Liliana tugged her hair up into a high ponytail, the heavy weight of it swinging behind her in a controlled fall of black, blue and silver. Like moonlight sparkling on a midnight ocean. She was dressed in one of the leather sets her father had delivered, made for durability and beauty. The advantages of wealth, and Liliana assumed contacts with master craftsmen. Black leather soft as butter built the base, with blue scales overlapping to add protection but without restricting her movements or slowing her down.
Scaled Leathers of the Nightwind Salamander, they gave a +30 to her Speed, +25 bonus to her Dexterity, +15 to Intelligence, +15 to Wisdom and +10 to Endurance. It had a set skill, [Winds Of Midnight], which would surround her with an AOE Dark and Wind skill that would push back and damage any enemies within a twenty-foot radius of her. A rather useful gift, one Liliana only felt a slight bit of annoyance at using.
Her weapons were similarly upgraded, her new naginata, Blade Of Shining Winds, gave her a 20% bonus to Wind and 15% to Light attacks, along with a +20 to Strength bonus. It didn’t have a weapon skill, which was fine. Those were rarer, and she’d be more likely to find an evolvable weapon or a weapon holding its own skill in a dungeon. Her daggers she’d picked out were just as expensive and impressive as the rest of her gear. Shatter Lights they were named. They gave her a 15% bonus to light, and +10 to Dexterity when she used them. She’d have preferred Soul or even Telekinesis aspected weapons, but Soul aspected weapons were usually staffs or focuses, as most who used the Soul affinity were long range. Either tamers who stood back while their tames fought or casters. And secondary affinities were far rarer to find aspected to any weapons. Those were typically Epic, Unique or Legendary items. Which were almost always dungeon drops, or made by Rank 3 or higher craftsmen, which meant they held a Rank 3 price tag and level requirements to even use.
Liliana nodded her head after checking her equipment and began to remove it, switching to a set of simple leather pants, cotton top and leather vest. There was no one in the manor now who would dare chastise her for her ‘improper’ attire. Even Miss Beckett, her tutor, kept her opinions to herself. Liliana could’ve had the woman fired. They both knew it, but she didn’t. A petty part of her enjoyed seeing the disgust and fear in the woman’s eyes every time they met for her lessons. The woman knowing that the person she looked down on was also the one who held her employment in her hands. The duke’s daughter was no longer the unwanted child, shoved into dusty rooms and left forgotten. She had tried to distance herself from the Rosengarde name, avoiding using it for her own gain, but in this one thing she felt an exception could be made.
Liliana set her gear carefully to the side, making sure it would be ready for the morning. They’d be leaving early and it would be best if she could get ready quickly. When she was satisfied, she turned from her task and moved to the doors fit into the wall of the room. The added rooms that had been remodeled for her all held doors to the courtyard that ran alongside her rooms, making access to it easy for Liliana. She threw open the doors with a small smile on her face as a warm wind flowed over her. It was late winter now, spring finally in sight, but her courtyard was still magically heated and felt like an early summer day as she stepped out onto a cobblestone path that now circled the courtyard.
Laughter washed over her and Liliana turned her head, a hand coming up to shade her eyes from the harsh light of the late afternoon sun. Flint and Clover were chasing Lelantos around the courtyard, a yipping Polaris hot on their heels. Nemesis was coiled in the middle of the courtyard in her large form, eyes closed as she soaked in the warm sunlight, the light bringing out the green in her brown scales.
“Miss Liliana!” a high-pitched voice called out and Liliana turned from her survey just in time to see Flint and Clover sprinting at her, in seconds two small bodies collided with her and for their benefit she fell backwards, careful to make sure the children weren’t hurt in the fall. Flint and Clover giggled as Liliana let out an overdramatic groan at the collision and subsequent fall.
“Oh goodness, you two are getting so strong! You’ll break me if you get any bigger!” Liliana complained, though the warm smile on her face belied her words.
Her sapphire eyes that held deep shadows that didn’t match her smile, the dark circles confessing the truths of her sleepless nights, were cracks in the facade she tried to maintain. She may be able to smile again, two months after the tragedy, but she was far from healed, far from better. She’d be alright, one day, but not yet.
“No one could break you, Miss Liliana,” Clover told Liliana, raising her horned head to look at Liliana with deep brown eyes swimming with certainty.
Since the children had come back from their forced vacation, their faith in Liliana had been cemented. To the two children tangled in her legs, their still too thin arms wrapped around her, Liliana was as strong and infallible as any other adult. They may have seen things no child should have, experienced hardships they didn’t deserve, but they were still children. And once they chose to trust someone, to place their belief in them, that faith was all-encompassing.
The tales Liliana had regaled them with of meeting a mysterious Rank 1 beast right out of myths and fables had not helped their belief. It didn’t matter that the entire encounter had hinged on more luck than Liliana thought she had, didn’t matter that Liliana hadn’t fought Minori. To them she had faced a creature out of legends, and survived to come back home. She’d faced insurmountable odds yet still kept her promise to them. And to them, that was all they needed to catapult Liliana right up there in their minds with the heroes of legend.
“I’ve been training, Miss Liliana!” Flint told her eagerly, his tail vibrating behind him with his excitement.
Liliana shifted them so she was sitting comfortably, and they weren’t sprawled over her. Both children still kept a hand each attached to the leather of her pants, and Liliana didn’t mention it. The children had been clingy after they returned, and Liliana would admit silently she enjoyed their constant need to be around her. It felt good to be needed by someone. It reminded her to take care of herself, if only to set a good example for the two children who looked up at her with stars in their eyes and mimicked her behaviors.
“Have you been?” Liliana asked. Flint nodded his head eagerly, jumping up and grabbing her hand to tug her forward.
“Come look!” Flint urged and Liliana stood, taking Clover’s hand in her other as she let the feline beastman child lead her to the edge of the courtyard, where it met the stone wall covered in creeping vines.
Flint let go of her hand to grab a long, mostly straight stick. Liliana’s eyebrow raised as he took a serviceable fighting stance and began to move. His forms were sloppy, and he was probably more of a threat to himself than any attackers, but as Liliana watched, she could see the potential. He was obviously mimicking her own moves and stances from when she practiced with Emyr, Alistair, Silas, or even Jason in the courtyard.
Perhaps I should have Jason or Silas begin training Flint, Liliana thought as the boy continued his display. It was difficult to tell what weapon would be best for him, and Liliana was far from an expert, but she thought perhaps training him with a sword at least wouldn’t be a bad idea. She wouldn’t make an assumption based on his feline traits. She didn't even know what type of cat he was, but she knew very well that being part cat didn't mean he’d be predisposed to light weapons. Lelantos was a cat, and he was the least dexterous creature she’d ever met. The years of malnutrition also meant Liliana couldn’t determine if Flint was going to grow to be bulky or slim. A sword was at least a fairly good neutral weapon. If he was going to end up slim and speedy, he could transfer to lighter swords like Emyr’s rapier, or if he was going to be bigger, he could switch to heavier swords like a claymore, or even a sword and shield.
“What did you think?” Flint asked as he set his stick down, panting slightly. Sweat beaded on his forehead, but his mismatched eyes were shining with pride and eagerness.
“I think you did very well. You have a lot of potential. Do you want to be a fighter when you get older?” Liliana asked as Flint hurried back over to her, grabbing her hand once more.
“I want to grow up to be strong so I can help you, Miss Liliana!” Flint told her and Liliana blinked in surprise. Her heart squeezed as she looked down into the eyes of the small child who was looking up at her with something akin to hero worship.
“You know you don’t need to, right? It’s enough for me if you two grow up happy and healthy,” Liliana said carefully, worried that perhaps Flint thought he had to repay her.
She had offered to him the option of joining the guards when he got older, but she didn’t mean to imply he had to. He and Clover could remain servants if they wished, or even leave to make their own way in the world. In her opinion, they were under no obligations to repay her. She simply had them ‘working’ because she knew they’d have never believed in charity without a catch.
“I know! But I want to, Miss Liliana. I want to be strong like you one day. And when I get older and stronger, I can help keep you safe!” Flint told her, his voice holding a surprising amount of conviction for one so young. Liliana felt her eyes stinging with tears and she smiled softly down at Flint before kneeling and wrapping the boy in a hug that elicited a squeak that sounded suspiciously close to a meow.
“Okay, but you have to make sure you take care of yourself, and eat all your meals, so you can grow up big and strong and be able to protect me.” Liliana told Flint as she pulled back, her voice stern as she looked at the child. Flint nodded quickly and Liliana’s mask broke into another warm smile.
“Lili!” a voice called out and Liliana stood, turning to see Alistair and Emyr standing in one of the doorways to the courtyard. Liliana’s smile widened as she freed one hand to wave at them before turning back to the children.
“Go back to exercising Lelantos and Polaris, okay, kids?” Liliana asked.
Flint and Clover nodded seriously. After all, taking care of Liliana’s Bonds was their ‘job’. They’d even graduated to feeding the Bonds under heavy supervision. They took a lot of pride in their work, and quite a bit of enjoyment in it, too. Liliana turned from the children, who had run after a ‘sleeping’ Lelantos, to move to her friends. As soon as she was in range, Alistair reached out to ruffle her hair, messing up her ponytail. Alistair had grown a few inches recently, and he enjoyed lording his new height over her. He’d always been taller, but now it was just getting ridiculous. Liliana just hoped she would catch up soon, otherwise she’d be dwarfed before long.
“Are you ready for tomorrow?” Emyr asked as Liliana swiped at her brother, her fanged teeth bared in a false threat. Alistair and Emyr had adjusted to her physical changes as easily as they did her increasingly animalistic tendencies. It was becoming harder and harder for Liliana to not hiss or growl at inopportune times when she was feeling particularly annoyed or irritated.
“Yea, I have everything packed. How about you two?” Liliana asked as she redid her ponytail with a glare at her brother, who smirked at her.
“I have everything packed and ready. You remembered rations and potions?” Emyr directed the last question at both of them.
Alistair’s expression soured a little. They were heading out to the dungeon the duke had gotten them into tomorrow. It would take a little less than a week to get there, and they’d have a week in the dungeon to clear it and level. However, it was decided, by Silas specifically, that they were old enough to prepare for dungeons themselves. Including getting their own rations and potions. Silas would be here later tonight to check over everything and make sure they hadn’t made any fatal errors. There’d be a chance to buy anything they forgot on the way there, thankfully.
“I got everything I thought I might need,” Liliana confirmed.
Unlike Alistair and Emyr, she had far more experience with dungeons, even if it was behind a screen. She had always been over prepared for any dungeon or boss fight she did, and that had translated well here. She knew she was well stocked and provisioned for the endeavor.
“Pretty sure I got everything,” Alistair grumbled. “Don’t know why we have to do it ourselves, though.” He finished, tone almost whining.
“Because when we get to the Academy we won’t have servants to do it for us, and there won’t be anyone making sure we got everything we needed, either. It’s best to learn now, when we have someone to correct us, then to do it when there’s no one to catch us if we fall.” Liliana told Alistair, who groaned but didn’t argue. He knew she was right.
The three of them moved to where Nemesis was laying, all of them sitting down, leaning back against the sun warmed scales. Liliana had her knee pressed to Alistair’s, and she saw on his other side Emyr was leaning into him.
“Heard anything about another dungeon after this?” Alistair asked as he leaned his head back, eyes closing as he basked in the sunlight.
“We have another in three months. You know any Rank 8 to 6 dungeons will be hard to get,” Liliana told him.
It went unsaid that it would be more difficult for them in particular. Rosengarde had money, but so did many other nobles, and with their slight fall from grace, the name Rosengarde didn’t move them up lists anymore. It didn’t help that many noble children who would be joining the Academy this spring would be filling the dungeons to grind out any levels they could get beforehand, and any nobles going the next year like they were would be feeling the deadline looming.
Liliana knew leveling would slow considerably the next year, with a week here or there where they could jump up thanks to dungeons. But she didn’t foresee them being able to get into more than maybe six or so dungeons before the time came for enrollment. She had less to worry about. Her Boon would ensure she progressed during the times she could level, but Alistair and Emyr would likely begin to slow or even plateau. But as long as they were all comfortably in Rank 6 Liliana wasn’t overly worried. If they got desperate, there were still areas in their territory that would have beasts of the necessary level, even if it would be slower leveling than a dungeon.
Their conversation turned to discussing the upcoming a dungeon, a familiar topic nowadays, and Liliana let her mind wander. Life was slowly getting better, since Imogen was sentenced and imprisoned. It didn’t heal the still aching wounds in her soul, or erase the scars she bore, but the woman’s absence finally gave her the chance to begin healing. Every day, she could feel the anger and fear that had long been her constant companions slowly fading, the hurt in her heart lessening fraction by fraction.
Liliana could finally look to the future, think in terms of months rather than days. Instead of worrying if she’d find an assassin in her room every night, she could think on what the Academy would be like, the next step in her path. She knew the Academy would be difficult. Perhaps as difficult as anything she’d already undergone. She’d be tested, mentally and physically. But she would admit, she was excited. For the chance to leave the manor behind, and to advance herself.
Her task, the reason she’d been granted this second life, still hung over her head. But it was a vague, faraway thing that hardly dimmed the path she saw forming before her. She’d need to face it one day, but that day wasn’t anytime soon. For now, she could let herself feel like a normal teenager, getting excited over school and the possibilities it would hold for her.
She’d already altered the fate that had been determined for her, and she couldn’t wait to see what changes the future would hold for her now that she no longer stood alone.
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Just a humble house goblin smashing a keyboard haphazardly and occasionally producing things worth reading.
I enjoy anime, manga, and gaming! Favorite games are Ark, Pokemon, Monster Hunter (world and rise) and Monster Hunter Stories!
Oh and I use she/her pronouns!