Lights of different colors flickered around me, shifting, changing shape. To follow them indefinitely was impossible, and yet, I tried.
But mana wasn’t bound by the same laws other forms of energy followed. Instead, it shifted through some matter while getting briefly stuck in others; and only by forcefully trapping it, either by absorbing it into the body or a rune, could mortals hope to control it.
All around me, there were countless threads of mana, currents if you will, and the world was an ocean full of them. And here I was, trying to focus on one water molecule.
Even with my skills, I’ve only been able to see the general currents of the mana around me. I could see the mana flowing through both living and inanimate objects, but only as a general outline of what was contained within.
Regarding my mana skills, I’ve grown a lot since I was a baby, but I’ve reached the point that if I want to continue to improve, I'll have to go beyond my innate mana-sensing skills.
Making Reel's dagger was an eye-opener. I ended up combining multiple techniques to finish it, and in the end, Sandra and I found a path forward.
Focusing my mana into my hands, I try to replicate what I did with my engraving pen. Without a focus, it’s harder to do, but I’ve had plenty of experience shaping my mana into root-like structures before. I watch as my mana snakes its way out of my fingertip and burrows into the mana currents swirling around me. Keeping it small without having it dissipate is challenging, but that’s the focus of my training.
My mana disrupts the calm sea around me and starts muddying the natural flow of magic. That’s the opposite of what I wanted to happen.
My goal is to have my mana threads pierce the mana around me, not fuse with it, but cleanly cut through it and do so without damaging the flow of mana around me. Or at least as little as possible. Heck, I'd take any progress at this point.
If I’m to try to engrave higher-tier runes, I'll need to have at least that level of control. I figured if I could sense smaller clusters of mana, it would help, but it was like I was trying to look at something microscopic without a microscope. I might even say it was impossible if I hadn't seen what this world was capable of.
No, I shake my head; it wasn't impossible. Sense Mana was on the cusp of leveling; I could feel it!
If only I could…
I lose my focus as I sense Mom walking down the hallway towards my room.
A small sigh escapes my lips as she reaches my door. “Come in,” I call out.
“Must you do that?" Mom scolds me as she pushes open my bedroom door and enters the room. “You can at least pretend you can’t see me through the walls. And you couldn’t have waited two more seconds for me to knock?”
I force a smile while Mom leers at me with her hands on her hips. “Sorry,” I sheepishly reply.
“Never mind, get up; dinner is ready."
“Already? But it’s,” I look out my window and see the sun has already long dripped below the horizon. “Oh.”
“Yeah, oh," Mom rolls her eyes. "Well, come on, your brother and Sandra are already here. Unless you want to sit on your bed all night.”
I squash any desire I have to sarcastically reply to her as I swing my legs out from underneath me and stand up for the first time in what was probably hours. My legs complain about the quick movement and lock up on me, but Mana Threads and my superhuman body work together to keep me upright. Thankfully, it only takes me a few seconds to regain my posture, my high stats driving out any sense of soreness I had from sitting in one position for so long.
Luckily, Mother didn't see my slight stumble; she had left my room as soon as she saw me start to get up. If Sandra was here, she was probably eager to get back and fawn over her pregnant daughter-in-law. Sandra was entering her third trimester and was more than showing a tiny baby bump at this point. And like any future grandmother-to-be, Mom couldn’t keep her hands off Sandra if she tried, which she didn't.
“Nice of you to join us,” Brother smirks at me as I enter our kitchen/dining room.
I search for a comeback in my mind but come up empty. I was still preoccupied with the possibility of gaining further insights into the very fabric of mana. "Shut up," I hiss as I move to take my seat. Not very elegant or thoughtful, but it works all the same.
“Leave Aaliyah alone,” Sandra gently scolds her husband, giving me a sidelong look that says she understood what I was going through. Sandra meditates more than I do these days; if anyone knows what it's like to come out of an extended meditative state, it is her. “I’m the one who suggested we didn't bother you until dinner was ready," my friend gives me a supportive smile.
“Thanks, but I wish I could say that it helped,” I say self-deprecatingly.
"Now, none of that," Mom tells me as she drags a large pot of stew over to the table. "Sandra, you first," Mom leans over and serves my friend first.
“So, who’s your favorite child, Mom?” I jokingly ask.
Mom doesn’t miss a beat, “Sandra,” she quickly answers without a hint of humor in her voice.
"Ow," I bring my hand up to my chest as if she stabbed me in my heart.
"Give me a grandbaby, and we'll talk."
“And all you do is work all day,” Mom points out to me. “If not that, you spend all your time in your room.”
“I come out to see you…. sometimes,” I blushingly answer.
“When you need me to help with your armor,” Mother corrects me, and again I don’t have a comeback.
“Now, now, honey,” thank the shitty gods, Dad came to my defense. “Our girl’s an adult now; of course, she doesn't want to spend time with us anymore."
“You too, Dad?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Dad pretends to be clueless. “Let us pray,” he motions for us all to close our eyes after everybody has gotten a serving of stew. “We give our thanks to the gods and spirits of the forest. We thank you for the food we received and the continued health of our family; may your blessings hold true."
“May they hold true,” the rest of us repeat after Dad finishes reciting the short prayer.
After that, a heavy silence falls over the table.
Well, this is awkward. We hadn't had a get-together like this in almost a month, and it felt like we were eating at a funeral.
In a bid to lighten the mood, I try to strike up a conversation with Sandra. “So, how did your recent experiments go?”
"What?" My sudden question catches Sandra off guard, but she quickly catches on. "Oh, good. The fabric mother-in-law made for me held up really well when I tried enchanting it.”
“Any weaknesses?” I ask in between taking sips of my stew.
“The same as last time. Fabric can be enchanted, but it runs the possibility of breaking if the threads around it split or come undone. What about you, any luck controlling engraving ink with your mana?”
“Sadly, no,” I sigh. It had been three weeks since I made Reel his dagger, and I was no closer to making a tier 3 rune than when I first started trying.
“Is that what’s been taking up all your time?” Dad joins in on our conversation, and I’m more than happy to oblige him.
"It's part of it," I tell him. "The last two weeks, I've been making armor for the village."
"And fixing your gear," Dad's eyes drift to my war hammer sitting next to our front door. Yesterday, I forged the rounded end into a proper spike for piercing; because of that, it looked newer than usual. “Why the change now?”
“Umm,” I flounder for an answer that isn’t 'I plan to fight magic beasts in the forest.'
"Tabitha recommended I change it,” technically not a lie. “But I’ve mostly been practicing my magic skills,” I try to change the topic.
“To make better enchantments." I'm surprised Dad was aware of what I was working on. He smiles, seeing my surprised expression, “Sandra was telling us earlier that you guys had a big breakthrough, and that was why you've been so distant."
I glance at Sandra for confirmation, and she too smiles at me. That makes things easier; I give her my thanks in my head. “Exactly,” I tell Dad. “We think we’ve come up with a solution to make three-dimensional runes."
Dad looks confused, so I try to relate what we’re doing to something he knows. That’s it, woodworking!
“Ok, Dad, you know how when you want to carve something, you have to do it layer by layer, working from the outside in?”
“Of course,” Dad nods along.
“Well, we have to find a way to do the opposite,” I tell him. “We need to carve a design inside a material without damaging the outside.”
“Sounds tricky,” Dad notes before shoving a massive chunk of pomme into his mouth.
“It is,” Sandra adds in. “But we think we found a way for Aaliyah to do it with her mana skills.”
“Really?!" Dad exclaims. "That's my girl," he says proudly, making me blush.
“It’s not that big of a deal; I still haven’t worked out how to do it yet.” Staring down into my bowl, I use my spoon to play with my food.
“She’s making little of what she’s doing,” Sandra continues to talk when I won't elaborate further. "She's trying to make her mana physical.”
“Doesn’t she already do that with her spells?” Dad is confused by Sandra’s explanation.
“Yes, exactly. We use mana in our spells to crate physical changes to our world. Making fire, moving earth, purifying water, no matter the spell, we have to use mana to do these things. But it isn’t raw mana that we’re using. Raw mana is unruly and hard to control; Aaliyah is the only person I know who can manipulate it as she does.”
“Ok, but I still don’t see what you’re getting at." Dad is still confused, and Sandra has gone full-on teacher mode at this point.
“If she can make her mana strong enough and control it well enough, she can have it dig into whatever she is enchanting, and we can fill it with engraving ink,” Sandra spells out the method we came up with to those present.
What she fails to tell everyone is how difficult our plan is to pull off. I could have my mana bore into Reel's knife, but it took everything I had to do it, and I was only able to keep it straight. And Runes were anything but straight.
Tier 3 runes were a mess of shapes, symbols, and lines, all intertwining and linking together. Even if I knew what I had to do, my skills just weren’t enough to pull it off.
“And how do these runes factor into what you are planning?” Mom finally joins the conversation, but I almost wish she didn't.
“Come again?” I feign ignorance.
“Do you think your father and I are fools?” Mom's eyes narrow menacingly, “We told ourselves you were an adult now and that you would tell us when you are ready, but enough is enough. Don’t pretend like you aren’t up to something. We’ve been supporting you these last six weeks, no questions asked, but you’ve been running yourself ragged, and you're obviously preparing for something. You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to, but don't sit there and act like you don't have something planned."
The table goes silent again, and Dad lets out a long sigh. He doesn’t look surprised by Mom’s outburst, so she’s probably been holding it in for a while.
I suppose it was naive to think my parents weren't aware something was up.
I guess now was as good as any time to tell them my plans to enter the forest.
“I’m sorry,” I hang my head and apologize to my parents. “I didn’t want you guys to worry, but it looks like I did the opposite.”
“Just tell us what’s going on,” Dad reaches over and takes one of my hands into his own.
“Does it have something to do with you leaving with Pacore?” Mom ventures a guess as to why I didn’t tell them.
“A little bit, but it’s more selfish than that,” I admit. “I want to explore the forest. The deeper parts of the forest.”
“Why would you want to go there?” Dad asks, having seen the same things I did when we initially scouted out the chameleon spiders.
I muster up all my courage and decide to tell my parents how I feel. “Because it’s exciting; I want to see what’s in there; Because I want to test myself!” I can feel myself trembling with excitement.
“I should’ve known." Surprisingly, Mom is less surprised by my answer than Dad is. “I take it that’s why you’ve been focusing so much on your armor?”
Mother sighs for what must be the hundredth time tonight. “And you two knew of this?” She turns her attention to the couple sitting across from me, who were both watching this little play work itself out.
“Aaliyah asked me not to say anything.” Sandra doesn’t flinch under Mom’s gaze. Of course, I told my best friend of my plans; she's been helping me almost as much as Master.
“I thought I told you not to say anything to Richard,” I glower at my partner in crime.
"He's my husband, of course, I told him." Then, to accentuate her point, Sandra leans over and kisses him.
“And you wonder why your mother is worried about you meeting people,” Sandra coyly smirks at me.
"Are you going alone?" Mom continues her questions after Sandra and I stop childishly sticking our tongs out at each other.
“No, Tabitha is going with me,” I inform her.
“I see,” Mother nods. She is surprisingly taking this all really well. “When are you leaving?”
My eyes go round. “That’s all you’re asking?!”
“If I said anything else, would it change your plans?” Mother sends me a challenging look.
“No,” I slink back into my seat.
“Exactly, so tell me when you plan to go on this little adventure of yours?”
I take a moment to think before I answer. My weapon and gambeson were ready. I still needed to make a few adjustments to the pieces of armor I'm wearing over it, but besides that and packing a bag, I’m pretty much ready.
I was hoping I could figure out how to enchant my gear before I left, but if I’ve learned anything these past few weeks, is it will take a lot of practice before I could use my mana like I needed to pull it off. And with no practical enchantments for my armor, it was better to leave it unenchanted.
“Six days,” I say with certainty.
“What! So soon?” Everyone, even Sandra, is surprised by my answer.
I nod, “I was going to wait longer to keep my plans a secret, but if everyone knows, there isn’t much point in putting things off any further. Tomorrow, during my practice with Tabitha, I’ll let her know when we’re leaving.”
Holding up my hands, I count off what my days will look like. "Sparring tomorrow, then I’ll make my final preparations the day after.”
“And the other three days?” Mom asks.
“Time with my family,” I smile at her. "No sparring, no mana practice; just you, me, and Dad. And Sandra.”
“Hey!” Richard complains.
“And maybe Richard," I say it like an afterthought. “You were right; I haven't been spending as much time with all of you as I should. I’m sorry." I not only bow my head not only to my parents but to Sandra and Richard as well.
“At least we’ll finally get to spend some time together before you leave on an adventure,” Mom laminates.
We all share smiles, but I notice Mother and Father’s are more forced than the rest of ours. So I won't ask them not to worry; all I can do is be strong and enjoy my time with them. Because….
I am going on an adventure, my first true one.
These next six days are going to fly by.