Light seeped in through her eyelids, and Alicia blearily opened her eyes.
While she was unpackaging shapes and colors, she noticed how sore her limbs, chest, throat and heart were.
“By Kolath, I’m alive…” She breathed, putting her hand underneath her and levering her torso up.
That was when she noticed the odd squiggles in everything, colors on top of colors, like they had always been there, but she just hadn’t been able to see them.
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” Edward’s voice came from above her. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
She glanced up and saw Edward holding up two fingers.
“Two.” She said, “I think something’s wrong with my eyes.”
“Yeah, you’re seeing mana,” Edward said, his middle finger unravelling into squiggles and dissipating back into the environment. Alicia blinked. He had six fingers up until a second ago, and she hadn’t noticed.
“Congratulations, you’ve unlocked the most essential evolution of any spellslinger.” Edward said, sitting down in front of her with a bowl of steaming broth.
“Your brain is struggling to parse information it’s never had to process before. Give it a couple days and it’ll be as natural as breathing.”
“I caught a rabbit while you were sleeping off the last of the poison,” he said, holding the bowl out. “Want some?”
Alicia grimaced, looking down at the bowl of noodle soup in his hand. Where did he get the noodles? The carrots? The spices? It was highly suspicious, and she wasn’t sure she would ever accept anything from him again.
Then her stomach sent a sharp pain through her abdomen, reminding her that she’d lost her dinner last night.
“Sure,” she said, taking the bowl and sipping at it.
It was delicious.
“Sooo,” Edward said as she began gobbling up the rabbit stew. “Notice anything odd? Strange animals silently watching you? Ideas that were crazy now seem totally rational? Anything like that?”
Alicia glanced around, then down at her bare thighs being tickled by the grass beneath them.
“My pants are missing.” She said, glaring at him.
“They were covered in puke,” Edward said, pointing behind him, where her pants were drying on a branch in front of the modest campfire. “Now they’re not.”
Alicia turned the bowl over in her hands as she studied him, eyes narrowed. It really seemed like he’d given her the secret of magic, and he hadn’t taken advantage of her while she was asleep. Why was he being so generous?
“Why didn’t you tell me the secret of magic was so easy? What if I show other people how to do it?” She asked, studying the faint flickers of mana in her skin.
“You died twice last night, you know.” Edward said, sipping from another wooden bowl. “I kept you alive. With magic. If you wanna go ahead and get someone else killed, be my guest.”
Of course, nothing is that easy.
“Oh right, I forgot to ask you what your class was.”
“I don’t have one,” Alicia said. “You choose one at the end of your schooling.”
“Huh,” Edward grunted, sitting back. “So you’ll get to choose something to match your newfound magical aptitude. Cool. I thought you were going to stuck with Swashbuckler or Dread Pirate Roberts or something. Be pretty hard for you to learn magic with a nonmagical class.”
“No,” Alicia said. “I won’t be able to pick anything with magical aptitude. The Class Imprinters aren’t able to bestow magical classes. The method to achieve those classes has been lost to time. I’ll probably choose Duelist, or Elocutor.”
“That’s a crock of shit.” Edward said before downing the rest of his bowl.
Those history books I read in class have wizards springing up and dropping like flies, common enough to use them as heavy artillery in one particular battle. If the method of gaining those classes was that secret, why so many of them? Then all of a sudden, about fifty years after Jim unified the continent under the Mississippi Empire, all mention of them stops.”
Edward looked at his bowl thoughtfully. “Your Class Imprinters have probably been tampered with.”
“Then how’d you become a Phytomagus?”
“Class Imprint.” Edward said, giving her a grin.
“That…is a secret.”
Alicia’s hands balled into fists in frustration. This commoner was getting on her nerves.
“Your pants are probably dry,” Edward said, rising smoothly to his feet. “We should get back before they send out search parties.” He glanced at the sun approaching its noonday height. “Well, any more search parties. We’re overdue by about twelve hours.”
“What do you want to tell them?” Edward asked, glancing back at her.
Alicia took a deep breath and refocused on the problem at hand, rather than the infuriating man in front of her.
That’s right, I can’t just admit that I can see mana now. We need a lie that will have them scoff and roll their eyes and not inquire any further.
“Tell them we were out gathering firewood together and got lost and tired. We decided to wait until morning to find camp again.” She said.
“That’s a pretty blatant lie.” Edward said.
“Yes, it is.” Alicia said, taking her pants from him and sliding into them. They were warm and smelled like smoke.
“Ah, is that what the kids are calling it nowadays?” he asked.
“Sneaking out into the forest to have sex.”
“No, but it should be easy for them to come to that assumption.” Alicia said, running her fingers through her hair before kneeling in the dirt and rocking back and forth to get her pants dirty again. At least on the knees. “All you have to do is deny it emphatically while blushing. You think you can do that?”
“How’s this?” he asked, smiling. She saw an instant where squiggles of mana were tugged out of the ground before Edward’s face turned pink and began glowing brilliantly, forcing her to narrow her eyes against the glare.
“I hope you’re joking,” Alicia said, standing and dusting off most of the dirt on her knees.
“Of course. It’s actually a pretty damn good plan.” Edward said, his face returning to normal. “Nobody’s gonna think twice.”
“Well?” Alicia asked.
“Get your knees dirty.”
Edward sighed, and knelt in the dirt, making thrusting motions while Alicia watched speculatively.
He wasn’t that bad looking, actually. The brow lent a bit of force to an otherwise intelligent set of features. And he looked like he knew how to work his hips.
Then Edward ruined the moment by pretending to cum prematurely.
“Oh, shit baby,” Edward said “You were just too good.” He then flopped onto his side and started to snore into the forest floor.
Alicia restrained the urge to laugh and kicked him in the side instead.
“What? I was making it authentic.”
“Is everything a joke to you?”
“I’m just trying to enjoy my teenage years. You’re only young once, you know.”
Alicia shook her head. What did I do to deserve this?
“Come on, let’s get back to camp.” She started marching west, toward the plumes of campfire smoke in the distance, smirking as she did.
Garth was walking along beside her in silence when he a flicker of movement above him caught his eye.
Garth glanced up and saw a school of swordfish basking in the light of the sun, their green fins brilliant as they floated through the sky above the mountain in a relaxed, whorling pattern.
“Hey look, swordfish,” Garth said, pointing.
“Wha – get down!” Alicia shouted, tackling him to the ground.
“Umm, why?” Garth asked, but Alicia put a hand over his mouth, watching the sky.
Her modest breasts were pressing against his chest, but the thing that really grabbed Garth’s attention was over her shoulder, where her pants had been pulled down just a little by the tackle, revealing the shape of her lower back and the point where her round booty jutted out, stretching her pants tight.
“Skyfish. They’re patrolling the boundary of the Green Hell. Another monster left behind by Garth to plague humanity. More people die to them in the Green Hell than anything else. Sometimes they come all the way out into the woods. Those things are insanely dangerous.”
Garth tried denying the ‘plague humanity’ bit, but his mouth was covered by her rapier-callused fingers, so it just came out as “Mm MMph, mm. mmm!”
“Shhh.” She shushed him.
Garth rolled his eyes and just watched the school of Swordfish patrol the mountain range. Looked like Grass had that shit on lockdown. Good.
Meanwhile Ms. Banyan – I suppose it’s Mrs. Banyan now that she’s with Grass. – would be teaching Ellanore and company how to read and write, and sheltering them indefinitely, as a trial phase of sorts.
A shadow passed over them in an instant just as the school was entering the edge of his vision, and a dragonfly the size of a couple fully loaded Semi trucks zoomed above them at outrageous speeds.
The dragonfly slammed into one of the giant missile-fish, grabbing it with its tree-sized legs and biting the seven-foot long fish’s head off with a small explosion. The enormous dragonfly took its prey and swooped down out of sight.
“Carnifax.” Alicia whispered.
Garth pushed Alicia off him, sending her tumbling backward with a squawk. He climbed the nearest tree to get a better view. It was frustratingly short, so Garth made the tree grow another twelve feet, putting him solidly above the rest of the canopy.
“Edward, what are you doing? She whispered from the ground. “They’ll see us.”
“It’s fine.” Garth said, watching the massive dragonfly rest on the side of the mountain and devour its energy-rich prey. “I think we’re pretty low on their list.”
I can’t believe an ecosystem developed around the swordfish. Garth had no idea where a giant dragonfly would even come from, but one thing he knew for sure: That right there was a legendary creature, with a great big heartstone.
Patience for now. I’m not even close to tangling with something that big, especially if it’s got an ace up its sleeve like Tanglewood.
Garth climbed back down the tree and joined Alicia on the ground.
“C’mon, let’s make it back. Only half a day left of this camping trip.”
When they arrived at the base, the other three members of the party were waiting beside an empty campsight.
“Looks like they deigned to join us.” Kyle said, arms crossed.
“Must have been some talk.” Benedette said, eyeing them up and down.
“Did anyone else ask for us?” Alicia asked.
“We made excuses for you,” Susie said. “You ready to go?”
“We were in the wood gathering firewood, got lost and decided to wait for morning!” Garth blurted in his best guilty expression, tapping into Pala’s gift to mislead them.
“Who cares?” Kyle asked.
“Edward, nobody else even knew we were gone, they covered for us. It’s fine.” Alicia said, her eyebrows furrowing.
Garth suppressed a manic grin as he sold the lie, hard.
“It was too dark and we couldn’t see the trail!” he made an illusion of a blush bloom on his and Alicia’ faces while using Clarion Call to instill more meaning into his words. Garth shifted nervously from side to side.
Alicia’s eyes followed the traces of mana swirling around him, confused. “Edward, what are you-“
“Nothing happened!” Garth shouted, his posture stiff.
Kyle glanced at Garth and Alicia, then his eyes widened in sudden realization.
“Ah, well, that’s problematic.”
“I thought you were doing some shady deal, not getting pounded, Alicia.” Benedette said, giving her sister a sideways look. “Although it’s never a bad idea to get it while you can.”
“I wasn’t!” she shouted, blushing for real. Garth wasn’t entirely sure if it was embarrassment or anger that was coloring her cheeks, now.
Susie leaned over and whispered something in Benedette’s ear.
“I guess it’s fine,” she said, shrugging and turning away.
“I told you we didn’t do anything!”
“What did you do then?”
My work here is done, Garth thought, jamming the little sack of nice heartstones he’d picked out for himself this morning in his backpack. The chaff he’d buried to grind up and refine later.
One every four hours for maximum effect, Garth thought, discreetly popping a purple heartstone in his mouth.
As Alicia argued with her sisters, Garth debated where to take the team today. Half the day was already used up, and the local wildlife was already cleared out.
Garth glanced up at the mountain range separating them from L.A.
He was sorely tempted to bring them over the mountain and dig through the city for a few more hidden goodies. Unfortunately, the ruins of L.A. was the place where everybody knew his name, so it was right out.
That and Grass seemed like he needed a little time to calm down.
Garth sat and pondered their destination for a while, the conversation drifting in and out of his attention.
“…scrawny looking looking brat like him!”
Actually, there was the Adamantium mine up northwest, in the plateau overlooking L.A.
With Forestwalk, Garth could get them there and back in a matter of hours.
They didn’t have weeks to spend diving to the bottom, though.
That area did have some walls and guard posts that had been installed eight hundred years ago, though, when it had doubled as their coke farm. It might be worth it to check and see if there were any weapons left over in their cellars.
“You guys interested in a field trip?” Garth said, catching their attention.