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A strike from the left, a shield bash from the front, and a knee to hips; I bob and weave through all of Tabitha’s attacks as varied as they are. The hilt of my hammer works wonders in blocking Tabitha’s armored knee, but most of my focus is on her sword. It only happens on rare occasions, but I can accurately predict how she will attack. And when I do-

 

Swinging my hammer, I connect with her breastplate and send her rocketing back over a dozen feet. She lands on her knees, Tabitha’s enchanted gear not so much as denting under my giant hammer, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t do any damage.

 

Instead of charging me and counterattacking like she usually does, Tabitha pauses where she landed. She has a pained look on her face meaning the force behind my weapon made it through her armor’s enchantments.

 

If she were anyone else, I’d call a stop our match to see how she was doing, but I only need to look at the massive grin on her face to know I didn’t do that much damage.

 

“That was a good hit,” Tabitha compliments me. Hearing her words of praise, I immediately use Flash Step to gain as much distance from her as possible.

 

“What’s with that reaction; I’m giving you a compliment?” Her grin widens when I don’t drop my guard and instead prepare for her counterattack. “That was the fifth time you’ve predicted my attacks; it looks like you've finally reached the next level.”

 

“I didn’t get any levels from that,” I state, knowing I won’t need to ask her to explain herself.

 

“Not physical levels; you've reached the next level of training. You saw my attacks in their entirety, and you got me good.” Still holding her sword, Tabitha brings her armored gauntlet up to her chest and affectionately rubs the spot I tagged her, looking at me like she was a proud parent or something.

 

I might have been happy to hear Tabitha acknowledge me if this was a month ago, but I know better now. She has the same look on her face she had back when I first managed to hit her. Her next attack will be fiercer than the last, and if I don’t watch her every movement, I won’t be able to defend myself.

 

“Yeah, Aaliyah! Kick her ass while she’s down!”

“You got this!”

 

Thanks to my cheer squad off to the side, I feel a blush creeping its way onto my face. I’ve already told them earlier to stop, but it isn’t like I have time to yell at them at the moment. While I’m staring at Tabitha, she’s doing the same to me. If I give her an opening, she’ll take it.

 

“The two of you get back to work!” I hear my brother shout at the two men cheering me on.

 

"Oh, come on, Richard, have a heart. It's just getting to the good part."

“Yeah, Boss, just a few minutes. It’s crazy how fast they move.”

 

“Start carving that stone, or I’ll volunteer the two of you as their test dummies, then you could watch them up close. Now, hop to it!” Brother threatens Frank and Lloyd, and judging by the dual groans behind me, they decide to listen to him.

 

The two men have been working in the quarry since yesterday. Master and I mined a bunch of stone a couple of days back, and Richard brought them in to help prep it before they're carted off to the village. I was told Frank and Lloyd were originally farmers and were two of the first people to volunteer to clear trees when the Chameleon spiders became a threat to the village.

 

With Sandra using her magic to help tend the fields, there was no longer enough work for all the farmers in the village. So, Frank and Lloyd permanently switched their jobs and were now working full-time under Brother and Salus. The two of them helped build the armory, so this wasn’t the first time they worked together.

 

Age-wise, they each had a few years on Richard, but they followed his orders well enough, all be it as begrudgingly as possible.

 

The day after Master and I agreed to help with the wall; Brother immediately started his pet project. And as expected, people jumped at the idea of building our own wall. Along with a slew of other volunteers, our father was clearing out the space around the front of the village while Richard, Llyod, and Frank were prepping the stone they would need.

 

Even Master was helping. Instead of watching me spar with Tabitha like he usually did, Del was down in the mine, hauling up more stone and ore. He grumbled about all the work he needed to do, but I didn't miss the hint of a smile on his face as he walked into the darkness.

 

Our quarry looked like an actual mining operation now instead of a large hole in the ground. There were three growing stone piles; one for the waste rock, one for the iron ore master was pulling out with everything else, and a pile of large rocks that would make suitable bricks. Everything mined would be put to use.

 

The waste rock would be crushed and mixed before being used to build the village's wall foundation. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it when I looked over Richard’s plans the first time, but his fifteen-foot wall would be, in actuality, twenty-five feet. So while the above-ground part of the wall would be fifteen feet high, its base would stretch ten feet into the ground.

 

Then there was a growing pile of wood next to the entrance to the mine. Master told Richard that if he wanted his stone, he would need to provide enough material to shore up the growing tunnels underground. So, Master was mining; Brother was building supports, leaving Frank and Llyod up here with us.

 

Brother would come up periodically like he just did to check on his men, but he couldn’t afford to oversee them the entire time.

 

When I agreed to help Richard, I didn’t realize I’d be giving up my privacy along with my free time.

 

“Here I come!” Tabitha considerately shouts before rushing me. My mind was drifting to my surroundings, and I’m not sure if she noticed or not, but her calling out to me helped.

 

I square up my hammer to guard my center as she rushes me. Tabitha smiles as I take my stance, and it only grows wider as she nears me.

 

I predict a swing from my left, but as I move to block Tabitha’s sword, it dawns on me too late that it was a feint. Shifting my hammer, I try to block her shield from colliding with my left side, but that too is another feint. Tabitha's sword glows briefly and moves so fast I can't see its trajectory.

 

I Flash Step back, but I can feel a trickle of blood running down my left arm.

 

“Oh, shit!” I hear off to my side, and I have to agree. Tabitha used a feint as a feint and cut me! The wound wasn't deep, but there was a sizable gash in my armor on my left forearm.

 

“What the hell," I mumble, looking at what was essentially ruined armor.

 

“This is the next part of your training." My head snaps up to a smug-looking Tabitha who's gone into full-on teacher mode. “I’ll no longer be limiting my strikes to your chest piece. Arms, legs, back; they’re all fair game now.”

 

What is she saying? Fair game?

 

I look down at my armor, and it dawns on me. Mom has helped me fix my chest piece a dozen times since I made it, but I've yet to have to fix the other parts of my gear. They would receive some slight damage here and there, but I've yet to have to reforge the metal plates in them as I have for my chest piece. She’s kicked at my shins and bashed me with her shield, but now I realize Tabitha had never seriously tried to cut the other parts of my body.

 

“You were able to guard yourself when you knew where I would be attacking. Now you need to do that but with your entire body.”

 

Was I subconsciously guarding my chest this whole time?

 

I don’t air my thoughts to Tabitha, knowing she would just see them as an excuse. Though, I’d be lying if I said I was ready for what came next. I feel Mother is going to be mad at me when I make it home later. If I make it home.

 

My stats stop my bleeding, but I still feel where she cut me.

 

“And if I can guard against you, is that the end of my training?” I tentatively ask the question I’m not sure I want the answer to. I’ve followed her directions all this time, never questioning when I would be considered good enough.

 

Tabitha scoffs and shakes her head. “You won’t be ‘good enough’ for years,” she stresses. "My goal is simply to get you to the point you can handle any challenges you might receive when we make it back to Scholl."

 

“Challenges?” I ask for clarification.

 

"Yes, challenges. Being Master Pacore's newest student, you'll most likely receive at least a few. It’s considered bad manners to challenge someone with more than a ten-level difference between each other, but because of your level relative to your age, you’ll be at a serious disadvantage. Even our best and brightest usually don’t reach the 70's until their mid-thirties. Anyone who challenges you will have years of practice under their belts."

 

“And you’re sure I’d lose, even after seeing what I can do?”

 

Tabitha’s grin widens, "You'd lose in minutes. You'd need to be able to doge my last attack even to consider holding your own, let alone winning. Our country is one of warriors, where the strong are revered. Everyone worth their salt would challenge you simply to gain the attention of Master. That is why I train you as I do. You ooze natural talent, but you lack experience. So, I will push you until you're at the point you won't bring shame to me or Master Pacore. Now raise your weapon; we continue."

 

I swallow a lump in my throat; Tabitha’s passionate speech evoked a lot of emotions. According to what everyone who knows my level has told me, I might be one of the most talented people in the world for my age. But when you compare me to someone who's gained their level over decades- there's simply no comparison. After training with Tabitha, I'm not even sure I could've beaten the high-level soldiers that came to the village with Pacore.

 

I need to be able to hold my own against someone who’s seen battle, a real battle. And if I'm right, Tabitha will torture me until I reach that point, and then probably more after that, too, if she wasn't exaggerating the years' thing.

 

“Ready or not, here I come!” Tabitha advances with all the ferocity of a rabid dog.

 

It’s ok, calm yourself, I repeat in my head. I’ve blocked her attacks before; I just need to expand on those principles. My eyes track Tabitha; she's moving differently than she usually does. There was more fluidity in her steps, almost like she wasn't concentrating on holding herself back anymore, despite how crazy that sounds.

 

I’ll do it; I’ll block her next attack! I decided that in the split second it takes for Tabitha to close the distance between us.

 

As her sword cleaves down towards me I-

 

“I got it!” A shout of excitement distracts me, and I’m not the only one.

 

Tabitha’s blade freezes mere inches from my right shoulder. I was close to blocking it, but now that we’ve both frozen in place, I can see that I wouldn’t have made it in time.

 

Both of us turn our gazes towards the woman we both seem to have forgotten was even here. Sandra had been meditating in a shaded corner of the quarry since we started sparring hours ago, and she hasn't made a peep since. While Tabitha and I have grown used to Frank and Llyod cheering us on and calling out to us, Sandra had been eerily silent. So much so it even appears she was able to catch Tabitha off guard with her shout.

 

I guess that means I owe Sandra one; if it weren't for her random outburst, my right shoulder pad would be destroyed now.

 

“Oh, am I interrupting?” Sandra flinches under mine and Tabitha's gazes.

 

Tabitha slowly pulls her weapon back and lowers it. “It appears I lost myself in the heat of the moment and forgot my surroundings. This is embarrassing.”

 

She smiles like Sandra’s interruption is a joke, but I'm over here sweating. I misjudged Tabitha's movements and was nanoseconds away from paying for it. My hands are trembling. If I try to face Tabitha like this, I’ll only one-sidedly get my ass kicked.

 

Untensing my muscles, I slowly lower my hammer in a way that conveys I'm not ready to restart our sparring just yet. Tabitha frowns at my movements, but she doesn't attack. So, before she can say anything, I turn and walk towards Sandra. She has a confused look on her face, obviously unaware of what she just interrupted. Sandra must have been in deep meditation if she had missed how heated our sparring had become.

 

“Did I interrupt?” Sandra asks me again as I approach her, sending a questioning glance past me at what I’m assuming must be an annoyed-looking Tabitha.

 

“Perfect timing, actually,” I tell her quietly enough that I’m sure Tabitha couldn’t hear me.

 

“Good… then?” Sandra is confused by my words, but that doesn't distract from the excitement written across her face.

 

“You had a breakthrough?” I prompt Sandra to start talking just as Tabitha walks over to drag me back to our sparring.

 

“I did!” she shouts, bouncing up and down in excitement. “See, I…” Sandra looks around for something but then focuses on the front of her shirt, where I can see a familiar ashy substance clinging to her clothing. “Well, the stick disintegrated, but I did it! I unlocked Inject Mana.”

 

“You sure?” I realize what I said too late and want to kick myself for possibly ruining Sandra's big moment.

 

Thankfully my question doesn’t diminish Sandra’s excitement. "I am, that's why I shouted. I checked my status page and everything. So it's official, I can use Inject Mana now!”

 

“That’s awesome!” I exclaimed, happy that my friend found the success she's been working so hard for.

 

“Look, I can," Sandra looks around her for something she can use to demonstrate her skill. She settles on a nearby rock, and I watch as she pups her mana into it.

 

It doesn’t disintegrate in her hands, but that's because rocks and metal have a higher threshold for the amount of extra mana they can hold. If Sandra’s mana pool wasn’t limited from protecting her baby, and she hadn’t been practicing for hours, I’m sure she would’ve been able to pulverize the stone with ease, but right now, she just couldn't do it.

 

“I swear I can do it,” Sandra’s face scrunches up in frustration when the stone in her hand doesn’t disintegrate.

 

“It’s ok, don’t strain yourself,” I tell her before she pushes too hard. "Remember, I can see the mana you just poured into the stone. I can tell you unlocked the skill," I reassure her. “Congratulations.”

 

"Thanks," Sandra beams at with the strength of a thousand suns. Her smile is so bright I might just have to shield my eyes, and I've spent the last couple of days staring into a forge. “With this, I’ll be able to get some practice in drawing runes with an engraving pen before Kervin shows up.”

 

“You mean once your mana levels recharge,” I point out to her. Of course, someone has to remind her she shouldn't overtax herself while she's pregnant.

 

“I know that,” Sandra gives me a look that says that was obvious, but I'm sure if I didn't say anything, she'd have rushed back to Master's clearing in her excitement already and started practicing with my engraving pen.

 

Kervin wasn’t due to arrive at the village for a few more days, and even when he arrived, there was no guarantee that Giovanni could get me the magic gem I asked for in time. We have to assume that the two of us would need to share an engraving pen for the foreseeable future. Which I’m completely fine with.

 

I thought my schedule would open up after completing the arrows, but Master and I are busier than ever, thanks to Richard's wall. So I have to limit my enchanting practice to once a week, so Sandra can use my pen all she wants the rest of the time. The only problem with that is that we do our best when practicing together, which will be more difficult with one pen.

 

Even with the problems and work we might face shortly, seeing Sandra succeed at something she’s put her all into stokes my competitive spirit. I need to try my hardest as well.

 

And that means-

 

“Again, congratulations,” I tell Sandra one last time. “But I need to get back to my sparring.”

 

"But you sounded relieved to stop a moment ago,” Sandra shoots me a cheeky grin.

 

“Oh, quiet,” I turn away from my friend with a smile on my face and walk back to Tabitha. She's been close by staring at us during our entire conversation.

 

“Are you ready to continue?” She asks me when I stop twenty paces from her.

 

“I am,” I say with all my resolve.

 

“Good. Begin!”

 

And like that, my training begins again.

 

**********

 

One’s Point of View:

 

The dark room I'm standing in reeks heavily of blood, but for once, the smell doesn't bother me.

 

With my hood down, I stare down at the mutilated corpse at my feet. Any normal person would think it was a skinned animal with how it looks, but if you looked hard enough, you could see what used to be his face.

 

My gloves are stained red, and likely the rest of my clothes weren’t any better.

 

“Wow, I haven’t seen you without your hood down in a long time. What if I were someone else and saw you like that?” I turn towards the dark doorway behind me and watch as Four materializes out of thin air with a smirk on his face.

 

“I knew you were there,” I glare at him. I’m in no mood to deal with his shenanigans. “And I wanted him to see the face of my sister as he died," I motion to the sack of flesh beside me.

 

“I’m as much a fan of overkill as the next assassin, but don’t you think you might have gone just a little bit overboard with this one? It's not your style," he points out.

 

“He was the one who helped Grey smuggle the alchemical bomb into the city,” I flatly tell my fellow number.

 

“Oh,” a rare look of understanding flashes across Four’s face. “In that case, I hope he died screaming.” He moves next to me and kicks the body with enough force to send it crashing into the wall across the room. More blood splatters everywhere, but neither Four nor I care. I’m going to torch the building after I leave anyways.

 

“Did you get any information out of him?”

 

“Nothing I didn’t already know. He was the last of Grey's contacts still in the city. I've been looking for him since I first heard about him, but he's been hiding in shitholes like this since the bombing."

 

“Feeling better then, now that they’re all dead, I mean?" He asks me, to which I scowl.

 

“Right, stupid question. How’s your sister doing?”

 

“Is there a reason why you are here?” I snap.

 

Four shrugs off my attitude and answers in a matter-of-fact tone. “I’m leaving the city with Kervin in an hour. With Elizabeth-.”

 

My eyes harden at the mention of my sister’s name.

 

“Recuperating,” Four chooses his words carefully. “I figured I should check in with you.”

 

It was Lizzy who always dealt with the other numbers when they passed through the city. Unlike me, she had the patience to deal with Four.

 

“Fine. Go,” I wave him off.

 

Four drops his perpetual smile for a second and asks me a question that cuts deeper than any dagger ever could. “Seriously, how is she doing?”

 

Gritting my teeth, I have to bite down my anger, threatening to rise up. By the tone of his voice alone, I can tell he’s being serious for a change, but that doesn’t make it any easier to talk about my sister. Every time I think about her in that bed, I get the urge to kill someone.

 

“She still hasn’t woken up,” I whisper.

 

“I see.” Four genuinely looks saddened hearing the news about my sister. “She’s tough,” he says with conviction. “If anyone could pull through, it’s your sister.”

 

I try to keep a neutral face in front of Four, but I can’t keep my eyes from widening in shock. I had no idea he felt that way. He's always been antagonistic and hard to read; you could never tell what he was thinking or how he felt about people.

 

"I'll be off now." Four turns around and steps back into the darkness. As quickly as he came, he was gone from my senses.

 

Once I'm sure he's gone, I wrap my arms around myself and try to hold back my tears. Damn you, Four, for showing me kindness; you're always supposed to be annoying. If I don’t have my anger, how else am I supposed to deal with everything that's going on?!

 

As I told Four, my sister hasn't woken up since the bombing. The whiny healer succeeded in keeping her alive long enough for other healers to be called in. Thanks to Giovanni, a couple of military healers showed up on orders of Lord Bullok, but I have a feeling they actually came from Pacore. They’ve been regularly stopping by and healing my sister in segments.

 

Burnt flesh is tricky to heal, so they're forced to cut it off of her down to her bones and then reheel the section with magic. The human body can’t handle that kind of strain, so they have to heal small sections at a time. Most of Lizzy’s body is still burnt, the only exception being her chest, where her organs are; that’s where the healers have been focusing their attention.

 

I wanted her to open her eyes, but I could only imagine what kind of hell that would be for her.

 

It’s so frustrating! I wish Grey were still alive so I could make him suffer for all that he's done. The honor of killing him should've been mine. But, instead, a goblin stole it from me.

 

I've hunted down every person who was loyal to him, and yet, I can't fill the void in my chest. And I know I won’t be able to fill that void until my sister wakes up, and I apologize for failing her. It should've been me who made the first move on Grey, not her.

 

But what angers me the most is that the world is still turning despite what happened to her. To me, the world should be at a standstill without Lizzy; everyone should feel as bad as I do. But they don't.

 

Things were looking up for Drey and our little corner of the world. Scholl is already proving to be a better ruler than Olebert ever was. The fighting has come to a standstill, meaning Scholl could focus more on its newly acquired territories. Despite there being a material shortage, industry was booming. None more so than Silver Herd.

 

The Boss and Pacore have become well acquainted with each other thanks to their shared interests in Aaliyah. Giovanni has already signed a contract with Scholl to transport their foodstuffs as soon as they are available. Everyone is happy.

 

Everyone except my sister and me that is.

 

The only solace I take is knowing there’s one person who understands how I’m feeling. Boss Giovanni has everything going for him at the moment, yet every time I report to him, I can hear the same pain I'm feeling in his voice. He’s the one who’s never ordered me to leave the city, preferring to keep me close to my injured sister. He’s thrown hundreds of gold coins into trying to heal her without asking anything in return.

 

I didn't even know what he agreed to when he asked Scholl's mages to help. It all plagues my mind.

 

I should finish up here and get back to the clinic.

 

“Llaif gamfr ol e nnamse!”

 

A small flame ignites on my hand. Then, with a flick of my wrist, I send the small ball of fire into a pile of tinder. A few weeks ago, this temporary shelter hosed the many farmers sheltering from Scholl’s invasion before being left to rot.

 

Pulling my hood up, I watch as the magically small flame quickly peters out, but not before sparking and catching the rubble on fire.

 

I stand there and wait a few minutes for the fire to grow before exiting the building. Then, silently, I sneak out of the building without any of the local vagrants seeing me. People know not to ask questions around here, but you never know. Scholl is doing a much better job patrolling the streets, and it isn’t impossible that someone might rat me out.

 

I don’t feel bad for burning down the building because Silver Herd owns it, and the Boss has already permitted me to act as I see fit. This area was meant to be torn down anyways to make room for a new food warehouse.

 

It was clever of my target to hide here, but it was only a matter of time before I found him. None of my contacts in the guards reported him leaving the city so, I knew he was here somewhere.

 

But now that I’ve killed him, I’m out of targets to vent my rage.

 

Again, what do I do with these emotions?

 

Sighing, I dash for a nearby ally and start making my way towards my sister. If I don't have anyone to kill, I'll spend my time with her. If Giovanni or any of the other numbers need me, they’ll know where I’ll be. Not like they'd need to, though, considering the way the war is turning out or the lack thereof. With General Pitz in Pacore’s hands, Scholl has essentially sued for peace. Regardless of whether it lasts, the longer things are quiet, the stronger Scholl's grip on the region becomes.

 

"How very boring."

 

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A note from kosnik4

Short chapter, only 4,550 words, but it is a chapter.

 

I hope you enjoyed it, and as always, stay safe.


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kosnik4

Bio: Just love a good story.

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