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  • Master Pacore the Deathless’ Point of View:

    "Your armor is topped-off, Master Pacore," mage Lilian bows her head. She's the senior of the two mages I brought with me, and it's her day to charge my armor. The two mages alternate each day, making sure my armor and gear are always at their best.

    I’m not sure how the day will proceed, but I have a feeling it’s a good idea everything is full for my meeting with Aaliyah.

    “Is there anything else I can do for you, Master Pacore?” Lillian asks me, keeping her head down so I can’t see the sweat on her face.

    "That will be all," I say in my fake haughty voice. "You are dismissed." Lilian keeps her head bowed as she retreats out of my tent. In my head, I wish her a speedy recovery and thank her for helping me. I have an image to keep up, and I don't need any more issues to arise because I dropped my formal persona. My day will be complicated as it is.

    I adjust the armor on my left arm, and when everything is ready, I step outside my tent. The sun has long since risen for the day; it took Lilian two hours to charge everything fully. Raising my arm, I shade my eyes from the intense light while they adjust.

    Grunting, I curse the fact I'm out of my particular alcohol. I drank every drop I had last night, and it still didn't help me fall asleep. I wonder if I look like Jason now? The problem with invisible armor is that it doesn’t hide the tired look on my face.

    “Good morning, Master Pacore,” I don’t even get five minutes to collect myself before I hear young Jason call out to me.

    Jason slowly walks over to me with General Pitz at his side. Though young Jason greets me with a smile, I can see the worry hidden underneath. The General has no reason to appear friendly, and she looks me over with a scowl on her face. "You look like shit," her words make young Jason flinch, but her honesty confirms what others are too afraid to tell me.

    “Did you perhaps not sleep last night, my lord?” Jason asks, troubled for me.

    “It’s fine,” I wave off his concerns. “It doesn’t matter if I don’t sleep for a day or two anyways.”

    “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

    "Thank you, Lady Pitz, because I wasn't aware of that myself," I snap a little more than I intended to.

    “Are you going to the village right now?” Jason hesitantly asks me.

    “The sooner I get this over with, the better.” I take a deep breath and start walking to the front of our camp.

    Young Jason and General Pitz follow right behind me. Last night I debated whether or not I should allow the two of them to follow me today. I decided, whether good or bad; I should have some witnesses for what's to come.

    "Master Pacore!" Every soldier calls out to me and salutes as we make our way through camp. I give a few curt straight-faced nods to the first few people, but it quickly becomes old. No doubt those who received a nod will brag to the rest later.

    “Master Pacore,” the commander greets me at the front of our camp. “Are you heading to the village today, sir?”

    "I am, commander," I matter-of-factly respond while continuing to walk towards the village.

    “Your orders, sir?” He maintains his polished military posture despite me brushing him off. “Should I have the men fall into formation?”

    "No need. If the villagers attack, I want you to focus on capturing rather than killing them. This village is special; it would be a crime if we were to destroy it unjustly."

    “I understand, Master Pacore,” the commander acknowledges my orders. No matter what happens next, this village must continue to thrive. I don't look back at my commander; instead, I keep my gaze focused forward on the man waiting for us.

    "The soldiers say he's been showing up sporadically throughout the night," Jason mumbles just loud enough for me to hear.

    The village headman is standing in between the log fortifications, waiting for us to approach. He doesn't have my stats, and the toll of staying up all night is much more prevalent on his face than it is mine. The headman does not attempt to hide the anger he's feeling towards me.

    When we're a few feet away from the headman, he turns away from us. "Follow me," he starts leading us to the village.

    I only saw his face for a minute, but it’s troubling me. Reason is often pushed aside by anger. If this is a trap, I’ll have no choice but to make an example out of him. It would be a pity to kill such a man because of a rash decision.

    Things only look worse as the headman veers left before we enter the village proper and starts leading us down a dirt path.

    I glance over my shoulder to see how General Pitz and young Jason are reacting to our detour. Jason moves closer to me, looking like a frightened animal, while General Pitz's eyes drill into my own. She stands back, watching everything like a spectator in a play.

    Glancing at the back of the headman, I notice his body is tensing up and that his hands are balled into fists at his sides. Everything points to this being a last-stand situation, and that doesn't work for me. I need to persuade him this is a bad idea before I'm forced to do something I'll regret. "An ambush won't work; it will only endanger the village," my voice cuts through the silence.

    The headman stops in his tracks. He doesn't turn around to face me, only responding in a monotonous tone. “There is no ambush. The village decided your business with Aaliyah is between you and her. I’m leading you to her forge. That is all.” The headman starts walking again, not caring if we’re still following him.

    So, the village decided to cut ties with her to save itself. And judging by the headman's reaction, it wasn't done lightly. This can mean one of two things, either the village is trying to cut ties with Aaliyah before she becomes my apprentice, or….

    She plans on fighting me for her freedom, and she doesn't want the village to be blamed.

    I wonder how many people will stand with her? I don't have to wait long for an answer because we're quickly approaching a clearing up ahead.

    Following the headman out of the forest trail, I promptly scan the clearing. There are multiple storage sheds, along with a plethora of smithing tools. Sitting on a pair of stone benches is Aaliyah and her stone kin master. Both are armed and in their armor; however, they're the only two in the clearing. And I don't sense anyone hiding in the tree line either.

    I was at least expecting Aaliyah’s family to be here. It was my hope having them present would help her to see reason.

    Jason, General Pitz, and I stand in the clearing's entrance while the headman walks over to Aaliyah and gives her a quick hug. I can't see the headman's face, but I watch Aaliyah mouth 'thank you' to him. She has to gently push him away before he walks back towards us with his head lowered in defeat. He only looks up to scowl at me before he walks back down the forest path.

    “Thanks for giving us a moment,” Aaliyah calls out to me as she and her master move towards us.

    "It was the least I can do," I say, walking forward. The two of them don't seem to care about me closing the distance between us; that said, Aaliyah and her master look ready for a fight.

    Aaliyah glances behind me at General Pitz and young Jason. “You brought them along with you?”

    Her confused look makes me chuckle a little. "They're the only other two people who know about you. I see it only fits that they act as witnesses for what's to come."

    “Fair enough,” Aaliyah doesn’t object to their presence.

    I find myself marveling at the girl even more than yesterday. Her eyes are clear, without a hint of doubt behind them. Whatever plans she's made, she's ready to see them through, regardless of what her chances might be. If I draw my sword, she'll defend herself without a second guess.

    “I don’t suppose you’ve reconsidered my offer?” I smirk at the young girl, hoping she makes the right choice.

    I thought it over a million times last night, and unless Aaliyah willingly agrees to become my disciple, I'll have to capture her like I did General Pitz. Even if she resents me for it, I can't leave someone of her caliber here now that General Pitz knows about her. No matter what, I’ll force her to become my disciple. That is my resolve!

    “I have.”

    "What?" I reflexively ask. Just like yesterday, she's able to catch me off guard with a short response.

    Aaliyah shifts the large axe she's carrying over to her shoulder. "I decided to take you up on your offer."

    I'm about to shout, 'that's great’ when I remember she's wearing her armor and holding a weapon. There is no way she's giving up that easily. "Did you now?" I ask skeptically. "If you decided to become my disciple, is there a reason for you to come to this meeting armed?"

    Young Aaliyah gives me a merchant's smirk. "Just because I agree to become your apprentice doesn't mean I don't have my own conditions."

    My eyes widen; the gall of this child!

    I love it!

    I start laughing so hard; I have to grab my sides. She got me again. While I'm laughing up a lung, Aaliyah stands there waiting for me to collect myself. When I finally catch my breath, I gasp out, "aren't you a greedy one. Most would consider becoming my disciple the best offer possible. Tell me, what else could you possibly want?”

    Aaliyah’s face hardens. "First, I want a signed contract stating Scholl won't interfere with Spotted Creek Village any more than it has to."

    "Hummmm," I pretend to think over her demand; I even stroke my beard for extra show. But inside, I'm happier than I've ever been. Aaliyah decided to join me of her own free will. I might have cornered her into making the decision, but once she sees my sincerity, that shouldn't matter. "I suppose I can agree to that."

    "Then I want another contract for the safety of my family," Aaliyah keeps up a strong appearance as she continues naming her demands.

    "Sure," I readily agree to her second demand. I'm hoping her family follows her to Scholl; they'll be treated like royalty after she's recognized as my apprentice, and I'm sure they must be special themselves to produce such a daughter.

    Aaliyah’s eyes narrow, probably because I agreed too quickly there. I should probably pretend her demands are harder to accept than they are. "Third, I want the same thing for my master.”

    “I’m your master,” I jokingly smirk at her.

    She is not amused. “I mean it!”

    "I have little interest in your village or master," I try waving away her concerns. It is nice to see that she genuinely cares about those around her rather than fame or wealth. If this were anyone else negotiating with me, they would include money or other frivolous things in their demands. "Is that everything?"

    “There’s one more thing,” Aaliyah readies her weapon.

    "Ooh?" I'm interested to see where this is going; she's already agreed to join me. I look back at General Pitz to see how she's taking everything and see her biting her lower lip in frustration. That's right; I managed to convince her to follow me. I send the general a gloating smirk.

    "Rolling over for you isn't in my nature. My last condition is that you beat me and my master in a duel!"

    My head snaps back around, and I stare blankly at Aaliyah. "You want to duel me?"

    It's her turn to smirk at me. "That's right. You kept saying how great you are; now prove it. There's no reason for me to go to Scholl with you if master and I can beat the shit out of you here."

    I feel like I should be offended, but I can't help but smile at her challenge. "So I have to beat the two of you together?"

    “Yep.”

    “Without killing either of you, I suppose?”

    “That’s right, or are you chicken!?” She taunts me.

    “I don’t know what a chicken is, but I’ll assume you’re making fun of me. I guess every student should know where they stand in regards to their master. I accept your terms. Do you want to do this here?” I scan the clearing again, but I don’t see a good spot for us to fight without breaking something.

    "We already have that planned out," Aaliyah smiles confidently. I'm just as excited as she is; I wonder how they hope to defeat me? I’m not senile enough to not realize they wouldn’t have challenged me unless they had a plan, or would they?

    Aaliyah and the stone kin lead us across the clearing over to a smaller forest trail, similar to the one the headman led us down. It doesn’t take them long to lead us to a more suitable place to fight. “You have your own quarry,” I exclaim when I see the large crater in the ground.

    “A perfect place for us to go all out,” Aaliyah proclaims before she and her master jump away from me into the pit.

    I make no move to chase after them. First, I roll my shoulders, loosening up my old joints. Then I slowly draw my sword and let the blade shimmer in the sunlight for a moment. It isn't until I'm fully ready that I jump into the quarry after them. Young Jason and General Pitz stay up top to watch our fight.

    My two opponents whisper to each other, but they're close enough I can still read their lips.

    “Are you ready, Master Del?” Aaliyah smiles at the stone kin.

    “Ready,” he declares to her.

    "Just like we planned then,” she mouths. The stone kin doesn't say anything further; slamming his foot down, he rushes towards me, with his hammer raised over his head. The stone kin is trying to draw my attention, but I'm keeping an eye on him and Aaliyah as she tries to flank me from my left.

    Both are fast, but for different reasons. The stone kin rushes me using only his Strength stat while Aaliyah appears to have a much more balanced stat spread.

    Once the stone kin is in front of me, his massive arms bring his hammer down. My skills scream in my head to dodge rather than try blocking the strike. With Dancing, I gracefully retreat out of his range.

    The hammer strikes the quarry floor causing the surrounding stone to shatter like it's made of glass. With that kind of Strength, I can't risk parrying any of the stone kin's attacks. I would survive if he hit me, but the force would send me flying, and that would be more than enough of an opening for them to pin me down.

    While the stone kin pulls back on his hammer to ready himself for another attack, I step back with my left foot and face Aaliyah, who's trying to keep the pressure on me. This is an excellent opportunity to see how she moves in battle. She obviously favors movement-related skills, but she hasn't faced enough people like me who are used to such attacks.

    With one step, I dodge the first strike she makes. Then, I parry her second swing with my sword. There's considerable weight behind her weapon, and I'm curious how she's able to swing it like she is without falling over.

    Aaliyah's master tries hitting me from my right, but I dodge by stepping into Aaliyah's striking range. She grins, thinking they've got me, but I dance around her strike and thrust my sword at her right shoulder. Her eyes widen as she jumps backward to dodge my thrust.

    It’s then that I notice Aaliyah’s first flaw. When she has free room to run, she’s incredibly fast, but she’s not used to minute movements in the heat of battle. I can predict how she’ll move as much as I can her master.

    I was hoping the stone kin would be more of a challenge, but I can tell his level wasn't gained from combat. The two of them have practiced with their weapons, but neither are used to fighting other people.

    I twirl and thrust my sword at the stone kin's gut to keep him on his toes. He blocks with his hammer, but I wasn't trying to hurt him in the first place.

    This battle is heavily skewed in their favor, but that just makes this more enjoyable for me. I'll show them I can't be harmed until they collapse from exhaustion. I might throw in a few shallow cuts for good measure, but dancing around these two is a no-brainer.

    Their teamwork is quite good, at least I admit. The stone kin forces me back, while Aaliyah is the one to try and hit me. I wonder if they'll even manage to touch my armor?

    I dodge back from another one of the stone kin's strikes while simultaneously turning to parry Aaliyah's axe. Brandishing my sword, I calculate precisely where I'll need to hit her weapon, so it misses me.

    I swing to deflect Aaliyah’s strike, only for my skills to warn me of danger. Aaliyah grins at me and vanishes from my sight.

    “Flash Step!” I curse aloud.

    My skills tell me she ended up behind me. I expect for her to aim at my head, which wouldn’t be that big of a problem, but my blood runs cold when, from the corner of my eye, I see her swing her axe at the spot my armor’s magic gem is hidden!

    I twist in place, so she hits the front of my armor. Was she aiming for that spot, or was it a lucky strike? I don't have long to ponder because my skills keep screaming for me to move. Without looking behind me, I know the stone kin is about to hit me from behind.

    I activate one of my defensive treasures just in time to block his hammer. A magic barrier covers my back for a split second before shattering under the stone kin's Strength. The magic tool did its job by dispersing most of the force behind his strike. I'm still knocked a few feet forward, but at least I'm not sent flying.

    After that close call, I retreat for a moment and put some distance between us. That stone kin's strike was dangerously close to the magic gem as well.

    “A little lower next time,” I hear Aaliyah tell her master.

    “Got it.”

    My eyes threaten to pop out of their sockets; I'm floored. They were aiming for the magic gem! That means they not only know about my armor, but they know its weak spot too!

    I stare at Aaliyah, she’s the only one who could possibly see my armor, but that shouldn’t be possible!

    My armor is enchanted to repel magic, meaning it repels all searching type spells as well as Sense Mana. Only the best mages can tell I'm wearing armor, and not one has ever figured out where the magic gem is located!

    I take a deep breath to calm myself. I don’t know how she did it, but I’ll take great pleasure in figuring it out.

    **********

    Aaliyah’s Point of View:

    "We were close," I grin, seeing the old man's shocked expression. We scared him enough he felt the need to retreat.

    "Don't get overconfident; we haven't won yet," master reminds me.

    “I know, I know,” I say, taking a moment to catch my breath.

    I'm just happy things are working out as we planned. It was a longshot that Pacore would accept my terms, but in the end, he did. Master and I needed a reason to fight Pacore, and we figured if he agreed, we could make the fight more even with a few added conditions. We're free to try and kill him while Pacore needs to have us surrender.

    Yesterday we discussed how our meeting with Pacore would play out, and it was my idea that master and I cut ties with the village beforehand. Camden and mom were against the idea, but we need the village to be safe in case we fail.

    If we lose, I become Pacore’s disciple. But if we win…!

    We actually don’t have a plan if we win. We only had so much time to plan things out, and figuring out a way to get him to duel us was hard enough, let alone what we should do should we manage to win the fight. Killing Pacore would be a death sentence for the village, and I'm not sure if I can free General Pitz. If we're lucky, Pacore will acknowledge his defeat and leave us alone. But no matter what happens, word will get out that I'm here.

    I shake my head, setting those thoughts away for later. First, we have to bring this old man down!

    Together, master and I start taking steady steps forward. We're both ready to rush in; our target is the spot on his back that hides the magic gem. If we can damage that area enough, all of the armor’s enchantments should fail. It hurts having to destroy such a beautiful piece of work, but we have no other choice.

    When we’re twenty feet away from Pacore, we're ready to make our move. Both of us tense our muscles but master and I pause when we hear Pacore start to laugh.

    "I'll admit, I underestimated the two of you. I don't know how you figured it out, but that can wait until later," Pacore sneers at me. "No more nice Pacore. Prepare yourselves because you face Master Pacore the Deathless now!"

    The air around Pacore vibrates, and the air becomes heavy. I don't know if it's a skill, but he's somehow affecting the surrounding mana without doing anything through sheer force of will. He briefly did the same thing yesterday, but this time the effect lasts longer than a few seconds.

    I swear I can hear mom's voice in the back of my head telling me to run, but I brush it aside. There's no use running.

    Instead of Pacore waiting for us to attack, he's the one to rush us this time.

    He slashes at master with such precision; his previous attacks could be called half-assed in comparison. Master stumbles backward as Pacore starts cutting him in between his armor. The cuts aren't deep, but almost every swing of Pacore's sword draws more of master's blood.

    I use Flash Step to get in close and help, but Pacore easily swats my axe away before I can properly swing it.

    Pacore attacks in such a way, I'm forced to dodge in a single direction. He herds me next to master and continues his assault, so neither of us can break away!

    It's like we're fighting a totally different person. Pacore hasn't gotten faster or stronger, and yet he's pushing both of us back. Each step he takes is perfect; with each swing of his sword, he chips away at Mana Skin or opens a new wound on master. I can no longer tell where his sword and hand meet.

    This is beyond fighting someone with a higher level. How long has he spent practicing his swordplay? How many battles has this monster been in?

    When Pacore told us he was one of Scholl’s pillars, I knew he would be strong, but I could’ve never imagined this! If something doesn’t change soon, we’re going to lose!

    And the only way we're going to win is if we get creative!

    Instead of pushing backwards, I push off the ground. Pacore doesn't miss the opening and aims to stab me while I'm in the air. If he gets a clean hit, his sword will slice through Mana Skin like it isn't even there.

    But this was what I was hoping for.

    I push off the air with Air Walk, dodging what would’ve been a nasty blow. I hear shouting from outside the quarry, but my eyes are focused solely on Pacore. His eyes follow my every movement as I soar through the air. Besides Pacore's smile, he doesn't look surprised by my skill in the slightest. In fact, if master wasn't taking this chance to keep him busy, I'm sure Pacore would still be trying to stab me in the air.

    I move to swing my axe from up above, but Pacore is ready for me. He activates another magic item, and another barrier forms around Pacore, but this one expands rapidly, pushing me higher into the sky while forcing master back.

    Oh no, you don't!

    My axe is still raised over my head, so I throw it with everything I have.

    Pacore sidesteps my axe, unfazed even though it skims past his fancy armor. I draw my Scimitar and push off the air again, charging him once again.

    Pacore isn't foolish enough to let me get behind him again; he continually shifts his position to keep master and me in front of him. Even with aerial superiority, I can't get him!

    Pacore dodges another one of my slashes; in doing so, he twists in place and drops to one knee. With his change in position, he stabs master's right knee. I know it's terrible when I hear master howl in pain.

    "Del!" I scream. Rushing Pacore, I swing my sword, wanting to get Pacore to move away from master, who's trying to crawl backwards with his good leg.

    "You shouldn't let your emotions get the better of you." I don't have time to register what Pacore just told me before he swings his sword directly underneath my foot. Just as I'm about to push off the air, Pacore's sword tears through the mana barrier I built to push off of, and I tumble hard to the ground.

    I move to get up, but Pacore is already standing over me with his sword pointed at my face. "You're quite talented, but you lack experience. It will be fun teaching you," he grins down at me.

    “It’s not over yet,” I hiss.

    "I think it is," Pacore talks down to me. "It's commendable to want to keep fighting, but you have to know your limits."

    I glance to my side and see master has managed to crawl a good twenty feet away from us. Time for plan Z.

    "There's always a way to win," I laugh at Pacore.

    I raise my hand and recite my spell.

    “Llaif gamfr ol e nnamse!”

    Either Pacore recognizes the spell, or he's that sure I can't hurt him; either way, he waits for me to cast my magic. When the small flame appears in my outstretched palm, he can't help but laugh.

    “You shouldn’t underestimate fire,” I tell him as I gather most of my mana into my hand.

    The last thing I see before the world fills with fire is Pacore's smile faltering. The overpowered flame spell isn't as powerful as the last time I used it because of all the mana I used against Pacore, but only by a little. My skills have leveled a lot since the last time I tried to blow myself up, and the resulting explosion is still deafening. Mana Skin holds back most of the blast's force along with most of the heat, but I can feel a burning sensation on the arm I used to cast the spell. I'm glad I invested that extra twenty points into my Endurance, or the damage might have been a lot worse.

    Thanks to the mana threads I have anchoring me to the ground, I wasn't thrown by the explosion, and I can forcefully absorb a small amount of ambient earth mana underneath me to keep myself from passing out.

    This time I’m conscious as my spell starts to fizzle out.

    The first thing I see is the tip of Pacore's sword, still pointed at my face. The flames become thinner, and my heart sinks when I see Pacore's smiling face still looking down on me.

    Pacore is entirely unharmed.

    Even the bastard's clothing underneath his armor isn't damaged!

    I want to curse the old man, but I'm too busy trying to catch my breath. My mana levels are hovering around 10%, making me feel extremely exhausted. My outstretched hand that cast the spell falls limply to my side, with a few minor burns.

    Pacore whistles, "I was not expecting that! But I was expecting your last move not to be expected, so it doesn't count," he gloats. "Now surrender so I can send Jason to get the two of you a healer." Pacore refuses to lower his sword until I admit our defeat.

    I look over at Master, who's standing on one leg. He looks like he's willing to keep going, but the blood dripping from his leg is increasing the more he moves around. I won't let master kill himself for me.

    “I surrender,” I wheeze out.

    Master Del looks at me, wondering if I'm serious. After I slowly nod my head, master falls backwards onto his ass, hanging his head in disappointment.

    “Jason!” Pacore shouts up to the boy who's staring slack-jawed at us. "Go get a healer!"

    “Yes, Master Pacore,” the young man stutters before taking off.

    Pacore watches him leave before looking back at me. "That was a good fight," he grunts as he sheaths his sword and sits down next to my sprawled out form. "Before General Pitz walks down here, tell me, how did you know about my armors weakness?"

    Pacore leans over my motionless body, smiling at me like a child looking at an interesting insect. When I don't say anything, he pouts. "Come on now; I'm your master, you have to tell me." Unlike Master Del, it doesn't look like Pacore wants me to keep my skills a secret from him.

    "It's a skill," I remark, purposely being as vague as possible.

    Pacore just snorts at my comment. "If you don't want to tell me, that's fine. Just make sure you and that stone kin keep the information about my armor to yourselves. Even I can't protect you if the information gets out." For just a moment, Pacore sounds serious.

    "I can't believe you tried blowing me up!"

    And the moment is gone.

    I hear footsteps approaching, but I don't want to raise my head. "You finally decided to join us, general," Pacore quips when I see General Pitz make it into my view. "I was sure you'd try to escape after I had Jason run off."

    “You know I can’t do that,” General Pitz frowns at Pacore.

    I don’t know how much those bands seal her, but they have to be strong if they limit someone like General Pitz enough where she can’t survive in the woods.

    "No reason to be mean," Pacore continues to egg General Pitz on. "I know you're jealous about my newest student, so I suppose it can't be helped."

    The look General Pitz gives Pacore reminds me of my mom before she snaps. We can all hear the general grind her teeth in frustration.

    “If you want to borrow my sword, you can try stabbing him,” I offer the angry woman.

    “Hey, you’re supposed to be on my side,” Pacore looks like I just slapped him.

    “Not by choice,” I grumble.

    “That doesn’t matter. You’ll see, Scholl is a beautiful place.”

    “If you like miles of rocky hellscape,” General Pitz cuts into Pacore’s speech.

    While the two of them argue, it sinks in that I lost. I'll have to leave the village. I can only hope Pacore doesn't make me leave right away.

    “Ma, Mast, Master Pacore?” I swallow a lump in my throat after calling him master.

    "Yes, my apprentice?" Pacore looks at me with a goofy smile, happy to hear me call him master. Seeing his smile makes me never want to address Pacore as master again.

    "Do I have to leave with you right away? If possible, can I wait until the new year's festival before I leave?" I hesitantly ask; I don't even bother trying to use my skills on him. There's still so much I need to do, and I can't forget about spending time with my family.

    Pacore chuckles, “you don’t need to leave immediately. You can stay in the village until I finish my campaign and auction off the general. But why is a new year's festival that important to you?" Pacore questions me.

    I'm so relieved I don't immediately have to leave the village; I answer Pacore's question without thinking. "I've been looking forward to the festival for years now. This year is the first time I'm allowed to participate with all the adults."

    Pacore and General Pitz freeze in place. “This is the first time you’re participating in the festival?” Pacore reiterates.

    “How old are you?” General Pitz’s fevered eyes burrow into my soul.

    Crap, I said something I shouldn’t have!

    Pacore and the general’s gazes become more overwhelming the longer I remain silent. “I turned 15 this year,” I finally tell them.

    General Pitz and Pacore, two respected leaders of their nations that have reached unimaginable heights, look at me like I’m the monster.

    “By the gods!” General Pitz swears.

    Pacore’s eyes widen impossibly large. “You will be my greatest student,” the fanaticism behind his voice sends a shiver down my spine. Everything is only made worse by the fact I'm so tired I can barely move. I wish I did pass out after my spell failed to defeat the old man.

    Maybe I should just pretend to pass out; that could work, right?

    I slowly start to close my eyes, but Pacore is having none of that. "You can't sleep on me yet," Pacore gently slaps my right cheek. Opening my eyes, I scowl at my new master. I've made up my mind; as soon as I'm strong enough, I'm killing him!

    “What do you want,” I snap at Pacore.

    “I wanted to talk about getting some weapons made. That arrow you made for General Pitz was incredible.”

    I ignore Pacore’s flattery and look at General Pitz. “Did the arrow really turn out that good?”

    General Pitz smiles at me. "It was; I almost killed him with it."

    “Well shit,” I curse. “Now I’m going to kick myself for not making it stronger.”

    “You’re starting to hurt my feelings,” Pacore forces himself into our conversation. “I saw the spears you had back in the clearing. I’d like to buy those and order more.”

    Great, now I have another person demanding an order.

    Wait a minute!

    I smell a great opportunity.

    I put on a shit-eating grin for my new master. “Sorry to tell you this, but I can’t sell you anything.”

    “What, why not!?” He yells.

    "I have a contract with someone already. I'm only allowed to sell my wares to him," I continue to grin at the old man.

    "So, break it. I'll cover you for whatever the conditions are and pay you more."

    “Sorry, no can do,” I take great pride in Pacore’s frustration. “You can’t cover my cancellation cost.”

    “Oh, yeah?!” Pacore bellows. “What is it?”

    If Pacore wants to be my master, he should help me take care of my problems. "If I break my contract, I lose 20 levels.”

    "That's!?" Pacore is dumbfounded for a moment before I see anger start to rise in his eyes. "And who made you sign such a ludicrous contract?" Pacore asks me in a cold voice.

    Bingo! That’s the reaction I was hoping for.

    “Well, who was it!?” Pacore demands.

    “I signed a contract with Lennard Grey shortly before you took Drey. You’ll have to talk to him if you want to buy anything from me.” It’s hard to keep myself from laughing like a villain. “He’s the…”

    "Head of the Silver Herd branch in Drey. I know," Pacore hisses in displeasure. "I've met him."

    “That's good; you can send all requests through him," I flatly tell Pacore.

    “I’ll get right on that.” Pacore looks pissed. He remains steaming until the healer he sent for arrives with Jason.

    Pacore tries to order the man to heal me first, but I demand that he treat Master Del first, knowing his injuries are worse than mine. The healer Pacore brought with him is much more talented than Anastasia, so much so, master is standing on both legs again after only thirty minutes of treatment. He even manages to remove some of the fatigue I'm feeling from mana exhaustion to the point I can stand on my own.

    "Are you okay?" I rush over to hug Del as soon as I can stand.

    “I’m fine,” he grunts. “Just some phantom pain.”

    “That should fade in a few hours,” the healer tells us.

    “Thank you,” I offer the man a small bow.

    “I was merely following Master Pacore’s orders. Is there anything else you need, Sir?” The healer salutes Pacore.

    "No, you can return to camp," Pacore dismisses the man in an almost comically dry voice. Where did the annoying old man go?

    The medical soldier salutes Pacore one last time before leaving the quarry.

    “What happens now?” I find myself asking the same question as yesterday.

    Pacore starts stroking his beard again. "For now, you will remain in this village. I'm not sure how long it will take to finish my campaign, but in the meantime, I'll send one of my best students to start your training and to make sure nothing happens to you while I'm gone."

    You mean to make sure I don't run away, I think to myself.

    “We should head back now,” Pacore says, glancing up at the sky. “I have much to prepare before I return to Drey. Do you need any help walking back?” He asks me.

    "I got her," Del protectingly moves next to me.

    "So, you do," Pacore remarks. He smiles at me one last time, "I'll have the contracts ready for you to sign before we set out tomorrow."

    "Okay," I respond, hanging my head. It's the only thing I can do to hide my grin. One-sided contracts are a girl's best friend.

    “Okay, what?” Pacore presses.

    “Okay…. Master Pacore,” I grit through my teeth.

    “Needs some work, but all in good time,” Pacore laughs. Master Del and I watch as Pacore walks out of the quarry, followed closely by Jason and General Pitz.

    We stand there in silence for a good minute.

    “We lost,” master breaks the silence. “But at least you got the teacher you always needed.”

    I’m in no mood for master’s pessimism, so I elbow him in his side where Pacore had cut him earlier. Master groans and folds over, holding his side. "You're my first master, and that hasn't changed. Pacore can be my second master if I don't kill him first," I growl in frustration. Does Del really think I'm happy about being dragged out of the village?

    I move next to master and help support him. "Don't say nonsense like that again, okay?"

    “Alright,” he agrees.

    "I can't believe you thought I would be happy having that man as a teacher," I complain as we walk towards master's house.

    Master softly chuckles to himself, and I consider hitting him again.

    “What’s so funny?” I ask him.

    “I just find it funny how much you hate him, considering how much the two of you are alike.”

    “We’re nothing alike!” I yell.

    "The resemblance is uncanny," master continues to make fun of me. "It will be interesting to see which of you annoys the other to death first."

    "Go home and rest because you obviously suffered some head trauma," I tell master as I help him into his clearing.

    “You don’t have to tell me twice,” master stumbles over to his hut. He opens the door but turns to me before he goes in. “Will you be fine heading back by yourself?”

    “I’ll be fine,” I reassure him. “My mana may be low, but I still have some stamina left after dragging your fat butt home.”

    “Be safe,” master tells me one more time before walking into his house. I envy master for living alone. He doesn't have a house full of people waiting for him to return home.

    That's not true; I want nothing more than to be smothered by mom and dad right now.

    I might not be dragged out of the village tomorrow, but my time here just became much more precious. My only saving grace is that I know my family will support me no matter what happens.

    So, I need to get home and show them that I'm all right.

    Thinking about my family waiting for me helps me make it home faster despite my aches and pains.

    I reach out to open our squeaky front door, and it occurs to me I might not be able to call this home for much longer.

    **********

    6,950 words. Almost 40% more than usual 😊

    I promised I would have the chapter out Friday night, so naturally, I post it Saturday morning. I’m going to bed.

    A quick reminder, though, I'm not posting this weekend. I'm trying to get a Discord up and running and possibly get a chapter written ahead of schedule, so these late postings stop happening.

    I hope you liked the direction this chapter went, and as always, stay safe.  


    I will be posting the next chapter tonight, but I'm not sure how much longer it will take.


    The chapter will be longer than the last few and I need to edit it to make sure it lives up to what I promised.


    No matter what, a nice chapter will be waiting for everybody in the morning.


    That is all.


    No spoilers! 


    If this old man weren't wearing an invisible helmet right now, I'd try socking him in his creepy face.

    I knew the old man and lady would be trouble the second I saw them, but things are turning out for the worst. Being the second strongest person in the village, I was responsible for standing front and center when Scholl arrived. And if Scholl sent anybody else to our village, I would've gone unnoticed.

    I would’ve liked nothing more than to remain back at the front of the village with everybody else, but master and I are the only ones capable of standing up to these two monsters.

    And as my luck would have it, the lady and old man haven't taken their eyes off me since we started walking them through the village together. The quiet lady is unnerving, but the old man is relentless.

    I'm guessing the lady isn't dangerous until she unseals her power, meaning I'll aim for her first if a fight breaks out. The old man, on the other hand, is a different story. The more I scan him, the more I'm convinced I'd be unable to scratch the cocky geezer.

    I only have a general sense of the runes inscribed on his armor, but I can tell it isn't just invisibility. His armor is not only the most robust alloy I've ever seen, but it's also enchanted to reduce the impact of magic as well. And that isn't even including the fact that it's fuckin invisible!

    His armor alone is enough to make me want to run rather than fight, and I haven't had the chance to scratch the other magic items he has scared over his body. The sword on his hip is at least ten times better than my scimitar.

    My original plan was to have master grab Camden and run away while I overpowered my flame spell again as I did with the bandits. However, the more I look at the old man, the more I realize my plan won’t work.

    The only way I'll be able to hurt him is if I can freeform my own spell as I did against the soul eater, and I doubt he'd stand still for me.

    I tried lying about the spears, but judging by the old man’s growing smile, he isn’t falling for it.

    “I’m curious, why stay out here? With your talent, you could’ve walked into Olebert’s capitol and demanded the best master accept you as his disciple. Why limit yourself?” The old man drills me again.

    “I don’t know what you mean,” I try to deflect again with my skills active, but it doesn’t work.

    “I think you know what I mean,” he confidently smiles at me.

    Shit, playing dumb is getting me nowhere. The old man is just pushing me further back into a corner.

    I glance away from the old man for a moment and see we’ve become everyone’s focus. Camden and master are nervously watching me while the aid, which I think was called Jason by the old man, scampers over to the woman who's also nervously watching us.

    I harden my resolve and look the old man in the eye. "You're asking a lot of personal questions for someone who has yet to introduce himself."

    The old man throws his head back and starts laughing. “You’re right, I haven't given you my name yet, have I? You can call me Pacore. In my homeland, I'm known as Master Pacore the deathless, one of the pillars of Scholl."

    As the old man gives me his name, his aura changes. The pressure radiating off Pacore becomes a physical weight on my shoulders. Out of the corner of my eye, I see master reading to strike while Camden and Jason have dropped to their knees.

    I look Pacore in the eyes and flatly ask him, “are you done yet?”

    The pressure vanishes, and Pacore laughs at my defiant look. "Good, very good. Not even my commanders can stand up to me when I release my pressure. You know how strong I am, and yet you aren't afraid; that's commendable."

    It's my turn to snicker. It's not that I don't fear him; it's just that I've come face to face with a monster scarier than he is, and no matter how intimidating Pacore is, his presence is nothing compared to literal gods. Even if he's high leveled, he's only a man.

    Pacore’s smile slips momentarily when I start giggling. “I have to say that’s not the reaction I was expecting,” he notes my seemingly weird behavior.

    This is the first time the old geezer has lost his footing, so I capitalize on the opening. I confidently step closer to him. "I have seen much scarier than you. What is one man compared to the monsters in this world?"

    Everything turns silent after my question. Pacore and the unnamed lady are taken back by my sudden change in demeanor.

    Pacore's expression hardens, and we stare at each other. There isn't a trace of anger in his eyes. I get the feeling he knows all too well where he stands in this world. He’s seen a monster just as I have and lived to tell the tale.

    “And what monster has a level 74 child seen?” Pacore asks me in a curious tone.

    Like I'll let you retake the lead.

    I activate Sense Soul and zero in on Pacore’s and the woman’s soul. Both of them twitch under my gaze and look at me in wide-eyed wonder.

    “Why don’t you tell me about the beast that haunts your dreams first?” I challenge Pacore. “I’m curious what beast someone at level 152 and 127 finds dangerous?”

    The tension in the air becomes palpable after I reveal their levels. Pacore turns and looks at the woman behind him, and the two of them share a silent conversation with their eyes. It almost looks like they didn't know each other's levels.

    Master Pacore eventually turns back to me and asks me in a cold voice, "my level is one of my kingdoms greatest secrets. How are you going to compensate me for revealing it?"

    I can’t back down now. “I guess we’ll have to keep each other’s secrets then,” I respond using the same tone.

    Tightening my grip on my axe, I ready myself for his attack.

    Pacore snorts and closes his eyes; bringing his hand up, he starts stroking his beard. "This is quite the predicament I put myself in, isn't it?" The fact he's willing to close his eyes in front of me shows how little of a threat he considers me. "You just had to go and say my level in front of the general, didn't you?"

    What?

    I don't understand what he's talking about. I know I should keep quiet, but my curiosity gets the better of me. "Why does it matter if I say your level in front of your companion?" I ask Pacore.

    Pacore lets out a tired sigh. "I guess It's my fault for bringing her with me in the first place," he mumbles before opening his eyes, looking straight at me. Pacore points over his shoulder at the woman standing next to Jason, "she's my prisoner. You gave my level to one of Olebert’s top generals.”

    Camden, master, and I look past Pacore and stare at the woman standing behind him.

    She's a prisoner?! Those magic bands she's wearing are not to hide her power but seal it completely.

    A high-ranking general captured by Scholl. That means she can only be her, "you're General Pitz!" I exclaim in shock.

    “I am,” the general admits in a defeated voice.

    “So, you see why this a problem,” Pacore cuts in. “I can only see one solution to this problem.”

    Does he think he can silence all of us!? If that's really General Pitz, then we only have to worry about Pacore. He may have a high level, but if master and I work together, we might be able to take him.

    “You’ll have to take responsibility…,” he tells me.

    With my life, I know where this is going. As soon as he moves to draw his sword, I’ll attack. As soon as Pacore starts his next sentence, I rush forward.

    “By becoming my student,” Pacore boldly proclaims.

    Axe raised over my head; I stumble forward after hearing Pacore’s demand.

    “You want me to what?” I ask in disbelief.

    Pacore, unperturbed by my raised weapon, grins at me. “I need to bring back something just as valuable as my level when I return to Scholl. And I can’t think of anything more valuable than taking you as my newest student.” Pacore starts laughing with all the confidence in the world.

    Mouth open, I stare at him dumbfounded.

    ***********

    Master Pacore the Deathless’ Point of View:

    It's excellent seeing Aaliyah's shocked reaction. She was ready to charge me just now, but it looks like she's forgotten all about that.

    That look of confidence in her eyes as she raised her axe was beautiful. She honestly thought she and that stone kin could defeat me. Her courage is commendable, stupid, but commendable.

    She makes such beautiful weapons.

    She can see through my strength and accurately determine my level, a feat that hasn't been done since I passed level 110.

    And she has the courage of a cornered beast, with the level to back it up.

    I shudder, thinking about what other talents she might be hiding. If I make her my student, I'm sure she'll pass me one day and take my place as Scholl's pillar.

    Resources, money, expertise, I can give her everything she needs to become a paragon in this world.

    In a few years, she might even grow strong enough to help us defeat the dragon!

    The knowledge of my level leaking is nothing in comparison to what this young girl represents. She will be my greatest…!

    “I refuse!”

    Did the world just stop turning? I stand frozen in place, not comprehending what I just heard. “What was that?” I ask Aaliyah, not sure if I heard her correctly.

    “I said, I refuse,” she calmly repeats herself.

    Are the gods themselves playing a joke on me?

    "I already have a great master," Aaliyah tells me before looking at the stone kin and smiling. The stone kin shakes his head in a reproaching manner, but the smile on his face contradicts himself.

    Everyone else is just as surprised as I am; even the village's headman looks shocked she turned down my offer.

    I…

    I’m at a loss for words!

    "What happens now?" She asks me like she didn't just turn down a once-in-a-lifetime offer.

    Everyone looks to me for my answer, and I'm still stunned in place. I fearlessly faced down a dragon, one of the most feared creatures in this world, without pause. And here I am, rendered speechless by a village girl, a mere fraction of my age.

    “Master Pacore?” Young Jason calls out to me.

    “I think you killed him,” I hear General Pitz snicker behind me.

    I should be mad. A commoner turned me down. I have the right to be furious.

    “Why?” I calmly ask her. “Do you know what you’re turning down?”

    Aaliyah gives me an awkward smile. "I can roughly guess," she responds.

    “You would receive anything you need,” I point out to her. “Scholl would give you training, materials, anything you asked for, it would be given to you. You would stand above thousands, hundreds of thousands! My majesty would give you land, a title!”

    Aaliyah's smile becomes more strained like I'm an ordinary merchant trying to force his weirs onto her.

    "Tell me what you desire, and it will be yours," I hold out my hand. "Become my apprentice, no, my successor."

    Everyone but Aaliyah gasps at my offer. I don't care about anyone else right now; I keep my eyes focused on Aaliyah.

    When she lets out a tired sigh, my heart drops.

    “And what if I ask for freedom?” Her voice rings in my ears. “If I took your offer, would I be allowed to travel the world? You see me and are impressed with my strength, but the two of us use our strength for different purposes. You asked me why I’m out here? The answer is the same reason I’m turning you down right now.”

    The more she speaks, the more resolve I hear in her voice.

    "You want me to take over your position eventually, to lead Scholl's armies to victory?" She asks me, shaking her head. "That is not who I am. I have fought monsters, both beasts from the forest and those who look like you and me. I may enjoy the challenge, but I don't enjoy killing. You'd ask me to swear allegiance to your king and help win your wars. It's the same thing as being shackled to any other noble. That’s why I haven’t left my village yet. I’m not strong enough to stand on my own.”

    “I can help you gain that strength,” I offer Aaliyah.

    "I can gain strength by myself," she says stubbornly. “Through blacksmithing and hard work, I’ll reach your level with my own two hands.”

    Preposterous! Does she think she can reach my level through sheer hard work and willpower?! It's only thanks to his majesty's backing and the wealth of a country that I've made it to where I am today.

    I want to grab the infuriating child and shake some sense into her, but her eyes…

    Her eyes have no uncertainty in them. She has the look of someone who has no doubt she’ll reach her goals.

    Such passion!

    Such Drive!

    Why did she have to refuse me?!

    A heavy silence hangs over all of us. Now that Aaliyah has thoroughly turned me down, a choice needs to be made.

    If I leave her be, she could become a threat to Scholl in the future. General Pitz knows about her, and once she's ransomed back to Olebert, the general would be a fool if she didn't send people to secure her. The weapons Aaliyah makes are already reason enough to fight over her. In the future, she might even rival stone kin masters.

    If I try to drag her back with me, she and her master will fight to the death, that I'm sure of.

    Do I kill her now, or leave her and hope Aaliyah doesn’t turn on Scholl in the future?

    I glance over my shoulder at General Pitz to gauge her reaction and see she's gritting her teeth and clenching her fists. So, she's ready to attack me, too, even though she's sealed.

    Things continue to become more complicated by the minute.

    I take a deep breath and let out a long sigh. Decisions like this shouldn’t be made lightly. I’ll need time to think things through.

    I turn my attention to the village's headman. The man flinches backward, seeing my emotionless face. "What's your name?" I flatly question him.

    “Camden Downs, my lord,” he bows his head, unable to hold my gaze.

    "Headman Downs, my people will camp in front of your village." I leave no room for him to negotiate or argue. Looking back at Aaliyah, I see her spirit has remained strong and that she hasn't changed her mind in the slightest. "We both need time to think. I'll be back to talk with you tomorrow."

    Aliyah's eyes widen in surprise, but she doesn't say anything as I start to walk back towards my men. "Jason, hurry along, and don't forget to bring General Pitz with you," I call out behind me.

    “Yes, sir!” I hear him shout. I keep my pace slow until I hear his and General Pitz's footsteps catch up to me. Neither of them says anything as we make our way back through the village.

    When we approach the villagers, still ready to defend their village, the headman's son watches our lone approach with worry in his eyes. "Where is my father?" He points his sword at me. The level 50 archer stands next to him, but I'm too mentally exhausted to answer him.

    The young man's face becomes strained as I walk past him without saying a word. He looks ready to order an attack when young Jason answers for me. "Your headman is back in the village, unharmed."

    The boy motions for someone to go check on his father, but I don't care about that. I release a bit of pressure and the villager's part in front of me.

    “Master Pacore, sir?” My commander walks up to me, seeing the complicated look on my face.

    “We’re camping here for the day. Have the men set up the tents a little way away from the village,” I curtly issue my orders.

    The commander must realize I'm not in the mood to talk. He salutes me and takes off, issuing my orders. My tent is prioritized first, and I soon have a quiet place to retreat to.

    Leaving my armor on, I collapse on my bedroll, going over every option I can think of regarding Aaliyah.

    “Do I really need to kill such talent?” I question the gods.

    Silence is my only answer.

    **********

    Aaliyah’s Point of View:

    My heart pounds in my chest as we watch Pacore walk away.

    When Pacore and his group are out of sight, all the tension leaves my body, and I collapse to the ground. For a second there, all my instincts screamed at me to run. I was sure he was going to attack after I turned him down. Is he going to attack the village because of me? I start trembling, thinking about all the repercussions everyone might face because of me.

    Master walks over to me and bends down. He starts rubbing his hands in circles on my back, trying to help me calm down.

    “I can’t believe you did that,” Camden mumbles, clearly shaken up just as much as I am.

    Hearing Camden makes me second guess myself even more. Should I rush after Pacore and take him up on his offer? The last thing I want to do is get the village caught up in my own problems.

    “What do you think I should’ve done?” I ask master.

    "You should've taken the deal," master bluntly tells me. My heart drops; even master thinks I was wrong. "But I'm happy you didn't."

    I look to master with tears in my eyes, “really?”

    Master Del firmly nods. “You stuck to your beliefs. I can’t fault you for that.”

    “What do we do now?” I ask.

    Master and I look at Camden, who has his head buried in his hands, lightly groaning. Everything has become a lot more complicated for everyone involved.

    This is why I didn't want to leave the village. I knew something like this would eventually happen, but I never thought it would happen so soon.

    “Headman Downs!” Our brooding is interrupted by someone running over to us. “Are you all ok!? We didn’t see you return with Scholl’s people.”

    Camden jolts up, realizing we let that monster walk through our village by himself. It's understandable how everyone must be reacting, seeing how we didn't return with Pacore.

    Camden quickly straitens himself up and puts on a brave front. "Everything's fine," he lies to the messenger. "Go back and tell my son to leave Scholl alone for now. Tell him, we'll set up a watch and that everyone is to hold on to their weapons for now."

    The villager nods and takes off back through the village.

    “We’ll need to have a meeting to discuss what happened,” Camden walks over to me. “I’ll grab my children while you find your family. Come to my house when you’re ready,” he tells me. “I need to organize the village,” Camden briefly explains before walking off, an invisible weight added to his shoulders.

    “Come on then,” master helps me to my feet. The two of us walk together back to my house.

    When we get there, I knock on the door. “Mom! It’s me,” I call out.

    There are heavy steps on the other side of the door as mom rushes to let me in. She flings the door open and launches herself at me, wrapping me in her arms. "Are you ok?" She asks, sniffling.

    “I think so,” I tell her.

    “I’ll go find your dad,” master leaves the two of us alone.

    Mother pulls back and looks me over, searching for the slightest scratch. “Did everything go according to plan?” She asks me, noticing I don’t have a single smudge on my armor.

    I briefly think about lying to mom to make her feel better, but that will only make what comes next that much harder. “No,” I hang my head. “Things didn’t go according to plan.”

    Concerned, mom asks me, “what happened?”

    "I'll explain in a little bit. Can you just keep hugging me for a little while longer?"

    Mom wraps her arms around me again, no questions asked. We stay like that until Master Del returns with Dad.

    Dad moves in and joins our hug, while master awkwardly stands to the side. After a minute, I tell them, “we need to head to Camden’s house.”

    It’s a somber walk for us. Armed villagers are returning to their families, unsure of what’s happening to the village. Scholl is camped right outside the village, and the tension in the air has only increased.

    A few scared people are standing outside Camden's house when we get there, but Sarette, who's standing outside, shoos them away when she sees us coming. "I'm happy you're all ok," she rushes over and hugs mother. "My boys are inside; they said Camden will be back soon." Sarette leads us into her house.

    We all shuffle into the drawing-room. Sarette places some tea on the table, but no one takes any. Dad and mom sit on either side of me while master stands nearby.

    We wait like that for nearly twenty minutes before we hear the front door open.

    Camden walks into the room, followed by Ronald, Anastasia, Markus, Ezekiel, brother, and Sandra. The drawing-room is packed with people nervously glancing at one another.

    “What is happening, Camden?” Markus is the first to speak up.

    Camden looks at me, seeing if I want to explain. I shake my head no. Mother and father put their arms around me for support.

    Camden lets out what has to be his 100th sigh of the day and starts explaining what happened with Pacore. Everyone but those who were there during the meeting pales in fright when they hear his level. The fact that the woman with him is the captured General Pitz doesn't do much for morale either.

    The room explodes when Camden explains how Pacore asked me to become his student and my subsequent refusal.

    “You killed us all!” Markus yells at me. Normally, I'd have something snappy to say back, but I'm afraid he's right this time.

    “We aren’t dead yet,” Camden tries to calm the room.

    “Yet!” Ezekiel exclaims. “The monster is probably deciding how to burn down our village this very moment!”

    “Say that again!” Dad stands up, towering over Ezekiel.

    But Ezekiel is obviously panicking. "We're screwed! We can't stand up to someone like Pacore, not even if the whole village tried to kill him! And it's all her fault!" Ezekiel points an accusing finger at me.

    That finger is all it takes to push father over the edge. He reaches and grabs Ezekiel by his vest and hoists him into the air. Markus, Ronald, and Nicolas try to pry Ezekiel out of dad's grip, but they can't match his strength. It isn't until Del moves across the room and punches dad in the gut that he drops Ezekiel.

    Mom yells as dad drops to the floor, clutching his chest.

    “It’s your fault!” Ezekiel continues to rant now that he’s free.

    Master, who just freed Ezekiel, turns around and slaps him upside the head. Ezekiel drops to the floor, unmoving. If his chest weren't barely moving, I'd swear that slap had killed him.

    “Why did you do that?” Markus stares at his unconscious friend. “You just saved him.”

    Master snorts at Markus. "I stopped Darrius from killing him; that doesn't mean I'm going to stand here and listen to you badmouthing my apprentice."

    Markus looks at master like he just grew another head. “Your voice!”

    Master was so worked up he forgot to use his broken speech around Anastasia and Markus.

    “We’re getting off track,” Camden tries to reel everyone back in. “Arguing won’t solve anything.”

    “You’re not going to do anything about him!” Markus points at master while yelling at Camden.

    “I won’t,” Camden calmly responds to Markus.

    “And why not!?” He continues to shout.

    "Because I was about to do the same thing," Camden's response causes Markus to take a wary step back. "You can't blame Aaliyah for not wanting to join Scholl's army. If you’re going to continue to yell, you can take Ezekiel and leave.” That finally gets Markus to shut his mouth. “We need options for tomorrow.”

    The room goes quiet.

    “Are the two of you able to beat him?” Anastasia asks master and me.

    Master hangs his head while I shake mine. "I'm not even sure we can get past his armor," I honestly reply.

    "Armor?" Camden looks at me, confused.

    Oh, yeah. I'm the only one who could see it. "He's wearing a set of invisible armor," I explain to the stunned room. "It makes my stuff look like paper."

    "Then fighting isn't an option," Camden grumbles. "Any more ideas?" He asks everybody.

    “We could run,” mom says in a quiet voice.

    “Silvia!” Sarette gasps at her friend.

    "If it keeps our family and the village safe, it might be our only option," mom points out to her friend.

    "Even if your family leaves, that doesn't mean the village will be spared," Camden shakes his head. “Fighting may be our only option.”

    “But you just said!” Markus whines.

    “Do you have a better idea?” Camden challenges him.

    I feel tears welling up in my eyes. Whether it’s my parents, master, or Camden and his family, all of them are trying to think of a way to save me from Pacore. I’m not sure if I deserve this.

    Mother notices my tears and pulls me against her. There is only one way I can guarantee everyone will be safe.

    “I’ll take his offer.”

    The room goes silent again.

    “What was that, sweety?” Mom asks me.

    “I said I’ll take Pacore’s offer,” I repeat through my tears.

    "You don't have to…" Camden starts, but I shake my head.

    "This is the only way that guarantees nobody gets hurt. Besides, he said I'll get anything I want," I try to smile to prove I'm ok with the decision.

    Everyone but Markus frowns. Mom pulls me even closer and holds me tightly.

    To save the village and the people I care about, I can do anything. This is my second life, after all; I'm playing with extra time on the clock.

    When I meet Pacore tomorrow, I'll take him up on his deal; I'll join Scholl's army.

    **********

    Master Pacore the Deathless’ Point of View:

    “Master Pacore, I brought you dinner.” Young Jason calls out to me from the other side of my tent flap.

    "You can bring it in," I permit him to enter.

    Young Jason enters my tent, followed by General Pitz. I forgot I told him to watch her.

    "Here you go," Jason hands me a bowl of hot soup. I wordlessly reach out and take the piping bowl, unaffected by the heat.

    Removing my helmet, I start shoveling the stew into my mouth.

    "What a day," young Jason pretends to be tired and sits across from me. General Pitz joins him, and they both watch me eat.

    “If you have something to say, spit it out,” I snap at the boy.

    “I just,” Jason stammers, unsure how to ask his question.

    "He's wondering what you're plans are for tomorrow," General Pitz finishes Jason's thought.

    I look the captured general in the eyes. "You're wondering if I'll destroy the village." Young Jason is horrified by my bluntness, but General Pitz just nods.

    “You would really do that!?” Jason asks me, looking afraid of me for the first time since I met him on Drey’s walls.

    “If I must,” I coldly answer, in between bites of my soup. I ignore my shocked aide and turn my full attention to General Pitz. “You knew she was out here, didn’t you?”

    General Pitz's expression turns downcast. "I did. I planned to come out here after the war was over and recruit her to my house,” she honestly tells me.

    “And were you aware of her skills?”

    "Do you think I would've waited if I was fully aware of her abilities!?" The general sneers at me. "I knew she was a talented blacksmith, but I had no idea her level was so high. I was just as shocked as you were."

    I need a drink. Reaching over, I pop the lid off my canteen and drink a mouthful of alcohol. The fumes from my drink are so strong, young Jason coughs until I close the canteen. "Then what would you do?" I level General Pitz with a challenging look. "How would you deal with the most talented individual you've ever met in your life?"

    General Pitz bites her lower lip and doesn’t answer my question. I don’t blame the general for her silence; I’ve been sitting here for hours, and I'm no closer to answering the question than when I was when I first stepped into my tent.

    “She made that arrow you used against me?” I offer the general my canteen.

    "Yeah," She takes the drink. General Pitz uses the cap to measure out a small shot before throwing it back.

    “Gods,” I remark.

    "I know, right," General Pitz notes with her face scrunched up. She hands me back my alcohol.

    I take another drink and ask her, “what are you going to do after Olebert pays for your ransom?”

    General Pitz shrugs her shoulders. “Probably try to kill you again.”

    “I mean before that,” I chuckle.

    "You mean, what am I going to do with everything I've learned so far?" She clarifies.

    “Let’s go with that,” I tell her.

    “It’s hard to say,” General Pitz glances at young Jason. “It’s clear Olebert has paid too little attention to this corner of the kingdom, and certain people will need to be held responsible for what's happened here. The issue with the dragon will fall on the king to decide, but it's too early to speculate on that."

    “And the issue of young Aaliyah?” I press the general.

    General Pitz narrows her eyes. "If you harm that child, I'll see to it that you die the most excruciating death possible.”

    She doesn't mince her words, does she?

    "That's good to know." I take another sip from my canteen. If I could drink the whole thing and get drunk, I would. Heck, I would take a hangover right now if I didn't have to deal with this situation.

    At this rate, I doubt I'll be able to sleep tonight.

    No matter how I look at it, my decision tomorrow will change everything.

    "Gods help me," I silently plead as I tilt my head back and continue drinking, hoping I make the right decision.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,250 words.

    A few people called me evil after I finished the last chapter, and I guess I have to agree with them. The more I write these scenes, the more I feel I need to include in them.

    The next chapter will decide Aaliyah’s fate along with the fate of Spotted Creek Village.

    The last chapter had some of the most comments I've ever gotten on a single chapter. It was a pleasure scrolling through them until I reached the corrections section. Please continue telling me what you think of the story; it helps me a lot.

    On another note, I'll be taking a small break after the next chapter. Nothing major; I'm just skipping the chapter next weekend. Many people have been asking for a Discord server, and even though I'm horrible with sites like that, I plan to try and make one. I also want to try and write a chapter ahead of schedule for a change, hoping to give myself a little wiggle room in the future.

    Thanks for the understanding, and as always, stay safe.


    Making sure it lives up to everyone's expectations.


    Master Pacore the Deathless’ Point of View:

    As my men tear my tent down for me, I adjust my armor and take in the morning air. The smell of the forest enhances the spring breeze.

    I hear the forest birds chirping in the distance, creating a soothing melody anybody would enjoy.

    “Do the flying rats never shut up?!” Young Jason complains nearby. “Is it too much to ask for some peace and quiet?” Poor Jason curses, starting to develop dark circles under his eyes from the lack of sleep he’s been getting.

    “Still not used to the sounds of the forest, I see,” I chuckle at the city boy. “You know the birds won’t hurt you, right?”

    Young Jason frowns and looks like he's considering stabbing me. "Not all of us are invincible as you, sir," Jason venomously retorts. "When something snaps a branch outside my tent, it worries me. If I had your stats, I wouldn’t care about the noises at night either. It must be nice knowing nothing can hurt you."

    I give young Jason a sad smile. “I wish that were true, Jason. But there are still many things in this world that can kill me.” Looking out into the forest, I remember the dragon’s breath and how much damage I suffered from blocking it.

    Jason nervously looks around our camp, thinking I’m talking about the invisible beasts the village head warned us about. “Do you think they’re watching us?” He nervously asks me.

    Jason is too preoccupied scanning the woods to see the smile on my face. "Perhaps, what do you think, General Pitz?" I ask my silent companion standing next to me.

    “There’s nothing out there," General Pitz dryly remarks. Even suppressed as she is, General Pitz would be the first of us to notice any danger trying to creep up on us.

    The general’s words calm young Jason down. “That’s good to hear. I’ve been expecting some sort of monster to pop out of nowhere since we entered the forest.”

    "I know, it's too bad we haven't seen one yet," I grin at Jason. General Pitz hums in agreement; she must be interested in the invisible beasts as well.

    “The two of you are nuts,” Jason nervously scans the tree line once more before my men finish packing up our supplies.

    I offer General Pitz a hand to help her back up on the jelen. Usually, she’d swat my outstretched hand away, but General Pitz has reluctantly started to accept my help over the last few days and lets me help her mount the animal. It’s fun to tease her at times, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect her.

    Since we started heading to Spotted Creek Village, I’ve noticed a slight change in her emotions. The general tries to keep up a neutral facade around me, knowing I’m always keeping an eye on her. But in rare moments, I see an excited look on her face. A look that’s appearing more frequently the closer we near the village.

    The general’s excitement has only fueled my curiosity, and after pushing hard yesterday, we should make it to the village in under an hour if we hustle.

    “Why would anyone build a village this far out?” Young Jason complains as we start trekking down the forest trail. “No one travels this deep into the forest.”

    “I wouldn’t say that. This trail has seen more travel than most of the villages we’ve been to. If you look closely, you can see the signs that a cart has been through here in the last month. And if it weren't used, this trail would be much more overgrown than it is." Jason is surprised upon hearing this and tries to look for the details he missed as I point them out.

    I mention it out loud, but I notice this trail has obviously been frequently used. One particular set of wagon tracks is especially deep, meaning something heavy was delivered to the village recently.

    Our trip remains uneventful until one of my forward scouts slowly drifts back to the middle of our formation, where young Jason and I are walking next to General Pitz on her jelen.

    “Sir,” the scout motions to the side of the trail.

    “I noticed,” I tell him. The scout nods and moves back into position

    “Noticed what?” Jason curiously asks me.

    I ignore Jason's question and look up at General Pitz. We make eye contact with each other, trying to read each other's minds. I make no effort to hid my happy expression while General Pitz remains stone-faced under my scrutiny. Her only tell is that she's gripping the jelen's reigns too tightly.

    Jason notices our stare-down and asks worriedly, “what is it?”

    “A scout,” I finally tell him, without turning away from the general.

    "So, every village has had scouts waiting for us." I don't look at Jason, but I can hear the confusion in his voice.

    “Those were hunters watching the roads,” I explain to him. “The person who just spotted us was above level 50, not something you usually see in a small village.”

    General Pitz decides to break our eye contact, choosing to stare ahead of us rather than pretend she doesn't know anything.

    I briefly consider this might be some sort of trap to recover the general, but I quickly dismiss that possibility. We’re too far away from any of Olebert’s forces, and visiting this village wasn’t even on our original schedule. That doesn’t take away the fact someone above level 50 was watching this road.

    “Level 50!” Jason exclaims.

    I can understand his shock. Even in Scholl, where strength is revered and rewarded, it's rare for villagers to reach level 50. If a person reaches level 40 in their lifetime, it's because they worked hard for it. But for a villager to reach level 50, it takes talent, drive, and opportunity altogether. Unless a villager joins the army and receives help, they rarely pass the level 50 mark.

    The squad I brought with us consists of two scouts around level 50, fourteen soldiers around level 45, a mage at level 53, another mage at level 57, their two guardians at level 62 and 64, while the commander is level 72.

    It takes on average five years of training for a villager to reach the levels required to be a soldier and even longer to reach a higher-ranking position.

    As soon as someone reaches level 50, they're considered superior, and the nobility tries everything they can to draw in such individuals. So, why is someone like that out here?

    “Men, keep an eye out. This isn't a typical village we're heading to!"

    “Sir!” They all sound off together, acknowledging my orders. Jason pales a bit and moves closer to me, knowing I’m the safest person to stand next to should something go wrong.

    A spark of excitement lights a fire in my chest.

    What kind of village produces a level 50 woodsman? I can’t wait to find out!

    **********

    Aaliyah’s Point of View:

    “That was a nice little warm-up run,” I joke to mom.

    "Funny," mom wheezes out as she wipes the sweat from her face.

    We've just finished our morning run together, and I'm about to start round two, where I use my movement skills. Mom has leveled up her Running skill quite a bit since we started running together, but she's not to the point she can keep up with me if I use any of my skills.

    “You think we can finish brothers tassel when I get back?” I ask mom as she starts to catch her breath.

    "Maybe," mom answers coyly. "If we don't finish your brother’s tassel today, we can always finish it during your next break." Mom smirks at me, knowing my dislike for sewing. Give me a hammer or some other tool, and I'm good to go; ask me to sew a three-inch seam, and my Dexterity immediately drops to zero.

    “Why do I get the feeling your stalling on purpose?” I narrow my eyes at mom.

    “I don’t know what you mean,” mom cocks her head to the side, smiling like a saint.

    Now I know she’s stalling!

    I'm about to make a snappy remark when a bell starts ringing in the distance.

    “Is that?” I ask mom as her eyes widen in fear. A few other villagers going about their day nearby freeze for a second before running off in a panic.

    That’s the emergency bell ringing! There is only one thing that can mean.

    Scholl is approaching the village!

    "Get inside, mom!" I fling open our door with my right hand and push mom inside with my left. Once she is inside, I follow her in and run to my room, not bothering to remove my shoes.

    “Aaliyah!” Mom chases after me and stands in my doorway, watching me throw on my armor. “Stay here with me,” she pleads as I put my helmet on.

    "I can't," I tell her as I grab my axe resting nearby. I double-check my dagger and sword are correctly fastened before I move to leave my room.

    Mom blocks the doorway with tears in her eyes. “Please,” she begs in a quiet voice.

    I swiftly move over to mom and wrap her in a hug. “I have to go,” I whisper in her ear.

    Her grip tightens around me, not wanting to let go, so I pick her up and move her out of my way. I gently separate myself from my mother and make for the front door.

    “Lock the door after me!” I tell her, slamming the door close as soon as I'm outside before mom can argue with me.

    I wish I could stay with her, but I know where I need to be.

    Using Double Step, I run towards Camden's house. There's been plenty of discussions should Scholl come to our village and everyone knows where they should be. Those with non-physical builds should hide in their homes while everyone else gathers at Camden’s house to be given a weapon.

    When I arrive at the headman’s house, people have already gathered and started helping to drag all the weapons out from Camden’s basement. The spears I made are being passed around along with the other weapons that were stored with them. As villagers arm themselves, I see Camden wearing a set of worn leather armor, standing next to his family and Ronald.

    All three of Camden's children are wearing nicer sets of armor, especially Sandra. Mages are the first ones targeted in a fight, after all.

    My special armor and the large axe I'm carrying stick out in the crowd, and I'm quickly noticed.

    “Aaliyah!” Sandra quickly sees me and calls me over.

    Villagers step aside as I make my way over to the small group.

    “They’re here?” I ask as soon as I stand in front of Camden.

    “They are,” Camden says in a somber tone. “Ronald spotted a whole platoon of them approaching.”

    “They noticed me,” Ronald briefly mutters.

    Shit! If they noticed Ronald when he was hiding, then they have to be around his level or higher. Why the hell are people like that coming to our village?

    “How is everything going here?” I ask, trying to keep the nervousness from my voice.

    “People are grabbing their weapons and moving towards the front of the village. We’ll try to keep Scholl from entering,” Camden hastily explains.

    “How far out are they?”

    “Twenty minutes,” Camden tells me.

    “You should head over and start organizing people into ranks,” I suggest to Camden. “I’ll go get master.”

    “That won’t be needed.” I’m surprised to hear master’s voice.

    We all turn to see Del walking over, wearing his armor and carrying his largest hammer.

    “I wasn’t sure you would be joining us,” Camden looks relieved to see master.

    Del scoffs at Camden's remark. "I'm here to watch over my apprentice, not help the village," master says that but I don't think anyone believes him.

    “No matter the reason, I’m grateful,” Camden briefly bows his head.

    I expect master to demand a proper thank you, stone kin style, but he doesn’t. Master Del just turns to me. "Stay next to me, kid. Your mother will kill me if something happens to you."

    “She’ll kill both of us,” I lightly joke.

    Master and I share a smile which is quickly interrupted by Camden. “We need to head to the front of the village.”

    Time is of the essence, so our group of people rushes to the front of the village together. Camden Starts organizing everybody based on their weapons. The people who were given a sword from Camden's collection are also given one of the bucklers I made and put on the front lines. Most of the villagers are armed with the spears I made, and Camden must have considered the possibility of Scholl attacking our village because his plan isn’t something you’d think of on the fly.

    Camden orders those with axes to chop down the nearby trees and stack them to create a rudimentary wall. He instructs the villagers with spears to stand behind the logs and stab anyone who tries to get over them. It won't do much against people with high physical stats, but every bit helps.

    While everyone is scrambling around preparing everything, I see dad join the party in his thickest tunic, wilding his best axe. Dad scans the crowd and sees me looking at him. He walks over to me, and I can see the sad look on his face.

    “Mom?” I knowingly ask him.

    Dad nods his head. "It was hard to leave her in that state." He must have gone back home before he came here and saw mom.

    “Aaliyah, if something should happen, I want,” dad starts telling me in a somber voice.

    I stop dad before he can raise any flags. "Whatever you want to tell me, we can discuss it after we apologize to mom for leaving her home."

    Dad looks like he wants to say something else but stops when he sees my resolve. “Later then,” he mumbles.

    Dad still looks tense, so I help him the only way I know how. I lightly elbow him, "you looked pretty heroic there for a second. Show that to mom, and we'll get off scot-free."

    Dad smiles a little. “I’ll think about it.”

    The two of us work together to help erect more log barriers until another scout runs up the trail and informs everyone that Scholl is five minutes out.

    “Alright, everyone, get into position!" Camden shouts. "You four, back up! You two, move forward! Nobody is to attack unless I order it! A fight is the last thing we want, but show no fear to our guests!" Camden reminds everyone that our goal is to show our strength, so we aren't taken advantage of, not start an unwinnable war.

    We have log barriers on either side of the clearing with a gap in the middle. Camden stands in the opening, with a line of villagers in front of him, ready to negotiate with whoever is coming. Master, dad, and I stand next to Camden, being the best physical fighters, while Sandra stands in the back with the archers, guarded by brother.

    The next five minutes are tense as everything becomes quiet. The sound of marching footsteps slowly grows louder until the first two Scholl soldiers round the trail and stop when they see us. Both of them are in light armor and don't look surprised to see us.

    One of them whistles, and the rest of Scholl's soldiers neatly march into sight, unperturbed by our show of force.

    I feel my chest tighten as I scan the soldiers. I don't use Sense Soul to its full potential, but I use it to gather a rough estimate of everyone's level. Most of them are in the '40s, four of them are in the '50s, two are in the 60's range, one above level 70 like me, and….

    Oh, fuck!

    I feel the blood drain from my face when I scan the lady on the jelen and the old man standing next to her.

    Both of their souls are massive, easily eclipsing masters!

    They aren't as terrifying as the soul eater, but both of them are surely over level 100. And their gear!

    The woman ridding the jelen is wearing multiple magic bands that seem to contain and hide her true power. But the old man with feathers in his beard, he's wearing a full set of invisible armor! The magic contained in his equipment is ridiculous. The magic Gem hidden under the plate on his back is the size of a fuckin apple!

    The old man scans our fortifications, smiling and nodding like a proud grandfather at his grandkids. He’s not worried in the slightest.

    I need to warn Camden before he pisses off a pair of monsters!

    **********

    Master Pacore the Deathless’ Point of View:

    Would you look at this!

    I can barely contain my excitement. The last five days were worth it to see such a great village.

    Young Jason gulps loudly, seeing the armed villagers leveling their weapons at us. And what great weapons they are! Which one of them was the talented blacksmith who made them?

    I scan over the weaker villagers until I see the pair standing next to who I suspect is the village headman. I have to keep myself from shouting in joy when I see the stone kin. Those hermits never leave their mountainous kingdoms.

    So why is he here?

    The answer is obvious when I don’t sense much mana in him. He’s an exile then, one who can’t use magic. Was he able to make those spears without sensing magic?

    No, I doubt it.

    Then the red-haired child standing next to him, maybe? I try sensing her mana levels and am surprised not to feel anything. That means she's wearing a mana obscuring magic tool. What level is she?

    I activate Measure Opponent, a skill I gained after countless battles, only to chock after inhaling too quickly.

    "Master Pacore," young Jason looks at me, concerned when I start coughing.

    "I'm fine," I shoo the boy away and glance up at General Pitz. She's staring at the girl with a shocked expression as well

    , as she should. I've never met someone who has reached such a high level at such a young age in all my years of living.

    Not even royalty can level that fast, and they have an entire kingdom behind them.

    I examine the people around her just to make sure my skill isn't broken. That's when I notice other individuals of note. The headman is over level 50. I spot the archer who observed us earlier, also above level 50. Each place I look, I see more talented individuals hidden amongst the villagers. They even have a mage in the back, readying a spell. She and the boy next to her also have a high level for their age.

    “Talent, everywhere,” I whisper to myself.

    I look back at the red-haired girl next to the stone kin and see she's paled a bit since I last glanced at her. She's looking between General Pitz and me with obvious worry in her eyes.

    She can properly judge a person’s strength too?!

    I want nothing more than to rush over to the girl and demand she become my apprentice.

    “Welcome, soldiers of Scholl. Spotted Creek Village welcomes you!” The headman waves his arms in a grand gesture, with the confidence of a small army backing him.

    It’s hard to suppress my laughter. The headman has quite a few strong people backing him, especially that stone kin. But all his bolstering is pointless with me here.

    It becomes even harder not to laugh when I see the read-haired girl snap her head to the side and look at the headman like he's lost it. She hurries to his side and whispers in his ear.

    The headman's confident smile immediately turns into a look of utter dread. To his credit, the headman fixes his expression like a seasoned politician before any of his villagers' notice. She must have warned him of my strength.

    Let’s see how he deals with me now? “And what a welcome it is!” I confidently take a step forward. “Do I take this as a sign your village objects to Scholl’s rule?”

    The headman grounds his teeth, thinking of an answer, while the girl moves back next to the stone kin. Both of them look ready to rush in despite knowing they wouldn't win. If they do attack, I'd have to hold the two of them off while the commander deals with the rest.

    The headman takes a few deep breaths and finally finds his answer. “Our village does not object to Scholl’s rule. You can’t fault our reactions when you march a platoon of soldiers to our village. We may be weaker than you, but we won’t roll over when threatened.”

    Good, I like this man. Despite knowing our strength, he doesn’t bow under pressure. He’d be a village head in Scholl as well if he were born there.

    "Then you'll be happy to know this is merely my escort," I motion to my men. "I'm traveling to local villages as the representative of Scholl like our letter said. You did get our letter, right?"

    “We did.”

    "As an official representing Scholl, I need people to keep me safe." Spotted Creek's headman frowns. I hear a few snickers from the soldiers around me, but we're too far away for the villagers to hear them. "How about this, I leave my men here, and you sit down with my two advisors and me?" I gesture to young Jason, who looks like a nervous rabbit, and General Pitz.

    I've successfully put the headman in a difficult position; he either has to acknowledge he's scared to be alone with me, to his entire village, or risk a private meeting.

    The headman is displeased by my ultimatum, but as a good headman should, he takes responsibility for his people. "I accept; the three of you can follow me, but I'll be bringing along a few of my own trusted people too."

    "Of course," I grin at the headman.

    I help General Pitz down from the jelen and pat Jason on the back, reassuring him everything will be alright.

    While we walk over to the headman, I see him whispering with the stone kin and the red-hared girl. Both of them nod and take a position on either side of him. I was hoping he would bring her along. It's only natural they escort us because the two of them appear to be the strongest fighters in the village.

    We reach the front line of villagers who are still leveling their spears at us. It’s nice to see they don’t have much fear in their eyes.

    "Let them through." The headman issues an order, and the villagers warily part enough for us to walk through them. "Nicolas, you're in charge. If you hear any commotion from the village, assume the worst."

    "I understand, father." The young man who resembles the headman glares at me as we approach. It makes sense that the headman's child is just as capable as his father.

    When I stand in front of Spotted Creek’s headman, I expect him to at least flinch a little under the weight of my pressure, but he straightens his back and looks me in the eye. “You can follow me this way.”

    The headman leads us through the quiet village while the girl and stone kin keep an eye on us. I see him leading us to an impressive house that must be his home, but I'm too excited to sit indoors. "Your village is beautiful," when I break the ice, all three of them cringe.

    “Thank you,” the headman awkwardly replies.

    “Your village is doing much better than the others we’ve visited. I don’t suppose you would show me your fields?” He doesn’t have a reason to deny my request. It’s safer for him if we stay outside.

    "I suppose that's ok; follow me this way." The headman shifts our course and walks us through the rest of the village.

    But now that we have a simple dialog going, I don't need to hold myself back. "I was told you had a goblin problem. But I can see how you handled it. Did you fend them off yourselves, or did the local lord send help?"

    "News of the war had already reached the village by the time we noticed the goblins. The local lord said he'd send hunters after it was taken care of." The headman sounds awkward, mentioning the fact we were expected to lose. I glance at General Pitz to see her reaction, but she's working hard keeping a neutral expression.

    “I’m guessing that didn’t work out,” I joke to the headman, seeing how he reacts to my jab.

    “No, it didn’t.” He flatly answers me.

    “Must have been thanks to these two,” I grin at the girl walking to our left. She looks me straight in the eye, and for a moment, I feel naked under her gaze.

    "The whole village participated in the hunt. We lost good people," The headman notices my interest in the girl. I'm not the only one either, General Pitz might be keeping a straight face, but she hasn't taken her eyes off the girl since she started escorting us.

    “I could only imagine a village facing the threat of a horde on its own. You did well repelling them,” I offer my sincere praise, but I don’t think the headman sees it that way.

    "We survived," is all he answers.

    “And the magic beasts?” I ask. “The last village said you unleashed them on the forest.”

    “Some blamed us, yes, but most understood it was out of our control. They were hunting the goblins and forced them out of the magic dense region of the forest."

    "I'm curious, what were the beasts? I was hoping to see one on the way here, but nothing appeared. Are they really invisible?" As I ask my questions, I cast a side glance at the girl again; she's still watching my every move. "Did you help hunt them too?" I ask the red-haired girl to her face.

    "That's none of your business," she icily tells me. I can see that she's cautious of me, but I get the feeling she's trying to think of a way to defeat me. She has the same look as Tabitha does when we spar.

    The headman tries to bring my attention back to him. “The magic beasts turned out to be giant spiders that could camouflage themselves in the trees.”

    "That sounds interesting," I pretend to switch my focus to the headman, but I'm more interested in the young girl. Now that I'm close to her, I can tell she's much younger than Jason. Her vitality makes her exact age hard to predict, but I'd wager she's around twenty. "Are they still in the forest? I can send my men in to clear them out if you want?" I offer.

    "There's no need," the headman tells me. "When it started to snow, we were able to spot them. We haven't seen one in quite a while. If any of them survived the frost, I'm sure they retreated to the deeper parts of the forest by now."

    “That’s a shame,” I remark. “But it sounds like you managed to kill a few. Does that mean you have magic beast materials?”

    The headman glances at the stone kin before answering me. “All the materials were given to our village’s blacksmith or sold in Drey.”

    "I don't suppose you have any extra, do you?" I ask the grumpy-looking stone kin.

    “No,” he flatly responds.

    “Worth a try, I suppose,” all there of our guides frown at my flippant remark.

    We leave the village, and I'm not surprised to see a large field hidden behind the village. It looks like they just planted some new crops too.

    “If you got our message, then you know that we’re looking for food. I don’t suppose you’d reject a few extra hands if we sent them to your village, would you?”

    “We have plenty of farmers,” the headman flatly responds to me.

    "A pity, but I'd figured you answer like that. Young Jason here will go over some of the minor details." Now that we're away from all the spear-wielding villagers, young Jason is much more relaxed. He moves up and confidently starts discussing taxes with the headman.

    While the headman is preoccupied with Jason, I turn to the spitfire redhead. “That’s a nice axe you’re carrying. I take it your friend made it for you,” I motion towards the stone kin who’s now glaring at me.

    The girl doesn't respond and only blankly looks at me. She'd probably turn her head away if she didn't need to watch us. It's too late for her not to draw attention to herself.

    “There’s no need to be so cold with me,” I let out a soft chuckle. “If you’re going to stare at me like that, you can at least give me your name.”

    The girl grits her teeth before reluctantly answering. “It’s Aaliyah.”

    I smile not only because I got her to talk but because I didn't miss the slight jolt her name sent through General Pitz. "Aaliyah, that's a beautiful name, just as beautiful as your axe and armor. I especially like the maker's mark, a flower on a hammer, that's quite unique."

    Aaliyah tightens her grip on her axe. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She lies beautifully.

    I may be old now, but I still remember what Charm and Acting influence feels like from my younger days. The former is surprisingly higher than the latter, but she does have a wild beauty to her. Ordinary people wouldn't be able to remain unaffected by her, but I've already seen how special she is.

    I'm almost certain the arrow the general used against me came from this village. The spears the villagers were using match the ones Olebert's soldiers in the fort were wielding. Based on the stone kin's hammer, he doesn't work with magic materials, while Aaliyah uses a kaglese axe, which is popular with Olebert knights.

    All the evidence points to the girl in front of me being a once in a millennia genius.

    Aaliyah flinches when I smugly grin at her.

    Now how do I make her mine?

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,100 words.

    DUN, DUN, DUNNNNNN! Cliffhanger!

    Yes, I decided I needed two chapters to cover everything.

    How did you like Aaliyah's, General Pitz's, and Pacore's first meeting? The three prominent characters finally meet.

    On the next episode of Magic-Smithing! Egos collide! How will Aaliyah handle Pacore? Find out Sunday…

    Maybe Monday! 😊(Old DBZ Outro Reference)

    I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.

    P.S. In case anyone was wondering, I managed to get some Pokémon cards at Target this morning. I only had to wait in line for four hours to get them. Worth it; great nerd moment.


    Is it considered extra time if it comes out at the same time as the last couple of weeks?


    Philosophical debate!


    On a random note, is anyone having trouble finding Pokémon cards?


    I've been watching unboxing videos and wanted to recapture a piece of my childhood. I can not find a pack of Pokémon cards in any store I go to. I want to get some packs from the set dropping tomorrow and I have a feeling I'd have to pay an arm and a leg for them.


    Is this everywhere, or is California just going Pokémon crazy?


    I channel my inner Shaolin monk, switching from a monkey stance to a crane position. The forest is warming up as spring progresses, and you can feel the vibrance of life in the air.

    Of course, I have no real idea if what I’m doing is anything related to actual monks, but practicing my sense of balance in weird positions is a staple for my training. I set aside today to practice all my mana skills, focusing heavily on my mana roots. And this time, I can train in the woods without being critiqued by an audience.

    Over the past few days, keeping my mana roots deployed has almost become second nature to me, and recently I’ve experimented with incorporating my new technique into my hands.

    When I deploy my mana roots through my feet, it anchors me to the ground and improves my balance. Yesterday, I tried forming mana roots from my hands for fun while I was swinging my blacksmithing hammer. It was more difficult than burrowing into the soft forest floor, but eventually, I managed to inject my mana roots into the handle of my hammer.

    This discovery not only guarantees I won't lose hold of my weapons in the future, but the mana roots make it incredibly easy to inject my mana into whatever I’m holding directly. When I finally figure out how to make engraving ink and enchant my weapons, I’ll be able to activate them with virtually no mana loss in the transfer.

    I've always had to use Inject Mana to force my mana into whatever material I wanted, wasting a portion of mana overcoming a material's magic resistance. Keeping my mana roots embedded in my weapon, I can add or reabsorb my mana without overcoming that barrier.

    If I still had my katana, I would’ve been able to set it ablaze in an instant with very little mana.

    However, though my new mana ability continues to grow, I haven't gotten a new skill yet. And I'm starting to think it's because I can only disperse my mana roots a few inches from my body. I need to figure out how I can expand the distance I can control my mana around my body.

    We're two weeks into the thirteenth month of the year, meaning I'm almost halfway to my new year's deadline. When it comes to crafting, I'm ahead of schedule, but I feel my other skills are starting to take a hit, especially my mana skills.

    I thought the kaglese weapons would take up more of my time, but after all the prep work master and I went through, I’ve been busting out kaglese alloy weapons left and right.

    It’s gotten to the point I’ve started supplementing my forging with making regular steel spears for the village. Brother placed an order for some large steel nails for the armory, and a few villagers asked for some more mundane items, but forging a cast iron pan only takes me twenty minutes now. With my skills, stats, and experience working with magic alloys, forming non-magic items is almost too easy for me.

    Master is happy because I dialed back the amount of time I spend forging to only three days with him, followed by two days of rest, one of which I spend practicing my other skills.

    Keeping my left foot on the ground, I lean forward while my right foot is stretched out behind me. Maintaining my funky yoga pose, I pull up my status page.

    LV: 73 Experience:401,841/ 956,780

    Health: 2,430/2,430

    Stamina 1,431.66/1,650

    Mana:827.42/1,020

    Vitality: 243.00

    Endurance: 100.03

    Strength: 152.01

    Dexterity: 150.02

    Senses: 62.41

    Mind: 65.23

    Magic: 102.81

    Clarity: 78.79

    Status Points: 0

    Skills:

    Tier 1:

    Meditation (LV78), Running (LV77), Blacksmithing (LV72), Hammer Skills (LV59), Axe Skills (LV58), Cleaning (LV53), Chanting (LV50), Mining (LV50), Drawing (LV46), Trading (LV45), Cooking (LV41), Sword Skills (LV34), Dagger Skills (LV33), Acting (LV32), Wood Carving (LV31), Sewing (LV29), Alchemy (LV7), Pugilist Skills (LV7), Spear Skills (LV2)

    Tier 2:

    Sense Mana (LV79), Double Step (LV62), Charm (LV50), Measurement (LV47), Hammer Arts (LV43), Axe Arts (LV38), Writing (LV32), Intimidating Shout (LV31), Mathematics (LV30), Steady Hands (LV22), Increase Price (LV21), Lower Price (LV20), Sword Arts (LV15), Dagger Arts (LV13), Gourmet (LV7), Marching (LV5), Shout of Valor (LV3),

    Tier 3:

    Expel Mana (LV62), Mana Manipulation (LV60), Precise Strike (LV40), Double Strike (LV40), Weighted Strike (LV40),Flash Step (LV24), Contract (LV7)

    Tier 4:

    Mana Skin (LV55), Mental Resistance (LV54), Inject Mana (LV53), Extract Mana (LV34), Magic Blacksmithing (LV28), Empowered Spell (LV12), Air Walk (LV9)

    Tier 5:

    Sense Soul (LV40), Soul Manipulation (LV8)

    Tier 6:

    Soul Devourer (LV2)

    Increased Skill Levels

    Running (LV77) 3,850exp

    Blacksmithing (LV71-72) 7,150exp

    Hammer Skills (LV59) 2,950exp

    Axe Skills (LV58) 2,900exp

    Mining (LV49-50) 4,950exp

    Cooking (LV41) 2,050exp

    Dagger Skills (LV32-33) 3,250exp

    Sword Skills (LV32-34) 4,950exp

    Sewing (LV27-29) 4,200exp

    Pugilist Skills (LV5-7) 900exp

    Alchemy (LV3-7) 1,250exp

    Double Step (LV62) 6,200exp

    Measurement (LV47) 4,700exp

    Hammer Arts (LV43) 4,300exp

    Axe Arts (LV37-38) 7,500exp

    Steady Hands (LV19-22) 8,200exp

    Dagger Arts (LV13) 1,300exp

    Sword Arts (LV15) 1,500exp

    Weighted Strike (LV39-40) 11,850exp

    Flash Step (LV23-24) 7,050exp

    Mana Skin (LV55) 13,750

    Mental Resistance (LV54) 13,500exp

    Inject Mana (LV53) 13,250exp

    Extract Mana (LV33-34) 16,750exp

    Magic Blacksmithing (LV27-28) 13,750exp

    Air Walk (LV7-9) 6,000exp

    Sense Soul (LV40) 20,000exp

    Soul Manipulation (LV7-8) 7,500exp

    Skill Experience: 194,600exp

    Crafting Experience: 124,573exp

    Fighting Experience: 2,119exp

    Total-experience Gained: 321,292exp

    It's been a little over a month since I last examined my status page, and I've practiced a lot since I completed my four personal weapons. The physical and magic skills I use for blacksmithing went up the most, but sparring with dad and Camden helped me to level my weapon skills as well. I run every day with mom before practicing my movement skills and periodically help her around the house.

    Thanks to all my hard work, Mining, Weighted Strike, and Sense Soul all joined my ever-growing list of skills stuck at their tests. Whether I’m working during the day or practicing my soul skills at night, I haven’t stopped trying to improve myself.

    The experience I gain from leveling my skills plays the most significant part in my growth, but it's becoming harder and harder to level them. The higher the level the skill is, the more time I need to devote to leveling it, and it's become more apparent that some skills won't level further without their lower-tier counterparts.

    For example, my tier 4 mana skills are leveling slower as they get closer to matching Mana Manipulation’s level. Trying to get past the bottleneck for Sense Soul was so overwhelmingly mentally taxing, I've put off trying again until Mental Resistance reaches level 60.

    The good news is, despite my skills becoming harder to level, my crafting experience is slowly gaining ground.

    Since I last checked my status page, I’ve crafted my armor, eighteen kaglese spears, eighteen kaglese swords, ten steel spears for the village, five steel bucklers for the village, and a few other miscellaneous objects people asked for.

    If I keep up this pace, I’ll reach level 74 before the new year.

    But to do that, I need to start breaking past some of these bottlenecks I’m encountering, and Mana Manipulation is the most important one.

    Like my experiments with engraving ink, I’ve been testing ways to break past Mana Manipulation’s test. Sandra has already complimented me on my freakish internal mana manipulation and agrees that it’s my outer mana manipulation that is most likely is the culprit for my bottleneck. I think Sandra has guessed some of my skill levels, but she hasn’t outright asked me for confirmation.

    During my last break, Sandra and I figured out the third step to make engraving ink, so I want to try and keep the success going today.

    I focus on the mana roots extending from my left foot.

    The only reason I can train as much as I have is that the village has been relatively quiet the last month. Many people were expecting the next disaster to fall from the sky, but nothing has happened to our village as of late. There was the fear that Scholl would march into our village and pillage everything for a little while, but that never happened.

    Sandra’s brother Nicolas made it back to the village without incident after he confirmed Scholl’s flag was flying over Drey’s walls. And a few days after he returned, the village received an official letter from the new rulers of Drey.

    The message stated how we now fall under Scholl’s rule and that a representative will eventually arrive at each village. The letter also stated that all crops would be worth an extra 10% to the village's tax credit.

    News travels fast through our village, and Camden called for another village meeting the next day. He explained how a Scholl representative will eventually arrive at our village and how we now fall under their domain. A few people were afraid Scholl might try something, but Camden reassured everybody that Scholl has no reason to attack a small village like us.

    Just in case, though, the hunters are keeping an eye on the road every day. But there's been no sign of anyone approaching the village. For every day that passes, the village seems more peaceful as people return to their everyday lives.

    The next round of crops was planted, brother was placed in charge of constructing the new armory with help from his old master; things are getting back to what they were before the goblin horde arrived. You could even argue things are better now that people have gained levels and we have a mage in the village.

    The hunters have started to find larger game again, meaning our food shortage is no longer a significant issue. We still need to ration for the next few months, but people are no longer afraid they might starve.

    With no order deadlines in sight and no more monsters threatening our village for the moment, I can practice without worry for a change.

    I stay balancing on my left leg and split my attention between my immediate surroundings and my extended mana roots. My practicing wouldn’t be practical if I can’t use my skill while keeping an eye out for trouble.

    Tracing the thousands of small roots extending from my foot, I try to push them past four inches. The roots hold their form as they extend to five inches, but I can feel my control on my mana slipping the farther I extend them. When the roots reach six inches, they start disintegrating into the ambient mana.

    I pull back my mana to the four-inch mark, as not to needlessly waste it. Though the brief test cost me nearly 50 mana, I was able to see how my mana roots react outside my control. The ever-shifting mana around me bombarded my roots and tore them apart like tissue paper.

    The more I learn about mana, the more I can relate it to energy and the movement of molecules. I may only have a high schooler's knowledge on the subject, but I know different states of matter have molecules that move at different speeds. Solid objects like the ground I'm standing on have very slow-moving molecules that are practically still. Earth mana mirrors those properties and shifts the slowest of all mana types. Even with earth mana being the slowest moving, it tore through my mana roots without much trouble after they extended out of my normal range.

    I hold out my hand and start extending mana roots from it. As long as the roots are at least four inches from my body, I can use my control over the mana to resist the tide of ambient mana around me. But as soon as the roots extend further than four inches from my hand, they disintegrate immediately.

    Air is a gas, and its molecules move extremely fast. The air mana sliced through my mana roots like a knife through butter.

    I would need to move over to the stream to test how my roots would react with water, but I imagine the result would fall in between my two tests. As long as I'm forcing my mana roots into a solid object like the ground or the handle of my weapon, I can extend them slightly more than otherwise.

    Treating my mana like tree roots was a stroke of genius, but if I can’t control my mana at further distances, then this is the most I can do with them.

    “I wonder if trees also have this problem?” I sigh to myself.

    I lower my right foot back to the ground and stand up straight. Maybe I should reexamine my source material?

    Walking over to the closest tree, I put my hand up against the bark and use Sense Mana to look at its internal structure. Mana circulates through the tree's thick trunk, up through its branches, and travels down into its roots.

    When I focus on the tree's roots, I'm astounded by the complex web of limbs snaking throughout the forest floor. I quickly notice the tree's roots, and my mana roots aren't the same; when I deploy my mana roots, its hundreds of individual strands of mana, while the tree's roots resemble its canopy in design.

    The tree's trunk splits into five large roots, which split into smaller roots, which then again split into countless other thread sized roots. Everything branches off from the trunk, only getting smaller as the roots travel further away from the tree.

    Instead of using many small mana threads, I should combine them into one strong root that can withstand the mana I'm burrowing into.

    I withdraw my deployed mana roots and focus solely on the heels of my feet. Weaving my mana together, I slowly extend a thick tendril of mana into the ground from my heel. As the large root of mana tunnels into the forest floor, smaller offshoots spring out the root's sides to cover more ground.

    Four inches.

    Five inches.

    A smile crosses my lips when the root doesn’t fall apart as it passes the six inches mark.

    Seven.

    Eight.

    At nine inches, my roots become too unstable to continue. That doesn't matter, though, because I've figured out how to move mana farther away from my body than I usually would be able to.

    I sense a rush of experience expanding in my soul, meaning Mana Manipulation leveled up. Focusing on the part of my soul that represents my skill, I pull up a quick notification.

    Mana Manipulation (LV61) 0.54%

    As if that wasn’t enough good news, I sense that I finally got my mana roots skill.

    Magic Threads (LV1) 94%

    I expected the name to have to do with trees or roots... but thread? I weaved different strands of mana together to accomplish the skill; maybe that's where the name came from?

    Oh, well. It doesn't matter what the skill is called; now that it's engraved in my soul, using it will only grow easier. And the skill looks like it's already about to hit level two. That's incredible for another tier 4 skill.

    I want to start practicing with my new skill, but I have to deal with my admirer first.

    “You can come out now,” I say to a tree twenty feet in front of me.

    Materializing out of the shadow of the tree stands a man I've never met before. He's about five foot ten, moderately built, with slicked-back brown hair. His green eyes study me just like I'm doing to him. His armor is splotched brown, blending in with his surroundings. I also don’t miss the fact that his left hand is resting on top of the twin swords at his side.

    I watch his every move, ready to draw my own sword if he so much as twitches.

    “Four said I wouldn’t be able to sneak up on you.” The man’s voice is smooth and soft but lacks any emotion behind his words.

    “I don’t know who you’re talking about,” I warily tell the man.

    The intruder frowns for a second before his neutral expression returns. "I believe you know him as Reel; that's the name he was assigned for his current assignment."

    “You work for Giovanni then?” I raise a questioning eyebrow.

    “I do,” he curtly replies. “You can call me Two.”

    “Ok, prove it,” I demand.

    “What?” I hear just a tinge of surprise in his voice.

    "Anyone can say they work for Giovanni. How do I know Mr. Grey didn't send you?"

    "That is a fair point. Reel told me if you questioned me, I should say, I'm learning to take a compliment. I don't know what that means, but I'm guessing that proves who I am."

    I can’t help but chuckle hearing our inside joke in such a monotone voice. “Yeah, that works for me. But you know, you could’ve just come out when you arrived instead of watching me for so long.”

    "You noticed when I arrived?" The man known as Two looks briefly surprised again.

    "You don't have the same magic items as Reel does; it was easy to sense you approaching," I smugly grin at Reel's assassin buddy.

    “I’m more direct than Reel,” Two flatly tells me.

    “I can see that. I take it you brought a message from your boss then.”

    Two reaches into his side pocket and pulls out a small metal disk-shaped device inscribed with the most complex enchantment I've ever seen. "Here," he tosses me the magic item.

    Normally I'd be hesitant to grab an unknown magic item, but I can see it isn't activated. I snatch it out of the air without taking my eyes off two. "What is it?" I ask.

    “Communicator,” Two tells me. “You’ll need to move closer to Blaiton before you can use it,” Two nods in the direction I would need to go before turning around and disappearing into the woods without a word.

    I keep track of him until he moves out of Sense Mana's range. "And here I thought Reel was hard to deal with," I chuckle at my own joke.

    I guess I should take a walk and talk to Giovanni for the first time. Gathering up my gear, I head in the direction Two indicated. There's no need to rush, so I start examining the incredible magic tool I was given. I hope Giovanni doesn't want this back because there's no way I'm giving this gem up.

    **********

    Master Pacore the Deathless’ Point of View:

    “Why did you have to drag me along with you?” Young Jason complains as we make our way down a dirt trail.

    "I needed someone who knows the area," I laugh at his distress.

    "I only know the names of the villages and have briefly seen them on a map; I've never left Drey before!" Jason remarks, upset I dragged him along with me and my small platoon. We're visiting the more remote villages now that my replacements have settled in.

    "The fresh air will do you some good," I tell the young man. "Don't you agree, General Pitz," I turn and ask my captive who's riding our only jelen. The beast is secured to a small cart with our supplies and is always guided by one of my men, so she can't take off with it. If I didn't let her ride the beast, it would take us too long to march between villages.

    "You smell worse than the city," she bites back. Young Jason snickers at her comment, and I catch a few of my men trying to hide their smiles, afraid I'd do something should I notice them.

    I ignore everyone and ask Jason, "which village are we heading to next?"

    Young Jason flicks through a stack of papers he brought with him before answering me. "The closest village is Iron Wood Village. We should be there soon."

    “Strong name,” I remark.

    "The village was named after the iron wood trees the village was built around. The trees' bark is said to be as strong as iron armor," Jason gives me a quick background of the village.

    “I would love to see such amazing trees. Such plants are rare in Scholl.”

    “Sorry, but all the iron wood trees were cut down a long time ago,” Jason quickly dashes my hopes.

    “Then they should change the name of the village,” I grouchily reply. “How many more villages are in the forest?”

    "I'm not sure," Young Jason honestly replies. "All the documents related to the local villages were taken by the previous city lord. The courier guild helped me figure out a few I missed, but even they aren't sure of all the villages in the area. In the end, they had to send out their birds to visit every village instead of specifically targeting each one. Hopefully, Lord Bullok and the others will figure something out before we return."

    “Why do you use his title and not mine?” I playfully sneer at young Jason.

    “Because he demands I use his title,” Jason looks at me like his answer is obvious.

    Kellor Bullok is the man his majesty sent to handle the cities I conquer. I thought he would come by himself, but Bullok arrived with three other minor nobles selected to run the various cities in the area. But for now, the four men are working together to get Drey up and running, giving me some free time to inspect the surrounding villages before the rest of my army joins me.

    My students and Tellis successfully stalled Olebert’s forces around Teeburn, and more soldiers are moving in to reinforce both of us. I have maybe another week and a half before I need to set out to take Blaiton, so leisurely traveling around the countryside counts as a sort of vacation.

    I verbally spar with Jason and General Pitz until we reach Iron Wood Village.

    A single lookout spotted us approaching before running off to warn his village. Iron Wood Village responds like every other village we've visited.

    By the time we march into the village proper, everyone is hiding in their houses while a nervous village head moves to greet us.

    This village head looks ready to retire and visibly ages as he walks over to us. "Greeting lords and ladies of Scholl, welcome to Iron Wood Village." It's unbearable listening to this man stutter out his greeting. The entourage that's supposed to be guarding him has subtly taken a step back, leaving him on his own.

    I know I shouldn’t expect much after how easily I took Teeburn and Drey, but this is just sad to watch. Let’s hurry things along. “Is there a place we can comfortably talk?”

    The man flinches at the mere sound of my voice before franticly nodding his head. "Of course, great lords. I'll take all of you to my meager house."

    “My men will stay here,” I inform him.

    “Yes, of course,” the frightened man agrees with whatever I say.

    I give General Pitz my hand and help her down from the jelen. She and Jason have attended each of my meetings for different reasons. Young Jason takes notes to help Lord Bullok when we return, and I bring General Pitz with me so she can tell Olebert how well we're treating everyone when she's finally ransomed back to them.

    Walking through the village, I'm impressed with how many farkas they have hanging up for processing. They appear to have had a lot of success with a recent hunt.

    The village head leads us to his house, it isn't as big as some of the ones I've recently seen, but it isn't the smallest either.

    We're led inside and brought to his kitchen. "I'm sorry, but I don't have anything nicer for you. Please don't…"

    I silence the man with a wave of my hand. "It's fine; we're not expecting a grand welcome. Did you receive our message a few weeks ago?"

    "Yes, my lord," the headman answers, keeping his head bowed submissively.

    “That’s good. Our visit is merely to confirm the legitimacy of the letter and to let you know Scholl is not going to be taking over your village.”

    “Truly?” The headman asks, surprised.

    “Yes, I’m here to explain that Scholl is looking to set up many farms in the area. Our goal is to produce as much food as possible. Any contribution your village makes will be rewarded with fewer taxes,” I explain to the man. “Jason, will you handle the rest?”

    Young Jason nods and starts explaining the gritty details to the headman. While he explains that the village's tax won't be raised, I glance at General Pitz. As Young Jason lays out better terms for the headman, she watches the headman's fear turn into joy.

    This isn't the first village that has become happy hearing our plans for the future. Many local villages have been left to themselves far too long, expected to make large tax payments compared to their relative size. It must hurt the general to see how quickly her people come over to our side with relatively little changes.

    “Does that sound good to you?” I ask the headman after young Jason finishes his explanation.

    “It does,” the headman bows again, this time in appreciation. “Iron Tree Village thanks our benevolent rulers. May Scholl rule forever.”

    And like that, another village pledges fealty to Scholl, unaware one of Olebert's top generals is watching the whole spectacle.

    “Would the lords and lady wish to stay in the village?” The headman offers us lodgings.

    "We thank you for the offer, but we have more villages to visit," I politely turn him down. My tent would be much nicer than any accommodations he could offer us.

    The headman walks us to his front door, spouting needless platitudes.

    As we walk past the hanging farkas again, I stop and ask, “I’ve noticed other villages with similar success hunting. Are your hunters that high-leveled?”

    “Oh no, my lord. We’ve just been lucky this last half-year. A lot of animals fled the deeper parts of the forest.”

    That sounds interesting. “Why is that?” I ask.

    “I heard that a goblin horde was spotted around Spotted Creek Village before winter arrived, my lord,” the headman explains to me.

    “Is this true?” I turn and ask Jason. Goblin hordes are disasters for small villages; surely, he must have heard about it.

    While Jason is thinking, out of the corner of my eye, I notice General Pitz also looks shocked to hear this news.

    “I vaguely remember hearing something about it a while ago,” Jason admits. “But I think the lord said it was taken care of.”

    "It was," the headman tells us. "Spotted Creek killed the vermin and, in doing so, released invisible magic beasts into the forest."

    “They defeated a goblin horde?” I press the headman.

    “Sure did,” he reassures me.

    “Is Spotted Creek Village on our list?” I ask Jason.

    “I don’t believe so,” he mumbles as he flips through his papers. “Nope, not on our list.”

    “Where is this village?” I question the headman.

    "It's the deepest village in the forest. If you follow the forest's edge east, you'll come to the trail that leads to the village. It's about a five-day journey, that is, if it's still standing." The headman informs us.

    A village that fought off a goblin horde and invisible magic beasts! It may take up the rest of my time, but I have to see this village.

    “I think we have our next destination,” I grin at Jason.

    "He said there were invisible monsters!" Jason whines.

    “All the more reason for us to go!” I happily proclaim.

    While Jason tries to talk me out of going, I sneak glances at General Pitz. She's trying to hide it, but she looks more concerned now that I've said I wanted to visit the village. What is she trying to hide?

    I hold up a hand, cutting of young Jason complaining about us all being eaten. "We're going, and that's final."

    Jason's shoulders slump in defeat, but I'm excited. What does Spotted Creek Village have in store for me?

    **********

    Aaliyah’s Point of View:

    While walking through the forest, I’ve been regularly pumping a bit of my mana into the communication device, waiting for it to connect.

    Once I'm about an hour away from the village, the enchantment fully lights up, and a few minutes later, a man's voice echoes out of the magic device. "Is this Aaliyah of Spotted Creek village?"

    “That depends,” I cockily respond. “Is this Giovanni I’m speaking to?”

    I hear the familiar laughter of Reel in the background. "Yes, I'm Giovanni. It's a pleasure to speak with you finally."

    "Likewise," I reply. "I hear Reel laughing in the background; does that mean everyone made it back, ok?"

    “Everyone is fine,” Reel answers before Giovanni can say anything.

    “Don’t interrupt!” A third voice berates Reel.

    “Does that answer your question?” Giovanni asks me.

    "It does; I'm happy to hear they made it back safe. But I'm guessing you didn't send mister emotion to deliver this fancy magic tool for that.”

    “Mister emotion, Two!” Reel starts cracking up in the background.

    Giovanni ignores his laughing subordinate. "I wish that were the case, but I'm afraid we have much bigger things to discuss. How are you planning to deal with Grey?"

    "I haven't decided yet," I truthfully answer. "I don't necessarily need to break my contract with him immediately. I'm assuming he plans to use it against me when I try asking about Kervin and why he's not running the deliveries any longer."

    "So, you don't plan on cutting ties with him when he comes to pick up the goods you're making?" Giovanni doesn't sound mad after hearing my plan; he sounds more like he's considering all his options.

    "I was more curious what you're doing," I say into the magic tool. "I expecting to hear you tell me you already had Grey killed."

    “If it was that easy, I’d already have had it done,” Giovanni explains to me. “Grey is cunning enough to have made plans in case of his death.”

    “Does that really matter?” I curiously ask.

    “It does. Grey has definitely signed a contract leaving everything he has to someone he trusts. Contracts like that apply to all his deals, including contracts he's signed. It's a common method merchants use to keep themselves from being targeted by assassins. Whoever takes over your contract can use it against you. The same applies for me; it will take time before I can even consider having him killed."

    Well, shit, why does everything always have to be so complicated? "Why don't you tell me when you're ready to move?" I suggest to Giovanni. "If we time it right, I can cancel my contract as soon as you move to confront him. If Grey survives the backlash, you can have Reel stab him a few times for good measure."

    Reel chokes from laughing so hard.

    "You think the backlash will kill him?" Giovanni questions me over Reel's laughter.

    "Who knows?" I reply. "A girl can hope, though."

    “I’m surprised by your willingness to have Grey killed,” Giovanni remarks.

    “He took advantage of my ignorance and screwed me over. I don’t take kindly to that,” I growl into the communication device. “Keep that in mind.”

    The other end goes silent for a moment.

    "I will," Giovanni acknowledges my thinly veiled threat.

    “Good, because I have no problem helping you make a lot of money. I just want our dealings to be straight."

    "That's good to hear," I can almost imagine the faceless man on the other end of my connection smiling. "How about you contact me in two weeks or if something should come up."

    “I can do that,” I agree with his plan.

    “And Miss Aaliyah.”

    “Yeah?”

    "I'd appreciate it if you keep that communicator secret and secure. The nobility covets magic devices as rare as these, no matter which kingdom they hail from."

    “So, you’re telling me these would fetch a fortune if I can make more,” I grin into the magic tool.

    "You could!?" Giovanni begins to shout before catching himself. "Yes, if you can make more, they would be worth a lot of money," he tells me in a calm voice, trying to hide his excitement.

    “I’ll try.”

    “Good,” Giovanni coughs to clear his throat. “This was more productive than I thought. I’ll be waiting for your call.”

    “Treat Kervin nice,” I add in before I remove my mana from the communication device. "I still want him to be my go-between once everything is cleared up."

    “That was always a given,” Giovanni reassures me.

    "Good, I'll contact you later." After I say that, I reabsorb my mana from the magic tool and watch the enchantment dim. I know it was a subtle power move, but I wanted to be the one to hang up first.

    Twirling around, I start walking back to my village. I leveled my skills today and got my hands on this beauty; I throw the magic tool up in the air and catch it.

    "Today was a better day than I could've hoped for." I whistle Country Road all the way home, excited for the future.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,550 words.

    Late, but that’s normal. Having it out before midnight is a plus, though.

    How do you guys like where the story is going? Things were always supposed to start coming together, but I'll be the first to admit this isn't the direction I saw the story going when I started writing. It’s thanks to all your comments that the story has morphed into what it is now.

    Your comments fuel my imagination and help the world grow, so please continue telling me what you think below.

    I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.


    Master Pacore the Deathless’ Point of View:

    “Jason! Which of these blasted papers has the city’s food figures?” I snap at my young aide.

    “The one on your left, sir.” He points out a piece of parchment covered in numbers.

    “And the schedule for the patrols?”

    "That's this one," Jason pulls a piece of paper from a stack that was partially leaning off my desk.

    I grit my teeth in frustration, trying to decipher the many figures I’m reading.

    "Wow, you're terrible at this." My hands tighten slightly at Jason's remark, crumpling the parchment in my hands. I scowl at the young man, but he continues to smirk at my distress. "I thought someone of your standing would be used to the paperwork."

    “I am Master Pacore the Deathless, not Pacore the Accountant. I have reliable servants like yourself to take care of these matters for me!”

    “Aww, you think I’m reliable? That makes me feel all fuzzy inside.” Young Jason pretends to swoon like a maiden in love.

    I admit I underestimated the young man, his ability to read people and change his personality depending on who he's talking to is top-notch. I'm not even sure if he was truly afraid of me a week ago when we negotiated the surrender of Drey or if that was merely a front he put on to deal with me.

    It only took him seeing me interact with General Pitz once to determine I respect and prefer dealing with confident people. I can only guess that his talents were squandered by the previous city lord, seeing how apt he is at organizing everything.

    "According to reports, the city has enough food to function for another two weeks before you'll need to start implementing rationing," young Jason informs me.

    “And the fields?” I ask him. “How are they going?”

    "Many of the citizens have noticed the food situation. People have started to volunteer their services in fixing the surrounding fields. As of now, 7% of the damaged fields have been fixed, while 3.5% of that has already been sown with new seed. Many of our high-level farmers were evacuated from the city, so the crops only benefit from low-tier skills. Crop production should speed up once the refugee farmers arrive."

    “Any news on them?” I ask, trying to compare what Jason is telling me with the physical reports. Jason and a few of my commanders with relevant skills are the ones running most of the city. I have to oversee Jason's every move, but he's yet to do anything suspicious.

    I'm sure whoever is being sent to run Drey will be quite pleased when they find out they have such a capable aide waiting for them.

    Just getting to this point was extremely difficult. When the previous city lord fled, he took or destroyed any document related to Drey. It was only thanks to young Jason and his knowledge of the city's laws that we were able to take control of everything without ruffling any feathers. He's helped me reestablish a tax system and many other day-to-day facilities that keep a city running.

    Of course, not everyone was happy with us taking over the city. A handful of people tried to sow discord amongst the masses, but Jason proposed a solution that quickly won over the people. Whenever a person or group of people would try to lead a revolt, one of my commanders would show up. Still, instead of arresting everyone, my commanders took note of everyone's grievances and promised to deliver them to me. The commanders would then leave without punishing anyone as long as they stay peaceful in their demonstrations. It's hard for someone to claim we're violent and exploiting everyone after that kind of response.

    We took note of everyone trying to stir up trouble, and we'll deal with them later after the city is functioning correctly.

    “The last report had them two days out. If your farmers are as good as you say they are, then hopefully we’ll get some crops in before people start to revolt out of hunger.” Jason sends me a challenging look.

    “Scholl farmers are used to working with barren soil. You’ll be eating your words in no time at all,” I confidently reassure him.

    “I look forward to it,” Jason boldly grins at me.

    At least I have someone I can have a decent conversation with, like General Pitz. I wonder how she's doing? "Jason."

    “Yes, sir?”

    “How has Lady Pitz been faring?”

    Jason's happy expression cracks, revealing deeper emotions underneath. Jason told me how she's been pulling him aside to ask him questions about the city and the local lord who ran away. "General Pitz has been quite furious lately. Every time I see her, she is cursing the local nobility and how they're responding to your invasion. It's nice knowing the city wasn't sacrificed on the general's orders but that only helps so much.”

    I can see Jason respects General Pitz as I do, but that doesn't make up for the nobility that left him here to die. Usually, when a city is taken during a war, the leaders are either captured or executed to make an example for the people. They chose to leave young Jason in charge as a sacrifice, something he's sure not to forget.

    It will take time before I can fully trust young Jason, but I'll make use of the gem the nobles decided to throw away.

    "As she should be. It's the job of us nobles to rule over the weak. The coward who fled his city has no right to use that title. He should've been leading the defense of his city, a leader like General Pitz knows this. I'm sure she sees the actions of the local nobility as a stain on Olebert's name,” I explain what I believe General Pitz is thinking.

    “Then they’ll be punished?” Young Jason asks in a cold tone.

    “They will be,” I tell him. “The only question is will it be through my hand or Olebert’s.”

    “I understand,” Jason bows his head in appreciation. Young Jason has a last name, meaning he’s from a well-off family, but he's not a noble. People given noble titles, even city lords, are usually seen as untouchable by the masses. It's rare for them to be punished for their actions, and those of lesser standing can only bear with their demands.

    “But of course, that is all in the future,” I remind young Jason. “Has everyone arrived?”

    "They should be waiting for you in the conference room," he informs me.

    "Good," I stand up and walk out of the office, leaving behind my parchment-covered desk.

    Briskly walking down the city lord’s mansion hallways, followed by young Jason, I pass by barren walls where paintings and other artwork were once hung. It's funny to see the lesser pieces of artwork the previous lord deemed unfit to bring with him during his escape. Back in Scholl, nobles decorate their halls with magic beast materials, symbols of their strength and success.

    Most of the remaining artwork will need to be sold or traded away in the coming weeks. The previous lord didn't just take off with his favorite artwork; he also emptied the city's coffers. A city can only function for so long without any coin in its vault. We've managed to restore the city's basic functions, but certain things need to line up with certain people before it can get back to normal. And my guests should be a few of the people who can help make that happen.

    Entering the sparse conference room, I take the measure of my five guests. First is Eriel Vellen; she was the second in command of the city's courier guild until her boss fled the city, leaving her in charge like Jason. She's a tall thin woman who looks to be the most nervous of my guests.

    Next, is the gentleman standing in the corner who's wearing a guard uniform minus the gear. Jason informed me his name was Maz, and the other guards elected him to represent their interests when we called to meet with their leader. Even without a weapon, he sizes me up with his eyes.

    The third person is a woman who looks to be in her forties. Bellera Mantals stocky figure is hidden behind her mage robes. She was elected to represent the remaining mages in Drey, much like Maz was.

    My last and the most important guest is the head of the local Silver Herd branch, Lennard Grey, and his bodyguard, who's standing behind him. Grey is the second most experienced person in the room besides myself, and he's the only one who looks excited to meet me. Unlike most of the affluential people of Drey, Grey stayed behind to manage Silver Herd's remaining assets in the city.

    "Master Pacore the Deathless, it is an honor to meet you in person." The experienced merchant wastes no time in trying to flatter me.

    I hate dealing with experienced merchants; they have the knowledge and skills to turn most situations to their advantage. His bodyguard looks to be a decent level as well. Not enough to beat me even without my weapon and armor, but still quite decent.

    “I should imagine so,” I coldly reply to Grey’s greeting. If I give this man an inch, he’ll take a mile. I’m better off using my status to suppress him. “I’m a busy man, so I’ll jump right to the point. I want the four of you to cooperate with me.”

    The three younger representatives are surprised by my bluntness while Grey smiles to himself.

    “What do you mean?” Maz is the first to ask me a question. “Your men took all our gear.”

    "And I'm allowing you to earn them back. I can't have my men patrolling the city all day. My men will replace your superiors who fled, and we'll still be in charge of the walls and gates, but I want the previous guards patrolling the city keeping people safe," I explain.

    “You would give us back our weapons?” Maz asks in disbelief.

    “Should I not? We both want Drey to remain safe. I’m sure the four of you have heard rumors of why we are here. We are not invading for riches or glory; our people need food. I’m confident the people will soon see Scholl will do a much better job managing this land than Olebert ever has.” Maz remains silent, contemplating what I said.

    “You ask us to forgo our country,” Bellera Mantals asks in an accusing tone of voice.

    "If you wish to leave, you can do so in a year once the fighting has calmed down.” I don’t mention our plans to continue our campaign. “But consider who you give your allegiance to. I don’t see a star on your chest, so why were you chosen to represent the mages?”

    Bellera Mantals holds her tongue, but I can see her balling her fists in anger.

    "It's because your betters fled the city when they had the chance." I make eye contact with each of the younger representatives.

    “I didn’t,” Lennard Grey confidently replies.

    “I wonder why that is?” I send the calculating merchant a look that says I’m not falling for his bivol shit. Directing my attention back to my other guests, I continue to pull them over to our side of things. “I want guards protecting the people, I need mages to help repair the city, and I need to have open lines of communication,” I focus on Eriel Vellen.

    She flinches back and quietly squeaks out, “most of our birds were taken by the manager.”

    "I am aware. You do still have a few, don't you?" I ask in a softer tone, trying to get her to respond properly.

    “We do, but none of them are trained to fly to Scholl,” Eriel Vellen confirms. “The only birds we have left are the ones trained to fly to the nearby villages.”

    "That's fine," I tell her. "When we captured Teeburn, their courier branch didn't have as much time to release their birds. I'll send a message for them to send a few to your branch. Also, one of our tamers is already training a flock of rock vultures to deliver messages to Scholl. They’re more aggressive than your falcons but much more hardy beasts. Can you handle different types of birds?”

    Eriel Vellen nods her head. “As long as they’re trained properly, we can work with anything that has wings.” She sounds much more confident when she’s talking about her work.

    “That’s good,” I smile confidently at Maz, Eriel, and Bellera. “If the three of you are up to it, Jason here will help you get your respective operations going again with the three of you as their new leaders.”

    “What!?” Eriel squeaks.

    “You want me to supervise every mage in Drey?” Bellera skeptically asks.

    Maz's eyes widen for a second, but he's the calmest of the three.

    "I do," I assure them. "The three of you were already chosen to represent your people. My men will still oversee your actions, but I'll trust you to get things moving again."

    "If the three of you will follow me, we'll discuss individually what each of you needs," young Jason follows our plan and leads most of my guests out of the room.

    “We’re all alone,” Grey remarks as soon as the conference room door closes. “Shall we discuss business?”

    His smile makes me want to punch him. I’m going to need a drink after this.

    **********

    “How did everything go on your end?” I ask young Jason when he walks back into my temporary office.

    “Good,” he smiles when he sees me frowning over more papers. “The hardest part will be overseeing the guard’s reinstatement, but it should still free up most of your men. I was able to renegotiate down the rates for both the courier guild and the mages considering most of their high leveled people left the city. I'm curious, through, what happens if their supervisors try to come back?" Jason doesn't outright say he knows of our plans to take Blaiton, but that's what he's referring to.

    "Isn't it obvious?" I scoff at my young aide. "If they choose to seek employment, it's up to the heads of the local branches to decide whether or not to take them back." Jason and I share a knowing grin. "Scholl values strength and commitment, and we certainly remember who flees." I remind young Jason.

    Jason nods in understanding before asking me curiously, "and how was your discussion with Mr. Grey?"

    I lean back in my chair and sigh.

    “It was that bad!?” Jason asks, surprised by my reaction.

    “Dealing with experienced merchants is always difficult,” I explain to him.

    "But how can he match you? You're Pacore the Deathless." Jason leans forward, probably wondering why I didn’t just kill the merchant.

    "He already knew I needed his help," I frown deeply and explain. "Silver Herd is a growing merchant company. Grey didn't flee when he had the chance because Silver Herd is making plans to do business with us in the future."

    "He told you that?!" Jason asks wide-eyed.

    "Not out loud. Silver Herd won't openly support us, but they won't miss out on the chance to do business with us either. Besides, Grey knows that someone has to move goods back and forth between Teeburn and Drey."

    "Don't you have supply trains bringing in your goods from Scholl? Use those." Jason offers up his suggestion.

    I shake my head. "It is already hard enough organizing a supply chain, and it will only become more arduous once we start needing to ship food back to Scholl. There needs to be trading between cities, and an established merchant company is the best to do it.”

    “What did he ask for in return?”

    “He wants documentation guaranteeing his people safety and preferential treatment when it comes to city contracts.”

    "That's it?" Young Jason asks, confused. "There were rumors about the previous city lord and Mr. Grey making secret deals with each other. I can't imagine that's all he asked for."

    "I was surprised by his generosity and willingness to work together as well, but I've met plenty of merchants like him in my day. I can already guess what he's after." I open my special waterskin and take a large swig of alcohol. "He has ambitious eyes. He's probably trying to get in my good graces before his company regains oversight over him."

    “So, there will be problems in the future,” young Jason quickly understands what I’m alluding to.

    I drink another mouthful from my waterskin and smile.

    “You don’t seem too worried,” Jason notices that I’m starting to relax in my chair.

    “I’m not. It will be a problem for whoever takes over the city, not mine." I grin at my young aide, "but it will most likely be yours."

    "Great, I'll look forward to it," he says sarcastically, handing me a piece of paper. "Sign that, and I'll have it taken to the couriers guild."

    "Is this the message I wanted to be sent to all the nearby villages?" I ask while I quickly scan the document.

    "It is, and now that the courier's guild is reopening, we can send them out," Jason confirms.

    This is good. We passed by a few villages when we marched on Drey. We spread the word that we were their new rulers. A few villages were even expecting us because the prisoners we released made it back home. I mentioned this to young Jason, and he told me there were many more villages in the vicinity, some of which would take days to reach.

    Without any formal documents, it will be challenging to know exactly how many villages are now under my control.

    Thankfully once the old guards are reinstated, I can organize squads to visit each of the villages and explain what is happening. The villages need to know who's in charge and the slight changes we've made. I'm not sure how all the villages will react to us changing the terms of their taxes, but most should be happy when they hear how much credit we're offering for food.

    In a few days, my replacement should show up, and I'll be free to inspect the surrounding lands myself. Maybe I should take General Pitz with me? She should know a little bit about the area and the fresh air will do her some good.

    And maybe, I’ll find out where she got that special arrow from?

    I sit back in my chair and drain the alcohol from my waterskin, smiling to myself.

    **********

    Aaliyah’s Point of View:

    "Tell me, why again are you making me cover up like this?" Sandra complains next to me. Sandra is mad that I made her wear thick clothing and had her tie a rag over her mouth and nose.

    "Because we're heating an alchemical mixture, and you're pregnant," I remind her for the third time.

    "But it's so hot," She whines. "At least let me take off the mask." Along with the spring sun, the heat from the forge is making Sandra sweat up a storm. It's a good thing I have her drinking a lot of water.

    “No,” I promptly shoot down her suggestion. Even though devil's poke and eathrosse aren't poisons in any way, I'm not taking any chances something could happen to my future niece or nephew.

    "Then what about you? Why aren't you bundled up like I am?" Sandra gives me an accessing look with her exposed eyes.

    "I'm a physical build meaning my body is much stronger than yours. Plus, I have my barrier skill, which helps block out some of the more dangerous things I can breathe in. It works wonders when I'm mining with master, and the air is filled with dust," I explain to Sandra while we're waiting for our third mixture of the day to heat up.

    “Can’t the two of you be quieter? This is supposed to be one of my days off," master grumbles from his bench.

    “Ignore him,” I tell Sandra.

    “But we are using his equipment,” Sandra looks around master’s clearing, clearly impressed with the setup we have.

    "I've been using the forge to heat up my mixtures from the start. Master just likes to complain, that's all." I sneak a quick glance over my shoulder and see that master is secretly watching us work just like he does when I'm forging.

    “If you say so,” Sandra hesitantly agrees. “Do you think this new wood will help?”

    I don't answer her and instead, stare at the glass beaker sitting on a metal stand above the coals. "The internal mana structure is mixing near the bottom, but the top is remaining clumped together." It looks like this will be another dud; I sigh in disappointment.

    "I still can't believe you can sense specifics like that," Sandra says, moving to prep a new solution for our next attempt.

    “What do you see in the mixture?” I ask Sandra.

    "I can see the mana moving faster because of the heat; along with that, the mixture is mostly earth and water mana, like most plants are, but that’s it.”

    "That's pretty good," I offer her some encouragement. Sandra just pouts, knowing I'm saying that because I'm her friend. "Trust me; if you keep practicing with Mana Manipulation, Sense Mana will level up with it and vice versa."

    “I know,” Sandra responds half heartily.

    I should change the subject. “Did you see your brother off this morning?”

    “Of course, I said goodbye to him on my way here.”

    "I can't believe Nicolas volunteered to escort the crops to Drey. I could imagine Braddon going but not Nicolas." Markus and Ezekiel finally finished harvesting all the wortel two days ago. Nicolas, along with Ronald, and two other hunters, set off this morning to deliver our supplies to Drey.

    “Braddon did offer to go, but Nicolas argued he would be a better fit should something go wrong,” Sandra tells me.

    "They're just going for appearance's sake. As soon as they see Scholl's flag flying in the distance, they'll turn around and come home."

    "You're right; I think Nicolas just wanted to get out of the village for a little bit. Father has been running brother ragged lately, having him organizing everything in the entire village."

    “What about you?” I ask Sandra. “Is Camden still hounding you about your magic?”

    “Not as much as he was,” she tells me. "Though he was impressed yesterday when I used earth magic to turn over the fields. What about you; what have you been up to? I'm guessing those spears and swords are new." Sandra motions over to the rack of weapons I've made the last few days.

    "Yeah, I'm starting to get the hang of this new metal I'm working with. I've made six spears and eight swords; it hasn't rained lately, so master and I agreed it was easier to build a rack to hold them for now."

    "They look beautiful," Sandra remarks at the tannish-silver weapons. "Are you donating any of them to the village?"

    I snort, trying to hold back my laughter. "No way, those are magic weapons; each one of those can be enchanted. You're the only other person in the village besides me who can use magic; weapons like that would be wasted here."

    “You forgot about Anastasia,” Sandra reminds me.

    “She doesn’t leave her hut unless it’s a real emergency. What would Anastasia need a magic sword for?”

    "Good point," Sandra agrees. "Are you planning to enchant all of them yourself, then?"

    “If we ever figure this recipe out,” I reach into the fire with a pair of tongs and remove the failed mixture. “For some reason, the mixture isn’t circulating heat properly. Parts of the solution heat up quicker than others and float near the top while others rise and fall like a normal liquid.”

    "Do you think we need more heat?" Sandra asks for my opinion.

    "No, I've already tried hotter coals. The mixture burns too easily. The wood we're using now provides just enough heat, but the mixture isn't reacting like it's supposed to."

    “Do you think it would work better if we spread out the heat rather than turn it up?”

    "What?" I ask, confused.

    “We have the solution sitting above the fire. What if we build up the coals around it and heat the solution from each of the sides as well as the bottom? Maybe that would help even out the heat in the solution.”

    "That's brilliant," I exclaim. I should've thought of that sooner! The same principle applies to my blacksmithing. You need to heat up the entire section you're working with, or you'll cause microfractures. "I'll fix the fire!"

    “I’ll get the solution ready!”

    The two of us scramble to get everything ready.

    We anxiously watch the alchemical solution as soon as I move it into the forge. The two of us don't say a word to one another while the solution is heating up.

    I keep count in my head, measuring the exact time the solution is in the fire for my notes later.

    After seven and a half minutes, the alchemical solution starts to change. The eathrosse and devil's poke absorb a part of the fire mana and start blending together.

    “It’s working!” Sandra and I echo each other’s excitement.

    “Wait! What do we do next?” Sandra asks me. We haven’t discussed the next step, but luckily, I already have some supplies readied on my desk.

    “You see that brown pot on my desk?”

    “Yeah.”

    “Bring it over here with my smallest measuring spoon,” I instruct Sandra as I prepare to remove the mixture as soon as the ingredients finish fusing.

    When the mixture is completed, it has turned a brighter shade of purple.

    “What is this stuff?” Sandra asks me when she looks inside the pot she brought over.

    "Crushed magicite," I tell her as I remove the glass container from the fire. "Step three said to add magicite to the mixture. You add the magicite one scoop at a time, and I'll keep an eye on its internal mana."

    "Ok," Sandra carefully starts adding small amounts of magicite to our mixture. After she adds the second scoop, I see that the mixture isn't blending again. But this time, I'm prepared. I grab a glass stirring rod and slowly mix the mixture.

    I'm already aware the instructions I was given leave 99% of the information out, so I have to guess the proper solutions to the problems I encounter.

    When I tried stirring the previous mixture when it was in the fire, the extra motion actually caused it to burn for some reason; luckily, this time, stirring the mixture appears to be the right choice, and the magicite starts blending into the mixture.

    The magicite Sandra is adding is charging the mana in the mixture, keeping the fire mana active. At this rate, we might make it to step four.

    No sooner than that thought crosses my mind, everything falls apart.

    “Stop,” I shout.

    Sandra freezes, and we both watch our hard work burn itself up. I don't know if we added too much magicite or mixed it in too quickly, but the magicite caused the fire mana that fused with the previous mixture to go out of control. The solution burns and turns into a black lump, looking like a piece of meat left on the grill too long.

    I can’t help but let out a long sigh. The failures hurt much more after you’ve had a breakthrough.

    “We were so close!” Sandra says, disappointed.

    "At least we made it to step three," I console my friend by patting her on the shoulder and move to write down step 2 in my notes.

    Step 2: The mixture must be heated from the bottom and sides evenly, using a fire around 600°F. The mixture starts binding after seven minutes and finishes after eleven.

    I’m not sure if removing the mixture from the fire was the right choice, but that’s just one more thing we need to test later.

    “I’ll get the next mixture ready,” excited, Sandra moves over to my workbench.

    “Woah, wait a minute,” I stop her before she starts mixing the next test batch.

    “What’s wrong?” Sandra asks me, confused as to why I’m stopping her.

    “I think we’re done for the day,” I tell her.

    “Why?”

    “Chasing success is just as bad as continuing after a long string of failures. We’ve burned through a lot of materials already. We can try again in a few days,” I suggest to Sandra.

    "The best idea I've heard all day," master buts in from his bench.

    The two of us ignore master's remark.

    "Fine," Sandra reluctantly agrees. "If you're really sure you want to stop?" Sandra gives me one last pleading look to continue. It's no wonder she's a mage; Sandra has the drive to keep trying until she gets it right.

    "Yeah," I repeat. "It's still technically my day off, and I should spend some time with my mom. She still has me helping her with Richard's marriage tassel."

    “Then I can take this annoying thing off,” Sandra removes her face mask. “I’m sure Richard is happy you’re helping make his tassel." Sandra's compliment and smile combination are too bright for me, so I turn away before she can see my embarrassed face.

    “Let’s clean up and head home together,” I suggest to Sandra.

    "Alright," Sandra helps me straighten everything up.

    On the way home, I think about our last experiment. I'm surprised we managed to make progress on the engraving ink. This was our first time collaborating together, and it went better than I could've ever hoped for. If we continue with this kind of success, I might get my hands on some engraving ink before the month is over.

    It's good to stay positive, but I don't let our success cloud my judgment. I have dozens of more weapons to make, along with a whole host of skills I need to practice.

    There is always something else to improve, and if I want to head to the deeper parts of the forest, I can't slow down now.

    Tomorrow I’ll be back at it, working even harder.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,100 words.

    Sorry I didn't post a notice. I thought I would have this chapter done last night, but my 8 pm notice time passed, and by the time I started to get tired, I didn't have nearly as much written as I wanted to.

    My sleeping schedule is much better, though, and I started working out again. I hope everyone is finding something to keep themselves busy with while they're home.

    I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.


    My arms tense.

    My eyes narrow.

    I pull back my arms while digging my feet into the forest floor.

    I yell, exhaling the large breath I've just drawn in, and swing my new axe in a downwards diagonal strike. This time I won't mess up!

    My muscles tense just as my strike is about to hit my target.

    When I hear the bark crack from the tree I'm swinging at; I immediately know I failed again.

    “Gods damn it!” I swear in frustration.

    “Language, Aaliyah,” my mom tells me for the hundredth time today.

    Mom reprimanding me is another blow to my pride, but the giggles from my other onlookers are what really kill me.

    "I don't see why you're mad about hitting the tree," Sandra pokes fun at me, knowing what I'm trying to do. "Axes are meant to fell trees, aren't they?" She asks sarcastically.

    "Now, dear, you shouldn't make fun of her flaws even when they're so obvious.” I can’t tell if Sarette is really reprimanding her daughter or just taking a shot at me like everybody else.

    I had to start coming out here into the woods to train with my new weapons because Camden said I was distracting the villagers with my practicing.

    I was hoping to train alone today, but Sandra and Sarette stopped by our house after mom and I finished our morning run together. My friend and her mom wanted to see how I was doing since I spent a whole week forging my new weapons with my master. Today is my third day off from the forge and the last day before I go back to start working on my armor.

    I'd tried to tell them we could talk later in the day after practicing with my new weapons for a few hours, but I should've known that wouldn't work. And mother, of course, didn't want to be left out, so she joined the impromptu girls club and followed me into the woods to watch me train. Hence my current predicament.

    The three ladies have been critiquing each of my swings since I started.

    Usually, I'd be happy to show off in front of my friends and family, but this time is different.

    I was so happy to practice with my new axe and war-hammer, I spent my first day off from work swinging away with everything I had. That's when I noticed I missed one crucial detail about my new weapons.

    Though they are on the heavier side, I can still lift my weapons with my stats. The problem comes when I swing them. Both my axe and war-hammer are top-heavy, and even with my Strength, the momentum from my swings is enough to drag me along with them. Widening my stances has improved my control a little, but not anywhere close to where I need it to be.

    That's why I'm practicing swinging my axe at this tree. I'm trying to perform a full swing while stopping my strike before it actually touches the bark of the tree. People think of the axe as a brutal weapon that you just swing with all your might, but that is what will get you killed in a real battle.

    I know I could solve my problem by practicing with some heavy armor on, but the armor I'm designing with mom will at most weigh forty pounds. My armor would need to weigh almost three times that amount to compensate for my weapon's momentum.

    All of this has led to me making dozens of minute changes to my stances, trying to figure out a way for me to compensate for my lack of weight. I never thought I would wish that I was heavier.

    “Your comments aren’t helping,” I hiss at my onlookers.

    “Can I try holding it?” Sandra asks, stepping forward. “I put a few spare points into Strength once or twice.”

    "Fine, I need a small break anyway." I hold out the large axe with both of my hands. Sandra firmly grabs the weapon with a smile on her face. I notice she isn't holding it correctly to support its weight, but I'm content to watch how this plays out after all her heckling. "You ready?" She nods her head, and I let go.

    “Shit!” Sandra screams. Her entire body locks up, straining to balance the heavy weapon. “How do you swing this thing!?” She grunts.

    I reach out and take my axe back before she accidentally drops it and chops her foot off. "I thought you said you put some of your points into Strength," I tease Sandra. Mom and Sarette share a giggle, for once not at my expense.

    “I’ll have you know; I have a solid 25 in Strength. I was the strongest amongst my master’s pupils,” Sandra proclaims, folding her arms in front of her.

    "That's pretty good," I say in a sarcastic voice. "Now you just need six times that, and we'll be twins." Everyone here is practically family, so I don't mind bragging a little.

    “Your Strength stat is 150! That’s ridiculous,” she says in disbelief.

    I easily heft my axe onto my shoulder and smile at her. "It's a little higher than that, but yeah," I can't help but flex a little to show off after all the crap they've been giving me since I started practicing.

    Sandra shakes her head in a disapproving manner. "If only you focused on your magic skills as I suggested, you'd be as great a mage as my master is."

    Scoffing at Sandra’s remark, I increase the circulation of my mana network. Like I’d let Sandra win this friendly debate. “I think I’m doing quite well with my magic studies. In fact, let me show you my newest magic skill.”

    “Really,” Sandra gives me a suspicious look.

    "Move back to where our moms are," I instruct her. I glance at mom, "I've shown this to dad already, so don't be surprised when he doesn't freak out when you tell him."

    Glancing up at the top of the tree I'm using for target practice; I pick a branch to aim for. I shift my axe from my shoulder into a proper grip and ready myself to jump.

    I hear three gasps as I launch myself into the air and even more exclamations when I use Air Walk to jump even higher into the canopy. Closing in on my target, I stop and use Precise Strike to sever a thick tree branch with one upward swing of my axe.

    I'm happy I hit my target, but I'm more surprised that my axe didn't drag me with it this time. I replay everything in my head as I start to drop to the ground with the severed branch. Halfway to the ground, I use Air Walk once more to slow my descent. As my feet touch the forest floor, I'm still trying to figure out what I did differently there.

    I was soaring up to the branch I wanted to cut; I shifted my stance and stopped when I was in range. What could've kept me from being dragged along with my weapon?

    Did Air Walk have something to do with it? I’ve already tested that my skill helps provide a much sturdier surface to interact with. Would that help stop me from moving, though?

    No, but I did stop when I reached the branch I wanted to cut. How did I do that? Was it my mana?

    I start to piece together an idea of what stopped me from soaring higher. Subconsciously, I must have formed a mana barrier around my feet like I do to use Air Walk. Only this time, I used the mana to temporarily hold me in place so I wouldn't fly higher, which subsequently kept me from being dragged with my weapon!

    I can use mana to lock myself in place!

    It will take some practicing, but hopefully, I can figure out a way to anchor myself to the ground when I'm swinging my heavier weapons. That way, it won't matter how heavy I am; I could keep using my movement-based fighting style even with heavier weaponry.

    A huge grin crosses my face. And to think, if I didn’t try to show off in front of Sandra, I wouldn’t have realized this until much later.

    I look over at Sandra to thank her, only to see her, mother, and Sarette staring at me, mouths open in shock. Something happens to your ego when you leave people dumbfounded. Strutting over to the ladies, I feel eight feet tall.

    "Like my new skill?" I ask Sandra with a gloating smile. "It might not equate to the many spells you learned, but I'm happy with it."

    “That was amazing!” Sarette finally finds her voice and compliments me.

    “You can run through the air now?!” Mom is equally surprised as her friend.

    “Yep,” my grin widens.

    “That shouldn’t be possible,” Sandra mumbles, leaving me confused.

    “I’ll admit it was hard to do, but it’s not impossible,” I tell her.

    Sandra shakes her head. "No, I mean, even at your level, you shouldn't be able to use your mana like that. A person's mana dissipates rapidly once it leaves the body. Covering yourself is one thing, but creating footholds to run in the air, that would take a level of Mana Manipulation I can't even comprehend!”

    I flinch away from Sandra, who has a crazy look in her eye. "Did you manage to break past the level 40 test?"

    “Ummm,” I nervously babble while taking a step back.

    "Sandra!" Sarette calls out to her daughter. "Get a hold of yourself. Can't you see you're making Aaliyah nervous?"

    Sandra closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. When she opens her eyes again, Sandra has calmed down and has replaced her fevered look with a serious one. "I'm sorry, it wasn't right of me to ask for your skill level like that."

    “It’s cool,” I tell her. “You are my best friend after all. I just don’t get why Mana Manipulation is such a big deal. Anyone who plays with their mana enough can get it to level 40.”

    Sandra lets out a big sigh. "No, it isn't, Aaliyah. Mana Manipulation is a tier 3 skill, but it levels like its tier 4. I practice with my magic every day, including trying to control my raw mana, and I only managed to get Mana Manipulation to level 23. I haven't leveled Mana Manipulation in almost six months. My master wouldn't tell us what level his skill was at, but he dropped hints he was stuck on its test. My master can't control his mana anywhere close to what you can. Is there some sort of secret technique you've discovered that can help me?"

    Sandra looks at me with pleading eyes, making my answer all that more difficult to give. "I'm sorry, Sandra, but I don’t know what to tell you. I just kept playing with my mana and trying new things with it as my skill leveled. I mostly focused on my internal manipulation, but my skill started leveling a lot faster once I could cover myself in my own mana. You probably noticed the skill I gained from it."

    “The barrier you always keep around you.”

    "That's right," I tell her. "I kept trying to make it stronger and stronger until recently when I realized it was strong enough to walk on."

    “I see,” Sandra says, looking like she’s has a lot on her mind. Sandra lets out another sigh after she looks like she’s come to a conclusion. “I guess the only thing I can do is work harder and try to catch up with you. But you did past the first test already, didn’t you?”

    “Don’t hate me, but I don’t think I feel comfortable giving out the specifics to my skills,” I awkwardly tell Sandra.

    “I understand,” she responds with a smile. “It wasn’t right for me to ask again anyways.”

    “I won’t give you the specifics, but I’ll tell you I’ve passed the first test.” Telling Sandra that I’ve reached level 60 in Mana Manipulation might dissuade her from trying to catch up to me. Friendly competition is always a good thing.

    Sandra gives me a warm smile, “you didn’t have to tell me that, but thanks.”

    “I should be thanking you,” I tell her. “I had no idea other mages had such a hard time with Mana Manipulation. I've could've accidentally said the wrong thing to a mage in the future. I already called the mages helping to melt the snow in Drey criminals."

    Sandra tries to hold in her laughter and accidentally makes a snorting noise. I start laughing and everything right between us.

    “The two of you make such good friends,” Sarette remarks.

    For a second there, I forgot our moms were here.

    “The best,” Sandra and I echo each other.

    Now that that that’s taken care of, I should get back to my practicing. I start walking back over to the tree I was using for target practice.

    “You still want to train more!?” Sarette asks me in disbelief.

    "Yep, I had an idea on how I can swing my weapon properly, and I need to test it out."

    "But I was hoping the four of us could go back to our house and have tea together," Sarette pouts.

    "Sorry, but I still have a lot I want to try out," I politely decline her invitation.

    "You shouldn't work so much. Doesn't a tea break sound nice?" Just like my mom Sarette doesn't give up that easily.

    I’m about to politely decline her again when surprisingly, mom comes to my rescue. “Don’t even try, Sarette. I’ve been telling Aaliyah that for years now. And besides, if we drag her away from her training right when she has a breakthrough, she won’t be fun to have tea with. Let’s leave her here like she wants.” I make a mental note to thank mom later for helping me.

    “Oh, all right,” Sarette relents. “Let’s go without her.”

    Mom and Sarette start walking back towards the village but stop when they notice Sandra isn’t following them.

    "Is something wrong, sweety?" Sarette calls back to her daughter.

    "I think I'm going to stay here with Aaliyah and meditate for a while," Sandra tells her mom.

    I can see Sarette's shoulders visibly drop in disappointment. "Fine, be careful, you two."

    "We will," I yell, reassuring her.

    Sandra moves over to a nearby tree out of my way and sits down. She closes her eyes and starts meditating while I square off with my tree. Both of us aware that the other plans to seriously practice now that we’re alone. Sandra has her searching spell activated so I can put 100% of my focus into figuring out how to utilize my mana without worrying about our surroundings.

    I start by swinging my axe through the air a few times, trying to imprint how I stumble with each different swing.

    Then, I surround my feet with large amounts of my mana like I do with Air Walk. However, unlike Air Walk, I don’t dissipate the mana after it’s formed. Instead, I force the mana to almost a standstill, locking my feet in place. The restrictive mana squeezes my feet, and I'm able to swing my axe without me being dragged along with it. But this can only be considered a step in the right direction.

    I can walk while I have Mana Skin activated because the mana is flowing freely over my body and contouring to my movements. Mana Skin is made out of my compacted mana like Air Walk but still moves like the blood under my skin.

    Locking my feet in place may be a step in the right direction, but it's a step I can't make. Mostly because now, I can't move my feet. The laws of motion apply to everything, even magic. Because the mana surrounding my feet is moving much slower than usual, it takes me longer to focus and get the mana moving again to release myself.

    I don’t burn as much mana this way, but I can’t afford to cement myself in place when I’m fighting.

    There has to be a better solution.

    I stand for a moment, trying to think of a new way to approach this, but nothing practical comes to mind. Maybe I need to take a step back and re-evaluate my resources. Maybe looking at my status page might help give me some new ideas. And besides, I haven't checked the exact growth of my skills in over a week now.

    LV: 73 Experience:80,549/ 956,780

    Health: 2,430/2,430

    Stamina 1,184.37/1,650

    Mana:651.06/1,020

    Vitality: 243.00

    Endurance: 100.00

    Strength: 152.00

    Dexterity: 150.00

    Senses: 62.35

    Mind: 65.13

    Magic: 102.50

    Clarity: 78.59

    Status Points: 0

    Skills:

    Tier 1:

    Meditation (LV78), Running (LV76), Blacksmithing (LV70), Hammer Skills (LV58), Axe Skills (LV56), Cleaning (LV53), Chanting (LV50), Mining (LV48), Drawing (LV46), Trading (LV45), Cooking (LV40), Dagger Skills (LV31), Wood Carving (LV31), Acting (LV32), Sword Skills (LV31), Sewing (LV26), Pugilist Skills (LV4), Spear Skills (LV2), Alchemy (LV2)

    Tier 2:

    Sense Mana (LV79), Double Step (LV61), Charm (LV50), Measurement (LV46), Hammer Arts (LV42), Axe Arts (LV36), Writing (LV32), Intimidating Shout (LV31), Mathematics (LV30), Increase Price (LV21), Lower Price (LV20), Steady Hands (LV18), Dagger Arts (LV12), Sword Arts (LV14), Gourmet (LV7), Marching (LV5), Shout of Valor (LV3),

    Tier 3:

    Expel Mana (LV62), Mana Manipulation (LV60), Precise Strike (LV40), Double Strike (LV40), Weighted Strike (LV38), Flash Step (LV22), Contract (LV7)

    Tier 4:

    Mana Skin (LV54), Mental Resistance (LV53), Inject Mana (LV52), Extract Mana (LV32), Magic Blacksmithing (LV26), Empowered Spell (LV12), Air Walk (LV6)

    Tier 5:

    Sense Soul (LV39), Soul Manipulation (LV6)

    Tier 6:

    Soul Devourer (LV2)

    Increased Skill Levels

    Blacksmithing (LV70) 3,500exp

    Hammer Skills (LV58) 2,900exp

    Axe Skills (LV56) 2,800exp

    Sewing (LV25-26) 2,550exp

    Hammer Arts (LV42) 4,200exp

    Steady Hands (LV17-18) 3,500exp

    Weighted Strike (LV38) 5,700exp

    Flash Step (LV22) 3,300exp

    Mana Skin (LV54) 13,500exp

    Magic Blacksmithing (LV26) 6,500exp

    Air Walk (LV2-6) 5,000exp

    Skill Experience: 53,450exp

    Crafting Experience: 14,316exp

    Fighting Experience: 0exp

    Total-experience Gained: 67,766exp

    That's some solid gains for my Blacksmithing skills, which haven't seen any growth since I made the general's arrow

    , while Mana Skin retook its lead as my highest leveled tier 4 skill.

    I can feel I’ve made progress with my other mana related skills but not enough for them to level. They're already at a high level for my age, so I shouldn't get greedy.

    Air Walk jumped up to level 6, and based on when I used it a little while ago; I'd estimate the mana cost for Air Walk dipped below 38 for each step.

    Despite my gains, whenever I pull up my status page, I always realize just how much I still need to accomplish. Alchemy is still stuck at level 2. I have five skills stuck at their testing levels, along with another two skills almost reaching their next test as well. There are just too many things I still need to work on.

    I wish I could split my time more evenly, but certain things take priority. Like figuring out how to swing my weapons without losing control, that is my number one priority.

    But now that Sandra has said something, I see my mana skills in a new light. I've always been able to feel the presence of mana since I was reborn in this world. Sure, I knew how rare sensing mana is for most people, but I never thought about how much my talent has helped me grow. Even when you factor in that, I've been practicing for fifteen years; according to Sandra, I'm ahead of her master in terms of mana skill.

    I'm confident my mana skills will help me solve the issue with the momentum of my weapons. I just have to think of something new. Kicking at the forest floor in frustration, I uncover a root of the tree I'm practicing on.

    Now there’s an idea!

    Trees have a strong foundation because their roots spread throughout the ground. What if I try to spread my mana out from my feet into the ground as trees do?

    Let’s try it out.

    I gather my mana into my feet and slowly extend tendrils of mana into the forest floor. The process is slow because if I lose focus, my mana will dissipate. After twenty minutes of standing perfectly still and focusing on my mana, I've managed to send my mana tendril four inches into the ground. At this point, I realize I can't hold on to my mana if it's any farther away from my body.

    I test to see if the mana roots help at all by slowly lifting one of my feet off the ground. A smile crosses my face when I can feel a slight resistance keeping me from raising my foot. Once my foot is four inches off the ground, the resistance fades to almost nothing as my mana roots try to grip the mana in the air instead of the ground.

    I slowly lower my foot back down and see what happens when my uprooted mana tendrils come back into contact with the earth.

    It takes a few seconds and some nudging with my manipulation skill, but my mana roots eventually re-snake their way into the earth. The mana roots wedge themselves into the naturally slow-moving earth mana.

    Now I need to see how much my mana roots help me to deal with my weapons momentum. I adjust my stance, giving the mana roots enough time to take hold again and swing my axe in an upward strike.

    The roots definitely help me, but they're too short to offset my strike's total momentum. I'm not disappointed with the results, however. This just proves my idea works. All I need to do is practice more.

    “You look happy. Did you succeed?”

    I look over at Sandra, who's opened her eyes again. "Yes and no. I couldn't figure out an immediate solution, but with some practice, I should be fine. What about you?"

    “I’m trying to maintain control of my mana as it leaves my skin. Let’s see who succeeds first,” Sandra sends me a challenging grin.

    “It’s on,” I accept her challenge.

    Time to grind some skills!

    **********

    “You look much better today,” master remarks as I work the bellows of our forge.

    "The break was good. I had a little trouble practicing with my new weapons, but I'm working on a solution," I tell master.

    "Is that why you brought your sword with you today?" Master motions to my sheathed scimitar resting up against my workbench.

    "Yeah, I can't very well bring my axe or war-hammer with me if I can't use them properly. But even now, I'm working on a solution." As I'm pumping the billows, I'm mindful of my mana roots stretching out from my feet.

    After practicing most of the day away yesterday, I’ve managed to gain some sense of control over the mana roots. I can extend and retract the roots much faster now. Four inches is still the limit for how far out I can extend them, but this morning I found another use for them.

    While keeping pace with mom, I noticed the ground felt slightly off as we ran around the village. We run the same way each morning, and I'm familiar with each rock, stump, and tree root we run past. It took me a while to figure it out, but eventually, I realized even though my mana roots didn't have enough time to burrow into the ground, they still reinforced my footing slightly.

    I now plan to keep my roots extended permanently as I do with Mana Skin when I'm outside. I wouldn't be surprised if I unlock a new skill soon.

    "I'm sure you'll get ahold of it soon," master encourages me. It's always nice to hear someone has faith in you. "Did you decide on how you want your armor to look?"

    I groan into the forge. "Yes, it took me forever, though. That's why I took an extra day off. Mom helped me a lot."

    “Your mother knows about armor?” Master sounds surprised.

    "She doesn't know armor, but she knows how to work hide and leather. She helped me figure out which parts I need to forge and which I'll need to make with her."

    “So, you’re sticking to a lighter set of armor then?”

    “That’s right,” I confirm masters suspicions.

    It took talking to mother for hours before I had any idea of how I would make my first personal set of armor. I've sold a few sets of plate armor to Kervin in the past, but I've always leaned towards the weapon side of blacksmithing.

    That's because there are many forms of armor in this world, and many don't require blacksmithing to make. With magic beasts out there with hides that can block enchanted steel, not everyone wants to be bogged down with a set of full platemail armor.

    Master taught me how to make armor out of metal, but it was mom who sat me down and explained the different armor types out there. First, you have defensive clothes woven from magic beasts or animals with strong fur. Next, you have all leather and hide armors, and as the names imply, they're made out of beast hide. You have plate-lined armors made with the previous two materials but reinforced with metal plates to add extra protection. Last is full-body suits of armor that master is accustomed to making.

    I would love to have a set of magic clothing strong enough to deflect arrows and swords, but mom said those are more expensive than high tier magic items.

    We both decided it would be best for me to stick with a leather plated set of armor. I will craft the metal components then stitch them together with mom.

    I explain all this to master while my metal in the crucible properly binds together.

    "Metal armor is what saves people," Master huffs. "Back home, if you wore anything else, you’d be laughed out of the mountain.”

    “I don’t know master, magic underwear sounds nice,” I joke.

    "Then buy your master some, and we'll see how it holds up."

    “I’ve seen the dirty clothes in your house, master. No way am I spending good money only to condemn a pair of magic boxers to that kind of fate.”

    “Cheeky brat.”

    Master and I go back and forth until the alloy is ready.

    Now comes the tricky part. I have to craft twenty-three plates to cover specific parts of my body. I need to craft four plates for each of my limbs, two large plates for my chest, four smaller plates for my back, and one plate for a cap. Everything will be cushioned with leather, but the plates need to cover the majority of my body.

    I decide to start with the plates for my back because those will be the easiest. To move efficiently, a person’s back needs to remain limber. The four plates will be evenly spaced out, but there will still be a decent gap between each plate so my armor can contour with my body as I run and dodge strikes.

    The four square plates I hammer out are the quickest thing I’ve made in a long time.

    Next, I move on to something a bit trickier, the plates for my arms and legs. Each plate needs to be rounded to fit over both sides of my arms and legs. The closer I can match the plates to my body, the more comfortable they'll be and offer me better protection.

    I need to mold each peace, let it cool down a little, then hold it up to my limbs to see if I need to adjust it. At the same time, I'm doing all that; I think about what would happen if I just crafted hundreds of small square and rectangle pieces and use those to line some armor. Armor like that would offer more protection and retain its flexibility. I might have to try that once I get my hands on some better hide.

    Once I have the segments for my limbs completed, I flatten out a chunk of metal and form it into a bowl shape. This plate will be padded the most and used to make me a helmet. I originally wanted to forgo any armor for my head, but mom argued that I should at least have a helmet in case something attacks me from above.

    The last two plates take me the longest to make and will most likely need to be adjusted later. Armor that covers the chest is the simplest to make but the hardest to perfect. Chest pieces aren't like what you see in video games. Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I will form the metal to highlight my breasts. Not only is that impractical, but it isn't structurally safe either.

    A good chest piece is triangular in shape for both men and women to deflect arrows and swords properly. The skimpy armor I used to see in games had way too many creases and crevices, and if they were used in a real fight, they would have the wearer take more damage than it would deflect.

    The trick with chest pieces is that the better they defend you, the harder it is to move. If I tried wearing a platemail chest piece, I wouldn't be able to bend over.

    The chest plates I’m making are meant to overlap each other while still giving me a small degree of freedom.

    When everything is done, master moves over next to me. “Finished everything?”

    “I think so,” I stretch out my tired arms. The sun is just starting to go down.

    “Will you be back tomorrow?”

    "I don't think so," I tell master. "Mom has the leather set aside, and it will probably take the whole day for us to get everything fitted. I'll be back the day after to make any adjustments I need to and to start crafting some of the weapons I plan on selling.”

    “What about the special arrows; you don’t want to start with those?” Maser curiously asks.

    "I was thinking of setting aside the materials I need for the arrows and make them last. I'd rather try to raise my skills a little higher before I tackle the most expensive items."

    Master hums in agreement. "Then I'll see you in two days with your new armor."

    “I think you’ll be impressed,” I brag a little as I put everything away.

    "I don't think so; it isn't full metal after all." Master lets out a hearty laugh. Stone kin and their metal. Apparently stereotypes are the same across both worlds. I wonder if I ever meet an elf, will it be in the forest?

    "I'll do my best to impress master then," I say in an over-exaggerated manner. Gathering up the twenty-three metal plates, I say goodnight to master. "See you later, master. Remember, when I get back, we'll have another forging marathon."

    “Gods help me,” master shakes his head as he waves goodbye to me.

    Walking home, I can’t help but think about what the next few months have in store for me.

    **********

    5,200 words.

    Sorry for the later release. I intended to have this out sooner, but the internet in my area went down, and I couldn't send the chapter through Grammarly until it was back up.

    The next chapter will be a small time skip but nothing major. I can't exactly write multiple chapters of Aaliyah standing next to a forge all day.

    Tell me what you think below, and as always, stay safe.


    Master Pacore the Deathless’ Point of View:

    "This is revolting," I remark as I kick my boot through the charred remains of the field. "Did your nobles not think about the people they left behind in the city?" I turn and ask General Pitz, who's silently standing behind me, also looking over the fields of ruined crops.

    Judging by her face, she also doesn't agree with these scorched earth tactics.

    My spies told me the city was rushing to harvest everything they could, but I never imagined they would burn everything they couldn't harvest in time. Winter has just passed, and everyone's food stores should be low. If we wait here, Drey will fall to starvation in a few short months, without us lifting a finger.

    I glance at the city in the distance, its beauty tainted by the plundered and scorched earth around it. Drey's walls are better maintained than Teeburn's were, but my scouts have already sent word back on several weak points they noticed. The wall has been maintained to keep the beasts from the forest out, not an army.

    Even more disappointing are the siege weapons they’ve erected on top of the walls. Most, if not all, of the trebuchets and catapults, look weathered beyond use. The few Ballista's they have were clearly built in the last week and obviously haven't been appropriately tested.

    It's hard to pick out individuals on the wall from this distance, but they're too few moving bodies, indicating a skeleton guard holding the city.

    “I thought my spies were underestimating Drey in their reports, but now that I have my eyes on it, I can only say they were generous," I smirk at my magically restrained companion.

    "It will still take you longer to take the city than it did, Teeburn," is the only response I get.

    I let out a hearty laugh, "that's true. And even once I have the city, it will take a lot of work to get everything organized for us to move on to the next one."

    “Do you believe you have enough supplies to do that?” I know General Pitz is trying to extract as much information from me as she can, but other than my apprentices I left behind to hold Teeburn, she’s the only person who can stand my presence without crumbling. It won’t be a problem if I give her a few snippets of information, even if she’s eventually ransomed back to Olebert.

    “It will be hard,” I tell her. “Food is already a problem for my people.” General Pitz smiles, thinking I’ve just admitted my weakness. “I’ll need to have all these fields replanted as soon as possible.”

    The general frowns when she notices how calm I am. She underestimates my and my people's resolve to survive. Every one of our soldiers knows what's at stake; each one of them would gladly pick up a hoe and start farming if they had to. It won't be needed thanks to our superior planning, but they would if they had to.

    As soon as I saw Drey in the distance, I instantly sent word back to the fort, giving them the go-ahead to start marching our farmers in this direction. Every farmer, fieldhand, and overseer, along with their families who the water dragon displaced, are headed in this direction to start farming immediately.

    The general believes we will have a hard time controlling so many cities through military might alone, and she would be correct if that were under normal circumstances.

    This corner of Olebert has long fallen to the wayside. We will bring such business to these cities, the people will sing Scholl's praise until they're blue in the face.

    Of course, knowing everyone is on their way here, we can’t wait out the city. “I’ll see Drey fall to me before sunset tomorrow,” I boldly proclaim, with only General Pitz to hear me.

    General Pitz wisely doesn’t comment, knowing any rebuttal she makes will only stroke the flames of war.

    "It's almost time; let's head back to camp," I motion for the general to walk next to me.

    With all the sealing bracelets on her, the general moves at a slime pace, but I don't mind. We eventually make our way back to our camp, where everyone is preparing for battle. I brought only a fraction of my troops so we could move faster, but seeing our enemy's defenses, I could've made do with half of my forces.

    “Master Pacore, Master Pacore,” one of my communication mages runs up to me.

    "Yes?" I ask in a low tone, projecting my status. When you're as strong as me, you can't just smile at a common soldier; it makes them think something is wrong.

    “Reports back from the other side of the city!” The communication mage salutes me.

    “And?” I stick to my one-word questions; they're usually the best options.

    "All of the cities gates are closed and barricaded. They appear to have most of their forces stationed on the walls in front of us, but they do have scouts watching the rest of the perimeter," he reports.

    “Anything else?”

    “Sir! We managed to detain four last-minute carts that we think tried to flee the city as we arrived.”

    “Anything of note?”

    “Nothing much, sir. Three of the carts had valuables, so we secured them in case they were local nobility trying to escape.”

    “And the fourth?” If he didn’t include it with the other three, there must have been something suspicious about it.

    "The fourth was a large cart drawn by four Silver Bivol. The merchant stopped when we flagged him down; the only thing is…" The communication mage pauses.

    "Spit it out, boy!"

    The communication mage straightens his back. "Sir, other than the merchant and his two bodyguards, the cart was empty."

    "Oh?" My eyebrow raises curiously. "Did you search the cart thoroughly?"

    “Indeed, Master Pacore. The cart was scoured inside and out, but we found no hidden messages or goods of any kind."

    “Curious, what did it appear he was hauling?” I grill my suburbanite; they should’ve at least checked that much.

    “All we found was small chunks of rock and some empty crates. It looks like the merchant was hauling some sort of ore.”

    “How much money was he carrying?” I ask.

    "Not much, sir. The merchant barely had a gold coin to his name; the bivol and cart were the most valuable things he had." The mage freezes for a moment and casts a quick receiving spell. "Word form the far unit, sir. They’re wondering what you want them to do with the people they captured.”

    I stroke my beard, thinking. It sounds like the merchant they captured is one of Silver Herds people. They’re the largest merchant organization around; it would be useful to be on their good side. “Escort the three suspected nobles over to our camp. Tell the unit to let the merchant go peacefully. Hopefully, word will spread on our generosity." I smile and chuckle while the communication mage takes a step back. This is why I like talking to General Pitz; she doesn't cower when I make a joke. She gets mad.

    “I’ll get right on that, Master Pacore,” the communication mage salutes me, waiting for my signal that he can leave.

    "Dismissed," I say once again, using my low-tone of voice. The mage scampers off like I'm about to chase him down.

    I should've brought Tabitha with me; she could've been my go-between for all these commands. Tabitha might not follow me stat build wise, but she's still the best of my current students, maybe one of my best of all times.

    Sighing, I can't help but remember how old I am and how many faces I can no longer put names to.

    In my earlier years, I only took on students who emulated my path. Many became strong shields for Scholl, but none were able to replicate my success.

    "Hey, old man, wake up!" General Pitz's voice pulls me out of my thoughts.

    I turn to her, “do you need to use the chamber pot again?”

    The general's cheeks turn red as she motions to my side. I look over to see one of my platoon commanders is standing near me, scowling at my captive for her disrespect. Huh, I didn't even notice him approach me. Was I that caught up in the past?

    It doesn't help that I no longer feel danger as I once did. It takes a special breed of person to harm me. If ever a day should come that I do die in battle or by the hand of an assassin, I hope my stats allow me to survive long enough to offer them a proper congratulations.

    I move my head from side to side to loosen up my tendons while I shake those thoughts from my head. I'm not dying today or any day until my homeland is free from that blasted dragon. "What is it, commander?"

    The fully armored commander stops eyeing General Pitz and salutes me with gusto. "Master Pacore, our camp is set, and the men are ready to form ranks, on your command!"

    That's the good thing about traveling in smaller numbers, organization is much easier with fewer people. "Good, spread the word that we're going with our double shield strategy again. But this time, inform the mages they're only to target the siege weapons."

    “Sir?" The commander is confused by my orders. The quickest way to make a city surrender is to kill as many of its defenders as quickly as possible, reducing their morale.

    I guess I should explain, so he can adequately inform everyone. "Commander, our goal isn't to sack this city and move on. We're to occupy Drey once they surrender. I don't know about you, but I don't wish to defend broken walls or worry about angry civilians if Olebert decides to become proactive and attack us."

    “I understand, Master Pacore. I’ll see that every person shall know of your orders.” I dismiss the man with a nod.

    "You plan to take the city without attacking it for real," General Pitz gives me a look that says she doesn't think my strategy will work.

    “If there were real soldiers up on that wall, I’d have to attack, but those aren’t soldiers,” I grin and point out the frantic people up on the ramparts. “Those are city guards and conscripted men, forced to defend their city. Watch and see how they hold up against a true fighting force.”

    General Pitz grits her teeth in frustration, probably imagining herself leading the defense. I’m almost tempted to let her go so she can help them make things more sporting, but I don’t have time for games.

    Our signal whistles blare as my men start forming their ranks.

    “You,” I call out to a random soldier running past me.

    The young man skids to a stop and salutes when he sees who I am. “Master Pacore, sir!”

    “I have a special job for you,” I tell him. “Take the captured general to my tent and watch over her until I return.”

    The young man takes one look at General Pitz and starts shaking under her intense glare. “Master Pacore, I don’t think someone like me should,” he stammers out.

    I cut him off with a wave of my hand. “Her abilities are sealed so tightly she can’t walk a mile without becoming winded. A man at your level should have no fear of her as she is now,” I reassure the boy.

    “I’ll rip your throat out with my teeth,” General Pitz snarls at the young soldier. The poor man takes a fearful step back from the defenseless general.

    "Really?" I turn to her. I can't fault her for trying to cause me trouble any way she can. I guess I'll need to resort to the forceful approach.

    “Are you disobeying my orders, soldier?!” I raise my voice and exert some of my pressure. A few soldiers nearby stop what they’re doing when they hear me.

    “Of course not, Master Pacore,” the soldier lowers his head in submission.

    "Good. Now get the general to my tent, and make sure nothing happens to her, or you'll have me to worry about instead of her."

    “Right away, Master Pacore,” The young soldier almost sweeps the general off her feet; he's fleeing so quickly.

    Time to get ready!

    My hand instinctually travels down to the sword at my hip, as I start rolling my shoulders. Adjusting invisible armor is a pain but not as bad as having it charged. I’ve managed to learn how to feel mana over the years but like most, controlling it is beyond me. Every morning, select mages visit me and top off all my gear with their mana.

    My armor, sword, and other gear were all specially made for people like me who can’t manipulate mana. Unless I’m in a battle, my magic items can function for three days straight. Of course, in a major battle like the siege on Fort North Ridge and my subsequent fight with the general, my armor’s charge dropped to 35%. My armor isn’t useless when it’s not charged, but I run the risk of the enchantments being damaged if I fight when it isn’t. And my gear is not cheap to replace.

    Magic stones capable of keeping a magic item running for days on end are considered national treasures. You can remove a magic gem from a broken magic tool if designed properly, but the gem will never be the same. Each time a magic gem is removed and placed in a new magic item, it becomes weaker until one day it shatters.

    I know this all too well because this is my third set of armor. Back in the days, I served under the previous king and was presented with this armor; the magic gem could hold eight days' worth of mana. After the first time it was severely damaged and replaced, the magic gem could only hold six days' worth of mana. The last time I broke my armor was years ago, back when Scholl was much more active in our campaigns, and after that, my new armor could only hold three days' worth of magic.

    It's hard to guess if the magic gem inside my armor will last another transfer, but that's a problem for whoever receives my armor after I'm dead. I may be old, but my skills have never been stronger, and I don't see my armor failing me anytime soon. Especially not here in this battle.

    Once I make my final adjustments, I find the nearest communication mage and have them spread the signal to form ranks, officially starting our siege on Drey.

    I activate the magic tool that shields me from sight and start walking down the center of my troops. Anyone who's fought me before would know my formation, but this formation is the most effective against new foes.

    I picked up this tactic fighting the warlords of the west. Their soldiers were always zealots worshiping battle, even more so than myself, and it took an extreme show of force to demoralize them.

    As the guards upon the wall prepare their few siege weapons and spells, I remember the first time I implemented this strategy.

    If I remember correctly, it was while we were sieging a warlord castle in the summer. The battle had already gone on for four days straight without our opponents showing any signs of forfeiting their hold on the keep when my crazy idea came to fruition.

    Since then, my plan has always left the same impression on my opponents.

    My men's shields go up as we march into Drey's firing range. I thought they would start firing immediately in a disorganized fashion, but instead, they hold until more of my soldiers are in their range. At least they aren't complete fools.

    But unlike the lengthy stare down we had with General Pitz, Drey’s defenders release their first waves of attacks as soon as they think they have enough people in their targeted area.

    Defender of All

    I activate my favorite tier 5 skill.

    As if everything was aimed at me from the beginning, every spell, bolt, boulder, arrow, everything curves in the air and diverts to where I’m standing.

    The world becomes silent as I activate my many defensive skills.

    The first to hit are the spells. Drey mustn't have many remaining mages because only two siege class spells are launched at me, and both are sub-par. I don't even count the lower-tiered spells that wash over me like a light rain. Forcing all the spells to converge on my location causes many of them to collide with one another. When spells collide, they reduce their overall strength by a good margin.

    The spells aren't able to hurt me, but they still kick up a large dust cloud, where two of my lesser-known skills come into play. I focus on my Danger Sense skill, predicting where the large boulders and bolts will land. It gets harder to predict their trajectory when skills boost projectiles; however, sadly, Drey doesn't seem to have anyone competent in working their siege weapons.

    Activating my Dancing skill, I smoothly dodge each boulder and bolt as it lands. Few know about my love of dancing, but I recommend it to each of my students to improve their footwork.

    A few competent archers, around level 50, tag my armor with their arrows, but that's all.

    When the dust starts to settle, and I make my presence known, my army cheers, further demoralizing Drey's guardians. It's easy to spot the panic in our opponents' ranks after seeing me appear unscathed from their attacks. And just as I predicted, two of their catapults and one of their ballistas have broken after their first volley.

    I should show them what a real attack looks like just to educate them. “Fire!” I yell using Loud Voice.

    “Fire!”

    “Fire!”

    “Fire!”

    My commanders echo my orders, and my mage battalions unleash utter destruction on their pathetic siege weapons.

    After a few continuous volleys from us, nothing remains on the ramparts other than their soldiers. They tried to protect the siege weapons with shielding spells, but once a few of our spells soared near the undisciplined mages, they dropped their magic to prioritize their own self-preservation.

    Am I really going to take this city as easily as I did Teeburn?

    Now that it's relatively safe, I summon over three communication mages from either side of me. "Send word out to the mage battalions; I want them to continue peppering the walls and the city with loud and flashy spells that do little damage. Then I want you three to make my voice loud enough the whole city can hear me."

    “Sir!” They all acknowledge my orders and quickly get to work.

    I thought I would need to assault the city for a whole day before I could break them, but judging how many fewer people I see upon the ramparts, many must be deserting their stations.

    I take note of a few brave men and women still trying to hold the walls. Our mages switch tactics like I ordered them to and start launching loud and flashy spells. Most spells like that only do damage with their blast waves, so they shouldn't damage the walls or the city much. But they will be loud and cause chaos amongst the people.

    “Master Pacore,” One of the mages addresses me. “We’re ready to broadcast your voice to the entire city.”

    I feel their mana wrap around me and solidify into their combined spell.

    "City of Drey, I am Master Pacore the Deathless, and your city will surrender to Scholl's rule!" I can hear my voice echoing behind the city's walls. If they had any decent mages left in the city, they could've quickly terminated my broadcast.

    “I demand council with your city’s lord to discuss your immediate surrender. We are not here seeking wealth or to slaughter innocent civilians. Our bombardment will end as soon as your lord makes an appearance on the walls or the gates are opened. Make haste; I'd rather not burn down half the city."

    I signal the three mages to stop transmitting.

    Now it's only a matter of time before the city is ours. If the lord doesn't come to speak with me, he'll have a riot on his hands.

    I wish my apprentices were here to bet with me how long it will take. I'd try asking the general for her opinion, but I doubt she'd feel like guessing how quickly she thinks one of her cities will fall.

    **********

    As the general of this army and as the strongest person here, it's my job to stand and watch how everything plays out. If I were a lesser man, I'd be back in my tent waiting for a response from Drey, but that's not me. I stand proudly in front of my soldiers, waiting for a response.

    …….

    Not that standing here for two hours isn't the most boring thing ever. In the beginning, I was at least occupied by the occasional arrow shot at me, but those stopped after the first dozen bounced harmlessly off my invisible armor.

    I'm about to start considering sitting down at least, when I see someone waving one of Drey's flags, trying to signal me from the wall. I've already given out orders to stop our barrage if such a thing should occur, so it doesn't take long for our mage battalions to stop firing. My men are under orders to retaliate heavily if this is a trap, but the battlefield goes silent until then.

    The man waving Drey’s flag looks only to be in his thirties, practically a child in my eyes. With everything quiet, I can use my skills to communicate without needing a mage. "I thought I demanded the city's lord to make an appearance; who are you?"

    Even looking up at this distance, I can see the young man's face is pale and covered in sweat. "The city's lord is out on business to the neighboring city of Blaiton. I was left in charge in his absence," he shouts back down to me.

    I'm honestly, 100%, shocked! It takes me a whole minute to come to grips with what this young man just told me. The city lord had the gall to flee his own city! If such a thing happened in Scholl, he'd be executed in front of his people.

    I have to bite back the anger rising in my throat. How could this be acceptable? Now I need to convince a scared child to open the door to his house. “Then does that mean you represent the city?”

    “It does,” he answers in a quivering voice.

    "Fine, then open your gates, and we'll stop our attack."

    “How do I know you won’t kill everyone once I do so?!” At least the lad has a head on his shoulders.

    “I’m willing to enter by myself and sign a contract of surrender with you if I must.”

    The young man takes a while to think over his options. More than once, I see him look over my experienced soldiers with a look of utter dread. Poor lad, even I feel bad for him. It isn't his job to make these kinds of decisions. I'm honestly scared to see the state of the city if this is what I have to deal with

    "I'll allow you into the city to discuss the details," the boy eventually agrees to meet me face to face. One of the soldiers next to him whispers in his ear. "And have your army move back, as well," he hastily adds.

    “I agree to your terms,” I call out. Signaling my nearby commanders with had gestures, my army retreats while maintaining its formation.

    I make my way up to Drey's main gate with a prideful strut and wait for them to open the small metal door next to it that leads into the walls. The door opens as soon as I'm a few feet away from it, and five heavily armored and armed guards burst out to secure the area. They're all in the level 50's range, meaning they’re the strongest soldiers here.

    I'm escorted through a small tunnel and up the many stairs leading to the city's ramparts without a word from my escorts. You can smell the old brickwork and feel the dampness in the air as we make our way to our destination. I'm not sure if that's from their winter just finishing or if these are signs the wall isn't properly being taken care of.

    When I finally taste fresh air again, I'm standing on the ramparts, able to see my men in formation in the distance as well as finally laying eyes on Drey. The city looks abandoned; everything is boarded up, and not a soul is walking the streets. Drey doesn't appear to be in as bad a situation as Teeburn, but I can't see how much of the city has been abandoned from here.

    I'm escorted over to a spot nearby with a small field desk. The young man who negotiated with me is sitting behind the desk, and I can get a better look at him now. Up close, he looks even younger; possibly he's only in his late 20's, he's dressed as an aid to a noble would be. His black hair is in disarray, and his panicked expression only grows when he sees me approaching.

    I boldly stroll over to the small desk and sit across from the young man like the guards surrounding us don't bother me in the slightest. He looks like he wants to say something, but I'll be taking the lead in our discussion. "It is polite for both parties to announce themselves in these situations. I am Master Pacore the Deathless, one of the strongest people in Scholl; who are you?"

    The young man swallows a lump in his throat, and most of the guards watching us flinch at my introduction.

    “I’m Jason Hailes, aid to the city lord and current highest official in the city."

    I can't help but snort, causing young Jason to flinch back. He's not even the head aid to the city lord, or he would've introduced himself as such. “Do you know how this works?” I ask him.

    "Yes," he doesn't answer confidently. "The two of us discuss the terms of surrender for the city. I think we should first talk about what will be the city's new tax laws under your rule."

    What is he doing?

    "Then we can talk about citizens' rights," Jason continues despite the frown on my face.

    Is he trying to piss me off?

    "Securing enough food for everyone is also an important matter," he nervously continues.

    No, I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to stall for time. It was probably the last order given to him by the city lord.

    "Enough!" I interrupt his ramblings. All the guards level their various weapons at me. "I did not come here to negotiate daily affairs; I came here to sign a binding contract stating I won't kill everyone in the city. This city will be under Scholl's control from this day forward. We'll decide how we wish to run the city."

    "You can't just force us like this. You're in our custody now!" Young Jason tries to put on a brave front; he might be of some use in the future.

    I start off chuckling before I break into a hearty laugh. "I hate to tell you this kid, but not even if all the men on this wall got together to kill me, I wouldn't even receive a single scratch. I could kill all of you myself and take the city single-handedly if I was inclined to. The only reason I came up here to talk was to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power."

    The guards with their weapons drawn step back, and I noticed a few others listening in take-off in fear.

    “I can’t just give you the city,” Jason grits through his teeth.

    "You can and you will," I tell him in a firm tone. "You said it yourself; you're the highest authority in Drey at the moment. That means you're responsible for the lives of everyone in the city. I can spend the next day destroying my way into the city and slaughtering all the guards, or you can surrender and be guaranteed safety."

    "I won't be executed?" Young Jason asks me.

    “No executions,” I reassure him. “In fact, you’ll be promoted. I need someone who knows the city and its surroundings like you do. And I can promise you; you'll never be left in a situation like this again."

    “Truly?” Jason asks in disbelief.

    I nod my head. "Draft up what I tell you to, and we can both sign it."

    A smile crosses my face as I walk Jason through our contract. He's a trained aid, so he quickly picks up how he's supposed to form the document so I can't go back on my promises. He'll be invaluable in controlling the city.

    After we sign at the bottom, Drey is officially under Scholl’s control.

    **********

    I stand on the ramparts watching the setting sun.

    My men have already confiscated the guard's weapons and long since sent them home, taking their place on the walls. We have regular patrols moving throughout the city, but opposition is few and far between.

    “I should’ve said I would take the city before nightfall,” I joke to my companion.

    General Pitz is still steaming after telling her how quickly the city fell and my negotiations with Jason. “A bunch of cowards, all of them,” the general spits on the ground.

    "Hey, don't spit on my new wall." The look the General gives me could kill a lesser man. I think I've teased her enough for one day, so I'll give her a bit of good news. "If it makes you feel any better, everyone who escaped Drey is mounting a proper defense in Blaiton. Apparently, someone believes they can defeat me if they have enough time to prepare." I laugh to myself.

    “You’ll get the fight you’re looking for,” General Pitz says in a low tone.

    I don't answer her, but I hope she is right.

    These last two wins feel hollow after my fight with the general. I crave a real challenge, real battle, a chance that I might die, no matter how small that might be.

    But first, I'll need to get this city in order before the refugees start showing up. I sent word to the King asking for skilled leaders to run the cities I conquer, but I don't know who was sent.

    At this rate, it will be at least a month before I can march on Blaiton. Let's hope they don't disappoint me for the third time after I'm graciously giving them so much time to prepare.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,200 words.

    What, a chapter in the afternoon! What is this?

    Well, it's still technically late, but I'll take small wins as they come. I think I'm getting a decent writing schedule going, but I don't want to jinx it too early. People do say it takes two months to form a proper habit and all that.

    Again, I'm still aiming for a Sunday release, and if I stick to my new daily schedule, everything should go well.

    Please tell me what you think of the chapter below, and as always, stay safe.


    ?????????? Point of View:

    “When will they be here!? We’ve been sitting here for two days!”

    “We should’ve moved closer to the village.”

    "Quiet, all of you! I paid you, so you do what I say! Now shut up, or I'll cut your tongs out myself!" I snarl at the two filthy bandits, releasing a small part of my killing intent to establish my authority.

    The two bandits next to me cringe back in fear.

    It's annoying I have to deal with such rabble. Once this job is done, I'll take great pleasure in silencing each of them.

    I usually only work with my three men, but this job is different. Mr. Grey hired us to kill someone under the protection of a Number. The average person doesn't know of their existence, but people in our field are painfully aware of the private high-leveled soldiers the Silver Herd company employs to deal with its problems.

    Silver Herd might not be considered one of the major trading companies yet, but they’ve adopted the practice of recruiting ‘problem solvers’ since their conception.

    The Numbers, as they're called, are sent out to take care of the darker sides of Silver Herds business. We're on the outskirts of Olebert, and there aren't many who do what we do. Killing, kidnapping, extortion, spying, we do all of it; only the Numbers are said to do it better.

    I don't know why a Number is escorting a nameless merchant I've never heard of, out here in the middle of nowhere no less, but that doesn't matter. We're not paid to ask questions; we do our job as ordered and nothing more.

    And because of the difficulty of this job, I had to bring in some fodder.

    The bandits don't know who they'll be charging at, and that's how I'm going to keep it. All of them are meant to die, so long as they buy us enough time to complete our mission.

    The Number may be the most challenging aspect of the job, but he's not our target. We were promised a bonus if we could kill the Number; however, our primary goal is to kill the merchant known as Kervin. But unless the Number severely falls under my expectations, we plan to kill the merchant and flee while the Number murders all the idiots we brought along with us. If any of them survive, we'll catch them at the meet-up point and finish off the remainders.

    I have no intention of dealing with the Number unless I absolutely have to.

    Mr. Grey informed me I should be close to his level, but that means little in our line of business. A young man at level 10 can easily stab and kill someone three times his level if he has the necessary skills. Ours is a job of surprise; whichever side can surprise the other the most usually wins.

    That's why we're three days away from the village instead of waiting for them by the forest's entrance. If, for some reason, Mr. Grey is wrong and the Number knows about the contract on the merchant, switching up our plans will be the best strategy.

    I let out a soft sigh so quiet the bandits don’t notice. Facing off against someone who knows your usual plays are the worst.

    The bandit closest to me swats the back of his neck. “Damn bugs! Why did we have to set up so far into the woods?!”

    Moving forward, my arm stretched out, I resist the urge to strangle the smelly man. Thinking about how easy it would be to kill him, I only pause my advance when I hear something on the wind.

    The bandit levels his spear at me to defend himself, but my senses are trained elsewhere. In the distance, I hear the mating cry of a forest finch; only forest finches don’t start mating until mid-summer. That’s the signal the cart was spotted!

    I turn my attention back to the bandit cowering in front of me. I make a fist and point two fingers down the road. The bandit and his friend’s eyes widen in understanding and move to take their places.

    I'm sure my other associates detected the signal and are moving the other bandits into position as well. We'll attack the cart from each side with a four-prong attack.

    After signaling us, Dennis will have his group let the cart pass and ambush them from the rear. Jake will attack their left flank while Oren moves in from the right. I’ll take the front, and they won’t know what hit them.

    We’ll let the bandits charge forward and wait for the perfect chance to kill the merchant. Then we’ll make our escape into the woods.

    The forest is silent as the sound of a cart jostling down the forest path grows louder. Any moment now, we should be able to see it.

    As soon as the cart comes into view, I move to signal the bandit's attack, but freeze upon seeing the cart is empty! The reigns controlling the four silver bivol are loosely tied to the cart, and the pack animals are steadily marching forward on their own. In the bed of the cart, there are three crates next to one another but nothing else.

    Damn, did they abandon the cart and cut through the forest!? It would be nearly impossible for us to find their tracks and catch up to them.

    First, we need to inspect the cart for any clues.

    I signal for the confused bandits to move in. My men and I will hang back, just in case they booby-trapped it.

    Seven of the nine bandits move from their hiding spots and slowly approach the cart. Where are the two that were with Dennis?

    My instincts tell me something is wrong, but I don't have time to call back the bandits before they reach the cart.

    Two of the crates' tops fly off, and two men in hide armor burst out wielding bucklers and swords. With the viciousness of cornered animals, the two bodyguards swing their swords, instantly killing the four closest bandits.

    Shit, they had their own ambush planned for us! That means!

    The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I roll to the side, just as a dagger slices the air where my neck was a moment ago.

    “Good instincts,” I hear as I roll and spring to my feet, drawing my short sword.

    I stare down at the man who materialized next to me without making a sound. What stands out the most to me is how calm and happy he is to see me. He has a sadistic grin plastered across his face, enjoying the fact I survived his first strike.

    Damn the gods! With my luck, I got one of the crazier Numbers. He must have circled around us. I can only assume he's already killed Dennis because I don't see the bandits that were supposed to be with him. Did the Number know our signal, or did he wait for Dennis to signal us, kill him, then circle around to the front, all in under three minutes?

    I hear the screams of the bandits we hired, but I don't take my eyes off the Number in front of me. The rest of my team will have to take care of the rest while I stall this monster. They know we need to focus on killing the merchant. If the Number is with me and the other two guards were hidden inside the crates, it stands to reason the merchant is hiding inside the third one.

    "I'm curious, how much did Grey pay you? Not enough, I suppose, if you only brought this riffraff with you." The Number taunts me.

    He might be fishing for information, so I keep my face neutral.

    "Silence, huh? You're no fun. I'm sure she would banter in this situation," the Number throws one of his daggers at me. I move my head to the left and hear the thunk of the blade hitting the tree behind me.

    The Number rushes me, drawing another dagger to replace the one he just threw. I parry the dagger in his right hand with my short sword and use my free hand to grab his left forearm, stopping him from stabbing me with his blade.

    I try to knee him, but he raises his leg to block me. Each of us pushes against the other, testing to see who is stronger. I have more Strength, but he has a better footing.

    While we're locked together, I take a split second to glance at the battle around the cart. All the bandits lie dead already, with Jake and Oren squaring off with the two bodyguards. They've ditched their bows for their swords. The remaining crate looks like a pincushion, meaning we only need to confirm the body inside before we can retreat.

    I need to gain some distance from the Number.

    I stop pushing back, letting the Number push me over. As we fall, locked together, I bring my foot up to his armored chest and push with all my might as soon as I hit the ground. The Number is launched over my head, through the air, backflipping before landing on his feet.

    I also scramble to my feet before he can catch me with my guard down.

    "You're decent, but not very original," the Number sheathes the dagger in his right hand and pulls out a new one. The new dagger has a sheen on the blade's edge, poisoned. "You haven't fought that many assassins close to your level, have you? It shows in how you approached your ambush. If I weren't with them, 99 out of 100 times, you would've easily killed everyone, but I know all your plays. When you're facing someone you can't beat in a fair fight; you need to be extra creative. I once watched a girl blow herself up to kill all her attackers. That's creativity!"

    This man is pissing me off! And who is he comparing me to?

    This time I take the initiative to attack the Number. I slice at his right side, and as expected, he blocks with his poisoned dagger, but he isn't the only one with a knife. In one fluid motion, I draw my own knife and slice at his face.

    The Number takes a step back, narrowly avoiding me nicking his eye. His cheek starts to bleed, but he ignores the wound. Instead, the Number tries to stab me with his non-poised dagger after I missed my mark.

    I step back with my left foot and bring my dagger in close for defense. Our blades meet again, and I can feel his superior weapon digging into mine. Unlike him, I don't have a wealthy backer throwing money into my equipment. My short sword is my best weapon, but I can't risk getting cut by his poisoned dagger.

    We momentarily break off from one another to catch our breaths. I'm breathing more heavily than the Number, and that isn't a good sign.

    Come on, Jake, Oren, I need the two of you to hurry up!

    The Number recovers faster than me, and I'm forced to retreat as he advances on me. The longer we exchange attacks, the more the Number seems to be enjoying himself. His strikes are sloppier, but they're coming at me faster and are much more difficult to predict.

    He dances around a tree and rushes at me with both of his daggers raised like a snarling farkas. Because I was moving backwards, my stance has crumbled. I can't block both of his strikes, so I use my short sword and prioritize the dagger in his right hand.

    When our blades meet, the Number steps forward and slices at the elbow joint, where there is a gap in my armor. He doesn't hit anywhere near anything vital, but I can feel the blood start to leak in between my skin and armor.

    The Number backs off after his successful strike and gives me a predatory grin. "And it's my win."

    “This isn’t over yet!” I break my silence, getting back into my stance.

    "Oh, but it is," the Number holds up the dagger in his left hand. The sheen on the dagger is unmistakable.

    “But when?”

    His smile says it all. He must have switched his daggers when he moved around the tree.

    I don't know what kind of poison he's using, but it doesn't matter at this point. Looking at Jake and Oren, I see they're still being held back by the guards. Damn, Grey told us the other two wouldn't be a problem. I guess he was wrong about everything.

    "Jake, Oren, retreat!" I shout. Both of them don't even spare me a glance as they follow my orders and dash into the forest in opposite directions.

    I grimace as my arm starts to feel like it's freezing over. Gritting my teeth, I turn back to the Number who's still smiling at me. I need to hold him off until the two of them can get far enough away.

    I ready myself, but the freezing sensation is steadily spreading throughout my body.

    "Painful, isn't it?" The Number taunts me again. "I was worried defeating you was going to be more difficult, so I used one of my best poisons. I call it Winter's Bite, and It's a rare type of ice poison. It mixes in with your bloodstream and freezes everything it comes in contact with. Your very blood turns into ice crystals, which shred your body from the inside out. Your organs will slowly fail as your body experiences freezing pain.”

    “Sick, bastard,” I mutter through chattering teeth.

    "I wonder if your comrades will have the same resolution as you?" The Number turns away from me, intending to hunt down Jake and Oren.

    Despite the overwhelming pain and cold I'm feeling, I force myself forward. One strike is all I need to take this bastard with me!

    Sadly, as soon as I move to stab the Number, he dodges me. He was planning on my suicide charge.

    I can't react with my dulled senses as he stabs one of his daggers into my side and the other into my shoulder. Dropping to the ground, my body feels too cold to move.

    The Number ignores me again and shouts to his companions. "This one is finished. Be on the alert as I hunt down the other two. Oh yeah, you can come out now, Kervin."

    It's hard to move my head as everything goes cold, but I manage to see our target crawl out from underneath the cart. So, he was hiding near the cart's axels. The third crate was another decoy. Everything was a total loss on our part.

    After the Number sees that his client is ok, he takes off into the woods, hunting down my friends.

    I pray that I don't see them on the other side. The last thing I think about is, who was the Number comparing me to, another foe? Or was it someone strong who earned his respect?

    **********

    Aaliyah’s Point of View:

    “What do you think, master?” I show off my quenched sword and set it down next to my knife.

    “You changed the deigned of your sword,” master quickly spots the differences in my work.

    “I liked my old design, but it didn't have the power I needed. I thought about making another katana, only this time making it three times as thick, but that seemed counter intuitive. So, this time I decided to make a scimitar. It will be bigger, heavier, and just as deadly as my katana," I explain to master.

    “Is that wise? You’ll have to get used to a new type of sword.”

    “I’ll just treat it as a new challenge,” I reassure him. “Besides, it won’t be my main weapon anyways. I’m sure the axe and hammer I make will be a much better fit for me.”

    Master hums in agreement.

    As fun as it is talking to master, I'm burning precious daylight. I spent the first half of the day working on the metal; now, I need to make the handles for my weapons and sharpen them.

    The grips don’t matter that much right now because I plan to change them in the future anyways. Unlike my katana, channeling magic into my new weapons won't do anything. I'll need suitable materials for channeling magic when I finally enchant my gear, but I'll stick with good old farkas bones until then.

    The bones make exceptional grips after you carve a texture onto them. It also helps that master still has quite a few bones leftover from before the chameleon spiders took over the woods.

    That's another thing I'll need to keep an eye out for. Now that everything is returning to the forest, the farkas should start showing up again, along with small bands of goblins. And unlike chameleon spiders, goblins and farkas aren't scared of rushing into the village to grab their prey. Though I doubt either of those beasts could do much to me anymore. I wouldn't even need any weapons to kill a lesser goblin; my bare hands would be more than enough.

    I think over how much everything has changed as I pick out the bones I need and cut them into shape. I'm not the only one who's stronger. The whole village has grown over the last year. If we had to redo the year again as we are now, the goblin horde would barely be considered a threat.

    Thanks to all our struggles, I truly believe next year will be the best year in Spotted Creek's history.

    Hell, having Sandra back basically guarantees the village’s success.

    Last night dad told us how Sandra used earth magic to turn the soil of the new fields. Apparently, Markus and Ezekiel were so surprised by her magic they nearly fainted. Thanks to Sandra, the prep time to get the fields ready for sowing has been cut down substantially. Once the wortel is harvested, Sandra just needs to cast her spell, and the next day the next crops can be planted.

    With magic, skills, and larger fields, the village is about to have more food than we know what to do with.

    Everyone deserves it, I think to myself, as I secure the bone handles to my knife and scimitar. I gather up all the tools I need and move over to a bench to sharpen and polish the blades.

    Falling into a light bout of Meditation, I don't notice the sun passing overhead as I complete my detailing work.

    "I think it's about time you head home," master reminds me, bringing me back to my senses.

    I look up at the sky and see the vivid reds of the sunset. Standing up and stretching out my limbs, I laugh. “Nothing like sharpening a sword to pass the time.”

    Master smiles in agreement. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

    “Of course, I still have a lot more to do.”

    “I thought so,” master yawns.

    “Don’t worry,” I tell him. “After I finish my axe and war hammer, I think I’ll take a few days off before I start on my armor.”

    "That's good; I thought you weren't going to stop until you burnt through your whole supply of kaglese," master jokes.

    “Now there’s an idea,” I playfully grin at master.

    “Goodnight, Aaliyah.”

    “Night, master,” I wave goodbye to master while grabbing my stuff and head home for the night.

    I look like I'm heading off to war, not home. I have dad's axe in my left hand, my new scimitar in my right, and my new dagger wrapped in a piece of leather sticking out of one of my pockets.

    The rest of the night flies by just like the last few days have been. Richard joins us for dinner, we laugh and talk about our days. I tell dad I don't need to borrow his extra axe anymore. Mom agreed to help me make sheaths for everything on my next day off, so long as I help her with Richard's wedding tassel.

    Same old, same old.

    **********

    The next day, I shoot out of my bed as soon as the sun’s first light shines through my window.

    Today is the day I make something new!

    While I change my clothes and tie up my hair, I contemplate the type of axe I'll try to make today. I've made axes before, but most of them have been woodsman axes for felling trees. This time I want to make a double-sided battle-axe for myself, a monstrosity of a weapon that could chop a man in half even if he's wearing armor.

    I thought about making a hammer ax hybrid but eventually discarded the idea. Sure, a hybrid weapon would serve more of a function, but changing battle tactics halfway through a fight is more challenging than you would think. It would be terrible if you swung the axe part of the weapon in the heat of the moment when you intended to use the hammer side.

    No, it's best to double down on your weapon of choice. A double-headed axe is perfect because you can switch sides if the blade gets dull or damaged in a fight.

    I might try making a hybrid version later at some point, but for now, I'm keeping my weapons separated.

    Kissing mother and father goodbye, I head off to Del’s clearing with my new scimitar in hand for defense. Is it wrong that I want a band of goblins to attack me so I can try it out?

    I also have my new knife strapped to my side like I used to keep my old one. Mom was able to help me adjust my old knife sheath last night with relative ease.

    “Morning, master!” I call out my usual greeting to Master Del as I enter his clearing.

    Master greets with a wave and a yawn. He must have known I would be here early because this time, master already has the forge going, fuel set aside, and all the materials I need set up on my workbench. Master has to have been up for at least two hours if he got all this ready for me.

    I want to thank him, but master cuts me off before I can try. "If you need me, I'll be on my bench sleeping."

    Knowing he doesn't want my thanks, I utter a 'thank you' in my heart and get to work.

    I have a lot to do before I can have my axe ready by the end of the day. First, I get the forge to the temperature I need it. Then I repeat the first few steps from yesterday, only with more metal. I used one kaglese ingot yesterday to make both my scimitar and dagger. Today, I'm using one and a half ingots of kaglese, along with the steel and mithril I'll be mixing in, to craft my battle-axe.

    Like the spears I made for the army, the entire battle-axe will be made of metal, handle and all. I could save some kaglese if I only forged the axe heads from metal, but I don't have access to the proper materials to make a sturdy handle that would hold up under my Strenght stat.

    The axe I'm making would be physically impossible back on Earth. I'm no historian, but I know I'm making an axe you would be more likely to find in a video game rather than in a museum. Real battle-axes only weighed around seven pounds; the behemoth I'm making will probably be over forty pounds and more suited to someone with my stats.

    Once have the first ingot properly heated, I move it over to the anvil and chop it in half. Then, I put all the steel and kaglese I'll be using into the crucible. There is so much in the crucible; I almost can't seal it.

    I place the heavy crucible into the forge and move over to my workbench to sketch out my design really quickly.


    I plan to make the finished product a lot nicer, but with this, I know which direction I'm going in. It's a good thing I have plenty of time to think over my design.

    Getting the metals to bond properly takes longer because of how much metal I'm working with this time. It takes a whole two hours before I'm able to remove the crucible from the forge. Usually, I would have to wait a lot longer for the liquid metal to cool, but thanks to mana quenching, I can speed up the process.

    I get the metal to cool down to a point where it's solid but still hot enough I can immediately start working it.

    Studying the lump of metal, I take note of its internal mana structure and plan which parts I'll use for the blades and which will be drawn out for the handle. There are a few micro fractures in the metal I'll need to take care of first, but I can see where everything will go.

    I start by taking care of the issues I spotted first before adding the mithril to finish off the alloy. Then, I start the long process of moving everything into its proper shape.

    What proceeds is a constant shifting of my metal from the forge to the anvil and back again. Kaglese is strong, light, and flexible in its pure state, but when you add steel and a touch of mithril into the equation, you get a strong earth attuned alloy. I can work the metal without my skills as long as I put most of my Strength into my plows; however, finishing the axe that way would take me much longer than just today.

    I'm thankful my skills and magic allow me to do in a day what blacksmiths back on Earth would take days to complete.

    Six hours, eight hours, at the ten-hour mark, I'm still working on a rough version of my axe. My arms feel like wet noodles, and I decide to take a quick break. Master taught me to respect my limits and to realize that you'll produce nothing but shoddy work if you push yourself too hard.

    Plopping down on the bench closest to master, I drain my waterskin.

    "I was wondering when you would take a break," master remarks, eyes closed, lying down.

    “I didn’t want to,” I grunt. “I only have a few more hours until the sun starts to go down.”

    "And is there some reason you can't finish your axe tomorrow?"

    "I thought you wanted me to finish so that you can have your days off?"

    "Don't try and use me as an excuse," master opens his eyes and looks at me. "You're the one rushing yourself. You won't gain extra experience if your work suffers from your impatience."

    Sage Del comes out now that master has gotten a bit of rest. I can joke, but I know he's right.

    “You plan on using these weapons in the deeper parts of the forest, yes? You should be treating each one like the arrow you made for the general.”

    I take a deep breath and let out a long sigh. “Your right,” I admit.

    “I usually am.”

    I snort at master's remark, and we both laugh. "Don't complain when I come early tomorrow," I tell him.

    “Wouldn’t dream of it.” Master closes his eyes again.

    I rest until my arms feel better and get back to work, slowing my pace, making sure everything is perfect as I progress through the rest of the day.

    **********

    “What day is it now?” Master asks as I walk up to him.

    “Six,” I inform him with a smile.

    “Gods,” master exclaims.

    Though I find master's antics funny, I have to agree with him. I’m quite tired myself.

    Yesterday, I managed to finish up my axe and got the metal ready for the war hammer today. I was hoping the easier day would prepare me for today, but I think my fatigue is compounding on itself. I slept like the dead last night to the point mom had to wake me up this morning.

    “You think you’ll finish today? Master questions me.

    “Honestly,” I let out a yawn. “Probably not.”

    "I expected as much. You want my help?"

    I'm tempted to take master's offer, but I need to be the one to make my weapons. Only I can see the metal's mana structure, and after spending so much time on this project already, I’ll be damned if I don’t finish it properly.

    “That’s ok,” I reluctantly shake my head. “I got this.”

    "Alright, let me know if you need anything."

    “Will do,” I promise.

    Master moves off to the side, giving me room to work. I already have a large ingot prepared from yesterday, so I just have to heat it back up. Placing the metal in the forge, I mentally prepare myself for what comes next.

    Crafting a war hammer is quite similar to making a battle-axe, with only a few differences, like the handle for the war hammer will be shorter. The handle I made for my axe measured three and a half feet, while the hammer I'm making will only be two and a half. The axe heads had to be drawn out for the blades, while the war hammer will be large chunks of metal on each end.

    My war hammer design also actually came from Earth, but not from video games or movies like my axe. No, I decided to shape my war hammer like a ball-peen hammer, much like the hammers we use in the forge.


    Image from: https://i2.wp.com/boingboing.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/ball_peen_hammer.jpg

    My reasoning is, though I'll mostly be using the flat side, I'm sure the rounded side will prove helpful in many situations. Also, I think my skills will transfer over easier if I'm using a hammer I'm more familiar with. Only this hammer will be much larger and heavier than the ones I'm used to.

    Both of the hammer's heads will be much larger, but I think it'll prove a good weapon. I considered a hammer with a spike on one end but figured if I'm using my hammer, then that means I'm using it for blunt force trauma. If I need to stick or cut something, my sword or axe would be a better choice.

    I see the metal ingot is almost at the temperature I need it, so I prepare the tongs. When I’m done with this fiery ingot, I’ll have myself a war hammer.

    Time to finish strong.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,000 words.

    I didn't post an update on Patron because I knew I would have this chapter out tonight, even if it were after midnight.

    I want to thank everyone for their great comments on the last chapter. The discussion everyone had on polearms was fun to read and gave me a lot to think about.

    As Aaliyah said in this chapter, I am definitely not a historian. I enjoy reading about blacksmithing and ancient weaponry, but I am by far no expert on the subjects. Please keep discussing things like that and message me if you find any blatant inaccuracies in my work.

    I hope you all enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.


    Reel/Four’s Point of View:

    “That’s the contents of her contract,” I finish explaining to Boss Giovanni.

    "That son of a bitch!" A loud thumping sound echoes through my communication device, most likely from Giovanni slamming his hands against his desk of throwing something. "Does that bastard think he can screw me!?"

    "Boss, calm down," I hear Marshall try to reel in Giovanni's anger. I can only imagine what the boss must be feeling right now. I would still be angry too, if I hadn't had the time to calm myself while moving into my magic tools transmission range.

    “I knew he was moving behind the scenes, trying to gain more power through Teeburn, but I didn’t imagine he would be this brazen!” The line goes silent as Giovanni simmers in his anger.

    "He probably took his chance because of Scholl's invasion. After they take the city, he'll be cut off from the main branch and have free reign to do as he pleases. Grey must have realized even if we found out about his contract with Aaliyah, we don’t have the time to do anything about it,” I give my honest opinion of the situation.

    I hear Giovanni sigh on the other end. "You're probably right, Four. Grey saw his opening, and he went for it, and with the terms of the contract, nothing short of killing the man will solve anything."

    “Should I dispatch more numbers?” Marshall asks Giovanni.

    “Aren’t most of them on assignment, making preparations for after Scholl takes Drey?” I listen in as Giovanni and Marshall discuss their options.

    “Two and Five are here in Blaiton, keeping an eye on the advance scouts Scholl sent to infiltrate the city; I suppose we could send one of them to help Four." Though Marshall made the suggestion, I can tell he's against the idea by the tone of his voice.

    I’m touched he’s willing to send me reinforcements even though it’s a bad idea.

    “Are they making any moves?” Giovanni asks, concerned.

    "They appear only to be gathering information, but one did try to infiltrate the premises posing as a laborer looking for work. Luckily, Two was already watching the individual and informed us about the spy before anything happened."

    “Did we manage to get any information out of him?” Giovanni asks Marshall.

    "No," Marshal's disappointed voice transmits through the communicator. "The person took some sort of poison when he was caught that rendered him permanently unconscious. I have him locked in the basement, but it's been four days since we captured him, and he hasn't so much as twitched."

    “Are you keeping him alive?”

    “I have people feeding him a nutritional paste. If Scholl takes the city, I figured we could earn some goodwill if we return their man alive."

    "Excellent thinking, Marshall," Giovanni praises his right-hand man. That's quite the plan; I would've killed the spy and be done with it.

    “Four,” Giovanni addresses me.

    “Yes, boss?”

    “Is there any danger to Aaliyah?”

    “No, she seems quite fine, and I don’t see a reason for Grey to make a move against her.”

    “Alright, what about yourself and Kervin? Do you think you are in any danger?”

    “Definitely,” I immediately respond to Boss Giovanni. “The contract Aaliyah signed only stated Kervin was to deliver the materials. Grey wouldn’t have worded it like that if he didn’t have plans to remove Kervin afterwards. Chances are there is an ambush waiting for us somewhere between the village and Drey.”

    "Are you able to take care of it?" I'm happy the boss is confident in my skills, but I'm working blind here.

    "If I were by myself, I would say no problem. But in regards to guarding Kervin, it all depends on how much Grey wants him dead. I at least know there will be an ambush, so I can prepare and keep an eye out, but if Grey sent someone close to my level or a large group, I'm not confident I can guarantee Kervin's life." That's my assessment of the situation; now, it depends on what Giovanni wants me to do.

    “Is the village safe?” The boss’s question comes out of nowhere. Why does he care about the village; he should only care about Aaliyah’s safety?

    Oh, I forgot! Having to deal with Aaliyah all the time, I forgot he exiled his daughter to this village. People say Giovanni's daughter is dead to him, but I guess that isn't wholly the case. "I don't think the village has anything to worry about," I reassure him. "From what I gathered, the village plans to hold up until things settle down. They're also in the process of building an armory, and if it's filled with weapons Aaliyah made, I'm sure they can defend themselves if they need to."

    “Good," Giovanni sounds more relieved. The connection goes quiet, but we're still connected. I patiently wait for the boss's decision.

    "Alright, four," Giovanni gives me my orders in a commanding voice. "Escort Kervin out of the forest to the best of your abilities. Your life remains the top priority, but only abandon Kervin if there is no other choice.”

    “And when we leave the forest? Are we to return to Drey?” I ask.

    “No, skip Drey and bring Kervin to Blaiton. We’ll regroup while Scholl takes the city and figure out a way to get Aaliyah out of her contract even if it means killing that old bastard Grey.”

    I smile hearing my orders, partially because of how much Giovanni values me and partially because I have yet to give the boss the good news. "That won't be a problem," I say into my magic tool.

    The other end goes silent for a moment. “Explain,” Marshall orders.

    "Aaliyah already has a way to null and void the contract without harming herself.”

    "That's impossible!" Giovanni's surprised shout reverberates through the trees.

    “It’s true. Apparently, she has a skill that allows her to one-sidedly destroy contracts she makes with other people.”

    “Amazing!” Giovanni exclaims.

    "Why didn't you tell us this earlier?!" Marshall snarls through the connection.

    “You didn’t ask,” I chuckle.

    “You!” Marshall sounds like he’s ready to explode.

    "That's enough; you know how Four is, Marshall," Giovanni orders his bodyguard to stand down. I'll have to pay for that when I return to Blaiton, but it was worth it. Giovanni addresses me, “Four, if she can remove the contract herself, what are her plans going forward?”

    I stop laughing and get serious. “Aaliyah sounded like she also plans to bide her time. She has four months before Grey comes looking for his goods.”

    Giovanni thoughtfully hums. "That's smart of her. The war situation makes it difficult for any of us to move; that goes for myself and Grey. If either side rushes, the other will win. Does Aaliyah sound like she wants to work with us?"

    "Most defiantly, she sounded quite mad at Grey, and she mentioned working with you to Kervin. Of course, we could just pull back and wait for her to get to level 100 and let her deal with Grey on her own," I joke.

    “As tempting as that sounds, I think I’d prefer it if we remove the tumor before it grows any bigger.” I can picture Giovanni scowling on the other end of our connection. “Let Aaliyah know we’ll be in touch going forward. And Four.”

    “Yes, boss.”

    “Any fools you run into in the forest, kill them all!”

    “With pleasure.”

    **********

    Aaliyah’s point of View:

    This is the worst tea party I’ve ever attended.

    Kervin and his two guards stand around looking somber, sipping tea like they're about to be executed.

    I know things are bleak for them, but they still have Reel. He can be an ass at times, but Reel is strong and loyal. There is no way he would leave them to die… unless he was ordered to, and I don't see Giovanni doing that. But I've been wrong before.

    I look over where Reel walked into the forest. It’s been over an hour since he left to contact Giovanni, and even I’m starting to get a little worried he left Kervin behind.

    No, I can’t think like that. If I’m going to work with Reel and his boss, I have to have to trust they’ll do the right thing. I’ll prepare for the worst-case scenario, but I’ll trust in Reel and Giovanni until they prove to me I can’t. But I’m sure as hell not signing any more contracts.

    I try to think of something to say to cheer everyone up, but nothing comes to mind. While I'm brooding over what I should say, I smile when I sense the familiar void of mana in the forest nearby.

    “He’s back,” I grab everyone’s attention and look at the area of trees where Reel will emerge from.

    “And here I thought I was being sneaky,” Reel smiles as he walks into master’s clearing. “I was told my magic tool would perfectly hide me from spells up to tier 4. I guess I'll need to get my money back."

    “You should let me see it first. I’ve studied my mana obscuring magic tool, but it only scrambles the magic around a person. Whatever you’re using creates a void, so magic senses and spells can’t penetrate it.”

    “Then how are you always able to find me?” Reel gives me a dubious look.

    "A lot of scary things have popped out of the woods over the last year, so I make sure to scan my surroundings constantly. An area void of magic is just as suspicious as a hidden monster."

    Reel shakes his head like he doesn't believe what he's hearing. "I've stalked plenty of mages, and not one of them was able to sense me. Sensing an area void of magic shouldn't be possible."

    “I feel bad for the people you were stalking. If they practiced their skills more, you would’ve had more of a challenge,” I grin at Reel as he joins our grim tea party with a smile. “So, what’s the word from your boss?” Kervin, Lurte, and Ryiba move in close to Reel, anxious to hear their fate.

    “Giovanni said he would be in touch and asked you not to do anything rash." I'm happy to hear about Giovanni's support, but I'm more interested in what's happening with Kervin's situation.

    “What about us; what do we do?” Kervin pleads for an answer.

    "What else are we supposed to do? We leave," Reel tells Kervin.

    Kervin is so surprised his mouth opens, only nothing comes out. "That's it," Ryiba does not have the same problem as Kervin. "What are we supposed to do about the assassins!?"

    Reel's expression hardens and draws one of his daggers for show, forcing everyone to take a step back. "We kill anyone stupid enough to try. Their cover has already been blown, so as long as we're careful, we can ambush them."

    “Can’t we wait for backup or something?” Kervin anxiously asks Reel.

    Reel shakes his head. "There's no time for us to wait for reinforcements. If we don't leave now, we'll be cut off by Scholl's army. Then there's the possibility that the people Grey sent after us will come to the village if we stay here any longer. And Giovanni was quite clear we're not to endanger the village."

    Lurte and Ryiba put their hands on their weapons, mentally preparing themselves while Reel continues to explain. “After we ambush our attackers, we leave the forest and join the wagon train heading for Blaiton.”

    Kervin perks up. “We’re not going back to Drey? What about my house?”

    Reel grins, showing off his teeth. “You’re welcome to stop by Drey as we pass by, but I won’t be protecting you.”

    Kervin sags in defeat. I can understand how he's feeling; he has years' worth of goods stored in his house, and if he leaves it behind, it'll probably be looted in the chaos.

    “You can buy a bigger house and fill it with as much crap as you want after you sell my goods,” I try to cheer him up. “But you can’t sell anything if you’re dead,” I remind him.

    “You’re right,” Kervin sighs.

    “We should get everything prepared and leave soon,” Reel informs everyone.

    “Who made you the boss,” Ryiba challenges Reel.

    Reel raises his nose and looks down on Ryiba. "From here on out, I'm in charge, and if you want to live, you'll follow everything I say."

    Ryiba looks like he wants to punch Reel in the face, but Lurte stops him by putting a hand on his friend's shoulder.

    “Fine,” Ryiba reluctantly agrees to Reel’s terms.

    I step forward, “if you need some help, I can go with you guys.” I don’t want to find out later that Kervin was killed because of the contract I signed.

    “No,” Reel quickly denies my help.

    “Why? I’m just as strong as you are, maybe stronger,” I challenge back.

    "Your life is more important than any of ours," Reel tells me with an expressionless face. "If we die, Giovanni will avenge us. If you die, Giovanni will kill us and lose everything he's invested into your growth."

    “That doesn’t make any sense,” I whine.

    “That’s how the world works,” Reel flatly tells me. “Let’s get moving!” Everyone is slow to move at first, but Kervin, Lurte, and Ryiba follow Reel's orders and get the cart ready and get moving in no time at all.

    I stand next to my pile of ore, watching the group disappear back down the path that leads to the village. Master, who’s been listening in on everything, walks up next to me. “They’ll be ok. That man is quite strong.”

    “I know,” I respond in a quiet voice. Again, people are going out of their way to protect me; it makes me feel weak and useless. And I'm not weak or useless!

    I need to improve more, so this never happens again. “Master.”

    “Yeah?”

    "I'm heading home; make sure you sleep well tonight because tomorrow we'll be busy."

    “I figured. Hurry home before your mom gets mad,” master nudges my side.

    “Ok, see you tomorrow.” I bid master goodbye and slowly walk home, thinking over what needs to be done… what will be done. I’ll make the best equipment ever!

    **********

    Day one of forging my new gear is in full swing. Mana Skin struggles to protect me from the heat given off from the smelter. The flames are charged with mana from the blacksmithing logs and the magicite we're using as fuel.

    Even the early spring breeze isn’t enough to combat the heat radiating off the furnace.

    While I care for the smelter, master is filing up a wheelbarrow with kaglese ore and bringing it over for me to add to the molten glob of metals.

    The gods should bless master. By the time I arrived this morning, he already had the fire going and a pile of fuel ready to keep the smelter going all day.

    “Master, I’m ready to tap the slag again!” I shout over the roar of the flames.

    “Alright, I’ll grab the mold." Master brings over one of the simple wooden molds we built. Slag is the molten waste rock we don't need from the kaglese ore. We usually work with relatively pure iron, meaning we don't have to deal with that much slag. However, the kaglese ore is mostly waste rock, so as we smelt it, we're continually draining the slag.

    We're using the mold to make slag bricks. I'll have to test the exact composition of the slag later, but depending on their hardness, we might be able to use them in construction or grind them up to create a type of concrete. Waste not what you can use.

    Master moves the mold into place, and I open the valve with a long steel piece that we added an insulated handle to. The molten slag looks like lava as it pours out. Once the mold is full, I close the tap and start shoveling more ore into the smelter.

    When the smelter is full again, I can back away for a moment and catch a breath of fresh air that won't burn my lungs. The new ore needs to melt and mix with what is already in the smelter. We don't drain the smelter completely because keeping some of the molten metal in there helps liquify the new ore faster, saving us valuable blacksmithing logs and magicite.

    "Here," master hands me a waterskin, which I quickly drain.

    "Thanks," I say, handing him back the now empty waterskin. "How many slag bricks does that make?"

    “That was the twelfth.” Master gestures over to the side where the slag bricks are cooling.

    Each brick is 18’’ long, 8’’ wide, 8’’ tall. The bricks aren't as heavy as if they were pure metal, but they show how much ore we've already processed. And all we have to show for our work is three ingots of kaglese, with probably another one and a half worth still molten in the bottom of the smelter. It goes to show how hard the metal is to process.

    "We're making good time, at least. How much do you think we've smelted?" I ask, looking at the pile of ore Kervin delivered yesterday.

    “I’d say we’re a little over 10% done,” master gives me his best guess.

    I calculate we'll have approximately 120 slag bricks and 40 kaglese ingots before the day is through with some quick math. Forty ingots, that's what I have to work with until the new year. Other than the arrows I have to make, everything will be mixed with steel and mithril to produce the optimal alloy.

    “This is going to take a long time,” I grumble.

    “I remember someone telling me she wanted to do everything at once,” master mocks me with a shit-eating-grin.

    "Can you blame me? I'm tired of using dad's spare axe every time I leave the house. I need something stronger that can handle mana properly."

    "Kaglese doesn't react to mana like your old sword did," master points out to me.

    “It will when I enchant it!” I snap back.

    "Oh, and how are your experiments going? The last time you practiced in my clearing, I couldn't sleep with all your frustrated shouting."

    I don't have a response to that; instead, I tell him about Sandra. "Sandra agreed to help me experiment with the engraving ink. With two people working on it, I'm sure we'll have more success."

    “Really?” Master asks, surprised.

    "No," I admit. "But there's always hope." Master and I share a laugh.

    We relax for a few more minutes before I need to add more ore to the smelter.

    As I’m shoveling, master asks me, “you sure you don’t want to take turns?”

    “With your Vitality?! You’d probably burst into flames,” I yell over the forge.

    "Girl, I've been working around heat longer than your parents have been alive. Vitality isn't as important as you think it is. I wish I never answered your stupid question in the first place."

    I shovel quicker, so I can have this conversation without worrying my mana skin might ignite from the heat. Once the smelter is full again, I add a few more logs and magicite to the fire before moving back over to Master Del.

    "You should have told me sooner," I complain. "After you got hurt, you told me you had too much Vitality for Anastasia to heal you; it's no wonder you needed two days to heal?" I go full-on mom mode and stare accusingly at master.

    "You're 50 years too young to admonish me. The reason I told you that was because I didn't need you fussing over me like you are now. I may have a low Vitality compared to you, but it's the same as any other villager. I chose to invest most my points into strength to combat my mana weakness as a kid, and it isn't good to change your stat distribution halfway through your life."

    "I've been able to put more points into Endurance, and I have the tier 4 skill Heat Resistance. I might not be able to block everything like your mana skill, but when it comes to a forge, I'm confident I'll outlast you. It is not your job to worry about me."

    "Now that you mention it, I could use a longer break," I admit.

    “Scoot over and let me show you how it’s done,” master strolls up next to me and recoils. “Torrow’s forge, that’s hot!”

    “Still want to help?”

    "I got this," master says confidently. "Grab the mold from one of the cooler slag bricks and get ready."

    "Right away, Master Del," I playfully salute, which gets me a confused reaction from master.

    Today may be all hard work, but at least it's easy. Tomorrow is arguably the most essential step, and though it won't be as labor-intensive, it will be mentally.

    **********

    Day two of forging and I let out a long yawn just as I finish organizing my workbench. After yesterday my body is still a little sore, but at least I passed out last night without having to hop into my soul.

    “Tired?” Master asks as he preps the forge for me.

    "It's weird, I got the best sleep last night, but I'm still tired.” I stretch out my arms and jump up and down, trying to get my blood pumping.

    “I know a good solution.”

    “What?” I humor master, knowing where this is going.

    "Sleep more," master tells me and starts laughing; I can't help but smile at his punch line.

    “I’ll get right on that,” I tell him.

    I wait for the fire to reach a proper temperature, grab a kaglese ingot with some tongs, and put it in the fire. Once it starts to glow, I move it over to the anvil, where I proceed to use our axe to cut off even chunks of the ingot. I need five small samples of kaglese for my first round of experiments.

    The goal of today is to find the best ratio of kaglese, steel, and mithril. I need to know the alloy ratio if I’m going to make the best products I can without wasting my kaglese stockpile.

    Using a scale, I weigh out each piece of kaglese and note down how much it weighs. Master informed me the kaglese alloy he was most familiar with was 55% steel, 35% kaglese, and 10% mithril. Kaglese is already a good mana conductor, so the amount of mithril makes sense to me.

    I can add the mithril later, so I start by testing kaglese and steel combinations. Master and I made what we call testing crucibles in our spare time for just these kinds of situations. The last time I was testing metals, we only had two crucibles, and it took a long time to test all the ratios. This time we have five small crucibles, three of which can fit in the forge at once.

    The first sample I prepare will follow master's ratio. For the other four samples, I'll change the percentages by 1% each. I jot down which crucible holds each sample and the ratio it will use.

    Pot 1: 55% Steel – 35% Kaglese – 10% Mithril

    Pot 2: 54% Steel – 36% Kaglese – 10% Mithril

    Pot 3: 53% Steel – 37% Kaglese – 10% Mithril

    Pot 4: 56% Steel – 34% Kaglese – 10% Mithril

    Pot 5: 57% Steel – 33% Kaglese – 10% Mithril

    I hope the ratio with higher steel content ends up being the better option, that way, I can save some more kaglese.

    Sealing the pots one by one, I start moving them into the forge. Like with the smelter yesterday, I need to watch the forge's flames to ensure everything remains hot enough to melt the samples. The kaglese is stronger than the steel and melts at a higher temperature, so if the forge doesn't stay hot enough, the two metals won't combine right.

    Kaglese is known for being a hard metal to work with and not bonding correctly. Still, thanks to my mana senses, I can monitor each crucible and know if everything is melting adequately based on the individual metals' internal mana. When they fuse correctly, there is a noticeable shift in the molten alloy's structure.

    Once again, my mana skills play a huge role in my success. If I didn't practice Sense Mana so much as a kid, I wouldn't be able to sense such intricate details today. Thinking about it, Sense mana is almost to level 80. After I broke through the test on level 75, my skill leveled slower, like Meditation, but I'm sure my abilities are improving. It might be hard to tell, but I can scan a hair farther each day.

    I know such small gains can seem unimportant at times, but I spent months as a baby doing nothing but trying to sense my mana, so I can appreciate steady growth.

    While the crucibles are heating up, I glance over at master, who's lying down on his bench. I'll call him over when I need to start working the metal samples, but until then, I'll leave him be.

    Master understands what I'm doing, but he's never had to care about perfect mana to strength ratios before.

    After I go through all five samples, I’ll add the mithril to each and see how they react.

    The steps will have to be repeated dozens of times, and I expect to go through at least 25 samples today. Perfection is hard to obtain but worth it.

    I plan to earn a lot of experience through my crafting and subsequently create the best weapons and goods I can. But first, I need to get these ratios right and craft my new gear. That will be the fun part.

    **********

    I walk into master's clearing on the third day of forging my new gear with the wind at my back and a pep in my step. After two days of nonstop prepping, I’m ready to start crafting.

    “You’re coming earlier each day,” master calls out to me as I approach the forge. He’s still moving blacksmithing logs and magicite over to the forge for later.

    "I'm excited to get to make something finally," I smile at Del.

    “I understand,” master chuckles. “There is nothing like working a new metal for the first time. And I’m sure that feeling is double for you after you put so much effort into your preparation.”

    I’m happy to have someone who understands me. Unlike two nights ago, I was so excited for today I couldn’t fall asleep last night and was forced to meditate in my soul.

    "I'll get the forge going while you prepare your crucible." Master helps me get started just like the last few days.

    I move over to use the scale and weigh out the exact proportions I need. I'm using our largest Crucible because I need enough metal to forge a dagger and a sword. These two weapons will be the first things I make with my improved alloy, but they won't be the last.

    I chose these two to start with because they're more straightforward in design and give me a chance to get used to the metal. My overall goal is to create four weapons for myself, a dagger, a sword, an axe, and a war hammer. I love practicing with a sword, but I'm not ignorant enough to not realize a heavier weapon is more suited for me.

    The sword and dagger can be made today, but I'll need to spend a day on the axe and war hammer individually.

    I finish weighing and calculating the materials to my exact specifications. Yesterday I concluded the alloy's optimum ratio turned out to be 53.4% Steel, 37.4% Kaglese, and 9.2% Mithril. Overall, the alloy was more expensive, but the final product was definitely at least low tier 4 in quality.

    After adding everything into the crucible, I seal it and place it in the forge.

    "What are you making first?" Master asks now that we have some downtime. The only thing I need to do is watch the forge's temperature.

    “I’m going to make a dagger first, then a sword.”

    "Sticking with a sword, huh? Masters is obviously thinking I'm making a questionable decision.

    "That's to start with," I point out before he gets the wrong idea. "I also plan on creating an axe, war hammer, and some armor for myself."

    Master Del nods approvingly. "That's good; I was worried I'd have to talk you into changing weapons. The armor won't hurt you either."

    “The armor will be the most challenging part, so I’m saving that for last. I’m already thinking of designs that would protect me and won’t hinder my movement too much.”

    “What are you thinking of?”

    "I was thinking of making plates that could be attached to some strong leather. Maybe cast my arms and legs and make the plates perfectly fit over my shins and forearms. It would leave my joints open, but I think it will be an ok trade-off.”

    “Sounds reasonable,” master remarks.

    Our conversation quietly dies out, and my mind goes to Kervin and Reel. "Master?"

    “Yeah?”

    "Do you think Kervin and them are doing ok? They're getting closer to the edge of the woods by now."

    Master looks at me out of the corner of his eye before looking up at the sky. He doesn't outright assure me that they'll be ok and chooses to think over my question before answering.

    "I'm not sure," master finally admits, still looking up at the passing clouds. "All I can tell you is I think they have a fighting chance. That Reel fellow seemed quite strong and bloodthirsty. If he's in charge, they might make it. The only thing you can do is believe in them and pray to the gods for their protection."

    I scoff at the notion of praying for salvation. I can think of a goddess who would love to watch people kill each other rather than save them.

    “You shouldn’t dismiss the gods,” master frowns at me.

    "Sorry," I apologize even though I don't mean it. I have no intention to mock people's religions; hell, it's pretty hard to when you've met a divine being. I won't pretend I know what the other gods are like, but I don't want to risk drawing their attention to myself.

    Instead, I’d rather do what master said and wish everyone a safe journey to Blaiton. It would be nice if everyone was wrong and Mr. Grey didn’t send out assassins, but I don’t think any amount of wishing will help with that.

    I get up and add some more fuel to the fire. I'll create the best weapons I can, and next time I'll make sure I can help them.

    *********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,150 words.

    Editing took longer than I thought, but I technically finished writing on time.

    I want to thank everyone who voted on the poll, and reading everyone's comments was the kick in the pants I needed. The next chapter should be out Sunday, but for some reason if I need to postpone it by a day, I'll post a notice before 8:00 pm on Sunday. And in case anyone is wondering about my time zone, I live in California.

    I hope everyone enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.


    "Don't you think some flowers would go perfect right here?" Mom and I watch smiling from Richard's kitchen table as Sandra directs brother on how he should rearrange his house now that he has all this extra furniture. "If you open the window behind them, it would brighten up the room."

    “I can see that,” brother nods along with Sandra’s idea but mother and I can see he’s just resigned himself to do whatever Sandra suggests.

    Mom and I came over this morning to see how Richard was settling in after yesterday's family reunion, only to find the two love birds already hard at work organizing their love nest. That was four hours ago.

    It was hilarious watching Sandra take control over everything just like mom would, but I'm starting to think Richard is into that kind of thing. That or Richard has the patience of a saint.

    We tried to offer our services to help speed things along, but Richard and Sandra both agreed they wanted to handle everything themselves.

    “So, I take it you’re moving in with brother?” I ask Sandra as she starts placing small knickknacks around the room.

    Sandra smiles awkwardly at my question. “That was the plan, but father wants me to stay in my old room until we’re married.”

    Ouch, that has to suck for the both of them.

    “The thing is, my old room doesn’t have the space to hold everything we brought back with us, so it’s only natural I have to store my things here and set up a space to practice in.” Sandra winks at mom and me. Sorry Camden, but I don’t think you’ll be able to keep them apart no matter hard you try.

    "Whatever works best for the two of you," mother smiles at her future daughter-in-law.

    “You’re going to turn one of the rooms into a study, like magic tomes and stuff?” I latch on to the part of the conversation regarding magic.

    “Yes, and you can’t go in there,” Sandra tells me, looking apologetic.

    “Your contract?” It’s not hard to guess why she won’t let me see her magic stuff.

    “Exactly,” Sandra confirms my guess. “I can’t knowingly let others look at my reference materials, not even Richard.

    "It's true; she kept everything in a locked trunk while we were living in Drey."

    “My contract with my master stipulates I need to do everything I can to keep others from stealing my spells. Even against family,” Sandra tells me with a frown.

    You have to love the secrecy and paranoia of this world.

    “I get it,” I let out a sigh. I then remember what I wanted to ask Sandra now that we have some free time without everyone yelling at me for keeping her pregnancy a secret. "But just to make sure, we can still discuss magic, right? I mean, we can still bounce ideas off of each other, or is that against the rules?"

    “That’s a little complicated,” she informs me. “I’m allowed to discuss basic mana sensing and manipulation techniques but none of my master’s personal methods.”

    “Then we can talk about subjects he never taught you, like enchanting,” I confirm.

    “Sure, we can talk about that. Other than teaching us what enchanting is, my master knew nothing about runic magic.”

    Now I let out a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness; I could really use someone to help me bounce ideas around."

    Sandra looks at me, eyes wide. “You’re studying runic magic!”

    I give her a cocky grin. “Well, when you don’t have access to a bunch of spells, you get creative. I bought some magic items from Silver Herd and started deciphering their runes.”

    “That’s amazing,” Sandra exclaims. “But what do you need me for? I don’t know anything about enchanting.”

    "I don't need help with the runes," I tell her. "It's the damn engraving ink that's holding me up. I already have a collection of runes I can draw, and an engraving pen master made for me, but neither of those matters if I can't figure out how to make engraving ink. I’ve only managed to figure out the first step,” I air my problems to my best friend.

    “And how do you know how to make engraving ink in the first place?” Sandra narrows her eyes, knowing engraving ink recipes are just like a mage's spell repertoire and are highly secretive.

    “A friend gave it to me,” I say mysteriously.

    "A friend?" Sandra repeats, not convinced.

    “Someone who wants me to succeed gave me a general outline on how to craft engraving ink.”

    "It sounds like you have everything you need then; what's the problem?" Sandra walks over to the table and takes a seat. Mother listens in on our conversation, festinated on the subject, while brother moves some furniture around, careful not to make too much noise.

    "The problem is when I said, general outline, I meant it's vague as shit!" I complain.

    "Language," mother scolds me.

    “That’s the only way I can put it,” I grumble. “So, the first part of the instructions was to mix devil’s poke and eathrosse with some water.”

    “Ok?” Sandra and mom don’t see the problem, neither know chemistry instructions that vague are basically pointless.

    I let out a self-deprecating laugh. "After spending days testing, the first step should have gone like this: First, mash the eathrosse into a paste. Then mix 2 ounces of eathrosse paste with 16 ounces of purified water. Dice 5 ounces of devil's poke and add it to the mixture. Lastly, stir the entire mixture until it becomes a purplish-black color."

    After I finish explaining the first step, the room has gone silent. Sandra, mother, and Richard are all giving me sympathetic looks. "I wasted nearly eight gold coins in materials just figuring out the first step." The three of them hiss, understanding the pain of losing that much money and having so little to show for it.

    “What’s the next step?” Sandra hesitantly asks.

    “Heat mixture,” I tell her.

    Sandra waits for me to say more, but she soon realizes that's all the instruction I have. "That can't be all!?" She asks in disbelief.

    “That’s all it said for step 2. I’ve started heating the mixture with gradually increasing temperatures, but after being exposed to the improper temperature for twenty minutes, the mixture becomes unstable and dissolves itself." Words can't describe how I feel. All I know is, I have a deep respect for the people who pioneered the study of chemistry.

    I know everything could be considered a part of chemistry, but the people who try to create something new from nothing or only using small bits of information are real geniuses. Discovering new elements, concocting cures for illness; makes me wish I paid a bit more attention in science class.

    “You can see my problem,” I say with a sour expression.

    “Gods, Aaliyah, I don’t know how you think I can help?” Sandra looks at me like I’m asking her to help me slay a dragon.

    "Just having an extra set of eyes will help the most," I tell her.

    Mother frowns, “why didn’t you ask me for help, then?”

    "I would've if you had the right eyes," I inform mom. "I need someone who can perceive mana. The materials I use have a high magic concentration, and judging how the mana reacts is the best indicator when something is going wrong." Thankfully mom doesn't look offended and nods in understanding.

    I turn to Sandra, “that’s why I could use your help.”

    She thinks over my offer for a second before agreeing. “Sure, but don’t blame me for burning away your materials.”

    “That’s ok,” I tell Sandra. “I don’t expect results right away. In fact, I space out the days I experiment so I don’t get caught up in the failures and make more mistakes. We can decide on a time to work together after you settle back in."

    “That sounds like a plan,” Sandra smiles.

    "Speaking of which, how is that going for you?" Mom questions Sandra. "I can say we were all quite happy to have Richard back home with us again."

    "It's been nice." Sandra has a smile on her face, but you can tell her heart was exactly in her answer.

    Never to let something slip past her, mom pries into Sandra’s business. “Oh, is something the matter?”

    Sandra has a complicated look. “It’s nice being back home, but my parents are already smothering me. My mom wants to talk about nothing but my pregnancy while my dad is making it difficult to spend time with Richard and won't stop asking to see the spells I've learned. I know part of the reason I was able to study in Drey was to bring magic to our village, but they're just so…"

    "Annoying," I say aloud the word Sandra was searching for.

    "I was trying to think of a nicer way to say it," she smirks at me. "Then, after I shook off my parents this morning and came to help Richard, I find out he had a nice dinner with his family and came back to his house like he never left the village.”

    “A nice dinner,” I laugh. “We spent the whole time making jokes about how your dad is going to kill him when no one is looking.”

    “What!” Sandra whirls around on Richard. “I thought you said you had a normal dinner with your family?”

    "I did; it was pretty normal for our family," Richard says in a matter-of-fact tone. The three of us start laughing while Sandra sits there uncomprehending. "I tried to throw Aaliyah under the cart by reminding my parents how she kept our secret, but they didn't take the bait."

    I glance at mom and then smile at Richard. “You really are ungrateful; you know that? Who do you think cleaned your house for you before you got back? And besides, mom already yelled at me with Sarette, and we’re past that now, get over it.”

    Richard looks surprised at mother, "already?"

    Mom sagely nods her head. “I already told Aaliyah how I felt about her decision to keep me out of the loop. What’s done is done.”

    "Who are you, and what have you done with my mother?" Richard takes a step back from mom, feigning shock.

    “Mom and I have an understanding between us," I boast of our new relationship.

    "That doesn't mean I'm not mad about you keeping Sandra a secret from me." Mom quickly pulls the wind out of my sails.

    I want to complain and point out I did it for my brother, but I don't think mom would buy that.

    But all is not lost! Like an angel, Sandra swops in to protect me from the demon. "Please don't be mad at Aaliyah; she only kept quiet because I asked her to. Richard and I hadn't finished discussing what we should do when Aaliyah found us in the woods, and we couldn't have her telling everyone before we were back in the village. I'm sure you understand."

    And like that, the demon was critically injured and had to retreat. “I completely understand why she did it," mom smiles and reassures Sandra that she's not mad anymore. But when Sandra looks away for a brief moment, mom casts a sidelong glance at me, and I see an evil twinkle in her eye. The demon will not forget this loss.

    I'll have to look forward to helping more with Richard's marriage twine, or she'll probably wake me up early on the days I try to sleep in. The demon always comes back with a vengeance.

    At least it’s never boring in our house.

    “Let’s talk about something more fun,” mom suggests.

    “Like what?” I ask.

    Mom claps her hands together. "Oh, I know! I saw Richard moving your clothes trunk around. Did you bring back any new styles from Drey?"

    "I sure did. Would you like to see them?" Sandra stands up and heads for the trunk Richard set off to the side nearby. Richard has to take the trunk to Camden’s house later after he finishes everything else.

    Sandra opens the trunk and pulls out a blue dress, and holds it up for us to see. "Richard got me this for my last birthday."

    “It looks great on you,” mother compliments Sandra. “I didn’t know my boy would have an eye for women’s clothes. What else do you have?”

    And like that, we start a fashion montage.

    Time slowly slips by as Richard gets close to finishing unpacking everything, while Sandra shows us the final clothes she bought back from Drey.

    I thought it would become dull just looking at clothes for so long, but after a whole life of being surrounded by plain garments, it was actually interesting to see what nice fabric looked and felt like. At one point, Sandra tried to get me to try on one of her dresses, but I got out of it by mentioning how much of a size difference there was between us. I'm a lot taller than Sandra, and I'd ruin anything she tried to have me squeeze into. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

    Our good times are put on hold when someone knocks on brother's door. Richard answers to find Nicolas standing on his doorstep. "Hi, is Aaliyah here with you?" He asks, not noticing me yet.

    “Nicolas,” I call out.

    “So, you are here,” Nicolas squeezes past Richard without being invited in.

    “What can I help you with?”

    "Kervin is at the front of the village, and he asked me where you were. I checked Master Del's, but he said you weren't here today. I figured you’d be with my sister.”

    "Kervin is here already?" I can't say I'm not surprised. I figured he was at least another couple of days out. He must have left Drey not long after he returned if he's here already.

    "Yes, we already unloaded the few crates of food he brought, but his cart is filled with rocks."

    "Ore," I correct Nicolas. "This is some unexpected good news," I get up from the table. "I need to meet with Kervin, but I'll be back when I'm done," I tell mother and Sandra.

    “We’ll be waiting for you,” Sandra tells me.

    “Make sure you talk to Kervin about your contract,” mother reminds me.

    "Of course," I respond as I walk out of my brother's house, followed by Nicolas.

    We quickly walk through the village, finding a small crowd of people around Kervin. "I'm sorry, but I can't take any more orders. Silver Herd is restricting its routes until Scholl is dealt with; this is my last delivery for now."

    “Then what’s with all the stones then!?” A villager shouts.

    “That is a delivery for miss Aaliyah, who placed the order in advance,” Kervin calmly explains.

    "But we need you to deliver us meat," A woman pleads. Kervin's business smile cracks a bit, and you can see that he's not fond of what's happening either.

    “Now, now,” Camden’s strong voice silences everyone. Nicolas moves next to his father as he walks over. “Do you expect him to sneak past Scholl just to deliver us some biscuits and jerky? We can’t blame him or Silver Herd for stopping their deliveries. We should be happy he took the time to make one last run to our village despite the circumstances. Give the man some room, so he can finish his business and get back to Drey before Scholl arrives.”

    Camden's argument was well thought out and certainly planed. I wondered why he didn't bring this issue up when we had the village meeting, but I can see how spreading out the bad news and having time to prepare an argument paid off in the end.

    “Thank you, Headman Downs,” Kervin offers a polite bow. “But let me assure everyone that we are not terminating this route. As soon as the roads are safe again, I’ll return.”

    The people reluctantly agree and start heading back into the village.

    When everyone except Camden, Nicolas, and myself are gone, Kervin lets out an enormous sigh of relief. "Thanks again; I was worried about how I was going to convince them to leave."

    "It's hard times, lately." Camden also visibly relaxes now that the merchant problem is solved. "I'm very grateful that you brought some more dried meats with you. Aaliyah told me this would be your last delivery for a while, but she never said you'd be bringing more food with you."

    "That's because I didn't know," I admit to Camden. "I only negotiated for my materials, not more food; it never crossed my mind."

    "That was my idea. I figured your village might have a hard time without regular supplies, so I brought some extra crates I could cram on top of everything."

    Kervin isn't joking about cramming everything. The cart he brought this time is larger than his usual one, and it's driven by four silver bivols, all bigger than the pair he usually uses. And this larger cart is piled high with kaglese ore, with crates strapped to the side, which I believe are holding my mithril.

    “I’ll go get what I owe you,” Camden leaves to get the money from his house.

    “Meet us at master’s place when you get back,” I tell him as he’s walking away.

    “Sure,” Camden shouts back.

    "We're going to your master's house!?" Kervin asks, surprised; he knows that my master doesn't like dealing with people.

    “That’s right, unless you want to move all this ore back and forth for me?” I give Kervin a sly grin.

    “I’m good; lead the way.” Kervin hops back on his cart and has his bivol follow me.

    Lurte and Ryiba flank each side of the cart while Reel comes up next to me. “How are you doing? I heard you ran to Drey all by yourself.”

    “Someone has a big mouth; was it that receptionist lady?”

    Reel chuckles, “maybe?”

    “Well, after hearing about Scholl, I needed to place a large order before they take over the area.”

    “You know about that, huh?”

    “Not hard to see the obvious,” I dryly respond.

    “You’d be surprised how few have noticed what’s happening. Well, not everyone can be a genius monster like you, I guess,” Reel laughs at his own joke.

    “Or a spy-assassin, like you,” I counter, causing Reel to laugh harder.

    "I am quite good at my job. Speaking of which, how did you get Mr. Grey to front you all this?" The mirth in Reel's voice disappears, and he gives me a serious look.

    "I'll tell you and Kervin about it after we unload everything," I brush him off for now. I still need to confirm with Kervin whose side he's on.

    “Alright,” Reel agrees to wait.

    A silence falls between Reel and me until Kervin calls out from his seat up on the wagon. “This trail looks freshly made.”

    I talk over my shoulder. "We just finished it a few days ago. We widened it and filled in all the divots so your cart can get through."

    “Not that I’m not happy to finally see where you work, but what changed? I thought you said your master doesn’t want to deal with me,” Kervin asks me, probably wanting to make sure nothing is wrong.

    "Who said my master would be dealing with anyone? Even if he decides to sit nearby and watch us, I'm the one you have to worry about." I make sure to stress the fact that they’re not to bother master.

    “I understand,” Kervin bows his head.

    “And you,” I turn to Reel.

    “What?” Reel responds in a sassy tone like he doesn’t care about anything I say.

    “If you bug master in any way, whatsoever, I’ll hold you down while he uses your face for an anvil,” I threaten the annoying rogue.

    Reel chuckles, thinking I'm joking, but he stops when he sees how serious I am. I see Kervin as a friend and business partner, while Reel is an ok guy that's saved me in the past, but neither of them is as important to me as Master Del. If they screw this up, I'll find someone else to work with, even if I have to turn to Scholl.

    “Ok, be on your best behavior," I remind everyone as we enter master's clearing.

    Master's clearing is quiet. I wasn't expected to show up today, so the forge is cold, and master is resting on his bench. Kervin looks around the clearing before noticing master while Reel zeros in on the sleeping stone kin immediately.

    Of course, I act like master resting out in the open is no big deal, guiding the cart over to the spot master and I agreed we should put the ore. "Right here is good."

    Kervin pulls back on the bivols reigns, and the expertly trained animals stop without moving forward an inch.

    Kervin hops off his cart. “How do you want to do this?”

    "I'll take the crates of mithril and put them in the shed. You guys can start offloading the ore; just put it in a pile next to the cart," I direct Kervin.

    "Sounds good, let's get going," Kervin proceeds to pull up his sleeves.

    “You’re helping us, boss?” Ryiba asks, surprised.

    "Don't get used to it; we need to offload everything as quick as possible and get back to Drey, preferably before the siege spells start flying." Kervin picks up one of the shovels they brought with them and starts shoveling ore over the side of the cart.

    I untie the six crates strapped to the cart and check to make sure everything's here. Each crate I open makes my heart beat faster when I see every box is packed with mithril ingots; enough I need to take a second to catch my breath before I have a heart attack. 150 gold coins worth of mithril, that's enough money for a family to live off of for the rest of their lives.

    Gingerly, I move each crate into our materials shed and move to help the boys shovel the kaglese. It’s nice to see even Reel is helping, but Kervin…

    …Kervin is struggling to keep up with everyone else. He must not have invested that much in his Strength stat. He isn't slow, per-say. It's more that everyone is moving around him, slowing things down.

    “Switch with me, Kervin.” I motion for merchant to hop out of the cart.

    "I can help," Kervin whines like a boy being told to stand off to the side while his dad works on the car.

    “I’m sure they appreciate your help, but you’re slowing everyone down,” I tell him how it is.

    Kervin turns to look at his bodyguards for help, but they refuse to meet his gaze. With a look of embarrassment, Kervin gets down from the cart and hands me his shovel.

    I take Kervin's place. "Alright, ladies, let's speed it up." The roles are soon reversed; instead of moving around Kervin, the three bodyguards are forced to match my pace.

    Thanks to my pushing, it only takes us an hour to unload the contents of the cart. I hop down with only a little sweat to show for my work while Reel, Lurte, and Ryiba hang onto the side of the cart, wheezing harder than a chain-smoker.

    Lurte and Ryiba seemed to have decent Strength stats, but neither had much Dexterity, making the shoveling harder than it needed to be. Reel was the most helpful, but even he got tired after moving that much ore.

    I’m probably just used to mining with master.

    Now that the easy part is done, I need to talk to Kervin.

    As I walk over to him, Kervin calls out to me. "You were right to kick me out; if I tried to help any longer, the sun would have gone down before we finished."

    I smile at his self-deprecating joke, but I need to move before Reel recovers enough to join us. I walk us farther away from the cart and lean in close to Kervin, whispering in his ear. “Who does Reel work for, Mr. Grey or your boss Giovanni?”

    Kervin looks at me, confused for a second, but answers my question all the same. "He definitely works for Giovanni; why?"

    “Are you sure? It’s really important.”

    “I’m sure,” Kervin replies with certainty. “You’re starting to worry me.”

    I take a step back from Kervin now that I know Reel isn't spying for Mr. Grey; you can never be too sure.

    "Why is my allegiance being questioned?" Reel walks over to us, eyes narrowed. So, he could hear us even at this distance.

    “Just confirming who you’re spying for,” I honestly tell him.

    “Why?”

    "I needed to make sure you weren't on Mr. Grey's payroll." Kervin and Reel are surprised by my answer.

    “Why would that matter?” Kervin asks me.

    I rub the back of my neck. It always sucks telling people how you screwed up.

    “Does it have anything to do with how you got all these materials?” Reel is quick to guess the reason for my problem. He frowns when he sees my reaction. “Did he do something?”

    "I signed a shitty contract with him for the materials, and I got screwed over because I didn't know what to look for."

    "You what!?" Reel reacts just like mom did. Kervin is surprised for a moment, but he has a look of realization before relaxing again.

    “No need to yell,” I complain.

    “There is a reason to yell! Tell me exactly what you signed, word for word!” Reel pressures me.

    “Fine,” I agree before he disturbs master.

    I tell Reel and Kervin the details of the contract I signed. I've read my copy enough I can recall it word for word like Reel wanted me to. By the time I finish telling them the details Reel looks like he's ready to explode with anger.

    "That slimy bastard! Has he forgotten how much he owes to the Turrini family? And those terms, he expected he would be found out eventually!" Reel starts pacing back and forth. "How am I going to tell Giovanni he outmaneuvered us?!"

    Kervin and I are surprised to see this new side to Reel. Reel has always seemed calm and composed no matter the situation; to see him freak out like this is reassuring in its own way, even he can’t hide his emotions all the time.

    “Why are the two of you so calm?! Do you not realize the severity of what you did!?” Reel advances on me with the rage of a thousand suns.

    I know it's horrible of me, but I can't help but mess with him. Ignoring the steaming assassin, I turn to Kervin. "You didn't tell your boss about my skill?"

    Kervin realizes what I'm going for and plays along, happy to get back at the man who always gives him trouble. "Of course not; it isn't my job to give away all your secrets; it's his." Kervin points a finger at Reel. "You should know I always have your best interests at heart."

    "I wouldn't go that far," I roll my eyes at Kervin's over-exaggeration.

    Reel finally catches on that there’s a reason we’re both so calm. “What are you two talking about?”

    Now Kervin ignores Reel and keeps talking to me. “Are you going to tell him?”

    “I don’t have much of a choice, plus I don’t want to deal with Mr. Grey all by myself.” I glance to see if Reel is still worked up, only to see he’s taken a step back and collected himself. Damn, there went my fun.

    “Are the two of you finished now?” Reel folds his arms like a disapproving parent.

    “You’re the one who freaked out without asking for my opinion,” I point out.

    "Fine, that was unprofessional of me," Reel admits without looking like he cares about the apology. "Now, would you please tell me what skill you're referring to?"

    "Nothing much," I hold out my hand and look at my fingertips as if I just got a manicure. "I just have a skill that lets me destroy contracts I've made with people," I casually tell Reel.

    Reels expression slackens into one of shock. “You can do that, even though it was magically signed and everything?”

    “Yep,” I grin.

    Reel straightens himself out and starts walking towards the forest. “I’m going to take a leak.”

    “Tell Giovanni I said hi,” I call out before he enters the trees.

    Reel stops and looks back at me, “I will.”

    Kervin and I are grinning ear to ear.

    "I don't know what you're smiling about," Reel says to Kervin with a straight face. "According to the contract she signed, you're no longer needed after this delivery. It will be a miracle if we aren't ambushed before we reach Drey."

    Kervin’s smile quickly fades away and is replaced with a look of horror. That was a good comeback.

    I turn and ask Kervin, “what were your plans after this?”

    “We were supposed to head straight back to Drey and report to Mr. Grey about the delivery. I was one of the people chosen to stay behind and work under Grey when Drey falls to Scholl.”

    That's not good. Not wanting to rub salt in Kervin's wounds and say the wrong thing, I turn away, only to see Lurte and Ryiba standing nearby. They've gone pale, meaning they've caught enough of the conversation to know what's going on.

    I should do something to break the tension. “You have any tea?” I ask Kervin.

    “What?” Kervin is surprised by my question.

    “Tea, you have any?”

    “Yeah.”

    "Good, you grab the tea, and I'll start a fire and grab a pot out of master's house. I don't know how long Reel is going to take, but I doubt you guys are leaving as soon as you thought you were. Might as well have some tea while we're waiting," I give Kervin a reassuring smile.

    I move to get everything ready before Kervin can disagree with me. He needs something to get his mind off what Reel said.

    “You want some tea?” I call over to master as I stack a few logs in the forge.

    "No," master shouts back without shifting from his laying position. It's a good thing master said no; I don't think he has many cups in his house.

    I look up at the sky to see where the sun is; we still have a while before it starts to get dark.

    I hope Reel doesn't take too long to return. I promised mom and Sandra that I would be later, but none of us can leave until we hear what Giovanni has to say. We can't have our plans messing with each other.

    Gods, I hope the tea helps with what happens next.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,150 words.

    Not sure what to say at the end this time?

    Oh, yeah! Crafting starts again next chapter! Who doesn’t love new gear!

    I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.


    The header is self-explanatory but I want everyone's opinion on something.


    A lot of nice people have been messaging me, saying I should commit to two chapters a week but leave the scheduling open.


    I want to thank everyone for their concern but I know I'm a pretty bad procrastinator and feeling bad about missing a deadline makes sure I sit at my desk and write more. It may not be the healthiest solution, but it works for me.


    I'm always going to aim for Thursday, Sunday releases but I want to know if you guys like the quick notices I've been putting out? Do you want these updates or do you only want me to post chapters?


    "So, which is more fun, helping your mother clean your brother's house or clearing trees with your old man?" Dad gives me a goofy grin as he drags the tree trunk he just fell over to the cart.

    "Honestly?" I ask dad with a straight face, looking like I'm about to drop a major truth bomb on him.

    Dad freezes as he's lifting the lumber into the back of the cart, not expecting my reaction.

    I can't hold my straight face for long, and I quickly smile at his duress. "I'm just messing with you, dad. I've actually enjoyed the time I spent with both of you."

    “I’ve enjoyed it too,” dad mirrors my grin.

    "And I suppose I'm the third wheel in all of this." Dad and I turn to see master grumbling as he drags over a small tree.

    “Kind of hard to forget about you when you complain every five minutes,” I quip.

    "Then next time, don't drag me out of my clearing against my will for two days."

    “I dragged you here?” I raise an eyebrow at master.

    Maser Del doesn't take the bait and instead focuses on the tree he's dragged over. I watch as master lifts his axe over his head and swiftly brings it down, cleanly cutting branches from the tree with each beautiful swing.

    Dad sees me watching Master Del, and not wanting to be outdone, starts cutting up a nearby log. The poor timber stands no chance against father's skills, and soon dad is matching master's pace.

    Boys, having to compete over everything.

    Feeling left out, I contribute by helping load everything they're cutting into the cart master and I usually use to haul ore from the mine.

    While I’m loading everything, I can’t help but compare each of our stats and skills. Dad’s level was around 35 back when he showed Richard and me his stats. He said he grew to level 42 a while ago, so maybe he's 43 or 44 now. Dad was already a Strength build back when I was little, and I'm sure he's already put more points into it.

    “Hey, dad. I’m curious, what’s your Strength stat at these days?”

    Dad pauses working and turns to me before glancing at Del, who's watching us out of the corner of his eye. "You know that's personal information, Aaliyah."

    “And who’s he going to tell?”

    “Hey!” Master sounds a little offended.

    "Oh, I'm sorry, are you going to tell everyone in your knitting club," I cut off master's whining with a lot of sarcasm before turning back to dad. "Please, I'm trying to judge where I'm at stat-wise. I've gained a lot of levels in a short time, and I want to compare it to other people. You invest most of your points into Strength, don’t you?”

    Dad sends another quick look at Del but gives up in the end. "I used to put the majority of my points into Strength, but your mother said she didn't want to outlive me, so she's made sure I put most of my points into Vitality these days."

    I'm surprised to hear that; I'm sure dad is still stronger than me. "But it's higher than 150, right?" I ask.

    Dad nods his head. “My Strength is 168 after my last level up. Why, have you passed me already?”

    He's only 16 points higher than me, but being a beast of a man who chops down trees all day, it's understandable that his overall Strength seems higher than mine. "Not yet," I grin at dad.

    "That's good to hear; I get to keep my pride as a strong father for a little while longer," dad playfully jokes.

    I laugh along with dad, but a few things have become clear to me thanks to that bit of information. Strength is the most common stat villagers and commoners invest in after Vitality. But according to mom, people spread their points out more, unlike focusing on one stat as dad does. The average villager is only around level 35, meaning I'm probably 50% stronger than the average field hand, and that isn't factoring in that not everyone chooses to invest as heavily into Strength as some people do.

    But how strong am I?

    I was able to get my physical stats up to the high 20's through stretching and exercising every day before I started increasing them with my free points. That said, I wasn't pushing myself like pro athletes back on Earth. If I'd have to guess, I'd say a trained athlete would have around 50 points in Strength and Dexterity depending on what sport they were training for.

    If I'm going off numbers, I would be three times stronger than the pros back on Earth. But physical condition can’t be measured on a linear scale. If a basketball player was suddenly made three times stronger, would that equate to him being able to jump three times higher? Would they be able to go from jumping 2.5 feet to 7.5 feet, or would they go higher?

    Then you have to factor in skills. I can run at incredible speeds for an extended period of time, not just because I have high physical stats but also because my running skills help as well.

    I can take dad as an example. There is no way dad has a higher Strength stat than master, yet he can keep pace with him because most of his skills are geared to felling trees while masters aren't.

    “Think and work at the same time!” I Flash Step away from master who suddenly appeared next to me and shouted in my ear.

    “Don’t sneak up on me! I almost swung my axe at you,” I grit my teeth and threaten master.

    “I didn’t sneak up on anyone. You were so caught up in your thoughts you didn’t notice me walk up to you.”

    "No," I say in disbelief. "Was I?" I turn and ask dad's opinion, only to see him coughing into his hand, trying not to laugh at me.

    Damn it, I wasn’t paying attention, and worst of all, both master and dad caught me red-handed.

    Del and dad share a rare moment of camaraderie over my embarrassment and start laughing together. I huff in annoyance and move over to a tree lying on the ground in the distance to get away from the two laughing men.

    I take my time chopping up the tree to regain my composure and wait for the nearby laughter to die down.

    It isn't long before the moment passes, and the two oversized children go back to ignoring one another. This might be the one time I'm happy they still aren't on regular speaking terms. The two will make small talk when mother invites master over to keep her happy, but if they don't have a reason to speak to one another, they won't say a word to each other.

    I shake my head in disapproval. People think women are the ones who hold a grudge the longest, but obviously, they've never seen two hardheaded men fight before.

    It's said to say, but I've given up trying to get them to repair their relationship. I already consider it a win that I can get the two of them to work together when I ask for a favor. Plus, as mom likes to tell me, it isn't my job to fix everything. I did my best; now it's up to the two of them to decide whether or not to bury the hatchet.

    Carrying as much wood as I can, I walk back over to the cart and throw everything in the back.

    “What were you thinking about?” Dad asks me as he walks up next to me and throws his own load of wood into the cart.

    It doesn't sound like he's trying to make fun of me, so I tell him the truth. "I was considering how a person's Strength stat and their skills play into their overall strength."

    “You should’ve asked,” dad smiles at me. “I could’ve saved you some time and told you it’s pointless to ponder someone else’s abilities. Even if you know a person’s stats, skills, and physical condition, the only person who can tell you their limits is the person themselves. Everybody is different, and there are too many factors in what makes us, us. Does that make any sense to you?”

    “You know it does,” I nod with a small smile.

    While dad and I are having our moment, master walks past us carrying a tower of logs and branches. With a small grunt, he easily flings the wood into the cart.

    After seeing that feat of strength, I got to ask. "Hey, master. What's your Strength stat at?"

    Master pretends not to hear my question and moves to pick up more lumber.

    "Oh, come on," I beg in a whiney voice that I know he hates. "You heard dad's, and you know mine. You can't throw everything around like it weighs nothing and expect me not to be curious."

    Master stops picking up the wood and looks at me. He sees the burning fire of curiosity in my eyes and drops everything with a big sigh. “I’m only telling you because I know you won’t leave me alone until I relent.” Master pauses for dramatic effect. “My strength stat is 420.”

    "Holy shit," I swear aloud as my jaw hits the floor. Dad doesn't even say anything because he's just as surprised as I am. I mean, come on; master's Strength stat is almost triple my own.

    Wait! That number doesn't make sense! Master has to have a decent amount of points invested in Dexterity, so are the rest of his stats close to zero? "Are you messing with us?" I narrow my eyes at master.

    Del frowns, "I tell you one of my stats, and you call me a liar!?"

    "But what you said doesn't add up," I defend my reasoning. "The rest of your stats would have to be trash if you invested so heavily into Strength. I've seen your work, and I know that you can sense when I'm approaching you. Unless your level is a lot higher than you sad it was, something is off."

    Master rubs the back of his head. “This is why I didn’t want to say anything.”

    “But?” I want to ask more when dad puts his hand on my shoulder and shakes his head.

    If someone asked me what my biggest character flaw was, I'd have to say it's my curiosity. I know it's rude for me to pressure master to answer my questions but what if he has some secret to boosting his stats or something.

    I try to hold myself back, but I'm practically shaking with curiosity and excitement.

    Dad looks surprised to see me acting like this, but that's because any experiments I do at home are usually while he's out working. Mother has seen me get sucked into my work when I'm trying something new, and master has seen me like this more times than one could count.

    Master relents and gives me a hint. “If you must know, I have more freedom to distribute my points unlike you humans do, especially in regards to Vitality. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject.” That's the hint master gives me before he returns to work.

    While master hauls the rest of the lumber, dad uses a shovel to flatten out some divots in the ground. Even if we removed the trees, a large cart filled with goods would have a hard time traversing the trail if we left the ground uneven.

    I go through the motions of helping my father, but my mind is occupied thinking about what master told me.

    What did he mean about freedom and Vitality?

    Vitality is the most crucial stat; the more you have, the safer you are. Every person focuses on Vitality to keep themselves safe and to live a long life. Was master suggesting he didn’t put many points into Vitality? Everyone needs extra Vitality to live longer.

    No, humans need extra Vitality to live longer.

    Master isn't human; he's a stone kin, a race that naturally lives longer than humans. My parents taught me always to put a few points into Vitality each time I level up to increase my overall lifespan. My Vitality dwarfs my other stats at a staggering 243. If I didn't put as many points into Vitality, I could also have a Strength stat of 300.

    Maybe I should change how I distribute my points in the future? My Vitality is already high enough, so I could focus more on Strength and Dexterity? It’s working fine for master, and his Vitality is probably around 100.

    I stop shoveling when I realize the problem with my master's Vitality. Sure, he already has a longer lifespan thanks to his race, but that doesn't help master in regards to how much damage he can take. Just because he naturally lives longer doesn't mean he won't die if he's stabbed in the heart. In fact, master is the epitome of a glass cannon.

    I worryingly glance at master, and we make eye contact. His expression is easy to read; master doesn't want me to say anything about his weakness. It's no wonder he wanted to remain silent; master has the same Vitality as a level 35 villager. If Del made one wrong move during the goblin extermination or while fighting the chameleon spiders, he would've died before ever making it back to the village for treatment.

    Dad, heedless of my internal plight, decides now is a good time for some small talk. "Why the sudden interest in people's Strength?"

    I'm thankful for dad's sudden interruption; I need the distraction. Master decided to distribute his points as he did, and worrying about the past is pointless. I make a mental note to act as the vanguard next time something happens, but until then, life moves on as it always has been.

    “Are you spacing out again?” Dad playfully asks when I don’t immediately respond.

    "You wish," I smirk back at him. "I was just thinking about something important, is all, but I did hear your question. The reason I'm concerned about my Strength is that I learned how to fly during my run to Drey, but it relies heavily on my Magic and Strength stats." I casually continue working.

    “You what!?”

    “You what!?”

    Father and master echo one another. Both men drop everything that they're doing and crowd around me.

    “Did you say you can fly!?” Dad excitedly shouts in my face.

    "How is that possible?" Master tries to play it cool, but I can see he's interested too.

    “It’s not really flying,” I tell them. “It’s more like running through the sky.” I take great joy in downplaying my accomplishment and the fevered looks I get in return.

    “Show us,” dad demands, looking like a child attending the circus for the first time. Master eagerly nods along with the suggestion.

    Well, I have plenty of Mana and Stamina, and I haven’t had a chance to use my new skill since I unlocked it. It doesn’t take long for me to talk myself into showing off my skill. And thanks to clearing the trees, there’s a break in the canopy I can aim for.

    "Alright, alright," I wave back, father and master. "Give me some room."

    The two men hop back like frightened cats, giving me enough room to activate my skills.

    This is a good chance for me to test out the limits of my leg strength. Instead of running, I bend my legs and prepare to jump straight up without a running head start.

    I push off the ground with tremendous force, trying to get as much air as possible. The ground gets farther away as I use Measurement to gauge how high I can jump.

    As soon as I feel my body start to drop, I activate Air Walk and leap higher into the canopy. My initial leap propelled me eight feet into the air, and I don't need to use Air Walk again until I've climbed another ten feet, reaching nearly eighteen feet above the ground.

    I was right; my skill provides a much more stable footing for me, allowing me to jump higher.

    Father and master shout in surprise as I use my skill again and break through the opening in the canopy. I lose sight of the ground as I climb higher and higher with each step.

    With my sixth step, I estimate I'm close to sixty feet into the air, and I can clearly spot our village. The view is fantastic, but I'm burning through my mana, and I still need to see how far forward I can jump while using my skill.

    I tilt my feet and push off the barrier at an angle, launching myself forward, more than upwards. The wind rushes past my face as I start sprinting through the open sky.

    I circle around the place I came out of the trees while keeping in mind how many steps I've taken and how much mana I have left.

    After my fifteenth step, I reluctantly decide to go back down. I wish I could spend the rest of the day up here, but that's not possible. Yet.

    As I descend back towards the ground below, I promise myself to practice Air Walk every chance I get. I felt my skill level during the testing, and even though it was insignificant, the mana cost did reduce by a fraction of a point. If I can get Air Walk up to a high enough level, I'm sure my treks through the sky will become much longer.

    I have to use my skill two more times during my descent to break my fall, but I touch down right on top of the footprints I left behind when I took off in the first place.

    Both father and Del stare at me in silent amazement. I'm not sure how well they could see me above the tree line, but it must have seen enough because they're frozen in shock. "I still need to practice more, but I think it's a good skill," I haphazardly say while retying my hair. Some strands came loose when I was running, and I'm not too fond of it when it covers my eyes.

    The casual dismissal of what I just did is enough to bring the two men back to Yurilia.

    "That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!" Dad exclaims.

    "I have to agree." Master, who is much more used to seeing me do the impossible, isn't as surprised as father but is no-less impressed by my new skill.

    "It will be cooler when I can use it more continuously," I tell them as I move to finish up our work.

    Dad and Del follow my example while returning my earlier questions tenfold. “What is that supposed to mean?” Dad inquisitively asks, filling in the last pothole.

    I explain while helping master finish loading the last bits of wood into our cart. "I was only up there for a few minutes, and it cost me almost 650 mana."

    “Is that a lot?” Dad asks, unaware of just how much mana I have and how taxing my skills can be.

    “Staying up in the air cost me 63% of my mana pool. So yeah, it’s a lot,” I tell him.

    “Is it worth it?” Master asks from my side.

    I look at master and grin one of my biggest smiles. “Every second of it,” I happily proclaim.

    While we finish with the last parts of expanding the trail to Del's house, I explain how I discovered my new skill and how I fell on my face the first time I managed to use it.

    "Sounds like you," master jokes as we push and pull the cart back towards his clearing. Master is in the front pulling the cart, while dad and I work together to push it from behind.

    The three of us laugh as we roll into master's clearing. We park the cart next to a large pile of wood that's sitting off to the side. The pile represents all the work we did over the last two days; while most of it will be used in the forge, the unburnable stuff will be saved for construction. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few places in the mine the large logs would come in handy.

    It's easy for the three of us to unload the cart, and when everything is done, I stand in front of master and dad. "Thanks for helping me clear the trail. I know you were busy, "I smile at dad. "And I know you don't want people coming to your house," I turn and smile at master. "But despite everything, the two of you came to help, no questions asked." I politely don't bring up the fact master complained most of the time.

    “Anytime, sweety,” dad wraps his arm over my shoulder and drags me into a quick hug.

    I look at master to see what he has to say, but he decides to pretend he only came for himself. "Well, I had to make sure you didn’t cut down all the trees between my house and the village.”

    I smile, knowing master came because I asked him to, whether he wants to admit it or not.

    I wait to see if master and dad will share a handshake or something acknowledging each other's help, but the moment is ruined when I sense someone closing in on master's clearing. "We have company," I warn them.

    The three of us turn towards the trail just as Braddon comes flying into the clearing, looking excited. He glances at us and says only two words before running back down the trail. "They're back!"

    It doesn’t take me long to realize what he meant, Sandra and Richard finally made it back to the village!

    Dad takes an extra minute to process what Braddon just said, but his face lights up like the sun when he comprehends his son is back home. Dad doesn't say anything as he takes off towards the front of the village.

    I'm about to join him when I remember I was just thanking Master, and it would be rude of me to run off without saying anything.

    I turn to apologize to Del, but he waves me off first. "Go see your brother; I'm fine."

    “You could come too,” I offer.

    Del shakes his head. “Too many people; besides, it isn’t my family returning.”

    “Thanks, rest day tomorrow?” I ask as if I don’t already know the answer.

    “Take all the time you need.” Master walks over to his bench and plops down.

    With that taken care of, I turn and activate Double Step. I fly down the renovated trail and pass Braddon and dad when I hit the village. The trail to Del's house is already close to the village's entrance, and it isn't long before I spot the crowd of villagers gathering around the cart pulled by a nearly dead bivol.

    Every villager and their mom try to get close to the cart to congratulate the duo on making it home.

    Everyone knows why Sandra left to study in Drey, and people are excited to see the village's first mage. Magic is the thing every villager secretly yearns for, and many think it can do anything; that's why people who know magic are regarded so highly. Like Anastasia, she can only use a small amount of healing magic, and that's enough for her to be treated better than everyone else.

    I move up to the crowd and ask for people to make way, but everyone is too preoccupied with Sandra and Richard to pay attention to me.

    Fine, I’ll do this the hard way. I use the same method I used to get through the group of people trying to get out of Drey.

    I put my hands together and hold them out in front of me like a snowplow and slowly take a step forward. I don't push hard, but people have no way of holding their ground against me with my stats. With each step I take, the two people directly in front of me are forced to the side.

    A few people turn to yell at me for pushing them, but once they see who I am, their complaining stops fast.

    Soon I'm at the front of the crowd, and I see mother and all of Sandra's family, minus Braddon, are already here smothering the couple with love.

    I can vaguely hear dad shouting at the crowd to let him through behind me, but unless he starts bulldozing his way through like I did, I don't think he's going to make it through that mess of people.

    “Aaliyah!” Sandra notices me and motions for me to join the group hug. I don’t need to be told twice.

    As I hug my best friend, and Sarette who refuses to let go of her daughter, mother notices that I showed up. "Aaliyah, where's your father and Braddon? I thought the two of you were working together?"

    “I think dad is stuck outside the crowd with Braddon.” I point in the direction I last heard dad’s shouting.

    Camden, who's standing nearby, smiling at his happy wife and daughter, chuckles. "We should probably move this reunion elsewhere." Camden climbs up onto the unmanned cart and uses his skill that amplifies his voice. "I want to thank everyone who showed up to congratulate my daughter and Richard's safe return. It means a lot to our families that you care so much. But this cart needs to be moved and this poor bivol taken to the stables. Please make room for us."

    The crowd reluctantly starts to part in front of the beast. Almost as in a trance, the bivol starts slowly walking forward as soon as it has the room. I'll give the beast one thing; it's persistent.

    Also, with the opening, dad and Braddon are able to join everyone. We all walk as a group through the village until we arrive at brother's house. He uncouples the cart, saying he'll unload everything later.

    Next, we take the zombie bivol to the stables. The weird beast obediently walks into the enclosure and stands perfectly still in the middle, content not to do anything.

    “I give that thing a day before it drops dead,” Braddon says what we’re all thinking.

    "I don't know. He brought us all the way from Drey; he's stronger than he looks," Sandra points out to her brother.

    “Anything looks stronger than that bivol,” Braddon jokes.

    We all laugh and start walking towards the headman's house. Sandra and Richard start telling us stories of their time in Drey, which we all attentively listen to, even as we file into Camden's house and into the drawing-room.

    Sarette serves tea, and everyone enjoys each other's company.

    "It sounds like you guys had a good time," Camden comments after one of Richards's stories involving renovating a merchant's shop.

    “It was fun,” Sandra tells her dad. “Plus, we got to know each other better after living together for five years.”

    Camden tries really hard not to let his face cramp up while mother and Sarette share a smile between the two of them.

    “So, does that mean you’re ready to have your wedding ceremony?” Sarette eagerly asks her daughter.

    Sandra and Richard hold each other’s hands, both blushing and nod in agreement.

    Mother and Sarette squeal at such a high pitch I’m surprised the china didn’t shatter.

    “This is wonderful news; we’ll have to start making your wedding cords!” Mother looks so happy. Wedding ceremonies are much more spiritual in this world. The bride and the groom stand in front of their families while a person of power, usually the village head, conducts a ceremony binding the couple together. Each side of the family constructs a colorful tassel used to wrap the couple's hands together, signaling their bond to each other and the gods.

    It’s expected for the women of each family to sew the tassels, so I have a feeling I’ll have to set aside some more time for mom in the future.

    "We have to celebrate!" Sarette exclaims. She stands up and leaves the room, only to come back with a bottle of wine and enough cups for everyone.

    I secretly glance at Sandra and see that she’s looking at the bottle of wine like its poison.

    "You don't have to break out the wine yet, mom." Sandra tries to convince her mother to put the alcohol away, but just like my mother, Sarette doesn't change her mind that easily.

    "Nonsense, this a joyous occasion, our families will finally be united. Oh, we should have the ceremony during the new year's festival! That way, the whole village will have to attend your wedding!" Sarette becomes more excited the more she talks.

    “Food is tight, but we’ll only need one feast if everything is celebrated together.” Sarette continues to talk as she starts pouring cups of wine and passing them out. “I know you haven’t attended your first new year’s festival yet, but I don’t think anyone will mind if you have your first drink now.” Sarette happily hands me my own cup of wine.

    I stare down at the dark red substance wondering how it's going to taste. I wasn't that much of a drinker in my past life, and I distinctly remember hating the taste of wine.

    At least I’m not the only one not excited about the beverage.

    Sandra takes the offered cup from her mother, and I can see her trying to think of a way out of this situation. Richard isn't much better; he looks like he's about to start sweating.

    "A toast to our families finally being united," Sarette holds up her glass, and everyone mimics her. Sarette takes the first drink, followed by everyone else.

    I sip my wine, seeing if it tastes good, and I'm happy to find out it isn't that bad. I'm no wine expert, but it's very fruity, like juice with a kick.

    Everyone but Sandra drinks their wine with a smile. It doesn’t take long for mother and Sarette to notice something is up.

    “Why aren’t you drinking, dear?” Mom asks Sandra.

    Sandra sets her cup of wine on the table without saying anything. Now everyone in the room is aware something is fishy.

    “No!” Sarette shouts, looking at her daughter in disbelief. Slowly everyone realizes what’s going on.

    Funny thing, in this world, almost all forms of science are stuck in colonial times but not medicine. Healing magic has allowed mages to study the human body and what ails it to quite a degree. And the fields of medicine mages have studied the most are poisons, pregnancy, and childbirth, the trifecta of reasons a noble is most likely to call on a healer.

    Needless to say, it has long been known that alcohol is not good for a pregnant woman.

    Camden stands up and is the first to ask. “You’re pregnant!?”

    After Sandra nods, a lot of things happen all at once. Camden's face goes through every emotion possible, briefly stopping at anger when he looks at Richard before settling on happiness for his daughter. Mom and Sarette rush over to Sandra's side, asking the usual questions like how far along she is and all that good stuff.

    “I noticed my mana acting weird, so I saw a specialist a few days before we left Drey. She said I'm only four weeks along," Sandra explains before looking concerned at her mother. "You aren't mad, are you?"

    “Why would I be mad?” Sarette asks, concerned.

    “Because we’re not married yet,” Sandra tentatively explains.

    “Oh, honey,” Sarette smiles at her daughter. “The two of you love each other, right?”

    "With everything," Richard smoothly replies, causing Sandra to turn a deep crimson.

    “Good answer,” Camden growls.

    "Ignore him; my father was just as grumpy when I told him I was pregnant for the first time," Sarette reassures Sandra and Richard. "I can tell by how much you two love each other, that it doesn't matter if you're married yet. Though, it does give us more of a reason to celebrate your union."

    It's beautiful watching such a touching moment. I'm about to wipe a tear from my eye when I notice mom staring at me. "Why weren't you surprised?" She asks me, and the room goes silent.

    "What do you mean?" I try to act clueless.

    “Everyone looked surprised when Sandra nodded to Camden’s question, everyone but you.” Mom, Sarette, Camden, and even dad look at me accusingly.

    I can’t tell them I noticed part of Sandra’s soul doing something weird in her uterus when I met them in the woods.

    I take too long to think of an answer.

    "You knew, didn't you?" Mom sounds sure she already has her answer.

    Well, shit! This is what I get for keeping a friend's secret.

    Worth it.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,550 words.

    How do you think this chapter turned out?

    I decided to stay awake all night to reset my sleep schedule, that way I don't stay up until 4 in the morning and sleep until 2 in the afternoon anymore. That's been my major problem since I started writing full time.

    Sorry, I’m going off on a tangent because I’m sleep deprived.

    The next chapter should be out Sunday, but I'll let everyone know if I need to push it back to Monday.

    I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.


    "I want to thank all of you for coming today." Camden stands slightly above everyone, addressing the whole village with his family standing next to him for support.

    I’m standing with my parents off to the side, more interested in everyone’s reactions to Camden’s speech rather than its contents. Having a village meeting around the start of spring isn't unusual, but it doesn't look like anybody is expecting good news after this last year.

    "We've had a challenging year, but we've grown stronger as we overcame each adversity." Camden pauses for effect, and a few people clap in support.

    Looking around, I see Markus and Ezekiel with sour expressions; the two are aware of what this meeting is really about. Not too far away from the antsy farmers is Anastasia trying to hide her worry behind a mask of indifference.

    "We overcame goblins, magic beasts, and a food shortage, one disaster after another, and we did not falter. Nor will we falter in the future!" Camden raises a proud, defiant hand into the air, but his downcast expression is a stark contrast to what he's saying. Everyone sees the look on Camden's face, and people quickly become antsy.

    “I truly wish I could stand here and tell you things are turning around, congratulate everyone for surviving the frost and the returning of the local wildlife, but it is my job to protect all of you!” I notice how Camden sprinkled in a few positives before he delivers the bad news.

    “It pains me to have to inform everyone that Scholl has taken Fort North Ridge and Teeburn and that they appear to be marching on Drey.” And like a lit powder keg, the villagers explode upon hearing Camden’s news.

    More than a few people start crowding in front of Camden, shouting questions at him. I take a step back with my parents, not wanting to get drawn into the mayhem.

    "Order!" Camden shouts, trying to gain some control over the masses. When people don't respond, Camden is forced to use his crowd control skill. “I will have Order!

    People stop shoving one another, and everything goes quiet.

    "I understand your concerns, and I'm sure many of you have questions, but if you only shout over each other, I can't explain anything to you." I feel Camden retract his skill, and thankfully the mob remains silent. "A little while ago, I received a letter from the earl by the lord of Drey demanding we send supplies to help combat the invading army. Over the next two weeks, we'll harvest the wortel and send part of our harvest to Drey along with any other supplies we can do without."

    "We're starving, and you want to give our food away!?"

    “How can you do this to us!?”

    “You’re dooming us all!” An angry farmer in front of Camden shouts in his face.

    Camden could easily reactivate his skill to handle the situation, but he wisely waits for the people to calm down on their own. Our headman stands in front of everyone like a mountain, unmoving as people hurl accusations and insults at him.

    The villagers quiet down once they realize Camden isn't refuting their claims and is only waiting silently. Once the last person stops talking, Camden addresses everyone. "Do you think I want to send our crops to Drey? Do you think I'm unaware of the challenges we've faced this winter? My family has eaten the same dried meat you have. Do I have to remind you all it was my wife with her bookkeeping that allowed the village to purchase those additional provisions from Kervin? Do you think I want to give away your hard work?"

    “Then don’t!” A brave villager yells out.

    Camden sadly shakes his head. "We received an official order from Earl Vagan. Does anyone suggest we ignore it?" Camden scans the crowd, and anyone he makes eye contact with looks down in defeat. Everyone knows it would be treason to ignore the earl's orders outright.

    Looking at how the crowd is responding, I see Camden in a new light. It's honestly amazing how he can manipulate everyone so easily. Camden seamlessly shifted all the blame onto big brother. Blaming your superiors is the oldest trick in the book, and the villagers are eating it up. Instead of blaming Camden for everything, people will direct their anger at the faceless nobles, demanding we hand over our food.

    "What will we do for food?" A concerned woman asks Camden as he's looking over the crowd.

    "It will be difficult, but together, our village will overcome this challenge, just like the others. Thanks to everyone's hard work this winter removing trees; our fields have increased by nearly 20%. And as I said earlier, our hunters have spotted tracks indicating animals are moving back into the forest now that the spiders are gone. We'll have to continue rationing until the new year’s harvest, but we should be able to meet the earl's demands." Camden informs everyone with a reassuring smile.

    Again, Camden used the word demands when referring to the earl’s request while holding back information. He isn’t mentioning how it wasn’t just food the earl asked for and tactfully leaves out how us high-leveled people would also need to leave the village.

    I notice Camden can keep up a confident appearance talking about our food problems because he knows that by the time our supplies near Drey, the city will already be lost to Scholl, and our 'war donations' will be brought back home.

    “How long do you think the war will last?” Another person asks.

    “Yeah, what if Drey wins quickly and sends Scholl packing?” I hear Lucas’s voice cut through the crowd. The junior hunter is too optimistic for his own good.

    Camden finds me in the crowd and makes eye contact; it's his way of asking for permission to use my name again. I lightly nod, giving Camden permission to talk about my experience in Drey.

    “I thought the same thing,” Camden tells everyone. “What if Scholl can be defeated? Drey is much more secure than Teeburn, so I asked Aaliyah to visit Drey on my behalf. I’m sad to say her opinion of the city was not good.”

    People start whispering to each other, and the villagers closest to me steal glances in my direction.

    "Based on what Aaliyah saw, Drey is in the middle of a mass evacuation. Merchants are fleeing the city while the guard is preparing for war. It doesn't appear Drey will have an easy time defending against Scholl."

    That might just be Camden’s biggest understatement yet. He makes it sound like Drey stands a chance when I’m willing to bet the city will surrender once Scholl’s commander sneezes in their direction.

    “Then what happens if Scholl comes to our village? What if they bring an army?" A lady named Marry asks, holding her eight-month-old boy in her arms while standing close to her husband. The only reason I recognize her is that she's the latest person in our village to give birth, and babies are a hot topic in a small village.

    Camden keeps a straight face, but I can tell that he was ready for this question. "Our village is the deepest village in The Endless Forest; I don't see Scholl marching their armies out here," Camden reassures the concerned mother.

    "Of course, that doesn't mean an inspector or small platoon of Scholl's soldiers won't come to see the village. If that should happen, I want to make it clear that we, as a village, need to be accommodating but firm." Camden notices he lost a few people, so he explains. "If anyone from Scholl arrives at our village, we should treat them with respect and offer no insult. However, if Scholl comes looking to attack us… well, our village was able to slay the goblin horde after all."

    “Before any of you panic, let me tell those of you who don’t know, Salus is building an armory for our village. Again, thanks to Aaliyah’s hard work, we have a collection of spears in case anything attacks the village. She has kindly been donating her work ever since the goblin incident,” Camden praises me in front of the entire village.

    I feel my cheeks heat up as a lot of people offer me praise, and even a few cheers. Mother and father each support me with a hand on my shoulder, keeping me from hanging my head in embarrassment.

    "I know how difficult this last year has been; it was probably the most challenging in our village's history. It seems like one disaster follows us after another, but I refuse to look at it that way!" Camden boldly proclaims. "After each disaster, our village has grown stronger. The younger generation is leveling at unprecedented rates, and we've cleared more land this year than in all the time I've been headman combined. We may face more danger in the future, but thanks to everything we've been through, we're more prepared than ever!"

    I watch as more and more villagers get sucked into Camden's speech. Even though he hasn't solved anything, thanks to Camden's magnetism, the people feel at ease and reassured that everything will be alright.

    I’m conflicted over how I should be feeling. I understand Camden’s manipulation is vital for the village's survival, but that doesn't help remove the bad taste in my mouth.

    When I lived back on Earth, I never cared for politics. Everything seemed needlessly complicated and drawn out, leaving me, like many others, uninterested in what our elected officials were doing, content to go home and tune out the world.

    Though I admit there were many faults with the government in my past life, transparency wasn’t one of them. There were always people fighting for each side of an argument making it hard for leaders to hide information from the public.

    I see now how information is truly the most valuable thing in any world.

    The only way my fellow villagers hear anything about the outside world is through Camden. Though they may question him at times, he’s their only source for information. I wonder if anyone is even contemplating the option that Camden didn’t tell them everything?

    A part of me wants to tell everyone the truth about Scholl and how they’re going to take Drey, but I know that will only open up a new can of worms, that quite honestly, I don't think the village is ready for.

    I believe Camden made the right choice, but is it right for me to withhold everything I know based solely on what I believe to be right? I don't have long to ponder over the issue regarding the freedom of information before Camden starts to wrap things up.

    "I don't want to keep anyone here longer, so I'll end the meeting with this. As a village, we can overcome anything as long as we work together!" Camden says with a proud look on his face.

    I think his speech and delivery were a little cheesy, but the villagers love it. Many people still walk up to Camden with questions as the crowd starts to disperse, but they aren't as aggressive as when he started.

    Sarette is waving mother over, probably wanting her to join her for tea and discuss everything Camden talked about. Mom shakes her head no and mouths later to her friend. Sarette pouts before reluctantly nodding at mother. I'm surprised mother doesn't want to stay and talk with her friend.

    “I think it’s time we go home,” mom remarks.

    “Yeah, I got to go to work,” dad grumbles. “Have to prepare the land around the fields some more.”

    Mother moves in and kisses dad before the three of us separate. Dad starts walking over to the fields while mother and I walk home together.

    The two of us don't say anything to one another all the way home. After we walk through the front door, I kick off my shoes and change into my slippers. Well, time to get started on my punishment.

    I start walking to the back of the house, thinking I should start with mom and dad's room first, then work my way across the house.

    “Are you going to start cleaning?”

    Why is mom asking me that? “Yeah, I’m going to do your room first,” I tell her.

    “Alright then,” mom says in a passive tone.

    This is weird. Usually, mom likes to act scary or intimidating when I'm being punished, but something feels off. It almost seems like mom doesn't care about my punishment anymore.

    Even if mom’s heart isn’t in it, I’ll still clean the house anyways. I do feel bad about using my skills on her, and I can just consider this magic training.

    I walk into mom and dad's room and take note of where everything is. Once I cast my spell, I'll need to clean everything in a specific order; that way, I don't re-dirty anything by accident.

    I quickly measure the dimensions of the room with my Measurement skill and calculate where the center is. My cleaning spell expands from my body; so as to not waste my mana, I need to be in the center of the room when I cast my spell.

    The center of my parent’s room happens to be the bottom left corner of their bed, giving me a comfortable place to sit and work my magic.

    I activate Mediation and focus on my mana network. It’s nice taking the time to feel my mana before casting my spell. The last few weeks, I've been incredibly busy, and I haven't spent as much time meditating as I would've liked to have.

    Once I feel that everything is ready, I cast my spell.

    “Ahyt ls weem appiss!”

    Still in meditation, I track my mana as it forms my spell. When I see my cleaning spell ready to activate, I use Empowered Spell. I watch carefully as my skill forms under my spell and slowly inflates like a balloon as I pour my mana into it. As my skill grows larger, it merges with the spell and stretches it while mixing with the extra mana.

    This is the first time I've taken the chance to study how Empowered Spell affects my magic, and it's interesting to see how it works. I want to watch as I pump more of my mana into my skill, but I need to see how much space my spell covers in the real world.

    I open my eyes and nearly lose control over my spell when I see my mother standing off to the side. Thankfully, I have excellent control over my mana, and I keep the spell from crumbling.

    I know this is her room, but I'm curious as to why mother chose now of all times to come into her room. Before I let my curiosity get the better of me, I need to finish my spell. The white barrier indicating where my spell is going to clean has already covered 80% of the room. Pumping a little more mana into my skill, the barrier expands, covering the parent's entire bedroom is in a soft white glow.

    I stop putting mana into my Empowered Spell skill, and the cleaning spell activates.

    Mom's room turns into an evil snow globe as it starts raining black flakes. My spell didn't just clean the parent's furniture but the ceiling, walls, and floor as well. Mom and I watch as over 20 years of dirt, dust, and cobwebs peel away from the rafters above.

    Of course, not all the black flakes neatly fall to the floor, meaning I'll have to dust off the remaining debris from the ceiling and walls before I can get to anything else. Clean top to bottom, they say.

    But before I get to that, I turn to mom. “Do you need something out of your room?”

    She ignores my question and glances around the room. “We’ll need a broom to get up high first.”

    "What?" I ask, confused.

    Mother shakes out her hair to remove all the black flakes that fell on her and ties it up. "I think it was obvious; I'm going to help you. Wait here while I grab the supplies." Mom exits the room without saying anything else, leaving me standing there confused about what's going on. I thought this was my punishment?

    Mom quickly returns with a broom and the cleaning pail with some rags. She hands me the broom like nothing is wrong with her being here.

    I stare down at the broom in my hands.

    "If you want to finish today, you might want to get started," mom tells me with a smile.

    After being reminded what I'm supposed to be doing, I use the broom to dust the rest of the black flakes off the ceiling and walls.

    Next, we shake out the bed sheets and wipe down the bedposts, all while awkwardly not talking to each other.

    Together we clean everything from the parent’s clothes trunks to every inch of the floorboards. Overall, I’d say it only took us twenty minutes to clean the room.

    From the doorway, mother and I take a minute to look at our handiwork. Everything looks brand new; every plank of wood, whether it's part of the floor or ceiling, looks like it was freshly cut today. The brass hinges on mother and father's trunks sparkle with a golden glow you only see when you pull it fresh out of the forge.

    I check my mana pool. Casting the extended cleaning spell cost me around 190 mana, about eight and a half times the amount of mana I usually use to activate my spell. I used Extract Mana the whole time we were cleaning to help regain some of my mana, bringing my overall cost to clean a room down to about 180 mana.

    I'll need to cast the spell another two times to clean my room and the hallway, which will bring my mana pool down to 480. Depending on how much mana it takes to clean our living space and kitchen, I might need to rest for a few hours before I can finish the house.

    “One room down,” I remark.

    “Then let’s move on to the next one,” mom picks up the cleaning supplies and walks into my room. I silently follower her, still questioning why she’s helping me.

    I know my room by heart, so after I set the broom I'm carrying down, I move to the center of my room and renter my meditative state. But it's much harder to focus this time, knowing mom is in the room watching me.

    Aww, screw it! I drop Meditation and turn to mother. "Why are you here?" I finally ask her.

    Mom's eyes widen in surprise at my sudden question, but she quickly catches her bearings. "Do you not want my help?" She coyly asks.

    I frown in frustration. “You know what I mean. Is it that you think I won’t do my job correctly or something?”

    Mother slightly reels back, looking hurt by my accusation. “I know you would never do that.”

    I can’t help but raise my voice. "Then, why are you here? It's honestly distracting, and I can't afford to mess up with my magic if I want to finish cleaning our house today."

    A look of sadness flashes across mom's face, "I'm sorry if I'm distracting you; I was just hoping we could use this time to talk."

    Now I’m the one who’s surprised. “What about; is it my punishment?”

    For a change, mom appears unsure of what to say. “That and other things,” she answers.

    This doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a quick conversation. “Alright, but give me a minute to cast my magic.” Mom nods in understanding and takes a step back to give me some extra space.

    It takes longer than the first time, but I eventually manage to cast my spell after focusing for five minutes. My spell’s white light coves everything in my room, and I can see how much filth has accumulated over the years. I take pride in how well I've kept my room clean since Richard moved out, but apparently I haven't been doing that good of a job because my room is covered with almost the same number of black flakes as my parents' room was. The only exception I can see is that my clothes and bed are less dirty because I regularly clean them with my magic.

    “Your clouds are gone,” mother points out to me.

    Looking up, I can see that she’s right. I guess my spell considered my old paintings as stains.

    "That's unfortunate; I always liked seeing your clouds." I hear a hint of sadness in my mother's voice.

    “I’ll have to paint some new ones then. Maybe they’ll actually look like clouds this time,” I joke as I grab the broom and start cleaning my walls and ceiling.

    “I guess that’s another sign that you’re growing up,” mother sighs and starts helping me clean my room. I don’t know how to respond to that, so I keep quiet and clean.

    “It feels like my little girl is growing up faster each time I see her. Running off on her own.” Is mom going through a mid-life crisis or something?

    I feel now is a good time to apologize for using my skill on her and dad. "Hey, mom, I'm sorry how I acted before I left for Drey. I shouldn't have used my skills on you and dad."

    Mom doesn't look at me, but I see her shaking her head. "We didn't give you much of a choice, did we?"

    I freeze in place; did mom just admit she was wrong? “What are you saying, mom?”

    She turns towards me with a downcast expression. “I know I haven’t been as supportive as I should’ve been. You’re growing up and making your own decisions now. It’s just hard always watching you throw yourself into danger.”

    I rub the back of my head. “I don’t exactly go looking for trouble.”

    "But you don't avoid it either," mom points out, and I don't have a counter-argument for that.

    “So, this punishment,” I trail off.

    “Was time set aside for us to talk,” mom matter-of-factly answers.

    "We could've just talked after dinner, or I could've set some time aside for you."

    "Oh, really?" Mom glares at me, skeptically. "Tell me then, what were your plans if I didn't tell you to clean the house? Would we have had time to talk?"

    I look away, knowing she has a point.

    "That's what I thought. I know how hard my baby works, and it's difficult for me to ask you to set time aside for me." Mom finishes wiping down my dresser and the shelf I keep some of my favorite rock samples on.

    I have been taking fewer vacation days recently. Even though I don’t have much work to do at master's, I still spend the day trying to figure out how to make engraving ink. Have I been falling back into my old habit of overworking myself?

    Shaking out my sheets, we only have the floor left to clean. I start sweeping while mother grabs the bucket of water. “I’m afraid one of these days you’re going to leave the village and never come back.”

    I want to disagree with her, but anything I say would be a worthless platitude. This world is dangerous, but I have no intention of spending my whole life in this village.

    "I want to tell you that will never happen, but one day I do plan on leaving the village, not forever, but I want to see the world and all the magical things it contains."

    Mom and I stop cleaning for a moment and just stare at one another.

    “I would expect nothing less,” mom tells me in a sad yet proud tone.

    "I can promise you this, though," I tell mom. "It will be a few more years before I leave this village, and even when I do leave, you can still expect letters detailing where I am. I promise I won't disappear on you," I reassure her.

    “I guess I can accept that.” Mom wipes away tears forming under her eyes. “This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop worrying about you and scolding you when you do something stupid.”

    "I wouldn't have it any other way." I walk over to mom and give her a big hug. "Does this mean you're going to stop forbidding me to do things?" I whisper in mom's ear.

    "It's your life to live," mom responds. "But don't think I won't tell you how I feel about whatever stupid or dangerous thing it is you are doing. I am a mom, after all."

    “Deal,” I quickly agree.

    We stay together for a few minutes before separating and getting back to work; we have a house to clean after all.

    **********

    I lie down on my bed and stare up at my blank ceiling.

    Today didn't pan out like I thought it would but clearing the air with my mother was the best thing I could've hoped for. Knowing mom isn’t going to try and forbid me from doing things anymore is a load off my shoulders.

    After our heart to heart, we spent the rest of the day cleaning together, and if I'm being honest with myself, it was the best day I've had in weeks.

    I ended up needing to take a break and recharge my mana after we finished up the hallway, but mom and I spent the time talking, and the time just flew by.

    Now our whole house looks brand spanking new, and it's only the second good thing that came out of today.

    Putting aside the progress I made with mom and having the house so clean you could eat anywhere off the floor, a handful of my skills leveled up, finally pushing me into level 73.

    I can’t help but smile at my status page after I distribute my ten status points.

    LV: 73 Experience:12,783/ 956,780

    Health: 2,430/2,430

    Stamina 1,431.88/1,650

    Mana:317.54/1,020

    Vitality: 243.00

    Endurance: 100.00

    Strength: 152.00

    Dexterity: 150.00

    Senses: 62.32

    Mind: 65.09

    Magic: 102.48

    Clarity: 78.56

    Status Points: 0

    Skills:

    Tier 1:

    Meditation (LV78), Running (LV76), Blacksmithing (LV69), Hammer Skills (LV57), Axe Skills (LV55), Cleaning (LV53), Chanting (LV50), Mining (LV48), Drawing (LV46), Trading (LV45), Cooking (LV40), Dagger Skills (LV31), Wood Carving (LV31), Acting (LV32), Sword Skills (LV31), Sewing (LV24), Pugilist Skills (LV4), Spear Skills (LV2), Alchemy (LV2)

    Tier 2:

    Sense Mana (LV79), Double Step (LV61), Charm (LV50), Measurement (LV46), Hammer Arts (LV41), Axe Arts (LV36), Writing (LV32), Intimidating Shout (LV31), Mathematics (LV30), Increase Price (LV21), Lower Price (LV20), Steady Hands (LV16), Dagger Arts (LV12), Sword Arts (LV14), Gourmet (LV7), Marching (LV5), Shout of Valor (LV3),

    Tier 3:

    Expel Mana (LV62), Mana Manipulation (LV60), Precise Strike (LV40), Double Strike (LV40), Weighted Strike (LV37), Flash Step (LV21), Contract (LV7)

    Tier 4:

    Mental Resistance (LV53), Mana Skin (LV53), Inject Mana (LV52), Extract Mana (LV32), Magic Blacksmithing (LV25), Empowered Spell (LV12), Air Walk (LV1)

    Tier 5:

    Sense Soul (LV39), Soul Manipulation (LV6)

    Tier 6:

    Soul Devourer (LV2)

    Increased Skill Levels

    Cleaning (LV52-53) 5,250exp

    Cooking (LV40) 2,000exp

    Extract Mana (LV32) 8,000exp

    Empowered Spell (LV10-12) 8,250exp

    Sense Soul (LV39) 19,500exp

    Skill Experience: 43,000exp

    Crafting Experience: 819exp

    Fighting Experience: 0exp

    Total-experience Gained: 43,819exp

    I put five points into Dexterity, two into Strength, and three points into Vitality.

    Sense Soul leveled up after I gathered all the contract fragments two days ago and the rest of my skills leveled today while cleaning and helping mom make dinner. I even got a few experience points for all my hard work.

    I'm happy about everything I gained today, but now that I'm lying in bed, I'm kicking myself for not waiting to distribute my status points until tomorrow morning. After using so much mana today, my head feels empty. But thanks to distributing my status points, my body feels more awake and energized than ever.

    I want to go to sleep, but I'm not physically tired. I can't even cheat by going into my soul because that won't help alleviate my mental fatigue. I'd go for a run around the village, but the sun has long since set, and I don't want to freak out the hunters on night patrol.

    I’ll just have to meditate here and hope my body decides it’s tired soon.

    Still, overall a good day.

    *********

    Silvia’s (Aaliyah’s Mom) Point of View:

    “Judging how neither of you yelled at each other during dinner, I’d say your talk with Aaliyah went well.” Darrius pulls me closer to him.

    "It was nice spending the whole day with her," I smile, thinking about the time I spent with our daughter.

    "Did you talk about how we decided to respect her decisions more?”

    I reach out and touch my husbands' arm, fallowing it down until I find his hand. Darrius takes my hand in his own and gives it a supportive squeeze. "I told her I would still give her my opinion on everything."

    Darrius chuckles, “I don’t think Aaliyah would’ve believed you if you said you would support her with no strings attached.”

    I try to hit Darrius with my free hand, but pounding on his chest is like hitting a tree with my Strength. Darius laughs harder when I stop because my strikes aren't doing anything.

    “She wants to leave the village,” I mumble.

    Darrius stops laughing and leans in close to me. "Is she planning to leave in the next few months?" He asks, concerned.

    “No, she said she wouldn’t leave for a few more years.”

    Darrius lets out a loud sigh of relief. "You scared me there; I thought she wanted to leave now."

    "Not now, but she does want to leave."

    “We already expected that,” Darrius reminds me. “Once that girl learned how to walk, we knew our small village was never going to be able to contain her.”

    “But what if something happens to her?”

    "What if something happens to her here?" Darrius questions me. "We let Richard leave the village, and he was a much lower level than Aaliyah."

    "Yes, but Richard was only leaving the village for a few years, and he had Sandra there to keep him in line. Aaliyah may be strong, but Strength and stats aren't everything, just look how that bastard Grey tricked her into signing that contract."

    Darrius leans in and kisses my neck. "Do you think keeping Aaliyah here will help her reach her full potential?"

    “No,” I reluctantly reply.

    "When the year rolls over, Aaliyah will participate in the new year festival, and she'll be considered an adult. We discussed what would happen if we tried to hold her back."

    "I know," I say in a tiny voice. We've been discussing the same thing since Aaliyah went on her last trip to Drey. It was apparent that if we didn't respect Aaliyah's decisions more, we would lose our daughter. "Why couldn't she be more like her brother and pick a nice village boy to settle down with."

    Darrius scoffs at the idea, and I can't help but giggle myself. No matter how much I wish for Aaliyah to have a quiet life, I know that will never be her.

    “The only thing we can do is try to steer her towards good decisions and support her choices,” Darrius whispers in my ear.

    "You steer; I'll point out the direction," I tell him.

    "And I'll be there to remind you not to go overboard," Darrius pulls me up against him and kisses me before I can retort. He always does this when he wants to end an argument.

    Our lips part, and I feel my body relax in his embrace before sleep starts to take me. I drift to sleep happy I was able to make up with my daughter.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,350 words.

    It’s after… noon, but before midnight. Ergo I'm still technically on time. That's my reasoning, and I'm sticking to it.

    Ok, so a lot of people commented on Aaliyah's mom, and I hear you loud and clear. I always wanted Aaliyah to have a strong and loving mother, but I see how I might have taken it a little too far in the last couple of chapters, hence this one. Don't get me wrong, Silvia will still be a loving and outspoken mom, but she's coming to terms with Aaliyah's growth.

    I hope you enjoyed the chapter, I'm thinking Thursday for the next one, so I can get back to my previous release schedule.

    As always, stay safe out there.


    Quick Update:

    I forgot that Aaliyah used her magic to clean her parents at the end of Ch 62, so I went back and rewarded the last chapter to reflect that.

    **********

    RUN AWAY!

    My highly trained instincts scream at me to flee as soon as possible. I know better than to turn around and glance back at the monster behind me. Digging my boots into the ground, I prepare to launch myself into the distance with everything I have.

    Just as I’m about to execute my escape, the gods see fit to throw a wrench at me in the form of a smiling Nicolas. “Aaliyah! Good to see you back. Morning Mis Silvia.”

    Nicolas happily walks up to me without noticing my tensed posture, greeting me and my mother, who I’m assuming is standing in our doorway.

    “Father heard you were back already. If you’re free, could I ask you to join us at our house? The whole family is interested to hear about your journey to Drey. Oh, where are my manners? Would you like to…?”

    "Perfect timing, Nicolas; let's go see your dad." I interrupt the fool before he invites mother to join us. I spin Nicolas around and start pushing him towards his house before he accidentally gets me killed.

    “But I was just about to...?” Nicolas stumbles over himself as I push him harder into the distance.

    I don’t hear anyone following us, so I look over my shoulder to see if we’re in the clear, hoping the dragon retreated to its den.

    I'm forced to swallow a lump in my throat when I see that mother is still standing in our doorway, smiling at my retreating figure.

    I almost pick Nicolas up in a bid to run away faster.

    My body finally untenses and I quit pushing Nicolas as soon as we round the closest building, putting us out of sight from mother.

    "What was that all about?" Nicolas asks, confused about the situation.

    “Don’t ask,” I flatly tell Nicolas as I start walking towards his house.

    “But?”

    I turn on the future leader of our village. “D-O-N-T A-S-K,” I slowly spell it out for him with fire in my eyes.

    Nicolas rapidly nods his head and doesn’t say anything further during the short trek to the headman’s house. Pushing Camden's front door in and walking over to the drawing-room almost feels second nature at this point.

    "Aaliyah, dear!" Sarette springs from her seat and swiftly moves in to hug me as soon as I walk into the room.

    “Welcome back,” Camden offers me a greeting from his seat, content to let his wife be the hands-on one.

    “It’s good to be back,” I say half-heartily, still not having emotionally recovered from my last encounter with mom.

    Sarette pulls back from me and looks me over. "Is everything ok?" Crap, I forgot she's just as perceptive as mom. Sarette looks over to Nicolas, who walks past us and joins a spot next to his brother before frowning. “Did your mother not come with you?”

    It's hard keeping my body from shivering at the mention of my mother.

    “I tried inviting her, but…”

    "I already discussed everything with my parents earlier," I cut off Nicolas before he can throw me under the cart.

    Nicolas looks like he’s ready to say something else but stops when I give him a death glare.

    Sarette looks between her son and me before a sly look of realization crosses her face. "That's ok; I'm sure your mother will stop by later." Sarette gestures for me to take a seat.

    Camden doesn’t waste much time, only waiting to start asking me questions until my butt touches the seat. “If you’re back early and uninjured, I assume your run went well?”

    I lean back into my seat and wait a few seconds to answer. "Yes, and no," I tell everyone in the room.

    Camden leans forward, “did something happen?”

    "I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first?"

    Camden turns to his wife, and they share a silent moment between the two of them before turning back to me. "The good news first, please."

    A smile crosses my face. “The good news is that Sandra and Richard are doing fine. I ran into them on my way to Drey. They left Drey before the news about Scholl taking the fort reached the city.”

    “They’re on their way here!? My baby’s almost home!” Sarette shouts with joy.

    I know it's terrible of me, but I giggle at Sarette's antics, knowing Richard and Sandra aren't exactly going to be home soon.

    "What?" Sarette quickly notices me, trying to hold back my laughter.

    "It might be longer than you think before the two of them make it home," I tell her.

    I go into detail explaining how Richard and Sandra are traveling with the slowest bivol I’ve ever seen and that it could take them days before they make it back to the village.

    Camden and Sarette stare at me with mouths open in shock when I finish telling them everything while Sandra’s brothers are trying not to fall over laughing at their sister’s misfortune. Being a good friend, I make a mental note to tell Sandra how her brothers laughed upon hearing her dismay. I mean, we younger sisters have to stick together.

    Camden and Sarette slowly come out of their stupor and share a small laugh at the situation.

    After a few minutes of everyone enjoying the news of our family members' inevitable return, Camden asks me with a hopeful voice, "I don't suppose that was the bad news?"

    The laughter fades when I don't say anything.

    "That's unfortunate," Camden anxiously rubs the back of his neck. "Well, don't keep me waiting; what's the bad news?"

    I make eye contact with Camden and decide to rip the band-aid off. "Scholl started their march on Drey two days ago."

    "Already?" Camden asks in disbelief. "Are you sure?"

    I nod, confirming his fears. “I got the information from Mr. Grey, a branch manager from Silver Herd, so I'm sure the intel is accurate."

    “Is there any chance Drey will be able to hold out against Scholl?”

    “Not a chance,” I confidently tell Camden. “Everyone of importance is fleeing the city as we speak.”

    I tell everyone how I witnessed the guards taking bribes and how all the merchants were either running away or shoring up their businesses. Everyone becomes shocked, the more I tell them just how bad the city was while I was there.

    Camden leans back into his chair and ponders over everything I just told him. “If you talked to the branch manager in Drey, did he mention how Silver Herd is handling the situation?”

    “Silver Herd is taking the same approach we discussed earlier and pulling back their people for the time being. I bet they’re waiting to see how Scholl manages the city after they take it and what their plans are in general.”

    "So, you think we should wait for the city to fall?" Camden asks me for my opinion.

    "More now than ever," I respond. "Probably in less than two weeks, Drey and its surrounding villages, which includes us, will be under new leadership. If our loyalty is questioned in the future, we just have to say we sent a cart of supplies, but by the time it reached the city, Scholl had already taken over. If that wasn't enough, Mr. Grey gave me the impression that he thinks our village should stay secluded and avoid what's to come altogether."

    “That might be our best option,” Camden lets out a deep sigh.

    "You should call for a village meeting later today or tomorrow morning," I offer my thought on the matter.

    “Do we even need to tell the village?” Brandon asks. “Wouldn’t it be better if they stay ignorant of the situation? People might panic if we tell them Scholl is invading.”

    “That’s all the more reason to tell everyone,” I flatly respond to Sandra’s second brother.

    “Why?” Braddon gives me a challenging look for an explanation.

    “She’s right,” Nicolas cuts in between us. “The village needs to know what’s happening. No matter how you look at it, Scholl will be our new ruler soon. If they come to the village and no one is aware of what's happening, we could have a major problem on our hands."

    “People could die,” Camden looks up from his chair at his two sons.

    “And we’ll lose all the trust we’ve built over the years,” Sarette points out to everyone.

    “Plus, there is the long game we have to think about,” I add. Everyone gives me a puzzled look, not understanding what I mean. “All your reasons are important for the short-term, but I'm thinking about what might happen in the future. What if, in a few years, Olebert retakes everything? If any of the villagers are questioned why they didn't support Olebert, it will become quickly apparent they had no idea what was happening."

    "All the blame would go to," I look at Camden, who's gone a little pale. I don't need to finish my sentence.

    Camden clears his throat. “Aaliyah is right; we need to tell the village what's happening. We'll keep it a secret that we plan on dragging our feet until Scholl conquers Drey. But we'll still have the village prepare supplies that we'll 'send to Drey.'" Camden stresses the last part.

    Everyone in the room nods in understanding.

    "Nicolas, Braddon, I want the two of you to spread the word that there will be a village meeting first thing tomorrow morning and that attendance is mandatory." Camden gives orders to his two sons, who both nod in understanding.

    Camden turns his attention to me. "When I explain everything to the village, I'll mention your experience in Drey. Is that alright?"

    “Do what you have to,” I tell him.

    “Thank you for everything,” Camden bows his head towards me.

    "Oh, stop," I tell him, feeling a little bashful. "We're practically family, and I love this village as much as you do."

    “Awwww,” Sarette gets up from her seat next to her husband and moves over towards me, and wraps me in another hug.

    “That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day,” Camden remarks with a smile. “Is there anything else you can think of before I send my boys off to notify the village?”

    "Anything else?" I stop and think. Have I forgotten anything? I informed them of Scholl, Drey, and when Sandra should be back; does anything else matter? My deal with Mr. Grey is my business, and I don't plan to do anything about it until Kervin drops off my last delivery.

    Oh, shit! I forgot to mention Silver Herd will be pulling back their deliveries for the next few months.

    "What is it?" Camden notices I thought of something.

    “Well, there might be one thing I forgot to mention,” I sheepishly reply. “Kervin is delivering a large supply of materials for me around the same time Sandra and Richard are supposed to return to the village.”

    “And why is that something I need to be concerned about?” Camden raises an eyebrow in suspicion.

    “I told you how Silver Herd is recalling their people, well, the delivery Kervin is bringing me will be the last one for a while.”

    "Come again?" Camden doesn't look too happy to hear the village is losing one of our best assets. Having a merchant regularly come to our village has played a significant role in everybody's lives. It was thanks to Kervin that we were able to get enough meat when the chameleon spiders drove the local wildlife away.

    "Silver Herd doesn't want to draw suspicion towards our village. After Kervin drops off my supplies, we'll need to send people to Drey if we need to purchase anything like every other village."

    Camden brings his hands up to his face and rubs his temples. “That’s just great.”

    Sarette releases me and moves back over to her husband to offer her support. “It will be ok; didn’t Braddon just tell you a few nights ago that the hunters noticed fresh game tracks near the village?”

    "That's right, dad," Braddon helps to relive Camden's worries. "Now that spring is here, the animals the spiders scared away are returning to their hunting and grazing grounds."

    “And don’t forget our fields are rapidly expanding thanks to all the trees being cut down. This year we’ll have our largest harvest ever,” Nicolas exclaims.

    Not wanting to feel left out, I offer my own words of encouragement. "Our village has overcome everything thrown at us this year. You think not seeing Kervin for a few months is going to break us?”

    Camden looks up at me, and I can see his mood brighten up. "You're right; not having a merchant visit our village isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Our village will do just fine by ourselves. It's good that you told me about this now so that I can cover it during the village meeting tomorrow."

    “Sorry I forgot to mention it sooner,” I apologize for my oversight.

    “It’s fine… but that is the last thing, right?” Camden hesitantly asks.

    Everybody in the room turns to look at me like they're daring me to give them any more bad news. I wave my hands and shake my head, "that's everything, I promise."

    It’s funny to see Sandra’s entire family let out a collective sigh of relief.

    "Now that all the important stuff is taken care of, would you like to have some tea with me, Aaliyah?" Sarette gives me one of her beautiful smiles.

    It's tea time already!? I need to get out of here before mom shows up. "That's very generous of you, but I still need to visit Master Del and let him know I made it home ok." I move to leave the room.

    Sarette frowns for a moment before she starts smiling at me again. “Maybe tomorrow then with your mother.”

    “That sounds nice,” I lie through my teeth. I face Camden, “thanks for having me.”

    “It should be I thanking you,” Camden chuckles. “I’ll see you at the meeting tomorrow.”

    "Of course, and I'll tell master about it, so Nicolas and Braddon don't need to walk all the way out there." I wave goodbye to everyone and quickly exit the drawing-room.

    I take brisk steps until I'm at their front door, and as soon as I'm outside, I take off towards the nearest tree line. Thank goodness I didn't accidentally run into mother; I'm not ready to know what she thinks my proper punishment should be. Mother is usually quite fair, but she can be vindictive at times, and she knows me well enough to come up with a punishment that takes into account my skills and status.

    No, I shouldn’t think about that right now.

    I walk along the village's edge until I reach the path that leads to master's house. As I walk along the small trail, I think about how well Kervin's cart will fit through here. Kervin's cart is slightly bigger than the one master, and I use to move ore around, and it's already a tight fit getting it through here.

    I have no intention of transferring every bit of ore Kervin is bringing me between our two carts and hauling it back and forth. It will be much easier to expand this pathway and just have Kervin drop my ore off in master's clearing.

    If I ask dad for some help and convince master to get up from his bench, I’m sure the three of us could widen the path enough in two or three days. Just another thing I need to talk to master about.

    Despite this being the third meeting today, I find myself looking forward to this last meeting the most. When I reach the edge of master’s clearing, my eyes immediately fall on the stone kin who appears to be sleeping.

    Making my way over to master, I know he has already noticed my approach, but I decide to play along for the fun of it. "Master, you asleep?" His eyelids don't even quiver as I call out to him.

    Is he really asleep this time?

    I decide to test my prone master the best way I know how, with a bucket of water.

    Like a ninja, I move over to the nearby well and fill a bucket up with water. Before I walk over to master, I clear my head of any ideas involving dumping water on him. After some experimentation, I've learned master's Danger Sense skill doesn't activate until you commit to an attack. If I walk over to master thinking about throwing a bucket of water on him, his skill will warn him before I ever get close. But if I say I plan to set this bucket of water down next to him, his skill won't be alerted.

    It's hard not to think about something you know you want to do, but I always enjoy a challenge. I slowly make my way next to master with the intention of setting the bucket down next to him. Right before I set the bucket down, I change my grip and prepare to dump its contents all over master.

    As a savage smile crosses my face, in one swift movement, I see master’s hand reach out to the bucket and flip it backwards on me.

    “Damn, why do you always have to have that blasted skill on?” Master sits up and complains that Mana Skin kept me from getting wet.

    It takes me a moment to realize what just happened; master flipped my prank on me at the last second!

    “You never know when it’s suddenly going to rain,” I give master a gloating look.

    “Or when your apprentice will try and mess with you when you’re sleeping,” master grumbles.

    “Oh, come on. Were you really asleep?”

    "Maybe?" Master doesn't sound very convincing. "Why are you here?" He asks, standing up.

    “Because I thought my master would like to know if his apprentice made it back safely.” I grin at master.

    "And why would I need that? I have a monster as an apprentice, and I'm sure she can handle herself." Master crosses his arms in front of his chest.

    I move in and hug master. "I missed you too," I tell him.

    Master grumbles like a cranky grandpa, but I see the smirk he's trying to hide.

    "Alright, get off of me," Master gently pushes me away and sits back down on his bench. “How did your trip go? Did you get the materials you were after?”

    I move over to the closest bench and sit down with a huff. “You have no idea.”

    For the third time today, I explain what happened during my trip. I know master doesn’t care too much about how I found Sandra and Richard in the forest, so I gloss over most of everything until I get to my talk with Mr. Grey and everything that resulted from it.

    "I told you time and time again; merchants are the true monsters of this world." I let master rant and tell me how he told me so.

    "You were right, ok! You think I haven't heard all this from my mom already," I complain.

    “Does that mean you’re starting to listen?” Master levels a challenging look at me.

    “Hey, if I wanted to listen to someone yell at me, I would head home right now. I thought you would be more interested in the big ass shipment of materials I have coming in."

    “Got a scolding waiting for you at home?” Master asks curiously.

    “More like my punishment for using my skills on my parents before I left.”

    "Then I guess I don't have to worry about you bothering me for the next few days," master jokes.

    “What does that mean?”

    "Think about it, brat. Does any of your mother's punishments leave time for you to come to work?"

    Oh, gods, he's right! "But we need to…"

    “Wait for you to return,” Master interrupts me and laughs so hard he grabs his stomach.

    I feel my face starting to blush while I wait for master to calm down.

    I hope master's prediction isn't correct. The path needs widening, and I still need to test my physical limits before I start crafting for real. I spent most of my resources crafting the general's arrow and couldn't do much else until I got more. That left me with little to do, so I've only crafted a few spears and arrows for the village.

    I’m ready to get behind the forge again and push my skills further. And once Kervin brings me my kaglese, the first thing I’m going to do is make a new sword and knife.

    “Can we get back on track now?” I ask Del as he starts to calm down.

    "What do you feel we need to discuss?" Master lays back down on his bench.

    "The first thing that comes to mind is where are we putting all the ore that's coming, and how are we moving it here?" I place my hands on my hips, but master has already closed his eyes again.

    “I’m assuming you already have a plan in mind,” master remarks without looking at me.

    Fine, if you want me to get to the point, I will. "We need to widen the path that leads to your house." Finally, master cracks an eye open. "This probably won't be my last large delivery, and neither of us wants to shift around a whole cart of ore. It will be easier if we make room, so Kervin can drive up and drop off or pick up whatever we need."

    "You want to bring the merchant to my house?" Master looks at me like I've gotten into his special drink.

    "It makes the most sense," I point out to master. "You can wait in your house when they come by, but it's getting to the point moving all the goods I make to Kervin's campsite is getting old. Silver Herd has already told us they know who you are, so it's not like you need to remain mysterious. Besides, having a scowling stone kin behind me might make negotiations easier."

    Master Del doesn't exactly appreciate my joke, which I can understand why. Master is used to remaining out of sight, but I think it will be good for him to see more people, even if those people involve Reel.

    "Do what you want," master reluctantly agrees and rolls onto his side, facing away from me.

    His pouting makes me want to tease him. “Cool, I’ll ask my dad to help us after I appease my mother.”

    Master quickly sits back up, “who said I would be helping?”

    “Because if you leave me to do it all by myself, I’ll cut down trees until your house can be seen from the village.”

    “You wouldn’t!”

    “I would!”

    “Why did I have to pick such an annoying disciple?” Master hangs his head and shakes it back and forth.

    “Funny, I remember deciding to make you my master, not the other way around.”

    Master sighs in defeat. “Alright, so what happens after we widen the path and you get your materials? What’s your plan going forward?”

    I'm about to make a joke about kicking ass and taking names until I notice master is asking with a serious expression. I discard my playful banter and layout what I want to do. "My first goal is to research the kaglese and find out the best ratio to mix it with steel and mithril. Then I need to forge myself a new sword and knife."

    “And after that?” Master Del asks.

    “Then we finish making the rest of those special arrows. And with the rest of the kaglese, I'll make some magic weapons.”

    "To sell to this, Mr. Grey?" Master brings up a good point.

    “I’ll worry about that in the future. We have four months to craft what we want before I have to deal with him,” I tell master the short version of my plan.

    “Is that all?” Master looks at me like he knows I have something else in the works.

    I look master straight in the eyes. "I plan to start making short trips into the magic dense zone."

    Master stands up from his bench, looking like a concerned parent. “Why would you possibly want to go there?”

    "The same reason anyone ever goes into magic dense regions," I reply. "I want to look for new ore samples, magic ingredients, and I want to see the creatures that call the region home."

    “Just because you can probably face a chameleon spider on your own doesn’t mean you can hunt every magic beast.”

    "I didn't say I wanted to hunt magic beasts," I correct master. "During my trips away from home, I realized I want to see more of this world. I don't plan on leaving yet, but I owe it to myself to start expanding my horizons, and that includes seeing what lies deep in the forest.”

    “Have you told your parents this yet?”

    I scoff at the idea. “Do you think I’m that crazy? I know I’m not ready to travel into the magic dense area yet, let alone tell my parents my plan. I need to get a handle on my stats and skills, and that's not even considering the gear I'll need to make."

    “Why did you have to tell me this?” Master rubs his face.

    "Because you asked," I tell him. Master lowers his hands and meets my gaze. "I know master has my best interest in his heart, and I want you to know my plans, all of them."

    “Torrow’s forge! How am I supposed to yell at you after that?” Master sits back down on his bench. “I can’t condone letting you go into the magic dense region of the forest… not without me.”

    "Sounds good to me," I happily exclaim. "I always wanted you to join me, but I didn't know how to ask. Thanks for volunteering.”

    Master Del looks at my happy expression in shock before a reluctant smile crosses his face. “I guess I walked into that one.”

    “Would it make you feel better if I said you were the best master an apprentice could wish for?”

    “It might.”

    “Well, you are,” I tell Master Del with the biggest smile ever.

    "So that's what a demon's smile looks like," master jokes.

    "Does that mean you're selling me your soul because I've seen it, and it looks delicious?" I lick my lips, and master goes silent. "Too far?" I ask.

    “Too far,” master quickly agrees. We both share an awkward laugh before we sit in silence together. “Do you plan on staying here for the rest of the day?”

    “No,” I groan, standing up. “I need to go home and face a real demon.”

    “Good luck with that.” Master lays back down on his bench and closes his eyes. “I’ll see you if you survive.”

    “Thanks for the words of comfort,” I say sarcastically. “I’ll probably be back in a few days, so be ready to remove some trees by then.”

    Master grunts in confirmation and waves his hand like he’s shooing me away.

    I guess now's a good time to tell him about the village meeting tomorrow. "By the way, we have a village meeting tomorrow morning, and attendance is mandatory. Make sure you're up in time.” I playfully chastise master as I walk away.

    I don't look back at master, but I think I can hear him swearing under his breath.

    **********

    Did our door always look this intimidating?

    I stand outside my house, contemplating my life choices that got me to this point.

    "Ok, that's enough drama for one day." I reach out and pull our front door open. It's fun to exaggerate to an extent, but there is a time and a place for everything. I made a choice to use my skills on my parents, and I accept responsibility for it.

    I know mother would never hurt me, and the only reason she still scolds me is because she's a good mom.

    Deactivating Mana Skin and switching out my shoes, I confidently walk over to my mother, who is stitching one of dad's trousers in her sewing corner.

    “Back all ready, sweety?”

    "Yeah, I finished talking to Camden, and Master Del. Figured I’d come home and see my beautiful mother.” Overexaggerating doesn’t include brown-nosing.

    "That's good to hear," is all mother says, and silence falls between us.

    I stand in place while mother’s hands dance across father’s pants, sealing any and all nicks and tears.

    Finally, mom speaks. “I want you to clean the whole house.”

    I can't help but be a little shocked by her request. Sure, cleaning the house might seem challenging, but with my skills, I could do it in half a day if I hurry. Heck, I can get most of it done before dinner if I start now. "I understand, mom. I'll get started right away."

    As I turn away to get the cleaning supplies, mom says, “I don’t think you do.”

    I turn back to face mom as she sets dad’s pants down. "I want you to clean the house using that spell of yours. I want everything to look brand new by the time you're done." Now that sounds more like one of mom's punishments.

    I want to complain, but I know that will only make things worse.

    “And then when you’re done with our house, I want you to clean your brothers.”

    The sudden doubling of my work is too much, and my mouth moves before my brain catches up. "Why!?" I whine.

    Mother answers me with a cold smile. “Do I need to have you clean Sarette’s house as well?”

    "No," I hang my head, knowing when I'm beaten.

    “Good, you can start tomorrow after the village meeting,” mother picks up dad’s pants and finishes her work. I know this is where I should walk away.

    I move to my room without saying anything else and gently close my door behind me. Flopping down on my bed, I groan into my sheets.

    Once again, my mother found a way to punish me in a way even I would find challenging. My extended cleaning spell uses up a lot of mana, and I'm not sure if I could cover our whole house in a day before my mana pool runs out.

    If that wasn't the worst part, my brother's house is even bigger than ours! I remember him bragging about his design and how he was preparing for the future. I'm going to strangle him when he finally makes it to the village.

    I feel the spring breeze blow in from my high window, and I realize I'm feeling a little tired.

    I didn't do anything physical today, but I still find my eyelids feeling heavy. An afternoon nap sounds better the longer I lay face down on my bed.

    Screw it, I kick off my slippers and get comfortable. I feel my consciousness slowly slip away as I fall into a deep sleep for the first time in a while.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,200 words.

    A little late but much quicker than my last chapters.

    How do you think things are progressing? Tell me what you think below.

    I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.


    Come on, Aaliyah, you're almost there. I push myself a little faster, trying to catch up to the disappearing sun in the distance. I recognize the terrain around me and know I'm almost back at the village.

    As I get closer to home, I can’t help but think about whatever stew mother has made tonight. After three days of near-constant running, coupled with a few biscuits and rubbery strips of jerky, I’m ready to eat a real meal for a change.

    I slow down to a jog when I finally reach the village. The setting sun over our small village provides a beautiful canvas of oranges and reds. The seven moons overhead dot the tie-dyed sky with their own brilliance.

    Only a few villagers are still walking about, with most already home enjoying their supper.

    A few people wave to me as I jog past them, while others give me surprised looks.

    Word must have traveled around the village that I took a trip to Drey. Whether people are happy or surprised to see me, I can tell one thing based on the village's feel; Camden hasn't spread the news about Scholl yet. If he did, there would be a different air about the village.

    I personally hope everyone can remain ignorant for as long as possible. Our village has had many problems this last year, and we're finally reaching the point people aren't afraid to walk around the edge of the village anymore.

    Too bad Camden won’t be able to remain silent for much longer. I’ll need to inform him tomorrow that Scholl is already marching to Drey.

    Now that I think about it, Camden isn't the only person I need to have a discussion with. I need to talk to mom about everything that happened with Mr. Grey. Then, I’ll need to talk to master about all the materials we’ll be getting and how I plan on using them.

    I let out a tired sigh; tomorrow is going to be busy.

    Oh well, I'll leave tomorrow's problems to tomorrow's me. The only thing I need to worry about tonight is how to avoid being smothered by my parents, a challenge that sounds more impossible the closer I get to my house.

    Finally, I’m standing in front of our familiar front door.

    I reach out and try to pull the door open, but mother and father have already bolted it for the night. Grinning, I bring my fist up and pound on the door three times.

    “Who is it? We’re eating!” I hear dad shout through the door.

    "Why do you think I'm here?!" I shout back. "I've been running for three days now, and I'm starving."

    The only thing I hear on the other side of the door is the screech of two chairs rapidly being drawn against the floor and the sound of father fumbling to open the door’s bolt.

    "Aaliyah, is that you?" I quickly take a step back before dad smacks me in the face with the door.

    Dad's smile is priceless as he looks at me in dumbfounded joy. While dad is frozen in happiness, mom gracefully steps past him and moves in to give me a welcome home hug. "How are you back already?" Mother questions me as she tries her hardest to squeeze the life out of me. "Did you run into any more bandits?"

    “I’m completely fine,” I tell mother while hugging her back. “But can we move this inside? I wasn’t joking when I said I was hungry.”

    “Sure thing, sweety,” mom pulls me inside past dad. While father locks the door behind us, I chant my cleaning spell, removing three days of dust and sweat.

    “Ahyt ls weem appiss!”

    I feel rejuvenated as a thin layer of dirt and grime falls away. Mom finally releases her hold on me so I can shake off the resulting black flakes from my spell. While I'm shaking myself like a dog coming in out of the rain, I point and laugh at my mom's left arm.

    Mother looks down and smiles when she sees her left arm and sleeve are noticeably cleaner than the rest of her. Dad turns around from securing our door and joins in our laughter.

    “It feels weird to be this clean,” mother jokes as she touches the skin of her left arm.

    “You get used to it,” I tell her. A mischievous smiler crosses my face. Mother and father are both close to me, so now is the perfect time to show off the benefits of Empowered Spell to them. "Hold still for a moment," I motion to my parents to stand still. We're all in the entryway so mother won't get mad at the mess I'm about to make.

    “What are you doing?” Dad asks.

    "Wait and see," I try to sound suspenseful and mysterious. Now that I'm safely home, I can use more of my magic without worrying about being ambushed.

    “Ahyt ls weem appiss!”

    I recast my same cleaning spell again, but this time I overpower it with my skill. The white light that usually envelops me slowly expands as I pour more of my mana into the spell. Mother and Father flinch as the bubble of white light slowly envelops them. As soon as I see that my spell has wholly covered both of them, I stop adding extra mana and let the spell complete itself.

    Mother and father watch in amazement as all the dirt falls off of each other. The two are so surprised I need to remind them what to do when my magic finally fades away. “Make sure you shake yourselves out properly.”

    "This is just like when you woke up from that monster attack. I thought it was weird how you cleaned us since you said you couldn’t use your magic like that, but I put it out of my mind because I never saw you use your spell like that since. Since when have you been able to do this?" Mom remarks as she and dad start shaking out their hair and clothing. Unlike me, they don’t magically clean themselves every day, and the two of them are covered in black flakes.

    Mother makes sure dad wipes himself down every day after returning from work, but it's rare for anyone in our village to bathe properly. My spell is better than any soap or shampoo back on earth, and I dare say, mother and father look almost like entirely different people after I removed every speck of dirt from their bodies and clothes.

    “Everything feels funny,” dad complains as he shakes out his shirt. He sniffs his clothes and frowns.

    “I felt the same way when I first used the spell,” I try to console my dad. He's spent most of his life in the woods, and I don't think I can remember a time when he hasn't smelled of trees and sawdust. It must be weird for a woodsman like himself to feel so clean.

    “You haven’t told me how you did it,” Mother reminds me.

    I awkwardly rub the back of my head as I switch to my indoor slippers. “I actually figured out how to boost my spells during my last trip to Drey. It was just after all the excitement during my return trip, the pressure to forge the arrow for the general, and the soul eater attack, I forgot to show you guys.”

    "You mean you could've been using this spell for almost a month now!?" Mom looks at me, accusingly. My spell didn't just clean my parents. The entryway stones look like they were just cut and even our old door looks like it was replaced with new wood.

    "Hey," I hold up my hand defensively. "You know how crazy everything has been lately. To use my spell as I did requires a lot more mana than my personal cleaning spell. The only reason I can use it freely right now is that I saved my mana during my run for emergencies."

    "And helping me clean the house isn't an emergency?" I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be a joke, but mother looks frighteningly serious. Finally, mom's mask of anger cracks, and she laughs at my unease. "I'm joking, sweety. I know how busy you've been. Come sit down, and I'll get you a bowl of soup and some bread we got from Granny Gellar." She says she's joking, but I'm not sure that she was.

    Either way, I take my seat at the table. Mom moves around our kitchen, scraping the remains of the stew sitting next to the fire into a bowl for me. They obviously weren't expecting me back so soon.

    Mom sets the food down in front of me and takes her place at the table. By the looks of it, mom and dad were just about to finish their dinner.

    While I sip at my warm soup, mother leans forward across the table. “So, tell us, why are you home so soon? Did you turn around for some reason?”

    I chuckle in-between bites. "Nope, I made it to Drey and back all in three days," I proclaim. Mother and father look at me proudly, hearing my accomplishment.

    "Then, that means you found Richard and Sandra?" Dad asks, finishing off his supper.

    “Tell us everything,” mom eagerly demands.

    My smile cramps for just a moment. How do I want to do this? I need to talk to mom about Mr. Grey, but I'd rather leave that for tomorrow and enjoy my first night back with my parents without having to worry about anything just yet.

    “Honey?” Mom notices my indecision. “Is everything ok?”

    I give mom a small smile to reassure her I'm fine. "Everything's fine… it's just that I need to discuss some things with you tomorrow, and I'd rather keep the conversation happy for tonight. Is that ok?" I've learned long ago maintaining honest with my family is the best option.

    Mom gives me a concerned look but nods her head in understanding. “Ok, we can do that, but what are we to talk about then?”

    I’m happy to have such an understanding family.

    “Well, would either of you like to guess who I ran into on my way to Drey?” I playfully glance between mother and father.

    **********

    We spent the rest of the night talking about how I ran into Sandra and Richard on the road. Mother and father were so happy to hear the two of them made it out of the city before anything terrible happened. The three of us shared a huge laugh after I told them why the two lovebirds didn't send us a letter and the reason Kervin will probably arrive at the village before bother and Sandra ever do.

    At one point, mom tried to ask me about Drey, but I politely told her I would tell her everything tomorrow. Besides that, mom didn't bring the issue up again, and we laughed into the night.

    When we finally retired for the night, mother and father walked to their room, looking like an enormous weight was removed from their shoulders.

    While my parents went to bed, I still have some things I need to take care of.

    I leave my body to rest in the real world while I enter my soul with one clear goal in mind. I’m here to find and gather all the skill fragments related to my contract with Mr. Grey. Opening my eyes to see the garden in my soul, I immediately stand up and scan the area.

    I used to have to traverse the entirety of my soul when searching for contract fragments, but my increased levels and skills now make the job much easier. I can scan large spots of my soul without needing to check each tree for an anomaly.

    In fact, I sense the first scattered fragment from Mr. Grey’s contract not too far away.

    I don't waste any time and move over to a tree with a pinky sized metal rod sticking out of its trunk. "Oh shit!" I can't help but swear when I get close to the intrusion in my soul.

    The pinky sized fragment sticking out of the tree is merely the tip of the fragment. The skill fragment branches out through the whole tree and deep into the ground like a vicious tumor. All the previous contracts I've entered have all been verbal, and gathering the fragments scattered around my soul have been tedious to gather but otherwise nonthreatening. But this one...

    If I didn't have my soul skills at the level they're currently at; I'm not sure I would be able to nullify Mr. Grey's contract.

    I concentrate on the entirety of the skill fragment in front of me and slowly pull it out of the depths of my soul. When I'm done gathering the fragment, it's as big as the other contracts I've formed in the past all by itself.

    I spend a moment to patch up the gaps removing the fragment left on the surface of my soul, and move on to find the next one.

    I continue to scan my soul section by section until every fragment I gathered fits together like a neat puzzle.

    Even though the Contract skill is made from Mr. Grey's experience, as long as it's inside my soul space, I can shape it however I want. Maybe I should shape it into a pile of shit; that would be poetic in some way. I end up playing with the chunk of Mr. Grey's soul like it's Play-Dough until I return to my clearing.

    Taking one last look at the ugly lump of experience in front of me, I decide to be mature and shape it into a plaque that’s inscribed with the contract I made. I lazily stick it to my ugliest tree and turn away from the plaque before I’m tempted to destroy it.

    The only thing keeping me in check is the thought of terminating the contract in the future in the worst possible way for Mr. Grey.

    I'm all for merchants trying to get the best possible deal when they do business, but Mr. Grey took it too far. I mean, I'm used to having people look down on me for the first time they see me because of my age, but Mr. Grey is more than aware of how strong I am, and he still went too far.

    Instead of trying to forge a stronger bond with me, Mr. Grey tried shackling me to him as soon as the moment presented itself.

    I’m going to take great joy in obliterating the contract.

    I dance around my clearing, throwing punches at thin air and spouting obscenities involving Mr. Grey until I calm down and collect myself. I learned from my meeting with Richard and Sandra that I need to spend some time letting my grievances out so they don't compromise my future decisions.

    No matter how much I want to destroy Mr. Grey's skill as soon as possible, I need to be smart about it. I'll discuss everything with mom tomorrow and make plans for the future. A cold shiver travels up my spine as I think about how I should break my predicament to her. Hands down, I'll need to reassure her I can break the contract without harming myself.

    "Uggggg," I loudly groan. Is it wrong for me to hope Scholl arrives faster? At least then, I'll have a few months of privacy to myself, and I won't have to worry about making any deadlines for a change.

    I let myself fall over onto my patch of grass and try to forget about all my frustrations. Using my skills, I check how long my body has been asleep in the real world. “Only three hours,” I complain. “I still have another four or five until the sun rises.”

    Oh well, I might as well do some soul gardening to pass the time.

    *********

    I sit up in my bed just as the first rays of sunlight push back the blanket of darkness covering the village. It doesn’t sound like mother or father are up yet, so I quietly get out of bed and get ready for the long day ahead. I might not have gotten a proper rest last night, but the issues with my soul took precedence.

    I take my time brushing out my hair until I hear my parents start shuffling around their room. Waiting until I hear their door open, I grab my copy of the contract I signed and stuff it into my pocket before walking out of my room as soon as my parents are leaving there’s.

    "Morning, mom! Morning, dad!" My parents are both surprised by my sudden greeting.

    “You’re up already?” Mom looks at me like I’ve grown another head.

    “Don’t get used to it,” I roll my eyes at mom. “I need to talk to you, Camden, and master, and sadly I don’t think any of those conversations are going to be short.”

    Mother nods with a serious look on her face. “Then we should get started right away. The three of us should sit at the table.”

    I look surprised at father, “you’re not going to work?”

    He shakes his head, no. "The boys are pulling up stumps today, and they don't need me to supervise them. I'd rather hear about what's going on with you."

    "The more, the merrier," I awkwardly say. Great, now I need to explain to both my parents how I screwed up.

    The three of us move into the living room and take a seat in our respective chairs.

    "Where should I start?" I ask my parents.

    “From the beginning,” mom tells me.

    “But I already told you about my run and how I ran into Richard and Sandra.”

    "Nice try, sweety, but I know my children better than you think, and there is no way the two of you talked and didn't argue a single bit. I want to hear all about your journey, the good, the bad, all of it.” Mother straightens her back and folds her hands in front of her.

    I awkwardly smile. I wonder if Richard is aware of how perceptive mom is? There is no way Richard and Sandra are going to be able to keep their secret for long.

    “Everything, huh?” I take a deep breath and slowly exhale, mentally preparing myself for what’s to come.

    I start by telling my parents the full interaction I had with Richard and Sandra when I first found them in the forest, even the part where I used my particular skill on them right before leaving.

    I expected mom or dad to interrupt me and condemn my decisions, but they both let me continue talking without interrupting me once. My parents remain expressionless until I get to the part about me entering Drey and their blank looks turn horrified when I describe the state of the city.

    Next, I tell them how I needed to buy a pad because I stupidly forgot one and the lovely couple that helped me, bringing a small smile back to their faces.

    I carefully describe the state the Silver Herd branch was in and how Mr. Grey quickly made time for me. Mom nods like it was only natural that they made time for me.

    Now comes the hard part. I can’t meet my parent’s eyes as I go into great detail about my conversation with Mr. Grey. When I describe the contract's details, I remove the piece of parchment from my pocket and slide it across the table without looking up.

    The sound of my mother picking up the paper causes a cold sweat to form down my back. A deep silence falls between us as mother examines the contract.

    "Aaliyah, what were you thinking!?" When mother finally explodes at me, it's like I'm struck by lightning, and my body is paralyzed. "Do you know what you've signed!? There's no end date specified, meaning you're required to sell to the bastard for the rest of your life! How could you sign something like this!?"

    I feel like I'm three years old again, and even though I'm much stronger than my mother, I feel small and helpless when she yells at me. She hasn't scolded me like this since I was four when Richard and I were playing outside and started throwing mud at each other and came home looking like mud golems.

    "Silvia," dad cuts into mother's angry rant, and everything goes quiet again. "Aaliyah, look at us." Dad's calm and assertive voice finally draws my attention away from the table and up to my parents.

    Dad has a concerned look and is holding mother's hand. Mom looks at me angrily, but she has tears in her eyes. "Why did you sign such a thing?" Dad asks in the calmest tone I've ever heard.

    “I was overconfident in myself,” I freely admit. “One of my skills allows me to destroy contracts I form with people without consequence, so I didn’t put as much effort into checking the contract as I should have.” I start sniffling halfway through my explanation.

    "You can break this contract?" Mother asks, holding up my copy. "Without hurting yourself?"

    I slowly nod to mom's question.

    Mother wipes at her red eyes. “At least there’s some good news,” mother straightens herself up and puts on more of a teaching expression now that she knows my life isn’t ruined. “You realize how bad this contract is, right?”

    I start to nod again, but mother snaps at me. "Use your words."

    “I figured out parts of where I went wrong during my run back home. It was obvious I screwed up when most of my skills gained a few levels while Contract only gained one.” I explain to mom in a defeated tone.

    “Yes, but do you see the holes in this contract?” Mother pushes the paper back towards me for me to read again.

    This contract is between Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village and Lennard Grey.

    This contract terminates and replaces the former contract between Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village and Lennard Grey. Lennard Grey will provide Aaliyah with 300 gold worth of Kaglese ore and 150 gold in mithril ingots. Lennard Grey will use Kervin of Silver Herd to deliver said goods in a timely fashion to Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village.

    Leonard Grey will handle the pickup of finished goods produced by Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village four months from date this contract is signed after the new year begins. All goods produced by Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village, minus products meant for Spotted Creek Village, will be bought at 70% market value to Lennard Grey.

    Should either Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village or Lennard Grey not follow the contract to the letter the offended party can take 20 levels from the other.

    “I don’t see anything wrong with the first two parts, but I can see in the third section how I have to sell almost everything to Mr. Grey.”

    “That is the biggest problem but not the only one,” mom informs me. "Do you see in the second section how he mentions Kervin by name but doesn't in the third? That means after Kervin drops of your materials, Mr. Grey can send his own people to work with you from now on. He also left out a term period all contracts should have."

    “Term period?” I ask.

    "Most contracts specify how long two people are to do business before they need to renew the contract. Usually, contracts have short term periods because our world has many dangers, and businesses have to adjust their plans. Most contracts only have a term period of six months to a year."

    “I should’ve thought of that,” I mumble under my breath.

    “But what really bothers me is the clause at the end about the consequences you choose should either of you break the contract.” Mother looks ready to explode again after mentioning the last part of the contract.

    “Mr. Grey told me the contract becomes stronger depending on the consequences, so I agreed to the terms thinking they didn’t matter to me,” I sheepishly tell mom.

    Mom grits her teeth in anger. "Well, it's obvious this Mr. Grey was planning something sinister from the start. He purposely suggested this type of consequence, knowing you couldn't report it to the authorities. You see, contracts involving the loss or transfer of levels were quite popular a long time ago. Nobles would pay commoners to sign contracts stating they would gain all their levels when they die.”

    "You can do that?!" I ask in sheer disbelief, with my father mirroring my shocked expression.

    Mom doesn’t confirm or deny my question, only continuing her explanation. “The nobles and rich exploited this system to gain levels without having to do anything. Of course, there were limitations; just because a contract says you'll take all the levels from another person doesn't mean a skill can reinforce such a demand. Depending on the Contract Skills of the parties involved, only a fraction of a person's levels and experience would transfer over."

    "But with hundreds of contracts, nobles would still get a lot of levels," I point out to mother.

    “Verry good, dear. Despite the limitations, nobles used contracts to gain levels for themselves and their families. However, no meal is free. I’m sure you know skill levels play a big part in your leveling.”

    I nod along with mom. I’m probably the only one who knows just how much skill levels intermingle with the experience we earn and how it equates to levels.

    "Well, the nobles who gained numerous levels by absorbing commoners' levels started to find out their skills weren't increasing any further. In fact, the only skills the nobles would see rise were basic skills like Cooking, Cleaning, and other various skills commoners use daily. The nobles still gained access to more status points, so it took a whole generation for them to realize they doomed their descendants."

    "Nobles, like all parents, like to brag about their children and grandchildren. Contracts were formed, so the children of nobles would be over level 30 by the time they were twelve."

    "Ooooooh," I exclaim, understanding where this is going.

    “That’s right,” mom gives me a proud look. “The nobles’ children were essentially poisoned by the foreign levels. It became hard for them to gain even simple skills like Writing and Mathematics, let alone ruling skills that distinguish nobles from commoners. It didn’t take long for the nobility to outlaw the using of levels as collateral in all contracts.”

    “But I didn’t know that,” I complain to mom.

    She shakes her head. "That doesn't matter; you would be seen just as guilty as Mr. Grey for accepting the deal, a fact I'm sure he's ready to use the first time you try to complain about the contract."

    Well fuck, I ball my hands into fists. I'm shaking in my seat; I'm so angry. I'm angry at Mr. Grey for tricking me like that, but I'm mostly angry at myself for falling for his trap.

    As if somehow sensing that I’m blaming everything on myself, mom and dad each reach over to me with their free hands. Mom takes my right hand with her left, while dad grasps my left with his right, all while the two of them keep holding each other's hands for support. Though it's a simple gesture, holding hands with my parents reminds me they have my back and that I'm not alone.

    “So, what should I do, mom?”

    “We can discuss that in a second. First, finish your story,” mom tells me.

    I have to chuckle at mom's thoroughness. It only takes me five minutes to tell my parents how I left Silver Herd and threatened the same guard to let me out of the city. The rest of my trip back home was just as uneventful, excluding meeting up with Richard and Sandra and apologizing for what I did.

    "Then I made it home and had dinner with you guys," I wrap up my trip. "Now, can you please tell me what I should do with Mr. Grey?” I beg mom for her ideas on the subject.

    “It will be hard to plan ahead when all the parties aren’t here,” mom tells me in a matter-of-fact tone.

    “You want me to invite Mr. grey here?” I ask in disbelief.

    “Who else does your contract concern?” Mom hints to me.

    “Kervin,” I guess.

    "Exactly, he's been your partner for a long time now, and your contract puts him out of the job. Plus, you don't want to do anything until you have your materials, right?" Mom gives me a sly grin. "And I'm sure that dark, scary fellow following Kervin around will want to hear about your contract as well."

    “You think we can trust Reel?”

    Mom's smile widens, "oh, yes. Silver Herd's main office definitely sent him to gather info on you. That includes the fact that one of their branch managers is trying to poach one of their best craftsmen all for himself.”

    I blush a little at the praise, but I see what mom is saying. I'm not the only one who will want revenge on Mr. Grey, and again the more, the merrier.

    Mother and I share a devilish smile, and dad's hand suddenly become clammy. Mother and I look at dad, and he flinches. Oh, the smiles.

    The two of us share a small laugh at father's expense, which helps to lighten everybody’s mood, including dads.

    I pull my hands out from my parent’s grip and stand up. “Thanks for listening.”

    “Always,” dad reassures me.

    "I'll continue to look over your contract with Grey," mom helpfully replies. "Are you going to meet the headman next?"

    "Yeah, one meeting down, two more to go." I move around the table and give my mother and father a hug. "I'll be back as early as I can," I tell them.

    Dad smiles, "take your time."

    I run to my room to grab my axe and knife I borrowed from father and move to the entryway to change my shoes.

    Unlocking the door, I move to push it open.

    “Be safe,” mother calls out to me.

    “I will,” I reassure her with a smile.

    I push the door open and smell the fresh forest air.

    “Oh, and honey!” I freeze just as I’m about to step outside and turn back to mom. “Don’t think I forgot about that skill you used on us before you left,” mom says with the brightest of smiles. “We’ll discuss your punishment when you come back home.”

    I feel the color drain from my face.

    "Don't you have somewhere to be?" Mom's reminder brings me back to reality, and I turn and flee before mother says anything else.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,100 words.

    A new year!

    And I start it off with a late release.

    I'm working my way back into a decent writing schedule now that I'm feeling better. I want to have another chapter out by Monday and be back to my regular writing schedule soon.

    I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.


    I'm waiting for the ball to drop as I post and release the last chapter for 2020.


    I just want to say how thankful I am for all the support you guys have given me over this challenging year.


    I wish each and everyone of you the best for the coming year.


    Here's to 2021.


    Master Pacore the Deathless Point of View:

    "You would think a man of my age would be able to handle anything, but we're only two days into the march, and I'm already bored," I complain out loud.

    The gentle rocking of my private carriage makes me want to fall asleep. This is the only part of my job I hate; if I could simply teleport from one battlefield to another, my life would be complete.

    “Is there anything I can get you, Master Pacore the Deathless?” A female attendant asks from just outside the carriage.

    I give the girl a side-long glance and see she’s keeping pace with us while keeping her head bowed. It’s always annoying when the attendants assigned to me refuse to look me in the eyes.

    “The only thing I want is to reach Drey faster,” I grumble.

    “I’ll inform the commander immediately.”

    "Wait! No!" I try to call the girl back, but she's already off in the distance heading towards the front of our procession.

    "Kids these days; taking everything I say too literally," I stroke my beard. "Do you have the same problem?" I ask my guest sitting across from me.

    All I get in return from my question is a look that could kill a lesser man.

    “Need anything; a cup of water perhaps? I wouldn’t want people saying I’m a bad host,” I offer with a smile.

    “I’ll take a sword or maybe a knife if you're offering; anything with a sharp edge will do." General Pitz grits through her teeth in frustration.

    "And what would you do if I gave you a weapon? You can barely move your limbs, let alone pick up a knife and thrust it hard enough to scratch my skin. I don't think you could gouge out my eye even if held still until we reach Drey." I poke fun at the woman. I rarely get to converse with someone I've beaten in battle and longer since I've had a decent conversation during a campaign march.

    "Give me a blade, and we'll find out." Lady Pitz bares her teeth at me like a wild animal, which pushes me over the edge.

    I can't help but bust out laughing at her empty threats.

    The general has twenty of our finest sealing bands placed all over her body. Four bands on each of her arms and legs and another four around her torso ensure her Stamina and Magic pools never rise above 10%. They also have the effect of restricting physical stats by 50%. An average person would be in a coma if they were subjected to such restrictions, and only people like general Pitz and myself could remain awake after being sealed to that extent.

    “Why are you dragging me along with you? What happened to my men?” I can see she wishes to move and grab me, but the general knows she would merely fall to the floor of my carriage if she tried to move.

    "Did you think I would leave someone like you unsupervised?" I raise an eyebrow at the general. "As for your men, they're safe back in Teeburn."

    “If any of them should come to harm, I’ll rip you limb from limb!”

    “I’m honestly surprised you still have so much fight left in you… I see where your subordinate got it from.” I give the helpless general a large smile.

    General Pitz visibly winces when I mention her steward. “Are you talking about Christopher? Did he survive your taking of the fort?”

    It was a wise decision to keep the general separated from her men. She only woke up recently, and I'm the only one she can turn to for information, forcing her to keep our conversations going longer. "You would've been proud of him," I tell my traveling companion. "He was one of the few people that could meet my gaze. He refused to answer any of my questions until I told him you were alive."

    "That fool." Though the general hangs her head in apparent shame, I catch the hint of a smile on her lips.

    A brief silence falls between us as I wait for the general to start the conversation this time. I'm sure she has many questions, and she would be a fool if she didn't try to get information out of me.

    Finally, she decides to speak, and she doesn't hold back, "why are you doing this?"

    "Is my strategy that complicated? I take Drey and the following cities while the bulk of my men prepare Teeburn to hold off your reinforcements. I thought a woman such as yourself would've already noticed based on the size of my forces."

    The general doesn’t take my bait and only gives me a cold glare.

    Apparently, she’s not as easy to rile up as I thought. “Oh!” I feign realization. “You mean why we’re attacking Olebert in general. That’s top-secret information, very need to know.”

    “Are you going to tell me or not!?” General Pitz interrupts my grandstanding.

    I want to look offended by her actions, but I'm having too much fun to remove the smile from my face. "I'll consider telling you… if you answer some of my questions first."

    “Like what?” Lady Pitz asks me with no small amount of suspicion. “I won’t betray my liege or house.”

    “And I would never ask you to,” I reassure her. “Call me curious, but where did you get that final arrow from? I was under the impression you used all your dwarven arrows repelling our earlier advances. I was quite surprised when you managed to strike me in the end. Did you get it from a local blacksmith?”

    She must have been preparing herself for a difficult question because Lady Pitz's facial features give nothing away. Her mask doesn’t so much as crack as she answers my question. “I wish I could say we had talent like that out here, but I'll have to disappoint you. That final arrow I used was a sample product from the capital. In the end, it couldn't withstand my skills; otherwise, our positions would be quite different right now."

    The general and I lock eyes. I might not have taken the time to level my noble skills enough to detect lies but the general needs another 50 years before she can deceive me. If she had that arrow earlier, she would've used it. She must've gotten it right before my forces arrived, meaning the blacksmith has to be local.

    I file that bit of information away for later and decide to move the conversation along. "That's disappointing. What about your hobbies? I hear Lady Pitz is quite the hunter."

    “And?” She gives me a challenging look.

    "I'm merely interested, is all," I tell her. "My specialty is more towards fighting human opponents, and I'm curious how the experience differs.”

    “Then you should go find a monster to see for yourself,” she snaps back.

    “Oh, come on, you must have some great stories to help pass the time,” I push the subject. “What about that time you managed to kill a mountain hydra?”

    Instead of barking an insult at me, Lady Pitz looks at me, surprised. "How did you hear about that?"

    “People talk,” I ambiguously inform her. “When I was informed you were defending the fort, I went over every scrap of information we had on you. It’s rare, but some people call you a dragon slayer.”

    I didn't know it was possible, but the lady sitting across from me actually looks angrier than she did when she first woke up in my carriage. "Only young fools call me that, and only once before I beat the snot out of them. Like they understand the true monsters of this world." General Pitz huffs in displeasure and looks away from me.

    “Come now,” I draw her attention back towards me. “Hydras are of the dragon bloodline. You should feel proud for slaying one.” I try to butter her up so she’ll talk more.

    "I slew the beast, did I?" The general scoffs at me. "I used a tier 4 water attribute poison on all my arrows to whittle away the beast’s health over a span of 12 days. Do you think I deserve the title of dragon slayer?” Her eyes challenge me to disagree with her.

    "Maybe not dragon slayer, but I think you deserve credit for your kill. You found the beat's weakness and used it against him. There is no such thing as underhanded in a fight, and it's the same whether your opponent is a monster or another warrior." I take a swig of my nearby waterskin that's filled with wine. After a few gulps, I offer it to the general. She looks between me and the offered alcohol a few times before she slowly raises her hand like she's frail and takes the offered drink.

    “Don’t think this means I’m telling you anything," she snaps, noticing my smile. Lady Pitz proceeds to sip my wine and coughs as soon as it touches her lips. "What is this!?" She stutters.

    "My own personal wine," I inform her. "It's hard for me to get drunk with my ridiculous physical stats, so you can imagine how strong I need my drink to be."

    “It’s practically poison!” Lady Pitz holds out the waterskin towards me.

    “I guess you could call it that.” I take my wine back and quickly gulp down another mouthful before setting it aside. “Feeling better?” I ask my grumpy companion.

    "Yeah, I'm magically better," she sarcastically answers. Lady Pitz's cheeks are slightly red after what I guess could only have been half a mouthful of wine. She might not have the same stats as me, but her body is strong enough to survive a few sips of my wine even suppressed.

    I notice Lady Pitz looking solemnly out the carriage window. "What's wrong? We may be marching, but I can get you anything you might need."

    General Pitz looks back at me with the red gone from her cheeks. "I don't understand, and it's frustrating me. You kept me alive, and you've split your forces. You may hold Teeburn and make your way over to Yleles, but there is no way you can conquer any further into Olebert. Tell me now, what is the reason for this invasion?!"

    I rub my beard and think over the general's question.

    Taking a deep breath, I let out a sigh. “Lady Pitz, are you aware of the geography of our kingdom?”

    She furrows her eyebrows in deep thought. “The kingdom of Scholl is known for its rocky landscape that protects it from invaders and the large lakes that your settlements are built around. That’s all I know.”

    “Yes, that is how outsiders see our lands. We are viewed as an aggressive kingdom because of our view on levels and stats, but that is only a small part of our culture. You see, most of our lands are completely barren, and only the strongest can safely traverse the terrain. The six great pools are the only reliable sources of water and farmland, meaning the six great pools support 90% of our people."

    "That's interesting to hear, but why are you telling me this?"

    “To give you perspective of what’s happening in my homeland," I tell her. "Our greatest lake is known as the Heart of Scholl, and it single-handily produces 30% of our crops."

    “And something happened to the lake, didn’t it?” Lady Pitz quickly sees where I’m going with my explanation.

    I nod my head somberly.

    "Did it dry up?" My coach-mate asks.

    "No, that is impossible. Underneath our kingdom is an extensive network of tunnels that connect all the great pools together. The tunnels stretch from the farthest pool all the way to the coast. That's how the beast made it to the Heart of Scholl." I grit my teeth in frustration. “The beast turned the Heart of Scholl into its lair and kills anything that steps within a mile of the pool."

    General Pitz looks at me in bewilderment. At least she has the decency not to ask why our army hasn’t slain the beast yet. She silently waits for me to continue.

    "We tried to drive off the beast, but nothing worked. Even the greatest of us banding together could only hold it back for an hour. I'm sure you have an idea of what plagues us," I meet Lady Pitz's eyes.

    “A dragon,” she says with a twinge of fear in her voice.

    I ball up my fists in my lap, trying to hold back the rage I feel for the creature of legend. "Indeed, a pure-blooded sea dragon. Our people estimate it's above level 400, and that isn't the worst part."

    General Pitz's eyes widen. "No, it can't be."

    "Sadly, yes. The dragon is building a nest. Dragons can linger in a spot for years, but they only build a nest for one reason…”

    "…To lay an egg." Lady Pitz finishes my sentence. "Oh, gods!"

    "Dragons will viciously guard their nest until their egg hatches. We can't get anywhere near the creature's nest, so we have no idea when that might happen. If an egg is already laid, it could take up to 15 years for it to hatch, and if the dragon hasn't laid yet… it could be half a century before it leaves."

    "That's why you invaded!" Lady Pitz growls. "You came to take our farmland. What is wrong with you people?! Did the idea of asking us for help or paying for crops never enter your king's mind?!"

    Silence!” I roar. “You will not disrespect my king in front of me,” I demand with fire in my eyes.

    Lady Pitz doesn’t turn away from me and holds eye contact. I can immediately tell she’s prepared to die and that she won’t bow her head to me no matter how I threaten her.

    She remains silent, and I slowly reel in my intimidation skills I subconsciously activated.

    “Master Pacore the Deathless, is everything all right?” I hear the female attendant I sent off earlier ask from outside my carriage.

    "No, leave us until I call," I order the young girl away in frustration.

    “As you wish.” I hear her footsteps as she moves away from the coach.

    I look back at my traveling companion now that I've regained my composure. "My king did not decide to invade Olebert on a whim," I stress. "There were many debates on how we could obtain the food we need for our people. We diverted more hands to our two port towns, hoping to catch more fish and sea plants, but we have yet to see any results."

    "It was estimated we could purchase the extra goods from our neighbors, but our kingdom has never been considered rich. Our coffers would be depleted long before the dragon ever left. In the end, it came down to two options; we could slay the mythical beast or take the best farmland we could from one of our neighbors."

    “I see,” Lady Pitz says with a neutral expression.

    “We’ll take Drey, Blaiton, and Yleles, and that’s where you and your men will come in,” I tell the captive general before taking another drink of my wine. “We’ll trade your lives and the lives of any other nobles we capture in exchange for the land we’re occupying.”

    “And you think everything will happen that smoothly?” Lady Pitz looks at me like I’m a rookie commander in over his head. “Olebert won’t stand still and let you take lands that rightfully belong to us!”

    I grin like a starving animal. “I sure hope so. It was disappointing how easy it was to take Teeburn. The spies I had mixed in with the people fleeing teeburn reported Drey has no chance or resistance. But I hope Olebert lives up to your expectations, or this will be the most boring campaign I've ever participated in."

    My excitement must have displeased the general because she turns her head away from me and doesn’t look like she wants to continue talking anymore.

    I can understand her frustration; I myself feel silly knowing my country had to go to war over crops. Even our ancestors that went to war for any reason possible had never cited food as the reason. And then there's the difficulty of the fighting ahead. I relish a good battle, but every person we kill is one less hand to work the land.

    Depending on how the local lords try to repel us, it could set our plans back even further if we kill too many conscripts. I have until the new year to secure our position before the refugees from the Heart of Scholl will arrive to help with the farming.

    I have to take three cities and a lord's residence, all while killing as few of their soldiers as possible.

    Even if I enjoy a good challenge, this is too much even for me.

    But I can't stop now. The dragon has tormented our lands for a year already, and the food shortage is starting to be felt by everybody.

    I will not disappoint my king!

    I'm the undying shield of Scholl, and I will not fail!

    I sit back into my seat and close my eyes, feeling the rocking of the carriage. Every second that passes, we grow closer to Drey, closer to saving our people.

    **********

    Aaliyah’s Point of View:

    "Damn it, damn it, damn it!" I shout as I run down the forest path.

    How am I supposed to enjoy my run when I’ve confirmed I was somehow screwed over in my contract?

    I pull up my status page for the third time today, hoping somehow it will have magically change since the last time I saw it.

    LV: 72 Experience:880,183/ 911,219

    Health: 2,400/2,400

    Stamina 1,288.17/1,633

    Mana:812.94/1,020

    Vitality: 240.00

    Endurance: 100.00

    Strength: 150.00

    Dexterity: 145.00

    Senses: 62.31

    Mind: 65.07

    Magic: 102.46

    Clarity: 78.55

    Status Points: 0

    Skills:

    Tier 1:

    Meditation (LV78), Running (LV76), Blacksmithing (LV69), Hammer Skills (LV57), Axe Skills (LV55), Cleaning (LV51), Chanting (LV50), Mining (LV48), Drawing (LV46), Trading (LV45), Cooking (LV39), Dagger Skills (LV31), Wood Carving (LV31), Acting (LV32), Sword Skills (LV31), Sewing (LV24), Pugilist Skills (LV4), Spear Skills (LV2), Alchemy (LV2)

    Tier 2:

    Sense Mana (LV79), Double Step (LV61), Charm (LV50), Measurement (LV46), Hammer Arts (LV41), Axe Arts (LV36), Writing (LV32), Intimidating Shout (LV31), Mathematics (LV30), Increase Price (LV21), Lower Price (LV20), Steady Hands (LV16), Dagger Arts (LV12), Sword Arts (LV14), Gourmet (LV7), Marching (LV5), Shout of Valor (LV3),

    Tier 3:

    Expel Mana (LV62), Mana Manipulation (LV60), Precise Strike (LV40), Double Strike (LV40), Weighted Strike (LV37), Flash Step (LV21), Contract (LV7)

    Tier 4:

    Mental Resistance (LV53), Mana Skin (LV53), Inject Mana (LV52), Extract Mana (LV31), Magic Blacksmithing (LV25), Empowered Spell (LV9), Air Walk (LV1)

    Tier 5:

    Sense Soul (LV38), Soul Manipulation (LV6)

    Tier 6:

    Soul Devourer (LV2)

    Increased Skill Levels

    Trading (LV43-45) 6,600exp

    Acting (LV32) 1,600exp

    Increase Price (LV18-21) 7,800exp

    Contract (LV6-7) 1,950exp

    Skill Experience: 17,950exp

    Crafting Experience: 1,843exp

    Fighting Experience: 0exp

    Total-experience Gained: 19,793exp

    Seeing exactly where I gain my experience has been a big boon for me ever since I could better organize the information from my soul.

    I can easily see which of my skills have leveled and how much experience I've gained from crafting activities, including negotiating.

    Looking at the results of my meeting with Mr. Grey makes me feel the need to punch a tree with all my strength as I can over my status page again.

    Both Trading and Increase Price saw huge gains after my discussion with Mr. Grey, but one skill did not. Contract, the skill I was expecting to soar through the roof after I signed with Mr. Grey only gained two levels, and it was only at level 5 to begin with.

    If that wasn't a good enough indicator that I was bamboozled, I only gained 1,843 experience after agreeing to such an important contract. I've gained more experience trading with Kervin.

    I would have to be an idiot if I didn't see the writing on the wall. However, I've been going over the contract in my head for hours, and I can't find anything that screams 'gotcha.' Did Mr. grey write something in invisible ink? No, I was watching every move he made; there was nothing hidden in that contract. In fact, the contract seemed relatively short and to the point.

    I almost trip over nothing as I suddenly realize what's wrong with the contract; it's missing too many details!

    Back on Earth, you would be lucky to find a contract shorter than three pages. Hell, every time you updated an app, you would have to agree to ten pages of who knows what.

    I still don't know what Mr. grey left out of the contract, but I'm sure mother will have an idea once she sees it.

    I'm disappointed in myself for not noticing sooner. If I didn't have the skill to counter contracts, I would be in big trouble right now rather than complaining about how I didn't level my skills as much as I wanted to.

    I wonder if this is a sign, I'm getting overconfident with my abilities? I thought the contract business was beneath me like it didn't matter, and I allowed myself to be duped. Just because I'm stronger than most people doesn't mean I'm invincible.

    I'll need to be more careful in the future, especially now that I know Mr. Grey has some sort of plan for me.

    While I alternate between berating myself for my slipup and complaining about my missed skill levels, I finally spot what I’m looking for just up ahead.

    I spot Sandra's search spell, meaning I'm closing in on them. Deactivating my mana obscuring amulet, I chose to approach them without scaring them this time.

    As I round the bend in the trees, I spot Sandra and brother, who both look happy to see me despite how I left them last time.

    “You’re back already!” Brother shouts in disbelief as I approach their slow-moving cart.

    I choose to shrug like it’s no big deal. “I told you I’m fast.”

    "Did you have any trouble in the city?" Sandra asks, concerned like an older sister.

    I don't feel the need to lie to them, so I answer truthfully. "There were some small hiccups. The city is in worse shape than I thought. Everyone is trying to leave Drey, and the guards are taking advantage of that. After seeing Drey for myself, I'm all, but sure it won't hold once Scholl arrives."

    I walk up next to their cart and go into detail about my experience in the city. Sandra makes fun of me for forgetting my pad at home while my brother awkwardly tries to tune me out for that part of the conversation. I even tell them how I visited Silver herd and arranged for numerous materials to be delivered to the village before Scholl arrives.

    "You signed a contract," Sandra looks at me concerned after I finish recanting my short tale. "You have to take contracts seriously, I had to sign one before I started practicing under my master, and even now, it affects me."

    “What does your contract entail?” I curiously ask.

    "It was a basic mage apprenticeship contract. It was really long, so I'll sum it up. Basically, I can't teach anyone anything I learned from my master until I buy out his magic rights."

    “What are magic rights?” I scooch a little closer to the cart.

    "Purchasing magic rights from a master means you bought the right to teach others," Sandra tells me.

    “That sounds stupid,” I scoff at the idea of charging someone twice for the same knowledge. “Why is that even a thing?”

    "It's how mages ensure unfaithful or disgruntled students don't pass around their spells. Think about it, what would happen if one mage paid for their apprentice to study under another mage and have him relay everything back to the master? If you wish to teach others, you have to compensate the master for their knowledge."

    “Wait! Does that mean we can’t swap magic ideas?” I ask in astonishment.

    Sandra gives me an awkward smile telling me everything I need to know. “We can talk about magic; I just can’t teach you any of the spells I learned.”

    “I guess that isn’t all bad,” I reluctantly say, kicking a pebble into the nearby bushes in disappointment. I was somewhat hoping my spell repertoire was going to grow when Sandra came back.

    "And don't think I didn't notice how you changed the conversation," Sandra gives me a knowing look. "What exactly did you agree to in your contract?" And like that, Sandra went from a cool older sister to mom in under a minute.

    Lying doesn't feel right, but I don't feel like divulging my screw up. I look up to Sandra, who's sitting next to my brother, driving the cart. "It's a little personal, but believe me, I have it covered," I reassure her.

    Sandra must see my resolve because she lets out a reluctant sigh. "Ok, if you say so. But if you need anything, make sure you ask."

    “I will,” I nod in agreement.

    Walking next to the cart, I’m reminded how much Sandra and brother support me. I psych myself and tell them what I should’ve said as soon as I saw them.

    "Hey, Richard, Sandra, I want to say I'm sorry for how I acted two days ago. Both of you were just caring about me, and I overreacted. I'm really sorry," I anxiously glance up at the two and hope that they'll forgive me.

    Brother and Sandra share a quick look before both turning towards me. “We would also like to apologize to you, Aaliyah,” Sandra says with a soft smile. “We shouldn’t have tried to control you, no matter how much we care about you.”

    “Yeah, we're just as sorry as you are, little sis." Brother chimes in. "The two of us should know better than anyone what it's like to have people question your decisions when you're 15." Brothers joke earns a small laugh from Sandra and me.

    “Thanks, but that doesn’t excuse the skill I used on the two of you.”

    "Yeah, please don't ever do that again," Brother gives me the same look master did after I used Sense Soul on him for the first time.

    “I promise,” I quickly agree.

    "Speaking of the skill, what was it?" Sandra has all the curiosity of a cat. "I've never experienced a skill like that before, and it lets you view our levels? How does that work?"

    I know she won't stop asking until I tell her, so I give her an outline of my skill, not divulging its tier. "You can think of it as an invasive scanning skill. It mostly lets me see a person's level, but it can show me other things too. Like when I scanned you, I noticed something weird in your stomach. Are you…?"

    “Woah!”

    “Woah!”

    Both Sandra and Richard flail in their seats, stopping me before I can ask my question.

    “That’s something personal between your brother and me that we still need to discuss,” Sandra points out while placing her hand on her lower abdomen.

    It’s hard to hold back my excitement.

    I look at Sandra, who seems to be glowing even more than the last time I saw her, before turning to Richard. "Dad and Camden are going to kick your ass."

    “No, they won’t.”

    I smirk at my brother. "You're right; mother and Sarette will get you first for not being officially married yet."

    Brother pales at the mention of mother, and I start laughing. Sandra can’t help herself and giggles along with me at Richard’s expense.

    It's great talking to Sandra and messing with Richard, but I can't stay here much longer. "If you promise to be nice to me from now on, I might decide not to tell everyone when I get back to the village."

    "You're leaving?" brother asks, surprised, and Sandra stops laughing. "Why?"

    "For the same reason; I'm scared of mom too," I point out. "I promised her I would be back as soon as possible, and that doesn't mean I can walk next to you guys for the next week. Besides, someone has to let our families know the two of you are safe."

    "She has a good point," Sandra agrees with me.

    “I know, I know,” Brother mumbles and sets the reins down. The sickly looking bivol doesn’t so much as change direction or pace even though brother is no longer holding the reins. Was he just pretending to control the beast?

    Both Sandra and brother dismount their cart and move to hug me.

    The three of us exchange goodbyes, and I definitely, positively, didn't tear up when we separated from one another.

    “Hurry up and make it home,” I call out behind me as I jog away.

    “Stay safe!” The two shout back at me before I can no longer see them.

    I quickly gain speed and start soaring through the forest. If I push myself a little harder, I can probably make it home in time for dinner, I happily think to myself.

    It's incredible what family can do for you. Before I saw Sandra and Richard, I was frustrated and angry, but my day feels brighter somehow after talking to them. I guess you can call it the magic of family…

    Ok, that was a little too sweet even for me.

    I laugh to myself as I make my way home, optimistic I can overcome any challenges I might face in the future as long as I'm careful and have help from my loved ones.

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,000 words.

    I know the ending is a little sappy, but I felt it was right to end 2020 on a positive note.

    I'll keep it short so that you can celebrate the new year. Please tell me what you think below, and as always, stay safe.


    “So, how does this work?” I lean across Mr. Grey’s desk, watching his every movement with an excited smile on my face while bouncing on the tips of my toes.

    Mr. Grey recoils away from me and drops his skill, but Acting helps me keep up my happy façade. He must have thought his skill was working too well on me and wants me to back off.

    I stop acting like I just ate a bag of sugar and back up a bit, but just enough that I’m still considered quite close to Mr. Grey.

    "First, you need a proper piece of parchment," Mr. Grey tells me while pulling a tan sheet of parchment out of his desk.

    Back on Earth, most people have known nothing but plant basted paper, but here on Yurilia, parchment made from plants isn't always the go-to. If a village needs to send a message for whatever reason, chances are they'll use animal hide for their parchment. Mother told me plant-based paper is more common in cities but is only used in daily messages.

    Looking at the beautiful piece of parchment, I can immediately tell it’s a piece of hide from a magic beast. The parchment practically glows in my eyes with earth mana and must have come from a strong beast.

    Mr. Grey smooths out any creases on the hide and places a small weight on each of its corners. He then reaches into another drawer and withdraws a pen and container of green ink. The ink itself is also magical, but it possesses a neutral flow of mana, which is interesting to see. All mana is a mishmash of elements; even when I force the fire mana out of my work when I craft, it inevitably draws out traces of air and earth mana with it.

    Every person absorbs ambient mana and converts it into their own, even those who don't have any magic talent. The converted mana mages wield itself is a combination of all traces of mana a person naturally absorbs, allowing them to cast spells with entirely different elements. However, people like magic beasts have an affinity for certain types of mana, allowing them to easily absorb specific variants over others. In short, it's incredibly hard to have genuinely neutral mana.

    So, to see this bottle of ink, which appears to have a perfect balance of wind, earth, fire, and water mana, is incredible in its own right. Is it like engraving ink?

    "What is that ink made of?" I ask Mr. Grey as he removes the cork from the small glass container.

    "It's a special solution made by alchemists," he tries to hide the annoyance in his voice but now that I'm looking for small tells, his reluctance to answer me is evident.

    “Sooooo, that means you have no idea?” It’s fun to see Mr. Grey’s hand pause as he’s reaching for his pen when he hears my question.

    He takes a second to compose himself before meeting my gaze. Mr. Grey has reformed his merchant smile. "It's not that I'm ill-informed, but just like engraving ink, almost all solutions are only privy to their maker. Do you wish for me to try and find you a simplified recipe like last time?”

    Damn, it's hard to read him like this; I pushed too hard. "No, thanks," I try to get him to drop his guard again with a friendly smile and some reassurance. "The ink just reminded me of my own experiments back home with engraving ink. I already have too many projects on my plate as it is," I follow up with another soft chuckle.

    “Are you sure? I can try if you want me to?” Mr. Grey offers an empty platitude, knowing I have no interest in alchemy besides engraving ink.

    "No, it's fine, really," I insist. "I was just interested in the contract, is all," I try to turn his attention back to the parchment in front of us.

    My plan works, and Mr. Grey finally turns his attention back to our contract. "I see, then I shall explain how it works before I start drafting it. It works by one of us drafting out the agreement, and both of us signing the contract. Then, we shake as usual, and our skills will finalize everything."

    “It’s that simple?” I remark.

    "Sure is; give me a minute to write everything out." Mr. Grey moves his pen over to the inkpot.

    What is this; no discussion between us first? Does he think I’m that gullible, or is this a test of some kind?

    I make a split-second decision as he moves to start writing. “Woah there!" I hold out my hand, and Mr. Grey stops right as he's about to put pen to parchment. "I don't believe we've talked over the terms yet," I point out to him with an accusing look.

    Mr. Grey looks shocked for a moment, but he quickly starts laughing. "Couldn't blame me for trying," he says without a smidge of shame. "You seem a little off today; I was wondering if you'd even notice?"

    So, it was a test! Does that mean he realizes I'm on to his game? Does he know that I know, that he knows? And if he does, does he still plan on trying to indenture me to him?

    I puff out my cheeks and pout. "You see how tired I am from my run, and you try to take advantage of me," I accuse Mr. Grey in an over-the-top manner like a C grade actress might do on a soap-opera.

    "I'm just making sure I'm talking to the girl that haggled me out of a fistful of gold coins the last time we spoke." It was subtle, but I see how he drew attention back to how much he helped me last time. He doesn't mention how it was Silver Herd's owner that gave me a discount from the start, only how much 'he' came down in price.

    “Then you shouldn’t feel bad about me talking you down again,” I send him a challenging look. Both our merchant skills activate at the same time.

    "I'll be fronting all your material costs, so I deserve a discount on the final goods." Mr. Grey gives me a cunning smile, "how about I buy all the goods you make at 60% market value."

    “Including the arrows that we would’ve sold to the general,” I scoff at his offer. “Our previous deal already has you getting the last two for free.”

    "Don't think I'm an unreasonable man, Aaliyah. This contract can replace our previous one as long as we include it in the details. I want us to come together and cement our relationship to both our needs.”

    “And what about Kervin?” I ask.

    “What about him?”

    “I already have a contract with Kervin saying he’ll be buying all my goods. How does that factor into our contract?” I point out to him.

    Mr. Grey laughs and gives me a dismissive wave with his hand. "Kervin works under me. He'll be given ample compensation for being our go-between."

    “And what happens when I break my contract with Kervin and sell directly to you?" I enquire about any ramifications I could possibly suffer. I can void our contract if I wanted to, but Mr. Grey doesn't know that.

    "It depends on the type of contract and the levels of the people involved. Based on what I've heard, the contract between you and Kervin was only verbal, and you out level him by a wide margin. You would be the one breaking the contract, so you might suffer a bad headache for a day." Mr. Grey tells me.

    "A headache, that's it? You break a Contract skill, and that's all you suffer from?" I'm shocked, that's all that happens.

    Mr. Grey chuckles, "you would only get a headache because neither of you specified the details should your contract be broken. The fact that you're stronger than him helps you resist the backlash. If you were weaker than Kervin, then you could've been bedridden for several days after the skill was broken.”

    I breathe out a small sigh, "another example of might makes right," I mumble.

    "That's how our world works," Mr. Grey confirms. "Levels, money, status, these are the principles that drive everything, and with the two of us working together, we might just obtain all three!" For just a second, I see Mr. Grey's mask drop, and I can clearly see the fanatic ambition he hides.

    I want to refute him and say it’s love, friendship, and loyalty that real wealth is obtained, but I can see these concepts don't matter much to the man. Feigning understanding, I nod along with Mr. grey. If we stay on this topic any longer, I might give myself away, so I lead us back to our discussion on prices.

    "Speaking of wealth, there's no way I'm selling my work for only 60%," I tell Mr. Grey. "I plan on forging solid tier 3 magic swords and other weapons. And if I'm lucky, I'll be able to put some basic enchantments on them as well. We're talking goods worth tens of gold for each piece.”

    “But you’re forgetting I’m paying for all the materials. I’m only taking 40% despite agreeing to front you nearly 300 gold coins worth of ore. “Mr. Grey points out to me.

    "Funny, I didn't know you were paying for the steel we'll be using," I cross my arms in front of me. "Other than the arrow shafts, the other stuff I make will include our village's steel, and there's the mithril if you want even better-quality gear."

    "Then that means you need more mithril as well. The goods I was about to front you just went from 300 gold coins to 450 gold coins. I'm afraid I'll have to be quite insistent with 60%. You won’t get any better from another merchant.”

    Now I got him! “Ah, but I do. Kervin easily pays me 60% and gives me more depending on how much he can sell my stuff for.” I send Mr. Grey a challenging sneer.

    “He does all that?" Mr. Grey is stunned upon hearing how well Kervin treats me. That's right, you crafty old man, how are you going to top that? Kervin is aware I can terminate Contract skills without any backlash or consent from the other person, so he offers me more than generous terms knowing I can find a new partner anytime I want.

    Mr. Grey is forced to lean back into his chair and take a minute to think over his offer.

    The amount of money we're discussing is leagues above any deal I've done in the past. I don't mind going along with Mr. Grey's plans because it would supply me with enough material to keep me busy until the new year. I'd have more than enough time to figure out how I would want to deal with Mr. Grey no matter what the paper in front of him says.

    Mr. Grey anxiously rubs his face with his hand. “70%, that’s the best I can do,” he tells me.

    I let a predatory smile form on my face. "That's better; I can work with 70%. How much Kaglese do you have available?"

    “8,000 pounds. And before you ask, yes, my earlier price factored in the bulk price. How many weapons can you forge with that?”

    "A lot," I confidently tell Mr. Grey. "I only need time; can you pick everything up after the new year when summer begins?"

    "That's more than reasonable; anything else you feel we should discuss?" Mr. Grey asks, appearing ready to answer any of my questions, but I can see in his eyes how much he wants me to sign whatever he writes down.

    “Business with Kervin, what you’re giving me, how much my percentage is,” I count off each point with my fingers. “Yeah, I think we covered all the big details. Now you just have to draft the contract, right?”

    "That's correct; it won't take long." Mr. Grey dips his pen into the inkpot. I follow along as he smoothly writes out our new contract. It starts out rather formal.

    This contract is between Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village and Lennard Grey.

    I quickly notice he includes where I grew up but not that he’s working under Silver Herd.

    This contract terminates and replaces the former contract between Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village and Lennard Grey. Lennard Grey will provide Aaliyah with 300 gold worth of Kaglese ore and 150 gold in mithril ingots. Lennard Grey will use Kervin of Silver Herd to deliver said goods in a timely fashion to Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village.

    I see that Mr. Grey is making sure to specify exactly who is performing each action, leaving no room for someone to interpret the contract in any other way.

    Leonard Grey will handle the pickup of finished goods produced by Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village four months from the date this contract is signed after the new year begins. All goods produced by Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village, minus products meant for Spotted Creek Village, will be bought at 70% market value to Lennard Grey.

    According to this new contract, Mr. Grey will be paying me for all the arrows I make, including the ones we previously agreed would be free.

    While I’m trying to find any hidden meaning or loopholes in what he wrote, I notice Mr. Grey has paused his writing.

    “Is something the matter?” I ask.

    “Forgive me, but I forgot the last part we need to discuss.” Yeah, I’m sure you did, I chastise the man in my head. “The last part of a contract specifies what should happen to either of us should we break the terms written.”

    I raise my eyebrow at the man. “Do we need such a clause? It sort of sounds like you don’t trust me,” I say accusingly.

    Mr. Grey waves his hands and shakes his head. "Not at all; I'm sure neither of us wishes to back out of such a profitable deal." Mr. Grey tries to reassure me.

    "Then, why do we need to include a punishment clause? Won't the backlash from breaking a Contract skill reinforced with an official document be enough?"

    "Normally, yes," Mr. Grey points out. "But Contract skills are vastly stronger when both parties agree on a mutual punishment should the contract be broken." His smile warm, but I know this is where Mr. Grey is going to try and trip me up.

    A part of me is curious where he’s going with this. “What do people usually agree to, then?”

    "Most commonly contracts specify an amount of money one person would owe the other should they fail to follow the standards of the contract. However, both of us are quite wealthy, and we would need to agree on an astronomical amount that would pose any threat to either of us." Mr. Grey smiles widely at me.

    “Don’t stop now,” I tell him. “I’m sure you already have an idea of what we could both ante up.”

    “Contracts between people as strong as us need to be strong, so I suggest we both offer up 20 levels to the other should either of us happen to betray the other."

    I don't need to feign shock. I was expecting something outrageous from the man, but I didn't expect that. "Is that even possible?" I ask in astonishment.

    Mr. Grey slowly nods his head. "It is possible. Contracts with the same stakes were more common during the warring periods ensuring one party would never back out of a deal. Both of us could withstand the backlash from a contract skill, but neither of us could survive losing 20 levels."

    "Is this really necessary?" I act nervous, but on the inside, I'm even more curious now how he plans to trap me.

    "We both plan on following the contract. The penalty of losing 20 levels is merely there to make our partnership stronger." Mr. Grey has the smile of a fox trying to coax a hen out of the farm.

    Fine, let’s see this to the end. I slowly change my unsure expression to a more reluctant agreeing look. “Fine, I agree to your terms. May our bonds be unbreakable.”

    “I’m glad you see it my way,” Mr. grey re-dabs his pen in the ink and finishes drafting our contract.

    Should either Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village or Lennard Grey not follow the contract to the letter, the offended party can take 20 levels from the other.

    I expected him to try and add something vaguer at the end, but the terms stating what should happen if we forgo the contract are extremely clear. That means there must be a loophole in the contract that I missed, which explains why Mr. Grey is looking extremely pleased with himself.

    “Now we just have to sign,” Mr. Grey informs me and doesn’t hesitate to write out his name at the bottom of the document.

    He passes me the parchment and his pen. “Do I need to sign as Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village?” I ask.

    "That would be preferable," Mr. Grey tells me. "You don't have a last name, so signing your village makes the contract stronger."

    Does anything make this contract weaker, I wonder?

    I start writing out my name, and as I finish, Mr. Grey offers me his hand. Confidently, I reach out and shake my opponents' hand over the contact.

    The text Mr. Grey wrote down flashes, and both our Contract skills activate. Unlike the previous contracts I've formed with Kervin and Mr. Grey, this time is different. A more significant amount of experience is exchanged between the two of us, and it's all filtered through the parchment.

    The hide and magic ink react to our skills, and I can see a change in the document's mana structure. The already strong hide our contract is written on looks even stronger than a few seconds ago.

    “Which of us keeps the parchment?” I ask Mr. Grey.

    "Do you have a secure place for it?" He questions me.

    "Not really," I tell him. "But don't you think it would be safer in my village; I mean, an army is on its way here?"

    "You don't need to worry," Mr. Grey assures me. "The parchment is only a physical representation of our contract. The hide it's made of is quite strong, and our skills have already reinforced it. I believe I should hold onto it; that way, should someone from Scholl try to force your cooperation, I can negotiate for both of us."

    “And who says I need you to watch out for me?” I fold my arms in front of me.

    "So, you want to be more involved now?" Mr. Grey smugly smiles, knowing I don't.

    I ignore his bait and change the subject. “When can I expect my delivery?”

    "Kervin should reach the city sometime tomorrow. But I'm sure he'll need some rest before I send him out again. Expect your order in six or seven days."

    "Sounds good," I say, standing up. “Can I get a regular piece of paper and ink to copy the contract really quick?”

    “Of course,” Mr. Grey readily hands me the supplies I need.

    I copy everything over and pocket the paper. “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice. I hope everything goes well with Scholl.”

    Mr. Greys eyes widen as I turn around and head for the door. “Wait! That’s it? You don’t have to leave right away, you know. I can put you up in an inn for the night,” he offers.

    I shake my head no and offer him a polite smile. "It's fine, really. Everyone back in the village is waiting for me, and honestly, the energy everyone is giving off doesn't allow me to relax here. I'd feel better camping in the woods rather than staying in an inn while the city is panicking."

    "I understand; if that's how you feel, I won't try to keep you longer." Mr. Grey lightly bows his head. "Stay safe on your trip home."

    “Mr. Grey,” I offer him a final nod and move towards the doors leading out of the office. “Thank you, Max,” I offer the bodyguard a parting smile as he holds the door open for me.

    "Have a good day, miss Aaliyah," he politely returns my farewell.

    I take stock of the man one last time as I leave. If my business with Mr. Grey turns sour, he's one of the most likely people I would have to look out for.

    On that note, I hope I'm wrong about Mr. Grey. I understand he's a merchant and only looking out for his best interests, but for some reason, I kept getting bad vibes every time I looked into his eyes.

    I’ll have mom help me go over the contract when I get back to the village and discuss everything with Kervin when he drops off my supplies. I might even include Reel if I can figure out where his intentions lie. It sounds like he works for the head of Silver Herd, but Mr. Grey made it sound like he could order him around as well.

    Well, worrying over things that haven’t happened yet won’t get me anywhere.

    I need to turn my focus onto my problems in the here and now. Like, how am I going to get out of this building without being accosted by the head receptionist?

    **********

    Mr. grey’s Point of View:

    "Has she left the building yet?" I ask Max.

    "The head receptionist stopped her, but she managed to worm her way out eventually," my bodyguard informs me.

    "Good, I don't need that woman getting her claws into our business any more than she already is. Not that it matters much now," I laugh. "Aaliyah signed the contract, and now she's practically dancing in the palm of my hand."

    “I wouldn’t underestimate her, boss.” Max tramples all over my good mood.

    “And why is that?” I ask my most trusted partner.

    “Her growth rate is terrifying.”

    “She may level fast, but she’s still a young girl that doesn’t know how the world works. By the time she realizes I basically own her, it will be too late.” I happily proclaim. “So, what if she gains a few levels!”

    "It was more than a few; she leveled at least four times since she was last here."

    Hearing that causes me to choke on my own saliva. When I clear my throat, I quickly demand clarification. “Four levels?!”

    "At least. She was trying to hide it, but her physical stats have improved by leaps and bounds.”

    “Can you still take her?” I hastily ask.

    Max’s face scrunches, “I’m pretty sure. As you said, boss, she’s still young. Even if she somehow out levels me, I’m confident I can beat her in a fight.”

    I rub my face with my hand; that's not good news. Max is already assuming she'll pass him soon. "It doesn't matter," I say aloud to reassure myself as much as Max. "She was focusing so hard on everything I wrote down; she didn't realize everything I left out of the contract."

    I grab the magical document and lean back into my chair, putting my feet up onto my desk. “The contract states when I pick up the first order of goods but has nothing about it being a one-time deal. It even blatantly says all goods she produces other than what her village needs must be sold to me with no mention when our contract ends!"

    “Even if Giovanni catches wind of our contract, he can’t break it without killing the girl.” I wish I could see his face when he does find out I snagged his most important contact ever.

    “What do we do with Kervin and Reel, boss?”

    "The contract only states Kervin needs to deliver the materials the first time. You know how crazy everything has been lately; no one would think twice about it if he has an accident during all the panic." I grin at Max.

    “What about Reel?” Max asks me.

    “If the chance presents itself, we’ll take him out, but we only need to kill Kervin. Then we’ll fill his position with our own people we trust,” I explain.

    “Are you sure that will work?” Max asks me. “There’s no way word won’t get back to Giovanni that Aaliyah visited us today. If we make a move on Kervin, it would only confirm any suspicions he has about us."

    I snicker at my aid. "You think Giovanni isn't already suspicious of us. That man assigned me out here to keep me at arm's length. The only reason he cares so much is that a once in a lifetime gem like Aaliyah was uncovered nearby. Like everything else we've done, we'll move slowly. After Kervin drops off the supplies I owe Aaliyah, we have months to figure out a way to get rid of him.”

    "And Scholl?" Max looks at me, concerned.

    "An unforeseen setback is all," I assure Max. "But one we can take advantage of. Silver herd will be split in half once Scholl takes the city, and Giovanni's grasp on his employees will falter. As soon as Scholl takes the city, we can re-establish our ties in Teeburn."

    “You’re not worried about working with Scholl, boss?”

    "That's the best part," I exclaim. "I'm only following the orders of Giovanni. Should our loyalty to Olebert be questioned, we can simply say we were working under Giovanni's orders, which will damage his reputation beyond repair. If we use Aaliyah to our advantage as well as deal a lethal blow to Silver Herd, the major trading companies will see us as heroes."

    “Sounds complicated,” Max breathes out a tired sigh.

    "Just you wait, my friend, in a years' time, we'll be living the good life with so much gold we won't know what to do with it all." A large smile crosses my lips, and Max can't help but smirk himself.

    This is a dangerous game we're playing, but I've been preparing for this moment for years. And now that I have that ignorant girl under my thumb, my victory is all but assured.

    Come, Scholl.

    Come, Giovanni.

    Both of you are merely stepping stones meant to propel me to greatness!

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    4,400 words.

    I know it's shorter despite me taking so long to write it. But on a good note, I got a chest x-ray and blood work done yesterday, so hopefully, for Christmas, I'll find out what's making me feel so shitty.

    But don’t let me spoil your holidays.

    I wish everyone a Merry Christmas,

    A happy Hanukkah,

    An amazing Kwanzaa,

    That no evil finds you on Shabe-Yalda,

    Or simply have a great Festivus with your family,

    P.S. I had to look those last three up.

    No matter what you celebrate or who you’re with, I wish you the greatest of times.

    The next chapter should be out on the 31st. Until then, I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.


    “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” I continue to kick myself as I run down the final strip of the forest.

    What is wrong with me?

    I completely lost it for a second there when my brother demanded I return to the village with them.

    After our confrontation, I used my anger to fuel my running for a while and covered a lot of ground, but when I finally stopped to rest, and my emotions evened out, I realized how in the wrong I was.

    I mean, I even used Sense Soul on my brother and my best friend, for god's sake!

    I was riding a wave of excitement from my earlier run, and seeing them in the middle of the forest was the icing on the cake. Everything was going well until brother just had to open his mouth.

    Both brother and Sandra only had my best interest at heart, but I lost my cool for some reason.

    I let out a long sigh. I've lived two lives, and apparently, it's still possible to have a mood swing. It was like, as soon as brother demanded I listen to him, anger I didn't notice I was harboring revealed itself. I felt so tired of having to defend my actions to everyone, and I just snapped.

    I’ll have to apologize when I see them again.

    “What a great way to loses a runner’s high," I growl in frustration. I reach down and rub my cramping stomach, thinking today is only getting worse.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it just so happened to be that time again for me.

    Wait a moment, when was the last time I…?

    I feel my face flush when I finally understand why my body had randomly started feeling heavier this morning when I restarted my run.

    “Of all the times!” I complain out loud.

    Despite the slowly growing pain in my stomach, I pick up speed. Stupid me never considered my period would pick now of all times to start, and being the genius I am; I didn't think about bringing a pad with me on my run.

    Now that I think about it, it’s been a while since the last time this has happened.

    Despite technology being close to medieval periods back on Earth, the women of Yurilia actually have a much easier time with their monthlies. Mother taught me what happens to growing girls from a young age and cleared up the gaps in my knowledge of the subject.

    I was initially terrified of the thought of having to deal with my body once a month, but I learned the magic of stats once again played a significant role in my new life.

    Woman's monthlies help flush their systems, a fact every adult knew in my past life. So, what happens when a woman has a body strengthened well past anything thought possible?

    Basically, the stronger a woman is, the less often their bodies need to clean house.

    For someone like me, who's always had a high level and impressive stats, I've rarely been visited by my Aunt Flow.

    The problem is I've been gaining a lot of levels recently, making it utterly impossible to guess when my body would see fit to give me trouble. Now that I think about it, my last period was in the middle of summer, nearly ten months ago before the goblin attack.

    I forgot I even needed to carry a pad with me with everything that's been going on. The trees are starting to space out, meaning I'll get to the plains around Drey soon.

    It’ll be awkward to ask around for, but I can purchase a pad in Drey or from Mr. Grey if I have to.

    As I continue to run, I question if my period was part of the reason I snapped at my family?

    No, no matter how much I would like to blame my outburst on hormones, I can’t use that as an excuse. Even at its worst, I've never had an outburst like that when I was growing up.

    It’s ironic, Sandra, the one person I would try and talk to about these feelings, is one of the people I went off on.

    I push the worrying thoughts regarding my family to the back of my head and pick up more speed. I specifically picked my most comfortable pair of underwear for this run, and I'm not going to chance ruining them when I'm so close to my goal.

    I shouldn't have to worry because of my cleaning spell, but once you get an image in your head of something dirty, especially your delicates, it's tough to forget even after they’re clean.

    My surroundings open up, and I'm officially out of the forest.

    I worry I might have to slow down as I get closer to the city so that other pedestrians can't see how fast I'm running, but Drey's road is surprisingly desolate. My feet blur under me as I quickly pass past the many farmsteads surrounding Drey.

    Though I’m eventually forced to slow down as I near Drey's walls, looking up, I expect the city’s walls to be covered in guards, but the ramparts look emptier than the first time I visited.

    As I follow along the city’s walls towards the gate, I only spot a handful of people keeping watch on the city’s surroundings.

    “Why would the city not see fit to properly man their walls when they know an army is approaching? What if they have some sort of shock troops that can cover large distances?” I once again question how the local nobles are handling their situation.

    I'm about to complain to myself a little more when I finally see the gate I entered and left through during my last visit.

    It's no wonder there are no guards up on the walls; they're all at the gate trying to control a max exodus of people.

    When I first came to the city, the line of people trying to pass through the gate into the city was at least three times longer than the one of people trying to leave. Instead of the gate being divided into two sections for people to enter and exit, the gate's right and left sides are now inspecting carts of people trying to flee the city.

    Looking down the road that leads to Blaiton and Yleles, I can see a line of people and wagons stretching into the distance.

    The entire gate is packed with people yelling at the local guards to let them through.

    “Reason for leaving!?” A guard yells over the crowd at a portly merchant who’s sweating profusely, seated snugly up on his cart.

    “I wish to purchase goods in Blaiton and bring them back to our glorious city.” The merchant answers, dabbing a handkerchief at his face.

    “Liar!” A chorus of insults come from the people waiting in line to leave the city.

    “I need to check your cart to make sure you aren’t taking anything other than personal weapons out of the city,” the guard informs him.

    The gate guard nimbly crawls up the cart and starts shifting the goods around. When the guard inspects the goods directly behind the merchant, I watch the merchant stealthfully slip a coin pouch into the guard’s pocket.

    The guard pretends not to notice that his trousers are now heavier and crawls off the merchant's wagon. "Everything appears in order; thank you for thinking of our city." The guard waves the merchant off without a shred of guilt.

    I watch the fat merchant whip his bivol as hard as he can and race off into the distance. There is no way that man is coming back to the city.

    Other gatekeepers are denying people from leaving the city, stating multiple reasons, from a person being too old to survive the trip to Blaiton, all the way to saying that too many people of that person's profession have already left the city.

    It would look like the guards are letting random people leave, but I keenly spot it's the people dressed in slightly better clothes that are making it through the checkpoint.

    As I question my faith in humanity, my gut tightens.

    Watching the chaos unfold distracted me for a second there.

    I walk up to a guard who is waving yet another merchant through. “Excuse me!” I call out to him.

    The man was so distracted by the crowd of people trying to leave the city; he didn't notice me approaching him. When he manages to compose himself from the small fright I’ve given him, he looks me up and down, scrutinizing me. “What do you want?”

    “Village runner,” I tell him. “I have business with Silver Herd inside the city.” I use a calm and sure tone despite the rude look the guard is giving me.

    "Runner?" The guard gives me a questionable look before a dirty smile crosses his face. "Alright, one silver, and you can enter the city."

    I’m reaching for the small coin pouch I brought with me when I realize he just said a silver. Five of us entered the city last time, and even though Kervin got a discount, it was only 6 large bronze coins!

    The guard laughs at my shocked expression. I narrow my eyes at the man making my displeasure known. “Why the high entry tax?” I ask him.

    “City’s in trouble, higher taxes.” The guard tells me in a matter-of-fact voice.

    The cramping in my stomach intensifies, and the idea of ripping this man a new asshole steadily sounds like a better and better idea. Why is everyone continually looking down on me? I know I look like a young girl, but this man is supposed to protect this city. Even if I'm all for leaving Drey to defend itself, I still won't use this situation to take advantage of people.

    I beckon the guard closer with my finger. I'm slightly taller than him, so I lean into his ear. "I have official business with Mr. Grey of this city's Silver Herd branch. Let me through, and I won't use my connections to report how much money you're skimming from everyone." I briefly look at his soul, causing him to scurry away from me with a look of terror written across his face.

    “Please proceed, mam.” The guard lets me walk past him without daring to look at me.

    I have to push my way through the crowd around the gate, but people are all too happy to let someone move to the back of the line.

    Someone tries to reach for my coin pouch in the commotion, but one karate chop later, and I'm walking past a man on the ground crying and holding his limp wrist. It looks like I need to hold back more; if someone spots me doing that when I'm not in a crowd, I might be drafted by the army.

    When I finally make it past the crowd of angry citizens into the city proper, I see the madness isn't isolated to the gate. Many shops are being boarded up, there are almost no stalls on the side of the road, and judging by the amount of animal shit in the middle of the road, the city isn’t prioritizing its sanitation any longer.

    Almost everyone I see walking around looks like they think the world is ending, and to them, it might as well be. People won't know how Scholl will treat the city until they arrive.

    As I walk down the street that leads to the city’s Silver Herd branch, I finally spot a clothing store that doesn’t appear to be preparing for a hurricane.

    I push open the shop's door and smile at an older woman operating the counter. Behind her is an older gentleman working on a thick vest; he looks up from his work and glances at me before returning to his work. I quickly spot the sword he has stashed next to his workstation.

    The area for customers to stand has colorful sample fabrics hanging from the wall. The atmosphere of the store itself is warm and inviting.

    "Hello dear, what can I help you with today?" The sweet lady beckons me over to the counter.

    I can feel my cheeks turn red. Mother has been the one to make all my pads, and It never occurred to me, I would have to walk into a shop and buy one someday.

    "Ugggg, I need…" I trail off in embarrassment. The gentleman working on the vest looks back at me again, which only makes my face redder.

    The woman gives me an understanding smile. "You need new undergarments?" I nod, and she beams with a soft smile. "First time buying your own? Don't feel embarrassed; most first-timers have a hard time asking for unmentionables. My husband over there and I have run this shop for thirty years and have seen it all." She proudly proclaims.

    Her reassuring smile calms me, and after a few quick seconds of Meditation, I regain my cool. "Thanks, but it isn't exactly underwear I need."

    I think I'm cryptic, but the old lady just nods and turns to look through her stock. "We're usually a more tailor-made store, but we always have a few pads lying around." The woman proceeds to start moving all manner of 'specialty' underwear to her counter.

    I thought I had what it takes to endure, but by the time I pick out what I want, I can't even barter the price down without wanting to bury my head in my hands.

    “Are you leaving the city?” The woman asks me after I hand her the money I owe her, motioning towards my pack.

    "Oh, I don't live in Drey," I tell her. "I'm a runner, and I have business in the city."

    “That explains why you look so fit for someone your age. But was coming here a good idea?” I manage to keep a respectful smile up as the older woman gives me a concerned look. I know it’s what I’m going for right now, but how many people are going to look down on me this trip?

    “She’s fine.” The woman’s husband says out loud without looking away from his work.

    My strained smile eases into a genuine one at the man’s praise. Is he being polite, or does he notice something I haven't noticed?

    “That sets my old heart at ease,” the shop owner raises her hand to her chest, not questioning her husband in the slightest. “We have a changing room in the back if you need it?” She kindly offers.

    “I would greatly appreciate it,” I tell her.

    She leads me around her counter and past her husband. I steal a glance at the vest he's working on and notice it's nicer than anything I've seen mom make before. If most of my money weren't tied up in materials, I probably would have tried buying something else from the couple.

    I’m led to a small changing room and start changing my garments. This is another experience I missed out on last time I visited the city. I never got the chance to experience the city on my own terms.

    “Everything fit comfortably?” The shop owner asks me as soon as I leave the room.

    "Yes, thank you very much," I offer her my sincere thanks for helping me solve one of my problems.

    “That’s good,” she tells me while leading me back through their shop.

    As we pass by her husband, I stop for a moment. "Excuse me, sir?"

    He looks up and grunts, “Yeah?”

    “How could you tell?” I ask vaguely out of curiosity; I don’t want to give myself away by accident.

    He grunts again and points at my pack. “Your posture is too good for someone your age. You’re carrying everything like it doesn’t affect you in the slightest.”

    My eyes widen as he points out the flaw in my disguise. I lean forward a bit and tense up my shoulders, “better?”

    He looks me over once more before nodding and going back to his work.

    Satisfied, I make my way over to the shop's front door.

    “Be careful out there, sweety,” the lady offers me more well wishes as I’m about to open the door.

    “The both of you as well,” I politely return.

    "We've been here thirty years, and we'll be here for the next thirty as well," the old man shouts from his workstation.

    I'm about to leave when I realize I haven't caught their names. "I'm Aaliyah. Can I have your names?" I ask respectfully.

    "I'm Ella, and my husband is named Vincen."

    “Thank you for all your help; I'll be sure to come back in the future.” I wave to the lovely older couple.

    I needed that, I think to myself, as I hear the shop door close behind me. Even as the city falls apart, there are still some good people in it. I turn and look at the clothing store one last time and wish them the best of luck before continuing down Drey's street.

    With my new armor donned, I confidently continue to make my way towards Mr. Grey’s branch.

    The closer I get to my destination, the closer I get to the wealthier parts of the city. Unlike the shops closer to the walls that are boarding everything up, I pass by shops that are completely empty and others with signs of magic ready to be activated to defend their businesses.

    The more affluent citizens are making it out of the city or holding up in their own forts while everyone else is left to panic.

    I wonder how Silver Herd is handling everything?

    The deeper I get into the city, the less I see signs of people panicking. And it's not until I see Silver Herd's Drey branch that I'm once again reminded how much of a panic the city is in.

    Multiple people are entering and exiting the building carrying rolls of parchment, and I spot three carts being loaded with goods.

    The double doors are held permanently open by two of the company's guards allowing people to enter and leave quickly. When I enter the main lobby, I notice almost everyone I see running around is wearing Silver Herds uniform.

    People are dropping off pieces of parchment at the front desk, which the lady's behind are frantically sorting and handing off to others waiting nearby. Maybe coming unannounced might have been a bad idea.

    While I'm considering how I should approach the front desk, a bubbly, excited voice sends shivers down my spine. "Aaliyah?"

    I make eye contact with the head receptionist, and her eyes widen in surprise. She quickly waves me over. “What are you doing here, sweety? I would’ve heard if you were coming.”

    I put on my merchant smile, ignoring the second thing she said and what it implies. “My village received word from the local nobility. I figured this is my best chance to meet with Mr. Grey, so I came here by myself. Though seeing how busy everybody is, I fear I might be inconveniencing you.”

    "No, no," the head receptionist waves her hand in a dismissing gesture. "You could never inconvenience us. I'm sure Mr. Grey can make time to speak with you. Give me a moment," she grabs a small piece of parchment, and her hands bluer across its surface. She stamps the paper and hands it to a runner, “to Mr. Grey, priority,” all in under ten seconds.

    The man nods and runs off.

    I wish I could move over to the nearby chairs, but the receptionist reaches out and grasps my hands with her own. "So, you came all by yourself; it must have been difficult?"

    "Not really, the run was uneventful," I try to pull my hands away, but this woman's tentacled grip doesn't relent.

    "That's quite impressive," she leans closer to me, and her eyes feel like they're drilling into me.

    I wish I could use my real strength to escape this woman, but that would just give me away. The last thing I need is this lady realizing how much I've improved since the last time I saw her.

    “For you, head receptionist,” I’m finally released when the runner comes back with a reply from Mr. Grey.

    The head receptionist only takes a second to read the paper before she stands up. "Just as I thought, he has time for you. Let me escort you up to his office.”

    I’m about to decline and tell her I know the way, but she smoothly rounds the large desk and locks arms with me as Sandra would sometimes when I was smaller. The receptionist gives me a look that leaves no room for argument.

    “So, how long did it take for you to get to Drey?”

    “Not that long.”

    "I heard you had an accident last time you returned home; anything exciting happen?"

    “Nothing much.”

    "Your skin looks brighter since I last saw you; what's your secret?"

    "Staying clean."

    The woman continues to try and pry information out of me as she leads me to Mr. Grey’s office. She even purposely walks slower to get more time with me. By this point, she isn’t even trying to hide her intentions.

    "We should hang out after your meeting," the head receptionist offers as we come up to Mr. Grey's office.

    “Sorry, but I plan to head back towards my village as soon as I finish talking with Mr. Grey.”

    “That’s no fun,” she pouts.

    “And aren’t you guys busy right now?” I ask as the doors in front of us open.

    “It will be fine,” the head receptionist says in a monotone voice. With a look of utter certainty, she says, “Silver Herd will weather this storm and come out stronger.”

    She releases my arm, and I take a step away from her.

    “Have a productive meeting,” the head receptionist gives me a polite bow and turns back down the way we came.

    “Aaliyah!” Before I can process what I was just told, I hear Mr. Grey call out my name from behind his office desk.

    Without his room cluttered with metal samples, Mr. Grey’s office feels bigger than the last time I was here. He even has a pair of chairs placed in front of his desk, so I won’t have to sit on a crate this time.

    Moving to take a seat, I spot Mr. Grey's bodyguard in the corner as usual. "Nice to see you again, Max," I give him a polite wave.

    He returns my greeting, “always a pleasure, miss.”

    As I take my seat, I see Mr. Grey leaning back with his cheeks puffed up with a sour expression. “You greet Max before me; you wound me, Aaliyah." He says in a joking manner that sounds forced.

    "Don't worry; I'm sure you can afford a healing potion," I smirk back at him, wondering if the stress is getting to him?

    He laughs and fixes his posture. "Not that I'm unhappy to see you so soon; I wasn't expecting you to visit Drey as things currently are." I watch Mr. Grey's mirthful appearance settle into something more business professional.

    “Are we free to talk here?” I hesitantly ask.

    Mr. Grey looks surprised for a moment before glancing at Max with a serious look. Max glances around outside Mr. Grey’s office before shutting and locking the doors.

    “We should be fine,” Mr. Grey tells me.

    I have to be careful about how I go about this. If Silver Herd remains faithful to Drey and Olebert, I can't mention how my village plans to handle the coming war. So, I start by asking something simple. "Is Kervin fine? He was around Teeburn when the fort fell, right?”

    "You do not need to worry about him,” Mr. Grey reassures me. “He made his delivery before the fort fell, and our people put him and many other evacuees a day or so away from the city.”

    That’s one thing off my chest. “What about Teeburn?”

    A complicated look crosses Mr. Grey’s face, and I swear I see a hint of anger. “Fell to Scholl the minute they reached their gates.”

    I swallow a lump in my throat. “Are they taking prisoners, or are they raiding?” If School’s goal is to loot our entire area, our village remaining neutral may be a moot point.

    Mr. Grey looks to be thinking deeply about how he should answer my question. “You didn’t hear this from me.”

    “Of course,” I nod in understanding.

    “My informants tell me Scholl hasn’t killed a single citizen that has surrendered to their rule. In fact, they've made it a point to bend over backward, convincing everyone they will rule the city better than Olebert ever has." That's some good news; at least they probably won't pillage everything.

    “Does that mean they’ve already started their march to Drey?” I ask, surprised.

    “Half of Scholl’s forces marched out of Teeburn this morning.”

    “Only two weeks then,” I mumble.

    "Excuse me?!" Mr. Grey asks, flabbergasted. “How do you know that?”

    “An educated guess,” I tell him.

    “You never cease to amaze me,” Mr. Grey gives me a big smile, but it feels forced.

    I want to keep the conversation moving, so I give a small smile at his compliment and ask my real question. "With time ticking away, how is Silver Herd planning on responding when Scholl reaches the city?"

    "You're asking me a difficult question." Mr. Grey's expression is stone-cold as we stare at one another.

    “It would mean a lot to me if you could answer.” I try to convey my feelings through my eyes.

    Mr. Grey sighs, “how am I supposed to say no to that?” He starts tapping his fingers up against his desk. “If what we discuss gets out, the two of us could be in deep waters.”

    “I understand.”

    “All right, our branch plans to have most of our people evacuate the city with most of our resources and fall back to our headquarters. Our company has already been informed by the nobility that we are not to leave anything of value behind for Scholl.”

    They are abandoning the city.

    "However, a few of our merchants and staff will be 'caught up' when Scholl moves to take the city. Those who remain will continue business for their own safety. I don't suppose I need to clarify further, do I?"

    I shake my head, no. I understand him completely. Silver Herd plans to try and walk the line between the two forces, just like our village plans to. "Does that mean I can place one last order, or have you already started moving everything?"

    “Depends on what you need?” Mr. Grey asks, looking intrigued.

    “I would like as much Kaglese as you can bring me before Scholl arrives.”

    “You wish to continue making the arrows, then,” he immediately guesses my intentions.

    “Well, you did say you could find other buyers, didn’t you?” I offer Mr. Grey a smirk.

    Mr. Grey gives a hearty laugh, “I did say that.” He leans back into his chair, “moving goods like yours will be troublesome when Scholl arrives. But I’m sure I can manage something.”

    Now it’s my turn to get serious. “I appreciate the help, and I want to continue doing business with you guys, but my village also has its own plans. After I get my last delivery, it would be best if we cut off contact for a few months.”

    Mr. Grey goes silent and crosses his arms in front of himself. “I can understand why you would want that, but you have to understand we would be fronting you quite a bit of money.”

    Even with what I made from the general's arrow, I know that will only cover my debt for the earlier suppliers and my amulet. And now I'm asking for more without giving a definite timeframe of when I'll pay them back.

    “I’ll need an insurance,” Mr. Grey informs me. “We’ll need a contract, a formal one between the two of us.”

    "Between the two of us, not between Silver Herd and me?" I ask him. I was expecting a contract, but I figured it would be between Silver Herd as a company and me.

    “The contract will be between us; I’ll be covering everything you need out of my pocket.” Mr. grey smiles, and I can clearly see the greed in his eyes. Was I just blind to it earlier?

    “Why would you do that?” I give him a suspicious look, to which he reins in his merchant persona.

    “Because I know a good investment when I see one. As a branch manager, it would not be easy to justify extending your credit with your terms, but as an investor… Your failures will be my failures, and your success will be my success."

    I get caught up in his speech briefly, but when I feel Mental Resistance activate, I realize he's using a skill to influence my decision. Even with my skill activated, I still feel like accepting his proposal is a beautiful idea, meaning his skill is at a high level.

    I allow myself to be caught up in his skill as to not draw suspicion to myself. With a smile, I inform him, “it means a lot to me that you would say that. If you’re willing to invest in my work that much, it would be rude to decline.”

    Mr. Grey beams a smile at me, but now I distinctly see what lies behind his eyes. I thought it was all in my head the last time we did business, but I guess that was to soften me up the next time we meet. With Scholl coming, he's probably making his own moves.

    Fine by me.

    I'll let you think you have me by the ropes, but it's me who'll have the last laugh.

    “Give me a moment to draw up a document.”

    "Can I watch?" I feign excitement. "I've formed a contract with Kervin, but it wasn't an officially drafted one. I'm curious how it looks." It's actually thanks to the effects of Mr. Grey's skill that I can act so well. I feel genuinely good about working with him, while my skill helps me keep my wits about me.

    "Uh, sure, just give me a moment." Mr. Grey gives me a smile that doesn't reach his eyes.

    That’s right; show me everything. I wonder if I can get even more out of this lying fool?

    **********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,100 words.

    Uggg, keeping it simple tonight and going to bed. Next chapter around Friday, hopefully.

    Tell me what you think below, and as always, stay safe.


    Sandra's Point of View:

    It's nice to see Aaliyah hasn't changed that much in the last five years. Watching Richard fail to catch her reminds me of the good old days before leaving the village; only Aaliyah is much bigger now.

    She was in her growth period when we left, and it's a little unreal to see her taller than me now. Like Richard, she gained her father's height and looks to be only slightly shorter than her brother now. But that is only the most apparent change in Aaliyah's physique.

    With the grace of a professional dancer, she twirls just out of Richard's reach. He doesn't seem to notice because of how worked up he is but as someone watching off to the side, I can see how easily she is evading him.

    What level have you reached, Aaliyah? The question keeps repeating itself over and over inside my head.

    In father's notes, he briefly mentioned her impressive growth rate and contributions to the village, but he always left out concrete details.

    I've already sensed a part of her Mana pool with my spell, but I doubt that was all of it. She broke my detection spell without any formal training, which had to cost her quite a bit of mana. No way she could've broken my spell if she was only casually studying magic.

    I'd hate to see her leave after we just reunited, but I feel I have to suggest she take an apprenticeship under a mage in Drey. After years of study in the city, I can now see just how monstrous her talent truly is. It would be a crime if she didn't maximize her potential.

    I'll wait a few weeks before I bring up the subject with her.

    "Tired already? Someone's been slacking in Drey," Aaliyah turns in place and cheekily pokes fun at Richard, who is slowing down and trying to catch his breath.

    "Shut up; we've been traveling the last three days. Give me a minute, and I'll show you who's been slacking," Richard talks big, but I can see the despair slowly building in his eyes. He knows he won't be able to catch his sister no matter how hard he tries.

    Unaware of her brother's inner turmoil, or maybe just intentionally, Aaliyah goes in for the kill. "Yeah, I know how hard it is to travel. I left the village this morning and have been running all day."

    What!?

    My jaw slackens, and poor Richard chokes upon hearing Aaliyah's offhand remark.

    "You ran here?" I ask in disbelief, drawing Aaliyah's attention away from a floundering Richard.

    "Of course, how else would I get here?" She looks at me like that's the most obvious answer.

    "And you started this morning?" I ask for clarification.

    Aaliyah looks around in confusion before slowly nodding her head in confirmation. She doesn't seem to realize why that's such a surprise to us.

    "We're still three or four days away from the village," I point out in an exasperated manner.

    Aaliyah looks at our bivol, who despite the commotion around it, is still slowly trudging forwards, dragging our cart down the trail without us steering it. "I'd say seven or more by the looks of your bivol," she jokes, missing my point entirely.

    "I mean, you're saying you covered that much ground in only a single day." I'm finally forced to spell it out for her.

    A look of realization flashes across her face, "Oh, I'm sorry, I've gotten more used to everyone watching me run around the village, and no one questions how fast I am anymore. Now I see why you're so surprised, but don't feel too bad, though. I thought it would take me maybe a day and a half to reach Drey, but I've been crushing my own expectations all day." Aaliyah explains with the biggest smile on her face.

    Gods! How much Stamina and physical stats does someone need to run that far and fast. I spare Richard a sidelong glance and see that he's gone pale.

    Taking a better look at Aaliyah, I now spot the signs that she's invested more heavily in her physical stats than I once predicted.

    I thought she could outmaneuver Richard because he started investing his status points differently when he was promoted to being a foreman under his boss in Drey. He needed more managing skills that worked best with higher levels of Mind, Senses, and Dexterity. Richard was so proud when he went from manual labor to learning more about design and managing a whole crew of workers.

    I thought that explained how Aaliyah was able to dance circles around him, but I was way off the mark.

    Aaliyah is wearing form-fitting clothing, and now that I'm looking closely, I can see hints of her muscles hidden under the fabric. Her skin looks flawless, and the glow coming off of her skin is the brightest I've ever seen.

    How is this possible? She's somehow continued her magic studies while focusing on a physical build at the same time.

    "Sandra?"

    "Sandra?"

    "Sandra!" Aaliyah yells my name, pulling my mind out of my thoughts.

    "What?!" I quickly ask, not realizing Aaliyah was trying to talk to me.

    "You zoned out on me; everything ok?" Aaliyah asks me, concerned.

    "I'm sorry," I apologize to my friend and mentally refocuses myself. I have a million questions for her. "What were you saying?"

    "I was asking why the two of you were here. Are you sure you're ok?" She gives me a concerned look.

    A small smile crosses my face. "You're the one who surprised us. Why were you heading to Drey?"

    Aaliyah looks surprised that I flipped the question back on her. "To find you guys, of course! Why didn't you send a message by hawk letting us know you guys were coming home?" Aaliyah looks accusingly at the two of us.

    I'm once again surprised by the force behind her eyes. Aaliyah isn't using a skill on us, but it feels like her presence has an intangible weight behind it when she focuses on me.

    Richard finally stands up straight, only to flinch back when Aaliyah shifts her gaze to him. When she looks back to me, Richard secretly sends me a pleading gesture when Aaliyah isn't looking at him. Sorry honey, but you brought this on yourself. "Yeah, Richard, why didn't we send a note back to the village?"

    Aaliyah shifts all her attention to her brother, who immediately starts to flounder after I throw him under the cart. "Well, you see… I got swindled… paid way too much for the cart." Richard admits in a dejected manner.

    Seeing her brother's pained look, Aaliyah pulls back and gives Richard a sympathetic smile. "How bad did they get you for?" She asks.

    Richard pouts but admits to how he spent most of our traveling money. "So, this shitty merchant talks up how amazing this cart is," he gestures to the slowly moving wagon. "Says how any beast can pull it. He didn't mention any beast can pull it but only when it's empty. After everything was packed, and I invited over a merchant specializing in mounts and pack animals. He breaks the news to me; I need a bivol to pull that much cargo!" Richard kicks the ground in a huff.

    "And being low on money, you were forced to purchase that sad thing over there," Aliyah guesses the end to Richard's story while looking at the beast that's shuffling forward like a zombie.

    "You got it, it was either scrape money from our other funds to buy a bivol, or Sandra said I would have to pull the cart. Believe it or not, the bivol we got wasn't the merchant's worst one." Richard rubs the back of his head and forces a laugh.

    "Did he try selling you a dead one? Anything worst than that would be considered jerky for the road." Aaliyah jokes, earning a more sincere smile from her brother.

    "Now that I look back on it, the bivol was on its side and stank worst than the others." Richard brings his hand to his chin and acts like he's deep in thought. We all share a laugh at the situation Richard had gotten us into.

    "So, that's why you guys didn't send word back to the village. You had a lot of us worried there."

    I stop laughing; why would they be worried about us? Then it clicks that Aaliyah still hasn't told us why she was going to look for us in Drey. "Why the rush to find us, Aaliyah." I interrupt the two siblings that are still chuckling together.

    Aaliyah looks at me with a complicated look on her face. "You said you were on the road for three days," she once again dances around my question.

    "Stop stalling and tell us," I put my foot down when it looks like she's about to avoid my question again.

    Aaliyah takes a deep breath and sighs. "Fort North Ridge has fallen. Scholl is heading towards Drey." She says in a soft voice.

    Richard stops laughing and turns pale again. I can feel the blood drain from my face; I'm probably mirroring Richard's slack-jawed expression perfectly.

    "No way," Richard mumbles.

    I find it hard to believe as well, but Aaliyah's downcast expression says it all.

    "I bet the fort fell the day after you guys left the city, and it took a little while for the information to spread around. You picked the best time to leave. Some people have all the luck." Aaliyah grumbles out that last part.

    "Then, that means you were coming to save us?" Richard asks his sister.

    Aaliyah nods her head. "The whole area is in turmoil, and I was worried you guys might need help. I'm the fastest in the village, so I volunteered to go to the city and check up on you and see how the city is responding. I'm so happy you guys made it out safely," in one quick movement, Aaliyah is in front of her brother, wrapping him in a hug.

    She turns her head towards me while still embracing Richard and motions for me to come over and join them. My lips curl into a soft smile as I walk over to the hugging siblings.

    As soon as I'm within Aaliyah's arms reach, she pulls me into their hug.

    I'm used to Richard towering over me when we embrace one another but being smushed in between the two tall siblings is a little uncomfortable for me. But my friend is so happy to see us; I can't bear to push her away just yet. I'm not even sure I could if I wanted to.

    It isn't until I spot our cart about to vanish around a corner that I realize we need to break up this touching moment. "Richard, Aaliyah, we need to go."

    "Five more minutes," Aaliyah playfully leans down and says in my ear.

    "Yeah, five more minutes," Richard copies his sister, whispering in my opposite ear, and I feel the two tighten their grip on me.

    These two!

    "Fine, we'll play it your way," I warn the two siblings. Using Silent Chanting, Quick Chanting, and my other magic skills, I activate one of my weaker spells.

    "Cales kkie ocnos kemenbc!"

    A blast of pressurized air erupts from me as the epicenter. The blast is just strong enough to send Richard stumbling back until he falls on his ass.

    I turn around to see if the same happened to Aaliyah but somehow, she's nearly ten feet away from me, looking smug about dodging my spell. How did she!? That spell was one of my quicker ones, and I used my skills to shorten the cast time even further. She shouldn't have been able to notice me cast the spell, let alone dodge it! "How did you?"

    Aaliyah's smug grin grows bigger. "I'm keeping my Mana Sense trained on the area all around us. I noticed the second you started channeling your magic. As for dodging it."

    Aaliyah vanishes from my sight, and I feel two hands grasp my shoulders from behind. My whole body tenses and my instincts scream for me to flee, but her strong hands hold me in place.

    "Moving quickly on their feet is a warrior's best skill," I hear Aaliyah say behind me before letting go of my shoulders.

    As soon as I'm free, I jump forward and turn around to face my friend. I watch her walk over to Richard, still sitting on the ground, and offer him a hand up. She effortlessly pulls him to his feet.

    My mind is racing, thinking about what Aaliyah just revealed. Her Sense Mana skill is high enough to scan her surroundings. Has she gotten it to level 50 already, maybe higher!?

    My magic teacher could scan people he was close to with his skill, but not even he could scan a whole room, let alone maintain focus over an entire section of the forest!

    Suddenly my five years of training seem almost pointless in perspective to Aaliyah's growth.

    Stop it, Sandra, I admonish myself. I learned a lot these last five years, and comparing my growth to someone else isn't healthy, especially someone like Aaliyah, who has the most monstrous potential I've ever seen.

    "We should catch up to your cart; it's almost outside my range." Aaliyah points down the road.

    We all jog together and quickly catch up to our slow-moving bivol.

    "At least he's consistent," Aaliyah quips.

    "Well, now that you found us are you going to stay with us until we make it back to the village or run home and tell them about us?" Richard asks his sister as he hopes up onto our wagon's driver's seat.

    Aaliyah looks happy to hear the offer, but she slowly starts to frown and shakes her head. "I wish I could, but I still have some business in Drey that I need to take care of."

    I was about to join Richard in our cart, but hearing Aaliyah causes me to stumble. I regain my balance before I hear Richard start to shout.

    "What, why would you go there!?" Richard yells at his sister. I give Aaliyah a curious look myself.

    "I need to meet with my representative at Silver Herd. We had a business deal supplying goods to the general in charge of the fort. I need to see him and discuss how our partnership will work when Drey falls to Scholl." Aaliyah explains.

    "Drey is going to fall!?" Richard and I parrot each other.

    "Most likely," Aaliyah tells us with certainty in her eyes.

    "That's an even bigger reason why you shouldn't go!" Richard growls at his sibling.

    "He's right, you know," I step into their conversation. "If Scholl is coming, they'll be looking for people to defend the city. Your mana alone is enough to give you away," I point out to her.

    "I have a solution to that," Aaliyah fumbles with a string around her neck and reveals an amulet that was hidden under her clothes.

    She places one finger against the gem embedded in the amulet, and as it lights up, I lose all sense of her mana.

    "You have a mana obscuring item!" I call out in disbelief. I'm saving up for one of my own, but they cost fistfuls of gold for the cheapest ones.

    "Yep, I got a good deal on it too. I was told it's worth 23 gold coins." Aaliyah tucks the amulet back under her clothes.

    "23!" Richard cries out in shock.

    I can barely believe my ears either.

    "How can you afford something like that?" Richard questions his sister.

    "I told you, I had a business deal with Silver Herd and the general at the fort. I've been making quality weapons for the army, and Silver Herd has been transporting them. Your sister is quite rich now," Aaliyah smugly grins up at Richard, who looks like he's eaten something sour.

    "That's why I still need to go to Drey. I need to know how Silver Herd is going to react to Scholl's invasion, and the sooner I stop by, the easier I'll blend in."

    Aaliyah makes a good point, but it's still dangerous for her to go, especially by herself.

    "No way, I forbid it as your older brother." Richard surprises the two of us with his firm voice. I'm proud of him for having his sisters' best interest at heart, but I don't think Aaliyah sees it that way. Looking at the girl, she is staring wide-eyed at Richard in disbelief.

    I watch as the shocked look on Aaliyah's face slowly slips into one of neutrality. "And what, you're going to stop me?" Aaliyah's challenge makes my hair stand on end. She's no longer speaking like she's trying to convince us.

    "If I have to," Richard tries to remain strong, but I can see his resolve cracking under Aaliyah's intense gaze.

    I notice Aaliyah's eyes flash, and Richard almost stumbles out of our carts seat. What happened?

    Aaliyah turns towards me, and I feel like she's looking through me. It feels like everything I am is exposed to her. I don't stumble like Richard, but I do take a step back in fear of the monster in front of me.

    The feeling quickly fades, but it doesn't magically make me feel better.

    I suck in a breath of air and try to steady my nerves. What in the god's names was that!?

    "A level 37 builder and level 40 mage. You both must have worked really hard, but neither of you is a match for someone like me at level 73."

    What the fuck?! She can read our levels! And 73, that's not possible for someone who's only 15!

    Richard looks just as broken as I am. She nearly doubles our level. Father said she's the second strongest in the village, but I didn't think she could have leveled that quickly since I last saw her.

    Aaliyah looks between the two of us and sighs. "It puts my mind at ease knowing you guys are safe, but I still have my own path I need to walk. I appreciate how much you both care, but this is my decision, and I'm sticking to it. Something tells me you won't make it back to the village before I finish and return from my business in the city. I'll be back as quickly as I can."

    Aaliyah slowly walks back the way we came and passes me. I want to reach out to her, but remembering how she looked at me a minute ago sends shivers down my spine, and my arm refuses to budge.

    I don't even turn around as I hear her footsteps become quieter in the distance.

    When I can no longer hear Aaliyah, I silently walk over to our cart. Richard offers me a hand as I climb up and take a seat next to him.

    Neither of us says a word as the cart bounces down the forest path.

    I fold my hands in front of me and twiddle my thumbs. My head hangs low as not to meet Richards's eyes accidentally.

    What happened back there?

    We were laughing together and celebrating our reunion when everything turned on its side so quickly.

    It was in that single moment, Richard and I truly felt Aaliyah's strength. What has she done to gain that much power? What monsters has she faced? When I meet her gaze, I could see that she's killed people before. My master had the same look in his eye.

    'You will never know the true weight of magic until you've taken a life. The world is vast, and many of you have never seen what lies beyond our walls. When you cast magic when your life is at stake, you truly see how far you've come. Everything changes after you survive that first encounter; always remember that, students.'

    I thought my master was merely trying to scare us, but I can see it now. My young friend I left back in the village has changed more than I can ever understand.

    And we determined we knew what was best for her.

    "She really is strong now." Richard's soft voice draws my attention.

    I twist my neck and see that he's looking up to the canopy above our heads. I don't know how to respond, so I decide to remain silent.

    "Did I ever tell you about the time when Aaliyah was still a baby, and one day she wouldn't stop crying? My parents panicked, trying everything they could to calm her down. I remember asking how I could help, but my parents only shoed me away. It wasn't until hours later that Aaliyah passed out from crying too much. My dad finally noticed me off to the side, brooding, and thanked me for trying to help earlier. I remember complaining that I didn't do anything."

    "My father sat down and pulled me up onto his lap. He said that wasn't true. I kept denying it, so dad had me make him a promise, a promise as an older brother. He asked me always to watch over my little sister, a promise I took to heart. I always watched her when she was set down on the floor to roll around, and I was beside her when she started learning to walk."

    "I chose to play with Aaliyah rather than the few other kids in the village, and I never regretted it. Everyone in our family knew Aaliyah was special. She learned to walk and talk faster than we thought possible. Soon she was running faster than me, and that's when I first noticed she would eventually leave me in the dust." Richard's voice sounds a million miles away at the moment.

    "She had talent in magic and anything else she put her mind to. I still tried my best as an older brother, but the gap between us widened quickly. You know, I had my own reasons following you to Drey."

    "And here I thought it was because you loved me," I quietly joke.

    "That's true; I would've followed you to the ends of the world if I had to." Richard doesn't stop looking up at the sunlight drifting through the canopy, but he gently pulls me closer to him with his arm. "But even forgetting the love I feel for you, I wanted to go to Drey to learn and level faster. Close the distance between my sister and me a little, you know." I nod up against his side.

    "Turns out she's stronger than I could ever imagine and all I did was treat her like a child. How am I to compete with level 73?" Richard leaves the question hanging between us. "I know I shouldn't compare myself with her, but as an older brother, it bothers me greatly."

    I wrap my arms as far as I can around Richard, giving him all the support he always shows me.

    "Do you still wish to marry someone as weak as me?" I hear him ask in a whisper.

    "With all of my heart," I reply instantly.

    Richard's grip on me slightly tightens, and he finally looks down at me. His eyes are red, and he has the most heart-warming smile on his face. I lean forward, and we share a passionate kiss.

    When we separate, Richard asks me. "Do you think Aaliyah will forgive me when she gets back?"

    "I'm sure she will," I reassure him. "I think she's right, and we'll see her again before we reach the village. We can apologize for treating her like a child, and she can apologize for using that horrible skill on us."

    "Yeah, that was pretty bad. I almost fell off the cart when I made eye contact with her." I feel Richard shiver a little.

    "It felt like she was looking at every part of me at once," I try to describe the horrible feeling I felt to Richard. "And whatever skill it was, it allowed her to see our levels."

    "Did your master ever talk about skills like that?" Richard asks me.

    "Briefly," I tell him. "Skills that let you approximate another person's level are usually tier 4, making them all unique to the person."

    "But she knew our exact levels," Richard points out. A brief silence falls between us at the implication.

    I'm tired of talking about things neither of us understands, so I change the subject. "So, when we get back to the village, you're telling my father we're getting married, right?"

    "Sure, as long as you tell my mom," Richard retorts.

    It only takes a moment to reconsider my options. "On second thought, we should tell our own families," I tell him.

    "Ok," Richard agrees and leans over and kisses me again. With one arm already around me, Richard's second-hand wraps around my lower stomach, "What about the other thing?" He asks.

    I untense and let Richard support me completely. "We should wait to discuss it after we get back to the village," I tell him.

    "Alright," Richard responds.

    We move to kiss one another again, but a loud bird call from a nearby tree makes both of us jump. Damn it, in all the confusion with Aaliyah; I forgot to reapply my searching spell.

    Richard gives me an awkward look before both of us start laughing together.

    "Don't forget what we were doing," I tell Richard as I start channeling my magic.

    "Wouldn't dream of it, but won't me kissing you distract you from your spell?" Richard smirks at me.

    I smile but ignore him as I prepare my spell.

    "Yana ger mecttion fetnnl sarn owr ecti tai hidantho annonnacgr!"

    I focus as the spell slowly grows to its intended size.

    As soon as I finish the spell, I only need to continue supplying it with a small amount of mana to keep it activated. I turn to Richard to tell him I'm done, but he catches me off guard with a surprise kiss.

    When we break apart, I swat at his arm. "What was that for?"

    "I wanted to see if I could get you to drop your spell with a kiss. Did it work?"

    I shake my head with a smile. "Sorry, but you're not that great of a kisser," I tell him.

    "I'll need to practice more than and level my skill."

    "You don't have a kissing skill," I admonish him as he leans in and lightly kisses the nape of my neck.

    "Help me unlock it then," Richard whispers in my ear.

    "Watch the road," I playfully push my hands off of his chest.

    Richard pulls back a little and glances at our slowly moving bivol. "Don't worry, OL Dependable will get us back to our village." Richard grins at me.

    "We aren't calling him that," I deadpan. "Besides, what if we're attacked while you're acting like a beast?"

    "You have your spell up, right?" Richard raises an eyebrow at me. I nod my head. "Good, then we're safe and moving forward. Unless you can't maintain your focus around me?" He offers me a challenging look.

    Richard raises and lowers his eyebrows quickly, making me snort with laughter.

    It's moments like these that remind me how much I love him. He's been through the good and the bad with me, and we've always supported one another.

    I can't wait until we return to the village and finally make our marriage official with our families.

    Hearing about the war from Aaliyah was a surprise, but I'll be damned if I let something like that stop us.

    "What are you thinking about, sweety?" Richard asks me with a sultry voice.

    "Just thinking about what we'll do when we get back to the village," I tell him.

    "We start our lives together," Richard kisses my cheek.

    "And what would you call the last five years?" I ask him.

    Richard ponders my question for a moment before getting a goofy grin on his face. "I'd call it wonderful practice."

    The two of us laugh together as our cart slowly moves down the forest path, towards our future together.

    **********

    Author's Notes:

    4,700 words.

    Is it still technically Tuesday? For my mental health, I'll say it is. A little short of my 5k limit, but this is a better stopping point than throwing in a small section at the end that doesn't need to be there.

    I don't know how I feel about this chapter? Usually, I feel relieved when I post a new chapter, but these days I'm just constantly tired.

    I originally planned for this chapter to be half Sandra and half Aaliyah finishing her run to Drey, but for some reason, Sandra, Richard, and Aaliyah's meeting went longer than I expected.

    Let me know if you liked the chapter below, and as always, stay safe.


    Looking over my shoulder, I make my way towards the front of the village.

    I was expecting my mother to burst into the house as I was preparing to leave and demand that I stay, but she never showed up. Now I'm paranoid she'll spring up out of nowhere to claim my soul when I least expect it.

    The strap of my axe starts to slip from my shoulder as I keep my head on a swivel, and I'm forced to adjust it for the millionth time. It'll only become more annoying after I start my run.

    I hear a sudden crashing noise off to my left, causing me to hop in fright like a rabbit.

    I’m relieved to see it’s just a villager setting down a heavy crate outside his house. I thought it might have been mother charging through a building at me like a rampaging monster. I chuckle at the idea of mom staring in an old Godzilla movie. Scanning for witnesses, I hope no one saw me jump like that.

    “But in all seriousness, where is she?” The smile slips from my face as I near the village’s entrance. I know she’s probably mad at me for using one of my skills on her, but she wouldn’t let me leave the village without saying goodbye, would she?

    The thought of leaving the village without saying goodbye to my mother and father leaves a hollow feeling in my chest.

    I contemplate turning around and heading home to find them when Sense Mana picks up familiar mana signatures clustered together just outside of the village proper.

    Rounding a small bend, I hesitate and reduce my speed when I see mother, father, master, Camden, and his family, waiting for me together in a group. Master is the first to notice me, but it doesn't take long for the rest to see my slow approach.

    Seeing everyone’s complicated looks twists my insides into a knot. Many of them don’t want me to leave the village but know I’m the best one to reach Drey quickly without drawing too much attention.

    No one says anything as I get closer. I make eye contact with each of them until I lock eyes with mother, who's watching me with a look of cold indifference.

    Her lack of anger surprises me so much I can't help but freeze mid-stride.

    As soon as I stop walking forward, mother decides to close the distance herself.

    Mother doesn’t betray a hint of emotion as she nears me. I can’t help but think this is how a volcano looks before it erupts without warning.

    When she's a few feet away from me, I shut my eyes and brace for the worst tongue lashing of my life.

    Only, instead of scolding me as I deserve, I feel mother gently wrap her arms around me and pull me into a hug.

    “I can be mad at you when you get back. I just want you to promise me you’ll be safe.” Mother whispers in my ear.

    My body untenses when I finally realize she isn’t going to yell at me. I bring my arms up and match her hug. “I promise,” I whisper back to her.

    I look over mom’s shoulder and see everyone slowly making their way over to us. They all look just as surprised as I am that my mother isn't trying to strangle me right now.

    Mother lessens her grip on me but remains glued to my side as father walks over and gives me a quick hug as well. “Do you have everything you need?” He asks.

    "I have enough food for a round trip in case I can't get anything in the city. I have my axe, and I borrowed one of your extra knives." Father nods as I assure him I have everything I need.

    “Take this,” Camden hands me a piece of parchment with a small seal on the bottom of it. “You probably won’t need it, but it will verify you’re a member of our village if you’re stopped for any reason.” I nod in understanding and secure it in one of my deeper pockets that seals with a button.

    Looking around at everyone, I want to lighten the mood with a joke, but I get the feeling it would only have the opposite effect.

    If I draw out my leaving any longer, I might not follow through with my own plan. The love and concern that I feel from everyone is a blessing and a curse simultaneously. If I let myself fall into their bubble of safety, I'll never strike out on my own again.

    I carefully peel mother away from me to her disappointment and back up a few steps to get a good look at everybody. It's the same group that saw me off to Drey the first time, only the crowd of villagers is missing, and this time master was able to come and see me off with everyone else.

    I need to leave now, I repeat in my head.

    "Thanks for coming to see me off again," I slightly bow my head in respect to everyone. "I'll be back as soon as I can." I give a quick wave and turn to the forest path leading out of the village before I can change my mind.

    "Be safe," I hear everyone say as one.

    I take up a running position, and with a burst of Strength, I rocket down the dirt bath, barely hearing the cries of surprise from behind me. I give one last look over my shoulder to see the dust cloud I kicked up. Trees blur past me, and the village disappears from my sight.

    I did it!

    My heart is beating a million miles a minute as I take off through the forest by myself. No Kervin to escort me and no Reel to secretly shadow me. From here on out, everything falls on me.

    “That reminds me,” I pull back on my speed as to not waste my Stamina. I'm still running quite fast, but I'm keeping a good pace that won't take a toll on me in the long run.

    I set aside the complicated feelings regarding my loved ones that I left behind and allow myself to lose myself in the run. I’m matching the same speed I was running at when I tried returning to the village by myself. But this time, my Strength and Dexterity have increased by over 10% since then, and my Stamina pool has never been larger.

    I dial back Mana Skin to save on mana while I focus my senses on my surroundings. I’m still paranoid after everything that’s happened lately, and I keep Sense Mana stretched to its limits to give me a full 360° view of my surroundings and a decent look at anything hidden in the trees.

    The world flashes by as I maintain a speed a horse would be jealous of.

    A part of me expected to be ambushed as soon as I left the village but as I pass one hour...

    Two hours…

    Four hours of running…

    The danger I just assumed to befall me never comes.

    I don't drop my guard, but I can feel my body loosen up a bit more, and I can better enjoy the fantastic feeling of running fast.

    Mother jogs with me every morning, but I can't go all out like this when I'm with her or confine myself to the village.

    "The dashing knight Aaliyah sprints to Castle Drey to rescue the fair maiden Sandra and her mount, the mule Richard," I cheer to myself as I leap over a divot in the forest path that's filled with mud.

    My first real quest.

    It also helps that I'll also be the first to see Sandra and Richard after five years. I wonder if they've changed much since I last saw them? By fifteen, people mostly stop maturing, but a person can change even after their body has typically stopped growing when you factor in a change of stats.

    Sandra was studying to be a mage, so I'm sure she's gained plenty of levels, and I don't see Richard allowing himself to fall too far behind his beloved. Average villagers are around level 35, so if the two of them haven't grown at least that much since I last saw them, then I’ll be disappointed.

    I can’t wait to talk to Sandra about magic again. She can tell me how she learned new spells, and I can bounce ideas off of her on making engraving ink.

    I can’t help but snickering to myself when I think about telling her I’m teaching myself how to engrave runic magic.

    Brother got a job as a builder in the city under Salus' friend, and I bet he's learned a bunch. Well, he better have; brother promised to build his girl a mage’s tower, and I won’t see him try and weasel his way out of it.

    The thought of finally seeing my friend, and to a lesser degree, my brother again after so long, causes me to subconsciously push myself a little bit faster.

    The slight shift in my speed causes me to misstep, and my enhanced senses let me watch as my right foot is about to land straight in a puddle of mud. Even though my light application of Mana Skin will keep me from getting dirty, it won't stop the mud from forming a seal around my protected leg.

    I may be strong and agile but getting my foot caught at these speeds is sure to hurt.

    In a split second, I realize what's about to happen; I channel my mana down towards my right foot. I reinforce Mana Skin around my right leg to the point it's like I'm wearing a second boot of mana.

    My mana clad foot starts sinking into the muck as my left leg extends in front of me. I need to push off with my right foot, but the mud is still holding onto Mana Skin.

    Only the bottom half of my boot is stuck in the mud, and in the heat of the moment, I try something new.

    I reabsorb the top part of my mana boot and use the mana still underneath my feet as a platform. My last-ditch effort pays off, and by sacrificing part of my mana to maintain the foothold, I'm able to launch myself like I'm stepping on solid ground.

    No, it feels more stable than the ground I'm used to running on. I slow myself down and eventually stop. Looking back in the direction of the puddle of mud I left behind me, my brain slowly processes what I just did.

    I created a platform out of mana that was more solid than some types of rock, and it wasn't on a solid surface.

    A lesser person might think that they discovered a new way to create a better running path and increase their speed, but my 21 first century mind immediately found a better use for this method of running!

    I take off back down the road trying to pick up as much speed as I can, my Stamina pool be damned.

    “I need to try that again before I forget the feeling!”

    Through the trees, I can see the trail straighten out a bit up ahead and decide that's where I'll try it.

    I channel a great deal of my mana to my two feet as I round the bend, preparing for what I’m about to try. I have a straight shot forward for nearly a hundred feet, and I'm going to take the opening.

    Reforming the mana boot on my right leg, I lightly push off the ground, intending to rise a few feet into the air. I quickly form another mana boot around my left foot and ready myself.

    My body arches through the air, and as soon as I feel my body start to sink. I thrust out my left foot and dissolve the top part of my mana boot. In one quick movement, I push my left foot up against the mana skin barrier underneath it and rocket myself higher.

    It works!

    I bring my right foot out in front of me and again push off my mana, allowing me to run through the air!

    A sense of euphoria comparable to what I felt when I killed the soul eater erupts from my very being as I realize I’m flying with yet another successful step.

    A new skill manifests inside my soul space, and I feel a small rush of experience, meaning a few of my skills must have leveled up at the same time.

    "This is the best moment of my life!" I scream out. "Oh shit!" I stumble as my concentration breaks, and in slow motion, I feel myself tumbling to the forest floor below. Grabbing the strap to my axe, I fling my weapon off my back before I land.

    I hit the ground hard, and my body naturally starts to roll. I still had a small film of Mana Skin covering the rest of my body, and my 100 Endurance comes in handy as my momentum causes me to roll nearly 30 feet across the muddy ground. My small travel pack comes loose mid slide and goes flying somewhere.

    When I finally stop my emergency landing, I flop onto my back and burst out laughing.

    I don’t care how nervous I was to leave the village.

    I don’t care a voice in the back of my head is yelling at me for leaving myself exposed like this.

    All my troubles become meaningless compared to the joy I’m feeling inside.

    I quickly pull up my status page.

    LV: 72 Experience:860,390/ 911,219

    Health: 2,400/2,400

    Stamina 1,288.17/1,633

    Mana:812.94/1,020

    Vitality: 240.00

    Endurance: 100.00

    Strength: 150.00

    Dexterity: 145.00

    Senses: 62.31

    Mind: 65.07

    Magic: 102.46

    Clarity: 78.55

    Status Points: 0

    Skills:

    Tier 1:

    Meditation (LV78), Running (LV76), Blacksmithing (LV69), Hammer Skills (LV57), Axe Skills (LV55), Cleaning (LV51), Chanting (LV50), Mining (LV48), Drawing (LV46), Trading (LV42), Cooking (LV39), Dagger Skills (LV31), Wood Carving (LV31), Acting (LV31), Sword Skills (LV31), Sewing (LV24), Pugilist Skills (LV4), Spear Skills (LV2), Alchemy (LV2)

    Tier 2:

    Sense Mana (LV79), Double Step (LV61), Charm (LV50), Measurement (LV46), Hammer Arts (LV41), Axe Arts (LV36), Writing (LV32), Intimidating Shout (LV31), Mathematics (LV30), Lower Price (LV20), Increase Price (LV17), Steady Hands (LV16), Dagger Arts (LV12), Sword Arts (LV14), Gourmet (LV7), Marching (LV5), Shout of Valor (LV3),

    Tier 3:

    Expel Mana (LV62), Mana Manipulation (LV60), Precise Strike (LV40), Double Strike (LV40), Weighted Strike (LV37), Flash Step (LV21), Contract (LV5)

    Tier 4:

    Mental Resistance (LV53), Mana Skin (LV53), Inject Mana (LV52), Extract Mana (LV31), Magic Blacksmithing (LV25), Empowered Spell (LV9), Air Walk (LV1)

    Tier 5:

    Sense Soul (LV38), Soul Manipulation (LV6)

    Tier 6:

    Soul Devourer (LV2)

    Increased Skill Levels

    Running (LV75-76) 7,550exp

    Alchemy (LV1-2) 150exp

    Shout of Valor (LV2-3) 500exp

    Expel Mana (LV62) 9,300exp

    Mana Manipulation (LV59-60) 17,850exp

    Mana Skin (LV53) 13,250exp

    Extract Mana (LV31) 7,750exp

    Air Walk (LV1) 250exp

    Sense Soul (LV38) 19,000exp

    Soul Manipulation (LV5-6) 5,500exp

    Skill Experience: 81,100exp

    Crafting Experience: 4,916exp

    Fighting Experience: 0exp

    Total experience Gained: 86,016exp

    I didn't level up, but I don't care.

    Other than the couple levels in Alchemy I got experimenting making engraving ink, the Shout of Valor skill leveled this morning, and the levels from my soul scaping, every other skill level I just gained at once just now.

    Master and my parents have made me take it easy since I woke up from my extended nap with the gods. Other than figuring out the process for making engraving ink, my skill growth has been relatively stagnant.

    But all that changed after what I just accomplished. I managed to run through the air!

    And I got the skill to prove it, Air walk.

    I even made it through the second Running test at level 75. I guess the system considers running through the air an achievement as much as I do.

    The mana skills I used to pull off the feat leveled as one, and Mana Manipulation reached level 60, giving me another skill test I’ll need to figure out how to pass.

    I lay there basking in the glow of my success until my heart rate returns to normal, and I remember I still have a job to do.

    Standing up, I give myself a quick shake to dislodge any dirt or mud still clinging to Mana Skin. I look around and retrieve my pack and axe from where they landed and make sure both are secure.

    A part of me wants to try using Air Walk again immediately, but I'm forced to ground myself for the time being.

    I only used the skill four times, but it ate up nearly 150 mana. If I was back home safe in the village, I could practice the skill until my Mana pool nears flatlining, but I can't waste my mana while I'm out here all alone.

    I reluctantly continue down the forest path, cursing that I got one of the coolest skills ever, and I can't use it. It feels like someone gave me the best Christmas present of my life, and I was told I couldn't play with it until January.

    Well, just because I can't use the skill doesn't mean I can't gush over it. While I gradually pick up speed until I'm back at my former pace, I start crunching numbers regarding Air Walk.

    I used roughly 150 mana to activate the skill four times; that's 37.5 mana per activation.

    If I have a full Mana pool, I can use the skill… Ummm, carry that over, about 22 times.

    But that doesn’t take into account outside factors. If I use Air Walk, I would definitely need to have Mana Skin activated to its max capacity in case I suffered an accident.

    So, lower the 22 to 19. No, more like 18 to be safe.

    I’m sure the skill’s mana cost will lower as I practice it, but until that happens, I only have a minimal number of steps I could take with the skill.

    “How far could I get with 18 steps?” I ponder out loud.

    If I were back on Earth, 18 steps would be nothing but with my stats; I could propel myself a reasonable distance if I put everything I have into my legs.

    Now that I think about it, I haven't really tested how strong I am now. I usually judge my Strength by how long I can swing my hammer, but that isn't a full-body test of Strength. I already limit myself when I run, if I didn’t, I would kick up dirt like I did earlier today, and that just loses me momentum to the loose soil, costing me extra Stamina for no reason.

    It’s hard to say how much ground I could clear if I moved in a straight line, with no obstructions, and the ground could adequately support me.

    The only place I could possibly test something like that out would be Drey, but I'm not crazy enough to push my luck with a stunt like that. The local lord or army would snatch me up before my feet would even touch the ground.

    Damn, all this thinking of testing my limits has me itching to try out my skill again!

    I’m forced to hold back my impulses as I continue my run.

    Time starts to fly by, and soon I've been running for almost nine hours. I only stopped a handful of times to give my Stamina a chance to recharge when it reached halfway. With how much distance I've cleared, I'm sure I'm close to nearing the halfway point through the forest.

    Even I couldn’t predict I would make such great time.

    I don't feel all that tired, and I'm sure I could run for a lot longer before I would need to stop for an extended rest.

    If I pushed myself and ran through the night, I could probably make it to Drey by sunrise tomorrow, but that would surely leave me exhausted and would endanger my trip back home.

    To think, I've reached the point I can run hundreds of miles in a day and still be able to consider the possibility of running even farther.

    Being alone with my thoughts has helped me clarify my goals.

    My nervousness about being outside the village has almost completely vanished. My dreams of traveling the world are reinforced, and I promise myself to push my boundaries when I return to the village.

    I’ll start with the one place I’ve always wanted to explore since the first time I saw it.

    The dense magic region in the forest has always been in the back of my head ever since I saw the boundary during the goblin extermination. If creatures like the chameleon spiders live in there year-round, I can't imagine what else lies in its depths.

    I can imagine the place teeming with magical plants and ore samples I've never seen before.

    No matter how much my parents complain and try to talk me out of it, I make a promise to myself that I’ll go after I forge my new sword.

    I smile to myself, just thinking of the adventure, only to be dragged back to reality when I pick up something funky with Sense Mana in the distance.

    I skid to a stop and focus on the space a dozen feet in front of me.

    Nothing is there to the naked eye, but my superior mana senses clearly see a kaleidoscope of shapes made from mana slowly moving in my direction. Taking a step back, I observe the weird shifting mana in front of me.

    Looking side to side, I notice the mass is shaped in a circle, and it’s moving at a steady pace towards me. The mana is random but appears structured in nature. It doesn't appear to affect the plants its encompassing, and it isn't influencing the free-flowing mana in the air either.

    So, what to do when you’re faced with something new?

    I wait for the sphere of shifting mana to come towards me, and I try reaching my hand out to touch it.

    As soon as my hand enters the invisible mana bubble, I feel a pulse of mana come from the center of the construct. The pulse of mana tries to envelop me, fighting against my mana obscuring magic tool I bought from Mr. Grey for superiority.

    The mana's pulse weakens significantly thanks to my magic tool and is further reduced when it encounters Mana Skin. I send my own quick pulse of mana that finally destroys the weakened construct.

    And just like a bubble, the mana construct in front of me pops but not before I'm able to trace the origin of the mana pulse to someone 100 feet down the road.

    Whatever that was, it must have been some sort of spell. Even when the mana pulse tried to cover me, it didn't feel aggressive. Judging by the area covered, it must have been a detection spell of some kind.

    Who would be using magic out here?

    The face of my only friend pops into my head.

    No way, did they?

    I slip into the nearby trees and stealthfully make my way towards the spot I sensed the magic originate from. I draw my axe in case I’m wrong, which would mean I’d be dealing with an unknown person using magic that happens to be heading towards our village.

    The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, thinking of the possibility I might need to face my first mage opponent. I’ve practiced dealing with someone swinging a sword or other weapon at me; on the other hand, I’ve never had someone throw a fireball at me.

    Skulking through the woods, I eventually come across a cart being pulled by what I assume is a sick bivol. The thing looks like it’s ready to topple over if a strong enough breeze blew through the trees. While the sickly beast of burden is continuing its agonizing trek forward, it's the couple in traveling robes that grab my attention. They're standing next to the cart, scanning their surroundings and arguing at the same time. I have to hold my hand to my mouth to stifle my laughter at the coincidence of it all.

    "I thought you said your magic would detect anything bigger than a bird!" I immediately recognize my brother's voice.

    “My spell did detect something, only whatever it was somehow canceled it out,” Sandra retorts him without taking her eyes off of the woods.

    “Can’t you cast the spell again?” Brother hurriedly suggests.

    "Shut up and let me concentrate; I can't do it just by waving my hands around!"

    I wonder if I’m watching their first marital strife. Na, knowing brother Sandra has already put him in his place countless times while living together.

    I watch Sandra gather her magic towards her hands, preparing to recast her scanning spell. Brother remains close to her, brandishing a large construction hammer.

    Both of them don't look that different since I last saw them. Brother is still a hair taller than me, but instead of bulking up like father, his frame is slightly smaller than I remember. I can tell by how he holds his hammer he's invested points in Strength but not as much as I expected. Did he start focusing on his other stats? Why?

    Sandra's raven black hair is positively glowing with Vitality, and while brother looks maybe a year or two older, Sandra doesn't look like she's aged since I last saw her.

    That’s the power of gaining levels and investing in Vitality.

    When someone turns 10, they gain access to their status and start earning more levels as they look for a profession. Most people gain the majority of their levels between the ages of 10 and 25. Even if someone only invests one or two points into Vitality each level, it provides them with the benefits of looking younger longer.

    That’s why mother and father only look like they just turned thirty when they are both approaching forty.

    Come to think about it, how long am I going to look like a teenager? My body has stopped developing, and I have a lot of Vitality. I look like a tall, fit, eighteen-year-old back on Earth, and though I'm proud of my looks, I'm not sure how I feel about looking the same for the next twenty years.

    While I'm weighing the pros and cons of my body's future, Sandra finishes her spell.

    It's interesting to watch her form the magic spell even though I can't hear the words she's using. She holds her hands together like she's cupping a liquid before opening them in a sweeping gesture.

    The same bubble I witnessed earlier slowly expands with Sandra at the center. It pauses momentarily when it passes over brother and their bivol, but after two magic pulses scan them, the spell continues to expand.

    That's interesting; the spell must use those pulses to bring information back to Sandra when it interacts with an animal of a certain size. If only she were here when we were worried about the chameleon spiders.

    The spell slowly grows until it’s about to reach the spot I’m hiding.

    I wonder how much information the spell brings back to Sandra?

    Let’s have some fun and find out.

    I absorb the magic in my mana obscuring tool and smile as the spell reaches me.

    **********

    Sandra’s Point of View:

    Damn it, what could break my spell like that? A magic obscuring tool would weaken the spell, but the only way to counter it is to be able to know that it’s there.

    I supply a steady stream of magic into my spell as it covers the trees surrounding us. Maybe it was a fluke, and I'm overreacting?

    But we need to be careful. Father's latest note said they hadn't seen any spiders in a while, but there is still a possibility one could be the cause of my spell's failure. It would be presumptuous of me to guess how a spider that can mask itself with magic would react to my spell.

    “Anything yet?” Richard asks from my side.

    “No,” I hiss through my teeth. It takes a minute for the spell to grow to its full potential. I can vaguely see the shimmer in the air where the boundary currently is, but to people like Richard, my spell appears to have done nothing at all.

    I need to focus as the spell expands, but maintaining it is simple enough once it reaches its max distance.

    If we're lucky, it might just have been a goblin on the outskirts of my spell. When it failed, I wasn't even able to pinpoint where the cause of the spell's failure was; so for all we know, the threat could be anywhere around us.

    I’ll just need to remain…

    “There,” I shout and point at a section of the forest.

    “What is it?” Richard asks, stepping in between me and the spot I indicated.

    "One second," I piece out the bits of information my spell sends directly to my mind. Around six feet tall, bipedal, female, magic quantity… Shit, around 700. "It's a single person; they can use magic."

    “Anybody else?” Richard reminds me I still need to check the rest of our surroundings.

    My spell finishes expanding, and I don't sense anybody else. "No, just her," I tell Richard.

    “Do you have a lock on her?” Richard asks me.

    "I do; she's staying in the same spot," I inform him.

    "Alright then," he whispers to me. Richard ready's himself and takes a stance that would allow him to swing his hammer quickly. "Come on out; we know you're there!" He shouts towards the person hidden in the trees.

    “Only because I allowed you to find me!” I shiver and take a step back on hearing the female demonic voice that comes from the trees. That was an intimidation skill, and it was used by someone who's seen battle.

    "Stay behind me, Sandra!" Richard tries to remain calm, but I can see his shoulders start to shake.

    "Oh, how heroic. But do you think trying to act brave for your girl will be enough against me!?” We hear a crash and the sound of wood splintering, and we watch as a large tree tumbles over in the distance.

    “She’s coming!” I shout as my spell picks up the person nearing us. She must be confident she can take us because she’s moving slow.

    “Tremble fools, and answer my question!” We hear the voice originate just outside the tree line. Richard ready’s himself to charge while I drop my searching spell and prepare to chant an attack spell.

    “Who’s your sister!?” We both flinch when a young girl steps out from behind a tree.

    Neither of us lowers our guards in case this is an elaborate trap.

    The girl looks between the two of us and doubles over laughing. “You should see your faces!”

    “What do you want with us?” Richard demands in a commanding voice.

    The red-haired girl pauses in her laughter for a moment to look up at Richard before bursting into a laughing fit again.

    “If you came to rob us, you picked the wrong target!” Richard angrily yells at the girl that’s obviously looking down on him.

    The way she’s laughing at him feels so familiar…

    Wait!

    I move up next to Richard. “Sandra, stay back,” he protectingly holds his arm out in front of me.

    Now that I have a better look at the girl, I’m sure of it. “That wasn’t funny, Aaliyah.”

    I watch Aaliyah fall to her knees, holding her sides. "You should've seen your faces," she manages to say, gasping for more air.

    “What?” Poor Richard next to me doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on.

    I elbow him in the side, "you can put your hammer down; you don't even recognize your sister." I allow a small smile to form on my face when Richard looks at me with a shocked expression when he finally realizes who’s laughing at us.

    I watch Richards's face turn bright red as he slowly turns towards his sister that we haven't seen in five years.

    "I'm going to kill you!" Richard rushes towards his sister, who's still laughing on the ground, brandishing his hammer in a more threatening manner than a serious gesture.

    Aaliyah quickly leaps to her feet and starts running around our cart just out of Richards's reach.

    Watching Richard shout every curse word under the gods as he chases his laughing sister is too much for me to handle, and soon I'm laughing just as hard as she is.

    I never thought our reunion would turn out like this.

    *********

    Author’s Notes:

    5,500 words.

    Yes, I’m still alive. The story continues on.

    Well, my Thanksgiving break wasn’t what I expected. I’m feeling better now, but I'm not back to 100% yet. I wanted to take the week to compose this chapter and maybe even start on the next one, you know, give myself a buffer like any smart person would do.

    Needless to say, by the late release, that didn’t happen.

    Eventually, my break started to come to a close, and I hadn't written anything in like eight days.

    I forced myself to sit-down all-day Wednesday and today to bust this chapter out.

    What did you think of Aaliyah’s reunion with her brother and Sandra? I felt like writing something a bit lighter after feeling like crap the last week.

    What do you think of her new skill? I always planned on Aalyiah getting the skill, and I promise it isn't as overpowered as you might think, at least not as it is now. I always loved watching One Piece and loved how the navy figured out how to fly by kicking really hard. Aaliyah didn't use the same method, but that was my inspiration.

    I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.

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