“How do you deal with having a sore ass all day?” I roll onto my side and complain to Kervin.
“My cushion helps a little, but you eventually just get used to it.” He tells me while keeping his eyes on the forest path.
"Maybe I should invest a few stat points into Endurance," I grumble under my breath.
“That won’t help you in the least.” I turn over and face my new unwanted best friend. Reel chuckles at the murderous look I give him. As usual, he doesn’t look deterred by my open hostility. “I’ve heard of warriors with defense builds complaining about the same thing. Kervin’s right, you’ll just have to suck it up.” Reel laughs even harder at me.
“Like your mom,” My rebuttal causes him to choke. Who would have thought a middle school comeback would be so effective.
Reel narrows his eyes at me and goes back to watching my every movement. I roll over facing away from him but hiss in pain as Kervin hits another divot in the dirt road.
We’ve been traveling for three days now, and I quickly realized how much I loathe traveling by cart. After we left the village, it only took me three hours before I tried to bail out of the cart and walk with Lurte and Ryiba. Sadly, as soon as I hopped out of the cart, I was asked to get back in.
Kervin and his men are taking this escort seriously, despite my level of strength. I’m only allowed outside the cart during our pitstops or to water the flowers when the urge arises. Kervin said I might be allowed to walk beside the cart when we leave the forest, though. Apparently, bandit activity has shifted to remote roads like this one, since the war began.
Being confined to this shaking cart has left me irritated the whole trip. I tried working on my Meditation skill, but every pothole Kervin hits jolts me out of my concentration. The only skill I've managed to work on is Mana Skin, and the only thing I've learned is a flaw with my skill.
Mana Skin protects my body with two barriers of mana. After repeated use, I've learned that my barriers are great against blunt force trauma and temperature but weak against piercing attacks. Now I know about another weakness I have to watch out for.
The continuous vibrations from the cart can seep through my mana shields. Just like when I'm standing next to the forge, and I can still feel a portion of the heat, the vibrations are reduced but still affect my shielded body.
Mana Skin is apparently weak against continuous assault. Because of the vibrations, the cost to keep Mana Skin activated has tripled. Because of the new expenditure, I can't keep my skill activated all day like I usually do. I need to keep enough mana set aside if we encounter any danger, so I can only keep Mana Skin activated for four hours each day.
The four hours I guard myself is the only time the vibrations are reduced enough for me to meditate correctly. I tried keeping Mana Skin activated while I sleep, but once I nod off, the skill would deactivate, and the sudden exposure to the cart’s vibrations would immediately wake me back up.
Being sleep-deprived, sore, and bored are only the beginnings of my problems. Reel has taken it upon himself to be my personal travel companion.
Because of the time crunch, we haven't stopped since we left the village. The bivol only needs to rest for a few hours a day, keeping us moving continuously. Kervin does most of the driving, but one of his guards takes over when it's his turn to rest in the back with me. There's always a guard on either side of the cart, and the fourth person rotates a rest schedule in the back with me. While Kervin, Lurte, and Ryiba prefer to rest, Reel uses every chance he gets to make small talk with me.
Even when he’s walking beside the cart, he watches me closely like I’m going to escape as soon as I get the chance.
"What are you thinking so deeply about?" Reel asks beside me.
“When I should run away from your pestering,” I joke.
“You’re welcome to try. I’m sure I could use the short exercise.”
“Will you stop messing with her already. It’s time for us to switch.” Lurte says from our right.
“Too bad, I was just about to relax to,” Reel gracefully vaults over the side of the cart and switches places with Lurte. How does he still have so much energy? I haven’t seen him sleep once this whole trip.
“Excuse me, Miss Aaliyah.” Lurte carefully crawls into the cart and gets comfortable underneath the canvas. He rummages through his belongings inside the cart and withdraws his sleeping sack.
I'm amazed at how quickly he can get comfortable and easily fall asleep. I'm sure I could knock myself out by looking at my soul, but I can't take the chance that Reel would notice something. I look over at him and see him still watching me with his creepy smile.
“Ignore him, Aaliyah,” I whisper to myself. I should focus on something else, something productive.
It’s been a while since I looked at my status page.
LV: 63 Experience: 413,030/ 514,704
Status Points: 0
Meditation (LV78), Running (LV73), Blacksmithing (LV67), Axe Skills (LV55), Hammer Skills (LV55), Cleaning (LV50), Mining (LV48), Chanting (LV47), Drawing (LV46), Cooking (LV38), Trading (LV38), Dagger Skills (LV31), Wood Carving (LV31), Acting (LV30), Sword Skills (LV26), Sewing (LV24), Pugilist Skills (LV4), Spear Skills (LV2)
Sense Mana (LV78), Double Step (LV60), Charm (LV50), Measurement (LV46), Hammer Arts (LV40), Axe Arts (LV36), Writing (LV32), Intimidating Shout (LV31), Mathematics (LV30), Increase price (LV17), Lower Price (LV17), Dagger Arts (LV12), Sword Arts (LV10), Steady Hands (LV10), Marching (LV5), Gourmet (LV2), Shout of Valor (LV1),
Expel Mana (LV60), Mana Manipulation (LV53), Precise Strike (LV37), Double Strike (LV35), Weighted Strike (LV26), Flash Step (LV18), Contract (LV2)
Inject mana (LV49), Mana Skin (LV49), Mental Resistance (LV47), Extract Mana (LV28), Magic Blacksmithing (LV20)
Sense Soul (LV33)
Increased Skill Levels
Blacksmithing (LV66-67) 6,650exp
Hammer Skills (LV55) 2,750exp
Drawing (LV45-46) 4,550exp
Trading (LV38) 1,900exp
Wood Carving (LV30-31) 3,050exp
Sword Skills (LV26) 1,300exp
Double Step (LV60) 6,000exp
Measurement (LV46) 4,600exp
Hammer Arts (LV39-40) 7,900exp
Increase price (LV17) 1,700exp
Lower Price (LV16-17) 3,300exp
Sword Arts (LV9-10) 1,900exp
Steady Hands (LV8-10) 2,700exp
Expel Mana (LV60) 9,00exp
Mana Manipulation (LV53) 7,950exp
Precise Strike (LV36-37) 10,950exp
Double Strike (LV35) 5,250exp
Weighted Strike (LV25-26) 7,650exp
Flash Step (LV18) 2,700exp
Contract (LV1-2) 450exp
Inject mana (LV49) 12,250exp
Mana Skin (LV48-49) 24,250exp
Mental Resistance (LV46-47) 23,250exp
Extract Mana (LV27-28) 13,750exp
Magic Blacksmithing (LV20) 5,000exp
Sense Soul (LV33) 16,500exp
Skill Experience: 187,250exp
Crafting Experience: 37,661exp
Fighting Experience: 0exp
Total experience Gained: 224,911exp
Almost to level 64, I smile to myself.
“Looking at something good? Did you gain a level, or are you close?” My smile fades when I hear Reel’s question.
Damn, why does he have to be so perceptive!? I dismiss my status page and send him a foul look.
The offender just continues walking next to the cart, smiling like he doesn’t have a care in the world. I need to knock him down a peg. The next time he steals a look at me, I mouth five words to him, 'My mother will get you.'
Reel freezes mid-stride and looks away from me, hiding his expression. What did mother say to him before we left the village?
Four days ago, after I left Kervin’s campsite, I went home to inform my family I was going on a trip. I was already expecting to receive a lecture and prepared myself to defy their wishes if need be, but I wasn’t ready for the reactions I got.
"I agree with Del; this sounds like the merchant's problem. You shouldn't have to leave the village." Dad was surprisingly the one to deny my departure while mother just stood there, thinking over everything I explained to them.
I tried to convince him there was no other way, but he remained firm.
Everything changed when mother stepped in. “You’ll only be gone for eight days, right?” Mother gives me a pointed look.
I was caught off guard by her sudden question and could only nod in confirmation.
What she said next stunned both my father and me. "I think we need to support her, dear. She said she would be back relatively quickly, and I don't think she was exaggerating the danger of offending the general. She can't stay in the village forever."
“Why can’t she!?” It was one of the few times I’ve seen dad interrupt mom.
Mother just gave him an understanding look. “We both knew she would eventually outgrow our little village. That said, she isn’t leaving forever just yet. She’s just going to buy materials in Drey and come back home. This is an important milestone for her.” Dad was never good at arguing with mother.
Father agreed to support my decision, and both said they would see me off the next day.
The following morning, I gathered the last bit of my supplies and moved my materials to Del’s clearing.
Master wanted to see me off too, but after telling him my parents were enough, he reluctantly agreed to stay home. He told me three times not to trust Silver Herd before he hugged me goodbye, which caught me off guard.
By the time I made it back to Kervin's campsite, my parents were already hounding him to keep me safe. Besides my parents, Camden and his wife had also shown up along with a quarter of the village. Many were shouting well wishes and telling me to come back safe and sound. They were throwing so many flags at me; I wouldn't be surprised if a dragon attacked us on our trip.
It was during all the commotion I noticed something peculiar.
Father continued to hound Kervin about my safety while mother slipped off to the side. She walked up to Reel and had him lean in so she could whisper something in his ear. I couldn’t hear their conversation because of the crowd, and my mother was facing away from me.
All I know is whatever she said to Reel smacked the smile from his face and made him go pale. Reel tried to recover, but his smile stayed strained until we left.
I tried to ask mom what she said to him, but she only told me, “I Just wanted to make sure he was aware of how precious you are to us, and that he’s to take good care of you on your trip.”
I spent the first few days of our journey trying to think of whatever mother could’ve possibly said to him to make someone like Reel feel nervous. I know mother could be frightening to me as a parent, but I can't think of a single thing she could have said to a spy/assassin above level 70 to throw him off his game.
I wonder if it’s true mothers can rain hellfire on their enemies?
Knowing my mom, I wouldn’t put it past her.
Now, every time I mention my mother during Reel’s small talk, he changes subjects, avoiding any questions that involve her.
I lay back and try to remove the tension from my body, surrendering myself to the shaking cart. I shouldn't waste my time speculating about mother. She does her best to support our family, and I trust her completely.
I close my eyes and focus on Sense Mana the best that I can.
I can't fully use my skill without entering meditation, but I can use it to see beyond the ocean of trees surrounding us. The mana flowing around us is tranquil. Steady blues from the snow and winter winds, dark brown slowly shifting in the earth, and each tree has its own unique mana flow, making a beautiful shifting painting in my eyes.
This world is truly amazing. Untouched by an industrial revolution and filled with power, few can truly tap into.
The forest is silent as we pass through it, but my extraordinary sight shows me the forest's hidden animals. Small rodents burrowing through the snow-covered ground and multiple types of birds tucked away in their winter homes.
I'm reminded of when I was little, and I asked dad why the birds don’t migrate during winter. Dad didn’t know what the word migrate even meant. I explained the word to him, and he ended up chuckling at my question.
He taught me most non-magical animals have evolved to stay in place rather than change their habitats with the seasons. Father couldn't scientifically explain why, but I bet it’s due to the high mana zones scattered around the world. I'm sure there have to be high mana zones in the atmosphere, and any migrating birds flying through that minefield most likely died out.
Only magical beasts could survive the harsh conditions mana zones create. Though, according to master, mana zones are teeming with materials every crafter dreams about. And as luck would have it, there's a mana zone close to our village.
Mother made me promise not to go into the mana zone during the middle of winter, however, she didn't say anything about exploring it after spring arrives. Kervin can buy me all sorts of materials, but that would cost me bags of gold coins just to experiment with my crafting in the future.
I'll soon have to find a substitute for the chameleon spider carapace. The hunters haven't spotted a spider in over three weeks, and at the rate I'm turning out arrows for the army, I'll use up my supply of carapace in two more months or so.
This trip isn’t only for me to find materials for the general’s arrow. I need a better understanding of the materials Silver Herd has on hand if I can’t find a local substitute for the carapace.
Time slowly slips by as I scan our surroundings, and I grow increasingly bored.
I shuffle closer to the front of the cart, so I can talk to Kervin without disturbing Lurte’s rest. "What do you do to pass the time? The boredom is killing me."
Kervin chuckles, "Usually, a merchant's route has more stops than this. We only stop at your village for a certain reason, well two reasons now. Other than your village, all of my previous stops were within a day or two from each other.”
"That's interesting to know, but you didn't answer my question. What do you do to pass the time while steering the cart all day?" I ask again.
“Well, I prefer to sing to pass the time. It even helps the bivol move faster.” Kervin looks over his shoulder and gives me a smile before turning back to the road.
“Is it a skill you have,” I question him.
“Not even close,” Ryiba cuts in. "It isn't a skill that makes the bivol move faster; they're trying to escape from his singing."
“You’re just jealous that I have talent.” Kervin scoffs at Ryiba.
“Talent in making a person’s ears bleed,” Ryiba quips.
I can't help but giggle at their banter; it reminds me of when I was little and argued with Richard. Maybe if I'm lucky, I'll see him in Drey.
“It appears you’ll have your excitement in a moment.” Reel’s ominous words silence Kervin and Ryiba.
Reel continues to stand next to the cart, but he's keeping his eyes trained on a section of the forest a hundred feet in front of us.
Listening to Kervin and Ryiba made me lose my concentration. I refocus Sense Mana towards the area Reel is watching. The hidden monsters’ mana signatures light up in my eyes.
“That’s what you consider entertainment?” I frown at Reel.
"Better than walking down a lonesome road, isn't it." He smiles to himself.
“What are you two talking about?” Kervin asks with a hint of fear in his voice.
“It’s just six goblins hiding up ahead.” I point out their position to Kervin.
Kervin nods in understanding. “If it’s only six of them, then Reel and Ryiba can handle it without bothering Lurte.” His two bodyguards draw their weapons and walk directly in front of the bivol, guarding them against the goblins.
"Hold up just a minute," I say to everyone. I grab my sword resting on top of my bag and quickly hop out of the moving cart.
“What are you doing?” I ignore Kervin and run up to his guards.
Ryiba looks at me with a worried expression, while Reel seems happy to see me. "Miss Aaliyah, please return to the cart," Ryiba asks me.
"Sorry to disappoint you, but that's not happening." I step in front of the two and draw my sword. "You've kept me locked in that cart the last three days, and it's driving me insane. I'll take care of the goblins; I'm sure he can step in if something should go wrong." I send a pointed look at Reel.
I ignore Kervin and Ryiba’s pleas for me to return to the cart and dash ahead of the moving bivol. I scan the surroundings for any other hidden goblins but only spot the six waiting in ambush.
I slow down when I get closer to their hiding spot and calmly walk towards them. When I'm this close, I can see the mana inside their weapons, helping me identify them, four wooden spears and two stone knives, nothing to worry about.
Being the goblins that they are, they all rush out of their hiding spots as soon as I reach a few feet away from them. I'm reminded of the hoard of goblins we faced in the forest, and the scene in front of me is almost comical in comparison. Not even one of the goblins is a hob.
I wait for the closest goblin to enter my striking range before I step forward and flick my sword in a quick slashing motion. I ignore the goblin as it falls to the ground grasping at its throat.
I don't want to get blood on my clothes, but I can't activate my swords flames with Reel watching me.
I pivot on my front leg and cut open the next goblin's stomach with a horizontal slash. The goblin collapses, screaming as it holds its spilling entrails.
I notice a goblin to my left freeze in place, watching his tribesmen die. A goblin to my right tries to stab me with his spear while I'm looking at his comrade, but I easily deflect his weak strike with my sword. Before the goblin can recover his balance, I remove his head from his shoulders.
I jump back before any of the blood can spray onto my clothing.
The goblin to my left is now paralyzed with fear along with the goblin furthest away from me.
The third remaining goblin snarls at me; he is the last goblin with the will to fight. He brandishes his stone knife and charges at me in a frenzied manner. The goblin waves his knife in his left hand, cutting the air in front of him like a madman.
As soon as the goblin is close enough, I bring my hind leg up and deliver a devastating kick to its exposed head. I feel the goblins skull crack under the strength of my kick. The goblin collapses to the ground, unmoving.
I glance at the remaining two goblins, and they flinch backward. Both drop their weapons and turn to run.
I see a flash of metal to my side, and I activate Flash Step to move out of the way. Reel is standing close to where I just was. He ignores my wary look and walks over to the two goblins that tried to run away. Each has a dagger embedded where their spines meet their skulls.
From where Reel was standing and the goblins' position, I realize his daggers would never have hit me, though they would’ve come close.
"Why'd you step in?" I ask him as he yanks his blades out of the goblins. Not a single drop of blood sticks to Reel's enchanted blades.
“Why’d you let two of them escape?” He sheathes his blades and retorts with a smile.
“They’d given up already. Why would I kill a fleeing enemy?”
Reel slowly walks closer to me. I grip my sword tighter in my hands. “You would give up on experience just because they decided to flee? They’re goblins, roaches, the trash of the world. You’d show mercy to them?” He asks, standing three feet in front of me.
I take a small breath and meet his powerful gaze. “Life is a precious thing; I don’t feel the need to snuff it out for no reason.”
“Then what would’ve happened if those two did escape and came back as hobs?” Reel continues to challenge my conviction.
“Then I would end them the same way I would to any other threat. But how would you know what they would do, are you a god?” My question surprises him.
I take a step forward. "For all you know, I put the fear of humans into them. They would've disappeared into the forest, never to be seen again. I stand by my convictions. I'll defend those I care about, I'll hunt for food and materials, but I'll never kill merely for the sake of experience. Everything deserves a chance to live." I channel a sliver of my mana into my sword as I flick it, removing the blood from my blade. I sheath my sword and turn away from Reel, walking back to the waiting cart, listening to Reel's manic laughter behind me.
I refuse to let that man shake me.
I silently climb back into the cart, ignoring Kervin and Ryiba’s looks of disbelief. I lay down and close my eyes.
I don't want to admit it, but a part of me is disappointed. I don't feel good about killing the goblins, just empty inside. They attacked me, but their deaths felt so pointless. Reel talking about experience, I bet I didn't even earn 500 experience killing those weak goblins.
But I can’t deny I was hoping for a challenge, something to make their deaths meaningful.
I feel the cart start to roll forward again, as I ponder these conflicting feelings.
A day and a half later, and I can finally see Drey's walls growing bigger as we approach them.
We left the forest a day ago, and the trip became much smoother. Endless trees opened up, and I saw a new world. My entire life, I've stayed in our village surrounded by trees.
We traveled next to the first river I’ve seen in this world and past snow-blanketed hills. I finally saw new landscapes for the first time in fifteen years.
Kervin wanted me to stay in the cart, but I convinced him to let me walk for a few hours each day. Right now, I’m in the cart, but surely I can get out once we enter the city.
"What do you think, Aaliyah, amazing, isn't it?" Kervin asks me when he notices me staring at the growing walls.
"It's quite a sight," I softly respond. As we approach, the enormity of the city's walls becomes more apparent.
I’d say the walls are at least 50 feet high, made from massive blocks of stone. The wall is a testament to what people can do without machinery. Though the wall's appearance is breathtaking, it's the wall's insides that truly captivate me.
There're no secret enchantments or anything like that, but the wall is saturated in mana. Each massive stone that makes up the wall's foundation has its own mana signature, meaning magic played a large part in their construction. Some blocks give off the same signatures while others stand out due to being one of a kind.
The patchwork of mana must be from all the mages who've helped build the wall and maintained it over the years.
“It’s beautiful,” I say to myself.
"Drey's ruler does a good job keeping its walls maintained, only Blaiton and the regional lord’s castle can boast of having a superior defense this side of Olebert.” Kervin points out to me.
We continue on our path leading towards the nearest gate. We pass by fields covered in snow but only a few farmhouses. “Does everyone live inside the city? I thought there would be more houses out here.” I point out the oddity.
“The houses you see out here are on properties leased from the city's lord. A family will lease the land for a few years and give a percentage of their profits to the lord. The family who leases the land is in charge of managing their fields. Families who own leases compete with one another for the best farmers. The houses you see are onsite housing for the workers. While a farmer's family stays inside the city, the farmers stay here for as long as their contract states." Kervin explains.
"Wouldn't it be better for the farmer's families to live closer to the farm?” I question.
"No one wants to live outside a city," Reel says off to the side.
“What does that mean?” I ask.
Kervin explains to me. "Living outside a city is dangerous; you have to deal with monsters and bandits. Cities have guards that keep the peace. Almost every person tries to move to a city if they're able to."
“I never noticed anyone in our village talking about moving away,” I retort.
Kervin laughs, "That's because your village is an oddity. Your village has its own healer and an accomplished blacksmith. With me regularly stopping by, your village has the amenities only a town or city could offer. Even with the danger you've recently faced, I doubt many consider leaving your village."
“I wasn’t aware we were that lucky. I assumed all villages were like ours.”
“People rarely notice how much they have until they see those who don’t.” Kervin offers a bit of wisdom to me. I nod in understanding; going from 21st century Earth to Yurilia made me realize everything I took for granted in my past life.
We travel around the city's wall until we finally reach a gate leading into the city proper.
There are few people trying to enter the city, mostly other merchants bringing in goods. While we’re waiting for the line to move forward, I examine the gate leading into the city. While the wall is made up of a patchwork of magical signatures, the whole gateway oozes a single strong magical signature. Many people must have helped build the wall, but a mighty mage single handily made the gate and the immediate walls around it.
While I'm admiring the work of a strong earth mage, we finally make it to the inspection area. A few guards in armor and fur coats flag us over.
The guard who flagged us over looks at Kervin's bivol before giving him a friendly smile. "Your bivol look like shit, Kervin. Didn't you leave the city nine days ago? Hey Lurte, hey Ryiba.” The guard addresses each of Kervin’s guards.
“Here’s my identification, Maz. Let us through; we've been traveling in the cold for a while now." Kervin clearly knows the guard.
“Obviously, you’ve been coming and going a lot more recently.” He looks over to me. “And what’s with the girl, got yourself another new bodyguard?” The man joyfully laughs at his own joke.
“I’m doing a favor for a friend. She has business in the city but will only be staying for a little while.” Kervin downplays our relationship.
“Is that so. Is this your first time to Drey?” The guardsman offers me a sincere smile, unlike Kervin's business smile and Reel's fake smile.
“It is, I’m looking forward to seeing the city.” I return his smile to make a good first impression.
“Then let’s get you going then.” The guard turns back to Kervin. “Five people then, minus your residence pass and Silver Herd credentials, I need 6 large bronze.” He holds his hands out to Kervin.
Kervin pulls a small coin bag and fishes out the money for the guard.
After Kervin hands over the coins, Maz, the guard, waves us through. As we start to roll away, Maz yells at Kervin, "I have a day off in two days, I'll stop by your place, and we can get a drink." Kervin just waves his hand goodbye. Judging by Maz’s face, he took that gesture as a sign of agreement.
And just like that, we entered the city of Drey.
I shiver in excitement; I can’t wait to get my hands on some new magical materials.