Seeing Myjack and Gum ride away from the base, Claude finally breathed a sigh of relief. He had to find a reason to get them to leave because he didn't want to bring them to the mountains to look for the person in hiding. There were many things he didn't want them to find out, after all, such as the fact that he was a one-ring rune magus. He also believed the person out there could be a rogue magus. Normal people couldn't possibly tame such a large black wolf.
Though it did strike him as odd. If the mystery person that could tame such a huge black wolf really was a rogue magus, their personality was probably a little too easygoing. Other things aside, Claude believed that, if it were him, he wouldn't be able to stay in the mountains for long based on the food alone. Who could bear with eating food so bland for so long?
The black bread, sausages and salt were all military rations to boot. If Claude's unit hadn't stopped at that village, all the villagers could provide would be baked wheat biscuit. He figured that the person in question was probably physically impaired in some way to the point of needing a beast to fetch around the baskets to trade medicines for food. But upon further consideration, the possibility seemed rather remote. There was another bottle of wild honey inside the basket yesterday, and only able-bodied people would be able to procure such things. Unless, of course, the mysterious tamer also had a bear that didn't fear wild bees in her palm.
The other possibility was that the tamer was a shut-in who refused to leave the mountains so strongly that they were willing to stomach the bad food. Claude found it rather curious the night before and thought up an excuse to get Myjack and Gum away before deciding to enter the mountains to check if the tamer was a rogue magus.
He slung his bag and a musket over his back after packing what he needed and before telling Mazik that he was going to the mountains for a walk to see whether there was something worth hunting. He said he might return in two days if his luck was bad. Since the rainy season was coming in a few more days, he would have to wait for about twenty days if he didn't hunt immediately.
Mazik was rather glad and didn't ask many questions. Perhaps he couldn't wait for Claude to leave. He agreed heartily and told Claude that he may rest assured and hunt, promising that there would be no problems under his watch. Claude smiled and left, knowing well that Mazik would definitely go for the two bottles of fine wine in his room during his absence. But whether he would find it was a whole nother question altogether. He knew that Mazik would be trying to sneak it away from him, so he had hidden it somewhere long ago.
Claude didn't go to the mountains from Squirrel Village and instead embarked from the left side of the camp. There was a small path that led to a small valley of around one hectare of mountain farmland there run by the folks of Squirrel Village. It was the largest plot of farmland they had and they had planted the winter wheat not long ago. However, the coat of snow that covered it hadn't yet melted. White nothingness stretched to the ends of his vision.
He recalled that there was a route heading up into the mountains from the valley, probably used by foragers in the mountain woods searching for herbs or firewood. The villagers wouldn't discover him if he took this path up the mountains, but it was rather difficult to traverse. He spent half a day climbing up the first slope and his uniform ended up covered in much mud. He wiped himself clean with a few piles of snow and ignored the stains that were left behind.
After scaling the slope, the journey got much easier. Even though the weather was getting warmer -- spots of green could be seen in the wood as much of the snow started to melt, revealing the black, red and brown mountain rock underneath -- most of the ground was still coated with snow and incredibly slippery. He had to exercise quite a bit of caution while traversing the icy paths so as not to slip, and avoid muddy puddles where snow was absent.
The waterfall and plunge pool the villagers mentioned was still quite some ways away. Claude had to pass through the pine forest and scale a few more hills before he would arrive at the foot of the large mountain. It was no different from taking a large detour. If he had taken the small path from the north of Squirrel Village, it would save him at least half the journey.
However, it was used by the villagers who went up the mountains to forage for herbs and firewood. Claude chose the further route to remain undetected by them. It was as if he had gone back to his hunting days and forgot his identity as a soldier. He felt free and unbound and his mood turned rather joyous.
There were some poisonous insects and vines in the pine forest, so he had to watch out for those apart from making sure the steps he took were stable. But that was the extent of obstacles he had to worry about. Two squirrels that had just awakened from hibernation dashed across the pine branches and startled some birds. Spring had come and life was beginning to return to the pine forest.
Claude removed his musket and was just about to light it when he decided against it. There were a few wood-grouses feeding beneath a pine tree up ahead. Claude had wanted to shoot them, but the thought of the shot spreading far and disclose his presence changed his mind. He was in the wilderness, so he could do without his musket and resort to his spells instead.
Those grouses were considerably fattened up. Claude approached quietly and hid behind a tree some five metres away. With two audible 'bangs', he cast two Mental Shock spells and fell two of the grouses. He rushed there hurriedly and ignored the three other grouses, which scurried deeper into the woods. He grabbed the two grouses that were flapping their wings desperately and snapped their necks before hanging them on his bag. He would be having them for lunch.
There were many fine ingredients for food in the pine forest. Claude picked some pine mushrooms and St. George's mushrooms along the way, which could be stuffed in the fowls when preparing Beggar's Chicken. It took him more than an hour to walk out of the pine forest. He scaled a small hill and took out his telescope to scout out the surroundings.
There wasn't anything out of the ordinary. He didn't even spot any signs of human activity. It seemed that it was quite difficult to find a person hiding in the wilderness. He decided to head to the waterfall and plunge pool first before thinking about what to do next since the villagers panicked when he mentioned he wanted to check those spots out. The person probably lived nearby those parts.
After scaling another small hill, he could hear the sound of gushing water nearby. He looked at the large mountain in front of him and chose a gentle slope to scale. Most of the slope was rock, so he didn't need to worry about his clothes getting dirty. However, when he made it to the peak, he realised he had overshot his destination. The waterfall was near a valley whereas he was standing on the ridge of the mountain.
He spent another half hour searching for the way down and finally reached the top of the waterfall. There were a few streams that met before the waterfall. He could see the whole valley from his vantage point.
Down in the valley was a large, green plunge pool. The waterfall's water fell into the plunge pool beneath before flowing out through the valley. Beside the plunge pool was a small slope covered densely with trees. The other three sides of the hill were steep cliffs. If Claude wanted to go to the plunge pool, he had to travel around the ridge of the valley through the forest on the slope to reach it.
He looked to the sky and estimated that it was around two in the afternoon. He hadn't had any lunch yet, so he decided to take a short break on the ridge. He put the grouses beside the stream and got ready to prep it for a meal.
He found some dried twigs to use to remove the innards of the grouses and stuff them full of mushrooms, before digging a round hole in the ground and putting the chicken inside. He piled the twigs up atop the chicken and set them on fire. They should be ready in half an hour, and it was enough time to clean up his uniform with water from the streams and bake them dry with a fire.
By the time he started eating, it was around three. He took out two pieces of blackwheat bread from his bag and dipped it in the juices from the chicken as he looked down into the valley. He had scanned the valley with his telescope and didn't find any trace of human activity. That made him wonder why the villagers warned him against coming here if the person wasn't hiding here anyway.
By the time he was more or less finished, he suddenly found some movement in the forest on the slope below. He hurriedly put his fire out. Fortunately, the twigs he used were dry and not much black smoke came about when he doused the flames. Given that the wind was blowing upwind, anyone below wouldn't notice the fire. He laid down on a rock and carefully looked down at the valley.
A large black wolf emerged from the forest and jumped down from rock to rock beside the plunge pool in a practiced manner. That was the very same wolf that came to retrieve the basket. His mind snapped awake and he had finally found a trace of his target. However, the wolf oddly lied down on a rock beside the plunge pool even though it didn't look like its usual turf.
A few trees in the forest shook before a large black bear fumbled out of the forest. Curiously, the bear seemed to be walking weakly on two feet towards the pool.
The black wolf ignored the bear. When it reached the pool, it splashed some water onto the wolf but the latter merely grunted in dissatisfaction without making the slightest movement.
Weird... What is this bear up to? Is it there to drink water or hunt for fish?
All of a sudden, the black bear stood up on two legs and its chest opened to reveal a woman with chalky complexion and long, black hair. She stepped out of the skin of the bear and slipped into the pool.
This... this bear was a young woman in costume all along! No wonder it looked so weird and off! Claude watched the womanly figure swim about in the pool and couldn't help but bend down to test the temperature of the stream beside him. It was indeed a little warm. It was no wonder the woman would swim in the pool.
Claude peeked with his telescope and saw that the woman in the pool was indeed rather young, being no older than seventeen. She also spotted a rather ample bust and her developing, pubescent body looked fresh and innocent. Beyond her long, black hair that covered her face were some green lines that looked to be disguise face paint Claude had seen in some military flicks. However, the shape of her face was beautifully sculpted. It was neither oval nor almond shaped, but a unique combination of both. He couldn't tell the colours of her large eyes. It seemed to be black at times, and purple others.
As he was getting his fill of the view, the black wolf next to the pool stood up all of a sudden while sniffing the air before barking wildly in Claude's direction.
The scent of the fowls he cooked was a little too strong and wafted down to the valley for the nose of the wolf to pick up. He was only some thirty-odd metres above the pool and it didn't take too long for the wolf to locate the peeping Claude.
The girl looked towards where the wolf was barking at. Claude felt rather awkward for being caught peeping, so he stood up courageously and waved to her. "Hey..."
The girl darted towards the shore in a panic and weaselled into her bare skin before stumbling back into the forest. The black wolf barked a few more times before tagging along.
Claude yelled, "Hey, wait! I come in peace!"
But he was ignored. Soon, not a trace of them could be seen on the slope. Only the sound of the rustling breeze could be heard.