Come on, Aaliyah, you're almost there. I push myself a little faster, trying to catch up to the disappearing sun in the distance. I recognize the terrain around me and know I'm almost back at the village.
As I get closer to home, I can’t help but think about whatever stew mother has made tonight. After three days of near-constant running, coupled with a few biscuits and rubbery strips of jerky, I’m ready to eat a real meal for a change.
I slow down to a jog when I finally reach the village. The setting sun over our small village provides a beautiful canvas of oranges and reds. The seven moons overhead dot the tie-dyed sky with their own brilliance.
Only a few villagers are still walking about, with most already home enjoying their supper.
A few people wave to me as I jog past them, while others give me surprised looks.
Word must have traveled around the village that I took a trip to Drey. Whether people are happy or surprised to see me, I can tell one thing based on the village's feel; Camden hasn't spread the news about Scholl yet. If he did, there would be a different air about the village.
I personally hope everyone can remain ignorant for as long as possible. Our village has had many problems this last year, and we're finally reaching the point people aren't afraid to walk around the edge of the village anymore.
Too bad Camden won’t be able to remain silent for much longer. I’ll need to inform him tomorrow that Scholl is already marching to Drey.
Now that I think about it, Camden isn't the only person I need to have a discussion with. I need to talk to mom about everything that happened with Mr. Grey. Then, I’ll need to talk to master about all the materials we’ll be getting and how I plan on using them.
I let out a tired sigh; tomorrow is going to be busy.
Oh well, I'll leave tomorrow's problems to tomorrow's me. The only thing I need to worry about tonight is how to avoid being smothered by my parents, a challenge that sounds more impossible the closer I get to my house.
Finally, I’m standing in front of our familiar front door.
I reach out and try to pull the door open, but mother and father have already bolted it for the night. Grinning, I bring my fist up and pound on the door three times.
“Who is it? We’re eating!” I hear dad shout through the door.
"Why do you think I'm here?!" I shout back. "I've been running for three days now, and I'm starving."
The only thing I hear on the other side of the door is the screech of two chairs rapidly being drawn against the floor and the sound of father fumbling to open the door’s bolt.
"Aaliyah, is that you?" I quickly take a step back before dad smacks me in the face with the door.
Dad's smile is priceless as he looks at me in dumbfounded joy. While dad is frozen in happiness, mom gracefully steps past him and moves in to give me a welcome home hug. "How are you back already?" Mother questions me as she tries her hardest to squeeze the life out of me. "Did you run into any more bandits?"
“I’m completely fine,” I tell mother while hugging her back. “But can we move this inside? I wasn’t joking when I said I was hungry.”
“Sure thing, sweety,” mom pulls me inside past dad. While father locks the door behind us, I chant my cleaning spell, removing three days of dust and sweat.
“Ahyt ls weem appiss!”
I feel rejuvenated as a thin layer of dirt and grime falls away. Mom finally releases her hold on me so I can shake off the resulting black flakes from my spell. While I'm shaking myself like a dog coming in out of the rain, I point and laugh at my mom's left arm.
Mother looks down and smiles when she sees her left arm and sleeve are noticeably cleaner than the rest of her. Dad turns around from securing our door and joins in our laughter.
“It feels weird to be this clean,” mother jokes as she touches the skin of her left arm.
“You get used to it,” I tell her. A mischievous smiler crosses my face. Mother and father are both close to me, so now is the perfect time to show off the benefits of Empowered Spell to them. "Hold still for a moment," I motion to my parents to stand still. We're all in the entryway so mother won't get mad at the mess I'm about to make.
“What are you doing?” Dad asks.
"Wait and see," I try to sound suspenseful and mysterious. Now that I'm safely home, I can use more of my magic without worrying about being ambushed.
“Ahyt ls weem appiss!”
I recast my same cleaning spell again, but this time I overpower it with my skill. The white light that usually envelops me slowly expands as I pour more of my mana into the spell. Mother and Father flinch as the bubble of white light slowly envelops them. As soon as I see that my spell has wholly covered both of them, I stop adding extra mana and let the spell complete itself.
Mother and father watch in amazement as all the dirt falls off of each other. The two are so surprised I need to remind them what to do when my magic finally fades away. “Make sure you shake yourselves out properly.”
"This is just like when you woke up from that monster attack. I thought it was weird how you cleaned us since you said you couldn’t use your magic like that, but I put it out of my mind because I never saw you use your spell like that since. Since when have you been able to do this?" Mom remarks as she and dad start shaking out their hair and clothing. Unlike me, they don’t magically clean themselves every day, and the two of them are covered in black flakes.
Mother makes sure dad wipes himself down every day after returning from work, but it's rare for anyone in our village to bathe properly. My spell is better than any soap or shampoo back on earth, and I dare say, mother and father look almost like entirely different people after I removed every speck of dirt from their bodies and clothes.
“Everything feels funny,” dad complains as he shakes out his shirt. He sniffs his clothes and frowns.
“I felt the same way when I first used the spell,” I try to console my dad. He's spent most of his life in the woods, and I don't think I can remember a time when he hasn't smelled of trees and sawdust. It must be weird for a woodsman like himself to feel so clean.
“You haven’t told me how you did it,” Mother reminds me.
I awkwardly rub the back of my head as I switch to my indoor slippers. “I actually figured out how to boost my spells during my last trip to Drey. It was just after all the excitement during my return trip, the pressure to forge the arrow for the general, and the soul eater attack, I forgot to show you guys.”
"You mean you could've been using this spell for almost a month now!?" Mom looks at me, accusingly. My spell didn't just clean my parents. The entryway stones look like they were just cut and even our old door looks like it was replaced with new wood.
"Hey," I hold up my hand defensively. "You know how crazy everything has been lately. To use my spell as I did requires a lot more mana than my personal cleaning spell. The only reason I can use it freely right now is that I saved my mana during my run for emergencies."
"And helping me clean the house isn't an emergency?" I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be a joke, but mother looks frighteningly serious. Finally, mom's mask of anger cracks, and she laughs at my unease. "I'm joking, sweety. I know how busy you've been. Come sit down, and I'll get you a bowl of soup and some bread we got from Granny Gellar." She says she's joking, but I'm not sure that she was.
Either way, I take my seat at the table. Mom moves around our kitchen, scraping the remains of the stew sitting next to the fire into a bowl for me. They obviously weren't expecting me back so soon.
Mom sets the food down in front of me and takes her place at the table. By the looks of it, mom and dad were just about to finish their dinner.
While I sip at my warm soup, mother leans forward across the table. “So, tell us, why are you home so soon? Did you turn around for some reason?”
I chuckle in-between bites. "Nope, I made it to Drey and back all in three days," I proclaim. Mother and father look at me proudly, hearing my accomplishment.
"Then, that means you found Richard and Sandra?" Dad asks, finishing off his supper.
“Tell us everything,” mom eagerly demands.
My smile cramps for just a moment. How do I want to do this? I need to talk to mom about Mr. Grey, but I'd rather leave that for tomorrow and enjoy my first night back with my parents without having to worry about anything just yet.
“Honey?” Mom notices my indecision. “Is everything ok?”
I give mom a small smile to reassure her I'm fine. "Everything's fine… it's just that I need to discuss some things with you tomorrow, and I'd rather keep the conversation happy for tonight. Is that ok?" I've learned long ago maintaining honest with my family is the best option.
Mom gives me a concerned look but nods her head in understanding. “Ok, we can do that, but what are we to talk about then?”
I’m happy to have such an understanding family.
“Well, would either of you like to guess who I ran into on my way to Drey?” I playfully glance between mother and father.
We spent the rest of the night talking about how I ran into Sandra and Richard on the road. Mother and father were so happy to hear the two of them made it out of the city before anything terrible happened. The three of us shared a huge laugh after I told them why the two lovebirds didn't send us a letter and the reason Kervin will probably arrive at the village before bother and Sandra ever do.
At one point, mom tried to ask me about Drey, but I politely told her I would tell her everything tomorrow. Besides that, mom didn't bring the issue up again, and we laughed into the night.
When we finally retired for the night, mother and father walked to their room, looking like an enormous weight was removed from their shoulders.
While my parents went to bed, I still have some things I need to take care of.
I leave my body to rest in the real world while I enter my soul with one clear goal in mind. I’m here to find and gather all the skill fragments related to my contract with Mr. Grey. Opening my eyes to see the garden in my soul, I immediately stand up and scan the area.
I used to have to traverse the entirety of my soul when searching for contract fragments, but my increased levels and skills now make the job much easier. I can scan large spots of my soul without needing to check each tree for an anomaly.
In fact, I sense the first scattered fragment from Mr. Grey’s contract not too far away.
I don't waste any time and move over to a tree with a pinky sized metal rod sticking out of its trunk. "Oh shit!" I can't help but swear when I get close to the intrusion in my soul.
The pinky sized fragment sticking out of the tree is merely the tip of the fragment. The skill fragment branches out through the whole tree and deep into the ground like a vicious tumor. All the previous contracts I've entered have all been verbal, and gathering the fragments scattered around my soul have been tedious to gather but otherwise nonthreatening. But this one...
If I didn't have my soul skills at the level they're currently at; I'm not sure I would be able to nullify Mr. Grey's contract.
I concentrate on the entirety of the skill fragment in front of me and slowly pull it out of the depths of my soul. When I'm done gathering the fragment, it's as big as the other contracts I've formed in the past all by itself.
I spend a moment to patch up the gaps removing the fragment left on the surface of my soul, and move on to find the next one.
I continue to scan my soul section by section until every fragment I gathered fits together like a neat puzzle.
Even though the Contract skill is made from Mr. Grey's experience, as long as it's inside my soul space, I can shape it however I want. Maybe I should shape it into a pile of shit; that would be poetic in some way. I end up playing with the chunk of Mr. Grey's soul like it's Play-Dough until I return to my clearing.
Taking one last look at the ugly lump of experience in front of me, I decide to be mature and shape it into a plaque that’s inscribed with the contract I made. I lazily stick it to my ugliest tree and turn away from the plaque before I’m tempted to destroy it.
The only thing keeping me in check is the thought of terminating the contract in the future in the worst possible way for Mr. Grey.
I'm all for merchants trying to get the best possible deal when they do business, but Mr. Grey took it too far. I mean, I'm used to having people look down on me for the first time they see me because of my age, but Mr. Grey is more than aware of how strong I am, and he still went too far.
Instead of trying to forge a stronger bond with me, Mr. Grey tried shackling me to him as soon as the moment presented itself.
I’m going to take great joy in obliterating the contract.
I dance around my clearing, throwing punches at thin air and spouting obscenities involving Mr. Grey until I calm down and collect myself. I learned from my meeting with Richard and Sandra that I need to spend some time letting my grievances out so they don't compromise my future decisions.
No matter how much I want to destroy Mr. Grey's skill as soon as possible, I need to be smart about it. I'll discuss everything with mom tomorrow and make plans for the future. A cold shiver travels up my spine as I think about how I should break my predicament to her. Hands down, I'll need to reassure her I can break the contract without harming myself.
"Uggggg," I loudly groan. Is it wrong for me to hope Scholl arrives faster? At least then, I'll have a few months of privacy to myself, and I won't have to worry about making any deadlines for a change.
I let myself fall over onto my patch of grass and try to forget about all my frustrations. Using my skills, I check how long my body has been asleep in the real world. “Only three hours,” I complain. “I still have another four or five until the sun rises.”
Oh well, I might as well do some soul gardening to pass the time.
I sit up in my bed just as the first rays of sunlight push back the blanket of darkness covering the village. It doesn’t sound like mother or father are up yet, so I quietly get out of bed and get ready for the long day ahead. I might not have gotten a proper rest last night, but the issues with my soul took precedence.
I take my time brushing out my hair until I hear my parents start shuffling around their room. Waiting until I hear their door open, I grab my copy of the contract I signed and stuff it into my pocket before walking out of my room as soon as my parents are leaving there’s.
"Morning, mom! Morning, dad!" My parents are both surprised by my sudden greeting.
“You’re up already?” Mom looks at me like I’ve grown another head.
“Don’t get used to it,” I roll my eyes at mom. “I need to talk to you, Camden, and master, and sadly I don’t think any of those conversations are going to be short.”
Mother nods with a serious look on her face. “Then we should get started right away. The three of us should sit at the table.”
I look surprised at father, “you’re not going to work?”
He shakes his head, no. "The boys are pulling up stumps today, and they don't need me to supervise them. I'd rather hear about what's going on with you."
"The more, the merrier," I awkwardly say. Great, now I need to explain to both my parents how I screwed up.
The three of us move into the living room and take a seat in our respective chairs.
"Where should I start?" I ask my parents.
“From the beginning,” mom tells me.
“But I already told you about my run and how I ran into Richard and Sandra.”
"Nice try, sweety, but I know my children better than you think, and there is no way the two of you talked and didn't argue a single bit. I want to hear all about your journey, the good, the bad, all of it.” Mother straightens her back and folds her hands in front of her.
I awkwardly smile. I wonder if Richard is aware of how perceptive mom is? There is no way Richard and Sandra are going to be able to keep their secret for long.
“Everything, huh?” I take a deep breath and slowly exhale, mentally preparing myself for what’s to come.
I start by telling my parents the full interaction I had with Richard and Sandra when I first found them in the forest, even the part where I used my particular skill on them right before leaving.
I expected mom or dad to interrupt me and condemn my decisions, but they both let me continue talking without interrupting me once. My parents remain expressionless until I get to the part about me entering Drey and their blank looks turn horrified when I describe the state of the city.
Next, I tell them how I needed to buy a pad because I stupidly forgot one and the lovely couple that helped me, bringing a small smile back to their faces.
I carefully describe the state the Silver Herd branch was in and how Mr. Grey quickly made time for me. Mom nods like it was only natural that they made time for me.
Now comes the hard part. I can’t meet my parent’s eyes as I go into great detail about my conversation with Mr. Grey. When I describe the contract's details, I remove the piece of parchment from my pocket and slide it across the table without looking up.
The sound of my mother picking up the paper causes a cold sweat to form down my back. A deep silence falls between us as mother examines the contract.
"Aaliyah, what were you thinking!?" When mother finally explodes at me, it's like I'm struck by lightning, and my body is paralyzed. "Do you know what you've signed!? There's no end date specified, meaning you're required to sell to the bastard for the rest of your life! How could you sign something like this!?"
I feel like I'm three years old again, and even though I'm much stronger than my mother, I feel small and helpless when she yells at me. She hasn't scolded me like this since I was four when Richard and I were playing outside and started throwing mud at each other and came home looking like mud golems.
"Silvia," dad cuts into mother's angry rant, and everything goes quiet again. "Aaliyah, look at us." Dad's calm and assertive voice finally draws my attention away from the table and up to my parents.
Dad has a concerned look and is holding mother's hand. Mom looks at me angrily, but she has tears in her eyes. "Why did you sign such a thing?" Dad asks in the calmest tone I've ever heard.
“I was overconfident in myself,” I freely admit. “One of my skills allows me to destroy contracts I form with people without consequence, so I didn’t put as much effort into checking the contract as I should have.” I start sniffling halfway through my explanation.
"You can break this contract?" Mother asks, holding up my copy. "Without hurting yourself?"
I slowly nod to mom's question.
Mother wipes at her red eyes. “At least there’s some good news,” mother straightens herself up and puts on more of a teaching expression now that she knows my life isn’t ruined. “You realize how bad this contract is, right?”
I start to nod again, but mother snaps at me. "Use your words."
“I figured out parts of where I went wrong during my run back home. It was obvious I screwed up when most of my skills gained a few levels while Contract only gained one.” I explain to mom in a defeated tone.
“Yes, but do you see the holes in this contract?” Mother pushes the paper back towards me for me to read again.
This contract is between Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village and Lennard Grey.
This contract terminates and replaces the former contract between Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village and Lennard Grey. Lennard Grey will provide Aaliyah with 300 gold worth of Kaglese ore and 150 gold in mithril ingots. Lennard Grey will use Kervin of Silver Herd to deliver said goods in a timely fashion to Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village.
Leonard Grey will handle the pickup of finished goods produced by Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village four months from date this contract is signed after the new year begins. All goods produced by Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village, minus products meant for Spotted Creek Village, will be bought at 70% market value to Lennard Grey.
Should either Aaliyah of Spotted Creek Village or Lennard Grey not follow the contract to the letter the offended party can take 20 levels from the other.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the first two parts, but I can see in the third section how I have to sell almost everything to Mr. Grey.”
“That is the biggest problem but not the only one,” mom informs me. "Do you see in the second section how he mentions Kervin by name but doesn't in the third? That means after Kervin drops of your materials, Mr. Grey can send his own people to work with you from now on. He also left out a term period all contracts should have."
“Term period?” I ask.
"Most contracts specify how long two people are to do business before they need to renew the contract. Usually, contracts have short term periods because our world has many dangers, and businesses have to adjust their plans. Most contracts only have a term period of six months to a year."
“I should’ve thought of that,” I mumble under my breath.
“But what really bothers me is the clause at the end about the consequences you choose should either of you break the contract.” Mother looks ready to explode again after mentioning the last part of the contract.
“Mr. Grey told me the contract becomes stronger depending on the consequences, so I agreed to the terms thinking they didn’t matter to me,” I sheepishly tell mom.
Mom grits her teeth in anger. "Well, it's obvious this Mr. Grey was planning something sinister from the start. He purposely suggested this type of consequence, knowing you couldn't report it to the authorities. You see, contracts involving the loss or transfer of levels were quite popular a long time ago. Nobles would pay commoners to sign contracts stating they would gain all their levels when they die.”
"You can do that?!" I ask in sheer disbelief, with my father mirroring my shocked expression.
Mom doesn’t confirm or deny my question, only continuing her explanation. “The nobles and rich exploited this system to gain levels without having to do anything. Of course, there were limitations; just because a contract says you'll take all the levels from another person doesn't mean a skill can reinforce such a demand. Depending on the Contract Skills of the parties involved, only a fraction of a person's levels and experience would transfer over."
"But with hundreds of contracts, nobles would still get a lot of levels," I point out to mother.
“Verry good, dear. Despite the limitations, nobles used contracts to gain levels for themselves and their families. However, no meal is free. I’m sure you know skill levels play a big part in your leveling.”
I nod along with mom. I’m probably the only one who knows just how much skill levels intermingle with the experience we earn and how it equates to levels.
"Well, the nobles who gained numerous levels by absorbing commoners' levels started to find out their skills weren't increasing any further. In fact, the only skills the nobles would see rise were basic skills like Cooking, Cleaning, and other various skills commoners use daily. The nobles still gained access to more status points, so it took a whole generation for them to realize they doomed their descendants."
"Nobles, like all parents, like to brag about their children and grandchildren. Contracts were formed, so the children of nobles would be over level 30 by the time they were twelve."
"Ooooooh," I exclaim, understanding where this is going.
“That’s right,” mom gives me a proud look. “The nobles’ children were essentially poisoned by the foreign levels. It became hard for them to gain even simple skills like Writing and Mathematics, let alone ruling skills that distinguish nobles from commoners. It didn’t take long for the nobility to outlaw the using of levels as collateral in all contracts.”
“But I didn’t know that,” I complain to mom.
She shakes her head. "That doesn't matter; you would be seen just as guilty as Mr. Grey for accepting the deal, a fact I'm sure he's ready to use the first time you try to complain about the contract."
Well fuck, I ball my hands into fists. I'm shaking in my seat; I'm so angry. I'm angry at Mr. Grey for tricking me like that, but I'm mostly angry at myself for falling for his trap.
As if somehow sensing that I’m blaming everything on myself, mom and dad each reach over to me with their free hands. Mom takes my right hand with her left, while dad grasps my left with his right, all while the two of them keep holding each other's hands for support. Though it's a simple gesture, holding hands with my parents reminds me they have my back and that I'm not alone.
“So, what should I do, mom?”
“We can discuss that in a second. First, finish your story,” mom tells me.
I have to chuckle at mom's thoroughness. It only takes me five minutes to tell my parents how I left Silver Herd and threatened the same guard to let me out of the city. The rest of my trip back home was just as uneventful, excluding meeting up with Richard and Sandra and apologizing for what I did.
"Then I made it home and had dinner with you guys," I wrap up my trip. "Now, can you please tell me what I should do with Mr. Grey?” I beg mom for her ideas on the subject.
“It will be hard to plan ahead when all the parties aren’t here,” mom tells me in a matter-of-fact tone.
“You want me to invite Mr. grey here?” I ask in disbelief.
“Who else does your contract concern?” Mom hints to me.
“Kervin,” I guess.
"Exactly, he's been your partner for a long time now, and your contract puts him out of the job. Plus, you don't want to do anything until you have your materials, right?" Mom gives me a sly grin. "And I'm sure that dark, scary fellow following Kervin around will want to hear about your contract as well."
“You think we can trust Reel?”
Mom's smile widens, "oh, yes. Silver Herd's main office definitely sent him to gather info on you. That includes the fact that one of their branch managers is trying to poach one of their best craftsmen all for himself.”
I blush a little at the praise, but I see what mom is saying. I'm not the only one who will want revenge on Mr. Grey, and again the more, the merrier.
Mother and I share a devilish smile, and dad's hand suddenly become clammy. Mother and I look at dad, and he flinches. Oh, the smiles.
The two of us share a small laugh at father's expense, which helps to lighten everybody’s mood, including dads.
I pull my hands out from my parent’s grip and stand up. “Thanks for listening.”
“Always,” dad reassures me.
"I'll continue to look over your contract with Grey," mom helpfully replies. "Are you going to meet the headman next?"
"Yeah, one meeting down, two more to go." I move around the table and give my mother and father a hug. "I'll be back as early as I can," I tell them.
Dad smiles, "take your time."
I run to my room to grab my axe and knife I borrowed from father and move to the entryway to change my shoes.
Unlocking the door, I move to push it open.
“Be safe,” mother calls out to me.
“I will,” I reassure her with a smile.
I push the door open and smell the fresh forest air.
“Oh, and honey!” I freeze just as I’m about to step outside and turn back to mom. “Don’t think I forgot about that skill you used on us before you left,” mom says with the brightest of smiles. “We’ll discuss your punishment when you come back home.”
I feel the color drain from my face.
"Don't you have somewhere to be?" Mom's reminder brings me back to reality, and I turn and flee before mother says anything else.