Chapter 22 – Ghost?

“Hello? Aien, are you here!?"

“What is it?”

Aien reluctantly opened the door of his room to find the annoyance outside.

“Finally, I can meet you! Where have you been lately? I barely find you at... home.” Zoris said, wondering if this was the right word to describe the room that had turned into a library. Instead of decreasing, the number of books had more than doubled over time and there soon wouldn't be enough room for two people to be inside.

“I just came here to check up on you...” Zoris said while making himself as comfortable as it was possible on the wooden chair.

“It's been a month since Lea went missing... The search is going nowhere, but...” He stopped talking when Aien avoided his gaze with a painful look.

“At least the disappearances have stopped altogether... Anyway, what are you up to?”

“Nothing much... I keep myself busy with my research and taking care of the plants.”

“The plants!” Zoris exclaimed with a trace of admiration. “I recently took a look at them. I-"

“Wait.” Aien interrupted him and looked him deep into the eyes. “How did you get inside? I thought only me and a few others had the key, no one who would let you inside.”

“Ehh...” Zoris was at a loss for words, during which Aien noticed how he avoided his gaze. Even when Zoris resumed looking at him, the position of his pupils had slightly shifted, presumably focusing on his eyebrows instead.

“The door was open.” He eventually continued. “I didn't think it was supposed to be locked, but I guess it makes sense that it would usually be so. I have to say, I'm amazed, Aien! I know a thing or two about these plants, and the way you are keeping them contained is incredible! I wondered why the academy no longer puts out requests for the Rank 2 student magi to help contain the wildlife, but it seems that it isn't necessary anymore with you around. From what I've seen, the overall population didn't change at all.”

The door to the room crawling with literally walking, carnivorous plants was left open? Yeah, right...

“Well, if there's anything that my 'curse' is good for, then it's this." Aien decided against pressing the matter further. "Even if I root the plants up, they don't realize anything that's going. They don't seem to have any senses despite their mana sense, so even touching is no problem. It is slightly amusing to see plants writhe in confusion when they don't know what's going on.”

The two laughed and chatted for some time as Aien explained his work. To keep the population to a manageable degree for the academy, he purposely fed the seeds and spores to the respective plants that liked preying on them. After managing them for an entire year, he had naturally grown familiar with the ecosystem, so it wasn't much of a problem to keep everything at bay.

“Besides that, I've been frequenting the town lately. I absolutely loathe myself for putting it like this, but since I don't have any support from Lea anymore, I need to worry about income. I can only hope for the best as I pray day and night for her safety, but in the end, I'm powerless. I have enough on my hands worrying about myself, but that makes me feel even more guilty. Her storming off was all my fault...”

At any given time, Aien would never abandon his act. Who knew whether eyes could have ears...

“Don't worry about it too much, Aien. Leave it to the authorities I'm sure we'll hear news about her soon enough.” It was the same empty condolences as always, but Aien gladly accepted them before Zoris returned to the previous topic.

“So, money, huh? You know I can lend you some if you are in dire straits.”

“Thanks, Zoris, but I realized I can't always rely on others. You've already brought me into the academy, and that is debt I'll never be able to repay.”

“How do you plan to earn more? Are those crystals ready to be sold?” Aien had once asked him for some advice regarding the acquisition of common mechanical constructs that could help him out, which was why Zoris was aware of the research he had been doing.

“No, I need to invest some more money before that pays off. That's why I've begun selling my ale around town. It's not much, but it's apparently popular enough to be sold in high quantities. I brew it in the several taverns and come to check on it every once in a while. They deduct some of my pay for using their utensils, but it's still worth it.”

“Yeah, your ale... I almost forgot about it, it was quite good. It looks like I'll have to pay a visit to the Outer District. How about you come along? It's been quite some time since the two of us went out drinking. If I remember correctly, your ale goes along great with some dried fish.”

“Sorry, Zoris, maybe some other time... I'm not in the mood for this.”

“I understand...” Zoris sighed before he continued. “By the way, since you are around the city, you've surely heard about the recent rumor, right?”

“You mean that nonsense about ghosts?” Aien chuckled wrily.

“I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it as nonsense.” Zoris refuted quite earnestly. “It's rare to witness them, but ethereal beings do exist. They are more often found haunting the battlefield or where disaster strikes. You know, around those places where misery and death are most frequent. It takes an enormous amount of anguish, however, for a single ethereal ghost to come into being. But some theories propose that they aren't created by the agony of countless, but are simply attracted to them. That's why some magi believe that an entire race is hiding behind them.”

Well, this was some unexpected information for Aien. The existence of something ethereal, whether intelligent or not, was not hard for him to believe since he of all people knew that souls were no longer speculations but reality - Else, he wouldn't be sitting here. Therefore, he didn't have any superstitious opinions regarding whether ghosts actually existed or not, but he'd never read anything about this in the library. Then again, the more he learned there, the more he realized how much it was missing regarding knowledge other than human Magecraft.

At this point, Aien had slowly grown suspicious as it almost seemed that too much knowledge was missing. No matter how much the academy focused on training magi for war, this amount of lack of research in certain fields was too much to be explained by a simple lack of enthusiasm or support. This was just another case of this. Why wouldn't the academy or the empire be interested in learning about said 'Ghosts'? The appearance of a single one seemed more than enough to greatly influence a battlefield. Surely you'd be interested in getting to know the precise conditions of their appearances, no?

“How do you know about this?” Aien asked what intrigued him most.

“Family secret.” Zoris blinked innocently with his eyes, not willing to tell anything more. In response, Aien shrugged with his shoulders. There was no point in forcing it out of Zoris for the time being, and it looked like he wouldn't easily divulge his sources.

“The rumored ghost appears in the forest west from here. It's the one you had been frequenting before, did you ever notice anything?”

“Nothing in particular. Not that I knew what to look out for...”

“Apparently, the wails of a banshee are filling the forest if you stand at a particular spot. I heard a scouting party is being formed, consisting of seven magi who are at least Rank 3. Complete overkill for such a rumor if you ask me, but since one Rank 3 magus already went missing, I guess the academy wants to be cautious with anything that sounds suspicious.”

It was too late when Zoris realized that he had brought that matter up again and Aien sighed melancholically.

“I see... Thanks for checking up on me, Zoris, but I'm fine. I'd like to be alone for a while.”

“Of course, sorry to bother you. See you around, Aien! Don't do anything stupid!”

It was the middle of the night when a pair of eyes scanned through the city from above. High in the sky, a man stood silently on the air, looking for something in particular. In the blink of an eye, he disappeared, shortly after reappearing in the back of a tavern that was filled with people. Another moment later, he stood at the same spot he was in before. This time, however, a mug filled with ale hovered silently behind him. He repeated this process several times in different taverns until five cups, and an entire barrel of ale floated alongside the man whose speed allowed him to go unnoticed by anyone.

With a wave of his hand, the beverages lined themselves in front of him, where he carefully studied each separately. Minutes passed before he mixed the liquids and got rid of the containers as they turned to dust that sprinkled over the city. Eventually, the silver glow in his eyes receded, accompanied by a frown before dispersing the ale into nothingness as well.

“Am I mistaken...” Zeristin muttered to himself.

“HeHe...” A deep laughter filled his surroundings. Despite the lack of walls, it echoed in the air from all sides without revealing where exactly it was originating from.

“Even an Archmagus is only a human in the end.” The voice laughed loudly, causing the air itself to vibrate, yet no one in the city below seemed to notice. It was a laugh that contained no emotions and merely resembled the sound of laughter itself as it lacked any of the meaning behind it.

“This isn't your doing, is it?” Zeristin asked, looking at nowhere in particular. Still, the tension in his body rose as he exuded a threat with the demeanor of his body. One wrong word or lie would set him off pouncing at the invisible person who appeared in front of him.

“Of course not.” The voice stated plainly. “We wouldn't use such underhanded methods. I've merely been sent to inquire about your decision, Zeristin Wezlak.”

Although Zeristin sincerely doubted that, he didn't press the matter further, and instead invited the mysterious voice to continue talking in his office. He did believe their non-involvement in his daughter's case since they'd approached him for a matter of cooperation. There was nothing to gain from forcing him to choose sides and taking hostages.

On his way back to his office, he reluctantly forced the thoughts about Lea from his mind. Whoever had abducted her needed her alive. He could at least tell this much from the essence crystal she'd left behind in his care.

Since it was filled with her existence, it would lose all luster should she die. The first few days had been nerve-wracking as he'd joined the search himself, but as time passed by, he slowly regained his composure. While he still aided in the search, he was mostly preoccupied with the 'missing' research note that had been sent to him. The matter was too important to ignore and needed all of his attention.

Despite that it was his own daughter that was missing, he absolutely had to focus on this matter that went beyond the scope of the academy or the country. Even the fate of humanity's future could be decided by the choice he had to make.

Zeristin grunted in pain at the situation he was in and turned to the gods for help. He silently prayed for his daughter's safety and that the perpetrator would soon be brought to justice so he could punish him personally.

This was all he could do as he attended to the negotiations that began in his office.

The next day, the search group, consisting of seven magi, departed from the western gate. To not cause another commotion among the citizens, they left at the break of dawn, wearing tattered brown robes over their uniforms. It wasn't visible from the outside, but underneath their robes, they were armed to the teeth. Aside from their personal constructs, they carried various potions and common purpose constructs. Some were used to help them look for traces, while others would provide them general support during combat.

"Alright, listen up, guys." The person at the front spoke out during their march towards the forest. "We are to investigate the 'Ghost Occurrence' in this forest. As usual, Rustov and I will take the frontline. The rest of you encircle Iria and protect her, you know the drill."

The group listened to the orders without arguing and quickly assumed their 2-3-2 Circle Formation.

"Captain," Rustov called out to Izmir, keeping his voice quiet enough for the others not to hear. In the academy, there was no division like military rank, but Rustov stuck with the address for old time's sake. While they had worked together as an entire group for years, Izmir and Rustov knew each other long before. The two would never keep secrets from each other, even if their positions sometimes demanded to do so.

"We are not actually going to investigate a Silent One, are we?" Rustov sounded slightly apprehensive, thinking about their group's strength. Six Rank 3 and one Rank 4 magi would allow them to survive any dangerous encounter in these lands but if they met a Silent One, they couldn't be sure about that anymore. It was not the case of lacking firepower but a lack of preparation. They couldn't deal with something ethereal with their current line-up, and that was ignoring what kind of 'Ghost' they'd meet. Since they ranged from disinterested in everything to vengeance-seeking wraiths, Rustov felt a severe lack of confidence in taking one on.

"Don't worry," Izmir reassured him. "The Ghost rumors are from the common people, not the magi. They claimed that if you walked towards the west for a half an hour and stood beneath the tree and its giant rock, you could hear the wails of a banshee. I doubt we have to deal with any serious threats, but the headmaster insisted on sending us. Mere precautions on his side, I suppose, and after everything that's been happening, it's only natural..."

"How do we find the exact spot?" Rustov inquired after his doubts had been dispersed. "A tree with its rock...?"

"As long as we walk against the rising sun, we should be able to recognize it when we see it."

The group continued, not in the least distracted despite their easy mission. Regardless, what their mission contained, they'd always venture with utmost precautions. However, as they'd expected, nothing was getting in their way. Any animal in the vicinity scattered away the second they saw the group of magi, and after thirty dreary minutes, they finally arrived.

"Yep... can't mistake this," Rustov muttered under his breath, standing in front of the rock that climbed into the sky. Within this dense forest, a sole boulder competed with the trees to reach the highest heights. While it barely rose to half of their height, the appearance of a large rock with the thinness of a human was an unmistaken landmark. Also, a tree coiled itself around it, using it as the foundation to grow, which made it even less likely to be mistaken.

"It is said that it had been left behind a long time ago by some elves who were under the protection of the Guardian," Izmir explained to those who seemed interested in the matter. "The academy used to be slightly interested, wondering if there was anything abnormal about it, but after a year they lost all interest and dropped their research entirely. Nowadays, wanderers and commoners use this stone either as a landmark or deem it as a holy place. No need for us to worry about the latter, it hasn't been announced as such officially."

The group rested for a short while, before splitting themselves into individuals. They searched through the vicinity to find the supposed 'sweet spot'.

"I-I-Izmir!" Not much time passed until Iria, the only female in the group, suddenly stuttered aghast. 

"What is it!?" Izmir and the others hurried over to the spot she was standing on. At a first glance, they couldn't tell anything special about it. It seemed to be a random spot that was in the shadow of the lengthy boulder.

"I-I" She continued before hurriedly stepping away from the spot. Although they'd naturally carried out their mission with all seriousness, they didn't actually believe in finding something. Rumors like these were nothing new, and if it wasn't for the headmaster's personal request and dire times, a small group of students would have been sent to gain some experience.

O... T... T... 

Izmir's face turned slightly pale when he first heard the wails of the banshee. They sounded... unnatural. Continuously echoing out from nowhere, they repeated themselves endlessly like a broken record. It also didn't take a talented musician to recognize the perfect rhythm in which it sounded out. To the beat of a fine-tuned metronome, the chain of sounds never stopped for a single breather.

After listening to the voice a few more times, he endured the chills rising up his spine and stepped aside for the other curious people in his group. Instead of dwelling on the origin of the voice, he focused his attention on the boulder. Something about it had caught his eye when he first saw it, but he'd attributed it to its origin. He circled around it a few more times until everyone in his group had the chance to satisfy their curiosity, before setting camp. Since they'd found the voice, they had to do something about it. And his hunch was telling him that this boulder was the solution to it.

But the actual solution turned out to be much simpler.

"Wahh!" Iria shouted out again, and the group turned around, exasperated.

"What is it this time, Iri? Did you see another spider again...?"

"Wha-? No!!" She refuted angrily, her face slightly flushed red, realizing what her teammates thought of her. "I sat onto the ground over here when it suddenly sunk into the ground..."

Intrigued by this, the group circled around the deformation. A small circle, the size of an average foot sunk slightly into the ground.

"Unless you sat exactly on the right spot, you'd never realize this..." Rustov chuckled lightly, not knowing what to make of this matter. But he wouldn't argue with luck as long as it was on his side.

"It's not the only one," Rustov concluded. "Look around for the other indentations!"

Since he now knew what he was looking for, he realized the several stones in the vicinity. There was nothing eye-catching about them, but they had small signs and scratches of unnatural causes. It didn't take long until the group found an entire of ten indentations. After placing the last stone on the right spot, nothing seemed to change, but eventually, Izmir noticed something next to the shadow of the boulder.

A small opening that hadn't been there before revealed itself with a small ladder that led into the darkness below. They couldn't see the end of it, but they recognized the wails that poured out much clearer than before.



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