"So, which is more fun, helping your mother clean your brother's house or clearing trees with your old man?" Dad gives me a goofy grin as he drags the tree trunk he just fell over to the cart.
"Honestly?" I ask Dad with a straight face, looking like I'm about to drop a major truth bomb on him.
Dad freezes as he's lifting the lumber into the back of the cart, not expecting my reaction.
I can't hold my straight face for long, and I quickly smile at his duress. "I'm just messing with you, Dad. I've actually enjoyed the time I spent with both of you."
“I’ve enjoyed it too,” Dad mirrors my grin.
"And I suppose I'm the third wheel in all of this." Dad and I turn to see Master grumbling as he drags over a small tree.
“Kind of hard to forget about you when you complain every five minutes,” I quip.
"Then next time, don't drag me out of my clearing against my will for two days."
“I dragged you here?” I raise an eyebrow at Master.
Maser Del doesn't take the bait and instead focuses on the tree he's dragged over. I watch as Master lifts his axe over his head and swiftly brings it down, cleanly cutting branches from the tree with each beautiful swing.
Dad sees me watching Master Del, and not wanting to be outdone, starts cutting up a nearby log. The poor timber stands no chance against Father's skills, and soon Dad is matching Master's pace.
Boys, having to compete over everything.
Feeling left out, I contribute by helping load everything they're cutting into the cart Master and I usually use to haul ore from the mine.
While I’m loading everything, I can’t help but compare each of our stats and skills. Dad’s level was around 35 back when he showed Richard and me his stats. He said he grew to level 42 a while ago, so maybe he's 43 or 44 now. Dad was already a Strength build back when I was little, and I'm sure he's already put more points into it.
“Hey, Dad. I’m curious, what’s your Strength stat at these days?”
Dad pauses working and turns to me before glancing at Del, who's watching us out of the corner of his eye. "You know that's personal information, Aaliyah."
“And who’s he going to tell?”
“Hey!” Master sounds a little offended.
"Oh, I'm sorry, are you going to tell everyone in your knitting club," I cut off Master's whining with a lot of sarcasm before turning back to Dad. "Please, I'm trying to judge where I'm at stat-wise. I've gained a lot of levels in a short time, and I want to compare it to other people. You invest most of your points into Strength, don’t you?”
Dad sends another quick look at Del but gives up in the end. "I used to put the majority of my points into Strength, but your mother said she didn't want to outlive me, so she's made sure I put most of my points into Vitality these days."
I'm surprised to hear that; I'm sure Dad is still stronger than me. "But it's higher than 150, right?" I ask.
Dad nods his head. “My Strength is 168 after my last level up. Why, have you passed me already?”
He's only 16 points higher than me, but being a beast of a man who chops down trees all day, it's understandable that his overall Strength seems higher than mine. "Not yet," I grin at Dad.
"That's good to hear; I get to keep my pride as a strong father for a little while longer," Dad playfully jokes.
I laugh along with Dad, but a few things have become clear to me thanks to that bit of information. Strength is the most common stat villagers and commoners invest in after Vitality. But according to Mom, people spread their points out more, unlike focusing on one stat as Dad does. The average villager is only around level 35, meaning I'm probably 50% stronger than the average field hand, and that isn't factoring in that not everyone chooses to invest as heavily into Strength as some people do.
But how strong am I?
I was able to get my physical stats up to the high 20's through stretching and exercising every day before I started increasing them with my free points. That said, I wasn't pushing myself like pro athletes back on Earth. If I'd have to guess, I'd say a trained athlete would have around 50 points in Strength and Dexterity depending on what sport they were training for.
If I'm going off numbers, I would be three times stronger than the pros back on Earth. But physical condition can’t be measured on a linear scale. If a basketball player was suddenly made three times stronger, would that equate to him being able to jump three times higher? Would they be able to go from jumping 2.5 feet to 7.5 feet, or would they go higher?
Then you have to factor in skills. I can run at incredible speeds for an extended period of time, not just because I have high physical stats but also because my running skills help as well.
I can take Dad as an example. There is no way Dad has a higher Strength stat than Master, yet he can keep pace with him because most of his skills are geared to felling trees while Master's aren't.
“Think and work at the same time!” I Flash Step away from Master who suddenly appeared next to me and shouted in my ear.
“Don’t sneak up on me! I almost swung my axe at you,” I grit my teeth and threaten Master.
“I didn’t sneak up on anyone. You were so caught up in your thoughts you didn’t notice me walk up to you.”
"No," I say in disbelief. "Was I?" I turn and ask Dad's opinion, only to see him coughing into his hand, trying not to laugh at me.
Damn it, I wasn’t paying attention, and worst of all, both Master and Dad caught me red-handed.
Del and Dad share a rare moment of camaraderie over my embarrassment and start laughing together. I huff in annoyance and move over to a tree lying on the ground in the distance to get away from the two laughing men.
I take my time chopping up the tree to regain my composure and wait for the nearby laughter to die down.
It isn't long before the moment passes, and the two oversized children go back to ignoring one another. This might be the one time I'm happy they still aren't on regular speaking terms. The two will make small talk when Mother invites Master over to keep her happy, but if they don't have a reason to speak to one another, they won't say a word to each other.
I shake my head in disapproval. People think women are the ones who hold a grudge the longest, but obviously, they've never seen two hardheaded men fight before.
It's said to say, but I've given up trying to get them to repair their relationship. I already consider it a win that I can get the two of them to work together when I ask for a favor. Plus, as Mom likes to tell me, it isn't my job to fix everything. I did my best; now it's up to the two of them to decide whether or not to bury the hatchet.
Carrying as much wood as I can, I walk back over to the cart and throw everything in the back.
“What were you thinking about?” Dad asks me as he walks up next to me and throws his own load of wood into the cart.
It doesn't sound like he's trying to make fun of me, so I tell him the truth. "I was considering how a person's Strength stat and their skills play into their overall strength."
“You should’ve asked,” Dad smiles at me. “I could’ve saved you some time and told you it’s pointless to ponder someone else’s abilities. Even if you know a person’s stats, skills, and physical condition, the only person who can tell you their limits is the person themselves. Everybody is different, and there are too many factors in what makes us, us. Does that make any sense to you?”
“You know it does,” I nod with a small smile.
While Dad and I are having our moment, Master walks past us carrying a tower of logs and branches. With a small grunt, he easily flings the wood into the cart.
After seeing that feat of strength, I got to ask. "Hey, Master. What's your Strength stat at?"
Master pretends not to hear my question and moves to pick up more lumber.
"Oh, come on," I beg in a whiney voice that I know he hates. "You heard Dad's, and you know mine. You can't throw everything around like it weighs nothing and expect me not to be curious."
Master stops picking up the wood and looks at me. He sees the burning fire of curiosity in my eyes and drops everything with a big sigh. “I’m only telling you because I know you won’t leave me alone until I relent.” Master pauses for dramatic effect. “My strength stat is 420.”
"Holy shit," I swear aloud as my jaw hits the floor. Dad doesn't even say anything because he's just as surprised as I am. I mean, come on; Master's Strength stat is almost triple my own!
Wait! That number doesn't make sense! Master has to have a decent amount of points invested in Dexterity, so are the rest of his stats close to zero? "Are you messing with us?" I narrow my eyes at Master.
Del frowns, "I tell you one of my stats, and you call me a liar!?"
"But what you said doesn't add up," I defend my reasoning. "The rest of your stats would have to be trash if you invested so heavily into Strength. I've seen your work, and I know that you can sense when I'm approaching you. Unless your level is a lot higher than you sad it was, something is off."
Master rubs the back of his head. “This is why I didn’t want to say anything.”
“But?” I want to ask more when Dad puts his hand on my shoulder and shakes his head.
If someone asked me what my biggest character flaw was, I'd have to say it's my curiosity. I know it's rude for me to pressure Master to answer my questions but what if he has some secret to boosting his stats or something.
I try to hold myself back, but I'm practically shaking with curiosity and excitement.
Dad looks surprised to see me acting like this, but that's because any experiments I do at home are usually while he's out working. Mother has seen me get sucked into my work when I'm trying something new, and Master has seen me like this more times than one could count.
Master relents and gives me a hint. “If you must know, I have more freedom to distribute my points unlike you humans do, especially in regards to Vitality. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject.” That's the hint Master gives me before he returns to work.
While Master hauls the rest of the lumber, Dad uses a shovel to flatten out some divots in the ground. Even if we removed the trees, a large cart filled with goods would have a hard time traversing the trail if we left the ground uneven.
I go through the motions of helping my father, but my mind is occupied thinking about what Master told me.
What did he mean about freedom and Vitality?
Vitality is the most crucial stat; the more you have, the safer you are. Every person focuses on Vitality to keep themselves safe and to live a long life. Was Master suggesting he didn’t put many points into Vitality? Everyone needs extra Vitality to live longer.
No, humans need extra Vitality to live longer.
Master isn't human; he's a stone kin, a race that naturally lives longer than humans. My parents taught me always to put a few points into Vitality each time I level up to increase my overall lifespan. My Vitality dwarfs my other stats at a staggering 243. If I didn't put as many points into Vitality, I could also have a Strength stat of 300.
Maybe I should change how I distribute my points in the future? My Vitality is already high enough, so I could focus more on Strength and Dexterity? It’s working fine for Master, and his Vitality is probably around 100.
I stop shoveling when I realize the problem with my master's Vitality. Sure, he already has a longer lifespan thanks to his race, but that doesn't help Master in regards to how much damage he can take. Just because he naturally lives longer doesn't mean he won't die if he's stabbed in the heart. In fact, Master is the epitome of a glass cannon.
I worryingly glance at Master, and we make eye contact. His expression is easy to read; Master doesn't want me to say anything about his weakness. It's no wonder he wanted to remain silent; Master has the same Vitality as a level 35 villager. If Del made one wrong move during the goblin extermination or while fighting the chameleon spiders, he would've died before ever making it back to the village for treatment.
Dad, heedless of my internal plight, decides now is a good time for some small talk. "Why the sudden interest in people's Strength?"
I'm thankful for Dad's sudden interruption; I need the distraction. Master decided to distribute his points as he did, and worrying about the past is pointless. I make a mental note to act as the vanguard next time something happens, but until then, life moves on as it always has been.
“Are you spacing out again?” Dad playfully asks when I don’t immediately respond.
"You wish," I smirk back at him. "I was just thinking about something important, is all, but I did hear your question. The reason I'm concerned about my Strength is that I learned how to fly during my run to Drey, but it relies heavily on my Magic and Strength stats." I casually continue working.
Father and Master echo one another. Both men drop everything that they're doing and crowd around me.
“Did you say you can fly!?” Dad excitedly shouts in my face.
"How is that possible?" Master tries to play it cool, but I can see he's interested too.
“It’s not really flying,” I tell them. “It’s more like running through the sky.” I take great joy in downplaying my accomplishment and the fevered looks I get in return.
“Show us,” Dad demands, looking like a child attending the circus for the first time. Master eagerly nods along with the suggestion.
Well, I have plenty of Mana and Stamina, and I haven’t had a chance to use my new skill since I unlocked it. It doesn’t take long for me to talk myself into showing off my skill. And thanks to clearing the trees, there’s a break in the canopy I can aim for.
"Alright, alright," I wave back, Father and Master. "Give me some room."
The two men hop back like frightened cats, giving me enough room to activate my skills.
This is a good chance for me to test out the limits of my leg strength. Instead of running, I bend my legs and prepare to jump straight up without a running head start.
I push off the ground with tremendous force, trying to get as much air as possible. The ground gets farther away as I use Measurement to gauge how high I can jump.
As soon as I feel my body start to drop, I activate Air Walk and leap higher into the canopy. My initial leap propelled me eight feet into the air, and I don't need to use Air Walk again until I've climbed another ten feet, reaching nearly eighteen feet above the ground.
I was right; my skill provides a much more stable footing for me, allowing me to jump higher.
Father and Master shout in surprise as I use my skill again and break through the opening in the canopy. I lose sight of the ground as I climb higher and higher with each step.
With my sixth step, I estimate I'm close to sixty feet into the air, and I can clearly spot our village. The view is fantastic, but I'm burning through my mana, and I still need to see how far forward I can jump while using my skill.
I tilt my feet and push off the barrier at an angle, launching myself forward, more than upwards. The wind rushes past my face as I start sprinting through the open sky.
I circle around the place I came out of the trees while keeping in mind how many steps I've taken and how much mana I have left.
After my fifteenth step, I reluctantly decide to go back down. I wish I could spend the rest of the day up here, but that's not possible. Yet.
As I descend back towards the ground below, I promise myself to practice Air Walk every chance I get. I felt my skill level during the testing, and even though it was insignificant, the mana cost did reduce by a fraction of a point. If I can get Air Walk up to a high enough level, I'm sure my treks through the sky will become much longer.
I have to use my skill two more times during my descent to break my fall, but I touch down right on top of the footprints I left behind when I took off in the first place.
Both Father and Del stare at me in silent amazement. I'm not sure how well they could see me above the tree line, but it must have seen enough because they're frozen in shock. "I still need to practice more, but I think it's a good skill," I haphazardly say while retying my hair. Some strands came loose when I was running, and I'm not too fond of it when it covers my eyes.
The casual dismissal of what I just did is enough to bring the two men back to Yurilia.
"That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!" Dad exclaims.
"I have to agree." Master, who is much more used to seeing me do the impossible, isn't as surprised as Father but is no-less impressed by my new skill.
"It will be cooler when I can use it more continuously," I tell them as I move to finish up our work.
Dad and Del follow my example while returning my earlier questions tenfold. “What is that supposed to mean?” Dad inquisitively asks, filling in the last pothole.
I explain while helping Master finish loading the last bits of wood into our cart. "I was only up there for a few minutes, and it cost me almost 650 mana."
“Is that a lot?” Dad asks, unaware of just how much mana I have and how taxing my skills can be.
“Staying up in the air cost me 63% of my mana pool. So yeah, it’s a lot,” I tell him.
“Is it worth it?” Master asks from my side.
I look at Master and grin one of my biggest smiles. “Every second of it,” I happily proclaim.
While we finish with the last parts of expanding the trail to Del's house, I explain how I discovered my new skill and how I fell on my face the first time I managed to use it.
"Sounds like you," Master jokes as we push and pull the cart back towards his clearing. Master is in the front pulling the cart, while Dad and I work together to push it from behind.
The three of us laugh as we roll into Master's clearing. We park the cart next to a large pile of wood that's sitting off to the side. The pile represents all the work we did over the last two days; while most of it will be used in the forge, the unburnable stuff will be saved for construction. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few places in the mine the large logs would come in handy.
It's easy for the three of us to unload the cart, and when everything is done, I stand in front of Master and Dad. "Thanks for helping me clear the trail. I know you were busy, "I smile at Dad. "And I know you don't want people coming to your house," I turn and smile at Master. "But despite everything, the two of you came to help, no questions asked." I politely don't bring up the fact Master complained most of the time.
“Anytime, sweety,” Dad wraps his arm over my shoulder and drags me into a quick hug.
I look at Master to see what he has to say, but he decides to pretend he only came for himself. "Well, I had to make sure you didn’t cut down all the trees between my house and the village.”
I smile, knowing Master came because I asked him to, whether he wants to admit it or not.
I wait to see if Master and Dad will share a handshake or something acknowledging each other's help, but the moment is ruined when I sense someone closing in on Master's clearing. "We have company," I warn them.
The three of us turn towards the trail just as Braddon comes flying into the clearing, looking excited. He glances at us and says only two words before running back down the trail. "They're back!"
It doesn’t take me long to realize what he meant, Sandra and Richard finally made it back to the village!
Dad takes an extra minute to process what Braddon just said, but his face lights up like the sun when he comprehends his son is back home. Dad doesn't say anything as he takes off towards the front of the village.
I'm about to join him when I remember I was just thanking Master, and it would be rude of me to run off without saying anything.
I turn to apologize to Del, but he waves me off first. "Go see your brother; I'm fine."
“You could come too,” I offer.
Del shakes his head. “Too many people; besides, it isn’t my family returning.”
“Thanks, rest day tomorrow?” I ask as if I don’t already know the answer.
“Take all the time you need.” Master walks over to his bench and plops down.
With that taken care of, I turn and activate Double Step. I fly down the renovated trail and pass Braddon and Dad when I hit the village. The trail to Del's house is already close to the village's entrance, and it isn't long before I spot the crowd of villagers gathering around the cart pulled by a nearly dead bivol.
Every villager and their mom try to get close to the cart to congratulate the duo on making it home.
Everyone knows why Sandra left to study in Drey, and people are excited to see the village's first mage. Magic is the thing every villager secretly yearns for, and many think it can do anything; that's why people who know magic are regarded so highly. Like Anastasia, she can only use a small amount of healing magic, and that's enough for her to be treated better than everyone else.
I move up to the crowd and ask for people to make way, but everyone is too preoccupied with Sandra and Richard to pay attention to me.
Fine, I’ll do this the hard way. I use the same method I used to get through the group of people trying to get out of Drey.
I put my hands together and hold them out in front of me like a snowplow and slowly take a step forward. I don't push hard, but people have no way of holding their ground against me with my stats. With each step I take, the two people directly in front of me are forced to the side.
A few people turn to yell at me for pushing them, but once they see who I am, their complaining stops fast.
Soon I'm at the front of the crowd, and I see Mother and all of Sandra's family, minus Braddon, are already here smothering the couple with love.
I can vaguely hear Dad shouting at the crowd to let him through behind me, but unless he starts bulldozing his way through like I did, I don't think he's going to make it through that mess of people.
“Aaliyah!” Sandra notices me and motions for me to join the group hug. I don’t need to be told twice.
As I hug my best friend and Sarette who refuses to let go of her daughter, Mother notices that I showed up. "Aaliyah, where's your father and Braddon? I thought the two of you were working together?"
“I think Dad is stuck outside the crowd with Braddon.” I point in the direction I last heard Dad’s shouting.
Camden, who's standing nearby, smiling at his happy wife and daughter, chuckles. "We should probably move this reunion elsewhere." Camden climbs up onto the unmanned cart and uses his skill that amplifies his voice. "I want to thank everyone who showed up to congratulate my daughter and Richard's safe return. It means a lot to our families that you care so much. But this cart needs to be moved and this poor bivol taken to the stables. Please make room for us."
The crowd reluctantly starts to part in front of the beast. Almost as in a trance, the bivol starts slowly walking forward as soon as it has the room. I'll give the beast one thing; it's persistent.
Thanks to the new opening in the crowd, Dad and Braddon are able to join everyone. We all walk as a group through the village until we arrive at Brother's house. He uncouples the cart, saying he'll unload everything later.
Next, we take the zombie bivol to the stables. The weird beast obediently walks into the enclosure and stands perfectly still in the middle, content not to do anything.
“I give that thing a day before it drops dead,” Braddon says what we’re all thinking.
"I don't know. He brought us all the way from Drey; he's stronger than he looks," Sandra points out to her brother.
“Anything looks stronger than that bivol,” Braddon jokes.
We all laugh and start walking towards the headman's house. Sandra and Richard start telling us stories of their time in Drey, which we all attentively listen to, even as we file into Camden's house and into the drawing-room.
Sarette serves tea, and everyone enjoys each other's company.
"It sounds like you guys had a good time," Camden comments after one of Richards's stories involving renovating a merchant's shop.
“It was fun,” Sandra tells her dad. “Plus, we got to know each other better after living together for five years.”
Camden tries really hard not to let his face cramp up while Mother and Sarette share a smile between the two of them.
“So, does that mean you’re ready to have your wedding ceremony?” Sarette eagerly asks her daughter.
Sandra and Richard hold each other’s hands, both blushing and nod in agreement.
Mother and Sarette squeal at such a high pitch I’m surprised the china didn’t shatter.
“This is wonderful news; we’ll have to start making your wedding cords!” Mother looks so happy. Wedding ceremonies are much more spiritual in this world. The bride and the groom stand in front of their families while a person of power, usually the village head, conducts a ceremony binding the couple together. Each side of the family constructs a colorful tassel used to wrap the couple's hands together, signaling their bond to each other and the gods.
It’s expected for the women of each family to sew the tassels, so I have a feeling I’ll have to set aside some more time for Mom in the future.
"We have to celebrate!" Sarette exclaims. She stands up and leaves the room, only to come back with a bottle of wine and enough cups for everyone.
I secretly glance at Sandra and see that she’s looking at the bottle of wine like its poison.
"You don't have to break out the wine yet, Mom." Sandra tries to convince her mother to put the alcohol away, but just like my mother, Sarette doesn't change her mind that easily.
"Nonsense, this a joyous occasion, our families will finally be united. Oh, we should have the ceremony during the new year's festival! That way, the whole village will have to attend your wedding!" Sarette becomes more excited the more she talks.
“Food is tight, but we’ll only need one feast if everything is celebrated together.” Sarette continues to talk as she starts pouring cups of wine and passing them out. “I know you haven’t attended your first new year’s festival yet, but I don’t think anyone will mind if you have your first drink now.” Sarette happily hands me my own cup of wine.
I stare down at the dark red substance wondering how it's going to taste. I wasn't that much of a drinker in my past life, and I distinctly remember hating the taste of wine.
At least I’m not the only one not excited about the beverage.
Sandra takes the offered cup from her mother, and I can see her trying to think of a way out of this situation. Richard isn't much better; he looks like he's about to start sweating.
"A toast to our families finally being united," Sarette holds up her glass, and everyone mimics her. Sarette takes the first drink, followed by everyone else.
I sip my wine, seeing if it tastes good, and I'm happy to find out it isn't that bad. I'm no wine expert, but it's very fruity, like juice with a kick.
Everyone but Sandra drinks their wine with a smile. It doesn’t take long for Mother and Sarette to notice something is up.
“Why aren’t you drinking, dear?” Mom asks Sandra.
Sandra sets her cup of wine on the table without saying anything. Now everyone in the room is aware something is fishy.
“No!” Sarette shouts, looking at her daughter in disbelief. Slowly everyone realizes what’s going on.
Funny thing, in this world, almost all forms of science are stuck in colonial times but not medicine. Healing magic has allowed mages to study the human body and what ails it to quite a degree. And the fields of medicine mages have studied the most are poisons, pregnancy, and childbirth, the trifecta of reasons a noble is most likely to call on a healer.
Needless to say, it has long been known that alcohol is not good for a pregnant woman.
Camden stands up and is the first to ask. “You’re pregnant!?”
After Sandra nods, a lot of things happen all at once. Camden's face goes through every emotion possible, briefly stopping at anger when he looks at Richard before settling on happiness for his daughter. Mom and Sarette rush over to Sandra's side, asking the usual questions like how far along she is and all that good stuff.
“I noticed my mana acting weird, so I saw a specialist a few days before we left Drey. She said I'm only four weeks along," Sandra explains before looking concerned at her mother. "You aren't mad, are you?"
“Why would I be mad?” Sarette asks, concerned.
“Because we’re not married yet,” Sandra tentatively explains.
“Oh, honey,” Sarette smiles at her daughter. “The two of you love each other, right?”
"With everything," Richard smoothly replies, causing Sandra to turn a deep crimson.
“Good answer,” Camden growls.
"Ignore him; my father was just as grumpy when I told him I was pregnant for the first time," Sarette reassures Sandra and Richard. "I can tell by how much you two love each other, that it doesn't matter if you're married yet. Though, it does give us more of a reason to celebrate your union."
It's beautiful watching such a touching moment. I'm about to wipe a tear from my eye when I notice Mom staring at me. "Why weren't you surprised?" She asks me, and the room goes silent.
"What do you mean?" I try to act clueless.
“Everyone looked surprised when Sandra nodded to Camden’s question, everyone but you.” Mom, Sarette, Camden, and even Dad look at me accusingly.
I can’t tell them I noticed part of Sandra’s soul doing something weird in her uterus when I met them in the woods.
I take too long to think of an answer.
"You knew, didn't you?" Mom sounds sure she already has her answer.
Well, shit! This is what I get for keeping a friend's secret.