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I was falling, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I had won, and the corpse of the giant bird falling with me was proof of that. Besides, I had time before either of us hit the ground; we were hundreds of feet up in the air, after all.

 

I watched below me as the last remaining bits of the bird’s soul left its body. And once the leading soul was gone, the experience once cradling the soul started to dissipate into the surroundings.

 

For a brief second, I hesitate to activate Soul Devourer. I was still wary of using my skill after running into the remnants the other day and wanted to make sure I was activating my skill on my own accord and not just being manipulated into doing so.

 

It hurt to see my hard-earned experience fading into nothing, but I had to be sure. Better safe than sorry.

 

I don’t know what I expected to happen; maybe I'd have a nearly uncontrollable urge like with the remnants, or hear a sinister voice in my head, perhaps?

 

But after a second, I’m surprised to feel nothing. There was no urge to devour the world or sith-like voices telling me to follow my instincts. So was there something different about the remnants, or was it because I was expecting something and overcame the urges without realizing it?

 

I had no idea, but what I did know was that I was in control at this moment, and that meant I could use my skill. Of course, I would still be careful, but that was no reason to hesitate.

 

Three Ghostly hands spring from my body as I activate Soul Devourer and greedily begin plucking strands of experience points out of the air. The hands couldn’t grab all of it, but I was still absorbing many times the amount of experience I would've initially gotten for the kill. The hands were manifestations of my soul, so Tabitha wouldn't see them even if she was watching me. I couldn't use it on the remnants because Tabitha would've noticed them disappearing.

 

There is, however, still one conscience of using my skill. I’m forced to grit my teeth to keep myself from audibly moaning. I could feel myself blushing as the pleasure of absorbing tens of thousands of experience points washes over me.

 

Momentarily, I want to devour all that I can, but Mental Resistance quickly helps me squash those feelings before they can grow and fester. I would absorb what I could and nothing more.

 

This internal dispute only lasts a few seconds, and it isn't long before I've either absorbed all the bird's experience or the rest has dissipated completely.

 

Perfect timing, too, because I see the ground growing closer past the bird's corpse. I'd fallen almost 300 feet in four seconds, and it was time for me to activate Air Walk. I could use this moment to test how I’d fare against fall damage, but something told me doing that when I’m falling at roughly 150 feet a second wasn’t the best idea.

 

Using my Mana Threads still deployed from holding onto the bird, I spread them out to catch the mana in the air around me to slow my descent. Then when my velocity had dropped to something less strenuous on my legs, I pushed off the air with Air Walk, reducing my falling speed to almost nothing.

 

Below me, the bird's corpse crashes into the forest floor with all the momentum of a runaway truck. I expected it to turn into paste, but I saw it was primarily intact as I drop-down next to it. Its wings were now crooked, but the body was in one piece other than them and its skull. So even if it didn't have the same defense as the dino-rhino, it seems that it could still take quite a beating. Too bad for it; my hammer did more damage than the crash landing.

 

Still feeling the glow of absorbing experience, I stand next to the dead bird clasping my hands and offering a short prayer. It isn't to the gods; I just ask the universe to peacefully guide its soul to its next life. It may have chosen to fight rather than flee, but that's life. It made its decision, and I made mine.

 

"Now, where is Tabitha?" I ask myself after delivering the bird its last rights. I glanced around where we landed, but my guardian was nowhere in sight. I stare at the spot we were initially hiding, expecting to see her pop out of hiding at any moment, but she never appears. “Where in the hell?”

 

“Looking for me!?”

 

Startled, I try to pinpoint Tabitha's location by following her voice, but I don't see her.

 

“Up here!” Tabitha calls out, giving me a clue where she is.

 

“What are you doing up there?!” I finally spot Tabitha making her way down the nearest tree.

 

I don’t know why she was up there, but I don’t particularly care at the moment. As soon as her feet touch the ground, I fall backward onto my ass. The total weight of my fight with the bird had finally caught up to me. Once I knew Tabitha was close by and I could safely catch my breath, my legs went out on me.

 

Seeing me fall, Tabitha rushes over to my side with a worried expression.

 

“Are you ok?” She asks me, her stone-faced expression nowhere to be found.

 

“Where was all this concern while I was fighting? I’m fine, by the way. Did almost die at one point,” I sarcastically snap at her.

 

"I know; I was there," Tabitha smiles down at me. "You asked why I was up in the tree; obviously, I was up there watching your fight. I started to rush in when you were flung against the tree, but you reacted better than I expected, and I decided you could handle yourself at the last second. It was a wise choice to counterattack when you did rather than try to flee. If you had tried to dodge in your position, I would've needed to step in and help you, but you got it to back off by yourself.”

 

Tabitha revealing that she was close to me the entire time left me speechless. I could only guess that I didn't see her because my vision was blurry during that part of the fight. Apparently, she doesn’t realize my counterattacking was completely improvised and was in no way planned. But hey, I wasn’t going to correct her.

 

Hearing Tabitha praise my battle decisions was bittersweet. After absorbing all that experience, the pain in my head had started to fade, but my back was still killing me. I know I won, but I knew more than she did about how bad I messed up. “You followed me?”

 

Tabitha rolls her eyes at me. “Did you expect me to send you up against your first real opponent by yourself?”

 

“Kind of,” I admit. I mean, that sounded like something Tabitha would do.

 

Tabitha’s smile slips, and she frowns, “Don’t be getting a big head just because you won. You may have done a few things right, but don’t think I didn’t notice you making multiple mistakes. You were creative in your approach, yet let your target get the drop on you.”

 

"How was I supposed to know it didn't produce any sound?” I grumble, trying to come up with at least some semblance of an excuse, not wanting to admit I took my eyes off my target.

 

“Alright, fine,” Tabitha’s readiness to change subjects doesn't bode well for me. "What about after you dodged the bird’s initial attack? You rushed it without evaluating properly. Didn’t you tell me your new armor would last longer than your old set?”

 

Tabitha points at my breastplate and makes an excellent point. Three large scratches were marring the surface of my new armor. They weren’t deep, but they starched from one side of my armor to the other.

 

“I told you to expect anything; how did you interpret that to mean rush in?” Tabitha berates my decisions one after another, but I can see the concern she’s trying to hide behind her lecturing. Even if she thinks I counterattacked when I needed to, she probably realizes that things could’ve turned out differently.

 

“I almost died,” I whisper under my breath.

 

Tabitha must have heard me because she stopped pointing out everything I did wrong and lets out a tired sigh. “You could’ve, but you didn’t.”

 

“And if I didn’t swing when I did?” I ask in a hollow voice.

 

“Then I would’ve had to save you,” Tabitha confidently tells me.

 

“Save someone with a hole in their neck?” I raise an inquisitive eyebrow.

 

“It would’ve never come to that. I had a skill ready if you dodged or froze. You would’ve been heavily injured, but you wouldn’t have died.”

 

“You’re sure about that?” I ask skeptically.

 

Tabitha and I locked eyes, and I note there wasn't a hint of deceit there.

 

“You know, you could've told me you would follow me,” I groaned, trying to get back to my feet. I couldn't stay sitting forever, no matter how much my body wanted me to.

 

“And stifle your first big hunt, not a chance," Tabitha responds, sounding proud of herself.

 

No matter how much I was trying to appear annoyed at her for not telling me her plans, I understood why she did it, and I couldn’t help but smile at how happy she looked that her plan had worked out for the better. Tabitha may be a little crazy, but then again, I just rushed a giant magical bird, and for what, a place to sleep? I’m pretty sure that makes me just as crazy, arguably more so.

 

“So, what happens now?” I ask after stumbling to my feet, now knowing how that dino-rhino felt earlier today. “My mana’s down to 20%, and I need to rest."

 

“You can rest in a moment," Tabitha tells me before turning to the massive bird corpse. "First, the important part.”

 

I watch Tabitha examine the corpse, and I admit, it took me a minute to realize what she was doing.

 

She plucked out multiple feathers, examining them for some hidden quality I didn’t understand. In doing so, I got to see the various types of feathers, from the wedge-tipped flight feathers that made up the bird’s wings to its long rounded tail feathers. Tabitha even pulled out a few downy feathers, which kept the bird insulated.

 

Tabitha examined and discarded one feather after another until eventually, she found her prize, or should I say, my prize. Finally, she settles on a single feather from the very tip of the bird’s right wing, where the red and black colors meet each other.

 

Thankfully, the feather Tabitha picked out for me was one of the smaller ones. The more giant feathers are impressive to look at, but most of them were over a foot long. Heck, one of the tailfeathers Tabitha examined was over three feet in length; to say it would've been challenging to wear a feather that size was putting it mildly. Something that size would stick out too much, so I’m happy about Tabitha’s decision on a relatively smaller feather.

 

“Here,” Tabitha offered me the beautiful quill, which I gratefully accepted. Half the feather was black while the other side was red. The feather radiated wind mana, and it was so good at catching the breeze. Just holding it allowed me to see which way it was blowing. The large trees around us acted as giant wind barriers. Though it was quite windy up in the canopy, there was minimal airflow down here on the ground. So, the fact that the feather can catch an almost nonexistent gust was impressive, to say the least.

 

“Do I have to wear this now?” I hesitantly ask while memorizing every inch of my prize. Ideas of what I would do with it flooded my mind. I could turn it into a hair ornament like Tabitha had, or maybe have mom sow it to my sleeve. From what Tabitha told me, as long as I displayed it, I was free to do with it as I liked.

 

“If you want,” Tabitha shrugs. “Though I don’t recommend it.”

 

"That's surprising; I thought you'd want me to wear it immediately.”

 

“I’m not saying you can’t,” Tabitha clarifies. “I’m just saying if you wear it now, you’re likely to drop it, or worse. Think of the feather as a new piece of armor. Sure, you can throw it on, and it'll do its job….”

 

“But I won’t be able to use it properly without practice,” I finish Tabitha's sentence, demonstrating I understand what she was getting at.

 

“Exactly; for now, I suggest you put it in your bag. You can start wearing it during our sparring session when we get back to the village. Once you're used to it, you can wear it all the time.”

 

For once, I followed Tabitha's instructions to the letter, stashing my feather in my pack by wrapping it in the material I brought with me should I need to make a tent. Of course, it wasn't as fragile as a regular feather, but that didn't mean I would chance bending it.

 

Once my feather was secure, I turned my attention to the rest of the bird. There were a few bald spots from where Tabitha ripped feathers out, but there were still thousands more. Tabitha may have looked through the feathers for a trophy to claim, but I saw something more; crafting materials!

 

I had never worked with wind-attributed materials before, but it didn’t take a genius to realize the bird’s tailfeathers would make great fletching for arrows. While the feathers on the wings caught the slightest breeze, the tailfeathers were utterly still.

 

Reaching down and picking one up, I smile at how easily I can wave it through the air. “Yeah, I can work with these.”

 

Now the only question was, how many do I take?

 

I could stuff my bag full of them, and it wouldn’t weigh me down that much, but then I won’t have room for anything else. Maybe….

 

“Hey, Tabitha, if I stashed some feathers for later, what do you think the chances are they’ll be here when we get back?” If I could tie a bindle of tailfeathers together and stash them somewhere, like up in the tree where we’ll be staying tonight, I could retrieve them on our way out of the forest. Even if I have a full bag by then, carrying a bundle of feathers wouldn’t be that much of a stretch.

 

“Anything is possible," she shrugs.

 

By her expression, I’m guessing she doesn’t think they’ll be here when we get back. But it doesn’t hurt to try. I’ll bring ten feathers with me, so I'll still have some to play with later if she's right.

 

While I start collecting feathers, Tabitha uses her sword to butcher the bird. I was looking forward to dinner tonight, and since magic-beast meat lasts longer than its non-magical counterpart, we can take some extra with us and not worry about it spoiling right away.

 

We both work together to get everything done, and it isn’t long until we’re both sitting by a small makeshift fire, and I'm grilling us skewers with a bundle of feathers sitting next to me. I tied them together by weaving together some tree fibers. All and all, I had maybe twenty pounds of feathers, more than enough to make some quality arrows.

 

Soon, we were going to climb up to the nest after we were finished eating; that was where I decided I was going to stash my feathers. Then, hopefully, if another beast comes across them, they won't seem out of place in a nest that smelled exactly like them.

 

You could hardly notice it, but the light in the forest was growing dimmer.

 

So, before we set out, I secretly pull up my status page while flipping the skewers around and pretending to focus on cooking. And there was a lot to unpack:

 

LV: 74 Experience: 914,441/ 1,004,619

Health: 2,164.83/2,450

Stamina 593.77/1,666

Mana: 308.86/1,030

Vitality: 245.06

Endurance: 100.20

Strength: 155.10

Dexterity: 155.15

Senses: 62.59

Mind: 65.49

Magic: 103.20

Clarity: 79.14

Status Points: 0

Skills:

Tier 1:

Meditation (LV79), Running (LV78), Blacksmithing (LV75), Hammer Skills (LV68), Axe Skills (LV60), Cleaning (LV53), Mining (LV51), Chanting (LV50), Drawing (LV48), Trading (LV48), Cooking (LV42), Sword Skills (LV40), Dagger Skills (LV34), Acting (LV33), Wood Carving (LV32), Sewing (LV32), Dancing (LV23), Alchemy (LV15), Pugilist Skills (LV9), Spear Skills (LV2)

Tier 2:

Sense Mana (LV79), Double Step (LV66), Charm (LV50), Measurement (LV49), Hammer Arts (LV49), Axe Arts (LV39), Writing (LV32), Intimidating Shout (LV32), Mathematics (LV31), Steady Hands (LV32), Increase Price (LV22), Lower Price (LV20), Sword Arts (LV17), Dagger Arts (LV13), Gourmet (LV9), Marching (LV5), Shout of Valor (LV3),

Tier 3:

Expel Mana (LV63), Mana Manipulation (LV63), Weighted Strike (LV44), Precise Strike (LV43), Double Strike (LV43), Flash Step (LV34), Contract (LV22), Enchanting (LV10)

Tier 4:

Mental Resistance (LV60), Mana Skin (LV59), Inject Mana (LV54), Extract Mana (LV39), Magic Blacksmithing (LV36), Magic Threads (LV21), Air Walk (LV20), Empowered Spell (LV14), Ironclad Agreement (LV8), Appealing Deal (LV3)

Tier 5:

Sense Soul (LV40), Soul Manipulation (LV19)

Tier 6:

Soul Devourer (LV7)

 

Increased Skill Levels

Cooking (LV42) 2,100exp

Sewing (LV32) 1,600exp

Dancing (LV24-26) 3,750exp

Double Step (LV66) 6,600exp

Hammer Arts (LV49) 4,900exp

Steady Hands (LV32) 3,200exp

Gourmet (LV8-9) 1,700exp

Double Strike (LV43) 6,450exp

Flash Step (LV33-34) 10,050exp

Enchanting (LV10) 1,500exp

Mana Skin (LV59) 14,750exp

Extract Mana (LV39) 9,750exp

Magic Blacksmithing (LV36) 9,000exp

Magic Threads (LV22-23) 11,250exp

Air Walk (LV20) 5,000exp

Soul Devourer (LV5-7) 18,000exp

 

Skill Experience: 109,600exp

Crafting Experience: 47,395exp

Fighting Experience: 228,135exp

 

Total experience Gained: 385,130exp

 

When I pulled up my status page, the first thing I noticed was my missing health points. That one strike from the bird that sent me spiraling into the tree cost me nearly 300 Health points. Of course, I was still able to move during the fight, but that was still over 10% of my health gone in one hit.

 

Luckily, I was already starting to heal and would probably be back to full health by the end of tomorrow, but that's only because I was hit once. The more damage a person suffers, the slower they are to heal.

 

I shudder to think about what would’ve happened if someone of Sandra’s level and build were hit the same way. Her physical skills were nothing compared to mine, and she would've lost a lot more than 300 Health.

 

Shaking my head, I cast away those thoughts. It did me no good to imagine everything that could go wrong in the world, so I focused on the here and now and continued to look over my status.

 

My Stamina and Mana were practically empty, but I already knew that. At this point, I'm used to feeling tired after my sparring sessions with Tabitha, and this wasn't much different. My Stamina would refill on its own, albeit with some soreness. And I only need to absorb the mana around me and wait for my body to convert it before it’s fully recharged.

 

The skewers were helping in that regard; the bird meat was practically jam-packed to the brim with mana. It tasted like the best chicken I'd ever had and had the benefit of helping me recover faster. What else could I ask for in a meal?

 

The answer to that was skill levels, and the bird offered me those too. After a long time, my cooking skill finally leveled again while roasting the skewers. And after we started eating, I felt Gourmet level as well. And those two skills weren't the only ones that improved after my fight with the magic bird.

 

It had been two weeks since the last time I checked my status page, and a handful of my skills had already leveled in that time, but my desperate fight with the bird seemed to fuel the growth of my skills even more. Dancing, Double Step, Double Strike, Flash Step, Mana Skin, and Air Walk all leveled during my fight at some point.

 

Then there was Soul Devourer.

 

My tier 6 skill gained three levels after sucking up as much of the bird's experience as possible. I only naturally absorbed around forty thousand experience for killing the bird. That was a lot for other people, but it was not worth risking my life over at my level. If I hadn't used Soul Devourer, I'm not sure it would've been worth the fight, even with the increase to my skill levels.

 

In the end, I did use my skill, and because I did, I got an extra hundred and eighty thousand experience points. That kind of payoff was worth risking my life, if only slightly.

 

But the amount of experience I got was interesting. The bird was around my level, which meant it had over fourteen million experience shielding its soul. I only managed to get two hundred and twenty of that. So even if I factored in hesitating to activate my skill, that means I only absorbed 1.5% of the bird's overall experience. That was absolutely nothing!

 

“Something wrong?” Tabitha suddenly asks me, making me flinch. “You were making a pained face.”

 

“Sorry, just a little sore,” I rub my shoulders and arms in a massaging motion, pretending like that was the reason why my expression was the way that it is.

 

“Are you still able to climb?” She asks, probably wondering if she would need to drag me up into the tree.

 

As fun as that would be to see, I had no desire to be manhandled by Tabitha. “I’ll manage,” I flatly tell her.

 

Tabitha sighs in relief. “Good; we should get climbing. We've been on the ground long enough. It will soon get dark, and the bird's corpse will surely attract scavengers.”

 

Closing my status page, I groan as I climb to my feet. I was already tired, and now I had a stomach full of magic-beast meat. All I wanted to do was close my eyes and fall asleep.

 

Tabitha and I gathered our belongings. I grabbed my bundle of feathers while she grabbed some of the magic bird meat wrapped in some large leaves for storage. We kicked dirt onto the fire and made sure to stomp out any embers that remained. Neither of us wanted to start a forest fire, especially when we would be sleeping in a tree.

 

For the second time today, I climbed a large tree whose bottom layers were covered in bird feces. Of all the times to be low on mana, it had to be when I desperately wanted to clean myself.

 

It took longer to scale the tree than my first time, and while I was climbing, I thought about the last bit of experience my status page said I had gained.

 

I got a tidy sum of experience points for making Reel's dagger. Unfortunately, my creation wasn't enough to push Blacksmithing to level 76, but that would've been too easy. I did, however, finally get Enchanting to level 10, so that was a bonus. But, again, I worked hard on my crafting, and it showed in how much experience I was rewarded for going above and beyond with my designs.

 

While I climbed the tree, I thought about what I would make going forward. And by the time we climbed up to the bird's nest, only the faintest of light was seeping through the canopy. It was getting dark fast, so Tabitha and I rushed to inspect the hole in the tree while we still had the chance.

 

Thankfully, unlike regular birds, there wasn't any crap mixed into the bird’s nest. Instead, the hovel in the tree was lined with sticks, stones, and, surprisingly, dried out pieces of various animal hides. It smelt like a chicken coop, but at this point, I could sleep on a pile of trash if I had to.

 

I fished out the small piece of canvas I brought with me, careful to take my feather out first, and laid it on the ground. I then placed my bundle of feathers under the tarp on one end, making an impromptu pillow. Last night I was the first to take watch, so that meant I got to sleep first tonight. Lucky for me, because if something did approach us while I was in my current state, I’m not entirely sure what I could do about it.

 

Even if I was only going to get five or six hours to rest, that should be enough to get me back to a state where I can defend myself if need be.

 

The last thing I saw as my head hit my pillow was Tabitha chuckling at how dead I looked. And with that, my tiring first day in the magic dense region came to a close.

 

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A note from kosnik4

4,100 words.

 

Wow, I meant to wrap the last few sections up with a short 2,000-word chapter. But here I went and doubled it, making it the longest section of chapter 111.

 

What did you guys think? My Patreons gave me feedback already and I couldn't help but chuckle when I read people's complaints about Tabitha leaving Aaliyah on her own. I always intended to reveal Tabitha was close by during the fight, but writing only from Aaliyah’s point of view meant I couldn’t hint at her presence because Aaliyah honestly didn't see her.

 

That doesn’t mean Tabitha was right, but I hope this chapter clarifies her intentions better.

 

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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