Claude took more than half an hour to reach the valley. He headed straight for the side of the pool. He had scoured the slope next to it on the way down, but he hadn't seen a trace of the black wolf or the girl. He thus had no choice but to search around the pool.
He went to the spot where the girl had donned the bear pelt and began his tracking with the bear print trail left behind on the ground. The sky was already rather dark, and it was even darker within the forest. Claude had no choice but to cast a Luminous Pearl and hold it in his hand, using its light to guide his way. It was an uninhabited area, so he was free to use his spells without worrying about being discovered.
It might be because she had panicked, but she had left a trail so obvious one had to be blind not to see it. Claude followed it out of the forest and crossed another slope before it disappeared into the forest again. Wolves howled in the distance. The wolf might've detected Claude in pursuit.
He had a feeling the two would be in the forest. That should be where their hiding place was. He put out the ball of light in his hand and ventured into the trees.
The small forest was far less dense than the previous one he came out of. Most of the leaves hadn't sprouted from this one, so the natural lighting was much better and he could still use it to find his way. After only taking ten steps in and stepping onto a piece of stone, a dull poof could be heard as black smoke appeared in mid-air and shot at his face.
He made a hurried retreat out of the forest. The puff spread out and covered some three square metres and blocked his way. Claude gave it a slight whiff and almost threw up.
It was poisonous smog. He had stepped on some sort of booby trap, which was probably set up as a security measure by the girl hiding within to stop pursuers, human or beast, who were charging into the forest. However, it was easy to deal with. Claude took a few fresh breaths, gathered his thoughts, and traced a spell formation in the air. He cast Air Barrier on himself, along with a Projectile Barrier.
Maria had always held the opinion that there wasn't much use for Air Barrier, as all it did was insulate the air and its temperature within and outside it. She believed the best it could be used for was to survive some five more minutes in a fire. Though, it was probably her good living conditions that made it unnecessary for her to rely on such a spell.
Claude was different. He believed that there were no useless spells, only wrongfully applied ones. This spell, for instance, was the perfect counter to the poison smog before him. He would be fine within five minutes of using the spell even if he touched some of the smog.
He triggered three smog traps in total before he entered the deeper part of the forest. He found it rather curious that there wasn't any other type of trap apart from the smog trap. So, he used Eye of Appraisal and looked ahead, only to end up flabbergasted.
What shocked him was the dense mana ripples in the forest ahead of him. Most of them were dissipating gradually while others seemed rather recent. There were obvious signs of spells being used within the day itself. Claude turned back and saw that the ripples were far less dense in comparison, with the spots where he triggered the three traps seeming to have higher concentrations.
In other words, the locations with dense, current-day ripples were where the traps were laid. Claude avoided those ripples and made his way deeper into the forest. Now, there were obvious signs of human activity, such as a row of shrubs that seemed to be cultivated blueberries. Claude remembered seeing those shrubs at the farms of Whitestag.
Ahead of him was a large, empty plot of land where half the snow had melted. He crossed a few more trees and reached the very border of the plot of land and saw in the middle of it a large, rubber tree. Beneath it was a humbly sized, run-down shack within which stood the large black wolf that glared at him as he came out of the forest.
After growling lowly, the wolf dashed for Claude like a black lightning bolt.
"Bang!" Claude cast Mental Shock. It was far more useful towards an animal than a human. The black wolf staggered and fumbled midway and shot Claude a slightly dazed look, as if it was confused what it was there to do. It circled the ground twice before looking back at Claude with hostility.
"Bang!" Claude used another Mental Shock. The wolf shook its head hard, came to sniff the ends of Claude's pants, before running hurriedly back. He watched as the poor animal scurried back to the shed and noticed that the girl had appeared next to it with a spear in hand.
"Hey, I come in peace. I'm a magus too. Can I see your guardian?" Claude asked with both his hands raised.
The girl ignored him and removed her bear skin in front of him. She was clothed underneath, but the outfit she wore was stitched together with different furs. It looked a little like clothing worn by beggars. She bent down to stroke the black wolf before pointing at Claude. The wolf began growling again before it charged once more.
After two bangs, the wolf sniffed his pants before scurrying away.
"Don't make it run to me again. I fear I may stupefy it," Claude said, "I really have no intention of hurting you. I only want to learn more about you. I know you are just like me and don't want anyone finding out about our identities. But I'm a magus too, so that should be fine, right?"
Apparently, it wasn't fine as the girl charged at him with the spear, intent on putting a few holes through him.
"Ahem... This isn't how you should treat guests."
Claude dodged all her strikes one after another. While his combat skills didn't stand out among soldiers, he didn't need to break a sweat against the girl. He caught the spear and disarmed her before throwing it aside. He grabbed her shoulders and avoided her bite.
"Hey, hey! Don't bite! You're no dog!"
He spun the girl around. She stumbled on the ground before crawling towards her spear.
Just as he was about to speak, he saw the wolf charging at him with bloodshot eyes.
"Won't you learn... Bang!"
The wolf started chasing its tail.
The girl darted for her spear, though she didn't pick it up. She turned and stared at Claude. He thought it was finally time to talk, but then she drew in the air as her mouth moved.
Not good! He moved to dodge, but two vines shot out of the ground and wrapped around his legs. The girl finally picked up the spear.
It wasn't a bad spell. She was going to stab him like a scarecrow.
However, being bound didn't mean that he wasn't able to cast any spells. He secretly cast Magus' Hands, the perfect spell for his situation since it required him to be unmoving. He used it to first block the incoming stab, broke the spear and tossed it further away, before giving the back of the girl's neck a slight push to knock her out.
Then, he unravelled himself with his mana hands, which were much more powerful and snapped the vines he couldn't break through with his own strength. By the time he could move again, the black wolf snapped out of it. However, it was intelligent enough to know that charging in wouldn't do anything to Claude. Instead, its mind would just blank out like before. So, it only growled a few times before going to the girl and nudging her with its head, hoping that she would wake up.
Claude felt like an adult bullying a child. Even though he was tussling for quite a while with the wolf and girl, nobody that seemed like her family came out from the shack. Were they not home, or were they physically challenged somehow? Could they be waiting to ambush him when he entered?
Claude had only seen two spells since coming into the forest. The first was the smog trap spell, and the other was the vine binding spell the girl cast on him. Apart from the ability to control the wolf, there wasn't any other spell that surprised him. That seemed a little too few for a rogue magus. At the very least, there should be seven basic spells. Could she be the same as him and only had spells suited for alchemy rather than combat?
He headed towards the shack and saw the wolf leaping for him the moment he was at the entrance. Darn it. Aren't you a loyal one? But you're a wolf, not a house-sitting dog!
Claude didn't want to give that loyal black wolf another Mental Shock in fear of actually crippling its mind. He saw a pile of rope near the shack and used Magus' Hands, one to press the wolf down and the other to bind it. He wrapped it in a whole ball of rope, leaving it helpless and unable to do anything but whimper.
He focused his hearing and didn't detect any movement within the shack, not even the sound of breathing. It seemed like the family of the girl wasn't inside. He pushed the old door open and used Luminous Pearl and got a clear view of the seven square metres within.
There was a bed made from stacked up logs and piles of twigs beneath an animal patchwork quilt made mostly out of skin from rabbits, squirrels and other small critters. There was another pile of dried grass nearby which should be for the wolf to sleep on. There was another old three-legged, table which was supported with a wooden stick where its missing leg was.
On the discoloured wooden table was the basket the old woman left in the mountains the night before. Beside it was a wooden pestle and mortar for medicine-making and two basins. Nailed against the wall near the table was a shelf on which five to six bottles were placed. They looked like the one used to store the honey and medicinal paste.
There was a small metal brazier near the table with some half-burnt wood inside. That was probably what she used to stave off the cold of winter. He wondered how she wasn't smoked to death before he saw the porous straw roof.
There seemed to be some more room behind the bed. He approached for a closer look and saw only a small space with a wooden bucket inside. Based on the smell, it was probably the lavatory. he turned around and was shocked to see a human face hanging on the wall. But upon closer inspection, it only looked like a monstrous mask made of skin with some long, white hair hanging off it.
The girl magus didn't seem to have any family. He could tell that she lived with the wolf as her only companion based on the furnishing of her shack. Her life seemed rather difficult. It was no wonder she was willing to trade honey and medicinal paste with food with the villagers.
Claude exited the shack. The girl had regained consciousness and cautiously watched Claude approached as she backed down while sitting.
"Do you live here alone?" he asked, wearing the kindest smile he knew.
The girl glared at him silently while she inched away.
With no way to communicate, Claude stood up and went back to the shed to take out some food from his bag and lined them up on the ground. There was an oiled cloth inside too, which he used as a spread for the ground. He gave it some thought and took it out too.
"Feel free to have these. I'll come check on you when I'm free," he said, then left for the forest.