"Kill? Who... who did you kill?" he asked, shocked.
"I don't know them. They look like newcomers to Whitestag. I met them in the mountains and they should've been hunting, given the muskets they were carrying."
"Did you silence them because they discovered your magic?"
"No," she said, shaking her head, "I was picking herbs. Lady Maria hadn't yet returned for her vacation. I went to the mountains without much preparation since I was just going to pick the herbs nearby. I ran into the two there. I thought they were just passing by but they pretended to ask me directions, then leapt at me and tried to pull me deeper into the forest. They screamed all things fowl as they did. I was terrified for a moment, then fired two Magic Missiles at them and killed both."
"They deserved it! You did good!"
So the two had seen her alone and had thought she was vulnerable. He almost felt pity for them. It was worse than tragic to have designs on his sister, even in his absence.
"When I realised what I'd done, I started shivering. I was absolutely terrified of being discovered. I didn't go back until nightfall and made sure to dump the corpses off a cliff. The corpses were discovered a fortnight later, but they'd been mauled by wild animals so badly nobody could even recognise them, nevermind the magic holes in their chests. The constables decided they'd been caught and killed by wild animals."
Claude admired his sister's courage. Though her body was frail, it was driven by an iron heart. Not to mention that she'd passed her test despite her anguish. Claude wondered if he was capable of the same. It had been her first kill, after all. The heart didn't care about whether the dead deserved it or not, it knew only that its owner had killed. He couldn't think of another girl her age that would not have lost her sanity had she experienced it.
He stroked her hair. She leaned into him for a hug. Powerful magus or not, she was still a young woman, a girl, really. Her shoulders shuddered as the weight of her murder fell off them. They'd weighed her down for a year, but the person she trusted most in all the world had returned, so they had no more grip on her.
"I'm glad I taught you magic when I did. Things would have turned out differently had I not," Claude said as he let her go, "I can't imagine how sad Mother and Blowk would have been. And how would I have taken it, if at all, had I lost you? The bastards can't blame anyone but themselves. If they'd not run into you, some other girl might've suffered. Don't feel bad about killing them. They were animals in human skin. I don't think my tough little sister will lose sleep or her appetite over killing two animals. And you're in no danger now. The constables have closed the case, so no one is coming for you."
"U-uhm... do your kills haunt you?" she asked, lifting her gaze to his eyes.
"No," he said, shaking his head resolutely, "I can't afford to think about them. Didn't I tell you how I killed a few Blacksnake thugs in the slums after learning magic? Surely you've heard of how beastly these people are. I don't feel no pity for them. I was cleaning up Whitestag's trash.
"It was also kill or be killed in the war. I killed to survive. I bore no hatred for my enemy. It was simply my duty as a soldier. Soldiers are swords. They're made to kill and are failures if they don't. Blame the generals for the war and its deaths, not grunts like me."
Claude patted her shoulder.
"Alright, you can let go now. Aren't you embarrassed about hugging me despite being a grown woman?"
"What do you mean..." his little sister asked as she pushed him away shyly.
"I haven't shown you the goodies I bought from Efenasburg's black market yet, have I?" he asked, changing the subject.
He'd just remembered that he hadn't given her the magic items yet. If he was going to leave them at home, only she could take care of them. He couldn't afford to take them with him to the college.
A couple tightly wrapped boxes stood in the room's corner. Apart from newspaper stuffings and crumpled rags, the first box had a transparent crystal ball about sixteen centimetres across.
Claude removed it gingerly and put it on his bed.
"Don't you think it's funny the merchant treated this appraisal crystal like a child's toy? He put it together with a couple wooden figurines. I got it for a crown. The ball's so big I didn't bother to haggle."
Angelina held the ball up curiously and infused it with some mana. It glowed a kaleidoscope of colours.
"Stop playing. We're magi already, so there's no reason to test our affinity. It's only good for testing children who haven't started training yet. Do you remember how Landes passed his affinity test? They used a crystal ball much like this one.
"I only bought it to test whether Blowk has magic talent. You said he couldn't see the blue text in the cookbook, but he might just have been too young at the time. He's fourteen now, so we'll test him next year. If he has a talent for magic, and he's mature enough, we can let him decide."
Claude opened another box.
Angelina stowed the ball.
Claude retrieved a most oddly shaped staff. A couple emeralds dotted its surface.
"This is a magus' staff. The merchant I bought it from thought it was a noble's sceptre. Those are normally made of gold or silver, however. I've never heard of one made of bone. I think this should be an heirloom from a noble family. Spells cast with it should be a third more powerful and a third less taxing on your mana."
It was a priceless treasure. Staves like that had become rarer and rarer over the years as the continent's magic resources had dried up. The production of magus' staves had ceased with their destruction, and the intervening centuries had whittled their number further.
"You can have it. It would be best to hide it. You could attach the tip of a tool, maybe a hoe, to it. Wrap the rest in cloth. It wouldn't be strange for your to own a hoe; you're growing herbs, after all," he suggested.
His sister toyed lovingly with the staff for a moment, then tried casting a couple spells.
"But, Claude, wouldn't it affect the staff's properties?"
"I don't know about that. Just experiment," he said irresponsibly as he removed five thick beastskin books from another box.
"I suspect these tomes come from the same noble family. They probably have something to do with Siklos."
"Are they knowledge tomes?"
"Shouldn't be. I think they're more like historical records. They detail the recollections of a magus from Siklos of how the mundane folk chased the magi off from Freia 600 years ago. Naturally, his view on the matter is different from ours and he believed the magi were tricked by the mundane nobles into forming their musket troops, which were later used to rebel against the magi.
"It turned out later that some dissidents among the magi were in cahoots with the mundane folk all along. The resistance exploited the magi's carelessness by using transporting magical supplies to the holy land of magic, Symposium, to destroy the transference formation in the sky-piercing tower there. That severed the connection between our world and the Kenpus plane and completely extinguished any hope the magi had to restore the magic civilisation to its former glory with the materials from the higher plane.
"That's why the author curses them as the devil's weaponry. They are the only things mundane folk can use to oppose the lofty magi. In the second book, he writes about the battle in which Symposium was lost. The five-ring battlemagi all flew high up into the skies to prepare for battle, only to be shot down by mundane gunners like they were hunting ducks. Even after they blasted away at the shooters with fireballs and lightning strikes, the surviving shooters continued to return fire.
"The gunners' rapid volleys covered quite a large area and even the five-ring battlemagi weren't able to defend themselves from those barrages. They fell one by one from the skies and were turned into meat paste from the fall. After those five-ring battlemagi fell, the rune magi became helpless sheep and were helpless before the gunners' bayonets. One after another, they were slaughtered in their rooms, their labs, and the tower--"
"I don't like such books."
"Keep them anyway. They provide a first-hand account of magic's history. They can teach us many lessons."
The rest of the items were small accessories which he prepared for her.
"Why did you buy them for? I'm not used to wearing accessories," she said.
"These are magic accessories. There are mini magic formations engraved on them," Claude explained, "Even if you don't like them, you can conduct some research on them. Take this pair of earrings for example. They're called Eavesdroppers. You can listen to conversations from far away with them on and they're absolutely godly items for noblewomen who thrive on gossip and feed off private conversations.
"The ruby on this necklace, on the other hand, is engraved with a calming formation. Put it on when you meditate. I'm sure it'll be much more effective. Then we have these two bracelets engraved with protective spells. One of them has Thorn Wreath. When activated, you can push people pestering you one metre away. The other has Paralyze. Activating it can paralyse a person or animal in contact with you.
"Even though these two spells only last a few short seconds, they might just save your life in times of crisis. I was also thinking of getting you to research whether you can reverse engineer the magic formations on these accessories into normal spell formations we can cast directly."
It now occurred to Angelina that Claude didn't buy the accessories for their value themselves. He was more interested in the spell engravings on them. Those spells were those that he hadn't gotten his hands on yet and this might turn out to be a new method through which he could collect spells.
Instead of trying to construct magic formation for a new spell from scratch, it might be much safer and easier to reverse engineer them off the spell engravings. Making one without any reference required repeated trial and error to get the ideal size and proportion for the diagrams and the slightest imbalance could cause mana backflow and great harm to oneself.
Reversing engineering spell formation diagrams through engravings would be much easier. One only had to copy the engraving onto another object and the underlying principles behind the formation would be more or less clear. Activating a formation like that with one's own mana would most likely result in success.
"Got it. I'll research them well," she said as she kept them away. "What will you be doing tomorrow?"
"Hmm, I'll be out the whole day to visit Mayor Felidos, Uncle Thomas and the others. I have to greet those who still keep in touch or I'll be chewed out for being cold and distant." He was quite annoyed about that and would rather sleep in at home. It was too bad his extermination of the bandits caused the whole town to be made aware of his return. It wouldn't do for him to skip the visits.
"Then take off your uniform. I'll have them washed and dried so you can wear them for your visit tomorrow and look proper," Angelina said.
"It's getting late and you should rest. My uniform doesn't look dirty yet so it can still be worn tomorrow."
"No, it's definitely dirty. You just have to look closer. I'll use spells to wash them clean and it won't take long. Quick," she hurried.
"Alright, fine. Whatever you say." He had no choice but to hand her his uniform. Though he brought along another set with him, it was much older than the one he currently wore.
After Angelina left, he collapsed in his bed like a log. It had been five years since he last set foot in this house and the sensation of lying in bed was a welcome and assuring one. It didn't take long before he drifted off.