Chapter 7 – Bandit Life
“Hang on, brother! Don't you die on me!!”
Erwin had just arrived back in the village with his shouts disrupting the serene atmosphere on the streets. His entire body was drenched in sweat as he beelined towards a single direction. The man on his shoulders struggled to stay conscious despite Erwin's best attempts to keep him awake. From the outside, there was nothing wrong with him. Nothing that would explain the frenzied expression on Erwin's face who was about to collapse himself.
It didn't take him long to reach his destination. Even if you didn't know where he lived, the line outside would indicate it. As it had always been the case recently, dozens of people lined up in front of the building. None of them appeared especially ill or injured, yet they patiently waited for the 'doctor' to receive them. Much to Erwin's relief, this indicated that he was at home.
“Aien!! Help us, Aien!!!” The man shouted with the last of his strength before collapsing to the ground. Those that had waited recognized the severity of the situation, and while one went to inform Aien, the others helped the two men into the building.
Erwin slowly opened his eyes again after he had swallowed some weird-smelling liquid. Despite its disgusting taste, Erwin enjoyed the revitalizing feeling that had filled his entire body within mere moments. Still exhausted, his eyes scanned the small hall he was brought in. As usual, it was filled with numerous barrels and nothing else. No decorations, pieces of furniture or plants. He knew that Aien didn't have his own garden and was prone to scavenge the woods for herbs. In his opinion, the man was somewhat of an eccentric. Except for plants or anything related to them, the man didn't care about much else.
Erwin and his friend lay next to each other on the ground. He could see that Aien was busy studying his friend, that had already fallen unconscious, and was no longer responding to any calls. At first, dread filled him again at his friend's pained complexion but seeing Aien brought him hope. Compared to the Boss, he had a slightly tender figure. Despite that, he gave you the impression that you could rely on him for anything. His short hair revealed more of his not-so-handsome face, but it also showed the undisturbed calmness within his eyes. 'In the eye of the storm' brought an entirely different meaning when being looked at by this man.
“Aien!” Erwin exclaimed exasperated. All of this was his fault, only if he hadn't... But it was too late for regrets.
“Eric... Eric he-”
“Got bitten,” Aien stated calmly. “Hmm... A Red-Eyed Spider...”
Although Erwin was astonished as ever about the man's knowledge that knew no bounds, he couldn't care less about it at the moment. When Eric had suddenly frothed at the mouth, it was evident that something had gone terribly wrong.
“Can you help him?” Erwin asked even more nervously. He wasn't one to believe in the Gods, but at this moment, he couldn't help but pray.
“Not much of a problem, Erwin. It was only a hatchling. The symptoms look much worse than they actually are.”
With relief, Erwin sank onto a barrel as the strength he'd regained left his body again. If Aien wouldn't have been able to help him, then no one here could. Meanwhile, Aien had left the room, and within less than a minute, he reappeared, holding a small wooden box in his hand.
“Take this salve. Search for the place Eric has been bitten. For the next three days, it has to be applied at all times and changed regularly after eight hours. Be careful when you dispose of it, don't let anything get onto your skin. Within a week he'll be back on his feet as if nothing happened.”
“Thank the Gods! Once again, you saved our asses.”
“Don't mention it. What happened anyway?”
“I don't know.” Erwin shook his head and continued. “We were forking through the jungle looking for something we didn't know even existed. I found a faint hint of something I was looking for and asked Eric to help me check it out. We went into the forest west from here when suddenly Eric began frothing at the mouth. I immediately hurried to you after that.”
“I see,” Aien replied as he began pondering something. Erwin knew he didn't like being disturbed while he did so and patiently waited for him to speak up again.
“Well, be careful in the forest. This should be a good lesson for you guys. The Boss might be able to shrug off this stuff but for us plebians...”
“I know, I know...” Erwin sighed. Now that the situation was diffused he let his thoughts wander and eventually changed the topic.
“I have to say, Aien. Your ale is excellent stuff! I've never drunken anything like it before!”
“Come on, you are exaggerating.” Aien chuckled helplessly as he averted his gaze. Did he just...?
“There's no reason to blush, my friend!” Erwin laughed out loud, which made Aien seem to get even more embarrassed.
“ 'Cough'... Anyways, about that thing, I mentioned the last time.” Aien quickly changed the topic once more, apparently no longer able to handle the teasing.
“Of course, I got it,” Erwin answered and handed over a grey pouch. It was a simple pouch, nothing special, yet he was very cautious about handling it. Despite its tiny size, he carefully handed it over with both of his hands, afraid of the slightest chance of dropping it.
“About this Aien... I hope this goes without saying but don't mention this to anyone. If the Boss finds out, I'm as dead as they come.” Although he'd said so, there was no hesitation when he'd handed over the pouch. Instead, he was eagerly anticipating Aien's response.
“Thanks, Erwin. As I promised, I'll give you an entire barrel. Just come back later today, the new batch should be finished by then.”
“Alright!” Erwin exclaimed with joyful laughter. Whatever risk he had taken was all worth it if he got an entire barrel of Aien's ale for himself!
“That reminds me...” Aien said, ignoring how pleased the man was with himself. He left the room and shortly after he returned with a sword in his hand. An old and rusty sword with a handle that was almost about to fall off. Most definitely not suitable to be used in a fight. However, when one took a closer look, one would realize that it was somewhat different from a regular sword. On each side of the blade, a significant symbol was ingrained into the steel. Written in a foreign language, the symbol was drawn in a single zigzagging motion. Resembling lightning, it rushed down from the hilt and concentrated into the tip of the sword.
“Amazing, isn't it?” Erwin said still excited but this time for a different reason. This was a treasure of his, and under normal circumstances, he'd never give it away. Looking for these ancient artifacts was the reason he'd joined the bandit group after all. In his opinion, it had been the best option to do so as a non-magus, as long as his morals wouldn't hinder him.
“Indeed,” Aien said, also entranced by its aesthetics. “A ritual sword that was part of a summoning ritual for a low-ranked Devil. Indeed, very intriguing.”
Before handing it back to Erwin, Aien gave it one last glance to make sure it hadn't been an illusion. As if to prove itself and dispute his doubts, seemingly affronted by the thought alone, the symbol shined in bright white light. A sentence was being imprinted into the depths of Aien's mind with words he was unable to read. Despite that, he, and any other living creature would instinctively understand the meaning behind these words, which were written in the Divine Language.
The contracts of Devils must be upheld as they are part of what is governing this world.
Aien had read it for dozens of times, yet he was as infatuated with it as ever. Some sort of Magic or Magecraft was used on this regular sword to transform it into a magical artifact. One that had lasted for millennia and was still able to function correctly. Erwin had displayed several other artifacts to Aien over the year, but none of them was as intriguing as this sword. While they all had their own stories and myths attached to them, Aien couldn't get this sword out of his mind.
On the other side of the room, Erwin chuckled contentedly atop a barrel. He'd been the same as Aien when he'd first found this sword in the wilderness. There was something so... magical about it, for the lack of a better word.
Reluctantly, Aien handed the sword over, back to its original owner. He'd made Erwin several offers, yet the man wouldn't let go of this sword. He wasn't so captivated with Aien's ale that he would hand over his life's purpose. Then again, it was already a surprise that he'd trusted Aien enough to lend it, to begin with, just in exchange for some ale. But that was something Erwin attributed to how likable the fellow was.
“Oh, right,..” Erwin said before he also ran off in a hurry, struck by a sudden thought. After a few minutes, he returned with a stack of books in his arms.
“From our latest raid. There should be some replicas, but there might be something new mixed in.”
Aien took the books off the man's arms and put them onto a table before briefly leafing through them. Basics of Botanic, Advanced knowledge of herbs... The books all had different titles but ranged around the same topic.
“Thanks as always Erwin. I can't repay you enough for what you are always doing.”
“Don't mention it, Aien. This much is nothing compared to how much we've troubled you over the last year.” Although he had said so, Aien saw him taking several glances at the door behind them. Without saying anything further, Aien went into the said room. It didn't take him long to return with a mug that was filled to the brim with ale. Without further ado, Erwin eagerly accepted the mug with much care so that he wouldn't spill a single drop.
“It hasn't finished fermenting, but the taste should be alright.”
This didn't hinder Erwin to eagerly gulp it down within seconds. Placing the mug back onto a nearby barrel, he rubbed his stomach with a beaming smile and let out a satisfied burp.
“Ahh...It really makes life worth living... Seriously Aien what's your secret? Even the wine we stole from some nobles some time ago can't compare to this!”
“If I told you, it wouldn't be much of a secret anymore, no?”
Eventually, Erwin left with Eric on his shoulders. Aien bid the two goodbyes and closed his doors for the day to the dismay of the gathered people. All of them had come in anticipation to trade numerous favors for some new ale. Back in his private chamber, Aien sat onto a wooden chair, fiddling with the brown pouch Erwin had given him. Calmly he pondered, occupied with his own thoughts. Only he knew what he was thinking about when the trace of hesitation in his eyes was replaced by an unseverable determination.
“It's about time...”
After his rite of passage, Aien had begun settling down in his new life as a bandit. No longer did he call himself Michael, instead he'd taken on the name of Aien. At first, he was expected to accompany the bandit group on their raids. He'd killed. He'd pillaged. Not more than it was expected of him, but he had done so nonetheless. Innocent villagers had died by his hands, but he wasn't disturbed much by his own sinful acts. Gradually his companions had grown closer to him as they accepted him as one of their own.
No matter who it was, everyone quickly grew fond of him within a few conversations. They couldn't tell what it was, but there was something that made the fellow so amiable. To top it off, compared to their fearsome Boss, whom they also admired, Aien was very comfortable to talk to.
Aien had learned a lot from the conversations with his new companions. Unexpectedly, nearly all of them were very educated people despite their status. People from all different backgrounds had decided to join Karzek and abandon their past life. Another testament to Karzek's influence and power as even scholars had agreed to join the man to fulfill their various passions. Anyone with some ambition and lack of morals gathered around the man. As it was to be expected, very few had contested his rule and territory until there was no one left who dared to do so in the vicinity.
During the last raid, Aien had been a participant of, he had an exciting conversation with Erwin. The man was the least tight-lipped, and it didn't take him long to get the man to diverge some secrets.
“It's inside those barrels next to you.” He'd eventually whispered. “Well, four of those are decoys. But inside one of those is the largest keg of 'gunpowder' you'll find in your lifetime. It's got something to do with Magecraft, so I don't know the specifics. However, what I can tell you is that this stuff is destructive. I think I once saw an ordinary magus blow up an entire mansion with a big handful of that stuff.”
Concentrated Mana, Aien had assumed, but that was the limit of his knowledge as well. He couldn't confirm whether it was as amazing as Eren had made it out to be.
“Where did he get that?” Aien continued to pry for more information.
“We robbed it from the military. They transported that stuff who knows where and ran into us.”
“And they didn't come to take it back?” Michael raised an eyebrow. Rather careless of them to leave a bomb with some criminals.
“Who knows? I think the Boss pulled some strings. Not like corruption was anything new these days.” Erwin answered, somewhat annoyed as he remembered something.
“Well, whatever.” Michael quickly changed the topic, realizing that he was breaching on a sensitive and depressive subject. So, to lighten the mood, he decided to endure more ramblings about the man's passions. “So, you wanted to tell me something about your sword?”
“Yes, yes,” Erwin's mood immediately brightened, a stark contrast to his previous downtrodden expression.
“The time during the uprising of K'Zath was a turbulent one. Demons and Devils alike roamed the land and...”
With Aien's smooth-talking and skills at handling people, he grew into a favorite among the bandits. He always knew what to say or when to stop when a conversation went south. He'd calmed down heated arguments and curry favor the veteran bandits until his popularity was only second to Karzek, who took all of this in stride. No one ever knew what the man was thinking, but he didn't seem to care much about Aien anymore. Karzek long lost any particular interest he once had in him.
Instead, he was far more concerned about the lack of challenges lately. Instead of being happy that his rule in this region was undisputed, the man was bored out of his mind. This filled the entire bandit group with more dread than any war campaign. Who knew what the man would come up with to lessen his boredom?
Then, the most prominent event had happened. For reasons unknown, Aien suddenly began brewing homemade alcohol. And it was a success. A huge success. If before he was a favorite, second only to Karzek, then this new incident almost put Aien on par with him. Within days, Aien's ale became well-known across the entire village and even beyond. Together with Aien's increasing skills in medicine, he was soon considered irreplaceable for their group.
The entire group of bandits was assembled in Karzek's hall. There was no second-in-command, only Karzek himself sat on his throne as he looked down at his minions below. The man seemed placid compared to his usual antics, but the veteran bandits knew that this was only the calm before the storm. For the last few weeks and especially the recent days, the man had been quite agitated. He didn't let it show, but that only indicated how irritated the man actually was.
Much more surprisingly, however, was the attitude of the entire bandit group. Under normal circumstances they'd be terrified out of their mind, afraid of what their boss would come up with. Most had joined the group, knowing of Karzek's terrifying whims. They had always known the risk in associating with this lunatic, and despite still sticking with him, they were nonetheless afraid of what Karzek would suddenly do.
Yet, the group was occupied with something else. With heads in the clouds, each had their own frown on their faces, unrelated to their current situation. Some were even trembling and whispering to themselves. Very daring, considering they'd never uttered a single sound in the tyrant's presence before.