Master Pacore the Deathless’ Point of View:
As my men tear my tent down for me, I adjust my armor and take in the morning air. The smell of the forest enhances the spring breeze.
I hear the forest birds chirping in the distance, creating a soothing melody anybody would enjoy.
“Do the flying rats never shut up?!” Young Jason complains nearby. “Is it too much to ask for some peace and quiet?” Poor Jason curses, starting to develop dark circles under his eyes from the lack of sleep he’s been getting.
“Still not used to the sounds of the forest, I see,” I chuckle at the city boy. “You know the birds won’t hurt you, right?”
Young Jason frowns and looks like he's considering stabbing me. "Not all of us are invincible as you, sir," Jason venomously retorts. "When something snaps a branch outside my tent, it worries me. If I had your stats, I wouldn’t care about the noises at night either. It must be nice knowing nothing can hurt you."
I give young Jason a sad smile. “I wish that were true, Jason. But there are still many things in this world that can kill me.” Looking out into the forest, I remember the dragon’s breath and how much damage I suffered from blocking it, it was the closest I’ve come to death in a long time, even more so than my fight with General Pitz.
Jason nervously looks around our camp, thinking I’m talking about the invisible beasts the village head warned us about. “Do you think they’re watching us?” He nervously asks me.
Jason is too preoccupied scanning the woods to see the smile on my face. "Perhaps, what do you think, General Pitz?" I ask my silent companion standing next to me.
“There’s nothing out there," General Pitz dryly remarks. Even suppressed as she is, General Pitz would be the first of us to notice anything dangerous trying to creep up on us.
The general’s words calm young Jason down. “That’s good to hear. I’ve been expecting some sort of monster to pop out of nowhere since we entered the forest.”
"I know, it's too bad we haven't seen one yet," I grin at Jason. General Pitz hums in agreement; she must be interested in the invisible spiders as well.
“The two of you are nuts,” Jason nervously scans the tree line once more before my men finish packing up our supplies.
I offer General Pitz a hand to help her back up on the jelen. Usually, she’d swat my outstretched hand away, but General Pitz has reluctantly started to accept my help over the last few days and lets me help her mount the animal. It’s fun to tease her at times, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect her.
Since we started heading to Spotted Creek Village, I’ve noticed a slight change in her emotions. The general tries to keep up a neutral facade around me, knowing I’m always keeping an eye on her. But in rare moments, I see an excited look on her face. A look that’s appearing more frequently the closer we get to the village.
The general’s excitement has only fueled my curiosity, and after pushing hard yesterday, we should make it to the village in under an hour if we hustle.
“Why would anyone build a village this far out?” Young Jason complains as we start trekking down the forest trail. “No one travels this deep into the forest.”
“I wouldn’t say that. This trail has seen more travel than most of the villages we’ve been to. If you look closely, you can see the signs that a cart has been through here regularly. And if it weren't used, this trail would be much more overgrown than it is." Jason is surprised upon hearing this and tries to look for the details he missed as I point them out.
I mention it out loud, but I notice this trail has obviously been frequently used. One particular set of wagon tracks is especially deep, meaning something heavy was delivered to the village recently.
Our trip remains uneventful until one of my forward scouts slowly drifts back to the middle of our formation, where young Jason and I are walking next to General Pitz on her jelen.
“Sir,” the scout motions to the side of the trail.
“I noticed,” I tell him. The scout nods and moves back into position
“Noticed what?” Jason curiously asks me.
I ignore Jason's question and look up at General Pitz. We make eye contact with each other, trying to read each other's minds. I make no effort to hid my happy expression while General Pitz remains stone-faced under my scrutiny. Her only tell is that she's gripping the jelen's reigns too tightly.
Jason notices our stare-down and asks worriedly, “what is it?”
“A scout,” I finally tell him, without turning away from the general.
"So, every village has had scouts waiting for us." I don't look at Jason, but I can hear the confusion in his voice.
“Those were hunters watching the roads,” I explain to him. “The person who just spotted us was above level 50, not something you usually see in a small village.”
General Pitz decides to break our eye contact, choosing to stare ahead of us rather than pretend she doesn't know anything.
I briefly consider this might be some sort of trap to recover the general, but I quickly dismiss that possibility. We’re too far away from any of Olebert’s forces, and visiting this village wasn’t even on our original schedule. That doesn’t take away the fact someone above level 50 was watching this road.
“Level 50!” Jason exclaims.
I can understand his shock. Even in Scholl, where strength is revered and rewarded, it's rare for villagers to reach level 50. If a person reaches level 40 in their lifetime, it's because they worked hard for it. But for a villager to reach level 50, it takes talent, drive, and altogether opportunity. Unless a villager joins the army and receives help, they rarely pass the level 50 mark.
The squad I brought with us consists of two scouts around level 50, fourteen soldiers around level 45, a mage at level 53, another mage at level 57, their two guardians at level 62 and 64, while the commander is level 72.
It takes on average five years of training for a villager to reach the levels required to be a soldier and even longer to reach a higher-ranking position.
As soon as someone reaches level 50, they're considered superior, and the nobility tries everything they can to draw in such individuals. So, why is someone like that out here?
“Men, keep an eye out. This isn't a typical village we're heading to!"
“Sir!” They all sound off together, acknowledging my orders. Jason pales a bit and moves closer to me, knowing I’m the safest person to stand next to should something go wrong.
A spark of excitement lights a fire in my chest.
What kind of village produces a level 50 woodsman? I can’t wait to find out!
Aaliyah’s Point of View:
“That was a nice little warm-up run,” I joke to Mom.
"Funny," mom wheezes out as she wipes the sweat from her face.
We've just finished our morning run together, and I'm about to start round two, where I use my movement skills. Mom has leveled up her Running skill quite a bit since we started running together, but she's not to the point she can keep up with me if I use any of my skills.
“You think we can finish brothers tassel when I get back?” I ask mom as she starts to catch her breath.
"Maybe," mom answers coyly. "If we don't finish your brother’s tassel today, we can always finish it during your next break." Mom smirks at me, knowing my dislike for sewing. Give me a hammer or any other tool, and I'm good to go; ask me to sew a three-inch seam, and my Dexterity immediately drops to zero.
“Why do I get the feeling your stalling on purpose?” I narrow my eyes at Mom.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Mom cocks her head to the side, smiling like a saint.
Now I know she’s stalling!
I'm about to make a snappy remark when a bell starts ringing in the distance.
“Is that?” I ask Mom as her eyes widen in fear. A few other villagers going about their day nearby freeze for a second before running off in a panic.
That’s the emergency bell ringing! There is only one thing that can mean.
Scholl is approaching the village!
"Get inside, Mom!" I fling open our door with my right hand and push mom inside with my left. Once she is inside, I follow her in and run to my room, not bothering to remove my shoes.
“Aaliyah!” Mom chases after me and stands in my doorway, watching me throw on my armor. “Stay here with me,” she pleads as I put my helmet on.
"I can't," I tell her as I grab my axe resting nearby. I double-check my dagger and sword are correctly fastened before I move to leave my room.
Mom blocks the doorway with tears in her eyes. “Please,” she begs in a quiet voice.
I swiftly move over to mom and wrap her in a hug. “I have to go,” I whisper in her ear.
Her grip tightens around me, not wanting to let go, so I pick her up and move her out of my way. I gently separate myself from my mother and make for the front door.
“Lock the door after me!” I tell her, slamming the door close as soon as I'm outside before Mom can argue with me.
I wish I could stay with her, but I know where I need to be.
Using Double Step, I run towards Camden's house. There's been plenty of discussions should Scholl come to our village and everyone knows where they should be. Those with non-physical builds should hide in their homes while everyone else gathers at Camden’s house to be given a weapon.
When I arrive at the headman’s house, people have already gathered and started helping to drag all the weapons out from Camden’s basement. The spears I made are being passed around along with the other weapons that were stored with them. As villagers arm themselves, I see Camden wearing a set of worn leather armor, standing next to his family and Ronald.
All three of Camden's children are wearing nicer sets of armor, especially Sandra. Mages are the first ones targeted in a fight, after all.
My special armor and the large axe I'm carrying stick out in the crowd, and I'm quickly noticed.
“Aaliyah!” Sandra sees me and calls me over.
Villagers step aside as I make my way over to the small group.
“They’re here?” I ask as soon as I stand in front of Camden.
“They are,” Camden says in a somber tone. “Ronald spotted a whole platoon of them approaching.”
“They noticed me,” Ronald briefly mutters.
Shit! If they noticed Ronald when he was hiding, then they have to be around his level or higher. Why the hell are people like that coming to our village? If one or two showed up the alarm wouldn’t have been raised, but a whole platoon, seriously!?
“How is everything going here?” I ask, trying to keep the nervousness from my voice.
“People are grabbing their weapons and moving towards the front of the village. We’ll try to keep Scholl from entering,” Camden hastily explains.
“How far out are they?”
“Twenty minutes,” Camden tells me.
“You should head over and start organizing people into ranks,” I suggest to Camden. “I’ll go get Master.”
“That won’t be needed.” I’m surprised to hear Master’s voice.
We all turn to see Del walking over, wearing his armor and carrying his largest hammer.
“I wasn’t sure you would be joining us,” Camden looks relieved to see Master.
Del scoffs at Camden's remark. "I'm here to watch over my apprentice, not to help the village," Master says that but I don't think anyone believes him.
“No matter the reason, I’m grateful,” Camden briefly bows his head.
I expect Master to demand a proper thank you, stone kin style, but he doesn’t. Master Del just turns to me. "Stay next to me, kid. Your mother will kill me if something happens to you."
“She’ll kill both of us,” I lightly joke.
Master and I share a smile which is quickly interrupted by Camden. “We need to head to the front of the village.”
Time is of the essence, so our group of people rushes to the front of the village together. Camden Starts organizing everybody based on their weapons. The people who were given a sword from Camden's collection are also given one of the bucklers I made and put on the front lines. Most of the villagers are armed with the spears I made, and Camden must have considered the possibility of Scholl attacking our village because his plan isn’t something you’d think of on the fly.
Camden orders those with axes to chop down the nearby trees and stack them to create a rudimentary wall. He instructs the villagers with spears to stand behind the logs and stab anyone who tries to get over them. It won't do much against people with high physical stats, but every little bit helps.
While everyone is scrambling around preparing everything, I see Dad join the party in his thickest tunic, wielding his best axe. Dad scans the crowd and sees me looking at him. He walks over to me, and I can see the sad look on his face.
“Mom?” I knowingly ask him.
Dad nods his head. "It was hard to leave her in that state." He must have gone back home before he came here and saw mom.
“Aaliyah, if something should happen, I want,” dad starts telling me in a somber voice.
I stop dad before he can raise any flags. "Whatever you want to tell me, we can discuss it after we apologize to mom for leaving her home."
Dad looks like he wants to say something else but stops when he sees my resolve. “Later then,” he mumbles.
Dad still looks tense, so I help him the only way I know how. I lightly elbow him, "you looked pretty heroic there for a second. Show that to mom, and we'll get off scot-free."
Dad smiles a little. “I’ll think about it.”
The two of us work together to help erect more log barriers until another scout runs up the trail and informs everyone that Scholl is five minutes out.
“Alright, everyone, get into position!" Camden shouts. "You four, back up! You two, move forward! Nobody is to attack unless I order it! A fight is the last thing we want, but show no fear to our guests!" Camden reminds everyone that our goal is to show our strength, so we aren't taken advantage of, not start an unwinnable war.
We have log barriers on either side of the clearing with a gap in the middle. Camden stands in the opening, with a line of villagers in front of him, ready to negotiate with whoever is coming. Master, dad, and I stand next to Camden, being the best physical fighters, while Sandra stands in the back with the archers, guarded by brother.
The next five minutes are tense as everything becomes quiet. The sound of marching footsteps slowly grows louder until the first two Scholl soldiers round the trail and stop when they see us. Both of them are in light armor and look surprised to see us.
One of them whistles, and the rest of Scholl's soldiers neatly march into sight, unperturbed by our show of force.
I feel my chest tighten as I scan the soldiers. I don't use Sense Soul to its full potential, but I use it to gather a rough estimate of everyone's level. Most of them are in the '40s, four of them are in the '50s, two are in the 60's range, one above level 70 like me, and….
I feel the blood drain from my face when I scan the lady on the jelen and the old man standing next to her.
Both of their souls are massive, easily eclipsing Masters!
They aren't as terrifying as the soul eater, but both of them are surely over level 100. And their gear!
The woman ridding the jelen is wearing multiple magic bands that seem to contain and hide her true power. But the old man with feathers in his beard, he's wearing a full set of invisible armor! The magic contained in his equipment is ridiculous. The magic Gem hidden under the plate on his back is the size of a fuckin apple!
The old man scans our fortifications, smiling and nodding like a proud grandfather at his grandkids building a sandcastle. He’s not worried in the slightest.
I need to warn Camden before he pisses off a pair of monsters!
Master Pacore the Deathless’ Point of View:
Would you look at this!
I can barely contain my excitement. The last five days were worth it to see such a great village.
Young Jason gulps loudly, seeing the armed villagers leveling their weapons at us. And what great weapons they are! Which one of them was the talented blacksmith who made them?
I scan over the weaker villagers until I see the pair standing next to who I suspect is the village headman. I have to keep myself from shouting in joy when I see the Stone kin. Those hermits never leave their mountainous kingdoms.
So why is he here?
The answer is obvious when I don’t sense much mana in him. He’s an exile then, one who can’t use magic. Was he able to make those spears without sensing magic? Maybe with a skill?
No, I doubt it.
Then the red-haired child standing next to him, maybe? I try sensing her mana levels and am surprised not to feel anything. That means she's wearing a mana obscuring magic tool. What level is she?
I activate Measure Opponent, a skill I gained after countless battles, only to choke after inhaling too quickly.
"Master Pacore," young Jason looks at me, concerned when I start coughing.
"I'm fine," I shoo the boy away and glance up at General Pitz. She's staring at the girl with a shocked expression as well, as she should. I've never met someone who has reached such a high level at such a young age in all my years of living.
Not even royalty can level that fast, and they have an entire kingdom of recourses behind them.
I examine the people around her just to make sure my skill isn't broken. That's when I notice other individuals of note. The headman is over level 50. I spot the archer who observed us earlier, also above level 50. Each place I look, I see more talented individuals hidden amongst the villagers. They even have a mage in the back, readying a spell. She and the boy next to her also have a high level for their age, but nothing comparable to the child standing next to the Stone kin.
“Talent, everywhere,” I whisper to myself.
I look back at the red-haired girl next to the stone kin and see she's paled a bit since I last glanced at her. She's looking between General Pitz and me with obvious worry in her eyes.
She can properly judge a person’s strength too?!
I want nothing more than to rush over to the girl and demand she become my apprentice.
“Welcome, soldiers of Scholl. Spotted Creek Village welcomes you!” The headman waves his arms in a grand gesture, with the confidence of a small army backing him.
It’s hard to suppress my laughter. The headman has quite a few strong people backing him, especially that stone kin. But all his bolstering is pointless with me here.
It becomes even harder not to laugh when I see the red-haired girl snap her head to the side and look at the headman like he's lost it. She hurries to his side and whispers in his ear.
The headman's confident smile immediately turns into a look of utter dread. To his credit, the headman fixes his expression like a seasoned politician before any of the other villagers' notice. She must have warned him of my strength.
Let’s see how he deals with me now? “And what a welcome it is!” I confidently take a step forward. “Do I take this as a sign your village objects to Scholl’s rule?”
The headman grounds his teeth, thinking of an answer, while the girl moves back next to the stone kin. Both of them look ready to rush in despite knowing they wouldn't win. If they do attack, I'd have to hold the two of them off while the commander deals with the rest.
The headman takes a few deep breaths and finally finds his answer. “Our village does not object to Scholl’s rule. You can’t fault our reactions when you march a platoon of soldiers to our village. We may be weaker than you, but we won’t roll over when threatened.”
Good, I like this man. Despite knowing our strength, he doesn’t bow under pressure. He’d be a village head in Scholl as well if he were born there.
"Then you'll be happy to know this is merely my escort," I motion to my men. "I'm traveling to local villages as the representative of Scholl like our letter said. You did get our letter, right?"
"As an official representing Scholl, I need people to keep me safe." Spotted Creek's headman frowns. I hear a few snickers from the soldiers around me, but we're too far away for the villagers to hear them. "How about this, I leave my men here, and you sit down with my two advisors and me?" I gesture to young Jason, who looks like a nervous rabbit, and General Pitz.
I've successfully put the headman in a difficult position; he either has to acknowledge he's scared to be alone with me, to his entire village, or risk a private meeting.
The headman is displeased by my ultimatum, but as a good headman should, he takes responsibility for his people. "I accept; the three of you can follow me, but I'll be bringing along a few of my own trusted people too."
"Of course," I grin at the headman.
I help General Pitz down from the jelen and pat Jason on the back, reassuring him everything will be alright.
While we walk over to the headman, I see him whispering with the Stone kin and the red-hared girl. Both of them nod and take a position on either side of him. I was hoping he would bring her along. It's only natural they escort us because the two of them appear to be the strongest fighters in the village.
We reach the front line of villagers who are still leveling their spears at us. It’s nice to see they don’t have much fear in their eyes, but I know that would change if they knew who they were dealing with.
"Let them through." The headman issues an order, and the villagers warily part enough for us to walk through them. "Nicolas, you're in charge. If you hear any commotion from the village, assume the worst."
"I understand, father." The young man who resembles the headman glares at me as we approach. It makes sense that the headman's child is just as capable as his father.
When I stand in front of Spotted Creek’s headman, I expect him to at least flinch a little under the weight of my pressure, but he straightens his back and looks me in the eye. “You can follow me this way.”
The headman leads us through the quiet village while the girl and stone kin keep an eye on us. I see him leading us to an impressive house that must be his home, but I'm too excited to sit indoors. "Your village is beautiful," when I break the ice, all three of them jump slightly.
“Thank you,” the headman awkwardly replies.
“Your village is doing much better than the others we’ve visited. I don’t suppose you would show me your fields?” He doesn’t have a reason to deny my request. It’s safer for him if we stay outside.
"I suppose that's ok; follow me this way." The headman shifts our course and walks us through the rest of the village.
But now that we have a simple dialog going, I don't need to hold myself back. "I was told you had a goblin problem. But I can see how you handled it. Did you fend them off yourselves, or did the local lord send help?"
"News of the war had already reached the village by the time we noticed the goblins. The local lord said he'd send hunters after it was taken care of." The headman sounds awkward, mentioning the fact we were expected to lose. I glance at General Pitz to see her reaction, but she's working hard keeping a neutral expression.
“I’m guessing that didn’t work out,” I joke to the headman, seeing how he reacts to my jab.
“No, it didn’t.” He flatly answers me.
“Must have been thanks to these two,” I grin at the girl walking to our left. She looks me straight in the eye, and for a moment, I feel naked under her gaze.
"The whole village participated in the hunt. We lost good people," The headman notices my interest in the girl. I'm not the only one either, General Pitz might be keeping a straight face, but she hasn't taken her eyes off the girl since she started escorting us.
“I could only imagine a village facing the threat of a horde on its own. You did well repelling them,” I offer my sincere praise, but I don’t think the headman sees it that way.
"We survived," is all he answers.
“And the magic beasts?” I ask. “The last village said you unleashed them on the forest.”
“Some blamed us, yes, but most understood it was out of our control. They were hunting the goblins and forced them out of the magic dense region of the forest."
"I'm curious, were are the beasts? I was hoping to see one on the way here, but nothing appeared. Are they really invisible?" As I ask my questions, I cast a side glance at the girl again; she's still watching my every move. "Did you help hunt them too?" I ask the red-haired girl to her face.
"That's none of your business," she icily tells me. I can see that she's cautious of me, but I get the feeling she's trying to think of a way to defeat me. She has the same look as Tabitha does when we spar.
The headman tries to bring my attention back to him. “The magic beasts turned out to be giant spiders that could camouflage themselves in the trees.”
"That sounds interesting," I pretend to switch my focus to the headman, but I'm more interested in the young girl. Now that I'm close to her, I can tell she's much younger than Jason. Her vitality makes her exact age hard to predict, but I'd wager she's around twenty. "Are they still in the forest? I can send my men in to clear them out if you want?" I offer.
"There's no need," the headman tells me. "When it started to snow, we were able to spot them. We haven't seen one in quite a while. If any of them survived the frost, I'm sure they retreated to the deeper parts of the forest by now."
“That’s a shame,” I remark. “But it sounds like you managed to kill a few. Does that mean you have magic beast materials?”
The headman glances at the stone kin before answering me. “All the materials were given to our village’s blacksmith or sold in Drey.”
"I don't suppose you have any extra, do you?" I ask the grumpy-looking stone kin.
“No,” he flatly responds.
“Worth a try, I suppose,” all three of our guides frown at my flippant remark.
We leave the village, and I'm not surprised to see a large field hidden behind the village. It looks like they just planted some new crops too.
“If you got our message, then you know that we’re looking for food. I don’t suppose you’d reject a few extra hands if we sent them to your village, would you?”
“We have plenty of farmers,” the headman flatly responds to me.
"A pity, but I'd figured you answer like that. Young Jason here will go over some of the minor details." Now that we're away from all the spear-wielding villagers, young Jason is much more relaxed. He moves up and confidently starts discussing taxes with the headman.
While the headman is preoccupied with Jason, I turn to the spitfire redhead. “That’s a nice axe you’re carrying. I take it your friend made it for you,” I motion towards the stone kin who’s now glaring at me.
The girl doesn't respond and only blankly looks at me. She'd probably turn her head away if she didn't need to watch us. It's too late for her not to draw attention to herself.
“There’s no need to be so cold with me,” I let out a soft chuckle. “If you’re going to stare at me like that, you can at least give me your name.”
The girl grits her teeth before reluctantly answering. “It’s Aaliyah.”
I smile not only because I got her to talk but because I didn't miss the slight jolt her name sent through General Pitz. "Aaliyah, that's a beautiful name, just as beautiful as your axe and armor. I especially like the maker's mark, a flower on a hammer, that's quite unique."
Aaliyah tightens her grip on her axe. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She lies beautifully.
I may be old now, but I still remember what Charm and Acting influence feels like from my younger days. The former is surprisingly higher than the latter, but she does have a wild beauty to her. Ordinary people wouldn't be able to remain unaffected by her, but I've already seen how special she is.
I'm almost certain the arrow the general used against me came from this village. The spears the villagers were using match the ones Olebert's soldiers in the fort were wielding. Based on the stone kin's hammer, he doesn't work with magic materials, while Aaliyah uses a kaglese axe, which is popular with Olebert knights.
All the evidence points to the girl in front of me being a once in a millennia genius.
Aaliyah flinches when I smugly grin at her.
Now how do I make her mine?