Two figures cut their way through a dense thicket, heading deeper into the forest. Clad in survival gear, they crushed twigs underfoot as they progressed quickly. One of them – a gruff, unshaven man with well-defined muscles and a permanent look of nonchalance on his face – growled in discontent at his companion.
“Oi, Faircleave. Are you sure it’s this way? We’ve been going for three days now.”
His companion, who was in the lead, abruptly turned around and glared at him, her feline, yellow eyes narrowing. Her cat ears twitched atop her black-haired head, clearly displaying her annoyance. When she spoke, it was a hiss-like exclamation.
“For the tenth time, Hyssop, yes. The mana surge came from this direction. Now shut up and follow.”
Kaine Hyssop sighed and followed Serena Faircleave as she continued to follow her nose to wherever that burst of magic had come from. The woman had little other magic, but her ability to track magic was beyond compare – though he had found it rather odd that it manifested in her sense of smell. Cute, no doubt, but odd. As he followed her, he thought back to the office waiting for him back in Saphiz and sighed.
“To think I gave up my cushy desk job for this…”
“Oh, shut up, Hyssop. You know we didn’t have a choice.”
“Well, yes, hard to say no to top brass, but this current expedition was entirely unnecessary.”
“And whose idea was it to try and find out the source of the mana surge?”
“Exactly. So shut up and do what I say.”
Serena was no less annoyed about their current position than Kaine was. The leaders of the Guild had asked them to take part in the campaign, and as the guildmasters of their respective branches, they could hardly refuse. Still, neither they nor the guild members who had followed them had wanted this fight – well, mostly. There were a small minority who had completely given into the whole Vessel-as-messenger-of-gods nonsense. Serena herself put no stock in religion, or in the gods in general. If they did exist, they were probably assholes anyway. That was why they had bolted at the first opportunity. They had taken advantage of the confusion in battle to leave the battlefield, taking with them the entirety of the guild corps.
“…You think the others are fine?”
“You worry too much, Hyssop. Those adventurers are all gold rank and up. They’ll find a way to survive.”
The company that had deserted had shortly split up to avoid detection, moving to various cities. Most of the others had sought refuge in other cities, passing themselves off as survivors from earlier attacks. Kaine and Serena had done the same, waiting out the war. Now that the war had been lost, the deportation was starting, and it would have been perfectly fine to return to the shore – except it felt rather vexing to return empty-handed. Serena and Kaine were, after all, immensely annoyed by the conscription call, and they refused to return without something to have made the trip worth their while.
That was why, when they had overheard a tale in a tavern about mysterious floating lights in the midst of the forest, they had immediately decided to take a look. One thing they had learned from numerous sojourns into varying dungeons was that where there was mystery, there was magic – and where there was magic, there were gains to be made. They had quickly spoken to the tale-bearer and pressed for information – the man, a hunter by trade, had apparently been hunting within the nearby forest when he got lost. In the midst of his wanderings, he had seen in the depths of the forest what seemed like a sea of floating lights – but before he could check it out, he found the mark he had made on his way in and quickly found his way back out. When he tried to look for it again later on, he had been unable to find it.
Understanding this to be the work of magic, Kaine and Serena had decided to search out this sight for themselves. With Serena’s nose for mana, as well as Kaine’s combat ability, they were better-equipped for the task than most. And so they had set out for the forest the next day. This had occurred three days prior. Now, on the third day, they had yet to see any trace of the lights, though Serena could smell an immense concentration of mana from somewhere, and had been leading them continuously in that direction. Still, with no tangible mark of their progress, the journey was beginning to take its toll on their patience.
Desperate to alleviate the tedium of the trek, Kaine struck up a new thread of conversation with Serena, concerning a topic they had thus far avoided discussing.
“Still, Demon Queen Lily, was it? I can hardly believe that girl ended up becoming someone like that.”
“Yes, well, if you hear the stories, it seems she single-handedly defeated Vessel.”
“And do you believe those stories?”
“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t. Vessel is strong. Even if I don’t accept the existence of gods, that woman’s power was undeniable. If it had been anyone else, I would have doubted the story. But if was those girls…”
Serena thought back to the pair of girls who had helped her take vengeance on the man who had wronged her. There was something about Lily. A drive, a kind of insanity in her, that made it seem like she was capable of absolutely anything. Thinking back, she remembered feeling slightly frightened of it – for good reason, as it seemed. Any who could fight off Vessel was surely a monster.
“Think she’ll remember us if we call in a few favours?”
“Please. We’re invaders here. She owes us nothing. In fact, I owe her. As I recall, so do you. Didn’t she take care of a dragon problem for you?”
“…Yeah. She punched a dragon. I still can’t get that out of my head. Who in their right mind punches a dragon?”
“I’m not sure you could exactly call Lily Voirgaire – or rather, Demon Queen Lily now – someone who was in her right mind.”
Their casual banter continued for some distance, but it abruptly cut off as they stumbled upon a clearing – an open clearing, deep in the forest. The smoldering remains of a house stood before them, its shape still intact. The grass around the area was charred and burnt, and stood entirely at odds with the serene appearance of the large lake that occupied most of the clearing. Serena’s ears perked up and she sniffed the air.
“…This is the place. There’s an enormous amount of mana around here.”
“…Well. This is certainly not something I’d expected to find in the middle of the woods.”
Moving cautiously, the two guildmasters approached the ruins of the house. Although it had been destroyed – rather recently, in fact – it was clear that the house had been a grand, large one. The char marks were not enough to mar the beauty of the marble that coated the inside of the house, and the rough frame of it – made of some kind of metal – stood proudly against the darkening night sky. Kaine turned his head around, taking in the sights. However, the tale he had heard had mentioned floating lights – there were no floating lights in this place, just the remains of a mansion.
“This is pretty… but where are the lights? Is this the right place?”
“Yes, this is definitely the place with the highest concentration of mana in the air. Even if it’s the wrong place, that just means that whatever it was had less magic in it than this place. But still…”
Serena growled and kicked a rock, sending it flying.
“This is a bust. Look at the place. The frame is still here, but there’s no way anything valuable survived whatever caused this. It looks like the whole place was completely obliterated.”
Serena paused as what she said triggered a memory from seven years past. Just like how we got rid of that house. A single attack. Could it be…?
She looked around again, this time with eyes that were colored by her new deductions. She wondered what could possibly have happened here, what had drawn the ire of that little girl. However, before she could voice out her realisation to Kaine, a cry seized the attention of both guildmasters. Not a cry for help, but… a child’s cry. A high-pitched, soft wail. Serena glanced at Kaine, raising an eyebrow. Kaine shrugged. The cry was coming from somewhere in the rubble of the house. The two guildmasters quietly and cautiously approached the source of the noise, tentatively picking away the rubble in their way.
There, in the middle of the ruined house, was an infant – a girl. Her skin was pale, her eyes a mismatched green and red. She moved her tiny limbs weakly, her wide eyes gazing at the two people who had suddenly appeared before her. Abruptly stopping her crying, she reached out her tiny hands, and Kaine and Serena, moved by some strange impulse, took one hand in each of their own palms. The child laughed as they did, releasing a burst of mana in the process that threatened to overwhelm Serena’s senses. Serena stared at the child in wonder – the amount of mana the girl had casually discharged was several times the total capacity that an adult human could hold. Furthermore, with that discharge, Serena had caught a pair of scents that she had only smelled once before, seven years ago – a pair of scents that she would likely never forget. But… a combination of these scents should have been impossible. Especially if it came from a child.
Serena glanced at Kaine, who had started to form his own suspicions.
“Serena. Does she smell familiar?”
“Then, you think…?”
Serena nodded again, matching Kaine’s look of disbelief.
“I don’t know how it happened, but… I think this girl is Lily Voirgaire’s daughter.”
That was all she was able to say before a large, black shadow swooped overhead, marking the descent of a dragon upon the clearing.