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“What’s the rush?” Master questions me as I pull him through the trees still surrounding our village.

 

I scan our surroundings for any hidden beasts and try to spot the abnormality I witnessed earlier.

 

Whatever caused the mana to react the way it did must have already vanished amongst the trees. Usually, I would be sad about missing a possible magic material to work with, but I have bigger things to worry about right now.

 

“Something happened with your merchant friend, didn’t it?” I look over my shoulder and give master a complicated look.

 

“I’ll tell you everything when we get to my house. I asked mother to get dad, so the two of them should be waiting for us when we get there.” I lead master through the forest.

 

We don't emerge from the trees until we're close to my house. I scan our surroundings and sneak Del into our home when no other villagers are nearby. I'm not ashamed of master, but the extra effort will keep even more rumors from spreading around the village.

 

I see mother and father waiting for us at our dinner table, both clearly wondering why I needed to gather everyone.

 

I swap out my boots for my slippers. Master follows my example by kicking off his muddy shoes and moves over to where my parents are sitting, pulling out a chair he takes a place at the table.

 

Nobody says anything as I take my seat.

 

I lean my elbows on the table and bury my head in my arms.

 

I hear the table creak as mother leans across and rests her hand on the top of my head. “What happened, sweety?”

 

I quietly sigh to myself before I sit up and explain everything I heard from Kervin. From the general asking about me to Silver Herd knowing about master and me.

 

The three of them just sit there silently listening to everything I say. They may not interrupt me with questions, but their looks of concern speak to me loudly.

 

When I finish telling them everything, a heavy silence crushes all four of us. None of us know where to start.

 

Mother asks the first question. “You said you're meeting with Kervin tomorrow morning to renegotiate the contract between you two. What are the details of the contract you have now? Depending on his skill level, you won't be able to change too many of the details."

 

“It’s ok, mom. I’m forcefully canceling our contract tonight. Depending on what we decide tonight, our new contract is to force him to comply. He needs me a lot more than I need him,” I tell her.

 

"You're able to break his contract skill without his input?" Mom looks at me with her eyes wide open.

 

"One of my skills helps me break compulsions. It takes time to set up, but I only need a little bit of time tonight to break his skills hold on me."

 

“You shouldn’t be so quick to throw away your relationship with Kervin. It sounds like he’s the only thing keeping Silver Herd from coming straight to our village to recruit you.” Mother advises me.

 

“Your mother is right, honey,” Dad speaks up. “You can use him as a shield in the short run.”

 

Both of them make a good point. I look at master who still hasn’t said a word. “What do you think, master?”

 

Del looks between the three of us. “This isn’t good, but not completely unexpected.” The three of us are shocked by what Del says.

 

“What do you mean?” I ask him.

 

"It happened quicker than I was expecting, but I always knew someone would eventually notice you. The weapons you forge are top class for your skill level. That said, I didn't think you would be noticed this soon and by a general no less. This severely complicates things." Master grumbles out that last part.

 

I'm afraid to ask, but master always told me what he would do if someone came looking for him. "Are you leaving?" I hesitantly ask. Mother and father are shocked by my question.

 

Master stares deeply into my worried eyes. "I already told you that I wouldn't leave you until you asked me to; that hasn't changed. Besides, they aren't exactly looking for me, are they?” Master gives me a complicated smile.

 

I sigh in relief. This would be much scarier if master told us he was running away. “Thank you, Master Del.”

 

“It’s not like running was truly an option.” Master tries to pretend staying isn’t a big deal for him.

 

Mother and father nod in agreement. "This is our home, and you haven't done anything wrong. Why would we leave?" Mother exclaims.

 

“It’s not like they’re marching an army here to capture you,” Father chuckles.

 

The support from everyone at the table chokes me up. No one comments as I wipe the water from my eyes.

 

“That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot to discuss.” Mother gives us a calculating look.

 

"Agreed," master nods his head to mother and then looks at me. "You need to be careful about how you handle what happens next. If you use that merchant properly, it should be enough to appease Silver Herd for now, knowing you're going to continue to make goods for them."

 

“That’s right,” Mother agrees with master. “As long as they’re making a profit, and have means to contact you, they should leave you alone.” Mother’s face brightens like she just got an idea. “In fact, this could be good for you. You can use them to get your hands on the rarer materials without putting yourself in any danger.”

 

“Kervin did offer to get me Eathrosse and Devil’s Poke. But if the general is looking for me, won’t buying those items lead her straight to me?” I ask the table.

 

Father and Del think about it, but everyone looks to mom for her opinion. "The kingdom only investigates when enchantments start to appear in the wrong places. They can't investigate everyone buying those herbs. It's usually left to the merchant company to report anything suspicious, and I doubt Silver Herd would turn in a budding enchanter."

 

"You mustn't forget that the general is still tied up at the fort." Master makes a good point. "Almost every able-bodied person is converging on the fort. The general shouldn't be able to spare sending troops to our village for a single blacksmith, no matter how good you are. She may have noticed you, but it could be years before she can leave the fort.”

 

That means every second I have needs to be spent getting stronger!

 

“Let me stop you now.” Master interrupts my train of thought. I wasn’t even saying anything! I notice mother and father also giving me a concerned look.

 

"That look on your face tells me you’re planning on training like crazy before the general comes looking for you." Mother and father agree with Del's assessment. "I know your speed of improvement is inhuman, but not even you could possibly train to reach her level that quickly. Once someone nears level 100, the experience required to level is in the millions. Raising your skill levels will get you close, but eventually, they will reach a level that it takes a lot longer for them to improve. Your crafting will overshadow the experience you gain from your skills increasing."

 

"What Del is trying to say is that you can't kill yourself for an unachievable goal. You need to live your life, and not spend every minute training. Remember what happened after the goblin extermination?" Mother says, concerned for my wellbeing.

 

She’s right, I can’t spend my time worrying about what might happen, and my days are already busy enough as is.

 

"I won't make that mistake again," I promise to myself as much as I am to mother.

 

"That settles it, doesn't it?" Master asks everyone at the table. "We'll continue as we have, but Aaliyah will use the merchant to keep her distance from Silver Herd. We'll deal with the army together, whenever they come.”

 

I’m surprised how accepting everyone is of the situation. I was worried we would have to abandon the village.

 

We discuss how I should deal with Kervin tomorrow, and Master Del stays for dinner.

 

Later that night, while in my bed, I enter my soul.

 

Looking around the clearing my body manifests in, I spot Kervin’s skill right where I left it. His contract skill fits in the palm of my hand. I toss the skill back and forth in between my hands like a baseball.

 

Time holds less meaning here, and since Sense Soul broke through its first test, the feeling of being immersed in my soul has become gentler. I've always been able to spend long periods of time here, but I could never feel comfortable.

 

I think my soul is rejecting me less.

 

Well, part of my soul.

 

After looking at everyone's souls, I think I truly know what this forest is now.

 

I may be connected to my soul, but this forest isn't a part of my true soul. I leave my clearing and start heading towards the sea.

 

I'm almost positive this is actually the surface of my soul, and everything around me is made up of the experience I've gained so far. That's why I'm able to single out other people's skills here. Their skills are made out of their experience and are connected to them; that's why they stand out.

 

I look down at Kervin’s skill again as I pass into the rocky terrain. It’s almost imperceptible because of my warped sense of time here, but the forest has definitely been growing as I gain more experience.

 

I make my way over to the familiar cliff and stare out at the beautiful calm sea of memories stretching into the distance. I look out at the moons hovering overhead.

 

They no longer attack me just for getting close to my true soul. I'm positive that's what this is; the sea before me is my soul's core. Every memory, making me who I am today.

 

I cup Kervin's soul fragment in my hands and let my body fall over the cliff's edge. There's no splash, only my body being dragged to a random memory.

 

A new world appears around me.

 

I'm in my mom's Ford Escort's back seat, looking over at a younger version of my past life.

 

This was back when I was seven and still sitting in a booster seat. Everything is blurry outside the car as my mom drives to work early in the morning before the sun rises.

 

"Country road, take me home. To the place, I belong. West Virginia. Mountain momma, take me home. Country road." I listen to little me sing along with my mother.

 

When was the last time I listened to John Denver? We would sing this song every morning before I was dropped off at my grandparent’s house.

 

It’s just another inconsequential moment buried in my memories. I sit back in my seat and close my eyes, letting the song permeate my being.

 

The song fades, and I feel the eyes burn through my memory and focus on me. Couldn't they let me hear one more song?

 

I open my eyes and gaze up at the ceiling of my room. I say a quick prayer for my family I left behind and roll over in my bed. I don't feel the need to enter my soul again.

 

I quietly hum Country Road until I fall asleep.

 


 

Kervin’s Point of view:

 

"Oh, gods!" I cry out, tossing and turning in my sleeping bag. Ryiba wakes up and looks at me, concerned while Lurte quickly runs over to my side from where he was on lookout.

 

“What’s wrong?” Lurte helps me sit up while I’m clutching at my chest.

 

“My contract with Aaliyah was just broken,” I hiss. I’ve had my Contract skill broken before, but never like this.

 

Whether breaking a contract is consensual or forced, it feels like a rope snapping, and the backlash is divided between those the skill connects. Whatever Aaliyah did to cancel the skill, it forced everything onto me.

 

Both Lurte and Ryiba frown. "She wasn't lying about her ability, then," Lurte says while patting my back, trying to help me catch my breath.

 

I doubt she gained whatever skill she used just now in the last month. That's why she accepted my skill so quickly last month. She could break my skill whenever she needed to.

 

I need to do everything in my power to appease her tomorrow.

 

“I’m fine now,” I tell my guards. “Sorry for waking you up Ryiba, I hope you can get back to sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a stressful day.”

 

I roll over and hide my concerned look from my men. I face the prevailing winds and feel the sweat on my face start to freeze in the winter breeze.

 

The pain in my chest from the backlash is fading slowly. I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep, but I don't think I'll be getting any more sleep tonight.

 

As soon as the first rays of daylight appear over the horizon, I'm up and preparing for the battle to come.

 

I look towards the village. "She'll be here soon." I hope my secret weapon works.

 


 

Aaliyah’s Point of Views:

 

I make my way over to Kervin’s campsite the first thing in the morning.

 

I don't use any of my movement skills and, instead, choose to strut up to Kervin's campsite, with a beast's grace on the hunt.

 

Kervin and his two guards are moving around their campsite, packing up everything they no longer need. I guess they plan to leave after our meeting.

 

Kervin's two guards spot me approaching and point me out to him. He pats his sides, dusting off his clothes before looking at me with a merchant's bright smile.

 

So, he’s prepared too.

 

Once I'm a few feet from their campsite, he calls out to me. "Good morning, Aalyiah. How was your night?"

 

"Fine," I give him an uncaring look. I may have already decided to use him, but I have no intention of letting him know that yet.

 

He doesn’t look perturbed in the slightest at my behavior and maintains his smile. “Why don’t you come over here and join us? I have tea brewing to drive away the morning cold.”

 

I try to think of the most intimidating thing I can say. “I don’t feel the cold.”

 

He and his guards cringe, but Kervin catches himself and chuckles. "I should've guessed; I never see you shivering even when the wind is blowing like it is.”

 

I wonder if any of the villagers have noticed the same thing?

 

I take the same seat as I did yesterday, and I smell it.

 

A fragrant smell wafts from Kervin's teapot next to the fire.

 

He notices me looking at it. “Allow me.” He pours me a cup of tea but doesn’t hand it to me. He reaches into a small bag sitting next to him on the log and pulls out a small brown cube.

 

Kervin places the cube in my tea and swills the mixture before handing it to me.

 

I take the cup and raise it to my nose, and a fruity smell overpowers my senses. I have to carefully adjust Mana Skin to allow the liquid to move through my protective barrier.

 

As soon as the mixture reaches my lips, I let out a small moan of pleasure. The taste resembles strawberries with hints of other fruits I can't place. The thing that makes my eyes go wide is the distinct flavor of chocolate that perfectly compliments the brew.

 

My eyes immediately fall on the little bag beside Kervin.

 

"I'm glad you enjoyed it." I realize my stoic facade is gone. Damn you, Kervin. You found the weakness I left back on Earth.

 

I try to confirm that it was chocolate he put in my tea. "What was that you put in it?"

 

"It's called Tarick Paste, and it's usually sold in these small cubes. It's a luxury good I was recently introduced to. I heard women enjoyed it, so naturally, I thought to bring you some. It slipped my mind yesterday; I hope you can forgive me?" He isn't subtle with the double meaning.

 

“How expensive is it?” I ask as I take another sip of my tea.

 

"Around 2 silver for the cube, I put in your tea." I almost do a spit take, but my mouth refuses to lose a single drop of the delicious beverage. "Would you care for another?" The devil offers me the bag.

 

It’s been 15 years since I had a piece of chocolate. I can’t pass up this opportunity.

 

I take the offered bag and fish out another cube of chocolate. I nibble on the side of the cube, tasting the rich flavor. It's comparable to the darkest chocolate I ever tasted back in my past life. I wonder if there are more sweets in Drey?

 

I put the rest of the cube in my mouth and savor the flavor as it melts, thinking about the sweets I had back on earth.

 

"You can eat it straight? That's way too sweet for me." Kervin's words pull me out of my chocolate covered daydreams. "You can have the rest of the bag if you want?"

 

“You think you can bribe me with, what did you call them again?” I ask.

 

"Tarick Paste, and it's not a bribe. We've been doing business for almost four years now, what're a few sweets between friends."

 

I set the bag of Tarick Paste next to me and look at Kervin with a severe expression. "We have known each other for a long time, but our relationship will never come between my family or master."

 

His confident smile fades away. “What did you decide?”

 

“I’ll keep using you for now.” He lets out a deep breath in relief. “I’ll need assurances for the future,” I interject before he can thank me.

 

“Of course, we can form a new contract right now.” He hastily agrees.

 

I lay out my terms. "From now, I want you to handle everything regarding Silver Herd and the army. I want you to do your best to keep them away from the village and my family. I know your superiors are going to ask you questions; I won't tell you to lie to them, but make sure they know I wish to remain anonymous right now."

 

“I can do that, anything else?”

 

“Just one more thing," I stand up and walk over to where he's sitting. I look down at him and stare into his eyes. "I want you to swear to me you will never betray my trust and always keep my interests in your heart." I don't include anything about our business relationship. If I force him to pay me more money for my goods, my merchant skills won't level. I need him to deal with the army's orders and supply me with the materials I need.

 

Kervin stretches out his hand towards me. I grasp it in a firm handshake, careful to apply the right amount of pressure without breaking his hand. "I, Kervin, agree to your terms. I will serve your interests and show you I deserve your trust."

 

I feel his Contract skill activate again; only this time, we both exchange wisps of experience. I watch a new skill form around my soul. Focusing on it, I can see that it is my own Contract skill.

 

“Congratulations on gaining the skill.” He rubs his chest. So, he can feel the difference too. “Our contract will be stronger with us both having the skill.”

 

I nod in agreement and move back over to my spot. Despite the one-sided terms, Kervin looks happier now that we have a new contract.

 

While I sip my tea, Kervin goes back into business mode. “Now that that is taken care of, you still need to tell me what you want me to do with your payment.”

 

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about the money he owes me. “We can continue with our previous arrangement. Use the coin to buy me the materials I need.”

 

“You want some of those herbs, right?”

 

“Devil’s Poke and Eathrosse, yes. I want ten bundles of each.”

 

“Are you aware of how expensive they are?” Kervin asks me.

 

"My mother warned me how expensive they are. Ten bundles of each should be around 22 gold. The other eight you can use to get me as much mithril as you can, preferably the same purity as last time." Hopefully, that will be enough for me to experiment with. I need to figure out how to combine everything to make engraving ink.

 

"Your mother knows how much they cost? I knew she had a few merchant skills, but I wasn't aware she was that knowledgeable."

 

“You shouldn’t underestimate my family.” I give him a cocky grin.

 

“You would think I know better by now.” He hangs his head and gives himself a pity chuckle before looking back up at me. “I’ll be back with everything as soon as possible.”

 

“What do you mean?” I ask.

 

"I told you yesterday; I was given a new assignment. My only two stops now are your village and Teeburn. I'm essentially your own personal merchant, now. First, I'll deliver your goods to the army, and then I just need to get my hands on everything you ordered. Depending on how hard it is to get everything, it might only take me two or three weeks to make it back here." That's good news for me and the village.

 

“Alright then,” I stand up and grab my chocolate bribe. “I better get back to work if you’ll be back that soon.” I move over to the cart I left here yesterday.

 

"I'm sure it won't be a problem for you," Kervin remarks as I start to push the cart towards Del's house.

 

I stop after a few feet and look back at Kervin, who's watching me leave. "This is your last chance, Kervin. Don't mess it up." His cheerful face turns to one of worry in a split second.

 

I turn back around and start pushing the cart forward again. "You won't regret it," He yells back at me.

 

It’s hard to keep myself from laughing out loud. Mother suggested that line to me this morning before I left. Maybe I should let mother deal with Kervin if he messes up again?

 

Pushing the cart back to Del's, I think about what I need to do next. Father is waiting for me back at home to take me logging for more Blacksmithing trees. Then tomorrow, I need to start the next batch of arrows.

 

Kervin never did ask me about my arrows design, I wonder if he noticed?

 

Oh well, I’m sure he’ll figure it out. I laugh to myself now that I’m out of sight.

 


 

Giovanni Turrini’s Point of view:

 

I finish going over the documents detailing this month's profits. The deliveries to Teeburn bring in a lot of coin, but our profit margin has only risen by 4%. The war has many people frightened and spending less. If we weren't delivering so many goods to the army, our profit margin would be down nearly 12%.

 

We’ll see if Kervin’s relationship with the general can help us in the future.

 

That reminds me. I look at Marshall, “Has there been any change recently?”

 

My bodyguard looks at his armguard that has seven magic gems embedded in its surface. Four of them are dark, signaling which of our operatives are out of range.

 

"It looks like he just made it back in range. Do you want to connect with him?" Marshall asks me.

 

I don't waste time answering him. I activate the ward runes on the side of my desk, sealing off the room. I lean to my side and push a panel that conceals a secret drawer that blocks magic from escaping it when closed.

 

I pull out the plate covered in intricate runes that lead to its center and a magic gem the size of a pomme. My father bought this communication tool three years before he retired. It can connect to smaller communication magic tools attuned to its signature as long as they're within 200 miles.

 

Magic tools like this are supposed to be reported to the kingdom, but my father paid to acquire it quietly. It cost him 2,000 gold coins to buy and another 300 for the seven smaller communication tools connected to it.

 

I adjust the device and send a signal to our operative, who is supposed to be watching the girl. It's only been around 50 hours since I last talked to him. He was supposed to observe her for a week before moving back in range to reporting what he learned.

 

I watch the crystal flash, confirming the connection has been made. “Report in, Four. The sun is moving backwards.”

 

"This is Four. The seasons don't match." We confirm each other's codes to make sure our signal wasn’t faked by someone else.

 

Now that we’re both authenticated, I can ask him what he’s doing. “Why aren’t you watching the village?” I growl into the magic tool.

 

"Apologies, boss, but I couldn't stay near the village." I can hear the frustration in his voice.

 

“And why was that!?” I exclaim.

 

“I was spotted.” I freeze in my seat.

 

Marshall moves next to me. “Four, explain yourself,” He commands.

 

We both hear him grumble on the other line. “It’s that monster you wanted me to watch over. Every time I got close to her; she would immediately focus on the area I was hiding.”

 

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Even Marshall looks dumbfounded by Four’s report. “How is that possible?” I ask him through the device.

 

"I don't know. I checked each of my magic tools, and everything should have been working perfectly. It was like every time she moved a certain distance from me; she noticed me immediately. After the third time, I decided to retreat." I slam my fist down on my desk.

 

Marshall puts his hand on my shoulder to calm me down before turning back to the communications tool. "Were you able to find anything else out before you retreated?"

 

"I'm not that incompetent. Luckily, she never inspected the areas I was hiding; I listened in on a few of her conversations before I left. Her name is Aaliyah, and she addresses her master as Del." Four reports to us.

 

“At least you were able to find out that much.” Every bit of information helps.

 

“That’s not all,” Four’s tone of voice becomes more serious. “Using my skills, I was able to observe her interaction with Kervin. She found out our interest in her and accused Kervin of betraying her. I don't know what skill she used, but she was able to intimidate all three of them in a matter of seconds. I estimate her level to be in the 60's already."

 

“And her age?” I hesitantly ask.

 

“Young, she has a lot of vitality for someone her age, so approximating her age is hard. My instincts tell me she’s not even 20 yet.”

 

Level 60, and she's not even 20 yet! Not even nobles can spur their child's growth to that degree.

 

“What do you want me to do?” Four asks.

 

I lean back in my chair, tilting my head towards Marshall. “What do you think about this?”

 

“I’m not the one your father left in charge,” He smirks at me.

 

“Let me rephrase that then, what do you think my father would do?”

 

Marshall raises his hand to his beard and runs his fingers through his hair. "He'd probably think of her as an investment. Whatever effort you put into her now, the more she'll payout in the future. Plus, it doesn't sound like you'd have to wait long before she turns a profit." I nod along with his assessment.

 

“You’re right. Four, I want you to go to Drey.”

 

“Ok, and do what?”

 

"I'll send you a letter for you to give to Kervin, naming you his third bodyguard. If you can't secretly get close to her, you'll have to do it out in the open. I also want you to protect Kervin; you should be able to handle the hidden threats he might run into."

 

"Understood, boss, I'll take care of it. Is that all?"

 

"Yes, you can go now," I tell him.

 

“Four, moving out.” The connection between our magical tools cuts out.

 

I carefully place the magical tool back in its hiding place.

 

I shift a few papers across my desk. “I want to be informed about everything Kervin asks Grey to gather for him.”

 

“It will be done,” Marshall responds to my left.

 

“And tell Grey to lower the prices he charges Kervin by 10%. We’ll keep this Aaliyah happy and make it easier for her to improve.”

 

“Sounds like a smart decision,” Marshall agrees.

 

"We'll get her to owe us a favor without her realizing it." I smile, leaning back in my chair.

 

This might just be what I need to compete with the big three.

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A note from kosnik4

4,900 words.

 

A little smaller than usual, and sorry that the post is so late.

 

Did you like the chapter? Tell me below!?

 

I hope you enjoyed it and as always, stay safe.


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kosnik4

Bio: Just love a good story.

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