Chapter 42: Alleyway Meeting

The ball of light danced on the palm of my hand.

I brought it up, and it shifted; its color changed from blue, to yellow, to purple. Then it expanded.

It grew larger and larger. Until it was about the size of a soccer ball. And it began to split: from one to two; then from two to three.

The three balls of magic hovered next to me. I smiled, as the magic circle dissipated yet the spell stayed. I began to move it, and it obeyed.

I started spinning it around my shoulders. Gently at first. Then faster. And faster—

I felt my control over one of the Explosive Orbs slip out of my grasps.

It flew out of control. Straight at the walls of my room. But I was prepared for something like that to happen.

I brought a hand up, and without even pointing:

Dispel Magic.

The spell gave in without any resistance. All three orbs vanished, leaving nothing behind. I sighed in relief as I wiped sweat off my forehead.

That was close.

I knew something was going to go wrong; I was practicing pre-casting spells— a type of spellcasting that allowed me to go into an engagement with magic at the ready. There was no need for a magic circle to control it after it’s been cast.

Normal spells could not do that. They required you to concentrate on maintaining the magic circle, which would prevent you from casting too many spells at once.

It was different from keeping a spell at the ready— pre-casting would already have the magic out, whereas the former would simply lessen the time it took for the spell to form.

A perfect example of the difference between the two was what just happened earlier: Dispel Magic was prepared on one hand, whereas I had the Explosive Orbs pre-cast and flying around the room. I specifically made sure I had Dispel Magic at the ready since I was not experienced with pre-casting, and knew something would go wrong.

That was because pre-casting required a lot of refined control over magic; something which I was still lacking as of now. I could cast Fireball and even stronger spells after much studying over the months— but that was simply brute force. There was no elegance to it.

This was different. I could not master it instantly; it still required actual practice, despite my magical abilities. And while it was an incredibly useful skill to learn, it was also completely circumstantial, and could not be done for all spells.

Just like everything else, it had its own drawbacks. Only certain spells worked well with pre-casting, such as Geomancy and Necromancy, or Hydromancy while near a body of water. Things which leaned more towards manipulating what was already there, rather than creating something magical, were better suited for it.

Pyromancy for instance, would typically conjure up magical fire that still required a lot of focus to maintain the spell. While pre-casting took away some of that focus, it was not enough of an advantage to make pre-casting effectively useful.

The same rule generally applied to Thaumaturgy. But the Explosive Orbs were made to suit pre-casting. Like a mine that exploded on contact, or a grenade which you could pull the pin whenever. It functioned as a proper explosive, unlike Magic Bolt or Magic Missiles. Which was why I was practicing my pre-casting with that spell.

Another downside to pre-casting was demonstrated just earlier. Without the magic circle— without direct control over the magic— spells could be very easily dispelled by another person. There was almost no resistance when one tried Dispel Magic on a pre-cast Stone Wall, for instance. The barrier would just come tumbling down back to the ground.

As such, coming into a fight against another powerful spellcaster with dozens of pre-cast spells was not always the best idea. Because it could be very easily dispelled. Not that it was even easy to pre-cast a dozen spells in the first place.

Regardless, it was just another thing to add to my inventory of skills; something I could possibly use to defend myself with. Not that I was looking forward to fighting anybody anytime soon. I just had to be cautious.

So I reached for the grimoire. The book on spellcasting. To read the chapter on pre-casting again; to try to understand where I went wrong. But as I did that, something made me blink.

A beam of light filled my vision, as I shielded my eyes from the window. The curtain was drawn, yet the sun’s rays still peaked through. It was… noon?

No, not yet.

But it was definitely long past sunrise. Which meant I had been studying for at least four hours, considering that I woke up at dawn.

It was a habit I gained from travelling: get up before the sun rises, and make camp before the sun sets. It had forced me to fix my internal alarm clock to wake me up early in the morning.

Even on the first day I arrived on Laxis. When I was in such a good mood I went shopping and basically did absolutely nothing productive for the whole day. I still fell asleep before midnight.

Routines were hard to break. And speaking of routine.

It was time to break my fast— time to go down and eat some breakfast. Or was it brunch? Whatever it was, I was hungry.

So I closed the book, and slid it into my bag. Then I hid my bag under the bed. It was not the most inconspicuous spot, but it was not like I had many options in the first place.

I left my room, and went downstairs; the inn was not particularly crowded. There were only a handful of people along with the innkeeper waiting in the lobby.

“Good morning,” I greeted the man.

“Morning,” he said, glancing up at me. “Sorry, you’re an hour too late for the free breakfast. Maybe if it was half an hour, I’d still let you have it. But unfortunately it was not, so you’ll have to pay if you want to eat here.”

“It’s fine, I’ll pay,” I reassured him.

Although I did say I was alright with it, free food was free food. And the fact that I missed it because I lost track of time annoyed me a bit. Not enough to sour my mood— it was a mild inconvenience at best.

“Do you want lunch or breakfast?” he asked, as he was about to head into the kitchen. Then he added in with a laugh. “Or both? I’ve seen you eat, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what you wanted.”

I gave him a mock glare. “Hey! I don’t eat that much.”

We both chuckled for a moment, before I gave him a serious response.

“But I’d like both, please.”

His smile slipped, and he nodded. “Oh, uh, sure. Coming right up.”

“Thanks,” I said, a tiny bit embarrassed.

But what could I say? Their cook made some good food; it was not my fault I liked it!

I finished my meal, and held back a burp. I did not want to attract any more stares than I already was getting; especially not over having no manners.

I paid the innkeeper before excusing myself for a moment of relief. Then I left the inn to go about my day.

It had been three days since I went to the hat shop. The young woman— who I assumed was the milliner— told me to come back in a few days, without giving me a specific timeframe. So I assumed today would have been fine to just come in and check the progress.

I casually entered the hat shop, pushing the door open as I went.

“Greetings,” I spoke politely.

“Oh, it’s the little girl!” A head popped over the counter, followed by a cheerful voice. “Here to check on your pointy hat?”

“Yes. Is now a good time?”

“Of course!” she exclaimed, setting something aside underneath the desk. Then she faced me. “Oh, nice cape by the way. Is that new? Looks expensive.”

I adjusted the mantle around my shoulders slightly, and smiled. “Thank you. I can afford it.”

But that did not mean I should have bought it— not that I regretted buying it. I only spent a total of five gold the day I left the Free Lands. Which was quite a lot; it was almost half of what I had spent in the few months traveling alone.

I did it because I wanted to relax, even for a single day.

However I knew I was not necessarily being smart with my money, even at that moment. There was no retrospective realization; I stood by my decision, despite knowing it was slightly foolish. I simply treated this as a sort of pseudo vacation— and what vacations did not have a bit of expenses?

Of course, I had no reason to explain all that to the young woman. So I quickly changed the subject to what I came here to talk about, not to waste any time.

“Do you know when my hat will be ready?”

“Yes,” she said, clasping her hands together. “It’ll be ready in three days. Your design is pretty simple, even if it’s quite big. But I have a few other orders, so I’m busy with those. Honestly though, since my grandpa retired, I’ve been doing this solo for the past year. I might just get an apprentice to help me out, even though I’m no expert yet…” The young woman rambled on for a while longer.

I waited until she finished before replying. “I see, so come back in three days?”

“Yep,” she confirmed. “Come back in three days.”

I thanked her, bowing my head slightly, before I took my leave. She called out after me as I left the shop.

“Take care, little girl! Don’t go into an alley with a stranger! Even— no, especially if they have candy!”

I smiled slightly in response, but otherwise I did not reply; I was grateful for her concerns, just exhausted at hearing similar sentiments all the time.

I was not an idiot: traveling alone as a kid through the Free Lands was not exactly the safest journey, yet I made it out unscathed… relatively speaking. Not just because of my magic either— I made sure to always err on the side of caution unless it was necessary.

What ‘necessary’ meant, of course, was wholly dependent on the context. I might have found it necessary to intervene if I saw someone getting murdered, but stayed back if it was a simple robbery…

Well maybe if their entire life savings were being stolen from them, then I probably would help them too.

But no magic. I could not risk using magic, unless I was going full scorched earth— leaving no one alive.

Which was a grim thought. And something I wanted to avoid as much as possible. Hence why I decided not to use magic… unless necessary.

As was becoming quite obvious to me, there were a lot of qualifying statements to be made; I was pretty uncertain. The only thing I knew for sure was that I would judge things on a case-by-case basis, and figure out where to go from there.

However, in general, I was going to rely on what I could do with what I had on me. Which was— as of right now— only a dagger.

And some gold coins. Which was not very helpful, considering I had to be frugal in my spending.

Until I found a job. And I had an incredibly limited scope of jobs I could take up.

As the milliner had briefly mentioned, regular kids my age would be doing apprenticeships in this part of the world. That meant settling down and starting a new life, pretending I was not wanted by both the Holy Xan Empire and the Dark Crusaders for various different reasons.

As of right now, I was considering many different options: living a life of isolation (which I did not want); becoming a Hunter or a Mercenary; or finding my way back to Earth. The last option was quite clearly impossible, but I was holding out meeting with that false god again, and maybe getting him to do something like a reverse reincarnation to send me back. I hate this world after all—

I felt someone bump into me as I was passing through a crowd.

I did not hesitate. I whirled around and reached for my coin pouch. As expected, it was not there.

I made eye contact with a kid dressed in ragged clothes. Neither of us paused. Both of us immediately jumped into action.

“Stop! Thief!”

I yelled out, chasing after the boy. He dashed past a group of adults, who simply gave us an odd look.

“We’re not playing—”

I cut myself off; there was no time to explain anything. If they were not going to help me because they thought this was a game, then fine. But I was not going to lose half my gold to some thief. Especially when I knew the whole drill of bumping into someone and taking their stuff (from watching enough movies back when I was still on Earth).

The kid ducked into an alleyway, and I followed suit. I drew my dagger as I did, careful of a possible ambush; just because he looked like he was alone, did not mean that he was.

I closed the distance between myself and the boy. We were about the same size, but I was clearly faster. He was about to turn a corner when I reached out and grabbed him.

He could not escape the same way he would with an adult.

So he tried to shake me off. Tried to pry off my grip. But I held strong. Far stronger than he expected.

“Let me go—”

He raised his other hand, pulling back for a punch. But I twisted the arm I was holding, circling around his back.

The boy yelped, continuing his struggle.

“Give it back,” I said, from his behind.

“What are you doing?! I haven’t done—”

He froze as he saw the flash of metal. The cold blade’s edge was not pressed against his skin; the dagger was sharp, and I did not want to hurt him without reason.

Instead, I held it half an inch off his neck. Far enough that he would not get cut unless he made any sudden movements. Which was the point— I did not want him to somehow escape.

“Give it back,” I demanded with finality in my voice.

I edged the blade even closer to him. I was precise in my movement; I had not been neglecting training with my dagger, since unlike magic it would not have gotten me in trouble. Plus, becoming physically stronger made me more motivated to practice what Karna taught me. So I trusted myself not to accidentally kill the boy.

He inhaled sharply. “But I…he started, before eyeing the dagger for a moment. The threat was apparently very convincing, since he gave up with a sigh. “It’s in my left pocket— please, just don’t hurt me!”

“I won’t, as long as you don’t move.”

I lowered my weapon, and reached down. My grip did not loosen for a second. I found my coin pouch after a moment, but I still did not let go.

“And everything’s in here?” I asked, while counting out my coins.

“Yes,” he said quickly. “I didn’t have time to take anything! It’s all in there!”

He was telling the truth; I only brought half of my gold with me. And it was all in there. So I let go of the boy’s wrist, letting him fall to the ground.

He began rubbing his hand. “O-ouch… What is wrong with you?!”

I narrowed my eyes. “What is wrong with me? What is wrong with you? You tried to steal from another child! At least try and steal from an adult or something.”

“I had no other choice!” he protested. “And I saw you. When you first arrived. You were spending your money left and right. I thought you were rich— so I…” he trailed off.

“So you targeted me,” I finished his sentence for him. I folded my arms, and glared at him. “That does not change the fact that I’m younger than you, you know.”

I was guessing. He was about my height, but from his frame— how thin he was— I assumed he was not nourished well enough to grow properly. I was malnourished for a while as a slave, but I had been eating plenty since then.

“How can someone younger than me be that strong,” he muttered under his breath. Then he got up slowly, still grasping his sore arm. “Look, I’m sorry, ok? But I— we needed the money.”

“And am I supposed to just give it to you?” I frowned.

“Yes? No? I dunno!” The boy threw up his arms. “Please, my home— my family— it’ll all be gone if I don’t get some money.” He pleaded.

“You’re begging me now. After you tried to steal from me,” I stated flatly.

“I—” he bit his tongue. He got on his knees, and bowed his head deeply. “I know you’re rich. And I’m so sorry for trying to rob you. But I saw you had plenty of gold. If you could just give me one— it’ll be enough. Goddess grace us, I don’t care if they take me away— as long as Ms Sharity and Patty are safe. They have the Noxeus! And if I have some coins, I could get the Plague Doctor to cure them.”

Plague Doctor? I raised a brow at that.

The boy prostrated in front of me. I looked him over; studying his expression.

His eyes were closed shut, but I saw tears leaking out of his eyes. His jaw was clenched, as he begged me to give him just a little bit of money.

I sighed deeply, and the boy raised his head. His gaze swung up to me. His eyes lit up, and I saw… hope.

“Yeah right, as if I’ll believe that.”

It was not like I could not sympathize with the kid. I’ve stolen once before. Food to eat. But if I ever found myself in a precarious spot, I would not hesitate to steal money if need be.

However, there was a difference between being nice and being an idiot.

I remembered Victor. All the casual lies he would feed me, with a bit of truth sprinkled in between, to keep me believing him. But if that was not enough, I also remembered those slaves.

Those two slaves in Bys— the ones I freed. How they came back to betray us, nearly sabotaging all of our escape.

Fact of the matter was: trust is not something I have plenty of right now.

Perhaps if this was three days ago, I would have given him the gold even after he tried to steal from me. Not because I believed him— I would never have believed him even if I was in a good mood; but because I was just that generous that day.

However, I had no reason— nothing to sway me— to give him even a single copper coin. Especially not after he gave me such an obviously made up story.

The boy stared at me for a moment, mouth agape, as I began to leave. Then he sputtered out.

“I’m not lying!”

I did not want to engage, so I continued walking. But apparently that only made him shout louder.

I’m not lying, and if you think I am, you’re a stupid idiot! Everyone knows about what’s going on at my orphanage!”

I stopped midstep.

I would say that I only stopped because of the last bit he said. But that would be a lie; his provocations definitely did play a part in getting me to turn back around.

For now though, I focused on the last bit.

“Orphanage? What are you talking about?” I asked.

“I told you,” he answered matter-of-factly. “Ms Sharity is sick. She takes care of all of us. But when little Patty got the Noxeus, she could not just leave her alone. So now she has the plague too.”

“So what has that got to do with you being taken away?”

“How do ya not know this? You’re so stupid.” I ignored his remark. “Ms Sharity can’t pay back those men now. Those she’s been borrowing money from to keep our orphanage running. They said they’ll take us away if we don’t pay ‘em. But I don’t care about that! I just want Ms Sharity and little Patty to live.”

“But the Noxeus is incurable. Money won’t help you here.” I pointed out the fact; the boy opened his mouth, but I cut him off quickly. “And if you call me dumb, stupid, or anything like that again, I’ll punch you.”

Jerk, I added in my head.

He nodded slowly, taking a step back. “Well you’re still wrong. The Plague Doctor can cure it. And he’s visiting our town right now. That’s why I need some money— to pay him to cure Ms Sharity and Patty.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “No one can cure the Noxeus. I’ve never even heard of a plague doctor before.”

“He’s not a plague doctor. He’s the Plague Doctor. He’s been going around and curing the Noxeus for years!”

“And how do you even know that? Have you seen him cure someone before?”

“I— uh, no,” he said meekly. “But I’ve heard people say so!”

“And that means it’s true?” I cocked a brow. The boy tried working his mouth, but nothing came out. I continued. “And even if it’s actually true and he can cure the plague, how do you even know that he’s the real Plague Doctor, and not some fraud?”

“I…” the boy hesitated. Then he glared back at me. “I have to try. Ms Sharity did everything for us. Did everything for Patty too. I have to save her. Save them. If I just have enough money… I don’t want either of them to die.

He said, as tears began dripping off his face. He was crying. It was not just some waterworks, but he was full on bawling his eyes out. I felt… bad, for him. But this could have still been a ploy.

Kids could fake cry. They did it all the time. Yet something about this seemed familiar. Something

A memory. A conversation I had with Theodore. One of the only slaves I talked to, other than the Beastkin. How he treated me kindly— and why he treated me kindly. Because…

His family died to the Noxeus. His wife and daughter. He needed more money— if only he had more money. He could have—

I felt my stomach twist. It was a terrible fate; he borrowed gold from some men, to try and cure his wife and daughter. But it was not enough. And when he could not pay them back, he was sold off to slavery.

This seemed like a similar situation; maybe I could help. Prevent something like that from happening. But the kid could be lying!

I took a deep breath. I waited for the boy’s crying to stop. Until he was sniffling, and wiping his nose.

“Fine. I’ll give you some money,” I said. His head snapped up, but I spoke over him. “However, you have to prove it first.”

“Prove it?” He closed and opened his eyes in rapid succession.

“Yes. I’m not going to just give it to you. Bring me to your orphanage, and bring the Plague Doctor there. Then I’ll pay him— only if he really can heal the Noxeus.”

The boy hesitated. “But…”

“Is something wrong?” I asked. “Why can’t you bring me to your orphanage?”

No, I’m just…” his voice wandered off. Then he straightened. “There’s nothing wrong. I’ll bring you there. And prove to you that you’re an idiot for thinking that I’m lying!”

His eyes flashed; he looked at me, resolute. I nodded for a moment.

Then I snapped.

“I said stop calling me an idiot, idiot!”

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