For the next few days of travel, I spent every waking moment while not on the road practicing my drawing skills. I tried jumping straight to carving the runes on mana crystals, but that ended up being a waste of resources because of how imprecise I was at it; I went through three Lesser mana crystals— despite filing away the surface when I made a mistake— before learning my lesson and transitioning to paper.
Now, I worked with a pen, gripping it in the same way I would a carving needle; it was not an exact simulation of working with mana crystals, but it was as close as I could get to it. I continued drawing the four basic symbols of fire, water, earth, and air in repetition, focusing solely on learning the fundamentals of tinkering before I actually started work on creating proper mana tools.
I stayed up sleepless nights working on this, and spent the hours Gennady and I were on the road on the back of his mana powered bike, resting my head against his massive backpack and sleeping. It was not the most comfortable way to take a nap, however it certainly was not as bad as sleeping in a cage at the back of a caravan with my arms and legs bound and shackled. So it sufficed most of the time.
This, however, was one of the times I was unable to sleep while Gennady was driving. I could not toss and turn since there was not enough space for that, but I did fidget uncomfortably where I lay: I was thinking. Thoughts filled my mind in an endless stream of consciousness, keeping me awake despite what my closed eyes might seem to indicate.
I could not stop thinking about all the different tools I would be able to craft once I had fully mastered how to tinker; the nebulous idea of the various machines and weapons I could create to both protect myself and make my life a lot easier was an entrancing thing to imagine. I felt my lips curl up to a smile before a voice broke me out from the thoughts in my head.
“Oi lass, wake up,” Gennady spoke, his rough voice perking up my ears. “You probably want to see this,” he said.
I forced my eyelids open, blinking away my tiredness and sitting up. I rubbed at my eyes for a second as it tried to adjust to having vision after seeing nothing for so long. “What is it?” I asked, yawning.
“Look to your left.” The Dwarf did not twist his head to face me. He had his eyes on the road, but he did gesture his head in the direction he wanted me to face.
Slowly, I sat up and turned my neck to the side. My eyes widened and I gasped as I took on the marvelous sight before me: I was faced with a palette of sharp, contrasting colors in the canvas before me.
A beach stretched out for a few hundred feet, turning from a dull gray gravel into a neat brown blanket of sand, wrinkled by the waves rolling in and out of the ocean. The endless deep blue expanse of the sea morphed into the azure blue of the sky, but at the line where the two met, the sun rested there, muddling the pure colors with a bright orange. The water shimmered as the brilliant sunset shone down upon the world, bringing with it the last semblance of light for the day at this moment of twilight.
There was not a cloud in the sky, but it was going to be a dark night; the lunar cycle brought with it the new moon, and travelers would only have their paths illuminated by the specks of light that came in the stars.
“That’s a beautiful sunset,” I breathed. I had not seen a sight like this in over a decade: the sparkling sand and the glistening ocean was a spectacular view to behold. The empty serenity of the beach was only accentuated by the setting sun, which gave the dark brown surface an amber tint that was rarely ever seen in the crowded beaches of Earth.
“‘Course,” Gennady said, still not facing me. “I knew you’d like it. This is your first time seeing the ocean, eh? Most people never get the chance since not everyone travels to port cities.”
“It is.” In this world, I added in my head. I took a moment longer to gaze into the nostalgic scene of a beach, then turned back to the Dwarf. “Shouldn’t we be stopping soon? It’s late.”
“We’re a tiny bit ahead of schedule. So I think we should keep going for a bit longer.”
“Are you sure we should be traveling when it’s dark?” I asked. “I don’t want us to get lost or attacked by bandits.”
“Don’t worry, lass,” he said reassuringly. “As long as we’re not out there”— he pointed at the ocean— “we ain’t running into any trouble.”
“And,” the Dwarf cut me off. “We won’t be out when it’s night.”
I cocked my head, not sure what to make of what he was saying. Then, I saw it.
In the distance, a few miles ahead, a sprawling city came into view. There was a tall wall surrounding the perimeter of the city, which opened up at the side where the harbor was; streetlights and lamps were visible even from where we were, giving the city a sense of life with its light, in sharp contrast to the darkness of the wilderness to my right. I saw a small line of caravans, carriages, and a single car queuing up to enter the city gates as night slowly descended upon us.
“This is… Luke?” I guessed.
That was the Capital city of Laxis, and our final destination in this country; we were not supposed to arrive here until tomorrow, but…
“We’re more than just a bit ahead of schedule, are we?”
“Yes,” Gennady chortled, leaning back in his seat slightly. “We’re very ahead of schedule.”
We reached the city half an hour later. The sun had just finished setting, but the gates were still open. Apparently the threat of Monster attacks was less of a problem here in the Capital, which made sense, but did not put me at ease; after what happened in Bys, I did not feel safe even behind the walls of a big city— and Luke was not nearly as large as the Free City of Slaves was.
In fact, I was pretty sure this city was not as big as Boleria, and neither was it as big as the Rem Republic’s Capital city of Remheart. I had never been to the latter, but I knew that my home country was one of the richer nations in this world, whereas Laxis was undergoing an economic crisis that was only exacerbated by the influx of refugees from the Free Lands.
We were momentarily stopped at the entrance of the city— the guards wanted to check our bags for any illicit goods. I almost had a heart attack.
“Um, are you sure that’s necessary?” I asked the guard while trying to hint at Gennady that I was indeed carrying ‘illicit goods’.
The guard shrugged. “It’s the law, Miss. I’m just doing my job.”
“Of course you are,” I said, trying to sound like I understood his situation. “But we paid the fee for entry, didn’t we? And we’re not even traders. This just seems like an unnecessary hassle.”
“It would be less of a problem if you didn’t argue, Miss,” the guard said, and I knew he was right.
I quickly glanced over at my travel companion with panic in my eyes, and he finally seemed to get my message. He got off his bike, and approached the guard. “Sir,” he started, reaching for his pockets. “It’s a troublesome job, ain’t it?”
The guard eyed the Dwarf warily, but didn’t say anything.
Gennady continued. “I wanna help you out, but we also want to be helped out. So how about this?” He pulled out two glistening silver coins from his pocket. “A tip. For your troubles. And for our ‘troubles’.”
The guard hesitated, before quickly looking around; when he saw no one was looking, he quickly snatched the coin out of the Dwarf’s hand, and pocketed it. “Go,” he said, waving us off. “You’re all clear. I found nothing in your bags.”
“Good lad,” Gennady said, smacking him in the back, before hopping back on his bike. Then he winked at me. “Problem solved.”
I sighed in relief as we finally entered the city, and drove away from the guardpost at the gates; the guard did not look through our belongings, which was a good thing considering I had a dozen books containing heretical contents inside of it. Not all of them were books on spells— that made up slightly less than half of my personal library— but I was pretty sure most of the others were illegal to own as well.
I probably should throw some of them away, since I had finished reading pretty much everything of note in those books. And the fact that a majority of them were hand-me-downs from Victor, my former friend and a rapist, urged me towards that course of action. However, not only have I simply never found the time to do it, a side of me felt like I could potentially find a use for them in the future.
I was not sure how accurate or trustworthy that side of me was, but I listened to it for now. It was risky, however perhaps I could maybe sell these books on the black market if the situation ever arised. Not that I knew how to access the sale of illegal goods: I did not even think of bribing the gate guard to Luke!
“How’d you know he’d accept it?” I asked Gennady as we were driving down the streets of the city, drawing some attention because of how much gas was being puffed out of the Dwarf’s vehicle. “The bribe,” I specified.
He raised his shoulders in a shrug. “The country has been in hard times, lassie. Corruption is not uncommon when people just want to earn a living.”
“But what if he reported us to a superior?” I asked, frowning. “We’d be in a lot more trouble.”
“Then we bribe him instead,” Gennady answered simply.
“I… but…” I paused, considering his possible responses to any further questioning I might have. Eventually, I acquiesced on the issue. It worked out without a problem, I told myself. Why are you complaining?
It was a nonsensical part of myself that worried over possible scenarios that never came to fruition; it usually was a longing for what could have been better, but sometimes it was a fear for what could have gone wrong.
Gennady and I continued down the haphazard streets of Luke, before finding ourselves at an inn. It was a more luxurious inn compared to the ones we had been staying in for the past week— all of which were fancy compared to the inns I had been staying in by myself before I started traveling with the Dwarf.
He insisted on finding comfortable lodgings most of the time, even if it were not necessary. I understood the concept of treating oneself once in a while, but it seemed as though he took it a step further and lived life on the edge in exchange for always getting what he wanted. That was why he left the Taw Kingdom in the first place: he was dissatisfied with how things were going with him there and took a leave even if it had no long term benefits.
Plus, Gennady warned me that we were probably going to be staying in Luke for a while; it was difficult to find transportation out of the port city due to all of the hazards with pirates infesting the waters right outside of it. We had to find a ship willing to bring us out of Laxis— possibly all the way to Taw— which required a significant amount of protection in the form of Mercenaries, as well as Hunters if a sea Monster decided to attack the ship.
And while the former was a problem endemic to Laxis for almost a decade, it seemed the latter was simply a seasonal issue. The stormy weather supposedly attracted creatures of the deep to gather closer to coastal settlements, lying in wait to sink unguarded ships and feast on its crew.
It was not the wisest idea to go on a seaway voyage at the current time, and while I was not in a rush to get to Taw, I would prefer to find myself in a physically and financially secure position as soon as possible.
“Remind me again, why can’t we travel to Taw through land?” I asked the Dwarf as we settled into our room.
“It’s not that we can’t travel by land,” he said, wagging a finger to point out the nuance in his statement. “Traveling by land means going through lots and lots of rocky, mountainous terrain. My bike is not designed for such travels, and it would probably take us an entire month longer than the two to three months it would already take us to get to Taw by ship.”
“But what happens if the ships here refuse to leave the port until after the storm season is over?” I pointed out the flaw in his reasoning. “That would take at least another month for that to happen.”
“Well, ya haven’t taken into consideration the other factor which makes traveling by sea far better.” The Dwarf shot me a wink, as I stared blankly back at him.
“Out with it already.”
“Fine,” he said, throwing his hands up in the air. “I thought you Humans liked your dramatic reveals.” He shook his head, and pulled out a map from his backpack. “Here.”
“What am I supposed to be looking for?” I asked, raising a brow.
“The city of Jahar’taw, Capital of the Taw Kingdom, and where King Adilet resides.”
I carefully took the map from Gennady’s hands, and looked over it. “It’s… a coastal settlement,” I said after a moment of scrutinizing the map; I finally realized what he was trying to tell me. “We can head straight to the Capital of Taw if we took a boat!”
I glanced back up at the Dwarf, and saw his eyes sparkling. “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” I asked. “This is incredibly efficient.”
He snorted. “Hah, ‘course. I’m a Dwarf, after all.”
I rolled my eyes, but did not comment on that; I turned back to the map and looked at where we were. Laxis was not the largest country out there, however it was still sizable. It was almost surprising that it was having as many internal problems as it was, despite having very few enemies beyond its borders. I would have thought a country with fewer threats from the outside would be more stable on the inside.
“So,” I started, “what about the pirates?”
“What do ya mean?” Gennady asked, leaning back on his chair.
“Who exactly is going to be willing to transport us to Taw, past the pirate infested waters surrounding Laxis?”
“We’ll figure it out later,” he said, waving his hand nonchalantly. “But I reckon we’d hafta hire a couple of smugglers and the like to bring us out.”
“Smugglers?” I felt my forehead crease into wrinkled lines.
“Yes.” The Dwarf began to explain, “You see, most likely regular sailors and merchants would wait out for the storm season to blow over. Neither pirates nor any sane sailor would dare risk their ship out during a bad storm. This just means that on clear days like today, pirates would be a lot more active in patrolling the trade routes, looking to intercept any fool who decides to attempt to cross the sea.
“However, if we hire a band of smugglers to bring us out of Luke, pirates would be less likely to attack us. Most pirates would be affiliated with a smuggling group or two, to bring their illicit goods into the city. If they attack their own smugglers— well, that’s just a bad business move, y’know?”
I nodded, considering this.
“And you think you can find trustworthy smugglers to bring us to Taw for us?”
“Not all the way to Taw,” Gennady corrected me. “Just partway through— far enough to get away from the pirates, and board a proper ship to finish the voyage.”
“The question still stands,” I said.
He stroked his beard in thought. “It’ll take some time, but I’ll be able to do it. I know my way through the underground, and I bet ya I can find someone willing to do this job for us within the week.”
“If you say so.”
I did not fully trust Gennady for some reason, despite knowing him for a week. Or perhaps I should rephrase: I had only known him for a week, which was why I did not fully trust him just yet. Whichever the case was, I felt like I should still be somewhat leery of the man.
I had paid him almost a hundred gold coins to escort me to the Taw Kingdom, and while that certainly helped to abate some of my uncertainty regarding the situation, I still did not feel fully at ease about the things he did when I was not around. After what happened in the Free Lands with Victor as well as what happened with the slaves, I tried to keep my eyes on Gennady at all times, even if that was not physically possible.
The Dwarf eventually retired to bed once our discussion was over, while I stayed up to practice my drawing skills. I drew the four same symbols over and over again, until my hands and fingers ached all over, but I still continued.
When I first started doing this, I had only drawn the runes of the same symbols in succession: fire, fire, fire; water, water, water; earth, earth, earth; or air, air, air. Now, however, I was drawing the different symbols in tandem with one another, mixing up the combinations to varying degrees.
Fire, fire, water, air.
Water, earth, fire, air.
Earth, earth, air, earth.
Earth, air, air, fire.
From what I had studied in the books Gennady lent me and from what he told me himself, all four symbols could theoretically be put together in a rune and create something. However, there were certain pairs that almost always went together more often than with others. These pairs were:
Water and earth. Earth and air. Fire and air. Fire and fire.
The last pair was an oddity in that they were both the same symbols. Gennady seemed to postulate that this was due to how the fire symbol seemed to generate the most amount of energy by itself. I thought differently: to me, it probably was the prevalence of weaponry in the daily lives of the people in this world, which made the fire symbol more needed than the others.
In a similar vein, the reason why the earth symbol seemed to pair with the others fairly liberally was probably due to its importance when it came to tinkering with a mana crystal to affect objects around it. It was not due to the effectiveness of the symbols itself, rather it came from the necessity of it all.
I went through pieces of paper incredibly quickly; it was not the most expensive material in the world, but it still cost quite a significant amount to buy as much paper as I had been using (I used both sides of the paper and tried not to waste space). I finally found myself at the end of my current stack and was forced to stop for the night.
I slowly slumped over the desk, exhausted from working for so long into the night. I rested my head on my arms atop the table, facing to the side and out of the window.
It was dark.
The moonless night shed no light down from the heavens, as dark clouds gradually formed overhead, covering the celestial bodies from illuminating their shine upon this earth. Yet, I saw not the darkness of the void ahead of me, but instead a picturesque scene layered over the window frame like some sort of portrait.
I remembered the sunset from earlier today. The tranquil view of the beach, the sounds of the waves crashing into the sand, and the rays of the sun beaming down at my face.
It was almost relaxing.
I glanced over at the clock to the side, and checked the time. It was late at night— past midnight— but it was hardly the usual time I went to bed. I felt almost as if I had become a workaholic with all the things I had been doing since I was freed from slavery; every single one of my days had been filled with traveling, studying, or fighting without any moment of reprieve in between them.
The last time I got the chance to simply enjoy myself was the time I went shopping for a new set of clothes since my Goblin outfit was getting used and worn…. and my wallet felt very bad about itself the day after!
I sighed wistfully as I remembered my previous life and all the fun times I managed to spend with my friends doing various different activities in between our studying, volunteering, and school.
“I want to go to the beach,” I muttered under my breath.
It was most definitely not the best time to go outside; being a kid and wandering the streets alone at night was a recipe for trouble. I did not want to be forced to expose myself if push came to shove and I had to cast magic to protect myself again.
And yet, once night ended and morning came to replace it, I would lose the opportunity to go to the beach without wasting any of my time. Time was precious, and its wastage on something as unnecessary as enjoying myself would guilt-trip me to no end.
I looked over my shoulder, at the sleeping, rotund figure of the Dwarf laying in his bed. He was going to go to the market tomorrow in search for any Superior mana crystals, bringing me with him to teach me things I needed to learn about them. After that was finished, we would head down to the docks to find any ships that were willing to take us to Taw.
I had no window to act, and the stormy weather would probably bring the tides dangerously close to shore once I finally found the chance to visit the beach. It was with taking all this into consideration, I made my decision.
“I’m going to the beach,” I said, standing up and grabbing my dagger and other protective gears.
After all, there was no time like the present, and this wasted no time since I probably wouldn’t have been able to fall asleep anyway.
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