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An uncomfortably warm bed roused Shara from her slumber. Groggy and barely conscious, she shifted around her covers in a vain search for comfort, succeeding only in drenching more of the bed in sweat.

Irritated, she threw the off her sheets, but instead of the refreshing cool air she expected she was blasted only with more heat. Someone must really be blasting the wood stove to make the house this toasty. Perhaps it was some new kind of training, or a newer kind of cooking.

No, that couldn’t be right. It was far too hot. Shara dropped off the bed, the heat of the wood floor just short of burning her toes. Panicked, she pushed her senses outward, but found no other minds in the house. The fear pushing her fully awake, she finally heard the crackling, snapping noise of the inferno that engulfed her town. The red glow from her window was not the morning sun.

She ran to the edge of her room and burst the door open, and was met with only fire. Forced to turn around, Shara ripped a post from her bedframe and used it to smash the second-story window. With a leap, her small frame landed the 12-foot drop like it was a game of hopscotch.

Sounds of battle came from the east. The clangs of metal on metal affirming it was a fight between people, not a defense against roving monsters. Shara ran that way. She had to find her family.

Each and every house she passed burned. They were spread too far apart to have simply carried the fire to each other… this was simultaneous, coordinated arson. Or a dragon, Shara supposed, but it didn’t sound like her village was fighting a dragon.

She found a discarded broadsword along the path, bloodied alongside the corpse that once owned it. The body wore splint mail with no identifying markings, and had a face Shara didn’t recognise. The young girl gratefully accepted the weapon; killing these invaders would be much easier with a blade, even if that blade was nearly as tall as she was. She was strong. She would manage.

As she got closer to the fight, the adrenaline-fueled emotions of the combatants flooded into her mind. She recognised the headspace of her family immediately in the chaos, but they were surrounded by a torrent of unfamiliarity. None of the other Alethians seemed to be there, either. She pushed herself harder, ran a little faster. Got to get there in time.

A ragtag group of three men stood directly between her and her destination, so Shara decided to plow through them. She peered into the mind of the closest one.

Apprehension. Alertness. Determination. Fatigue. Standard emotions of battle. Jubilation? Relief? This mercenary must believe his side is winning. That was almost funny; Shara had never fought anyone like that before. The man turned and saw the eight-year-old girl sprinting towards him faster than a war dog, her crimson irises glaring holes into him. A new set of emotions arose, layered on top of the old. Recognition. He knows the eye color that marks Shara’s clan. A tinge of fear- quickly washed away. Regret. He briefly chastises himself for something. Camaraderie. Trust. He alerts the two men by him to Shara’s approach. It’s too late. She’s upon him.

He’s not worried. Though Shara is fast, the grown man has vastly superior reach, and gets the first strike. Shara parries the blow with the force of a sledgehammer, and feels the surprise in his mind as he struggles to hold the weapon. He maintains grip, transferring all the force of the parry into his body, forcing him to stagger back. Wrong choice. The stagger gives Shara more than enough time to safely get in range. Barely tall enough to reach the man’s waist, Shara steps underneath his reeling sword arm and leaps high off the ground, bringing her own weapon in an upward arc that connects directly with the man’s armpit. The blade glides straight through the weaker joint armor as the man ultimately loses grip on his sword anyway- along with the rest of his arm.

The man swears. Surprise. Confusion. Alarm. Panic. The other children they killed didn’t put up a fight like this. Surrender. Good, she was hoping for that one. There’s bigger fish to fry. She lands and moves right back into a sprint, ignoring his two comrades entirely. He’s about to order them to retreat anyway.

Finally, Shara peaked over a hill and saw the battle proper. A huge detachment of troops was forming a circle ten men thick around two living whirlwinds of war. Though the army had completely encircled their foes, they were still forced on the defensive, barely preventing the figures in the center from breaking through their lines. On the opposite side of the battlefield from Shara was a lone horseman, clad in glimmering platemail, his face obscured by a helmet. Though she couldn’t be sure from this distance, the quick and practiced hand movements of the horseman indicated to Shara that he was in the midst of casting a powerful spell, but that thought was completely shunted out of importance when she recognised the two figures fighting in the center. Even through the great distance and the torrent of blood around them, Shara knew her parents.

Shara’s father fought swiftly and precisely, his movements an intricate dance. Brown-haired and crimson-eyed, his lithe frame and light armor disguised terrifying amount of combat expertise. Though he was surrounded, the man always found room to place himself where he could block with one blade and strike with another without retaliation. There was no opening his twin swords did not take advantage of, as if he already knew where his opponents would be seconds in advance.

Shara’s mother required none of this finesse. Her enormous, two-handed club was a blunt instrument of annihilation, toppling grown men like bowling pins and leaving their organs crushed beyond repair before their own weapons ever got in range to strike. Her blonde ponytail spun beautifully as the giant woman whipped around to crush six men with a single swing. Yet the pair still struggled to advance towards the army’s backline. Any movement Shara’s mother made exposed her backside to attack. Conversely, Shara’s father lacked the force to cut out a path. Though the corpses of their enemies piled up, Shara’s parents would lose this fight without help. So Shara charged.

As she got closer, Shara noticed the burns that dotted her parent’s bodies far outnumbered their cuts- it seemed they had been getting hit primarily by offensive magic. Shara looked again at the regal figure on the horse, his fingers twitching as they formed magic signs and traced sigils in the air. Yeah, definitely some kind of spell, yet in the time it’s taken Shara to get this far, he hasn’t done anything else. It shouldn’t take this long to cast a spell unless it was an incredibly big one.

Which, she now realized, must be the point. Her parents had been shrugging off the previous magical attacks with superficial scratches. A mage could use a longer cast time to gather more power than they would be able to otherwise, but disrupting someone during that time would dismiss the power uselessly. This army commander was throwing bodies at Shara’s family to buy himself time to finish them in one go. What a disgusting coward! Shara needed to get through and stop the spell, but he stood on the opposite side of around a hundred men. She could throw her sword, that would be a one-time deal… no, wait, they were fighting an army. She’d have plenty more ammunition to pick up as she carved through the outside of their defensive circle. Wasting no more time, Shara adjusted the grip of her weapon, wound up for the pitch, and–

A flash of blinding light erupted from the horse-mounted spellcaster, carving a canyon through the air. A thunderous crack, like a whip wielded by the titans, ended all other sounds. In an instant it had passed through both of Shara’s parents, leaving a glowing trail that dissipated into empty holes, the size of tree trunks, through each of their chests. Shara froze on the spot. Hearing returned, bringing the crackling pops of burning houses along the faint wind, until finally, they fell. Her family fell. The strongest, most wonderful people in the world both fell. Shara poured herself into their heads, desperately hoping for some hint that this wasn’t really happening.

For a brief moment, joyous relief washed over Shara as she felt hope well up in the minds of her parents. But it was quickly dashed away into nothingness. The last thoughts of her family was the hope that Shara would be okay.

So she turned, and she ran. She abandoned the warrior’s pride her mother had taught her, the courage her father had instilled in her, and she ran. But the young girl did not escape the notice of her parents’ murderer. Judging his horse incapable of the task, the man leapt clean off his steed and cleared the heads of his entire contingent, landing on the opposite side of them so he could chase the fleeing girl down on foot. He had come here to do a job, and all the deaths on his hands would be for nothing if he didn’t complete it.

He chased her all the way to the other side of the village, and into Karasuthra forest. She weaved through the trees until her pursuer lost sight of her, and managed to steadily gain distance. But as fast as Shara was, her small body eventually began to tire out. The last Alethian couldn’t run anymore, and collapsed, exhausted, against the trunk of a tree.

Shara heard the footsteps of the armored man. He approached her at a walking pace, but Shara just sat under the tree, her heavy breathing stark against the sounds of the forest. The armored man pushed through the underbrush, meeting her face-to-face. He held another dagger limply in his hand.

A grown warrior, standing before a helpless child. His mind was a sea of doubt and regret, but he rode a sturdy ship of resolve. Already, he had decided what he must do.

With a flick of the wrist, the dagger sailed out from his hand. Shara felt it pierce her skull, gliding through the soft flesh of her brain until–

“Y-y-you should w-wake up,” Darron stammered, drudging Shara from her rest. “B-breakfast is ready.”

Shara sat up and opened her eyes, giving them a strong rub to push the night’s bad memories away. They still felt puffy from her pathetic crying session she had before she fell asleep. The young Alethian couldn’t believe she had been such a baby. No doubt Darron had heard her crying… she hoped he didn’t tell anyone.

Just to be sure, Shara looked at Darron’s round little face and dipped into his mind. Just a little bit of concern and pity, but mostly… relief and curiosity? She tried to repress a smirk, and failed. This kid was just so weird. Shara’s parents had taught her to not peer too deeply into a person’s head so as to respect their privacy, but when she had first woken up here she did a full thought scan on the people in front of her, just for safety. While everyone else in the room was thinking things like “I hope she’s alright” or “The poor thing must be so frightened,” this kid was all “Girl instinctively searches with right arm first; is likely right handed,” “Toned musculature indicates heavy labor or combat; abnormal for age,” and “Man, I really hope I don’t have to sleep on the floor tonight.” It’s not as though he didn’t care. Emotions of concern were there, albeit more subdued. He just thought and reacted differently to those emotions than a normal person would. His focus was on gathering useful information, no matter how random or small, and using it to come to useful conclusions. And it was neat! It was a fun mind to hang around in. Watching him see things Shara would have never noticed, listening to him hear things she would have overlooked, and trying to keep up with the incredible speed of his thoughts was just super cool. Even better, it was distracting. Keeping up with his head required so much focus that, for a while, she couldn’t be bothered by how she had ran away and left her family to die.

“W-why are you l-looking at me like th-that?” Darron asked, frowning. Shara put on her best poker face.

“Like what?”

“Y-y-you’re l-looking at me like I h-have something f-funny on my f-f-face.”

Good lord, that stutter. Shara had no idea how a person who thought so fast could speak so ridiculously slow. Apparently, Darron didn’t either, as embarrassment practically exploded out of him whenever he had to open his mouth. Picking on him would be a very bad idea, however, so she patiently waited without rushing him. Feeling another person’s emotions was a powerful and useful tool, but that kind of sensitivity was a double-edged sword. If Darron felt terrible, Shara would uncontrollably have her own mood sour as well. She didn’t have to be reading people’s minds all the time, but strong enough emotions forced themselves into her head regardless. It could be a serious problem, especially in her current situation. If she started acting depressed over her parent’s deaths, the Bornssons would pity her and feel bad, which would in turn make Shara feel even worse and everything would spiral downward from there. It wasn’t enough to just stay positive; Shara had to keep everyone positive or she’d completely fall apart. So to that end…

“Maybe I’ll tell you if you promise not to tell anyone I was crying last night,” she bargained, making sure to keep her tone playful.

Darron nodded, and she could tell he had no intention of telling anyone regardless of what she said. Perfect!

She hopped out of bed and ran past him, out the bedroom door.

“I’ll race you downstairs!” she challenged. Darron opened his mouth to protest, but Shara responded to what he was about to say before he could get started.

“Ah-ah-ah,” she mocked, wagging her finger, “I only said that maybe I’ll tell you.” Darron frowned, but he was only mildly irritated.

“I-i-if I beat you d-downstairs, will you d-definitely tell me?” he countered back.

Shara gave her first genuine grin since arriving at the Bornsson’s. “You’re on,” she challenged. “You can even count off.”

There was a mote of hesitant confidence from Darron– he thinks he’s got a fair shot at winning. As if. The only reason Shara agreed to this was because she knew he stood absolutely no chance. Aletheian mind-reading abilities weren’t exactly the best-kept secret in the world, but they were supposed to be a secret. Even if Shara wasn’t interested in keeping that secret on principle, the average person generally wouldn’t like the idea of someone being able to rummage around in their head. Since that was exactly what Shara was doing, she had no intention of coming clean yet. After all, she’d barely known these people for a day. They were by all accounts very kind and accepting individuals, but she was hesitant to put that all on the line this early in their relationship. As appealing as it might be to run off and try to avenge her family... if she found that man again, she would just die for real. Combat was as much about preparation as it was swinging a weapon, after all. For now, she would live with the Bornssons.

Unlike her mind-reading abilities, though, Shara saw no reason to hide her exceptional strength. On Darron’s stuttered cry of “Go!” she leapt completely off the staircase to land on the first floor. By the time Darron had made it down a few steps she had impacted the ground, smashing through the boards Aelius rotted the day before and into the dirt below. The breaking wood took Shara completely by surprise as sharp splinters tore gashes up her ankles.

Amelia and Norman rushed out of the kitchen in response to the crashing noise as Shara quickly put on her best “I’m-completely-okay-don’t-worry-about-me” face. It hurt a lot, but she’d had worse. Gotta stay positive.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Shara laughed as she apologised to lighten the mood, as if it was just a joke gone wrong. Standing ankle-deep in smashed wood, she did her best to hide the blood trickling onto her feet.

“Oh my goodness, are you alright?” Amelia gasped, rushing over to where she stood. Before Shara could respond, Norman’s huge hands grabbed her by the armpits and lifted her out of the shallow hole, leaving her bloody ankles to dangle in the air.

“Hahaha, I’m sorry you guys, I didn’t think the floor would collapse, I’m so sorry,” Shara giggled, pretending not to notice her injuries. Her grin seemed infectious enough, and Norman chuckled.

“Did you just jump off the second floor?” he laughed, “That’s a ten-foot drop! You’ve certainly got spunk, I’ll give you that. You’re lucky you aren’t hurt worse!”

“But what about your floor?” Shara prompted, already knowing he didn’t care.

Norman let out a large belly laugh. “That old junk wood? I was going to rip it out today anyway. You’ve just saved me the trouble!”

By this time, Darron had long since made it down the stairs, and was staring intently at Shara’s injured legs. He walked forward and tugged on his father’s pants to get the man’s attention.

“Ah, yes, Darron?” His father asked, turning to look at him. Darron pointed at Shara’s ankles and then motioned towards himself.

“Oh, of course,” Norman acknowledged, and lowered Shara down until her feet were dangling at Darron’s eye level. Reaching up, Darron began intricately weaving his fingers and muttering the words of a spell.

Shara winced as the splinters of wood embedded in her legs ejected themselves and fell to the floor, prompting more blood to flow out of the larger cuts. Nimbly, Darron sped through a second spell, directing magical energies from his body into Shara’s legs and feet. With an itch and a tingle, the cuts scabbed over and the scabs melted away to fresh skin. Only the wet blood dripping down her feet indicated she was ever injured at all, and a third spell gathered that up in a small sphere that floated above Darron’s palm, leaving her legs and toes clean. The orb even pulled the blood up off the shattered floor and out of the splinters until not a speck of red remained anywhere else.

Without a word, Darron started back up the stairs with the orb of blood in hand. Shara wiggled around until Norman dropped her, and she bounded over to catch up with Darron. The pain was gone and her legs felt like nothing had happened.

“Wow!” Shara exclaimed, “That was so cool! I didn’t know you could do that!” Darron looked at her and nodded matter-of-factly, but didn’t say anything. Shara pointed to the floating sphere above his hand.

“Where are you taking that?” she asked. Darron sighed, irritated he had to speak.

“I-I’m storing it somewhere s-safe until we can dispose of it p-properly,” he explained. “If w-we just dump y-your blood outside or leave it l-l-lying around, it will a-attract monsters.”

“Huh, that’s a good point,” Shara responded. “I bet you could abuse that to attract monsters on purpose!”

Darron just gave her this bewildered, slightly condescending look. His emotional response was clear. Yes, but… why would you ever want to do that?

Reaching the top of the stairs, Darron walked over to the closed door that led to Gloria’s room and knocked with his free hand. When no response was forthcoming, he knocked louder, rhythmically smashing his fist against the wood.

“What’s all that racket?” bellowed a voice from inside. There were some shuffling noises and Gloria eventually unlocked and cracked open the door, peeking her head out. “What could you possibly need to wake me up for this early?” Darron lifted the sphere of blood up in front of her face as explanation.

“Which one of you idiots managed to hurt themselves already?” Gloria demanded. Shara made a show of scratching the back of her head, laughing sheepishly. Gloria glared at her but waved them both in, letting the door swing open.

The inside was more like a laboratory than a bedroom. The tiny space did have a bed and a wardrobe clumped up in the corner, but the walls were lined with beakers, surgical tools, and what appeared to be parts of preserved monster cadavers. A small desk was packed with papers, and the floor around it had stacks of notes tall enough to use as chairs. Gloria rummaged through a shelf holding a bunch of empty containers before producing an appropriately-sized one, unscrewing the lid. She held it down in front of Darron, who muttered a few command words, causing the floating blood to funnel itself cleanly into the jar.

“Thank you, Darron,” Gloria said, screwing the lid on the jar and storing it back on an empty shelf. She pointed at Shara. “Now you sit down. I’m going to check his work.”

Shara sat down on the one actual chair in the room, scooting it over to where Gloria went to sit on the bed. She lifted her feet up to where Gloria could easily reach them, and Gloria took that cue to start her scan there.

“You’re a surprisingly easy patient to work with,” Gloria commented as she took in information from the spell. “If anything I would call you too trusting. Lowering your barrier entirely is very dangerous.”

“My barrier?” Shara asked, “What barrier?” Gloria raised an eyebrow, as if she had expected Shara to know.

“A person’s inner magical aura naturally forms a resistant outer layer against incoming magical effects,” she explained. “We call this a person’s barrier. A strong enough barrier will completely resist spells that attempt to directly affect you. A person’s body naturally increases or decreases the strength of its barrier based on factors like stress, and the stronger a person’s inner aura, the stronger their barrier has the potential to be. Exceptionally strong barriers can also act as a defense against non-magical danger in a pinch, like an invisible suit of armor.” Gloria grabbed one of Shara’s feet and held it close to her face, peering intently at it. “Because of barriers,” she continued, “it can often be extremely difficult to perform magical repairs and surgeries, as we have to put enough power into the spell to break through the barrier in addition to whatever power is necessary to repair the wound. A trained person can voluntarily reduce the strength of their barrier, but that only works while they’re conscious. The body of an unconscious, severely injured person is generally under a large amount of stress, so it naturally forms as strong a barrier as it can in a misguided attempt to defend itself. You, however…” she narrowed her eyes, “seem to be dropping your barrier entirely when I work on you. If I wanted to, I could have planted any number of diseases or curses into your body just now. If you’re not doing it on purpose, this means your aura is either exceptionally weak to begin with, which I doubt, or that you implicitly trust me to do no harm, which is foolish.”

Well, definitely the latter option. It was a lot easier to trust a person when you knew beyond a doubt whether they had ill intent or not. The information on barriers, however, was very interesting to Shara. The Aletheia clan only had natural magic users rather than practiced spellcasters, so the details of magic were always a little fuzzy to her. You didn’t really need to know what you were doing to cast natural magic; you either could or you couldn’t. Anyone, hypothetically, could use practiced spellcasting, but it was exceptionally dangerous to learn and most people who knew how never bothered to take pupils. The governments of Hydronia and Sentonis had each put together spellcasting schools to increase the population of casters in their countries, but out in the plains a practiced spellcaster was very rare. Best not to let this opportunity slip by; Shara had found herself with a particularly personal investment in learning how to fight spellcasters, after all.

“Huh, that’s really cool,” Shara commented. “Do you think you could teach me more about auras and barriers and stuff sometime? It sounds like I need more control over mine.”

Gloria looked up from Shara’s feet, surprised. “Well!” she started, “it would be quite silly of me to deny teaching to the rare person who takes my warnings seriously. I would be happy to instruct you later. But for now…” she let go of Shara’s legs and stood up, flicking her fingers to dismiss the scan spell. “It’s time to eat. Darron, you did an excellent repair job. Keep up that proficiency on people who actually have an iota of spell resistance and you’ll be ready for my next set of teachings in no time.”

Darron nodded, and his normally blank face tipped up with a small smile. Shara couldn’t avoid feeling the pride radiating from him if she tried. He had apparently just received one of the highest compliments Gloria had ever given.

The three of them walked down the stairs, helping Gloria step over the hole near the bottom. Norman was still there, sizing up the extent of the damage and looking around for more wood that needed to be pulled out. He waved as his mother and son passed by and followed them into the kitchen.

Breakfast was the same kind of food they had eaten the day before. Amelia made a point to have Shara promise not to jump off the second story anymore, and everyone dug in. After breakfast it was time to work. Shara dropped a few subtle hints that she was game for more heavy lifting, but she was directed to the same set of chores as before. Oh well. She’d have to show them how useful she could be later.

Her chance came earlier than expected. As she was exiting the barn with a bag of feed for the chickens, she ran into Norman. He was running towards the house from where he had been pitching hay into a wheelbarrow, tool still in hand.

“Shara!” he stammered, surprised. “Have you seen Darron or Gloria anywhere?” Fear radiated out of his head and into hers. Something was serious.

“I haven’t seen Gloria in a few hours,” she replied automatically. “Darron is in the chicken coop.”

“Run to him, and tell him to find Gloria immediately,” he ordered. “There’s a skitter in our potato field and it’s heading towards the house.”

A skitter? As in, one? Shara didn’t know what a skitter was, but it didn’t sound very threatening. She peered off behind Norman. Sure enough, some strange monster she’d never seen before was loitering near the potatoes. It was about the same size as Shara, and looked like a giant scorpion with most of its limbs cut off. It had no tail, no claws, only four legs, and not really any discernible head. The legs were fairly long and looked sharp enough to cut someone, and on the underside of its body she could make out the glint of carnivorous teeth. That was it. Its tan exoskeleton didn’t look tough at all. It probably didn’t even have, like... acid breath, or whatever. It clearly wasn’t a normal animal, but it was kind of a pathetic excuse for a monster.

“Oh, give me that, I’ll kill it,” Shara grumbled, yanking the pitchfork from Norman’s hand and dashing off towards the beast before he could protest. She knew a few people in the Aletheia clan who weren’t able to fight so much as a flea, but as the man of the house Norman should at least be able to take this thing. Oh, well. Shara had been wanting to show off a bit anyway.

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