The altocumulus clouds in the early summer’s sky were reflected by the clear blue surface of the lake. The sunlight shone from high above, burning their skin.
Though, a refreshing wind blew across the lake, cooling down the merciless heat to an extent. As the water’s surface rippled, the sunlight started to glitter.
Among all that, one boat advanced unsteadily.
“Kei, we’re slightly drifting to the right.”
“Hmm… How about this?”
“No, the other way, the other way! I meant the right side from my perspective!”
On the opposite side of Kei, Aileen pointed towards his left-hand side. Kei put some strength into his left hand, having a tough time using the oars for the first time.
Pushed by his strength, the oar made the water swirl as it created thrust. Along the sound of splashing and burbling, the boat gradually changed its direction.
“…Okay, we’ve straightened up now.”
“Uhh, this is proving to be quite difficult.”
Kei muttered under his breath without stopping to row. The process of rowing itself did not look like anything overly difficult, but it made one use muscles they normally did not use, so the mental fatigue was quite taxing. In addition to that, not being able to see the direction he was going made him more stressed than he had imagined.
“Is it too much?”
“It’s not, but I’m not really used to it.”
He replied immediately to Aileen’s concern. His words showed a little stubbornness since he did not want to look pathetic in her eyes, but he did not really lie. He felt that his muscles were being put to work, but he could keep this up for hours.
Incidentally, normally you would move a rowboat like this not by just using your arms but your entire upper body, utilizing all your body’s strength, but alas, there was no expert around to tell him that.
“Well, we have no need to rush. Let’s enjoy it slowly.”
This doesn’t feel so bad either, Kei’s expression was bright. Aileen who sat at the back of the boat also had a soft smile on her face.
“Yeah! …But I feel a bit peckish.”
Saying so, Aileen started to rummage through their shopping bag. She grabbed a still-warm galette with cheese and munched on it in a showy fashion as Kei was stuck rowing the boat.
She expressed happily with a hand on her cheek, apparently enjoying it. Kei even felt like he could hear fluffy sound effects coming from her.
“Ahh, you started without me…”
“I’m hungry, I couldn’t help it.”
Since freighters were going back and forth until the half-point of the lake, they planned to start eating once they got close to the temple as it would be dangerous otherwise. However, Aileen seemed to have forgotten all about this arrangement, and started to wolf down the food rather than stopping at a single bite.
“Maybe I should eat as well.”
Kei himself had not eaten anything since waking up either. It was only a matter of time until the feeling of hunger would grow intense.
“Hehehe, unfortunately, we can’t have you do that.”
With a mean-looking smile, Aileen drew the shopping bag towards her.
“You have to keep rowing.”
“I mean, it’ll be dangerous if we stay around here, right? Look, a freighter’s coming our way while we’re talking.”
She pointed at Kei’s right-hand side with her empty hand. As he glanced there, a large freighter was indeed approaching from the front.
Looking back and forth between the bag and Aileen, Kei put on the expression of a dog that was made to wait as he dejectedly continued to row.
“I’m hungry too…”
Kei endured his hunger in frustration as they passed the freighter. Stuffing the galette into her mouth, Aileen shrugged her shoulders in exasperation.
“You’re hopeless. Alright, you can have some, too.”
She groped around in the bag while chewing. And then, with a “Ta-ta-ta!” hum, she pulled out one more galette and held it out towards Kei’s mouth.
“Here you go.”
He bit into the galette in front of his eyes without so much as a thought.
“Heheh, I know, right?”
Aileen declared proudly as if it was her own cooking as Kei kept biting pieces off the galette.
“Wheew! Look at them go!”
“Two lovebirds showing off!”
Such banters made them both freeze up.
Looking back, it came from the freighter they just had passed. People on-board were leaning over and looking at them. As Aileen turned towards them, her beauty made them shift into loud cheers.
“Are you on a date? Oh, what youthfulness!”
“Hey young lady! Why don’t we have some tea later!?”
For an instant the two looked at each other blankly, but in the next moment they realized how they had to appear to others right now, and averted their eyes.
Aileen quickly got back to her back seat, while Kei resumed rowing in silence. Due to the relative velocity, they swiftly left the noisy sailors behind.
Even as the two refused to meet gazes, they still seemed to be testing the waters with each other in silence.
Kei looked at the transparent water while still keeping Aileen at a corner of his eyes.
“…The water sure is beautiful here.”
He muttered as if speaking to himself.
“Yeah, I was thinking the same.”
Aileen confirmed very naturally. She then slightly leaned over the boat’s side, peering into the endlessly blue lake.
“It feels as if you can look all the way to the bottom…”
As Kei stopped rowing, the ripples on the water ceased, the lake’s surface becoming as still as a mirror, and thus reflecting Aileen’s face. The boat still advanced slowly due to its inertia, causing small ripples at the bow.
“Would you be able to see the bottom with your eyes, Kei?”
Aileen asked innocently as she raised her face.
“I could earlier but I can’t anymore. It’s probably quite deep here.”
“I see. How deep do you think?”
“At a glance, the last time I saw the bottom, it seemed to be around 8 meters deep.”
“Hohh, that’s pretty deep.”
As they talked about such silly things, the boat had drawn close to the islet without them realizing. When they reached a point slightly away from the harbor, from where they could see the white stairs leading to the temple, they spread their food on the bilge and treated themselves to a lavish lunch.
“Which reminds me, Granny Marie talked about it before, didn’t she? The legend of Lake Synapeia.”
Aileen said while cutting a dry-cured ham in thin slices.
“Yeah, apparently,” she washed down the meat in her mouth with cider and continued, “there seems to be a sunken ship somewhere in this lake. One fully loaded with gold and silver at that.”
“Huh… Did it get into an accident or something?”
“No, it was apparently the Spirit of Water that sank it.”
In the distant past, people living near the lake’s shore had acted like they owned the place, using the lake water, throwing garbage into it, and even polluting it with sewage.
But one day, the Spirit of Water could no longer endure the lake’s contamination, and caused a whirlpool in a fit of rage.
Every single ship and boat on the lake was swallowed, dragging them all the way down to the bottom of the lake.
In addition, the reverse currents flowing through the irrigation channels laid waste to the fields, ruining all the crops.
“Having their crops destroyed and thus being on the verge of starvation, the inhabitants swore to never pollute the lake ever again. And to appease the Spirit, they built the temple on the islet at the center, revering it — or so the story goes.”
“And among those ships, there was one loaded with treasures?”
“Sounds like it. According to granny, it had happened 200 years ago, and has even been recorded in history books. However, there are no records about a ship full of treasures.”
“Well, that’s how legends usually go.”
Shrugging a bit, he reached out to the cider next to Aileen and chugged it down.
“Still, it sure stirrs one’s adventurous spirit, doesn’t it? I don’t really care about the riches…but Treasure Hunting really has a nice ring to it.”
“I’m with you on that.”
The two exchanged nods with folded arms.
From the very start, Kei and Aileen had loved these kinds of dreamy tales. It was normal for them to rush over whenever they heard interesting rumors about a place in the game. Naturally, they had gone through painful experiences because of that, but it still suited their style to enjoy things, even if they were a little risky.
“Can’t you do anything about it with Kerstin’s magic?”
“I was just thinking about that too. If I let her【Inspect】the lake’s bottom, she should easily find some ship remains – theoretically.”
Kerstin was a Shadow Spirit. If she portrayed the underwater area with【Inspect】they could grasp the bottom’s topography at a level of detail rivalling the latest sonar scans.
“The problem would be the amount of catalysts, and what we could do about it, even if we find it.”
“Hmm. for crystals, around 5 kg should be enough for a lake of this size.”
Aileen looked over the lake while plucking off a cherry.
“But even if we do find it, how are we going to pull up the wreckage?”
“We would’ve dived in without any questions asked if this was still a game… No wait, can’t we do it here as well?”
Kei muttered while peering at the lake bottom. He said so considering his body strengthened by『Crests』, but he also felt reserved since he was not used to swimming. However, Aileen immediately rejected his suggestion.
“The bottom areas of lakes are usually extremely cold. I’ve heard about getting hypothermia from cold currents and dying after swimming deep down in lakes. Let’s not do that stuff in real life, okay?”
“I see… Yeah, we don’t even know how deep it really is. There are no industrial machines around, so diving suits are out of question too…”
“If there was a water magician around, it would be a different story, but…”
Their eyes were naturally pulled towards the『Water Spirit Temple』.
“…I wonder if that place has one.”
“Hmm. But listening to that Legend, the Spirit here seems to be a high-ranking one. I can’t imagine anyone forming a contract with it…”
They pouted in unison.
In【DEMONDAL】Spirits were roughly divided into three tiers, but High-Ranking Spirits were practically close to NPCs, appearing in set locations but in exchange, making unreasonable demands for forming contracts. Generally, players could only form contracts with mid-ranking Spirits and below, so the contract requirements of high-ranking Spirits were already harsh by game standards — things like gathering ten Wyvern eyeballs — and could be regarded as impossible for this world’s residents.
Incidentally, Kei’s contracted spirit, Siv was mid-rank, while Aileen’s Kelstein was low-rank.
“Well, if there had been a water magician around, they’d have pulled it up long ago.”
“True. Besides, we don’t even know if we can find it even if I use【Inspect】.”
“It’d be quite a bummer if it turns out there was no treasure on it too… I guess, it’s better for legends to remain legends.”
“Yeah. Guess we should give up.”
While they talked, all their food vanished in the blink of an eye. And as they rubbed their full belies, they relaxed their seating postures, making it more comfortable on their stomachs.
“Ugh… I’m full… Can’t eat another bite…”
“We sure ate a lot. But, it was delicious.”
Kei nodded, filled with all kinds of emotions.
It had been a meal while chatting. Unlike with the lonely dinner last night, he had focused much more on the conversation than the food’s taste, but his heart was still filled with a sense of happiness, screaming delicious.
This is how a meal should be — he thought while sipping on the remaining cider as a finisher.
“I’m sleepy…” With an elegant yawn, Aileen laid down on the bilge.
“Yawning is really contagious.”
Stifling down the sleepiness assaulting him, Kei stretched his back and looked up.
“It sure is a nice day.”
“Yeah… Hey, Kei, can you see the stars during daytime?”
“Yeah, I can.”
“Seriously? That’s so nice~ What do they look like?”
“What, you ask… They just look like white dots. It’s not that beautiful, and I can’t see all the smaller stars as I can during the night.”
“Ohh~『Enhanced Vision』definitely is amazing…”
Aileen raised her hand above her head as she was lying and staring at the blue sky. She continued gazing at the invisible stars for a while, but her eyelids gradually closed, until eventually…
She started to snore lightly.
Kei gazed at her while resting his chin on his hand for some time, but then reconsidered that staying here for too long would not be smart — though that would be quite romantic in its own way — and lightly shook the boat.
“Huh… Did I fall asleep!?”
Aileen jerked up, her eyes wide open.
“You’ve nodded off for a few minutes… Should I have not woken you up?”
“No, it’s okay. Thanks. I almost completely fell asleep there.”
She stretched like a cat and looked towards the temple.
“…Should we get going then?”
Nodding, Kei grabbed the oars.
Even from close up, their impression of it being a small island did not change. As Aileen, who was in charge of guiding him, gave various instructions, they reached the wharf which had been constructed out of wood.
New pilgrims had likely arrived while Kei and Aileen ate. There was a big ferry anchored at the harbor, the ferryman smoking his pipe out of boredom. While nodding at him in greeting as he suspiciously eyed the new arrivals, they tied a rope to the wharf’s bollard.
“Guess that’ll do it.”
“I don’t think it’ll get stolen, but it’d be no laughing matter if the wind carried it off.”
Earlier they had been chatting about diving and treasure hunting, but Kei did not feel like swimming in a place where his feet couldn’t reach the ground, if at all possible.
They walked off the wharf and ascended white stairs. The island was shaped like a hill, as if it had risen in the middle of the lake.
“Did they make this by carrying the materials with boats?” Aileen asked while scaling the stairs.
“Probably. Though it was all done to appease the Spirit’s anger, it’s quite well-made.”
“It’s all hand-made, isn’t it? That’s crazy…”
It was probably as tall as a two-storey building. As they finished ascending the stone steps, they passed pilgrims clad in robes.
All that was left in front of them was an open space filled with a sense of tranquility.
Aileen gasped in wonder at the sight spreading out before her.
White Temple — it had a series of white pillars reminiscent of Greek ones, and a wooden roof that looked like an overturned ship. Given that it was a place to worship the Water Spirit, the builders had apparently shaped the roof like this on purpose. With the keel in its center, coupled with the strange streamline shape of the roof, it gave off a somewhat unrealistic, yet peculiar atmosphere of functional beauty.
The road leading up from the stairs to the temple was paved with white marble. It stretched ahead with the green trees at its sides rustling in the wind.
This island, which floated on the blue lake, was, quite literally, separated from the outside world. The penetrating silence created a mysterious atmosphere, both calming and tingling. It made them feel that they were standing on sacred grounds.
That word was simple, but because it was so simple it held no falsehood.
Putting it in a bad way, Kei had underestimated this temple. Given that this was the countryside, he did not expect much when he heard about the temple here, thinking that it might at most be something like a small shrine.
But now that he had seen it — he was overwhelmed by what ought to be described as a Spirit’s dignity.
“…I see, no wonder people come here for pilgrimage.”
“Yeah… Let’s go inside too!”
Aileen, not at all bothered by the solemn atmosphere, pulled Kei’s hand, entering the temple.
Given that it was only built by pillars and a roof, the place felt endlessly vast. The floor was paved with plain tiles, and in the center stood a pure white marble sculpture.
On a pedestal that was big enough to be held in two hands was a sculpture of a beauty in a robe of feathers. A heavy-looking box was placed down on the floor in front of the statue, and a rope hung all the way down from the ceiling, allowing one to grab it at the height of a person’s waist.
“Is that rope the “bell that grants wishes” thing!?”
Aileen merrily hurried to the sculpture in a jog and tugged on the rope without any hesitation.
Clank clank, came the sound of bells from above.
“Ohh, this is what I’m talking about!”
Aileen exclaimed joyfully. It somehow reminded Kei of the first shrine visit at New Year.
“What about the wish?”
“What did you wish for?”
Aileen answered with a meaningful smile to his casual question.
“It’s a secret!”
And then stuck her tongue out at Kei with her eyes closed. But she did not say another word and just laughed at his bewildered expression.
“So? What about you, Kei?”
This time, she was the one to ask, as if trying to forcefully change the topic. Kei could only spot pure curiosity on her face, nothing else. He found her attitude strange, or rather, cryptic, but he just moved on and started to ponder, propping up his chin with a hand.
“A wish, huh…”
He thought about a possible wish candidate for a while.
But nothing came to mind.
Hold on, there must be something!
Still, nothing came up.
Come on, there should be something… something…
He contemplated, despite sensing the impatience coming from Aileen staring at him with round eyes.
What he remembered was from two weeks ago. The period when【DEMONDAL】was still a game.
What I had as my goal was… Right…
“I want to take my bow skill to the limit.”
“I want to exceed 2000 kills.”
“I want to complete the set of feathers from every bird.”
“I want the Dragon Scale Armor too.”
…It’s nothing but silly things.
Even he could not help but laugh bitterly at his own wishes. “Taking the bow skill to the limit” aside, the rest were either pointless things, or things he did not want to do in this reality. As a matter of fact, he could not come up with a single that that was unrelated to the game.
It would be more proper to say that he was trying not to think about anything beyond the game.
Kei finally realized, after arriving at this point.
What he had been really wishing for two weeks ago.
“I want to live.”
“I want to live even a second longer.”
It was a wish both earnest and sincere, yet filled with lamentation.
Naturally, he was not wishing for a long life.
It was an optimistic yet resigned dream for the fleeting flame of his life to keep burning, even if just a second longer…
Kei was here.
He was here, with a body that was the very definition of health.
I see, my wish has already been—
Kei laughed at himself for taking so long to realise that fact.
But if he was asked whether there was nothing else he wished for, the answer would be a no.
I’m standing at a turning point.
He thought as he looked back at his old self.
He had been constantly fixated on living until now.
But now that he has been given a healthy body and allowed to live normally, he had to look for another goal.
Nay, he wanted to look for a goal.
Not merely live on, but how to live on — the time had come where he could allow himself to seek that.
Still, that’s hard. I can’t think of something like that on the spot…
I should have started thinking about this beforehand… He thought, but before he invited Aileen, he was in no state to think about such things.
Suddenly, he raised his face.
“…Hmm? What’s wrong?”
A beautiful girl stood there tilting her head as he looked at her.
Kei’s expression relaxed into a smile.
Even if I don’t think about difficult things, I still have one wish I want to have fulfilled, don’t I?
He calmly reached out and firmly gripped the rope.
Clank-clank-clank, the bells rang loudly.
“That took you a while? What did you wish for, Kei?”
Aileen asked brimming with curiosity, but Kei simply laughed and answered.
“…It’s a secret.”
Later, they finally realized that the box in front of the sculpture served as an offertory box, tried to find out each others wishes, chased each other around as result of the probing, but with Aileen being a speed-type, Kei stood no chance and was caught by her in no time…leading to the temple manager catching them sticking close together, which was a huge embarrassment, and so on. Eventually, the sun started to sink, and thus they decided to return to the town.
“I’m glad we came here.”
Kei muttered earnestly as he rowed the oars, now somewhat accustomed to the motions.
He followed the white temple with his eyes as it got further and further away. If not for that place, he would not have made up with Aileen so smoothly. Kei silently offered a heartfelt prayer to the Water Spirit.
“Yeah, it was really fun.”
Aileen confirmed, also looking very satisfied. None of the previously awkward atmosphere was present between the two anymore.
Within the silence which was strangely not painful, only the quiet burbling of the water was audible. The islet in the distance, the boats and ferries going back and forth, the sky gradually turning madder red — it all looked very gentle and calm.
Accidentally, their eyes met, locking with each other, just for them to immediately pull away, and then, shortly thereafter, to seek out each other again.
Under the still-bright sky, Aileen’s face alone stood out vividly. Her blue eyes, filled with a dazzling light — were far more beautiful than the stars of the night sky, Kei felt in his heart.
Kei’s mouth naturally opened. Aileen responded, a smile on her face.
He wondered what to say, but his mouth moved on its own.
A familiar husky voice.
The two looked towards the source as if having their eyes drawn towards it.
A few dozen meters ahead was a ferry full of pilgrims.
Among them was a youth waving excitedly at them…
“AILEEN SO THIS IS WHERE YOU WEEERE!!”
The one yelling his lungs out was no one other than Alexei.
“”Gehh!!””, yelped the two in unison.
“I have been waiting for you all morning! That was quite cold of you, Aileeeeeeen!”
He yelled carefreely despite the content of his words, and on a closer look, his face was flushed. The youngsters laughing foolishly around him — the apprentices from the caravan — were looking similarly wasted.
“Damn it, you’re far! You’re far, Aileen! I’ll come over right away!”
With an extremely bright smile, Alexei made such a disturbing statement, and of all things, started to undress on the spot…
“Wha! Wha! Wha!”
“For fuck’s sake, what the hell’s wrong with him!”
Aileen turned away with a bright face. By the time Kei came to his senses and grabbed the oars, Alexei imposedly stood on the ship, buck naked.
With that yell, he leaped into the lake, using a perfect jumping form. The water rose up with a splash!
Then, with a swimming style similar to butterfly, he rapidly closed in on them while yelling Aileen’s name in-between his breaths.
“Kei! We’re running!”
“You don’t have to tell me!”
Kei started rowing with all his strength.
As he invested all his power, the oars produced an explosively propulsive thrust. However, Alexei was still slightly faster. He gradually gained on them, accompanied by sparkling water drops dancing through the air like butterflies.
“Shit, he’s friggin’ fast!”
“Kei, at this rate he’s going to catch up!”
“Wasn’t this lake supposed to be cold!? What about hypothermia!?”
“Don’t ask me!!”
The pilgrims on the ferry and the sailors on the nearby freighters rolled around in laughter at that hillarious spectacle, but Kei had no time to be worried about their guffawing.
“Why did you have to show up here!?”
Kei kept desperately rowing with a flushed face as Alexei followed while yelling Aileen’s name.
Aileen who was screaming at first was now holding her sides with laughter as she watched the two.
And just like that, a boat and a man disappeared beyond the horizon of the twilight’s lake.
Concerning the result.
Alexei eventually caught up to the boat, but Kei’s oar just happened to land on his head and knocked him out in one shot, ending the chase without any incidents.
…And thus the peaceful day came to an end.