“Good morning, Princess. I wasn’t sure if you were going to show.” Master immediately starts heckling me as I stumble into his clearing.
“Funny,” I grumble, trying to ignore the pounding in my head. The sun overhead was blinding me, making everything worse. This was the weirdest hangover ever; I didn't even feel groggy in the slightest. There was no nausea, no light sensitivity, or any of the usual symptoms of a hangover, except for having a splitting headache.
"You planned this, didn't you?" I send an accusing look at Master, who's oddly up and cheerful for a change. He’s practically glowing like Sandra, and that’s saying something.
“I haven’t the faintest idea of what you mean,” Master plays dumb, but he isn’t hiding the smile on his face. “Did you enjoy last night? You certainly seemed like you did. Remember anything?” He snickers at me.
I blush as I lower my head, so Master can’t see the look of embarrassment on my face. “I remember everything,” I groan.
“Oh?” Master sounds surprised by that, but then again, I am too.
With how far gone I was yesterday, you would think everything would be a blurry haze. But nope, I could vividly remember everything I said and did last night, much to my growing shame. And to add insult to injury, if I pretended the headache wasn't there, I'd be feeling over the moon right now. Instead, last night was the best sleep I'd had in a long time. No training in my soul, no tossing and turning in my bed trying to fall asleep, I passed out as soon as my head hit my pillow.
“Must be your mental stats helping you,” Master notes. “I never invested in them, so I wouldn’t know.”
“So, you’re saying you’re stupid,” I snap back.
“I wouldn’t be throwing stones after last night,” Master barks with laughter, clearly unhurt by my insult.
I bite back another angry retort, knowing whatever I say would just be used against me. Last night was a mistake on my part, plain and simple.
I thought I wanted to get drunk, but I severely underestimated Master’s homebrew. I wanted a nice buzz, but what I got was shit-faced without even knowing it. At least I wasn't the only one; Master was particularly evil last night.
Frank, Lloyd, most of the wall construction crew; Tabitha, anyone who’s stepped foot into Master's clearing over the last month probably felt worse than I did. Tabitha and I had our stats to fall back on, but everyone else….
Master started only drinking with those at our table, but after Tabitha explained Scholl's invasion and we ate a bit, he made his rounds around the party. Like a demon on everybody's shoulder, Master convinced many people to try his homebrew. Thankfully, he didn't let them drink as much as I did, but I remember that at some point, he had to go home for a few minutes to refill his waterskin. After which, he continued to share.
The person who got it the worst was Dad. He found me halfway through the festival and asked what I was drinking. Unlike everyone else who diluted Master's alcohol in their ale, Dad tried to take a shot as I did. Unfortunately, he was still back home recovering. This was the first time in as long as I could remember that I left the house before he did.
It was only thanks to Mom that I’d woken up when I did, and even then, with how late in the day it was, I didn’t bother with my morning exercises. It was almost noon, and I’d just made my way to Master’s clearing.
"Where's Tabitha?" Master asks, seeing how my shadow wasn't following me into the clearing for a change.
“She’s back at the village straightening up. She said she would be by in a bit.” At least that’s what Camden told me she said. I don’t tell Master, but I didn't see Tabitha myself. According to Camden, who was also nursing a terrible headache back at his house, she enjoyed herself as much as I did last night. Whatever that entailed.
I vividly remember everyone offering Tabitha food and drink, and the party went on for a lot longer than it usually did. But unfortunately, I lost sight of her relatively early on, so I don’t know what she got up to.
I used cleaning magic as soon as Mom woke me up, but I don't know if Tabitha could do the same. She knows basic magic, so it stands to reason; she would know such a practical tier 1 spell despite me never seeing her use it.
Maybe she needed to wipe herself down or something? I do it every so often to relax, even though I don't have to.
Master throws his head back and laughs hysterically. Yeah, he definitely knew what he was doing last night. "What about your friend; Is she not coming today either?" He wheezes through his teeth.
“Tabitha will be here in a little bit,” I remind him again while resisting the urge to punch him. “And Sandra…. she got married last night; what do you think she’s doing right now? On second thought, I don’t want to think about it.” I shake my head, trying not to imagine what Sandra and Brother were doing during what was essentially their honeymoon.
“I wouldn’t put too much thought into it,” Master chuckles again. “I had a drink with Richard, too.”
That’s got to suck for him. Hopefully, Richard didn't drink as much as Dad did, or else even I’d feel bad for him. Well…. primarily for Sandra. No bride wants to spend their first day married tending to their sick husband.
Letting out a sigh, I ignore Master, who's close to falling over with laughter, and move over to my workbench, where I grab a piece of parchment. My head was still pounding, but Master's alcohol did give me a few good ideas last night, even if I’m not sure if I could pull them off. And even if I don’t have time to forge anything today, I could still get my ideas down on paper and prep for a busy week.
“What are you working on?” Master asks out of breath after he stops giggling like a burly schoolgirl. He moves next to me and watches me sketch out a new dagger design with raised eyebrows.
“It’s the dagger I want to try and make for Reel.”
Master’s face scrunches in confusion as I draw, and it isn’t until I have it nearly finished that he understands what I’m sketching. “And what’s wrong with a normal dagger? Why not make the one he asked for?”
“I’m tired of normal,” I tell him. “Normal is the experience I got for those arrows I made. If I stick to ' normal, 'it will take me years to break past Blacksmithing's third test. It will have the same dimensions as what he asked for; only this one will be better.”
"Yeah, but this?" Master points at my blueprint. "You make one mistake, and you'll ruin it. The dagger and the materials. I can't help you, either; this is beyond what I can do.”
“Ruin what?” A sudden voice cuts into our conversation.
Master and I turn to the clearing's entrance to see Tabitha walking toward us, once again donning her fancy armor. She shows no signs of being hungover, and if I didn't know she'd been drinking the night before, I'd say she was perfectly fine.
“Morning, Tabitha,” I greet her as she approaches us.
“It is no longer morning,” she responds in a monotone voice. Her eyes drift past me and laser in on Master, who looks away as not to meet her cold eyes.
“Still proud of what you did?” I whisper to him.
“Quiet,” Master growls under his breath as Tabitha draws closer to us.
"Master was just apologizing for ruining our night last night." Del pales, but Tabitha doesn't react to what I say.
“You’re not helping,” Master anxiously whispers.
“He did not ruin my night,” Tabitha says matter-of-factly, strolling forward taking measured steps.
Master lets out a sigh of relief, but Tabitha wasn’t finished speaking.
“That does not mean I will forget what you did." Tabitha's eyes drill into Master, who immediately starts to sweat visibly. She walks past him like he isn't there and moves next to me. "What is this?" She asks, scanning my new dagger design, shifting the conversation to a new topic.
After last night, I'm all too happy to mess with Master, so I follow Tabitha's example and explain my work, pretending that Del isn't standing a few feet away from us.
“I wanted to try and make Reel a unique dagger.”
“For the assassin, I sparred with, yes? You’ve turned an engraving pen into a dagger,” She notes with just a hint of surprise.
Reel had asked me for a grooved dagger, saying he needed a new one meant for poisoning. He explained the grooves were meant to hold the bulk of the poison. A small amount would be slathered on its edge, but most of that could be scraped off in a scuffle during a battle. My new dagger design would solve that issue.
Instead of having Reel coat his blade in poison, I would make it ooze out from the inside itself. The handle would house most of the poison and would feed into a small channel that would run down the spine of the dagger, much like how a modern pen works. I would put needle-sized holes through the blade and connect them to the channel, relying on the viscosity of the poison to keep it from leaking out of such tiny holes.
It would be tricky to get the poison out, but mana would solve the feeding issue like my engraving pen. If I enchant the handle with a basic mana absorbing rune and direct it down towards those microscopic openings, whenever someone fed their mana into the dagger, it would try to escape through those openings and drag the poison along with it.
“A frightening dagger design,” Tabitha speaks softly. “A good blade for an assassin. Are you sure you can make it?”
“I’m going to try. I just wanted your opinion if you think Reel would like it?” I ask.
Tabitha nods her head. “He would. But shouldn’t you be working on other things if you wish to explore the magic-dense region in the forest?"
Of course, she would remember that.
"Eventually, I will," I tell her while avoiding eye contact. I don’t need to see her face to know she’s excited by the idea of exploring the nearby magic-dense region.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Tabitha nodding in understanding with a faint smile on her face. “When you are ready, let me know.”
“You want to go too?” I guess. I shouldn’t be surprised that Tabitha wishes to join me.
Tabitha grins at me like she does when we spar. “Of course, I was sent here to watch over you. I couldn’t let you go to such a place unsupervised.”
“I take it you’ve been to one before?”
"I have," Tabitha tells me, fondly looking off into the distance. "Magic dense regions are the ultimate challenge for hunters and adventurers alike. There are a few in Scholl, but none of them are forest biomes. I’m curious what lies within.”
Tabitha and I share a rare moment of synergy. I, too, am curious about what lies within the forest and knowing Tabitha had been to similar areas before, I had a million questions I wanted to ask her.
It was stupid of me, but I originally wasn’t planning on asking Tabitha to join me, but having someone with her experience with me is a good idea for a whole host of reasons. And if she wants to, why not let her come along. “Alright, but like I said last night, keep it a secret. I don’t want my family worrying about it needlessly until I’m ready to go.”
“I understand.... when do you think you'll be ready?” Tabitha’s eyes are ablaze with excitement. Something tells me she’ll want to go sooner rather than later. And if that’s the case, I need to get my armor going.
“Not now,” I sarcastically snort, brushing off her implication that we could leave right now. But first, while she is in a happy mood. “Sister, Tabitha?”
"Yes?" Tabitha asks, raising a questioning eyebrow. She knows me by now that when I refer to her as sister or senior sister, I'm about to ask for something complicated.
“I want to explore the forest; you want to explore the forest. Help me help you.”
“Get to the point,” Tabitha warns me before I try activating any of my merchant skills.
“Let me see your armor. Please,” I bluntly ask.
Tabitha's eyes turn into dinner plates, and her hand drops to her sword instinctually. "Why?" She asks in a tone that sends a shiver up my spine.
I can't back down now. Meeting her eyes, I explain why I want to see her armor. "I'm going to be making a new set of armor soon, and I'm trying to decide if I want to risk enchanting it. I know a handful of enchantments, but nothing I would want to put on armor. So I was hoping you would let me see yours so I could study its enchantments.”
"You can watch me the whole time, and I promise not to damage anything," I quickly add when I see her having difficulty agreeing with my request.
“And you’re sure about that?” Tabitha gives me a critical look.
"Positive," I reassure her. "I just need to study it while the enchantments are activated. Preferably when you aren't swinging a sword at me."
"I suppose I could let you look at them," Tabitha hesitantly agrees, and I have to hold back the desire to jump for joy.
Examining Tabitha's armor will be a massive win for me. I know I probably won't be able to copy the higher-tier runes, but it would be worth it if I could decipher one good one.
Grabbing another piece of parchment, I start sketching out the armor designs I discussed with Mom the last couple of days. My fighting style has evolved since I made my first set of armor, and my newer set will reflect the slight changes in my fighting style.
Thanks to Tabitha's teachings, my movements have become much more precise, to the point my armor isn't ripped to shreds each time I practice with her. Of course, my movements are still nowhere near hers, but I’m slowly closing the distance.
I'm confident I don't need as much plating in my second set. I talked it over with Master and Tabitha, and they recommended I instead wear a gambeson. They are cheaper and easier to make while still offering a decent amount of defense for the material used.
Gambesons are made from layered linens and other fabrics, making them essentially thick jackets. They aren’t the strongest armor pieces and are more something you wear underneath your heavier armor, but they offer great defense for what they are. The main thing is that gambesons are flexible and don't restrict the wearer's movements.
I still plan to wear a chest piece, helmet, and other paddings, just not as much as I do now. Tabitha's training has pushed my movement skills to the next level, and it's time I play to my strengths. My fighting style revolves around striking hard and fast before retreating, not deflecting or tanking like Tabitha or Pacore.
Some armor will always be needed, but the easier I can move, the better I can fight. My current armor is flexible enough, but it represents my prior fear of getting hit. The multiple metal plates are clunkier than I need and weigh me down. With Mana Threads, I don't need bulky armor to counterbalance my swings, rendering my current armor counter-intuitive.
Then there was my hammer; I needed to adjust it too before exploring the woods. It was wrong of me to shape it like a ball-peen hammer. I thought the rounded side would be suitable for blunt force damage, but it shows the level of ignorance I had when it came to combat when I first made it.
It's a good thing I didn't try enchanting it because I need to turn the rounded side of my hammer into a point for piercing; such a change would've ruined any enchantment I had on it.
So much to do and so little time. Regardless of my headache, it was time to get back to work.
Pacore the Deathless' Point of View:
The sun overhead felt good against my invisible armor. I miss the wide-open rocky terrain of Scholl, and standing on the ramparts surrounded by stone reminded me of my homeland. The grass and trees were nice to look at for a while, but now the endless sea of green looked all the same to me.
It was a new year, and I wasn't celebrating it in Scholl with my disciples or His Majesty.
Looking out from Yleles' walls, I scan Olebert's camp for what must be the fifth time today. Everything was quiet, agonizingly so.
Olebert had all but given up trying to retake the city. Smart of them, but still…. The cowards.
"I shouldn't be surprised this is where I found you."
"Happy new year, Lord Bullok," I greet the young man as he walks towards me, flanked by four of his personal guard. I had received word that he was supposed to be arriving soon, but I wasn’t expecting him until tomorrow.
"And to you as well, Master Pacore the Deathless." He offers me a polite bow using my full title, to which I nod. He joins me on the edge of the wall with his hands behind his back in a relaxed stance, much to the displeasure of his guards. He's out in the open, and though he may be a decent warrior with a single feather of his own, he isn't as durable as I am. Few are.
His letting his guard down could be a sign of trust towards me, but it's unneeded. Jason has been sending me reports of Bullock’s movements while I’ve been stationed in Yleles. Initially, I wasn't sure where the young lord's allegiances lie, but he's yet to try and sabotage me or take control, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt until he proves otherwise.
"I take it your rushing here that negotiations are about to start."
"Indeed," Bullok confirms what I already suspected.
"When will they arrive?" I ask.
"In a few days. They originally demanded I meet them outside Teeburn, but I wouldn't let them dictate where we hold our talks."
"Smart and the fact that I’m here had nothing to do with it?" I smirk at the young lord.
"Your presence might have played a factor in it." He doesn’t give me a straight answer like a true politician, choosing to smile instead. "I was hoping you could be there during the meetings."
"Hmm," I hum thoughtfully, stroking my beard. I don't like dealing with politicians; I can resist their skills but not counter them. I am Scholl's shield, not its voice.
"You won't have to do much," Bullok assures me. "Just stand there menacingly."
"Oh?" I fold my hands in front of me and look down on the lord. His bodyguards flinch under my pressure, but none take their eyes off me. They're decently trained then.
"Yes, like that," Bullok forces a smile, knees shaking.
"You worry they may try something?" I make an educated guess as to why he'd want me there with him. Inviting me to help him could be seen as him joining his majesty’s camp and could make things difficult for him back home.
The danger of having our kingdom starve has temporarily united the various fractions bidding for power. Still, with peace talks with Olebert commencing, it was only a matter of time until people started to move again. I'm sure they're scheming in the shadows, waiting for an opening of any kind.
"The Olebert nobles worry me," Bullok admits, his politician’s mask cracking a bit. "They gave up their cites far too easily and were slow to muster a proper defense. It's almost like they didn't care about their cities or people. They only agreed to negotiate after I wrote that we had Genial Pitz."
"My father taught me how to fight just as much as he taught me how to negotiate, but these Olebert nobles.... you understand, right? They aren’t what I’m used to."
I have to agree with the young man; Olebert has surprised me at each step of this invasion, and not in a good way. Other than the fort, Olebert's nobles practically rolled over for us and abandoned their holdings.
They might just try something during the peace talks. "They demanded the general be present, didn't they?"
Lord Bullok nods with a serious look.
"Well, that's not going to happen," I snort.
"So, you'll be there?" Young Lord Bullok pleads with his eyes.
"I suppose I’m not doing anything else," I reluctantly agree. "How far out are they exactly?"
"My people estimate three days. It was estimated to take them eight to get around Red Dust Mountain, and they were sighted leaving Teeburn five days ago. They said they wanted to negotiate before the new year. Did you know the people here celebrate the night before rather than the day of?"
"Hard not to notice. Last night Yleles was the most active as I’ve ever seen it. I had to issue orders for my men not to go overboard partying with the locals.”
“I’m sure they had fun.”
"They're still having fun," I huff. With each day, they drop their guard a little more. Starting tomorrow, maybe I should start having them run drills. Or maybe I should spar with a few of them; that would put them in their place. I could critically injure one or two commanders; that would set a strong precedent. Though I'd have to make sure they have ties with the phoenix faction.
Taking a deep breath, I let out a tired sigh. The lull in battle is making me anxious. I could work off some of my pent-up aggression if Tabitha were with me, but she isn't. I left my other students in Teeburn to hold the city, but even they aren’t as eager to spar with me as she always is.
Thinking about my student, I’m reminded that it’s been over a month since one of us has sent the other a letter. I sent her an update regarding Olebert’s ceasefire, and she wrote me back telling me how much fun she had training Aaliyah.
Poor girl, I didn’t think she’d take up Tabitha’s offer to train her. I told Tabitha; Aaliyah would probably want to spar with her as a way to convince her to go to the village. I didn’t think she’d actually agree with how much hostility she showed me. But it sounded like the two of them were getting along.
I’m happy for Tabitha. She sticks out even among my students, and I'm happy to hear she's met someone she can interact with. After all, it's ok to crave battle, the best warriors do, but you need a reason to fight. Aaliyah has her friends and family; I have His Majesty; Tabitha has me…. only me. Tabitha’s loyalty has always been more towards me rather than to Scholl. It doesn’t bother His Majesty, but I can’t remain her fixation forever.
I'm an old man and have no idea when the gods will see fit to take me. Tabitha needs a person she's willing to follow when that happens. If she can't find that person by the time I die, I shudder to think what could happen. Most likely, she would recklessly throw herself into battle until she died. That would be a true tragedy for someone of her talent.
But if she's getting along with Aaliyah, there might just be some hope. Plus, it will cut down on what I’ll need to teach my newest disciple myself. If she’s made it this long practicing with Tabitha without giving up, she's just as strong as I hoped.
"Master Pacore?" Bullock's voice pulls me out of my thoughts.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“I was asking if it was ok to be letting your men party at a time like this?”
"Ah yes, that. You do not need to worry," I assure the anxious-looking lord. "They may be celebrating, but that’s why I’m up here. We're rotating out the guard, so everyone has downtime while still keeping an eye on Olebert. Not that it matters."
“I don’t understand," the young lord tilts his head, confused by my answer. I should expect as much; though he's probably fought monsters to raise his level, most of his time must have been spent learning politics rather than battlefield awareness. There is a vast difference between fighting monsters and other humans. To someone like me, it’s easy to tell what Olebert’s forces are focusing on, but him…
"Do you see Olebert's camp?" I motion to our opponents in the distance. He nods but still looks confused, so I spell out our situation for him. "Their camp is a mess; tents everywhere, their command center easily visible, not a single soldier in formation.”
“So, they’re undertrained?” Lord Bullok guesses.
"It appears that way, doesn't it. But if you look closer, you see that everything isn't as it appears. They've been trying to secretly dig trenches behind their tents, using them for cover. Their soldiers aren’t lined up to attack, they’re in the trenches, yet the observation towers they've built are always maned. They're not preparing for a siege; they're digging themselves in, wanting us to attack them.”
“But the siege weapons!?” Bullok points at a catapult stationed in the middle of their camp.
“Too far away,” I point out. “And they aren’t new. The ones they have are what's left from when they initially tried to retake the city. They're just for show, again meant to bait us into attacking them. They've given up on trying to retake the city, instead choosing to deploy defensive tactics."
“I’m sorry, but I still don’t see what you mean. I’m lacking,” Bullok lowers his head.
I good-naturally chuckle and pat the boy on his shoulder. "It would be too costly for them to try and retake the city again; they've tried too many. That is unless we lost more of our troops. By say, trying to attack a seemingly weak camp."
Young Lord Bullock's eyes widen as he sees Olebert's defenses in a new light.
“They were banking on my ruthless reputation, thinking I would order my men to charge them as soon as they showed weakness. But their commander is a hundred years too young to fool me,” I boast.
“Then they won’t make a move unless we do," Bullok smirks like he's heard his best news all day.
I can see the wheels turning in Bullock's head. He'll use what I told him during the negotiations. Good, I want to return home. I wish to know how we're dealing with the dragon; news has been sparse out here. News of the Dragon has spread, but not all the gory details are public knowledge. If Olebert or other nations learns how severely the beast crippled us, they may see it as an opportunity to attack. This time, in force.
I'm not naive enough to think this is all Olebert has to offer. General Pitz's existence is enough to prove Olebert also has high-leveled individuals they can field. While a significant part of me craves a real battle, my rational side recognizes that would spell doom for us.
If Olebert can break past our defenses, they only need to torch the fields to kill us. Food is and always will be our goal. Our survival depends on Olebert overestimating us. We need a ceasefire; that's the only way we can save our people back home.
The army in front of me is here to keep us from expanding our reach; little do they know, we don't have the personnel available to expand any further.
The dragon didn't just destroy our farms; it killed a lot of people: those who tilled the fields and those who gathered to slay it. Bringing my hand up, I rub my invisible chest plate, remembering how strong the dragon's breath was and how easily it killed our warriors.
Once we have an official peace agreement, I can return home and focus on our true enemy. "It will be nice to be home again," I whisper.
“Come again, Master Pacore?” Bullok gives me a confused look.
“Just thinking about returning home,” I tell him. “What do you think; a week, maybe two?”
“Till what?” Young Bullok doesn’t understand what I’m asking.
“Until I get to go home,” I clarify.
“Uhhh,” Bullok looks conflicted. “Master Pacore, may I ask, have you ever brokered a peace agreement before?”
“Of course, I have! Do you know how many have surrendered to me?”
"Yes, yes," Bullok waves his hands, signaling he didn't mean to offend me. "But I mean, have you ever had to negotiate with a force that didn't surrender to you?"
There is a long pause between us, and the longer it goes on, the more uncomfortable young Bullok looks.
I can't afford to look weak in front of my subordinates, so I hide my embarrassment behind a mask of superiority. "Something wrong?" I ask, knowing I sound condescending.
“No, Master Pacore,” Bullok lowers his head. “I would imagine you don’t have to deal with anything other than unconditional surrender. This time must be an exception.”
I wave for the boy to stop trying to stroke my ego; he's only hurting my pride as Pacore the Deathless. "Never mind that; how long do you think negations will take. Three weeks, not a month, I hope?"
“Maybe two,” Bullok hesitantly answers.
I smile, “So I was right, two weeks.”
“Sorry, no,” Bullok cuts me off before I can celebrate. “I meant two months.”
“Maybe three, as things stand,” Bullok sheepishly amends his statement. “Peace talks take a long time.”
Grounding my teeth, I bite back my frustration. Just when I thought I would finally get to go home with my new apprentice. And now I'm being told I'll have to sit through months of peace talks!
If Olebert doesn't try something during the negotiations, I will!
Damn, I guess my boredom is only going to get worse.