Elsa was possibly one of the most maternal beings that I had ever known.
In fact, I considered her the second most maternal figure in my life after Miss Taun, who’d essentially raised me in my formative years. Mother was largely focused on the family business and had only taken to personally grooming my brother and sister. Her attention towards me had always been limited, though I would admit I stopped actively seeking it at a certain point.
Regardless, Elsa had been someone who I’d often as seen as being kind without any hint of anger or malice. Even when I studied under her and Mister Rieth and made mistakes, she never once showed any sort of frustration or ill-will. She’d simply ensure that we were okay, ask where we believed we’d made a mistake, and then guide us through to ensure that it was done properly the next time.
Patient. Kind. Motherly—these were the traits that defined Elsa to me.
Hence why I was left more than a little shocked when she smashed the dragonfly hard enough that the stone and ground around us shook from the impact of the blow. More than needed to smother the flame-construct a dozen times over. I suppose it spoke of the durability of the gateway that it didn’t shatter, but the arcane writing on it had vanished since it had been rendered inert.
Then Elsa’s onyx gaze then turned to me. “Who was it that taught you about the gateway?”
I remained silent in lieu of conflicting thoughts.
So her attention shifted to Aeria instead. “Tell me who it was that branded him and dragged you both into this. Now.”
“Th-The Fire Lady told us,” Aeria whimpered. “She taught us when we went in the first time…”
“And which faction did this spirit belong to?” Elsa demanded. “What did they promise for getting you both involved in their little war? Who do you answer to?”
“Um…um…” Aeria became more unnerved as Elsa pressed her for more answers that she had no way of knowing. She lowered herself behind me to hide from the unblinking gaze weighing upon her. “I-I think Kowl knows that stuff!”
Elsa stiffened upon seeing the Wind Spirit cower before her. The raised sporophytes of her moss gown were smoothed down with a brush of her limbs. Then the grass encasing me came undone.
She released a non-existent breath and then spoke in a softer tone. “I am so sorry you both had to see that side of me. But I was promised that neither you nor Wilhelm would be involved in this. Yet here you are, standing at the door with a key to opening it. To say that I am very upset at the moment would be an understatement, and I need to know how deeply you two are involved in these things so I can help you.”
“…I suspect that the circumstances that led to our involvement were not intentional,” I said after a moment. “If you would explain these terms of which you speak, I may be able to clarify everything as far as we are aware.”
Elsa conceded and began explaining her end of things. “You remember that I told you that Theo and I traveled a lot before Wilhelm was born, right?”
“Well, during our travels, we ran into a rather unique group of individuals. Theo was a naturally curious man, so he would have been inclined to work with them even before they tempted him with honeyed words and promises of knowledge lost to alchemists of the present. But then they promised him….”
Elsa trailed off before shaking her head. “No, that’s not important. Not anymore. What is important was that he ended up getting involved with one of them and he died because of the infighting between the factions.”
I frowned. There were multiple factions?
“The spirit who normally acted as the contact between myself and them hasn’t shown itself in quite some time,” she continued. “That was why I was worried when I felt the gateway stir. I thought they’d returned. Now tell me how you two get involved with all of this?”
I told of our involvement, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
Not because I feared her being an enemy. But because I knew she’d be less than thrilled with our informal induction into things due to Alice’s circumstances. Judging from how her gown was actively bristling and writhing by the time I was done, she was…
More than a touch upset. “YOU COULD HAVE DIED!”
“I am aware of that now, but ultimately it was the only way I could help Alice,” I reasoned. “Now the question is do you know some means by which we can proceed to traverse that environment safely in the future?”
She visibly struggled to calm down once more before she continued on. “I… had hoped I might be able to convince you to not involve yourself any further. But after hearing all of that I suspect even if I refused to help you for your own good, you’d keep moving ahead. That girl is simply too important to you, isn’t she?”
“Until Alice’s circumstances have been remedied, I cannot allow myself not to pursue a potential pathway,” I confessed. Alice was in danger. Something had to be done and I was the only one in a position to do something immediately.
“Sweetie, believe me when I say that I understand why you’d take such a risk,” Elsa began as thick roots emerged from below the gateway. “But I can’t let you go through the gateway without taking measure of the situation personally. It’d be the same thing as leaving you to die.”
The roots swiftly entwined it so completely that not a single bit of the stone was left exposed. Most likely they were also resistant to most other methods of getting rid of them such as fire or blades. We wouldn’t be able to get through it.
Elsa then reached over towards my shoulders with her arms and settled her fibrous digits on them. “Just give me a day to make sure that you at least know the basics. Then I’ll escort you through myself. I promise.”
I supposed that was the best compromise we could reach. “Very well, Elsa. You have my gratitude.”
She only shook her head slowly as she released me. “I don’t want to be thanked for helping you with this, because it’s not something I want to do. It’s something I have to do. Because I can’t bear the thought of losing someone a second time and…”
Her gaze shifted to Aeria.
“…and I owe it to you, since I was the reason you were separated from the Wind Spirits on the other side.”
Aeria stirred atop my head at that. “So… my home is on the other side of that gateway?”
She nodded. “I realized that you slipped out once I met you, but I had no way of getting you back home on my own. And Kowler seemed like a good boy, so I told myself that if I wanted to make up for everything, I’d make sure you were comfortable with him.”
I’d expected Aeria to be curious and inquiring on the topic of her home upon hearing that. But instead she seemed oddly silent. It was… disturbing, to be honest.
I opted to break the awkward silence that lingered between us. “Very well. We’ll abstain from attempting to cross the gateway without your assistance and return home for the moment. If we delay any longer, Mother will be displeased.”
Elsa nodded her head and then quietly sank into the ground.
I wanted to believe that it was a sign she’d left to tend the lake as she’d been doing before. But she could easily be watching us from anywhere within her dominion—which was every tree, every rock, and likely every blade of grass around us. I wouldn’t feel comfortable until I passed through the wards of our home, knowing she had no power there, and that was a bitter thought that my mouth twisting in distaste until we arrived at the gates.
Fortunately, a more pleasant surprise awaited us there as I noticed we had another set of guests. “Uncle? Cousin? You’ve already arrived?”
My uncle was a tall man with an imposing figure and chiseled features. Though he and Mother were related to one another, having been born in this very town, he had lived a very different life. The very way he stood had an edge to it, as if he was readying to move at any point and alert for any surprises. Then again, it may just be the prospect of dealing with Mother that has him on edge.
In contrast, my cousin was just only slightly above my height and but was also muscular. His skin was a darker complexion, his hair messier than mine with the edges coming down to his neck, and his eyes were a light shade of crimson. They were all traits he inherited from his mother from what I’ve been told.
“Kowler,” Uncle said as I approached. “You’ve grown since the last time I’ve seen you.”
“Not by much,” I replied. “Though I am glad to see you both as well, I hope that Mother’s summons hasn’t inconvenienced you. I understand that around this time of year the more seasonal monsters become more active, thus you must surely be busy keeping the mining settlement safe.”
“The guys are more than enough to keep them in check,” my cousin vouched. “And it’s not like everyone isn’t used to dealing with them without us, so there’s no harm in us coming to visit you, ferids den.”
Ah, that was the phrase for ‘distant brother’ in his native tongue, I believe. In the part of the region he lived in it wasn’t uncommon for there to be exchanges of family members between the differing communities for the sake keeping the population in check or marriages. He considered me and the others distant siblings rather than extended family.
“Nice to see you too, solm mel,” he greeted Aeria. It meant ‘Little Wind’ in his mother’s tongue. Fittingly enough for her.
“…Hello,” Aeria said in a rather subdued tone. It was a strong contrast to her normal greeting upon meeting him, given how they normally interacted.
Either way, Cousin Franz didn’t seem to mind as his travel cloak rustled. Was he searching for something? “The letter you sent mentioned that the knife I made for you was broken, right? Here’s a replacement for you.”
He pulled out a sheath made of rough leather with a hilt sticking out, wrapped in straps of the same material. It looked to be another knife carved from bone of some kind. I took it from his grasp, but my eyes then fell onto his arm wrapped in bandages.
“What happened to your arm?”
He looked down to it. “A jungle cat was prowling around and ended up attacking me. I managed to kill it, but it did a number on my arm. The two healers there already have enough work cut out for them, so I was willing to just let it heal naturally once they closed the wound.”
Logically, it made sense. The number of medeors was scarce as it was, and those willing to relocate to the settlement was that Mother and her partners had established with the help of the indigenous people there numbered only two in total. Between the workers in the mines and the nature of the environment, they’d have to rely on items and supplies that were delivered monthly. A scar was a small price to pay if their stock was limited from that perspective.
“It’s fine though.” He pulled down the collar of his cloak to reveal a set of teeth and claws strung around his neck. “I kept its fangs and claws as trophies, and one of its bones was used to make your knife. I even had the pelt worked into my gift to your sister for her wedding.”
“At the very least, allow me to look over the injury inside,” I said, making my way towards the door. Even if they may have had to carefully restrict their own usage at the settlement, there was no reason to let him walk around with that unnecessary injury.
We passed through the gateway and the barrier without any problems. Regardless of the… issues between Mother and Uncle, I didn’t think she would have keyed him or Cousin Franz out of it. Not when they were invited to the wedding, apparently.
“Welcome home, Master Kowler,” Miss Taun said as she opened the door. Her usual uniform complimented by a hint of makeup and… perfume, I believe. “It’s good to see you too, Franz. You’ve gotten so much bigger.”
“Nice to see you too,” he told her. “Hope you’ve been taking care of yourself.”
“I have.” She then looked to my Uncle and the gentle smile she gave myself and Franz blossomed brightly. “It’s been a long time. I’m glad to see you’re still doing well.”
“You too, Eve,” he said, offering her his own smile.
The expression Miss Taun made reminded me of how Alice would gaze upon me at times. I don’t think they were in a relationship the last time I’d seen my Uncle, but it has been a few years and I mostly avoided returning home when I could. And the two had known each other since Mother was in her youth…
Regardless, I had the distinct impression I shouldn’t linger. So, I excused myself and had Franz follow me inside while the two talked to one another. We were halfway down the hall when one of the doors to the side opened inwards.
“I sha—” Miss Luella’s voice cut short as she bumped into my cousin. It seemed that she had been speaking with someone else in the Library and so her attention wasn’t in front of her. She began to stumble back, but before she could fall over further Franz’s hand caught her slender wrist as what sounded like her brother called her name from inside the room.
Seemingly reflexively she tried to pull out of his grasp before her eyes were drawn towards him. Then her posture and expression changed almost instantly. In an almost meek voice she said, “Oh… pardon me. I-I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Luella, are you unharmed?” Mister Faunel asked as he came into view, casting a worried gaze over his sibling as my cousin released her.
“I’m fine, Brother,” she said before bowing her head slightly in apology. “Pray forgive me. I wasn’t paying attention, sir.”
Franz simply shook his head. “No harm done. You must be the younger sister and my cousin’s fiancé?”
“Yes,” she answered quickly, followed by a curtsy that elicited a quirk of the brow from her brother for some reason. “Luella Drisden. And may I have your name?”
“Franz Bryde,” he said, brushing his hand against his cloak before extending it out towards her. “Nice to meet you.”
She accepted it before noticing the bandages on his arm. He’d used his injured one. “Oh, dear. You were already hurt?”
“An injury he sustained before traveling here,” I said. “I was taking him to my room to deal with it. It wouldn’t do for it to remain with the upcoming wedding.”
“I can do that!” The offer was abrupt as she stepped closer to my cousin. “I’m a medeor, and a skilled one at that. It wouldn’t take very long, and you wouldn’t have to waste any of your supplies. You only brought so much, correct?”
I never imagined her for the enthusiastic type given her disposition last night. However, she seemed to overlook an obvious fact that she was not in a place where she could practice her magic freely. The wards around our home wouldn’t be lifted for such a trivial reason as mending an old wound when a simpler solution was present.
“It wouldn’t do for a guest to strain themselves for such a matter,” I said, keeping my tone as diplomatic as possible to avoid pointing out the obvious. “Nevertheless, your offer is appreciated. Come along, Franz.”
My cousin thanked her for the offer as well before following me along to my room. He took a seat in a chair while I set down Aeria in her play area and said, “She seemed nice.”
“I suppose so.” I took a seat across from him and slowly unpeeled the bandage. The state of the injury left me to question the capabilities of the medeors on-staff, but he did say he only had them close the wound. “I’ll sterilize it and then apply a Vulnerary Balm that’ll eat away at the dead cells and regenerate healthy ones.”
“That stuff doesn’t itch, does it?”
“It’ll be brief,” I said plainly before setting a small cloth beneath his arm and then set to work. “It’s fortunate that whatever beast you fought didn’t do much worse.”
“Dad chewed me out about it,” he said with a chuckle. “Said if I hadn’t gotten its head the moment it bit down, I probably would have lost the arm when it started thrashing.”
That was entirely a possibility looking at the wound and those teeth around his neck. It wouldn’t surprise me if it went after his throat instead and he only blocked with his arm. He’d always been quick when it came to reflexes.
“Is she doing okay?” He asked while looking towards the window where Aeria was. The Wind Spirit was simply looking out of it with her arms resting on the windowsill, dark eyes unblinking. “She’s been awfully quiet compared to the other times I’ve seen her.”
It was actually somewhat unnerving with her being so quiet. But the reason for it was something that shouldn’t be discussed in the present company. So I made an excuse about her being tired due to dealing with the Bloudfly and entertained him with the story of how we dealt with it along with Elsa while tending to his arm.
“I really don’t think you have room to talk about me being reckless when you’re handling monsters.”
“Elsa and Aeria were more than enough for keeping me safe,” I told him. “Even with the safe measures we took, had it been something far more dangerous I would have never approached as closely as I did if I could help it. I’d simply have Aeria suffocate it from a distance…. and I have finished. How does it feel?”
He flexed his arm after I was done applying the balm and it sank into his flesh, leaving unblemished and smooth skin. It would be a little sensitive for a time, but there were no complications. “It’s good as new. We could use a guy like you down there to make this stuff. Sure you don’t want to come with us when we head back?”
“The prospect is interesting, but I’ll pass. I have a shop to run and I’m quite fond of it.”
“Shame.” He shrugged his shoulders before setting the gift he’d brought me aside and seeing himself out to get something to eat. They hadn’t had breakfast along the last leg of their trip, so I was sure that something would be provided for them.
That meant I could focus my attention on the docile Wind Spirit still sitting in the window. I walked over towards her and asked, “Aeria, what’s bothering you so greatly?”
“…I was thinking about what it would be like if I hadn’t ended up here,” she said after a pause. “Like, if I have a family on the other side, do you think they’ll be like Alice’s family or Elsa’s or yours?”
It seemed that she’d been doing a lot of introspective thinking on what we learned from Elsa. It didn’t really suit her to be honest. “Hmm… well, I cannot be certain how familial relations between wild spirits would manifest. We would need to ask Elsa or see for ourselves when the time comes.”
“But what if they missed me?” Her iridescent wings fluttered to life and she rose up to my eye-level. “What if they want me to stay with them and leave you behind?”
“That would be a problem,” I admitted. “I am not sure I’d be able to broker a deal with them the same as I did with you to enter a contract. I lack the capacity either way. The question would be what you would do instead?”
Her thin lips pursed until she finally admitted in a quiet voice. “…I don’t know.”
“Well, when I am faced with a difficult decision, I usually consider the merits and consequences of what my actions will bring about. What would you gain and lose from deciding to stay with them?”
“Umm… I think having a bunch of spirits like me around would be really fun. Oh, but then I won’t see you or Alice or Elsa anymore. And I don’t think I’d get sweets either. And I’d be worried about how scary you’d get too.”
I frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You get scary when you get worried about Alice,” she told me. “And if I go away… I think you’ll get scarier. I don’t like that. And I don’t think Alice or Elsa would like that either.”
I took a moment to just process that tidbit of information. Then I patted her on the head with a finger. “I promise, I won’t get scarier. So how about you stop worrying about that so we can finally get some answers tomorrow, okay?”
She grabbed my finger with her tiny hands before sighing. “Okay~”