"What should we... is it safe ... we don't know where..."
Voices drifted in and out of his consciousness. Ian cracked open his eyes, and was greeted with a world of blurry images spinning around him. There was the ship's captain - the golden trim of his uniform could be recognized anywhere, several other sailors and a man in green sitting in the corner. The crew seemed to be talking about him, but with his head pounding he couldn't make out what they were saying. Ian fought to keep his eyes open and listen to the conversation, but they unwillingly drifted shut. Once again, his vision faded into darkness.
The room was now quiet except for the sound of crashing waves. Ian’s condition seemed to have improved; his vision was clearer, and the pain in his head had reduced to a dull throb. Trying to raise his upper body to get a better view of the room, he felt a hand on his right shoulder pushing him back down”.
“Please stay down, sir” reassured the sailor beside Ian. Turning towards the door, the man yelled for the captain A few moments later, the door swung open and in walked the captain, still wearing his uniform. Ian wondered if the man ever wore anything else.
"Hello, Sir Magus, it is good to see that you have awakened. May I ask for your name?" Sir Magus? That was a new one.
"Ian." Speaking was a lot harder than he had expected, and made him realize just how dry his lips had become. "Water..."
"Go fetch our guest some water, quick!" The sailor who had initially been in Ian's room ran out. The captain continued. "My name is Captain Roland. It is my pleasure to be of your acquaintance." Captain Roland’s voice was surprisingly soft, unlike the brash tone of the rest of the crew.
"So now, Magus Ian, I'd first like to thank you for your help in defeating those pirates. If it were not for you, we would have almost definitely lost. As for the loot from the dead and captured pirates, we will be giving you your share; you are entitled to the value of the Guardian's armor and the Fire Mage's cloak, as you were the primary contributor to their defeat. We will, however, be subtracting the costs of the healing potions used in your recovery."
Ian nodded his head - he wasn't too sure how much those items were worth, but he should at least be able to get a few gold for them even after his medical fees. Silently, he patted his waist and felt the reassuring bulge of his coin purse, still the same size as it had been before. It seemed the sailors were a lot more trustworthy than Ian had expected.
"That issue aside, there is something else we must discuss. Can you explain to me how and why you are on my ship? Answer carefully, because I will know if you lie."
Ian gulped. Roland had seemed amicable so far, but the expression on his face clearly showed that he was not to be messed with.
"I was running away from a man that was going to hurt me. He doesn't know that I'm on this ship, so there's no way that he'll coming looking for you. As soon as you land, I'll leave and you'll never see me again." Ian decided to tell as much of the truth as possible without giving too much away. He had no idea if Roland and Midas knew each other and didn't want to expose himself if they did.
Roland sighed. “I know that you aren’t telling me the whole story, but I will have to believe your word. To be honest, with all the sailors we lost in the attack we’re going to need your help sailing the ship. You don’t have any sailing experience, do you?”
Ian shook his head. He hadn’t even been on a boat before this, so there was no way for him to have any clue about how to sail one.
“That’s okay, you can still help out with some of the labour. From what I saw, if you use your plants then you’ll be able to make our crew’s lives much easier. With your help, we should be able to reach land within two weeks, only putting us a week behind schedule.”
Ian realized that even after spending weeks on the ship he still had no idea of the ship’s destination. “Captain Roland, what city is this ship headed for?”
Roland smiled. It seemed like this young man was truly clueless about his situation. “Sir Magus, we are headed to the capitol of the Kingdom of Lubiel, Izen. Now, I’ll let you rest for the remainder of today but afterwards we will be requiring your assistance on deck.”
Ian nodded and closed his eyes as the captain left his room. If he was going to get roped into physical labor after the fight he’d just been in, he was going to get every possible second of sleep right now.
Ian was back on top of the pile of rubble with the Guardian choking on the ground before him. Ian could not stop his body as he slowly walked forwards, arriving at the armored body just as it stopped struggling. Horrified, he watched as his hand lowered to the Guardian’s face, opening the visor to reveal his victim. Staring right up at him, eyes unmoving, was the face of his brother Byren.
Ian woke up, gasping for air as he frantically looked around. It took a few seconds for him to realize that it had all just been a dream. Sighing, he tried to calm his breathing down as he laid back down in bed, trying to relax as he stared at the wooden ceiling and listened to the rhythmic sound of the waves.
For the rest of the night, sleep refused to reclaim him. When the sun started shining through the window Ian was both simultaneously dismayed and relieved that it was time to work. Getting up, he stretched and started heading up to the deck. Maybe all he needed was some good, familiar physical labour to help him forget the screams of the men that he had killed.
Just less than two weeks had since passed, and Ian was ecstatic to see land. Although his quality of life had improved significantly compared to when he had been hiding in the room, he missed the feeling of solid ground beneath his feet and the taste of fresh fruits and vegetables that wouldn’t cause excruciating pain. Ian had been offered the same meals as the rest of the crew ever since he started helping out around the ship, but he still ate his Magical Peas thrice a day in order to increase his INT. Every time Ian rolled around the floor, grimacing with pain, all he had to do was remind himself of how close he’d been to dying and he would gain the motivation to gulp down the next Magical Pea.
Being on the ship had given Ian time to reflect. The images of the Guardian seizing on the ground still haunted Ian’s dreams, punctuated by visions of the dead bodies of Midas, his men, and an assortment of nameless pirates. Ian knew that what he had done had been in self-defence, but the thought of how many lives he had taken still made his stomach sick. Shaking his head, Ian pushed his misgivings back. No matter how he felt about fighting, he would need to grow stronger into order to survive in this world.
Ian considered his next steps. He would lay low for a while, since he didn’t know if Brenas’ Alchemy Guild was still looking for him. He would have to find a safe place to raise some more Magical Plants and increase his combat experience. From the fight with the Guardian, Ian had realized that his lack of creativity had greatly limited his fighting power and he was determined not to let that happen again. It was also time to try raising some different Magical Plants than just his current Magical Peas. While his Magical Peas were strong and had helped him survive until now, his lack of defense against the Fire Mage and insufficient physical damage against the Guardian made him realize that his current team was still incomplete. Individually, the Fire Mage and the Guardian would not have posed as much of a threat to Ian, but their combination of defense and offense greatly increased their combat power. Going forwards, Ian wanted to try to introduce that type of synergy to his team as well.
Ian snapped back to reality as he caught a glimpse of Izen on the horizon. Unlike Brenas which boasted many tall structures, the buildings of Izen were relatively flat and were built with sandstone instead of clay bricks. There was a visible gap in the city skyline, which a sailor pointed out as the delta of the Dromas River. Nicknamed the “Lifeblood of Lubiel”, the Dromas River ran through the country and provided fertile shorelines in the otherwise dry and hot climate. The deposits of silt and fertilizer that had accumulated at the delta made the farmland around Izen particularly prosperous, and helped to establish the city as a center of great wealth.
Four hours later, their ship had reached the harbour and had successfully docked. Captain Roland denied Ian’s offer to help unload the merchandise, seeming to want to get rid of Ian as fast as possible. Ian shrugged; he hadn’t really wanted to help anyways, and only offered because his mother had raised him to always be polite.
Venturing away from the docks, Ian headed towards the city hall. Earlier on the ship Ian had spoken to one of the sailors that had been to Izen and understood Lubiel’s laws and had used the knowledge to formulate a plan. Ian reached down and patted his coin purse – he’d never had so much money before, and while it hurt money was meant to be spent.
After a short wait, Ian met with a receptionist who guided him to the proper office for his transaction. Another hour later, Ian left the room with his coin purse significantly lighter and a piece of paper in his hand. Ian chuckled. He had tried so hard to leave his home to escape his fate as a farmer, survived through life or death battles, and now what was he doing? The irony was not lost on Ian as he walked away from city hall and followed the sailor’s directions towards the market district to go buy some more supplies.
It was time to start his own farm.
With her slim figure and round, blue eyes, Elise was one of the prettiest girls in all of Izen. As a Priestess of Izenia, the Goddess of motherhood and family as well as the patron of Izen, Elise’s class by itself granted her a certain level of respect within her community. Add on the fact that her strong powers and bravery helped propel her to the position of a Rank C adventurer made her the ideal wife to men all across the city. None of that currently mattered as Elise and her party ran for their lives.
“Holy Barrier!” Piggybacking on their party’s Swordsman Marco, Elise turned her body around and created a barrier of light. Holy Barrier was one of the strongest spells available to her as a Priestess, but all she could do was watch helplessly as it shattered within seconds.
“Run faster! They’re catching up to us!” The other magic user in their party, a Wind Mage, raised his staff and created a tailwind to boost their speed. His help was not enough; the wolves were rapidly gaining on them.
Their party had accepted a regular Rank D request two days ago to subjugate some local wildlife before they evolved into monsters. It was a repeated request that their party had completed many times in the past, so coming in they were expecting some easy money. There was no way for them to expect the situation that they were in right now.
The pack of wolves was now biting at Marco’s ankles. At first glance, the wolves seemed normal except for their abnormally large sizes, each one the size of an alpha of a regular pack. However, if one looked closer one would start to notice some more irregularities: their canines were sharper and tougher, they could run over twice the speed of regular wolves, and faint wisps of black smoke could be seen trailing from the tips of their fur. Elise had no idea what had happened to these wolves, but she didn’t have the luxury to think about it as she continued to cast another Holy Barrier that was also quickly shattered.
Although Elise was only a young girl, she had already accumulated years of adventuring experience and knew the situation they were in. Their party of five was slowing down. Marco was tiring out from running while carrying her and her twisted ankle while the rest of their party lacked the physical stamina to make it back to the city walls. Elise knew she had no choice. Tapping Marco on the shoulder, she loosened her arms from around his neck and jumped off.
“Go! I’ll hold them back!” The rest of Elise’s party faltered for a mere second before they continued to run away at full speed. They knew that it would be impossible for them to change Elise’s mind, and any hesitation on their part would just be wasting her sacrifice.
As Elise watched the pack of dark wolves approach her, she thought of all the fun she had had in the past three years adventuring with her party. She wasn’t sure exactly when, but she had come to treat her friends as a second family. And as a Priestess of Izenia, it was her sacred duty to protect her family with her life.
“Mother’s Sacrifice!” As Elise cast Izenia’s forbidden spell, barriers of light several times thicker and brighter than the previous Holy Barriers sprung up and surrounded the wolves. As the wolves snarled and started breaking down the walls, Elise could start feeling her life force slipping away. The ultimate sacrifice, the skill bound her own vitality to the barriers and served as the greatest protection she could provide.
As the barriers shattered and her consciousness faded, Elise prayed to Izenia to protect her family, to Lenessa to guide them to safety, and to Bryon to give them courage. With a smile, Elise closed her eyes and never opened them again.