Reel/Four’s Point of View:
“That’s the contents of her contract,” I finish explaining to Boss Giovanni.
"That son of a bitch!" A loud thumping sound echoes through my communication device, most likely from Giovanni slamming his hands against his desk or throwing something. "Does that bastard think he can screw me!?"
"Boss, calm down," I hear Marshall try to reel in Giovanni's anger. I can only imagine what the Boss must be feeling right now. I would still be angry too if I hadn't had the time to calm myself while moving into my magic tools transmission range.
“I knew he was moving behind the scenes, trying to gain more power through Teeburn, but I didn’t imagine he would be this brazen!” The line goes silent as Giovanni simmers in his anger.
"He probably took his chance because of Scholl's invasion. After they take the city, he'll be cut off from the main branch and have free reign to do as he pleases. Grey must have realized even if we found out about his contract with Aaliyah, we don’t have the time to do anything about it,” I give my honest opinion of the situation.
I hear Giovanni sigh on the other end. "You're probably right, Four. Grey saw his opening, and he went for it, and with the terms of the contract, nothing short of killing the man will solve anything."
“Should I dispatch more numbers?” Marshall asks Giovanni.
“Aren’t most of them on assignment, making preparations for after Scholl takes Drey?” I listen in as Giovanni and Marshall discuss their options.
“Two and Five are here in Blaiton, keeping an eye on the advance scouts Scholl sent to infiltrate the city; I suppose we could send one of them to help Four." Though Marshall made the suggestion, I can tell he's against the idea by the tone of his voice.
I’m touched he’s willing to send me reinforcements even though it’s a bad idea.
“Are they making any moves?” Giovanni asks, concerned.
"They appear only to be gathering information, but one did try to infiltrate the premises posing as a laborer looking for work. Luckily, Two was already watching the individual and informed us about the spy before anything happened."
“Did we manage to get any information out of him?” Giovanni asks Marshall.
"No," Marshal's disappointed voice transmits through the communicator. "The person took some sort of poison when he was caught that rendered him permanently unconscious. I have him locked in the basement, but it's been four days since we captured him, and he hasn't so much as twitched."
“Are you keeping him alive?”
“I have people feeding him a nutritional paste. If Scholl takes the city, I figured we could earn some goodwill if we return their man alive."
"Excellent thinking, Marshall," Giovanni praises his right-hand man. That's quite the plan; I would've killed the spy and be done with it.
“Four,” Giovanni addresses me.
“Is there any danger to Aaliyah?”
“No, she seems quite fine, and I don’t see a reason for Grey to make a move against her.”
“Alright, what about yourself and Kervin? Do you think you are in any danger?”
“Definitely,” I immediately respond to Boss Giovanni. “The contract Aaliyah signed only stated Kervin was to deliver the materials. Grey wouldn’t have worded it like that if he didn’t have plans to remove Kervin afterward. Chances are there is an ambush waiting for us somewhere between the village and Drey.”
"Are you able to take care of it?" I'm happy the boss is confident in my skills, but I'm working blind here.
"If I were by myself, I would say no problem. But in regards to guarding Kervin, it all depends on how much Grey wants him dead. I at least know there will be an ambush, so I can prepare and keep an eye out, but if Grey sent someone close to my level or a large group, I'm not confident I can guarantee Kervin's life." That's my assessment of the situation; now, it depends on what Giovanni wants me to do.
“Is the village safe?” The boss’s question comes out of nowhere. Why does he care about the village; he should only care about Aaliyah’s safety?
Oh, yeah! Having to deal with Aaliyah all the time, I forgot he exiled his daughter to this village. People say Giovanni's daughter is dead to him, but I guess that isn't wholly the case. "I don't think the village has anything to worry about," I reassure him. "From what I gathered, the village plans to hold up until things settle down. They're also in the process of building an armory, and if it's filled with weapons Aaliyah made, I'm sure they can defend themselves if they need to."
“Good," Giovanni sounds more relieved. The connection goes quiet, but we're still connected. I patiently wait for the boss's decision.
"Alright, four," Giovanni gives me my orders in a commanding voice. "Escort Kervin out of the forest to the best of your abilities. Your life remains the top priority, but only abandon Kervin if there is no other choice.”
“And when we leave the forest? Are we to return to Drey?” I ask.
“No, skip Drey and bring Kervin to Blaiton. We’ll regroup while Scholl takes the city and figure out a way to get Aaliyah out of her contract even if it means killing that old bastard Grey.”
I smile hearing my orders, partially because of how much Giovanni values me and partially because I have yet to give the boss the good news. "That won't be a problem," I say into my magic tool.
The other end goes silent for a moment. “Explain,” Marshall orders.
"Aaliyah already has a way to null and void the contract without harming herself.”
"That's impossible!" Giovanni's surprised shout reverberates through the trees.
“It’s true. Apparently, she has a skill that allows her to one-sidedly destroy contracts she makes with other people.”
“Amazing!” Giovanni exclaims.
"Why didn't you tell us this earlier?!" Marshall snarls through the connection.
“You didn’t ask,” I chuckle.
“You!” Marshall sounds like he’s ready to explode.
"That's enough; you know how Four is, Marshall," Giovanni orders his bodyguard to stand down. I'll have to pay for that when I return to Blaiton, but it was worth it. Giovanni addresses me, “Four, if she can remove the contract herself, what are her plans going forward?”
I stop laughing and get serious. “Aaliyah sounded like she also plans to bide her time. She has four months before Grey comes looking for his goods.”
Giovanni thoughtfully hums. "That's smart of her. The war situation makes it difficult for any of us to move; that goes for myself and Grey. If either side rushes, the other will win. Does Aaliyah sound like she wants to work with us?"
"Most defiantly, she sounded quite mad at Grey, and she mentioned working with you to Kervin. Of course, we could just pull back and wait for her to get to level 100 and let her deal with Grey on her own," I joke.
“As tempting as that sounds, I think I’d prefer it if we remove the tumor before it grows any bigger.” I can picture Giovanni scowling on the other end of our connection. “Let Aaliyah know we’ll be in touch going forward. And Four.”
“If you run into any fools in the forest, kill them all!”
“With pleasure,” I smile into the magic tool.
Aaliyah’s point of View:
This is the worst tea party I’ve ever attended.
Kervin and his two guards stand around looking somber, sipping tea like they're about to be executed.
I know things are bleak for them, but they still have Reel. He can be an ass at times, but Reel is strong and loyal. There is no way he would leave them to die… unless he was ordered to, and I don't see Giovanni doing that. But I've been wrong before.
I look over where Reel walked into the forest. It’s been over an hour since he left to contact Giovanni, and even I’m starting to get a little worried he left Kervin behind.
No, I can’t think like that. If I’m going to work with Reel and his boss, I have to have to trust they’ll do the right thing. I’ll prepare for the worst-case scenario, but I’ll trust in Reel and Giovanni until they prove to me I can’t. But I’m sure as hell not signing any more contracts.
I try to think of something to say to cheer everyone up, but nothing comes to mind. While I'm brooding over what I should say, I smile when I sense the familiar void of mana in the forest nearby.
“He’s back,” I grab everyone’s attention and look at the area of trees where Reel will emerge from.
“And here I thought I was being sneaky,” Reel smiles as he walks into Master’s clearing. “I was told my magic tool would perfectly hide me from spells up to tier 4. I guess I'll need to get my money back."
“You should let me see it first. I’ve studied my mana obscuring magic tool, but it only scrambles the magic around a person. Whatever you’re using creates a void, so magic senses and spells can’t penetrate it.”
“Then how are you always able to find me?” Reel gives me a dubious look.
"A lot of scary things have popped out of the woods over the last year, so I make sure to scan my surroundings constantly. An area void of magic is just as suspicious as a hidden monster."
Reel shakes his head like he doesn't believe what he's hearing. "I've stalked plenty of mages, and not one of them was able to sense me. Sensing an area void of magic shouldn't be possible."
“I feel bad for the people you were stalking. If they practiced their skills more, you would’ve had more of a challenge,” I grin at Reel as he joins our grim tea party with a smile. “So, what’s the word from your boss?” Kervin, Lurte, and Ryiba move in close to Reel, anxious to hear their fate.
“Giovanni said he would be in touch and asked you not to do anything rash." I'm happy to hear about Giovanni's support, but I'm more interested in what's happening with Kervin's situation.
“What about us; what do we do?” Kervin pleads for an answer.
"What else are we supposed to do? We leave," Reel tells Kervin.
Kervin is so surprised his mouth opens, only nothing comes out. "That's it," Ryiba does not have the same problem as Kervin. "What are we supposed to do about the assassins!?"
Reel's expression hardens and draws one of his daggers for show, forcing everyone to take a step back. "We kill anyone stupid enough to try. Their cover has already been blown, so as long as we're careful, we can ambush them."
“Can’t we wait for backup or something?” Kervin anxiously asks Reel.
Reel shakes his head. "There's no time for us to wait for reinforcements. If we don't leave now, we'll be cut off by Scholl's army. Then there's the possibility that the people Grey sent after us will come to the village if we stay here any longer. And Giovanni was quite clear we're not to endanger the village."
Lurte and Ryiba put their hands on their weapons, mentally preparing themselves while Reel continues to explain. “After we ambush our attackers, we leave the forest and join the wagon train heading for Blaiton.”
Kervin perks up. “We’re not going back to Drey? What about my house?”
Reel grins, showing off his teeth. “You’re welcome to stop by Drey as we pass by, but I won’t be protecting you.”
Kervin sags in defeat. I can understand how he's feeling; he has years' worth of goods stored in his house, and if he leaves it behind, it'll probably be looted in the chaos.
“You can buy a bigger house and fill it with as much crap as you want after you sell my goods,” I try to cheer him up. “But you can’t sell anything if you’re dead,” I remind him.
“You’re right,” Kervin sighs.
“We should get everything prepared and leave soon,” Reel informs everyone.
“Who made you the boss,” Ryiba challenges Reel.
Reel raises his nose and looks down on Ryiba. "From here on out, I'm in charge, and if you want to live, you'll follow everything I say."
Ryiba looks like he wants to punch Reel in the face, but Lurte stops him by putting a hand on his friend's shoulder.
“Fine,” Ryiba reluctantly agrees to Reel’s terms.
I step forward, “if you need some help, I can go with you guys.” I don’t want to find out later that Kervin was killed because of the contract I signed.
“No,” Reel quickly denies my help.
“Why? I’m just as strong as you are, maybe stronger,” I challenge back.
"Your life is more important than any of ours," Reel tells me with an expressionless face. "If we die, Giovanni will avenge us. If you die, Giovanni will kill us and lose everything he's invested into your growth."
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I whine.
“That’s how the world works,” Reel flatly tells me. “Let’s get moving!” Everyone is slow to move at first, but Kervin, Lurte, and Ryiba follow Reel's orders and get the cart ready and get moving in no time at all.
I stand next to my pile of ore, watching the group disappear back down the path that leads to the village. Master, who’s been listening in on everything, walks up next to me. “They’ll be ok. That man is quite strong.”
“I know,” I respond in a quiet voice. Again, people are going out of their way to protect me; it makes me feel weak and useless. And I'm not weak or useless!
I need to improve more, so this never happens again. “Master.”
"I'm heading home; make sure you sleep well tonight because tomorrow we'll be busy."
“I figured. Hurry home before your mom gets mad,” Master playfully nudges my side.
“Ok, see you tomorrow.” I bid Master goodbye and slowly walk home, thinking over what needs to be done… what will be done. I’ll make the best equipment ever!
Day one of forging my new gear is in full swing. Mana Skin struggles to protect me from the heat given off from the smelter. The flames are charged with mana from the blacksmithing logs and the magicite we're using as fuel.
Even the early spring breeze isn’t enough to combat the heat radiating off the furnace.
While I care for the smelter, Master is filing up a wheelbarrow with kaglese ore and bringing it over for me to add to the molten glob of metals.
The gods should bless Master. By the time I arrived this morning, he already had the fire going and a pile of fuel ready to keep the smelter going all day.
“Master, I’m ready to tap the slag again!” I shout over the roar of the flames.
“Alright, I’ll grab the mold." Master brings over one of the simple wooden molds we built. Slag is the molten waste rock we don't need from the kaglese ore. We usually work with relatively pure iron, meaning we don't have to deal with that much slag. However, the kaglese ore is mostly waste rock, so as we smelt it, we're continually draining the slag.
We're using the mold to make slag bricks. I'll have to test the exact composition of the slag later, but depending on their hardness, we might be able to use them in construction or grind them up to create a type of concrete. Waste not what you can use.
Master moves the mold into place, and I open the valve with a long steel piece that we added an insulated handle to. The molten slag looks like lava as it pours out. Once the mold is full, I close the tap and start shoveling more ore into the smelter.
When the smelter is full again, I can back away for a moment and catch a breath of fresh air that won't burn my lungs. The new ore needs to melt and mix with what is already in the smelter. We don't drain the smelter completely because keeping some of the molten metal in there helps liquify the new ore faster, saving us valuable blacksmithing logs and magicite.
"Here," Master hands me a waterskin, which I quickly drain.
"Thanks," I say, handing him back the now empty waterskin. "How many slag bricks does that make?"
“That was the twelfth.” Master gestures over to the side where the slag bricks are cooling.
Each brick is 18’’ long, 8’’ wide, 8’’ tall. The bricks aren't as heavy as if they were pure metal, but they show how much ore we've already processed. And all we have to show for our work is three ingots of kaglese, with probably another one and a half worth still molten in the bottom of the smelter. It goes to show how hard the metal is to process.
"We're making good time, at least. How much do you think we've smelted?" I ask, looking at the pile of ore Kervin delivered yesterday.
“I’d say we’re a little over 10% done,” Master gives me his best guess.
I calculate we'll have approximately 120 slag bricks and 40 kaglese ingots before the day is through with some quick math. Forty ingots, that's what I have to work with until the new year. Other than the arrows I have to make, everything will be mixed with steel and mithril to produce the optimal alloy.
“This is going to take a long time,” I grumble.
“I remember someone telling me she wanted to do everything at once,” master mocks me with a shit-eating grin.
"Can you blame me? I'm tired of using Dad's spare axe every time I leave the house. I need something stronger that can handle mana properly."
"Kaglese doesn't react to mana like your old sword did," Master points out to me.
“It will when I enchant it!” I snap back.
"Oh, and how are your experiments going? The last time you practiced in my clearing, I couldn't sleep with all your frustrated shouting."
I don't have a response to that; instead, I tell him about Sandra. "Sandra agreed to help me experiment with the engraving ink. With two people working on it, I'm sure we'll have more success."
“Really?” Master asks, surprised.
"No," I admit. "But there's always hope." Master and I share a laugh.
We relax for a few more minutes before I need to add more ore to the smelter.
As I’m shoveling, Master asks me, “you sure you don’t want to take turns?”
“With your Vitality?! You’d probably burst into flames,” I yell over the forge.
"Girl, I've been working around heat longer than your parents have been alive. Vitality isn't as important as you think it is. I wish I never answered your stupid question in the first place."
I shovel quicker, so I can have this conversation without worrying my mana skin might ignite from the heat. Once the smelter is full again, I add a few more logs and magicite to the fire before moving back over to Master Del.
"You should have told me sooner," I complain. "After you got hurt, you told me you had too much Vitality for Anastasia to heal you; it's no wonder you needed two days to heal?" I go full-on mom mode and stare accusingly at Master.
"You're 50 years too young to admonish me. The reason I told you that was because I didn't need you fussing over me like you are now. I may have a low Vitality compared to you, but it's the same as any other villager. I chose to invest most of my points into Strength to combat my mana weakness as a kid, and it isn't good to change your stat distribution halfway through your life."
"I've been able to put more points into Endurance, and I have the tier 4 skill Heat Resistance skill. I might not be able to block everything like your mana skill, but when it comes to a forge, I'm confident I'll outlast you. It is not your job to worry about me."
"Now that you mention it, I could use a longer break," I admit.
“Scoot over and let me show you how it’s done,” Master strolls up next to me and recoils. “Torrow’s forge, that’s hot!”
“Still want to help?”
"I got this," Master says confidently. "Grab the mold from one of the cooler slag bricks and get ready."
"Right away, Master Del," I playfully salute, which gets me a confused reaction from Master.
Today may be all hard work, but at least it's easy. Tomorrow is arguably the most essential step, and though it won't be as labor-intensive, it will be mentally.
Day two of forging and I let out a long yawn just as I finish organizing my workbench. After yesterday my body is still a little sore, but at least I passed out last night without having to hop into my soul.
“Tired?” Master asks as he preps the forge for me.
"It's weird, I got the best sleep last night, but I'm still tired.” I stretch out my arms and jump up and down, trying to get my blood pumping.
“I know a good solution.”
“What?” I humor Master, knowing where this is going.
"Sleep more," Master tells me and starts laughing; I can't help but smile at his punch line.
“I’ll get right on that,” I tell him.
I wait for the fire to reach a proper temperature, grab a kaglese ingot with some tongs, and put it in the fire. Once it starts to glow, I move it over to the anvil, where I proceed to use our axe to cut off even chunks of the ingot. I need five small samples of kaglese for my first round of experiments.
The goal of today is to find the best ratio of kaglese, steel, and mithril. I need to know the alloy ratio if I’m going to make the best products I can without wasting my kaglese stockpile.
Using a scale, I weigh out each piece of kaglese and note down how much it weighs. Master informed me the kaglese alloy he was most familiar with was 55% steel, 35% kaglese, and 10% mithril. Kaglese is already a good mana conductor, so the amount of mithril makes sense to me.
I can add the mithril later, so I start by testing kaglese and steel combinations. Master and I made what we call testing crucibles in our spare time for just these kinds of situations. The last time I was testing metals, we only had two crucibles, and it took a long time to test all the ratios. This time we have five small crucibles, three of which can fit in the forge at once.
The first sample I prepare will follow Master's ratio. For the other four samples, I'll change the percentages by 1% each. I jot down which crucible holds each sample and the ratio it will use.
Pot 1: 55% Steel – 35% Kaglese – 10% Mithril
Pot 2: 54% Steel – 36% Kaglese – 10% Mithril
Pot 3: 53% Steel – 37% Kaglese – 10% Mithril
Pot 4: 56% Steel – 34% Kaglese – 10% Mithril
Pot 5: 57% Steel – 33% Kaglese – 10% Mithril
I hope the ratio with higher steel content ends up being the better option, that way, I can save some more kaglese.
Sealing the pots one by one, I start moving them into the forge. Like with the smelter yesterday, I need to watch the forge's flames to ensure everything remains hot enough to melt the samples. The kaglese is stronger than the steel and melts at a higher temperature, so if the forge doesn't stay hot enough, the two metals won't combine right.
Kaglese is known for being a hard metal to work with and not bonding correctly. Still, thanks to my mana senses, I can monitor each crucible and know if everything is melting adequately based on the individual metals' internal mana. When they fuse correctly, there is a noticeable shift in the molten alloy's structure.
Once again, my mana skills play a huge role in my success. If I didn't practice Sense Mana so much as a kid, I wouldn't be able to sense such intricate details today. Thinking about it, Sense mana is almost to level 80. After I broke through the test on level 75, my skill leveled slower, like Meditation, but I'm sure my abilities are improving. It might be hard to tell, but I can scan a hair farther each day.
I know such small gains can seem unimportant at times, but I spent months as a baby doing nothing but trying to sense my mana, so I can appreciate steady growth.
While the crucibles are heating up, I glance over at Master, who's lying down on his bench. I'll call him over when I need to start working the metal samples, but until then, I'll leave him be.
Master understands what I'm doing, but he's never had to care about perfect mana to strength ratios before.
After I go through all five samples, I’ll add the mithril to each and see how they react.
The steps will have to be repeated dozens of times, and I expect to go through at least 25 samples today. Perfection is hard to obtain but worth it.
I plan to earn a lot of experience through my crafting and subsequently create the best weapons and goods I can. But first, I need to get these ratios right and craft my new gear. That will be the fun part.
I walk into Master's clearing on the third day of forging my new gear with the wind at my back and a pep in my step. After two days of nonstop prepping, I’m ready to start crafting.
“You’re coming earlier each day,” Master calls out to me as I approach the forge. He’s still moving blacksmithing logs and magicite over to the forge for later.
"I'm excited to get to make something finally," I smile at Del.
“I understand,” Master chuckles. “There is nothing like working a new metal for the first time. And I’m sure that feeling is double for you after you put so much effort into your preparation.”
I’m happy to have someone who understands me. Unlike two nights ago, I was so excited for today I couldn’t fall asleep last night and was forced to meditate in my soul.
"I'll get the forge going while you prepare your crucible." Master helps me get started just like the last few days.
I move over to use the scale and weigh out the exact proportions I need. I'm using our largest Crucible because I need enough metal to forge a dagger and a sword. These two weapons will be the first things I make with my improved alloy, but they won't be the last.
I chose these two to start with because they're more straightforward in design and give me a chance to get used to the metal. My overall goal is to create four weapons for myself, a dagger, a sword, an axe, and a war hammer. I love practicing with a sword, but I'm not ignorant enough to not realize a heavier weapon is more suited for me.
The sword and dagger can be made today, but I'll need to spend a day on the axe and war hammer individually.
I finish weighing and calculating the materials to my exact specifications. Yesterday I concluded the alloy's optimum ratio turned out to be 53.4% Steel, 37.4% Kaglese, and 9.2% Mithril. Overall, the alloy was more expensive, but the final product was definitely at least low tier 4 in quality.
After adding everything into the crucible, I seal it and place it in the forge.
"What are you making first?" Master asks now that we have some downtime. The only thing I need to do is watch the forge's temperature.
“I’m going to make a dagger first, then a sword.”
"Sticking with a sword, huh?" Master is obviously thinking I'm making a questionable decision.
"That's to start with," I point out before he gets the wrong idea. "I also plan on creating an axe, war hammer, and some armor for myself."
Master Del nods approvingly. "That's good; I was worried I'd have to talk you into changing weapons. The armor won't hurt you either."
“The armor will be the most challenging part, so I’m saving that for last. I’m already thinking of designs that would protect me and won’t hinder my movement too much.”
“What are you thinking of?”
"I was thinking of making plates that could be attached to some strong leather. Maybe cast my arms and legs and make the plates perfectly fit over my shins and forearms. It would leave my joints open, but I think it will be an ok trade-off.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Master remarks.
Our conversation quietly dies out, and my mind goes to Kervin and Reel. "Master?"
"Do you think Kervin and them are doing ok? They're getting closer to the edge of the woods by now."
Master looks at me out of the corner of his eye before looking up at the sky. He doesn't outright assure me that they'll be ok and chooses to think over my question before answering.
"I'm not sure," Master finally admits, still looking up at the passing clouds. "All I can tell you is I think they have a fighting chance. That Reel fellow seemed quite strong and bloodthirsty. If he's in charge, they might make it. The only thing you can do is believe in them and pray to the gods for their protection."
I scoff at the notion of praying for salvation. I can think of a goddess who would love to watch people kill each other rather than save them.
“You shouldn’t dismiss the gods,” Master frowns at me.
"Sorry," I apologize even though I don't mean it. I have no intention to mock people's religions; hell, it's pretty hard to when you've met a divine being. I won't pretend I know what the other gods are like, but I don't want to risk drawing their attention to myself.
Instead, I’d rather do what Master said and wish everyone a safe journey to Blaiton. It would be nice if everyone was wrong and Mr. Grey didn’t send out assassins, but I don’t think any amount of wishing will help with that.
I get up and add some more fuel to the fire. I'll create the best weapons I can, and next time I'll make sure I can help them.