One’s Point of View:
"I told you! I can't heal someone that has been burned to this degree!" The doctor stresses to me, recoiling in fear.
"And I told you," I hiss, not hiding my natural voice. "If my sister dies, you'll be meeting Ebeon with her! Now start healing!"
The doctor stumbles around his operating table, face scrunching up in despair the more he looks over my charred sister. The doctor sends a worried glance over to his hired guard in the corner, but I only need to turn in the man's direction for him to hang his head submissively. Good, so he can sense the difference in our abilities. If he tried anything stupid at the moment, I wouldn't hesitate to slit his throat.
Seeing how his hired help isn't going to be stepping in to save him, the doctor starts casting his magic. The doctor starts with a body scanning spell, and after a few seconds, his face drains of color.
“What is it?!” I demand, knowing the news isn’t good.
The doctor nervously swallows, keeping his head lowered as not to look at my hooded face. "92% of her body is burned as well as her esophagus and the inside of her lungs. She has multiple broken and fractured bones from a blast of some kind, and her organs are failing." The doctor pauses to swallow back another lump in his throat nervously. "I don't see how she's alive right now," he admits in a low voice.
I look at Lizzy's hand, the one part of her body that isn't severely burned. The magic rings I gifted to her are dried up, meaning she must have had them activated when the alchemical bomb went off. "I gave her a healing tonic a few minutes ago, but that doesn't matter. Start healing her."
“There’s no way I can save-”
“Start healing, now!” I move my hand to the large knife I keep at my side.
“Yes, mam,” the doctor yelps, placing his hands over my sister. He mumbles a quick spell, and a soft white light starts emitting from his hands. The doctor keeps one hand over Elizabeth's heart while he periodically shifts the other one over her other vital organs.
I lean over and grasp my sister's hand, giving it an encouraging squeeze. "You're going to be fine," I quietly mumble to myself. "You're strong. The two of us have been through worse together." I'm glad my cloak is hiding the tears streaming down my face.
I gently pull my arm back and straighten myself up. “When you wake up, I’ll have Grey’s head on a platter for you,” I declare to my comatose sister.
"You're leaving!?" The doctor asks in astonishment, a bit of hope appearing in his eyes.
"I'll be back soon," I crush his dreams before he gets any ideas of running. "If my sister isn't alive when I return, or I come back to see you've bolted, I'll skin you alive when I catch you. That goes for you too," I warn the doctor's bodyguard. "If you let him leave my sister's side, you'll share in his fate."
The bodyguard quickly nods his head in understanding, but the doctor starts whining. "I told you this is beyond my abilities," he starts to tear up. "I don't have anywhere near the amount of mana required to heal such injuries."
I ball my hands into fists at my sides, but no matter how much I want to throttle the man, I need him to keep my sister alive. Taking a step closer to the doctor, I reach into my side satchel and grab the spherical vial within. The doctor flinches away from me when I pull the vial out and set it on the operating table next to my motionless sister.
“What is that?” He hesitantly asks me.
“My best mana recovery tonic,” I flatly tell him. “I’ll bring over more healers after I find the man who did this to my sister. You don’t stop healing her for anything, understand?!”
“I understand,” the doctor squeaks out in a frightened voice.
“You better,” I turn away, leaving after one last veiled threat.
Pushing open the door to the doctor's shop, I rush out into the street and immediately dash towards the nearest alleyway. Sirens are still going off around the city, and people are rushing back to their homes. In half an hour, the streets will be deserted, and it'll be much harder to move around.
Activating my many stealth skills, I blend into the alley’s shadows and start making for my first target. No one so much as spots my figure as I slip through the dark backstreets of Drey.
My target is a man named Thomas, who was one of Grey's closest aides. Elizabeth identified Thomas as one of the people who helped slip information between Grey and his other supporters. If Thomas doesn't know anything about the alchemical bomb or Grey's location, he certainly knows someone who does.
"Start checking alleyways!" I hear someone command from a nearby street. Scaling a nearby wall, I move to the rooftops. Looking over the edge, I spot a man in Scholl armor issuing orders to Drey's guardsmen. "Arrest anyone suspicious!"
Since Scholl took over the city, it's been a lot harder to move undetected. Scholl has been taking their rule of the city very seriously, and the guard patrols have more than doubled since their takeover. The standard guards are still nothing I need to worry about, but the same can't be said about Scholl's new squad commanders.
The average level of a guard is only between 40 and 45, practically harmless in my eyes. However, Scholl inserted a few of its military leaders into the watch to oversee its operations, and each of them sports a fancy feather to show they mean business.
Depending on their stat distribution, they might notice my movements or even be able to best me in combat. And with the city going into lockdown, the chances of me running into one of those unit commanders raises exponentially.
But that won’t stop me.
Ducking out of sight, I make my way closer to Thomas's house. Luckily, I've previously scouted out the area around my target's house. He was meant to be captured around the same time Grey was eliminated.
I slide down a building's shingles, grab a protruding board, and swing myself gracefully down into an alley behind Thomas's house.
First, I position myself so that I won't be easily seen should someone glance down the alley. Then, I activate Far Hearing while I listen for any movement in the building.
I can hear muffled noises from a room on the second floor, which is all I need to hear before I go through with my plan.
Bending down, I flick a small latch on the side of my boots. Three small spikes protrude from the front of my shoes while I slip on some climbing claws. The small metal spikes and claws help me silently grip the wood and stone walls of the home.
If I were scaling the house merely to get over it, I wouldn't need to use such tools. However, now is the time to be silent. I pick a window on the second floor and start my silent climbing. Inch by inch, I crawl up the vertical surface without so much as a beam creaking under my weight.
When I reach the window, I peek into the room to confirm nobody's inside. The voices are louder, but a few walls still divide me from them. With the coast clear, I pull out a smaller knife and jimmy open the small hook lock that was securing the window shut.
Easy, I think to myself as I slowly lift the window open. Silent Steps keeps my boots from making any noise as I swing myself into the unoccupied room. With just a bed and a night table, I figure this has to be an unused guest bedroom.
Now that I'm in the house, I can make out the mumbling more clearly. Three men are talking in the loft nearby.
“What are we going to do!?” A panicked male voice repeats over and over.
"Shut up; you're not helping!" I recognize Thomas's voice.
“And you are!?” A third snaps.
“We just have to be patient,” Thomas sounds like he’s trying to calm down the other two voices. “Grey told us to wait for instructions.”
“He blew up the office!” The first voice hysterically reminds everyone. I draw my knife as I get closer to the arguing trio. “Why would he possibly do that?”
“Jack has a point,” the third person agrees with his friend. “I don’t think Grey would stay in the city after that, let alone send for us.”
“Are you forgetting about how he warned us beforehand? Why would he do that unless he was looking out for us?” Thomas points out to the other two.
“Did you know Grey was going to blow up the building?” The third man questions Thomas in an accusing voice. I find myself tightening the grip on my dagger, wondering the same thing. If this asshole knew people would die and didn't say anything, I'm going to make him wish he was never born!
“You think I would’ve gone to work today if I knew what was going to happen? I got the same notice both of you did, to quietly leave early,” Thomas defends himself.
“I heard the head receptionist died in the blast,” Jack quietly remarks. I have to physically hold myself back from rushing into the room and killing the three of them for mentioning my sister.
“She was spying on all of us,” Thomas huffs. “She got what she deserved.”
"As will the three of you," I step around the corner, unable to listen any longer.
"What the!" Thomas shouts upon seeing me appear in his house. Jack backs away in fear while the third man leaps for the stairs.
“Did I say you can leave?” I change my voice to sound like a little girl, throwing my dagger, spearing the man in his lower left leg.
“Aaaaahhhhhh!” He falls to the ground screaming in pain.
I ignore the wailing man on the floor and focus on Thomas. “What did you say about the head receptionist?” I switch my voice to that of an old man. “I believe you forgot who you work for.”
“Nu, Num, Number!” Jack stammers at my cloaked appearance.
“Fuck,” Thomas curses, realizing who I am.
“Fuck, indeed,” I take a step closer to Thomas. “I’ll give you one chance to tell me where Grey is.”
“I don’t know,” he stammers out.
"That isn't the answer I was looking for," I say, mimicking Thomas's voice. Drawing one of my magic daggers, I Flash Step next to Thomas, and with one swing of my blade, I lop off his left hand. Thomas's hand hits the floor with a soft thud while Thomas immediately falls to his knees, clutching the stump where his hand used to be.
The blade of my dagger is enchanted to be incredibly hot, so there’s little blood. I’ve learned over the years that It’s hard to torture someone when you have to worry about them bleeding out. “Care to try again?” I level my blade to his throat.
"I don't know anything," Thomas sobs out, shivering in pain and adrenaline.
"Thomas, Thomas," I shake my head disappointingly. "I have a lie detection skill, and it's quite a high level at that. You should be more careful with your words; now I know you know something." I lean over, and with a flick of my wrist, I flay a section of Thomas's good arm.
His screams reverberate throughout the house; I’ll need to gag him moving forward. “Let’s try this again," I say, standing over Thomas. "Tell me everything you know about Grey's movements, and I might kill you quickly."
Thomas groans and tries begging with his eyes but his pleas don’t move me in the slightest. He and the other two made their choice when they sided with Grey rather than boss Giovanni. As far as I’m concerned, they helped injure my sister.
None of them will leave this building alive!
"What a waste of time," I hiss through my teeth. My frustration mounting as I make my way towards my next target.
Thomas and his friends knew surprisingly little of Grey's plans. Even as they begged for their lives, the three couldn't even guess where Grey was hiding. And considering Thomas was one of Grey's more important aides and knew the most about his movements, I can't help but feel if he didn't know anything, chances are Grey’s other accomplices won’t either.
Is this Grey's plan? Is that the reason he gave a warning to all his people? I waste all my time hunting down his men while Grey makes a break for it! My instincts are telling me he has already left the city, and if that's true, every second I waste on his underlings, Grey gets that much further out of my reach.
But what do I do?
Should I make for my contacts at the gates or continue hunting down Grey’s men?
If I make the wrong decision, it will cost me precious time. I wrack my brain for the correct answer.
I can't help but bring my hand up to my chest. It's times like this; I would use our unique skill to communicate with my sister. She was always good with dilemmas like this. Elizabeth was the calm, calculating one, while I was the monster sent to collect blood. Elizabeth was my eyes and ears, always collecting me the information I needed.
Since the explosion, I've been trying to reestablish our link, hoping to hear my sister's voice in my head again. Sadly, I only hear my own dark thoughts.
What would Elizabeth tell me to do in this situation?
She’d tell me to go with my gut or point out why my thinking is wrong.
“I should head to the gates then,” I tell myself. “But which gate would Grey be more likely to use?”
The northern gate would take Grey towards the Endless Forest, which makes no sense. Grey could be heading to Aaliyah's village, hoping to use her as a hostage, but she has Pacore's student guarding her. No, if Grey were fleeing the city, he'd leave through the southern gate leading to Teeburn or the eastern gate towards Blaiton.
It doesn't make sense for him to head to Blaiton, though. He couldn't possibly hope to pass by the city without drawing Giovanni's attention. Grey's bodyguard may be strong, but he couldn't stand up to two numbers at once; it would be suicide.
“That only leaves the southern gate towards Teeburn!” I exclaim, changing direction.
But how is Grey planning to get through Teeburn? Scholl has the entire stretch of land between Fort North Ridge and Red Dust Mountain under heavy guard. And once word makes its way to Lord Bullok, about how Grey crippled an essential link in his supply chain, Grey will be on every Scholl soldier's shit list by tomorrow morning.
No matter how I look at it, I can't see how Grey plans to get out of this alive. However, that makes Grey's actions all that more concerning. He's been biding his time for years, and now he tries to run when he's essentially boxed in. Grey is no fool, which means he has to have a way to get through the Teeburn blockade without being noticed.
“I need to hurry!”
It takes me a few minutes to cross the city without being seen by the guards, but soon the Southern gate is towering over me. “Let’s see who’s working today.” I have multiple contacts in the guard that I can call on for information. The only trick is meeting with them without being spotted by the others.
Scholl is much better at managing their guards' routes, and it's virtually impossible to know where one guard will be stationed any one day of the week. It’s supposed to limit the possibility of guards taking bribes. But if I don't know anyone at the gate, I'll just have to wait until a shift change and abduct the guard that switches out.
I let out a sigh of relief when I notice the commander running the southern gate is actually one of my long-time informants. It was a stroke of luck when Pacore promoted him.
Hiding in the wall's massive shadow, I mimic a common birdcall but put a slight spin on the ending. Maz's body goes rigid when he hears my signal and not so subtly starts scanning each shadow around him like I'm going to pop out at any minute. I reproduce the birdcall one more time, and this time his head snaps in my direction.
Maz gives a few simple orders to guards under him before he starts walking in my direction. I wait until he’s out of sight of everybody before fully revealing my location.
"Gods!" Maz exclaims, bringing his hand up to his armored chest when I finally pop out of the shadows next to him. "Must you do that every time?"
I'd usually ask about anything that's changed in the guard recently, but time is of the essence. "Has Lennard Grey passed through this gate recently?" I ask in a young boy’s voice.
Maz is taken back when I skip over our regular introductions, but he quickly realizes what I'm asking must be important. "You're talking about the branch manager of Silver Herd, right? He did pass through this gate," Maz confirms my suspicions.
“What direction did he go in?” I pressure Maz.
"Last I saw, he and his bodyguard were riding jelens towards Teeburn," Maz quickly answers, taking a step back from me.
"Thanks. Can I get you to draw your men's attention for a moment so I can slip through the wall?"
“Slow down,” Maz raises his hands in a pleading gesture. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t have time for this,” I accidentally say in my real voice. “You hear the alarms?” I ask him.
“They’re kind of hard to miss,” he jokes.
“They’re because of Grey,” I snap, sounding like an old lady.
Maz’s eyes widen in surprise. “Fuck, really?” Maz looks at the wall staring in the direction Grey would’ve traveled. “You might be too late,” he tells me.
“Why?” I hiss.
“Grey did come through this gate,” Maz says in an awkward tone. “But it wasn’t recently. Grey passed through our gate hours ago. Said he was off to oversee an inspection at the Teeburn branch.”
“How many hours?” I grab his vest.
“About three and a half,” Maz informs me with a sad look on his face.
A three-and-a-half-hour head start on jelens, even if I replaced my blood with stamina tonics, it would be impossible for me to catch up with them. How did my sister not notice them leave the building?
I feel my blood start to boil as reality starts to sink in; I can't get revenge for my sister like I promised. If I track Grey, I'll have to leave my sister behind, and she'll surely die.
Maz subconsciously feels my bloodlust and takes a few steps back. He doesn't run; he just stands there waiting for me to speak. “Thanks for the information; I have to go now,” I say in a cold voice straight from the abyss.
"Any time," Maz tries to sound comforting, but I can hear the fear in his voice.
"Thank you," I mumble, purposely using my natural voice as I slink back into the shadows. Many would've only given me the information I asked for and pushed me on my way. If Maz didn't take the time and explain everything, I might've wasted hours chasing after Grey before I was forced to turn around.
There’s only one thing I can do now…
I make my way along the wall until I'm closer to the eastern gate. I find a dark alleyway and pull out my communication device.
Pouring my mana into the communication magic tool, it isn’t long until a connection is established. Boss and I exchange our code phrases before he cheerfully asks me, "Is he taken care of?"
I grit my teeth in frustration. The boss thinks I’m contacting him to tell him Grey is dead. “No. No, he’s not,” I finally manage to spit out.
The line goes silent for a minute, and the only thing the boss says is, "explain."
And so, I do.
I tell Giovanni how his message was received by Elizbeth and the subsequent explosion when she delivered it to Grey's office. I'm forced to stop my recanting while I listen to the boss throw stuff around his room in a fit of rage, cursing Grey with every fiber of his being.
It’s only thanks to Marshall reminding Giovanni that I’m still on the other end of the line that he asks me to continue.
I detail how I rushed my sister to a healer and that she's still in critical condition. Then I tell Giovanni about my interrogation of Thomas and his friends. I explain the reasoning that led me to the southern gate rather than continuing to track down more of Grey's men and what I learned from my contact.
“He got away!” I hear the sound of Giovanni tossing more items around his room.
"Yes, sir," I reply, the failure weighing on each of my words.
“Could you track him?” Giovanni asks.
For the first time, I'm reluctant to answer the boss. What if he makes me leave my sister behind? "It would take a lot of time," I admit.
“But you would have to leave your sister behind,” Giovanni seems to read my mind.
“Yes,” I confirm in a sad voice.
There’s an excruciating pause in the conversation as I wait for my orders.
“One,” Giovanni finally addresses me.
"Yes, sir?" I hesitantly ask.
"Stay with your sister." Giovanni's orders make my knees shake, and I can feel more tears forming in the corner of my eyes. My sister and I owe everything to Giovanni, and I know if he ordered me to track down Grey, my sister would've wanted me to follow his orders.
“Thank you, Boss,” I choke back my tears. I know we picked a good man to follow.
“What is the state of the Drey branch,” Giovanni switches topics.
“I haven’t been back since the explosion,” I admit.
"I'll send orders as to who will be in charge while your sister is recovering," Giovanni tells me in a calculating tone. "But for now, I want you to see to your sister’s injuries, and squash any insurrection Grey's men might try. And one more thing."
“Yes?” I ask.
“Send a message to Aaliyah, tell her I need her to contact me right away.”
“I’ll have it done immediately,” I reply.
“Grey will pay for what he’s done,” Giovanni assures me.
“Thank you, boss.”
"Go take care of your sister," are the last orders I receive from the boss before the communication between us is cut. Giovanni didn't even bother with our closing passwords.
It doesn't matter; I have my orders. Protect my sister, squash anyone who even mentions the name Grey, and send a message to the girl in the woods.
Four mentioned Aaliyah has a way to screw over Grey whenever she wants. I don’t know what it is, but I hope it’s painful.
Aaliyah’s Point of View:
“This is painful to watch,” I groan and throw my hands into the air.
"We almost had it." Our failure doesn't so easily squash Sandra's optimism.
“I think I jinxed us with my confidence this morning.”
"Oh, stop; you're being overly dramatic," Sandra berates me.
"How many samples have we gone through today?" I ask Sandra with my hands on my hips.
"I don't know," Sandra plays dumb. "Maybe seven or eight?"
"This will be thirteen," I correct her, knowing she knows precisely how many times we've failed today.
Usually, we would call it a day after so many failures, but we both feel like we're close to finally cracking the fourth step.
We already figured out we need to add 9.5 ounces of mithril into the cooled solution before heating it back up again. Then we figured out the fire needs to remain around 700° F for nine and a half minutes, matching the amount of mithril we added.
But once the mithril is heated into the solution, something weird happens. The solution settles as it does after each of the other steps, but after ten minutes or so, the solution rapidly burns itself out.
We've tried increasing or lowering the temperature after the solution stabilizes to keep it from breaking down, but nothing works.
“Are you sure we’re not missing a step?” Sandra asks me.
"There was nothing in the notes I was given, but I see what you're getting at," I nod along with Sandra. The vague instructions I was given have all worked out so far, but that doesn't mean the fourth step wasn't tampered with. It would be nearly impossible to prove it, but I bet there's something else we need to add to the mithril solution.
Of course, if that’s true, we might never figure out the fourth step. At least not without burning through my remaining herb and mithril supplies. And even then, I'm not so sure.
I shake my head in disappointment, but while I'm doing that, I notice Sandra pondering next to me. She took her mask off to get some fresh air after our last failure, and now she has her hand up to her chin, mumbling to herself.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask.
"I'm trying to think about it from a mage's perspective," she tells me.
“What does that mean?”
Sandra turns her body towards me and explains. “I’m trying to think of the recipe as a stolen spell.”
“Ok. I’m not following you, but go on,” I encourage my friend.
"My master only briefly talked about it, but he explained how mages hide their spells and what other mages do to uncover their secrets. Untrained mages like to add meaningless phrases into a spell or leave out a section altogether. But do you know what experienced mages do?"
“What?” I ask, having been hoked by Sandra.
"Smart mages only leave out syllables rather than entire phrases. That way, their descendants can decipher the spells easier while making them useless to everyone else. I have to imagine the recipe is the same way. I'm willing to bet the missing ingredient in step four is something common that we’ve already used during our testing.”
“I think I understand,” I smile at Sandra. I don’t want to think about how long it would’ve taken me to figure that out on my own.
“We need to make a list of everything we’ve used so far,” Sandra suggests.
"We've used purified water, eathrosse, devil's poke, magicite, mithril, and technically fire," I name off everything in the relatively short ingredient list.
Sandra hums in agreement, “And which do you think makes the most sense to add in with the mithril?”
Sandra and my eyes widen at the same time. "Magicite," we both shout together. I'm happy for the epiphany, but I still slap my forehead for not thinking about this sooner. I'm not sure exactly how we should add the magicite to the mixture, but I should've recognized the possible solution as a blacksmith.
Whenever I craft with mithril, I need to add magicite to my fuel, so it binds properly. Whoever created the list of steps given to me left out the fact that you need to use a fire brimming with magic!
Sandra excitedly throws her mask back on and starts preparing another batch of engraving ink while I ready the forge. The two of us are brimming with excitement as we go through the first three steps.
“Let’s see if we’re right,” I think aloud as Sandra removes the hot mixture so it can cool before we try step four again.
Sandra sets the mixture on the anvil to cool before moving over to the workbench and preparing the 9.5 ounces of mithril we’ll need.
I stroke the fire, lowering Mana Skin so I can better feel the temperature on my skin. Once it's stable, around 700°F, I add a few small pieces of magicite to the flames. Using Sense Mana, I watch the extra mana fuse with the flames.
“It’s ready,” I hear Sandra say behind me.
“The fire is good to go too,” I happily exclaim.
The world feels like it's slowing down as Sandra carefully adds the mithril to the solution before placing it in the forge. I'm sure both of us are counting the seconds in our heads until we're supposed to remove the solution.
I cross my fingers as time ticks down.
At precisely 570 seconds, I remove the solution from the forge. Sandra and I hold our breath waiting to see if we failed again.
One minute silently passes.
“Yes!” Sandra and I shout for joy when the solution doesn’t burn itself out.
"We finished step four!" Sandra lunges at me, arms open, looking for a celebratory hug. Thank the gods I retract Mana Skin in time before she collides with me. We jump up and down together until Sandra gets a little green in the face. "What's next?" She asks me after her nausea slowly passes.
"The last step says to let it cure."
“What does that mean?” Sandra asks me.
“What makes you think I – WOW!” I exclaim when I turn my attention back to the solution.
“What?” Sandra sends me a questioning look, seeing my eyes focused on the solution.
“It’s absorbing ambient mana,” I point out to Sandra.
"It is?!" Sandra asks, surprised. She moves closer to the solution and stares at the vial with a scholar's intensity. "I can't see it," she admits defeat after a few minutes of unproductive staring.
“It’s absorbing a teeny-tiny amount of mana,” I explain.
“Does that mean we just have to wait for it to finish absorbing enough mana?” Sandra asks me with an excited smile.
“I think you’re right,” I mirror her excitement.
It's no wonder they left out a crucial part of step four because step five is just waiting for the engraving ink to absorb enough mana.
We did it!
We discovered how to make engraving ink!
I fist bump Sandra, who’s equally losing her shit. “Want to make another batch?” She asks me.
“One more,” I agree.
As soon as the ink finishes curing, I’ll be able to start practicing enchanting my items.
Let’s see Tabitha tear through my armor then!
As if sensing my thoughts, I feel Tabitha’s gaze fall on me. Maybe I’ll hold off on gloating until I win.
I happily watch Sandra prepare a new batch of engraving ink. We just opened up a whole new world of opportunities for both of us.