177 A Tough Opponent

 When Link and Eleanor arrived at Chestnut Village it was already after three in the afternoon. Thick dark clouds covered the sun in the sky making it quite dark; it even seemed as if a storm was brewing as gusts of wind swayed the trees around the small village till they flailed helplessly in the air.

"It's going to rain soon," said Eleanor gloomily as she looked up at the sky. "If they fled through the forest the rain would wash away all their tracks; we might not be able to follow them then."

Link frowned as well. He didn't expect to encounter such bad weather today.

To prevent from shocking the villagers, Link had stopped at the edge of the forest and halted the Wind Fenrir. They then continued the journey into the village on foot.

The villagers here had hardly ever received any visitors from outside the tiny remote mountain village, so when Link and Eleanor appeared they all flocked to see these strangers who looked so different from them. The children were particularly boisterous around them. Most of these kids didn't wear any clothes at all and they ran about in front of Link and Eleanor with their naked little butts fully exposed.

The children loved to gather around Eleanor and stared at her with wonder. This was completely understandable because of Link's unremarkable looks, so they naturally found nothing about him that was admirable. Meanwhile, Eleanor was dressed in a black Magician's dress that was made with luxurious materials. She had an extraordinary looking bracelet on each of her delicate wrists and her face was simply enchanting. To the villagers, she was no less magical than an angel who'd just stepped out of a painting!

Eleanor had lived a solitary life for the past century, so she was quite moved by the experience of being surrounded and admired so closely and openly by so many people. Even though she was the center of everyone's attention then, Eleanor was also staring at the villagers in wonder herself.

"I've heard that a woman in the village had received the God of Light's blessings and was resurrected," said Link to a farmer he just approached. "We are here on a pilgrimage to witness the Lord's miracle. Would you tell me where we can find her?"

Once the farmer and the other villagers around him heard Link's words they all lit up with a smile that was full of pride and honor. Although they'd always flocked to the visitors from the outside world that they occasionally received, experience taught them to be wary of outsiders as they might bring harm to the village. Still, these two visitors were pilgrims, so they must be pious followers of the God of Light, therefore they couldn't come with any intention to harm them.

Then, a young man stepped up closer to Link and introduced himself proudly.

"By the glory of the God of Light, it is true, stranger," he said. "There is indeed a woman in this village who was resurrected. She's my wife, Lisa. Both of you follow me, she would be glad to tell you what she saw in heaven."

Link and Eleanor looked at each other then followed the young man.

The houses in the village were very simple with wooden doors, thatched walls and thatched roofs. Each family had a small courtyard. Link followed the young man for about three hundred feet on a road heaped with a sludge of cattle and sheep dung. Finally, they stopped in front of a small courtyard.

"Here we are, this is my home," said the young man happily. He then shouted, "Lisa! Lisa! You've got visitors!"

They waited there for a while but there was no response except for an old brown dog who came out from the backyard after hearing its owner's voice.

"That's strange," said the man, confused. "Where is she?" He pushed the door open and checked inside the house. Lisa should be spinning the yarn inside at this hour, but as he entered the house all he saw was a vacant wheel without any yarn and no sight of his wife.

"Lisa? Lisa?" The young man was starting to get anxious. He walked out of the house and headed towards the courtyard to tell the visitors about his missing wife, but when he came out he discovered that the two strangers were gone as well.

"Huh? Where did they go?" remarked the young man in growing perplexity. "Lisa, where are you? Lisa?" The young man then continued to call out her name all around the house, but the only response he got was silence.

Meanwhile, outside in the courtyard, Link and Eleanor were both enveloped in the faint aura of a high-level Invisibility spell. They saw how the young man still couldn't find his wife and his face had gradually become darker and gloomier.

"She must've got wind of the news that we're coming," said Eleanor. This wasn't surprising to Link at all. The minute he knew that Lawndale was involved he realized that they shouldn't expect much from this trip to the Chestnut Village.

Lawndale was still unknown at the time, but Link knew even then that he was a much tougher opponent to deal with than Felidia. This Dark Elf knew its own strengths and limits and he knew how to work around them. He would never take any unnecessary risks or make any rash decision. All in all, this was a sharp, precise and decisive Dark Elf that must not be underestimated.

Eleanor stayed silent. Her eyes were as black as Link's and they were now glowing faintly in a purple aura as they were keeping a close eye on the little wooden house where Lisa or Elena was supposed to be.

Eleanor was using a tracking spell to track her.

Half a second later, she turned away from the house and walked towards its backyard. Link understood that this meant she had picked up on the woman's trail, so he followed right behind Eleanor.

Just then, the man in the yard had grown panicked and was calling wife's name over and over again, his voice heavy with worry and fear. Moments later, a white-haired old man and an old woman started to join the search and was calling out Lisa's name as well. They must've been the young man's parents.

Link let out a heavy sigh at the sight of those people searching for someone Link knew was gone forever. To Link, he was only pursuing Elena to thwart the Black Moon Conspiracy which might have worried him very much but once it's over he would move on from it easily. To this family, though, especially to the young man, this would be a great tragedy that they might grieve over for the rest of their lives.

They'd lost the young woman Lisa once, but she'd come back before they came to terms with her passing. Now that she's back for a month she's gone once again and the whole family would have to go through the grieving process all over again. This kind of torment was enough to make a man go crazy!

Link sighed, then grabbed ten gold coins from his storage pendant and floated it through a window into the house using Magician's Hand. This amount would be enough for the young man to find a new wife and begin his life anew. Link didn't know how much it would help but he hoped that it could at least slightly alleviate the pain the young man and his family would have to suffer in the future.

Eleanor gave Link a look when she noticed what he was doing.

"It was the man's fate to lose his wife," she said. "Things like this happen all the time all over Firuman, and it happens to countless men and women. There's nothing you can do about it, it's just a fact of life."

"Why did you have to make such a fuss over a small act of kindness?" replied Link. "I just felt sorry for them and wanted to help in any way I could, that's all."

Eleanor was taken aback by Link's words and stared at him wordlessly for a while.

For the past century or so, Eleanor had come across so many self-professed moralists who spouted all sorts of noble ideals. But she was sure that when these men were in the same position as Link was now, five out of ten would've just ignored the family and moved on indifferently. Four of them might offer them some comforting words, while one of them might give them some money, albeit not without letting everyone know how kind they had been to the less fortunate. Eleanor had never met anyone like Link in her long life who would just leave the money to the family without letting anyone know, all because he felt sorry for them.

Perhaps this was the reason why a Master Magician like Eleanor had always trusted Link unconditionally and knew intuitively that he would never betray her.

She then silently grabbed five gold coins from her storage ring and flung it into the house through the same window.

"This should be enough for him to get a beautiful new wife," she said. Fifteen gold coins were indeed a fortune for a farmer's family, it might even be such a big amount that it would bring them trouble, although Link said nothing of the matter and just smiled at Eleanor.

The two then continued to follow the trail. They did not use any magic spells to increase their speed because the Mana fluctuation would interfere with what already weak scent they left. Soon after, they were lead into the forest behind the village. When they followed the trail for about a quarter mile, Eleanor suddenly stopped in her tracks.

"What's wrong?" asked Link, he thought Eleanor's tracking spell should be able to detect the trails without any problems seeing that she was a Master Magician specializing in secret spells.

"It's strange," said Eleanor, frowning, "but the trail has been divided into two, and I don't know which one we should follow." She hadn't been worried about not being able to detect the trails, it wasn't for no reason that she was a mighty Level-6 Master Magician. But now that the spell was leading her to two different trails, she was simply flummoxed.

"Just choose any one of them, then," answered Link after thinking about it.

There was no other choice, anyway. Eleanor then chose the trail on the left, and so they followed it for a while and then she stopped abruptly again. Her eyebrows almost knitted to each other now.

"The trail forked into two again," she said, full of frustration. "What's going on here? Did she know how to duplicate herself?"

"Just choose another trail, then," said Link, who now began to feel confused as well. Too bad this was the only way they could trace them, and Link himself wasn't proficient in tracking spells, so he could only rely on Eleanor in this case.

They had no other choice, so Eleanor chose the trail on her right and they walked along for another half mile. This time not only did Eleanor stop suddenly, but her jaw was dropped as well.

Right there, in front of them, was a very familiar scene-it was where they first started to notice the trail had divided into two!

"We're running around in circles!" said Eleanor. "What exactly is going on here?"

Link stood there in silence, contemplating the matter. Then, a few seconds later, he had a revelation.

"Although Elena was good at manipulating men," he said, "I don't think she'd think of this trick. This must be the Dark Elf's doing. I must admit that it's an ingenious plan-what he did was he just deliberately wandered around in the forest. There was a 50% percent chance each time the trail divided that we would choose the wrong trail, which would then lead us back to the original spot, and that would give him more time to make his escape!"

It was such a simple plan in pLinkiple but when it was combined with the complex terrain of the mountainous forest here, this trick could waste a lot of the pursuer's time. Even if Link and Eleanor had known from the start that this trick had been used, they'd still have to bet on luck and choose a trail randomly. Obviously, Eleanor's luck wasn't so good today as she'd chosen the wrong route, which had taken them back to where they started.

Eleanor had a sharp mind herself, so she immediately understood what the Dark Elf was planning just from Link's simple explanation. Still, she had some points she didn't quite understand.

"But how could he be so sure that we'd choose the wrong path?" she asked. "What if we did choose the right path? Wouldn't that just waste the time that he could've spent on escaping?"

"I'm afraid it isn't that simple," answered Link with a gentle shake of his head.

Link knew from the game that Lawndale was a man who took no risks. Link guessed that even if Eleanor had chosen the right trail she would still be stumped by another trick further down. Besides, the possibility that Eleanor would choose the right trail twice was smaller than one in three anyway, so there was a good chance that they could buy some time in their escape.

"So what do we do now?" asked Eleanor.

"We'll continue the chase," said Link. Since their scent was still there, it must mean that they're not that far away, so they still had a chance to catch up.

"Alright, then," answered Eleanor.

The two then continued their tracking of Elena and the Dark Elf, this time choosing different trails from the ones they did before.

After more than half a mile, Eleanor stopped for the third time.

"There's a fork in the trail again," she said. "I hate this damned Dark Elf bastard! Which direction should we choose now, left or right?"

"Can you sense any difference between the two trails at all?" asked Link.

"No," answered Eleanor, shaking her head. "The scent they left was too sparse and dispersed."

After listening to Eleanor's reply, Link started to get more serious and examine the traces left on the ground himself. Because he'd been spending a lot of time learning the art of enchantment, he had become especially observant, much more so than the average Magician. This was because he must make sure that there was no mistake at all in his spell structure, not even the smallest magic rune, otherwise the magic gear would fail.

Link couldn't detect the scent in the atmosphere that Eleanor was following at all, but he could still detect the physical tracks that Elena and the Dark Elf left on the surrounding such as footprints, snapped branches, bent blades of grass and so on. If he examined them closely enough, there were clues there that would be helpful in tracking them down.

Because the forest floor was covered in fallen leaves, the footprints could not be relied on as there was no difference at all between the footprints in both trails. Fortunately, though, the snapped off stems of trees did provide him with valuable clues.

Link could judge how long the tree stems had been snapped off by their freshness. Those that were newly broken off would still be moist, while those that had been broken off a long time ago would have dried off, and so he could judge the length of time since Elena and the Dark Elf had passed the trail.

In this case, the difference was minute, but it was enough for Link's eyes to discern.

"Let's follow the one on the right," said Link after examining the trail for three minutes. "They passed through this way about forty minutes ago."

"Alright, then," said Eleanor, who then promptly followed the trail that Link had chosen.

They then walked on for about half a mile. Then, the trail forked into two again. At this point they were beginning to suspect if the Dark Elf knew a spell that could divide himself into two identical bodies.

"This is not good," Eleanor spread out her hands helplessly. "There are two trails again."

"Don't get frustrated," said Link calmly. "We'll just keep moving forward."

And so, they followed the trail and persisted on for half a mile. No new tracks appeared, and Eleanor's frown began to deepen, but Link started to smile instead.

Seeing that Eleanor was about to give up, Link realized he had to say something.

"He didn't walk in circles to confuse us this time," said Link, smiling, "he just walked forward as he normally would. There are two trails here, because one was used by the Dark Elf when he was coming in this direction, while the other trail is the one he is currently walking on. If I'm not mistaken, they shouldn't be too far away from us now."

Lawndale had been in the Chestnut Village for quite a while and he was very familiar with Norton Kingdom, so he must've made thorough preparations for an escape route in case their plans were found out.

Eleanor was still skeptical, though.

They walked on for another half a mile when Link noticed new tracks on the ground.

"Elena's new body must've slowed them down to a crawl!" he said with a laugh. "We should catch up with them in no time."

They then went further for few more minutes. Then, Link noticed there was a woman by the roadside. A dagger was stuck in the back of the woman's head and blood came gushing out of the wound. She looked as if she had just died, though her eyes were stuck open and her face was frozen in an expression of shock.

Eleanor's eyes widened as she realized who it was.

"It's Lisa!" she exclaimed, horrified. "Who killed her?"

"It must've been the Dark Elf, he must've thought that she's dragging him down, so he discarded her," said Link, squatting down in front of Lisa's body to examine her wound. He then shook his head. "There's no denying that the Dark Elf was cold-blooded. It's far too late to save her, she's dead."

"The Dark Elf shouldn't be too far away from us now," said Eleanor. "Should we increase our speed?" She'd seen how cold and calculative this opponent was, and she was sure that without Link's help there was no way she could catch up with him.

"There's no use," said Link, shaking his head. "We won't catch him today."

"Why not?" asked Eleanor, slightly puzzled. But just then she felt a drop of water on her face and she couldn't help but sigh. "Seems like it's going to be a heavy rain."

The rain would definitely flush away all traces of the Dark Elf's trails. Had the Dark Elf still brought Elena with him, she would've slowed him down enough that Link could probably find a way to catch up with them. But now that Lawndale had gotten rid of the burden, there was no hope they'd ever catch up with him.

He checked his mission status on the interface and discovered that it was still incomplete. When they were investigating and following the trails, the notification box of the Black Moon Conspiracy mission did flash up on the interface from time to time, though Link couldn't make out any details in the notification at all.

In the end, Link had been outplayed in this encounter with Lawndale, who managed to stay a step ahead. He learned today how important it was to not take the strong and prominent figures in this world lightly, or else they could slip out and escape right under your nose.