I stood, arm outstretched, thumb pointed up. I did not move; I did not run when I saw it approach. I was waiting for it. So I took a step, leaning forwards as it got closer and closer to me. I called out to it—
But the car still drove past me.
I lowered my hand and sighed. Why do you gotta be so rude? Is hitchhiking not a thing in this world?!
I picked up my pack, slinging it over my shoulder, before continuing down the road. There was no point in trying anymore; I wanted to get a lift to the next town over, but no one would stop for me. At least, not any one of the cars I had seen so far.
I managed to hitch a ride on a few different wagons to expedite my travels: it might not have been the fastest mode of transportation, but it was definitely better than walking. And yet, mana vehicles were faster than even carriages, sometimes even surpassing the speed of a single rider on horseback— although still incomparable to what was the norm on Earth. Point was, these cars could cover a good amount of distance very quickly, and I was getting tired of traversing by foot.
Now if only someone would actually stop for me…
I trudged along the gravel road, thoughts flying in my head to distract me from the beating sun. Why wouldn’t you stop for a hitchhiker? This isn’t the 1970’s United States! I’m not going to murder you and your girlfriend for giving me a ride!
I seriously doubted serial killers were that prevalent of a problem in this world; people could perform inhuman feats of strength and speed, which was even furthered by the existence of magic and miracles. So why wouldn’t anyone stop for me?
Maybe drivers in this world are all just jerks? That was perhaps a hasty generalization on my end; my sample size was miniscule and I was making quite the leap in logic. And yet, despite having seen three cars in the last few weeks alone, none even acknowledged my existence. One almost even ran me over!
And considering that the only other car owner I had seen prior to coming to Laxis was Julian Mancis— a slaver, a professional jerkface, and literal scum incarnate— I felt like I was, at the very least, slightly justified in my beliefs.
Regardless, when a wagon drove by me an hour later, I promised myself to give him a nice, big ten bronze coin tip for actually letting me on his cart once I arrived at my destination. Unless the wagon driver was a serial killer who wanted to kill me, of course; then I’d probably just die.
Or I’d kill him.
I wanted to live, after all. I was not going to go down to anyone without a fight. Even if that fake god himself suddenly appeared right now and somehow produced a truck out of thin air to kill me with— this time, I’d blow up the truck if that was what it took for me to survive.
The city of Locke was not the biggest city. In fact, I would rank it closer to one of the smaller cities I had seen— bigger than a town, but far smaller than the likes of Bys or Boleria. The Free Lands generally had larger settlements considering the city-state system of governance they had.
But regardless, unlike the other towns and villages which I have passed through in Laxis, there was something about this city that made me come here. Or rather, it had something which I wanted. And that was a Hunters Guild.
That was not to say that the Hunters Guild only existed in cities. In fact, I came across a handful of branches in some of the bigger towns I found lodging in; the problem with those was that they tended to be smaller and offered fewer services. They were also unprofessional, full of rude and small-minded townsfolk… ok, maybe I was starting to rant a little bit.
But I had every reason to feel that way, considering that they all turned me away!
I’m so mad, I even rhymed that!
It was not necessarily a fault to try and protect a random kid from getting themselves killed doing dangerous jobs. Not only that, but there were regulations in place which prevented such things from happening, since this used to be a problem when the Hunters Guild first began expanding.
Apparently, young boys and girls had an idealized version of what Monster extermination entailed, due to tales of heroism and glory which was rather common in this world. Especially since the Hunters Guild was currently almost ubiquitous in the continent of Vitae, it brought forth a culture of glorifying Monster hunting to a certain extent. There might have been no adventures to seek and no great dungeons filled with traps and treasure to explore, but that was greatness to be found in killing Monsters.
Historians and archaeologists did uncover tombs from ancient civilizations. But their artifacts were merely that— items that came from an age gone by. Useless in this world’s modern era. The Mana Revolution started by the Great Hero Xander had taken the world by storm; nothing from the past could ever compare to the gifts of the Goddess.
Even the inventions from the Gnomes that had once walked this world before being wiped out by the Demons were inferior to the mana tools of today. They had taken gunpowder, innovating it by creating rifles that functioned without mana crystals; they built boats that had no sails, powered by a mysterious white smoke rather than being propelled by mana tech; they had even generated electricity as a source of power, once again without the aid of any mana tools to do so.
It seemed to me that the Gnomes must have achieved technological advancements similar to the Industrial Revolution back on Earth— before they got big headed and thought that was enough to take on nigh-immortal magic users in the Demons. So while it was impressive, it was still rudimentary. The Dwarves, which had momentarily fallen behind the Gnomes’ impressive and rapid growth, have now taken whatever ideas they could take, and were currently mixing whatever knowledge was useful with the field of mana studies.
This all meant that there were no such things as ‘adventurers’, because there were no ‘ruins from an ancient superpowered civilization from the age of legends five gazillion years ago’ (I was not counting the Demons, since they were an anomaly hated by most of the world). The current time period, if anything, would fit those criteria, and being a Hunter was one of the exclusive jobs of now. Which all culminated into me being an unemployed homeless girl who could not even get a job despite having all the qualifications for it!
So I understood the basic sentiment that drove all those small Hunters Guild branches to reject me. I did not like it, but I could understand the reasoning behind it. But I still don’t like it.
And yet, things were going to be different here in Locke; I learned from my mistakes, and I had considered all the advices from those whom I have met in my journey. Because of that, I came to a simple conclusion: wear a mask.
First of all, there was a massive plague outbreak in the Free Lands, which was starting to spread to the neighboring countries because of the massive influx of refugees. I was not sure how effective a mask was at preventing the Noxeus from infecting me, but it was simply better to be safe than sorry— in my personal opinion.
Secondly, wearing a mask would not only hide my identity from all parties interested in my demise— which would make it harder for me to be tracked down— but also allow me to pass off as not a little girl trying to get herself killed. I could pass off as a Goblin, or a skinny pale Dwarf. Or it would have been better to keep it vague and keep others guessing; whatever I did, it would have been better than under the guise of a literal kid.
Plus, if I ever was forced to use magic, no one would know who I was. Sure, my black hair might clue others in to my identity if I were caught in a bad spot, but I could always shave it, wear a wig, or dye my hair. It was much less obvious than having my face revealed.
Thirdly, masks were cool.
That was it. I just thought they looked cool.
I could just picture it: Jumping down at a gang, my mask covering my face and my cape billowing in the wind, saying ‘I’m Batman!’.
That would be so cool! I would be so cool.
And a bit embarrassed too. But hey, I was pretty much cosplaying as a Witch right now, wasn’t I? Nothing was wrong with taking it one step further and becoming a superhero— even though I had no plans to be one.
Maybe someone like Felix— the Plague Doctor— could have been considered this world’s version of a superhero; he had a secret identity, a secret power, and went around altruistically saving people. On the other hand, I was trying to survive, and maybe help people along the way if I could. I was not going to find trouble, but if I stumbled upon it, maybe I would help. Maybe.
But for now, I was going to focus on getting the funds required to bring me to the Taw Kingdom without any issue, to maybe see if I could find some sort of sanctuary in that Dwarven country. And the current best option to do that was to become a Hunter, which required me to get a mask.
It was not a surefire method to achieve my goal; I would adjust my plans according to how things played out. But right now, I felt like I had to at least try to become a Hunter proper, before giving up on this possible avenue towards relieving my financial worries. Which was why I was asking the wagon driver so many questions even though he was visibly annoyed by it.
“I told you, I don’t know. Why would I know where to get a mask in this city? I just come here to sell my wares, that’s all,” he snapped back at me.
“Sorry, I was just curious. But do you know if blacksmiths make masks? Or potters?” I inquired with a neutral voice, trying not to further irritate the man.
“I. Don’t. Know.” I smiled politely as he shot me a glare. “There’s probably shops for that in the market. Go ask your questions there. Now stop talking to me or I’ll kick you out.”
“I see, thank you.”
I laid back down on the back of the man’s cart. The wagon driver folded his arms in clear displeasure, as he muttered under his breath.
“Sacred piss, if I wasn’t so damned nice, I wouldn’t have to deal with this shit. I just wanted to enjoy my day, but no— because of all those Monsters attacks recently, I just had to give her a ride…”
Mhm, I’m not giving this guy ten bronze for this, I resolved myself. I was still going to pay him, but his overall attitude made me decide against generously spending my limited funds— even if it was recently replenished somewhat— for him.
And speaking of what the wagon driver said, that was supposedly a thing going on right now: Monsters were coming down the Incen Mountain Range in large swathes and attacking travelers more recently as of late. It was the talk of anyone who had any business going anywhere beyond their city’s perimeters, since this was directly related to them and their safety.
Personally, I had not run into many Monsters while on the road; a group of Horned Rabbits was the only thing that has attacked me. And although they were quite fast, I took care of them without the need to use magic. I also ran into the occasional Giant Wasps (not to be confused with the Japanese giant hornet since these were literally the size of my head), which thankfully, were not aggressive without due cause.
However, all these Monsters were native to the area. Even the Kobolds— which were these large dog-like creatures that I encountered once— had a home in most climates, so that was not an unusual meeting for me to have had. So while I did believe that there was an increased threat from these migrating Monsters, it was not something that I was worried about at all.
Rather, I was more concerned about the thing that was forcing these Monsters out of their homes. People I have spoken to seem to think that there was an Abomination infestation up in the part of the Incen Mountain Range that was in Laxis, which spurred these deadly creatures to come down. And if I had to garner a guess, I would agree with them.
I remembered clearly the time I was attacked by a Chimera back in Villamcreek. Adrian and I were walking to the village, and that massive Monster suddenly leapt at us; I had attributed that event to the increased Monster activity in our area at the time, but never once stopped to consider what could have caused the cause to the event that caused me and my mom’s plan to escape to fail.
There were a lot of causes, but it all led back to one thing— that stupid jerk god!
I felt annoyed whenever I heard about the Abominations, specifically because it made me remember him. It was because of him, my mom was dead. And because of him, hundreds and thousands of people lay dead— even if a majority of the ones in Besha who died deserved it.
I just wanted to focus on anything but the thing, that related to the thing, that related to the thing, which, after a few more things, would bring my thoughts to that false god. And luckily for me, a peculiar thing happened which managed to draw my attention for a moment.
“Oi, watch it!” the wagon driver yelled, as his horses reeled, causing the cart to jerk.
I sat up, confused as to what was going on. I peeked over the box I was leaning on, to see what was happening. And as I did, I heard a shout back.
“Shut it, you stupid Human! I go where I want!”
There was a slight accent to the voice; it was male, and clearly rougher than even the roughest Human men I’ve met, and there was a certain inflection to it which made it sound serious and not so serious at the same time. Unfortunately for me, I barely got a glance at the man as they continued down the road in the direction we came from. But what I managed to see told me a lot.
The first thing I noticed was that whoever it was, was not driving a wagon, or even a car. He was on what looked like… a scooter? Or a bike. But with three wheels instead of two, with a black and gold color scheme to it, and it was emitting a lot of white gas from its back.
And while the plume of smoke obscured the driver slightly as they got further and further away rather quickly, I could make out their figure— the second thing I noticed— even still. They seemed short, stocky, and— well, there was no point trying to make out the rest of his appearance, since he was quite clearly a Dwarf.
Blinking, I watched as the Dwarf drove into the distance, as our wagon resumed trotting down the road at a much slower pace than him. “…was that a Dwarf?” I asked, turning to the driver.
The man seemed to consider my question; he craned his neck up, then around to face me. He looked me dead in the eyes, and spoke slowly.
Right, he told me he would do that if I spoke to him again. Forgot about that.
And then I watched as both the wagon and the Dwarf disappeared into the distance.
At least I don’t have to pay him, right?
It was a net gain for me, since not only did I not have to pay that jerk of a wagon driver, but he was apparently so irate, he did not realize how close we were to the city of Locke before he kicked me out of his cart. So as I passed by the man who was stopped to have his wares inspected at the gates, I made sure to give him my sweetest smile and my most heartfelt thanks for the free ride. Then I ignored his outraged complaints as I entered the city without an issue.
Maybe I was being petty; he did let me on his cart, after all. But it took quite a bit of convincing, and even then, he chastised me over every little thing. He scolded me for sitting wrong, for God’s sake!
I understood what it was like to be an awkward passenger who did not want to speak to their taxi driver; if speaking rudely to me was all he did, I would not have been so vindictive. Maybe he was having a bad day, but thanks to him I was having a bad day as well.
Relative to the last few weeks, of course. I had far worse days than being yelled at by some grumpy middle aged man just because I was a kid. But I was just repaying him in kind— objectively speaking, I did say ‘thank you’, did I not?
Whatever the case was, I was inside of Locke as the sun just left the highest point in the sky. It was an hour or two after noon, and I wanted to find an inn quickly to keep my belongings in. So I made my way to the nearest inn— nothing fancy, I currently had no reason to splurge on something as unnecessary as luxury when I still had no stable income.
After getting a room, dropping off my stuff, and answering the usual questions I got such as ‘where’s your parents?’ and ‘are you sure you can afford it?’— which was par for the course— I finally began my search for a place to acquire my mask.
As mentioned before, Locke was a city. A proper city, even if it was not too big. And unlike the Free Lands which was slightly technologically behind the rest of the world due to the embargo between most of the Free Cities and the Holy Xan Empire, this place actually sold stuff.
I passed by a Tinkerer’s shop, and stopped by their open display; they had a variety of items out in view, including a little music box playing a nice relaxing tune. It had a small mana crystal at its wooden base instead of a protruding metal cylinder to wind it up with. It played its music nonstop, and the little figurine in the center never stopped dancing.
It seemed to remain active until you turned it off, since it was powered by mana. Considering this, I had expected such an object to be rather expensive, so I was surprised to see that it was only being sold for two silver coins.
That was hardly a significant amount— I had to pay even more than that to simply enter the country. Up until this point, I was under the impression that mana tools generally cost a lot of money; I had expected anything that was made using mana would require gold coins. In fact, ignoring what I had seen in the Free Lands— since the supply of mana tools there were significantly lower because of aforementioned reasons— I vividly recalled Adrian telling me that his father’s pistol was expensive, costing several gold coins to even procure, while requiring silver to maintain.
I was perplexed by this for a moment; there was not as much disparity in the complexity of how basic weaponry was made versus regular daily use tools (unlike back on Earth where guns were a lot more meticulous in design compared to everyday items). But after contemplating on this for a mere second, I came to the rather simple conclusion to this dilemma.
Duh, guns need more energy. I’m stoopid.
That meant that the mana crystals of weapons were far more dense than the ones used for something like a music box. Satisfied with my totally, completely, like literally epoch-making revelation, I continued down the market street, searching for a place to buy masks.
Unfortunately, as I had expected, the only mask shop I could find sold performance masks— masks which had an intricate design, but absolutely no durability to it. And worse off was how some of them covered barely any parts of my face, while others were completely oversized, stretching up to the tip of my pointed hat.
So I gave up on that endeavor, and asked the shop owner for directions to the nearest smith. The man not only helpfully did so, but he even was nice enough to offer some recommendations when I told him what I was looking for.
“That sounds like a battle mask. I hear some people use light metals or other materials like part of a Monster’s shell, and enhance its durability with mana crystals to protect their face in war. Although I don’t see why you wouldn’t wear a regular helmet if that’s the case,” said the shopkeep, before raising his brow in confusion. “Why’re you asking though?”
“Oh, I’m just curious,” I answered politely, then bowed my head. “Thank you for the help.”
“Sure, no problem little Miss.”
With that, I eventually found myself at a smith. Not a blacksmith, since those only work with iron. But a smith. Someone who worked with all kinds of metals, and even other materials that were hard and malleable. The burly man gave me an odd look when I first arrived, but after some quick deflection and steering the topic to what I wanted to buy, I was on track to getting what I wanted.
“Hm, from what you’re asking me, mithril sounds like it’d be a good fit. Unfortunately, my supply of it is pretty low, making it more expensive, even considering the small size of this… mask.”
“How much are we looking at?” I asked.
“I’d say roughly 30 gold? Just for a simple thin mask the size of your face,” the smith replied, to which I nearly sputtered.
30 gold? That’s literally all my money! Luckily, I managed to keep my face cool, although I could feel my hand instinctively cover my coin pouch protectively.
“I-I see,” I said, voice hiding a tinge of hesitation. I cast a glance around the room, trying to see if anything else caught my eye, while hinting at the man that I could not afford it. “Uh, do you have anything else? That’s light, and slightly durable? It doesn’t have to be the strongest material, just enough not to break from a drop to the floor.”
“Well, if you’re not limiting yourself to just metals, I’d say go for some wisened wood, but those are on the pricier side of things too.” The smith scratched his head, thinking it over. “If you don’t mind Monster parts, I’d say go for something like a String Scorpion’s shell for something hard, or a Horned Wolf’s pelt if you prefer something leathery. For the latter, it’s not easy to scratch and tear, but you just have to get a frame for it made so it’d fit on your face. However, if the frame is not good, any blunt force could break it and it’ll fall off easily— which I suppose is not something you want?”
“I’d prefer if that wasn’t the case.”
“Good, since I don’t have those in stock anyways,” the smith said with a laugh. “I’d have to direct you to a tanner, and I don’t want to chase away any potential business!”
“Of course not,” I agreed with him. “So how much would it cost to get a mask made from that?”
“I don’t have much in stock, but the thing is, it’s all leftovers from years ago since no one ever wants to buy parts from things like a scorpion or a spider. They don’t mind wearing the skin of a cow as everyday clothing, but when it’s from a spider? Suddenly, they go running for their lives. Even though silk is made from worms…” the smith trailed off with a sigh, and walked over to a box. He began rummaging through it as he continued. “Since you’re showing to be a brave young girl for daring to wear parts from a scorpion’s shell, I’d give you a discount. Let’s say— 4 gold for the whole thing?”
“I’ll make it 5 if you can get it done before sunset,” I said simply.
The smith grinned, holding up a large gray plate. “Deal. It’s easier to work with than metal. I don’t even have to melt it down! Just got to cut out the right size, then heat it up a little bit. So you’ll see it finished in three hours, how about that?”
“Sounds good to me.” I smiled, as the man began calling for his apprentices; he was about to start discussing something with the two young men, when I added. “By the way, could you leave two small holes for some mana crystals?”
“I could do that without a problem. But what for, though?” he asked, tilting his head to the side.
“I want to get a tinkerer to enchant it. Make it stronger, at least.”
“Something custom like that would probably cost you a few more gold, are you sure you can afford that and the mask itself?”
“I’m sure,” I said, meeting his uncertain gaze. That seemed to convince him, as he just shrugged.
“Suit yourself. You can probably find someone who can do that over on the west side of Locke. Not sure specifically about hardening, but there’s plenty of tinkerers there since that’s where the Hunters Guild and Mercenaries Guild are located.”
I thanked the smith, bowing my head slightly and tipping my hat as I did. Then I walked down a few streets before I found the shop I wanted; there I bought two crystals of about the same size, light blue in color. It was cheap, costing only me only a few silver coins. Certainly not what you’d expect from a mana crystal that would permanently strengthen the hardness of an object.
And that was because it was not a mana crystal. I bought myself some cheap quartz.
While I appreciated the advice the smith gave me, there was one thing that he did not consider. And it was that I could do magic.
I had studied every single book I owned in the past few months, and practiced every spell that not only interested me, but could be done in the privacy of my own room; some of them I had extensively read on, but due to the nature of the spells, I was unable to actually cast them without alerting people of my ‘heretical’ nature.
Enchanting was one such school of magic I could practice without such a problem.
Temporary magical enchantments were easier to learn than permanent ones; it took me a while to learn— about three days— but I eventually mastered how to do a simple Hardness spell. It was one of the ‘intermediate’ Enchantment spells available in the generalist grimoire I had. Which also meant that it was one of the hardest spells in that book to learn, since it mostly covered the basics.
I learned the spell to permanently increase the durability of my clothing, even if it was less effective on softer materials. But I did not want my clothes to tear and get damaged over every little thing, considering that I spent good money on it. And that rationale luckily paid off now, since I did not have to pay extra for someone else to do something with mana crystals what I already could do for free and with magic.
So after a nice, hearty meal, I returned to the smith and waited there until my mask was ready. I gave him the quartz— telling him they were mana crystals— and had him insert them to fit nicely onto the front of the mask. With that final touch, it was finally finished.
I handed the smith his gold, and headed back to the inn where I quickly enchanted it. The two crystals were there to give the idea that my mask was tinkered with, so they would not question anything if they ever discovered that it was significantly tougher than it should have been. Plus, it also added a bit of flair to the otherwise dull gray object.
I picked up the mask, inspecting it for a moment: it was an oval about the size of my face, there were two holes where my eyes would be— obviously so I could see— and a thin slit lower down, probably to make it easier for me to breathe. The two crystals laid on the left and right sides, about where the edge of my cheekbone would have been located if the mask were my face.
I casted my spell, enchanting the face covering before I finally donned it. I quickly got changed to my hooded clothes, to maybe hide my hair at least. Then, wearing my mask over my face, I headed to the Hunters Guild.
It was not a long walk, but with the amount of time that passed, it was already evening when I arrived at the building. I walked past the evening crowd, walking straight into the branch without any hesitation.
I knew how things went; I was used to it, in fact. But this time, things were going to be different. So I approached the front desk, as the clerk stared inquisitively at me. I placed a hand on the table, leaning forwards and tip toeing slightly as I smiled underneath my mask.
“Hi, I’d like to register as a Hunter, please.”
Well then, let’s see what you guys got for me.
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