Del-Razen’s Point of view:
It took everything I had to hold back my laughter as I poured Aaliyah another cup of my homebrew. She underestimated the alcohol I drink regularly and was now drunk without even realizing it.
I know I should’ve warned her before she tried it, but the blasted girl had been bothering me all day. I was already planning on attending the festival, yet she felt the need to interrupt my nap, to make me promise to something I already planned on doing; she deserves to be taken down a peg for a change. Besides, this will be a good lesson for her. You must always be wary of what someone else is drinking, no matter your build.
The only thing that could've improved this moment was if I got Tabitha along with Aaliyah; however, she was smarter than my disciple. However, I am curious about what Pacore drinks. I craft my homebrew to combat my stone-kin vitality; I wonder what a person as ridiculous as Pacore needs to drink for it to affect him? Literal poison, perhaps?
“She’s really gone, isn’t she?” Llyod whispers to me from across the bench, motioning to Aaliyah, wobbling in her seat next to me. She has a smile on her face and is even more vocal than usual, which is saying something.
“She is, but it’s fine. With her stats, she’ll be good to go by tomorrow morning." But, of course, I don't mention that even if her body can purge everything from her system, she’ll probably still have a killer headache when she wakes up. “Want to try some?” I grin across the table at the two men sitting across from me.
Frank and Llyod take one look at my waterskin, then at the rosy-faced Aaliyah, before subconsciously inching back in their seats.
“I’m not sure about that,” Frank turns me down with a forced grin. “Both of us are Strength/Vitality builds, but if it’s too much for Aaliyah…." He trails off, leaving the rest unsaid.
The two of them aren’t getting away from me that easy. I hadn't forgotten how they cheered for Tabitha when she forced me to spar with her last week. “Just a little mixed into your ale then, like Tabitha,” I hold out my waterskin, not taking no for an answer.
Frank gingerly takes my waterskin and holds it away from him like it contains acid instead of alcohol. The two men debate over how much they should add to their drinks, bringing a mischievous smile to my face.
Now is my best chance to get back at all the human brats who have been taking me for granted, how quickly they forget I’m the highest leveled individual in the village.
Well, second strongest at the moment, I sneak a peek out of the corner of my eye at Tabitha. Lady Tabitha, as it turns out. I haven't interacted with human nobility since I left my home, but even I know she doesn’t act like a noble.
If I had to guess, it’s just a title given to her, not that she’s in charge of any land or anything like that. Of course, it's also possible she was born into a noble family, but if that were the case, I would think her mannerisms would be more regal than they are.
“Something wrong?” Tabitha catches me eying her. Her cheeks are a little red, but other than that, my homebrew doesn’t seem to have that much effect on her. Then again, she's still working on her first cup, while Aaliyah is almost done with her second.
“Just curious if you like it?” I motion to the cup in her hands with my eyes.
“It’s ok,” she remarks without much fanfare. “It still tastes like cheap ale; it just has a bit of a kick to it now. It reminds me of the stuff they would distribute after winning a battle. Master would always offer to share his with me, but I vowed never to touch the stuff again."
I’m shocked; the more Tabitha talks, the less tense she becomes and the more she opens up. Perhaps she’s not as immune to my homebrew as I thought.
“Gods!” Frank and Lloyd shout together. Both are clutching at their throats and wheezing.
“You didn’t add that much; stop exaggerating,” I admonish the two, moving to grab my waterskin before they accidentally drop it.
Once I have it, I take a drink before turning back to a looser-lipped Tabitha. “So, tell me, what’s in store for my disciple once she leaves for Scholl?"
“I’m right here, you know?” Aaliyah whines and obnoxiously throws herself against me.
For the first time, I see Tabitha smile while not in a battle or talking about Pacore. “She will be introduced as Master’s newest student.”
“And what does that mean,” I press for a clearer answer.
Tabitha sips her ale before answering. "She'll be brought before the king and other pillars of Scholl. They will have a chance to reject her position, but with her level and talent at such a young age, the other pillars are more likely to try and steal her from Master rather than anything else.”
“And she’ll be treated well?”
Tabitha pauses mid-sip, and her smile slips. “Are you questioning my Master’s intentions?” She challenges me with a glare.
“Did I say anything about Pacore?” I meet her gaze. “I just want to make sure Aaliyah isn’t going to be tossed aside once she’s in Scholl. It isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that Pacore only wants Aaliyah to keep her out of Olebert’s reach.” I’ve had these thoughts for a while now, and if the alcohol is opening Tabitha up, this is my best chance to ask.
The table goes silent as Tabitha leaks just the smallest amount of killing intent. “Master Pacore would never do that,” she says in a cold voice that sends shivers up my spine. “Master took her under his wing. Once she's in Scholl, I'm sure he'll oversee her training personally, just as he did with all of us."
I assume she’s talking about her and Pacore’s other disciples. “I hope so.”
“He will,” Tabitha states with certainty.
I don’t see any deception in her eyes, Tabitha may be a higher level than me, but I’ve lived longer. Looking around the table, I see Frank and Lloyd have sunk in their seats while Aaliyah is confusingly looking between us.
“I can take care of myself,” she drunkenly protests, to which I smile.
“I know you can.” I pat my apprentice on the shoulder before apologizing to Tabitha. “Sorry if I offended you; I just worry about what will happen to her.”
Tabitha’s scowl softens. “I’ll forgive you this time.” She turns her head to the side, breaking eye contact with me.
"That's good; we're all friends here,” Frank tries to cut through some of the awkward tension. The festival around us was almost in full swing, with only those of us at this table not looking like they were having a good time. There was a bubble around our table that the other villagers avoided, almost like they could sense they shouldn’t get closer.
“That’s right,” Lloyd agrees with his friend. “Tonight is a night of celebration. We should all be as drunk as Aaliyah is.”
“I’m not drunk; I’m fine," Aaliyah tries to protest, but it comes out in a garbled mess that I could barely understand.
Aaliyah's drunken ramblings cut through the tension better than Frank and Lloyd ever could, but we still had an awkward silence.
Everyone but Aaliyah sipped their drinks in silence. Eventually, the silence became too much for Frank and Lloyd; the two started elbowing one another, trying to get the other to break the heavy silence. Lloyd looks around for a conversation topic, and I see his eyes land on the feathers adorning Tabitha’s hair. “Your feathers are beautiful, Lady Tabitha.”
Tabitha mumbles a polite 'thank you to Lloyd, but that’s all she says.
Lloyd, bless his heart, doesn’t give up and tries to force a conversation. “Frank and I have been wondering, is there a reason you always wear them? When that platoon of soldiers showed up at the village, a handful of them also had feathers. Do they mean anything? The old guy had the most of them.”
I snicker hearing Lloyd refer to Pacore as the 'old guy,' only a handful of people in the village know who he was, and everyone who did know agreed that it was best not to spread that knowledge around.
Tabitha’s eyes narrow, but Lloyd doesn't know he offended her. I thought she would snap at him, but Tabitha defies my expectations and ignores Lloyd’s remark, instead choosing to take another sip of her ale.
Frank and Lloyd are confused by her reaction, and I decide to take pity on them. “It’s a Scholl thing," I tell them. "The feathers signify a person's rank and how strong they are.”
“Really?” Frank’s eyes widen. “But that old guy had like a dozen of them in his beard. Did that mean he was stronger than Lady Tabitha!?”
Now it was Tabitha’s turn to chuckle. “He is,” she says, setting her tankard down and turning to the surprised duo. “But that isn’t what our feathers mean.”
She reaches up and pulls out the three feathers attached to her hair. Each one of them has clips on them to hold them in place. And though they aren’t activated, I could see the lines inscribed on their surfaces, meaning that they were enchanted.
“It’s a common misconception that our feathers represent our rank.” Everyone at the table leans forward to get a better view of Tabitha’s feathers.
“Beautiful,” Aaliyah reaches over and picks up the grey one, bringing it close to her face. “So much magic,” she mumbles.
Tabitha smiles with pride. “The feathers are a tradition from back when Scholl was first founded. Warriors would go out and hunt the dangerous beasts of the plains and claim trophies of their kills.”
“Then why do you only have feathers?” Frank curiously asks.
“That is because the strongest magical beasts all fly in Scholl. Our nation is mostly a rocky wasteland, where only the strongest survive. That goes double for beasts that inhabit it. Breeds of huge griffins, rocs large enough to lift a grown man into the air, and countless other beasts with wings are just a few magic beasts that hunt our skies. It is said that Scholl’s founder killed a grand roc and built his castle over its nest. Its feathers were so strong and so big that he crafted his armor out of them. We show our strength in the same way by adorning ourselves with the feathers of the beasts we hunt.”
“Whoa!” Frank, Lloyd, and Aaliyah were all mesmerized by Tabitha’s story. I’ve heard of grand rocs myself but have never seen one. They’re said to be bigger than a house, with talons that could pierce enchanted steel. Depending on their age, their feathers are tier 4 or 5 materials.
“Does that mean you hunted one too?” Lloyd asks Tabitha.
Tabitha laughs at his ridiculous question, and I have to agree; it is funny. Grand rocs might not be at the level of dragons, but they weren't just beasts regularly hunted.
"The last grand roc was hunted 63 years ago before I was born,” Tabitha explains with a smile. “My feathers are from weaker beasts. When a warier is strong enough, they’re expected to go out into the wilds and slay an appropriate beast, preferably one too close to a village or other settlement.”
“Alone!?” Lloyd asks in disbelief.
“Most of the time,” Tabitha clarifies with a smirk. “Some beasts can’t be hunted alone, like this one,” Tabitha holds up one of her three feathers, a large brown one with white highlights on its tips. “This one is from a speckled griffin; they camouflage themselves next to rocks. They’re considered too dangerous to hunt by yourself, so I and two others of Pacore’s disciples worked together to slay it. We each took one of the feathers from its crest as a sign that we succeeded.”
“So, they’re like medals of honor,” I note.
“The stone kin equivalent, yes. Other nations think the colors of our feathers are the most important part, but that isn’t true. Those in command may have similar feathers, but that’s just because people hunt the same beasts at certain levels.”
“What level do you have to be?” Frank asks.
“Around 70 is the norm,” Tabitha responds, and Frank and Lloyd’s eyes go round. “But it’s possible to earn one at lower levels if a person is talented enough to slay an appropriate beast.”
“Like me?” Aaliyah goofily grins.
“You are already at the level where you could earn your own feathers. If I know Master well enough, which I do. Then he'll probably have you hunt a suitable beast on your way to the capital.”
“Hmmm,” Alayah hums in thought, and I’m suddenly put on edge. “Does it have to be a monster from Scholl? I want to explore the deeper parts of the forest; what if I encounter something with feathers there?”
“The forest!?” Frank and Lloyd shout.
I doubt Aaliyah is referring to the regular part of the forest around the village.
“I don’t understand?” Tabitha asks for clarification which Frank and Lloyd are all too happy to give.
“She’s talking about the high magic area deep in the forest,” Lloyd tells her.
“It’s where the chameleon spiders came from,” Frank adds.
“High magic area, interesting,” Tabitha smiles in a way that I don’t like. “You plan on going into such an area?” Tabitha asks, an inebriated Aliyah.
"Sure am," Aaliyah responds instantly but pauses when she looks like she remembered something. "But don't tell anyone, I’m not ready just yet.”
And that’s all Aaliyah had to say to get everyone at the table laughing, even Tabitha.
“It's isn’t funny!” She yells, slamming her hands down onto the table. Luckily, she didn't use her full strength, or she might've splintered the wood. Even drunk, she still has decent control over her Strength.
When we all stop laughing, the mood surrounding the table is much better.
“Promise you won’t say anything,” Aaliyah demands Frank and Lloyd.
"We won't," Frank promises, wiping a fake tear from his eye.
“Lady Tabitha, I have a question. If all the feathers look alike, how do people tell them apart? Wouldn’t everyone confuse them with each other?" Lloyd poses a good question.
“Maybe to people like you, they all look the same, but high-level individuals can recognize the difference,” Tabitha holds up the griffin feather and her third, entirely black feather. "Which of these are from the strongest beast?” She asks the table.
Frank and Lloyd are confused, but Aaliyah is interested in the challenge. Even in the state that she’s in, Aaliyah carefully examines the two feathers Tabitha is holding up and compares them to the one in her hands. I don’t have her talent with mana, but I have a good idea of how the feathers compare.
“That one,” Aaliyah points to the black feather in Tabitha’s right hand. Wrong choice.
“Close,” Tabitha says what I already know. “It’s the griffin feather," she says, lowering the black one.
“Not-uh,” Aaliyah disagrees. “The black one has more mana than this one.”
“That may be true, but this black feather is from a night raven. It wields more mana than most magic beasts at its level, but it was only around level 75. It was the first feather I earned. The speckled griffin we fought was almost 120.
“It sounds like it was of the earth element,” I explain to a confused Frank and Lloyd. “They've supposedly have less mana than other magic beast affinities but are much stronger physically. And if it came from a level 120 creature, that feather has to be worth at least half a gold coin by itself.”
“That much?!” Frank and Lloyd exclaim.
I ignore their shouts of surprise and focus on a pouting Aaliyah. “You tricked me.”
“I did,” Tabitha chuckles. “Mana isn’t everything. Generally, the stronger a magic beast is, the more mana it has, but that isn't always the case. You can't let your guard down because someone doesn’t have much mana.” Tabitha uses this moment to teach Aaliyah a lesson.
“I don’t use mana to gauge someone’s level,” Aaliyah scoffs. “I look at a person’s, Hey! “
I reach over and cover Aaliyah's mouth before she says something she'll regret in the morning.
“I think you’ve had enough,” I slide Aaliyah’s cup out of her reach.
Aaliyah puffs up her cheeks like a child as I slowly remove my hand from her mouth. "I wasn't going to say anything," she complains.
“Obviously,” I mock sarcastically. Tabitha watches our exchange, but she doesn’t comment on what I kept Aaliyah from revealing.
“So, someone can’t just put a feather in their hair and call themselves a warrior?" Lloyd asks, unconcerned by me covering Aaliyah's mouth.
“Some have tried,” Tabitha explains. “Every so often, a fool tries to claim to be stronger than they are with a random feather. Some even purchase a feather from a high-level beast and try to pass it off as their own.”
“Then what happens?” Frank asks.
Tabitha coldly smiles at the two making them cringe. "Then they die."
Frank and Lloyd grow pale.
“That, or they’re imprisoned,” Tabitha continues after a long pause. “It is illegal to wear a feather if you aren’t strong g enough.”
“People are jailed for that?! That’s insane!”
Tabitha thoughtfully nods to Lloyd. “Wearing a feather is a status symbol in Scholl, but it doesn’t just mean you’re strong. Wearing a feather means you demand respect, but you have duties to uphold. If there is ever an incident, say a bandit attack or wild beast, and a feathered warrior is nearby, they’re obligated to help. You can see how impersonating such a person could be dangerous.”
“That’s why not everyone chooses to wear a feather. A high-level farmer or merchant could technically meet the level requirement for one, but unless they can fight, they won’t.”
“Well damn, now I sort of want a feather,” Aaliyah grumbles.
Tabitha turns towards my disciple with the same look she gets when they’re about to spar. “It makes me happy to hear that. I heard the villagers talking about how you volunteered to protect them. You’re the kind of person who should have a feather.”
Aaliyah’s already red face turns a dark crimson under Tabitha’s praise.
“And how many of them does it take to fight a dragon?” Frank asks, and the table goes silent again. A few people walking by heard Frank's question and stopped to listen in.
“Where did you hear about the dragon?” Tabitha’s eyes narrow.
Frank waves his hands, trying to defuse the situation, but the more he talks, the deeper the hole he finds himself in. “People gossip about it, that’s all. Someone asked Kervin about what’s happening in Drey, which led to him telling us there was a dragon wreaking havoc in Scholl. That’s why you guys invaded Olebert, isn’t it? I was just curious why you feathered individuals chose war over slaying the beast? It sounds right up your alley.”
If I'd ever seen a man trying to commit suicide, it was at this moment.
Tabitha’s hands were balled into fists, and she looked ready to explode.
“Do you think we wanted this?” Tabitha tries to hold back her anger, but it leaks out. “Did you think we chose to invade on a whim?” Tabitha demands an answer from Frank, but the man realizes that he could be killed if he says the wrong thing, so he doesn't say anything. The people-watching nearby take a step back in fear but don't leave.
“Answer me!” Tabitha slams her fist down onto the table, almost splintering the wood. Unlike Aaliyah, she wasn’t holding back. I’d never seen her lose her cool like this.
“Kind of,” Frank finally squeaks, nearly folding in onto himself, expecting to be struck by Tabitha.
I prepared to throw myself forward to stop her from killing Frank if need be, but surprisingly, Tabitha didn't murder the man as I thought.
She bit her lower lip until a trickle of blood dripped out of the corner of her mouth, but she didn’t attack him.
I watched as Tabitha tried to get a hold of her emotions, and for once, I didn't see her as a battle-loving golem.
“We tried to kill it,” Tabitha whispers; we all only heard her because everyone around us was silent.
“We tried,” she repeats, with obvious hurt in her voice. “We didn’t start this war lightly.”
“It came from the ocean,” Tabitha says after a long pause, looking up at the stars. “Twenty-three months ago, the dragon used the flooded tunnels under Scholl to swim into Scholls Heart, the largest freshwater source in our country. Scholl’s Heart produces a significant part of our food; of course, we tried to kill the beast.”
Twenty-three months, the dragon had been in Scholl for over a year and a half. I had no idea it was that long.
"It took a month to gather the forces thought necessary to kill the creature,” Tabitha explains in a somber voice, which betrayed her story's outcome. "50,000 soldiers were mustered in a month, an accomplishment even for Scholl. But in that month, the dragon had already claimed its territory. It leveled each farming village around the lake, killing tens of thousands and destroying most of the crops. In one month, it wiped out over a century of infostructure.”
“That’s insane!” Lloyd gives voice to what we’re all thinking.
Tabitha just nods. "With a flick of its tail, it could wipe out a village of this size."
Everyone goes pale, picturing such a thing, while Tabitha takes a large gulp of her ale. “We didn’t realize just how big the dragon was until our army marched on it. Our generals were concerned how we would fight it, considering it was a water dragon and stayed in the lake most of the time.”
“You lured it on land,” Aaliyah guesses.
"It came on the land itself. It slithered out of the water like the colossal snake that it is and met our army head-on. From head to tail, the beast was 350 feet long.”
Everyone gasped, hearing the size of the dragon. A creature that big, I could hardly believe it. I know from stories that creatures that size exist, but hearing a firsthand account of one gives me goosebumps.
Even after being the focus of an angry Tabitha, Frank can’t help but ask a question. “Did it breathe fire?”
"It's a dragon; of course, it breathed fire,” Lloyd elbowed his friend, proving just how little the average villager knew about dragons.
“It didn’t,” Tabitha corrects them. “Not all dragons breath fire. In fact, the majority don't. Instead, water dragons shoot pressurized water from their mouths.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Lloyd comments, and I can see the pain in Tabitha’s eyes intensify.
"It doesn't, does it?" Tabitha shakes her head, self-deprecatingly. “The water a water dragon spits out can cut through stone and steel in seconds. It rips through flesh and disintegrates bones on contact. It was so strong that it tore through the army’s barrier mages before we could react. So many died, thinking the same thing you did. That was the first time we failed to kill it.”
“Our second attack was four months later, and our king didn’t hold anything back after the first failure to subjugate the monster. So the second attack was the one I participated in; there were 4,000 of us."
“That’s it?” Someone behind me gasps.
Tabitha has a far-off look, and I think she hasn't even noticed the crowd she's drawn in.
“Everyone who participated in the second attack was at least level 70, and we were led by two of the strongest people in Scholl; Master Pacore the Deathless, who is my master, and Rezenta the Unseen, who is a Master War-Mage. Both led the attack on the dragon. And we still failed."
A heavy silence permeated the air. "This time, we were able to hurt the beast, but it wasn't enough. Though everyone was at least level 70, only us who were closer to 100 could do any significant damage. Lady Rezenta did the most damage while my master was at the forefront of the battle. He tried to keep the dragon focused on him, but even he couldn’t hold out for long.”
“After taking seven direct attacks from the dragon, Master Pacore passed out from the strain. We were able to rescue him before the dragon finished him off but at the cost of many lives. I lost two of my fellow disciples that day." Tabitha's voice dipped, recounting the battle.
“Without Master agro-ing the dragon, it started tearing through our lines, much like it did the first time. More survived on account of their higher levels, but Lady Rezenta was forced to sound the retreat. The plan was to retreat and recuperate before trying again, but a few days later, we found the dragon completely healed from its injuries when we were ready to attack a second time.”
“The vitality of a dragon was truly frightening. It was a mental blow to everyone, and though they were reluctant to, Master and Lady Rezenta pulled us back. There was no point in rechallenging it with fewer troops than the first time. We had failed.”
Tabitha lets out a long sight; she then grabs her mug and chugs the rest of her ale. "People argued about the possibility of removing the dragon without killing it, but anything less than poisoning the entire lake was pointless. And if we did do that, it would cripple our country for centuries to come. Plus, there was no guarantee the dragon wouldn’t just move its nest to one of the other lakes.”
“With the Heart of Scholl lost to us, it was only a matter of time until people started to starve. We needed food, so, no, we didn't invade Olebert on a whim."
“I apologize,” Frank lowers his head in shame.
“As you should,” Tabitha huffs. “My brothers and sisters died trying to save our country; I will not have their sacrifice be made light of. The dragon will pay,” Tabitha growls. “Scholl is not a land of the weak! We will find a way to slay the dragon; we just need time.”
Tabitha holds her head and stares into her empty cup. “This village reminds me of Scholl. You all try so hard to improve yourselves. On my way here, the other villages I came across were stagnant; there was no fire in their eyes. No drive.”
“Continue to grow. Become stronger. Expand your fields; help save my people.” A single tear falls to the table.
“You needn’t ask that," Camden pushes his way through the crowd around us. At some point, the party paused, and everyone was listening in on Tabitha's story.
"We here at Spotted Creek Village know what it's like to be besieged by a monster," Camden raises his glass, and everyone else does the same in solidarity. "We will do our part to save 'Our People.' We're a part of Scholl now, aren't we?" Camden grins down at a red-eyed Tabitha.
Tabitha is shocked by Camden’s declaration but smiles when she sees the villagers around her nodding in agreement.
“Death to the dragon!” Camden cheers.
“Death to the dragon!” everyone shouts.
The crowd slowly dissipates, but Camden remains. “Lady Tabitha, would you like to join us up at the front? We have skewers prepared.”
“I would like that,” Tabitha surprisingly agrees, and we watch as she leaves, bringing the number at our table down to four.
“I think we’ll grab some food too,” Frank and Lloyd git up from their seats and make their way towards the grills.
“Bring me back some,” Aaliyah shouts after the departing two, earning her a wave from them, signaling they heard her.
Once Aaliyah and I are all alone, she turns to me. Her face is still flushed red, but she has her usual determined look on. "Master, I want to help them.”
“Of course, you do,” I chuckle, pulling her in for a light hug. “That’s fine, but promise me you’ll remember your limits. I won’t be there to help you.”
“I know,” Aaliyah responds in a quiet voice.
"I would be if you’d let me,” I try to change her mind about me joining her on her trip to Scholl. I want to go with her to watch over her, but she made me promise to stay here and look after the village while she’s gone.
“No, you’re needed here,” Aaliyah says with resolve.
I knew she wouldn't go for it, but I had to try.
How much have I changed since she became my apprentice?
I was content to watch my life pass me by in seclusion, but then she came in and turned everything on its head. I’m interacting with others again, and I don’t hate it.
She made me realize I'm tired of being alone and how important it is to help others.
God Tarrow, pleaser watch over Aaliyah. I don’t know what I would do if something happened to her and I wasn't there.