soon?” the woman remarked, looking up from the book on her lap.

Scarlett nodded. “Indeed, we are.”

“I expected you to be gone for longer this time,” Arlene said. “Or did I misunderstand in that your sights were set on Bridgespell? Don’t tell me you gave up already. That would be rather disappointing given your earlier enthusiasm.”

“Not quite. I have already visited Bridgespell, in fact.”

Arlene raised a brow, her pale green eyes scrutinizing Scarlett. “In just a day?”

“I am very efficient in my endeavours.”

Even though weeks had passed for Scarlett, to Arlene, it would have seemed as if they’d been here only yesterday.

The woman considered her for a moment longer, her eyes narrowed slightly. “…Judging by your confidence, I assume your efforts were fruitful?”

“Yes, they were,” Scarlett confirmed. The quest she’d managed to corral out of Arlene before heading to Bridgespell had been the reason behind her visiting the Sunfire Shrine with Raimond. It hadn’t been her primary reason for going to the city, but it had been important nonetheless.

“Impressive.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll confess that I’m also somewhat surprised.” Arlene closed her book, giving Scarlett her undivided attention. “Donovan was not one to make things easy for others. I can imagine the barriers you had to overcome. He was always reluctant to let things go.”

“That’s an understatement if any,” Rosa chimed in, moving closer to the porch and leaning on the wooden railing. “I’m not one to grumble if the boss lady doesn’t, but a heads-up about your friend being a deacon might have been helpful. He had some scary guardians protecting the place where we found that heirloom of yours.”

Arlene’s gaze briefly shifted to the bard, sizing her up for a moment. “…Was he a deacon? Hmm…well, that might have slipped my mind. Nevertheless, I’m glad to see that fact apparently didn’t do much to significantly hinder your efforts. Though, perhaps I’m better off not knowing the specifics of how you managed to retrieve it so quickly.”

“That might be for the best,” Scarlett said.

A small smile appeared on Arlene’s face. “Indeed. Now, why don’t you show me what you’ve brought back?”

Scarlett reached for the [Pouch of Holding] at her waist, pulling out three items.

[Old Ring (Common)]
{A timeworn silver ring once belonging to a noble youth. Unremarkable in every other way}

[Old Journal (Common)]
{An old journal once belonging to a young noble lady, but long since abandoned by its owner}

[Old dagger (Common)]
{An old dagger once belonging to a young noble lady, a gift from her master. It appears utterly mundane}

These were the three items she had taken from the Sunfire Shrine with Raimond’s consent.

Arlene’s expression showed a hint of surprise. “Those are…”

“Your fellow disciples’ belongings, as I understand it.” Scarlett held the [Old Journal] in one hand with the [Old Ring] atop it, with the [Old Dagger] in the other, carefully wrapped in a cloth.

The elderly Deacon Emberwood had safeguarded heirlooms of his three disciples in the shrine’s underground chamber, each accompanied by passages expressing his regrets. Arlene only needed one of them, but Scarlett felt it appropriate to present them all.

“Disciples, huh…” Arlene’s eyes lingered on the heirlooms. “It seems like old Donovan did something unnecessary once again.” She redirected her attention to Scarlett. “And it appears you have stumbled upon some aspects of my past.”

“The way the venerable deacon organized the chambers where we left the heirlooms left little ambiguity in certain respects,” Scarlett said. “It was not my intent to pry.”

“Is that so?” Arlene motioned towards the journal in Scarlett’s grip. “So I can assume you resisted the temptation to peek inside that, then?”

“…I may have performed some slight prying.”

A small laugh left the woman. “It’s Liana’s handiwork, I presume? If so, I wouldn’t expect her to paint me in a flattering light.”

“Liana? Was that your older sister’s name?” Scarlett asked.

“You weren’t aware?”

“The journal did not reveal her name. I only learned that you were siblings, and that Deacon Emberwood was your master.”

Scarlett had finished reading through the journal before returning from Bridgespell, but since it primarily detailed magical theories and instructions, personal details were scarce.

“She was always an uncompromising one,” Arlene said, as though it didn’t matter much in the end. “So, did Donovan leave any message for me? Knowing my master, he had a penchant for conveying his thoughts in the most roundabout ways.”

Scarlett knitted her brows. “There was an inscription expressing sympathy for your circumstances and apologizing for what happened to you, but I cannot recall the precise words.”

Arlene’s demeanor softened slightly. “…I knew he would regret it eventually. He’s fortunate he never allowed that sentimentality of his to cloud his judgement until after he made the hard choices.”

“If I may ask,” Scarlett began cautiously. “Exactly what caused the conflict between the two of you?”

In the game, she had never been particularly interested in the unexplored background behind this questline, but now, it was different. After all, Arlene was her teacher.

The woman responded with a rueful smile. “It’s a long and complicated story, and not one I care to delve into now. Let’s just say that my actions didn’t align with his responsibilities as a priest.”

Scarlett studied Arlene for a few seconds before nodding. “I see.”

She had a general idea of what had probably happened.

“So, was that all?” Arlene asked, her expression shifting back to a more neutral one.

“What do you mean?”

“Did the old man leave no other messages?”

“No, he did not,” Scarlett replied, before pausing. “…Not directly, at least. However, there was something else. Deacon Emberwood left an infused Auranthial—if that is the correct term—to guard these heirlooms. It appeared to…recognize me. Whether that was genuinely the case, I cannot be certain, but it did express its approval and asked that I ensure these items were returned to their rightful place.” Holding up the [Old Dagger], she continued, “Moreover, it offered its last farewells and thanked me for bringing closure to its story.”

Arlene seemed amused by that. “He had better approve, or I would have some words to exchange with him in the afterlife. The farewells were unnecessary, of course, but he already knew that.” She gestured invitingly. “Now, pass those to me, if you don’t mind.”

Stepping onto the porch, Scarlett approached and first handed over the [Old Journal] and [Old Ring] to Arlene. The woman paused to inspect them closely, her face betraying little emotion, before setting them behind her on a stool. The same stool also held the [Locked Jewellery Casket] that Arlene had been keeping since the first time Scarlett visited this place. The woman then took the [Old Dagger], and a system message appeared.

[Side-Quest completed: The old teacher’s last wish and approval]
{Skill points awarded: 5}

Scarlett glanced at the quest-completion notification, slightly surprised that this had counted as a side-quest, but quickly put those thoughts aside and refocused on Arlene, taking a step back.

The woman, with the dagger in hand, carefully unwrapped the cloth around it, examining the item. She seemed neither surprised nor worried about the rusted blade and degraded hilt.

To all appearances, it seemed like a completely ordinary—if old and ineffective—dagger. Even Raimond had seemingly judged it as such, and that man could be scarily perceptive.

Arlene looked up at Scarlett, a smile forming as she noticed her slight retreat. “You don’t have any questions about what it is that I asked you to risk your life for?” Seeing Scarlett’s silence, she continued, “Very well. I am afraid you will have to step back just a bit more than that, though.”

Without arguing, Scarlett moved further away, joining Rosa just off the porch.

Arlene then seemed to concentrate intently on the dagger, and the air around them seemed to warm as she began to speak in a clear, measured voice.

“By flame’s embrace, concealed and veiled,
A dagger mundane, in fire’s breath hailed.
In whispered words, the goddess’ plea,
Awaken now, reveal to me.”

Fiery runes swirled into existence around the woman, changing shape continuously.

Rosa leaned closer to Scarlett, whispering, “Uh, what is she doing?”

“Magic,” was all Scarlett said, not looking away from Arlene.

“…Wow. And you call me a handful.”

“Ignite the truth, dormant in disguise,
Unveil the power that within lies.
Goddess of fire, who lies in languor,
Let the blaze of revelation fall.”

Arlene’s chant continued.

“From embered depths, the secret springs,
In sacred chant, the power sings.
Once concealed, now blaze with might,
Reveal your purpose in fiery light.”

With each word, the runes grew brighter and the air hotter, as if the syllables themselves fed the flames.

Suddenly, the dagger began to transform. The rust melted away like shadows, and with it, the steel blade beneath was forged anew, igniting with an internal flame as veins of red-hot energy threaded through it, rendering the metal akin to molten lava frozen in time. The hilt, previously decayed, was reborn under the pure soul of fire. Flames danced along its edges as sanguine scales like those of a dragon appeared, and intricate runes etched themselves along its length.

[Eternal Flameweaver’s Athame (Divine)]
{Forged in the crucible of ancient fires and blessed by the forgotten mother of fire, this fabled blade once channeled the essence of flames, granting its bearer an intimate connection to the elemental force of destruction. Hidden for generations, it waits to burn once more}

[Quest completed: A teacher’s heirloom]
{Skill points awarded: 7}

Arlene, now holding the transformed dagger, looked at it with a mix of appreciation and nostalgia. “I never thought I would have the opportunity to see this again in my life,” she mused, a trace of wistfulness in her voice. Her gaze turned to aim at Scarlett. “Well then, pupil of mine. Let’s see what you have learned while you were gone. I am feeling particularly generous today.”

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