I watched as the city of Luke slowly disappeared into the horizon; I held firm to the wooden side of the ship as it rocked with the waves, keeping myself from losing balance and falling over.
We continued to sail away from the Capital city of Laxis until it was nothing more than a speck in the distance. The strong but steady tides of the ocean took over, and I found myself walking through the deck of the ship with very little difficulty.
Lisa saw me approach, and broke off from the Captain of the ship. She called Jack over as the grouchy man stepped up in front of her and took the lead to meet me.
“Here,” I said, handing over the pouch of gold coins. “This is the first half of the payment.”
Jack grunted in affirmation. “Good.” He tossed it back to Lisa. “You and your friend better have the second payment ready once we reach Taw. I’m not going to wait around that damned country for you to scrape up whatever gold you owe us.”
“There’s no need to worry about that— you’ve already seen the gold, haven’t you?” I cocked my head to the side.
“No. We’ve only seen the tip of it. You could’ve easily given the appearance of a bag full of gold coins when it’s gold stacked on top of bronze and silver. I won’t believe it till every single coin is fully accounted for.”
I gestured at the coin pouch I just gave him. “So why aren’t you checking that?”
“Because,” Lisa started, cutting off her companion, “I’ll take care of it.” She nodded at him with a smile, and he simply accepted it.
“You heard her. She’s my partner, and she’s trustworthy. She hasn’t given me any reason to believe otherwise.”
“Likewise for me,” Lisa agreed. “I trust his judgement, and he trusts my attention to detail. That’s why we work so well.”
“That’s good,” I remarked. “I hope to see you two in action when you bring Gennady and I safely to Jahar’taw.”
Lisa stepped forward, and placed a hand on my shoulder reassuringly. “We’ve got the first half of our payment, so we’ll make sure you get to the Taw Kingdom. Trust me,” she said.
I hesitated, eyeing her companion standing behind her with his arms folded. Slowly, I lifted her hand off my shoulder. “I’ll trust that my gold is convincing enough for you to actually do the job.”
She shrugged. “Same thing.”
I didn’t respond to that. Lisa returned to discussing something with the Captain as Jack took off to do his own thing. I took a cursory glance around the ship— there were about a dozen sailors going about their duties, although some were clearly more free than others.
I stood there for a moment, taking a final look back at the direction we came from, and saw no city; we were in dangerous waters now. There could be Monster attacks coming from down below, or pirate raids coming from anywhere around us. I was nervous.
I had traversed through the Free Lands alone as a kid facing little trouble; in those months, I had only run into a handful of incidents which ended in unfortunate bloodshed. Those experiences had taught me how to take care of myself while in a city, even if it was a poor one with a high crime rate. However, here out in the ocean, none of that helped.
It was a perilous voyage: one that I was unused to in every way possible. I was not sure what would happen, and that uncertainty left me in an uneasy state of mind. I found my eyes darting around the horizon in search of any ships within the vicinity. However due to the once again cloudy skies, it made it incredibly difficult to see which only served to exacerbate my worries.
“What are ya so uptight about?” Gennady asked, approaching me from behind.
I turned around to face him as he casually strolled up beside me and leaned against the edge of the ship. “Nothing,” I said. “Just on the lookout.”
“On the lookout for… what exactly?” He quirked an eyebrow.
I averted my gaze as the Dwarf stared into me with his green eyes. I knew what he was thinking, but I didn’t want to defend myself and repeat the same conversation we had several times.
“Look,” I said, breaking the silence, “the waters are infested with pirates and sea creatures that could attack us at any time. Even if Lisa and Jack are really able to bring us Jahar’taw as we’ve contracted them to, would they be able to protect us from a group of Horned Sharks? Let alone a Kraken or a Serpent Shrimp?”
“So what are you going to do? Stand watch all day and all night?” His gaze bore into me and I hesitated. “Just relax, lass. Enjoy the trip. It’s your first time on a ship!”
No, it isn’t. I shook my head. “I am aware that I can’t be on guard every waking moment of my life,” I said. I raised a finger, cutting the Dwarf off as he opened his mouth. “However, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t help where I can.”
“And if you see a ship?” he asked. “How are ya gonna differentiate a regular merchant’s vessel from pirates?”
“I won’t.” I ignored the blank room Gennady gave me, and sighed. “If I do see a ship, I’ll tell Lisa or Jack. I’ll ask them to get the Captain to avoid them as best we can. I don’t care if it’s a rowboat or a large mana ship— we steer clear, no matter what.”
He ran his hands along his chin, ruffling his beard. “That might delay our travels by a good week or two, y’know?”
“Yes,” I said. “But I’d rather not get ambushed in the off chance a group of pirate’s that are unfriendly with our smuggler friends run into us.
I paused, remembering what Lisa told me the night before, and I leaned over to the Dwarf.
“And,” I whispered, “they aren’t in the best of terms with the big shots in the area.”
“What do you mean?” Gennady asked, frowning.
“I mean that they’re starting to fall out of favor. Have you heard of the Elise?” I waited for his response, and once he nodded I continued. “They rule the underground in Luke right now. But Jack and Lisa refuse to work for them… or something. Lisa told me that the Elise haven’t taken action against them beyond putting pressure on their finances and business, but what happens if they find out they’re trying to escape this?”
Slowly, Gennady registered what I was trying to say.
“You mean if we run into a group affiliated with the Elise, and they try to grab Lisa and Jack to send them back and stop them from leaving?”
I met his eyes and held it for a moment. “Yes,” I said, thinking of all the ways our trip could go awry. “We’d be uninterested third parties drawn into a conflict we wouldn’t want to be a part of. If we even try to defend the ship, we could make enemies with more than just a couple of sailors in the city. And if we don’t defend the ship?”
“We’d lose our ticket to Jahar’taw, as well as half our gold,” Gennady finished the thought for me.
I nodded. “Exactly.”
He considered this for a moment; I was speaking reason— or at least, I thought I was. It seemed that I might have been somewhat right as Gennady put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Fine, maybe ye are correct to be a little uptight.”
I cocked a brow.
“However,” he said, wagging a finger, “you shouldn’t just be up here doing nothing. I’m here too!” He jabbed his thumb into his own chest and grinned. “We can swap out whenever you’re feeling tired and want to lie back down!”
I paused for just a second, then smiled. “Thanks. But I think I’ll be fine for the next few hours. I’ll just practice drawing my runes while looking up every-so-often.”
“Just don’t push yourself too hard.” Gennady clasped my back lightly, and I rolled my eyes.
“I’m telling you, I won’t get seasick.”
I raised my shoulders up into a shrug. “I’ll be fine, I think.”
“Ye say that, but ye said that same thing when I was driving and you started reading, didn’t you?”
Slowly, I stopped unpacking my bag, and put the pen down.
“Maybe you’re right. I’ll just get used to it first.”
“Good,” he snorted.
I spent most of the day simply sweeping my gaze across the horizon and taking in the scenery; we passed by only two ships— two other ships that dared to brave the waters in the current climate. Considering that we had just left the city of Luke, that was a very sparse number of boats at sea.
They were probably smuggling vessels too, if I had to assume. There were no altercations, and we didn’t even come close to getting a proper look at the crews of each ship. Regardless, I made sure to inform Lisa and Jack of my desire for them to remain vigilant.
At one point, I caught a few sailors giving me odd glances; I brushed it off, assuming that they were just curious about why I was wearing a mask. I focused on one thing only, and that was keeping us safe.
It was close to sunset when Gennady came up on deck to chat with me for a bit. We discussed my progress in tinkering, and he allowed me to examine his bazooka-cannon weapon he said was the best personal weapon he had ever made.
“As you can see, the runes aren’t just etched into the surface of the mana crystal. It spreads out into the Annihilator itself— it’s a mixture of tinkering techniques, see?”
I raised an eyebrow, and turned to look at him. “I don’t recognize any of these patterns.”
“That’s not what I was—” he groaned and shook his head. “Of course you won’t, lass. It’s not just advanced technique that’s far above your skill level, it’s also a special something I’ve… ‘invented’.”
He nudged me not-so-subtly, and I remembered what he told me: he learnt magical spells and studied the spell circles to help create this ‘Annihilator’ weapon. In fact, it was specifically based on a powerful spell called ‘Annihilation’ that was supposedly capable of incinerating almost anything it struck. But I also remembered something else.
“Didn’t you say that it didn’t work?” I asked, narrowing my eyes.
He hesitated. “…yes.”
I gave him a blank look, as he quickly continued.
“Look, I have gotten all the theory down. I’ve even written a paper on it, and had it sent and reviewed by a friend of mine back in Jahar’taw. He said it should work, and I know it should work. But it’s just that whenever I try to use it…”
“It doesn’t work?”
Gennady threw his hands in the air. “You’re killing me, lass. Can we just talk about you and your tinkering?”
“I know that it’s going pretty well since you’re the one teaching me,” I said with a wink and a grin. “However, if you want to know about the specifics— I still don’t think I can craft a proper weapon just yet. I probably could make basic mana tools, but that’s not what I want.”
“You’ve made great progress in the amount of time you’ve spent doing this, lass,” Gennady said, shaking his head. “Just don’t rush it, and you’ll be a great Tinkerer one day.”
I smiled, and then paused. I slowly sat up from where I was seated in the deck of the ship with my back faced against a wall, and looked around.
A thin mist was slowly enveloping the boat, obscuring us further into darkness even before the sun had fully fallen. I walked up to Lisa who was talking to the Captain, and called out to her.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s a light fog,” she said. “It’s normal in these areas. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“But we can’t see,” I pointed out the obvious. “What happens if we get lost— or worse, we get attacked while blinded?”
Lisa blinked. She exchanged a glance with the Captain, before turning back to me. “Aria, this fog isn’t a one way thing. If we spot someone in the fog, chances are that’d be the first time they spotted us too. There won’t be any attacks.”
“How can you be sure about that?” I met the young woman’s eyes, and held it.
The white blanket thickened all around us as we entered further into the fog. Lisa fidgeted, then sighed.
“How can we ever be sure of anything, Aria?” she asked, and I cocked my head.
“We can’t,” I said, responding instantly. “That’s why I’d rather take the safer route, even if it’s longer.”
I put my foot down. I did not want to argue about this; we were already fairly deep into the fog. And…
Out of my peripheral vision, I saw a shadow. I squinted, peering carefully into the direction I swore I saw a movement in the distance. It was the nebulous outline of a ship. I pointed at it.
“That?” Lisa cocked her head. “It’s probably another ship crossing through the fog with us.”
“And you guys aren’t worried?” I asked, drawing my lips into a thin line. “This is the perfect spot for an ambush, and we’re not even going to try and avoid them? Especially since it looks like they came from behind us.”
“Aria…” The young woman sighed, rubbing her temples. “What do you suggest we do?”
“We go back and around,” I said simply. “I’m not getting myself stuck in some stupid ambush by pirates tailing us because of this fog.”
She hesitated, looking at me once over, before she finally acquiesced. She turned away from me and addressed the Captain with a nod.
“Turn us back.”
“‘Scuse me, ma’am?” the Captain asked, raising an eyebrow. “You’re not really going to listen to this girl just because she asked you to?”
“I’m her employer.” I folded my arms. “And by extension, I’m yours too. Bring us back.”
“Just because of another ship?” He stared at me, his forehead creasing and his lips contorting to a frown.
He turned to Lisa, then back at me. “It’s just a ship. There’s nothing wrong with seeing other ships in the water!” he said emphatically.
“Not when no other boats dare to leave port.” I watched as his brows slowly arched darkly over his forehead, and I frowned. “What seems to be the problem?” I carefully eyed the saber hanging around his waist.
“It’ll delay us by a day.”
My eyes flickered as his hands lowered slowly to his hilt; it was a subtle movement, but one that I caught regardless. A realization dawned on me: I had been so worried about the dangers from the outside, I never considered the dangers from the inside. I remembered my conversation with Lisa from last night, and inched for my blade.
“You know,” I said, changing the subject. “Lisa told me you guys have been out of a job for a while. Probably making very little money, huh?”
“Yes, what about it?”
I continued. “I’m the first customer you guys have had in months, and I’m paying quite a large amount. But I’m only one person. I can’t possibly pay as much as an organization— especially one that’s after Lisa and Jack, like the Elise.”
He paused, and Lisa took a step back. “What are you talking about, Aria? He’s loyal! He’s been working with us since the beginning!”
“Maybe,” I said, taking my eyes off his hand and meeting the Captain’s face. “But money is a convincing tool. And it just so happens you guys have been low—”
I never got to finish. The Captain unsheathed his saber, and in one swift motion stabbed at me. I was prepared for it— I specifically looked away from his waist to bait him into an attack. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if he really was paid off by the Elise or another group, but I was spitballing after his suspicious behavior for the last five minutes.
Especially once he harped on how this other ship was definitely not trouble, when we barely even saw two ships earlier in the day— both of which were heading to port, unlike this one that almost looked like it was following us.
I sidestepped the attack, pulling out my own dagger in an instant. I struck back at the Captain, but he managed to block it. I ignored Lisa’s screams as she fell to the ground in a panic, and swept at the Captain’s feet.
The large man fell, his sword clattering on the ground. I brought my dagger down on him, but he caught my arm mid air. He was strong! He was even stronger than me, and I was pretty strong. It was a contest of strength, and I felt him pushing my arm back up. There was no way I was going to win this fight.
I let go of my dagger.
The gray blade fell straight at his face. He just barely managed to move out of the way, before I kicked him in the groin. The Captain recoiled in pain, grasping at his most vulnerable area as I swiftly picked up my dagger with a flourish and slit his throat.
Always works, I thought, ignoring his last gasps of air before he died.
I turned to Lisa who was on the floor, staring at me wide eyed with her back against the wall.
“I—” she started, but I cut her off.
“I know you didn’t do this. Just steer us out of this fog and away from that other ship!” I pointed back at the direction we came from.
She stopped shaking for a moment, before nodding. She got up as I ran down to the main deck. The other crew men had obviously seen what happened, and they were already swarming Gennady.
“Kill them!” a man yelled, charging at the Dwarf.
Gennady stumbled back in a panic, confused and shocked at the sudden situation he found himself in. I pulled out the gun at my side and fired a few shots at the attacking men, distracting them for just a moment.
It bought enough time for Gennady to pull out a mana tool from his side, and throw it at a group of men, binding them all together in a net made of mana energy. Half of them were caught, but the remaining half continued their rush at him.
I was about to fire another shot when someone dashed at me from the side. He tackled me, knocking me into one of the rooms as the boat rocked from Lisa turning the ship. We rolled on the ground for a moment, as the man tried to grapple with me.
I managed to push him off, grabbing on a table with a mana lamp to pull myself back up. The man pulled out a cudgel as another four men entered the room to support him. My eyes darted between the five of them, as I stood there, waiting.
It looked like the first man was about to charge, when another figure entered. It was Jack, and he looked at the men in anger.
“Oi, what’s going on? Lisa said you guys are trying to mutiny against us for the Elise? What in Hell is that about?” He brandished two short swords as he approached the men.
They hesitated, but three of them charged him anyways. The other two turned around and attacked me, the one with the cudgel striking at my face. I ducked under the attack, slicing up with my dagger at his arms.
He dropped the weapon in pain as his companion tried to grab for me. His hand somehow found my mask, and I panicked. I headbutted the man, almost knocking the mask loose, but managing to keep it on regardless. He tried to reach for me again, but I managed to plunge my dagger deep into his chest.
I didn’t manage to catch a breather as the other man leapt onto me. He managed to push me back, and I knocked the table down to the ground. I fell to the floor, losing grip of my dagger as the man managed to pin me.
Need. To. Use. Magic.
I was in a bad spot, but I couldn’t. Jack was still there, fighting the last of the men that attacked him. Perhaps if I could hold out long enough he could save me. But was that a good idea?
I held his hands back as he tried to strangle me, barely managing to push it aside; we struggled there for a moment, before a glimmer of light caught my eye. I saw the mana lamp rolling on the ground right next to us.
I let go of the man’s arms, letting him grab my neck. I grabbed the mana lamp, and held it up against the man’s face. His eyes widened, but it was too late.
I closed my eyes,as I gripped tightly onto the mana crystal of the lamp. I forced the mana inside of it to flare up—
And it shattered. Shards of mana crystal and glass exploded in all directions. I felt a sharp pain go through my hand and some parts of my arm. There was a scream, and the hands around my neck loosened.
I opened my eyes, looking at the damage I caused by shoving the mana in the basic mana tool. It wasn’t utter destruction. It was almost like if a glass window was impacted by a powerful shockwave and broken into tiny pieces that would cut anyone standing near it.
Some of the shards tore through my enchanted clothes, but barely left a graze on my actual body. The most damage I suffered was on the arm I held the mana lamp with. A large shard was piercing through my palm, with a few more small shards sticking out of my forearms.
And yet, the man suffered far worse than me. He had shards of glass and mana crystal sticking out of his eyes and face. He screamed in pain as he reached to pry them off.
I rammed the palm of my hand into his neck.
A stinging pain ran through my hand as I pulled it back, the large shard now in the man’s neck. I slowly got up, pulling out the healing potion in my belt at Jack as he killed the last remaining man. I poured a few drops to close the wound just a little bit, careful not to let too much blood leave my system, but not enough to let my flesh grow over the bits of glass and mana crystals sticking out of it.
Jack eyed the wound, and opened his mouth, but I walked past him. “I can deal with it later. We have to help Gennady first.”
I stumbled out of the ship as it swayed once again. I looked out into the deck and saw Gennady dispatch the last of the crew outside. He was a good fighter when he had access to all his equipment, which was only proven by how he took out over a dozen men by himself.
I walked up to Gennady with Jack as he turned to me.
“What just happened, Melas? Why did they suddenly attack us?”
I glared at him for his slip up, but didn’t comment on it; I was hoping Jack didn’t hear it, or process that it was actually my real name.
“They were paid off by the Elise,” I said, to which Jack audibly gasped.
“I know what you said,” he spoke over me. “Why would they do that? Why would they work for those bastards!”
I lifted my shoulders up in a shrug. “Money, probably.”
“That doesn’t make sense! They— they’ve always been loyal to Lisa and I…”
“It doesn’t matter now.” I slowly tore off the shirt from a dead man, and wrapped it around my arm. “We just have to deal with that now.”
“With that?” Both Jack and Gennady raised their eyebrows, then turned to the direction I was pointing at.
The ship that was following us was much closer now. Somehow, even with Lisa trying to get us away from them, they managed to catch up. The thick white mist no longer obscured the boat, and I could tell that it was much larger than our ship, and more suited for battle.
I found my eyes sliding away from the main hull up to the black flag flapping at the very top of the ship. It had the symbol of a red whip wrapping around a white Human skull. That’s a pirate ship alright, I thought.
I turned to Jack and Gennady. “Get ready to—”
I saw a flash of light. I raised my hands in a panic, as the beam flew straight at me. A large mana circle formed in the air, creating the translucent shape of my Force Barrier just in time.
The thin blast impacted the barrier, shattering it and knocking me back. I got up and looked at who fired the shot.
“She survived,” a woman said, sounding displeased. She stared at me from her ship which was right next to ours now, and shook her head. “You didn’t kill her.”
The man holding the rifle lowered it, and he sighed. “That’s because she used magic, Ginah.”
I blinked, and then I realized then my cover had been blown.
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