“Man, I am beat!” complained Keira while sweat dripped down her face.
“Are you alright, kitty-face?” asked the female elf that was sitting next to her.
She had long, leaf-green hair that was tied in a stylish ponytail, and was a young woman that looked to be in her early 20s or late teens. She was wearing a set of chainmail equipment identical to the beastkin’s, which was standard issue gear among Ranger trainees of the Hidden Arrow guild.
“I’ll be fine, Lia. Just gotta… rest a bit…”
“Hmm, if you say so.”
The two of them were riding a cart on their way back from their training session. Today’s hunting expedition had turned out to be much harsher than the beastkin was expecting, so it was only natural that she was dead tired. It wasn’t because the 10-man class’s targets were particularly challenging though. Those sheep-sized termites that ate away at the elves’ Hylt tree farm to the south of the city were simple enough to deal with. Their shells weren’t particularly tough and they lacked any form of ranged attack, so a small team of Rangers could easily take down a large number of the overgrown bugs with little difficulty.
In fact, trainees like Keira were often dispatched to act as pest control since fighting those things allowed them to safely and steadily acquire Levels and Skill Proficiency. Well, provided they steered clear of the actual nest, as that particular threat required copious amounts of fire-based magic to be safely cleared out. What these fledgling archers had to do was merely cull the termite population to make it easier to manage and contain their spread.
“So how many did you get today?” asked Lia.
“I got 20!”
“Oh, not bad! I got 23 myself!”
“Hehehe! I’ll beat you next time!”
“We’ll see about that! I don’t intend to lose to you!”
The two’s scores for the day were rather impressive, as most trainees only managed to bring down about a dozen termites on average within a single day. Those pests loved to climb up the sides of the 40-to-60-meter tall Hylt saplings and nibble on their bark and branches, so hunting them often involved dealing with the numerous branches and leaves that got in the way.
This was typically accomplished either by climbing up the side of the tree in order to get a clean shot or relying on pure marksmanship to take them down from the ground. Keira had gone for the first approach while Lia opted for the latter. Both of them performed exceptionally well for their Level, but neither of them could hope to match the guy who came in first today. And every day.
“... I just wish that guy wouldn’t show off so much,” said Lia while glaring at the plain-looking male elf riding the cart in front of theirs. “I mean I appreciate a little rivalry, but he just makes me feel inadequate.”
“Why? How many did he get?”
“It’s not just the body count either,” said the female elf while biting her lower lip. “The way he runs up those trees and that scary accuracy of his both make me wonder if he’s really in the Level 10 to 15 bracket like we are…”
A sudden voice from the side made both girls jump a little in surprise. A grizzled old elf with slicked back brown hair and most of his left ear missing was walking alongside the cart. A thick, rune-inscribed longbow was slung across his torso and he wore fancy, silver-colored scale armor.
“Ah! In-instructor Faehorn!” exclaimed Lia.
“Wh-what do you mean he’s not in the bracket?” asked Keira.
“His Ranger Level is significantly higher than yours,” explained the old elf, “but his actual skill level is atrocious.”
“A power-leveler, huh?”
“You are correct, miss Torlee,” he said with a nod to Lia. “If he had the same Attributes as you two, he’d struggle to get even 15 of the buggers.”
“Hmm, so that’s why he seems to have it so easy.”
“Indeed. Well, he’s properly absorbing my teachings and isn’t as arrogant as most power-levelers, so I’m sure I can fix him right up before the end of the course!”
“Uhm, wh-what’s a power-leveler?” asked Keira sheepishly. “I’ve heard about it before, but…”
“It’s what we call people who get their Job Level artificially raised,” said the instructor. “Attacking a high-Leveled monster and then having someone else finish it off in order to gain easy XP is a fast way to raise Job Levels, but I disapprove of that approach since those people never learn to apply themselves properly.”
‘Don’t mistake Status for ability’ and ‘power without direction is meaningless’ were the two lessons that Faehorn tried to instil in all his students. While such things as Attributes and Levels did make one more powerful, being able to properly utilize that power was what made the difference between a good adventurer and a great one.
“There are just some things you won’t learn from a Job or Skill, after all,” continued Faehorn. “Like for example punctuality, miss Morgana.”
Having her last name called out so suddenly made Keira freeze in place with a stiff smile. Being subjected to the instructor’s piercing gaze didn’t help matters, either.
“C-come on, mister Faehorn,” she pleaded, “I already did a 20 kilometer sprint this morning, didn’t I?”
That was her punishment for being late earlier today, and also the main reason she looked like she was about to pass out. The instructor purposefully kept pushing her for the remainder of the day, not willing to give her exhausted body the chance to properly rest. There was a good chance the catgirl might not have made it back to the city if she wasn’t allowed to ride the supply cart. Faehorn had every intention of making her walk the whole way, but he did promise he’d let her rest on the way back if she made it in the top 4 today. Which, surprisingly, she did. It was amazing how motivated she became at the prospect of being able to laze about.
“You did, though I think another 50 or so kilometers are in order,” he said sternly.
“S-such a thing…”
“Ah, this is unrelated to you being tardy, though.”
“It… it’s not?”
“I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but you get tired way too easily. Your need to learn to pace yourself better.”
“Uhm, teacher?” spoke up Lia. “I don’t think it’s a matter of pacing. Don’t all beastkin get easily tired in general?”
The young elf had a point. Compared to the elves, beastkin in general were faster, more agile and had slightly sharper senses, but their stamina was atrocious. An elf Ranger of Keira’s Level would normally be able to run those 20 kilometers without so much as breaking a sweat, and yet she appeared to be a total wreck from just that.
“Hmm, you may have a point,” said Faehorn, much to the two girls’ surprise. “We don’t get many of her kind around these parts, so I didn’t take that into account at all. It was my fault as a teacher, for which I apologize.”
“It-it’s okay, mister Faehorn!” insisted the flustered Keira while waving her hands in front of her face. “You really don’t need to mind it!”
“No, no, I really need to consider your race when thinking up your training menu.”
The grizzled Ranger cupped his chin in thought as he sped up to check on the slow-moving cart up ahead.
“Perhaps a 20 kilometer run every morning and evening to help build stamina…” he mumbled as he speed-walked away.
“Lia! Don’t say unnecessary things!” exclaimed Keira accusingly, causing the green-haired elf to avert her gaze out of guilt.
“W-well, he does have a point,” she offered weakly. “Being a Ranger is a taxing Job so having more endurance is hardly a bad thing.”
“I’ll die! I’ll seriously die if I have to run that much each day!” complained the catgirl while shaking her companion lightly.
“Hm? Hey, Keira, not for nothing, but I think that guy is staring at you again.”
Lia’s rather clumsy attempt at changing the subject seemed to work, as the catgirl’s accusatory stare was redirected to follow the elf’s line of sight. Looking forward, she noticed that the supposedly high-Leveled elf they were talking about earlier was staring at her over his shoulder. Their eyes met for a brief moment, after which he turned his gaze back forward.
“That boy, I bet he has a crush on you,” said the elf teasingly. “He’s been sneaking glances at you for a while now.”
“I guess you may be right.”
“... So? Aren’t you going to talk to him!”
“Y-you don’t plan on responding to his feelings?”
“Not in the slightest. It may be a bit cruel of me, but I don’t see that happening.”
“Really? I agree he looks a bit plain, but he’s still kind of cute, right?”
“He’s not my type, okay? Besides, I already have someone.”
“Eh? You’re in a relationship?!”
The catgirl’s pouting face lit up with a brilliant smile one might compare to a sunrise.
“I am indeed!”
“How!? Why?! When!? I mean, you only got here a week ago, right?!”
“What can I say? When you meet that special someone, you just know right away!”
The dreamy look in Keira’s eyes made it abundantly clear she believed that.
“Details! Give me details!” insisted Lia.
“W-well, it’s not that big a deal. I mean, I was just looking for a cheap place to stay when I arrived here, but didn’t have a lot of luck finding one. I was having lunch wondering what I should do about it, when this stranger sits down next to me. The restaurant was full and there were no other open seats, you see, so I didn’t particularly mind. We then started talking and seemed to click together immediately.”
Lia swallowed audibly as she clung onto every word.
“Then the guy tried to feel me up, so I clawed him across the face.”
“Oh yeah. He must have gotten some mixed signals or something and groped my butt when I got up to pay the bill, so I reflexively slashed at him. It was a shame too, cuz he got blood all over my outfit.”
“No, that’s clearly a big deal! I mean, I guess the guy sort of deserved it, but surely attacking him with those things was going overboard!”
Lia had seen the retractable claws hidden in Keira’s otherwise normal-looking toes and fingertips. One really wouldn’t know they were there unless she brought them out. They looked rather small and unthreatening at first glance, but the elf knew better. She had seen firsthand just how sharp and tough they really were when Keira used them to scale those Hylt saplings with absolutely no difficulty. That’s how she was able to get 3rd place in today’s hunting expedition, despite being dead tired the whole time.
“... My butt is really sensitive you know,” offered the beastkin in her defense, albeit with a slight blush on her cheeks.
“That’s not the point!”
“Anyway, the guy raised a huge fuss over that tiny scratch,” continued Keira while completely ignoring Lia’s protests. “Some guards showed up to investigate the ruckus and he insisted that I attacked him completely unprovoked. That scumbag wanted to shift the blame on me even though he was the guilty one!”
“No, you weren’t entirely innocent in that scenario, either!” retorted Lia.
“That’s when someone in the crowd stood up for me and argued with the guards that the guy started it and that he should be the one that got locked up. Her action inspired some of the other bystanders to speak up as well, which was enough to convince the guards that he was not without fault. Well, we both got thrown in jail in the end though.”
The elf drooped her shoulders and let off a sigh, as if to say ‘of course that’s what would happen.’
“But the one that stood up for me came to visit me in jail right away! She said her name was Rowana and that she felt really bad about how I was treated and we ended up talking about this and that for several hours until the guards chased her out since they wanted to lock up for the night. Well, they were going to let me go in the morning, so it wasn’t a big deal. In fact, I was kind of glad since I found a cheap place to stay the night after all!”
“Please don’t treat the city’s dungeons as a free motel…”
“So anyway, Rowana showed up the next day to check up on me since she was worried. She offered to show me around town, so I gladly accepted. One thing led to another and we ended up living together.”
There was a brief moment of silence as Keira stood there with a light smile while hugging her knees.
“... So?” asked Lia after the brief pause.
“Isn’t there more to this story?”
“No... That’s pretty much it, really.”
“But, wasn’t that the story of how you met your lover?”
“Of course it was, silly! What else would it be? You’re the one who said you wanted to hear it in the first place, weren’t you?”
“Well yeah, but you didn’t mention a boyfriend or anything.”
“Why would I be talking about something like that?”
“I mean how else would this… this… Oh.”
Lia’s words trailed off as realization washed over her like a cold shower.
“Ah, sorry! I was just a bit surprised… I mean, your face and voice are just so feminine that I just assumed you were a girl. That was bad of me.”
“I am a girl,” said Keira with a sharp glare.
“... You are?”
“What’s with that dubious expression! I’m most definitely a girl you know! I mean, I know my chest is a bit small, but I have room to grow! Here, I’ll prove it to you!”
Keira’s hands grabbed the edge of her chainmail tunic and started rolling it up.
“Okay! Okay! I believe you, so please stop stripping!”
Lia waved her hands around in a fluster, somehow managing to calm down the ticked off catgirl. If she denied it to that extent, then it was obvious the elf was misunderstanding that she made a misunderstanding. That did, however, raise another question.
“So you, uh, are in a relationship with another girl?” asked Lia after another awkward pause.
“Yup! Rowie’s the best girlfriend I could ever ask for!”
Keira’s previous dissatisfaction disappeared in an instant when the topic of her special someone was brought up. Her wide smile and sparkling eyes made it seem like her angry pouting from a few moments ago was an illusion.
“And you said you two… live together?”
“Uuu, it’s a bit embarrassing to hear someone else say it…”
The petite catgirl hid her blushing cheeks with her palms while shaking her head lightly, although her goofy grin did not diminish in the slightest. It was without a doubt the image of a maiden in love.
Wait, was she actually still a ‘maiden?’
“Th-then… have you two… done it?” asked Lia, unable to contain her curiosity.
Keira’s tanned skin flushed with an even darker shade of red at the slightly inappropriate question. She didn’t deny it, but couldn’t bring herself to admit it either. Which was more or less the same as screaming ‘yes, we had sex’ with all her might.
“Wow… Keira’s already an adult, huh…”
“Ahaha, sorry, sorry! I was just a little surprised, I didn’t mean anything by it.”
The elf let out an embarrassed chuckle and apology while trying to calm down the hyperactive beastkin she was riding with. However, both her face and tone turned rather serious a few seconds later.
“Look, Keira, I appreciate you sharing this with me, but you might want to avoid telling too many people about that relationship of yours.”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Just please, hear me out. I don’t know how things were back where you grew up, but Azurvale is hardly the best place for… those like you. While a lot of people don’t really care, there are quite a few fanatics that think same-sex couples should be outlawed. You probably had no idea about any of this, right?”
Keira shook her head with a troubled expression.
“As I thought… Look, you have to understand it’s a religious thing. The vast majority of elves worship Nyrie, the Goddess of fertility who governs over plants and watches over children. Technically speaking, her realm also extends over, uh, *Cough* babymaking.”
“So what? She hates people who don’t make kids?”
“No, she doesn’t. At least, I don’t believe she does. There are those who say otherwise, however. There’s a certain… movement that claims same-gendered couples are an affront to Her and should be prohibited… or worse. And while such a stupid law is unlikely to become reality, it doesn’t stop them from doing terrible things to innocent people.”
Keira had no idea how to respond to that. She had absolutely no idea this was the case, but it made sense now that she thought about her various interactions ever since she came to this city.
“My point is,” added Lia, “you might be targeted if word got out. Your girlfriend was probably scared to tell you since it’s a difficult subject for her.”
“I see… Thanks for telling me this.”
“Don’t mention it. All I ask is that you don’t let that vocal minority warp your perception of us elves. We got a bad enough reputation out there as it is.”
“I won’t,” answered Keira with a forced smile. “After all, Lia doesn’t seem to mind.”
“Yeah, well, I personally think those people are just full of shit,” she scowled. “Those fanatics are all dirty old men, you know. Just pigs who want women to serve as baby factories and nothing else.”
“... Do elves struggle with having kids that much? I mean there are a lot more humans than elves around so-”
“That is most certainly not the case. We’re not any less fertile than humans or dwarves, you know! It’s just that we’re more in control of our lower halves!”
“Really? That’s not the impression I got from Rowie...”
“Too much information.”