I woke up stiff, and when my vision cleared I saw a pair of intense red eyes staring into the depths of my soul.
“Good morning, Leuce!”
“Ahh! Not so loud please…”
“Sorry, sorry. I’m just in a good mood.”
I wonder what all that was about. I’m going to be honest, last night was somewhat of a blur. I remember that I tried on too many clothes to count, and that I lay exhausted in Miss Mel’s bed afterwards. My head still feels a bit scrambled, maybe I should dip it in cold water and rid the grogginess of the morning from my brain.
“*yawn* Miss Mel, I’m off to use the washroom.”
“Yeah, no prob!”
Stripping down in the washroom, I wondered how Miss Mel knew it was morning. Did she wake up at the same time every day? Did she have a routine to follow? Did Big C knock on her door and wake her up? Living in the basement of a shop must certainly provide some unique mornings. How did Big C travel up and down with his condition? Who was the cook of the house? What were the shop hours? Would Big C run everything by himself while Miss Mel dealt with the irrigation plans?
I find that sometimes the most random questions pop up in my mind when I’m alone, and the nature of this place seems to act as a catalyst for that quirk. It certainly is interesting though, how just a couple of lives are so intricate that questions such as those can be asked.
Filling a humble wooden bucket with water I dip my finger into it to test the temperature. Lukewarm. I prefer to douse myself in cold water in the morning, so I wonder if some of my magic will work. I don’t know any particular ice spells, so I suppose I’ll just will some icy breath from my mouth or something.
Where would I direct my mana towards though? My lungs? My mouth? I don’t know if that’s safe or not. Maybe I can shoot it from my finger? If I have a supposed affinity for the water in this area, then magic involving it won’t be too damaging, right?
Or… maybe I can force the water itself to cool down. I don’t know if that would be dipping into my powers as a Maiden or my general magic and skills. Do Maiden powers act separately from magic and skills though? It might just be a case of hyper-specialization. If magic drains mana, and skills cause a physical toll on the body, then I suppose Maiden powers are a blend of both. When I manipulated the water on the auction stage, I felt the use of my mana and my arms felt physically weak afterwards.
This turning out to be quite an anomaly. If a devout Arch-Mage, one specializing in water magic, combines their abilities with a Water Temple Monk in such a way that they use their mana and skills to mimic a Maiden’s powers, would they feel as I did? Would both feel the same pain, or would the Arch-Mage feel the mana drainage while the Monk takes the physical toll? Does the Maiden’s effect come with a greater toll, or is it simply an occurrence of both mana drainage and physical exhaustion at the same time?
Combined abilities are not uncommon in the field of battle, but usually the users would feel something equal to what they contributed into the attack. Maidens tend to directly manipulate a body of water. Others would simply call upon it or summon it in their attacks. If I hypothetically use my Maiden powers in battle, would the combined combative price create a risk-reward situation? Is direct manipulation of the water able to be taught to those with an affinity for water magic? Is my status as a Maiden viable and valuable, or should I forget all about it once I leave Charronne?
I should stop, I’ll end up writing a thesis on this if I keep going further. I decided to simply go with having a small wind of cool air burst from my fingertip to cool the water. I attempted numerous times and failed. To change it up, I tried to breathe a cool air by channeling mana to my lungs, but all I ended up doing was knocking the bucket over with a powerful puff of air. Clearly, I wasn’t skilled enough in magic to get the results I wanted.
Lukewarm water it is, then.
I was about to change into a pair of clothes that I had purchased yesterday when Mel brought me some different ones.
“Hey Leuce, if today’s the day you head to the Meadow, I totally recommend this outfit!”
“…Miss Mel, knock next time please. Also… that looks quite… revealing.”
“Huh? Whaddya mean?”
“The short-sleeve shirt is fine, but those shorts look like they could reveal almost all of my thighs…”
“Well, yeah, isn’t it super cute? Plus, if you’re going to wade through the river, then I think this is a great way to avoid wetting your clothes.”
“That makes sense, but what of battle? Miss Mel, that leaves a lot of my bare skin exposed.”
“Leuce, you’re a night crawler, right? Don’t those folks sneak around in the shadows and strike from behind? If you wear longer pants, then they’ll just get caught on unnecessary stuff and slow you down. All you need to do is to not get hit! Simple, right?”
“Hah, if only it was…”
“Ah, whatever, you’ll wear it right? Adventurers wear light clothing all the time around here!”
“And I am not an adventurer.”
“If you wear it, I’ll get you some dragon steak using my position in the irrigation company. I’ll have it delivered here freshly cooked for you the day you return.”
“Wait, how did you kn-“
“Sleep mumbles are quite revealing, hah!”
“…Can you really do that?”
“…Give me the clothes.”
Damn you dragon steak.
After a hearty breakfast with some weirdly colored eggs that somehow tasted like cinnamon, I said my farewells to Mel and Big C.
“Leuce, you’ll come back here, right? And not just for the dragon steak, right?”
“Yes, yes. I’ll be back.”
“’Ey girl, c’mere real quick.”
I leaned in closer to Big C.
“I gotta thank ya. The brat looks to be in a real good mood. It’s been a while since she was like that, stressin’ over all this Maiden business. Don’t tell me what ya did, but I thank ya anyways. When you come back, consider the map free.”
I didn’t realize I had that much of an impact. Surely, they were overreacting, right? I was more a burden than anything else.
“Now get you and yer fine legs outta here, hah!”
“Leuce, ignore the geezer, just be careful alright?”
Mel embraced me in a tight hug.
“Hugs always help, right?”
Ah. So, I did do that. I wasn’t so sure with the blur of yesterday’s events. I was so tired that I don’t think I processed everything correctly. Damn it, Ren, what are you doing to go and hug people like that? What happened to staying out of sight and mind? Despite these thoughts, I hugged her back.
“Yes, they do.”
I left promptly after eating breakfast, and it was still a bit dark outside, so I figured I had some time to kill before I met up with Miach. I believe we agreed to meet up in the morning, and then depart for the meadow in the late afternoon. It was a weird timeline to follow for sure, but I guess he had his reasons for it. Perhaps the gap of free time is when he would have planned to tell me about the Meadow.
Walking outside with this attire… is entirely not my style, so I made sure to put on a cloak that Mel gave me to cover myself up a bit. The hood was on and the legs were covered. No need to reveal my hair or burn marks to anyone. Speaking of my hair, I nearly forgot about my hair that I had stuffed in my pockets after I had cut it. I still don’t know if it’s safe to sell it around these parts, so I just stored it in my bag. Maybe it will fetch a pretty penny in Hasavanef.
I had my ring equipped, but not activated, and my mask handy for when I met with Miach. There was no way I was going to travel with those dainty Ferry Maiden clothes, so I left them at Mel’s place, along with my extra clothes. I had my shortsword and daggers available as well.
Was my appearance a breach of the Ferry Maiden code? Probably. Did I care? No. My breach of code wasn’t going to matter if I was a beast’s snack.
I should avoid wandering aimlessly, and instead focus on some sort of itinerary. …So, what do I do? Perhaps I should scour the town for some informational facilities. Maybe there was a library that had books detailing the Meadow, or documents explaining the history of how Ferry Maidens came to be. If I’ve learned anything, there is always something to gain from exploring towns. Not just that, but it’s quite nice to take in the structural and cultural presentation that each new town presents. If you don’t explore a town are you really even visiting it?
I made sure to explore everywhere I could. Something I came to notice was the “levels” of the town. I mostly wandered around what I considered to be the wealthier part of the town. There were stone roads and multiple houses lining the streets. I could spot a shop every few minutes. It ended at the Ackeronne itself. It was blocked off by a low and long running wooden fence, but there were empty spaces where people could lift up water from the Ackeronne. It was clear that the fence and the raised residential area were, if somewhat flawed, precautions to help people avoid contact the river.
On the other side of the stream was a lower area with no notable development. No roads or houses. I noticed some shams and tents, as well as campfires. Many were residing right beside the stream. Ah. That must be…
I turned to see a girl with chestnut hair and pink eyes grinning at me. She wore what seemed to be a primarily yellow-colored milkmaid uniform. She had a calm and collected aura about her, like she knew exactly what she was doing at all times. Oh, she was…
“You’ve only just noticed me? My, your less perceptive then I thought, Leuce.”
“I’m sorry, I was, uh, lost in thought.”
“Rather, you couldn’t notice me, right?”
“In a way it’s like that place down there. The slums. Despite being a breeding ground for us Maidens it’s overlooked by the people up here because no one wants to deal with it.”
“Um, Miss Kalypso, you’ve lost me a bit.”
“Leuce, have you noticed anything off about yourself since you’ve been exposed to the river? Ms. Boss says you’ve been exposed since a little girl, so surely you must notice by now.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Seriously? You must be one of the lucky ones if you’ve escaped it for this long.”
What was she implying?
“Leuce, take a moment to gaze at the Ackeronne. Feel its energy and feel its flow. What do you want to get from it? What does it give to you? Most important, what does it burden you with? Allow yourself to get swept along the river’s unyielding currents and bathe in its cursed waters.”
I complied with her instructions. I proceeded to stare deeply into the Ackeronne. I studied the movement of the water and the splashing of it on its banks. I began to fall into a trance. The sounds quieted around me, until all I could hear was the Ackeronne and the sound of me breathing.
I blinked… and saw the river filled with bodies. Bodies of the demons I’ve slayed. Bodies of the people I’ve met. All mangled and destroyed, marked with the lick of death. I couldn’t stop looking. There was more. A friend from elementary school. My parents. My sister.
Still I looked. I could feel my breathing getting heavier. One particular body floated by. Fujimoto, with shattered armor, smiled right at me as his floating body rotted away.
There was more.
I saw my old self. My true body interlocked with my current one on a bed of plants. Bodies pale, devoid of life. They were in eternal sleep, and unlike the horrors that came before it, there was no blood or deformations. It was if they were prepared for a funeral. I studied the plants. There were two. One stuck out immediately. Lotuses. Of course. The other I did not recognize. The leaves were both green and white. A stark duality, one or the other, yet they existed as a complete being. What was it? And… where these… tears?
A firm grip on my shoulder brought me back to reality.
“Welcome back. I figured I should end your suffering. Here. Wipe your eyes. Take a breather.”
“…Th-Thank you. What was that?”
“What each Maiden views is different, so I can’t tell you, but I can tell you this: Our powers bring a curse with them. A toll. Think of it as an exchange we didn’t agree to. It magnifies the closer to the river we get. If a Maiden’s curse is to sneeze more often, she’ll never stop sneezing at the bank of the Ackeronne. Get it?”
“That doesn’t sound too good… If you don’t mind, what’s your curse?”
“Personally, I’ve noticed that my presence seems to go unnoticed.”
Kalypso looked towards the slums.
“And when you live there all your life, it can kill you. A child that cannot be seen is a child that is good as dead. I had to combat my fault by using its benefits. I stole. I lured people away with my song and made sure it was the last thing they heard. The people there live that life because they’ve allowed themselves to be forgotten. I didn’t want that, so I changed it.”
“Leuce, I’m saying that I will continue to make myself known. Ruthless or not, I will not fade away into obscurity, but it seems that I need some help from you. If the healer boy’s giddiness is a sign, you’re heading to the Meadow, correct?”
“Would you mind fetching something?”
“…What exactly is it?”
“People say that a plant called white poplar grows there. Rumors are that it’s from another world, and that one of the Ancient Heroes of this country brought it with them. You can identify it from its multicolored leaves. The upper side is green and the underside white. You can’t miss it. I need enough to make a flower crown out of it.”
That leaf sounded awfully similar to the one I just saw in the river. The way Kalypso was talking was also a bit… concerning. As if she fully expected me to go on with this task of hers.
“You’re talking like I’ve already said yes.”
“Well, from the looks of it, are you really going to say no?”
“At this moment, you’re thinking; “If I’m already there, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to go get some” Right? The fact that you inquired about the favor more is a major clue that you have shown interest in helping out a fellow Ferry Maiden. We’ve got to help each other out, right? I mean, I just helped you figure out your curse, whatever it might be. Plus, I’ve kept quiet about your hair. I promise you, it isn’t that hard.”
“I don’t appreciate this analysis of me, but fine, whatever, I’ll do it.”
“Thank you kindly. Good luck.”
“Yeah… I’m just going to go and clear my head a bit.”
I turned to say goodbye to her, but she was already gone.
I needed to… empty my mind. I tried to remove all my thoughts, but the scene I witnessed at the river was still ingrained into my vision. What the hell was that? What did it mean? Why did I see what I saw? Am I going to see that every time I approach the river?
What bugged me more than the vision was the fact that the Ackeronne handed out curses left and right. I had no idea Ferry Maidens had to deal with that. Was Mel’s nightmares part of the Ackeronne’s curse? What caused the Ackeronne to do that? Should I even care?
Again, my thoughts wandered to the floating bodies. I’ve seen gruesome scenes, but with people I know…
Gah! I need to get it out of my head. Thinking about all this made me nauseous. I need to distract myself. Maybe I should count numbers, or sing backwards, or turn upside down and reset my thoughts with a glass of milk.
Or maybe I should just walk away. I think I’ll go wait for Miach. I think I’ve had my time with sightseeing for now.
I was stewing in my thoughts sometime later when I heard the voice of a certain annoyance.
“Dearest Leuce, hello! Isn’t it wonderful? Tomorrow has arrived!”
Here we go.
“Did you have a wonderful night? Were your dreams plagued by my esteemed figure in anticipation of spending the day with me?”
“No, not even close.”
“Oh, Leuce, I’m wounded as your friend and comrade that you would cast me away as such!”
“…You can stop now.”
“Geez, you're no fun.”
“…Can we move on, please?”
“Fine, fine. Though there are some things I need to mention about today.”
“Surely, you have precautions to combat both the rumored beast and paralyzing air, right?”
“Wha—How did you know about that? I was going to make it all dramatic and you just stole my mojo away. Dang.”
“Sir Miach, if you think I’m not smart enough to do my own research after the obvious vagueness of your description, then you’ve misjudged the man I am.”
I said that in an attempt to sound cool, but I only knew about this because of Mel. I’d like to believe I would have researched anyway if I hadn’t encountered her last night.
“…Are you trying to sound cool with a quote or something? “Misjudged the man I am”? What are you talking about?”
“…A-Anyway, Sir Miach, you have precautions, right?”
“Of course, dearest Leuce! I’m the best healer in town, how would I not have precautions? Allow me to give you some background. The name of the place we’ll be heading is called Asphodel Meadow. Supposedly the Ancient Hero called Abele broke off from her comrades and settled into that meadow to take up a life of magical gardening. The plants and herbs that are found there supposedly originate from her world, and so that is the only place in which one can find them. Though with the entire place being coated in magic, I’m sure the life there has gone all sorts of weird…
“Wait, hold on. This is the second time I’ve heard the term “Ancient Hero” today. What were they? What did they do?”
“Oh, I don’t know, I never really payed attention during history lectures, they bore me.”
“Just move along with what you were saying.”
“So, here comes the best part! I present to you Miach-Branded Anti-Anything Potion! The air won’t stop us with this!”
“You need to work on how you name things. And also, how did you test it out?”
“I consumed dangerous paralyzing herbs and had my sister help me drink my prototypes until it worked. It was not fun.”
“…That is an enormously stupid idea, but I’ll give you credit for your resilience and determination.”
“Was that a compliment? Have my wonderful charms finally woven their way into your heart, fair Maiden?”
“Uh, no? Just a sign of respect, maybe?”
“I’m taking it as a compliment. I might never get one from you again.”
“Why are we at a bakery?”
“Don’t you like sweets? I can’t get enough of the pastries from here.”
“Actually, I prefer more subdued tastes for desserts. If I’m going to get something from a bakery it’s going to be bread, not pastries.”
“Leuce, with how sour you always are people are going to think that all you eat are lemons. Though, I actually managed to get a piece of information out of you, so I can’t complain.”
“……How does this have to do anything with the objective?”
“Well, again, I had planned to make the reveal of Asphodel Meadow grand and stretch it for a good while. But you killed that dream, so I needed something to fill in the timeslot.”
“I’m not going to apologize for that.”
“I didn’t expect you to.”
Miach and I had been walking for a little while, outside of town. He attempted to make small talk, like last night at dinner.
“So, fairest Leuce, I certainly don’t mind it or anything, but what’s with the new outfit? I would have expected the uniform from the auction yesterday.”
“If we have to run from whatever creature resides in the Meadow then I’m not going to risk tripping all over a stiff outfit like that one. I’m glad I ended up wearing this, since you hyped up a plan to deal with the beast, only for it to be running if it sees us.”
“Hey, look, I said I was the beast healer in town, not the best hero in town, alright? Even I know my own limits. And you can take off the mask and hood, no one else is going to head this way.”
“I think I’ll do the opposite of what you asked and keep them on.”
“But dearest Leuce, the nature of the Meadow will never get to see you in all of your odd-eyed beauty! The shiny silver hair and the gleam of the two bejeweled irises you possess will be forever lost!”
“…Just know that your attempts of flattery are falling upon deaf ears.”
“…I’ll just hope that they’re clogged up with wax to boost my confidence, if that’s all right with you.”
“Again, suit yourself.”
I was keeping it to myself, but I was extremely anxious about seeing the waters of the Ackeronne once more. After that scare earlier today, what would I see now? I could hear it rushing by as we crept closer to it.
“Hey, we’re finally here! Dearest Leuce, this is your time to shine! I don’t really know how we’re going to do this though. Maybe you can split the river apart?”
“N-No… that won’t work. It’ll splash all over you because the current would keep running.”
“How about raising the water above us while we pass under it.”
“I-I don’t know about that… My control is only that of a beginner… Some droplets might hit your head, and that would be bad. There has to be a way…”
“Oooh! I know! You should carry me, like a prince would for their princess!”
“Seriously? A princess carry?”
“You simply need to walk through the water, and it’ll be great for imagining how it will feel when I eventually become the prince for a fair damsel in distress! With your stature, I doubt you could piggyback me, so this seems like the only good option.”
“This is just an excuse for you to get princess carried, isn’t it.”
“Believe what you want, but I think this is the only viable plan, unless you have any brighter ideas?”
And so, in this body, for the second time, I scooped up a damsel, or rather, a damoiseau in distress and pushed forward. First Flavio, and now Miach. I sincerely hoped that after these events I would avoid princess carrying another person. Especially since Miach was grinning from ear to ear.
“Oh, princess! You’ve scoured the foul lands to recue little old me! I’m honored! Pray tell, might I reward your brave actions with a kiss?”
I answered Miach in a deadpan tone.
“Oh, noble prince, I accept no reward but complete silence. So please shush your virtuous mouth before I throw you into the waters in front of us.”
“H-Ha, Leuce, you wouldn’t actually do that, r-right? My noble flare isn’t overpowering your sense of judgment, right?”
“Don’t get your hopes up. It isn’t. Are you all covered up? Can I cross now?”
“Yeah, sure. Just, d-don’t drop me, alright?”
“Calm down. I only might let my grip slip a bit.”
Ha. I didn’t expect it to be so entertaining for him to get flustered. I looked towards the river. So far, the water seemed normal. Would that change when I stepped in? I could only hope while I took the first step.
“Here we go…”