My highly trained instincts scream at me to flee as soon as possible. I know better than to turn around and glance back at the monster behind me. Digging my boots into the ground, I prepare to launch myself into the distance with everything I have.
Just as I’m about to execute my escape, the gods see fit to throw a wrench at me in the form of a smiling Nicolas. “Aaliyah! Good to see you back. Morning Mis Silvia.”
Nicolas happily walks up to me without noticing my tensed posture, greeting me and my mother, who I’m assuming is standing in our doorway.
“Father heard you were back already. If you’re free, could I ask you to join us at our house? The whole family is interested to hear about your journey to Drey. Oh, where are my manners? Would you like to…?”
"Perfect timing, Nicolas; let's go see your dad." I interrupt the fool before he invites mother to join us. I spin Nicolas around and start pushing him towards his house before he accidentally gets me killed.
“But I was just about to...?” Nicolas stumbles over himself as I push him harder into the distance.
I don’t hear anyone following us, so I look over my shoulder to see if we’re in the clear, hoping the dragon retreated to its den.
I'm forced to swallow a lump in my throat when I see that mother is still standing in our doorway, smiling at my retreating figure.
I almost pick Nicolas up in a bid to run away faster.
My body finally untenses and I quit pushing Nicolas as soon as we round the closest building, putting us out of sight from mother.
"What was that all about?" Nicolas asks, confused about the situation.
“Don’t ask,” I flatly tell Nicolas as I start walking towards his house.
I turn on the future leader of our village. “D-O-N-T A-S-K,” I slowly spell it out for him with fire in my eyes.
Nicolas rapidly nods his head and doesn’t say anything further during the short trek to the headman’s house. Pushing Camden's front door in and walking over to the drawing-room almost feels second nature at this point.
"Aaliyah, dear!" Sarette springs from her seat and swiftly moves in to hug me as soon as I walk into the room.
“Welcome back,” Camden offers me a greeting from his seat, content to let his wife be the hands-on one.
“It’s good to be back,” I say half-heartily, still not having emotionally recovered from my last encounter with mom.
Sarette pulls back from me and looks me over. "Is everything ok?" Crap, I forgot she's just as perceptive as Mom. Sarette looks over to Nicolas, who walks past us and joins a spot next to his brother before frowning. “Did your mother not come with you?”
It's hard keeping my body from shivering at the mention of my mother.
“I tried inviting her, but…”
"I already discussed everything with my parents earlier," I cut off Nicolas before he can throw me under the cart.
Nicolas looks like he’s ready to say something else but stops when I give him a death glare.
Sarette looks between her son and me before a sly look of realization crosses her face. "That's ok; I'm sure your mother will stop by later." Sarette gestures for me to take a seat.
Camden doesn’t waste much time, only waiting to start asking me questions until my butt touches the seat. “If you’re back early and uninjured, I assume your run went well?”
I lean back into my seat and wait a few seconds to answer. "Yes, and no," I tell everyone in the room.
Camden leans forward, “did something happen?”
"I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first?"
Camden turns to his wife, and they share a silent moment between the two of them before turning back to me. "The good news first, please."
A smile crosses my face. “The good news is that Sandra and Richard are doing fine. I ran into them on my way to Drey. They left Drey before the news about Scholl taking the fort reached the city.”
“They’re on their way here!? My baby’s almost home!” Sarette shouts with joy.
I know it's terrible of me, but I giggle at Sarette's antics, knowing Richard and Sandra aren't exactly going to be home soon.
"What?" Sarette quickly notices me, trying to hold back my laughter.
"It might be longer than you think before the two of them make it home," I tell her.
I go into detail explaining how Richard and Sandra are traveling with the slowest bivol I’ve ever seen and that it could take them days before they make it back to the village.
Camden and Sarette stare at me with mouths open in shock when I finish telling them everything while Sandra’s brothers are trying not to fall over laughing at their sister’s misfortune. Being a good friend, I make a mental note to tell Sandra how her brothers laughed upon hearing her dismay. I mean, we younger sisters have to stick together.
Camden and Sarette slowly come out of their stupor and share a small laugh at the situation.
After a few minutes of everyone enjoying the news of our family members' inevitable return, Camden asks me with a hopeful voice, "I don't suppose that was the bad news?"
The laughter fades when I don't say anything.
"That's unfortunate," Camden anxiously rubs the back of his neck. "Well, don't keep me waiting; what's the bad news?"
I make eye contact with Camden and decide to rip the band-aid off. "Scholl started their march on Drey two days ago."
"Already?" Camden asks in disbelief. "Are you sure?"
I nod, confirming his fears. “I got the information from Mr. Grey, a branch manager from Silver Herd, so I'm sure the intel is accurate."
“Is there any chance Drey will be able to hold out against Scholl?”
“Not a chance,” I confidently tell Camden. “Everyone of importance is fleeing the city as we speak.”
I tell everyone how I witnessed the guards taking bribes and how all the merchants were either running away or shoring up their businesses. Everyone becomes shocked the more I tell them just how bad the city was while I was there.
Camden leans back into his chair and ponders over everything I just told him. “If you talked to the branch manager in Drey, did he mention how Silver Herd is handling the situation?”
“Silver Herd is taking the same approach we discussed earlier and pulling back their people for the time being. I bet they’re waiting to see how Scholl manages the city after they take it and what their plans are in general.”
"So, you think we should wait for the city to fall?" Camden asks me for my opinion.
"More now than ever," I respond. "Probably in less than two weeks, Drey and its surrounding villages, which includes us, will be under new leadership. If our loyalty is questioned in the future, we just have to say we sent a cart of supplies, but by the time it reached the city, Scholl had already taken over. If that wasn't enough, Mr. Grey gave me the impression that he thinks our village should stay secluded and avoid what's to come altogether."
“That might be our best option,” Camden lets out a deep sigh.
"You should call for a village meeting later today or tomorrow morning," I offer my thought on the matter.
“Do we even need to tell the village?” Brandon asks. “Wouldn’t it be better if they stay ignorant of the situation? People might panic if we tell them Scholl is invading.”
“That’s all the more reason to tell everyone,” I flatly respond to Sandra’s second brother.
“Why?” Braddon gives me a challenging look for an explanation.
“She’s right,” Nicolas cuts in between us. “The village needs to know what’s happening. No matter how you look at it, Scholl will be our new ruler soon. If they come to the village and no one is aware of what's happening, we could have a major problem on our hands."
“People could die,” Camden looks up from his chair at his two sons.
“And we’ll lose all the trust we’ve built over the years,” Sarette points out to everyone.
“Plus, there is the long game we have to think about,” I add. Everyone gives me a puzzled look, not understanding what I mean. “All your reasons are important for the short-term, but I'm thinking about what might happen in the future. What if, in a few years, Olebert retakes everything? If any of the villagers are questioned why they didn't support Olebert, it will become quickly apparent they had no idea what was happening."
"All the blame would go to," I look at Camden, who's gone a little pale. I don't need to finish my sentence.
Camden clears his throat. “Aaliyah is right; we need to tell the village what's happening. We'll keep it a secret that we plan on dragging our feet until Scholl conquers Drey. But we'll still have the village prepare supplies that we'll 'send to Drey.'" Camden stresses the last part.
Everyone in the room nods in understanding.
"Nicolas, Braddon, I want the two of you to spread the word that there will be a village meeting first thing tomorrow morning and that attendance is mandatory." Camden gives orders to his two sons, who both nod in understanding.
Camden turns his attention to me. "When I explain everything to the village, I'll mention your experience in Drey. Is that alright?"
“Do what you have to,” I tell him.
“Thank you for everything,” Camden bows his head towards me.
"Oh, stop," I tell him, feeling a little bashful. "We're practically family, and I love this village as much as you do."
“Awwww,” Sarette gets up from her seat next to her husband and moves over towards me, and wraps me in another hug.
“That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day,” Camden remarks with a smile. “Is there anything else you can think of before I send my boys off to notify the village?”
"Anything else?" I stop and think. Have I forgotten anything? I informed them of Scholl, Drey, and when Sandra should be back; does anything else matter? My deal with Mr. Grey is my business, and I don't plan to do anything about it until Kervin drops off my last delivery.
Oh, shit! I forgot to mention Silver Herd will be pulling back their deliveries for the next few months.
"What is it?" Camden notices I thought of something.
“Well, there might be one thing I forgot to mention,” I sheepishly reply. “Kervin is delivering a large supply of materials for me around the same time Sandra and Richard are supposed to return to the village.”
“And why is that something I need to be concerned about?” Camden raises an eyebrow in suspicion.
“I told you how Silver Herd is recalling their people; well, the delivery Kervin is bringing me will be the last one for a while.”
"Come again?" Camden doesn't look too happy to hear the village is losing one of our best assets. Having a merchant regularly come to our village has played a significant role in everybody's lives. It was thanks to Kervin that we were able to get enough meat when the chameleon spiders drove the local wildlife away.
"Silver Herd doesn't want to draw suspicion towards our village. After Kervin drops off my supplies, we'll need to send people to Drey if we need to purchase anything like every other village."
Camden brings his hands up to his face and rubs his temples. “That’s just great.”
Sarette releases me and moves back over to her husband to offer her support. “It will be ok; didn’t Braddon just tell you a few nights ago that the hunters noticed fresh game tracks near the village?”
"That's right, Dad," Braddon helps to relive Camden's worries. "Now that spring is here, the animals the spiders scared away are returning to their hunting and grazing grounds."
“And don’t forget our fields are rapidly expanding thanks to all the trees being cut down. This year we’ll have our largest harvest ever,” Nicolas exclaims.
Not wanting to feel left out, I offer my own words of encouragement. "Our village has overcome everything thrown at us this year. You think not seeing Kervin for a few months is going to break us?”
Camden looks up at me, and I can see his mood brighten up. "You're right; not having a merchant visit our village isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Our village will do just fine by ourselves. It's good that you told me about this now so that I can cover it during the village meeting tomorrow."
“Sorry I forgot to mention it sooner,” I apologize for my oversight.
“It’s fine… but that is the last thing, right?” Camden hesitantly asks.
Everybody in the room turns to look at me like they're daring me to give them any more bad news. I wave my hands and shake my head, "that's everything, I promise."
It’s funny to see Sandra’s entire family let out a collective sigh of relief.
"Now that all the important stuff is taken care of, would you like to have some tea with me, Aaliyah?" Sarette gives me one of her beautiful smiles.
It's tea time already!? I need to get out of here before mom shows up. "That's very generous of you, but I still need to visit Master Del and let him know I made it home ok." I move to leave the room.
Sarette frowns for a moment before she starts smiling at me again. “Maybe tomorrow then with your mother.”
“That sounds nice,” I lie through my teeth. I face Camden, “thanks for having me.”
“It should be I thanking you,” Camden chuckles. “I’ll see you at the meeting tomorrow.”
"Of course, and I'll tell Master about it, so Nicolas and Braddon don't need to walk all the way out there." I wave goodbye to everyone and quickly exit the drawing-room.
I take brisk steps until I'm at their front door, and as soon as I'm outside, I take off towards the nearest tree line. Thank goodness I didn't accidentally run into mother; I'm not ready to know what she thinks my proper punishment should be. Mother is usually quite fair, but she can be vindictive at times, and she knows me well enough to come up with a punishment that takes into account my skills and status.
No, I shouldn’t think about that right now.
I walk along the village's edge until I reach the path that leads to Master's house. As I walk along the small trail, I think about how well Kervin's cart will fit through here. Kervin's cart is slightly bigger than the one Master, and I use to move ore around, and it's already a tight fit getting it through here.
I have no intention of transferring every bit of ore Kervin is bringing me between our two carts and hauling it back and forth. It will be much easier to expand this pathway and just have Kervin drop my ore off in Master's clearing.
If I ask Dad for some help and convince Master to get up from his bench, I’m sure the three of us could widen the path enough in two or three days. Just another thing I need to talk to Master about.
Despite this being the third meeting today, I find myself looking forward to this last meeting the most. When I reach the edge of Master’s clearing, my eyes immediately fall on the stone kin who appears to be sleeping.
Making my way over to Master, I know he has already noticed my approach, but I decide to play along for the fun of it. "Master, you asleep?" His eyelids don't even quiver as I call out to him.
Is he really asleep this time?
I decide to test my prone master the best way I know how, with a bucket of water.
Like a ninja, I move over to the nearby well and fill a bucket up with water. Before I walk over to Master, I clear my head of any ideas involving dumping water on him. After some experimentation, I've learned Master's Danger Sense skill doesn't activate until you commit to an attack. If I walk over to Master thinking about throwing a bucket of water on him, his skill will warn him before I ever get close. But if I say I plan to set this bucket of water down next to him, his skill won't be alerted.
It's hard not to think about something you know you want to do, but I always enjoy a challenge. I slowly make my way next to Master with the intention of setting the bucket down next to him. Right before I set the bucket down, I change my grip and prepare to dump its contents all over Master.
As a savage smile crosses my face, in one swift movement, I see Master’s hand reach out to the bucket and flip it backwards on me.
“Damn, why do you always have to have that blasted skill on?” Master sits up and complains that Mana Skin kept me from getting wet.
It takes me a moment to realize what just happened; Master flipped my prank on me at the last second!
“You never know when it’s suddenly going to rain,” I give Master a gloating look.
“Or when your apprentice will try and mess with you when you’re sleeping,” Master grumbles.
“Oh, come on. Were you really asleep?”
"Maybe?" Master doesn't sound very convincing. "Why are you here?" He asks, standing up.
“Because I thought my master would like to know if his apprentice made it back safely.” I grin at Master.
"And why would I need that? I have a monster as an apprentice, and I'm sure she can handle herself." Master crosses his arms in front of his chest.
I move in and give Del a hug. "I missed you too," I tell him.
Master grumbles like a cranky grandpa, but I see the smirk he's trying to hide.
"Alright, get off of me," Master gently pushes me away and sits back down on his bench. “How did your trip go? Did you get the materials you were after?”
I move over to the closest bench and sit down with a huff. “You have no idea.”
For the third time today, I explain what happened during my trip. I know Master doesn’t care too much about how I found Sandra and Richard in the forest, so I gloss over most of everything until I get to my talk with Mr. Grey and everything that resulted from it.
"I told you time and time again; merchants are the true monsters of this world." I let Master rant and tell me how he told me so.
"You were right, ok! You think I haven't heard all this from my mom already," I complain.
“Does that mean you’re starting to listen?” Master levels a challenging look at me.
“Hey, if I wanted to listen to someone yell at me, I would head home right now. I thought you would be more interested in the big ass shipment of materials I have coming in."
“Got a scolding waiting for you at home?” Master asks curiously.
“More like my punishment for using my skills on my parents before I left.”
"Then I guess I don't have to worry about you bothering me for the next few days," Del jokes.
“What does that mean?”
"Think about it, brat. Does any of your mother's punishments leave time for you to come to work?"
Oh, gods, he's right! "But we need to…"
“Wait for you to return,” Master interrupts me and laughs so hard he grabs his stomach.
I feel my face starting to blush while I wait for Master to calm down.
I hope Master's prediction isn't correct. The path needs to widen, and I still need to test my physical limits before I start crafting for real. I spent most of my resources crafting the general's arrow and couldn't do much else until I got more. That left me with little to do, so I've only crafted a few spears and arrows for the village.
I’m ready to get behind the forge again and push my skills further. And once Kervin brings me my kaglese, the first thing I’m going to do is make a new sword and knife.
“Can we get back on track now?” I ask Del as he starts to calm down.
"What do you feel we need to discuss?" Master lays back down on his bench.
"The first thing that comes to mind is where are we putting all the ore that's coming, and how are we moving it here?" I place my hands on my hips, but Master has already closed his eyes again.
“I’m assuming you already have a plan in mind,” Master Del remarks without looking at me.
Fine, if you want me to get to the point, I will. "We need to widen the path that leads to your house." Finally, Master cracks an eye open. "This probably won't be my last large delivery, and neither of us wants to shift around a whole cart of ore. It will be easier if we make room, so Kervin can drive up and drop off or pick up whatever we need."
"You want to bring the merchant to my house?" Master looks at me like I've gotten into his special drink.
"It makes the most sense," I point out to Master. "You can wait in your house when they come by, but it's getting to the point moving all the goods I make to Kervin's campsite is getting old. Silver Herd has already told us they know who you are, so it's not like you need to remain mysterious. Besides, having a scowling stone kin behind me might make negotiations easier."
Master Del doesn't exactly appreciate my joke, which I can understand why. Master is used to remaining out of sight, but I think it will be good for him to see more people, even if those people involve Reel.
"Do what you want," Master reluctantly agrees and rolls onto his side, facing away from me.
His pouting makes me want to tease him. “Cool, I’ll ask my dad to help us after I appease my mother.”
Master quickly sits back up, “who said I would be helping?”
“Because if you leave me to do it all by myself, I’ll cut down trees until your house can be seen from the village.”
“Why did I have to pick such an annoying disciple?” Master hangs his head and shakes it back and forth.
“Funny, I remember deciding to make you my master, not the other way around.”
Master sighs in defeat. “Alright, so what happens after we widen the path and you get your materials? What’s your plan going forward?”
I'm about to make a joke about kicking ass and taking names until I notice Master is asking with a serious expression. I discard my playful banter and layout what I want to do. "My first goal is to research the kaglese and find out the best ratio to mix it with steel and mithril. Then I need to forge myself a new sword and knife."
“And after that?” Master Del asks.
“Then we finish making the rest of those special arrows. And with the rest of the kaglese, I'll make some magic weapons.”
"To sell to this, Mr. Grey?" Master brings up a good point.
“I’ll worry about that in the future. We have four months to craft what we want before I have to deal with him,” I tell Master the short version of my plan.
“Is that all?” Master looks at me like he knows I have something else in the works.
I look Master straight in the eyes. "I plan to start making short trips into the magic dense zone."
Master stands up from his bench, looking like a concerned parent. “Why would you possibly want to go there?”
"The same reason anyone ever goes into magic dense regions," I reply. "I want to look for new ore samples, magic ingredients, and I want to see the creatures that call the region home."
“Just because you can probably face a chameleon spider on your own doesn’t mean you can hunt every magic beast.”
"I didn't say I wanted to hunt magic beasts," I correct Master. "During my trips away from home, I realized I want to see more of this world. I don't plan on leaving yet, but I owe it to myself to start expanding my horizons, and that includes seeing what lies deep in the forest.”
“Have you told your parents this yet?”
I scoff at the idea. “Do you think I’m that crazy? I know I’m not ready to travel into the magic dense area yet, let alone tell my parents my plan. I need to get a handle on my stats and skills, and that's not even considering the gear I'll need to make."
“Why did you have to tell me this?” Master rubs his face.
"Because you asked," I tell him. Master lowers his hands and meets my gaze. "I know Master has my best interest in his heart, and I want you to know my plans, all of them."
“Torrow’s forge! How am I supposed to yell at you after that?” Master sits back down on his bench. “I can’t condone letting you go into the magic dense region of the forest… not without me.”
"Sounds good to me," I happily exclaim. "I always wanted you to join me, but I didn't know how to ask. Thanks for volunteering.”
Master Del looks at my happy expression in shock before a reluctant smile crosses his face. “I guess I walked into that one.”
“Would it make you feel better if I said you were the best master an apprentice could wish for?”
“Well, you are,” I tell Master Del with the biggest smile ever.
"So that's what a demon's smile looks like," Master jokes.
"Does that mean you're selling me your soul because I've seen it, and it looks delicious?" I lick my lips, and Master goes silent. "Too far?" I ask.
“Too far,” Master quickly agrees. We both share an awkward laugh before we sit in silence together. “Do you plan on staying here for the rest of the day?”
“No,” I groan, standing up. “I need to go home and face a real demon.”
“Good luck with that.” Master lays back down on his bench and closes his eyes. “I’ll see you if you survive.”
“Thanks for the words of comfort,” I say sarcastically. “I’ll probably be back in a few days, so be ready to remove some trees by then.”
Master grunts in confirmation and waves his hand like he’s shooing me away.
I guess now's a good time to tell him about the village meeting tomorrow. "By the way, we have a village meeting tomorrow morning, and attendance is mandatory. Make sure you're up in time.” I playfully chastise Master as I walk away.
I don't look back at Master, but I think I can hear him swearing under his breath.
Did our door always look this intimidating?
I stand outside my house, contemplating my life choices that got me to this point.
"Ok, that's enough drama for one day." I reach out and pull our front door open. It's fun to exaggerate to an extent, but there is a time and a place for everything. I made a choice to use my skills on my parents, and I accept responsibility for it.
I know mother would never hurt me, and the only reason she still scolds me is because she's a good mom.
Deactivating Mana Skin and switching out my shoes, I confidently walk over to my mother, who is stitching one of Dad's trousers in her sewing corner.
“Back all ready, sweety?”
"Yeah, I finished talking to Camden, and Master Del. Figured I’d come home and see my beautiful mother.” Overexaggerating doesn’t include brown-nosing.
"That's good to hear," is all mother says, and silence falls between us.
I stand in place while mother’s hands dance across father’s pants, sealing any and all nicks and tears.
Finally, Mom speaks. “I want you to clean the whole house.”
I can't help but be a little shocked by her request. Sure, cleaning the house might seem challenging, but with my skills, I could do it in half a day if I hurry. Heck, I can get most of it done before dinner if I start now. "I understand, Mom. I'll get started right away."
As I turn away to get the cleaning supplies, Mom says, “I don’t think you do.”
I turn back to face Mom as she sets Dad’s pants down. "I want you to clean the house using that spell of yours. I want everything to look brand new by the time you're done." Now that sounds more like one of Mom's punishments.
I want to complain, but I know that will only make things worse.
“And then when you’re done with our house, I want you to clean your brothers.”
The sudden doubling of my work is too much, and my mouth moves before my brain catches up. "Why!?" I whine.
Mother answers me with a cold smile. “Do I need to have you clean Sarette’s house as well?”
"No," I hang my head, knowing when I'm beaten.
“Good, you can start tomorrow after the village meeting,” mother picks up Dad’s pants and finishes her work. I know this is where I should walk away.
I move to my room without saying anything else and gently close my door behind me. Flopping down on my bed, I groan into my sheets.
Once again, my mother found a way to punish me in a way even I would find challenging. My extended cleaning spell uses up a lot of mana, and I'm not sure if I could cover our whole house in a day before my mana pool runs out.
If that wasn't the worst part, my brother's house is even bigger than ours! I remember him bragging about his design and how he was preparing for the future. I'm going to strangle him when he finally makes it to the village.
I feel the spring breeze blow in from my high window, and I realize I'm feeling a little tired.
I didn't do anything physical today, but I still find my eyelids feeling heavy. An afternoon nap sounds better the longer I lay face down on my bed.
Screw it, I kick off my slippers and get comfortable. I feel my consciousness slowly slip away as I fall into a deep sleep for the first time in a while.