Sandra's Point of View:
It's nice to see Aaliyah hasn't changed that much in the last five years. Watching Richard fail to catch her reminds me of the good old days before leaving the village; only Aaliyah is much bigger now.
She was in her growth period when we left, and it's a little unreal to see her taller than me now. Like Richard, she gained her father's height and looks to be only slightly shorter than her brother now. But that is only the most apparent change in Aaliyah's physique.
With the grace of a professional dancer, she twirls just out of Richard's reach. He doesn't seem to notice because of how worked up he is but as someone watching off to the side, I can see how easily she is evading him.
What level have you reached, Aaliyah? The question keeps repeating itself over and over inside my head.
In father's notes, he briefly mentioned her impressive growth rate and contributions to the village, but he always left out concrete details.
I've already sensed a part of her Mana pool with my spell, but I doubt that was all of it. She broke my detection spell without any formal training, which had to cost her quite a bit of mana. No way she could've broken my spell if she was only casually studying magic.
I'd hate to see her leave after we just reunited, but I feel I have to suggest she take an apprenticeship under a mage in Drey. After years of study in the city, I can now see just how monstrous her talent truly is. It would be a crime if she didn't maximize her potential.
I'll wait a few weeks before I bring up the subject with her.
"Tired already? Someone's been slacking in Drey," Aaliyah turns in place and cheekily pokes fun at Richard, who is slowing down and trying to catch his breath.
"Shut up; we've been traveling the last three days. Give me a minute, and I'll show you who's been slacking," Richard talks big, but I can see the despair slowly building in his eyes. He knows he won't be able to catch his sister no matter how hard he tries.
Unaware of her brother's inner turmoil, or maybe just intentionally, Aaliyah goes in for the kill. "Yeah, I know how hard it is to travel. I left the village this morning and have been running all day."
My jaw slackens, and poor Richard chokes upon hearing Aaliyah's offhand remark.
"You ran here?" I ask in disbelief, drawing Aaliyah's attention away from a floundering Richard.
"Of course, how else would I get here?" She looks at me like that's the most obvious answer.
"And you started this morning?" I ask for clarification.
Aaliyah looks around in confusion before slowly nodding her head in confirmation. She doesn't seem to realize why that's such a surprise to us.
"We're still three or four days away from the village," I point out in an exasperated manner.
Aaliyah looks at our bivol, who despite the commotion around it, is still slowly trudging forwards, dragging our cart down the trail without us steering it. "I'd say seven or more by the looks of your bivol," she jokes, missing my point entirely.
"I mean, you're saying you covered that much ground in only a single day." I'm finally forced to spell it out for her.
A look of realization flashes across her face, "Oh, I'm sorry, I've gotten more used to everyone watching me run around the village, and no one questions how fast I am anymore. Now I see why you're so surprised, but don't feel too bad, though. I thought it would take me maybe a day and a half to reach Drey, but I've been crushing my own expectations all day." Aaliyah explains with the biggest smile on her face.
Gods! How much Stamina and physical stats does someone need to run that far and fast. I spare Richard a sidelong glance and see that he's gone pale.
Taking a better look at Aaliyah, I now spot the signs that she's invested more heavily in her physical stats than I once predicted.
I thought she could outmaneuver Richard because he started investing his status points differently when he was promoted to being a foreman under his boss in Drey. He needed more managing skills that worked best with higher levels of Mind, Senses, and Dexterity. Richard was so proud when he went from manual labor to learning more about design and managing a whole crew of workers.
I thought that explained how Aaliyah was able to dance circles around him, but I was way off the mark.
Aaliyah is wearing form-fitting clothing, and now that I'm looking closely, I can see hints of her muscles hidden under the fabric. Her skin looks flawless, and the glow coming off of her skin is the brightest I've ever seen.
How is this possible? She's somehow continued her magic studies while focusing on a physical build at the same time.
"Sandra!" Aaliyah yells my name, pulling my mind out of my thoughts.
"What?!" I quickly ask, not realizing Aaliyah was trying to talk to me.
"You zoned out on me; everything ok?" Aaliyah asks me, concerned.
"I'm sorry," I apologize to my friend and mentally refocuses myself. I have a million questions for her. "What were you saying?"
"I was asking why the two of you were here. Are you sure you're ok?" She gives me a concerned look.
A small smile crosses my face. "You're the one who surprised us. Why were you heading to Drey?"
Aaliyah looks surprised that I flipped the question back on her. "To find you guys, of course! Why didn't you send a message by hawk letting us know you guys were coming home?" Aaliyah looks accusingly at the two of us.
I'm once again surprised by the force behind her eyes. Aaliyah isn't using a skill on us, but it feels like her presence has an intangible weight behind it when she focuses on me.
Richard finally stands up straight, only to flinch back when Aaliyah shifts her gaze to him. When she looks back to me, Richard secretly sends me a pleading gesture when Aaliyah isn't looking at him. Sorry honey, but you brought this on yourself. "Yeah, Richard, why didn't we send a note back to the village?"
Aaliyah shifts all her attention to her brother, who immediately starts to flounder after I throw him under the cart. "Well, you see… I got swindled… paid way too much for the cart." Richard admits in a dejected manner.
Seeing her brother's pained look, Aaliyah pulls back and gives Richard a sympathetic smile. "How bad did they get you for?" She asks.
Richard pouts but admits to how he spent most of our traveling money. "So, this shitty merchant talks up how amazing this cart is," he gestures to the slowly moving wagon. "Says how any beast can pull it. He didn't mention any beast can pull it but only when it's empty. After everything was packed, and I invited over a merchant specializing in mounts and pack animals. He breaks the news to me; I need a bivol to pull that much cargo!" Richard kicks the ground in a huff.
"And being low on money, you were forced to purchase that sad thing over there," Aliyah guesses the end to Richard's story while looking at the beast that's shuffling forward like a zombie.
"You got it, it was either scrape money from our other funds to buy a bivol, or Sandra said I would have to pull the cart. Believe it or not, the bivol we got wasn't the merchant's worst one." Richard rubs the back of his head and forces a laugh.
"Did he try selling you a dead one? Anything worst than that would be considered jerky for the road." Aaliyah jokes, earning a more sincere smile from her brother.
"Now that I look back on it, the bivol was on its side and stank worst than the others." Richard brings his hand to his chin and acts like he's deep in thought. We all share a laugh at the situation Richard had gotten us into.
"So, that's why you guys didn't send word back to the village. You had a lot of us worried there."
I stop laughing; why would they be worried about us? Then it clicks that Aaliyah still hasn't told us why she was going to look for us in Drey. "Why the rush to find us, Aaliyah." I interrupt the two siblings that are still chuckling together.
Aaliyah looks at me with a complicated look on her face. "You said you were on the road for three days," she once again dances around my question.
"Stop stalling and tell us," I put my foot down when it looks like she's about to avoid my question again.
Aaliyah takes a deep breath and sighs. "Fort North Ridge has fallen. Scholl is heading towards Drey." She says in a soft voice.
Richard stops laughing and turns pale again. I can feel the blood drain from my face; I'm probably mirroring Richard's slack-jawed expression perfectly.
"No way," Richard mumbles.
I find it hard to believe as well, but Aaliyah's downcast expression says it all.
"I bet the fort fell the day after you guys left the city, and it took a little while for the information to spread around. You picked the best time to leave. Some people have all the luck." Aaliyah grumbles out that last part.
"Then, that means you were coming to save us?" Richard asks his sister.
Aaliyah nods her head. "The whole area is in turmoil, and I was worried you guys might need help. I'm the fastest in the village, so I volunteered to go to the city and check up on you and see how the city is responding. I'm so happy you guys made it out safely," in one quick movement, Aaliyah is in front of her brother, wrapping him in a hug.
She turns her head towards me while still embracing Richard and motions for me to come over and join them. My lips curl into a soft smile as I walk over to the hugging siblings.
As soon as I'm within Aaliyah's arms reach, she pulls me into their hug.
I'm used to Richard towering over me when we embrace one another but being smushed in between the two tall siblings is a little uncomfortable for me. But my friend is so happy to see us; I can't bear to push her away just yet. I'm not even sure I could if I wanted to.
It isn't until I spot our cart about to vanish around a corner that I realize we need to break up this touching moment. "Richard, Aaliyah, we need to go."
"Five more minutes," Aaliyah playfully leans down and says in my ear.
"Yeah, five more minutes," Richard copies his sister, whispering in my opposite ear, and I feel the two tighten their grip on me.
"Fine, we'll play it your way," I warn the two siblings. Using Silent Chanting, Quick Chanting, and my other magic skills, I activate one of my weaker spells.
"Cales kkie ocnos kemenbc!"
A blast of pressurized air erupts from me as the epicenter. The blast is just strong enough to send Richard stumbling back until he falls on his ass.
I turn around to see if the same happened to Aaliyah but somehow, she's nearly ten feet away from me, looking smug about dodging my spell. How did she!? That spell was one of my quicker ones, and I used my skills to shorten the cast time even further. She shouldn't have been able to notice me cast the spell, let alone dodge it! "How did you?"
Aaliyah's smug grin grows bigger. "I'm keeping my Mana Sense trained on the area all around us. I noticed the second you started channeling your magic. As for dodging it."
Aaliyah vanishes from my sight, and I feel two hands grasp my shoulders from behind. My whole body tenses and my instincts scream for me to flee, but her strong hands hold me in place.
"Moving quickly on their feet is a warrior's best skill," I hear Aaliyah say behind me before letting go of my shoulders.
As soon as I'm free, I jump forward and turn around to face my friend. I watch her walk over to Richard, still sitting on the ground, and offer him a hand up. She effortlessly pulls him to his feet.
My mind is racing, thinking about what Aaliyah just revealed. Her Sense Mana skill is high enough to scan her surroundings. Has she gotten it to level 50 already, maybe higher!?
My magic teacher could scan people he was close to with his skill, but not even he could scan a whole room, let alone maintain focus over an entire section of the forest!
Suddenly my five years of training seem almost pointless in perspective to Aaliyah's growth.
Stop it, Sandra, I admonish myself. I learned a lot these last five years, and comparing my growth to someone else isn't healthy, especially someone like Aaliyah, who has the most monstrous potential I've ever seen.
"We should catch up to your cart; it's almost outside my range." Aaliyah points down the road.
We all jog together and quickly catch up to our slow-moving bivol.
"At least he's consistent," Aaliyah quips.
"Well, now that you found us are you going to stay with us until we make it back to the village or run home and tell them about us?" Richard asks his sister as he hopes up onto our wagon's driver's seat.
Aaliyah looks happy to hear the offer, but she slowly starts to frown and shakes her head. "I wish I could, but I still have some business in Drey that I need to take care of."
I was about to join Richard in our cart, but hearing Aaliyah causes me to stumble. I regain my balance before I hear Richard start to shout.
"What, why would you go there!?" Richard yells at his sister. I give Aaliyah a curious look myself.
"I need to meet with my representative at Silver Herd. We had a business deal supplying goods to the general in charge of the fort. I need to see him and discuss how our partnership will work when Drey falls to Scholl." Aaliyah explains.
"Drey is going to fall!?" Richard and I parrot each other.
"Most likely," Aaliyah tells us with certainty in her eyes.
"That's an even bigger reason why you shouldn't go!" Richard growls at his sibling.
"He's right, you know," I step into their conversation. "If Scholl is coming, they'll be looking for people to defend the city. Your mana alone is enough to give you away," I point out to her.
"I have a solution to that," Aaliyah fumbles with a string around her neck and reveals an amulet that was hidden under her clothes.
She places one finger against the gem embedded in the amulet, and as it lights up, I lose all sense of her mana.
"You have a mana obscuring item!" I call out in disbelief. I'm saving up for one of my own, but they cost fistfuls of gold for the cheapest ones.
"Yep, I got a good deal on it too. I was told it's worth 23 gold coins." Aaliyah tucks the amulet back under her clothes.
"23!" Richard cries out in shock.
I can barely believe my ears either.
"How can you afford something like that?" Richard questions his sister.
"I told you, I had a business deal with Silver Herd and the general at the fort. I've been making quality weapons for the army, and Silver Herd has been transporting them. Your sister is quite rich now," Aaliyah smugly grins up at Richard, who looks like he's eaten something sour.
"That's why I still need to go to Drey. I need to know how Silver Herd is going to react to Scholl's invasion, and the sooner I stop by, the easier I'll blend in."
Aaliyah makes a good point, but it's still dangerous for her to go, especially by herself.
"No way, I forbid it as your older brother." Richard surprises the two of us with his firm voice. I'm proud of him for having his sisters' best interest at heart, but I don't think Aaliyah sees it that way. Looking at the girl, she is staring wide-eyed at Richard in disbelief.
I watch as the shocked look on Aaliyah's face slowly slips into one of neutrality. "And what, you're going to stop me?" Aaliyah's challenge makes my hair stand on end. She's no longer speaking like she's trying to convince us.
"If I have to," Richard tries to remain strong, but I can see his resolve cracking under Aaliyah's intense gaze.
I notice Aaliyah's eyes flash, and Richard almost stumbles out of our carts seat. What happened?
Aaliyah turns towards me, and I feel like she's looking through me. It feels like everything I am is exposed to her. I don't stumble like Richard, but I do take a step back in fear of the monster in front of me.
The feeling quickly fades, but it doesn't magically make me feel better.
I suck in a breath of air and try to steady my nerves. What in the god's names was that!?
"A level 37 builder and level 40 mage. You both must have worked really hard, but neither of you is a match for someone like me at level 73."
What the fuck?! She can read our levels! And 73, that's not possible for someone who's only 15!
Richard looks just as broken as I am. She nearly doubles our level. Father said she's the second strongest in the village, but I didn't think she could have leveled that quickly since I last saw her.
Aaliyah looks between the two of us and sighs. "It puts my mind at ease knowing you guys are safe, but I still have my own path I need to walk. I appreciate how much you both care, but this is my decision, and I'm sticking to it. Something tells me you won't make it back to the village before I finish and return from my business in the city. I'll be back as quickly as I can."
Aaliyah slowly walks back the way we came and passes me. I want to reach out to her, but remembering how she looked at me a minute ago sends shivers down my spine, and my arm refuses to budge.
I don't even turn around as I hear her footsteps become quieter in the distance.
When I can no longer hear Aaliyah, I silently walk over to our cart. Richard offers me a hand as I climb up and take a seat next to him.
Neither of us says a word as the cart bounces down the forest path.
I fold my hands in front of me and twiddle my thumbs. My head hangs low as not to meet Richards's eyes accidentally.
What happened back there?
We were laughing together and celebrating our reunion when everything turned on its side so quickly.
It was in that single moment, Richard and I truly felt Aaliyah's strength. What has she done to gain that much power? What monsters has she faced? When I meet her gaze, I could see that she's killed people before. My master had the same look in his eye.
'You will never know the true weight of magic until you've taken a life. The world is vast, and many of you have never seen what lies beyond our walls. When you cast magic when your life is at stake, you truly see how far you've come. Everything changes after you survive that first encounter; always remember that, students.'
I thought my master was merely trying to scare us, but I can see it now. My young friend I left back in the village has changed more than I can ever understand.
And we determined we knew what was best for her.
"She really is strong now." Richard's soft voice draws my attention.
I twist my neck and see that he's looking up to the canopy above our heads. I don't know how to respond, so I decide to remain silent.
"Did I ever tell you about the time when Aaliyah was still a baby, and one day she wouldn't stop crying? My parents panicked, trying everything they could to calm her down. I remember asking how I could help, but my parents only shoed me away. It wasn't until hours later that Aaliyah passed out from crying too much. My dad finally noticed me off to the side, brooding, and thanked me for trying to help earlier. I remember complaining that I didn't do anything."
"My father sat down and pulled me up onto his lap. He said that wasn't true. I kept denying it, so dad had me make him a promise, a promise as an older brother. He asked me always to watch over my little sister, a promise I took to heart. I always watched her when she was set down on the floor to roll around, and I was beside her when she started learning to walk."
"I chose to play with Aaliyah rather than the few other kids in the village, and I never regretted it. Everyone in our family knew Aaliyah was special. She learned to walk and talk faster than we thought possible. Soon she was running faster than me, and that's when I first noticed she would eventually leave me in the dust." Richard's voice sounds a million miles away at the moment.
"She had talent in magic and anything else she put her mind to. I still tried my best as an older brother, but the gap between us widened quickly. You know, I had my own reasons following you to Drey."
"And here I thought it was because you loved me," I quietly joke.
"That's true; I would've followed you to the ends of the world if I had to." Richard doesn't stop looking up at the sunlight drifting through the canopy, but he gently pulls me closer to him with his arm. "But even forgetting the love I feel for you, I wanted to go to Drey to learn and level faster. Close the distance between my sister and me a little, you know." I nod up against his side.
"Turns out she's stronger than I could ever imagine and all I did was treat her like a child. How am I to compete with level 73?" Richard leaves the question hanging between us. "I know I shouldn't compare myself with her, but as an older brother, it bothers me greatly."
I wrap my arms as far as I can around Richard, giving him all the support he always shows me.
"Do you still wish to marry someone as weak as me?" I hear him ask in a whisper.
"With all of my heart," I reply instantly.
Richard's grip on me slightly tightens, and he finally looks down at me. His eyes are red, and he has the most heart-warming smile on his face. I lean forward, and we share a passionate kiss.
When we separate, Richard asks me. "Do you think Aaliyah will forgive me when she gets back?"
"I'm sure she will," I reassure him. "I think she's right, and we'll see her again before we reach the village. We can apologize for treating her like a child, and she can apologize for using that horrible skill on us."
"Yeah, that was pretty bad. I almost fell off the cart when I made eye contact with her." I feel Richard shiver a little.
"It felt like she was looking at every part of me at once," I try to describe the horrible feeling I felt to Richard. "And whatever skill it was, it allowed her to see our levels."
"Did your master ever talk about skills like that?" Richard asks me.
"Briefly," I tell him. "Skills that let you approximate another person's level are usually tier 4, making them all unique to the person."
"But she knew our exact levels," Richard points out. A brief silence falls between us at the implication.
I'm tired of talking about things neither of us understands, so I change the subject. "So, when we get back to the village, you're telling my father we're getting married, right?"
"Sure, as long as you tell my mom," Richard retorts.
It only takes a moment to reconsider my options. "On second thought, we should tell our own families," I tell him.
"Ok," Richard agrees and leans over and kisses me again. With one arm already around me, Richard's second-hand wraps around my lower stomach, "What about the other thing?" He asks.
I untense and let Richard support me completely. "We should wait to discuss it after we get back to the village," I tell him.
"Alright," Richard responds.
We move to kiss one another again, but a loud bird call from a nearby tree makes both of us jump. Damn it, in all the confusion with Aaliyah; I forgot to reapply my searching spell.
Richard gives me an awkward look before both of us start laughing together.
"Don't forget what we were doing," I tell Richard as I start channeling my magic.
"Wouldn't dream of it, but won't me kissing you distract you from your spell?" Richard smirks at me.
I smile but ignore him as I prepare my spell.
"Yana ger mecttion fetnnl sarn owr ecti tai hidantho annonnacgr!"
I focus as the spell slowly grows to its intended size.
As soon as I finish the spell, I only need to continue supplying it with a small amount of mana to keep it activated. I turn to Richard to tell him I'm done, but he catches me off guard with a surprise kiss.
When we break apart, I swat at his arm. "What was that for?"
"I wanted to see if I could get you to drop your spell with a kiss. Did it work?"
I shake my head with a smile. "Sorry, but you're not that great of a kisser," I tell him.
"I'll need to practice more than and level my skill."
"You don't have a kissing skill," I admonish him as he leans in and lightly kisses the nape of my neck.
"Help me unlock it then," Richard whispers in my ear.
"Watch the road," I playfully push my hands off of his chest.
Richard pulls back a little and glances at our slowly moving bivol. "Don't worry, OL Dependable will get us back to our village." Richard grins at me.
"We aren't calling him that," I deadpan. "Besides, what if we're attacked while you're acting like a beast?"
"You have your spell up, right?" Richard raises an eyebrow at me. I nod my head. "Good, then we're safe and moving forward. Unless you can't maintain your focus around me?" He offers me a challenging look.
Richard raises and lowers his eyebrows quickly, making me snort with laughter.
It's moments like these that remind me how much I love him. He's been through the good and the bad with me, and we've always supported one another.
I can't wait until we return to the village and finally make our marriage official with our families.
Hearing about the war from Aaliyah was a surprise, but I'll be damned if I let something like that stop us.
"What are you thinking about, sweety?" Richard asks me with a sultry voice.
"Just thinking about what we'll do when we get back to the village," I tell him.
"We start our lives together," Richard kisses my cheek.
"And what would you call the last five years?" I ask him.
Richard ponders my question for a moment before getting a goofy grin on his face. "I'd call it wonderful practice."
The two of us laugh together as our cart slowly moves down the forest path, towards our future together.