"Do you want to learn these spells?" Sheila asked, pointing at the scrolls in the table.
"I do," he replied with an earnest nod.
"Hmph! I won't let you!"
She shoved her button nose into the air and made a serious, proud face -- which Claude only found deeply comical. She wanted to get back at him for accosting her so unannouncedly, but the thought of it his tongue coiling around hers like a python, squeezing the saliva out of her glands for him to enjoy, sent a shiver down her spine and lit fires in her cheeks. Their glow didn't do her attempt at a prideful face any favours.
"As is your right," Claude said, not taking the bait.
There was no reason for him to. He did wish he could learn the spells, but he couldn't. He was a one-ring magus, and, as such, could only learn untiered, or tier-zero spells. He could only memorise the formations, but they would do him little good until he became a two-ring magus.
Of the 19 spells Sheila's mother had left, he really only had his sights on four tier-one spells, anyway; Energy Barrier, Hawk Scrying, Stealth Sneaking and Lightweight Flight. He had the two transmutation spells already, so they weren't worth considering.
Of the untiered spells, he had already learned Enlighten and Vine Wrap. He didn't need Hawkeye since he had Eye of Appraisal. And Bee Swarm was out of the question since he couldn't travel with the army carrying a nest of bees around. Cultivate was inconsequential since he might not have any use for it. If he did, however, he could use it in tandem with Returning Spring.
And then there was Fireball, the only attack spell out of the six. It was the magi's defining spell in his mind. Sheila had said her mother merely had to cast a few Fireballs to get rid of wolves. But, after reading the explanation on the back of the scroll, he realised it couldn't attack that much further than Magic Missile.
It might be a spell whose might depended on the caster's tier. Sheila's mother had been a four-ring nature magus, so her Fireballs might exhibit amazing power, but Claude was just a one-ring rune magus, so he suspected the spell wouldn't be much stronger than Magic Missile.
Fireball's advantage was its explosive effect. Just like a grenade, it detonated on impact. Magic Missile bore into its target and dissipated. If a Fireball consumed ten mana units, Magic Missile consumed three units instead, so its consumption was another consideration. He could cast Magic Missile three times and a bit for each Fireball. He thus had no interest in Fireball at the moment.
The tier-two and tier-three spells weren't even on his radar. Summon Stone Giant was the only tier-four spell and it could only be learned after one became a five-ring magus. Claude was years away from that, if not decades at his current pace. He also only really had any interest in Spell Transplant. That said, for the time being he had no reason to desire to possess it.
Ent Guardian and the three tier-two spells, Hydrofalls, Maze Forest, and Firewall were just as uninteresting. They were outdated, to say the least. They might have been useful if muskets hadn't come about, but they had, so there was no point to them anymore.
They simply just didn't have the range. Claude's Magic Missile, for instance, could only kill up to ten metres from him. The furthest it could travel was fifteen metres. Even if he cast it as a five-ring magus, it could only reach maybe fifty metres. Magi simply couldn't fight muskets, especially not massed formations of them, and even less so now that they could aim and fire with deadly accuracy at far greater ranges than before. Nevertheless, there were still some advantages to spells in that it was far more convenient than having to reload a gun. Once a magus managed to avoid the first volley of shots in a close range, he would be invincible. But all the gunners had to do was to widen their distance for five-ring magi to consider escape as an option once more.
It would take a few decades to make it to five rings from where he was now. But it took only three months to train a gunner. It didn't help that people with talent for magic were the vast minority. That was the reason the mundane folk revolted with their guns against the oppressive regime of the magi six centuries ago and drove them out of Freia for good. Even if it took the sacrifice of a hundred gunners to kill a single magus, it would still end badly for the magi given their abysmal numbers.
Claude let his thoughts wander to the history of guns and fell into deep thought. Sheila began to feel unnerved and tugged on his shirt.
"Are you angry?"
He snapped out of his daze and saw a delicious meal. He hugged Sheila and ate. He had to stop before he had his fill, however, because his meal started protesting a little too vociferously.
"How could I get angry at you? I'm smitten. Actually, I'm interested in tier-one spells, which I can't learn now no matter how much I want to. Who knows how long it'll be before I can. I might as well ask you for permission when I finally can."
"Okay, you must do your best and become a two-ring magus soon--" Sheila planted her head on his shoulders and enjoyed the hug. "--D-don't you want to learn Fireball?"
He shook his head.
"I have a spell of my own. Do you know Magic Missile? It's more suitable for me compared to Fireball. Since I'm part of the army and Magic Missile wounds look just like gunshot wounds, it's easier to hide my identity as a magus. Fireball would be much harder to cover up and anyone can hear the explosion from far away. It would draw undue attention to me."
It seemed like she just recalled that Claude was also a soldier. The two of them lived in wholly different environments. Sheila had lived with her mother in the wilderness since her childhood while Claude enlisted for the sake of his family. If the war didn't break out, the two of them wouldn't have gotten to know one another. Her dying from blood loss after being attacked by the bear that rainy night without anyone knowing might be a real possibility.
Sheila's mood tanked all of a sudden. Her wide eyes seemed to tear up.
"T-then... How much longer can you stay here...?"
Claude gave her cheek a light kiss.
"That depends on my orders. I should be here for a couple more months. Bluefeather and two irregular corps have to stop the enemy's all-but-certain post-rainy-season counterattack before we can move on. Most of our forces are already on the frontlines, so we don't have much in reserve right now. They had to split my unit into individual tribes just to cover all the rear chokepoints in this area, for example. My tribe is crucial to our rear's safety, so I doubt my superiors will move me on a whim."
Sheila didn't make a sound. She just hugged him and plastered her wet face into his chest.
"Don't cry, darling. Even if we part temporarily, I will come back for you after the war and take you home me, okay?"
Sheila's body stiffened and she shook her head.
"No, I have to stay here and wait for mama. She told me to wait here for ten years no matter what. At the very least, I have to become a four-ring magus before I can leave. If I do and she hasn't come home yet, however, I have to go look for her. I can't save her if I'm any weaker."
What did she mean by that? Did her mother know she might not come back? Why didn't she plan Sheila's life ahead just in case? Something sounded fishy.
Noticing Claude's curious look, she explained, "Mama went with some friends to excavate a magic ruin. If it goes well, she'll be back in half a year or so. But she feared that something unexpected would happen before she left since the ruins might be armed with some trap formations or forbidden spells. They might end up trapped within if they aren't careful and it would take time for them to come back out. Mama said that she was confident she can survive, but it'll still take a long time for her to escape the ruins in case something of the sort happened, so she wanted me to wait here."
He finally understood what her mother had in mind. Perhaps she only said that to stop Sheila from looking for her in case of her untimely demise. At the very least, she could be sure Sheila wouldn't leave the forest within the next decade. All he could do was hug the girl in his arms with his heart filled with pity.
"Alright. Then if I have any vacations after the war, I will come here to spend time with you and wait until your mother returns."
The topic at hand was too serious for him to flirt. He took out a linen handkerchief and wiped Sheila's tears.
"Alright, stop crying. You won't look pretty if you continue to cry, and I'll start losing interest in you..."
Sheila hammered his chest lightly but cracked a smile.
"That's better. I'll come back when the time is right. By the way, you don't have to worry about not having spells to engrave, right? Tell me what basic spells you have now."
"Yeah. I have Mimic Beast, Vine Wrap, Smog Trap, Enlighten and Returning Spring engraved as basic spells. Of the six spells I got from you, I only engraved Magus' Hands, Fine Control and Luminous Pearl. I didn't engrave Appraisal, Kindle and Hydrogenesis. Since Kindle is similar to Fireball, I wanted to test the spell out first before engraving it. I don't see much use for Hydrogenesis and Appraisal for now, so I won't engrave them."
She counted the spells she had engraved with her fingers. Being a two-ring magus, she could have fourteen basic spells.
"So that means you can engrave six more basic spells, right?" Claude pondered with his brow furrowed. "I'll have to think hard which you can use the most so that you don't waste those slots. It's better that you don't engrave Appraisal. I have an even better spell, Eye of Appraisal, for you. It's an appraisal-type spell we rune magi use. It's on par with Hawkeye that your mother left you."
Claude looked at the scrolls on the table. "Your mother left you six tier-one spells. You must definitely learn Energy Barrier, Stealth Sneaking and Lightweight Flight. Coupled with Eye of Appraisal, you only have two spell slots left. I have two other combat spells with me, Magic Missile and Chain Lightning. The latter was given to me by my herbalism teacher, Lady Maria. However, I'm still a one-ring magus and I can't use that spell. I still remember the formation though, so I can draw it out for you. Which of these two spells would you rather pick?"
Sheila pouted. "I don't like Stealth Sneaking. It sounds like something a sneaky thief would use. Let's change that into another attack spell. That way, I'll have three combat spells."
"No way. That spell is crucial. You must make it a basic spell," Claude refuted, "I didn't suggest Stealth Sneaking so that you could go around and steal. Instead, you need it to stay alive. I'm worried that you'll run into trouble living here alone. If you meet an enemy you can't fight, you can use this spell to sneak away instead of engaging the enemy in a battle to the death.
"How about this... Pick Fireball and Chain Lightning. Those two spells should be enough to keep you safe. I'll draw the other spell formations I have and give them to you. Chill can make ice for your drinks during hot summer days and Breath of Water will let you dive underwater for ten minutes. Featherfall will turn you light as a feather and allow you to jump from high places unharmed for two minutes. Summoned Breeze on the other hand will call a refreshing breeze to cool you down."
Claude sighed and continued, "Actually, I have Freeze. It should be an upgraded version of Chill. But I didn't remember the spell formation because it was a tier-one spell which I couldn't yet use. I can give that to you at a later date. If you have an empty spell scrolls right now, I can draw the formations on them. That way, you can spend half the mana to cast them."
Sheila, still in Claude's embrace, muttered sadly.
"You won't need blank spell scrolls. Mama left me an empty tome made from bloodback grey wolf leather. She said it was reserved as my reward for when I become a one-ring magus. But she was gone already when I finally became one and the bear had already occupied this place so I couldn't come get it. I have it now, though, and it's all thanks to you. Thank you, Claude..."