Noele sprinted through a thicket of trees, circling around the clearing in the forest. She saw the burly figure standing there, bathed in light, away from the canopy of leaves above. He glanced around warily, not knowing where the Noble Spellsword was, and she took that opportunity to strike.
Now! She lashed out, leaping from the bushes as she thrust her blade forward. Her opponent barely spun around in time and raised a large shield. He blocked her attack, and she gritted her teeth.
The burly man shoved her back hard, but she rolled with the hit. The Noble Spellsword flipped back, landing lightly on the dirt ground as he charged her. She raised her sword to the side and readied herself. Her magic poured into the edge of the glinting blade. And the mana wisped wildly.
Noele tried to control it. Tame it. Stymie the roiling golden aura. Right now, she had practically no control over the magical energy wreathing her sword. It was meant to be a copy of her [Noble Slash], just without using the Skill itself. But the magic ran wild. If she swung forward with her blade, she couldn’t kill her enemy even if she wanted to.
Not that she did. It was just that too much of the magical attack would dissipate into the environment instead of at her target. Even now, the golden aura dwindled in size as it leaked mana into the air.
As she struggled to control her attack, the burly man reached her. His heavy footfalls slowed, and he raised his tower shield. With a shout, he slammed the broad metal barrier onto the earth.
Noele backed up, but was too slow. She was caught in the localized earthquake. The ground shattered beneath her feet as the powerful shockwave sent her flying. Dust and debris shot into the air, and she crashed into a cluster of trees, uprooting them as she tumbled in the dirt.
Groaning, she raised her head and paused. The burly man stood before her, a shortsword aimed for her head. She blinked as he slowly lowered the weapon, before shaking his head.
Garron the Steel Tank smiled as he proffered a hand. “That was a good attempt. You almost got me. But it seems I have won once again.”
“Ugh, I almost had you this time,” Noele said, getting to her feet with his help. “I had it— I was so close…”
He narrowed his eyes as she mulled over her loss. She had enlisted his help over the last week and a half to help her train. But despite the fact that Noele herself was an A-rank adventurer, while Garron was only B-ranked, she hadn’t beaten him in a spar even once.
It perplexed him. She could see the concern on his face, expecting his question before he even spoke.
“While I am glad I can help you train, I’m not quite sure why you’re not using your Skills.” He placed a hand on his chin as he frowned. “If you use even a handful of your new Level 50 Skills, you’d be able to best me in combat with ease. Or have you not chosen your Class advancement yet?”
Noele shook her head. “I did. I was a [Magical Blademaster], but now I’m an [Arcane Blademaster].”
“I would’ve been under the impression you’d be excited to test its Skills.” Garron raised a brow at her. “Why the wait? Why do you insist on handicapping yourself in battle?”
His question made her pause. The Noble Spellsword lowered her head as her lips drew into a thin line. It wasn’t an unusual question to ask— if Noele had been in his same position just a month ago, she’d be just as perplexed as he was.
But her perception of everything changed. She remembered a conversation just a week and a half ago— what Amelia had recounted in Mount Arkais. How she had woken up in the Fractured Realm and fought. Without a Class. Without the World System. No levels or experience gained. And she simply grew stronger on her own.
“Why can’t you just get stronger without the System?” Amelia had asked after Noele defeated the titan centipede.
And the Noble Spellsword didn’t have an answer for that.
“Noele?” Garron asked, peering into her.
She blinked as she broke out of her stupor. “Sorry, what did you say again?”
“I was simply curious as to why you haven’t been using your Skills, that is all. If you wish not to elaborate, you do not have to.”
“It’s… no reason,” Noele finally replied. “Come on, let’s get back to Windrip. It’s getting late. The sun’s going to be setting soon. I promised Amelia I’d be back by sundown.”
The Steel Tank harrumphed with a nod. “Of course. I am sure Amelia is getting worried about you.”
“Honestly, I really doubt that.”
And Noele was right. No— she was more than just right. Amelia wasn’t just not worried. Amelia wasn’t even thinking about the blonde girl at all. In fact, Amelia was busy with…
“What are you doing, master?” Noele asked, blinking.
“I told you not to call me that,” the brown-haired woman snorted. “And isn’t it obvious? I’m selling burgers.”
The blonde girl glanced back. She stared at Garron for help, but he just shrugged in response. He clearly didn’t know what a ‘burger’ was either. Noele pursed her lips as she turned to her mentor.
Amelia stood right at the edge of market street behind a small wooden stand. Evidently a food stall of sorts. She even had a frying pan roasting over a magical burner. The kind used by rich nobles and the like in their vast mansions. A thin round mush of meat cooked there, sizzling as its red surface darkened.
“Cheeseburgers to be specific,” Amelia explained as she flipped it with a spatula. She placed a slice of cheese atop the meat, before pressing it onto the pan for a moment. “I have to be careful not to smash the patty, though.”
“And where did you get all this… equipment?” the blonde girl asked, staring at the whole set-up blankly.
“I bought it since Brynn wouldn’t let me use her kitchen.” Amelia rolled her eyes. “I got this magical burner from the Mage’s Guild, and I bought the ingredients from a [Butcher]’s shop down the street.”
“That’s— nevermind that,” Noele said as she shook her head. She glanced around this section of market street before hesitating. “Who… are you selling these cheeseburgers to?”
There was no one here— at least, no one stopping to buy food from the stall. There were quite a few passersby. It wasn’t a bad location at all. It was a busy street. Maybe a few dozen or so people walked by the stall every minute. But none of them took their time to pay Amelia any mind.
Garron the Steel Tank cleared his throat.
“Well, I’ll be taking my leave now,” he said as he patted Noele on the shoulder. He started down the street and waved. “I’ll see you at the same time tomorrow?”
The blonde girl blinked. “Right. Thanks.”
And then it was just the two young women standing there. Noele wasn’t sure what else there was to say. It was obvious to anyone that these cheeseburgers weren’t selling. Amelia just sighed as leaned back.
“No one’s buying them because it’s new. But they’ll come around to it… probably.” It didn’t look like she believed what she was saying. She picked up one of the cheeseburgers and handed it to Noele. “But it’s good. Give it a try.”
“I—” The blonde girl tried to protest, then caught herself. Slowly, she nodded and accepted the food. “I’ll try it, I guess?”
She wasn’t sure what to expect. The bun itself was toasted, and the cheese had melted. It looked like it tasted good for sure. A delectable aroma wafted up as Noele’s mouth watered. But she didn’t bite down just yet.
It wasn’t that she doubted Amelia’s cooking. The blonde girl had tried her mentor’s cooking before. And she knew it was good. But the problem was the meat.
Noele looked at the meat, gulping nervously. That was what she was most dreading. It looked odd. Like nothing she had ever seen before. In fact, it almost looked like it was just paste being cooked until it was edible. And that made her hesitate.
“What’s wrong?” Amelia asked curiously.
“It’s… nothing. Here goes nothing!” Noele braced herself for the worst.
The blonde girl bit down into the cheeseburger, already wincing. She bit through the bread, and her teeth sank into the patty. She waited for the taste— she was prepared for an awful flavor to permeate her mouth.
But she paused. Noele blinked a few times, eyes growing wide.
“This is good,” she said as she continued chewing. She took another bite from the burger and nodded at her mentor. “This is very good. I’ve never had something like this in my life!“
“I told you.” Amelia smirked.
“Is this food from… you know?” Noele asked as she swallowed. “Your…”
“It is, yeah. It’s probably not the healthiest food around, but it’s easy to make, and I think it’ll catch on quickly.”
The blonde girl smacked her lips, finishing the burger quickly. “Is that why you’re doing this? To make some gold?”
“That, and I’m bored,” Amelia said dryly. “I’m just trying out different hobbies because going out and killing monsters in one punch isn’t exactly fun.”
“Right.” Noele nodded as she bit her lower lip. “Sorry, I haven’t been around lately because I’ve been busy training.”
“No— I’ve been taking your advice.”
Amelia tapped a finger on her chin. “Ah, just getting stronger on your own.”
“Well, it hasn’t been going so well.” The blonde girl scratched the back of her head. “Even though I’m an A-rank adventurer, I can’t even beatr Garron who’s a full 5 levels below me in a spar.”
“Then that’s your first mistake,” Amelia snorted. “Not only are you still thinking in terms of levels, you’re not pushing yourself to your limits.”
“How can you expect to grow stronger if you’re just playing it safe by fighting someone who doesn’t want to actually hurt you?”
It was a simple question. But Noele didn’t have an answer. She shifted her feet uncomfortably as she glanced down the busy street where Garron had gone.
“How else am I supposed to train, Amelia?” she asked apprehensively. “I need to get used to fighting without my Skills— I can barely even cast a C-rank spell if I don’t tap into my [Magic Mastery] and [Greater Mana Core]. If I go out there and fight a monster without my Skills, I’d die.”
“I’m not asking you to throw yourself into a life-or-death situation.” The brown-haired woman scoffed as she placed an uncooked patty on the frying pan. “I’m asking you to push yourself past your limits, Skill or no Skill. Ask yourself this: how did you kill that titan centipede?”
Noele furrowed her brows, unsure what to say. “I… pushed myself past my limits?”
“No.” Amelia shook her head with a sigh. “It was an A-rank threat, wasn’t it? And you were B-rank when you fought it. Yet, you somehow won. How?”
“I outsmarted it?” Noele said weakly.
The brown-haired woman flipped the patty casually and gestured towards the city square. “You also stood toe-to-toe with a Goblin Lord on your own. Even if you lost, that’s a feat worth commending, no?”
“Right, it is.”
“So how did you do it?” Amelia asked, facing Noele.
But the blonde girl had no answer. The obvious response was wrong, and anything else she could come up with didn’t seem applicable. Noele just stood there, trying to work her jaw until Amelia swooped out the patty and deftly placed it on a toasted bun.
“You did it because you had no other choice.”
Noele stared at her mentor, clearly confused. Amelia just waved her spatula dismissively.
“You either had to grow stronger there, or die trying. You couldn’t wait for some System to give you the strength you need to win. And because of that, you did what you couldn’t, even for just a moment. Maybe it worked out for you once against the titan centipede, and maybe it wouldn’t have worked out for you the other time against the Goblin Lord. But that’s how you pushed yourself beyond your limits, Noele. And that’s what I want you to keep doing.”
“I… see,” the blonde girl finally said after a moment’s deliberation. “I think I understand now.”
Amelia smiled as she lowered her spatula. Then she gestured at the freshly cooked burger. “If you do, help me bring these sample burgers around town so I can attract more customers.”
“Don’t you mean, so you can attract a single customer?” Noele corrected her mentor.
The brown-haired woman stared flatly at her apprentice. “I’m still waiting for my first month’s payment.”
The blonde girl scratched her cheek as she smiled back. “Sorry, couldn’t help myself.”
And Noele did as she was told. She brought the sample cheeseburgers around town as the sun set over the horizon, painting the sky a vibrant orange.
Still, not a single customer came. Even as Amelia waited until it was night. No one arrived at her stall to try out this fancy new cheeseburger.
But someone did arrive in Windrip, just not for the reasons Amelia wanted.
There she was. Jax’s target. He had followed her all the way to Windrip— a short journey, even if rather tiresome. Now, it should have been the hard part. He thought she would be hard to find. But he found her in an instant.
The Forsaken Archer would have gloated. He would have sneered or taken the opportunity to attack her. However, instead of doing any of that, he just stared at her in confusion.
What is she doing? he asked himself as he watched the brown-haired woman… stand there.
She manned a stall that no one visited, even as twilight passed, and the streets emptied out. It was only after another hour, did she sigh and resign from the stall.
Jax just watched, utterly befuddled.
This… is my target?
He was almost certain his informant was wrong. If he could find his informant, he’d punch him in the face right now for this prank. He scowled as he watched her vanish into an inn.
This has been a massive waste of my time.
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