Pitch black all around me… Something soft and cushion-like pressing against my face... Light sweet scent hanging in the air… Chaotic street crowd babble… The feeling of being carried somewhere…
I was killing time by picking up on any bit of information regarding my "blindfolded" surroundings. I mean, there was not much else for me to do ever since I got stuck in this "limbo" state: things were happening around me, and I had no idea what was going on.
And yet, instead of succumbing to a fit of uncontrollable panic, I was serene.
That's right, I already went through all five stages of grief in my mind and just reached the Acceptance, so let's leave it at that.
Normally, in such "surrounded by darkness/light" clichés, something is bound to happen sooner or later. So, I will simply go with the flow for the time being and let it happen; I can think about the details later…
Just as I was thinking about all that, something happened.
For me, that "happened" signal was a faint sound of bell ringing. And as if on cue, my "blind" surroundings were rapidly changing.
An excited crowd buzzing around me was suddenly cut off, like turning off a TV in the middle of idol live concert. My face no longer felt pressed against the "cushion". The feeling of being carried has also disappeared; instead, I felt being put on some solid surface. I also started hearing some frequent footsteps…
This whole ordeal was an entirely new experience for me, so I exercised caution.
When exploring a dungeon, I always check my surroundings for traps and monsters before going any further.
So, just like with dungeon, I patiently waited for any other changes to be added to my existing "blind repertoire". Since nothing happened, I proceeded with my next step.
I cautiously opened my eyes; it was no longer pitch-black around me. As my blurry vision regained its focus, I could make out a snippet of ceiling with a familiar pattern. Seems like I am back at Wiz magic shop.
Something light and soft was pressing against my cheek, preventing me from seeing the shop entirely. It was a piece of fabric, covering most of my face, a mixture of green and white colors… Wait a sec, am I…?!
I bolted upright with that horrid thought in my mind. Me and Wiz are not at that level of comfort just yet!
Huh? Somehow, the height of me getting up didn't feel quite where it is supposed to be. I have a bad feeling about this…
I've heard magic shop owner's voice, followed by some rustling sounds, somewhere below my level. I looked around to find where they were coming from, now that the fabric was no longer covering my face. For some reason, I was seating on a counter, and Wiz herself was nowhere to be seen.
I need to process all that information and gather my thoughts… With that in mind, I placed hands on my temples. And that's when I noticed the source of that mind-pestering uneasiness: arms that clearly did not belong to me, my clothing (including that face-covering piece from earlier) scattered around me like a pile of rags…
Slowly, very slowly, I scanned my surroundings for any mirror-like objects. By this point, I already knew I was not going to like what I could see in there.
My gaze fell upon a tray-like object seated on a counter display. I didn't care about its intended purposes, but it was producing clear reflections on its silver surface.
That single quiet gasp was all I could squeeze out of myself.
Forget about Wiz seeing me naked; I was much more concerned about Kazuma-looking baby, staring back at me with a stupefied expression through the "tray" reflection.
Typically, that should be an anime-like scenario, where I freak out initially, but then calm down and vehemently try to get my body back to normal.
Me, I was just tired. All these nonsensical events drained me dry of energy; I felt like a deflated ball.
I should've retreated as soon as those red flags were raised, but my greed and stupidity have gotten better of me. So, now it's too late to cry over a spilled milk.
I heard those rustling sounds again. The culprit was Wiz, who was vigorously searching for something behind the counter, unaware of me watching her. For some reason, observing her frantic movements only tired me out even more…
I simply wanted to spend some "quality time" in my mansion.
Instead, I got roped in this whole ordeal against my will.
I did nothing wrong.
It was not my fault.
So, I should not be the one to clean up this mess.
Just let the adults do all the work for me and have them figure it all out by themselves. Let Wiz act like a responsible adult and take care of me and my problem, since it was her fault in a first place…
I disinterestedly watched magic shop owner rummaging through shelves and boxes, constantly muttering something I couldn't hear. Still, in her searching, Wiz was inadvertently making some nice angles, so my sour mood has improved ever so slightly.
Wiz dived out of the last storage chest(?) with a dejected expression. Seems like she didn't find whatever she was looking for.
Finally noticing my awakening, she rushed over and leaned closer to me for a more natural adult-child conversation.
"I'm so glad you are okay, Kazuma-san! I was so worried…!"
Wiz was slightly trembling, looking at me with a mixture of concern and relief.
I was feeling fine physically. So, to get my mental harmony back, I need to take care of that small issue. Thankfully, Wiz was not asking stupid questions and looked eager to resolve the problem.
"I am so sorry, Kazuma-san… The ring has worked like it was supposed to. It can restore anything, no matter how much it was damaged or aged – by returning to its original state."
She correctly interpreted my "silent question" gaze, and gave me a detailed description of ring capabilities, while bowing apologetically.
Please stop looking at me like this… I am supposed to be angry at you right now! If you keep looking at me with those innocent eyes while producing such bounce-iful angles, I won't be able to get angry at you…
I shook my head to rid it of all distractions and get back on track.
So, that spell does not exactly restore things per se, more like revert them to their original form. I was "restored" to my original state due to the age. And let me guess: this "restoration" stopped short at the baby phase just because the ring fell off my shrunken finger…
I could've simply ceased to exist, just like that, had that ring stayed on for any longer! I am literally still a "being" because I got lucky… How is it even safe to sell something like that?!
That world is just way too cruel…
I'm not into stuff like solving mysteries or fighting dark organizations; I just hope all this nuisance will be over soon. I looked at Wiz again, hoping to get some more answers out of her.
She correctly interpreted another silent question of mine as well.
"I don't know if it will wear off any time soon. This is an incredibly powerful spell, meant for permanent restorations; it would've been quite impractical otherwise. I was trying to find any means of breaking or at least weakening the spell. But…"
Wiz was visibly shaking again, doing her best to hold back tears. She was probably feeling incredibly guilty about that whole incident.
I, on the other hand, was feeling increasingly uneasy after hearing those logical, yet troublesome words.
It's already hard enough to exist in this cruel world as is. And now you're telling me to live here as a baby and experience those horrors all over again?!
I'd rather just die off somewhere and ask Eris-sama to reincarnate me safely in Japan…
"…but why did you have to put the ring on, Kazuma-san?!"
With her voice losing its calm and her eyes getting all misty, Wiz interrupted my train of thought.
Her sudden outburst just made me more agitated. So, not only I got turned into a baby because of that stupid ring, but now it's also my fault?!
I snapped right back at her, angrily pointing at her with my baby finger.
Obviously, I wanted to say a little bit more than that to vent out my frustration on Wiz. However, my mouth somehow felt like it had an invisible muffler on, so I could barely squeeze single words out of it.
"You're such a meanie, Kazuma-san! I wasn't planning to sell it in the first place!"
Wiz could take an insult stoically, given for how long she was working with Vanir.
But being told off by a toddler was probably too much for her to handle. Her inner floodgates have finally collapsed, and everything she was trying to bottle up came pouring out of her, along with tears.
We intensely stared down at each other. Wiz, normally calm and meek, stubbornly refused to yield this time.
Seriously, what is up with this unnatural behavior?! She started acting weird ever since that blasted ring got involved…
This trinket may be the main culprit, but there was also something peculiar about her "changes" that got my attention. Specifically, some of those "fits" were suspiciously resembling a certain member from my party…
Looks like I will be having some "quality talk" with that fallen goddess for corrupting poor lich lady! That's right, I live in the world, where goddess can corrupt a lich…
Aqua has been frequenting the magic shop a lot, and it seems like her putrid ambience started to rub off on Wiz. Seriously, I don't need another "Aqua" in Axel; one is already a major pain to deal with...
Our silent confrontation was interrupted when someone entered through the backdoor.
"Oui, shopkeep, thou being quite noisy today. Moi still have four crates of your abominable inventory to take care of, so… Ara?"
Vanir, wearing his pink apron atop of business-like suit, came out to investigate the source of commotion, and his gaze fell upon me.
That curiosity lasted mere seconds before his mouth twisted into a smirk.
"Fu… Fuhahahaha! Look at that brat, who thinks he is smarter than everybody else! Such devious usages of that ring were among the first things moi could think of! But, our good for nothing shopkeep was thy one who obtained that curious trinket. Which made moi think real hard: what trickery could an innocent bauble with such powerful magic possibly hold? And thou were quite generous to put it on a full display for moi!"
I had no words to retort with; well, I couldn't, even if I wanted to. So, I just bitterly looked away.
"Vanir-san… You… You knew…?"
Wiz asked with a barely audible voice.
Vanir turned to her, still gleaming with joy.
"Ah, look at that inept shopkeep, whose brain has finally started to rot. Thou truly thought of keeping a secret from the devil who can see through everything? Fuhahaha! Of course, moi knew about that ring atop of all that other rubbish you acquired! As tempting as it was to treat thee with Vanir's Murder Ray for wasting more of our hard-earned money on it, moi had yet to unveil its dark secret first. That's when moi saw the downfall of that bauble's bearer, slain by its cunning trickery! Granted the plethora of those dark wonderful emotions such tragic tale has caused, why bother wasting my precious energy upon thee? Moi could just pretend not to know anything, let that spectacle reach its climax, and then feast upon the culmination!"
Vanir usually switches to such dramatic verbiage whenever he could not contain his excitement. Well, why would he: me and Wiz were practically serving him a royal grade cuisine right now…
Wiz lowered her head with a lifeless expression. She looked like a child, whose strong belief in a miracle has been mercilessly shattered.
Vanir, who was already radiating opposed to our darkened expressions, went on with his exaggerated theatrics.
"Ah, such tender disappointment, such juicy agony of dreams being broken, such savory frustration! Absolutely exquisite entry! Tah, have mercy, or moi would no longer enjoy daily intakes from my 'friends'."
(NOTE 3: Those who read spin-offs should get who Vanir is referring to.)
None of us had any desire to say anything; Vanir, on the other hand, was having a time of his life.
Wiz was silently manning the counter as an excuse not to look at Vanir (she was ignoring me as well, probably wanting a bit of time for herself to recuperate).
I had nothing to do in my condition, so I was just sitting on the counter next to Wiz, still engrossed in my own bouquet of dark emotions. I felt sorry for Vanir's 'friends', whoever they were. Those people got to be absolute losers, if they are desperate enough to befriend a devil just to feed him with their daily negativity.
"So, thou still haven't given up on that dream of yours, hm?"
Vanir suddenly asked Wiz something serious, completely dropping his dramatic tone. Now that the dust has settled down, he switched back to his regular speech.
I couldn't see her expression, but I noticed Wiz squeezed her dusting rag tighter.
Her dream, huh...? It must've been something rather significant to Wiz, for her to react like that.
Under different circumstances, I would've asked Wiz for more details and such. It just so happened that finding out about her dream was not my top priority right now.
Wiz did not respond, but she looked visibly distressed. Vanir's seemingly innocent question probably reopened some of her old wounds. Knowing him, I'm pretty sure that was his intention all along.
That whole topic was drowned in a heavy, depressing atmosphere, which now engulfed the entire shop.
"So, what do we do now?"
Wiz was the one to break the silence; most likely, she wanted to shift her attention elsewhere, before her brooding evolves into something worse. Thankfully, Wiz voiced exactly what I was thinking.
"Such an amusing question. Thou will be working restlessly until we recover everything we lost from your foolish endeavor."
"A-again? No, I mean: what do we do with Kazuma-san?"
"Hm, what about that brat? Our poor excuse of a shop has nothing even remotely close to vanquishing a spell of such caliber. But of course, since our incompetent lich never planned to have such counter-measures in a first place, hm?"
Wiz flinched at a thrown insult, but recovered just as quickly.
"…But, we still need to take care of Kazuma-san. He ended up like this because of me, after all."
For a moment, her words have flickered in my mind.
Wiz, taking care of me in a motherly fashion… She would feed me, play with me, and carry me around in her soft cushions…
But as expected, Vanir has mercilessly shattered my colorful dreams at the most interesting spot.
"For a lich, who never had children of her own despite her ripe age, thou sure sound confident about taking care of that brat, who craves for more than just your motherly affection."
Th-that's not true at all! All children at that age are craving for motherly care and love, being embraced in the warmth of her bosom!
…Wiz shakily backed away from me with indescribable expression. She was at the loss of how to gracefully handle a triple blow of being called old, childless, and physically attractive only to individuals with twisted tastes (which is absolutely not what happened there!). And that's on the top of everything else she received earlier…
Oi, isn't it getting a bit dangerous? Why are we suddenly dealing with a powerful lich on a verge of her breaking point? Did Vanir really strike a nerve by asking that "dream" question?
I desperately signaled him not to push Wiz any further: I still needed her expertise to resolve my child issue (keeping her sane and stable would be nice as well).
Thankfully, Vanir was content with his meal course for tonight, so he went along with my pleas. Plus, it would only mean double work for him, were Wiz to have a mental breakdown.
Time has stopped in this tense atmosphere, where any careless move could set off a landmine…
"Vanir-san… I presume you have a better suggestion, then…?"
Wiz asked with a rare hint of ice in her voice, finally breaking that agonizing silence.
I couldn't help but shudder at that chilly tone. But Vanir would have none of that.
"We will stuff that lecherous brat in a basket (moi will charge thee for it later), and drop him off at his mansion door. Moi can even write some tearful letters if you so desire."
"…?! That is just plain irresponsible, Vanir-san!"
That 'Ice Queen' façade of hers didn't even last a minute…
I was also disturbed by Vanir's suggestion, for a different reason though.
Aren't I your valuable customer?! Why am I suddenly being treated like an unwanted child?! And now they want to drop me off like a cuckoo egg…?
Thankfully, that dangerous conversation was interrupted by the sound of door bell ringing. All three of us turned to a surprise visitor.
"Just what in the world is going on here…?"