Taking steady steps forward, I swing my sword in a horizontal slash.
Camden brings his sword up and blocks my strike. The sound of our wooden swords clashing reverberates across the village.
Our swords stay locked together, both of us looking for an opening.
I lean in and use my strength to push him back. Camden clenches his jaw and tries to match me. He takes a step back, and I gain the upper hand.
I take a step forward and swing my sword in a chopping motion. Camden again blocks my strike but is forced back.
With each of my swings, he's forced further back. I keep pressuring him, waiting for my chance.
His arms start to shake, and he doesn't block my next strike properly.
With a swish of my blade, I knock his sword wide and expose his unguarded body. I change my stance and send a stab straight at his gut.
I halt the tip of my sword an inch from his clothing.
“You got me,” Camden drops his sword and raises his hands in defeat. I lower my sword and the crowd watching us claps.
Over twenty people are braving winter's winds to watch us spar. We only use our stats, Sword Skills, and Sword Arts, and no other skills to keep things fair. Camden has the experience, but I match him with my higher physical stats.
“Did you ask me out here just to beat me up?” Camden playfully jokes while rubbing the wrist that was holding his sword.
"It's been a while since we sparred, and I was worried I might be getting rusty." I smile at him. I can't remember the last time I took the time to practice with the headman. I’ve spent almost all my time blacksmithing, and every second I'm not blacksmithing, I have other things I need to take care of.
“Doesn’t feel like you’re rusty. It feels like you’re much stronger than the last time we sparred.” He gives me a knowing look. Now that I think about it, how many levels have I gained since I last fought him? Was it two or maybe three?
Either way, my Strength and Dexterity have gone up almost 10 points each.
The fact of the matter is, I was rusty. I was able to push Camden back thanks to my stats, but I should've won quicker.
"I need to make more time to practice with you if it's ok?" I ask.
"It should be fine. Things have finally started to quiet down again; the hunters haven't spotted a chameleon spider in over three weeks." Even though he says that to me, I can tell it's meant for our onlookers.
"Even if I keep knocking you down?" I send him a challenging smirk. A few of the villagers closer to us laugh at Camden's forced smile.
“I won’t make it easy for you.” He returns my challenge.
I need to take some time to practice now that people have started to notice me. Who knows what tactics Silver Herd or the army will use to secure my cooperation?
“How about we practice in the morning every three days?” I offer Camden.
"I can do that," Camden gives me a reassuring smile. I used to worry about what Camden would do when he discovered my abilities, but he's been nothing but supportive. Maybe I'm worrying too much?
I wipe the sweat from my face before it chills in the wind. I can’t have Mana Skin activated with so many people watching me.
“Sir, sir!” Camden and I turn to a villager running towards us.
“What is it, Mathew?” Camden asks the man.
“Kervin just arrived at the village.”
"What," Camden is surprised by the news, and he isn't the only one. It's only been nineteen days since he left the village. I know he said he would try to get back early, but this is ridiculous.
Camden starts walking to the front of our village, followed by myself and most of the crowd watching us. When we make it to the front of the village, I see Kervin’s cart parked in the snow and his bodyguards shoveling the frost from their campsite.
I notice a fourth figure helping them set up and almost trip over myself when I get close enough to scan him with Sense Mana. I’m immediately put on guard when I can't see the mana inside his body. I'm forced to focus on him until finally, Sense Mana overcomes whatever is shielding him. He lights up like a Christmas tree before my eyes.
His swords, the two rings hidden underneath his gloves, boots, and belt buckle, and something inside the pouch attached to his belt all radiate mana signatures. Unlike the cheap magic tools I’ve examined so far, each piece of his enchanted gear has a magic gem embedded in it.
His right hand's ring is already activated, forming the barrier around him that kept his mana trapped around his body and hidden from my casual scan.
I try to blend in with the crowd to observe him more, but once we approach the campsite, his eyes seem to pick me out of the group instantaneously. He winks at me before turning back to his work.
Shit, there’s no way Kervin just happened to hire this guy!
I watch Camden walk over to Kervin and greet him. "Kervin, welcome back. This is quite the surprise; we weren't expecting you." The headman smiles at Kervin, but those with a keen eye could tell he knows something’s up.
"I'm surprised myself," Kervin directs his charming smile towards the crowd more than Camden. "My superiors at Silver Herd were devastated to hear about your food shortage. They told me to make frequent runs to make sure no one starves." The villagers become elated at Kervin's supposed magnanimity. Only the headman and I seem to realize his words are a smokescreen.
“I have less than usual, but I’ll be back in two weeks with more supplies.” A few people gasp at the news. "My men are busy prepping our campsite. Can I get some help unloading my cart?" Most of the people in the crowd are men who quickly volunteer.
Kervin directs the villagers to which crates are food. Camden orders the supplies to be taken to his house for distribution.
A few people still crowd Kervin asking him if he has any other goods to trade. "I'm sorry to disappoint, but I didn't bring much to trade this time other than the food. I need to discuss some private business with your headman, but you can come to see me tomorrow morning for any order requests."
I listen to Kervin politely shoo everyone away while keeping Sense Mana trained on his new bodyguard. The man is continually stealing glances at me.
Disappointed, everyone starts walking back to the village. A few people give me a curious glance for staying behind but choose not to question it.
Once everyone is out of sight, Kervin walks towards Camden and me. "You're here for Aaliyah, aren't you?" Camden accuses Kervin.
Kervin doesn't deny the accusation, "That may be true, but I can help your village while I'm here. If you don't mind, I have private matters to discuss with her.” The two men lock eyes, and a silent battle unfolds.
After a minute of intense stares, Camden is surprisingly the one to give in. “Would you like me to stay?” He offers to me.
“I’ll be fine, thanks for the concern.” He nods his head in understanding before walking back towards the village.
Now that we're alone, Kervin focuses on me. "We have a lot to discuss." He looks at me with a severe expression, but I need answers first.
“It can wait,” I walk past Kervin over to his new bodyguard. “Who are you?”
He doesn't look surprised by my approach and gives me a lighthearted smile. "The name’s Reel, miss. No need to be worried, I was assigned to Kervin by Silver Herd now that he's hauling precious cargo." I get the sense he's telling me the partial truth.
“Do you take me for a fool?” I don’t fall for his tricks and use Intimidating Shout in my voice. His other two guards flinch, but Reel doesn't so much as bat an eye at my display.
“Of course not, I would be the fool if I couldn’t recognize your potential. Silver Herd respects your request to do business solely through Kervin. You could say my job is to make sure all parties remain safe. I work for you as much as I do for Silver Herd.” His smile feels so reassuring, too bad for him Mental Resistance negates whatever skill he’s using.
I pretend to relax and even give him a small smile. “Really, I’m surprised you’re so forthcoming with information.”
Kervin walks next to me, and I notice his surprised look directed at Reel. “I was told you’ve spent your whole life in this village, if you have any questions for me or Silver Herd, I’d be happy to oblige.”
“Really, anything?” I give him a dubious look.
“Anything at all,” he confirms with a bigger smile.
“That’s so nice of you,” I pretend to be overjoyed. “In that case, what skill are you trying to use on me?” I drop my fake smile.
For once, Reel's smile fades away, and I stop feeling whatever compulsion skill he's trying to use. "I thought you said you would answer any of my questions," I say in a dry tone when he doesn't answer. "Alright then, next question. What do all those fancy magical items you have hidden do?" If my previous question threw him off, my second downright makes him nervous.
He stands in front of me, completely still and silent. His face is blank and betrays little emotion.
“Silent again, I see.” I walk past him and move over to the logs Kervin's group uses for chairs. I make it look like I want to sit down, but I really want to gain some distance from him.
"How about you tell me your level instead then?" I fold my hands in front of me, looking like a B movie villain. I'm ready to draw my sword if I have to. His eyes narrow, but he remains silent.
“I guess I don’t need you to tell me that.” I activate Sense Soul and quickly scan him.
His hands move to his daggers, but he doesn't make a move. He doesn't look significantly affected by my skill. I deactivate my skill after seeing everything I need. "Level 72, that's pretty impressive," I smirk at him.
Suddenly my hair stands on end, and I feel like I should flee. Mental Resistance helps me suppress my sudden sense of dread, but it can't nullify it altogether. Reel's face morphs into a vicious smile, and I can sense the blood lust surrounding him.
My hand moves to my sword, but the feeling vanishes before I can draw. Reel raises a hand to his face obscuring his expression. "Dear me, I almost lost control there." He lowers his hand, and his previous soothing smile is back on his face.
He looks at Kervin, who flinches. “I’m going to take a leak.” No one says anything as he walks into the woods and disappears from my senses.
I haven’t felt anything like that since master attacked me, only Reel’s bloodlust felt much more terrifying. I could tell he’s killed to earn his level.
I made a mistake; if he decided to attack me, I don't think I would've stood a chance against him. I tried poking an unknown monster, and I almost died for it. He has more than just ten levels on me; he has experience fighting other people. Could I even swing my sword at another human with the intent to kill?
“I apologize for his behavior,” Kervin slowly approaches me. He mirrors the same nervousness I felt against Reel. Does he think I would attack him?
I wanted Kervin to respect me, but I used fear to do it. I cast my eyes down at the ground. "It's fine, I got what I deserve for antagonizing him. He might have tried to use a skill on me, but I didn't feel any malice until I looked at his level."
I look up at Kervin. "I'm sorry, I did the same thing to you the last time you were here. I should've talked to you instead of threatening you and your guards. I can't use violence to solve my problems with Silver Herd or the army, I'm not strong enough to do that."
Kervin’s worried expression softens. “I’m thankful to hear you say that, but we’re both to blame for what happened. I let my greed overcome me, and I rushed to sell your goods to the army. Because of my hasty actions, I drew too much attention to us, now we have to deal with the consequences. You were right to be mad at me; even after my screwup, I made the same mistakes with my last delivery." Kervin sits down across from me.
“What happened,” I ask.
"After I went to Drey, I was assigned Reel as a bodyguard by Silver Herd. I know he was sent to watch me, but I couldn't turn him away. After you agreed to work with me, I wanted to earn back the money I lost last time I sold your goods to the army. I rushed there and demanded what I thought was a high price for your spears and arrows. It turns out your work is worth more than either of us expected."
“How much did you get?”
"I asked for 80 gold coins, and that's what they gave me."
“80!” I can’t believe he sold my work for nearly triple what he paid me.
"Yep, I was just as surprised as you are now. I thought to aim high and settle for 50 gold, but in the end, they were too happy to give me what I asked for. The general personally told me the arrows you made for them were good enough for level 75 archers. Though she didn't tell me how much your arrows are really worth, only that I underestimated them." He gives me an apologetic look.
I guess I never did explain my arrows to him. “I probably didn’t help you with that.”
A dark look crosses Kervin's face, and he rubs his neck. "It was an awakening for me. I realized what my actions have cost me in my haste. If I wasn’t so secretive with you, our confrontation might not have happened, and I wouldn't have gone to the army blind."
“We have been divided recently. Everything was easier when I was selling pots and pans.” I agree with Kervin.
"It's funny, I've been missing those days too. I have more coin in my pocket than I've ever had, and yet more things have gone wrong for me these last two months than in my entire merchant career. If something doesn’t change soon, I fear I might lose more than my coin.”
I see a fire in Kervin's eyes. "Even if I say that words only mean so much. Actions speak louder than words. Lurte, Ryiba, bring the crates over.” Kervin waves his hands at his bodyguards.
The two men nod, and each picks up a crate, bringing them over to Kervin and me. They open the boxes for me to see bundles of herbs in one and bars of mithril in the other. I see fifteen bundles of each of the herbs and 17 small bars of mithril. Isn’t this too much for 30 gold coins?
“I take it you noticed,” Kervin gives me his first genuine smile, slightly catching me off guard. “I decided to switch your share and my profits.”
“Does that mean there’s 50 gold worth of materials here?” I ask in disbelief. Kervin decided to pay me more after we agreed on a price!
Kervin nods in confirmation. “We need more transparency between us. You deserved more coin for what you sold me.”
“That’s incredibly generous of you.”
“I know what it’s like to have people undercut your goods. You can think of this as me showing my sincerity. Until we find out how much your goods are really worth, I'll bring you more materials based on how much I get from the army."
I’m left speechless. What happened to make him change so suddenly?
"I need us to be more open if we're to succeed. Going forward, I need you to tell me everything you can about your arrows.”
"I can do that, but I have to ask, why the rush? I'm happy you want to cooperate, but that doesn't explain why you came back so fast."
“I received another request from the general,” Kervin somberly says. “She wants you to make the single best arrow you can with 10 gold as a budget.”
"10 Gold for a single arrow, that's crazy! I can't make something like that."
“I’ll help you get whatever materials you need.” Kervin waves his hands in a grand gesture.
“That’s not the problem,” I frown.
"What do you mean?" Kervin asks me, concerned.
"I haven't worked with that many magical materials. Even if you help me get expensive materials, I have no idea how to use them. The composition of my arrows took me weeks of experimenting to perfect. To make the kind of arrow, the general wants would take me over a month to make and cost me tens of gold coins in materials. I can make more of the arrows I already sold you, but I'll have to turn down her request."
Kervin gives me a worried look. “This isn’t a request either of us can turn down.” He hangs his head.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“If I try to turn away a request from the great Emily Pitz, the best outcome I could hope for is to be fired from Silver Herd. What if you ask for help from your master?” He hopefully subjects.
I scan our surroundings again to make sure Reel isn't hiding nearby. I'm positive he isn't spying on us. "I'll ask master, but I don't want you to get your hopes up." Kervin gives me an uncomprehending look.
"I can't share secrets that aren't mine, but I'll tell you master probably can't help us." I break the bad news to him. Master told me about the times he failed working with magical materials.
“You’re not joking, are you?” He sounds like he’s grasping at straws.
I stand up, “Don’t worry just yet.” I try to sound confident. “If we can’t deny her request, we’ll just have to figure something out.” I start to walk out of his campsite.
“Where are you going?!” Kervin asks.
“To talk to my master. I’ll be back soon, hold onto my delivery until then.” I leave Kervin behind and run to master’s clearing.
Using Double Step, I quickly make it through the forest.
I scan our forge and find master resting on his favorite bench. He opens one of his eyes as I approach him. "Where have you been? The extra rest is appreciated, but I was starting to worry."
"Sorry to keep you waiting, but something came up," I apologize. I know master cares in his own way.
“Oh, what happened?”
I sit down on the closest bench and explain everything that happened with Reel and Kervin. Halfway through, master's passive mask fell away, and he sat up attentively listening to me explain.
After I explain everything, I ask master if he has any ideas.
"I can give you the names of some of the materials I tried to work with in the past, but I'm not sure if any of them are what you need. Unless you’re willing to spend the coin and purchase a variety of materials, I can’t think of anything else.”
"So, I'll have to leave it in Kervin's hands." Kervin might be able to get me some top-class materials, but who knows if he'll grab the type of materials I need to make a decent arrow.
“You can ask him to buy certain types of materials. You need a good strong metal for the arrowhead and a strong yet flexible alloy for the shaft.” Master points out a possible solution.
"I don't think that will work," I tell him. “Even if I give him the parameters I'm looking for, he can't see inside the metal like I can. If I ask for ore, he won’t be able to see how much magic is inside each specimen or how it interacts with other people’s mana. And if I ask for already forged ingots, not only do I face the same problem, but who knows what structural issues could be hidden inside the metal. You told me many magical metals are incredibly tricky to re-forge; I can't trust other's work."
“You make a good point,” Master rubs his chin. “And you can’t ask him to bring every raw material Silver Herd has to you.”
Master’s offhand remark reminds me of a possibility neither of us considered.
I'm stupid; because master and I are so used to staying hidden in our village, neither of us thought of the easiest solution. If Kervin can't judge which materials I need, I'll just have to do it myself!
"You make a good point, master. Kervin can't bring me everything, and I have to personally inspect their ore options before I decide what I need. The only option I have left is to have Kervin escort me to Drey and show me my options in person."
Master’s eyes widen in surprise. “You want him to take you to Drey!? You’ll leave the safety of the village?”
“I don’t think I have any other options. I told you I can't turn down the general's request."
“We can find another way,” Master’s face tenses.
“I don’t think we can. You didn’t see Kervin’s reaction when I told him I couldn’t agree to her request. I think something bad happened to Kervin when he went to the army. He didn’t tell me in words what happened, but he had the same look I had after I survived the Hobgoblin. I think his life was threatened.”
"I don't care about his life!" Master boldly proclaims. "You are the only one I worry about. If you leave the village, I can't protect you. You told me that this Reel fellow almost attacked you; how can I let you leave with them!" Master clenches his fists in frustration.
I can’t help but smile at master’s concern. "How are you going to protect me when you never leave your clearing? Are you going to go with me to meet Kervin?" I laugh at the idea, but master nods seriously.
“Of course, I’m going with you to meet them.”
"It means a lot that you said that, but that's a horrible idea. Reel is working for the boss of Silver Herd, everything he learns about us will be reported back to his higher-ups. As much as I would like you to go with me, we can’t let them learn anything about you.” I point out to him
“But what if he tries something again?”
“Reel never actually attacked me even after I looked at a part of his soul. I’m too important to Silver Herd for him to harm me. Now that I think about it, he would probably prioritize my safety over Kervin’s if it came down to it. You need to stay here, master.”
Master grits his teeth in frustration. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” He asks through his clenched teeth.
“Yes,” I firmly tell him. Standing up, I look into the distance. "I've always been worried about the outside world and people discovering my abilities, but I can't solve every problem hiding here. I need to do this!"
Master finally unclenches his jaw after he sees my resolve. “Ok, but I want you to promise me you’ll be careful.”
"I promise," I tell him. I make my way towards the forest path leading back to the village. "I'll stop by before I leave tomorrow," I say over my shoulder.
"Ok," Master sounds defeated. I wish I could stay and try to convince him everything will be ok, but now that I've made up my mind, I have a lot of preparations to make, including telling mother and father I'm going on a trip. If master was that opposed to me leaving, I'm afraid of breaking the news to mother.
I again use Double Step to quickly make my way through the forest and head back to Kervin's campsite. I was gone for maybe an hour, and they already have the snow cleared and a fire going. Kervin, Lurte, and Ryiba are sitting close to one another, snacking on some dried meat. My eyes travel past them and focus on Reel, who's watching my approach, noticing me long before the others.
His previous passive smile is back on his face. Remembering the bloodlust he's concealing behind his features makes the hairs on my neck stand on end.
When I get closer to the campsite, Kervin’s other bodyguards finally notice my approach and inform him that I’m back. He stands up, not concealing a look of hope now that I’ve returned. He gives Reel a sidelong glance before focusing solely on me.
“I’m glad you’re back! Was your master able to provide a solution to our problem?”
I shake my head, “No, master wasn’t able to come up with a solution.”
Kervin hangs his head in defeat. A small smile forms on my lips, “But I did.” Kervin and his bodyguards look invigorated by my news. Reel simply continues to remain in place, acting like nothing matters to him.
Kervin waits for me to explain myself. "I'm going with you to Drey." Finally, Reel's stone smile cracks, and he gives me a surprised look like the others.
“What,” Kervin asks like he didn’t understand what I just said.
I place my hands on my hips, giving them a confident pose. "It would take me months to teach you what I look for in my materials. If I'm to make a quality arrow for the general, I need to pick out my materials in person. That means I need you to escort me to Drey and take me to whoever you get your supplies from. After you escort me to Drey and help me get my materials, I can run back by myself and start figuring out how to work whatever materials I get."
“Even if I agree to take you to Drey, you want me to let you return to your village by yourself?” Kervin focuses on what he thinks is the most dangerous part of my plan.
“It will be fine,” I assure him. “You only know about my blacksmithing and merchant skills. I'm a very avid runner, and with my skills, I can make it back to my village in under two days if I'm by myself."
“If I’m taking you to Drey, I can escort you back home.”
"You forget something important; we don't have that much time. I don't know how fast your bivol is, but I'm guessing it takes around five days for you to take me to Drey. How many days has it been since you promised the General her arrow?"
"Nine days," he answers my question. After answering me, his face changes to one of surprise; he must have realized what I'm trying to tell him.
"It took you nine days to make it back to my village. I don't know how long you spent gathering the supplies for our village, but it couldn't have been longer than a day judging by how fast you made it back here."
"So, we take on another eight days for you to travel back to Teeburn once I'm done making the arrow. We'll waste another five days traveling to Drey, which means all our traveling will take up twenty-three days of the month. If I take two days to run back by myself, that leaves me exactly seven days to forge the arrow. We’re on a time crunch from here on out.”
“Either you agree with my plan, or you start thinking of an excuse for the general.” I present him with an ultimatum.
While Kervin thinks over everything I just told him, I make plans of my own. I painted a workable future to Kervin, but it's not that simple. It will take us at least a day to look over all the materials, and each delay we suffer cuts down on the time I have to complete the arrow.
“I see your point,” Kervin’s words draw me out of my thoughts. “We don’t have many options. I take it you want to leave tomorrow morning.”
“We should leave as soon as possible. You already promised to take orders from the villagers tomorrow morning, and I need time to prepare for the trip. I’ll be here as early as I can.”
“What about your materials?” Kervin asks, motioning to the two crates.
“I’ll take them to master in the morning. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to face tho one thing that can ruin my plan.”
I turn towards the village. “And what’s that,” Kervin worriedly asks.
“My mother,” I say in a serious tone.
I start walking back home. I pray to the gods, asking them to bless me for the battle to come.
Reel/ Four Point of View:
The other three look confused at Aaliyah’s back as she walks away.
So, her family is important to her. That's useful information to have.
"I'm going to take a leak." I get up and leave before Kervin can say anything. He has to know what I mean when I say that. It's no secret I'm sending information back to headquarters, but I doubt he could ever dream I'm able to communicate directly with the boss.
Judging by the position of the sun, I run in the direction of our headquarters. I activate the enchantment on my boots, causing me to levitate a few inches off the ground. Thanks to my boots, I can run faster, and I don't need to worry about leaving tracks behind.
I push my skills and stats to their limits. If I run in a straight line far enough, I can enter the boss's range.
It takes me twenty minutes before I stop up against a tree with a four carved into it. I pull my communicator out of my pocket and pour my mana into it. I alternate pulses of my mana, signaling I’m trying to reach him.
“Report in Four, the sun is moving backwards.”
"This is Four. The seasons don't match." I reply to my communicator.
"Why are you contacting me, Four? You should still be watching Kervin; you aren't due to report in until you head out of the village."
“Circumstances have changed, boss. Aaliyah is leaving the village for Drey.”
"She's leaving the village to purchase materials for the arrow she needs to forge. Apparently, she needs to inspect the materials herself to match the general's specifications. Not only that, but we're running out of time. I need you to contact Drey and have them ready to help her find the materials she needs.”
“I’ll have Marshall handle it immediately.”
“Sir,” I Hear Marshall confirm on the boss’s end.
“Anything else to report, Four?” The boss’s curious voice comes through my magical tool.
"The girl is monstrous," I tell him. "I don't know how she did it, but she was able to see past my magical tool that hid the magic signatures on my body. She pointed out each of my hidden items, including the communicator, which has almost no signature when it's not in use. Then she used a skill that put even me on edge, I almost attacked her." I report in a dry tone.
“You what! Not a hair is to be harmed on her head, do you understand? What caused you to lose your composure?” He shouts through the device.
“I think she used an identification skill on me, only it didn't feel like any skill I've felt before. She was able to see my exact level, meaning her skill level was either extremely high, or it's a tier 5 skill."
Only silence comes through my communicator.
“Are you sure?” The boss finally asks.
“I would stake my life on it.” I confidently reply.”
“Understood, make sure to remove any nuisances you might encounter in Drey. If you need any cleanup, contact me, and I'll send Three to take care of it. Aaliyah is to have nothing but the best experience in Drey and dealing with our company. You can return to Kervin now."
"Four signing out." I stop supplying the communicator with my magic, and it goes silent.
I pocket my tool and turn back towards the village. The next few days will be perfect for observing Aaliyah better. She's young, has a high level, and already has a tier 5 observation skill. What other secrets is she hiding?
I can’t wait to find out!