What?! A bear had taken over her mother's old hiding spot? Who hid books in a cave?! Claude didn't know what in the world her mother had been thinking. She'd left her poor daughter with no reference material at all.
She was screwed in the truest sense of the word. It was no wonder Claude thought that something was odd when he first saw the shack she stayed in. It only struck him later that the odd feeling came from the complete absence of books within. He couldn't imagine any magi that didn't have a collection of books, the crystallisation of knowledge, when they should be the most ardent scavengers of knowledge. They would record all sorts of insights they got on their path of the arcane and keep some books they believed were worth collecting.
"Mama set up a magic formation within the caves and took advantage of the dryness and coolness of the cave to preserve her precious books. We used to live outside the cave, but it was far from a water source and quite inconvenient. Mama moved us to the witch's forest and built that wooden house after thinking that it was a little too dangerous for me to play around near the cave," she explained.
That was no house, it was barely even a hut! He applauded her mother's sense of aesthetics. How could she call that a home? If it was a house, his current two-storey accommodation was a castle! Well, he supposed he should at least grant the woman that she was doing her best for her daughter.
He made an effort to appear earnest and interested in the girl's story.
"I was happy at first when mama left because no one forced me to meditate or study. I could go play with Blackwind all day. But a month after she left, I began to feel lonely. I meditated as much as I could and became a one-ring nature magus in half a year. I only then realised I didn't have any spells, so I tried to go back to the cave since I remembered she had a couple of spell scrolls there."
Claude had to fight to keep the twitch from his lips. He bet she had a whale of a time after her mother left.
"I didn't think two black bears had taken over the cave. At least one was inside at all times, so I couldn't sneak in."
Sheila's eyes were red and she seemed to be in pain. She had lost her home and couldn't take it back.
"So, I returned to the witch's forest and inscribed Mimic Beast in my hexagram. After that, I put on the old bearskin and wanted to fight the two bears. I quickly learnt that the bearskin was too worn and the bear I transformed into wasn't a match for them. Had Blackwind not held them back, I would've been torn apart..."
Her face showed nothing but complete gloom. Her experiences left quite a deep impression in her. Even recalling it seemed difficult. It was no surprise, since she had not even been fifteen at the time. It was quite a feat to muster the courage to wrestle the two already.
Claude hugged her and patted her back softly.
"It'll be okay. Don't be sad. I'll help you take your cave back. Even if you don't have this new bearskin, I still have my ways to deal with those two. I'll follow you there once the rain subsides. I promise."
The girl didn't think Claude was trying to cop a feel. She only concerned herself with how warm his embrace was. She hadn't realised how broad his chest was. She'd not felt safe since her mother had left. Her eyes swam and she had to fight back a wail. She may be 18, but she'd barely matured a day since her mother had left.
She snapped out of her reverie when she felt Claude's pats reach her plump little rear and shoved him away.
"You... you lecher!"
"My bad. You're so pretty I couldn't help myself," Claude said sincerely.
Sheila froze. Elated, Claude took a step forward, only to feel a formless hand grab his collar from behind and lift him into the air.
"Ugh... Sheila, I'm sorry, really. Please put me down!"
He finally realised teaching her Magus' Hands might not have been the smartest thing he'd ever done.
She ignored his pleads and threw him out of the room into the corridor.
"Are you alright, Sir?" Myjack asked.
"I'm fine. Get back to work. It's no big deal. I was just chased out."
Claude could only pretend nothing had happened and retire to his room.
The rain faded to a soft drizzle towards the end of the month. The rainy season was almost over and sunlit skies were on the horizon.
Sheila cooped herself up in her room the whole time, but was beginning to lose the last of her patience. She wanted to go out no matter what to test out her dozens of prototype Fireball formations. Claude had no choice but to take her back. They took a work horse along to carry all the luggage, mainly the bearskin. Claude took his freshly-oiled musket and corresponding supplies as well -- just in case.
It was a drizzle, but it was still inconvenient to travel on foot. Sheila wore an Aueran military uniform, minus the hat. Her hair was tied in a simple ponytail. Her raincoat's hood was down and she wore a straw hat. She moved at a light trot that made her ponytail sway behind her.
The black wolf also seemed to welcome returning to the forest. Staying in a room for two whole weeks was utterly stifling for it. Even though it had good food and sleep, Sheila started using it as an experimental subject ever since she learned how to use Magus' Hands, often lifting it up and swinging it around in the air and stopping it from crying out. It didn't help that the four baths it got in just ten days was torture. The vast expanse of the wilderness was the freedom it had dreamed of regaining for the longest time.
After an arduous, three-hour trek, the lot arrived at the witch's forest. Even though the rain was no longer an obstacle, the muddy path was still a problem. The girl and wolf acted like they were tourists going up the path the first time after being cooped up in the room for more than twenty days. They were often distracted and stopped from time to time and delayed the journey. She already had a whole bouquet of wildflowers in hand and her boots and pants were covered in mud.
The shack was still there, but it had become a bug paradise. The blood of the bear that seeped deep into the ground attracted countless ants and the occasional scorpion and centipede. The bloody smell also led its fair share of carnivores to the place. The inside of the shack was a total mess, with many claw marks dotting the wooden walls within.
Tears built up in her eyes once more. Claude went to her and lightly tapped her shoulder. "It's fine. I'll build another nice wooden house for you once the weather clears up. If the old doesn't go, the new won't come. I promise it'll be a true spectacle you'll be satisfied with."
The girl had long gotten used to his skinship after his endless attempts and effort. Naturally, there were some places that were off limits. Even if he excused himself by saying it was an accident, there was no avoiding harsh payback from Sheila.
The girl leaned her head on Claude's shoulders and said with a slightly choked voice, "This house was built by mama herself..."
Even though it was a little melancholic, the feeling was a fleeting one. It didn't take that long before the girl started pestering Claude to test out the spell again. Claude pulled her to stop her and advised her to check out her mother's cave first. Perhaps there would be a scroll with Fireball in it there. If she tested the formations out and suffered a blowback, then they would have to wait even longer before reclaiming the cave.
Fortunately, she was a sensible girl and could see the logic in his words. She had wanted to test the spell out before chasing the bears out of the cave. After all, it wouldn't be right for a girl like her to enter a messy brawl with savage bears. Using Fireball to deal with them was far more graceful. She'd be able to vent her pent-up frustrations as well. However, she didn't consider the consequences of blowback or having the spell formation explode in her hand because of a mistake.
"It'll be fine. With my gun in hand, the bears won't be a match," he said confidently while patting the gun on his back. Even if he didn't have his musket, he wouldn't have to worry about facing those bears unarmed either. He brought his musket along with the intent on demonstrating its power to her so that she wouldn't think of herself that highly now that she knew a couple more spells.
The girl widened her eyes and looked at the rainy sky and back at the gun on his back.
Claude knew what she was getting at. He unslung the gun from his back and laughed.
"It's fine. As long as it isn't a rainstorm, muskets will work fine. This weather is just right. My slow match had been soaked in oil before and it can still remain lit even when doused with some water. The flash pan is also protected by the cover on top. When we pull the trigger, the cover of the pan will automatically move out of the way to let the slow match light the powder within to fire the round. All we have to watch out for is to stop water from entering the pan during a reload."
The whole process of reclaiming the cave was rather uneventful. There was an hour-long trip up the mountains. The girl said that the entrance of the cave was on the halfway mark up the mountain behind the witch's forest. After crossing a rather harsh mountain path, they arrived at a rather large slope. At the bottom of the slope was a large pine forest, beyond which was the cave entrance. Outside the cave lied a large, black bear.
The bear growled from afar when it noticed the unwelcome visitors. To stop his delicious prey from escaping, it charged towards them with a loud roar. Two black bears came out of the cave and followed behind them. One thing Claude found weird was how the young bear was still living with the other two bears. Usually, the mother bear would chase its cub away once they were of age.
But it wasn't time to fuss with the details. Claude gracefully demonstrated the might of muskets to the girl. He shot the head of the charging bear and took its life easily. As for the two black bears freaking out behind it, Claude used Magus' Hands and turned them into two long spears, which he used to pierce deep into the hearts of the black bears.
Sheila was still standing on one side and putting on the bearskin in the hurry. But when she finished transforming and was ready to wrestle those bears, she found that she no longer had a foe to fight. Claude gleefully stood on top of the bear he shot with his musket on his back and struck a victor's pose. It was a shame they didn't yet have cameras in their age.
The cave stunk badly ever since the bears started living in it. They were dirty creatures that didn't care much for hygiene, at least what humans would consider hygiene anyway. Sheila cast Luminous Pearl and Magus' Hands to clear out the branches, bones and mouldy droppings of the bear from the cave. By the time she was done, the cave seemed much more pleasant.
"Where are the books?" Claude was quite disappointed and thought that the bears had ruined the collection of Sheila's mother.
"They're not kept here. This is the outer cave." The girl walked towards the deepest part of the cave, bent down and felt around the wall and infused her mana when she found the spot.
Claude noticed a hexagram glow bright green on the wall of the cave.
The girl breathed a sigh of relief. "I was worried the whole time that the bears would destroy this magic formation. If they had, we would've had to dig our way in. Thankfully, the formations remained intact after four whole years."
As hexagram after hexagram on the walls glowed, the walls receded inward. What appeared before Claude was a reading room. On two sides of the walls were rows of large, black bookshelves on which many beastskin volumes were placed.