“Noooo,” Ava said, watching as Raine moved his bishop.
“Checkmate,” he said. He took a sip from his glass of water. “Again?”
“You bet,” she said. “Let me be white this time.”
They reset the board. Ava made her move.
Ten minutes passed.
“Oh my god, noooo!” she said.
Ava held her head in her hands. “How is this possible? I had a whole plan for victory laid out in my mind.”
“As Mike Tyson said, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’”
Ava groaned and took a swig of her now lukewarm latte.
“Alright, screw this,” she said. “Let’s do something else.”
Raine glanced at the clock on the wall. He still had thirty minutes before he had to go to the archery range.
“Want to take a walk?” he asked. “I haven’t been to the park yet.”
“Eh...alright, I guess.”
Raine waited for Ava to finish her latte. Then they left the coffee shop and headed for the park.
“I’ve heard a few retired hunters live here,” Raine said as they passed the huge homes on Blackwood Street.
“Yeah. Most of them head to New Annapolis instead,” Ava said. “Just about everything is cheaper there, and the homes are just as nice.”
“Do people tend to not go back to Earth?”
“But why?” Raine asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” She tilted her head.
“People grow attached to the New World over time, particularly Rialis. This city is safe and clean, right? Pretty much every city in Rialis is like that, since Hopkins does a mostly decent job of running the place.”
“I see. But what about family and friends on Earth?”
“The Guilds usually hire people who have little to no family and are in shitty situations.”
“Yup. Guild members tend to have more friends here than on Earth, and those friendships are usually deeper. Successful hunters almost always build strong connections with a wide range of people. And actually, that leads me perfectly to some advice: be fucking careful who you team up with.”
“Well, how do people normally find teammates? Do they stick with their teammates from the first month?”
“Forget what most people do. For you, it would be unbelievably stupid; imagine being in a team with Edgar and Cecily without me or June being the experienced member saying this is what you do and this is what you don’t do.”
“Yup, okay. I see your point.”
“A great teammate is someone loyal, quick-witted, and good at many things, including fighting.”
Raine smiled wryly. “That’s a lot to ask for. I can probably count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who tick all those boxes.”
Ava gestured toward herself with a smile. “I’m surely one of them.”
Raine smacked his forehead with his palm. “Yes. Yes you are.”
“Hey! What was the facepalm for?”
“I was expressing my admiration for your lack of humility.”
“Meh.” Ava shrugged. “Building humility is way down on my to-do list.”
“At least it’s on the list.”
“I just added it.”
They reached the park soon. Plenty of people were there, and most were taking a stroll like them. Joggers and cyclists passed by every so often, and several people were walking their dogs. Some kids were playing soccer on the grass.
Raine and Ava took the path to the center of the park, where the pond was.
“Hey, who do you normally team up with for work?” Raine asked.
“There are about half a dozen people I work with occasionally. I try to do as much as I can on my own, though.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Yup. But I don’t have to split the pay.” Ava looked up at one of the trees ahead of them. “You have to master two skills when you work alone. First, sleeping in a tree.”
“Yeah. And second, setting up traps.”
“I’m perfectly sane. I think the people who work in teams of ten or more are the really nutty ones.”
“You’re on the other extreme. Where’s the nice middle ground of three or something?”
“The best teams have four to five people. Yasha’s team has five people. Kristina’s has four. Song Hyun-woo’s had four as well.”
“He quit hunting earlier last year to start climbing up Hopkins’ ranks. Anyway, find people you can trust. That’s rule number one of team-building.”
“Let’s see,” Raine said. He took a second to think. “There’s you, June, and everyone from my training team. Then...that’s it. No one else.”
“It’s a good start. Your team was unusually cohesive. There are two or three like that in every batch.”
“Oh, I see. Was your own team like that?”
With that one question, Ava lost her cheeriness like a deflating balloon. She looked down at the ground. “Yeah.”
Shit, I hit a landmine. He racked his brain for a good way to change the topic. It didn’t come easily. They walked in silence for a while. They were in the middle of the park now, passing by the pond. At the edge of the water was a family having a picnic. Raine saw apple pie on someone’s plate, and inspiration struck.
Screw good segues. “Ava, are you an ice cream person?”
“You have a choice between a free cup of black coffee and a latte. Which one do you take?”
“The latte. Why?”
“I’m experimenting with a novel way of determining whether someone will make a good teammate: food preference. You’re scoring 100% so far.”
Ava stared at him for a few moments.
No go? Raine wondered. Well, it was stupid anyway.
Her lips curled in a slight smile.
“You’re pretty odd, you know,” she said.
“Why, thank you,” he said.
“But you’re a nice guy, so I’ll forgive you.” She glanced at her watch. “You should start heading to the archery range now. It should be a ten minute walk there.”
“Alright. What are you going to do?”
“Well, I think I’ll go too.” She sighed. “I have nothing else to do.”
They headed for the archery range.
Raine learned that day that his talent with the bow was nonexistent.
. . . .
They were younger than Blake had expected. Elwood seemed no more than 30, and Kay looked young enough to be a college student. Both had the distinctive streak of white hair of a Follower of Light.
They’d come to Rialis City to make an absurd request.
“Please give us the blade of the Demon Lord,” Elwood said. “Wrath.”
Wang Yan blinked. Then she burst out laughing.
“You’re joking, right?” she said.
“I am not,” Elwood said.
“Why do you want it?” Blake asked. “It has no use for a Follower, especially not a Follower of Light.”
“We obviously don’t want to use it,” Kay said. “We want to take it somewhere safer. We’re trying to help you, you know.”
“Oh, come on,” Wang Yan said. “Even you should know how ridiculous that sounds.”
“It’s obvious what you’re thinking,” Aerisa said to Elwood. She sat on the couch with her arms crossed. “You believe a Demon Baron is going to try to take it.”
“The possibility of it happening is high,” Elwood said. “This Expansion is different. I know it. You know it.”
“Do you think we’re brainless?” Aerisa asked. “Hopkins is already preparing for the worst.”
“That it has yet to move Wrath out of Rialis suggests it isn’t,” Elwood said. “I saw the sword on display like it’s some kind of artwork on my way up here.”
Aerisa snorted. “How would Wrath be any safer in your hands?”
“We’ll take it to Iurisia,” Kay said. “The Followers of Air have agreed to help us guard it. Once the Expansion is over, we’ll return it to you.”
He reached into his bag and pulled out a dagger in a beautiful metal scabbard. The Ephrian word for ‘light’ was etched into it.
Blake didn’t know what it was, but Aerisa and Wang Yan seemed to recognize it. They looked surprised.
“This is Feather,” Elwood said. “The blade that killed the third Demon Lord.”
Blake’s brow rose. That thing? I always imagined it was a sword.
“You want to leave it here so we’ll be confident that you’ll return Wrath?” Wang Yan asked.
“You catch on quickly.”
“Feather isn’t nearly as valuable as Wrath,” Aerisa said.
“This isn’t a trade,” Kay said. “We’ll obviously come back to take something so important to us.”
Blake opened his mouth to speak, but Aerisa responded before he could say anything.
“Maybe. But the real issue here isn’t one of trust. Even assuming your intentions are good, your plan is moronic,” she said. “Rialis City is the safest place to keep Wrath.”
“Nonsense,” Kay said.
“Hopkins and the Followers of Lightning can protect the sword. But you?” Aerisa met Kay’s gaze and held it. “You’re weak. If you take the blade, here’s what’ll happen: first, you’ll get slowed down by orcs on your way to the Kanthil Forest. Then you’ll get ambushed by great orcs in the forest. Then you’ll get killed by Ira in the Lirian Province. Guess where Wrath will end up.”
“It’s true that we lack the strength to take Wrath to Iurisia on our own. So we ask that Hopkins provides us an escort,” Elwood said. There was no trace of anger in his voice or his expression. In contrast, Kay looked like she was ready to lunge at Aerisa and try to choke her. “Preferably a team as skilled as Yasha Molotov’s. We’ll pay for their services, of course.”
“Okay, thanks for coming all the way here, but no,” Wang Yan said.
Elwood looked to Blake.
“Can you provide some details on how much of a difference it would make if we were to move Wrath out of Rialis?” Blake asked.
“Are you kidding me right now?” Wang Yan asked him.
“I’m just getting more information.”
“Let’s assume that the Expansion is early due to a Demon Baron,” Elwood said. “Without Wrath here, Karlis would be more likely to get attacked just from its greater size. With Wrath here, the demon would probably sense the mana of a Demon Lord from it and march on Rialis. His or her army would have at least 100 great orcs and 2,000 regular orcs.”
“Okay.” Difficult, but doable.
“And 300 elite goblins, each leading ten regular goblins. Also, the Demon Baron leading them should be stronger than anyone in this room. All five of us would probably have to work together to kill him or her.”
“Are those numbers accurate?” Blake asked Aerisa.
“I...can’t say,” she said with a frown.
Well, no surprise. The God of Lightning was far weaker than the God of Light.
Wang Yan sighed.
“Well, you’ve got my attention now,” she said to Elwood.
. . . .
It was Monday.
The morning seemed just like any other. Sunlight was peeking through the gap between the curtains. Birds were chirping somewhere outside. Edgar was vomiting from a hangover in the other room.
Raine was still lying in bed. He stared at his ceiling and took a deep breath. Here goes nothing.
He closed his eyes and grasped at the air.
There was something there. His hand met resistance, like it was moving through water.
“Ha. Ha. Haha! Holy fucking shit!”
His fingers curled. They moved inch by inch, and Raine felt like the effort was sucking strength and energy out of him. When his hand finally clenched into a fist, he felt something solid and spherical in his grasp.
So...what do I do now? Just tell it to do something? Come on, marble thing, turn into a hammer!
Well, shit. Turn into water? He snapped his fingers.
Again, nothing happened.
Air? Wait, but how do you even visualize that? So...light? Pow. Shine. He snapped his fingers again.
He felt warmth in his palm. It was like he was holding a hand warmer. Raine opened his eyes and looked down. His two hands were on the bed, with nothing in them. But he still felt the orb in the palm of the hand he couldn’t see.
In moments, the orb vanished, and he felt a spike of exhaustion.
But he was elated. I got the fucking money magic. Jesus. I’m going to make bank when I get good with this.
He shot out of bed. He washed his face, changed, and left the apartment. His stomach was growling, but breakfast could wait.
He went right to June’s door and knocked.
“Yeees,” June said. She opened the door and tilted her head when she saw Raine. She was in a blouse and jeans, looking like she was just about to leave. “Good morning, Raine. What’s up?”
“I can use light magic!” Raine said with a grin.
“Ooo, congratulations!” June said. “That’s super helpful for a hunter.”
“I can imagine. But how do I get better at it? I have no idea what to do. A how-to guidebook didn’t pop into my head when I woke up.”
“There are loads of books on magic in the library, on the second floor. Buuut honestly, you don’t have to read any of that, at least not now. You just have to use magic over and over again. It’s really boring and tiring, honestly. It’s kind of like lifting weights, except you’re only allowed to do one exercise.”
“Got it. Also, what’s the point of snapping your fingers?”
“It’s a shortcut. It’s pretty easy to tie magic to a single action, like clapping your hands or snapping your fingers. If you don’t have something like that, magic usually takes longer to use.”
“I see,” Raine said, nodding. So there might actually be someone out there who does a dance move every time they want to use magic. “How long does it take for someone to get good enough at light magic to work somewhere like a healing hall?”
“About ten years on average,” June said.
“Oh.” The dollar bills in Raine’s mind flew away.
“But it’s alright. Most healers who work at healing halls can reconnect severed limbs to your body. They’re really good. You don’t have to be that skilled to earn a lot as a light magician.”
The dollar bills made a U-turn and entered Raine’s view again.
“So should I just lock myself in my room all day and work on my magic?” he asked.
“Um, you can try to do that, and it’ll be pretty productive if you manage to keep at it for a while,” June said. “But it’s really tiring. Also, please don’t forget we’re going to visit L. Kingswood later.”
She put on her shoes and closed the door behind her. She said she was going to get breakfast with her friends.
They said goodbye, and Raine went back into his apartment. After grabbing a snack from the kitchen, he locked himself in his room to practice magic.
I’m not getting out of here until I’m on the ground and nearly dying of exhaustion. It’s going to be like studying Ephrian. I just have to keep going even when I’m so bored I feel like I want to cry.
He sat at his desk and took a deep breath.
Light magic, you’re going to get me half a dozen apartments around America. Maybe a house in Rialis City. And maybe a really fancy horse.
Raine’s eyes widened. He was struck by an insight.
The New World version of a BMW i8 is a quick, majestic horse. It only makes sense to have both when I’m rich. All things should be balanced. A horse alone won’t do. A BMW i8 alone won’t do. He nodded to himself. Okay, there we go: a new life goal.
He closed his eyes to start practicing. Determination burned in his chest.