Chapter 34 – Investigation

 


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Northland.

Northland was the general term for the region located north of the “United Duchy of Acland.”

Due to its sheer size and the below-mentioned political reasons, it was extremely difficult to clearly define its geopolitical boundaries, but typically, the northern region, with the buffered city “Dilan’niren” as border, was considered to be under control of the Snowlanders, and the regions outside United Duchy of Acland’s control were also often defined as Northland.

The true state of that region could be described as a national community, which had no definite royal authority. During emergencies, the representatives of the main tribes would assemble and adopt a pseudo parliamentary system where they would decide on the future policies of the entire region.

Depending on the issues, some were occasionally even resolved through duels, which made it hard to not call their governmental form extremely barbaric and primitive. Additionally, each tribe claimed the rights of their respective regions, but since the boundaries differed depending on the tribe’s perspective, skirmishes over water sources or veins were never-ending.

The largest city in the Northland was Bronzovoye Koltso located at the shore of the lake Sylveria.

The eight biggest tribes of the Snowlanders (Vilaev, Myasoedov, Nesterov, Zivarg, Pasternak, Khitrovo, Groboyedov, Dolgiev) included, practically all tribe representatives lived in that city, so it was considered to be Northland’s political center.

Important large-scale settlements were also scattered around it, and with the route to the buffered city Dilan’niren via the southern city Belyansk, it functioned as strategic point in regards to transportation (incidentally, the ground leveling techniques of Northland were incomparably low compared to the Duchy, so the highways where carriages could pass through were quite limited).

Going further north from Bronzovoye Koltso, you would reach Beloravnina. It was an empty, white plain that stretched out endlessly towards the horizon, with freezing winds raging across the ground and snow falling regardless of the season. Many adventurers tried to investigate the place in the past, but most of them never returned, and no one ever reached its end. Digressing a little, the rate of those returning was so low, even with the harsh weather taken into account, that rumors about man-eating demons inhabiting those white plains never died out.

The western part of Northland faced the Ardeila Sea similar to the Duchy. The seashore had a prospering fishing harbor, and coupled with the relatively warm climate for Northland, the western part was known for its comfortability of life for the Snowlanders who were adapted to life in harsh environments.

According to one theory, the Snowlanders had also crossed the Ardeila Sea and drifted into Northland around the same time as the Plainsfolk who had come to Ri’leir from Folland (at around year P.K. 400), but the records of those times were lost and their accurate origin remained unknown (Refer to the “Snowlander” article for more details).

Conversely, the eastern part was a vast woodland thanks to the abundant rivers flowing into it from the Beloravnina. It had many needle-leaf plants that were accustomed to the cold climate and terrain, and it had quite a unique and interesting ecosystem with plants that bloomed in winter, and indigenous humanoid monsters entirely covered in fur.

On a related note, the “Haunted Forest” legends were famous in Northland. These referred to the southeastern part of the eastern woodlands, which was relatively close to human habitation. For an incomprehensible reason, this region was covered in heavy fog all year around.

Haunted Forest (Northland).

Oh the deeply feared beings that appear from the gaps of the freezing cliffs.

Both the light pouring down from the far and high, and the competing winds blowing fiercely, avoid you.

As if in fear of being swallowed by you.

Excerpt from Northern Travelogue, written by Hercules Elkin.

 

The Haunted Forest, also known as the Wiseman’s Hideout, and the Forest of Demons, referred to the northeastern area of Northland.

Essentially, the sea of trees that used the Beloravina waters as source spread in the eastern part of Northland, and particularly the northeastern part of it was a place covered in constant fog regardless of the season.

The locals considered the forest to be either demonic or perhaps a certain kind of holy ground. The author of the aforementioned Northern Travelogue, the traveler Hercules Elkin, described the fog as being so dense that it felt like he was blocked by a giant wall. During his stay over four days in a nearby village, Hercules headed to the fog’s entrance several times, but overpowered by the bizarre atmosphere, he never managed to muster his courage to enter it.

But as if to compensate for that, he started to vigorously interview the locals and gather information.

The giant, towering humanoid figures wriggling in the fog, the screams that sounded female, the countless footsteps that could be heard every once in a while, and will-o-wisps drifting all over the place during the night; there were far too many inexplicable tales about the forest to count. (Refer to the Northern Travelogue article for more details.)

But the most interesting tale among them all was perhaps the anecdote about the Wiseman who had built his mansion beyond the fog, which was the origin of its other name, the Wiseman’s Hideout.

The Haunted Forest was known to drive anyone mad after they took a few steps into it and to rob one’s life if they got lost inside, but there were rare cases of people returning with their sanity.

They spoke of a luxurious mansion within the forest of fog that stood out like a sore thumb. According to them, it was inhabited by a wise man in a red robe who possessed a collection of countless books. Those who wandered about and luckily managed to reach that mansion were brought back to the entrance by the Wiseman and managed to hold on to their lives.

It was also said that he granted them a panacea that could heal all illnesses and imparted valuable magic secrets onto them, but the validity of that remained unknown.

At any rate, it was certain that there were a number of people that claimed that they got lost within the Haunted Forest and encountered the red-robed Wiseman. According to research, the Haunted Forest was enveloped by a barrier strong enough to block low-level Spirits from entering, thus ‘something’ that created such a magical domain had to exist inside.

However, due to the deterioration in relationship with the Duchy after the Military Campaign in the year P.K. 742, the magic squad’s investigation was aborted, and as the details remained unclear.

 

 

†††

 

 

He felt something squirm beside him.

Kei groggily opened his eyes while it was still dim.

He was inside his inn room. A lamp was hanging down from the ceiling, affixed to a beam with a chain. Taking a look next to him, Aileen was just waking up and rubbing her eyes with a groan.

After a short while, her eyes finally perceived Kei. The two’s sleepy eyes stared at each other for some time.

“…Mornin’, Kei.”

“Morning, Aileen.”

As he stroked her head, she smiled and stretched like a cat. The sheet fell off, revealing her white, naked body.

Kei appreciated the unobstructed view from a diagonal angle when she stretched, extending both arms upwards. Her breasts were a bit too moderate to say they were spilling out, but there was no ranking when it came to sizes. A small yet distinctive scar was visible on the left side of her chest…

“…Hm?”

Aileen noticed his gaze, and suddenly pulled Kei’s sheets away.

“—You sure are quite energetic down there!!”

Kei nodded deeply at Aileen’s grin, and sat up. As much as he would have loved to follow his youthful impulses to have sex with her, it would have cost them the whole day. Also, it would not be too late to do it at night.

“Come on, it’s time to get up.”

“Yeah.”

Aileen promptly put on the underwear she had flung off the night before and was now strewn across the floor. Kei gave her a sidelong glance as he slipped out of the bed, then walked up to the window, and threw the storm shutter wide open.

The sky was clear, not blemished by a single cloud. Letting his eyes wander across the filament that was dyed by the colors of sunrise, he nodded in satisfaction once he had confirmed that everything was in order with the star formations.

It was a refreshing morning. It would surely be just another day like any other.

It had been two weeks since Kei and Aileen had started to visit the ducal library.

As before, the two were renting a room at HangedBug, but this had fully turned into their daily routine as of late.

First, they would wake up, wash their faces, and then lightly work out in the courtyard. Naturally, they were not an unpleasant kind. They would loosen their bodies by bending and stretching, before doing calisthenics starting from the Achilles tendon.

Leaving Aileen aside, who was a former gymnastics athlete and thus had a fairly flexible body, Kei pulling off a 180-degree split was a strange sight to behold. The inn’s guests, who came to the courtyard to wash their faces, got startled every time they witnessed Kei sitting on the ground with his legs spread.

Incidentally, the flexibility of Kei’s avatar was nothing new.

The flexibility of the joints was set quite high within【DEMONDAL】, so regardless of how stiff someone might have been in real life, they were able to exhibit flexibility at the level of an athlete inside the game. For Kei, whose body was almost nothing but bones, it could only be described as ironic.

To digress, there were many players who tried to do the full split in real life just as they had done inside the game only to end up straining their backs.

“I guess this does it for the stretches…”

“Oh, you wanna go? Okay, come at me!”

Kei cracked his neck and provocatively beckoned Aileen with his fingers.

Training with Aileen followed after the warm-up. And this was not the bad kind either. They were just reviewing close-quarter combat to avoid their skills growing dull.

They ignored the curious guests’ gazes and faced each other in the courtyard. Kei took a fighting stance whereas Aileen remained in her usual posture while smiling daringly. It would be dangerous to fight with real swords, so they had decided to go bare-handed, but then again, it was doubtful whether Kei would even manage to injure her even if he went at her with a sword.

There was a short pause. Kei focused on Aileen who calmly stood a few steps away from him.

“…Let’s go.”

With those words, he stepped into her territory. He executed a palm strike, making sure he used the least amount of movements necessary.

He aimed for her chest. He prioritized speed over power, striking at her without any hesitation.

He did not hold back, nor did he show mercy.

He couldn’t afford to hold back with Aileen as an opponent.

As he suddenly closed the distance, it felt like he was zooming in on Aileen’s face.

Her fearless, amused expression felt strangely impactful.

The next moment, her golden hair spread out.

She looked just like a white snake.

She met Kei’s right arm, twisting its trajectory away.

He felt a terrific weight on his shoulder which broke his posture.

Then his legs were accurately swiped away, causing his vision to spin, only for him to find himself on his backside in the next moment.

The onlookers, who thought it was a fight and were on their way to stop them, froze on the spot, their mouths agape in shock. Kei was just as dumbfounded as them, however. He did not understand what had happened.

He felt a light slap on his neck from behind.

“Just having a good momentum doesn’t cut it, Kei.”

Turning around, he saw Aileen peering down at him with a hand on her waist.

“…I’m not sure what to say.”

Kei pouted and stood up with a troubled face.

“How did you do that just now?”

“How, you ask… I just pulled your right arm like this, and then jumped behind you and swiped your legs.”

“I-I see…”

He could understand what she was saying, but failed to imagine how it actually happened.

“I say this every time, but your attacks are too direct, Kei.”

“But my feints would hardly work against you.”

“No, I don’t mean feints and that stuff.”

You leave too many openings after attacks.

It’s easy to tell what you’re planning.

You take too long to recover from counterattacks.

Aileen listed one of Kei’s weak points after the other. Having it spelled out so bluntly, a bitter expression formed on his face.

Kei would normally not lose in a contest of strength against most opponents, but just like the saying that it was better to bend than break, his compatibility when facing highly technical fighters like Aileen was quite bad. Though his bow skills were towering above the rest, he could only do the textbook movements in close-quarter battles, so he could not compete against warriors whose skills were above a certain level.

Incidentally, among the top players of the game, warriors on Aileen’s level were commonplace, which should put Kei’s strength in perspective for anyone.

“—So, pay more attention to those, and let’s have another go.”

“I don’t feel like I can…”

As Aileen started speaking like a teacher, Kei had already entered his give-up mode. It was also obvious during his gaming days, but Kei had no sense for hand-to-hand combat.

Following that, Aileen kept locking his joints and flinging him around for 30 minutes. Then, after doing some sparring with strikes at the end, they wrapped up their morning training.

While the two were training, the prime time for breakfast had ended, leaving the dining room relatively empty.

“Oh, hello you two. You seem to be energetic today too, training since morning and all.”

As they entered the hall, Jamie gave them a friendly greeting while busily moving about with a tray in one hand.

“Hey, morning. We have to do it or our bodies will grow dull.”

“So, up for breakfast?”

“Yeah, the usual please.”

“‘Kay, give me a moment.”

She headed over to the kitchen. For some time, she had been suffering every morning when watching Kei and Aileen being together, but nowadays she had grown accustomed to it, not minding it any longer.

Kei’s partner, Aileen, on the other hand, did not even look in Jamie’s direction and was instead stealing glances at the other customers’ dishes, muttering, “So it’s a toastie today…”

Ever since the post-tournament party, Aileen didn’t try to proactively talk with Jamie, and Jamie did not meet her gaze either. Kei sensed a womanly discord between the two, but he decided to pretend that he was not noticing it. It was pretty obvious that things would just get icky if he were to touch upon this topic.

“So, what do we do today?”

Aileen asked as she cheerfully sat down.

“Not like there’s anything to decide… we’ll be doing the same as always.”

“You’ve got a point there.”

Aileen slumped over on the table at Kei’s curt reply. Kei also sighed, staring vacantly into the air with his chin resting on a hand.

For the last two weeks, Kei and Aileen had been absorbed in reading books at the library from morning till evening, except for Sunday when the library was closed.

They were looking up words that interested them in the Encyclopedia while using reference books and related publications as assistance at the same time. It had no handy search feature, so it was up to the reader to decide what kind of information they were looking for, and as such, Kei and Aileen could only keep reading everything they could find. Both were already fed up with getting tortured by linguistic, poetic terms, and expressions that glued them to the English-English dictionary they had borrowed.

That said, their efforts certainly bore fruit and their investigation had progressed quite smoothly.

You could even say that they had already obtained all the information that they needed.

From the beginning, Edda had told them quite precise information about the Étranger of the Fog beforehand, so they could proceed with their research based on what they already knew, but the more they looked up the more interesting tales of the Haunted Forest and Wiseman in Red they discovered.

With the Haunted Forest, in particular, the research data of the magic corps dispatched a few decades ago had been disclosed, so the information was highly accurate. As a result of coordinating it with other stories from multiple angles, they came to a conclusion: It was either a high-ranked Spirit, the aforementioned Wiseman, or perhaps some magical phenomenon — the exact details were unclear, but there was a high chance that a clue about their transfer awaited the two in the Northland’s Haunted Forest.

Additionally, Northland’s topographic map ranging from the central to the southern parts was open to the public (despite the fact that the topographic map of the duchy was considered a banned book for strategic reasons), so they managed to identify the location of the Haunted Forest, as well as several routes leading to it.

Now that they had the information, the question was how to put it to use. Kei and Aileen had to choose their next action.

“Sorry for the wait. Here you go, ham and cheese toasties.”

“Oh, thanks.”

Jamie returned from the kitchen and put plates in front of Kei and Aileen. Kei paid for them while Aileen poured water from the jug into their cups. Then wished each other a good appetite and dug in the piping hot toasties.

“Mmm, delish.”

“We sure have gotten used to the goat cheese too.”

The cheese had a thick and rich flavor. Unaware, their gloomy expressions got dyed by faint smiles.

—Why were they still staying in Urvan despite everything?

Taking their usual drive to take action into account, it would not have been strange for them to have departed for Northland right away. Then why were they still remaining in Urvan? There were many reasons, but the biggest of all was their lack of making up their resolve.

They were prepared to spend months, or perhaps even years, without finding a single clue as they gathered info at the library. However, they discovered the key to the solution far too easily, which felt quite anticlimactic instead.

Was this really enough? Was there nothing else to find? They could not shake off their doubts and were unconfident.

And their destination being Northland was not making things better either. For one, Kei did not speak the language, but even Aileen, who spoke Russian, was not very willing to separate from the duchy now that they had gotten so used to it.

Above all, it was that Alexei’s home — meaning, if they traveled to that place they would surely get dragged into some kind of trouble. Had it been a large-scale city like the port city Kitene or mining city Garon, or even a remote region — as long as it was within the duchy — the two might have felt like going there…

“……”

Finishing their toasties, the two started to brood while drinking their water.

—They just needed one more push.

They did not spell it out, but their thoughts aligned on this. If they wished to arrive at the heart of the “transfer” matter, they had to head for Northland. Something both of them understood rationally.

But there was no conclusive evidence. And just the information obtained through books and documents was not enough.

They wanted some kind of trigger which would push their backs…

“…We really have to go to talk to them, huh?”

Aileen broke the ice while tapping on the table with her finger.

“Talk? With whom?”

“Uhh… an expert, I guess?” Aileen answered Kei’s question with a questioning tone.

“An expert, huh…?”

Kei groaned while holding his chin.

The ducal library had various research facilities and institutes in its vicinity, and it also acted as a salon where intellectuals like scholars and researchers gathered. Naturally, some of them should be knowledgeable about Northland.

“Let’s see… We don’t even know which route would be the best to take for reaching the Haunted Forest, so it’d be nice to get some advice on that front too.”

When it came to that kind of advice, they could just find a Snowlander and ask them directly, and in fact, they did search for one through Holland’s connections. However, the Snowlanders living in Urvan were mostly former residents of the western parts, so they were not able to offer any more information than the library had where the southeastern Haunted Forest was concerned.

Looking at it like that, instead of the former residents who were more biased, a Plainsfolk specialist with (expected) general knowledge would be able to offer more trustworthy advice.

“Personally, I’m thinking we should try our luck with the Encyclopedia editors. The Northland and Haunted Forest entries had the same editor if I’m not mistaken, right?”

“Did they? That’s some memory you’ve got. Okay, Let’s take care of that part today then.”

With their talk coming to a conclusion, the two emptied their water cups and left their seats.

 

 

†††

 

 

“You’re looking for an editor?”

The monocled receptionist asked quizzically at the entrance counter of the ducal library.

“Yeah. They are the editor of the “Northland” item in the Encyclopedia. I believe they were called—”

“—”Valgren Kremrart,” right?”

Aileen continued Kei’s words. He shrugged at the receptionist, commenting, “What she said.” The receptionist pondered with an audible murmur.

The three had become quite familiar with each other.

Her name was Alyssa. She was an expressionless tall beauty, but once they got to know her, she unexpectedly turned out to have a playful side too.

“Mr. Valgren Kremrart, is it…?”

“…Is there a problem?”

Alyssa’s expression darkened a little.

“No,” she answered Kei’s question with a shake of her head, “It’s just that Mr. Valgren is quite peculiar among the editors.”

“Do you mean he’s stubborn, narrow-minded or something like that?”

“No, not in that way, it’s just… he’s quite elusive.”

Alyssa had difficulty answering Aileen’s blunt question.

“We were thinking of talking with him directly… would it be difficult?”

“Yes. Frankly said, it’d be very hard for you to book an appointment with him. He’s a very busy individual.”

“I see… Can we at least leave him a verbal message?”

“Well…”

He thought he would be able to contact him via the reception at least, but Alyssa’s reaction was not favorable.

“That may be difficult too…”

“Huh? I mean, couldn’t you just drop a few words when he enters?”

Aileen exclaimed in confusion. After all, they weren’t asking for something overly unreasonable. Seeing the two stand in front her with puzzlement written all over their faces, Alyssa, looking troubled, lowered her voice in consideration of the surrounding people.

“…The library has more entrances than only this one here. It’s not said that I would be there to welcome him.”

“Oh, so there’s another entrance too?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re saying Mr. Valgren uses that other one?”

“Unfortunately, I can’t disclose the details.”

Alyssa frankly answered, drawing a clear line, which made the two look at each other. Apparently there was more going on here than met the eye.

“I see… Then we’ll try something else.”

“I think that would be a wise choice. Mr. Valgren has special circumstances… If it’s another editor, you should be able to easily get in touch with them. I could also pass on a message for in that case.”

“No, we don’t have anyone but Mr. Valgren Kremrart in mind so far. We’ll go check the Encyclopedia once more.”

Kei shrugged with a smile and turned around, but then, “Ah, please wait,” the receptionist called out from behind. “Since you’re here, I may as well tell you some details about Mr. Valgren. He’s truly elusive, but he’s often near the Encyclopedia on the second floor, so if you’re lucky you might encounter him there.”

“Ohh, that’s great to know.”

Editor Valgrem Kremrart — he was being treated like an exotic animal. Be it the special circumstances, or the potential signs of trouble if they were to get involved with him, the two’s curiosity was piqued. They were immensely curious, in fact.

“Alright. As for Mr. Valgren himself, he is a man in his fifties. He has a round face and a medium build. He wears no specific clothes — but he has one characteristic feature.”

Alyssa twirled her forelocks around a finger, making them sway.

“It’s his hairstyle. He has very neatly arranged, transparent silver hair. Like a mushroom.”

Kei imagined an old gentleman with a silver mushroom haircut. Next to him, he heard Aileen snort, trying to hold back laughter.

“…He sounds like quite a unique person.”

Kei muttered while checking out the other customers around them.

This world’s technology was far more advanced compared to the medieval ages of Earth, but when it came to male hairstyles, medieval would be a fitting term. Men typically cut their hair short, using simple hairstyles, so that it would not get in their way. Then again, Kei was in no position to talk about other people in this regard as he himself casually tied the longer ends of his hair behind his head.

“Yes, he most certainly is. I’m not aware of anyone else who has silver hair and such a hairstyle, so if you spot someone matching that description, it should be him.”

“I see, we’ll make sure to keep an eye out. Thanks.”

He thanked Alyssa and the two went inside.

“Now, will our days of searching the Encyclopedia start all over again…?”

Kei muttered with a sigh as they headed for the second floor.

“Yeaah… Honestly, Valgren Kremrart would’ve been the best person to consult. This old man edited both the Northland and Haunted Forest entries, and his explanations were the easiest to understand too.”

Aileen sighed as if to say that there was no helping it.

“Exactly. Still, silver mushroom hair huh…? That would stand out for sure.”

“You wouldn’t be able to miss someone like that, even if you wanted to.”

“At any rate, I didn’t know there was another entrance to the library. Could it be for VIPs?”

“Maybe it’s the ‘people with high status won’t use the same entrance as commoners’ thing?”

“Which would mean… Mr. Valgren is someone of high class too.”

“That seems most likely. But well, he’s busy and also elusive, right? I doubt something as convenient as randomly encountering him here could…actually…”

Just as they reached the second floor, Aileen slowly stopped while still holding onto the handrail.

“…What’s wrong?”

Kei asked Aileen as she was standing still in a daze. Following her line of sight—

“…Oh.”

Kei spotted a slender person visible through the gaps of the Encyclopedia shelves.

It was a medium-built man clad in a low-key green robe who was completely absorbed in reading some kind of file. They couldn’t see his face as he had his back turned on them, but his hair was of an unnaturally beautiful silver color.

And he had a peculiar hairstyle where the hair did not reach his ears while being cut evenly on all sides.

“……”

The two remained standing while taken aback for a bit, but quickly recovered.

“Hey, Kei.”

“What is it, Aileen.”

“That…should be the one, right?”

“Yeah…probably.”

Kei nodded with a solemn expression.

—A silver mushroom stood over there.

 

 


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