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Seigyou Tensei - Legitimately Employed Reincarnation (Mushoku Tensei Si)

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  • Аннотация:
    Не могу читать через переводчик на оригинальном сайте - https://forum.questionablequesting.com/threads/seigyou-tensei-legitimately-employed-reincarnation-mushoku-tensei-si.14087/reader . Так что, выкладываю здесь, чтобы спокойно читать. Текст не мой, права не мои, выкладываю без разрешения автора. Ссылка на произведение выше.

  XXXX XXXX.
  
  34 years old. Obese. Ugly. Virgin. NEET.
  
  Loser.
  
  Today, he was chased out of his family home by his siblings because he was too busy masturbating to loli porn to attend his parents" funeral and it was the final push they needed to decide they were done with him. Having found himself homeless, he wandered the streets of Tokyo in the rain, lamenting his poor choices which had lead to his current lot in life.
  
  While some of it was legitimately not his fault-being stripped naked and tied up to the front gate of a school while students shame a man for his weight and his penis size would be traumatizing to anyone, let alone someone just entering high school as he was at the time-what was his fault was the fact that he shut himself away from the world and became a burden to his family, and had been to this very day, well into his thirties.
  
  Upon spotting a truck whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel barreling down on a trio of squabbling teenagers, he tried to run in and get them out of its path, when his voice, so long unused, failed to call a warning. It would have been his one redeeming act in this life.
  
  Of course, he even failed at that when he only managed to jerk one of them out of the way before running out of steam.
  
  "Move, fucker!" some American gaijin yelled in English, before someone shoulder checked him from behind, sending him sprawling into one of the teens.
  
  Two of them crashed into the sidewalk on the other side of the street, a bit bruised but otherwise unharmed. XXXX had just enough time to turn and see their savior before the American and the girl that had been arguing were splattered by the same truck he had saved them from.
  
  XXXX, taking this as a sign from God that he was meant for more, went back to his relatives and begged for forgiveness on his knees. He spent the rest of his life making up for the horrible way he treated everyone around him. Eventually, he managed to go back to school, get a job, and settle down with a nice woman.
  
  But this isn"t a NEET"s tale of redemption.
  
  "Go on vacation to Japan," they said. "It"ll be fun," they said. Ha ha. Haa. No.
  
  BTFO"d by Truck-kun while in Japan, yeeted to what is clearly another world, and respawned as a baby. How fucking cliché is this shit?!
  
  On the one hand, I was not happy with this whole situation. No, "not happy" was an understatement. I was pissed. I had finally gotten my shit straight. I had a decent job where I made enough to save up for a house and take a nice vacation out of the country every now and then. I"d hit the gym and stopped being a fat slob.
  
  My family probably wouldn"t even have a body to bury, since I"m pretty sure that a diesel moving at the speed that truck hit me at would only leave chunky salsa behind and I didn"t think Japan shipped remains back in glass jars.
  
  If cremated remains are cremains, are salsafied remains salsamains? Imagine the look on the Customs guy's face when he decides to take that home for a snack, because he can't read Japanese warning labels.
  
  Well, at least my brothers had instructions for the proper "handling" of my computer after my death. Namely, to pull the hard drives, take them out back, and run a few rounds through the platters for target practice then give them a proper viking funeral. No man"s family should stumble on his porn collection after his death, after all.
  
  Or worse, his unfinished writing.
  
  On the other hand, it was a reset. A redo. Not just a second chance at life, but a second chance while knowing everything I"d learned the first go around. Somehow, I"d not only been reincarnated in another world, but I"d kept all of my memories of my previous life. Well, as much as anyone can really remember things. Memory isn"t perfect, after all.
  
  I had been reborn in a two-story home in a pastoral land that reminded me of parts of Europe as described before the advent of electricity and the combustion engine, to a handsome brown haired father and beautiful blonde mother-neither of whom could be more than twenty by my guesstimation.
  
  They, or we rather, had a (hot) maid of approximately the same age so I assumed they were fairly well off, however there were no appliances, no electricity, no running water, no cars outside or even paved roads. In other words, while the family I was reborn to had some money, we were in a setting with nothing in the way of modern conveniences. I decided I could work with that and potentially turn it to my advantage, later on in life. It would take some study and figuring out what the locals knew, but even something as simple as crop rotation could be revolutionary if I played my cards right.
  
  Yes, that"s right. Upon discovering I was in a new world and figuring out its rough tech level within the first hours of being there, my American instincts took over and I began planning to run capitalism.exe.
  
  Sure, I had died, and that sucked. I couldn"t do anything about it, though. I was physically an infant at the moment. I had no idea how to get back to Earth or if it was even possible, let alone whether I should or not. There was no point in crying, bitching, or staying angry about it, especially since it was actually kind of something I didn"t mind in the first place, so I made up my mind to get over it and set about adapting to my new environment.
  
  The more difficult resolution was to let go of my ties with my previous family and embrace my new family, and I can"t honestly say I would be entirely successful in that. I supposed that would start with actually learning my new name, and those of my parents.
  
  It didn"t take long before I realized that my parents and the maid were speaking an entirely different language from anything I knew or had heard before. The language barrier was just one more hurdle in the way of doing something with my life later on, and I took to tearing it down with everything I could muster. When they spoke, I listened. When they put me down for bed, I quietly began trying to repeat the words they had used and spent some time practicing English, so I wouldn"t forget how to speak it.
  
  My biggest hardships in that first year were feeding time and the inevitable consequence of eating. I didn"t cry at all, so my mother and the maid took turns checking me during the day. This world didn"t have bottles, or if they did they didn"t have rubber nipples. Which meant that food came one of two ways at my age: either milk straight from the source, or the French delivery method. I wasn"t quite sure which was worse-being forced to suck on a titty the size of my head that I couldn"t properly appreciate, or having the hot maid kiss me to force pre-chewed food into my mouth with her tongue and look entirely bored doing so.
  
  Then there was the aftermath. The less said about incontinence issues related to being a newborn with no muscular control, the better. I pretty much potty trained myself, but it still took time to develop those muscles and get to the point where I could physically climb up and sit on the shit box that passed as a toilet, not to mention the manual dexterity required to wipe my own ass. Let me tell you, straw is not comfortable wiping material. The alternative, individual rags that got washed and reused, was just plain gross so I used the straw. At least they had soap and water for hand washing after the deed was done.
  
  Not only did they not have proper toilets or running water except what was pumped from a well, their idea of a bath was scrubbing down with soap and hot water from a bucket. Now, to be fair, this bucket was actually big enough for an adult to sit down in if they crossed their legs, but it was still a far cry from what I was comfortable with. Bath time with the maid or my new mother involved a lot of skin contact that again, I couldn"t truly appreciate.
  
  Nope, I couldn"t stand for it. As soon as I could hold a pencil and find some paper, I"d be drawing up designs for a water system-gravity drawn water tank, wood burning hot water heater, full sized tub, crapper, and the piping to make it all work. Hell, the Romans had working bath houses and running water-it wouldn"t be too hard to put something together. I"d just be sure to skip the biggest mistake they made, namely using lead pipes. I refused to give up showers and running water.
  
  
  Time passed and as it did, I grew. In size, physical capability, and understanding. I started crawling within a month and by six months, I could scale the stairs and get the front door open if it wasn"t locked. Months of full immersion in a new language had forced me to pick it up quickly, so I mostly understood what was being said around me. The only things I had problems with on the language front were proper nouns or things I needed more context for.
  
  I didn"t even learn my new parents" names until I was more than six months old. Paul and Zenith Greyrat, and their maid, Lilia. That wasn"t my fault, really. Paul and Zenith most often referred to each other as "dear," husband and wife, or mama and papa when they were trying to get me to talk to them. I had to pay attention to Lilia to figure that out.
  
  Lilia... didn"t like me much. She was superstitious and I creeped her out, apparently. Either because I wouldn"t cry, or I was too smart, or I occasionally talked to myself in English-especially when reading. It wasn"t horrible-she didn"t hate me or anything, and she never shirked her duties, but I could tell she would rather not deal with me if at all possible.
  
  It was a bit sad, because I actually liked her-and not just because she was hot. I caught her spying on me once or twice while I was teaching myself to read and she seemed to relax a bit after that, apparently having decided that if I was reading I wasn"t doing whatever it was she was afraid I would do. Maybe the fear of a toddler (or toddler-sized person) taking up a knife and cutting throats in the middle of a night was some sort of universal fear and not just something exclusive to horror movies like Chucky.
  
  As to how I became literate, my parents loved to read to me. That made the process of learning the written language fairly easy, when I could follow along and see what written words sounded like as they were spoken, then reverse engineer the sounds of individual letters, sentence structure, grammar, and so on from there. I found a cache of five books in the study upstairs one day and that sped up my reading comprehension significantly. Within a year, I was literate. Mostly. My vocabulary wasn"t huge, but I had an alphabet and numbering system to work with.
  
  It took about six months after learning to read and reading the same five books over and over for me to actually understand what it was that I had been reading piecemeal this whole time. Two of those, Perugius"s Legend and The Three Swordsmen and the Labyrinth were adventure stories. I think. Unless we were in some kind of fantasy world, in which case they could very well be accurate portrayals of history. One, Traveling Around the World, was a guidebook containing the names, characteristics, and locations of various countries in the world. It was the last two that interested me most.
  
  Fedoa"s Monsters, Ecology and Weaknesses may have sounded like the Monster Manual, but it was anything but a supplemental book for a fantasy role playing game. No, apparently monsters were real in this world and broken down into a few categories. Monsters, which were wild animals that had been exposed to mana and mutated. Fiends, which were monsters that had achieved a level of sentience. There was no solid dividing line between the two, and monsters frequently became fiends while fiends occasionally reverted back to monsters after successive generations.
  
  A Guide to Magic was a magical textbook. It was pretty dry reading, but informative. It was only after I had a solid grasp on the language that I truly began to understand what it taught, however. I"m ashamed to admit that it took me that long to realize I was reading an actual spellbook, full of real spells. Well, accepting them as real took actually casting my first spell and seeing the results for myself, but once I did I began rereading the book voraciously in an attempt to understand this world"s magic system.
  
  It seemed that my "fantasy world" theory was right.
  
  What I gathered from the book was thus:
  
  -There are generally three types of magic: combat, healing, and summoning. They were pretty much "name on tin" categories.
  
  -Attack magic was divided into four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water.
  
  -Healing magic was divided into five categories: healing, shielding, enhancement, poison, and detoxification.
  
  -Magic required mana to cast and there were two ways of using mana: either by using the mana your body generated naturally, or by drawing mana out from an object it had been stored within. That implied that I could either store mana from my body in something, or that I could somehow pull mana from the environment. The book didn"t give any real information about either, unfortunately.
  
  -There were two ways of activating magic: incantations or an array. So you could either chant spells or write them out. All spells required an incantation if not written down and only very rarely was it the case that someone grew to the point of being able to cast without incanting. The book said that writing the spells out was better for continuous effects, or for larger spells, but I took it another way: writing them out meant that you didn"t have to chant and written spells only required mana to activate-so larger spells that may require lengthy chants could be reduced to taking only seconds to cast instead, if one were clever about it and prepared beforehand.
  
  -A person"s mana is set when they"re born and didn"t really grow beyond that, except in exceptional cases.
  
  -Spells have seven ranks: Elementary, Intermediate, Advanced, Saint, King, Emperor, and God.
  
  I called several of the fundamentals it taught into doubt within a week of practice.
  
  The first time I cast magic, I picked a water spell simply for the sake of not accidentally burning down the house or destroying something. I carried a wooden bucket up to the second floor, set it up in front of me, and recited the spell as it was written. I felt something like blood coursing through my body, a sort of heat spreading through me and gathering at my palm. A sphere of water formed in front of my hand before plopping into the bucket with a splash.
  
  Because I"m a munchkin and enjoy breaking the rules of game systems, even if this world wasn"t some game, my first thought was, Why can"t I just skip the incantation?
  
  So, for the second try, I focused on that feeling I"d had casting the first Water Ball spell. Warmth filled my veins, gathering as it had the first time, before a sphere of water formed in front of me and plopped into the bucket with another splash. Feeling a little winded, I sat and and contemplated what I"d done.
  
  "So," I muttered to myself in English, "what do we know? Firstly, the book is full of shit. Casting silently is no more difficult than casting with an incantation, from what I can tell. Secondly, two appears to be my limit."
  
  That couldn"t be right, though. If you never gained more magic, a mage who could only cast two lowest level spells would be a shit mage indeed. I refused to believe it.
  
  So, I sat and read while I caught my breath. When I didn"t feel quite so tired, I cast another silent Water Ball over the bucket. I felt a bit dizzy afterward, but it passed quickly. "Addendum, mana seems to regen slowly over time. That, or maybe it"s like a muscle-the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. Or it"s a combination of the two."
  
  Deciding to take a break, I got up and made my way downstairs. Lilia caught me halfway into making a sandwich, but instead of stopping me she simply watched for a moment before she took the knife I was using gently from my fingers and finished slicing the tomato for me.
  
  "Want one?" I asked, sticking the tomato slices on my ham and cheese sandwich and waving it at her.
  
  She considered for a moment before shaking her head. "No, thank you, Master Rudeus."
  
  Shrugging, I asked her for a cup of water since I couldn"t reach the higher drawers. Lunch secured, I ate quickly, made my way to the bathroom to take care of business, then went back to the study. This time, I waited until I felt fully rested before trying again. I got off two casts back to back before feeling tired. Deciding to go for broke, I went for number three.
  
  About the time the Water Ball formed in my hand, everything went dark and I passed out. I was pretty sure Lilia found me, because when I came to I was covered in a blanket and the water bucket had been emptied.
  
  The next day, I tried again. This time, I was able to cast five Water Balls successively before feeling like I would probably collapse after the sixth. So, I rested and repeated the process throughout the day.
  
  The following day, my limit appeared to have gone up again. It was at that point that I decided that whoever wrote the book was full of shit, or simply didn"t know. Alternatively, the other explanation was that I had just started so early that my limit was low and burning up my MP as I was was forcing my body to adapt and make more. Essentially, magical exercises were making my magical muscle grow. At least, that was the theory I went with.
  
  With that in mind, I spent every day blowing through as much mana as I could, in order to try to raise my limit in case it ever stopped growing or got harder to build due to aging or something, in the same way it gets harder to gain muscle as you get older. Over the course of the next several months it seemed to pan out, so that"s the conclusion I stuck with.
  
  Eventually, I began to branch out in my casting. The book contained five Elementary level spells in the Water element: Water Ball, Water Shield, Water Arrow, Ice Strike, and Ice Weapon. As with most of the names I"d seen, they were very much "name on the tin." Only Ice Strike and Ice Weapon were even remotely vague, or incorrectly named.
  
  In the first case, "Ice Strike" should be renamed to "Ice Pillar" or something, since it raised a column of ice from the ground. You could change its shape during the casting phase, but by default it was a pillar. In the second case, "Ice Weapon" was the more accurate name I settled on because "Ice Sword" was another case of misnaming.
  
  There was no default form for the weapon, it took whatever weapon you thought of when casting it and didn"t cost more mana unless you went for something larger or smaller than a certain size range. I found that out because, on my first cast, I hadn"t been thinking about any weapon and had gotten a staff, sized for my tiny self. Successive casts got: a sword, a polearm, an axe, a knife, and so on until I got bored with it.
  
  I also figured out why my Water Balls were just plopping instead of shooting away from me like they should. Apparently, there were stages to casting spells. Those stages went: creation > set size > set velocity > activation. Apparently, if you don"t add mana during the "size" phase, it won"t do anything in the "velocity" phase either-meaning the spell won"t go anywhere.
  
  With ice spells, there was a stage for temperature, too-which lead me to believe it"d be the same for fire spells. Which in turn lead to me figuring out that temperature was a variable I could control, regardless-because I started making ice bullets.
  
  Since shape was a variable I could control with Ice Weapon, I learned how to apply that to a frozen Water Ball and changed them into icicles, bullets, and projectiles of various size and shape.
  
  In addition to those spells, the book also had spells in every other element, but not healing or summoning. So, when I was branching out, I started practicing with other elements.
  
  Fire, I started out with slow and small, and always outdoors and out of sight so that I wouldn"t accidentally burn the house down. I managed to get the first level Fireball spell down pat, but mostly stuck to using it as a floating light to read or work at night instead of using a candle. For dexterity/control, I practiced lighting and holding fires on just a fingertip, then moved on to multiple fingertips.
  
  Wind was super easy to use outside because its effects weren"t visible, but a horrible idea to use inside unless I was in my room and had the window open. Amazingly useful when it got warm and I wanted to make my own personal cool breeze-or to cool off after exercise.
  
  Earth magic was pretty versatile, even down to the point where I could separate out metals from dirt or manipulate metal directly-the problem was, the closer something was to pure metal, the more mana I had to spend to manipulate it. For Earth, I focused most of my attention on smaller and more detailed manipulation, trying to create small models. My first project there was a scale model of the water tank and pipe system I wanted to install in the house.
  
  I didn"t spend all my time reading and casting myself to exhaustion, however. I"d learned from my mistakes the first time. A world of creature comforts, easy access to food, television, internet, and so forth had made me lazy and fat for much of my life. I didn"t intend to go down that route a second time.
  
  I started exercising as soon as I could properly walk. And by "exercise" in this case, I mostly meant being as active as a kid my age could get away with. My physical energy seemed boundless compared to what it had been in my old life, at times-but I was reminded that that was normal for children, since I"d had plenty of nephews and nieces who seemed to have the same sort of energy that made adults jealous, or tired just looking at them.
  
  The only things I really did that I"d truly qualify as exercise were stretches to make sure I was limber from a young age, and a set of basic strengthening exercises in the mornings and evenings. Beyond that, I ran around a lot, using the farm, the barn, and whatever else I could find or make nearby as obstacle courses and jungle gyms. I ran all over creation, climbed trees, swam in a creek that ran near our property when it was warm, and generally just kept myself physically busy.
  
  I think I worried Lilia a bit that I would wander off, but Paul seemed happy when I caught him watching me one day. When no one mentioned it beyond Zenith warning me to stay out of the woods, I took that as implicit permission to keep doing as I had been. And since they already knew, I went ahead and started incorporating some basic martial arts fundamentals.
  
  Then I went a step further, and when no one was around, pulled a page from the Avatar playbook and started throwing in magic. Let me tell you, throwing out punches that carry a blast of wind and having it punch a hole in a tree and leave the other side looking like a shotgun wound, or throwing a kick and sending out a blade of wind that spread out and cut the grass like an invisible sickle was pretty awesome.
  
  I tried using magic to reinforce my body to move like I sometimes saw Paul do when he practiced, but the results were mixed. Either it didn"t work, it worked too well, or it only partially worked. I accidentally broke my arm when I punched a tree and had to lie to Zenith about it and claim I fell out of the tree. Needless to say, I committed her healing spell to memory and added it to my roster of things to practice, and from then on I took a slower approach with trying to use magic for physical stuff. Magic couldn"t cure dead, after all-and I didn"t trust myself not to break my own spine or something if I fucked up and be able to heal it. Not yet, anyway.
  
  After about a year of playing around with low level spells, I decided to move up a rank. At age three, almost four, I tried to cast my first Intermediate level water spell. Not because I was better at water spells or anything. I didn"t seem to have any one element I favored over the others in terms of power, control, or skill that couldn"t be explained by a simple matter of having started working with water first. No, just as with when I first started casting, water seemed the safest to try and least likely to result in burning down the house.
  
  ...I accidentally destroyed the wall of the study with a Water Cannon spell.
  
  I was honestly surprised that this was the first my parents knew of the fact that I had been casting magic for the past year. A surreptitious glance at Lilia, spy that she was, gave me all the answer I needed. She had known, but she hadn"t told my parents.
  
  Thanks, Lilia. I guess I earned more of your trust than I"d thought.
  
  Mom was ecstatic. Over the moon, really. Dad was annoyed, because he wanted to teach me the sword and had thought that with me doing the things he did (i.e., exercising) that it meant I had wanted to follow his path. Lilia, playing peacemaker, suggested I do both and that was the end of it. Or so I thought, until mom demanded we go into town and post a job for a magic instructor.
  
  That is how, on a warm spring morning, I met my future wife.
  
  There a knock on the door one morning, a couple of weeks after Zenith and Paul posted the job in town. Paul went to see who it was, before calling for us to the door. I skipped letting Zenith carry me and followed behind as we made our way to what passed as the porch. Standing there was a small vision of beauty.
  
  She wore brown robes over a white, blue, and black dress and long boots that left an attractive expanse of her thighs exposed, along with a pointed, wide-brimmed hat with the tip bent completing the image of the stereotypical female mage. She carried a staff in one hand and a set of luggage in the other. Her skin was deliciously pale, her hair was (naturally!) blue and pulled back into twin braids, and her blue eyes looked sleepy.
  
  The only thing missing from this picture was a set of glasses. Physically, she didn"t have much up top-by which I mean, she was not completely flat-but she had an attractive curve to her hips that made up for the lack.
  
  As for her age, I"d estimate her at between fourteen and seventeen, so I didn"t think she was quite done growing yet... but odds were good that if she wasn"t, then she wouldn"t get much larger than she was now. On average, at least on Earth, girls stopped growing at around fourteen or fifteen-whereas boys tended to stop between fifteen and seventeen.
  
  I"m fine that that. Smol girls are nice too. Almost too bad she doesn't qualify for 'shortstack.' Tiny, mostly flat, mage... Let's hope she doesn't finish out the trope with tsundere.
  
  Taking off her pointed hat and holding it to her chest, she introduced herself. "I"m Roxy Migurdia. Pleased to meet you."
  
  Her tone was polite, if brusque, while her voice was light and cute in that kuudere way that reminded me of Nagato Yuki. Or perhaps Tabitha/Charlotte, given this was a fantasy magic setting. Very much my type, either way.
  
  Roxy was not what we were expecting. At all. While Paul and Zenith had expected an older man, likely in his forties, I had at least been open to my future tutor being a woman though like my parents, I was pretty sure whoever I got would be older. My parents may be a bit dumbstruck, but I was pleasantly surprised.
  
  While Paul and Zenith were trading confused looks, I smiled up at the bluenette who had suddenly gone bashful at their lack of response, looking away with a growing blush. "Nice to meet you, Roxy. I"m Rudeus, but you can call me Rudy."
  
  Roxy turned back, blue eyes meeting my green, and she studied my face for a moment before a small smile pulled her lips up and she nodded. Yeah, she was a cutie. I"d have to find a way to wife that before someone beat me to the punch.
  
  "Are, um, are you the tutor?" Paul asked, finally getting his mouth to work.
  
  "Mm," Roxy nodded before looking between the three of us. "Where is the student I"ll be teaching?"
  
  "He"s right here!" Zenith gushed, laying her hand on top of my head and leaning against me, forcing me against Paul.
  
  The look of disappointment on Roxy"s face was immediate. "Ah. You do see them sometimes," she murmured, but loud enough that we could hear her plainly. "Idiot parents who think their kid has talent just because he"s an early bloomer. Looks like this one"s a dud."
  
  "Excuse me?" Zenith asked, but I could tell from the way her eyes twitched that she was annoyed.
  
  "Nothing!" Roxy quickly snapped back. "Only, I doubt a child could understand the theory of magic."
  
  Zenith made to say something, but I held up a hand to cut her off. "Test me."
  
  Roxy blinked, her gaze finding mine again as surprise and curiosity flitted across her face before she smoothed her expression out. "Give me a day. If I don"t meet or exceed your expectations in a student, we"ll pay you for a month and you can go."
  
  "Rudy!" Paul murmured, and I tilted my head up to look at him. "You can"t just make decisions-"
  
  "A man has to be decisive. He also has to take risks, when the prize is worth it."
  
  Paul shut his mouth with a click of teeth, his lips twitching as he fought down a smile. "Alright then. If that"s what you want," he glanced between Roxy and me and I understood he meant more than just her as my instructor. I nodded in confirmation. "You"ll have my support." Looking to Roxy, he asked, "Is that arrangement suitable?"
  
  The little mage hadn"t taken her eyes off me this whole time, a thoughtful look on her face. "It"s fine. For today, I"ll do what I can." She picked up her luggage and turned away, walking down the stairs. Taking that as a signal, I followed her out into the yard. As we walked, she spoke. "In broad terms, there are only three types of magic."
  
  "Combat, healing, and summoning. Divided into seven ranks."
  
  Roxy stumbled and she turned that beautiful blue gaze on me for a moment before shifting her attention back to where she was walking. "Yes."
  
  Stopping in front of the shed where we kept our family"s horse, Caravaggio, she set down her luggage and began to pace back and forth. I sat down at the small outdoor table and watched. "What are their names?"
  
  "Honestly, it"d be easier to just refer to them as ranks one through seven. I always felt names like "saint," "king," "emperor," and "god" to be kind of pretentious."
  
  The bluenette hummed. "Their alternate names are beginner, intermediate, advanced, sacred, royal, imperial, and divine. And they"re called such because a mage"s rank is their casting level and the element they are most proficient in. I am a Saint-level Water Mage. Likewise, a swordsman is called similarly for their school, minus the "level." You"re probably right about them being pretentious. Would you rather be called a God-level Fire Mage, or a Seventh-level Fire Mage?"
  
  "I don"t need my ego stroked every time someone addresses me," I rolled my eyes.
  
  Roxy"s lips twitched into a small smile at that, but she continued her questioning. "What is required to use magic?"
  
  "Mana." She looked like she wanted to ask a followup question, so I elaborated. "Either the mana within your body or stored within something. If you know how to store mana in something, please teach me."
  
  The bluenette hummed quietly to herself. "Maybe this one isn"t a dud," she muttered. "Let"s move on. I"ll start by demonstrating an incantation, so repeat after me."
  
  Checking the direction her staff was pointed, I winced. "Wait!"
  
  Roxy paused. "Yes?"
  "If you destroy those trees, mom will get mad."
  
  The girl winced and looked around, before turning away and pointing over the wall around the yard and into the field. She said a quiet "Thank you," before she began her chant.
  
  I listened and, halfway through, sighed as I realized it was just the elementary level spell Water Ball. Well, I shouldn"t have expected her to jump straight to advanced stuff since this is a test to make sure I"m worth her time. If I couldn"t even demonstrate basic competence, she"d be well within her rights to leave. That"s fine then. I made a bet, so prepare yourself little mage. I"m going to knock your socks off.
  
  "Well, what do you think?" Roxy asked, after getting off her shot.
  
  Nodding, I critiqued the spell. "Accurate. It flew straight and that had to be at least a hundred yards before it exploded. Looked pretty powerful. Probably enough to knock down a small tree." Roxy winced as I needled her a bit. My lips twitched into a small smirk as I hopped down from my chair. "So slow, though."
  
  A small frown pulled Roxy"s lips down into a cute pout. "Slow?"
  
  "Yeah. You"re wasting so much time on that incantation." The girl"s gaze turned skeptical. I could sense I was treading thin ice here, so I cast. Silently. One spell after another. Three Water Balls in less than the span of time it had taken her to chant hers.
  
  "What?!" the bluenette yelped, her eyes going wide as her jaw dropped. "That- Do you always skip the incantation?"
  
  I nodded. "Yeah, after I get the hang of casting a spell with it first. Usually only takes once or twice, and I haven"t really run across a spell I can"t do that with yet. I can silently cast all the Elementary-level spells in A Guide to Magic, plus Elementary-level healing. I was working on an Intermediate water spell when I blew the wall of the study out. It"s why my parents hired you."
  
  Roxy turned away, partially collapsing as she leaned against her staff. "Silent casting. Already mastered Elementary-level spells." Sighing, she straightened a little. "Well, it looks like you"ll be worth training."
  
  Turning around, Roxy bowed slightly at the waist. "It seems I"ve lost our bet, Rudeus. I apologize for underestimating you. I messed up."
  
  "Don"t worry about it. I would have done the same if I were in your shoes. I mean, if someone told me that some kid out in BFE whose balls hadn"t even dropped could silent-cast spells when the books say that"s super difficult, I"d press X to doubt." Sending her a grin, I reached out and patted the top of her head. "Don"t think of it as screwing up. You were right to be skeptical. Learn from it and move on."
  
  "Thank you."
  
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  The rest of that first day was spent with Roxy testing my knowledge, both theoretical and practical, so she knew where to start and what needed more detail. I showed her everything.
  
  As the day progressed, Roxy"s mood fell. It was like a little cloud seemed to gather over the little mage"s head as the day wore on. Every time I proved I knew something she asked, it seemed like she grew just a little more upset. For someone who either hid her emotions or was naturally stoic, she was fairly expressive and easy to read under certain conditions-namely, when something managed to surprise her, or draw a large enough response. Oh, she was pretty good at hiding it and didn"t let it affect her work, but I"d dealt with enough women to know when they were coming up on F.I.N.E. territory.
  
  Doesn"t seem like the frantic type from her demeanor. Insecure? Okay, I can see it. I"m younger than her and from one perspective, directly addressing a potential problem-namely, the threat of not getting more magic because my potential instructor doubts me-could be seen as confrontational, and some people don"t handle that well.
  
  If she"s as young as I think she is, showing her up and continuing to show how much I know could be getting under her skin, too. I mean, she"s clearly some kind of prodigy, but I"m younger and I can cast silently so no matter what she"s accomplished that will always stand out as something I"ve done and she hasn"t. That"s probably it, actually. Doubt she"s neurotic, but I"ll take the wait and see approach there. Emotional? Well, standard issue woman. Assume it"s something I"d think is stupid until proven otherwise.
  
  So, insecure and upset about being insecure? How can I deal with that without making it worse?
  
  If I knew that, I might have managed to keep a woman around longer than a few years in my past life.
  
  Good job, Rudy! Drive off the prime waifu material first thing by running your mouth!
  
  Okay, quit your bitching and fix it. Find a way.
  
  As we worked, I went through my options. In the end, I didn"t have many. Really, I came up with one. Well, one that she might accept, anyway. Telling her the truth wasn"t an option at this point. Full disclosure was no bueno. Not until we got to know each other better.
  
  That"s how I came up with a simple, two-step plan.
  
  Step one: apologize for being a brat. I was physically four. I acted more mature than I looked because I was mentally more mature, but as far as everyone I knew was concerned, I was still just a kid who happened to be precocious. It would kind of be expected for a kid my (apparent) age to get a big head over being good at something. Acknowledging that I had been a pill and apologizing for it would maybe, hopefully, get her to settle down and get me back in her good graces. And I"ll admit, even adults had that failing-it wasn"t limited to children. It was just more excusable with children.
  
  Maybe throw Paul under the bus, here? Find a way to slip in that he"s always showing off for the neighbor lady, Zenith, and Lilia so I kind of figured that"s just what you were supposed to do when you were good at something?
  
  I considered it before disregarding it. Nah, better to just own it.
  
  The problem was, it only addressed half the issue. Even if she forgave me for being a brat, there was still the issue that I was as good as I was and it made her insecure.
  
  Thus, step two: bribery. I had something she quite clearly wanted. I had no qualms just giving it to her.
  
  No, not the "D." I mean, I"d gladly give her that too, but...
  
  Ah, the joys of a dirty old man mind in a child"s body. Thinking with your dick as a force of habit.
  
  Silent casting. Also, I could try to see what she thought about the idea that magic potential was set in stone. If I could help her expand her magic reserves... mana pool? Whatever. It"d be another point in my favor.
  
  By the time we finished, it was approaching dark and Zenith called us in to eat. It was a pretty festive atmosphere and Lilia and Zenith had outdone themselves in their welcoming to Roxy. There was a delicious ham and vegetable spread, along with fresh bread, wine (which Roxy declined), and an apple pie (which I saw the bluenette seemed to particularly favor and noted that she likely had a sweet tooth).
  
  After I helped Lilia and Zenith clean up the aftermath, everyone decided it was time for bed. Roxy was shown to what would be her room for the duration of her stay-the study between my room and the one belonging to Paul and Zenith had been converted into a bedroom, after it had been repaired with some aid from the village carpenter. Lilia, as usual, retired to her bedroom downstairs while Paul and Zenith sent each other lusty looks and hurried off behind their own closed door. I took a few minutes to wash up in my room with a bucket of water I"d conjured and warmed with fire magic, once more affirming that I would have a shower build soon or I"d kill someone.
  
  The usual ruckus started up halfway into my crappy bath and I sighed.
  
  "Sorry, Roxy," I muttered to myself, shaking my head as Zenith"s moans, squeals, and panting became audible along with the rocking and thumping of the bed.
  
  I should sell tickets. Come one, come all! Heh, come all. See the fighter/healer pair perform amazing feats of contortion and endurance!
  
  Pulling on my night clothes, I tossed the bath water out my open window, grabbed the bucket, slipped out of the room, and silently made my way up the hall. I scratched at Roxy"s door, just loud enough to hear from inside but hopefully not so loud that the noise would carry much further. Given the fact that the usual routine didn"t abate, I assumed I hadn"t been heard. Roxy"s door cracked open and one blue eye peeked out, framed by blue hair. She looked up and down the hall before her gaze turned down and found me. "Rudeus?"
  
  Quietly, I asked, "Can I come in?"
  
  She hesitated just a moment before nodding and backing away, holding the door open for me. I slipped inside silently and she eased the door to. The room was lit only by a couple of candles and the moon spilling in through the window. She wore nothing but a plain white, long sleeved night gown that went down to her knees and hugged her figure enticingly-showing me that her usual outfit did a good job of hiding it, because she actually had a bit more up top than I"d thought. The way the light played off her skin and hair, which she"d let down out of its braids, left me momentarily speechless. In this light, when she moved just right, her hair looked almost green.
  
  "Did you need something?" the girl asked, after I spent what must have been too long simply taking her in, momentarily dumbstruck. I did not fail to note the blush to her cheeks, but whether that was from the attention or the activity down the hall, I wasn"t entirely sure. The way her nipples stood to attention beneath that thin gown told me she wasn"t as unaffected by the soundtrack as she wanted me to think she was.
  
  My mouth answered before my brain had a chance to think about it. "Sorry, got a bit distracted there. I didn"t realize moonlight turned you into an ethereal beauty."
  
  The girl started, looking shocked and unsure. "Wha-? No, I"m not- I"m just..."
  
  Clearing my throat lightly, I forced myself to focus. "Sorry, my brain to mouth filter sometimes doesn"t work." Spotting the chair at her desk, I pulled it out and faced it towards her bed. Putting the empty bucket between the chair and the bed, I sat down and gestured for her to sit across from me. Curiosity visible on her features, Roxy sat. "And on a related note, I"d like to apologize. I kind of panicked when it seemed like you didn"t want to be my teacher because I was too young. I wanted to show off and impress you. I wasn"t trying to make you feel bad. I just... don"t really talk to other people outside of the house."
  
  And wasn"t that sad? I got so caught up in magic that I had neglected going out in the village and making friends my own age, outside of the few times I went with someone else when they needed to get something. To be fair, kids my own age were kids my own age and I didn"t know if I could handle them without wanting to strangle someone. I wouldn"t be able to stand listening to brats complain about chores or what the other brats were doing or saying.
  
  And playing? What did four year olds do for fun? I seemed to recall from dealing with my nieces and nephew that their idea of fun involved eating their own boogers, finger painting with poop, or playing games like tag or hide and seek. What would we even talk about?
  
  My god, I haven"t had a legitimate adult conversation with someone in four years. Lilia avoids me when it"s not directly related to her job as a maid. Time spent with Zenith is mostly me listening to her talk. Same with Paul, save that it"s mostly him either giving "sage" advice that I already know or telling stories from his adventurer days. This is literally the first time I"ve spoken to someone as anything remotely like equals.
  
  My choice of "disregard friendship, acquire magic" had worked out well on the "magic" side but left me a bit rusty on the whole "socialization" thing.
  
  Roxy pulled me from my spiraling thoughts, shifting her knees into her chest on the bed. "No, I"m sorry. I, I finally found a student truly worth teaching but it was scary. You made me wonder what I had even been doing with my life, if you managed silent casting at four and I"ve only reached Saint-level."
  
  I sent her a hesitant smile. "That"s not really a fair comparison. It"s pretty amazing that you"ve gotten to where you are at your age. Me? I"m just a cheater."
  
  Raiding an eyebrow, the young woman asked, "Cheating? How?"
  
  My mouth opened, but I closed it just as quickly, before shaking my head once. No bueno. My smile became a grin. "Maybe I"ll tell you one day. I think it"s something unique to me."
  
  My mind went back to that moment. A trip to Japan. Texting my friends that I was picking up a JK when I was actually heading to otaku mecca to pick up a localized PlayStation. Looking up from my phone and finding three kids arguing in the middle of the street like idiots. A diesel bearing down on them. The fat idiot shuffling in. Sending fatty sprawling into the other guy. The look on the girl"s face as she realized what was happening. Realizing I wasn"t going to make it-
  
  "Maybe one other," I shrugged. After all, if something brought me here, it"s not implausible that she wound up here too. I kind of hope so.
  
  Shaking my head, I returned to the issue at hand. It was time for phase two. "I know you"re being paid to teach me magic, but I don"t want you to feel like this is a one way street." At her confused look, I realized they probably didn"t have that expression in this world. "Like this exchange only goes one way."
  
  Smiling faintly, Roxy shook her head. "The bond between teacher and student doesn"t go one way. By teaching, the instructor learns. By learning, the student teaches." Ruefully, she quietly added, "It seems we"ve begun already."
  
  I nodded. "Yeah, but I meant more directly."
  
  "Hm?"
  
  I gestured towards the bucket. Holding out my hand, I conjured a Water Ball and let it drop into the bucket with a wet plop. I studied Roxy"s face as I did, finding what I was looking for there as she watched me cast. The jealousy was still there, as was the self-recrimination, and likely the feeling of inferiority. Luck for her, I intended to exploit remedy that.
  
  "So, I have a theory. Two theories, actually. If you"ll hear me out?" Looking away from the bucket, Roxy met my gaze and nodded. The blush had faded now and I realized I had her full attention. The world beyond these four walls may as well not exist for her at the moment, let alone the two lovers going at it down the hall.
  
  "So, first let me ask you a question. Do you think you"ve reached the peak of your magical potential, as far as capacity is concerned? Your ability to cast so many spells in a set time, that is."
  
  Roxy considered the question a moment before nodding. "A mage"s capacity is set at birth."
  
  "Thought so. It"s what the book says," I muttered, having at least part of that theory confirmed. "Second question. Do you believe you could cast silently, with practice?"
  
  The bluenette opened her mouth, before closing it slowly. Eventually, she gave her answer. "Before today, I would have said no. Now? Perhaps, one day. It may be easier to try shortening incantations first."
  
  Nodding again, I sent her a grin. "Well then, let"s put those theories to the test, shall we? I bet you that before you finish here, I can have you casting silently and increase your magical capacity."
  
  Instead of outright denying the possibility, the little mage hummed thoughtfully. After a moment of thought, she asked, "What are you wagering?" At my confused look, she clarified, "You said it was a bet. A bet has a wager." Her head tilted slightly to one side as she added, "You never said what I would forfeit if I lost earlier, either. Teaching you was why I was hired in the first place, which rules that out as a proper wager."
  
  I shrugged. "Whatever you think is fair. I"m in no hurry to collect. Like I said, I was more focused on actually convincing you to give me a chance than on getting something out of the deal. As for this, well, if I can"t I"ll do any one thing you want me to if it"s within my power to do so. An indefinite IOU. You could use it now or twenty years from now."
  
  "Eye oh yuu?"
  
  Blinking, it took me a moment to realize I"d used English there. "Sorry. "I owe you." A favor. Whatever you want."
  
  With a hum, Roxy asked, "And if you can? I would already be coming out ahead-"
  
  "Those are two entirely separate matters. I"m doing this for my own reasons."
  
  "And those reasons are?" she asked, curious.
  
  I hesitated, leaning back and crossing my arms over my chest as I considered how much to say. "You"re someone I want to get to know better and this would be a good way to spend more time together as something other than strictly master and student. Fellow students is closer to equal. That, and I feel bad about being an ass earlier."
  
  "Why?" Roxy asked, her tone confused and a little skeptical.
  
  "Why what?" I was now equally confused. "Why would I want to get to know you?"
  
  When she nodded, I send her an incredulous look. Holding up a hand, I began listing off reasons. "You"re beautiful, obviously intelligent, a hard worker considering you"ve gotten to where you are at your age, you"ve got a sense of humor that I appreciate given what I saw tonight. Beyond what I"ve seen today, I don"t know you, which is why I want to spend time with you so that I can-outside of the bounds and limits of a teacher/student relationship. Like I said earlier, you"re the first person I"ve spoken to outside of immediate family and Lilia who wasn"t either a neighbor talking to my parents or the occasional kid in the village and they"re not exactly great conversationalists. I guess I kind of got caught up in learning magic to the exclusion of all else for a while."
  
  A small frown graced the bluenette"s lips. "I"m a demon."
  
  I raised an eyebrow. "Really?" Roxy nodded, and I looked her over again. I wouldn"t mind taking a closer look just to be sure, but from where I sat, she looked human.
  
  Probably seeing the conclusion I had come to, Roxy held a strand of her hair up. "I"m a Migurd, it"s why I have blue hair."
  
  "And "Migurd" is a sub-species of demon?" When she nodded again, I considered what I knew from the books I"d read. I knew of the human-demon wars. I"d even heard of Migurd, who were said to live on the demon continent-but not much else. To the point that I had assumed that "demons" were more... demonic. Or less human-looking, at any rate. From that, I could guess that Roxy likely wasn"t treated too kindly in human lands. Still, I shrugged. Their loss, my gain.
  
  "Okay. Honestly, that"s kind of neat. I don"t have a problem with it. Just one more interesting thing that makes you who you are." Roxy looked somewhat dumbfounded. "I know you"re trying to dissuade me, but you keep saying things that only make me more interested, not less. As for the bet, I"ll figure it out later. Or you can choose again. The thing is the goal itself, as far as I"m concerned."
  
  The little mage studied me for a moment before she gave a quiet sigh, a smile pulling at her lips. "Okay. Where did you want to start?"
  
  "Silent casting first, then we"ll go for what I know will work for trying to increase your capacity. Scoot up closer and hold your hands out."
  
  Roxy scooted to the edge of the bed and held her hands over the bucket. She didn"t do anything when I reached out and took her hands in mine. "Close your eyes," I instructed, and she did so. "I want you to cast Water Ball as you normally do, except don"t give it any mana during the size change phase, so it doesn"t go anywhere. Just create a sphere and let it fall. While you do, I want you to focus on your body. On what you"re feeling. Try to feel out the magic as you cast. I don"t know how it feels for you, but for me it feels like blood flowing from my limbs, through my chest, before gathering at my hand. Once you can feel it, try to memorize that feeling, then guide your magic to do the exact same thing again while visualizing the ball of water you"re trying to create. You"ve cast this spell countless times by now, so I know you know what it looks like. Just focus on that image. Are you ready?"
  
  Roxy nodded, and I squeezed her hands slightly. "Okay. Cast it."
  
  The bluenette spoke the spell softly, slowly, as she clearly tried to do as I"d instructed. A ball of water formed in her hands and plopped down into the bucket. She cracked one eye open and I smiled at her. "Just so you know, I"m not expecting you to do it tonight. I kind of hope you can, but if you can"t that"s fine too. Just means more time I get to spend with you. Now, keep casting it until either you get it, or you run out of mana and feel like you"re going to pass out. If the bucket fills up, I"ll deal with it. That"s the second part of the training-exhausting your mana every day. I"ve found that, just like physical exercise makes muscles grow, magical exercise makes your magical muscle grow."
  
  "Mm. I"ll try it," Roxy agreed.
  
  By the time Roxy exhausted herself and I had to help her into bed, actually having to tuck her in because she passed out immediately after lying down, Paul and Zenith had finally called it a night. Roxy hadn"t managed to cast silently yet, but she reported that she could feel her magic. I figured it was just a matter of practice and repetition from here.
  
  And at the end of it all, her spirits seemed to have lifted. How long that held remained to be seen, but I took it as a sign that I hadn"t irreparably damaged things between us.
  
  I made a small ball of fire in my hand and blew out Roxy"s candle. Pulling the window most of the way down since it had gotten chilly, I took a moment to study her sleeping form. "Sleep well," I told her quietly, before slipping out of the room and heading to bed myself. I had an early start in the morning and we had been up late, so tomorrow was going to be rough.
  
  Absolutely worth it.
  
  
  Time seemed to fly as I threw myself head first into my studies-and my attempt to seduce Roxy through our shared love of magic.
  
  I trained by myself in the early mornings until the others woke up and it was time for breakfast. After breakfast, Roxy taught me until lunch time. I had expected just an education in magic, but I have to hand it to her, the girl was thorough and liked to talk about the subjects she loved. She taught me the history and geography of this world and the country in particular, of the races and magic of the world, and more.
  
  She tried to see how much she could teach me in math, since I was obviously literate, but when I broke out geometry and calculus she gave up with a chuckle and a quiet request for me to teach her what I could. The fact that she made the request and didn"t seem to bear any hard feelings about it was proof enough in my mind that fences were mending on that front.
  
  After lunch, I had sword practice with Paul.
  
  The man couldn"t teach worth a shit. Especially not when I had Roxy to compare him to, for a subject related to this world"s esoteric arts.
  
  Oh, he was an excellent swordsman and I could learn footwork and forms all day long by simply watching him go through his own practice and repeating what I saw-something I had picked up in my first lifetime from years of martial arts, before I was forced to drop out. But when it came time to explain what he actually did to do things like cut a boulder with his wooden sword?
  
  The man boiled it down to what amounted to sounds and motions, as though that would carry all the meaning in the world. When I"d asked if it involved channeling magic through the body, his answer was to shrug and scratch his head sheepishly like he didn"t even know how he did the things he did. Roxy was, unfortunately, no help on that front-she was strictly a rear line fighter, a pure mage.
  
  So, I went back to trying to figure out how to essentially move my body with mana. I had a little success when I took basic biology into consideration and applied that to what I was doing. Namely, to put it in anime terms, it was the problem Deku had with One For All when he first got it-trying to boost one body part injured it and everything attached to it, because every part of the body is connected to a bunch of other parts. What I wound up doing was the magical equivalent of Full Cowling-boosting my entire body with magic at once. It helped, but it didn"t provide the sort of explosive power Paul had.
  
  He was happy to see that I was making progress, but I was left to conclude that I was missing a step and he was too much of a meathead to tell me what it was.
  
  In the evenings before bed, I"d pull Roxy aside and find somewhere quiet. Then, we"d spend the next hour or two just talking about things in between chants while she burned through her mana and tried to chase the feeling she couldn"t quite hold on to. I could tell she was getting close though, given the way she had begun shortening her incantations. Most of those conversations were her telling me about her village, the demon continent, and life in the world outside of the little pastoral scene we enjoyed together. It was nice.
  
  When night fell, we"d have supper and hit the sack. Roxy"s presence made my parents more willing to open up and reminisce about their time as adventurers, if only to compare stories with Roxy-who apparently had her own short-lived career as an adventurer, before deciding that she would rather teach. After that, I generally spent another hour or two staying up to play with magic. Mostly, I worked on trying to make ice and earth sculptures to further hone my control.
  
  
  One night, about six months in, I called it a night a little early. I had to piss and my parents were being particularly enthusiastic tonight.
  
  Jesus, it"s like listening to a porno being filmed next door, I mused, rolling my eyes as I carried my ball of flames out of the room.
  
  Turning down the hallway towards the stairs that lead down to what passed for a restroom, I caught sight of Roxy"s nightgown clad form sitting in the hall. For a moment, I worried something may be wrong, before my eyes adjusted to the dark and I made out more details.
  
  She was kneeling, her gown pulled up to mid-thigh. As usual for this time of night, her hair was down but part of it clung to her face. She was flushed and sweating, staring down the hall towards where Paul and Zenith"s door was cracked open, spilling candle light into the hall. From my position, I couldn"t really make out anything but part of the bed, but knowing the room"s layout I could guess that from where Roxy was sitting, she had a pretty good view.
  
  Must be damn good, I realized, focusing in on where her hands worked herself over. One hand clutched at her small right breast, playing with her nipple through the fabric. The other was under her gown, strumming a tune as old as time against her sex-not that I could see that bit. Unfortunately.
  
  Apparently noticing the change in light levels, because by now I was a goddamn ninja when it came to sneaking through the house after dark, Roxy"s head turned slowly. Blue eyes hazed with lust tracked drunkenly across the hall before landing on me. Her lips were parted as she quietly panted for breath, glistening in the low light. Our eyes met.
  
  My dirty old man brain reacted before common sense could convince me to just go back to bed and allow her the dignity of at least pretending I hadn"t seen what I had. I allowed my eyes to trail down her form, visibly eyeing her up as a grin came to my lips. I met her eyes again and if anything, her flush had deepened-either in embarrassment for being caught, or excitement over the same.
  
  Well, she hasn"t splattered me yet. If Roxy didn"t want me looking, she had any number of ways to reprimand me using magic. Chanting just required one to speak the words-they didn"t have to be at conversational volume, which was something we had discovered while working together at night to get her casting silently. A whisper would work just fine. Roxy was good enough that, if she wanted, she could have shown her displeasure without so much as moving from her spot, let alone drawing the attention of my parents away from what they were doing.
  
  She didn"t though, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
  
  Deciding to go for broke, I jerked my head towards my room in invitation before turning away and heading for my door, letting the fireball I was carrying fade out as I did. I slipped inside and took a moment to collect the dirt I"d been using for earth manipulation. I made a cup and relived myself before throwing the whole thing out the window and letting the mana dissipate before it hit the flower bed below my window. Slipping into bed, I leaned against the wall, eyeing the door as I waited and listened.
  
  I was almost ready to just lay down and go to sleep when the door to my room opened just enough for a particularly thin teenager to slip in. The candle light coming from Paul and Zenith"s room cast enough light to silhouette Roxy as she crossed the threshold. She pressed the door to behind herself, casting the room in inky darkness. The stars didn"t provide enough light to really see by and tonight was a new moon, or close enough to not matter.
  
  I could hear her breathing in the dark, her breath coming in quick little pants, but she didn"t move from where she stood by the door. Holding out my hand, I cast fireball again, providing a candle"s worth of illumination. Roxy was flushed from the cheeks down, past her neck, to what little of her chest I could see given the cut of the night gown she wore. I patted the bed to my left twice and waited.
  
  Looking unsure of herself, nevertheless Roxy bravely crept forward, before finally coming to rest on top of the bed beside me. She opened and closed her mouth several times, clearly trying to find something to say. From the way her thigh occasionally twitched against mine and the fact that her nipples were still visibly stiff, I guessed I had probably spoiled it for her.
  
  Sorry, Roxy. Didn"t mean to cockblock you.
  
  Well. No. Sorry, not sorry, if it meant keeping Paul"s hands away from her. I"d seen the way he looked at Lilia-and her own looks, when she thought no one was watching. If they weren"t fucking yet, they would eventually. And the way a few of the ladies in the village or the neighbor woman shared the same looks and Paul did his own share of looking any time we went out together. My father had a bit of a wandering eye and I didn"t feel like giving him an excuse to move in on the girl I was looking to take for my own.
  
  NTR is a shit fetish and I was absolutely not interested in seeing Roxy join in on Paul and Zenith"s nightly activities if that sort of thing was common enough for it to happen should she get caught.
  
  On the other hand, the man clearly had a type given who he married and the maid, and Roxy didn"t exactly fit that type. Namely, big tittied women. I couldn"t exactly blame him, either. The man had good taste.
  
  And on the other, other hand, he had implicitly agreed to support me pursuing Roxy...
  
  Roxy pulled me from my thoughts as she finally spoke up. "What you saw... That is, I don"t... Nn."
  
  "Roxy?" I stopped her, resting a hand gently on her thigh. It was warm and firm through the night gown. She jumped slightly at the touch, but quickly stilled. "It"s okay. I"m young, not stupid, or blind. Or deaf. I"m honestly not sure how Lilia has handled it for as long as she has and stayed sane."
  
  "You," she faltered, "you know? What I was doing?"
  
  I tilted my head enough to look her in the eye. "Masturbating. Playing with yourself. God I hate not having a proper dictionary or thesaurus."
  
  Lacking the ability to communicate anything that wasn"t in the five books in our study or that I hadn"t picked up from either my parents, Lilia, my rare trips to the village when someone else wanted me to go with them, or from Roxy without using English or searching for a roundabout way to describe what I wanted to say sucked.
  
  Roxy looked away and I chuckled. "Not judging you for it. It"s normal." The girl turned to give me an incredulous look. "Really. Just... do me a favor? Don"t do it in the hall, where you can get caught? I like having you around and I don"t want to risk someone asking you to leave if that happens."
  
  "That, that"s it? "Don"t get caught?" Not "stop doing it?" Or "stop masturbating to my parents?""
  
  I idly rubbed her thigh as I shook my head. "Nah. Don"t want you to stop. In fact, I"m tempted to offer to help," I chuckled, earning a raised eyebrow from her. "But I get the feeling you wouldn"t. As for that last part? I get it. I mean, mom"s hot. I like girls, but dad"s a good looking guy. Maybe I got lucky and I"ll get the best of both worlds there and in ten or so years, I"ll be the kind of guy that makes your panties wet."
  
  Roxy considered me for a while before a small smile pulled her lips upwards and she turned away. "You"re a strange boy, Rudy."
  
  "Mm. Yeah, probably. Or so people keep saying, anyway." Humming quietly, I said, "I"ll keep this a secret for you."
  
  "Thank you," Roxy whispered, reaching out and running her fingers through my hair, before pulling me into a hug against her side. I chuckled quietly when I remembered just where those fingers had recently been.
  
  I trust her and I think she"s open-minded enough to at least listen. Worst that happens is she tells Paul and Zenith. Which would be bad... But I don"t think she"s going to. Just to be sure, I"d better be ready to provide some proof. Luckily, I know things a child of this world can"t possibly know. My mind was made up.
  
  "I don"t want you to feel like I"m holding it over your head, though."
  
  The girl beside me hummed inquisitively before asking, "Like with the teaching?"
  
  "Mhmm," I agreed. My hand squeezed her upper thigh, causing her leg to tense and goose flesh to break out on her exposed skin. I pretended not to notice exactly what I was doing to her-she came in here aroused and my little "innocent" touches had only served to keep her on edge.
  
  Was I a bastard? Probably.
  
  Going to hell? Maybe.
  
  I"d take my chances at this point. She was closer to being an adult by this world"s standards than I was (physically), even if she was on the low end of my estimate. Fifteen was considered adulthood here. "So, I"ll give you one of my secrets to hold on to. Can"t say I have many, but it"s worth the trade."
  
  "Oh?"
  
  "I"ll tell you tomorrow." This was not a conversation I wanted to have in the house, after all.
  
  "Is it how you"re "cheating" at magic?"
  
  I blinked, somewhat surprised that she remembered that. "Yeah. Pretty much."
  
  Grinning, and wanting to lighten the mood, I decided to tease her a bit. "So tell me, Roxy. Which excited you more? The watching or the being watched?"
  
  The girl beside me gave a full body twitch, her fingers momentarily stopping their idle scratching atop my head before they shortly resumed. She continued to shudder slightly and I felt her breathing pick up again. "You won"t tell?"
  
  "Nope. Probably going to use it to my advantage in the future, however. When I"m finally old enough to seduce you properly," I admitted.
  
  "Ten, no, eight years," Roxy declared quietly. I turned enough to give her a raised eyebrow at that. Roxy looked away with a blush. "You"re interesting and you"ll probably look like your parents..." she trailed off. Finally, she whispered, "Both are good, but being watched..."
  
  She was adorable and I wanted to hug her, so I did. "You didn"t finish, did you?" I asked with a teasing tone. Roxy shook her head once. I considered just how far I could push her before eventually letting go. "Go have fun." I felt her tense to move, "Or," she paused, blue eyes turning down to meet my green. I smiled as I gave her an alternative. "I"m already sworn to keep your secret. If you wanted to try exploring that, my door is open."
  
  Roxy bit her lip. I could practically see her internal struggle before she shook her head slowly. "I probably shouldn"t."
  
  "Probably," I agreed. "Doesn"t mean you can"t. If you"re not comfortable with it, I won"t push. But I bet what I tell you tomorrow will change your mind."
  
  The bluenette"s lips twitched into a small smirk. "What will you wager?"
  
  "Oh, if I win, I"m helping," I answered instantly. "I"m not passing up that opportunity. If I lose, whatever you want."
  
  A quiet laugh escaped her lips before the demon girl leaned over and kissed me. On the temple, but I"d take it as a win. "Good night, Rudy. I"m going to go "have fun." See you in the morning."
  
  "Night, Roxy. Pleasant dreams."
  
  Roxy fled, the sound of her feet padding through the hallway quiet but audible in the silence of the house now that Paul and Zenith were finished. Well, mostly silent-I could hear Paul snoring from here. I heard her door shut and breathed a quiet sigh.
  
  I think... I think we"re good. Yeah, this is good. Just try not to fuck it up.
  
  I let my fireball disperse and crawled under the covers. In the process, I discovered that my dick was fully capable of thinking for itself at this age.
  
  Well, at least it works. Grow up big and strong little guy.
  
  Maybe I should do cock pushups?
  
  
  The next day came and, aside from a little blushing on Roxy"s part at the breakfast table, everything was pretty much normal. As soon as we finished eating, I asked, "Is it alright if Roxy and I take Caravaggio and head into the village?"
  
  Paul and Zenith looked curious, while Lilia... oh, she was interested, she was just hiding it by doing the dishes. "What for?" Paul asked.
  
  "Got a project I want to get her opinion on. I want to see what"s available there so I"ll know what I"m working with."
  
  Zenith hummed, curiosity in her voice as she asked, "What sort of project?"
  
  I grinned. "I"m not spoiling the surprise. I"ll need some money to make it work, but today I"m just going to get an idea of what I"m looking at, cost-wise. I"ll let you know when we get back and I"ve got everything worked out."
  
  My parents had one of those silent conversations before Paul finally shrugged and Zenith nodded. "Alright. If Roxy doesn"t mind?"
  
  "It"s fine. I can teach while we ride," Roxy agreed. I knew she would, too. That is, if I intended to give her the chance. We"d probably be a bit preoccupied for that.
  
  Paul went out and saddled the horse while we got ready by preparing a lunch to take with us. We finished quickly and saddled up, then hit the road. I leaned back against Roxy"s warm, soft form as we rode. That robe really hid her assets, but pressed against her like I was they were very comfortable. "I"m tempted to have you give your lesson first, just to show I"m serious about them."
  
  "I already know you"re serious about my lessons," Roxy said, and I could hear the smile and pride in her voice.
  
  Taking that as an invitation, I considered where to start. Eventually, I asked, "What is this world"s stance on reincarnation. Sorry, don"t have a word for it in this language. Dying and then being born again as someone else, in a new life."
  
  "Reincarnation," Roxy provided the word for me. I knew her well enough to know that her silence meant she was thinking, so I waited. The movement of the horse and Roxy"s warmth against my back made me want to go back to sleep, but I resisted.
  
  Eventually, she said, "No religion is against it or denies the possibility that one of the gods would reincarnate someone. However, to my knowledge, there has been no real evidence of it ever happening. Are you suggesting that you lived a previous life and were reincarnated in this era?"
  
  I nodded. "Something like that. I"m not actually from this world."
  
  Roxy"s reply was a quiet hum. "The other five worlds were supposedly destroyed, which lead to the races all living in the human world."
  
  "No, not one of those. A world entirely different and disconnected from this one." Roxy fell silent and after a few minutes of nothing but the evenly paced sound of Caravaggio"s hooves clopping along the path, I sighed. "I can prove it, Roxy. My world, Earth-well, I suppose Earth is accurate in this language, actually. We didn"t have magic. What we did have were wonders of technology and science." With a frustrated breath, I explained further. "Science is the study of the natural laws and things of and within the world. Technology is a practical application of specific fields of science. The jump from bronze to iron, and from iron to steel? The wheel, the cart, the plow, the sail-all technology."
  
  "I see," the bluenette murmured. "What sort of "si ents" and "tek nol ogy" did your Earth have?"
  
  Tilting my head back, I regarded the larger girl behind me, studying her face. Finding she wasn"t just humoring me, I considered the best example to give her. Inspiration struck in the form of a hawk circling above us and I grinned. Pointing upwards, I asked, "Roxy, do you know how birds fly?"
  
  Her answer came quickly, but her tone was curious-as though, having asked her, she found she wasn"t entirely sure. "Their wings push on the air."
  
  "And how do they glide?"
  
  She fell quiet for a moment before giving her answer. "They fall slowly in the general direction they were traveling because their wings catch the air, much like a sail. Moving their wings or tail causes them to change direction, in the same way a rudder steers a ship."
  
  The girl"s eyebrows went up when I leered. "And how do they rise without flapping?" She opened her mouth and I quickly added, "Excluding thermals and air currents."
  
  Roxy"s teeth clicked quietly as she closed her mouth and frowned. Looking away, specifically up at the hawk still flying nearby, she contemplated the question. Eventually, she gave up. "I don"t know."
  
  Shifting in my seat, I reached out towards the ground below us and silently cast the same earth manipulation spell I had been using to make models recently. My model this time was a bird-a sparrow that fit the palm of my hand, its wings outstretched. Holding it up and back, I waited for Roxy to take it. "See the wings? Their shape? How the top curves?"
  
  "Yes."
  
  "That curve generates a force known as lift. You mentioned a rudder?" I asked, and she nodded. "It"s kind of like that, but with air and a specific shape. Fluid or air moving over an object exerts force on it and lift happens when part of the flow moves perpendicular to the rest of the flow-that is, part of it is forced to move at a right angle." I held my hands up to show her what I meant.
  
  Focusing on the blob of magic and dirt in her hands, I forced it to shift. "My people looked to the sky and dreamed of flight since man first walked upright. One day, a pair of brothers put together a scrap heap made of cloth and wood, climbed on, and made it work. Then, they stuck a motor on it and made the first powered flight."
  
  "This is," Roxy murmured, turning over the model glider in her hands.
  
  The glider shifted under my direction, pulling images from my memory. "Of course, every new invention leads to innovations in warfare. War took to the skies, rendering ground troops if not obsolete then secondary-for he who controls the sky controls the ground." The P-51 model in her hands shifted into something sleeker, with swept back wings and no visible propellers, instead it had tubes on the under sides of the wings.
  
  "Planes got faster and faster over the years. Eventually, we figured out rockets and went out into space. We put men on the moon. And that"s just what we did with the knowledge of lift and thrust, and a bit of chemistry. Has this world discovered atoms yet-the tiny pieces that make up everything? Cells? The things living beings are made of? How about electricity-have you learned how to harness lightning and from it, create light, warmth, sound, or to make things move?"
  
  Roxy stared as the model space shuttle in her hand shifted into a model I was familiar with-a large sphere orbited by a single, much smaller spheres. I couldn"t make the pieces stand free, so I had to use tracks of earth to hold them in place. I reduced its size, splitting it into three connected pieces-two smaller clumps of spheres and a single larger sphere. "Do you know what this is, Roxy?"
  
  Her voice was barely a whisper as she asked, "What is it?"
  
  "That is dihydrogen monoxide. If you try to breathe it, you die. Too much or too little of it, you die. If you split it into its component pieces, it explodes and burns violently. Despite being so dangerous, it is required for life to exist. It makes up about seventy percent of our bodies. And it is one of the four elements of combat magic."
  
  Roxy blinked, looking at the atomic model in her hands with sudden understanding. "Water. This is water."
  
  "If you took a drop of water and separated out the smallest identifiable piece of it that could still be called water, that"s about what it would look like. Two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. Two gasses combined to make a liquid. So, do you believe me now?"
  
  The bluenette pressed against my back nodded once, firmly. "Yes. Please teach me. I want to learn everything. The advances that could be made in magic with that kind of knowledge..."
  
  I turned back and gave her a smile. "Roxy, how old do you think I am? Mentally, not physically."
  
  "An adult, given your behavior and knowledge. For a human, I would guess perhaps in your thirties?" she asked.
  
  I nodded. "Surprisingly close. Late 30s. Counting the four years I"ve spent here, I"m forty-one."
  
  Blue eyes blinked. "Older than me," she murmured.
  
  "Well, yeah, I kind of figured. I"m older than my parents." I sighed, shaking my head.
  
  "That is what you consider "cheating" at magic. Having the knowledge you do. An adult"s mindset in the body of a child. You wouldn"t get distracted the way a child does with their studies."
  
  "Yeah. Really, between the two of us, I"m more impressed at what you"ve managed to do. I"m only as good as I am because I"ve got knowledge of science, not to mention books, games, and other sources to draw on for inspiration. My first thought on learning I could use magic was, "how can I break this," because in the fantasy and adventure games I enjoyed figuring out how to exploit things. Learning the rules and then finding ways to circumvent, break, or disregard them was what I loved most. You look at magic as a system you learn, and you"ve become great at it. I look at magic as a system I"m supposed to break, and I feel like I"m just stuck because I"m still learning the fundamentals. Can"t break the system if you don"t understand the system."
  
  Chuckling quietly, I added, "And then there"s the fact that you"re the first person I"ve actually been able to truly relate to..."
  
  Shaking my head, I brought myself back on topic. "Anyway, I pointed that out so that you"d understand just how long we"re talking here, on a scale of human lifespan. I spent almost twenty years in school, learning what I know. Thirteen years on what we considered a basic education and four years after that of higher education in the form of college. Then, because I enjoy studying things that catch my interest, I spent the following years learning whatever struck my fancy in between working various jobs."
  
  Shifting in my seat a bit so I could stop craning my neck, I made my offer. "I"ll be happy to teach you whatever you want to learn, but even stripped of all the things you probably already know, it"s going to take years. Do you plan to stay in Fittoa that long, just hanging around the farm and learning?"
  
  When she looked away, I turned back to face the front, putting my eyes on the road. "Didn"t think so. But," I reached back and patted her thigh, "I get it. Eventually, I"m going to leave and probably go to that magic school you told me about. Maybe do some traveling, adventure for a while. When I"m ready to do that, I want you at my side. Eight years. That sound about right? Think you"ll find whatever it is you"re looking for in that time?"
  
  "Perhaps," Roxy murmured. "Adventuring together does sound nice. Delving into labyrinths. Fighting monsters during the day..."
  
  "Teaching you what I know at night. We could finish off the night trying to see if we can outdo my parents for making the people around them suffer." Roxy laughed and I craned my neck again to meet her eyes. "You think I"m joking. One day, you will fall in love with me. I"m going to marry you and spend the rest of our days knocking you up."
  
  Roxy held my gaze as a blush spread down her face to her neck. "I don"t know what you said, but somehow I have the feeling it was embarrassing."
  
  "Oh, absolutely," I agreed seriously, before turning back to the road. "Remind me to teach you English. Could be useful to have a secret language only the two of us understand."
  
  "Mm," she agreed.
  
  I was surprised when I felt a slim pair of arms wrap around my waist and her chin come to rest atop my head. My hands found hers, resting lightly atop them as I relaxed and enjoyed the ride. "So, on to a lighter topic. Does this world have indoor plumbing? Pipes that bring water in and waste out?"
  
  Roxy"s head shaking shifted her chin into my hair. "Nothing more complex than hand pumps to bring water inside to a kitchen, as your house has. At least, not this far outside of the cities. In some cities, there are aqueducts that do bring in water and some have a sewage system to remove waste."
  
  "What about hot running water?" I asked, and Roxy shook her head.
  
  "Not without expensive magical tools or wood burning furnaces to heat it."
  
  "Yeah, no. This will not stand. Do you happen to know how to make magic circles? I remember we talked about them being able to make sustained effects."
  
  Her head shook again. "It"s something I want to learn."
  
  I frowned at the hurdle. "Okay, that"s not the end of the world. I know mom can use Elementary rank fire and water spells, and that"s really all we need between her and me. And you, while you"re here. Picture if you will..." I explained the design for a basic water tower and pipe system to bring hot water in.
  
  "That is what I want. A bath where I can sit and soak up to my neck. Or a shower that makes hot water rain down on me. Washing every few days with a rag and a bucket you can just barely sit in just doesn"t cut it. What do you think?"
  
  Humming quietly, and sending the sound straight into my head where she was pressed against me, Roxy eventually gave her answer. "It would be expensive. You could cut the cost by using metal only for the pipes. For the tanks and the tub, you could use stone created using earth magic to move mud up and heated with fire magic so that it doesn"t collapse when you stop supplying it with magic. It would be heavier than metal, however, so your tower structure would need to be stronger to support it."
  
  "That"s fine. Wood"s easy enough to get and we would work it with magic, couldn"t we? Dry it out with fire and wind spells, or water spells to pull out the water. Then cut and shape it with wind spells. Sounds like an excuse to try out new ways to use magic to me." I felt the little mage nod. "We"d need nails to hold it up, but that shouldn"t be a problem. Using stone for the tanks would actually be better in a way, because it retains heat. Once it gets hot, it"ll stay hot longer, and it"ll be less prone to freezing in the winter. Now, I just need to remember how to make a proper flush toilet."
  
  Going to need some cork for the floater. Flapper valve could be made of stone, but it might be better using metal. Definitely need metal for parts on the fill valve. That"s going to be a bitch and a half. Doubt anyone around here could machine the parts needed with that sort of precision. Well, I know I can shape metal, it"s just expensive in terms of mana, but it"s not like I don"t have mana for days and as usual, doing it will just give me more mana so... good practice for fine control and in expanding my reserves.
  
  If this works out well, I should probably look into doing more stuff like this in the future. Good for practice and maybe I could find a way to sell it and make some money on the side.
  
  And so, we planned out how to make plumbing using magic. Roxy didn"t let go until we entered the village proper, and when she put her arms around me again when we left, I didn"t say anything and simply enjoyed it.
  
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  The price of bronze turned out to be cheaper than any of the available metals, and at Roxy"s suggestion I figured the footage for just the pipes and skipped the tanks. Instead, I asked for a couple of bars on top of the piping I would need.
  
  Since Earth magic could shape metal, even if it was expensive in terms of mana cost, I could make the fixtures and thread everything myself. Additionally, part of the two bars would go into each tank for their germicidal properties-all I really needed to do was spread it thin and apply a layer to the inside.
  
  After this experience, I learned to stop relying on local smiths to turn things out in any decent timeframe, at least compared to my own rate. In the future, I would skip having things like the pipes made and just buy the raw materials.
  
  Hurts local economy? Maybe.
  
  Gets me my shower or whatever else I wanted faster? Let the economy suffer. I wanted air conditioning eventually and I wouldn't be waiting on someone else if I could make it faster.
  
  While I was making plans as I exited the smithy, on my way to find Roxy where she had been mobbed by villagers with requests for healing, something drew my attention. A flash of color in the corner of my vision. Green hair?
  
  I caught the tail end of a white jacket, followed by a group of four boys running into an alley. I almost turned away, but something about the situation seemed wrong. A nagging feeling in my gut. After a moment thinking it over, I realized what it was. I knew those looks. That wasn"t a group of kids at play, that was a group of brats chasing after someone. Having been on the receiving end of that before...
  
  Roxy"s busy, she can wait a few minutes. Let"s go see what"s up, I decided, and hurried after the group. It didn"t take long to find them after I entered the little alley between buildings, barely big enough for a large kid to squeeze through, let alone an adult-less of an alley than a crack between buildings because whoever built them hadn"t just put them right up against one another.
  
  All I had to do was follow the laughter. And the sobbing. Back behind the buildings, in a little space made where a shed and a stable backed up against them for easy access, I found them.
  
  It was pretty dark, but I could make out what was going on well enough. Four boys throwing rocks and what looked like petrified chunks of horse shit from the stable at a fifth, all the while laughing and jeering about "demon" this and "demon" that.
  
  I"ll admit, I reacted without thinking. Luckily for them, as pissed as I was at what I was seeing, I wouldn"t indiscriminately open fire on kids. My line of fire wasn"t clear, after all. No, I was going to be very discriminate in my choice of targets and the weapon tool I used to get the job done.
  
  A wall of earth sprang up between the brats and their target. "What the-?!" one of them had enough time to react, before a deluge of water from a Waterfall spell set off overhead soaked the four of them.
  
  They panicked and looked around, finally spotting me. "Run home. Now."
  
  "Demon lover!" one of them pointed and yelled. I raised my hand and sent a Water Ball flying at him. It landed at his feet, exploding and throwing up a shower of mud and freshly wet horse shit that coated all four.
  
  "I"m not throwing horse pucky, you little shit buckets. If I hit you, you aren"t going to get back up without a healing spell. Now, fuck off and stay fucked off."
  
  They fucked off, at speed.
  
  I allowed the wall to crumble into a line of dirt, that quickly became mud in the mess I had made. On the other side, I found the boy? watching the kids run. I stepped closer and found myself questioning whether this was actually a boy-hair slightly too long for a boy, small sculpted nose, small cute lips, pointed chin, porcelain skin, facial shape.
  
  Yeah, that"s a girl. Cutie patootie, really.
  
  "You okay?" I asked, checking her over as I got within reach. She was dirty-her clothes, half her face, and her hair covered in small cuts and bruises, dirt, and dried horse shit.
  
  "I-I"m fine," she murmured.
  
  "Alright, stand up and come over here," I said, offering her a hand and helping her up when she took it. For some reason, the girl actually followed my directions. "Now, lean forward a bit," I instructed, moving to the side.
  
  "Like this?" she asked. Once she had, I conjured a Water Ball. Not wanting to just douse her with cold water, I cast a fire spell in the other hand and used it to warm the water sphere up to a comfortable temperature. She watched, wide eyed, as I worked. "Okay, hold still. Close your eyes and hold your breath."
  
  As soon as she had, I doused her. Instead of releasing my control over the water and letting it fall, I instead used it to gently scrub at her hair and face. It was only a few seconds, but that"s all it really took. When I was done, I pulled away the muddy water, leaving her hair and skin slightly damp but otherwise clean.
  
  Now that she was clean, I could see her hair was an emerald green color. I distinctly recalled Roxy had said something about running away from people with green hair because they"re all murder hobos.
  
  No, wait, it"s green hair and a red gem on their forehead. She doesn"t have a gem. Red eyes though. Pretty. Nice elf ears, too. Bet she"ll be a real knockout in about ten years. Prime fantasy waifu material. And adorable, to boot. Protecc!
  
  Discarding the water behind me, I smiled down at her. "Much better," I praised her, casting an air spell in one hand and a fire spell in the other to create a warm breeze and dry her hair and face after hitting her with a silent heal. "Hey, there is a girl under all that dirt!"
  
  The girl in question blushed at the attention, or maybe being fussed over. "T-thanks."
  "Don"t worry about it. Those guys were assholes. I"m Rudeus, but you can call me Rudy."
  
  "Syl...ph," she whispered, trailing off at the end.
  
  I thought I heard something more there, so I asked her to repeat herself. "Sorry, didn"t catch that. Could you speak up?" I didn"t want to embarrass her about being shy, but it couldn"t be helped.
  
  "Sylphiette."
  
  I sent her a grin. "That"s a pretty name. So, do you prefer Sylph, Sylphie, Fie, or Sylphiette?"
  
  She considered it for a moment before bashfully asking, "Sylphie?"
  
  "Sylphie it is, then," I nodded. "So, where were you headed, Sylphie?"
  
  Sylphie hesitated before answering, "I-I was just going home from taking my father lunch."
  
  I hummed quietly, considering her. Bullied by the village kids for her hair color. Probably doesn"t have any friends her own age. Roxy is great, but she"s not going to be around forever. That girl has a serious case of wanderlust, and I don"t blame her.
  
  Better for me if I make a friend in the village that I can talk to after she goes, and if those other idiots are any indication then I think most of them will be a lost cause until they get older. Sure, I imagine it"s not exactly going to be the sort of adult conversation I"m used to with Roxy, but I need to start dealing with people "my own age" sooner or later. And there"s always the fact that if things work out, even if she"s just a kid now, I can give her a nudge or two in the right direction and make a friend I can relate to.
  
  Better for Sylphie if I introduce her to another "demon." Better for Roxy if I can convince her to try tutoring Sylphie too, maybe-if she turns out to be any good. I know she enjoys teaching. There"s just the issue of pay... Eh, fuck it. I"ll ask. Worst that can happen is she says no.
  
  With that decided, I beamed a smile at her and took her hand. "Come on, let"s go find my errant master. I"m sure she"s around here somewhere. Probably got distracted. I"ll introduce you, you"ll like her. We can talk on the way.
  
  "E-eh?! O-okay. But why? Why would you want me to come with you?"
  
  This age and already starting to doubt others" intentions. Clever girl. If she didn"t, I"d worry I"d found a naif. Still workable, but I"d have to fix that too.
  
  "Because I think you two will get along. Also, in case those brats come back. Let me guess, they were bullying you because of your hair resembling the Superd?" I asked, earning a nod in answer.
  
  "It doesn"t bother you?"
  
  I shook my head. "Nah, it"s pretty. Could stand to be a little longer. At least shoulder length." I had preferences. Short hair only worked on certain builds, but long hair worked on almost any girl. I ignored the dirty old man in me complaining that you couldn"t make handlebars with short hair. "Besides, my master is a Migurd with pretty blue hair." Naturally blue, not that fugly dyed crap of old Earth, that tended to work the same way coloration on frogs did. "So no, your hair color doesn"t bother me."
  
  Turning to look at her more closely, I asked, "If you don"t mind me asking, what race are you? Elven?"
  
  Biting her lower lip, Sylphie murmured, "I"m mixed. Beast-kin and half-elf. My mother is human with beast-kin lineage and my father is half-elf, the other half is human."
  
  "Neat," I hummed quietly, earning a surprised look from Sylphie.
  
  Sylphie worried at her bottom lip for a while as we walked through the village in somewhat awkward silence, drawing the occasional curious look from the villagers but not much else. Awkward on her part, I was perfectly happy to just enjoy the company. Yeah, Roxie"s bookish nature and my own clicked really well and when we weren"t talking each others" ear off about magic, both of us were perfectly happy just sitting and reading a book for hours. She had gotten into our small supply of them fairly quickly and devoured what she hadn"t already read while leaving me to work out some task she'd given me.
  
  "May I ask... why are you protecting me?"
  
  I blinked, pulled from my thoughts. Sending the young girl a confused look, I said, "It"s the right thing to do."
  
  "But the others will shun you. They might even gang up on you!"
  
  Rolling my eyes, I created a Water Ball and fired it up into the air, where it exploded a hundred or so feet up before coming down over the village as a short sprinkle. "I can take care of myself if they gang up on me. And I don"t care if they shun me. I wouldn"t want to hang around those idiots anyway. As long as I have at least one friend I can talk to, I"m happy." Turning back to her, I found Sylphie looking wide-eyed and awed at the display of magic. "So, want to be friends?"
  
  "Y-yes!" she squeaked. "How did you do that?"
  
  I chuckled, holding out a hand and conjuring another ball of water. "Oh, this?" Sylphie nodded. "Well, I"ve been learning magic from Roxy-"
  
  "Rudeus!" the woman in question called, hurrying over from one of the few side streets in town. "I saw the spell. Is something wrong?" she asked, looking around with a somewhat concerned expression as she held her staff ready.
  
  Chuckling quietly, I engaged anime protagonist idle animation number 1: sheepish head rubbing. "Sorry, Roxy. No, everything"s fine. Well, mostly. There was some trouble, but I took care of it. I was just showing Sylphie here magic. But hey, it"s great that you came! I was looking for you anyway." Clearing my throat, I pushed Sylphie out ahead of me, between me and Roxy. "Sylphie, this is Water-saint Mage Roxy Migurdia. Roxy, this is Sylphiette. I found her being beaten up by a couple of brats and sent them packing."
  
  Roxy examined the girl briefly for injuries before nodding. "Pleased to meet you." Meeting my eyes, she asked, "Did you hurt them?"
  I shot her a hurt look. "Do I look like the kind of idiot who beats up kids?"
  
  "Paul is your father," she pointed out, and I winced.
  
  That is a very fair point. The man"s a meathead, very much an "act first, think later" type, and she"s been here long enough to figure that out. And even if I"ve got years on him, the saying that you are the average of the five people you know still holds true. Somewhere in here, I"m an average of Paul.
  
  "No, I didn"t hurt them. Cast an Earth Wall to separate them, then cooled them off with a Waterfall. Scared them off with a Water Ball when it looked like they were still feeling froggy."
  
  Roxy silently mouthed that last part in confusion before shaking her head. Looking at Sylphie, she asked, "Where are your parents?"
  
  "Fa-father is on watch at the forest. Mother should be at home."
  
  Humming, the bluenette nodded. "Take us to her, please."
  
  Sylphie turned away, heading down the street Roxy had just come from and I found myself pulled along when she didn"t let go of my hand. Chuckling quietly to myself, I turned a look up at Roxy. "So," I drew the word out and Roxy raised an eyebrow. "How would you feel about a tagalong for our lessons?"
  
  The little mage fell silent as we walked, following Sylphie as she lead us to her home. Eventually, she gave a single nod. "I"ll test her."
  
  "Great. I have a theory," Roxy sent me an amused look. "If she can cast, I want to see if I can teach my way. My line of thinking on this is that it may just be easier for kids to do it my way, because they haven"t learned the other way yet and it"s not set in stone in their minds."
  
  "A psychological hurdle, as opposed to an inability on the part of an older caster?"
  
  "If that word means what I think it means, yes," I agreed.
  
  "A problem in the mind."
  
  I sent her a smile. "Yeah. That"s what I"m thinking. One test case isn"t enough to prove it, but it won"t hurt to try."
  
  "See what her mother thinks first," Roxy murmured as Sylphie turned to a specific house and began pulling us inside.
  
  "Mom! I"m home! I brought," she glanced over her shoulder at us before those red eyes found my green, "friends."
  
  
  As it turned out, Sylphie"s mom knew Roxy-or at least, they had met in the village on occasion. Roxy explained the situation and I wound up getting a hug for my trouble. When Roxy asked if she could take on Sylphie as a student, the girl"s mother happily agreed. And that was how my second future waifu joined us as Roxy spent the day teaching her the basics while occasionally giving me direction or the odd suggestion. Not that I actually decided that on the spot like I did with Roxy.
  
  Years down the line, she confessed that she decided it herself that day.
  
  That evening, we returned home late, to find Paul waiting on the porch. He stood as he saw us approach, his arms crossed over his chest and a scowl on his face. "Roxy, please go inside," he requested, but it came out as a command. "Rudy, do you know why I"m angry?"
  
  "No?" I asked, shooting Roxy a confused look.
  
  The mage sighed, stepping between me and Paul. "Paul, listen."
  
  "This is between me and-"
  
  A whispered phrase left Roxy"s lips and a microburst filled the yard, shutting Paul up as the wind slapped him. "Be silent." Paul"s jaw flexed and he glared, but he shut his mouth. "There was an incident in the village today. Laws" daughter, Sylphiette, was attacked by a group of older boys. Rudeus broke up the fight and brought her to me. I confirmed what happened and he acted within reason. I"ve taken her on as a second student. Let this be the end of it."
  
  As she spoke, Paul visibly deflated. "What? But no, Mrs. Ada came by looking for me earlier. Rudy hit her boy, Somar. What"s this about Sylphiette? Somebody is lying here-"
  
  "Who is more likely to lie to you? Your son"s teacher, or a young boy who doesn"t want his crime known?"
  
  Paul"s hand scrubbed over his face and he sighed. "I guess you"re right. I was wrong to doubt either of you."
  
  I reached up and tugged on Roxy"s sleeve. She looked down and I quietly asked, "Who"s Mrs. Ada?"
  
  Roxy jerked her head in the direction of the closest house. "Neighbor."
  
  The neighbor? The one always watching Paul when he"s out practicing? I blinked, before frowning. Ah. I see. Pretty face and a nice set of tits. Glad to know you"ll trust a stranger"s word over giving your own son the benefit of the doubt, just because she"s your type.
  
  Sure, I was a little angry, but mostly I was disappointed. It felt like he just didn"t trust me.
  
  Before I could dwell on the thought, Roxy"s hand found my shoulder and she pushed gently, following along as she guided me inside. "What happened?" Zenith asked, upon seeing my surly expression and Roxy"s own annoyed face.
  
  The little mage explained as she directed me to the table, where places had already been set. When she finished, Zenith"s eyes twitched. "Excuse me a moment."
  
  The blonde"s chair scraped as she stood, before heading outside where Paul still hadn"t come back in. The door closed and shortly after, we heard a smack! echo from outside, followed by Zenith yelling, "Idiot! That's what you call "handling it?!""
  
  Dinner was a tense affair, with Paul on the receiving end of hostile looks from all three of the women of the house. I ate in silence as I watched, carefully hiding the fact that I enjoyed his suffering. Teach you to be a dick.
  
  Eventually, food was finished and I decided to bring up the original reason for the trip to the village. "So, I"ve got an idea. I"m tired of bucket baths. Between Roxy and I, we have enough magic to build most of what we need to make a real tub and a hot water tank, along with something better than a box over a hole in the ground to crap in..."
  
  I went on to explain what I wanted, with some help from Roxy and occasionally using earth magic to make some low detail scale models. Convincing Paul and Zenith to part with the money, especially since we"d have to pay up front to cover the cost of having that much bronze carted into town from the city, was actually kind of difficult until I finally broke down and spelled it out for them that nightly baths meant better sex. Also, higher likelihood of conception.
  
  Well, more along the lines that I asked Roxy to pass that detail along the next day. Zenith had Paul convinced by that night. I was pretty sure, by the look in Lilia"s eyes, she was getting ideas herself.
  
  Our routine changed a little over the following year. Sylphie was included in our little group and began learning magic. I started learning more advanced lessons from Roxy while, after practicing with her at night, I began teaching her what I could remember of science. Roxy was brilliant as ever and picked things up at an amazing pace. Her only stumbling block was still silent casting.
  
  It was only a small sore point for her when Sylphie managed to get silent casting within a few hours of me explaining the same visualization process I"d used with Roxy, but the little mage decided to put it down to my theory on those without prior experience having an easier time learning it.
  
  The order of pipes came in eventually and finally, after four miserable years of "whore baths" as they had been called in my previous life, I had my first real shower and bath. I"d like to say it was amazing and everything I"d hoped for...
  
  But coincidentally, I also had my first cold shower after someone ran out all the hot water fucking in the tub. Magic meant I could sterilize the tub with fire, cut off the cold shower, run a tub full of cold water, then heat that for a hot bath without having to walk outside, climb the tower, and refill and heat the hot water tank. But my shower was ruined and I had to make do with a bath. Well, at least it was big enough to completely submerge myself in.
  
  Needless to say, the whole "running hot water" thing was an immediate success. Following that, the flush toilet with (warm water) bidet was also a huge hit. Sure, water pressure wasn"t great, and it was not something I had ever used myself on Earth (I had pretty much reverse engineered from the idea of the thing and not having seen one, but a basic valve, pipe, and spigot pointed up weren"t hard to make), but it was better than straw or cloth strips.
  
  The biggest hurdle to getting a bath put in was space. The house wasn"t exactly huge. It was large for what it was, but every room was in use. The toilet went downstairs and replaced the shit-box, but the tub was too big to fit and even after I sank the shit underground and turned the soil with earth magic there was a lingering stench. So, I had to do some fast talking when it was time to actually set everything up.
  
  I would sacrifice my bedroom to turn it into a communal bathroom. Roxy agreed to allow my bed to be moved into her room. She offered to sleep with Lilia, but I managed to talk her out of it privately-mostly by reminding her of my promise not to spill her secret, so she could continue her nightly self-exploration without Lilia potentially saying something. She apparently decided it was better to risk the devil (dirty old man in a child"s body) she knew than the devil she didn"t.
  
  Speaking of that, I was actually surprised when Roxy"s willpower finally broke.
  
  
  One night, in the middle of winter.
  
  Roxy and I had just finished up the last of our lessons for the night. Coincidentally, this was not long after Paul and Zenith had finished their nightly performance. As I"d suspected, being clean just lead to those two wanting to get each other dirty again.
  
  "Good night, Rudy," Roxy called quietly from across the room, where her bed sat under the window.
  
  My own bed was against the wall, across from the desk, situated on the same side of the room as the head of her bed. If I looked up I could see the bedroom door, while if I looked down I had a decent view of Roxy"s bed when it was bright enough to see. "Sleep well, Roxy."
  
  Every night since we had started cohabitating and Roxy had grown bold enough or frustrated enough to ignore my presence in the room, I laid there and pretended not to hear while Roxy quietly worked herself over, relieving her pent up frustrations at having to hear my parents going at it like rabbits.
  
  I was polite enough not to say anything about it, if only because I didn"t want to push too hard. Roxy hadn"t mentioned my "open door" policy since that night I caught her in the hall and I would rather not scare her off, so I hadn"t brought it up. I was perfectly willing to play the long game here, considering the prize was worth it.
  
  As I slowly drifted off listening to my future wife pleasuring herself, something changed. I frowned, my mind a bit slow as I tried to work out what it was. It took a while, but I finally managed. She stopped, but didn"t finish.
  
  I was just about to roll over and try to get back to sleep when a quiet noise of cloth on cloth from nearby caught my attention. I placed it as the blankets moving about the time I heard her foot hit the hardwood floor. It wasn"t at all unusual for her to get up in the middle of the night and go to the restroom, especially if she was on her period and felt the need to see to that, so I ignored it. Right up until the corner of my blanket lifted and a blast of cold air from the room hit my pajama-clad form. "Scoot over."
  
  Blinking my eyes open sleepily, I scooted towards the wall and made room. If she wanted to climb into my bed, I wasn"t going to complain. "Too cold by the window?"
  
  Roxy"s arms wrapped around my middle, pulling me flush against her soft warmth, before her legs twined with mine as she pretty much curled herself around me given our size difference. Roxy was small, but I was smaller still by comparison-for the time being, anyway. She smelled amazing-the scent of her hair, her skin, and her arousal all mixing together into a heady aroma I didn"t think I"d ever get tired of.
  
  "A little," she admitted softly. Roxy"s forehead pressed against my own and I closed my eyes, putting my arms around her and simply enjoying the sensation of holding a woman again after so long without. When she spoke again, I nearly flinched as I"d almost drifted off again with her warmth and smell surrounding me. "You win, Rudy. I would like to explore."
  
  "Hm?" I hummed, not quite sure what she was talking about given how fuzzy my head was at the moment.
  
  "Can, can you," she hesitated, "would you hold me while I...?"
  
  Her words finally managed to penetrate the fog. I shook my head rapidly, forcing myself back to wakefulness. "Wait. Just so we"re on the same page here. You want me to hold you while you touch yourself?" I felt the girl nod against me. "Just holding, or...?"
  
  Her response came out as a whisper. "You can touch. A little."
  
  "Okay," I agreed. I squeezed her a little tighter, but otherwise didn"t move. I decided to see where she would go with this and follow her lead for now.
  
  In the faint moonlight coming in through her window, I could just make out Roxy"s piercing blue gaze from inches away as she studied my face. Biting her lower lip, she released me and repositioned her hands. She shifted and shimmied around to get her night gown up over her hips before her hands went under the gown-one heading to her breasts, the other to the juncture of her legs. She watched me watch her as she began, a quiet gasping breath slipping from her lips as her eyes went half-lidded.
  
  I allowed my hands to move, shifting down and resting against the bare flesh of her hips. I smiled as she jerked at the slightest of touches, her breathing speeding up already. Apparently, she really enjoyed being watched and touched. My hands trailed up her sides, gliding from her hips, over her ribs to her arms.
  
  I followed her arms back down, feeling them working frantically under my hands, before transitioning back to her hips and traveling down her thighs as far as I could reach before coming back up and moving around to her bare back. I stayed out of the obvious "danger zones," but even just the little bit of petting I was doing was apparently more than enough.
  
  Roxy shuddered as she came, her hands going still as her whole body tensed, her eyes going wide as she clenched her mouth shut around a whine. It was a sound that had become very familiar to me since I"d started sharing a room with her. Roxy always tried her best to be quiet, but she couldn"t hide everything and I had good ears.
  
  She took in a gasping breath and I caught tears in her eyes as she tried to blink them clear. The hand at her chest came away and she put it around me and pulled me closer, clutching me to her as little tremors continued to wrack her body. I shifted around a bit, bringing my lips to her ear, partially laying my head on top of hers-Roxy shifting to nuzzle her cheek against mine. "It feels nice, doesn"t it, Roxy? Being held by someone who cares for you while you come."
  
  I felt her nod against me. "Y-yes, Rudy."
  
  Her hand slowed and she sighed, seemingly finished. I raised an eyebrow at that. Nope. Let"s see how many I can wring out of you without any lewd touching. You"ve already come this far, Roxy. You might as well see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
  
  Leaning forward just a bit, my lips brushed her ear as I asked, "Done already? You can keep going, you know." Then, I took her ear lobe between my lips, flicking it slowly with my tongue.
  
  The effect was immediate. Roxy"s little body went taut, the hand she had around me practically crushing me to her as she took in a ragged breath. I bit down gently for effect and she moaned. We both stilled at that, eyes going wide as we turned our attention to the door and the hall.
  
  We listened in silence for what felt like minutes before the tension eased out of our bodies and we relaxed. Roxy breathed out a quiet laugh, which she had to stifle when it became something more lewd as I attacked her ear again briefly, silently insisting that I wasn"t letting her get away that easily now that I had her here.
  
  Just to be on the safe side though, I decided to give her an out. "Tell me to stop and I will, Roxy. If you don"t, I"m going to keep doing things like this just to see how many times we can make you come."
  
  "Don"t," Roxy whispered.
  
  "Don"t?"
  
  The hand that had gone around my back found my right hand, before pulling it under her night gown and pressing it against her left breast. The nipple was hard and hot against my palm as she held it there. "Don"t stop," her answer was a little louder. "We can"t... we can"t have sex, but this, this is okay. Just touch me, Rudy. Please?"
  
  My answer was more exploration of her body and to move my attention from her ear to the skin of her neck just beneath it. All the while, I whispered dirty talk to her.
  
  "I"m glad you"re enjoying this, "master."" I knew how much she hated the title, but the little sound she made when I called her by it was great. Maybe she had a student/teacher fetish. Something to explore.
  
  I allowed my fingers to roam over her chest and stomach, occasionally brushing around her nipples but very rarely giving them direct attention. I listened for her breathing to cue me in on when to do so. Instead, I mostly focused my attention on lavishing her skin with kisses, licks, suckles, and the occasional nip-making sure I didn"t do it too hard and leave any marks that would be visible come tomorrow.
  
  Sure, healing magic would probably remove them, but I"d rather not risk it right now. "I"m going to make sure it"s me you think of when you touch yourself from now on, Roxy. No other man will ever do."
  
  The girl whimpered at that, coming again in my arms. I took the opportunity to kiss her lips. Shock was visible in her expression as I pressed the attack, teasing her tongue with my own. The little mage melted against me as she shuddered, her eyes slipping closed as her forehead pressed into mine. She eventually grew still, her hands stopping their work on herself. She broke the kiss, panting softly. One eye slit open, barely enough for me to tell she was studying me. "You have to take responsibility."
  
  "Gladly," I murmured in answer, pecking her lips. "When you feel you"ve taught me all you can, go out and do your adventuring. Practice, learn, and get strong. But come back to me in eight years."
  
  "Seven," the girl sighed quietly. "Tired now."
  
  I watched her eyes slip closed and chuckled quietly. I"d counted about four there, but honestly I"d take anything over zero as a win. Reaching down, I gently took the hand she had used to play with herself and pulled it out from between her legs. Roxy let out a quiet, inquisitive hum as her eyes opened partly again to see what I was doing. I brought her hand up, outside the covers, and brought it to my mouth. Locking eyes with her, I smirked before sucking her fingers into my mouth one at a time and licking them clean.
  
  "Delicious," I praised her, as she shut her eyes and squirmed. I wasn"t even lying, either. Maybe it was alien biology or something, but she didn"t smell or taste awful. A bit salty, a bit sweet, but she mostly tasted like she smelled-which was, itself, hard to describe. Far from unpleasant, anyway.
  
  Her hand squeezed mine when I finished and pulled it back under the covers, refusing to let go.
  
  And then, she passed out, leaving me high and dry. Thought it was supposed to be the man that goes off early and leaves the woman in the lurch. Gonna have to work on her stamina. And educate her on the finer points of the male anatomy. Namely, what happens if she just taps out after one round without returning the favor. Not cool.
  
  Can confirm, blue balls sucks at any age.
  
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  sinereal
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  My relationship with Roxy changed little after that night, but it did change.
  
  The very next day, while we were practicing trying to teach Roxy silent spell casting and Sylphie read quietly from the text on magic, the little mage spaced out when I held her hands over the bucket as usual. A ball of water formed between her hands and plopped down into the bucket. The sound seemed to snap her out of it and her eyes refocused on mine as she blushed. Looking between the bucket and the girl, I sent her a grin.
  
  "Congratulations, Roxy! You got it!"
  
  Sylphie looked up from her reading, hopping up from where she lay on the grass and moved in to squeeze Roxy around the ribs. "Good job!"
  
  "Huh?" The small mage looked confused, before her eyes found the bucket. "I cast?"
  
  "Yup. Now, whatever you just did, do it again," I instructed, and Sylphie backed away to watch.
  
  It took a few more tries, but eventually she figured it out and after that, she began casting silently consistently. That earned me a hug and a full on kiss on the mouth. Sylphie covered her mouth with both hands as she blushed. "Eep!"
  
  Looking over at the blushing part-elf, I sent Roxy a grin. "She really is adorable. Can we keep her?"
  
  "Rudeus," Roxy sighed, reaching up and bopping me on the top of the head with a fist. I noticed she didn"t outright say no, however.
  
  I was pleased to see Roxy had finally seemed to break through whatever wall she had been smashing her head against this whole time, but Roxy was over the moon, and it showed. She found any excuse to touch me-brushing her fingers through my hair, laying her hand on my back or arms as we worked on spells, scooting her chair just a little closer and resting her thigh against my leg at meal times.
  
  Zenith and Lilia may have missed it, but Paul-womanizer that he was-didn"t, and shot me a covert grin and a nod when no one was looking, a proud look on his face that pretty much screamed, "That"s my boy!"
  
  Of course, womanizer that he was, Paul was the second... third to pick up on Sylphie"s crush, behind Roxy and myself.
  
  "Two at the same time? You"re walking a dangerous path, my son. I wish you luck," he told me quietly one evening, as Roxy walked Sylphie home.
  
  Our schedule changed a bit, shifting around to accommodate our new nightly... student/teacher bonding sessions and work around the addition of Sylphie.
  
  Not to the nightly sessions, get your mind out of the gutter. Sylphie was nowhere near ripe yet.
  
  We finished our lessons early, got Sylphie home at a reasonable hour with thanks from her parents, and climbed into bed together soon after our nightly baths. When Paul and Zenith started up their usual shenanigans, Roxy and I would make our own fun.
  
  She almost always managed to keep herself quiet, but the one time she didn"t was the one time we got caught. Thankfully, it was just Lilia. She had most likely been taking a bath (and entertaining herself to the sound of my parents going at it), when Roxy didn"t quite manage to cover one of her moans.
  
  My partner didn"t stop playing with herself, but I kept an ear and an eye out just in case. I caught the door opening a crack and Lilia spying on us. As Roxy clung to me as she came again with my fingers helping to work her over, I used my free hand to bring a finger up to my lips and urge Lilia to keep quiet.
  
  For whatever reason, the maid did. We never heard a word out of her about the incident and my parents never said anything.
  
  When Roxy rode out to take on jobs for the villagers, I went with her and we brought Sylphie along for the ride. We learned the general prices for and methods of solving different problems with magic, along with getting to know the villagers-especially the ones who would be needing repeat business later on down the line. We both knew she would eventually leave, so Roxy made it as easy as possible for me to step in and fill her shoes when she was gone and make some money on the side.
  
  Roxy"s lessons also changed as winter came to an end and it grew closer to my birthday. Where before her magic lessons had been direct and to the point, with clear subjects and goals in mind, it became clear as we progressed that she was struggling to find new things to teach me. We were reaching the ends of her practical knowledge and entering the realm of the theoretical.
  
  If those lessons grew a little shorter, I didn"t say anything about it and instead took the opportunity to extend my own lessons on science to her, or give her more time with Sylphie, who could use the time to catch up. We wanted her up to at least Elementary-level proficiency before Roxy left and I took over her studies, so we were cramming in as much magical study for her as we could and it was agreed that I would pick up everything else when Roxy left.
  
  My fifth birthday came-a year and a half since Roxy got here. Apparently, this world has a custom of only celebrating every fifth birthday up until the fifteenth, when someone officially reaches adulthood. Probably, if I"m being morbid about it, due to infant/child mortality rates, either because of complications due to being in a low-tech world and not having cheap or easy access to a mage with healing and detoxification magic or what medicine they had, or due to monster attacks.
  
  Zenith, Lilia, and Roxy spent the day preparing a feast while Sylphie watched and took pointers on cooking. I offered to help, but was quickly shooed out of the kitchen. Paul and I hung back and talked quietly while the ladies worked. "Best not to step in, Rudy. The kitchen is a woman"s domain and they don"t like men intruding."
  
  I shot the man who was a decade my junior mentally speaking an amused look. "But father, a man who can"t even provide a meal for his wife when she"s with child because he doesn"t know how to cook doesn"t seem like much of a man to me."
  
  "Urk," Paul croaked as he flinched back, and I chuckled as I realized I"d scored a critical hit.
  
  That night, festivities were had. Drinks were passed around and, despite her reluctance, even Roxy accepted a glass of ale. If the little mage got a little more handsy than usual, no one said anything. Considering Sylphie had clung onto my side like a limpet the entire time, I don"t think anyone really noticed the extra attention from Roxy.
  
  Paul got drunk and demonstrated his sword swallowing technique while the ladies looked on and clapped. No, that isn"t a euphemism for sucking cocks. I mean he literally took out his sword and shoved a couple of feet of steel down his throat. It was probably one of the stupidest but most impressive things I"d seen him do to date.
  
  When he was finished, Paul hurried off to one of the other rooms and came back with a sheathed sword, which he presented to me. "Happy birthday. This is for you," he said, taking a knee and holding the sword out.
  
  I took the weapon with all the proper gravitas and excitement it warranted-after all, it was a sword and while I preferred guns, this was a swords and sorcery world so it was still pretty high on my list of cool things. Well below magic of course, but still cool.
  
  The weight was unfamiliar and heavy in my hands as he let it go and I nearly dropped it. Pulling the first few inches from the sheath, I found the blade was about the width of my hand. With the sheath"s tip on the floor, the end of the pommel came up to my nose, putting it at over three feet in length.
  
  Yeah, I wouldn"t be using this bad boy any time soon.
  
  "Thank you very much, father," I grinned, examining the blade. "I"ll use it well."
  
  Paul took the opportunity to stand and go into a spiel about protecting one"s wife, how I couldn"t get over confident even if I knew a little magic, and how I should keep a sword in my heart... Zenith chopped the back of his head and glared at him as he dragged on. "That"s enough!"
  
  The ladies laughed as Paul sheepishly moved to stand in front of the hearth. Zenith took the opportunity to take out the book she had been hiding. It was a thick, leather bound tome with clasps and some artwork on the front. "Happy birthday! I know you like books, Rudy, so I hope you"ll enjoy it."
  
  Judging by the title, it was a book for identifying various plants-a botanical encyclopedia. I cracked it open and found it filled with lifelike drawings of various plants, roots, and so forth along with very neat text detailing how to identify them, their properties, and uses. Yeah, I could immediately see how this would come in handy.
  
  Now, if only I could find some kind of a local guide to actually using those plants in recipes, either for food or medicine. At least, judging by the entries, it had suggested or common uses for them, even if it didn"t go into details on how to use or prepare them. "I love it. Thank you, mother!"
  
  "Ah, what a good boy you are!" Zenith cheered, pulling me into a hug and burying my face in her breasts. I didn"t miss the smug look she sent Paul as she laughed-it seems they had decided to have a bit of a competition to see whose gift I liked better. I wasn"t too surprised, they did things like this from time to time. Since they knew I could use magic, actually. Apparently, there was some sort of running bet on whether I"d turn out to be a caster, a swordsman, or something somewhere in the middle and had been ever since Zenith got pregnant. Considering that they used to be adventurers, I supposed it made sense.
  
  When Zenith joined Paul at the hearth, Roxy stood and made her way over before crouching down to my height. Reaching into one of the pockets of her robe, she withdrew a length of wood with a gem at the end of it. "Here, Rudy."
  
  I took up the length of wood and found that the end with the jewel was capped with metal to hold it in place. The jewel itself was shaped like an elongated egg and a bright red, approximately the size of a chicken"s egg. The whole thing was a little over a foot long.
  
  "That"s a magic stone. It acts to amplify magic power, so it should be useful," Roxy explained.
  
  Looking up from the stone, I found her eyes and sent her a smile. "It"s beautiful."
  
  The little mage smiled back. "Students who master elementary magic are customarily given wands by their masters, but you could already use it so it slipped my mind. My apologies."
  
  I slipped the end of the wand into my pocket and pulled the girl into a tight hug, earning a quiet squeak before she returned it. "No need to apologize, Roxy. Thank you, it"s wonderful. I"ll take good care of it."
  
  She gave a quiet little chuckle and pulled back. The smile on her face turned a bit bittersweet. "There"s very little left that I can teach you, Rudy."
  
  My gaze shifted over to where Paul and Zenith stood. They had pulled each other close and both looked sad. Even Lilia sitting quietly at the table had turned away, focusing on her mug. Sylphie, on the other hand, looked confused. I could read the mood and guess where she was going. "Ah, so it"s about that time?"
  
  "Mm," Roxy nodded. "I"ll hold your graduation exam tomorrow. After that..."
  
  "You"ll be moving on."
  
  Another nod and the sound of a chair scraping, then falling to the floor met our ears along with a wail from Sylphie as the girl slammed into us from the side and clung on. "No! You can"t go! Please!"
  
  Roxy sighed, a sad smile pulling at her lips as she shifted one arm over to embrace Sylphie. "Shh, shh. It"s okay. You won"t be alone when I leave," she whispered, just loud enough for the three of us. "You have to be strong, or you"ll never leave the nest."
  
  "It"s scary."
  
  "I know," Roxy ran her fingers through the part-elf"s hair. "But I know you can."
  
  Zenith made an attempt at convincing her to stay. "Roxy, you don"t have to leave. The village loves you-I"m sure there"s a place for you here. You can stay in our home-"
  
  "No, mother," I cut her off, even as I saw Roxy looked both gratified at the offer and resolved that she wouldn"t take it. Sylphie looked a little betrayed, but I kept going. "It"s fine. She wants to do a little more study herself, right? About seven years?"
  
  Roxy"s lips twitched up into a smile even as she blushed and looked away. Zenith and Lilia both gasped quietly while Paul laughed. "About that," Roxy agreed quietly.
  
  "Well, I think it"s about time for Sylphiette to go home and the rest of us to go to bed, then," Paul announced. "You want to be well rested for her final test tomorrow, after all."
  
  With that, we quickly cleared off the table while Lilia took Sylphie home. Paul and Zenith opted to skip the bath, and with Lilia out for the moment that meant one of us could take Lilia"s turn. As usual, I opted to let Roxy go first. Instead, the mage took me by the hand and dragged me into the bathroom. I said nothing as she lit the candles and began running water. She turned and met my gaze for a moment before looking away, but as she did she began to undress.
  
  I wouldn"t call it a strip tease by any stretch of the term. She was completely inexperienced and did nothing aside from pulling her clothes off piece by piece, but it was enticing all the same and the fact that her blush went all the way down was adorable. "Join me?" she asked, after a moment of standing there nude as we waited for the tub to fill.
  
  Shaking my head and pulling myself from my stupor, I quickly shucked my own clothes as she climbed into the partially filled tub. She hissed a little at the temperature as she dipped a toe in, the water apparently having cooled over the day, but a quick fire spell warmed it to a temperature she was comfortable with and she sat down. I kicked off the last of my clothes and eyed the stone tub full of cute girl.
  
  Roxy smiled and patted the water in front of her. Needing no further prompting, I climbed over the tall lip and settled down in her lap, between her spread legs. Two pale, delicate looking arms draped over my shoulders and pulled me back to rest against her chest.
  
  "You know, I just realize I never asked. When"s your birthday? I"ll get you something great when you turn fifteen."
  
  One toned leg slipped up out of the water and turned the handle to shut off the water. "It"s in the summer." She gave the the month and date, before adding, "You"re a little late for that birthday."
  
  "Oh?" I hummed, shifting slightly against her before bringing my hands down and resting them on her smooth, silky, muscular thighs. Roxy"s quiet intake of breath and warming against my back told me all I needed to know about how even the smallest touches still got her motor running.
  
  "Let"s see if I can guess how far off. I had you figured for fourteen or so when you first arrived." A small hand pinched my side and I winced as the little mage made her displeasure known. "So, the Migurd. How long do they tend to live?"
  
  "Two hundred is the highest recorded age," Roxy answered quietly.
  
  I blinked, squeezing Roxy"s thighs as I reevaluated what I"d thought of her. After a few minutes, I started laughing but managed to keep it quiet. "Oh, that is good. It makes much more sense now. Why you"re as good as you are. Why you know as much as you know. Why you"re so well-traveled. I thought you were some sort of child prodigy-turns out, I was only half right. Prodigy, yes. Child, no. I"m going to guess you"re probably about thirty, maybe mid-thirties. Twice the lifespan, so I"ll double my estimate."
  
  "Not far off. Thirty-nine this year." I felt Roxy"s breath on my ear before her lips brushed against it. "You"re still older. Did you think you were taking advantage of a young woman?"
  
  "Kind of, yeah. I felt a bit guilty about it, if I"m being honest. I figured we were kind of close to even, since I"m physically way younger." I shrugged. "Doesn"t matter now, does it?" I felt Roxy shake her head before pressing her cheek against mine. "So, what were you looking for all that time?"
  
  The tiny woman holding me hummed quietly, falling silent while she considered her answer. The water began to cool, but before I could do anything about it Roxy used a silent fire spell to heat it back up. "You just love showing that off now, don"t you?"
  
  "Yes," she agreed immediately. "As the master teaches, so too does she learn. Thank you for teaching me, Rudy."
  
  "Of course," I gave her a small squeeze. "And thank you, Roxy."
  
  She fell silent again for a bit before finally answering the question I"d asked. "Migurd are born with the ability to communicate with other migurd directly, without speaking. With our minds."
  
  "Telepathy? Very cool. I"m guessing something happened?"
  
  "Mm. I was born without the ability. All I can hear is a buzz. I got into a fight with my father and left the village. I couldn"t make it as an adventurer, so I took up being a live-in instructor. All this time, I"ve been seeking somewhere to belong. More recently, I started wondering what it would be like to have someone special in my life."
  
  "My parents got to you, didn"t they?"
  
  I felt Roxy"s quiet laugh through my body where she pressed against my back. "Yes, I suppose so. I had never had an interest in sex before then. I feared I would never find my match. Either I would miss it, realize it too late, or they would fail to see past this," she pulled a strand of her blue hair, almost black in the water and candle light, forward for me to see. I lifted one hand out of the tub and gently stroked it-as always, her hair was as soft and smooth as the rest of her.
  
  "I still say it"s a wonderful shade of blue. The color of water. Like your eyes."
  
  It was minute, but I felt the woman"s larger body tremble against my back. Her arms around me squeezed a little tighter. "I think I"ve found it and if you don"t stop that I"m afraid I won"t leave, or worse, I"ll take you with me. I"ve always lived my life by being decisive when the time came, and if you keep saying things like that I"ll take you now. Snap you up and spend the next decade diving into labyrinths and adventuring across the continents. A former student and a new apprentice to teach. I"ll train you to be the perfect lover, just for me."
  
  "It sounds like fun," I admitted. "Can"t say I"d be against that plan. We could leave tomorrow."
  
  Roxy shook her head. "I want some time on my own to grow further as a mage and you need your own time apart, or I"ll corrupt you further. Sylphie won"t grow if I stay, either."
  
  I snorted at that. "I"m a dirty old man in a child"s body, Roxy. I thought I was the one corrupting you. Trust me, I"m stubborn enough that it"d work out even if you did kidnap me. At worst, we"d just rub off on each other. As for Sylphie, well, maybe. Or maybe she"d turn out fine." Letting go of her hair, I found her hand and squeezed it. "It"s fine, as long as you come back. Just..."
  
  I wasn"t quite sure how to ask what I wanted. The idea of her sleeping around with other people while she was gallivanting around turned my stomach and made my blood boil, but it wouldn"t exactly be fair of me to ask her to remain faithful when we weren"t actually in some sort of defined relationship. I wasn"t quite sure what we were to each other, but I knew it went beyond master and student, fellow students, or even friends. Not quite lovers, but close enough.
  
  Roxy seemed to sense what I was trying to get across even if I left it unsaid. Her free hand came out of the water and a small fist bopped the top of my head. "I am not a loose woman, Rudeus. No one has caught my interest before you. I"ve never lain with a man before. I"ve waited this long, I can wait a little longer."
  
  "Jail bait wait," I laughed, earning a sigh and what was likely an eye roll from the girl. Yeah, she was used to my bullshit by now.
  
  We sat, quietly soaking and talking about the future, until long after we had pruned up before we even began washing each other. It was decided that when Roxy got to where she was going, she would send me a letter so I knew where to reach her and we would trade correspondence back and forth when we could.
  
  Once we finished our bath, we went to bed. That night, Roxy had to stifle herself with a pillow to keep from waking the house as I demonstrated oral sex for her.
  
  "N-no, don"t-don"t lick it! Not there!"
  
  "Oh, but I"m going to." Roxy"s embarrassed face any time I played with the little mole under her arm was just too good to pass up.
  
  When the door slit open, Roxy"s body went stiff and she slowly turned her head to regard our voyeur. A glance from the corner of my eye revealed it was too dark to see exactly who it was, but it was probably Lilia again. I sent her a cheeky wave before diving into Roxy"s muff. The young woman was too turned on at that point to protest. Lilia, strangely enough, didn"t leave until we finished and I had to shuffle Roxy around to get her into bed properly, seeing as she had lost all her strength.
  
  The next morning, we rode out early on Caravaggio, well away from the town.
  
  "I will cast the Saint-level spell Cumulonimbus. I can only cast it twice, so please memorize it the first time. Your test will be to cast the spell and sustain it for an hour."
  
  Given the general progression in mana cost between spell tiers, I winced. Even I would be hard pressed to do that with mana alone, and my reserves dwarfed Roxy"s, which had come a long way since we had started training her in mana capacity every night. "Which means the test is less about being able to cast it and more about being able to use combined spell effects to sustain it cheaply."
  
  A grin pulled at the small mage"s lips. "This is why you are an amazing student, Rudy. Now, watch."
  
  Roxy lifted her staff above her head and began chanting. As she did, clouds gathered directly above her and quickly spread. My ears popped at the pressure change. Spontaneous creation of an area of low pressure. Gathering, cooling, and condensation of existing water vapor at upper levels, heating at lower levels. Lightning danced across the sky and thunder rumbled. Excitement of charged particles creating partially directed lightning. No, not directed, just way more than there would be in a normal thunderstorm and centered over...
  
  It was at this point, I realized where we were. Outside of town. Well away from any homes and farms. On a vast, rolling plain. Standing right next to the only tree within probably a square mile. "Oh, shit. Roxy!"
  
  My warning came a little too late as lightning struck the tree and Caravaggio screamed, barely audible over the blast of thunder, howling wind, and driving rain. Roxy immediately dispersed her spell, flying into a panic as she rushed over to the tree and tended to the horse. A healing spell had him back on his feet a few moments later and the woman breathed a sigh of relief.
  
  "So clumsy," I accused, sending her an amused smile.
  
  Roxy huffed, turning away with a blush. "I forgot."
  
  "Right. So, move out from under the tree, would you? Don"t want lightning to strike twice," I suggested.
  
  The bluenette sighed, sending me a mildly annoyed look. "I"ll create a dome of earth around us. Please cast."
  
  I waited until she got her protection up before taking out my wand. Muttering the words to myself, I felt the pull at my magic and memorized how it felt. Cutting off the mana supply before the spell could finish, I held up the wand and cast the spell silently. Clouds began to gather and thunder rumbled as the rain began to come down. "Okay, phase two."
  
  Luckily, I actually knew how storms worked. Applying magic to duplicate that and feed the one growing above us was fairly simple. Cast a spell to gather mist at ground level. A second spell to heat the mist and cause the water vapor to rise. A third spell above to cool the air and cause more water to condense and fall, and a pair of large scale wind spells to force circulation.
  
  Now, let"s see what I can do about that lightning, I mused, focusing on the spell still growing above me. There was an element to the spell for causing more lightning-specifically, the wording called for it-so I set my attention to that. Taking just that part of the spell, I manipulated my mana and tried to cast it. Lightning happens when a positive charge at ground level meets a negative charge at sky level and the resulting flash of electricity is the charge reaching balance...
  
  "Rudy, what are you doing?!" Roxy yelled over the roar of the storm, her mouth nearly pressed to my ear to be heard, as I felt something click and the spell I was trying to create flared to life. A mile or more out, lightning danced between the sky and the ground-one, five, ten, twenty, thirty strikes. I lost count. Roxy"s eyes went wide and I laughed before reaching into the mana of all of my spells and dissipating them.
  
  "Do I pass?"
  
  Roxy stood silent beside me, her whole body quivering as her hands squeezed my shoulders. "What was that?"
  
  I turned my head and shot her a grin. "I think I just figured out a lightning spell."
  
  The teacher in her had Roxy responding on auto-pilot. "Lightning isn"t an element unto itself. Directed lightning is a King-level water spell."
  
  Chuckling, I pointed into the distance, where we could even now see smoke rising. "It is now. I mean, it"s just a potential difference in electrical charge. Not like it"s hard to do. I could generate artificial lightning with a spool of copper wire and a waterwheel, Roxy." Well, not quite. Close enough though.
  
  Shaking her head, Roxy sighed. "You are impossible. Truly impossible." Pulling me tight against her, she squeezed. "Now there really is nothing more I can teach you at the moment. Congratulations, Rudy. You are now a Saint-level Water Mage."
  
  We stayed like that for a while, before Roxy climbed onto Caravaggio and helped me up in front of her. We rode out and checked the damage caused by my lightning spell. The ground was burned and glassed in a hundred yard circle and I could make out individual marks where each bolt had struck. The little mage was left in silent awe as we turned back for home.
  
  I convinced Roxy to swing through the village on the way back. While we were there, I had her pick up a few things, knowing Paul and Zenith would pay her back when we returned. Fresh cream, fresh milk, sugar, salt, and a seasoning plant that smelled like vanilla. We stopped by Sylphie"s home, but the girl refused to leave. She gave Roxy a teary goodbye before running off to her room.
  
  When we got home, I took the ingredients and made my way into the kitchen, where Zenith and Lilia were working. Roxy followed, curious since she knew from our conversations that I could cook. Magic created all the tools I needed as I eyeballed my measurements, heated part of the cream, along with the salt, sugar, and vanilla in a sauce pan using magic.
  
  Creating a stone cylinder, I poured everything into it in the proper proportions and set the cylinder in the sink. Then, I conjured water around the cylinder and froze it. Finally, I made a lid with a long paddle and fitted it inside the bucket. Putting my hand on top, I used more magic to make the paddle turn slowly inside the cylinder.
  
  "Rudy, what are you making?" Zenith finally asked, when asking Roxy turned up a shrug.
  
  "I figured I should make our last meal with Roxy one to remember," I answered vaguely, concentrating on maintaining something like two and a half spells-water for the cooling, earth for the cylinder and its moving parts. It wasn"t draining, it just required focus.
  
  Roxy planted herself at my side and watched, studying the entire process silently. Eventually, she made a guess. "A cold dessert?"
  
  "Yep." I turned and shot a grin up at her. "I know you have a sweet tooth."
  
  Roxy"s face that night, upon first tasting ice cream, was positively orgasmic. No, really, that"s not an exaggeration. I"d seen her o-face so I knew exactly what I was seeing.
  
  Paul wasn"t all that impressed, but the man preferred meat-umami was his flavor of choice. Zenith and Lilia, on the other hand, were begging for the recipe by the time they finished their first bowl. Roxy"s silent, longing gaze convinced me to give it to her as well before she left.
  
  We spent the night after our nightly routine with me as the little spoon to her big spoon-or maybe, it"d be more accurate to say Roxy used me as a human dakimakura. The next morning, before anyone was up, I woke her up with kisses, followed by petting, followed by one last time getting her off-this time, without her helping in any way. I had picked up most of her erogenous zones and tells, her likes and dislikes, so I knew exactly how to get her going hard and fast. We quickly cleaned up after and headed downstairs, just as light was beginning to brighten the eastern sky.
  
  Paul and Zenith joined us shortly and, after a quick breakfast and a trip upstairs to gather her luggage, we all went outside. Kneeling down to my level, Roxy reached around her neck and took off the green, crystal pendant I knew she wore there. I"d enjoyed the sight of it hanging between her breasts as she panted in ecstasy many times now and I knew it on sight.
  
  "I didn"t have time to prepare a graduation party or gift, so this will have to do. It"s a charm from my home town. If you ever find yourself on the demon continent, if they see you wearing it you should be treated more favorably," she explained, slipping the pendant around my neck.
  
  "Thank you, Roxy. I"ll look after it for you until you come back."
  
  The woman smiled faintly. "I"m glad." Standing, she sighed and picked up her staff and luggage. "It"s time I leave."
  
  Turning to my parents, she bowed slightly at the waist. "Thank you for having me." Her blue eyed gaze fell and lingered on me. "Goodbye."
  
  Watching her turn away, I felt a bitter smile pull at my lips. "Safe travels. And Roxy?" Her head turned slightly, enough to catch my eyes. "If you aren"t back in seven years, I"ll come looking."
  
  Her smile this time was beautiful. "See you then, Rudy."
  
  "You too, Roxy."
  
  I watched her until she faded into the distance before turning and heading back into the house. Walking up to our room-my room now, I suppose-I went to put away my wand and now the necklace so I could start my training. I didn"t want to get them dirty, or accidentally break one.
  
  There, laying folded neatly on my pillow, I found a small bundle of what looked like white silk. Raising an eyebrow, I unfolded it. Laughter spilled out before I could stop it.
  
  In my hands, I held Roxy"s favorite set of panties-the ones with the cute little black bow on top, that I"d remarked upon more than once since she started sharing the bed with me. They even smelled of her. In fact, opening them up, I saw that the inside was still damp-in other words, these were the panties she wore to bed last night. "Left me something to remember you by, huh?"
  
  I carefully folded them and put them on the book shelf, under her necklace and my wand. I'd have to wash them later, but they'd be fine for now.
  
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  "Ugh, this sucks."
  
  My first week without Roxy around was miserable. The nights were even worse. I"d grown used to her constant presence and occasionally found myself turning, her name on my lips to ask her something or just speak with her, only to remember that she was gone. The bed felt cold without her there and it took forever to get to sleep. When I woke up alone in the morning, without her quietly snoring, drooling face across from mine I felt lost.
  
  It wasn"t that I"d become dependent on her. It"s just that, for the first time since being reborn in this world, I"d found someone I could really talk to. A confidante. A friend. Almost a lover.
  
  My future wife.
  
  And now, I had to go back to hiding everything. No more talking about Earth, no more English (until I got Sylphie up to speed), no more lessons and sharing knowledge this world simply doesn"t have (again, until I could bring Sylphie up to speed).
  
  Yeah, I was a little morose, even if I knew it was dumb.
  
  Amusingly, it rained for that first week, reflecting my mood. A lot. Probably because of Roxy and I casting two Cumulonimbus spells, honestly-even if the magic had been dispelled, the moisture was still physically in the air, so of course there would be repercussions.
  
  Lesson learned: magic can have consequences that aren"t immediate or obvious until they happen and I should put some forethought into casting large scale spells. Well, she always did warn me that weather manipulation spells could screw with things on a large scale. Now I had seen it for myself.
  
  After the first day of being listless, I forced myself to get my shit together during the day. I could mope at bed time-the daylight hours were for getting shit done. I adjusted my schedule to add new practice exercises to cover all the time I would have spent with Roxy and threw myself into it.
  
  I started by going to Sylphie"s house and dragging her out of bed, where she had been moping since she heard the news of Roxy"s departure. I brought her back home and set her to reading inside while I worked on practice.
  
  I prepared an area away from the house by burning a large stretch of grass, then using earth magic to pull the remains down below the soil and leave only dirt so that none of my spells would catch anything on fire. Then, I spent my mornings working through my spell repertoire, casting every spell I knew (that wouldn"t destroy miles of farmland) one after another, drilling on speed and trying to cut my already short casting time down.
  
  Then, I worked on multi-casting. First, doubles of each spell, followed by different spells from the same school. Then spells from like schools-fire and wind, earth and water, water and wind, fire and earth. There, I tried to work out the best combinations for maximum effect over short time-preferably immediately. Finally, spells of opposite schools-fire and water, earth and wind. For those, I tried to work on lowering my mana consumption.
  
  In the evenings, during sword practice, I discarded my wooden practice sword and instead used earth magic to create a stone sword of the same dimensions, weighing many times what the wooden sword did-more even than my actual sword.
  
  After a thousand repetitions through each of the basic swings of the Sword God and Water God styles that left my arms feeling like lead, I healed myself. The pain vanished, but that didn"t mean my stamina had been replenished or I was any less exhausted, so I took a short break. Then, I repeated the exercise, using magic to fill and cover my body.
  
  After a second healing and rest, I started in on practicing using magic while swinging my sword. I set up a rotation to launch attacks on each swing.
  
  Swing, wave of fire. Swing, wave of wind. Swing, wave of water. Swing, expanding wave of dirt arching up in front of me tall enough to block an attacker"s view and eat a spell or two-a moving shield. Swing, expanding line of ice spikes growing up from the ground, meant to restrict movement.
  
  Thrust, fireball. Thrust, gale of wind. Thrust, water ball. Thrust, earth spikes. Thrust, ice spikes.
  
  And so on. I made it my goal to be able to cast any Elementary-level spell with every swing of my sword and no real thought on my part. I went on like that until my arms felt like they were going to fall off, my back, chest, and core burned, and my mana felt like it was nearly depleted.
  
  Finally, I worked on experimenting with developing working lightning spells. I had the big one, but I wanted something smaller, faster, and less likely to accidentally destroy small towns. So, I reverse engineered an Elementary-level lightning spell that just generated arcs of electricity on my hands-little more than a taser with just a little magic, but enough to qualify as an arc welder when I pumped enough juice into it. Then, I worked on trying to make it ranged.
  
  I already had the ultra-long range version, but that generated vertical lightning and I wanted horizontal lightning. Less "finger of God," more "Sith lord." Well, I"d settle for a single lightning bolt at the moment, but eventually I wanted a chain lightning spell.
  
  And yes, every last moment of that was spent in the rain. I was a Saint-level water mage now. Keeping dry while training was just one more way of training, forcing myself to hold up a third spell continuously while I worked on the others.
  
  After my first week spent moping training, I decided I was spending too much time cooped up in the house and the yard. The rain had cleared and it wasn"t good for either me or Sylphie to just... languish.
  
  That, and I was getting bored. I needed a project. It was just a coincidence that throwing myself into my work was how I dealt with things I didn"t want to deal with in the old world, by providing myself a distraction to occupy my mind.
  
  Well, I said I"d teach Roxy English, advanced math, and science. Even if she"s gone now, doesn"t mean she can"t be learning while she"s out doing whatever. I"ll look around the village and pick up some paper. General store should have some, or be able to order it if need be. When I finish, I"ll have it bound and mail it off to her once I get her address. A little late for any birthday present, but I"m sure she"ll appreciate the gesture. While I"m working on it, I can start teaching Sylphie the basics.
  
  Actually, maybe more than just one book. May as well make Sylphie one too. And I doubt I"ll be able to fit everything into just one book... Well, better not get ahead of myself. I"ll start writing out what I know first, then go from there.
  
  
  Going into town early one morning, I spoke with a few of Roxy"s old clients in the small square that passed for a market. They offered their condolences at her leaving and, as she"d guessed, asked after whether I would be filling her shoes. I agreed that I"d do the work she had at the same rates, and that was how I found myself being shuffled off on a cart to a field covered in wilting vegetables.
  
  Sighing, I looked towards the owner, an old man I couldn"t remember the name of and whom everyone-Roxy included-just called Uncle, at his insistence. "Uncle, did Roxy tell you what was wrong with it when she was here?"
  
  "Ah, well," he hemmed, scratching at his beard sheepishly. "That she did, lad. Also said there was no point to fixing it, because it was just putting off the problem for tomorrow and she didn"t feel right charging for something that wouldn"t last."
  
  I grumbled and started walking off the borders of the field, pointing my wand beside me. As I did, earth rose in my wake, forming a berm roughly six inches high. It had rained recently, so I wouldn"t have to water the crops-but that was part of the problem, really. The biggest part.
  
  I made sure it would have adequate drainage at one end so it wouldn"t turn into a swamp and that the upper berms would prevent water from running down the hill as it had been, washing away topsoil and leaving roots exposed. Then, I walked the rows, tilling the earth under the plants while carefully leaving the roots intact and covering what was exposed.
  
  Returning to Uncle, I accepted my payment. "It"s a temporary fix. Might last a season or two and I don"t want to have to charge you to do the same thing over and over because you"re being stubborn about it. You know you"re going to have to either move the field or pay to have it leveled. When do you want to do it?"
  
  Uncle sighed, looking over the field as he considered it. "Next spring, before it"s time to plant, I think. It"ll give me time to save up some money."
  
  "I"ll give you a discount, if only because I hate leaving a problem only half fixed. Or fixing symptoms instead of the actual problem. Next time you have a problem like this, don"t put it off so long, please? It just makes everything worse."
  
  "Deal," Uncle nodded, holding out his hand. We shook on it and he gestured towards the cart. "Come on. If you want, I"ll give you a ride back into town. Need to go see a man about buying some seed anyway."
  
  We made it back into town, pulling over in front of the general store. Before I made it inside, I was accosted by an older woman, bent over and gray of hair. "Young Rudy, would you be a dear and help an old woman out?"
  
  "What do you need, auntie?" I asked, sending her a smile.
  
  "Miss Roxy or your mother always takes care of the aches in these old bones..."
  
  I nodded, pulling out my wand. "Sure, sure."
  
  And that was how I spent the next hour, as word got around quickly that I was doing a healing and people with various aches and pains or cuts and bruises they didn"t want to wait on came by with a small silver or so each. Eventually, I managed to get into the general store. "Do you have some paper I could buy?" I asked as I walked up to the counter.
  
  "How much do you need, young man?"
  
  I hummed in thought before holding my fingers about an inch apart. "About this much for now. I"ll come back by when I need more."
  
  The store owner nodded, heading into the back room. Paper was pretty expensive here and reacted poorly to moisture and sunlight, so it was typically stored in secure, cool, dry, and dark areas. It was closer to parchment, really. Since it lacked the chemicals modern paper as I knew it was made with, it was delicate and easily stained, wrinkled, or otherwise ruined.
  
  He returned a moment later with a stack about an inch thick. He quoted me a price and I dickered with him a bit before we agreed on a total, after I asked after a bag to carry it in since I didn"t have one. I left with a new leather satchel and enough paper to start writing a book.
  
  I skipped out on ink, if only because I had a plan. The region was known for growing the Bardius plant-a purple-ish plant that resembled lavender and was used in perfume in the city. In my previous life, I"d dated a particularly artsy (read: hippie) woman who liked making her own inks and I"d picked up a thing or two.
  
  Look, don"t judge me. She was hot and she put out. I was in college at the time. I could put up with a few eccentricities. So she liked to do her own tie dye and refused to use or eat anything that wasn"t all natural. At least she wasn"t one of those kooks who refused to shave themselves because they felt it was demeaning or some other idiocy. I could deal with it. I couldn"t deal with the rest of her crazy cat lady baggage, so I ghosted her.
  
  There"s only so many times a man can hear about how many ways society could end (the Rapture, asteroids, solar minimum/maximum, pollution, climate change, nuclear winter, EMP) before it gets tiresome. I was all for being prepared in case of natural disaster because we frequently saw hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, the occasional (once ever ten years or so) icy winter that shut everything down, and any time the wind blew the power went out... but there was preparedness and then there was paranoia.
  
  Live and learn.
  
  Anyway!
  
  Most simple ink was made of four ingredients: the (usually dried) plant you wanted the ink to come from, gum Arabic (plant gum/sap, doesn"t actually have to be that specific type of gum), a mordant (i.e., a dye fixative, the easiest to find in this place being rusty iron, as I knew for a fact we had a few rusty horse shoes in Caravaggio"s stable), and thyme oil to prevent the dye from rotting.
  
  I was pretty sure I had seen thyme, if not by that name, in my plant encyclopedia and that it grew in the area-thanks, mom! I was a water mage, stripping water out of plants was child"s play for me. After that, all you really have to do is boil your flowers in water with your rusty iron, strain it, add gum, let it dissolve and cool, put it in a bottle, then add a few drops of oil and shake well.
  
  Voila, homemade ink. And in this case, if I was right, homemade ink that smelled like high-dollar perfume. If I was wrong, I could probably play with it until I got it right.
  
  As an aside, pens use a mixture of 25% to 40% dye, suspended in a solvent of "oil," usually something like benzyl alcohol-which could be found in some fruits, teas, and common plants like jasmine and hyacinth. That particular fact I discovered on my own, when doing research on the ink the hippie ex-girlfriend made.
  
  In case you"re wondering, yes, I picked up making my own soap too. From hard wood ash and with fat, because she was that kind of hippie (at least she wasn"t a vegetarian. No, she was the "I"ll kill it myself and use every part of it" brand of hippie, when it was convenient, which clicked with me at the time because I enjoyed hunting). I saw no need for it though, since the soap they had here was perfectly serviceable for my needs.
  
  On the other hand... I"m a man. Simple and easy to please. Women like that good-smelling stuff and that shit"s expensive. But since I"m here at the source, I could make my own while making the ink and send some off to Roxy. Zenith and Lilia would probably appreciate it too. And might as well make some for Sylphie too. In fact, if I get her involved, I can have myself a helper and sell some cheaply in the village for more pocket change. Hooray for undercutting the market. Capitalism, baby! I added making soap to my list for later.
  
  Instead of heading straight home, my feet had lead me towards Sylphie"s house. I found her just as she was leaving with a wicker basket in hand. "Lunch for your dad?"
  
  "Mm!" she confirmed happily and I walked with her as she made her way out of town.
  
  As we went, I sighed quietly as I noticed we had picked up a tail. A very obvious tail, in the form of six boys following after us. I let them get close before casting a Waterfall spell over the whole group, turned down to freezing temperatures by manipulating the "temperature" variable. Sylphie looked back at them at the sound of water and shrieks of outrage, just in time to see the boys turning and running away. "Told you I could handle them," I reminded.
  
  We passed a lonely little hill with the biggest tree in the area atop it. I hadn"t been out this way before during my traveling around with Roxy for her jobs and I had never accompanied Sylphie to meet her dad at work, but I"d seen it in passing a few times from a distance. I figured that the shade would make it a nice place to sit in the coming summer months and the elevated position would give me a good view of the surroundings. Essentially, the perfect place to sit down and write a book.
  
  We chatted as we walked towards the forest where Sylphie"s dad was stationed as a lookout on a watch tower overlooking the woods and I brought up the soap making project to Sylphie, who happily agreed to help. We made it to the watch tower and met up with Sylphie"s dad, Laws.
  
  Laws was a man with shorter ears than his daughter, golden hair, a lithe but muscular build, and the sort of good looks one saw on bishonen characters-your quintessential half-elf. I wasn"t jealous, not really. Paul was a decent looking guy, if more rugged than Laws, and Zenith was an absolute hottie-and so far, it seemed I had inherited the best of both of their facial features. Even the little "beauty mark" (read as: mole, since I"m a guy) under my left eye from Paul. It seemed Sylphie might have won the genetic lottery. I"d have to wait a few years for her to sprout up and confirm that, though. With her partially-elven heritage, she may turn out closer to Roxy"s build than that of Zenith or Lilia.
  
  "Papa, your lunch," Sylphie called up to the tower.
  
  "Ah, I"m always troubling you Luffie. How are you today?" he asked, a hopeful tone to his voice, his eyes cutting over to me inquisitively as he did.
  
  "We"re fine," the girl smiled up at her father as he invited us up.
  
  Laws focused his attention on me and I waved before starting the climb up after Sylphie. "Good afternoon, Laws."
  
  "Thank you for looking after her, Rudy."
  
  We spoke for a while, mostly about what Laws did here and about my father. Eventually, Sylphie tugged at my sleeve and I looked over to find her looking down and a bit bored. "Sorry, guess we"re boring you. Laws, do you mind if I take Sylphie to play a bit?"
  
  "Go ahead. Just don"t approach the forest," he nodded, a small smile crossing his face.
  
  "There was a big tree on the hill we passed to get here. We"ll be there. I"ll try to bring her back by sundown, so if you don"t see us by then that"s where I"d start looking first. Of course, if we actually run into the kind of trouble that makes us that late, it might be faster to follow the explosions," I chuckled.
  
  I had absolutely no compunctions against going straight to lethal spells if shit truly hit the fan, and I wouldn"t be holding back. I"d make sure everyone heard any dustup for miles. I was just five, so if I actually got into a real fight, I didn"t like my chances against other people. No, the best option in that case would be sudden, overwhelming, lethal force applied repeatedly over a wide area until the problem went away.
  
  We said our goodbyes to Sylphie"s dad and started heading back towards the tree. "So, what do you want to do today?" I asked as we walked.
  
  "Can you teach me a new spell?" Sylphie asked, turning up the cute knob seemingly to eleven. I winced as the moe scored a critical hit. Reaching out, I pulled her into a side-long hug, earning a squeak as she tensed up for a moment before eventually relaxing.
  
  Sylphie still wasn"t used to touches that were friendly and didn"t involve pain. Seeing her flinch like that occasionally made me want to go find all the brats in the village that had bullied her and pick on them a little to see how they liked it, but that would be an adult (mentally) picking on children. Being with me (and Roxy, when she was here) was helping though, so I felt like she would get over it eventually. Kids were pretty resilient.
  
  "Sure, that sounds great. How about an Intermediate-level water spell?"
  
  Sylphie considered it as we walked. I had to let go eventually so we wouldn"t stumble, but when I did, she quickly put her arm around me and returned the squeeze before letting go. She didn"t exactly move away after she did though, so our shoulders occasionally brushed while we moved. After a while, she asked, "Could you show me how to make that lightning spell?"
  
  I hummed quietly, regarding her from the corner of my eye. Sylphie looked nervous, afraid I would deny her out of hand I suppose. "Sure, we can try. Can"t guarantee anything there though. It doesn"t actually have an incantation. It"s all feel."
  
  The way Sylphie"s ears wagged and perked up from their droopy state was absolutely adorable. I had long since marked it as a tell for an emotional barometer, in the same way dogs wag their tails or hold their ears. Kind of cool that she has muscular control of those when her dad doesn"t.
  
  We made it to the hill and spent the rest of the afternoon "playing."
  
  In that time, I explained and demonstrated the Arc spell several times, but Sylphie had yet to produce results. After seeing her get frustrated, I forced her to try something different instead of banging her head against a brick wall. Unsurprisingly, she cast the spell I"d originally had in mind on the first try, and not long thereafter had it down to silently casting.
  
  When the sky started changing colors and the sun slipped halfway below the horizon, I helped Sylphie to her feet and took her home. Laws had already returned home by the time we got there and we met with Sylphie"s mother. The woman pulled me into a hug and thanked me for taking over Roxy"s self-appointed role as Sylphie"s instructor. We sat around their table and talked for a while, going over Sylphie"s lessons and the girl giving a few demonstrations of things safe enough to use indoors. Eventually though, I had to go home.
  
  Turning to Sylphie, I sent her a smile. "I"ll see you tomorrow. I"ll be by in the morning."
  
  "Y-yes!" the girl agreed readily, earning a giggle from her mother and a laugh from her father.
  
  I left Sylphie"s house and headed for my own home. By now, it was full on dark, so I pulled out my wand and cast a fireball a foot from the tip of it. Then, I wrapped it in a wind spell that would feed it and tethered the wind spell to myself so it would follow. Finally, I moved the light around until I settled on putting it over my right shoulder. Satisfied with my handiwork, I took off down the road.
  
  It was a good twenty minutes or more before I managed to make it back home-mostly because I wasn"t really in a hurry and was taking my time to eyeball the Bardius fields and remember who owned which so I could ask for permission to harvest some later.
  
  As I made my way through the front gate, I saw Lilia sitting out on the veranda. Faintly, I heard the thumping of a bed against a wall and the sound of Zenith"s cries from inside. Cutting off my fireball, I dropped down to sit beside the maid. "Sorry for making you wait up. Or were they keeping you up again?"
  
  Lilia gave a quiet little sigh. "A bit of both."
  
  "Well, why don"t you go in and get a bath? I can wait."
  
  The maid shook her head. "They ran out all the hot water again and I would have to clean the tub."
  
  I palmed my face. "Again? Really?" Grumbling quietly, I stood up and offered Lilia a hand. "Come on, let"s go fill the tanks and get inside."
  
  The maid accepted the hand up and we walked around the side of the house. I tied another fireball to myself and climbed up the ladder to the upper platform. Popping the cap on both tanks, I filled them up and heated the one for hot water up to a boil. Making sure everything was closed tight, I climbed back down and walked with Lilia towards the front door. "I"ll clean the tub up for you. Sorry about them."
  
  Lilia shook her head. "Thank you. You don"t have to apologize though." She hesitated before asking, "Are you sleeping any better?"
  
  Blinking, I looked up at her. "You knew about that?"
  
  The redhead smiled. "I know almost everything that goes on in this home. Your room is nearly directly above mine. I"ve heard you tossing and turning recently."
  
  She didn"t need to say it for me to hear the implied, "since Roxy left." I wondered where this was coming from as we entered the house and made our way up to the bathroom. Lilia was nice enough with my parents, but we had never exactly been close.
  
  I wouldn"t say she avoided me, but I always had the feeling she had something against me. I probably just creeped her out, so I gave her a pass on that since her instincts telling her something was wrong with me were right. "Lilia?"
  
  "You really are Paul"s son," she sighed, running her hand through my hair as I set about cleaning the tub with fire. "Try not to pick up your father"s bad habits. You already have his stubbornness and his way with women. Don"t add running away from your problems or resorting to violence first."
  
  "Ah ha ha," I chuckled weakly. "Yeah... I was wondering when you"d bring that up."
  
  Lilia shook her head. "I wouldn"t have. I thought Miss Roxy may be taking advantage, but decided to hold my tongue because you didn"t seem bothered by it. Later on, I assumed it was the Greyrat in you and you were simply a very early bloomer."
  
  I shrugged a bit. "If there was any taking advantage, it was mutual. We had fun, but it didn"t get to the point where you"d have to worry about her getting pregnant."
  
  "And you"ve also been consorting with Laws" girl."
  
  Blinking, I considered the woman"s absolutely dry delivery. "Lilia," I asked, unsure, "are you... teasing me?"
  
  "Perhaps."
  
  Sighing, I poked the woman in the stomach, drawing a ticklish flinch from her. "I didn"t think you were capable. Actually, no, I thought you just didn"t like me."
  
  She took her time answering, and when she did it wasn"t exactly a denial. "I see much of your father in you, from when he was younger and we shared the same sword school. It was... a relief when I found you with Ms. Roxy."
  
  And just like that, my good cheer died. I turned on the water and stood. "I"m going to go to bed now. Good night, Lilia."
  
  Lilia watched silently as I left, closing the door behind me.
  
  How am I supposed to fix a problem when I don"t even know what the problem is? Putting aside whether it"s mine to fix or not, since if I want any sort of treatment from her beyond "polite but cautious," it kind of is.
  
  Damnit, Paul. What did you do to piss her off?
  
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  sinereal
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  I got up early the next morning. I hadn"t had much sleep so I didn"t feel at one hundred percent, but I"d gone to school and work on less in my previous life, so I pushed through and forced myself to get dressed.
  
  I collected my bag and stowed my plant encyclopedia and the leftover bronze. Anything else I needed for this project, I could make with magic as needed. I stopped in the kitchen long enough to grab a piece of bread and some cheese, before I left the house.
  
  My feet carried me towards the village and I used fire magic to warm up the bread and cheese before eating what would have to pass for breakfast. Water magic supplied something to wash it down-I trusted drinking it more than most of the water around here save for what was drawn from the wells but I knew, thanks to knowledge from Earth, that it was best not to drink for prolonged periods unless you had a way of replacing the minerals, salt, and so on lost through sweat; in other words, it wasn"t really an issue.
  
  I found a place to settle down in the square and wait and, when daylight broke, I went to Sylphie"s house and camped on their front porch until Laws left for the morning. Then, I collected Sylphie and we headed out to the hill with the tree for the day with a basket from Sylphie"s mother containing our lunches in addition to Laws".
  
  I spent the morning working with Sylphie on magic, teaching her the intermediate level material as I"d learned it from Roxy and the two of us had corrected or clarified over time, after comparing what we knew of magic to what I knew of natural science.
  
  After instruction came time for practice. I had Sylphie go through every spell she knew, silently casting as I called them out. As we had learned when Roxy first started teaching her, Sylphie was great with water magic, decent with wind and earth, and terrible with fire. The reason for that was pretty simple-she was afraid of fire, or rather afraid of being burned. She had a scar on her palm from where she picked up a hot fire poker when she was three.
  
  While she didn"t shy away from fire spells when I cast them, she probably had some kind of lasting psychological trauma from that event causing her to have issues casting fire magic. In other words, it was all in her head. I encouraged her to keep working on it, but left it up to her to do so. Roxy had insisted it was a "systems" thing, but we both decided that one person wasn"t proof.
  
  Around noon, we walked together to where Laws was posted for the day and had lunch together.
  
  Pulling out my encyclopedia as I ate, I flipped to the section on various trees and their properties. It didn"t take long to find what I was looking for-a tree that produced thick sap, which was native to the region. Holding that place bookmarked with a finger, I flipped through the book again and found the other plants I was looking for. Things for making ink and soap. "Hey Laws, do we have any of these around here?" I pointed out the plants in question in the book.
  
  Humming, he looked up from his lunch and eyed the drawings in the book along with the names. "Yes, those are all found in the forest. Why do you ask, Rudy?"
  
  "I"m working on a project. A gift for my former master. I need to collect some of the sap from one of those trees to make it, along with several samples of each of the other plants."
  
  Laws raised an eyebrow at that. "Must be some gift. It is your master though, so I understand," he murmured. "Alright! I"ll escort you into the forest to collect what you need. It shouldn"t take long and we won"t be going in far. Sylphie, Rudeus, don"t wander off on your own. Stay within sight of each other at all times. It should be safe enough, but stay on your guard just in case."
  
  With that, we went into the forest and spent some time gathering plants. As we worked, Laws taught what he knew about the forest, the creatures in it, and how to spot signs of their passage. I had learned woodcraft in my previous life, so I knew how to spot tracks, bent and broken grass and branches, and so on, but learning what track shapes went with what monster helped. Thankfully, we didn"t spot any monster tracks in the hundred or so yards we went in to find one of the trees I needed.
  
  I used earth magic to make a knife to cut the tree and a small jar to hold the sap, then used water magic to pull enough sap out to fill the jar. Closing it off, I stuck it in my bag and we moved on. We gathered the local equivalent to thyme, hyacinth, and several other plants and I stowed each in their own small stone jars, before we left the forest.
  
  As we left, I found some dead hardwood branches, knocked the dirt off of those, and stowed them as well. Laws retook his post and we said our goodbyes before heading for what was quickly becoming our spot.
  
  When we got back, I put away my bag and turned to Sylphie. "I"ve found that the key to a healthy mind is a healthy body. Being physically fit means you can run from the problems magic can"t solve, or deal with the problems you shouldn"t use magic to solve. So, want to join me Sylphie?"
  
  The little girl agreed, of course. That was how I gained an exercise partner. Of course, being just five herself and not having had years of running around "playing" (read: training) as exercise, she had no real stamina to speak of. I walked her through stretches and a short jog around the tree, then a few sets of physical exercises. After that, she was spent and collapsed into a sweaty, panting mess on the grass in the shade of the tree. I made a stone cup and filled it with water, which she eagerly gulped down, before working through the rest of my exercises.
  
  "Okay," I opened up the bag I had leaned against the tree and pulled out the branches. "Part of what"s needed to make soap is hard wood ash. So for today, we"re going to burn these down and collect the ash when it"s done. I can buy some lard in the village tomorrow and we"ll start that part then."
  
  ""kay," Sylphie called tiredly.
  
  "Come clear off a spot of ground to get the grass away from it, make a stone depression to burn them in, and set them on fire for me," I instructed. "Then once you"ve got it going, you can start on your spell practice."
  
  I oversaw Sylphie following my instructions and patted her head in praise when she finished before moving away to do my own work. Instead of moving straight to sword practice, I sat down and took a short break, watching as Sylphie began practicing her spells. I had some thinking to do.
  
  Paul"s an asshole, but he"s a talented asshole. He"s a natural swordsman. He"s got years on me in terms of training. He can also use magic or something in a way I can"t, giving him speed and strength I just don"t have.
  
  I"m never going to beat him in a straight up sword fight as it stands, and since he"s not exactly the best in the world when it comes to swords, I"m looking at not being able to deal with a fairly large group of people if I run across any of them and they decide to shit in my Cheerios.
  
  So, what do I have going for me?
  
  The obvious answers were: magic, silent casting, and an overabundance of mana with which to silently cast magic. The less obvious answers were creativity and a whole lot of Earth media to draw inspiration from.
  
  Well, there"s always the age old issue of mobility and reach I could exploit. If all you have is a sword and you can"t reach your target, you can"t hit them unless you throw your sword like a fucking idiot-in which case, you"re unarmed. If you have the high ground, you have a tactical advantage over your enemy.
  
  So, mobility and a way to get to or make high ground, or otherwise manipulate the terrain to my advantage.
  
  The second would be easy enough. I already knew terrain manipulation spells for making pitfalls, swamps, spike fields, and other traps to inconvenience an enemy trying to get to me. I could always create a bog around myself, use an earth spell to make sure I had solid footing, and proceed to bombard my target in safety.
  
  The problem was getting distance in the first place if I didn"t already have it. I"d seen the way Paul moved. It wouldn"t take him more than a second or two to clear a good twenty yards, if not more, when he decided to push himself.
  
  Which brought me back to the first problem. Mobility. I didn"t know any spells to directly make a mage move faster. Neither had Roxy for that matter, otherwise I"m sure she would have taught me. Using wind magic to give myself a tailwind or my sword swings some extra oomph was about the extent of what I had available there. My self-made reinforcement magic was great at filling that gap, but it just didn"t compare to whatever the hell Paul was doing.
  
  I didn"t know of any flight spells and if teleportation was even a thing-which I assumed it must be, given that summoning magic existed-then I didn"t know any magic in that field so there was no point dwelling on that particular avenue until I could learn it. The best place for that would be the Ranoa College of Magic, but I was sure that would be expensive.
  
  I"ve been modifying spells since I was three. I"ve already created three lightning spells. I can make a movement spell.
  
  That decided, I pondered where to start from. Thrust. Like my old dad always used to say, if you put enough thrust behind a brick, it may not be pretty, but it"ll fly.
  
  Applying what I knew of physics and magic already, I decided the best place to start would be with trying to modify a wind spell. Earth wouldn"t work because I needed dirt to work with for that element. Water might work, but would be more mana intensive, not to mention leave streamers of water behind.
  
  Fire was a definite maybe, but only if used in specific ways-jet engines worked based on turbines, but true ramjets worked by using fuel to burn a compressed fuel/air mixture. A combination wind/fire spell might work wonders, but I was leery of trying something that volatile right off the bat. Wind seemed the safest and most likely to work, without blasting me to the moon.
  
  Making sure I was facing away from Sylphie, I began playing with one of the elementary wind spells, Wind Gust, trying to modify it for my needs. Wind Gust was like Water Ball or Fireball, in that it was one of those "shoot a ball from the hand" spells-at least for me. I started by modifying it to cast continuously, instead of as a single burst. The effect was a fairly strong gust of wind blowing from my hand, leaving the grass ahead of me disturbed in a visible cone.
  
  "Rudy, what are you doing?" Sylphie called, looking up from her practice.
  
  "Working on a new spell. It may get a bit loud, but just keep working please," I sent her a smile as I shut off the spell and considered what I had felt as I"d used it.
  
  Definitely felt the force behind that. It nearly shoved me off my feet. Which means this might actually be viable. It wasn"t too costly, either, so I would probably be able to keep it up for a while. Not all day, but an hour or two minimum.
  
  Taking the potential for recoil or being blown off my feet into account, I reinforced my body with mana and set my feet into a wide stance. "Okay, let"s try this again," I murmured. Holding out both hands, I cast the spell from both and poured in about double the mana-to each. The results were immediate as I was blown off my feet and sent flipping ass over teakettle onto my back in the grass.
  
  "Rudy! Are you okay?!" Sylphie yelped, running over and leaning over my prone form.
  
  I laughed quietly, accepting her hand and sitting up. "I"m fine, Sylphie. Don"t worry, I"m kind of expecting things like that to happen. I"m using mana to make my body stronger so I won"t get hurt, but if I do I"ll cast healing magic."
  
  The greenette shook her head, sending short locks flying about her face. "What if you get hurt so bad you can"t use magic? I"ll keep watch and use healing magic, so please don"t try whatever it is you"re doing when I"m not there!"
  
  Seeing she had a point, I nodded. "Sure. I promise," I agreed easily. Seeing she was satisfied, I went back to my experimentation. This time, Sylphie kept an eye on me as I worked.
  
  Test three. Vertical thrust. Let"s see if I can get off the ground without breaking my fool neck.
  
  Spreading my hands out to my sides and aiming at the ground, I reinforced my body and cast the spell again-at a much reduced output this time. I immediately felt the strain in my arms as it felt like I was supporting my entire body weight on them-not that there was much of it to support. Slowly, oh so slowly, I lifted off the ground by a few inches. I immediately began to wobble. Attempting to correct my little flight with hand movements only made it worse and sent me stumbling back to the ground, but at least I was able to keep my footing.
  
  Okay! Minor success, minor failure. Lack of control is an issue. I seem to recall that in VTOL planes like the Harrier, pilots described it as feeling like riding a razor, and that"s pretty much what I"m getting.
  
  Sitting down cross legged, I thought it over. Sylphie, seeing I wasn"t working with the spell at the moment, seemed to content herself with going back to her own work-occasionally looking up to make sure I hadn"t started working again. Thinking over the issue of balance, I hummed quietly.
  
  I could use thrust vectoring? That"s how they made the Harrier work, along with the F-35. I think... Well, it"s not like I can"t control how the wind moves as I"m casting the spell, either. But with just two points acting as both thrust and control surfaces, it won"t be particularly stable. I could hold three if needed... so a third from my feet?
  
  It wasn"t like I hadn"t been casting from my feet for a while now. Mostly for earth spells, or spells like Ice Wall or Ice Pillar. Still, using my feet to cast a wind spell should be doable. Just to test the theory, I stuck my feet out and tried to cast. It was a bit awkward, just as it had been the first few times I"d tried that with earth spells, but I knew from experience that it would become second nature with practice. Okay, that works.
  
  It occurred to me that there was one glaring problem with all of this. Flight would be good for getting away, or gaining a lot of height very quickly, but not so good at clearing the space of a room, maneuvering quickly, or hovering in place without serious concentration.
  
  Maybe I"m thinking too big? Instead of flight, maybe for dealing with people like Paul I need something closer to the old standby of a fast running or short range teleport technique. Something along the lines of Naruto"s shunshin or Bleach"s shunpo.
  
  What about... using a wind gust on every step to propel myself, so it"s more like skipping than flight? Could theoretically pinball myself that way if I could get casting it from anywhere on my body down. A sustained effect for hovering? Or using ice or earth pillars to launch myself or land on? Launching maybe, especially if it makes obstacles for enemies, but landings could be accomplished with an air thrust, couldn"t they?
  
  I glanced over at the big tree. Let"s test that theory.
  
  I pushed myself to my feet, causing Sylphie to look up and follow my movements. She watched as I climbed into the tree. I noticed her hands clenching into fists about the time I jumped off the lowest limb. Reinforcing myself and holding my hands aimed at the ground, I cast Wind Gust again. This time, I flipped over in midair twice and landed face down. However, I noticed the landing was a lot lighter than it would have otherwise been.
  
  "Are you okay, Rudy?" Sylphie called worriedly from nearby.
  
  I sent her a thumbs up and rolled over onto my back. "That mostly worked," I mused. "Let"s try it again. Without the oops."
  
  The day wore on and eventually, I got the hang of catching myself on a cushion of air. It wasn"t the greatest of breakthroughs, but it would be useful in the event I ever fell from a great height-about as useful as a parachute. Not something you"d normally carry, but when the plane starts going down it"s something you suddenly really want, then start praying on when you"re forced into open air.
  
  With my landing strategy taken care of, I decided to focus on something more fun-a launch strategy. That was how I spent the rest of the evening, running around and using earth pillars to launch myself into the air and air cushions to break my fall, under the watchful eyes of Sylphie. And when I finally felt like I had it down, I called her over and explained what I was doing and how to do it, then set her to trying it herself.
  
  By the time the sun started going down, I had perfected the launch and landing to the point where I could launch myself mid-run at a moment"s notice, at any angle, and then either make a quick landing or fall in a controlled glide that I could steer with little difficulty-similarly to the way I remembered Cole MacGrath, the protagonist of InFamous, had used his powers across two games.
  
  It wasn"t quite flash step or air walking, but it was fun, fast, and could be useful later. Sylphie was still working on her landings, trying to figure out the air cushion. I collected the ashes into a jar and we called it a day.
  
  When I dropped Sylphie off at home, Laws sent me on my way after I promised to pick Sylphie up again tomorrow. I thanked him for helping me gather what I needed today and took my leave. On the way back home, I waved to one of the villagers I knew grew Bardius, since he was one of the regulars on Roxy"s route for tending the fields with magic. "Excuse me, sir," I called to him as I approached.
  
  "How can I help you, son?"
  
  "Do you mind if I take a few Bardius plants from your field on my way home? I"ll water the field for free next time if you"d let me," I asked, sending the mid-thirties man a smile.
  
  Laughing he waved me off. "Sure, go ahead Rudeus. I"ll let you know when it looks like they need a good watering again."
  
  "Thank you!" I called, before hurrying off.
  
  Along the way home, I stepped off the road and collected several Bardius plants, putting them in their own jar separate from everything else-enough to experiment with to try to find the right method and mixture, and then more to actually make ink. Being able to create pottery and containers on the spot was pretty damn convenient, if I do say so myself.
  
  Crossing through the gates, I stopped by Caravaggio"s stable and collected the rustiest looking horse shoes, slipping those into my pack well away from the paper. Never did get a chance to try making a pen today. Oh well, it was fun anyway and I only just got the materials I need to even begin making ink anyway, so no big loss.
  
  Actually, there was one more thing I needed, now that I thought about it. Glass would do better to hold the ink than stone. I could even work some into the pens I"d be making-maybe as easily replaceable ink cartridges instead of using the whole pen to house the ink.
  
  Yeah, I like that design better than just filling the pen with ink. Messy if it breaks and I think it was harder to get that type to work, especially upside down, whereas the ones using plastic inserts work by capillary action and work at any orientation.
  
  Putting out the fire spell I"d been using as a light source, I stepped into the home. "I"m home," I called reflexively, before I spotted Paul sitting at the dinner table while Zenith and Lilia cooked. The scent of food filled the house, making my mouth water.
  
  "Dinner is almost done," Lilia called when I hit the stairs.
  
  "I"ll be down in a few," I agreed.
  
  Entering my room, I dropped the bag on my bed and collapsed face first onto Roxy"s old bed. "Ugh. The things I do for magic."
  
  Even after healing magic, my everything felt like one big bruise. That"ll teach me to jump out of trees all day. Yeah right, and pigs will fly. ...Without magic.
  
  The next morning, I got up and did it all again. This time, when we finished late in the afternoon, I suggested a new project to Sylphie, after we finished today"s stage of soap making and I"d done most of the prep work for making ink-we could move on to the next phases of those tomorrow. She was reaching the point where she needed to cast many Intermediate-level spells to blow her mana for the day, so I got an idea for making use of it.
  
  Starting from the tree, we cut and raised a paved stone path into town. It wasn"t something we would do overnight, but as a long term project I felt paving the streets and road through town would be something nice-useful to everyone in the village and people who pass through.
  
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  sinereal
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  Even if her parents apparently loved me like a son and encouraged their daughter to spend time with me, especially since I was tutoring her in more than just magic and for free no less just as Roxy had, Sylphie couldn"t come out to "play" every day. She still had chores to do around the house. If I came and got her in the mornings, she would be gone all day.
  
  So, Laws and her mother asked me not to make the morning visits because they didn"t want to see her upset at being told she couldn"t come out when she had things to do. I understood, so I let them know that as long as it wasn"t raining, I"d probably be at our tree practicing if she finished her chores early and could join me.
  
  Months passed and the seasons changed.
  
  Somer and his little gang tried attacking us a few more times, even going so far as to bring in some of the older kids. All attempts were repelled with extreme prejudice. I sent them home soaked and shivering the first few times, before Sylphie worked her way up to learning combination magic well enough to be able to douse them in a deluge of freezing water herself. I let her handle the last two attempts. They stopped bothering when they realized that all they were going to get for their troubles was cold and wet.
  
  Although... that may have had something to do with the fact that I memorized their faces and started asking around the village, with the people I was friendly with. I put names to faces, then tracked down their parents. As it turns out, some of the parents were clients of mine. Word quickly got around that anyone whose kid caused trouble for me or Sylphie had their prices triple overnight, and in every instance the reason was calmly explained with the simple request, "Ask your son why Rudeus Greyrat might be upset with him."
  
  Those parents that apologized found their prices returning to normal. The only one that did not was Mrs. Ada. The woman was particularly livid with me. That might be because surprisingly, Paul had taken what Roxy told him that night she intervened on my behalf to heart and told the woman to fuck off. Or maybe because Zenith came out and tore strips out of her hide.
  
  Both of those had happened, according to Lilia. Roxy had never had much in the way of dealings with her so she wasn"t a regular of mine, but I banned her anyway-I wouldn"t piss on her if she was on fire in the future, since for a while she kept coming around with her brat and making up stories about how I hurt her precious baby.
  
  When I couldn"t teach Sylphie, I spent my time practicing new things. Trying to develop new spells. Working more magic into my fighting style. I had figured out 3D maneuvering after only a month or so of practice. After that, it became second nature. I didn"t need to use earth magic to launch myself, but it was fun to do so and useful for making obstacles.
  
  Either way, the technique involved casting my modified Wind Gust spell, Air Running, with every step I took and adjusting the force of each casting appropriately for the distance I wanted to clear or the speed I wanted to move. I learned how to change directions on a dime, either on the ground or in the air and move at speeds near, if not exceeding, what I had seen from Paul as needed. Standing in one place was still difficult and wobbly, but it could be managed with a single casting from a foot as long as I concentrated on it.
  
  Sylphie was right behind me with Air Running. She absolutely loved it and we sometimes spent evenings just playing magical tag, throwing low powered Water Ball spells at each other as we danced around the sky. It was fun and a nice break from constantly focusing on work.
  
  What"s that you say? It"s still training? Well, yeah. No shit. Just because it"s practice doesn"t mean you can"t enjoy it.
  
  With Air Running well on the way to mastery, I worked on a new way of using earth and ice pillars and combining that with creating either a swamp or quicksand using earth magic. The basic idea was, at the beginning of an encounter, to cast a wide area mire around myself and my enemy, hopefully trapping them in it. Then, I"d launch myself backwards with an Earth Wall/Pillar combo, creating a barrier between me and whatever wanted to introduce me to the pointy end of the sword that expanded into a field of spikes and slick patches of ice on top of a shallow crust that would collapse with just a few pounds of force on top of it. After hitting the apex of my launch, I used Air Running to glide while bombarding the area with spells.
  
  I also began mastering my lightning spells and Sylphie finally managed to learn Arc.
  
  Arc and Flash Bang were both Elementary-level spells. The first was an amped up taser but could be used with varying voltage to different effects, from shocking to welding. Flash Bang was exactly what it said on the tin, a ball lightning blast of electricity that created a blinding flash and an explosive sound near the target.
  
  Bolt was an Intermediate-level spell that created a lightning bolt between myself and my target. I could either use it for one zap, or hold it for prolonged zapping. I hadn"t tested it on anyone, but it caught trees on fire well enough and caused the occasional bark explosion, so I was pretty sure it was either lethal or close enough.
  
  Cue Palpatine "Unlimited power!" meme. I may have yelled exactly that while casting the spell and cackling like an evil sorcerer at the time, too.
  
  Sylphie took that as a sign that I needed a break from magical R&D (read by Sylphie as: playing) and dragged me off to have a picnic, then forced me to spend the next day just spending time with her instead of working on anything. It was nice. I should probably take more time for relaxing.
  
  Chain Lightning was an Advanced-level version of Bolt that caused lightning to arc between targets. Definitely lethal, given how much juice I pumped into that one. Thunder was Chain Lightning"s bigger, nastier, Saint-level brother-essentially, the first spell in the lightning school I"d made, modified for guaranteed target chaining, just refined to be capable of targeting a smaller area.
  
  Going up the scale, I had taken Caravaggio hours out of town one day and secured him inside a dome of earth. I cast my first King-level lightning spell on the plains south of the village, well away from people. It didn"t matter. The village knew about it by the time I got back. They saw and heard the noise. Mjolnir was what I called the wide-scale lightning spell I honestly hoped I would never have to use again. It left more than a square mile of plains devastated-a blasted, burning mess of ash and slagged glass.
  
  Poor Caravaggio was traumatized. I was pretty sure he flashed back to that time Roxy accidentally zapped him.
  
  Well, good news! I had another source of glass now. I dragged home a huge chunk using Caravaggio and some rope. That got me started on another project. With some more bronze and a lot of patience and earth magic, I set about creating tools. I made a small, collapsing, adjustable focus spotting scope and a bookmark style rectangular magnifying glass each for myself, Roxy, and Sylphie.
  
  As far as projects went, I had made entirely too much ink, once I"d separated it out into individual pen refills and bottles. I spoke with the man who owned the general store and he agreed to sell my ink and a few pens for me. Pens that just happened to look like magical staves from Earth media. The agreed upon terms were that he would sell them at whatever cost he felt they would sell for and I would get half. It was extra pocket change and I could make it by the pot full. So as long as I got back material costs on the brass used for the pens plus a little on the top I was happy.
  
  The road raising project went smoothly. Between Sylphie and myself, we had the town itself done in the course of a week-and most of that time was because I was going slow so that Sylphie would have something to spend her mana on at the end of the day. There was no point to it if I did it all for her, when I could easily blow my own mana on other tasks.
  
  She was the one who needed the control exercises more anyway. And once we finished the town, we took Caravaggio out and started raising the path leading out of town into a road in both directions-until it got to the point that we were spending more than two hours on horseback just to go out and back, at which point I called it good enough.
  
  As a consequence of that, however, I noticed that Buena Village started to see more people coming and going. Traders, mostly. My ink and pens sold for a small fortune (especially the pens, at about two gold each when included with a set of ink refills), so I reinvested most of the money in making more and selling them.
  
  After the second batch of sales, the owner of the general store asked for the ink recipe and I agreed to give it to him and let him produce and sell it from now on, in exchange for a quarter of whatever profit he made off of it. Then I washed my hands of it. I was a mage and I enjoyed making things, that didn"t mean I was a human factory to crank out the same crap day, after day, after day. No matter how good the money was. I"d had enough of that sort of tedium in my old life.
  
  Nope. I decided then and there that unless it was of direct benefit to me, that I wouldn"t be doing any of that shit. If someone wanted something mass produced, they could do it themselves.
  
  Pens, I'd do only because they sold for a ridiculous amount, but I could make one or two at my leisure to practice fine control, the same way I was still doing statues. Doing the ink too was just going out of my way to do more work that wouldn't improve my magic.
  
  The book project was coming along well enough. At least, in some aspects. My biggest issue was a lack of vocabulary on my part. For the science, I simply lacked certain key terms. I would need more books, preferably a thesaurus or a dictionary, in order to properly translate what I knew into this world"s human tongue. That also meant that my guide to English was on hold indefinitely, until then. Math, on the other hand, I had already completed up to what I remembered so I went ahead and used water magic to make a copy for Sylphie to give to her later, after I had them all bound.
  
  Sylphie could now speak English functionally at a conversational level, but we were simply missing too many words for some of the more complex terms. Teaching her to write it was easy enough, using earth manipulation to create letters on the ground and walk her through it. She took to math pretty well too, but as with most children, there was only so fast you could go and expect any level of retention. She would be learning the majority of it from the book, once I gave it to her.
  
  Sylphie"s normal magic training, when she was available, was coming along swimmingly. She was already up to Advanced-level spells in everything but fire and water. Fire lagged behind a level.
  
  Roxy had mentioned that natural strengths and weaknesses were a thing-specialized systems and weak systems. It was one of the areas where we couldn"t really come to any kind of agreement. I argued that any such weakness or specialization lie in the wielder"s own mentality-their liking or disdain for a particular branch of magic, their understanding of the subject, and their willingness to put in the effort.
  
  Roxy had argued that while that may be possible, the rule also apparently applied to forms of magic other than elemental magic, including healing magic, thus the systems themselves existed and someone like me, who appeared to be good with every spell I tried, was an exception. Sylphie was just one case, so until Roxy and I took on more students that debate was on hold.
  
  As far as water went, Sylphie graduated to Saint-level. She still had a lot of catching up to do though, so she was surprisingly humble about it. Well, I shouldn"t really say "surprisingly" given her character.
  
  Beyond her normal studies, I was branching out with Sylphie. That girl needed all the love, to be honest.
  
  Not the "with my dick" kind of love.
  
  Just some good, honest, wholesome affection from someone who cared for her and wasn"t her parents. But more than she needed affection and positive reinforcement, she needed... firing. She needed a spine, and for that spine to be forged from steel-because as it was she couldn"t stand up for herself at all. The slightest force of pressure or expectation on her and she folded like a cheap suit.
  
  If I had bad intentions, or were interested in children, I could have turned this to my advantage. She trusted me and looked up to me, so I had a feeling that with time and convincing, she would do almost anything I asked of her if it would make me happy. And she"d do it with a smile.
  
  Almost every man likes the idea of a compliant, willing woman to mold how he sees fit. I"d be lying if I said that the idea wasn"t appealing. If we were a little older and she was into that sort of thing, I would absolutely do exactly that. But we weren't and she was entirely too vulnerable and trusting for me to abuse that trust.
  
  So, I went about trying to teach her how to be strong. How to stand up for herself. When and how to say 'no,' or make herself heard.
  
  It was slow going.
  
  Sylphie was naturally a very accepting, tolerant, and forgiving person. Being bullied had pretty much destroyed any ego she had. She was so eager to please that the idea of refusing or denying me something was almost alien to her. I"m sure there were limits, at least at the moment, but I wasn"t going to cross those boundaries.
  
  No, instead I started testing her. After I"d taught her something, I"d wait a few days then ask her questions about it. Next, I asked for more. Instead of just basic facts, I tested her understanding, asking why something was. Then, I began making her defend her position. I started gently at first, but gradually began increasing the pressure. Sometimes, it was just being particularly persistent or contrary. I used those examples to try to teach her how to spot bullshit, both subtle and blatant. Other times, I got downright nasty, even mean. My reasoning being that if I was the biggest asshole she knew and she could stand up to me, then dealing with anyone else would be a cake walk.
  
  It was hard on both of us. Sometimes she cried and it hurt to see, hurt to know that I had hurt her, but the alternative was worse. I didn't want her to grow up into a doormat.
  
  I pushed on and I always made sure to try to make her feel better after particularly bad lesson and explain what she needed to do next time to avoid the verbal traps I was laying out. How to shut down such a line of argument in the future. And if that wasn"t possible, how to walk away from it and put it out of her mind-disregard it entirely. That last one was particularly hard for her.
  
  Slowly but surely though, I began to see progress over the course of months as the scared, hurt little girl I had first met started to grow into something more.
  
  
  Winter came, and with it a blizzard. Training outside for Sylphie was put off indefinitely until it cleared up. I went out from time to time to try my hand at using magic to survive in an extreme environment, but the best I could come up with was a combination of three spells-a dome of water repelling magic that I"d perfected during the artificial rainy season after Roxy left, a dome of wind, and a sustained fire spell to heat the wind up to acceptable levels. It helped for trips to town, and Zenith refused to leave the house now without me accompanying her because otherwise her toes would freeze, but it wasn"t perfect.
  
  And in the middle of that blizzard, Zenith announced she was pregnant. I was going to be an older brother again.
  
  Congratulations, Zenith.
  
  I knew they had been trying hard for a second child for years and having problems, so I imagine this came as a relief to both of them that nothing was really wrong.
  
  Names were discussed, plans were made, my old clothes were gathered up for hand-me-downs, the crib was dragged out of storage and cleaned up. Then there was the issue of room to consider.
  
  With my old bedroom converted into a bathroom, Lilia using the downstairs bedroom, and Paul and Zenith not wanting to have the new baby in their own bedroom for reasons that would be obvious to anyone who"d ever raised a child, there weren"t many choices.
  
  Either I was going to be sharing space with a screaming newborn, or someone would be bunking downstairs in the main room that served as kitchen, dining room, and living room in one. Zenith was heavily against the idea of putting a newborn downstairs, so they all leaned on me to allow the new kid to bunk in my room.
  
  Haa, yeah. No. Nope. They can hang that shit up. I valued my sleep and my private space too much to give either up. That, and the fact that delicate things like books (or silk panties) and babies don"t mix. Never put a baby near anything you mind being pissed, shit, and puked on or just outright destroyed.
  
  Just to clarify, I didn"t have a panty fetish or anything. Panties were only sexy for what they hid while being worn. I just thought it was cute and sweet that Roxy had gone that far. That, and I could probably use them to tease her later. I had this mental image of pushing her down, shoving them into her mouth, and fucking her into the ground until she went cross-eyed when we finally saw each other again...
  
  The very next morning after learning of Zenith"s pregnancy, I went outside and set about fixing the problem before the deadline. I had taken a few drafting courses in my previous life, not to mention I came from a family of carpenters and had spent many a summer growing up helping my uncles put up houses, or my dad or grandfather with various projects around the house building and installing cabinets, drawers, furniture, floors, and more. Sure, that was with fairly modern tools (outdated by Earth standards, because you don"t throw away a tool that works, so some of them had been in the family since the time of my great great grandfather), but spells could make up a lot for those with enough creativity-in other words, it would be an excuse to practice spellwork.
  
  It cut into my magical fun (read: training) time, but if the alternative was a baby screaming in my ears at all hours of the day and night, then it was a sacrifice I would just have to make.
  
  With an idea of what I wanted, I went out and made an addition to the house. Unfortunately, I couldn"t really match the style of the exterior with the materials on hand. We could always reface it later with the proper materials to match the style, though. For now, as long as it had four walls, a roof, and didn"t leak I was fine with it.
  
  I leveled off a spot of ground adjacent to the house on the back side. Next I set about using magic to make brick (actually stones shaped into nice, even little bricks made from earth magic), cement (baked limestone, which I could create with earth magic and heat with fire magic), and concrete (cement plus sand and/or gravel, again created with earth magic).
  
  With Paul"s help, we took Caravaggio, hitched him to a wagon, and headed to the forest where we cut down trees and I dried, cut, straightened, cured, and shaped them into proper lumber using water, wind, earth, and fire magic for various aspects of the process. It was great practice for versatility. One day, I would use those skills to build something even better. Maybe when Roxy came back.
  
  We were a month or so into our expansion to the house and it was shaping up nicely. Unfortunately, Paul just had to go and fuck it up.
  
  Turns out, he can"t keep his dick in his pants. Zenith was worried about complications, so she cut him off. Well, instead of going celibate or taking the issue in hand himself for a few months, he decided to play hide the sausage with the maid.
  
  On the one hand, I didn"t blame him. Lilia was a beauty. Big tits, glasses, the stern look, and the maid outfit really did it for me.
  
  On the other hand, I totally blamed him. The man completely lacked impulse control. A man wasn"t supposed to let himself be lead around by his dick.
  
  Yeah, I was pretty sure they did this last time too, and off and on occasionally since I was born, but this was the first and only time Lilia had gotten pregnant and they couldn"t really hide it any longer. Or rather, Lilia wouldn"t hide it and confessed one night at dinner that she was pregnant.
  
  Paul actually manned up and admitted that it was his. Once more, he managed to surprise me.
  
  Zenith called an emergency meeting, after slapping the shit out of Paul. That she restrained herself to a single slap, with no screaming, yelling, accusations, or otherwise was kind of impressive. The fact that he let it happen, and let it hurt him, actually went a ways towards showing he genuinely felt shitty about it-or at least about getting caught. I highly doubt he felt guilty about the act itself.
  
  I watched and listened as they talked. Zenith asked what Lilia would do. Lilia said she intended to help Zenith with her own birth, then find a midwife for herself, have her child, and go home. Paul tried to butt in, but Zenith told him that if he didn"t shut his mouth, she was done-and no one there took that as anything but completely serious on her part.
  
  Paul shut his mouth.
  
  Lilia"s home was several months" journey on foot to the south and if she was leaving after just giving birth, there was a good chance she and the child would just die on the road. And that was in normal conditions. In the middle of one of the roughest winters many of the older folk in the village could remember? They wouldn"t make it far at all.
  
  Considering that I owed Lilia, since she"d actually been trying to get closer to me since that night she all but outright admitted she had been seeing a younger Paul every time she looked at me, I decided to try to help her out.
  
  "Mother, I know you"re angry and you have every right to be. Father broke your vows. But you shouldn"t punish Lilia for his weakness. She"s been nothing but good to our family, and a good friend to you, right?" I asked, earning a shaky nod from Zenith. "She"s practically family at this point anyway, and you"d just be sending her and my half-sibling to die if you made her leave any time soon. Wouldn"t it be better in the long run if she stayed, and your children grew up together as siblings-having someone their own age to play with and talk to?"
  
  "Well, yes," Zenith hemmed. "I suppose so."
  
  "It"s not like she had much of a choice about who she was interested in, either, right? I mean, she spends most of her time working here in the house," I pointed out.
  
  Zenith closed her eyes, frowning. "We weren"t trying to keep her isolated-"
  
  "No, of course not," I agreed. "But the fact is, we"re the only people she really interacts with on any sort of permanent basis."
  
  "I guess," Zenith pouted.
  
  "Also, you know it"ll be easier to raise them with Lilia"s help."
  
  Zenith looked like it hurt to admit. "Yeah."
  
  "And this way I get two cute siblings. I"ll be honest, I"m hoping for sisters," I admitted with a laugh. "Then I can spoil them." At least this way, if I framed it as a selfish request on my part, she could shift some of the blame for the situation away from Lilia and onto me. Not much admittedly, but maybe enough to help.
  
  With a final sigh, Zenith nodded. "Okay, you win Rudy. Lilia, don"t leave. Stay with us." She didn"t exactly seem enthusiastic about it, but I could hardly blame her considering what I was asking of her.
  
  Paul and Lilia stared at Zenith in shock. Lilia broke down crying and Paul looked like he didn"t know what to do. The issue decided in her mind, Zenith made the choice for him and headed off to their room alone, so he turned he attention to comforting Lilia. Wow, good job Paul! Comfort the mistress, ignore the wife. Moron.
  
  Standing up, I followed after Zenith, heading up to their bedroom on the second floor. I knocked softly at the door and she cracked it open a moment later. There was a hint of disappointment in her eyes when she found me instead of Paul, but she quickly smothered it and put on a watery smile. "Yes, Rudy?"
  
  "Can I come in?" She nodded, opening the door a bit and I slipped inside. Zenith moved over to sit on the bed, then patted the space beside her. I obligingly obeyed, hopping up onto the down mattress beside the woman and leaning into her side as she wrapped an arm around my back.
  
  I didn"t really know what to say here. "Sorry your husband cheated on you with your best friend and I talked you into keeping the backstabber around and helping to raise her kid," wouldn"t really cut the mustard, or so I suspected. There is a reason NTR is a shit fetish. Those kinds of hurts are deep and long lasting, and being forced to keep enduring it would only make it worse. But in the end, it was the most pragmatic choice-sacrificing one person"s happiness for the lives of two others. Realistically, she may even get over it eventually.
  
  You couldn"t fix dead, however. At least, not to my knowledge. Not yet. I reincarnated here, so obviously there is some kind of method.
  
  It turns out that I didn"t really need to say anything. Zenith opened the floodgates herself. "I thought I had prepared myself. I knew what kind of man your father was when I married him, Rudy. He was always the lustful sort when he was younger, chasing after any woman that caught his fancy. He"s not a bad guy, he"s just... stupid."
  
  "He thinks with his dick," I supplied, earning a somewhat shocked, wide-eyed look from Zenith before she giggled.
  
  "Oh, I should scold you for saying that, shouldn"t I? It"s true, though," she admitted. "It just happened so suddenly and I was shocked."
  
  I shot her a knowing look. "You really think this is the first time?"
  
  Zenith sighed and slowly shook her head. "Paul only married me because I got pregnant and I demanded he take responsibility. I"m sure you have some older brothers and sisters out there somewhere. No, it"s surely not the first time with Lilia. Just the first time he couldn"t hide it. I want to think the best of your father and believe that Lilia is his only indiscretion since our marriage, and only because they have some history together and Lilia is very lonely. It"s exactly as you said. She doesn"t have many friends in the village and spends most of her time here, so what choices did she have, really?"
  
  I decided to allow her that lie to herself, even if we both suspected that that"s all it was. Instead, I asked, "Can you explain it to me? I understand that you took a vow to be faithful to each other and that"s why you"re angry, but is that normal? How are marriages and relationships usually done?" If it were Roxy I was talking to, I"d specify "in this world," but I couldn"t with Zenith. It wasn"t really something that ever came up with Roxy either. I"d just kind of thought we"d figure it out as we went, but with this whole situation, I felt it best that I go ahead and educate myself on the matter.
  
  If only to avoid falling into some kind of blunder like the idiot who called himself my father. Not that I would voluntarily fall dick first into something like this.
  
  Humming, the woman squeezed me a bit tighter. "That depends on where you come from and your faith. In the religion I practice, the Milis faith, and the place I came from monogamy is the rule of the land. That is, one man marries one woman and they stay with each other for the rest of their lives, allowing for remarriage should one partner die or divorce and remarriage should one be unfaithful. I"m not so naive as to think that inappropriate activities didn"t happen behind closed doors, but that was the law of the land at least. Officially, the Asura kingdom allows and recognizes both monogamy and polygamy. Unofficially, we lean heavily towards monogamy because the Milis faith is popular... but there are different rules for nobles and everyone else. The common folk are expected to be fruitful and multiply, to ensure more workers and soldiers. The nobles, on the other hand, are mostly corrupt hedonists. Other lands and religions of the central continent practice either monogamy or polygamy, or both. That"s the practice of multiple partners marrying. Generally, that"s one man and two or three wives. There aren"t many places where that"s reversed."
  
  Pausing, she added quickly, "But Rudy, everyone has to agree to something like that! You can"t just decide it for yourself or you"ll hurt their feelings!"
  
  "Huh. Good to know."
  
  Her hand came out from behind my back and ran through my hair, before her fingers clenched my skull. "Please don"t turn into a man like your father."
  
  I winced. "Wasn"t planning on it."
  
  Zenith squeezed a little harder, her nails digging in. "Rudy... I know about Roxy."
  
  I wasn"t sure whether to laugh, cry, or deny it. Instead, I asked, "What do you know?"
  
  "I know the two of you were getting up to adult things together at night. I peeped. I didn"t realize you were so... mature for your age. Must be the Greyrat blood. I also know that, because she"s a Migurd, Roxy is older than she looks. Did she coerce you, or...?"
  
  Reaching up, I gently brushed her hand off of my head before turning around and sitting cross-legged on the bed so I could look her in the eye properly. "I caught her masturbating in the hall one night while you and father were trying for another child."
  
  Zenith blushed, covering her mouth and looking away. "Yes, she did like to watch," she admitted quietly. "I saw her one night... She didn"t do or say anything else, so I thought it was a little harmless fun to blow off some frustration. It was kind of exciting, actually."
  
  "Not in my need-to-know category," I deadpanned.
  
  So at least Zenith was aware of Roxy"s voyeurism. Not entirely surprising. I rolled my eyes, suddenly glad I caught her when I did. If it were Paul, Roxy might just have wound up like Lilia. Nope, mine damnit.
  
  "We talked. You know I"m... not exactly normal," I admitted with a shrug. I was unprepared for the woman"s strength when she grabbed me, turned me around and pulled me into her lap. I settled in and enjoyed the breasts resting against the back of my head and neck. "Definitely see why dad has a type."
  
  Zenith"s chin dug into the top of my head painfully and I winced. "I"ve always known you were special, Rudy. I"m the one that first found you, sitting in the study unconscious with a bucket of water and an open spell book."
  
  I blinked. "Oh. That... makes a surprising amount of sense. I"d kind of assumed it was Lilia."
  
  "She discovered it later and kept it secret from us, until I confronted her and confirmed it," Zenith admitted. "I think only Paul didn"t know until you blew out part of the house."
  
  "Right." Shaking my head, I continued my previous line of thought. "Anyway, Roxy. We talked. I offered a way for her to experiment with that side of herself safely, because I didn"t want her getting kicked out. This was when I thought she was only a teenager. Took a while to figure out the Migurd thing."
  
  Chuckling, Zenith kissed the top of my head. "We wouldn"t have thrown her out. Of course, your father might have made a pass, but I doubt it. As you said, he has a type." Humming, Zenith"s voice was teasing as she asked, "Roxy and now Sylphie? Do you have a type, Rudy?"
  
  "My type is "cute female." That Roxy is a Migurd and she"s going to be stuck like that for the next hundred years and Sylphie has elf in her, so she"s probably going to be of a similar build is coincidental. I"d be perfectly happy with a woman who looks like you."
  
  That begs the question though, what am I going to do as a human with one, maybe two potential wives who both have maybe double my own lifespan? That"s always the worst, any time one of the immortal or long-lived races mates with a human or one of the other ephemeral races. Offspring doomed to live a half life. Maybe I could dig into medical knowledge? I know up to Intermediate-level right now and I have a whole lot of medical knowledge this world didn"t. The problem is, I don"t trust trying to hack my own DNA using magic. Something to try later, after much experimentation and animal tests-
  
  With a triumphant sound, Zenith said, "But you admit it"s Roxy and Sylphie!"
  
  I opened my mouth to deny it, before slowly closing it. I considered what she"d said for a moment before admitting, "Probably. Roxy, yes. Sylphie, well I"d have to be oblivious to not see that she has a crush. And since I"m the only guy she knows and I"m kind of a huge influence on her life, odds are good she"s going to grow up with one person in mind when she starts thinking about romance and marriage. Getting off track again though. After we added the bathroom, your nightly performance broke her and Roxy crawled into my bed one night and didn"t leave. There was some kissing, a bit of touching, and a lot of lewd hand holding involved. It was nice."
  
  Giggling, and fully committed to teasing apparently, Zenith asked, "Do you know what"s involved in making a baby, Rudy?"
  
  I sighed. So, it was going to be one of those days. Well, if it took her mind off of Paul"s betrayal and gave me some genuine bonding time with Zenith-of which I hadn"t actually had much lately-I wouldn"t begrudge her. I didn"t spend nearly enough time with her as it was. Paul and I at least talked while we were training, but I didn"t even have that with Zenith and I"d been spending a lot of time out of the house lately.
  
  Have I been neglecting her? She"s given me nothing but unconditional love and support, and I"ve been... way too independent, so she might be feeling like I don"t need her or want her around.
  
  It was still hard to see this young woman as my mother, just as it was hard to see Paul as my father-especially when he fucked up as bad as he did. Seriously, how hard is it to keep your dick in your pants?
  
  The problem is, I was a grown man. I didn"t need new parents, on an emotional level. I didn"t want them, either. But that didn"t mean I had to reject them entirely. Maybe I should just stop trying. They can be family without being replacement parents. And even if I were just treating her as a... I don"t know, sibling? Cousin? I"ve still been neglecting her. I"ll have to do better.
  
  If that meant enduring a little teasing for Zenith, then so be it. Especially when I bore some blame for her taking this burden on her shoulders.
  
  That didn"t mean I wouldn"t give as good I got, though. So, I put on my best "innocent" voice and turned up the "cute but oblivious shota" act to eleven. "No mother, I don"t. Why don"t you tell me? Please, spare no details. I want to be a good and dutiful husband for both Roxy and Sylphie when I grow up!"
  
  "Well, you see, when a man and a woman... and sometimes another woman love each other very much," I heard the hitch in her voice, but ignored it as Zenith and I played our little game.
  
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  Months passed.
  
  I spent more time with Zenith as she ballooned up, heavy with her second child. It was nice. Turns out, yeah, I had been neglecting her. I didn"t realize just how touchy-feely and physically needy she was until I started spending more time with her.
  
  I didn"t mind, but it was a reminder of my own failure that the moment I started actually spending time with her she latched on like she was afraid I"d run away the moment she turned her back. Thankfully, she never got too clingy and always encouraged me to go out and spend time with Sylphie or keep up my practice.
  
  Lilia actually started being nice to me. Like, going out of her way to do things and occasionally getting physically affectionate-even if she was still pretty stoic. We wound up spending some time talking. Most of that was about her past, and how she met Paul.
  
  Got to say, knowing my dad in this world is a rapist by the standards of my old world is kind of a low blow. Though to be fair, the standards of Earth in the west changed seemingly on a day to day basis and at the whims of politicians or people with an ax to grind, so maybe that wasn't a great bar to measure things by. Maybe I should say, by the common sense standard instead? Because being able to have consensual, sober sex then turn around the next day, regret doing it, and thereby claim it was rape was bullshit no matter how you looked at it.
  
  Even by the standards of this world, what he did was... morally ambiguous? No, it was still pretty fucked up.
  
  The way I understood it was: Lilia was born to a certain Water God sword school"s master as his only child. Lilia herself was never really that great a student, but she was beloved by all the other students and that changed a bit as she matured from a girl into a young woman.
  
  Paul showed up, already skilled in Sword God school, and picked up their techniques faster than pretty much anyone else-he was a natural prodigy. Lilia"s father, who had been holding off on deciding who to offer her hand to, was leaning towards Paul-according to Lilia, she wouldn"t have been against the idea. Paul wasn't really interested.
  
  The other students resented the young master coming along, showing them up, and then having no real interest in the beauty of their school. The other students treated Paul like shit and made his time there hell. Paul got tired of it and one night, he snuck into Lilia"s room and stole her innocence as one last "fuck you" to the school, before lighting out the next morning before they figured out what he"d done. Lilia was less upset about the... aggressive encounter than she was about him pulling the "love her and leave her" routine.
  
  It"s why Lilia sought him out for a job in the first place, after her injury while working as a bodyguard-she had intended to blackmail/emotionally manipulate him into letting her work for him in exchange for her silence.
  
  And yet, she chose to seduce him this time and was having his child.
  
  Yeah, the entire situation was all kinds of fucked up here. Paul was a piece of shit for what he had done-even if she wanted to be pushed down and taken by force (which she did), the intent behind the act was what mattered, and what I gathered was that it was to tarnish the school through Lilia.
  
  Lilia was... damaged goods, I"ll say. She probably always had been, even before what Paul did. I knew the type. The kind that always made excuses for the horrible things people in their lives did to them-who tended to become the sort who couldn"t see why anyone would treat them decently, because they held no value in themselves. You know the ones. The girls who always choose the worst of men and then complain and wonder why they get treated like shit, but keep going back to it.
  
  Well, I thought that, then she told me about all the other people who had raped her and how, by comparison, what Paul did wasn"t so bad. So it was entirely possible that she was just that pragmatic of a person. Nope, still broken.
  
  It also explained a lot about why Lilia didn"t really trust me. And that"s what it was.
  
  I was an adult and I looked at her with an adult"s eyes. I saw her as a man sees a woman, and she knew it. Had a finely honed sense for it, in fact. I could pretend, but I couldn"t pull off the "innocent young boy" act for long and to be honest, I never really bothered unless it was to my benefit.
  
  There was probably some subconscious worry there that I"d turn out like my dad, or those men. Which explained why she left me and Roxy to our own devices-if I was "playing" with Roxy, I wasn"t sneaking into her room at night or something stupid. Why she openly admitted she was relieved when she found me and Roxy fooling around.
  
  Was it a dumb fear? Yes. Especially of a child, from her perspective. Most especially from one who had not only done her no harm, but gone out of his way to be kind to her until her own lack of effort finally convinced him to just stop trying most of the time.
  
  But it was understandable, so I cut her all the slack. I didn"t exactly enjoy being shunned for something I didn"t do and couldn"t control, but at least now she was working on fixing it.
  
  Not my problem to fix after all, it turns out. Thanks, Paul. You dick.
  
  Sylphie came by when she could, just to fawn over both Zenith and Lilia, wonder in her eyes as she did the usual "Can I feel it?!" thing most women and girls do. Lilia wasn"t too sure about it, but eventually surrendered to the moe-Sylphie was learning how to actually push for what she wanted, and it was hard to say no to that face anyway. Zenith, on the other hand, absolutely loved the attention and encouraged it.
  
  I began to suspect she had a pregnancy fetish when I explained to her that "Roxy" had told me that it was safe to have sex while pregnant, up until the last weeks of term, so long as she avoided missionary after the fourth month. Sorry Roxy, I guess I"m raising your estimation in their eyes again for something you didn"t do.
  
  Apparently, Paul was either forgiven or Zenith just decided she had a use for him and an itch to scratch, because the nightly sessions resumed. More amusingly, Lilia joined those nightly sessions shortly thereafter. Probably because Zenith bullied her into it.
  
  Actually, no. I"m certain that was it, because I heard part of that particular conversation.
  
  It was after I went to bed one night, I heard Zenith get particularly loud from downstairs. "You had a hand in breaking my vows, so take responsibility! Besides, there"s no point to sleeping downstairs and making my husband go back and forth every night, when it would be easier to just push the beds together. I, I don"t like seeing it but what"s done is done."
  
  Like any man with two dick cells to rub together-notice I didn"t say brain cells-I"m pretty sure Paul just nodded his head and went along with whatever was said at that point. I couldn"t blame him for that, given that the idea of getting both Zenith and Lilia into bed was a pretty damn appealing one.
  
  Luckily for me, around that time, we finished up the addition to the house and I was able to move my things out of the study and into my new, much expanded room. The book shelf, work desk, chair, and Roxy"s bed came with me while the crib and my old bed stayed behind. Roxy"s bed for practical reasons, not sentimental. She hadn"t slept on the mattress as long as I had mine, so it wasn"t as compressed and was softer.
  
  The new expansion had a mostly wood interior over the bricks and wood paneling that made up the walls. I had made a fireplace since it only connected to the main house by one door and the heat from the hearth didn"t exactly keep it warm. Since I was concerned about potentially burning the place down even with a screen over the fireplace, I made sure the floor for a good yard around it was brick.
  
  I separated off a third of the space into a semi-private bathroom so I wouldn"t have to compete with everyone else for the upstairs bathroom. However, since there were already four people in the house with two more on the way, I planned in some future proofing and separated my actual living space from the bathroom, so someone could enter the expansion into a hall and either go left for the restroom, right for my room, or straight to go outside.
  
  We put in glass windows like the rest of the house, made from glass I"d pulled from the lightning craters that had been cleaned up and fitted in place with earth magic. Those had wooden shutters over them that closed from the outside, in case of storms. The roof was tarred wood with adobe shingles over the top of it, and after we finished covering the outside to make it match the rest of the house, it was the only thing that didn"t match as the rest of the roofing was thatch. Adobe shingles didn"t have to be replaced as often as thatch and, when I explained that, Paul decided it might be best to do the whole roof over in the same style later on.
  
  For all that I enjoyed the new room, I didn"t actually spend much time there. No, most of that time was spent either training by myself, with Paul, or with Sylphie when I wasn"t with Zenith or Lilia.
  
  Then there were the pregnancy cravings. I"d taken some of the money I made in the village and bought some ingredients and spices to try a few different things. And that was how we got things like,
  
  "Ruuuudyyyy~" Zenith whined, sending me a pitiful look. "I want iiiice creeeeeaaaam~"
  
  "And pickles," Lilia added.
  
  I made the mistake of asking, "Together?"
  
  And thus, bore witness to the ungodly abomination that was pickles dipped in ice cream.
  
  Swear to God, Roxy had better not ask for shit like that after I knock her up.
  
  Despite having several breakthroughs in my own spellwork and in developing an anti-Paul fighting style, I had hit a wall where pure Sword God and Water God sword styles were concerned. I couldn"t touch him even while boosting myself with mana reinforcement. The occasional dirty trick, such as summoning up an ice or earth sword and using that in an off hand for a strike he might not expect were always parried, blocked, or countered, even when I resorted to testing out experimental created swords-like the one earth/ice combination that was as thin and strong an edge as I could manage and which cut through trees and rocks like butter.
  
  Yeah, no, he just shrugged it off with his wooden practice sword like it was just more wood then demanded I go back to using either Sword God or Water God style. I was left to conclude that whatever he was doing, it was very similar to my own mana reinforcement, but much stronger or more concentrated-essentially creating a shield around his weapon and body. And for all the practice we had, he remained a shitty teacher, whose best advice to date was, "You have to put more "oomph" into it, Rudy! More like "rrrgh!" Really lean into it!"
  
  He tried hard, though. Even if he had the patience of a four year old. ...A four year old who wasn"t me or Sylphie.
  
  Zenith"s delivery was rough. Lilia couldn"t help, so they had to bring in the midwife from the village. On top of that, it was a breech birth. No amount of turning on Zenith"s part or trying to turn the baby by hand managed to flip it head side down, so the hard way it was.
  
  I got to participate in my first delivery. I had kind of hoped it would be for my own eventual kids, but nope. I stayed on hand to cast healing on Zenith and the child to make sure things didn"t go sideways. It took nearly a full day of labor and a whole lot of healing spells, but eventually we were treated to the cries of a newborn baby girl.
  
  Just as everyone was relaxing and the midwife was getting ready to leave, Lilia"s kid decided it was time to join in on the fun and the maid went into labor. She was rushed into the study and I went out and refilled and heated the hot water tank while Paul gathered supplies. Lilia"s delivery was fast, uncomplicated, and relatively painless by comparison. A quick healing spell from me after it was all said and done and she and her daughter were sleeping peacefully.
  
  Paul was now the proud father of two baby girls: Zenith"s daughter, Norn, and Lilia"s daughter, Aisha.
  
  I turned seven.
  
  Remember when I said I wanted siblings? Yeah, so do I. And I have to resist the urge to bash my head against the nearest flat surface every time I do. Apparently, I forgot what that was like the first time around, in my original life.
  
  Norn and Aisha were typical babies. In other words: loud, smelly, and obnoxious. They cried constantly, over every little thing.
  
  Time to wake up? Time for crying.
  
  Wet or dirty diaper? Crying.
  
  Hungry? Crying.
  
  Bath time? More crying.
  
  Bed time? Screaming bloody murder.
  
  Middle of the night, they wake up and they"re bored? I"ll let you guess.
  
  I had never before been so glad for my forethought and the ability to use magic. Even as relatively isolated as I was from the madness at nights, as opposed to at ground zero, I still occasionally got woken up to the sounds of crying.
  
  It got so bad that Zenith occasionally fled the main house and joined me in bed when she wanted a night of uninterrupted sleep. Zenith is a very grabby sleeper, but very comfortable, so I didn"t really mind sharing. Seriously, those titties were amazing. There was just one-no, two little problems...
  
  Namely, the occasional incident of waking up with a wet spot on my back, neck, or face depending on how we were laying.
  
  Know what sucks? Not being able to take advantage of fetish material on moral grounds. This made for the second time this woman had tormented me with those titties and I couldn"t properly appreciate it.
  
  Where Paul and Zenith were ready to break, and my own patience was severely strained, Lilia was downright energetic. Apparently, this is what she was actually expecting when I was born and now it was her time to shine. I had been easy mode and pretty much raised myself by comparison to the girls.
  
  While I hated hearing them scream and sometimes seriously contemplated making a wind spell specifically to shut them up by cutting off sounds from their room (and then went and did it, even if I didn"t use it for its original purpose, because creating an area of vacuum was easy and having a zone of silence spell would be handy) unlike Paul I had experience with dealing with this stage of child-rearing. No, I"d never had kids of my own in that previous life. Instead, I made the mistake of dating a single mother with a newborn-and she took complete advantage and used me to raise her kid, since the daddy was a worthless sack of shit who ran off.
  
  Lesson learned.
  
  So I helped change diapers, wipe asses (with magic), wash clothes (more magic), settle them down when they wanted to be held, and so on. I left the actual feeding to Lilia and Zenith though, since this world still lacked rubber nipples for bottles, they were too young to spoon feed, and I wasn"t going to use the French method. My helping out didn"t stop there, however. Tasks that Lilia had taken care of previously, I handled with magic in a fraction of the time.
  
  Dishes? Conjure water, heat it, throw in some soap, use it to scrub everything spotless, then use hot wind to dry them. Took maybe five minutes to clean up after a meal.
  
  Laundry? Pretty much the same process as dishes-I just made sure to be gentle with my scrubbing and air drying, since I didn"t want to ruin our clothes. Half an hour, tops. I"d let Lilia handle folding and putting them away though, since that was time consuming and couldn"t be cut down with magic (yet. I would find a way eventually, because no way was I being stuck with that chore and having it eat up time later on in life). Also, because she complained that I didn"t fold the laundry right. Roll your clothes, woman! They take up less space that way.
  
  Sweeping, mopping, dusting, and otherwise keeping the house clean? More exercise in fine magical control.
  
  And to me, that"s all those things were. An excuse to get in more magical control exercises and find new and useful ways of using my magic. I hadn"t minded doing housework in my previous life-I"d lived as a bachelor for most of it and I hated living in a mess, so it was just one of those things I did on a daily basis. With magic though, simple chores actually became fun. Because magic.
  
  We lost a maid, but we gained two members of the family. And I gained a... friend? Supporter? I wasn"t quite sure what to call Lilia"s relationship with me now.
  
  Paul, by comparison, was utterly useless. Sure, he could swing a sword and he was apparently pretty good at making them, but when it came time to actually deal with those babies, he was clueless. Housework? No, he"d find an excuse to leave as soon as the topic came up.
  
  But with a sword... The man was amazing. Advanced-level in Sword God, Water God, and North God styles. Unfortunately, I had yet to rise above Elementary in Sword or Water God, and he still wouldn"t teach me North God style for whatever reason (and if he caught me watching him practice it, then trying it out myself, he"d get pissy). Our continued sparring only served to highlight the gap in our respective strengths.
  
  Ah well, I"d just have to content myself with advancements in magic instead. I had moved up to Saint-level magic in every combat magic field, even if that was unofficial and unrecognized. I had taken what I knew of the jump to Saint-level water magic and applied it to my other spells, so I had a variety of spells at that level, and had even theoretically reached King-level in that field in water magic, but as with lightning it was simply too destructive to use anywhere but well away from people so I didn"t get to practice it.
  
  I had started practicing with combination spells for a bit more versatility. Fire and wind produced some nasty Saint-level fire tornadoes-about what I"d classify as an F1. Wind and Water got me a typhoon that made my first Saint-level water spell Cumulonimbus look tame by comparison and flooded the fields for a week.
  
  Wind and Earth didn"t actually do great at Saint-level, but at Advanced-level produced a very nice sandblaster-I felt the Saint-level version might do better situationally, such as in an arid area or somewhere with more debris to pick up. I had an even better, more precise cutting/penetrating combination spell in water and fire that shot a pencil thin lance of boiling water at a target. That one, I bumped up to three variations at Saint-level: either a single huge stream, a multitude of medium sized lances, or a rain of lances of various size over an area.
  
  Earth and fire though... I modified the Earth Cannon spell and made something absolutely nasty, and that wasn"t even Advanced-level. For a single target spell, it was absolutely devastating. The original Earth Cannon, I had already modified using my knowledge of Earth projectiles-giving it rifling and adjusting its shape and composition to emulate full metal jacket and hollow point rounds.
  
  The combination spell took that modified Earth Cannon spell and filled the inside with molten stone under high pressure, making it explosive. Then, I scaled it back in terms of power and size to Elementary-level and created Stone Bullet-an actual, bullet-sized projectile with the same options and modifications, for dealing with weaker targets that I didn"t want to completely annihilate and for which good, old fashioned physical force would work best over other spells.
  
  Lightning remained my strongest, or perhaps most dangerous single magic combat field, but I was hesitant to even use anything but Elementary-level spells on humans unless I fully intended to kill them. Forget pulling out anything above Intermediate inside a town or village. Still, it was my trump card for dealing with Paul if it ever came to a serious throwdown. Lightning spells were simply too fast to dodge, and in a fight he who strikes first usually wins. My biggest worry was the obvious need to use healing on him after, if I did.
  
  Sylphie was progressing along nicely in her studies. I didn"t have the resources to make her a wand, so I reluctantly gifted her the wand Roxy had given me when I felt she was ready. It helped, sure, but I didn"t need it at the moment. The benefit it granted Sylphie was greater than its benefit to me, and I was sure Roxy would forgive me and see the practicality in my actions. At least, I hoped.
  
  On the Sylphie front, related to the magic front, I had a problem.
  
  One day, I wanted to go Ranoa University and study there to learn the things Roxy hadn"t known. Things like summoning, higher level spells, and how to write out spell formula circles. Unfortunately, I couldn"t really leave Sylphie behind when I went. That wouldn"t be fair to her and she was wasted here in this little village, with just what I"d taught her. She had real talent and power, she just needed to hone it. Magical college was expensive however, and I was pretty sure that while my parents would be willing to pay for my tuition, they wouldn"t be able to pay for Sylphie as well. Laws and his wife certainly couldn"t afford it.
  
  Okay, so in truth, I brought up the subject of going to Ranoa University to her after Roxy sent me a letter letting me know she had settled down for now in the Shirone kingdom, taking on a job as magical instructor to their seventh prince Pax Shirone and a temporary position as a court mage.
  
  I hated the brat immediately when she described him as a peeping, panty thieving little shit who kept trying to cop a feel of my future wife and she"d had to set him on fire no less than twice to dissuade unwanted touching. At least there was good news-she had advanced to King-level water magic. She gave me some words of encouragement but suggested that if I hit a bottleneck, I should try knocking on Ranoa University"s doors.
  
  I didn"t feel like I was nearing any kind of bottleneck, but I really, really wanted to get my hands on more magic. The things I could do with permanent spell formations and mana storage alone... I already had half a dozen different designs tumbling around in my head. The first of which, I could theoretically prototype soon, even without those prerequisites. All it really needed was aluminum, copper, and either rubber or leather. And that wasn"t even counting my chemical knowledge and combining that with magic.
  
  Magical gunpowder, mmm... My raifu is my laifu.
  
  I sent Roxy a care package in response.
  
  Dear Roxie,
  
  Things have been a bit exciting since you left. Hectic, really.
  I"ve missed you these past years.
  It"ll probably be closer to three by the time you get this, given the distance involved.
  On the bright side, that means we"re down to just five or so.
  
  I"m happy to hear you"re doing well.
  Congratulations on making King-level! Now, hurry on to the next breakthrough.
  Also, I"m glad you managed to find a new tutoring job.
  
  The prince sounds like a real... charmer.
  I can"t fault him for his good taste, but he needs to keep his hands to himself.
  
  The Roxy I remember is neither weak nor frail.
  She"s a beautiful young lady with a slim, womanly figure, a kind disposition, and a brilliant mind.
  Don"t talk bad about her or I"ll get angry.
  
  Hearing you think fondly of me makes me happy.
  I hope those memories are especially fond at night?
  I bet you just blushed. Ah, I wish I could see it.
  On to local happenings...
  
  I"ve been keeping up with my studies.
  I"ve reached Saint-level in every combat magic.
  I reached your level with water magic and that field we discovered during my exam. (I was intentionally vague here, but left enough that I knew she"d figure it out. If someone other than Roxy read our letters, I didn"t want to let the lightning genie out of the bottle.)
  Sword training is not progressing at the same pace. Not even remotely. I seem to be stuck at Elementary-level, there.
  I just can"t figure out what it is Paul is doing and he"s not you, so getting an explanation that makes sense is impossible.
  You know how he is.
  On the other hand, I"ve had what I feel is some success combining magic and swordsmanship in new and interesting ways. I"ll show you, next time we see each other.
  
  Sylphie is doing well.
  She"s advanced to Advanced-level on everything but fire magic and has taken well to some of the new spells I"ve been using. She recently graduated to Saint-level Water Mage.
  Beyond that, you know how she is. She"s just happy to have someone to talk to, let alone a teacher.
  
  Thanks for the advice on Ranoa University. I"m going to see what I can do about getting there. Unfortunately, when I mentioned it to Sylphie, she kind of cried. A lot.
  I"m going to have to take her with me.
  Do they have any sort of scholarship program? Grants to gifted children? Patronage from wealthy backers? Some way to get someone in on a discounted tuition?
  She"s too gifted to just let languish here. I think I see what you saw in me, now-when I first showed you what I could do.
  Please advise. If I come up with something myself, I"ll let you know.
  
  Zenith got pregnant. The birth was complicated-breech birth-but she and the child made it. I have a little sister now. Norn. She looks like a miniature version of mom, so far. Very cranky, though.
  Coincidentally, around the same time, Lilia mysteriously got pregnant as well.
  Yeah, I"m sure you can guess that there"s no mystery involved. It was Paul.
  I"ve got two little sisters, actually. Lilia"s girl is named Aisha. She has her mother"s red hair, but she"s very playful.
  
  I"m working on a little project for you. I think you"ll appreciate it. When I finish it, you can consider it a belated birthday present, for every one of yours I missed.
  I"ve enclosed some things in this care package for you. I hope you enjoy them.
  
  Thinking of you fondly.
  -Rudeus Greyrat
  
  P.S. Thank you for the gift you left on my pillow.
  
  The other things included in the parcel were: a fancy brass ball point pen in the shape of her staff with several refillable glass inserts, a bottle of the perfumed ink I"d be using for her book, and the scope since I figured she might appreciate them.
  
  As for Sylphie... In my mind, it was implied that she would be coming with me and that"s how I meant it when I mentioned going to Ranoa University. Sylphie didn"t see it like that at all. She begged and pleaded for me not to abandon her and even days after she still occasionally teared up. I had thought she was doing good with standing up for herself, but apparently that and me potentially leaving were two entirely different things for her.
  
  So, I came to the obvious conclusion. If I went, it wouldn"t be alone and that meant I needed to raise money for it myself. I had no idea how much tuition would cost, but I had a feeling the occasional gold coin off my pens and silver from doing work around the village weren"t going to cut it. No, in all likelihood, it was going to take hundreds of gold. Enough that I"d spend years working to cover it when I could instead be developing magic. I wasn"t against hard work, but I"d rather work smarter, not harder. While there was a chance I could make something using Earth knowledge that would be worth more than that, I"d first need startup capital, even if I could make most of the parts myself-a classic example of the old saw that you had to have money to make money. Instead of that, I decided on something that could see me making money and having enough free time to do what I loved.
  
  One night at dinner, I brought it up to the family. The family now included Lilia sitting at the table instead of serving from the side and taking her meals partway into ours, when she was sure we didn"t need anything, or Zenith forced her to sit and eat with us. Even now, Zenith occasionally sent a pained look at Paul and Lilia, but I knew she was trying hard. Do your best, Zenith.
  
  "So, I"d like to make a request."
  
  "No."
  
  And so proceeded the usual slapstick as Zenith, followed by Lilia, whacked Paul for his immediate denial. I waited for the inevitable and they didn"t disappoint. Paul made the mistake of further inserting his foot in his mouth and got smacked a second time.
  
  "I want to study at Ranoa University. I"m doing well enough on my own, but we don"t really have the sort of materials I need to advance further in new ways. Namely, books and resources on summoning and magic circles, and whatever else I can get my hands on. But when I told Sylphie she got... really upset. So I can"t go without her. Her family can"t afford the tuition and I can"t ask you to foot the bill. So instead, I"m asking if you can help me find a job, maybe as a home tutor like Roxy. It"d give me time to work on my own skills while making money and it"s a better option than just making a bunch of stuff and trying to sell it in the village. We don"t get enough traders coming through to make much off of that and I"m losing a lot of money that way because they aren"t really paying what they should for things since we"re so far out."
  
  Paul sighed, his serious mien dissolving as he relaxed in his chair and leaned forward onto his hands. "If you had asked straight out for the money, I would have said no. As it stands, I"m still going to say no to the college. For one: as your teacher, I can"t let you give up on your sword techniques now. If you do, you"ll never advance."
  
  I resisted the urge to comment that it was a poor teacher that blamed his student for his own inability to impart his lessons. At this point, I was bashing my head against the brick wall that was Paul"s shitty teaching method and him not wanting me to go to Ranoa so he could keep me here and keep bashing my head against that wall sounded a whole lot like him being unable to admit that he had failed as a teacher.
  
  "I just said I wasn"t planning to drop training my sword skills," I pointed out. "Any of my skills. Whatever I do has to give me enough time in the day that I can still improve myself. If I go to Ranoa, I"m not going to just stop practicing the sword."
  
  "You did, so at least you"re thinking ahead," Paul nodded. "The world"s too dangerous to go out into it without knowing how to handle yourself, Rudy. And that brings me to number two: you"re only seven. You"re a smart kid, but you don"t have the kind of experience you need to go out into the world yet. We"d be throwing away our responsibilities as parents if we did. The earliest I"d even consider letting you out on your own is fifteen. ...No, twelve. As for the job," he hummed thoughtfully.
  
  I was shocked. Paul? Thoughtful? He was in rare form today.
  
  "I"ll ask around. I may have an idea. Stick to your sword practice for now. I don"t think paying Sylphie"s fees is good for her, but I can already tell you"re not going to budge on it and you"ll just try to find a way to do it anyway if I say no."
  
  "You"re right, I would. I already have some ideas for that, but they"re dependent on a bigger market than the village. This was why I suggested a teaching job somewhere. In a city, I could earn the money myself by making curios and one-offs and selling them at a huge profit," I explained. Curious as to his stipulation on age, I asked, "Why twelve?"
  
  Paul grinned. "Because it"s when I left home."
  
  "I see," I murmured. "Thank you. Let me know when you have something, please."
  
  Spoiler: Notes.
  
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  A little over a month after I asked my parents to see about trying to find me a job, Paul got a letter. He thought he was being sneaky when he sent it, but I"ve been sneakier.
  
  I developed a wind spell to create a set of lenses out of compressed air that I could adjust how I needed shortly after I made a physical scope-just as an experiment to see if I could duplicate the feat with pure magic. Turns out I could and more. The scope was handy to have if I didn"t want to use magic, but the magic itself was amazing.
  
  I read the addresses on both letters-a member of the Boreas Greyrat family in Roa, one Phillip Boreas Greyrat. My first thought was that either he was a cousin or an uncle, since Paul"s father was dead and I wasn"t certain if he had a brother or not since Paul never talked about his family. I was pretty sure that I"d get my answer tonight or tomorrow.
  
  The answer came a bit sooner than I was expecting, really. Paul brought it up during sword practice. In the worst possible way, because it was Paul and he thinks with his muscles.
  
  "Rudy, I want to ask you something," he said, as the sound of a horse and carriage approached the house.
  
  Pulling away from where he"d blocked another of my strikes, I took that as an invitation to take a break and eyed the carriage. Backing off a bit just in case he tried something stupid-that is, demonstrated the North God Style by attacking me when he hadn"t actually declared a halt to training, and something he had done multiple times in the past-I said, "Sure, go ahead."
  
  He eyed where I kept my guard up in the primary Water God ready stance with a rueful smile. That smile quickly faded though as he began speaking. "You, uh... What would you think if I wanted to separate you from Sylphie?"
  
  Frowning, I considered the question. I remembered the last time Paul had decided to think for himself. Well, the last time he did in a way that didn"t involve his dick.
  
  It wound up with him unilaterally deciding I was wrong and Roxy having to straighten his shit out before he did something stupid. I get the feeling that he still hasn"t learned his lesson. He"s always going to be the type who goes with his gut instinct instead of reasoning things out like a normal person, with no regard to whether he"s right or wrong because the answer feels right. Of course it fucking feels right, it"s the answer you want to hear. And when he can"t win an argument, he"ll do what he wants anyway and force people to go along with it if he has to.
  
  Listening to my own gut, by which I mean experience, I began preparing a spell-the wide area quagmire/pitfall trap I"d been practicing for anti-Paul combat, centered on myself. We were far enough from the house that it would be fine, and if my gut feeling was wrong then I could always dismiss it. I channeled and held the spell ready beneath my feet as I gave my answer.
  
  "I"d ask why. If it were a job in the city or something, I could talk to her and convince her it was a temporary thing. Arrange to send letters back and forth so I can continue our lessons. Unlike someone, I keep my promises, and I promised to teach her. So I"d have to find a way to keep doing that."
  
  Paul nodded. "I thought you"d say something like that. You"ve already found a way to twist it around on me and make me the bad guy and I haven"t even made my case. I won"t be able to talk you into it, so I"m not going to try."
  
  Fucking called it!
  
  The man"s entire disposition changed and I felt something wash over me that sent my heart racing-a feeling of bloodlust that felt like an actual, physical weight. Apparently, killing intent was a thing here, backed up by magic or whatever he was using. I didn"t have time to contemplate it. No, with Paul being serious, I didn"t have time for any thinking whatsoever.
  
  Thankfully, when thinking fails, you fall back on practice. On the things you"ve drilled on until they"ve become second nature.
  
  I released the spell under my feet. In the same instant, I channeled two more. The earth around me for a good hundred yards turned into a five foot deep morass of mud and water covered by an inch of solid-looking ground coated in patches of black ice that would collapse at the first hint of weight on it, while immediately under my feet a pillar of rock sprang up at force, throwing me into the air and backwards. Wind compressed under my feet and at the moment they left the rock, detonated, accelerating my escape and giving me altitude. I dropped the practice sword, since it"d be useless now and prepared a pair of spells in my hands.
  
  The pillar I"d used exploded into a shower of debris as Paul launched himself from the solid ground he had been standing on hard enough to crater it and cleared the distance between he and I in a heartbeat. A heartbeat too long, however, as the moment he landed he slipped and his feet broke through the crust at the top of my trap. He sank up to his shoulders. His eyes widened in surprise, and that"s all he had time for as the spells I had been preparing launched.
  
  Flash Bang landed in front of his face and went off with a crackling boom and a flash that left spots in the eye I hadn"t closed, knowing what to expect from it. I opened the eye I had closed ahead of time and launched the second spell-Bolt. A single flash of lightning connected my hand and Paul"s shoulder for about half a second, causing him to stiffen up, before he went limp when I let the spell go.
  
  He slipped beneath the quagmire and I waited, landing on a cushion of air and holding myself aloft. After a full thirty seconds, I used an earth spell to create just enough of a platform under his position to lift him up out of the muck. I saw he wasn"t moving, but otherwise looked alright.
  
  "You don"t think I"m going to fall for that, do you?" Playing possum was pretty much SOP for the North God style, after all.
  
  I waited.
  
  And waited.
  
  "Ah, fuck," I grunted, kicking off with air running and making my way over. Yeah, he"s not breathing, I assessed.
  
  He had a clear burn across his shoulder where I"d zapped him, the skin turning red and going down before diffusing around his chest where it had found ground in the mud. Rolling him partway over, I gave him a solid kick to the solar plexus and hit him with a low powered Arc spell. At the same time, I used a water spell to grab and pull the water from his lungs, up and out through his mouth. Then I hit him with a healing spell.
  
  He spluttered, choked, and began coughing. I immediately backed off and primed a Water Ball, just in case he wanted to continue this. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the carriage had stopped and someone tall was climbing out of the back, but I was focused on Paul.
  
  "You ready to talk like adults now? Or are you going to try to swing your fists and get your way again?"
  
  Paul rolled over onto his back, still coughing. "Ghi-ugh." I waited. Finally, he sucked in a lungful of air and shouted. "Ghislaine!"
  
  I was moving before the first syllable left his lips. It was the only thing that saved me from immediate defeat. Launching my Water Ball behind me, I turned myself around on the next step and found my attacker-a tall, muscular woman with tanned skin, messy white hair, white cat ears, and a cat-like tail wearing a very revealing getup, an eye patch over her right eye, and swinging a big old sword with the flat of the blade turned towards me.
  
  Fast.
  
  Way too fast! "Nope!"
  I transitioned from Air Running to flight as the woman landed on the edge of my trap, having touched down only on the part I"d solidified for Paul for her initial surprise attack before leaping away again. A hundred yards into the air, I paused my ascent.
  
  "If you want to talk, I"m listening. Otherwise, I can stay out of your reach all day, and if you try something fishy I"m going to respond by throwing out wide-area Advanced-level magic to start with and go up from there. Please tell me you"re more reasonable than my thickheaded father." I used wind magic to carry my words to the ground and vice verse, so we could talk without shouting.
  
  The woman sheathed her sword and crossed her arms over her pleasantly large chest. She looked around Paul"s age, exactly his type, and considering he knew her name I had to assume they were friends. I hadn"t seen her around the village before, which meant she wasn"t a local. She must have arrived around the same time as the letter and waited in the village, then rode up to the house and watched our little scuffle from the carriage and only chose to intervene when Paul called for help.
  
  "I am Sword-king Ghislaine," she introduced herself.
  
  "Water-saint mage Rudeus Greyrat. Now, what did my idiot father summon you for, Miss Ghislaine?"
  
  Paul coughed and tried to speak from the ground, but Ghislaine sent him an irritated look that shut him up. "Just Ghislaine is fine. You"re very polite for Paul"s son," she chuckled. "I suppose that"s Zenith"s influence."
  
  "Probably," I agreed, before falling silent and waiting somewhat patiently.
  
  "You have been hired on to tutor my charge, Eris Boreas Greyrat, in the Citadel of Roa. While you are tutoring her, I will be instructing you in the sword."
  
  "Okay. If you"re going to be teaching me, I"m fine with that. Maybe you can do a better job than my old man. The best he can offer in the way of advice is, "Be more like hnng!" and other worthless sounds." Gesturing towards Paul, I said, "I"m confused though. What does me going to teach your Eris and learn under you have to do with not seeing my friend and student and being forced to break a promise I made to her and my former master to see to her education?"
  
  Ghislaine shrugged. "No idea."
  
  Sending her a considering look, I asked, "If I come down, are you going to attack me again?"
  
  "Will you come with me to Roa?" she asked in return.
  
  "Yeah, I"ve got no problem with it. Just need an hour or so to gather my things, tell Sylphie goodbye, and arrange to send her letters so we can continue her lessons. Speaking of, I think I see her and Laws coming this way."
  
  "No," Paul grunted out.
  
  I dropped my Air Running spell and let myself fall. Before I hit the ground, I caught myself on a cushion of air beside Paul. Reaching into my magic in the trap in the ground, I dispelled it and sent the water used lower so it would spread out and not cause issues. Striding over to Paul"s side, I kicked him in the ribs, earning a grunt of pain. Grabbing his practice sword, I was surprised when I was able to pry it from his hand with very little resistance.
  
  Seriously, what the hell? I know I fucked up here and underestimated just how much juice I hit him with, but it"s like he can"t use his magic or whatever at all. On the other hand, I don"t think I"d really be ready to cast right after getting zapped by an overpowered taser either, let alone a small lightning bolt.
  
  Throwing the sword to the side, I looked down on the surly man trying to push himself into a seated position. Not having any of that because at this point I was tired of his shit, I channeled a sustained Arc spell in my hand, reached down, and touched his arm with a "zap!" of discharged electricity. He yelped and collapsed onto his back. I let the spell dance between my fingers as I glared down at him.
  
  Quietly, I said, "This is what you get for trying to use your fists instead of your words, father. Now, quit being a pussy. I didn"t hit you that hard. Explain yourself. What"s the Sylphie thing about?"
  
  Closing his eyes, Paul turned away. I reached down and zapped him again. "Ow! Rudeus, stop it!"
  
  "Tell me or you get another, idiot."
  
  "Rudy!" Sylphie called, and I braced myself for impact as she ran over and slammed into my side. "What"s going on?"
  
  "I"m trying to figure that out now, Sylphie." I zapped Paul again before turning and waving to Laws. "Maybe now that we"ve got an actual adult here, we can get to the bottom of this? What"s going on, Laws?"
  
  The half-elf sighed, shooting Paul a glare before palming his face. "He did something stupid, didn"t he?" I nodded and he shook his head, cursing under his breath. "Your father and I are worried about your influence on Sylphie."
  
  Frowning, I sent Sylphie a questioning look. The girl merely shrugged. Ghislaine was useless here since she didn"t know the situation, so I ignored her for now. She wasn"t causing problems and appeared to be willing to hear us out. That, and judging by the way her lips twitched up into a smile every time I zapped Paul-speaking of, I took a second to do so again-she was enjoying it. "Could you be a bit more specific? What exactly have I done wrong here?"
  
  What I got out of Laws, with Paul fucking finally prying his jaws open once his friend got the ball rolling, was that they were worried about Sylphie being able to live on her own if I kept on as I had been. She was relying on me too much and they were worried she wasn"t self-sufficient enough.
  
  Roxy had pointed it out as one of the reasons she had left-that if she didn"t, Sylphie wouldn"t grow into her own. And as I had pointed out, odds were good that when it came time for her to mature and start looking for a husband, I"d be the obvious choice in her mind. Neither Laws nor Paul objected to that, but they were both worried that when that time came, I wouldn"t choose Sylphie and she would be left heartbroken.
  
  Except, well, polygamy was a thing in this world. I hadn't spoken with either Roxy or Sylphie about it, but that was a conversation for us, not for Paul.
  
  "Rudeus, I worry you have too much of your father in you," Paul sighed.
  
  A look at Laws, who refused to meet my gaze after that, confirmed it. "I"m not you, father. What makes you think-"
  
  "Roxy."
  
  I blinked. Slowly, I turned towards the house, where I saw the front windows were open. I couldn"t see faces, but to the side of one window where there would normally be a curtain, I could make out the edge of Zenith"s dress. "What the hell?!" I yelled.
  
  "Sorry, Rudy! I was worried about Sylphie too!" Zenith called in answer, her face peeking out of the window now, beside Lilia's.
  
  "Jesus fucking Christ," I muttered in English, low enough that only Sylphie-okay, probably Laws too given his confused look-heard. After zapping Paul one last time, I allowed my Arc spell to dispel. Turning, I put my arms around Sylphie and pulled her into a hug. Pulling away, I held her by the shoulders. "Sorry, Sylphie, looks like I have to go away for a bit because some people," I kicked Paul in the ribs, earning a grunt of pain, "think that if I don"t, you won"t grow up."
  
  "That"s not true at all!" she protested, and I nodded.
  
  "Probably," I agreed. "Think of it like this. Suppose you find a baby animal out in the wild. Its parents aren"t around, so you take it in. You raise it, teach it, train it. Then one day, you have to leave, or something happens and it gets loose in the wild. It knows how to live in a house, but how do you think it"s going to feel about being in the woods if all it"s known is your home?"
  
  It was a stupid argument. People are animals, but we possess intelligence. We can think for ourselves. If someone couldn"t adapt to their situation when left to their own devices, secure employment and a place to live, and deal with the reality of living alone then that was their own fault for lack of effort or mental fortitude.
  
  It happened, yes, but I was pretty sure that Sylphie was strong enough to live on her own-maybe, considering the whole Ranoa thing... But it was the best I had for explaining it to her in a way that wouldn"t taint her view of her father, or mine. Judging by the knowing look on Laws" face and the way Paul had stopped his whining, they likely knew exactly what I was doing.
  
  Sylphie was a smart girl, but she was also very lonely. She broke down on the spot and I was left with a mess of crying seven year old on my hands. I passed her off to her father, since I had no real idea how to handle that in a way that didn"t involve just giving her what she wanted. "I"ll keep up correspondence-"
  
  "No."
  
  I kicked Paul, adding an Arc to it just to get my point across. He yelped and rolled away. When I turned to Laws, I found him looking uncomfortable. "I think it would be best if you didn"t, Rudeus."
  I considered him for a minute before smiling and putting on the "innocent shota" act. "Sure! I"m sure you won"t have any problems continuing to teach her magic, reading, writing, arithmetic, and generally making sure her frankly amazing potential isn"t squandered. I mean, it"s not like her only friend in the village is going away and being told not to talk to her or anything, or that in doing so I"m breaking a promise I made to both her and Roxy..."
  
  "That isn"t fair, Rudeus," the man murmured.
  
  "Life"s not fair, then you die," I snarked, dropping the act. "If it makes you feel better then read them yourself first. I"ll make sure they"re just lesson plans, if you really want me not to send her anything personal."
  
  The blond half-elf bowed his head. "Thank you."
  
  Turning away from the absolute shit show this had turned into, I made my way to the house. Lilia met me at the door with my bag in one hand and Aisha cradled in the crook of her arm. Opening the bag, I found my project for Roxy plus my pens, ink, teaching materials, and a few odds and ends. Hidden away in one of the pockets was a small, folded bundle of white silk I recognized from where it had sat on my shelf since I now wore the necklace full time, once I"d confirmed that a little roughhousing wouldn"t break it. Thank you, Lilia.
  
  Zenith had followed the former maid, holding Norn. "Rudy, I"m sorry-"
  
  I shot Zenith a look that shut her up immediately. "How long?"
  
  "Five years," she answered quietly. "That"s the duration of the contract with Paul"s family to teach Eris. After that, her family will pay for your tuition and Sylphie"s to Ranoa University of Magic."
  
  "Okay."
  
  Biting her lip, Zenith quietly said, "Rudy, we were worried for Sylphie. We"ve all seen what happens with girls who latch onto someone like she has. They"re... little better than dolls, really. Just parroting whatever the person they"ve latched onto says. They can"t think for themselves."
  
  "So the obvious solution is to take away her only friend. The only person her age who didn"t bully her because of something stupid. The person who found her, helped build her back up, taught her magic, and was there for her when she needed someone-and who didn"t leave her by choice." Zenith winced at every point. "Yeah. Good call. And thanks for telling that idiot about Roxy. Now he thinks I"m a philanderer like him, or will eventually be, because I"m his son."
  
  "But, I, that is-"
  
  "I told you something in confidence and you didn"t keep it in confidence." Shaking my head, I decided to leave it at that. She"d beat herself up about it enough. I didn"t need to hammer the point home like I did with Paul to get it through his stupidly thick head. I"d forgive her eventually and we"d move on, but at the moment... I wanted her to suffer, just a little bit. She broke my trust and I felt it was warranted. If you didn"t face consequences for your mistakes, you didn"t truly learn from them.
  
  No, it wasn"t even that she told Paul about Roxy. If that was all it was, I would have shrugged it off. Before the girls were born, I wouldn"t have cared. Paul would have laughed it off. Zenith had initially laughed it off-had teased me about it, in fact. But Paul made a mountain out of a molehill because of his own fuckup with Lilia and now, it seemed like he was pushing his guilt onto me. It was a "straw that broke the camel"s back" situation.
  
  Maybe I"m being unfair to her. Again.
  
  I turned and asked Lilia, "Did you have a hand in this idiocy?"
  
  The redhead held my gaze as she shook her head. "I did not. I suggested that you go to Roa to teach Ms. Eris, but that you exchange letters and visit occasionally. I also advised Zenith against speaking to Paul about Ms. Roxy."
  
  "Well, at least someone has their head on straight. Try not to let the place fall apart while I"m gone? Maybe talk me up to my sisters?" I asked, earning a small smile and a nod from the woman. Feeling a bit impulsive, I stepped forward and hugged her. I was a bit surprised when she returned it. It was nice. Lilia was soft, warm, and smelled nice.
  
  "Right. See you in a few years, then," I said, leaving the house without a backwards glance.
  
  I heard Zenith"s breath hitch, before she called out, "Rudy! Wait!"
  
  She hurriedly caught up to me and dragged me into a hug of her own, apparently having passed Norn to Lilia. "I"m sorry! I really, really am! I don"t want us to part on bad terms, please? I feel like if we do..."
  
  The woman fell silent and I heaved a tired sigh. It sucked, but I decided to be the bigger man here. "I understand why you did it, but I don"t agree with it. It"s not even telling him about Roxy that I"m mad at, it"s the fact that it"s lead to this, because he feels guilty about you and Lilia and thinks I"m just like him."
  
  Zenith"s hands clenched me harder, but I managed to turn around in her grip and return the hug. "We"re your parents. We"re just trying to look out for you, and Sylphie too."
  
  I bit back the retort I wanted to make-that it was just a justification, an excuse. Then, I forced down the second, third, and fourth: that it was hypocritical given the circumstances, that I wished people would stop seeing me as my father in this world (a man who was younger than me, need I remind you) and judging me by his mistakes (my mistakes would be entirely my own, not his repeated), or that so far I had a better track record for looking out for myself.
  
  Alright, that"s enough. Get it together. ...If this is how my child brain reacts to adult emotions, just think of how fun puberty is going to be!
  
  "I love you and that won"t change. Give me time, I"ll get over it. And," it felt like pulling teeth to force myself to say it, "thank my idiot father for getting me the job. Even if he did everything else wrong, at least there"s that."
  
  Zenith allowed me to pull away when I pushed at her shoulders. Lilia stepped up and produced a letter. "I believe Paul intended you to have this when you left."
  
  "Thanks, Lilia." I stuffed it in my bag and made my way over to Ghislaine, after checking myself and my bag over to make sure I had everything I wanted before I left. "We ready?"
  
  "Yes," the woman agreed.
  
  "Let"s get going, then."
  
  I stopped just long enough to look down on Paul, who looked to finally be recovering. "Look forward to our rematch in five years, father. If you don"t make sure Sylphie is okay, or if you fail in your duties as a father to my sisters..."
  
  Paul chuckled, his voice sounding a bit rough as he did. "I"m going to get you back for this Rudy."
  
  "You can"t "get me back" for being forced to take a punishment for your own actions. Try growing up a bit, between then and now. The girls need someone they can look up to. Not this... impulsive idiot who just does whatever he wants without thought to the consequences or regard for anyone else. If you're not careful, one day you're going to try that with someone who won't put up with it and get yourself killed." Reaching out, I patted him on the shoulder and cast healing. "I love you father, but you really need to do better. Can't leave me sisters without a father because you let your impulsiveness and stubbornness get yourself killed"
  
  I left Paul with that to think on. Turning to Laws and Sylphie, I winced. This is going to be rough.
  
  "Sylphie, I have to go now," I called to the girl.
  
  With surprising strength, she tore herself from her father"s arms and latched onto me again. "Hey, shh, it"s okay," I petted her hair and rubbed her back as I held her. "It"s only for five years." Leaning in, I whispered directly into her ear where only she could hear. "I"ll try to visit if I can."
  
  Eventually, I managed to disentangle myself from the weepy girl and Ghislaine and I were on our way.
  
  We hopped into the carriage and at a word from Ghislaine, it pulled away for the village. I opened the letter and read. I made it roughly a quarter of the way in before Ghislaine asked, "What does it say?"
  
  "I"ll let you read it when I"m done," I offered.
  
  Ghislaine was quiet for a few moments before she admitted, "I can"t read."
  
  Not terribly surprising, I admitted to myself. Public schooling wasn"t a thing here and you didn"t need to be literate to swing a sword. "It says, "To my dear son, Rudeus. By the time you see this letter, I will probably not be in this world any more-""
  
  Ghislaine turned and shot an annoyed look towards the home we were leaving behind from a hole cut in the door at the rear of the carriage that passed as a window. "He won"t be for much longer, given the way Zenith and that other woman are yelling at him." She chuckled, "I can"t believe he got his harem."
  
  "I know, right? Somehow, he keeps lucking out. I suppose Lilia is partly my own fault, but I wouldn"t trade her or Aisha for the alternative. And he probably talked Zenith into this idiocy against her better judgment. She had a hand in it herself, but this smacks of Paul"s doing. Serves him right," I shrugged. I looked up and sent Ghislaine an apologetic look. "Not to say that I think training under you is a bad idea."
  
  Ghislaine shook her head. "No need to apologize. Paul has always been an impulsive idiot."
  
  I read the rest of it out loud. It pretty much said what Zenith had told me, with a few more details. For instance, I was to have pay of two Asuran silver coins a month as living expenses-but considering that everything I would actually need was paid for by my employer, it would be more like an allowance. Maybe I can talk to my future boss and get a raise.
  
  ""P.S., if the young lady says it"s okay, you can lay your hands on her, but the muscle-brain is my woman so don"t touch her.""
  
  "Send that letter to Zenith."
  
  I sent Ghislaine an amused look. "I like the way you think. We can pay someone in the village to run it back to her. Uncle would be happy to do it, he loves shit stirring." Humming quietly, I added, "You know what would really piss him off?"
  
  "What?" Ghislaine asked, looking somewhat intrigued by the idea.
  
  "Knowing we slept together." The woman raised an eyebrow at that, but I noticed that she didn"t immediately shoot the idea down. Maybe she was flattered, or maybe she got that kind of pass all the time. Probably the second, really.
  
  Alternately, well... I was Paul"s son in her mind, so that sort of thing may have been expected. Actually, that's probably it.
  
  Smirking, I looked away as I divulged my thoughts on petty revenge, "We wouldn"t even have to do anything. Just... imply. I"ll send letters back home with the lessons for Sylphie. I can give them updates on my job and my training. And in those letters, use innuendo-"
  
  "What"s that?"
  
  "An insinuation or veiled hint. In this case, I mean sexual innuendo. Double entendres. Sorry. Words and phrases with two meanings. One meaning is perfectly innocent, the other lewd. For instance," I cleared my throat. "Dear mother and father. Hope you"re well. Blah, blah, blah. You get the idea. Ahem. My training with Ghislaine is going well, but she works me tirelessly, day and night."
  
  Ghislaine hummed quietly. "I don"t see how that"s lewd. I do plan to work you tirelessly when we train."
  
  "Good. Maybe you can figure out what Paul was doing wrong. Anyway, it doesn"t need to be lewd right at the beginning. But a line like that plants the seed for later. Like, "I lost my grip on my sword today, but Ghislaine took it in hand and showed me how to really handle it."" She made a confused face, so I pointed to my crotch. "Sword," then I made a jerking off motion, "in hand. You"ll show me how to handle my sword, right Ghislaine?"
  
  "Oh. Oh! I see." Ghislaine nodded, a smile crossing her lips. "Yes, I like that."
  
  "Or, "After practice, Ghislaine felt that I hadn"t been properly caring for my weapon, so she spent the entire night polishing my sword."" This time, jerking towards my mouth and poking my tongue in my cheek. "Seriously, you"re a sword master and you"ve never heard those horrible jokes? How?"
  
  As Ghislaine laughed, I decided I liked her. She seemed pretty straightforward so far, so I"d give her a chance and a pass for the attempted attack-she had only been acting on Paul"s call for help, after all.
  
  "How about, "I lost my favorite sheath, but Ghislaine has one that fits my sword perfectly?""
  
  Going to need my mountain climbing gear for that, though. God damn she is tall.
  
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  By carriage, it was about a six or seven hour ride from Buena village to the city of Roa. On the way, I interrogated Ghislaine about my new charge and her family. According to Ghislaine, Eris was a very energetic but equally stubborn girl with a good heart but a quick temper, just like her grandfather. Their family had hired her at the lowest point in her life and she had served them faithfully since.
  
  Roa itself was fairly large, by medieval standards, and was surrounded by thick walls that looked at least twenty feet tall. Looking past the gates, there appeared to be stands, hawkers, and all manner of people in various forms of ye olde tymie dress walking around. It looked like either a classic fantasy city or ren faire came early.
  
  "Hey Ghislaine, can you tell me what everything is?" I asked as we passed by what looked like some sort of waiting or staging area where people stood gathered with luggage. It looked like a bus stop, so my guess was it was the stop for the carriages.
  
  I listened and paid attention as my soon-to-be teacher pointed out the various shops-blacksmith, tailor, weapon shop, inn, bar, trade association, brothel, general goods store, adventurer supply store. It was all nice, and I really wanted to have a look around for myself, but the smell. Body odor, shit, piss, people, animals...
  
  Gag a maggot this is nasty, I grumbled internally, using a wind spell to try and filter most of the stink away from our carriage. Ghislaine perked up immediately as the smell stopped trying to beat us down.
  
  The carriage brought us through the city towards the center, our surroundings getting clearly higher class the further in we went. "Where exactly are we going?"
  
  "There," the beast-kin woman pointed to a castle in the center of the town. "The lord"s mansion."
  
  "That"s not a mansion, it"s a castle." Frowning, I asked, "So, can you give me some pointers? I"ve never dealt with nobility. How should I greet these people? How should I act, besides "polite?""
  
  Eventually, we pulled up to the "mansion" and were escorted into what I"d guess was a receiving room for greeting guests. Taking a seat on one of the two sofas, I waited as Ghislaine took up a perch against the wall in a corner of the room.
  
  "The young master will be here shortly. Please wait just a moment," the butler informed me, pouring me a cup of tea from a set that had been out when we arrived-likely prepared as we rolled through the gates.
  
  I sipped at the likely expensive red tea and waited patiently. It was alright, but I would never be much of a "tea" guy.
  
  Studying the butler idly, I hid my frown at what I saw. He looks like the Fat Bastard character from an NTR manga or something.
  
  "Where is he?! Is he here?" a loud voice yelled from nearby, what sounded like the hall leading to the room. I heard a set of footsteps stomp up to the receiving room before an older man threw the door open and stormed in, distracting me from my thoughts of wondering if the butler was cucking the head of house. He looked to be in his 50s, with a bit of white in his dark brown hair, a beard and pointed mustache, and an athletic build.
  
  Putting the cup down, I stood and bowed my head with a hand over my heart as Ghislaine had instructed. "I am Rudeus Greyrat. Pleased to meet you."
  
  The old man looked me up and down before snorting softly. "Barely passable. I"ll allow you to stay."
  
  And with that, he turned and stormed off as quickly as he had come. Utterly confused, I turned to the butler. "What just happened? Who was he?"
  
  "That is the old master, Sauros Boreas Greyrat, the Lord of Fittoa and master Paul"s uncle."
  
  Gesturing at the door, I asked, "Is that... normal?"
  
  "Quite."
  
  I resisted the urge to facepalm. It turned out to be a good call because not a moment later, a second man entered the room. "Thomas, why is the door open? Is something wrong? Father looked happy. Did something happen?" The newcomer was a slender man with light brown hair.
  
  The butler bowed to the newcomer. "I apologize, young master. The old master just met young Rudeus and seemed pleased with him."
  
  That was pleased? He was completely dismissive. Shaking that off, I quickly introduced myself in the same way I had to Sauros.
  
  "I am Phillip Boreas Greyrat. Please, sit." Phillip took his own seat on the couch across from mine and I followed his example. "How much do you know of the situation?"
  
  I shrugged. "Not much. Just that I"m to teach the young lady for five years and that in return, you"ll be paying for two sets of tuition to Ranoa Academy, plus salary while I"m here."
  
  "Is that all?" he asked, and I nodded in answer. "I see. Typical of Paul." Considering me for a moment, he asked, "Do you like girls?"
  
  I clamped down on the impulse to give my first answer of, Only if they"re cute. This man knew Paul-was his cousin in fact. Eris was his daughter. Two plus two...
  
  "I do, but I already have someone I"m interested in pursuing. And even if I didn"t, I"m not my father, sir. I"d like to think I have enough self-control to not go chasing the skirt of every pretty thing that crosses my path. Especially a prospective student."
  
  Chuckling, the "young master" nodded. "Then you pass."
  
  That said, he broke down the details of the job itself. I had complete autonomy over Eris" education, so long as she came out of it literate and capable of doing math to a sufficient level and my lessons didn"t interfere with those of her other instructors: Ghislaine and her etiquette tutor Edena, whom I would be introduced to later. He also confirmed what the letter said, both about my pay and my "allowance."
  
  "What about weekends?"
  
  "Hm?" Phillip asked, raising an eyebrow. ""Week end?" What"s that?"
  
  I frowned, realizing this may be a concept they didn"t have. In fact, pretty sure the idea of days off didn"t really become a thing until laborers" rights did.
  
  "Half a fortnight is a week. Every sixth and seventh day is a weekend," I explained. "I"ll speak to Ghislaine and Edena about it. According to my former master, generally students do better when they have a day or two every week of free time to relax, free from schoolwork. It also gives her instructors free time to pursue their own goals, or take care of errands. Would this be a problem?"
  
  Stroking his chin, the man shook his head. "No, I don"t believe so. Of course, that"s assuming you last that long. Five people have been sacked before you."
  
  "Ghislaine told me she has a very... forceful personality."
  
  Phillip chuckled. "That"s a very polite way of saying that my daughter is a brute. Unfortunately, it is correct. She takes after my father in that way. Hard headed, quick to anger, and quicker to violence. To date, none of her instructors has lasted more than a month, aside from Ghislaine."
  
  Ghislaine hadn"t exactly been cagey with the details, but I wanted to hear it from his own mouth. If his daughter was a thug and he knew about it, I wanted to see just how far I could push to fix her attitude problem. "Are we talking about verbal abuse, physical...?"
  
  "Both," Phillip sighed. "She assaulted one tutor in his sleep with a practice sword."
  
  "And do I have permission to defend myself?" I asked, before clarifying, "Non-lethally and with no lasting physical damage, of course."
  
  The man smirked faintly. "If you think you can."
  
  I held out a hand and conjured up a sphere of water. Silently, of course. Phillip"s eyes widened slightly. "Pretty sure I can." I dismissed the Water Ball and shook my head. "But I"d rather not be the one she"s focusing her anger on. I"d rather be her friend and someone she respects, who she"ll actually pay attention to. I"m not going to let her walk all over me like a doormat, but I want as little in the way of physical confrontation with her as possible. So, to that end, do you have any ideas for breaking her out of this mindset that anything other than swinging a sword is useless?"
  
  Ghislaine had made it clear that that was how Eris felt, from the girl"s own mouth. When asked why she didn"t want to learn, Eris had apparently said something along the lines of, "What do letters and numbers matter when I can just swing a sword or get someone else to do it?"
  
  "If I knew that, I would have done it already," the man grumbled, frustration clear in his voice.
  
  "Too bad we can"t just scare her straight," I muttered as I thought over the problem. I could always try my hand at tsundere taming...
  
  "What was that?"
  
  "Hm?" I asked, looking up towards Phillip. "Tsundere taming?"
  
  The man looked confused. "Sun de re what? No! The other thing. Scaring her straight?"
  
  I shrugged. It was a pretty common tactic in media on Earth. Some people actually tried it sometimes, and it tended to work-at least, in general. Depending on the level of "scare" versus the perceived potential benefit of whatever stupid thing kids wanted to do.
  
  It didn"t always work, but sometimes it did. Mostly, it didn"t work around the time I "left" Earth because media started glorifying most of those things. And if kids think something is cool or will get them what they want, they"re going to do it no matter the risk. Luckily, that didn"t apply here.
  
  The idea actually came to me from a conversation I"d had with one of my brothers, a few years back, when he was having problems with my niece. The "brother" in question wasn"t actually related and the plan involved staging a kidnapping using my brother by blood to do the job.
  
  At the time, it had just been frustrated "what if"s to vent about getting her under control. It would have been entirely too risky in our modern world, with its cell phones, cameras everywhere, police, and advanced forensics analysis. Not to mention, it was a well known "fact" that most incidents of sexual assault and/or kidnapping were committed by someone the victim knew-whether it was true or not, the first suspects were always the immediate family and branching out from there.
  
  Here though, where there were none of those things...
  
  "Stage a kidnapping or something. Have a couple of big guys, members of your staff that she isn"t likely to know, kidnap her, tie her up, and leave her sitting in a basement or something for a day or two in the next town over." Frowning, I shook my head. "Couldn"t send her in alone and Ghislaine wouldn"t be believable. It"d pretty much need to be me, because we"d be using it as an excuse to demonstrate that reading and math are essential skills. Reading directions to get back to town. Managing money to buy food and a ride back. The problem is, there are a lot of moving parts."
  
  "Moving parts?"
  
  Nodding, I explained. "Points of failure. For instance, what if it doesn"t work? The plan hinges on a stubborn, willful, angry little girl feeling scared enough to change her entire outlook on life, in order to make her take the initiative to learn. Or, what if she finds out? She"d never trust any of us again. Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. Or what if some well-meaning town guard or citizen sees something and we have trouble?"
  
  Sighing, I shook my head. "No, too risky. I"ll try just talking to her first. Maybe I can convince her without the need for extremes. Or..." An idea occurred that might let me kill two birds with one stone. "Question. What"s required for a mage to officially advance in rank?"
  
  Ghislaine fielded that one. Unsurprising, given that she had been in an adventurer party with mages. "Someone knowledgeable has to witness the person advancing cast a higher level spell and acknowledge it. Typically a mage, but others could do in a pinch."
  
  "Why do you ask?" Phillip wondered.
  
  I grinned. "So, my pay scale. It"s based on me being a Saint-level mage, right?" Phillip nodded. "And Ghislaine"s pay is based on being a King-level swordswoman." Another nod. "My pay would go up if my rank were acknowledged to be higher, wouldn"t it?"
  
  "Naturally," Phillip agreed easily. "Would you like to do so?"
  
  "Yeah. I"m thinking we can ride a couple of hours out of town and I can demonstrate a few King-level spells. We"ll take Eris along, wave the bait that is ridiculously powerful magic in front of her, and see if she bites. If she does, I promise to teach her... but only if she attends regular studies."
  
  Phillip hummed quietly to himself before nodding. "That sounds good. We can try it tomorrow. Now, as to the proposed kidnapping... Is that something Paul taught you, to get girls eating out of your palm?"
  
  Sending the man an incredulous look, I asked, "What kind of man do you take my father for? He"s a womanizer and a cheater, sure, but Paul is an idiot. The man can barely plan an hour ahead and you expect him to mastermind some kind of kidnapping and benevolent grooming scheme?" Turning to Ghislaine, I asked, "Back me up on this?"
  
  The beast-kin woman nodded. "It"s true. It"s not Paul"s way. He"s much more likely to just use his fists. His idea of fixing a problem is to hit it with his sword until it stops being a problem." A faint smirk pulled at one corner of her mouth as her eyes cut to me. "Not that it always works, any more."
  
  Phillip raised an eyebrow. "I think I"d like to hear that story some time." He shook his head and added, "Judging from Paul"s letter, you were playing around too much with that girl in your village and he had to force you to leave. I thought it was a joke, but listening to your plan just now, do I have to worry about you seducing my daughter?"
  
  I began counting off points on my fingers. "Firstly, Sylphie and I are just friends." For now. And I"ll definitely be breaking Paul"s ban on visiting.
  
  "Secondly, the person I"m pursuing is my old master, Roxy Migurdia. Thirdly, your daughter is nine. Not interested." Doesn"t mean I can"t be later. ...That doesn"t mean they were right and Paul rubbed off on me.
  
  "Fourthly, again, my father is an idiot who, to be frank, thinks with his pecker. I"m pretty sure he only suspects that"s what I was doing because it"s what he would do, if he had the brains."
  
  Now, to be fair to both Paul and Laws, they weren"t entirely wrong.
  
  Some of the lessons I taught definitely contained things that would send certain people or groups from Earth into screeching fits. Things like the symptoms, effects, causes, and methods of transmission of certain diseases (that detoxification magic would cure, but that wasn"t available cheaply to most people in this world unless they happened to have a friendly mage living in their village willing to do it on the cheap and keep his mouth shut about it). Or how it was very difficult (almost impossible) for a woman (who wasn"t a mage or a swordswoman, who could name her own price) to raise a child alone in this world, with its complete lack of governmental support (read: government replacing the husband as provider) to single mothers-to the point that, in most cases, those women tended to become prostitutes.
  
  I may also have used a couple of the village kids to point out how easy it was sometimes to spot when a woman has had an affair. Kids such as Somer, and how he looked nothing like his daddy but a lot like the blacksmith. That one of those kids shared a few of my facial features, I passed off as a coincidence, because there"s no way Paul was so stupid as to shit where he ate. At least, not more than once.
  
  I might have even put a bug in her ear about how nice having a sister would be-innocent enough, given that I"d just acquired two of my own, but in the right context and combined with the fact that she adored and missed Roxy who had for a time fallen into the elder sister role so easily, and all the time Roxy and I spent flirting around her once we became intimate...
  
  Perhaps on the gray side of moral ambiguity, but not what I was accused of. I had no intention of abusing her sexually, abandoning her, or otherwise hurting her. So no, not grooming at all.
  
  Wife husbandry, on the other hand? I"ll plead the fifth.
  
  ...Okay, look. I taught her things I felt she needed to know, regardless of whether we went the harem route or not. That those things were beneficial to me later left me feeling a bit guilty and conflicted about it, but it was better that she be aware of it than not.
  
  "Hmm." The young master spent several moments considering me before he finally nodded. "Fine. We won"t get anything done just talking. Thomas, bring her in."
  
  Within a few minutes, the door to the room burst open and in stomped a little redheaded terror, without the butler. Eris Boreas Greyrat was small of stature (while still being taller than me, damnit), with wave-like crimson red hair, and a violent aura that made her look like a delinquent. Seriously, look at those angry eyes and eyebrows. This girl"s either got the worst case of RBF in the world, or that"s just who she is.
  
  She stood with her legs spread, arms crossed over her chest, head tilted back to look down her nose at me, and a defiant glare on her face. Shana! Or a reasonable facsimile. Tiny, redhead, intense. Yeah, she"s setting off my tsundere radar. Even using one of their standard poses...
  
  Standing, I bowed the way I had been shown. "Pleased to meet you. I"m Rudeus Greyrat."
  
  Eris "hmph!"d the same way her grandfather had, before turning her glare on her father. "Is this a joke?! He"s younger than me and he"s supposed to be my teacher?"
  
  Frowning, I fielded the question myself. "It has less to do with age and more to do with knowledge, which I have and you lack."
  
  "What was that? Are you arguing with me?!" the harpy screeched.
  
  My eye twitched as I fought off a flinch. "Inside voice, please."
  
  Impossibly, her volume knob went higher. "WHAT?!"
  
  "And I"m not arguing. I"m pointing out simple facts. As you"ve stated, I"m two years your junior. And yet, I can read, write, and do complex mathematics in my head. You"re nine and you still haven"t managed to learn something as simple as reading the price of a loaf of bread or counting how much change a peddler owes you."
  
  Was I being a bit confrontational? Yeah. More than a bit, actually. I was provoking her intentionally. I needed to know how fast she would go off and how bad it would get. More than that, I needed to establish dominance and for that, I needed an excuse to self-defense her into the ground.
  
  Attacking my charge would look bad, both to my employer and the student in question. If I attacked first, it would be a sign of weakness in her mind. Defending myself against her, on the other hand? She wouldn"t be able to make an argument against it.
  
  Never let the tsundere smell fear or weakness, otherwise she"ll walk all over you. Such is the way of the doormat protagonist. And Eris was firmly stuck in tsun. If I ever wanted to see the light of dere, I"d have to start now and not back down.
  
  The girl"s eyes narrowed and she closed the distance between us. Two steps in, she raised her hand, fist balled up, and reached for the back forty. It was a punch that was beyond telegraphed. "You"re too arrogant!"
  
  Instinct took over at that point and I can"t be blamed for my actions. Honest.
  
  I reinforced my body with mana and stepped into it, shifting left at the same time I brought up my right hand, grabbing her wrist and pulling the haymaker even further in its left to right (right to left from her perspective) arc and setting her off balance. A left-to-right twist of my hips, shift in my weight, and change in stance turned her own momentum against her.
  
  Eris flipped beautifully, before slamming down on the ground, landing on her back with an explosive force that knocked the breath from her lungs. I used my grip on her wrist and her temporarily stunned state to roll her over onto her belly, then put my knee in the middle of her back and torqued her arm up behind her back.
  
  Martial arts: 1. Violent tsundere: 0.
  
  Beating up a child, even if she is physically larger and likely stronger without using magic as a lever. Don"t get a big head, I chastised myself.
  
  Looking up, I met Ghislaine"s eyes, sending her an inquisitive look as she looked on in a mixture of amusement and curiosity. "She doesn"t actually know how to throw a punch, does she? I mean the right way, not some haymaker that anyone with the least bit of training could turn against her."
  
  Looking a bit sheepish, Ghislaine admitted, "We"ve been focused on sword combat. I didn"t see a need for it at this time."
  
  "What happens if she loses her sword?" It seemed like an obvious question.
  
  Ghislaine frowned, before nodding. "Eris," she called, and the girl below me stopped her thrashing. "We"ll begin unarmed training tomorrow."
  
  "Fine," the girl muttered, before turning her head enough to glare at me from the corner of her eye. "Get off me!"
  
  "If I do, will you promise not to attack me again?" I asked, not really expecting a positive answer.
  
  The girl remained silent, so I torqued her arm a little higher. She clenched her jaw shut around a whine. So, I grabbed her wrist and started hyper-extending it down. The whine increased in pitch before she finally shrieked, "FINE!"
  
  Looking up, I met Phillip"s eye, raising an eyebrow. The man made a "go ahead" gesture. "If you break your promise, I"m going to take you outside and bury you up to your neck in the ground until you settle down. Do you understand?"
  
  "Whatever," the girl grumbled.
  
  I released her arm and got off of her. Eris immediately shot to her feet, rolling her arm in her socket and rubbing at her wrist. Turning, she pointed at me, glare in full force. "Do you have any idea who I am?!"
  
  I stared at her for a moment, trying my best to impart just how stupid a question I thought that was. "I do. Do you have any idea how little I care whose crotch fruit you are? I don"t care if we"re distantly related, I"m not going to let you just hit me whenever you feel like it. I"m a teacher, not a doormat."
  
  "Crotch- Crotch fruit?!" the girl went red in the face, disgust warring with anger. "I"ll kill you!"
  
  Eris went back to the well for a second wind up punch. I blew her off her feet with a silent Water Ball, sending her to the ground soaked.
  
  Rolling to her feet, Eris paused only momentarily when she saw another Water Ball in my hand. "Rule one: there is no such thing as a fair fight."
  "Ahh!"
  
  The girl screamed, charging like a rabid animal. I loosed the spell. Water exploded outwards as it hit her center mass and took Eris off her feet again. I followed up with a Wind Gust, sending her rolling out of the room. "Be right back," I called to Phillip, who wore a look of amusement. Ghislaine, I noticed, followed close on my heels as I pursued Eris.
  
  The redhead in question came to a stop and got to her feet. She looked ready to charge again, so I sent her packing with another Wind Gust. Moving ahead quickly with Air Running, I smacked her towards the front door of the mansion with another Wind Gust. Air Running allowed me to get ahead of her and open the door, and she spilled out onto the brick path leading up to the mansion. A final Wind Gust sent her rolling off into the grass of the lawn around the manor. "Stop it!"
  
  "Nope."
  
  Landing beside her, I waited for her to get to her feet and take the bait. I turned the ground directly ahead of me into a quagmire, two square feet wide and about a foot off from her height, with an inch of solid ground over it. Eris predictably bit and charged again, only to fall in with a wet splat! that left her buried up to her neck. With the girl partially submerged, I yanked the moisture out of the ground and quick dried it, dispelling the quagmire back into particularly dry and hard earth. Annoying to get out of, but not impossible.
  
  Squatting down in front of the suddenly quiet girl, I smiled. "Eris, I"m not like your other teachers. I"m not afraid of you. I"m not afraid of your father or your grandfather. The only thing I"m afraid of is failing in my task to educate you-because if I do, that means that I"m going to be leaving one girl disadvantaged for the rest of her life and another girl heartbroken. If you attack me, I have permission to defend myself and as you"ve just seen, I can do exactly that. Isn"t that right, Ghislaine?"
  
  At my call, the woman walked into Eris"s field of view, drawing the girl"s glare. "It"s true. Your father gave Rudeus permission to educate you as he saw fit and to retaliate if you attacked him. I"ll make sure he doesn"t go overboard, but so far nothing I"ve seen wouldn"t be in a typical sparring match with a mage. Speaking of, Rudeus?" she asked, and I looked away from Eris enough to throw her a questioning look. "I wish to spar against you with only spells against my blade later. I want to see what you did to Paul."
  
  I hesitated. "No," I drew the word out. "I"m still working out the kinks in that spell and I don"t want to hurt you. Maybe a lower level version of it, so you can get a feel for it?"
  
  The woman nodded. "If you don"t think it"s safe," she lead, and I shook my head, "that"s fine then. I"ll trust your judgment of your own magic. I would still like to spar with other spells."
  
  "Sure then. Sounds fun," I agreed easily, before turning my attention back to Eris. Flicking her in the forehead, I made sure she was focused on me. "I suppose it"s my own fault for not properly introducing myself." I mockingly bowed. "Water-Saint Mage Rudeus Greyrat, at your service. Officially. Unofficially, I can cast in every element at King-level-I"ve just never had another mage around to prove it and don"t really care to advertise that fact." If it came down to it, I"d rather be underestimated than estimated accurately and accounted for.
  
  But then, I was going to be changing that come tomorrow... Maybe I just won"t advertise. I"m only using it in this case to get more pay and to show Eris what magic can do, as a bribe to make her focus on her classes with me.
  
  I fell silent, considering the girl for a moment, before I sighed. "Eris, I want to help you. I don"t want us to be adversaries or enemies. In fact, I"d really rather be your friend. But I can"t help you if you don"t let me. And believe me, you need help."
  
  "I don"t," the girl grumbled.
  
  "Obviously you do," I countered. "Fists and the sword aren"t going to get you everywhere in life. They aren"t going to open every door. They aren"t going to make many friends, especially when you"re using them against people who would otherwise be inclined to help you. And they aren"t going to dig you out of this hole-whereas if you knew magic..." Chuckling quietly, I asked, "You know who you remind me of?"
  
  "Who?" came the sullen reply.
  
  "My father. Ask Ghislaine, he"s an idiot." I caught the woman nodding from the corner of my eye. "A real "think with your fists" type. Want to know how that worked out for him?" She looked away, but it wasn"t an outright "no."
  
  "Dear old dad nearly broke up our family by not thinking with the right head. He put a baby in our maid. It was only because I talked mom out of it that she didn"t send Lilia off in the middle of winter with her newborn, then put her boot in Paul"s ass and send him packing. Today, instead of trying to talk things out like an adult when he wanted to send me off to teach you without giving me time to prepare my other student, he decided it"d be a good idea to use his fists. It turned out about as well for him as this did for you. And it could have all been avoided if the two of you had just acted like rational, civilized people instead of muscle-heads. Now, I"m going to leave you here to think on that for a while-"
  
  "Don"t you dare."
  
  There was some fire to her tone as she fixed me with another glare. I shook my head. "I will, because I said I would and I want you to know that if I tell you something I"m serious about it. I promised I would bury you if you attacked me, and I did. I promise I will leave you here, and I will. I don"t make empty promises. And you, little lady, desperately need a lesson in humility that your daddy never gave you. So for the rest of this afternoon, I"m going to hit you where it"ll hurt the worst-your pride. Because I want you to be better and you can"t be if your head is wedged firmly up your ass."
  
  "What if I get thirsty?!"
  
  "That"s simple." I smiled, before tapping the ground in front of her where I formed a stone depression. Then, I filled it with water. "You tried to bite first. You came at me like a rabid dog instead of a young lady. Ladies drink out of glasses, dogs drink out of a doggie bowl." Eris growled and my smile widened. "Proving. My. Point."
  
  The growl cut out and her nostrils flared as she huffed in air. "What if I have to go to the bathroom?"
  
  "You should have considered that before attacking an unknown," I shrugged. "Guess you"ll just have to hold it. Or let it go in your dress. Now, I"ll be back for you in a little bit for our lesson. If you apologize, I"ll dig you out at supper time, then you can go and get cleaned up and eat at the table like a lady. If you don"t apologize, guess what happens."
  
  Eris rolled her eyes. "You leave me here all night?"
  
  "Yup. And what do dogs eat from?" I asked. The girl"s expression shifted from petulant to outraged as her eyes widened. Just to drive the point home, I created a second bowl beside the first. "That"s right. A bowl. On the ground. I"ll be nearby, so don"t bother asking the servants to get you out. If you try it, I"ll just re-bury you."
  
  Standing, I turned towards the mansion. I made it a few yards before a thought occurred. Snapping my fingers, I turned around and called, "Oh, and one more thing! If you try to attack me in the middle of the night, I"m going to strip you naked and string you up outside for everyone to see. Think on that while I go talk to your dad. I"ll be back in a few and we can get started on our first lesson."
  
  As we made our way into the mansion, Ghislaine asked, "Would you really?"
  
  "Really what?"
  
  "Leave her exposed," the woman clarified.
  
  I sent her a smile. "You bet your beautiful ass. I get the feeling that Eris is the kind of girl you can"t back down from. If you do, she"ll take it as a sign of weakness. I"ve given her a warning and if I don"t follow through, nothing I say in the future will ever carry weight for her. Now, I"m not a pervert or anything and I"m not heartless. I"ll do it in the back yard or something, where passers by can"t see from the street. I"ll just make sure the house is in view so she feels like everyone is looking."
  
  "You"re despicable." I noticed there was no real heat to her words, despite their content.
  
  I shrugged. "Maybe. Sometimes, you have to break someone down to build them back up. Speaking of," I pushed open the door to the study, where I found Phillip waiting.
  
  "Well?"
  
  "She"s in time out."
  
  The man looked confused and Ghislaine explained, "Buried up to her neck in the ground. She"s fine. Only thing hurt is her pride."
  
  "Which needs to take a beating, at this point. In fact, it needs to be razed to the ground from the mountain it"s become," I grunted, dropping into the seat across from him.
  
  I thought on the matter for a few moments, weighing my options in silence. Finally, I asked, "Remember how I said the kidnapping plan was a horrible idea?" Phillip nodded. "Yeah, it"s still a horrible idea but I take back saying we shouldn"t do it. If the demonstration tomorrow doesn"t work... it"s back on the table. This? Showing her I"m stronger than her and forcing her to do what I want? It"s only a temporary solution, and not a great one. She may be wary of me, might even respect that I"m a fairly powerful mage-or at least stronger than her. But I don"t think she"s going to put any effort into learning. No more than the bare minimum required to keep me from punishing her. It"s a poor way to teach a student. She has to want it for herself. I"m hoping she takes the carrot of learning magic, but if she doesn"t, then I"d rather we have the stick on hand."
  
  "I"ll see that it"s done and let you know when we"re ready."
  
  I nodded. "Okay then. We"ll get that one spun up and ready, but I"d rather keep it as a last resort. It"s a stupid plan and I don"t like it. So, I need you to tell me exactly what has been tried with her up to now by all of her previous teachers. I need to know what worked, even for a little while, and what didn"t work at all. Anything you can give me will be a big help. We can come up with a few things to try without resorting to the idiot plan."
  
  "Very well. Then let us begin with the first tutor..."
  
  Ghislaine suppressed a yawn as Rudeus and Phillip talked. She occasionally offered a comment when prompted or asked for her opinion, but otherwise she simply listened and observed. And as she did, she took a measure of her soon-to-be student and teacher.
  
  Rudeus Greyrat was... a strange boy.
  
  He was more mature than his age would lead one to believe, in his actions, words, and other ways. The boy had eyed her up the same way every man she met did-which was surprising, considering it was coming from a seven year old human child. His scent had told her he was somewhat aroused, but it faded quickly as they spoke on the ride to Roa. He cast the occasional glance at her ears and tail, but it was... strange. Not the looks she had grown accustomed to from Phillip, Sauros, or Hilda. It had the feel of simple curiosity, perhaps wonder at seeing something novel.
  
  He was intelligent. Almost frighteningly so. Rudeus made her old teammate Geese look dull by comparison, and she had known him less than a day. He spoke like an adult, to the point that Ghislaine sometimes forgot she was speaking to a human child and started treating him more like an adult Hobbit.
  
  He was powerful and he had magic the likes of which she had never seen before. He could cast silently, swiftly, multiple spells at the same time, and back to back with seemingly no need for any sort of rest. Given a few years... No, he beat Paul and evaded my surprise attack. And he did it all without a mage"s focus. There was no need to prefix the statement. Rudeus would be an absolutely terrifying opponent if he put his mind to it, here and now. In a few years, he would likely become one of the world"s top powers. Her lips pulled into a small smirk at the thought of future spars to come. It was going to be fun.
  
  He was... so different from his father, and yet the two were so alike.
  
  Paul used his fists or his cock to get what he wanted and had since she had known him. Rudeus used magic and apparently seduced his old teacher and potentially his student. Paul tried to knock Rudeus out to send him away, Rudeus responded by blasting Paul with magic and dictating terms to his father.
  
  Paul couldn"t plan more than a few steps ahead of whatever he needed at the moment-most of his "plans" were improvised on the spot. Rudeus demonstrated an ability to plan ahead that spoke to someone playing the long game, but had shown he was capable of adapting to situations as they arose-as with his handling of Paul and Eris both.
  
  She wondered how Rudeus would react, if he knew her thoughts on that. Probably not well. He doesn"t hate his father, but it"s clear that he"s lost whatever faith and respect he had for Paul.
  
  But just as she saw Paul in Rudeus, she saw Zenith in him too.
  
  His smarts? Zenith.
  
  Temperance? Zenith.
  
  It was like he got the best of both of her former party members... and maybe some of the worst. Because Paul didn"t have much "best" to give that didn"t involve his sword, or his "sword."
  
  "Well, it"s getting late. Why don"t you go wash up and join us for dinner, Rudeus? And would you free my daughter so she could wash she dirt off and change clothes?" Phillip requested.
  
  Rudeus nodded. "Sure. Where"s the bathroom?"
  
  Phillip called for Thomas and the butler escorted the boy away. A signal from Phillip had Ghislaine waiting instead of going to meet her charge. "Ghislaine, what"s your assessment of Rudeus?"
  
  The warrior woman hummed, crossing her arms under her breasts as she closed her eyes and thought on it. Summing up her thoughts, she came to an answer. "I think he"ll be good for Eris."
  
  "Oh? Please explain."
  
  Nodding, Ghislaine elaborated. "Eris is stubborn. Rudeus seems to be more stubborn. She"s violent, but he can counter her with magic. He seems to genuinely want to help her."
  
  "You said something interesting earlier. Did something happen with Paul?"
  
  Ghislaine"s lips twitched into a small smile. "Yes. Paul wanted to separate Rudeus from his student in Buena Village."
  
  "That would be Sylphiette, the one Paul thinks he"s been seducing?"
  
  "Mm," Ghislaine confirmed. "They fought."
  
  "Oh? I take it Rudeus lost-"
  
  "No," she shook her head. "The battle was short. I wouldn"t even call it a fight. Rudeus was clearly prepared. He trapped Paul in some sort of modified Quagmire spell nearly up to his neck, put distance between them, then used lightning to incapacitate Paul."
  
  Phillip frowned. "Isn"t lightning a King-level water spell? How is Buena Village still standing?"
  
  "This wasn"t King-level. At a guess, Intermediate. Some sort of bright flash and crack of thunder from the first spell, then a single bolt."
  
  Blinking, the man stroked his chin. "You"re telling me that Paul, an Advanced-level swordsman of the Water God, Sword God, and North God schools and admittedly a bit of a prodigy for all his faults, went down to a single spell?"
  
  "Yes."
  
  "From his own son. Who is Saint-level, possibly King-level at his age, depending on how tomorrow goes," Phillip murmured, growing thoughtful.
  
  Eventually, a terrible smile crossed his face. "Ghislaine, I believe you may be correct. Young Rudeus may just be a match for my Eris. Let"s see what he does next. If he can actually convince her to focus on her studies..."
  
  "You"re thinking about your brother."
  
  Phillip nodded, giving her a dismissive wave as he left the room.
  
  Ghislaine sighed quietly. Politics. I hate politics.
  
  She almost felt sorry for Rudeus, but something told her that perhaps, she should feel sorry for the people that would be forced to deal with him if they involved him in their little game.
  
  You couldn"t just swing a sword or throw a spell at politics. And if the boy proved himself to be what he claimed, there was no way he could avoid it for long. He was a single piece on the board. A high value piece, admittedly, but still a piece. Not a player, like Phillip.
  
  Not yet.
  
  She was glad she didn't have to indulge in the games the nobles and royalty played because she didn't have the head for it. Her life was simple. Follow orders, get paid.
  
  Just the way she liked it.
  
  I should go find Eris. Make sure she hasn"t gotten herself buried again. And wasn"t that a convenient way to deal with a problem student?
  
  I want to learn magic.
  
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  sinereal
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  The following two weeks teaching Eris while trying out various methods to hold her attention was... An experience, let's just say. Honestly, it went about as I had expected.
  
  After digging the rabid girl out of the hole I'd put her in, she behaved for the rest of the night. Seeing as neither of my mothers raised a fool in either life, when it was time for bed, I stuffed a pillow under my covers, moved a chair into the corner on the same wall as the door, and waited.
  
  I gave Eris enough rope to hang herself and she didn't disappoint.
  
  Some time in the middle of the night, as I sat quietly meditating (by which I mean playing with magic making a Roxy figurine), the handle of my door jiggled. It was locked, of course. One last chance for her to turn back.
  
  Something slipped between the door and the wall and pushed the lock up. The door opened silently and in crept a figure just a little taller than myself, with long hair in silhouette. Resisting the urge to sigh and give away the game, I waited.
  
  Sure enough, Eris raised what looked like a practice sword and began violently hammering the lump in the bed. Feathers scattered in the air and the girl stopped hitting after a minute, when her blows drew no response. She hadn't held back at all.
  
  Now I decided to announce my presence.
  
  Fire sprang to life above me, lighting the room brightly and causing the girl to wince.
  
  "Good evening, miss Eris."
  
  "Ah... Rudeus. Um, hello." Caught red handed, she was surprisingly bashful.
  
  "You know what this means, don't you?" I asked. Eris frowned and shifted her stance into a more defensive posture. Eris considered me for a moment before nodding to herself. Then, as expected, she charged me with the sword raised.
  
  I deflected the sword with a Wind Gust, then slapped her in the stomach with my open palm. The redhead locked up briefly before she went down with a quiet crackcrackcrack of electrical discharge from the Arc spell I'd nailed her with. She was still conscious and clearly mad, but she'd also lost bladder control and could only twitch her limbs.
  
  "Ghislaine, you there?" I called.
  
  "I am." The woman appeared from where she'd been snooping just outside the door, still fully clothed. In other words, like me she expected something like this from Eris.
  
  Somehow, I wasn't surprised. "You aren't going to complain about this, are you?" The woman shook her head and I said, "Then you're my witness that there was no sexual abuse involved here."
  
  The beast-kin woman nodded again. Picking Eris up like a sack of potatoes, I carried her out of the house and into the back yard-Eris screeching the whole while, demanding I unhand her, and drawing the attention of the staff. Once outside, I created an X-shaped frame of stone. I stripped off the girl's nightgown and used more stone to fix her in place, spread eagle, in full view of the house.
  
  "If you apologize for the rest of the night, we can go back inside in the morning at first light. I'm trying to offer you a way to help yourself, here. So, do you want to take it this time?"
  
  Eris weakly nodded. "I'm sorry."
  
  "For? An apology without knowing what you did wrong is meaningless. Empty words."
  
  "I'm sorry for attacking you."
  
  Reaching over, I patted the top of her head. "Good girl, Eris. I mean that. Now, keep repeating that for the rest of the night."
  
  The girl growled quietly, but began repeating herself.
  
  True to my word, I let her down and gave Eris back her nightgown when the sky began to lighten. Then we went inside, where we found Phillip and Sauros waiting. Sauros frowned, seeing Eris" state. "What"s going on here?!" the older man demanded.
  
  "Discipline," I gave the one-word answer. "I promised a punishment if she tried attacking me in the middle of the night. She did, so I followed through. Now you know that I mean what I say, don"t you Eris?"
  
  The girl grumbled quietly but nodded. "Yes."
  
  Phillip coughed politely. "Eris, go get dressed. We"ll have breakfast, then take the carriage out for a ride."
  
  The girl nodded and hurried off upstairs. Sauros glowered. "It"s not your place to administer discipline to my granddaughter."
  
  "Actually sir, as her teacher, it is-unless my employer says it"s not. And I have permission," I gestured at Phillip, who nodded once.
  
  "What"s the meaning of this, boy?" Sauros demanded of his son.
  
  Phillip sighed. "Father, this can"t go on. She"s unmanageable. I won"t have my daughter crippled later in life because we were unable get her under control and teach her the things she needs to know. I"ve allowed Rudeus to use whatever means he feels are necessary to do so, within reason. Ghislaine is there to supervise and report back."
  
  Looking at the big woman, Phillip asked, "Has he stepped out of line?" Ghislaine silently shook her head. "There you have it."
  
  Sauros inhaled deeply through his nose, looking for a moment like he would lash out, before he finally nodded. "Fine. Do whatever you need to."
  
  "I"m glad I have your permission to parent my child, father," was Phillip"s dry response, an amused look crossing his face.
  
  "Don"t get cocky with me, boy!"
  
  I decided to escape the madness for the moment and slipped off to the dining room to grab a quick bite to eat. I was running on no sleep here, but that wasn"t exactly unheard of. One of the "joys" of being an on call salaried employee meant that sometimes, there just wasn"t time for sleep. I could sleep tonight. ...After securing my door with something that would dissuade unwanted guests. I"d like to see Eris move a few hundred pounds of solid ice quietly. If she could do that and still sneak into my room, I deserved the beating.
  
  Once everyone was ready, we loaded up in the carriage and set off-Sauros, Phillip, Phillip"s wife Hilda, Eris, Ghislaine, myself, and a pair of maids who drove the carriage and would be on hand to serve everyone lunch from the picnic baskets they had brought. "When did the road out of Roa change?" Sauros wondered aloud.
  
  Ghislaine answered that. "Yesterday. Rudeus raised it himself on the way here from Buena Village."
  
  Well, to be fair, I hadn"t raised the entire thing yesterday. Just most of it. When we hit the area where Sylphie and I had left off, about two hours out from the village, I"d requested the carriage stop, then got out and started making road. Then, I joined the driver up top and made a path ahead of us as we rode, Ghislaine cramming in beside me to watch with interest and talk.
  
  Sauros harrumphed, crossing his arms and looking out one of the cutouts that served for windows. "Rudeus," he finally said, drawing my attention. "I"ll offer you no more than three Asuran gold per mile."
  
  I did the math on that. Roughly sixty-five, maybe seventy miles from here to Buena Village. Lowballing it at sixty, that"s a hundred and eighty gold.
  
  "Six," I countered.
  
  Sauros scoffed. "Don"t get ahead of yourself, brat. Four."
  
  "Do you know anyone else who can raise sixty or more miles of road in a single day without breaking a sweat? If you want to retain my services for future road building, it would behoove you to offer a price worth that sort of speed and skill. Five and a half, minimum."
  
  "I didn"t request the job in the first place! If anything, you should be paying me for tampering with my roads!"
  
  "That"s fine, then. I"ll just go back over it and break it up into chunks that no carriage or horse can pass and you can use the grass to the side of the road. Enjoy watching your trade caravans getting stuck in the mud come the rainy season, or the snow come winter."
  
  "You"ll take five and you"ll be happy with it, boy!"
  
  I scoffed, shooting the man a glare. "Only on the guarantee of future work."
  
  The old man looked away with an annoyed glare. "Very well."
  
  Yeah, I figured out how to translate to pushy old man language. Turns out, Sauros wasn"t all that hard to understand. He was a whole lot of bluster and pride, and he didn"t want to be seen giving in to anything. Everything had to be a fight with him. I"d known a few people like that before, so all I had to do was play along.
  
  I just got myself three hundred gold. I"m fantasy world rich. Technically. Sauros can throw that out like pocket change, because it"s coming out of the taxes for the Fittoa region, what with him being the lord of the region.
  
  On a personal scale, I"m... somewhere well above a peasant, but below Paul and Zenith since I don"t have any sort of title or position. Still, money is good. Guaranteed money later is better, so long as it doesn"t eat up too much of my free time. Now, what can I do with it...
  
  Reinvest it. Spend money to make money. Save enough for a nest egg for when this teaching gig is done, put the rest into making more money. My tuition is covered, but if I want a place to live while going to Ranoa, I"m going to want to have a lot more money even if I am doing most of the work myself. Then there"s supplies and other costs. I"d rather do the work now than have the scramble for it later.
  
  Question is, where to start. I"ll have to have a look through the market soon. Gather data. Go from there.
  
  "Where are we going, anyway?" Eris demanded from where she sat beside me. So far, she had been content to simply sit and ride. I assumed that was because like all kids, she was excited to be going somewhere.
  
  "Yes, boy. You never explained," Sauros complained at Phillip.
  
  Phillip grinned. "Rudeus is going to put on a show for us."
  
  Hilda, sitting beside Phillip, crossed her arms over her breasts and glared at me, before turning her head away. Eris shot me a suspicious look. "What kind of show?"
  
  "I suppose that"s entirely up to Rudeus," Phillip shrugged.
  
  Great, now it"s not just casting a few spells. I"ve got to put on a performance. I"m not your dancing monkey. ...No, I suppose in this instance I am, if I want more money and for the whole "impress Eris into learning magic" plan to have a snowball"s chance in hell. Fine then. Dance monkey, dance.
  
  Closing my eyes, I leaned back and rested my head against the wall of the carriage. Opening my hand, I cast a sustained Arc spell and let it dance over my fingers, crackling quietly in the carriage under the sounds of conversation.
  
  My thoughts grew hazy as the carriage grew warm and a bit stuffy and I began to nod off. Something about the way the spell crackled caught my attention and I frowned, pulled away from my impromptu nap as I listened. Buzzing, buzzing, bu-crackcrackhiss-zz.
  
  Focusing on the mana in my hand, I smiled faintly as I began using it to produce something like music-as played by a tesla coil maybe. I couldn"t sing for shit, couldn"t play an instrument, but I had a few favorite songs and I knew magic. Maybe I can recreate them from memory? Find a way to play them directly from memory?
  
  Not something I could do right now, though.
  
  They want a show. I can do raw elemental manipulation at that level, no need for specific spells. Sure, it takes a bit more mana, but I"m close to topped up at the moment. So, how about... pyrotechnics. Some theater. Something big and scary. Shock and awe.
  
  I let my mind wander as I planned. Roxy wanted me to prove not only that I could cast a Saint-level spell, but that I could hold it up for an amount of time that would be impossible by directly supporting the spell with just mana and required combined spell effects. May as well make it something that can last.
  
  Eventually, the carriage bumped as it pulled off the road and into the grass of one of the many fields that lined the road. "I think this is far enough," Phillip announced as he got up and opened the back door of the carriage before stepping out. Looking around, he nodded to himself. "This will do nicely. Open, flat, no one around for miles, and nothing of value that could be destroyed."
  
  I waited as the others piled out of the carriage. Finally, I hopped out and stretched out the kinks from sitting in the bumpy ride for so long. Looking between the carriage and horses, and the gathered people, I hummed. "Okay, everyone move away from the carriage," I instructed. There were some curious looks, but those stopped when I raised a dome over the carriage and horses.
  
  "What"s that for?" Ghislaine wondered.
  
  I sent her an amused look. "Prior experience. My klutz of a former master demonstrated the Cumulonimbus spell for my exam to become a Saint-ranked mage. She tied up Caravaggio, Paul"s horse, to the only tree for miles. It caught a lightning strike and the poor boy got zapped. She healed him, but he was never the same after. Doesn"t like loud noises or bright flashes. I"d rather not traumatize any more horses."
  
  There were some nods from the others and I set about raising a large structure to hold them, partially open on the front side so they could see but sheltered from wind, rain, and flying debris. I added benches and directed them to sit down, after making sure the structure was semi-permanent and I wouldn"t have to maintain it the entire time, like the dome. Once they had, I moved out in front of the stone booth. "Okay, let"s do this," I muttered, picturing the mental image of what I wanted.
  
  The hair on my arms, and likely those of everyone else, raised as static filled the air. A mile or so out, great arcs lightning flashed as I reintroduced this world to Thor"s hammer. Two strikes and a roll of thunder as more potential gathered in the air. My fingers tapped out a beat against my leg as I worked, lightning falling and thunder crashing in time. Two single strikes became four, eight, sixteen... I stopped counting when the lightning became so bright it hurt to look at and the thunder rolled so strongly my ears and bones hurt.
  
  Then, I let the spell go, static in the air maintaining it at that level and my attention only directing when it fired off while I moved on to the next phase.
  
  Lightning had glassed the earth, and I reached out and used it. Glass erupted into great spikes, before rolling across the ground and gathering into an angular, spiked, blackened shape of a dragon the size of a skyscraper standing on its hind legs. Yes, it did in fact resemble Godzilla.
  
  I was kind of cheating here, in that I wasn"t going for full detail like with one of my models-not at this scale. No, a rough outline would be good enough, so long as it was recognizable. Cheaper and faster, too. Which was good, because unlike with lightning, wind, or rain there was no way to keep this going but directly supporting it with mana.
  
  The earth rumbled in an earthquake as a second dragon, wider and bulkier burst from the ground, made of dirt and stone-this one looking more like a turtle. Well, an alligator snapping turtle. The two clashed, throwing glass, dirt, and rock everywhere as they rolled over and over along the ground, ignoring the lightning raining down around them. I could feel the vibrations in my feet every time they rolled and the sound of breaking glass could be heard in between rolls of thunder.
  
  The ground glowed red, visible from where we sat, and molten rock spewed forth as a third dragon rose from the ground-this one in the classic shape of a red dragon, made of molten rock. It spewed huge gouts of flame upon the other two dragons before joining the fray, the heat off of it catching fire to the grass that lightning hadn"t already gotten to, enough that we could feel it on the breeze from here.
  
  Above us, the sky darkened and the air grew heavy with moisture and cold. Thick clouds gathered and swirled as rain, sleet, and hail began to pound the ground. Wind kicked up, twisting into a pair of massive tornadoes that touched down and danced around the three dragons duking it out, sucking up rock, dirt, glass, and fire-before they merged into a single tornado, the debris defining the shape of a fourth dragon that wound itself around the others.
  
  Between the fire, wind providing circulation, and cold in the upper atmosphere the storm I was making would put the one I"d made for Roxy to shame. It would also stick around long after I stopped supplying it mana, unless I dispersed it.
  
  The precipitation continued to fall but much of it suddenly reversed course, gathering into a long, sinuous, writhing shape-a fifth dragon made of water and ice that arched down from the sky to join the free for all. Hello Shenron.
  
  I let them go for a while, pounding away at each other and rolling over and over the land, causing small earthquakes that rattled our teeth. With the atmospheric effects self-sustaining, all I had to worry about was moving a few... hundred tons of glass, stone, dirt, and water. Breath weapons occasionally launched out of the furball.
  
  Streams of pressurized, supercooled water that cut deep into the earth for miles around. Fireballs or flame throwers that lit the sky. Stone Cannon spells, scaled up to the size of cars that exploded like heavy artillery and tore great craters in the earth. Gales of wind that threatened to strip the land down to the bedrock, picking up topsoil, debris, and glass and turning it into a giant sand blaster that shredded whatever it touched. "Beams" of glass that created pillars and spikes of the stuff wherever it landed, which exploded into shrapnel shortly after.
  
  Finally, I decided to finish it. Time for the big finale. Combination spells, on the King-level scale.
  
  The fire dragon was the first to die, torn three ways between the earth, water, and wind dragons and swallowed. The wind effects on the wind dragon showed first as it became a sideways tornado of fire that super-heated everything in its vicinity before exploding in a wave of flames that I directed away from us.
  
  The water dragon went up next, boiling over and losing cohesion before bursting into a steam explosion that sent a fog of deadly water speeding away from it that wilted and boiled the grass that hadn"t already been burned.
  
  The earth dragon was the next to fail critically, wobbling away from the glass dragon before flopping onto its belly. Its shell began to glow cherry red before the entire thing went up like a volcano, throwing molten rock, smoke, and ash into the sky, which immediately fell down as a pyroclastic flow. Huge, billowing gray clouds fell down, burning everything they touched. Again, I had to direct it away from us to keep us from ending up as collateral damage.
  
  Finally, the glass dragon turned its head to the sky to roar its triumph in a shriek of glass on glass. The lightning that had been a steady "crack, crack, boom," changed, becoming a near continuous sequence of strikes centered on the mass of glass-melting and cracking it apart as it broke down into smaller pieces, exploding away from the main mass in a spray of fragments and aerosolized, heated glass. Maybe not as impressive as pyroclastic flow, but still just as deadly.
  
  The world fell silent.
  
  The lightning stopped, the clouds parted, and the sun shone down to reveal an absolutely devastated section of plains. Miles of land torn asunder-glassed, burned, churned up, stripped by wind, frozen, flooded, and blasted flat. My ears rang and I saw spots, but a quick healing spell fixed that.
  
  Turning around, I asked, "So, was that good enough, or should I do something bigger?"
  
  I hoped that was good enough. I wasn"t sure I had anything bigger in me at the moment. I was wiped. My muscles trembled and I was covered in sweat. My breath came in carefully controlled pants. My vision was starting to go gray at the edges. I hadn"t felt this weak since the first time I overexerted myself learning how to cast. I had nothing left in the tank. Completely out of mana.
  
  I hate this feeling. I need to train my magic more. Until I can keep that up all day.
  
  The only thing keeping me on my feet was sheer, stubborn determination not to look weak in front of these people-especially Eris. I had to be the untouchable King-level mage, who could throw out, by my count, about ten simultaneous spells like candy, combine them into effects that would level cities and armies, and come back and ask if they wanted more.
  
  God I"m tired. When we get back, I am diving face first into bed. Unless Ghislaine sits beside me, then I might just dive face first into her tits at this point. Use those things as pillows. Hilda"s are nice too, though. Either/or, I"d be fine with it.
  
  "I think," Phillip eventually managed, picking his jaw up off the floor, "I think that"s good enough Rudeus."
  
  "Bigger?" Sauros muttered. "Bigger, he says." Snorting quietly, he turned away to hide a smirk.
  
  Ghislaine pushed herself out of her seat and made her way over, planting a hand on my shoulder. When it nearly sent me to the ground, she surreptitiously grabbed my shirt and kept me on my feet. "I would say that qualifies as King-level."
  
  "Thanks," I nodded as she took my elbow and hauled me towards the stands, holding up most of my weight herself but making it look like we were simply walking side by side.
  
  As we walked, Ghislaine tensed against my side. I frowned, looking up to her face to find she was looking ahead-past Phillip and the others, at an angle behind the shelter I"d made from where everyone sat and cut off from their line of sight due to the walls.
  
  Following her gaze, I found a man standing not terribly far away. He wore armor and a cloak that could only be described as resplendent. His hair was long and white, his jaw square and manly, with an impressive but neat beard. He was big, too-tall and muscular in a large way, unlike Paul"s more lithe build. A man whose size made Ghislaine seem proportionately sized as a normal woman by comparison.
  
  He eyed me in silence as we walked. Feeling cheeky, I raised my free hand into a wave and sent him a friendly smile. Our voyeur nodded before turning away and disappearing in a flash of oddly colored light.
  
  Who and what the fuck? I wondered, turning to send a curious look at Ghislaine. The woman simply shook her head. No one else seemed to have noticed him watching, so I let it drop for now.
  
  Eris was strangely silent as I dropped into a seat beside her, staring at me with wide eyes, before her gaze darted back to the field, then back to me. This repeated several times.
  
  We ate our picnic lunch, the beast-kin maids occasionally casting glances my way as they worked. They seemed oddly attentive of me, but I was too tired to try to figure it out. Instead, I focused on stuffing my face (politely).
  
  At one point I caught Phillip pulling them aside and speaking quietly to them, getting quick nods from both women, before they rejoined us. Even if my curiosity made me want to snoop, I didn"t have the juice at the moment. I"d pass out of I tried it.
  
  When we were done, we loaded back up and made our way back to Roa. Conversation was stilted when it happened at all, as everyone there clearly had something on their minds. Once we arrived, Phillip confirmed my pay raise and everyone went their separate ways for the day.
  
  I went to my room, cleaned myself up using magic, and collapsed into my bed. I didn"t even make it down for supper.
  
  Eris was... subdued for the following days.
  
  Once she realized that fighting me not only wasn't an option but that I had gone entirely easy on her, and that I was dead serious about enforcing any warning I gave her, she settled down. As I expected, she attended my classes and did the lessons, but her heart wasn't in it. Over that time, I tried everything we had come up with.
  
  Bribing her with magic? She was interested, but only in magic and wouldn"t put in any effort outside of those lessons. Which meant that I refused to teach her magic at all, because I had promised I would only teach her magic if she worked hard at her other studies.
  
  Getting Ghislaine to relate to her why she, as a former adventurer, was interested in learning the lessons at hand? Eris stubbornly clammed up and refused to cooperate. The girl clearly loved hearing the stories, but I think at this point she was just being stubborn out of either spite or habit. I remembered doing similar when I was a kid, but I knew from experience that she was probably close to breaking and just needed a little push to encourage her. The problem was finding that push.
  
  Threats or punishments? Eris took whatever I doled out. To be fair, since she wasn"t acting out much and just refusing to cooperate, the punishments weren"t anything like that first day.
  
  And so the list went on, but nothing seemed to work so far.
  
  She seemed to respect me a little, or at least my strength, but she made no effort to do anything with me outside of lessons. That was fine, though. I figured something like this would happen. She needed a hard reset, a break from her violent ways. So of course she was going to resent me if I was the one forcing it. And I had just shown her exactly how far above her I was, in terms of magic, despite being two years her junior-so I wasn"t surprised that she was being a little difficult.
  
  Sometimes, change had to come from within. A child could be broken of bad habits and trained to do better, but it always worked better if they wanted to do better for themselves.
  
  That's where external pressure came in. She needed something to convince her that I was not just her teacher but her ally. Someone she could rely on, when things got bad. And she needed to realize just how large a weakness illiteracy was in this world. How weak it left her. The problem was, I had nothing but the idiot plan for that, and I wasn"t done trying things yet.
  
  Two weeks after being introduced to Eris, Phillip let me know the plan was ready and the kidnappers were in place, but we were holding off. I still had things to try and the more I thought about it, the more I really didn"t want to have to resort to the idiot plan, and its multiple layers of potential points of failure.
  
  So, we tried the latest scheme. Ghislaine and I spoke with her other tutors and they agreed to give us two days to take Eris out of town and go camping. During that time, I would be working for Sauros, raising a road over to the next town while I tried to teach Eris. A quick ask of the butler got us some meals packed away for our travels and we were good to go.
  
  Eris was somewhat enthusiastic about getting out of the manor, but when we got into the carriage and started moving, her attention waned. I spent a whole day teaching her and Ghislaine, using fire spells to write out numbers and letters so they could read them as we rode, all the while I raised a road beneath us once we left the area I"d already covered. Ghislaine was dutiful as ever in her lesson, but Eris clearly wasn"t interested.
  
  That night, we stopped at the next town over and rented an inn room. Ghislaine went downstairs to order while Eris and I waited in our room. The candles abruptly went out and someone yanked me off my feet, shoving a wet cloth over my nose and mouth.
  
  Holding my breath, I used water magic to strip the liquid from it, followed by detoxification magic and took a few experimental breaths as I allowed my body to go limp. From the corner of my eye, I saw Eris likewise being trundled off right alongside me, out the window and into a back alley.
  
  Damn, these guys are good. I don't even see Ghislaine. And who knew they had something like chloroform? Something to watch out for. What I"m wondering is, who gave the go ahead to the idiot plan?
  
  I closed my eyes to a bare slit and watched as we were bundled into the back of an enclosed wagon, where we were tied up at our wrists and ankles. The kidnappers opted to ride in front, so I had the back pretty much to myself seeing as Eris was out cold.
  
  I laid back and kept track of time, as well as I could anyway. Note to self: buy a pocket watch.
  
  It was well into the middle of the night and I was starving by the time we got where we were going. By my count, we had passed through two towns on the way here counting the one we had originally stopped in, from the noises outside the wagon.
  
  Given the time traveled and the average speed of a horse drawn carriage from prior experience (about 10-15mph) and the fact that we had to occasionally slow or stop to rest the horses, I estimated we were about sixty miles from Roa.
  
  Another thing I need: food. Non-perishable, or at least less-perishable. You can conjure water, but some emergency rations would be nice in an emergency. Hardtack and jerky, maybe some dried fruit. Could use magic to dehydrate some things, salt it, can it with brass or tin, and make homemade MREs. Yeah, let"s do that.
  
  Also, really need to dig up maps. All the maps. I can use water magic to copy them and make myself a damn book of maps. Sounds like I"m going to be making a day pack or bugout bag. I can pick up a small leather backpack for that. Put things in it that I can"t easily replicate or replace with magic. Take it with me any time I leave the damn house, just in case shit like this happens.
  
  Paranoid? Maybe. Better to have it and not need it, and adventurers pretty much carry everything they own with them anyway, so I"d really just look like one of them.
  
  I can make water, fire, cutlery, cooking implements, shelter, and so on with magic so we can skip those. A few days worth of food, maps, the scope, money, some soap, a change of clothes, rope, bedroll, maybe a coat or cloak, pens, and something to write on.
  
  I can use stone for most things, but maybe I should carry a little metal just in case-there are a few things I can think of where metal, even just a little, would be better than stone. If I"m canning MREs, I can recycle the metal in those.
  
  Eventually, the cart came to a stop and I paid attention to my surroundings. We were picked up like sacks of potatoes and hauled down into a musty stone basement, where they tossed us down and left us. I checked Eris and found she was fine, just out. Does chloroform last this long? Get some sleep and deal with it in the morning. If she's still out by then, I'll use detoxification magic to get her going.
  
  My course of action decided, I used fire magic to carefully burn through the ropes holding my hands behind my back. Making myself comfortable, I cast an earth spell on the corner of the door, creating a thin rock protrusion from the stone floor. It wouldn't hold at all when someone tried the door, but it would make noise.
  
  With that taken care of, I allowed myself to drift off into an uneasy, light sleep.
  
  I woke with first light. Well, it would be more accurate to say I gave up trying to sleep. I listened to the sounds of the building and heard nothing-no conversations, no creaking of floorboards, no footsteps. It was likely the building was unoccupied save for us, but I doubted it. I kind of figured they'd leave a guard to make sure no one got it in their heads to kidnap us for real if someone had seen us being taken.
  
  Wonder why they went two towns over though? Seems excessive, considering we were already out of Roa. Maybe this is where they own an unused property though. Still, I don"t like this. Phillip agreed we"d only do this as a last resort. ...Maybe he didn"t tell me he changed the plan so I would be legitimately surprised?
  
  Somehow, I doubted it. Phillip didn"t seem like the type to go off half-cocked. Dismissing the oddity for the moment and making a mental note to ask Phillip, I sat up and looked around. A bit of fire burned through the ropes around my ankles and I hopped to my feet. Conjuring a small fireball in my hand, I looked around our accommodations. It looked like a stone room, full of dust and cobwebs, with a pile of armor and corpses most of the way to becoming skeletons in one corner. Also, rats. The place reeked of rat shit and piss.
  
  There was one door and a single window that let in faint light. Moving to the window, I found it barred, but the bars were sunk into the stone of the wall so I could have those out in about two seconds. It was just the right size for a child to squeeze through but an adult wouldn"t have a chance, so we should be able to use it for our escape.
  
  I took a moment to create a stone jar and relieve myself, then sank the jar and urine into the floor before allowing my magic to dissipate. Dropping back into the spot where they had thrown me, I carefully arranged the ropes on my ankles and prepared the other set of rope to hold around my wrists if they checked us. Feeling a bit thirsty, I conjured and water to drink and settled in to wait.
  
  Eventually, I heard a door open upstairs. I dismissed the noise maker I'd put in front of the door and laid down in roughly the same position I had been in. An air spell brought the sounds from under the door to my ears to better hear what was going on so I'd know when it was time to wake Eris up for the main act.
  
  What I heard, however, was the sound of two men talking about selling us off. Me as a slave out of the country and Eris to some noble who wanted to abuse and mind break her, like the plot of a bad doujin.
  
  Either they're in character because they suspect we could be listening, or something happened and these guys aren't actually working with Phillip. Alternately, could be a double-cross. Who knew about the plan? Me, Ghislaine, and Phillip. I didn't arrange it, nor did Ghislaine. That sort of only leaves Phillip. But what motive would he have to actually get rid of his daughter? Social pressure?
  
  Moreover, he knows I"m a King-level mage and that if he actually tried to double-cross me, I could kill them all before Ghislaine was even aware of the potential threat. The benefit of mages over swordsmen-sneak attacks from range. Can"t defend against what you don"t see coming... unless you"re so strong that it doesn"t matter.
  
  Wait. No. The butler. What was his name? Thomas? The butler was there when we talked about it and he may have had a hand in the planning. Could be a classic case of "the butler did it." The guy did look kind of shady in that 'antagonist of an NTR doujin' way, but I thought it was just looking at it through the lens of tropes. I mean, come on! It"s so fucking cliché it hurts to even consider it seriously.
  
  So, let"s put him to the test. Motive? Money. He"s a butler, they probably don"t make a lot and more money is always better. Means? Contacts gained through employment by the Boreas Greyrat family. Opportunity? Obviously. I handed it to them on a silver platter with this little outing. Hell, I spoke to him right before we left, so he knew we were going. Definitely a possibility, but if it"s not him then who?
  
  Crime of opportunity maybe? No, they came into our room. Which means they knew we were there. That they waited for Ghislaine to leave means they were aware of her presence and potential danger. That they kidnapped me too means they're unaware of my own threat level. So unless they spotted us in town and decided they just had to have us, it"s more likely that someone we knew was in on it.
  
  Which brings us back to the Boreas household. And we"re arguing in circles.
  
  It didn't really matter at the moment who had made the call, what mattered was the fact that we were in very real danger now. We could sort out the whodunnit later. Colonel Mustard, in the drawing room, with the pistol.
  
  Making sure the kidnappers weren't approaching the door to check on us, I reached out and poked Eris, hitting her with detox and heal. Then, I pinched her side. I had just enough time to get back into place and feign sleep before she started screaming her head off.
  
  "Ghislaine! Help! Ghislaine!"
  
  The reaction was immediate as one of the kidnappers rushed downstairs and burst through the door. "Shut up, brat!"
  
  I watched as he kicked her in the diaphragm, then the stomach and ribs. With a final kick to the face, he turned away from her. Through the slits of my eyelids, I watched him approach me before hauling back and kicking me in the ribs. I rolled from the force of the blow, feeling something crack painfully.
  
  "What the fuck was that for?!" I grunted around the pain. I got another kick for my trouble.
  
  "Keep your friend quiet, or else."
  
  With that, the man departed, leaving behind a miasma of stench that smelled of body odor, unwashed ass, alcohol, and tobacco. Quickly healing myself, I let out a quiet breath of relief and used a wind spell to clear the air in the room so I wouldn"t have to breathe eau de kidnapper.
  
  "Eris, you okay?" I hissed out just above a whisper.
  
  "Hard to breathe," she whined.
  
  I considered the girl. Eris, hardhead that she was, would definitely start screaming again. I didn"t want another kick, but... But this was an opportunity for negative reinforcement that I couldn"t give her myself and still befriend her. Everything I had done so far-burying her, stringing her up naked-could eventually be forgiven. But actually beating the shit of a child to make them see that there was always a bigger bully? It would leave a long-lasting grudge I"d never get rid of.
  
  All I really had to do was give Eris enough rope to hang herself and she would, until she learned to stop doing it. So, I began doling out rope. "Alright. I'll heal you, but we have to stay quiet and work out a way out of here. If you yell, they're going to come back and kick us around again."
  
  There. You can"t say I didn"t warn you. My conscience was clear here. Whatever she did from this point was on her own head.
  
  "Okay," the girl agreed.
  
  I scooted close enough to reach out and touch her before casting heal. Eris took a couple of deep breaths before sucking in a lungful of air.
  
  "GHISLAINE! HELP! I'M IN HERE!"
  
  "Eris, shut up!" I yelled loud enough that the guards would hear.
  
  "HELP!"
  
  I tucked my hands behind my back and held the rope in place as the same kidnapper from before rushed in. This time, he didn't stop with a few kicks. He beat on Eris until she was bloody and her jaw was clearly broken, leaving her a sobbing mess.
  
  Quietly sobbing.
  
  The kidnapper turned to me with a glare, his intention clear. "I warned her to shut up. It's not my fault she doesn't listen to anything anyone says," I took the opportunity to rub salt in Eris' wound, because it wouldn't change what happened next.
  
  I'd taken some beatings in my previous life, but nothing like this. It took everything I had not to drop the act and kill him on the spot as he kicked and punched me. It seemed like he aimed for all the weak spots, too-stomach, diaphragm, floating ribs, and even my nuts, while taking care to avoid anything that could be lethal.
  
  Yes, I cried. If you think you can take a beating in a child body from a grown adult and not, you"re full of shit.
  
  When he left, I healed myself and collapsed on the floor, taking a moment to just breathe and collect myself. All for the plan. Don"t kill them yet. It"s all for the plan. ...But I swear to God, if I get the opportunity, that cocksucker is a dead man.
  
  I rolled to my feet and kicked off my ropes. Making my way over to Eris, I freed her from her own bindings but didn't heal her yet. "If you scream again, I think they're going to cut their losses and just kill us, because there's no way they won't figure out that one of us is a mage. You have to be quiet and do as I say, so I can get us out of here. Got it?"
  
  Eris nodded weakly and I reached out and healed her, but I left her enough bruises to remind her what would happen if she opened her mouth. Quickly standing, I moved over to the bars on the window and shifted the stone they were buried in to mud. Pulling them out of the window, I set them down quietly on the floor before motioning Eris over.
  
  I helped the girl through the window, then climbed through myself. "Okay, let's get to the coach and-"
  
  "I don't have to listen to you!" Eris screamed, hands balled into fists at her sides and her face red. She had apparently hit her breaking point and couldn't take any more. Having someone younger than her order her around was too much, on top of being kidnapped then beaten twice.
  
  Eris is not a quiet person and we were still right beside the building we had just escaped from. The kidnappers heard her immediately.
  
  "Is that the bitch?!" One yelled. "Check the cellar!"
  
  We heard the door crash in through the open window. "They're gone! Find them, you idiot!"
  
  Eris' eyes went wide as she realized she had just fucked us both.
  
  Now, to really hammer it in. I proceeded to disabuse her of that notion. She had fucked herself, not me.
  
  "Well, I can't say it's been nice knowing you. Have fun dealing with those idiots and being sold as some noble"s sex toy, I'm heading back to Roa. See ya."
  
  I saw it the moment it truly sank in. That she had successfully pushed me away and now she would have to deal with this on her own. She was alone, against people who could overpower her easily, and who meant her harm.
  
  Eris reached out and grabbed my hand as I turned my back on her and started walking away. "No, please! I'm sorry! Please don't leave me, Rudeus!"
  
  I heard the guards running up the stairs. They would be on us shortly. Still, I gave her enough time to start to think I really would cut my losses here and leave her. "You'll do what I tell you? No arguing, no fighting?"
  
  "Yes!"
  
  Nodding, I squeezed her hand and pulled her into a run down the street, before turning off on the nearest side street. I yanked her close and put my arm around her. "Hold on tight!"
  
  That was the only warning I gave her before I used Air Running and launched us above the rooftops. Eris screamed, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment, before I fell into my usual spell per step rhythm. She cracked her eyes open and looked around, her eyes going wide as she realized we weren't falling.
  
  "We're so high," she murmured. It would have been lost to the wind if she wasn't practically in my pocket.
  
  Surveying the city, I found the wall and the gate. I changed direction and took us that way, dropping down out of sight of the gate and hauling her outside to the carriage.
  
  "Okay, looks like we're two towns over from Roa. Unfortunately, it looks like we wouldn't make it back if we left now," I told her after checking the board. "How much money do we have?"
  
  "I have a few silver," Eris supplied, pulling her money out of her pocket. "Can't we just go?"
  
  "No," I denied, taking her money and leading her away. "The coaches will be the first place they check. They'll probably ask around and confirm that we've been here. If they're smart, they'll take a horse ahead of us and go to Roa, then wait for us to get there so they can recapture us. It's what I'd do if I lost a target I wanted but knew where they were going. Instead, we're going to hole up here for today."
  
  In this case, I meant "hole up" literally. I found a patch of bushes abutting the wall and used earth magic to tunnel under it. Then, I created a hollow in the wall itself and made a small room. I gave it some ventilation holes to make sure we wouldn't suffocate, then made a patch of smooth ground soft enough to lie on comfortably.
  
  Dropping down into the dirt and summoning up a fireball for light, I pulled out my pocket money along with what I'd taken from Eris. "Did you catch the prices on the carriage?"
  
  "N-no," she murmured, looking away, blushing in the dim room. I took that as admission that she couldn't even read the prices before rattling them off for her, since I"d memorized them. "So we have enough money."
  
  I waved my hand in a so-so gesture. "You're forgetting food. And an inn, if we don't want to sleep in a hole in the wall tonight."
  
  Eris frowned at that. "So what do we do?"
  
  "Wait for the next coach, make sure the people after us aren't watching it, then head to the next town over. There, we'll get some food and a cheap room at an inn. We'll have to keep our guard up while we're there, too. They might figure out we'll stop there for the night and try to capture us. But with any luck, Ghislaine will be waiting for us there. If not, we"ll keep going to Roa."
  
  Eris bit her lip, looking frustrated, but nodded. "Fine. What do we do until then?"
  
  "That's easy. You stay here. The room is secure and stable, so no one will find you. In the meantime, I'm going to go back to where our captors held us and see if I can find anything useful." By which I meant, engage in the time honored tradition of looting absolutely everything of value from your enemies.
  
  The redhead looked alarmed. "You'll be back, right? You won't leave me, r-right?!"
  
  Just like that, I felt awful for manipulating her the way I had. And then I promptly justified it, metaphorically dragging that feeling of guilt out back and putting two in the back of its head.
  
  Bad feels or not, something needed to happen to open her eyes. Otherwise, she'd be a bitch forever and I'd never get the money I need to get Sylphie into school with me. Sorry Eris. Fuck your feels, I"ve got plans.
  
  With that decided, I smiled as I reached out and gently patted her head. "No, Eris. I'm not going to abandon you. I promise."
  
  "Okay," the response came surprisingly quietly.
  
  Well, she is shaken up. Can't really blame her. For all her bluster and attitude, she's still just a kid.
  
  "I'll be back soon."
  
  I tunneled my way out and back into the city, closing up the hole behind me and marking the ground and wall near the hidden room so I could find it again later. Once that was finished, I used Air Running to get up above the buildings and retrace my path to the place where we had been kept as hostages.
  
  Deciding to skip the quiet infiltration route, I blasted the door in with a modified stone cannon and walked in. I immediately wrinkled my nose at what I found-a man on the other side of the door. Or the remains thereof.
  
  The stone cannon spell had exploded him and everything from the rib cage to the hips was splattered in chunks of various sizes across the walls, floor, and ceiling. The stench was unbearable and I stumbled back, gagging as my eyes watered. I had gut-shot deer before, but this was so much worse.
  
  "Jesus fuck," I groaned, before casting a water spell to hose down the entryway and send the remains down to the cellar.
  
  With that done, I cleared the rest of the building, which had three floors counting the cellar and an upper floor. I found no one else inside, so I began looking around for evidence. And loot. I found nothing of interest on the ground floor, but upstairs I found an office. Within that office, I found a locked chest. Earth magic broke the lock and I raised an eyebrow at what I found there.
  
  Correspondence. Letters, specifically. Leafing through them, I found one in particular giving the time and place to kidnap two targets from Roa and a description of myself and Eris, along with a reward for our capture and Eris' delivery to "the handler" in "the usual place."
  
  Additionally, I found what looked to be an up front payment of half of the agreed upon sum in a leather coin pouch. It was more money than I had seen in one place in this world (but only because Sauros hadn"t gotten me the money he owed me yet). All in gold-twenty-five pieces, in fact. A veritable fortune. I had previously worked out the money system and one gold coin was worth about $1000-so this chunk of change was worth roughly $25,000, give or take.
  
  I secured the pouch to my belt, claiming it as spoils. Gathering the letters up neatly, I tied them up with some twine laying on the writing table nearby, then made my way downstairs.
  
  Finding a mess in the cellar, I opened up holes in the floor to drain the water and sink the body into. Then, I used fire and wind to burn the body down to charred bones and buried them there beneath the floor. Before leaving the room, I took a moment to examine the pile of armor in the corner.
  
  Waste not, want not, I mused. I had a project in mind that would require metal resources anyway, and this stuff looked like decent quality steel, even if it had a few holes in it and a little rust. A bit of Earth manipulation had it stripped away from the leather padding and reshaped into a couple of bars that I stuck in my pockets.
  
  Leaving the building after collecting the letters, I wrinkled my nose at the smell and used magic to wash myself off. Finally, I set the place on fire as I went back to Eris. Never leave resources your enemy can use behind, unless you"re trying to be stealthy. In this case, I wasn"t, so resource denial it was.
  
  Two days later, we arrived in Roa in the evening. I hadn't told Eris what I'd learned from the letters, telling her that if she was so interested in reading them, she should have paid attention when I was teaching her. I had reiterated the possibility that the kidnappers were waiting for us, but to be honest I wanted to see if the lessons stuck and she heeded my warning. Eris immediately let her guard down the moment we got into town and stepped off the wagon.
  
  I had my head on a swivel and it didn't take long to spot the kidnappers watching us from an alley. And there"s fuckface. Hello, fuckface. Please, try it. Give me an excuse. Your ass is grass.
  
  I let my gaze pass over them as though I hadn't seen them, but I began channeling for Air Running and a pressure steam. Water Lance? That works. I lead the way, keeping Eris engaged in talking as we walked towards the center of town and her family's home. I didn"t hear the men approach, but it was pretty obvious when Eris cut off mid-word. I turned on my heel and found them running into an alley.
  
  Air Running had me up and over the building. Fuck it, I"m done with this. Not dealing with a hostage situation or trying to negotiate with idiots.
  
  I channeled a Bolt and as I cleared the alley and spotted the kidnappers, I lead my targets and opened fire. The Bolt lit the sky as it flashed between me and the kidnapper holding Eris. The Water Lance went lower than I was expecting as the second kidnapper turned at the sound before it could clear the space between us. He raised his sword, but the angle was bad and instead of putting him down it cleaved through his arm. A followup Bolt put him on the ground as I landed. A final Water Lance finished off the one holding Eris.
  
  Turning my attention to fuckface, I strolled over and kicked his sword away from the stump where his hand had been. His eyes rolled in his head before locking on me in a glare. I didn"t waste breath on words. He knew what was coming and why, and that was good enough for me. I just wanted him dead.
  
  Lightning crackled as it jumped between my hands before I hit him with another Bolt. This time, I held the spell, watching him dance as his body began to smoke. Deciding that was enough, I tripled the mana going to the spell and he caught fire.
  
  Yeah, he"s toast. But just to be sure, I punched a pretty little hole through the remains of his head with a Water Lance. Then, I went to check on my charge.
  
  Kneeling beside Eris, I found her conscious but shaking from the aftereffects of catching a partial Bolt. Hitting her with a healing spell, I helped her sit up.
  
  Not a moment later, the familiar form of Ghislaine dropped down into the alley. "Eris! Rudeus!" She rushed to her charge and began checking Eris over. "What happened and who are these men? Did you do this?"
  
  "In order," I began, kneeling next to the first dead kidnapper and rifling through his pockets as I performed the time honored task of looting the dead, "we were kidnapped by these idiots when you went to get food. No idea who they were working for, but I"ve got a few letters I recovered from where they took us. Not seeing anything on them that says one way or another. And yes, I did this."
  
  Ghislaine took in the kills before nodding. "Good work, Rudeus."
  
  I finished checking the only un-burned corpse, pocketed the few silver he had on him, then stood to look at Ghislaine and Eris. "Let"s get home."
  
  Phillip was pleased to see his daughter returned, but much less pleased when I told him everything that had transpired and my suspicions on who had decided to take advantage of the situation. He was, however, slightly more pleased when I produced the letters.
  
  I was honestly expecting more questions directed at me for my methods, mostly by Phillip. I was surprised when the murders of three men by a seven year old were treated so... cavalierly.
  
  Life really is cheap here, I quickly realized. I may not be an adult yet, but my rank earned me a lot of latitude, especially given the situation. Namely, the fact that we were children and that Eris was a noble.
  
  Of course, the fact that they beat the shit out of Eris and were planning to have her mind-broken might have had something to do with it. Sauros looked livid when they learned that and even Phillip barely held his composure.
  
  Ghislaine put it best. "As far as I'm concerned, having a competent mage to help safeguard Eris can only be a good thing. Rudeus has already proven himself."
  
  The matter of the true culprit was quietly put aside for the time being. The letters were kept for later use, likely as leverage, but they were all vague enough as to not directly implicate someone.
  
  The Boreas Greyrat family had a house cleaning, starting with the butler. I know they interrogated him, but no one was telling me anything about what they learned.
  
  As for me, I settled into my new cushy teaching position. Five days a week of trying to pound sense into Eris' thick head. Well, it was worth the money.
  
  Not really. It was worth the tuition, I should say. And the fact that it put me in Roa, out from under Paul"s thumb, where I could begin making money for myself. Maybe I should look into making something that will continue making me money over time as opposed to one-offs...
  
  Eris lost a few points of tsun (towards me) and gained a few points of dere, and she started earnestly trying in her classes. She also demanded I teach her magic, since I had refused on the grounds of our earlier deal. Well, no. Not quite. She asked Sauros, who asked me, and when I pointed out that she should ask me herself...
  
  I learned entirely too much about the Boreas Greyrat family and their beast-kin fetish, and let"s just leave it at that.
  
  Almost at that. I"d be using their method of "asking for something" as future blackmail material later on down the line. Give her a few years and that"ll go from cute but amusing blackmail material to sexy.
  
  Seeing a potential test for silent casting and mana growth, I agreed to teach Eris magic and met with Ghislaine and Edena to work out a more effective schedule between the three of us-for Eris" benefit and our own.
  
  The taming of the tsundere was by no means complete, but it was a good start.
  
  Now, if only they had hot running water, a shower, and a flush toilet.
  
  "Hey, Phillip, I'd like to run something by you..."
  
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  "That"s it?"
  
  I couldn"t muster the strength to glare at the muscle-bound cat woman from where I lay panting in the grass. She had spent most of the afternoon after I was finished with Eris"s tutoring (which Ghislaine sat in on as a second student) putting me through my paces to see where I stood. No, that"s putting it mildly.
  
  The tall bitch ran me ragged.
  
  We had agreed to put off my assessment and training until after dealing with Eris, and this was the result. A long session of going through every form in both Sword and Water God schools, then hours of sparring with just those skills so she could get a handle on where I stood, and how much I could take before I collapsed.
  
  "Yeah," I got out between breaths.
  
  "I see," Ghislaine nodded, sitting down beside me as she dropped her practice sword and covered her right eye again. "I would rate it as Intermediate-level in both Water and Sword God schools."
  
  I turned my head enough to shoot her an incredulous look and panted out, "Paul said Elementary."
  
  "Paul lied," the woman shrugged, doing amazing things for her massive, barely contained assets. Too bad I was in no state to appreciate it at the moment. "Probably to make you try harder."
  
  "Dick."
  
  Ghislaine chuckled. "Yes, he can be. Your form is excellent, as is your awareness of your body and your surroundings. Your endurance is abnormal."
  
  "Healing magic."
  
  "Ah," Ghislaine nodded. "In those areas, you"re probably better than Eris. The problem is your lack of power and speed."
  
  My breathing had finally settled back to something resembling normal, so I sat up and conjured some water to drink. After a few sips, I offered the sphere to Ghislaine, who shrugged and leaned forward to take a drink for herself. Flicking the rest of the sphere away, I asked, "What am I doing wrong?"
  
  "Your touki. You"re shrouding yourself with it properly, but the flow looks off. It seems strong, but sluggish."
  
  I blinked. "My what?"
  The woman considered me for a moment, one hand idly scratching at her stomach. And good lord, that six pack. I"d never really had a thing for muscle girls, but damn. "Paul didn"t explain that?" I shook my head and she grunted. "There"s a long, complicated explanation that I never really listened to. Sorry. Short of it is, touki is just mana, used differently. My teacher called it fighting spirit and it"s always been good enough for me. It"s one of those things you just feel. Get pissed, get strong. Get more pissed, get stronger. You just stop thinking about it and do it."
  
  So it"s ki? It sounded like something straight out of Ranma ½ or any one of a dozen fighting shonen manga to come out in the 90s or so. At least, the effects and use. Except, there was just one problem...
  
  "I"m already using mana," I explained while I thought it over. "So what the hell am I doing wrong?"
  
  "You cast by feel, right?" I nodded in answer. "Yeah, makes sense you"d use it how you normally use mana first. You"ve just got to keep trying. Until then, I"ll teach you what I can. Everything up to the Advanced rank is just the basics."
  
  "Thanks, Ghislaine." Laughing quietly, I shook my head. "One session and I"m already closer to figuring it out than Paul ever got."
  
  "Tomorrow, we"ll spar with magic first, then work on your sword practice. I"ll use my demon eye to see if we can correct the flow," she decided. I nodded my agreement and she hauled herself to her feet before offering me a hand. Taking the offered paw, my own hand was swallowed up and she hauled me up effortlessly. "I"m going inside."
  
  Dusting off the bottom of my pants, I considered my options. "I think I"ll work on my magic a bit."
  
  Ghislaine departed quickly, tail swinging behind her in a way that caught the eye as she walked away. Pulling my eyes off the tail and the muscular, feminine ass it was attached to, I conjured a stone sword and set to working through an abbreviated version of my usual routine on auto-pilot. I wouldn"t have the sort of time to spare for the full thing any more, so I"d be cutting out all the non-magical stuff.
  
  As I worked, I thought.
  
  So, as it stands, my TODO list is:
  -Find a dictionary or thesaurus for human language and make a book on English for Roxy. May just break down what I have into two or three books. Math, English, and Science. Redo everything for Science in English, that way we"re the only ones who can read it.
  -Make copies for Sylphie.
  -Make spellbooks for Norn and Aisha, maybe also English books so I can encode the spellbooks in English.
  -Send Roxy a letter, let her know where I am now.
  -Make out lessons for Sylphie for next month, mail those off. Not lessons on making out, making out lessons. Those can come later.
  -Letter for Zenith, Paul, and Lilia. Insinuate things about Ghislaine. Wish I could see his face.
  -When the materials come in, build a hot water tank, toilets, and showers for the castle. Getting paid for this one if they like it.
  -Pester Sauros until he pays me my money.
  -Go into town, hunt down materials for various projects. Need: copper and brass ingots, aluminum if I can find some, rubber if they have it or leather if not but I"ll save that for last in that particular project since it"ll have to be custom fitted if all I can find is leather.
  -Pick up a bag and odds and ends for making a bugout bag/emergency kit. And a pocket watch.
  -Make MREs.
  -Spell development and practice. I haven"t practiced it much, but maybe I could supplement the metal I"m going to be forced to buy with scavenging and pulling metals from the ground. What if I"m kidnapped again, or taken prisoner, or shipwrecked and lose access to all my resources and need metal for whatever reason? The biggest problem with that was actually discerning what"s what, so I should start there. Either a spell to specifically detect and identify metals, or learning the feel of various metals. ...Probably need the second for the first, to be honest. Also, let"s not forget the medical project. Maybe collect a few rats and see what I can work out there. I can make simple pressure traps and set them out around town. ...Do they actually have the spring mousetrap? If not, I could make and sell those for money. Make a few, find a guy willing to sell them. Good for spending money, since I"m trying to reinvest or save everything else.
  -Find "a guy" to sell shit for me who won"t rip me off.
  
  Seeing as it was already late, there would be no going out into town to pick up supplies as all the businesses (except those specializing in night services) were closing their doors for the day. I"d probably have to wait until the weekend, which was in a couple of days, or try to go in the morning. Wouldn"t work though. Ghislaine won"t let me wander off into town by myself and I"d have to talk her into going, but her mornings are spent training Eris.
  
  So, what did I have to work with right now?
  
  Magic. There"s a library here that I"ve been granted access to. I"ve got the steel I took from the kidnappers, along with their money-but the money will wait until I can get to town. No point letting it burn a hole in my pocket.
  
  Well, I had been wanting to develop a few new spells lately anyway. That assclown almost dodged my Water Lance. Ghislaine saw my Bolt from a mile off, almost literally. I want something stealthier. Something someone wouldn"t even sense to dodge. And something more versatile than lightning. Versatile and invisible.
  
  I moved to swinging and throwing out magic while I used Air Running to maneuver as I thought it over. Closest thing I have to "invisible" is wind magic. So... what is wind? Well, it"s air. Specifically, atmosphere, as moved by various forces. Wind spells work by gathering and directing particles. Water spells are practically identical at their most basic level-just a difference of interacting with a liquid vs a gas. Couldn"t you therefor say that they are essentially hydrokinesis and aerokinesis-which are themselves just very specific forms of telekinesis? And by that logic, earth manipulation is geokinesis.
  
  Parts of the basic spells for wind and water manipulation felt very similar. Especially the parts for gathering and moving. Why not skip the medium and use mana directly?
  
  Well, there was only one way to find out. Then, after my practice and experimentation, I would hit the library and ask the butler, Alphonse not Thomas, about finding the books I needed. After my bath (at least they had a proper tub, even if they didn"t use it but weekly at best), I"d spend a while finishing my Roxy statue and see about making one of Sylphie.
  
  Maybe I can sell models for cash. I"m getting pretty good and extra money is always nice. Hell, I"ve got an entire mental library of fantasy themed anime characters I can model and sell. Too bad I don"t have decent paint. Well, something to look into making. Could be a hobby for later. More pocket change to supplement my actual work.
  
  Actually, now that I think about it... Wasn"t intricate detail work for pottery, sculpting, and things like that highly sought after in pretty much every time period? Maybe scale up to life-sized models to sell a few one-offs for lots of money if they catch the interest of some noble. Hell, some silver, a few pretty stones or jewels, and I could make pottery, vases, and so on marketed towards that audience for super cheap production cost-as in, the cost of a few silver coins to use them for plating, if I can"t find any silver in the ground.
  
  And so my days went for a while.
  
  Waking up to run through my physical/magical exercise regimen. Trying to teach Eris math and literacy. Teaching Eris magic. Sparring with Eris at swordplay and barely breaking even in terms of wins to losses, only to turn around and try to teach her how to fight a mage. Sparring with Ghislaine with magic so I could get some practice against someone her level in, and because the big woman seemed to get some sort of kick out of it (seriously, swear to God, her nipples get hard every time we do the whole "fighting a mage in three dimensions" routine). Training with Ghislaine to exhaustion. Then getting up when I could move again and heading inside to try, and so far mostly fail, to work out telekinesis (I felt like I grew closer by the day, I was just missing something). Working on lesson plans for Eris and Sylphie. Working on the books. And finally, practicing fine control by recreating anime characters as statuettes and making a few small jars with action scenes carved in them and a bit of silver around the rim.
  
  Until finally, the weekend came. Eris, Ghislaine, and I took a trip out into the town and had a look around. I took note of prices in my head as we browsed the wares, occasionally pulling out a pen and a piece of paper to make a note of a particular price and seller for something I wanted to pick up later so I could compare them. Noting down ideas where there was a lack of something I could make. For instance, while they had board-type games, even one similar to chess, they didn"t have actual chess. Making a board and pieces out of metal and stone would take me maybe two days worth of magic practice, making the pieces instead of doing something else that required fine control. Have to introduce it to Phillip and Sauros and see how they like it.
  
  Towards the outer city, the prices dropped precipitously-something that would cost five gold in the "rich" area cost one gold just one district over. Sure, there"s some potential to get ripped off here, but on the other hand I"m a mage and the thing I most want to buy right now is raw materials-most of which are in the form of metals, which I can easily use magic to verify the quality and consistency of.
  
  Spying a bookstore, I hummed quietly to myself and stepped in, leaving Eris and Ghislaine to browse a few nearby stands. For the most part, it looked like they sold erotic books-which I found amusing that someone would go through all the trouble to hand-copy, or magically copy, smut en masse when these people didn"t even have standardized text books for things like math and literature. Spotting a glass enclosed shelf, I moved closer and looked over the titles.
  
  Hey, it"s the plant encyclopedia, I smiled as I spotted the book Zenith had gotten me for my fifth birthday. I gawked a little at the price, though. Jesus Christ, they spent that much on me? I"ll have to do something nice for them. Or Zenith at least.
  
  I almost overlooked the tome as I went to move on, but paused as one of the words registered. Turning back, I reread the title. Sig"s Summoning Magic went for ten gold coins. The weight of the pouch in my pocket had never been heavier. Almost half my funds, for a book on summoning... Ugh, I"m going to hate myself for this. Well, at least I have that other money coming in.
  
  "Hey mister," I called to the proprietor.
  
  "What is it?" he asked, his tone surly.
  
  "I see you"ve got a book of summoning magic here, but isn"t the price a little steep?"
  
  The old man snorted. "Buy it or get out."
  
  "Come on now, you and I both know you"ve got at least a twenty-five percent markup from what you actually paid for it, if not more. Probably closer to fifty, am I right?" The old man glared, but didn"t refute the claim either. "I"ll give you six gold for it, right now," I offered with a grin, reaching into my pocket and opening the string on my money pouch, before fishing up coins one by one, stopping at four.
  
  "I"ll take nine and not a copper less!"
  
  Fishing up a fifth coin, I stacked them in my palm, pulling up the bottom and letting them fall neatly with a series of clinks. "Think of a young man"s magical education. Working here, selling these types of books, surely you remember your own youth? How am I supposed to impress ladies if I can"t use amazing magic? Just look outside! You see that tall beast-kin woman and the fierce little redhead with her? You think they"re going to be wowed by a few fireballs? Not a chance. Come on, sell it to me for seven, please?"
  
  The old man grumbled something uncharitable as he eyed up Ghislaine. Seemingly sensing his eyes on her, the six foot slab of curvy muscles turned and regarded us through the window before saying something to Eris. The pair entered the store a moment later. "Rudeus, what are you doing?" Eris demanded, planting her hands on her hips.
  
  Ghislaine frowned as she met the owner"s wandering gaze. The man coughed, turning away from the imposing swordswoman. "Seven and a half."
  
  "Sold," I agreed, pulling the remaining coins out and handing them over. He quickly put them away and got me my change. Then he walked over, opened up the shelf, and handed me Sig"s Summoning Magic.
  
  "There you are. Please stop by again some time."
  
  "Sure will," I agreed, tucking the book under my arm and turning for the door. Sending Eris a grin, I answered her question. "It"s called haggling."
  
  Eris eyed the book, humming quietly. "I see. You like books, don"t you? What"s that one?"
  
  We filed out onto the street and I started towards where I remembered a store that sold packs for adventurers to be. "I do. This one may just be the holy grail. Not sure yet. Suppose we"ll see. It"s a book on summoning magic."
  
  We made a few stops after that to pick up the things on my list before heading back to the castle. Not particularly interested in watching me read a book, Eris took off immediately. Ghislaine said a hurried goodbye and chased after Eris to make sure she didn"t do anything stupid. In the meantime, I headed not for my room or the library, but for Phillip"s office. Knocking on the door, I waited to be invited in. Eventually, the man answered and I slipped inside.
  
  "Good afternoon, Rudeus. How was your trip into Roa?" he asked, not looking up from where he was going over some paperwork.
  
  "Eris had fun. And it was productive for me," I grinned. "I have a bit of a request. Is there anywhere I can set up a private workshop? Somewhere I won"t be disturbed and any projects I"m working on won"t potentially be damaged? Preferably somewhere with a desk and a table."
  
  Phillip considered for a moment before nodding. Looking over to Alphonse, who had shown up silently only a moment behind me, he said, "Show Rudeus to the west study. I believe that room is unused and has a writing desk. Then, see about getting him a table. Was that all, Rudeus?"
  
  "One more thing. I"ve got a few odds and ends I"m looking to sell. Some decorative curios, some functional. Statues, pens, maybe some mouse traps, other stuff. Would you know anyone who would be willing to resell them for a small cut of the profits-no more than twenty-five percent? And for things like the mouse traps, someone capable of making more and selling them. Things like that, I"d take a smaller cut off of than the one-offs."
  
  Phillip looped up from his work with a contemplative hum. "I know some people. Give Alphonse what you have and a list of suggested prices and I"ll see it taken care of."
  
  "Thank you," I gave him a nod. "I"ll probably come by in the next month or so with something I want you to look at. I think you"ll like it. It"s another project like the showers and toilets, but potentially for resale."
  
  "Oh?" Phillip asked, suddenly curious. "Not your "curios?" Why don"t you tell me about it?"
  
  "Don"t want to spoil it. It the first goes over well, I"ll probably come to you with a second. Maybe more. But I think you"ll like it."
  
  "I"ll look forward to it, then."
  
  With that, I followed Alphonse out and he lead me over to the west study. The room wasn"t quite perfect, but it was secluded and had a lock on the door. A bit of effort on our part removed all of the furniture save for the writing desk, a chair, and a sofa by the fireplace. Then, we moved in an older table that no one would mind if it got scratched up or otherwise damaged. Once that was done, Alphonse offered to bring me lunch and I accepted, before running up to my room to grab some things to work on and the proposed items for sale. I sat on my new sofa and ate a sandwich with a nice cup of tea, before heading over to the table and getting to work.
  
  Emptying out my new bag, I sorted everything into groups. Sig"s went on the writing desk-I would take it up to my room to read later, at bed time. Brass, copper, and aluminum ingots that I had picked up from town were piled onto the table, along with the steel ingot I"d procured during our kidnapping. Paper and pens went onto the writing desk, along with a newly purchased journal.
  
  From the bag also came several jars of stone, labeled in English: sulfur, saltpeter, charcoal, coal, coal tar, and rubber.
  
  The last was an incredible find. It wasn"t processed rubber, but natural rubber as one would get from a rubber tree. I knew vaguely that the vulkanization process involved sulfur, peroxide, and the leftovers from partially burning coal tar-the joys of the internet and TV. Things like How Stuff Works made for good background viewing material when grinding up levels while working from home back on Earth.
  
  Of the things required to make vulkanized rubber, one of them I had, one I could make since I had the ingredients, and the last was a maybe. What I didn"t know was how to process it, beyond heating it... boiling it? I had time, magic, basic chemistry knowledge, and ingredients. Trial and error using magic to speed things up and brute-force it was the way to go here, then I would have the sort of rubber I actually needed. Hopefully.
  
  New spell development excuse, too. Can you make H2O2 from water and air magic? I want to find out. Because if I can... Oh Lord, if I can, it means I can split H2O into H2 and O on a large scale. Big bada boom. If I can get that kind of fine control over water and/or wind, then we"re looking at getting into silly shit. Forget making someone breathe vacuum, we can just pull all the oxygen out of an area and let them suffocate while thinking they"re sucking down normal air. Explosions at will with just a spark. Seas of fire. Fogs of acid. Poison gas. Nuclear fission or fusion...
  
  Okay, let"s not get ahead of ourselves.
  
  Taking one of the copper ingots in hand, I stripped off a section using magic and set the block down. Focusing on the smaller section, I pulled at it with earth magic, drawing it out, spaghettifying it into strands. First, a brushless motor to test. Then, I"ll see if I can figure out the chemistry for the right kind of rubber. Aluminum for a frame. Need some leather for a seat, too. No need for gearing or pedals, but I definitely want brakes.
  
  Yeah, I was building an electric motorcycle.
  
  What was I using for the power source? Until I could figure out mana storage, that would be me, doing it by hand. I had enough control over my own magic that it wouldn"t be a problem... hopefully. I"d test first.
  
  And hey, know what else works with electric motors? Add a weight to one end of a small motor and you"ve got a rumble pack. Or a vibrator. ...Question is, should I introduce that particular "innovation?" Over-stimulation leads to needing more and more to get off, in the same way a drug addict needs more to reach the same high next time-just not quite so severe. No, I"ll hold off on that for now. Knew entirely too many women who were too dependent on their sex toys. On the other hand, that market may not be as open as I think. Given the literary porn store and the fact that I saw aphrodisiacs in the market, odds are good they have sex-related magic tools already. ...Well, even if I don"t make a tool, I could make a spell for fun.
  
  Anything with an electric motor was not a project I was looking to turn around and sell, however. Not until I could figure out a way to store mana and write out spells. No, that was something a bit more complex than a few twists of copper and metal. I intended to make a human-language typewriter. If that went over well, I"d move on to a simple printing press-water powered for now, but that could easily be converted to electric later on. With magic, I could prototype things quickly and if it failed, strip it all down to its component parts and reuse it for something else. Theoretically, the development cycle was as fast as I could design and put it together. And I was cheating by using Earth-based designs.
  
  Then there was the elephant in the room.
  
  Sulfur. Saltpeter. Charcoal.
  
  Dare I uncork the genie? ...Dare I not?
  
  Well, it wasn"t going anywhere for the moment and my plate was sufficiently full of projects that I could put it off for a while.
  
  "What has you so happy?"
  
  I looked up from where I was working on the English language primer before class started, finding Eris standing in the doorway with Ghislaine just behind her. "Hm? What do you mean?"
  
  "You"ve been in a good mood since last night. Did something happen?" Eris asked, hands on her hips and sending me an accusatory look. "What did you do?"
  Using water magic to quickly dry the ink, I put away the paper and sent her a grin. "It"s a surprise."
  
  "Hmph!" the girl turned her nose up before taking a seat.
  
  "Actually, how about we have class outside today?" I suggested, standing and popping my back. Eris was a very energetic girl, so it"d probably be better if I started catering her lessons to that.
  
  The redhead in question immediately popped out of her seat and ran for the door. "Yes!" Pausing at the entry as an amused Ghislaine moved out of the way, she turned and pointed at me. "And you"d better take me with you to play the next time you go into Roa, too!"
  
  I sent the girl an amused look. Feeling like prodding her a bit, I asked, "Is that how you ask for something?"
  
  "Nn." Her entire demeanor changed, her face going red and her fists and jaw clenching. Taking a deep breath, she reached up and gathered her hair into twin tails before putting on the angriest set of puppy dog eyes I"d ever seen. "Please take Eris with you next time you go out to play, nyan~" And then she winked.
  
  That never gets old. I carefully kept a straight face as I nodded. "If you"re a good girl. And good girls...?"
  
  "Do their lessons, nyan," came the much less enthusiastic answer. Letting go of her hair, she turned and tromped out of the room, shoulders drooping as though she"d been scolded.
  
  "Good afternoon, Rudeus," Ghislaine greeted when I finished packing up and left the room we usually left for classes.
  
  "Afternoon."
  
  "Why did I smell burning metal coming from your study yesterday?" she asked, and I faltered momentarily.
  
  "You caught that, huh?"
  
  "Mm."
  
  I sighed, before holding up a hand and channeling a sustained Arc spell. The woman watched as I held it up and let it dance between my fingers. "I needed to know how much a certain thickness of copper wire could take before it melted. I have no way to measure the power it"s putting out right now, so I just have to go by feel." I let the spell dispel. "Didn"t want to damage a finished product."
  
  "I also heard a small explosion and smelled something like rotten eggs."
  
  Cautiously, I eyed the big woman. "It"s a few things that, when mixed in the proper proportions, explode when exposed to fire."
  
  A small batch couldn"t hurt and it"s not like I"m planning to make anything too dangerous with it.
  
  Seemingly satisfied, the woman was content to follow along as we trekked out to the garden. Using earth magic, I raised up a set of chairs and a table for us, carefully parting the grass and growing them upwards before solidifying them into stone. "Now, where were we?" I wondered, digging through my satchel and producing Eris" lesson plan. Reading it over, I nodded and set it to the side. From the table, numbers rose up. "We"re working on subtraction today."
  
  "Why do I need to know this?" Eris huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. Ghislaine, I saw, was paying diligent attention.
  
  I considered the tsundere action girl for a moment and what I knew of her. She only sees math in terms of numbers. Something she doesn"t want to do. She"d rather swing her sword at a problem to make it go away. So, how do I turn numbers into a problem you can swing a sword at?
  
  Finally, I grinned. The numbers sank back into the table. In their place, rose an army of twenty goblins on one side and three figures on the opposite side-Eris, Ghislaine, and myself in miniature, though not quite to the detail of, say, my Roxy figurines (because of course if I was making one to sell, I"d be making one to keep for myself). Eris perked up and studied the table with rapt attention while Ghislaine nodded approvingly at the girl"s sudden focus before sending me an amused smile.
  
  "Okay Eris. Suppose we"re in a fight. I throw out a fireball and it takes out five goblins." Five goblins clustered to the side directly across from my figurine fell to the ground, crumbling into pieces. "Ghislaine jumps in and swings her sword, taking out seven." Seven figures to the far side of the group crumbled, leaving a cluster in the middle. "How many are left for you to clean up?"
  
  I watched as her mouth began moving. Counting? Nope. I sank the figurines into the table surface.
  
  "Hey!"
  
  "Oh no, your torch has gone out and you can"t see the enemy to count how many there are," I deadpanned. "Quickly Eris, how many are left?! We"re all going to die if one of them gets away and follows us back to camp to slit our throats while we"re sleeping!"
  
  "Uh, um, ...nnnng!" the girl grumbled in frustration. Finally, she sighed. "I need something to write with."
  
  A bit of magic had a pen-shaped stone stick sprouting from the table and made the surface in front of her easier to scar. "Use the table," I instructed, and she nodded as she began scratching out the numbers.
  
  "We started with twenty. You killed five, then Ghislaine got seven... so there are twenty-two left? How? Goblins don"t multiply that fast, do they?!"
  
  Dirty old man brain answered before I could engage my brain-to-mouth filter. "We"ll work on multiplication together later."
  
  Ghislaine sent me a raised eyebrow and an amused look, apparently having caught the double entendre. Maybe I shouldn"t have been working with her on that skill... "You have two paths before you. You can subtract twice, five and then seven from twenty. Alternately, you can add once and subtract once-"
  
  "Rudeus?" Ghislaine interrupted, quietly but insistently. Looking up at the woman, she tapped the surface of the table.
  
  "Oh! Sorry Ghislaine," I apologized, before spawning another pen and altering the table again.
  
  Seeing Eris looking over at Ghislaine"s scratching, I raised a barrier between them. "Oh no, an explosion has deafened you and you can"t communicate with your party members. Quickly Eris, save us!"
  
  Eris looked like she wanted to throw the pen at me, but she diligently began working. "This doesn"t seem fair. Like that would really happen."
  
  "It happened a lot," Ghislaine immediately denied. "Torches don"t stay lit forever. Sometimes a mage forgets we"re indoors and casts fireball without checking the size of the room and leaves everyone deaf or worse until the healer can fix it."
  
  Eris frowned, turning suddenly suspicious eyes on me. "Is that why you let them beat us, rather than just killing them all right from the start?"
  
  Well now, someone"s not as dumb as she wants to be. That"s good, it means there"s hope. I can work with this, I mused, sending her another smile. "Well, let"s see. Small, enclosed room. An unknown number of enemies. No backup. The asshole kicking us around was using the basics of North God style to do it-the whole "aim for all the weak points" thing, so it was a safe assumption he was at least somewhat versed in the style, meaning it"s safer to assume he could use touki and was at least an Advanced-level threat. What was the first rule I taught you?"
  
  Thinking back, the girl answered, "There is no such thing as a fair fight."
  
  "And why did I tell you that? I gave you the answer, remember?"
  
  Crossing her arms over her chest, Eris looked away. Quietly, she said, "Because I picked a fight with an unknown opponent who... was stronger than me," the last words came out barely as a whisper, but they did come out.
  
  "Precisely. It"s why I chose to escape and get you to safety, rather than engage them directly. I hadn"t had time to properly assess their abilities yet."
  
  Ghislaine nodded. "It was a good call. Don"t start a battle you aren"t sure you can win."
  
  Sighing, Eris nodded, "Fine. Now this," she gestured to the table before demanding, "Well, Rudy is a mage! Why aren"t you making any light?!"
  
  My figurine collapsed to the ground, whole but clearly unconscious. "I don"t know Eris, why can"t I make light for you?"
  
  "Uh..."
  
  "Out of mana," Ghislaine immediately guessed. "That happens a lot too. Sometimes, you have to carry the mage or the healer back to camp, or town."
  
  Eris huffed out in irritation, but this time she actually began working diligently. Ghislaine and Eris scratched away. Watching them work, I came to realize that Eris was actually kind of cute when she was studying diligently. Face screwed up in concentration, tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth, eyes narrowed into a glare as she tried to incinerate the table before her with the power of her tsun. Ghislaine, on the other hand, was absolutely adorable. I didn"t realize that could even be said about the Amazonian sex goddess cat-woman pretending to be a swordswoman before now. She looks so earnest. And... is it the ears? I think it"s the ears. There"s something about it that makes me want to reach out and rub the top of her head when she makes that face.
  
  "Eight! There are eight left!" Eris finally called, pulling me from my thoughts.
  
  "Ghislaine?"
  
  The beast-kin woman nodded. "Eight left."
  
  "Good job, Eris, Ghislaine," I praised them. Not that Ghislaine needed it, but Eris really did. Positive reinforcement would work best here. "Let"s move on to the next exercise."
  
  And that is how I introduced Dungeons and Dragons to the world-or at least a watered down version of it.
  
  Eyeing my goblin and "adventurer" statuettes, I hummed quietly to myself as I thought, creating the next set piece for a new problem. I wonder... is there a market for this sort of thing? Smaller, tabletop game sized statues of monsters and adventurers to sell.
  
  Maybe actually write out a simplified set of rules for Eris and Ghislaine, to force her to do more math if she wants to "play," instead of just walking them through everything myself...
  
  How to Tame Your Pet Tsundere. Volume I.
  By Rudeus Greyrat.
  
  Tsundere. Noun, adjective. A portmanteau from the Japanese root words "tsuntsun," meaning aloof or irritable, and "deredere", meaning lovestruck. Refers to a person who is outwardly violent, hostile, or otherwise antagonistic but who runs "hot and cold" between sometimes violent aggression and affection or love. Harsh on the outside, but surprisingly vulnerable on the inside.
  
  Typically, a tsundere is female, but the rare male tsundere does occasionally arise.
  
  A tsundere can sometimes be identified by verbal, visual, or other behavioral cues. Such cues include but are not limited to:
  
  -Oddly specific denials, typically coupled with insults. Example: "It"s not like I like you or anything, idiot!"
  -Physically violent behavior when shown affection.
  
  "What am I reading?" Roxy Migurdia wondered, scratching at the side of her head as she read the second letter that had come with the package she had received from Rudeus. It was a painstaking process, because the letter was written in English and she had to constantly refer back to one of the three tomes Rudy had sent her to translate it word by word.
  
  Painstaking, but... fun, she had to admit, moving the rectangular magnifying glass/bookmark included with the books across the page to the word she wanted.
  
  Judging by the tone and description, this was an unofficial assignment from Rudeus to help her learn English, in the form of a journal entry-or more accurately, a guidebook-detailing his handling of his current student, Eris Boreas Greyrat. It was probably meant as satire...
  
  But this was Rudy she was talking about, so there was also a chance it really was meant to be taken completely seriously.
  
  She glanced over at the stack of books and had to suppress a sigh. Two had a plain brown leather cover, while the cover of the third was dyed a pleasing shade of blue that came close to matching her hair.
  
  Doesn"t he understand how much these are worth? she wondered. A handwritten book of this quality and size would go for five gold, minimum.
  
  Yes, the handwriting clearly belonged to Rudy, with its hard, sharp lines and small, tight curves, but it was clearly legible and took up half the size of the print of most books-meaning that for their thickness, there was about double the content of a normal book, if one looked at it simple from a matter of smaller text. A result of using a pen similar to the ones he had sent her, no doubt. She had noticed that they produced much finer text than a dip pen or quill, with much better control over the ink and almost no smearing.
  
  It was all straight as it ran across the page, running in evenly spaced lines that made sure the text didn"t look cramped or as though it would run across itself-as though he had used something to measure out an exact distance between each line of text and never deviated. This lent itself to allowing the pages to be even more tightly packed with information-so in all, this book was roughly a quarter of the size of what it should be if written as normal books were.
  
  And the ink itself- He had sent her a bottle and several "refills" as he called them, glass tubes of ink meant to replace what was used from her pens if they ran out. It smelled of the sort of expensive perfume that was derived from plants native to Fittoa. That alone would add another five, if not ten gold to the value of the books.
  
  Of course, in the consideration of a book"s value, one had to valuate the contents. A spellbook was worth vastly more than a romance novel, after all.
  
  In one book, mathematics from the most basic level up through things called algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, percentages, statistics, and more. It went far beyond what she had encountered the University of Ranoa. The right buyer would pay thousands of gold for it, then enshrine it for all time within their library, copy it out, and use it as the basis for improving their curriculum. Kingdoms had been founded on less.
  
  In the second, with the blue cover, was science, as she had come to know the word. It was mouth-wateringly tantalizing and only the fact that it was written entirely in English prevented her from diving in face first and not coming up for air until she understood. Just based on what Rudeus had taught her during her time teaching him and Sylphiette magic in Fittoa, there was no way to properly put a price on this. In the right hands, it could advance a kingdom hundreds of years in development. Or topple one. And that was from a purely non-magical standpoint, just going off of what he had told her about Earth. When magic was factored in... she was almost afraid to see what would happen.
  
  Part of her was ashamed to admit that the thought of having that sort of knowledge and power at her fingertips, given as a birthday gift by the boy who wanted her of all people, made her panties wet and her heart race almost uncomfortably in her breast.
  
  Then, there was the beast of a tome she was attempting to devour whole. A book with an entire alien language contained within its pages, translated as faithfully as possible into the human tongue. The key to unlocking the deeper aspects of the mathematics tome, hidden away in that language, and the entirety of the science tome.
  
  Most would likely overlook it as a novelty item-a primer for a made up language. They would have been fools. An entire language to speak in, with only a limited number of people capable of understanding its contents. Letters could be passed in English and without a key or guide of some sort, it would take months, if not years to decipher them-if at all, if any attempt whatsoever was made to further disguise the contents. And Rudy had been thorough, including not just a dictionary, but pronunciation guide, grammar, syntax, sentence structure, idioms, double meanings, and more.
  
  A tapping of feet from behind her drew her attention away from her books, just in time for a set of hands to wrap around her and cup her breasts through her cloak. "Ms. Roxy! It"s time for my lesson~"
  
  Roxy"s response was immediate and violent, perhaps more so than it had been in the past with this particular student. She lit his hair on fire with a flicker of mana and a thought, sending the young man flailing away. This was not the harmless, low temperature flames she had used before but an actual, full force fire that burned his hair off and left the stench cloying in the room. A silently cast Waterfall spell doused the flames and, after closing her book and standing, she moved over and leaned down to touch his face and heal him.
  
  "Y-you can"t do that! It"s-"
  
  Roxy slapped him and the boy shut up. "Please refrain from attempting to molest me in the future, your highness. I am engaged and my fiance would not appreciate it."
  
  Because no matter what he called it, there was nothing the books Rudy had given her could be called but an engagement gift. One more fit for a princess, not a lowly mage such as herself, but... she couldn"t find it in herself to send them back, either.
  
  "So what?! I"m a prince! He can"t do anything-"
  
  Roxy frowned. "Far down the line of succession. He became a Saint-level Water Mage at the age of five. By now, he"s probably King-, if not Emperor-level. In terms of personal power, skill, and knowledge he is your superior in every way. If you wish to have even the smallest hope of catching up, perhaps you should focus more on your lessons and less on lewd acts."
  
  A few more years. I"ll give it until the end of the contract then leave for Roa. It will give me time to study and save some money.
  
  Until then, Rudy had made a request, asking after a book on the demon tongue. Roxy felt that it was only fair that she return the thoughtfulness he had shown her in equal measure.
  
  In Buena Village, two different households received their own packages of books, to two very different reactions.
  
  Paul frowned as he eyed the two books and the letter in his wife"s hands as she read it aloud. As usual, the letter contained updates on their son"s progress with his training, but this time it also came with a demand.
  
  "Repeat that last part," Paul grunted, crossing his arms over his chest.
  
  "Hm?" Zenith hummed. ""Ghislaine works me tirelessly, until she"s satisfied and not a moment before?""
  
  Paul"s eye twitched. "That little brat. He"d better not," the man grumbled as his mind started providing images to go along with that. There"s no way she would though. I"ll have to send her a letter... No, Rudy"s probably reading all her letters for her at this point. Damn! Maybe Phillip, then.
  
  "Better not what, dear?" Zenith asked, an edge to her voice.
  
  Paul winced, remembering that his wife knew of his and Ghislaine"s activities and that she wouldn"t tolerate anything that looked remotely like unfaithfulness after his indiscretion with Lilia. Even if it was just complaining about his boy making a move on his former lover. "Nothing."
  
  Well, at least it shows he"s inherited some of our family"s fondness for women with large chests. Better than Phillip"s family and their thing for beast-kin women. Ghislaine is both though, so maybe Rudy just got a double dose and couldn"t hold himself back. I can"t say I blame him, Ghislaine is a good looking woman, but she"s my woman!
  
  "Please continue," Lilia requested.
  
  Zenith nodded and finished reading the letter, concluding with, ""I"ve included a couple of books. Two each for both Norn and Aisha. One is a language primer that they"ll need to learn in order to read the other. The second are grimoires which contain everything Roxy and I worked out about magic up to Saint-level with some suggestions for going to King-level and include..."" Zenith trailed off, her eyes going wide. At Lilia"s gentle urging, she shook her head and continued, her voice growing excited, ""And include instructions on silent casting, mana pool expansion exercises, and spell personalization and development. Make sure you start teaching them as early as possible.""
  
  More mages? Why can"t I raise at least one of my kids as a sword user, with none of this magic stuff? I don"t see why it has to be so complicated. Who needs fireballs when you swing a sword and things die? And if Sylphiette is anything to go by, Rudy doesn"t teach people to be normal wizards. No, he teaches them to be little versions of himself. "Wizards" in name only that don"t stick to their roles.
  
  What"s a swordsman to do when the wizard can make a sword from the ground that cuts through boulders like butter and can move just as fast? Would you even need to study anything beyond the basics of a sword school, when you can just throw spells with every swing of your sword? Just imagine if they learned shield spells like the ones Millishion is holding onto so tightly. You could have a mage as a front line fighter, shrugging off whatever is thrown at them and casting spells at their leisure. It"s not fair. Gonna put us out of a job, Rudy.
  
  "I don"t like it-"
  
  ""P.S., please make sure father doesn"t do something stupid, like demanding my sisters not be taught magic until later. The earlier you start with learning anything, the better off they"ll be.""
  
  Lilia chuckled, picking up the books for Aisha and tucking the smaller of the two into one of the pockets of her apron. "I will be doing exactly that."
  
  Zenith"s eyes held an unholy fervor Paul recognized and he realized there was no way he was going to win if he tried to argue against it now. Damnit, Rudy! I thought I said no contact!
  
  And Rudy had done it in such a way that there was no way his mother or Lilia would allow Paul to refuse. Rudy looked like the diligent older brother looking out for his younger sisters" magical education and their future employment prospects, while any argument Paul made against it now would just make him look like the guy trying to stunt their growth and restrict their options later on in life. This was why he hated arguing against Rudy. There was just no way to win. He was beginning to see that even if you thought you had won by taking away his ability to argue, the boy would find a way to get what he wanted regardless.
  
  It was something he kind of admired in his son, knowing that the boy was resourceful and stubborn enough to never stay beaten for long. His and Eris" kidnapping and the results of that were proof enough. It would surely spell trouble for any enemies the boy made in the future. On the other hand, that the boy was using it against him spoke volumes. He clearly saw his father as an obstacle to overcome, not as someone trying to guide him into becoming a better man. Rudy was smart, but Paul worried that if this kept going, the boy would get a big head or start trying to throw his weight around and come up against someone he couldn"t beat and who wouldn"t tolerate it.
  
  He reminds me too much of Geese.
  
  It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Rudy had handed him his ass, then taken the time to kick him while he was down, then pointed out that... he had tried to throw his weight around and come up against someone he couldn"t beat and who wouldn"t tolerate it. And it galled to realize that the lesson he wanted to teach his son was the very lesson his son had imparted on him-because it meant that Rudy was already aware of it, and either he ignored it... or he didn"t see Paul as a credible threat any more.
  
  I need to train more. A lot more. And I need someone to spar with.
  
  Considering that, and who exactly he would be training to beat so he could deliver a righteous spanking... Wouldn"t it be ironic if I got Sylphie to teach me how to fight Rudy? Offer to train her in the sword, then give her someone to spar against with her magic, that way I learn how to defeat her way of fighting which should just be Rudy"s way of fighting.
  
  "Yes, that sounds like a great idea. I think the girls are about the age to start teaching them their letters, don"t you? I"m sure if we asked, Sylphiette would be happy to bring over the notes and things Rudy and Roxy used for her lessons and help teach them magic..."
  
  Yeah, now that she"s stopped making it rain over just our house. And yet, no one wanted to believe me when I said that it was probably the annoyed Saint-level Water Mage doing it. It"s a conspiracy. My women are plotting against me with... well, she really is Rudy"s girl at this point, isn"t she? We were too late. Damn. And I can"t just say no to this, if I want to get some payback on Rudy... but I don"t want her rubbing off on Norn and Aisha. She"ll fill their heads full of whatever Rudy crammed into hers, when they were spending so much time alone together.
  
  Paul sighed as he realized that no, he wasn"t going to get to have an easy time of parenting his daughters. Some sacrifices would have to be made.
  
  "Maybe I"ll offer to teach her the sword in exchange for her help with the girls." Zenith and Lilia looked at him suspiciously for a moment. Giving a sheepish grin, the one he knew made their panties wet, he rubbed at the back of his head. "It would go a ways towards mending fences..."
  
  Zenith got that look in her eye. The one that said she was considering another child. Lilia, he noticed, had a similar look of her own.
  
  If they find out I used Sylphie to teach me how to beat Rudy, I"m not getting laid for a year.
  
  ...Worth it to give that cocky little brat some payback. Besides, I can just talk my way out of the dog house later. They can"t stay mad forever.
  
  In a small home in the village of Buena, Laws eyed the three books that had been delivered to his house like they were a deadly animal. Or perhaps poison.
  
  His wife sat at the table across from him, reading the letter Rudeus had sent for them. Per his wishes, the boy hadn"t included personal correspondence to Sylphiette. And yet, the boy still managed to subvert the purpose behind his and Paul"s decision to forcibly break contact between Paul"s son and his daughter. Not that he had much of a choice in the matter if he had disagreed, what with the fact that he was a commoner and Paul was the knight assigned by the lord of the Fittoa region to oversee their village.
  
  If it were something as simple as catching the boy sending their daughter a letter, they could have just burned it. Even a personal message hidden in the lesson plans he sent, which they read over thoroughly before giving to Sylphiette, could have been blotted out with a bit of ink.
  
  Three leather bound tomes, one of mathematics, one that taught a foreign language, and one written entirely in said foreign language that Laws had to use the human-tongue translation book in order to even begin to have a hint of what was inside of it. That last one was dyed a shade of green that matched their daughter"s hair. They were clearly written by Rudeus himself and, just going off of what he saw, they had to be worth at a minimum a hundred Asuran gold coins. And yet, the boy made them himself, had them bound, and sent them to Sylphiette without so much as a thought to their potential value on the market. There was no polite way to refuse them, but accepting them was... like willingly drinking from a poisoned chalice. No, willingly giving Sylphiette a chalice he knew was poisoned.
  
  Then there was the matter of just who gave him the books. Rudeus Greyrat. Saint-level Water mage.
  
  Someone who had, rather infamously, gone out of town one day and, a few hours later, a lightning storm the likes of which the village had never seen before had been seen and felt for a good quarter hour before it stopped. Then the boy came back to town using Paul"s horse to drag back a massive slab of glass. Laws himself had rode out to investigate later. What he saw frightened him-a huge stretch of plains burned and partially turned to glass. If it weren"t for the fact that Rudy had never raised a hand against anyone in anger save for the boys attacking his own daughter, he would have forbidden Sylphiette from spending time with him right then and there.
  
  And wasn"t that galling? That Rudeus and his teacher had done more to help his daughter than her own father had been able to-because he hadn"t wanted to rock the boat and he felt she would make friends eventually. Rudeus sank the boat and dared anyone to complain. Then, they had taken her into their care and essentially taken over her education themselves. Word around the village was, when the bullying didn"t entirely stop, Rudeus went around to every one of his clients whose children were bullying his daughter and threatened to raise his prices.
  
  Rudeus, who had, when Paul broached the subject of separating him from Sylphiette and Paul had decided to force the issue, beaten his father in a fight. Paul, who was-if Laws was being honest-a bit of a badass with a sword. And Laws had seen how that fight ended as they were walking up. With Rudeus putting down his father with contemptuous ease.
  
  If it came down to it, it was a question of who he was more willing to upset: the Advanced-level swordsman of all three schools who happened to be in charge of the town, the "Saint-level" mage giving his daughter gifts who happened to be the first guy"s son, or his own daughter-a Saint-level Water Mage in her own right, who had been changing too much for his tastes since Rudeus was forced to leave. Sylphiette who, instead of just accepting what they told her on the matter as she would have in the past, had made it rain over Paul"s house-just Paul"s house-for two weeks straight and who he suspected was responsible for every new "gopher hole" or "mud puddle" he"d stepped in between his home and his usual post and every freezing cold breeze (in the middle of summer) or shower from an empty sky that had plagued his watches.
  
  He supposed he should be grateful that her acting out was limited to petty revenge that didn"t leave any permanent damage that she couldn"t fix. No, she just did her best to make her displeasure known, by making them miserable.
  
  In the end, he had to trust his friend and stand by his decision. Paul was a good man, the sort of ally he wanted to have at his side when the situation went to shit. Paul was also a womanizer who broke his vows to his wife in order to knock up his maid, who word around the village said had history with him. If Paul said Rudeus was trouble for his daughter, then Laws had to take that seriously.
  
  This is how he plans to take my daughter, isn"t it?
  
  "We can"t just keep them from her."
  
  Laws was silent, glaring at the books.
  
  "Laws."
  
  "It feels like he"s trying to buy Sylphiette," the man finally put words to his feelings.
  
  His wife sighed. "You"ve been spending too much time talking to Paul. You know Rudeus. Do you really think that was his intention here?"
  
  "Paul knows his son best-" Laws tried to argue, only to be cut off.
  
  "Why don"t you ask Zenith? Or Lilia? Or do you think they don"t know Rudeus? I"ll go up to their home and invite them over later and we can talk about it. Without Paul."
  
  At that point, Laws realized there was no real way he was going to win. The boy had essentially sent his daughter an engagement gift and his wife refused to see his point of view. If anything, she encouraged it. The sad thing was, he normally would have as well-had done do himself in fact, at least at first. A powerful young mage had given his daughter a brighter future she would never have had access to otherwise. He treated her well and she seemed to adore him. He should be happy for Sylphiette.
  
  But the thought wouldn"t leave his head-that if Paul didn"t trust his own son, then Laws would be a fool to do so blindly. And now, he was second and third guessing Rudeus" every interaction with his Sylphiette. What did the boy teach her? What were they doing out there, all alone for hours under that tree? Paul told him about Rudeus seducing his old master, Roxy. Had something similar happened with Sylphiette?
  
  Yes, polygamy was accepted as normal in most places, but there was a difference between three adults deciding they wanted to try it and... and some little version of Paul Greyrat putting his hands on his daughter. Except Rudeus wasn"t his father. No, the boy was bright, not a happy idiot whose only interests were a sharp sword, a full pint, and a woman with big titties. A clever Paul Greyrat. Interested in his daughter. The thought made him want to punch something.
  
  Paul was right. The boy is too clever. It"s troublesome.
  
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  sinereal
  sinereal
  This is my war face.
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  I"ve taken my day off to go out.
  I"ll be back day after tomorrow by nightfall.
  If I"m not back by then, send help.
  By which I mean, send Ghislaine.
  I should be easy to find. Just follow the trail of destruction.
  -Rudeus.
  
  Wind whipped at my hair and clothes hard enough to make my eyes water, a dull roar in my ears that deafened me to everything but the sound of rubber rolling along smooth, paved stone road. The sky overhead lightened with the coming dawn, the only source of illumination aside from the headlight mounted on the front of my bike. I"ve missed this.
  
  Even on Earth, it had been a while since I"d last ridden a motorcycle or ATV. Still, it wasn"t quite the same. There was no engine noise beyond the hum of an electric motor, for one. No other riders. The sound of the road wasn"t quite right, but I put that down to the fact that it was all one solid piece of raised stone between Roa and Fittoa thanks to my own efforts on the way here.
  
  After about a year, I had finished the prototype bike.
  
  Since I had no need of an engine, pedals, or chain it lacked a lot of the trappings of either a motorcycle, scooter, or bicycle. What it did have was a sturdy, hollow aluminum frame made to minimize weight, two large, knobby vulcanized rubber tires, a leather seat in the style of a dirt bike, leather grips on the handle bars, front and rear brakes, a headlight, front and rear suspension, and a single electric geared motor on the back wheel.
  
  I had initially gone with just a direct drive motor composed of a stator and a rotor, but a geared motor was lighter, had more low end torque, and would be better for handling rougher terrain-which pretty much all of this world was, given that they didn"t have the sort of paved roads I was used to aside from the ones I made.
  
  A pair of copper rings circled the leather of the right handlebar. These rings attached to wires, sheathed in more rubber, that I had moved inside the aluminum frame and came out at the motor. A sustained Arc spell provided power and increasing or decreasing the mana flow to it raised or lowered the speed of the bike.
  
  It was pretty simple, all told. When I learned more magic, I would improve the design. Make it so that anyone could ride one. Maybe improve the aesthetics a bit too.
  
  In the meantime? I was going to enjoy myself. In this case, by tearing ass across the country at unsafe speeds with no helmet, on my way back home. I hadn"t even hit the top speed yet, but I guesstimated my cruising speed at about 60mph. A trip that had taken about seven hours by carriage took a little over an hour at the speed I was moving. Of course, moving at that speed lead to some eye-watering problems. Note to self for future rides: build some goggles or something.
  
  The sun had just begun to peek over the horizon when I crested a hill and spotted the village. I hit the simple metal toggle switch for the headlight, shutting it off as I approached. Then, I veered off the road and circled around. Rolling up on a hill with a good view of the town and the tree where Sylphie and I had spent so much time, I braked to a stop and eased the bike over into the tall grass. Bare aluminum was reflective enough that it would be seen from town and I didn"t want to draw that sort of attention. Shrugging off my day pack, I used earth magic to soften the ground under me, raise it a bit so I could recline comfortably, and sat down.
  
  Opening the bag, I fished around until I came across an aluminum package-one of many, really. Digging it out, I found it was labeled in all caps with mechanical precision as a lunch meal-jerky (I had some with pemmican too, but I preferred the jerky for snacks), some dried fruit slices, a few pieces of hardtack with sugar, spice, and honey baked in, and a pre-made tea bag. Opening it up, I created a stone cup, conjured hot water, and started the tea steeping while I watched the village. Wind magic produced a series of lenses in front of me that telescoped in and let me pan over the village without moving from my spot. As the sun rose overhead, I ate slowly while waiting. When I was finished, I balled up the aluminum and tossed it in my pack for reuse later.
  
  Yes, I had successfully completed the MRE project. In not one but two iterations, no less. The first was a canned MRE, the idea for which I"d passed on to Phillip. The man had immediately seen the value, especially when Ghislaine verified that it was something she would have loved to have access to as an adventurer. Not just adventurers, but troops and sailors, were in constant need of food that could last as long as possible. Not wanting to be chained to a desk making meals for the rest of my life, I set about simplifying the process and using as many mundane manufacturing methods as possible.
  
  Hardtack was an easy recipe to make-roughly 3:1 ratio of flour to water, salt, and if you wanted sugar, spices, and/or honey. Mix it, knead it, divide it out into squares, poke holes in it, and put it on a baking tray. The mixture was then baked upwards of four times to get all the moisture out (or a water mage could just bake once and yank it out). Mine were made into smaller crackers more along the lines of kanpan, but I offered up both the small and large versions-apparently there was a market for both. I wound up making hand-cranked mixers that later got converted to water wheel power, to make the dough. A simple wood stove sufficed for baking and pans were common enough. Once we had the process removed of magic, Phillip invested in making a bakery to crank the stuff out seven days a week.
  
  Cans were easy enough to remove mages from the process of making by creating molds for simple spam-can type cans that molten brass or aluminum could be poured into. Sealing them required a bit more work, but not much. I built a hand press that would press down on the lid and crimp the edge to hold it in place-as easy to operate as putting parts into place and pulling a lever. But because I saw the value in automation, I scaled that up into a much larger, multi-unit press, again water-powered.
  
  They weren"t vacuum sealed, but considering they were holding dehydrated goods, it was fine. Better than not having a container, easier than getting a wind mage involved and being forced to create a vacuum spell that they could learn to use, thus exposing the fact that I could modify spells as needed. I made sure to pitch the idea of recycling in the process-because if whoever we sold them to brought us back the cans, we could melt them down and make more cans. Parting with a copper for a few cans was well worth it and would ensure we made more than we spent. I also provided a simple can opener, because fuck trying to cut those open with a knife. Phillip again saw the potential there and took the leap from canning ready meals to canning individual products-and so canned beef, pork, and preserved fruits and vegetables were unleashed upon the world.
  
  It would make Phillip-and by proxy, me-a lot of money. He had already made back the initial investment in the three months they had been operating-most of that money coming from the Asuran kingdom to feed their soldiers for the coming winter, the rest from traders moving stock to port cities where it would be resold to sailors.
  
  My own MREs were foil packs that I hand made, ran through a modified human-tongue typewriter to label them, filled myself, then vacuum sealed while used magic to close up the aluminum. They were smaller and lighter than the cans, taking up less space in a pack, meaning that I could carry more of them or carry a set amount and have room for other things.
  
  The typewriter I was using to stamp the packages was a big hit with Phillip. The first big hit after the baths, that opened the way to everything else. I"d taken it to him, along with some pre-cut sheets of paper, sat down, and had him dictate while I typed out a letter he wanted to send. He loved it so much, he demanded I show him how to use it himself. That was what kicked off making more of them, drawing up a schematic for them that could be used to make more for sale, and getting an open invitation to come to him with any other project I wanted funding for that could be monetized. As such, we had a simple water powered printing press now and Roa was cranking out around a hundred books per month.
  
  I think I may have been a victim of my own success, however. Phillip had "subtly" hinted more than once that Eris was on the market for a future husband. It was something to consider for later, but at the moment I was more interested in my work. Then there was the whole Roxy and Sylphie thing to consider. My dance card was filling up and I didn"t want to hurt someone"s feelings. So for now, when he dropped hints, I played dumb.
  
  Thankfully, he and I were in full agreement about keeping my name out of anything, if for different reasons. I didn"t want the attention and potential complications involved if the nobility or royalty decided I was too valuable an asset to lose and decided to chain me to a desk somewhere, cranking out future tech to advance their nation. He didn"t want to draw the attention of the heads of the Boreas or Notos Greyrat families to me, who would surely chain me to a desk somewhere so I could print money for him-because he"d rather keep the golden goose closer to home. But I considered being the goose in question a fair trade-I got what I wanted, Phillip got what he wanted, both parties were happy.
  
  I"ll admit, bootstrapping a civilization up to something approaching modern day was fun. Finding ways to do things without magic was less fun, if only because I was trying to skip steam power and fossil fuels entirely and go straight to electricity somehow. Hydro, or hydroelectric was the best idea I had at the moment but that required things I didn"t have access to. Infrastructure, land, a body of water, and so on. A plain old water wheel used for grain and retrofitted with new gearing was about the best we could do for now.
  
  Too bad I can"t go the straight magic route, but if I do that leaves these people dependent on mages. I can already see how that turns out. Either a class of magical nobility, or mages being used as slave labor. Neither is great.
  
  Eventually, I spotted a familiar blond half-elf leaving the village. Slipping down into the grass, I lowered the ground I had been using as a seat and went still. I wasn"t willing to take any risks here. If Laws caught me, he"d report it to Paul, who would bitch-if not come to Roa to do so in person. He might even do something drastic, like keep up a watch on Sylphie any time he suspected I might head back into town to visit. I shrank my Air Lens spell and held still, watching until he disappeared from sight towards where he was usually posted. Once I was sure he was gone, I turned my focus back on the village.
  
  If Laws is out and about, that means Sylphie should be working on her chores now, if her schedule holds true. The best time to catch her will be after lunch, if she takes lunch to Laws.
  
  During my watch, I smiled as I spotted a familiar head of red hair. I didn"t see Zenith or my sisters anywhere, but it was nice to see Lilia, even if I couldn"t speak to- I blinked as a thought occurred. She warmed up a lot after I convinced Zenith not to kick her and Aisha out. Question is, enough to keep her mouth shut?
  
  Eventually, I decided against it. It was too much of a risk. I might want to talk to Lilia, but if she reported in to Paul or Zenith, it"d be right back to the same problem as before. Grumbling quietly to myself and cursing Paul in my head, I waited. Time passed at a crawl. It seemed that every time I checked my watch, the second hand had barely moved, let alone the minute hand. Unfortunately, I was certain it was working, considering I could peek into it with earth magic and confirm nothing was broken.
  
  Groaning in frustration, I decided to work on magic practice. In this case, silently using summoning magic.
  
  According to Sig"s Summoning Magic, summoning magic could be broken down into two main categories: summoning and sending, or reverse summoning. One could theoretically summon anything with enough mana and the right conditions, including the caster. I had, so far, only mastered elementary summoning and sending. Right now, I could summon anything I was familiar with or had previously marked to my person.
  
  The mark in question didn"t have to be any kind of magic sigil or anything, and in fact would work better if it weren"t-the more uncommon, unique to the individual, and memorable the better. Nor did it have to be powered, charged, or otherwise fueled by magic. As long as I knew what a thing was and it had my mark on it, I could summon it to me-assuming I had the mana to do so. Marks weren"t necessary, but they made it much easier.
  
  Or, if I wanted, I could send an object away. Either at random or to a designated location-again, some place you were familiar with or had marked.
  
  There was a loophole to both of those spells. Namely, line of sight. If I could see a thing, I could summon it to me. Essentially, I could cast summon that instead of summon object from memory, summon marked object, or send that.
  
  I had read ahead a bit and yes, teleportation was in the book, but I had yet to learn it. Teleportation came in a few flavors: line of sight, to a marker, to a place from memory, or to a teleportation array-the last of which the book included a design for, but I lacked the materials to make.
  
  Summoning could be used for more than summoning just objects, however. It could also be used to summon familiars-magical constructs housing a spirit that could follow orders, increasing in intelligence and power as the spell level increased, according to Sig"s. These constructs could be used for a multitude of things-fighting, spying, destruction, construction, enchanting, empowering, and more.
  
  Supposedly, the flying castle I occasionally caught sight of from Roa belonged to Perugius (who I think, after a bit of research, was the guy who showed up when I was doing my King-level demonstration for Phillip et all) and had been reconstructed by the eleven ancient spirits he had summoned. I had experimented a bit with temporary spirit summoning and so far, they were simple and easy.
  
  For now, I summoned a marked steel sphere from my lab study. The baseball sized sphere dropped into my hand and I chunked it out into the field ahead of me, summoning it back before it hit the ground. Then, I summoned it from one hand to the other, sent it to a spot in the air a few hundred yards away, and started the entire process over.
  
  Glamorous? No.
  
  Exciting? Not really.
  
  But I wanted to be able to summon anything I needed at a moment"s notice, which meant practice. Even if it was boring. With proper preparation, I wouldn"t need to carry supplies with me if I went somewhere. I could just summon whatever I needed and send it back when I no longer needed it.
  
  Finally, the sun hit its zenith and my watch claimed it was noon. Not long after, I spotted a familiar head of green hair leaving the village. Shifting my Air Lens around, I smiled as I saw Sylphie for the first time in over a year. She"s gotten a little taller, I assessed. A little taller, her hair a little longer, but not much else was different.
  
  Unexpectedly, as she walked across the field towards our tree, a group of brats swarmed out of the village. By my count, there were a good dozen of them, made up of people as old as their teens to as young as eight or nine. Sylphie"s ears twitched and she visibly sighed, before turning around and waiting. When they got close enough, she twitched a hand in their direction. A tidal wave of water crashed through the air at waist height, knocking the entire group off their feet. When a few stood up and started running at her, another wave put them down. This time, it was followed by a third and a fourth at ground level, sending them rolling away. Seemingly satisfied, she turned and continued on her walk.
  
  "Good girl," I murmured, a smile pulling at my lips as I watched the bedraggled brats stumble to their feet and sulk back to the village. Question is, why are they bothering you again? Thought I took care of that. Looks like they need a reminder.
  
  As soon as Sylphie was out of sight, I summoned up my metal sphere and pocketed it, cleaned up my little camp, stood my bike up, and rode over to the tree. Knowing the direction she would be coming back from, I set the bike in the grass and settled down to sit against the tree. Then, I opened up a meal for lunch and made with more waiting.
  
  I was nearly lulled into an afternoon nap when I heard the sound of small feet rustling through the grass. Sylphie passed by on her way home and I stood up. "Hey," I called.
  
  "Eep!"
  
  The girl turned around, wide-eyed, as she danced back and took to the air with Air Running. What I was not expecting was the Water Ball in her hand, or the ridiculous aim she had for shooting from the hip. My head jerked back and I tumbled to the ground as it felt like I"d been slugged in the face. "Ow."
  
  "Rudy?! Rudy!" And a moment later, the air was forced from my lungs by a girl-shaped missile, that then latched on and squeezed for all she was worth. My spine popped in three places.
  
  "Sylphie, air," I gasped as the girl buried her head in my chest and wailed. She didn"t let go, but she did loosen her grip enough that I could breathe. Casting a heal on myself for the pain in my face, I wrapped my arms around her and returned the hug. "Hey, it"s okay. Shh, I"m fine. See?"
  
  "You"re really here? I"m not dreaming again?"
  
  Well, that was depressing. "I"m really here," I confirmed, squeezing her a little harder. "Just for today and part of tomorrow. I can"t really make this a habit or someone will figure out where I"m going and tell our parents. Then they may do something stupid. I"m sorry I didn"t visit earlier. I"ve been busy managing Eris-it"s a full schedule."
  
  There was much crying, but I kind of half expected that.
  
  After a while, Sylphie settled down and simply lay against me, completely boneless. "You alive?"
  
  "Mhmm."
  
  At the quiet hum, I chuckled. "So, how are your studies going? Doing the lessons I"ve been sending you?"
  
  "Mm! They"re fine. I think I"ve got the new ones on summoning and sending down."
  
  "Oh really?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. "That"s great." Focusing on a marked object in my bag, I summoned it to my hand. "Take a good look at this. See the mark?" I asked, showing her a small, brown leather bound journal. The symbol in question was of a mouse in profile and made of iron, giving it a flat gray color. The way the tail curved under it and its arms were held to its mouth resembled an English "G." "Memorize it, then close your eyes and summon it."
  
  Sylphie sat up and took the journal in her hands. She studied it for several minutes before handing it back. Closing her eyes, she took a few breaths before, in a brief flash of muted light, the journal switched from my hands to hers. "Good job, Sylphie," I praised her. She made to open her eyes, but I stopped her. "Now, send it back to me."
  
  "Send it to you? But don"t I have to see, or have a mark-?"
  
  Maybe. I wasn"t entirely sure. But I was going to try it anyway. So I cheerfully lied my ass off. "Nope! Come on, give it a try."
  
  "Okay," she murmured. It took a few minutes, but eventually the journal flashed back to just beside me.
  
  "Hey, that was great!" I grinned, picking it up. "My turn."
  
  Once we established that we could send the journal back and forth, I began explaining what it was for. "This is so we can communicate and not have someone reading our conversations. You"ll have to be in charge of summoning and sending it, because if I do it then I might send it to you at a bad time. When you make an entry, just mark down when you plan to summon it back so I"ll be expecting it."
  
  Sylphie nodded, clutching the book to her chest. "Thank you, Rudy."
  
  "You"re welcome. How do you like your books, by the way?"
  
  The girl at my side squeezed me again. "I love them! I"m still working through English but I think I"ll have it soon. The math is more challenging than the lessons you"ve been sending."
  
  "That"s because it"s a bit ahead of what I"m teaching you now. Learning math is a linear progression-you learn the basics and everything else builds off of those, one step at a time. If you try to skip ahead, you don"t know what you need to learn it," I explained.
  
  "Ooh, that makes more sense. I thought it seemed strange, like I was missing something," Sylphie agreed. "How is teaching?"
  
  I chuckled ruefully. "Ahh, it"s gotten better. Eris has settled down a bit. She"s still... feisty and short-tempered, but she knows I won"t put up with her shit so she hasn"t tried to hit me again."
  
  "She hit you?!" Sylphie yelped, looking up as her eyes narrowed.
  
  "She tried. Didn"t end well for her," I shrugged. "We"ve been getting along better now. I just had to show her she can"t walk all over me. How are things here? What have you been up to, with me gone?"
  
  "Well, my studies, of course. Your mother and Ms. Lilia asked, so I"ve been helping to teach Norn and Aisha, as well. Norn is... not the best student, but Aisha is very smart! Ms. Lilia is teaching her to be a maid and she"s already using spells to do her housework. Your father is also teaching me the sword now."
  
  I raised an eyebrow at that. Considering what I knew of Paul, I suspected an ulterior motive. At a guess, picking her brain to figure out how much I had corrupted her. "Is he? What else is he teaching you? Does he ask a lot of questions?"
  
  "Mm, he does," Sylphie nodded. "I don"t answer most of them. He also lets me spar against him using magic." Here, she grinned, but I swear I detected just a hint of... malicious glee? Schadenfreude? But from Sylphie? I doubted my own eyes. "He"s helping me learn how to deal with a swordsman on the ground while I"m in the air."
  
  I wondered why he would be doing that. Certainly not out of the goodness of his heart. Maybe to earn brownie points with Zenith and Lilia?
  
  "Can you understand any of what he teaches?" I asked, and the limette nodded again.
  
  "A bit. Sometimes, he doesn"t make any sense."
  
  "I had that problem too," I admitted. "If you start wondering why you can"t advance for whatever reason, try coating your body in magic. Just don"t think too hard about it when you do it."
  
  "Okay!" Sylphie chirped.
  
  We settled in against the tree, Sylphie laying back against my chest as we talked for hours, catching up on the goings on of the past year. I told her about the kidnapping attempt, my exploits in tsundere taming teaching Eris, and of the various projects I"d been working on. She told me how things in the village were going, her family and how her mother was pregnant again, and how my family was doing since she was there just about every day now. Sylphie had taken on my old job as Roxy"s replacement as village mage and was making quite a bit of coin out of it.
  
  "I saw those boys trying to gang up on you earlier. I thought they quit that?"
  
  Sylphie sighed, before shaking her head. "They started again soon after you left."
  
  Yeah, she didn"t resent that at all. She"s probably still pissed at both of our fathers.
  
  "I"ll tell you how to deal with it. Running them off with magic didn"t stop them from coming back. For that, I went to their parents. Your clients. You know the names and faces of the kids?" I asked, and she nodded. "Work your way through your client list. Ask if so-and-so is their kid. If they are, inform them that your prices have tripled. When they ask why, remind them when I came around and asked the same thing. That should clear it up. Also, our nextdoor neighbor? Somer"s mom? If you"ve been working with her at all, cut her off. She"s banned. It"s mostly her and her brat stirring shit up."
  
  "I don"t know if that will work though," Sylphie shook her head. At my curious look, she elaborated. "There are some rumors going around the village about you."
  
  Wondering what the hell was going on in my absence, I asked, "What kind of rumors?"
  
  "No one wants to talk about it with me, but," Sylphie wagged her ears with a bashful smile and I laughed, reaching out to pat her head.
  
  "Sneaky. So what do they say about me, when they think you can"t hear?"
  
  The girl frowned. "That you were doing bad things to me. What"s "molested" mean?"
  
  For a moment, my blood ran cold. Just a moment though, before anger overtook it. Sylphie flinched and I closed my eyes, taking in a deep breath and reigning it in. "Okay," I began, very calmly. "That word means forcing unwanted, usually improper physical contact on someone. Usually of a sexual nature. Usually on a child."
  
  The girl made a quiet "Aah," and I felt her nod, before immediately shaking her head, "But that never happened! What about "seduce?""
  
  "Persuasion, temptation, enticement-usually for the goal of sex. Sometimes disloyalty. Depends on the context." I was beginning to get a clear picture of just exactly what the village thought of me and I didn"t like it. "This started after I left?"
  
  "Mhmm."
  
  "Do you know where the rumors came from?" I asked, realizing it was probably asking too much. Sylphie confirmed that when she shook her head. "So someone is talking shit about me behind my back. Could be Mrs. Ada-wouldn"t have taken much for her to figure out about Roxy and infer things from there about us. She"s got a grudge, too. She"s my number one suspect. Women in small communities like to gossip and that quickly spreads to their husbands, so that could be it. Doesn"t matter who did it, that just means using my name to handle your clients isn"t going to have as much pull. So use your own. Ask them why a Saint-level Water mage would be annoyed enough with their kids to raise her prices. Make sure you stress your rank."
  
  Sylphie nodded, taking on a thoughtful look. That quickly shifted to determined. "Okay. I will. And I"ll ask them why they"re saying horrible things about you and ask them to stop."
  
  "You don"t have to," I tried to head her off, but apparently she was unwilling to budge on this.
  
  "I will."
  
  The fact that she was actually showing the spine I"d tried to hammer into her made me proud, so I decided to let her have her way here. I didn"t care one way or another what the villagers thought of me, but if it was important to her then I wouldn"t stop her. "Okay, if that"s what you want. But how about we talk about something a little lighter? Let me show you what I"ve been working on..."
  
  Entirely too soon, the sky turned orange as the sun began to set. I shook Sylphie"s shoulder with a sigh, prompting her to get up off of me from where we"d returned to lazing around, after giving her a ride on the would-be motorcycle. "Come on, you have to go home now."
  
  "But-"
  
  "Ah, ah, ah," I held up a finger, silencing her. "Your parents are expecting you back soon, right?"
  
  "Yeah," she whined, looking upset.
  
  "And if you don"t turn up, what happens?"
  
  Sylphie sighed. "Dad will come looking for me."
  
  I nodded. "That"s right. And while he may not find me specifically, I"m sure he"ll find tracks and it doesn"t take a genius to figure out who you"d stay out late for. Who you"d miss practice with Paul for, or who you"d skip out on teaching my sisters for. You have to stick to your routine. Go home, do what you need to. Do your chores in the morning. Take your dad lunch. I"ll meet you here again tomorrow afternoon, if you think you can get away with another day of skipping teaching Norn and Aisha and training with Paul. If we"re lucky, I might be able to swing a visit once a month or so, without getting caught. But we"re going to have to be careful. Understand?"
  
  The limette looked away before nodding sadly. "I understand, Rudy. I don"t like it, but I understand."
  
  "Neither do I. Now, get going. I"ll see you tomorrow."
  
  Sylphie and I exchanged a quick hug before she ran off for home. I straddled my bike and rode out of the village, to the spot where Roxy had given me my final exam-and almost killed Caravaggio. Once there, I leaned the bike against the tree and set about making camp. I used earth magic to section out the topsoil and grass before moving them to the side. Then, I flattened an expanse of ground roughly ten yards across before turning it to stone. Next, I raised up an igloo-style structure and cooked it solid so it would stay without me holding it in place with magic. Slipping inside, I constructed a small, round fire place and vented it with a chimney up through the top of the dome.
  
  Dropping my bag on the ground, I slipped outside and looked around. It was getting dark, so I knew Laws would be leaving his post soon and heading home. I waited a bit longer before taking off with Air Running, heading to the edge of the forest well away from where the observation post was. Slipping into the woods, I found one of the shorter looking trees and felled it. I cut out a section of wood, sectioned it up and dried it for use, then used telekinesis to haul it into the air as I dragged it back with me.
  
  Force magic.
  
  No, not the Force, Luke.
  
  Force as in F=MA, Newton, relativity, and so on. Yeah, it was a pain in the ass to figure out and I was still working out the kinks in places and making new discoveries in others. Turns out, I was maybe half right about water and wind magic being partially specific forms of telekinesis. Probably less than half, but close enough.
  
  I had created a number of spells for force magic and still thought I was barely scratching the surface, given what I knew of physics and energy. If I only used it for telekinesis-based spells, I knew I"d be wasting it.
  
  Telekinesis was an Elementary-level spell to move objects-well, no, technically it was a spell at every level of power, but beyond scale and power it didn"t change much by going up a level. It did exactly what it said on the tin, allowing me to manipulate objects within line of sight using magic, with more dexterity than a set of human hands and all the utility of every tool in your daddy"s tool box. It"s what I used these days for manipulation of tiny components-which I had begun practicing by duplicating my pocket watch and scaling it down.
  
  Construct was an Elementary-level spell that allowed me to create invisible constructs made of force-essentially, a knock-off Lantern ring. Being able to create and hold any shape, fill it with metal, and cool it with magic meant that I could custom cast parts much cheaper, faster, and easier than relying entirely on earth magic to manipulate them into shape. It was honestly more useful to me for prototyping than it was as any sort of offensive spell. Defensively, it worked fairly well against someone like Eris, and even Ghislaine had trouble cutting through one if I bumped it up above Intermediate-level.
  
  That was how I developed Barrier, a dedicated telekinetic shield in the form of an egg around my body. It worked well against both physical and magical attacks, but was costly to maintain because it covered a lot of space that just wasn"t in use.
  
  And then there was Puppet. I could use telekinesis to control someone"s body and make them move how I wanted. Or, as I preferred to use it, I could puppet my own body, reinforce it with magic, and surpass the limits I"d previously had with reinforcement alone. Using telekinesis to move my limbs to hit faster or harder, or pushing/pulling against the ground to move me around faster than my legs would be able to carry me... Ghislaine said it was an improvement, but still not as good as touki at higher levels. Enough to put me in the Advanced-level of Sword or Water God style in terms of power, maybe even higher, but my reaction times were still too slow.
  
  I had other spells in the force category, but those were the ones I was working on mastering at the moment, for various reasons.
  
  The next morning, I destroyed the temporary shelter, sank the evidence into the ground, and replaced the grass and sod I had moved. A little water (which I provided) and some sunshine and within a few days, you wouldn"t be able to tell it was ever disturbed.
  
  I met up with Sylphie again at noon and spent the day checking her progress with her spell work. I was impressed with just how diligent she had been.
  
  We finished up with a few hours to spare before I had to leave, so we settled in to relax and just enjoy each other"s company. Laying pressed flush to my side, Sylphie studied my face as I tried to nap. Eventually, I decided to ask what all the scrutiny was about. "What? Something on my face?"
  
  "I want to try the thing you and Roxy were doing."
  
  My eyes opened and I studied her face. She was dead serious, going by her expression. A little blushy too. It was cute. Still, the list of things she could have potentially stumbled on me and Roxy doing out in the open while she was at home and we were waiting for her was... pretty large, actually. "Which thing in particular?"
  
  Sylphie"s determined expression was adorable. Like a particularly fierce kitten. "Kissing. And um, petting?"
  
  Ahh, she caught us making out. Okay, that was not nearly as bad as it could have been.
  
  Well, I had been telling her that she needed to stand up for herself and speak up about her wants. It would be pretty shitty of me if I didn"t listen. On the other hand, I couldn"t just roll over either. If she wanted this, I wanted to make her work for it. I wanted to see how far she would go to get what she wanted, but I couldn"t make it too hard or it would hurt her feelings.
  
  "I don"t know, are you sure you want to try that sort of thing?" I asked, giving her an out. I wouldn"t exactly be molesting a kid here if it was just a bit of chaste kissing and harmless petting, so long as I kept it out of the danger zones. Probably not something I"d be buying a ticket to the special hell over. Definitely not what the village apparently thought we had been doing.
  
  "I"m sure!" Sylphiette nodded, her blush fading.
  
  "What if I don"t think we should, because we"re too young?"
  
  Sylphie frowned, poking my chest. "You did it with Roxy. I"ll send her a letter saying you aren"t being fair if you don"t."
  
  ""Fair," huh?"
  
  "Mhm! It"s something we talked about. You have to be fair to both of us!"
  
  Roxy, what the hell did you say to this girl? She"s too young for those kinds of discussions!
  
  Lamenting my clumsy former master"s lack of communication, I considered my options. If I told her no, Sylphie would be hurt, since she obviously had some kind of idea that it was "fair" that she should get to do something like this. If I went ahead with it... Is there really any downside?
  
  Yeah, I"d feel kind of scummy about lying to her. Well, lying by omission, I admitted to myself. Question is, is she ready to learn the truth? Sylphie"s pretty mature for her age, but she"s still single-digits old. I suppose it comes down to trust. Do I trust her to keep it a secret?
  
  With a sigh, I sat up and pulled Sylphie with me. "Eh?" the girl asked in confusion.
  
  Turning to face her directly, I wondered how to say what I wanted to. "What do you think happens when we die?"
  
  Looking confused, Sylphie tilted her head to the side, her ears wagging once as she thought it over. "I don"t know. I haven"t really thought about it. Mom and dad don"t talk about it."
  
  "So they"re not religious?" I asked, and Sylphie shook her head. "Okay then. There are a few schools of thought on this," I began, only for the girl to send me a look that said she knew I was stalling. I recognized that look, considering I used it myself. "Short version: either we don"t have souls and we cease to exist, or we do have souls and something happens to them. In my case, something happened. I reincarnated. That is I lived one life, died, and was reborn in this life. I kept all of my memories, so I remember an entire lifetime worth of, well, everything."
  
  Studying me with a considering look, Sylphie nodded once. "You told Roxy."
  
  I chuckled and nodded. "The day we met you, actually."
  
  Humming quietly, the girl looked away for a moment before turning back to me and nodding. "Okay."
  
  I blinked. ""Okay?" That"s it?"
  
  "Yes?"
  
  "No screaming, no disgust, you"re not going to call me a liar-"
  
  Sylphie closed the distance between us and wrapped her arms around me in a hug. "You"re the only Rudy I"ve ever known. You helped me when no one else could or would, even my parents. You"ve taught me almost everything I know about magic and more. You mean the world to me! I don"t care where you came from, just that you"re here!"
  
  Those last words came out in a shout as she pulled away and pinned me with her gaze. She was panting, slightly out of breath, and a bit flushed from embarrassment-likely at shouting at me. I thought it was the cutest she"d ever been.
  
  Yeah, she"s already made up her mind. It"s Rudy or no one for Sylphie. At this point, I may as well take responsibility.
  
  Finally, I bit the bullet and made the call.
  
  Sending her a smile, I cupped the side of her face and leaned in. The blush returned and I brushed her lips with my own. Sylphie squeaked, her hands coming up to clutch at my shirt, not trying to get it off but as something to hold on to. My free hand I sent around her back and pulled her tight against me, before running it gently up and down her back over the top of her clothes. The girl practically melted.
  
  I pulled back enough to separate our lips, my forehead resting against hers. "That what you were looking for?"
  
  Sylphie nodded once, before shaking her head. "T-that wasn"t how you were kissing."
  
  I raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Well yeah, I suppose we were using our tongues-"
  
  "Do it like that!"
  
  Blinking, I sent her a skeptical look. "You don"t think it"s gross?"
  
  Sylphie shook her head. "N-not if it"s Rudy."
  
  Well... Shit. No, that"s not happening. I drew the line there. No further. My morals were compromised enough as it was. It was good that she was willing to push for what she wanted, but she needed to learn that there was such a thing as reaching too far. And that I wouldn't just roll over and give her whatever she wanted. That way lie the path of the betamale, worse even than the path of the tsundere's doormat.
  
  I shook my head. "Sorry, but even if you want to, I"m not comfortable with going that far yet. When you"re a few years older, sure. Thirteen, minimum." Sylphie opened her mouth and I stopped her, putting a finger to her lips. "No. I am a lot older than you and I"d feel like I was doing exactly the thing I"ve been accused of if I did that. And being able to accept a "no" and move on is a part of being in any kind of relationship, later on in life. Okay?"
  
  The girl looked like she wanted to protest, but eventually, she sighed quietly and nodded. "Okay. Can we still do it the other way?"
  
  "Sure." I kissed her again.
  
  Sylphie had no idea what to do after initial contact. A bit of quiet instruction however and the girl proved she was just as fast at learning this as she was at magic. She was very much still inexperienced, but any shyness or hesitance she may have originally had went out the window in the heat of the moment.
  
  Eager and cuddly. That was the best way to describe her.
  
  And that was how we spent the rest of the afternoon. As the sun started setting, I pulled her into a hug and told her we would work out a time when I could visit again later, using the journal. I left her with a new lesson plan, detailing lightning and force magic, before I had to go back. This time, she managed to hold back the waterworks, so hopefully her parents wouldn"t notice anything amiss.
  
  As I circled back onto the road and made my way towards Roa, I spotted a familiar cart and horse. As I passed, a voice called out. "Rudeus? Rudy, boy!"
  
  Turning my head, I confirmed my suspicions. It was Uncle, cantankerous old fart that he was. Circling back around, I drew up alongside the cart. "Uncle, good evening. You"re not heading into town this late are you?"
  
  "Aye, but it"s fine. The road"s usually clear between here and Roa and I plan to stay the night. See the, ah, night life as it were. Your dad keeps this side taken care of and the city takes care of the other. What are you doing out here?"
  
  "Ah, about that," I murmured, "You never saw me."
  
  Uncle chuckled. "Went to see your girl, then. That"s fine. I don"t put any stock in rumors. Entire village is full of idiots, run by an idiot, if they believe that hogwash and not what they saw with their own eyes. Now, I was on my way to sell some things in the city and I was asked to carry in the mail. I"ve got a piece here with your name on it."
  
  He reached into a bag at his side and fished around a bit, letting the horse keep the cart in the road. After a moment of searching, he came out with a letter and leaned over the side of the cart to pass it to me. Reading the front of it, I saw it was from Laws. Why would he be sending me mail? I wondered.
  
  "Thanks Uncle." Opening the letter, I skimmed the contents, then slowed and reread from the beginning. "Uhh..."
  
  "What"s the matter, boy? You look kind of peaky."
  
  With a sigh, I folded up the letter and pocketed it. "Uncle, I"ve got a question, if you don"t mind me asking."
  
  "Ask away. Ain"t like I"ve got much else to do here but talk to my horse."
  
  "Say you had a daughter-"
  
  "I did," he nodded.
  
  I pardoned the interruption, since at least it confirmed he"d have a better grasp on the situation than I"d thought. "And suppose a young man comes along and befriends her." He nodded again. "What would you think if this young man gave your daughter books? Pretty valuable books, by your estimate, that he wrote himself."
  
  Uncle hummed, stroking his beard as he thought it over. Finally, he turned and sent me a grin. "So, ol" Laws thinks you"re looking to marry his Sylphiette. I see now why he"s been more prickly than usual, for an elf."
  
  "Shit," I grumbled as the old coot confirmed what the letter said.
  
  Looking down at me from his seat, Uncle quietly asked, "Is that a bad thing?"
  
  "Yes and no. Yes, it"s a bad thing in that he misunderstood my intent. I made books for a friend because I wanted a way to teach her in more detail than I can by correspondence. I didn"t mean them as an engagement gift."
  
  Uncle nodded, "You wanted to give her something that, to you-a mage-seemed practical."
  
  "Yeah. On the other hand, it"s not really a bad thing because I"m not opposed to marrying Sylphie if that"s what she wants and she and Roxy can work something out." I didn"t bring up that I suspected they already had, or Roxy had at least laid the groundwork of such an agreement. "Not now obviously, but in a few years. My problem is this. Would you see it as someone trying to buy your daughter?"
  
  The old man was silent for a while as he watched the road ahead. Eventually though, he gave his answer. "Son, I"m going to put this plainly. If Laws thinks you"re trying to buy his daughter, he"s a fool. It shows he doesn"t know you. And if he has a problem with it, he"s a damn fool, because he"s got no common sense. You"re a Saint-level mage, ain"t ya?"
  
  "King," I murmured quietly, earning a snort from the old man.
  
  "Of course. If a mage like that stopped a bunch of shits from picking on my daughter because I was too much of a chickenshit to do it myself, if he taught her magic and guaranteed she would be able to work for herself and make more than she ever would as a farmer"s daughter-kept her out of the whorehouse if the worst came to pass, gave her expensive gifts, and told me he wanted to buy her outright you know what I"d say? Yes! Because I"d know that no matter what, she was taken care of. You don"t put that kind of time and effort into raising someone up only to tear them down later. Never mind that only an idiot gets between a man who could wash away the village in a flood as easy as taking a piss and that man getting what he wants."
  
  Crossing his arms over his chest, Uncle spat off to the side of the cart. "Everyone with eyes knew what was going on with Sylphiette. Girl was getting picked on something fierce and her own daddy wouldn"t do anything about it because he was too scared of pissing off half the village and getting run out. I don"t blame him for not wanting to risk uprooting his family, but at the same time it"s still chickenshit. You and that master of yours kicked the hornet"s nest with that stunt." Shaking his head, the old man turned a stern look on me. "Rudy, you listen to me and you listen good. Don"t let fools like that drag you down to their level of stupid or they"ll beat you with experience."
  
  I laughed. "Fair enough. Thanks, Uncle. Is there anything you need before I head on to Roa?"
  
  "Nah," the old man shook his head. "Sylphiette"s been looking after the place. Get going. Take care of yourself. And don"t disappoint that girl!"
  
  "Will do," I tossed him a wave before speeding off. I had some things to think about on the ride back. It didn"t matter where the rumors had originated from, apparently enough of the village believed them that the good reputation I"d built up after Roxy"s departure had been tarnished. There were probably a few holdouts like Uncle who had the common sense to realize that what they were hearing was bullshit, but it sounded like they were the minority. And Laws was one of those that had been taken in by this collective idiocy.
  
  I was already planning to treat him as an obstacle and route around. This doesn"t change much, but at least it provides context. I get where he"s coming from, even if I don"t agree with it because I know the truth and it"s more than a little insulting that I spent so much time with their family, being treated like family, and he still thinks I"m some kind of danger to Sylphie.
  
  The problem is, Laws wanted a hard break between me and Sylphie before this rumor stuff started. The only ones who would have had some idea of why that was can be counted on one hand: Laws himself, Paul, Zenith, Lilia, and Mrs. Ada if she overheard something-which is entirely possible, since she"s a nosy cunt. But the more I think about it, the more likely it seems the culprit is closer to home.
  
  I didn"t want to believe it. Mostly because I didn"t think Paul was being actively malicious about his decision to try to force a split between me and Sylphie. Looking at it objectively, his concerns were legitimate-if you didn"t know what actually went on. For all that his methods were idiotic and he failed to think through the potential consequences of his actions, I wanted to believe he at least had Sylphie"s best interests in mind.
  
  At the end of the day, I suppose I have to ask myself, "Do I care?"
  
  ...No. I really don"t. There are exactly three people in the village whose opinions I truly care about-Sylphie, Lilia, and Zenith. In that order, at the moment. Five in a few years, when Norn and Aisha get older. Regardless, I don"t have to deal with the rest of the village in order to interact with them. I don"t actually have to settle down and live in Buena Village later on, either-if anything, I want to see if I can find myself a flying castle like Perugius. So, I wash my hands of them. They"re someone else"s problem now.
  
  The sun had set by the time I rolled up to Roa. People moved aside as I passed, slowly riding through the city on the bike. Yeah, I probably should have just ditched it outside the city and summoned it back to me later. Oh well.
  
  The guard at the mansion gate waved me in and I was met at the front door by none other than Eris and Ghislaine. The former looked absolutely furious, while the latter looked intrigued as she took in the near-silent bike. "Where have you been for the past two days?!"
  
  Eris" screech was torture music to my ears. I stopped supplying power to the bike and kicked down the kickstand. Leaning against the handlebars, I grinned at her. "I went riding and camped out last night. It was nice." Everything I said happened to have the benefit of being absolutely true-which made it the best kind of lie.
  
  Ghislaine"s visible eye narrowed, muscular arms crossing under her large breasts, as she shot me a knowing look. Yeah, pretty sure she has a good idea of exactly where I was camping.
  
  Eris looked away. "Next time, take me with you!"
  
  No. That was my Sylphie time. I didn"t need Eris there causing Eris problems. And I really don"t want to see that turn into a cat fight. I don"t think your ego could survive the beating Sylphie would deliver.
  
  "Maybe. If you"re good." She wouldn"t be.
  
  "Hmph!" Crossing her arms over her chest, mimicking Ghislaine, she asked, "Well?!"
  
  "Well what?" I had a good idea of what she wanted, but I wanted her to say it. They had visited my lab study before and seen the bike, but I hadn"t taken it outside before today. Before now, it was just a wheeled curiosity that, at best, Eris supposed was for carting baggage around. Hah!
  
  Eris"s glower intensified. "Aren"t you going to invite me to ride it?!"
  
  "Hmm," I let her sweat for a minute. Finally, I grinned. "Is that how we ask for something we want?"
  
  "Nng!" Critical hit. It"s super effective! Eris wilted, looking stricken. Reaching up, she pulled her hair into twin tails and plastered on a baring of teeth smile. "Please Rudeus, can I ride it, nyan~"
  
  Ask me that again in a few years, dirty old man brain perked up. Clearing my throat, I shifted up in the seat and took it off the stand. "Climb on the back. You know how to ride a horse?"
  
  "Yes!" Eris answered, hurrying over. I wasn"t sure if she did or not, so I"d take her word for it. Riding a bike as a passenger was easier anyway.
  
  "It"s kind of like that. There are two pegs down there for your feet to rest on. You"ll want to put your arms around me and hold on tight."
  
  Eris straddled the bike and situated herself. "Why would I do that?"
  
  Instead of answering with words, I fired up my Arc spell and goosed it. The bike popped a wheelie as it shot forward and Eris yelped, desperately leaning forward and clinging onto me for dear life. As soon as the front tire hit the ground, she was screaming. "Faster, Rudy!"
  
  In a few years.
  
  Ghislaine watched silently as we rode around the front lawn. When I circled back around, the woman called, "Rudeus! Can I go next?"
  
  I considered her height and weight and winced. "Maybe. This one"s a bit small for you, I think. But we can try it and see how it goes, okay?"
  
  "Sure."
  
  "Enough of that!" Eris yelled, leaning up and pointing over my shoulder. "Around the house! Go now!"
  
  Eventually, the ruckus drew the attention of both Phillip and Sauros. When we passed by the front of the house doing about forty, I could practically see the dollar signs-or gold coins, rather-popping into his eyes.
  
  You know I could use this to my advantage. "Sorry Phillip, it"s not quite finished yet. Can"t sell it. What"s it need to finish it? Well, let"s see. I"d need some way to power it. That would mean learning how to write out magic formulas and store mana... Oh, but if I could do that, I could just make one for everyone who wanted one. You want one? Sure, I"d be happy to build you a bike. But I"d need more metal to make one..."
  
  Yeah, I was going to milk this for all it was worth.
  
  Sure, I could have spent money buying the books myself, but that was my money. Money already earmarked for other projects to make more money. Besides, it"d be more amusing to get Phillip to foot the bill.
  
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  Time waits for no man.
  
  Eris and Ghislaine"s classes were going well. Better than I could have hoped for, even. After figuring out how to force Eris to put effort into math by making it fun for her, I did the same with reading and writing.
  
  "Rr."
  
  "Quickly Eris! If you can"t solve the riddle before the sand in the hourglass runs out, we all die!" I wailed, overacting it as I flipped an hourglass that started a countdown, simulating when our characters would be buried in sand after being caught in a trap room.
  
  "You have to hurry, Eris. You"re our leader. Please don"t let us down," Ghislaine murmured, reading over the text of the riddle herself.
  
  "Fine!" Glaring at the text over the small door, she complained, "But I don"t recognize any of the letters!"
  
  Ghislaine frowned, nodding her head as she examined the door as she looked up at me. "Nor do I."
  
  Humming quietly, I looked at the door before snapping my fingers. "Ah! What if it"s backwards?"
  
  The pair quickly began transposing the lettering into their correct positions. After a few minutes, Eris haltingly read, "Ri-te. Fr-ie-nd. Friend! Write friend and... en-ter? Write friend and enter? What"s that supposed to mean?"
  
  "A password," the beast-kin nodded. Pointing at a little section beside the door, she suggested, "Try writing the word "friend.""
  
  Eris shifted her stone pen over to the raised section and hurriedly wrote out F-R-I-E-N-D. A little application of magic had the door clicking open and I moved our characters through.
  
  "Whew. Good job, Eris! We"re sa-"
  
  "No! Don"t jinx us!"
  
  "-fe. Uh oh. Is that a troll?"
  
  "Rudy!!!"
  
  "How many times do you think we"ll have to cut this one up before it falls? Oh hey, is that another riddle on the wall?" It was a math problem in written form and only the right answer would kill the troll.
  
  "Arg! I hate you!"
  
  I rolled my eyes. "Bullshit. Admit it, you"re having fun."
  
  The girl crossed her arms with a "hmph!" before turning away and sulking.
  
  "Oh, here it comes. Eris, what do we do?!"
  
  "Jerk."
  
  As for magic lessons, well... after the kidnapping incident, Eris had been pushing herself hard to learn. So far, she had mastered Elementary-level casting in every school of (normal) combat magic and even healing magic. Ghislaine lagged behind, having learned only fire and wind so far. I tried to push, I tried to encourage her, but for whatever reason the woman just sucked at earth and water spells. I didn"t think she was stupid, unlike what Paul claimed. My best guess was that she just had some sort of mental hurdle she needed to cross first.
  
  I went out just after visiting Sylphie and made a pair of wands for the two of them, each one personalized and ending in a brass and silver handle. I never realized just how expensive what Roxy had made for me was until I had to make two of my own. I almost regretted leaving mine with Sylphie, but unless I wanted to make a third and swap with her for sentimentality, it was being put to better use in her hands.
  
  As far as silent casting...
  
  I dodged as Eris swung, a wave of fire trailing her sword. "Get back here!" she yelled, kicking off the ground with Air Running, following me up.
  
  I countered by dropping like a stone, kicking off an air platform and meeting her much closer than she expected, hitting her in the gut with a blow from my sword that came with a line of water across her stomach. She hit the ground and rolled, coughing as she gasped in air. "And you"re dead. Cut in half."
  
  "Not. Fair," the girl wheezed.
  
  "And what was lesson one?"
  
  Glaring up at me, Eris cast a silent heal spell on herself. "No such thing as a fair fight."
  
  I nodded. "That"s right. Now, get up here and fight."
  
  "Raaa!" she screamed, once more launching herself at me. I met her with a volley of Water Balls that she had to duck, dive, and weave through to close the distance, occasionally throwing out a Fireball or Water Ball of her own.
  
  In a purely physical fight, Eris could win nine times out of ten these days. She had finally advanced past me in terms of skill, so given her longer reach and greater physical strength even without using touki, she had been kicking my butt pretty soundly. I made her work for every victory though. Occasionally, I even managed to turn the tables on her and win one for myself. The problem was, the same dirty tricks or unexpected moves from breaking out of Sword God or Water God styles didn"t tend to work more than once or twice.
  
  She really was a prodigy, when it came to the sword. My ability to watch, learn, and adapt only went so far and couldn"t close those basic gaps that two more years of growth on her part had given her.
  
  Oh well. It didn"t bother me too much. I wasn"t expecting myself to fill every role in a party. I would always be a mage at heart, even if I was a passable magic swordsman.
  
  "Stop dodging!"
  
  I laughed, flitting out of the way of a lance of water. "Why in the world would I do that? No one"s going to just stand still and let you hit them, Eris! If you want to hit someone moving, learn to lead your target."
  
  "Rrrr!"
  
  Eris was getting good at the magic swordsman thing. She joined me in the afternoons now for practice, when I worked on casting Elementary-level magic with every swing.
  
  Ghislaine could cast silently, but not in combat yet. She was close, though. She almost had Air Running usable. I was kind of afraid to see what a Sword King would do with that skill.
  
  After seeing me and Eris riding the electric motorcycle, Phillip had basically thrown money at me, practically shouting "shut up and take my money," when I told him I needed resources if I wanted to make them self-powered so that someone other than me could operate one. That was how I wound up with a small cache of magic stones (monster cores) and a book on enchanting. With the electric bike project finished for now and my studies of summoning going well, that left me some time to delve into writing out spells.
  
  I"ll be honest, it was complex and probably the most difficult thing I"d come across in terms of magic. And yet... disappointingly, advanced math, physics, or chemistry were about as difficult. After the first month or so reading through the book and trying out a few things, I came to realize that enchanting was essentially magical coding. They didn"t use the same terminology, but they shared many of the same concepts. So, I pulled out paper and started translating, either swapping words here and there or defining terms they understood but hadn"t bothered to name.
  
  Variables, objects, conditional expressions, arguments... Once I made the mental connection, my learning speed improved. It had been a while since my days of learning code and writing out my own scripts and programs-going on twenty years now, counting the time spent in this world. But as I worked, it started coming back to me in bits and pieces. Sure, I couldn"t remember the complicated stuff to save my life, but then I don"t actually think I needed anything complicated here-or if I did, I could work up to it later. Right now, I was satisfied mastering the basics. I translated the entire book into something I could better understand for later reference. Then, as with all my spells, I set about mastering it silently-or in this case, without writing out things.
  
  That is how Edena found me one night, looking between my new book and a magic stone with a bit of copper wire looped around it, leading to a light bulb (natural quartz shaped with magic, vacuum sealed with more magic, filled with an inert gas, double-coiled filament of tungsten, aluminum reflector coating in the bottom).
  
  Where did I get the tungsten? Phillip. I asked for tungsten-well, wolframite-by description, when I was first making the motorcycle. By then, he knew that if I started asking for something weird, I was likely making something that would make him money, so he didn"t hesitate to put out the request. I had a few big lumps of the stuff that I was slowly taking parts off of and turning into pure tungsten by stripping out the impurities as needed now.
  
  "Excuse me," Edena called, opening the door.
  
  Of course, she picked the exact moment I would give the magical stone juice. "Shit!" I yelped as I got zapped, jerking my hand away as the bulb lit up red. This particular model was filled with neon, instead of halogen. Something I was playing with for fun, since I"d figured out how to isolate individual elements of the atmosphere with wind magic.
  
  "My apologies, Rudeus. Did I come at a bad time?"
  
  I sighed. "Did I have the sign up?"
  
  Edena checked the door. "Ah, my mistake."
  
  After Eris kept bursting in at the worst possible times, I made a "DO NOT DISTURB" sign and told her that if it was up, she"d get a spanking if she entered without knocking and waiting for an answer. Eris had yet to test that particular threat. Although, from the blush on her face and the way she went absolutely silent when I gave the warning, I suspected she might have conflicting feelings about it. Ah well, she was still young, maybe when she got older she"d want to explore that avenue.
  
  "It"s fine. No harm done," I smiled at the woman, looking away from my red lamp. "So, what did you need?"
  
  "I was wondering if you could help me with a problem I"m having with the young lady..."
  
  That was how I got roped into helping Eris learn how to dance before her birthday, and in the process learning how myself. My idea of dancing from Earth was of the "hold a girl and sway" variety. I almost said no, but Eris was... surprisingly polite in asking for my help and letting me know she expected me to dance with her at her party. Surprisingly serious, too-given that she didn"t even break out the fake animal ears and actually asked like a normal person.
  
  I couldn"t say no to that face, so I adjusted my schedule to give up a couple of hours an evening to learning to dance.
  
  Edena... I"ll be honest here, she was a shit teacher. To the point that I had to take her aside and very politely ask her why she thought her way was working. Her excuse was that it had worked for countless children before. I gave up and just asked her to show me the dance, then memorized the motions just as I did with martial arts or sword practice. Basically, I treated it like a kata. The memorization method worked so much better that, within a few days, I had all the dances she wanted to teach down.
  
  Then came the hard part. Herding the redheaded cat in the direction I wanted her to go.
  
  I figured out the problem pretty quickly after that. Just like in our spars, Eris set her own pace. You"ve heard the saying, "marching to the beat of your own drum," I"m sure. That described Eris to a "T." And Eris" pace was inconsistent and fast, to make it harder to read her movements in combat. Once I figured that out, I had Edena clap out a simple rhythm the songs being played would typically have and worked on correcting Eris" timing. Eventually, I broke down and told her to imagine she was fighting to the beat and if she missed a step she took a hit.
  
  Problem solved. Mostly. It was definitely better, anyway.
  
  Why didn"t I just use the Puppet spell to make sure Eris didn"t fuck it up? Because then she wouldn"t learn.
  
  After getting her dance lessons done for the afternoon the night before the big day, I went back to my lab and worked on finishing up her present. Needs a more personal touch, really, I mused as I stared at the mostly completed bike, having finished installing and charging the power source. I"d tested out a simple throttle design on my own bike using the power source and fine tuned it so that it wouldn"t burn up the wiring, but would still haul ass. It burned power at a pretty reasonable rate, but according to the book I"d gotten, magic stones could be refilled indefinitely and the technique it taught for filling them was so simple that I felt Eris could have it down within a... month or so. Maybe less, if I told her that I wouldn"t charge her bike up and she was forced to do it herself.
  
  Unlike my bike, Eris" actually looked like a racing motorcycle with dirt bike tires, minus a few components. Yeah, the fairings and so on were all mostly decorative, but it looked a hell of a lot cooler than mine. I say mostly decorative, because I"d pulled a page from the Final Fantasy playbook and added a sheath for Eris" sword that ran through where the gas tank and engine would normally occupy. Mostly because it looked cool, partly for practical reasons of having a place to store a weapon.
  
  So why not add to the cool factor?
  
  That was how I found myself heading into town the morning of Eris" birthday and buying a bucket of red paint that came close to matching the color of her hair. I spent most of the morning using water and wind magic to apply and dry the paint, after taking some time to add in the neon red light bulb and modify the design a bit. When I was satisfied, I collected the key, painted and dried the end (not the end that goes in an ignition), and made my way up to my room.
  
  You may be wondering why I even bothered with a key ignition, in this case. The answer is simple: because I"d added a power source anyone could use, that meant anyone could climb on and ride off with it too. Maybe not well, but well enough to get away if it was left sitting somewhere. Most thefts are crimes of opportunity-that is, someone saw an opportunity and took it.
  
  A key removed the opportunity. It wouldn"t stop someone from loading it onto a wagon, but it would stop some random idiot from walking up and hopping on. Yes, I could summon it back to me if need be, but I"d really rather not have to in the first place-regardless of how much imagining some stupid shit riding off into the sunset suddenly having it disappear out from under him in a scene reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff made me giggle. That was why I was going to be focusing on hammering summoning and sending into Eris" head, as soon as possible.
  
  Once I was finished, I headed for the bathroom to clean up then got dressed and made my way downstairs.
  
  The ball was about what I expected, really. A bunch of nobles crammed into a room and trying to out-peacock each other, while the star of the attraction moved between them nervously. Well, I could tell she was nervous. I doubt they could. How could I tell, you wonder?
  
  Eris was being polite.
  
  As per the plan, Eris and I shared the first dance. She was still nervous, but a few quiet words and a soft tapping of my fingers against her waist to give her a beat had her back in the right frame of mind to not blow it. After the dance, we parted and I headed for the food table since I hadn"t eaten all day. A glance back at Eris showed her dancing with an older boy and I frowned. Studying the boy, I grew more annoyed when I found he was behaving himself appropriately.
  
  Turing back to the food and loading up a pair of napkins, I pondered over what I was feeling. Am I jealous? Really? I mean, this is Eris. Not Roxy or Sylphie. Not my waifu.
  
  She was... a brash, violent, rowdy, uncouth, tsundere. And yet, at the same time, my student. Someone I could call a friend. Someone who I felt just might have my back, if the shit hit the fan.
  
  So, not jealous. Just... concerned.
  
  That she was turning into someone with a surprisingly cute dere side didn"t factor into it. Or the fact that Hilda was hot and Eris looked to be taking after her mom in terms of looks as she grew. Honest.
  
  Nodding to myself, I headed over to Ghislaine and passed her a napkin full of food. Before I could even say anything to the woman, or she could thank me, a voice called out from behind me. "Excuse me," a female voice said from behind. I turned and found a pretty young woman smiling behind me. Older than myself or Eris, but probably not by much. Thirteen, maybe fourteen. Brown hair. Decent figure. "Would you like to dance?"
  
  I blinked, before smiling and pocketing the second napkin in my dress coat pocket. "I"d love to."
  
  And I really would, if it meant getting close with a pretty young thing. Sure, I wouldn"t be doing anything lewd or untoward, but it had been a while since I"d had someone sexy in my arms. Not since Roxy left.
  
  She was warm, soft in all the right places, and smelled wonderful. It was nice.
  
  I take it back. This isn"t nice. This is hell.
  
  Apparently, I was popular. Every unattached female under the age of thirty took a turn. A few attached ladies took a turn too. Even one particularly pleasant thirty-something noble lady. And as the night progressed, I did my best to commit names and faces to memory. To get each one talking and fish out a few personal details, such as about their families, or as to their likes and dislikes, favorite foods, and that sort of thing.
  
  Basically, I networked. In between dances, I summoned my journal, wrote down the person"s name, a brief physical description, and everything I"d learned from her before sending it back to my lab.
  
  I blame Sauros. Apparently, the old man got drunk and ran his mouth when someone asked who I was. Not only that I was a Greyrat, but my profession as Eris" magic tutor and my rank as a mage. And then, the horny old goat had introduced them to one of the toilets I"d made and invited them to sit down and "shit like a king upon the throne." At least he didn"t tell them who made it, but apparently the idea went over well, if what I"d heard in passing was anything to go by.
  
  Eventually, I gave up and called it a night, making my escape... only to be captured at the last minute as Eris slipped in and grabbed my hand. "May I have another dance?"
  
  Well, with her actually being polite and looking all dolled up, and this being her special night and all, there was only one answer I could give. "I"m going to bed."
  
  Eris blinked. "Wha-"
  
  I laughed, turning my hand around in her grip and gripping her own before leading her to the dance floor. "I"d be honored, Eris."
  
  Aww, look at that. She"s flipped to dere!
  
  I wisely refrained from commenting. I knew that any mention of it, any hint that I found it amusing, would see her flipping back to tsun so hard it would make my head spin. Possibly literally, if she got violent and I missed a block.
  
  Eris" smiling face and laughter was worth the extra abuse to my poor feet, I felt. When the dance ended, Sauros picked us up onto his shoulders and ran laps around the courtyard, like the drunken fool he was. Well, everyone else enjoyed it, so I didn"t mind too much.
  
  Finally, finally I managed to grab some more food and slip away, dragging Eris with me-and because she was tethered to Eris" hip most days, Ghislaine as well. I lead them up to my room and dropped into a seat at my table with a tired sigh, after shucking off my jacket and throwing it over the back of the chair.
  
  "Ghislaine, would you open up the cabinet there and bring out that bottle?" I asked, fishing the napkins I"d purloined out of my pockets and spreading them out on the table. "And the box beside it."
  
  "This," Ghislaine murmured, coming out with a bottle and three glasses, before going back for the small metal box. "Rudeus, are you certain? This is expensive-"
  
  "Yup. I figured I"d get a bottle for special occasions. Should last me pretty much forever, since I won"t touch it otherwise," I shrugged. "And it is a special occasion. Not only is it Eris" birthday, but today"s the day I officially recognize the two of you as mages." I popped open the box and spun it around, before pushing it towards them. I"ll be honest, after making them, I had kind of forgotten about the wands but now was as good a time as ever.
  
  As for the liquor, I wasn"t entirely sure what it was but it wasn"t wine. It was amber and when I"d asked about it, it was described to me how I"d heard spiced rum described back on Earth. Not that I had any experience with alcohol whatsoever. Never touched the stuff before except to try a beer and a Jack and coke and decide it wasn"t for me. Now, I figured once every great now and then wouldn"t hurt.
  
  The pair reverently took their wands from the box before Ghislaine poured and handed a glass to Eris. The redhead grabbed a seat and moved it closer to me before sitting down. "It"s really okay to have this?"
  
  "Mm," the beast-kin nodded, dropping into her own seat and sipping at her glass as she played with her wand in one hand, a satisfied smile on her face. "That"s nice. And it"s fine, just for tonight. Thank you for this, Rudeus." She tucked away the wand and eagerly dug into the napkin in front of her with glee.
  
  "Okay then," Eris nodded, then sipped at her own glass as she studied her wand. She immediately choked and coughed, putting the glass down and looking at it like it had betrayed her. "Hot!"
  
  "Yeah. Good stuff," Ghislaine reiterated, leaning back into more of a relaxed lounge or sprawl than a sit. The position did absolutely amazing things as it put her massive breasts and long, muscular legs on display. It only took a few seconds for me to pull my attention away, but given the woman"s amused look, she had caught me staring and didn"t seem to mind.
  
  "Oh, right. Almost forgot." I sat my own glass down and fished around in my pockets. Not finding the key anywhere, I focused on it and cast summoning magic. The key appeared in my hand in a flash of light and I presented it to Eris. "Happy birthday."
  
  "A key?" Eris asked, taking the piece of painted metal from my fingers. "What for?"
  
  Smiling, I sipped at my drink before popping a small sandwich into my mouth. She grew more and more impatient as I chewed, but held her tongue. Good girl, I mused when I finished my sandwich. You can learn.
  
  "It"s a surprise. It"ll have to wait for tomorrow. Don"t want the guests to see it."
  
  Eris pouted, but tucked the key away below her dress. I didn"t ask where. She turned to Ghislaine and I yawned, only paying half a mind as Ghislaine gave Eris a wooden ring passed down in her tribe and told a story about how it had once saved her from a ravenous wolf-
  
  "The wolf was Paul, wasn"t it?" I grumbled, and Ghislaine nodded. "Of course. Why did you think it was a good idea to sleep with him?"
  
  Ghislaine shrugged. "I was horny. He was there. It wasn"t my idea. Our friend and fellow party member Elinalise convinced me to join them."
  
  "The elf?" I asked, getting a nod.
  
  Was I jealous? Fuck yes. I was well beyond jelly and into preserves. Well, maybe I"ll just have to find a way to top that later.
  
  "A threesome with an elf and a beast-kin. Lucky fucker. Anyway, let"s get off that subject."
  
  We talked for a while longer and Ghislaine poured us each another glass before putting the bottle back where she"d found it. Eris yawned, before standing up and moving over to my bed where she promptly collapsed face first.
  
  With a chuckle, the beast-kin woman patted my head and headed for the door. "I should get back. Good night, Rudeus. Look after Eris."
  
  "Sure," I agreed with a wave. If I had to, I could carry her to her room with telekinesis.
  
  The door closed and I turned towards the redhead laying on my bed. Come back in a few years and we"ll try this again.
  
  Shaking my head, I said, "You should really head back to your own room."
  
  "Don"t wanna."
  
  I sighed. "If you"re sleeping here, get out of that before you ruin it."
  
  Amusingly, Eris quickly did just that, stripping off the blue dress she"d worn and leaving her in nothing but a matching silk slip. Then, she slipped under my covers, hogged my pillow, and closed her eyes. "Goodnight."
  
  "You realize I"m going to sleep in the bed too, right?"
  
  "Of course," Eris frowned, before yawning. "Just hurry up."
  
  Rolling my eyes, I left the room long enough to go to the restroom and brush my teeth with magic. Slipping back into the room, I locked the door and stripped down to my underwear. I blew out the candles and crawled under the covers. Not too long after that, the redhead shifted around until her side was pressed into mine.
  
  "You"re warm," Eris murmured sleepily. What felt like maybe a minute later, I felt her twitch in the beginnings of sleep and heard her breathing even out.
  
  If we were just five years older. No, I"d settle for three at this point.
  
  The next morning, I got up and got dressed before waking Eris. I kind of half expected her to try punching me or something, but she simply stared up at me for a moment before looking around and sitting up. "Go get dressed and meet me outside," I instructed, before leaving the room.
  
  I swung by the kitchen and grabbed breakfast for three, knowing Ghislaine would tag along. Making my way out to our usual stone table, I took a seat and set out the spread. This morning, it was fresh milk (that I chilled with magic until the glass bottle frosted over), bacon (that I would be giving my share of to Ghislaine because I was a heathen who hated the stuff), and fruit scones. Actual scones, because I had gone out of my way to make sure the kitchen had the recipe for them, along with muffins, pancakes, and waffles-and a few other things that this world hadn"t seemed to have developed. I was still the only one here who could make ice cream reliably, but that was mostly down to the lack of ice without having a mage on tap.
  
  Eris and Ghislaine showed up shortly after and tucked into their seats. As we ate, Eris asked, "So, what"s the key for? You said you"d tell me once all the other nobles were gone."
  
  "I did, didn"t I?" I asked, before taking a bite of my scone and sending her an amused smile.
  
  The girl huffed, but got the message and went back to eating. When we were finished, I stood and stretched, dragging it out just long enough to watch Eris start getting frustrated. "Okay Eris, close your eyes."
  
  Eris sent me a skeptical look but did as I asked. Focusing on the new bike, I summoned it from the lab. Ghislaine"s eyebrows went up to her hairline. They went up a little further with I hit the switch for the internal neon light, setting the body glowing red through the slits I"d made in the fairings to let the light through and giving it an eerie look with the way it reflected off the paint. I put the kickstand down and stepped away from it. "Okay, you can open them."
  
  Eris"s eyes opened and locked onto the bike. Her eyes went wide before she squealed and launched herself at me. My back popped as she squeezed, before letting go and running over to the bike. "It"s beautiful! Thank you, Rudy!"
  
  "You"re welcome," I wheezed.
  
  "Can I ride it?"
  
  I snorted quietly. "I"d hope so."
  
  Moving over to her, I showed her where the ignition was-a simple switch that only turned with the key to connect the (magical) battery with the electric motors on the front and rear wheels. "So, this one is a bit different from mine. I"ve been playing with the design. Both wheels are powered."
  
  "What kind of difference is it?" Eris asked curiously.
  
  "Under normal circumstances, you wouldn"t use the front motor. If you"re going up a steep hill, or through mud, or in any situation where the rear wheel might lose traction you would turn the motor on for the front. The switch is here," I pointed it out to her. "That turns the front motor on. The throttle for the rear motor is on the right handlebar, while the one for the front is on the left..."
  
  I gave her the rundown of how the throttles worked, along with front and rear brakes, the interior light, and the headlights. Then, I turned her loose with it. Eris zipped off immediately with a squeal, her hair a red streamer behind her as she flew across the lawn.
  
  "Ah, Rudeus," Ghislaine began.
  
  "I"ve got enough material to make one in your size too." The less said about trying to share my bike with her, the better. The sizes just didn"t work out. "What color would you like?"
  
  "I"m not sure. I"ll think on it."
  
  I nodded. "Fair enough. I can put it together and leave it unpainted for now. I still have to make one for Phillip and Sauros anyway."
  
  Eris zipped by, weaving between us with a mad grin on her face, laughter trailing after her.
  
  "You seem troubled."
  
  I looked up from the book I was slogging through, looking over to see that at some point, Hilda had sat down beside me and I hadn"t noticed. She had been slowly opening up over time as we got to know each other, but she had always kept her distance before. This was the first time I"d been alone with her since Eris"s birthday, and she was sitting basically in my pocket-close enough that I could feel her warmth through my shirt. She smells nice.
  
  She brought up a good point, though. There was a reason this was a slog and not just research. Considering the woman and what I knew of her, along with what I suspected, I wondered how to word this. It was a bit strange that Eris had no siblings. I had written it off to miscarriages initially, but... Well, I had sharp ears and walked softly, so even the beast-kin servants had trouble tracking me around the manor sometimes and occasionally I caught snippets. I knew she had brothers and I knew they weren"t here, and not by choice-this mostly from overheard mutterings of whether I would have been like one brother or the other. It explained a lot about why Hilda was so prickly initially.
  
  Deciding to just come out and say it, I decided to explain the situation and get a fresh set of eyes on things. "I went to visit my friend in Buena Village shortly before Eris"s birthday."
  
  "The day you snuck out," she said, a smile pulling at her lips.
  
  I nodded. "Yeah. You know, it"s not hard to ride one. I"m making a spare for the house and I could teach you if you want."
  
  "I think I"d like that," the woman agreed. "But please, continue. How was your friend? Sylphiette, wasn"t it?"
  
  "Sylphie was fine. A bit lonely, since the only company close to her own age is my sisters, and they"re not really to the point where they make great conversationalists yet-even if you lower your standards. Well, maybe. I don"t actually know, and that"s part of the problem. She told me about some weird rumors that have been going around the village and it"s got me a bit worried that they"re going to grow up with the wrong idea about me."
  
  With a frown, Hilda asked, "What sort of rumors?"
  
  "From what I understand, the general consensus is that the story that I was sent off to "teach a young noble" is just a lie to cover up being exiled by my father for molesting his best friend"s daughter. And while I don"t really care what the village thinks of me, I do care what Norn and Aisha will grow up to think, and having their view of me tainted by hearing something like that around the village."
  
  "I see," Hilda murmured, biting her lip and looking away.
  
  "Then there"s the fact that, considering my father told me not to come back until I was done here, they"re not exactly wrong about this being an exile. I asked for help finding a job, nowhere in that did I agree not to visit my sisters when they were growing up. I don"t want to be the guy who left them alone to go on to things that I felt was more important than them-which is likely what they"d think, even without the rumors."
  
  Humming thoughtfully, the woman suggested, "I"ve seen the figurines you"ve had Phillip sell for you. They"re of excellent quality. Have you considered making them toys and sending them home? I"m sure they would appreciate it. Some simple animal statuettes, for instance."
  
  I honestly had not considered that. I had sent them (encoded) spellbooks because I wanted to see to their magical education, and because magic was the most amazing and entertaining part of this world. But that was coming from someone for whom magic wasn"t an everyday, normal thing and who would have spent his time nose-deep in books regardless. Norn and Aisha weren"t me-may not even be like me as far as being inclined towards reading or magic went. Most children aren"t going to thank you for making them learn something, either-because for most, learning was synonymous with work in an adult"s vocabulary.
  
  And to be fair, I never saw the point of getting much in the way of toys for children who won"t remember them later-at least, not until they"re old enough to. Two or three is still young, four is a maybe. But... they"re made of stone and I doubt they"d be able to break them easily, it costs me nothing but time to make them, and it comes out in terms of pure profit in the end. I was creating figurines anyway because I need the control exercises, my sisters get something out of it that they can play with, and they"ll have something to remember me by that they don"t associate with "learning." I could go out into Roa and pick up some paint and glaze, and color them properly. I"d need to find or make brushes though.
  
  Doesn"t change the fact that I"d feel like I"m trying to buy their affection. Or solve the problem of not seeing them.
  
  "I"ll do that," I agreed. "But it doesn"t fix not being there for them."
  
  "Mm." Hilda considered the problem for a few moments. Eventually, she asked, "Why not visit them now?"
  
  "Paul," was my flat response. "If they knew about the bike and that I was only an hour away now, he"d probably do something stupid. Like convince his friend Laws that it"d be a good idea to send Sylphie away somewhere that I can"t find her. That, and I don"t want to stoop to his level. If I came back, odds are good he"d try to run me off the same way he tried to throw me in the back of a carriage last time-by force. I don"t want my sisters growing up with the idea that their older brother bullies their father and just uses magic to get his way for everything. And doing that would mean that in the end, I"m just like my father in that if I can"t get my way, I"ll just use force to do it anyway."
  
  I let out a quiet "urk!" as Hilda reached over and put her arm around me, before pulling my against her side. My face was squished against the side of her breast. Her long fingers found my hair and started running through it. "Then it seems there is no simple answer. You"re caught between a rock and a hard place. The only answer I have there is to send them letters and presents, then when you turn ten make the trip to Buena and see them. Surely Paul wouldn"t turn you away on or around your birthday."
  
  "I don"t know, he can be pretty stubborn," I said, my voice coming out a bit muffled from where I was pressed into the warm softness of Hilda"s boob. I was right. They"re really nice.
  
  "You won"t know until you try."
  
  I was tempted to make the argument that no, I could in fact know-because I knew Paul and how stubborn the man could be. On the other hand... She"s right. Worse comes to worst, he"ll try to get physical again. I can beat him in a fight. Probably. Depends on what he"s picked up from Sylphie. Best to assume I"d need to lead with the alpha strike. Pretty sure that no matter what he"s learned, he can"t dodge lightning. The only problem there is, again, potentially scaring off my sisters by giving them the impression I"m some kind of violent thug.
  
  It wasn"t the solution I was looking for, but it seemed like it was the best I was going to get. "Thanks, Ms. Hilda."
  
  "Just Hilda is fine, Rudy," the woman murmured. "Now, what are you working on?"
  
  "Here, let me show you." The woman didn"t let go, so I pulled the book closer. "So, I think that with a little work, I can set conditional triggers for normal spells using a variable taken from here," I pointed at the page, "and create enchantments that are only triggered by certain actions. IF/THEN statements. If X happens, do Y. If someone is injured, cast healing magic. If someone tries to cross a boundary without some form of identification, cast fireball. It"d open up warding and a few other fields of automatic magic..."
  
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  sinereal, Mar 10, 2021Report#3196Like+ QuoteReply
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  sinereal
  sinereal
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  Not too long after Eris" birthday, I sat on the (flush) toilet contemplating the state of things.
  
  With my advances in learning to cast enchantment the same way I did everything else, I could now start enchanting the spells I used every day into magical objects. Sure, I didn"t have an unlimited number of magical cores to power things, but I had enough to play around with for a while and Phillip was willing to get me more, especially after the first time he"d ridden a magic powered motorcycle.
  
  The man may prefer to show more decorum than his father or daughter, but he was still a man at heart. He nearly broke his neck and I had to repair the bike and hit him with some healing the first time he tried riding, but he"d gotten right back up and started riding again.
  
  It was with that in mind that I was trying to figure out where to go from here, on the magic tools front.
  
  Ever since the first time I"d powered up a bike with a magic stone, I had wondered if I couldn"t just skip the electric motor and go straight to telekinesis driven wheels. It was something I wanted to look into for improving the bike design"s efficiency, along with swapping electric lighting for magical. Maybe one day, I"ll magic up a hover bike or a plane. Probably both. Each has its uses. Maybe even an airship.
  
  After the ball for Eris" birthday, Sauros had come to me with a proposal. The local nobles in Roa were all in love with the flush toilet (and bidet) and the idea of hot water on demand. Sauros proposed building the infrastructure for two common use bath houses, since that would be more practical than individual ones-one for the nobles and one for everyone else.
  
  I pointed out that it would require a sewer system and some sort of treatment facility and the man greenlit it immediately. I... was not sure I wanted to get involved. That would be a lot of work. Way more than the roads (which I was doing even more of, now that I could run out on the bike on a weekend for a few hours and lay one down for some quick coin).
  
  It would also require a lot of resources, in the form of magic stones and creating spells to treat human waste. I"d have to make a water source to supply everything. Yes, I could let gravity handle a lot of the movement of waste from one area to another, especially if the collection area was downhill. Yes, I could probably come up with a series of spells to treat waste-detoxification, heating, stripping the water out, splitting apart ammonia in urine into nitrogen to keep in the mixture and letting the rest evaporate. You could even take that dried mixture and mix it with earth for instant fertilizer, then turn around and sell it.
  
  But I was looking at probably six months to a year worth of work, doing just that. Trying to figure out all the various spells. Doing the actual construction work.
  
  It"d tie up too much time at the moment. I can do parts piecemeal. Develop the spells one at a time, over time. Work out the various processes. Then slap it all together at the end and probably get the whole thing done in a week of actual work, tops.
  
  Or... I could not. Draw up some designs, let him hire out laborers to build the thing, do the spell development myself, let them complete it over a few years, and slap the completed spells on at the end. Yeah, I like this idea. And it makes me look awesome. I"m helping the local economy instead of taking all that money myself. Giving people jobs and putting food on tables. I decided that I"d pass on the job and instead go the route of delegating labor.
  
  On a related note considering where I was right now, I kind of longed for the nostalgia of sitting down to the toilet with a phone. Would it even be possible to recreate a phone, using magic? Well, what makes a cell phone?
  
  To start with, I"d need some way to display an image or screen. I know how light works and that could be super useful to have as an offensive spell. Frickin" laser beams-just need sharks to mount them on. Even just as a general use spell, for lighting that works better than using fire, where you"re wasting most of your juice generating thermal energy instead of light. And it brings us back to replacing light bulbs for light spells.
  
  In addition to recording or displaying images, it had to accept commands. Storing data, executing basic programming. The ability to record or play back sound. And of course, the thing that made a cell phone a phone and not just a pocket computer-the ability to communicate/transmit data over long distances. The last part I could do without all the rest, but then that would really just be a radio.
  
  From there, I broke the requirements down into goals. Projects.
  
  -Spell creation.
  -Create light-based spells.
  -Create a light-based hologram or illusion for the interface.
  -Create a data-storage spell.
  -Create sound-based spells.
  -Create audio playback/recording spells.
  -Create data transmission spells.
  -Create spells to transmit data between phones.
  
  -Physical construction.
  -Finding or making a magical core small enough to power each device and its functions.
  -Creating a durable object I can layer enchantments on and shape around a magical core.
  
  -Enchantment
  -Programming.
  -Data storage.
  -Display.
  -Tactile feedback for hologram? I could use one of the force spells for that.
  -Audio.
  -Data transmission.
  
  It was... ambitious. My biggest project to date. Or at least the most complex. But broken down into several smaller chunks, it felt much more manageable. After all, once I figured out the spells and got the physical units built, the actual enchanting shouldn"t be all that difficult.
  
  Not going to be able to sell this. I don"t want that genie getting out of the bottle. Instantaneous communication, especially audio and video, would be too big an advantage to just give up. Assuming they don"t already have it in some form. So, I"m going to have to find a way to convince Phillip it"s in his best interest to help fund it but keep it to ourselves, or I"ll have to come up with the funds out of pocket.
  
  Well for a test model, I only really need two or three magic stones. I already have those and Phillip was pretty clear that he was fine with them being used however I saw fit. Everything else, I can either make myself from stuff I already have or probably pick up in town, as far as materials go.
  
  There were some other functions I might want to add later, but for now that would do. Now, let"s see about-
  
  "Rudeus!"
  
  I winced, glaring at the door before yelling back, "What?!"
  
  "Hurry up! It"s almost time for practice!"
  
  "Fine. Alright. I was almost done anyway," I grumbled as the girl stomped away. Can"t a man get half an hour to himself?
  
  The clacking of wooden swords clashing echoed through the courtyard as Eris and I sparred. Ghislaine stood to the side, watching over the proceedings and occasionally offering input.
  
  "Rudeus, stop holding back!"
  
  "I"m not," I grunted, parrying a downward strike and shifting to my left, stepping out of the line of Eris"s attack. I brought the blade up and caught her under the ribs, but the leather practice armor we both wore blunted most of the force. Eris didn"t even slow down as she transitioned into a swing for the fences at my own ribs. I danced back a step, letting the blow whiff in front of me, before stepping into a thrust aimed at her heart. The redhead got her sword around in time to parry the strike, but I followed up with a kick at her crotch that connected.
  
  The girl winced and stumbled back a step, eyes narrowing into a glare as she recovered. I took the breather to address Ghislaine. "Believe me, if I were holding back, she"d be pounding me flat-"
  
  Eris launched herself at me silently, sword coming in from overhead again in a two-handed swing. Knowing she had a vindictive streak a mile wide, I brought both hands up to catch her blade on my sword, but kept her legs in view.
  
  Her foot came up in an attempt to return the favor and pulp my family jewels, but I had more unarmed combat experience than her and had long since learned how to deal with attacks coming from below the belt. I turned my knee inward and took the blow on the outside of my leg, before stepping in and forcing her off balance. A shove against our locked blades put her on the ground. Eris rolled out before I had a chance to capitalize on the opening.
  
  "Did you heal yourself?"
  
  "Mm!" she nodded as she stood up, beaming a happy smile. Smug, almost.
  
  Seeing the look, I added, "Silently?"
  
  "Mhm!" Eris" head bobbed.
  
  Her entire attitude screamed "Praise me!!!" Well, I wasn"t shy about handing out praise when she actually did something praiseworthy. "Good job, Eris!" I watched her face, waiting for the opportune moment to strike... "But you know magic isn"t allowed in these spars."
  
  "Urk."
  
  The girl did an abrupt 180, going from pleased as punch to annoyed. Then, she glared at me as though it were my fault, before launching into an all out blitzkrieg in a flurry of half-wild swings and timing that made no sense. It took every ounce of skill and strength I had to avoid or parry her blows. Blocking when she was like this was just asking to get smacked, because she had the strength to overpower me-especially since Ghislaine had banned me from using mana to keep up recently. She said it was a crutch and I was only hurting myself by using it as I was.
  
  "Good! Keep up the pressure, Eris!" Ghislaine shouted encouragement to the redhead, who nodded and somehow went faster, her strikes hitting even harder. Every blow I turned aside felt like it threatened to wrench the practice sword from my hands. Worse, blows started slipping through my defense.
  
  A parried swing abruptly spun around into a return strike, crashing into my left arm above the elbow and making the whole thing numb. I dodged a strike, only for Eris to launch herself forward and flow into a new combo, two of which I managed to block while the third strike went where I wasn"t expecting as she turned the blade at the last moment and caught me in the stomach. She got too close and took the opportunity to step on my leading foot, pinning it in place just long enough to get in a solid thrust into my solar plexus that had me wheezing even through the armor before I managed to disengage.
  
  This isn"t working. And Ghislaine isn"t calling it.
  
  It was frustrating and painful. Yes, it was training, but Eris didn"t hold back at all. I would be healing myself after this, but that didn"t exactly help me now. And it seemed like every time she scored a hit, she just got angrier and that anger made her hit all the harder.
  
  It was the exact opposite of my own teaching style, when it was time for magic sparring. Most of my attacks were water or wind based, enough mass to feel them but not enough to crush or break bones. No fire, because that was asking for trouble. No earth, because those had the mass behind them to be far more lethal even at the lower levels. I held back, because if I didn"t, she would die without fail.
  
  And I think that was what bugged me most. I treated our fights as spars. Eris, I was beginning to think, was treating our spars like fights.
  
  I was tired of getting my shit kicked in by the little violent tsundere. I was sick and fucking tired of feeling like I would never catch up, now that I was behind. It was really starting to-
  
  "Rudeus, stop thinking about it and just hit her back!"
  
  -piss me off.
  
  I swung. With everything I had and then some.
  
  Something flickered from the corner of my eyes and I was no longer looking at Eris" glaring red eyes but at a tight, tan abdomen.
  
  There was a crack! and my hands went numb as something exploded between myself and Ghislaine, forcing me to flinch back.
  
  The fight ended immediately as I tried to figure out what the fuck just happened. Ghislaine winced as she began brushing pieces of wood off of herself, stopping only intermittently to pick out the occasional splinter. Her practice sword was nowhere to be seen. Looking down at mine, I found that I was holding just the hilt and pommel. Everything above that was gone, the practice weapon ending in a splintered mess of ruined wood. "What just happened?"
  
  Ghislaine chuckled quietly as Eris stepped around her large form, looking around with wide eyes. It was then that I noticed that the ground at Ghislaine"s feet was pitted and in several places, I could make out little pieces of wood sticking out. "Eris, you"ll be sparring against me from now until Rudeus learns to control his touki."
  
  "My..." What. I knew our lessons had been getting more intense, especially with the ban on using mana reinforcement. Was this what it was for? "I could have killed her-"
  
  "I was watching the entire time, and you didn"t. I think that"s part of what has been holding you back lately."
  
  Frowning, I asked, "So you think it was what, all in my head? Because I was afraid of hurting Eris?"
  
  "Mm," the big beast-kin woman nodded. "You gave me the idea when you kept saying that was my own problem with casting anything other than fire or wind. You were right, by the way." With a few muttered words, Ghislaine conjured up a Water Ball. "Sorry for lying to you about it, but I didn"t want to risk you figuring out my plan. You"re smarter than me. I knew if I said something, you"d figure it out, then it might not work."
  
  "And Eris?" I asked, shooting an annoyed look at the redhead. "You tell her to stop holding back?"
  
  Ghislaine looked a little repentant, but nodded. "I may have said something to the effect that you were holding back because you were afraid to hurt her."
  
  "I"m not some fragile, spoiled noble brat who"s never worked a day in her life, Rudeus," Eris protested, crossing her arms over her chest as she met my glare with her own. "Just because you"re better with magic doesn"t mean I"m weak. You holding back because you think I"m weak makes you weak, and it pisses me off because I know you"re better than that!"
  "You really though this through, huh?" It was probably closer to the truth to say that I had been holding back because she was a child, and because I had been trained in martial arts to never go full force in a spar otherwise you wind up hurting someone. I suppose I didn"t really have much call to be pissed at her though, considering she was right about the end result either way and she was worried about me in her own way. Sorry for thinking of you as a violent tsundere, Eris. I suppose you"re outgrowing that phase.
  
  Sighing, I dropped the ruined practice sword and sat down on the stone of the courtyard. "Alright. So, how do I train this so I don"t accidentally split someone in half when I don"t mean to?"
  
  "You just do. Train until you get it."
  
  I kind of expected something like that, to be honest. "So I guess the first step is figuring out how I did that-"
  
  "You"re going backwards," Ghislaine sighed, stepping over and flicking my forehead with her finger. "Stop thinking about it and just do it."
  
  So just turn off my brain and hit it with the power of a shonen protagonist? I wondered, shaking my head in amusement. A thought occurred and I had to resist the urge to groan. Oh my god, was Paul right this entire time? Showing me, in his own special way, that you didn"t need to think about it and just smack it harder because you wanted to or something?
  
  No.
  
  Couldn"t be. I refuse to believe it.
  
  My view on reality was shaken, cast in doubt.
  
  Deciding to take my mind off of it, I moved away while Eris and Ghislaine began to spar and raised a stone pillar and sword from the ground. Then, I set about trying to replicate what I had done against Eris. Is this how Roxy felt, trying to chase down some elusive feeling that someone else made look easy? I... really should apologize to her.
  
  I sat in my lab, staring up at the glowing image displayed over my table-a blue sphere slowly rotating in place. Reaching into the spell, I dismissed the image of Earth and instead supplied it a more recent memory to display. A blue-haired mage flickered into being above my table and I smiled. "Well, that works. Now only something like, what, twelve more steps to go?"
  
  Deciding this called for a break from my current project, I turned my focus to an older project instead. Telekinesis moved my bike, standing up in the corner, over to the table and I began disassembling it.
  
  Inspecting the tires, I sighed as I found the rubber was starting to crack and show signs of wear. I had been afraid of this. My experiments had been successful enough to make rubber, sure. Even get something close to the actual rubber used for tires. I just didn"t have the exact process down and that could take years, even if I brute forced it with magic, simply because I couldn"t accurately simulate wear and tear, along with environmental factors such as heat and humidity using magic to test how long it would last.
  
  While it was good enough, at least for now, it just wasn"t going to work in the long term. If I wanted to use the bikes for any sort of long-term trip or adventuring, I was going to need to fix the tire issue-otherwise, we"d be stranded in the middle of nowhere with no replacements.
  
  The way I see it, I"ve got three options.
  
  Option one: spend the time improving the rubber formula. I should do this eventually, but it"s too much of a time sink to get that involved in. I wish I could just have someone else do it for me.
  
  Option two: remove rubber, use a substitute. Treads and tracked vehicles have been around forever. Wasn"t NASA working on some nickel-titanium alloy mesh thing for use on Mars rovers? Of course, there are the little problems of traction, friction, heat, corrosion, vibration... Ugh. It"s a fucking nightmare.
  
  Suppose I magic up a lightweight lattice that retains its shape and conforms well enough to whatever surface I"m driving on to not transmit every little bump to the rider. It"s metal, so corrosion wouldn"t be an issue with me doing magical maintenance. Still have the issues of lack of traction and friction heating throwing sparks and potentially setting a fire. I am not reinventing the wheel here.
  
  Option three: eliminate tires entirely. For that, I"d need to essentially go full hoverbike. So... is it doable? In theory, yes. What sorts of problems would I be looking at? How do you balance it, keep it upright, keep it from tipping one direction or the other? No wheels on the ground means no traction, so stopping or turning is going to be a pain in the ass unless I get very creative with magic. Increased mana consumption, anyone who isn"t me or Sylphie wouldn"t be able to ride one for more than a few hours a day. It"s going to go a lot faster, which means more potential to hurt yourself if you lose control or hit something.
  
  Pulling out the wiring and electric motor, I set about converting my bike to purely telekinesis-driven, enchanting the spell to spin the wheel at a speed regulated by the throttle as I thought over the problem of the tires. Once I was finished removing the electrical system, I removed the glass bulb headlights and enchanted a new light spell into the reflector the bulb had previously used, then set about enchanting the physical switch it had previously been connected to so that I could set it between off, low, and bright.
  
  What about a fourth option? Can"t fix the formula because it"ll take too much time. A substitute, either purely physical or magical is impractical at the moment. So, why not make more tires and just summon them as needed? I"ve already got a standardized size for front and rear tires. My biggest concern is storage, because there"s no point to making them if they"re just going to rot waiting for use. Why not vacuum seal them into a container with magic? Pack two into a container and remove all the air and moisture from inside, then summon them as needed.
  
  In fact, why not take that method and apply it elsewhere? You can"t summon a specific object if you can"t visualize it. But if I were to summon a specific marked container and its contents I could move the entire thing without needing to know every detail about what"s inside of it. And it could be a way to get things to Sylphie and Roxy without waiting on mail carriers. Send them a box with a sample marker via mail, tell them to summon a specific box-or send things to a specific box.
  
  Could work. Could use it for other things, too. MREs? Sure, carry a few in my bag, but if I run out I could just have a labeled box with more that I can summon. Money? Box full of it. Resources? Make bars for metal, pack them into a box, label it, summon it later. When the boxes are empty, use magic to turn them into something else.
  
  But what if I want to send something back? Say I don"t need all of something in a box and I don"t want to hold onto the box indefinitely. The lab is already getting cluttered as it is, so I can"t just keep them here. Too bad I don"t have an Inventory or Pocket Dimension spell-something to work on later. Space magic! For now, why not build a warehouse or something? No, don"t want people breaking in. It"d have to be something only I could access, either because only I know about it, or because it"d be difficult to find or get to.
  
  I reassembled the bike before deciding on a course of action. Heading outside, I wandered towards the back of the property, using a floating Elementary-level Light Orb to guide me as opposed to a ball of flame.
  
  Much better on the mana cost, I noted, seeing as I was using only a fraction of the power of a typical Fireball used for lightning and producing easily ten times the output. Finding a good open spot, I focused on the ground beneath my feet and cast. A circle a yard around me sank into the ground like an elevator. I went down, and down, and down some more-until I hit the water table and was forced to stop and go back up.
  
  From there, I used a wind spell to circulate air down the tunnel while I worked, creating a stone room supported by pillars. Shelves made of stone spread from the ground, ceiling, and walls creating racks of storage space. When I was satisfied, I sealed the room and left, filling in the hole behind me. I"d have to go back down later to fine tune the size of the shelves, but it would be fine for now. I"d have to standardize box sizes first, before I did it anyway. Once I had, however, I could just send things straight down to it, "to an empty shelf fitting this box."
  
  Now I just need to start stocking it.
  
  That was something I could do piecemeal, though. Make a few replacement tires, seal them up, and take them down. Make a couple of boxes of food and other supplies here and there. It"d add up over time and I could rotate stock through as I needed it. Too bad there isn"t just a general preservation spell. That"d be handy. It"d probably fall under "time" or something ridiculous. I"m not entirely sure I understand science enough to bullshit magic into giving me what I want there. ...Well, maybe I"ll try it eventually.
  
  For today though, I was done. I went back to the mansion, took a shower, and hit the sack. I spent some time making a few figurines to sell to practice with my mana (since I had already sent off a couple of packages with painted animal figurines for Norn, Aisha, and Sylphie), then went to bed since I had been nearing the ends of my mana pool anyway.
  
  "Come on, come on, come on, let"s gooooo!" Eris fidgeted in place beside her bike. I ignored her antics, making sure my backpack/bugout bag was secure on my back and my bedroll and blanket were strapped down securely to my seat. Ghislaine had already gotten her things strapped on and I finished mine to check hers, then Eris". Finally, I mounted my bike, signaling the other two that we were ready.
  
  "Yes!" Eris yelled, pulling her goggles down over her eyes and zipping off.
  
  "Eris! Get back here!" Ghislaine yelled and the girl slid to a stop, turning an impatient look our way. Ghislaine and I followed at a much more sedate pace before pulling up alongside her. "I lead, you follow, or we don"t leave. Understood?"
  
  Eris winced. "Yes, Ghislaine," the girl nodded, knowing the beast-kin woman was completely serious.
  
  Nodding, Ghislaine moved her much larger black painted bike to the front of the line and rode into the city, Eris following on her heels, while I brought up the rear and gave both enough space that if they fell, I wouldn"t be running over them.
  
  As had become the norm any time we passed through the city, people moved aside and stared as we passed. I caught sight of more than one mage in the crowd, looking on longingly and visibly trying to work out how they functioned. No one had tried anything yet, but I wouldn"t put it past them eventually, if they saw an opportunity. I wasn"t sure exactly what the ethics of this world"s mages were. Roxy may just be an outlier, and for all I knew I could be dealing with FATE level "dissect you while you"re alive to see how you work" level of crazy ruthless.
  
  Not all of the looks were friendly, or even the sort of longing desperation of a mage seeing something he really wants. Occasionally, I spotted one watching me or Eris in particular, but nothing had come of it yet. Remnants from the first kidnapping group, maybe?
  
  I made a mental note to let Ghislaine know about it later. We really should track those fuckers down to the last man.
  
  Once we passed the walls, Ghislaine peeled off from the road and turned away from the town, heading out across plains and rolling hills. We rode into the Fittoa region until the Citadel disappeared behind us, then kept riding. That afternoon, we stopped at the edge of a forest. We got off our bikes and stretched. We had only taken rest stops occasionally, mostly to go to the bathroom. Neither Eris nor Ghislaine were used to the constant bumpy ride that even bikes with rubber tires and good suspension provided on anything but paved ground, so I didn"t blame them for being uncomfortable.
  
  "Divide tasks and make camp. The forest is populated with monsters, so be mindful of that. I won"t help or provide any advice here. The only reason I"ll intervene is if you bite off something you can"t chew. Treat this as if you were on your own."
  
  Nodding at that, Eris and I put our heads together. "Rudy! Make us a shelter!"
  
  I rolled my eyes. "Sure. Go gather up some firewood. Remember, it doesn"t have to be dry since I can dry it out myself. If you run into any monsters, don"t try to take them on alone. Run back here and we"ll team up on them. Once we"ve got that done, we can go hunting."
  
  "Right," Eris agreed, before turning on her heel and stalking into the forest.
  
  "Don"t go too deep!" I warned, before shooting Ghislaine an imploring look. The woman nodded and trailed silently after Eris.
  
  A bit of earth magic cleared the ground in a wide area. I took what I"d learned from building an expansion to a house, a temporary shelter outside of Buena Village every now and then, and building my vault and put that into constructing something quick but sturdy.
  
  Stone flowed up from the ground, forming an igloo-style building with a stone floor. I added a fire pit and chimney big enough to keep us warm if it got cold, then made a few raised sections to put bedrolls on to get us up off the ground. A table and chairs went in the middle of the space to give us somewhere to sit and eat. A stone pipe with a hood over the top provided ventilation since, once we were in, I would be closing up the door.
  
  Heading outside, I fortified the exterior with a series of braces and another layer of stone, before covering that in enough sharp spikes to make a porcupine blush. Off to one side, I constructed a stone outhouse. To the other side, I made a much larger fire pit-essentially an outdoor grill to cook on. Finally, I surrounded the small camp with a ten foot tall wall, covered in more spikes.
  
  "Rudy, let me in!"
  
  Rolling my eyes, I used Air Running to get up above wall level then lifted Eris up and into the camp with telekinesis. The girl dropped her armload of wood beside the hut. "Do you think this is enough?"
  
  "Hell no," I shook my head. "Come on, let"s go get some more."
  
  We made the trip back over the wall, Ghislaine silently shadowing us as we moved into the forest. As we walked, I looked for and eventually found a deer trail and started following that. Eris was not exactly quiet, so I was unsurprised when I heard something start crashing through the underbrush ahead of us.
  
  Turning, I sent her an annoyed look and a sigh. "Heel, toe, heel, toe. Watch where you"re stepping and put your weight down slowly. Don"t step on dry leaves or twigs. Branches or vines in the way, push them aside gently and if there"s any tension or spring to them, ease them back into place when you go past."
  
  ""kay," Eris nodded, her voice actually quiet for once.
  
  After that, her sneak skill improved. I wouldn"t say it was great, but it was good enough, because we eventually came across a doe without startling it. A Water Lance through the head put it down before it had a chance to notice us.
  
  "Now what?" Eris asked, looking to Ghislaine. The beast-kin woman simply shrugged.
  
  "Who are you talking to, Eris? We"re here alone, remember?" I reminded her of the fact that Ghislaine wouldn"t be participating. "Now, get out your rope. I"m going to teach you how to prepare food in the wild."
  
  Eris looked from me, to the deer, and back before scrunching her nose up in disgust. She did fish around in her own small pack and produce a length of rope, however. Using earth magic, I made a spreader bar with a set of hooks and an eye at the top for the rope. "Toss the rope up over that limb," I instructed, pointing up into a nearby tree.
  
  Eris quickly walked up and threw it over the branch with Air Running before dropping back down. "Got it! Now what?"
  
  "Pull it through here," I showed her the eye. "I"ll show you what kind of knot you need to use, then you get to tie it. Then, you get to cut holes behind the tendons on the back legs, fit the hooks through there, lift it up, and tie it off to the tree."
  
  And so it went as I showed her step by step how to field dress a fresh kill, how deep to bury the entrails and why, before finally I had her haul it out on her shoulders as opposed to using telekinesis-just so she"d know what it was like trying to carry literal dead weight. I gave her the option of when to skin it-either now, when it would be easier, but she would have to carry it back bloody, or when we got it back to camp and it was more difficult to do so. Eris chose to skin it now and wound up getting covered in blood.
  
  As we walked back, I pointed out plants I recognized from the encyclopedia Zenith had given me, picking up the occasional wild onion, mustard plant, or other seasoning and/or herb and stuffing them into my pack for later use. As we exited the forest, I found a small tree and felled it, cut several logs off using telekinesis, and hauled it all back to camp.
  
  Once we were inside, I created a stone table for Eris, who tossed the deer down with a huff. "Ugh, I"ve got blood on me."
  
  "You"ve got magic, clean it off it it bothers you."
  
  I knew damn well that if I didn"t make her do it herself, she would get me to do it and come to rely on me for that instead of practicing the spells herself. With a huff, the girl concentrated and summoned hot water, used it to wash herself off, then dumped it and conjured a warm breeze to dry herself. Once she was done, she shot me a glare for not doing it for her. "Now what?"
  
  "Now, you learn how to properly section off meat," I told her as I took off my pack and began removing the various vegetables and spices I"d found. I created a pot of stone and began preparing a stew using conjured water while I instructed her. "Now, first, you"re going to want to start by cutting it length-wise down the middle, along the spine. You might need your sword for that. Once you"ve got it sectioned, cut off the legs. What we don"t use for stew, I"ll roast over the fire."
  
  Ghislaine, leaning against the outhouse as we worked, wiped the drool from her mouth. "Rudeus."
  
  "Hm? Eris, you say something?" I asked, a teasing tone to my voice.
  
  "Rudeus," Ghislaine spoke up louder.
  
  Meeting my eyes and seeing where I was going, Eris" lips split into an evil grin. "No Rudy, wasn"t me. Must have been an animal call or something from the forest."
  
  Ghislaine"s stomach growled loud enough that we both heard it. "Yeah, definitely some kind of wild beast. Probably attracted by the smell of blood. We"d better be extra careful tonight." I sighed mournfully, "We"ll have to destroy what we don"t eat, just to dissuade monsters."
  
  "No!" Ghislaine whined. "I"ll eat it!"
  
  We pretended we couldn"t hear her as Ghislaine"s pleas grew more fervent once I finished mixing up some basic seasoning out of dried mustard seeds and diced garlic and onion, spread it on our dinner, and got a low fire going to roast it over while the stew began to simmer. As night fell, I made us some plates and bowls and we sat down at the table inside the shelter, a small fire going in the fireplace and a light spell above us to see by.
  
  Seeing Ghislaine"s pathetic face, I finally gave in. "Oh, hey Ghislaine! When did you get here?"
  
  "I"ve been here the entire-" Ghislaine stopped and coughed into her fist. "Just now, Rudeus. Is that venison?"
  
  "It is. You want some?"
  
  "Well, if you"re offering," the woman nodded slowly, easing down into the seat I"d made for her at our table.
  
  The next day, we spent doing survival and wilderness training, along with fighting and harvesting a few monsters. That last part was particularly lucrative, since we actually managed to collect a couple of fresh mana crystals. Ghislaine was surprised at the depths of my knowledge, but put it down to Paul having taught me.
  
  We left for Roa as the sun rose the next day, Ghislaine and I having come to an agreement to do this again every other weekend or so until we felt Eris had a handle on it and could survive in the wild without either of us.
  
  I hate (most) rodents. They"re filthy, disease carrying, vermin-infested plague bearers. The only exceptions I was willing to make were squirrels and beavers.
  
  And yet, here I was, handling several gray mice. I had built metal pressure traps, put some food in them, and set them out across Roa over the course of a few weeks to collect them. Before they came in the lab, they were thoroughly cleaned of any pests and hit with detoxification magic to ensure they weren"t carrying any diseases. I"d brought them back to the lab, made little individual cages to house them, water and food dispensers, and stone floors to the cages that I could easily remove to clean up after them.
  
  What was I doing with a dozen mice?
  
  Science!
  
  Magical science, even.
  
  Specifically, biology and how it interacts with healing spells. And development of my own healing spells, because apparently the Millis church had damn near everything above Advanced-level healing on lock and refused to share. My options were to either raid Millis (maybe, if I was ever in the area and felt like I could get away with it) or make my own (more fun for me anyway and potentially more useful since I could make custom spells).
  
  Then again, I have fairly fast transport and light magic. Whipping up an invisibility spell should be just a simple matter of bending light. Well, "simple." Have to see if that gets me true invisibility or Predator cloak. Either fucking way, I could sneak in, find shit, and sneak out before they knew I was there and they"d never know who did it. Yeah, I"m going to pay them a "friendly" visit in a few years.
  
  Playing with healing spells had been a bit of a back burner project for a while now, something I planned to do eventually but never seemed to find time to get into. I pretty much had to force myself to make time for it.
  
  Okay, that"s a half truth. I was banging my head against an infuriating wall with spell development for any communication device more complicated than a two-way radio, or a hologram projector. Tying them together and getting a working OS was kicking my ass. I had made such good progress, so it was kind of frustrating hitting a snag in the last quarter of development.
  
  In short, I needed something I could work on and see progress with to give myself some time to sort out the other issue, then come back and look at it with fresh eyes. It was a problem I"d frequently had back on Earth, too. I"d start something, come across some problem or snag, then set that project aside to focus on something else for a while. Not everything got finished and a lot of things were just abandoned to gather dust.
  
  It was not fucking A.D.D., I"d had enough suggestions of that in my previous life. I had absolutely no problem focusing or paying attention. It was just how I"d figured out the way in which I worked best.
  
  So, the rats. Well, mice. Mice were smaller than rats. Less dangerous. Less likely to spontaneously evolve into a ROUS and eat someone"s face off in a mana rich environment. Then there was the obvious problem of experimenting on gray rats when my name was Greyrat.
  
  I had divided them up into four groups of three with one control for each. Right now, I was testing out five different possible spells.
  
  The first spell was a scanning spell, designed to tell me what the hell was wrong with whatever I hit with it. So far, I was having some progress with it, but there were two major problems-either too much or too little information. If I made a cut on a subject, I wanted to know how deep that cut went, what had been cut, and whether they were bleeding out-I did not need to know that the target was dehydrated, or had worms, a mild skin rash, or any one of a hundred other problems.
  
  Likewise, I"d like a little more response than "it"s a cut," since I could see that with my own eyes, thanks! Ideally, I needed some sort of filter to prioritize things. Sure, I could probably tie it to some sort of holographic overlay and use that as the filter, but those are scifi bullshit and would just loop back into the realm of needing something more complex to handle the overflow of information anyway-i.e., a computer. Putting me back to square one.
  
  The next was a regenerative heal, capable of regrowing lost limbs or parts. Normal healing at Elementary- or Intermediate-level couldn"t regenerate lost parts, as far as I knew. I didn"t know if it was a power limitation or something else. I knew how the processes of regeneration and scarification worked though. Evolution selected for speed of healing over perfect healing.
  
  But as far as I knew, if scarification could be disabled and regeneration could be induced there was no downside to regeneration over scarification other than the speed at which each worked and the resources consumed (which, in nature, are major downsides). I didn"t care if the spell consumed a target"s resources (read: fat and muscle) to fix the problem, so long as it worked-muscle could be regained, but a lost eye or arm could not.
  
  There was a major limitation to that though. Two, really. Firstly, needing to see what I was doing and make sure I was doing it right. Secondly, and directly related to the first, cancer. At the moment, I could regrow a missing limb, but what came out was going to be a misshapen lump of all the cancer.
  
  Thirdly, I was working on something to go with my training. I had long ago learned that healing didn"t restore stamina after exercise. The body burned energy and had to generate more energy to do anything else. I was trying to find a way to speed up that process somehow, either by (temporarily) increasing metabolism or directly aiding the body in synthesizing ATP.
  
  This one was at a standstill, because I had no feedback. I couldn"t ask my test subjects to describe how they felt. I was pretty much stuck until I got that scanning spell working. One of the downsides of trying to manipulate complicated internal biological processes-can"t do it blind.
  
  Fourthly, a spell to manipulate biology directly. Grow muscles, increase size or height, increase bone strength, change hair or skin coloration, alter identifying bodily structure, and so on. This one, I had actually had some success with, mostly because while I couldn"t necessarily see what I was doing, I could see the effects and trial-and-error my way through.
  
  Meet Tiny the MOUS-a mouse of unusual size-tenth of his name. Tiny started out as a standard house mouse captured in Roa. After many successful failures (mice that took whatever change I made to them but died shortly after for one reason or another), I finally had a working Muscle Mouse. Tiny was built like a mousy brick shit house, who looked like he did all the roids and lived in the gym. He was four times the size of his brethren, with muscles upon muscles under a coat of (modified) smooth, thick white fur, and a cock three times its normal size.
  
  He was also a devious, intelligent, mean-spirited little shit and liked to try to gnaw through his cage. Tiny was the Chad of mouse-kind.
  
  I was also pretty sure he was absolutely fucking full of cancer, due to the lumps under his flesh. Well, there was only one way to tell on that front, but I"d be waiting until I was sure he wasn"t playing possum before trying to dissect him. The little bastard had tried it before in a bid to get me to open the cage so he could escape, after observing that I pulled out and disposed of any dead mice.
  
  I"d seen that movie though, so with Tiny I made sure to poke him with a stick first to make sure he wasn"t faking-by which I mean channeling an Arc spell through a metal rod and zapping him until he squealed.
  
  Finally, I was looking into a spell to try to reverse or at least delay aging. Technically, I was working on two spells here, since I was approaching it from both angles. It helped that controls from previous generations or tests wound up in this group to provide fresh recruits. Like with the biology manipulation... meat sculpting? flesh crafting? Eh, I could name it later. Like with the bio-manipulation spell, being able to see at least some kind of result helped. I had been able to change old, graying, feeble looking mice back into younger, healthier looking mice.
  
  The problem was, I wasn"t entirely sure what I was doing. And again, cancer. If they looked healthy but still died of other symptoms of old age, it wasn"t true anti-aging. And it did nothing for telomeres breaking off and other such things that weren't observable at anything but a micro level.
  
  If those last spells sound familiar, they should. It was essentially what every biology manipulator type character went after. One of the more recently popular ones when I died, at least popular in certain circles, was from a web novel and did it with "powers" (alien space whale magic). Too bad I don"t have a shard to offload the work to.
  
  In short, I was pretty much gated behind the one spell I actually needed.
  
  Again.
  
  Fuck!
  
  Maybe I should just go back to trying to make a cell phone?
  
  "What are you doing?"
  
  "Hm?" I asked, looking up from where I was shaping metal into a familiar form. The metal in question was new-an aluminum-titanium alloy I"d been playing with for the past few days, and courtesy of Phillip"s resources tracking titanium down by description. This would be the first big test of it. If it worked, I"d be using it to upgrade the bikes.
  
  Eris stood over me, arms crossed over her chest as she surveyed my work in the back part of the yard-Ghislaine was there as well, Eris" ever present shadow. It was one of our days off (one of those where we didn"t go camping), so I had taken the opportunity to try out something new that I had been considering for a while now. A simple engineering project, as opposed to spell development. Something I actually had the know-how to do and wouldn"t need to design from the ground up. That is, I could just copy designs I"d seen on Earth to make something cool and potentially useful.
  
  Yeah, I was still bashing my head on every wall as far as spell development for the things I wanted went. I"d made an invisibility spell, but that was... unsatisfying compared to the hurdles of trying to figure out an OS for my magitek phone or medical magic. I wanted something bigger.
  
  "That. What is it?" she demanded, dropping to sit cross-legged on the ground nearby, heedless of the fact that the angle left her panties exposed.
  
  I turned away, ignoring the display. I"d tried to explain to her before about decorum and not leaving herself exposed, but Eris" counter argument was, "If it"s just you, what does it matter?"
  
  Apparently, she didn"t even see me as a man at the moment. Though, to be fair, I was only nine so it wasn"t like she was exactly wrong. I figured it was something she would grow out of eventually. If not, I"d introduce her to the wonders of pants.
  
  "This," I gestured at the triangular construction laying on the ground as I focused on shaping a structural support, "is an attachment for my bike."
  
  Eris perked right up at that. To say the girl loved the gift I"d given her on her birthday was an understatement. She had finally found something truly worth studying for, when I"d told her that the sooner she got her lessons done correctly, the longer she would have in a day to ride the gleaming red motorcycle (and because I could summon her key and had more than enough mana to win any fight for control over the key if she tried to summon it back, I could keep it shut down indefinitely).
  
  Sure, I had made her lessons interesting, but even then they were still just lessons. Now, she had something to work towards-a reward at the end of a long day of studies. She was actually doing better now.
  
  "What does it do?"
  
  I chuckled at that, reaching down and testing the action on one of the two horizontal flaps. "Hopefully not break my fool neck."
  
  "Rudeus," Ghislaine said, her tone warning.
  
  "It"ll be fine," I waved her concern off. If the worst came to pass, I had Air Running. I could ditch the bike and get to safety.
  
  Reaching out, Eris ran a hand over the edge of the triangular segment. "You"re not going to tell me any more about it, are you?"
  
  "Nope!" I cheerfully denied. "It"s a surprise. I want to see your face when I use it."
  
  Eris grunted in annoyance, but didn"t press. "And this other part?"
  
  I looked over at what she was gesturing towards. It was essentially a barrel with a large, four-bladed fan inside and a set of three large vertical flaps coming off of one side in front of the fan"s output. "It"s a fan."
  
  "A fan? Like," Eris waved her hand in a vague "fan" gesture and I nodded. "What for?"
  
  Resisting the urge to smirk, I answered, "What else do you use a fan for? Moving air."
  
  "Rr."
  
  Even though she was a bit put out, Eris didn"t try anything funny. Instead, she sat and patiently watched as I worked. Finally, I stood up and used telekinesis to lift the delta wing, moving it into place over my motorcycle. I had already added struts with metal wheels to make sure it wouldn"t fall over from the weight unbalancing it, so all I had to do here was attach the support bar to the new socket on the frame.
  
  A bit of moving things around slotted the pipe in the hole and a couple of thick, steel pins held it in place. Next, I attached the fan to the back, where it connected to both the bike and the new support. Once that was finished, I began running cables from the new pedals I"d installed to the flaps on the wing and fan. Finally, I attached a cable to a set of pulleys, which lead to the struts and when pulled would cause them to fold up and away from the ground.
  
  Once the cables were installed and tightened down, I sat down and tested the pedals. Right foot up, I looked up at the wing, flap goes down. Right foot down, flap goes up.
  
  "Hey Eris, can you check something for me?"
  
  "Mm!" the girl quickly hopped up from where she was sitting.
  
  "Tell me which way the flap on the fan back there turns."
  
  I pulled the pedal at my left foot up. "Right," Eris announced. Pressing it all the way down, she called out, "Left." Finally, I let off of it entirely and the pedal moved back into place in the middle thanks to a couple of springs. "Middle."
  
  "Thank you. Now, you"ll want to move away from the back." I had already enchanted the newly installed throttle on the left handlebar and the fan, so I hit the switch to power it on and slowly throttled up. Behind me, the fan spun to life with a roar of air. The bike began to shake and I had to shape the earth beneath it to create stone clamps to hold it in place. After leaving the throttle all the way back for a few minutes, I let off of it and it lost power, spinning on inertia as it slowed.
  
  Finally, I released the stone clamps and got off the bike. A bit of telekinesis lifted the whole thing by the delta wing and I gave it a few shakes. When nothing fell apart, I decided that was good enough. "Alright. Eris, you know healing well enough by now, so I need you on standby in case I screw up."
  
  ""kay," the girl nodded, moving over to Ghislaine"s side, seemingly taking the assignment seriously.
  
  With nothing left but to try, I hit the switch for the main throttle. The rear wheel kicked in and the bike surged forward. As it got up to speed, I pulled the handle for the cable attached to the struts, then locked it in place when they folded up properly. The bike left the ground briefly before thumping back down as I pulled up on the right pedal and twisted both throttles wide open. The fan roared behind me and I waited a few seconds for it to get up to speed before pushing down on the right pedal. Then, I was airborne, my stomach in my throat as I left the ground.
  
  "Oh shit!"
  
  I did not scream. It was a... manly yell of surprise.
  
  Let me tell you, mechanical flight is an entirely different feeling either from Air Running (which, as the name suggested, felt just like running except when you did anything upside down) or my magical Iron Man impersonation. I think the difference was mostly in direct control-I could feel how the air for my thruster spell was working and manipulate it as needed. Here, I had to rely entirely on bodily feedback with no spell feedback.
  
  It was the most fun I"d had in what felt like ages.
  
  I hit the switch for the right throttle and shut it off before slowly letting off on the left throttle, dropping the fan speed down from what I had marked as full. Easing the right pedal back into the neutral position, the magical motorcycle turned magical ultralight aircraft leveled off. Easing the left pedal down saw me making a gentle turn to the left, circling back over the mansion"s grounds. Looking down, I spotted Ghislaine looking up at me, wide eyed and slack jawed. Eris had fallen on her ass with an identical look, her hand pointing up at me.
  
  Pulling it into a tighter circle, I throttled up a bit and began climbing. Roa spread out below me, along with all of Fittoa as far as the eye could see. I spotted Perugius" castle in the distance and some kind of glowing thing floating in the air much closer, somewhere over the city-I made a note to check it out later. Ominously glowing energy fields bigger than my head tended to be trouble. Circling one of the mansion"s towers, I caught a glimpse through a window and met the astonished gazes of Sauros... and the cat-eared maid he was plowing, big ol" titties flopping out of the front of her dress as the old man hammered away absently even in his shock.
  
  And that, my friends, was my downfall. A nice set of tits. My foot slipped on the pedal and my hand pulled just a bit to the left. The wheel must have caught the air just wrong because the ultralight tipped violently towards the ground, sending it into a dive that I couldn"t recover from.
  
  I bailed out, using Air Running to get a safe distance before catching the ultralight with telekinesis just a few yards from the ground. Right. Note to self: don"t fly while distracted.
  
  Heading back down to the ground, I set the ultralight up so it would stand on its own as Eris and Ghislaine rushed over. Already, I could see a few problems with the design that would need to be addressed. I need a way to lock the front wheel in place. A pin should be good enough. Then I need some way to control the upper flaps individually. Having them both tied together means I can"t bank or tilt, so turns are all rudder and it"s sluggish compared to what I remember of modern aircraft.
  
  Having the throttle tied to the handle bar works okay for riding, but not for flight, because as we saw an "oops" means that you"re accidentally pulling it back when you don"t want to be. Also, maybe look into making some sort of harness to keep from being thrown off, but quick release system in case I need to bail.
  
  "Rudeus!" Eris screamed as she approached, stopping right in front of me. Taking a deep breath, she gathered her hair into twin tails and put on her biggest, most sincere smile. "Please take Eris up with you, nyan~ Eris will give you anything you waaaant, nyaaaan~"
  
  Dirty old man brain responded before my brain-to-mouth filter could kick in. "If you"re going to offer that, come back in about four years."
  
  "RUDEUS MY BOY!" Sauros bellowed from somewhere in the castle.
  
  Sighing, I turned to Ghislaine. "Sorry Ghislaine, but I"m making my escape."
  
  "Take me with you."
  
  I shot an incredulous look between her and the bike. Ghislaine followed my gaze. To her credit, she only blushed slightly before turning away, reminded again that the physics just didn"t work out. By mutual agreement, we didn't speak of that incident. "Once I"ve got the kinks worked out, I"ll modify one of the larger bikes and we"ll go. How about that?"
  
  "Mm. That"s fine."
  
  "Ruuuudyyyy~" Eris whined, bouncing in place as she wagged her pigtails. Sadly, she was much too young and not nearly developed enough for that sort of bouncing to do anything to interest me. If Ghislaine had done it however, it"d be game over.
  "Fine, fine. Let"s just go before your grandfather gets here." It should be safe enough. If all else failed, I would... probably pick Eris over the ultralight when deciding which to rescue first.
  
  Okay, yeah, I"ll just hold her against me with telekinesis right from the start. Safer that way.
  
  I sat with Phillip, Sauros, and Ghislaine that evening after supper. "So, I have a question."
  
  "By all means," Phillip made a "go on" gesture with his hand. "If it"s about funding for the aircraft project, I approve."
  
  "No, not that," I shook my head. "And I"m not building more of those yet."
  
  Phillip and Sauros exchanged a look before the younger of the two asked, "Why not?"
  
  "Air superiority. The moment someone figures out I could just scale up and how easy it would be to mount mages as cannon, I"ll be chained to a desk turning them out and we"ll be going to war inside a year." I"d rather keep that project as a personal recreational vehicle, not as something these idiots would use to start yet another war-and probably against the demons again. "Anyone know what the red orb in the sky is?"
  
  Phillip looked uneasy, while Sauros shrugged. It was the old man who answered. "I"d like to think it"s a good thing. I pray to it every day."
  
  "You... pray to it," I repeated, sending the man a skeptical look. "Has anyone actually investigated it?"
  
  "It"s been there for a few years now," Phillip admitted. "We"ve had a few mages look at it, but no one can tell us anything beyond that it"s part of a spell and it"s gathering mana."
  
  Frowning, I asked, "How much mana?"
  
  It was Ghislaine who supplied the answer this time. "More than you used for your display of King-level casting. It hurts to look at directly."
  
  I blinked, feeling my blood run cold. I found my mouth suddenly dry when I went to speak and had to take a drink to clear my throat. "When I look at that, do you know what I see? UEO. Unexploded ordnance. That thing is a disaster waiting to happen."
  
  With a sigh, Phillip nodded. "We know, Rudeus. There"s nothing that can be done about it. Other mages have tried and failed. They can"t even interact with it, let alone move it or safely destroy it. According to every mage who has tried, the thing just eats whatever mana you use on it and grows stronger."
  
  "What about an evacuation-"
  
  "To where?" Sauros demanded. "We don"t exactly have a second Roa in the Fittoa region. Even if we could evacuate, there is nowhere for the people to go. And how would we move them quickly?"
  
  "We could find somewhere. I could raise a city from the ground up inside a year, maybe two, if I worked on it to the exclusion of all else. I could build busses to move lots of people at a time, as fast as the bikes. Don"t tell me there"s nothing we can do," I countered.
  
  "It"s just not feasible," Phillip shook his head. "I"m sure you could do exactly as you say, but there"s more that goes into a city than laying down streets and throwing up buildings. Not everyone would agree to move, and even if we forced it there would still be the matter of abandoning Roa itself and leaving behind an empty city.
  
  "Not to mention the cost. Rudeus, we couldn"t ask you to just erect a city for free and Fittoa doesn"t have that sort of money to just throw around-nor would the kingdom bankroll it on a "maybe." Realistically, we don"t know if that spell or whatever it is will do as we fear or if it will go away on its own. That"s the argument they will make if we bring it up. As much as it worries us, we just have to keep an eye on it and hope that since it hasn"t done anything yet, it may just continue doing nothing."
  
  That"s... fucking stupid, I thought, resisting the urge to palm my face. But if the lord of Fittoa and the governor of Roa told me their hands were tied and all options had either been exhausted or weren"t practical, then there was little I could do.
  
  All I can do is keep an eye on it and try to get out of the way if it ever goes off. Well, that is, unless I can find a way to tap it... That"s a lot of mana. Maybe I could make something to drain it safely, without setting it off prematurely?
  
  Problem is, playing with unexploded ordnance tends to make it explode.
  
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  "Okay little guy-"
  
  An annoyed squeaking chirp assaulted my ears, coming from the summoned spirit of air perched atop my latest project. Well, not so much a new project as an offshoot of a current one, but I decided that since I could do it then it would be nice to go ahead and do so. The air spirit had taken the form of a translucent crystal butterfly, tinged faintly green glow as it radiated an invisible breeze. "Sorry, girl. And a pretty girl at that."
  
  The spirit chirped happily and I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. That was the problem with dealing with intermediate and above summons-being intelligent enough to carry out orders sometimes also meant some level of sapience. As in the case of the vain little wind spirit helping me out today.
  
  "Are you ready?" Another positive chirp and crystal legs wrapped around the glass sphere I"d crafted around a mana crystal. "Remember, high as you can, okay?"
  
  The critter chirped again before taking off, straight up. And up. And up, until it disappeared. I stopped tracking it and turned my attention to the piece of magical technology in my hands. It was kind of a phone. Sort of.
  
  Vaguely.
  
  I"d kept the basic slim, rectangular shape for ease of storage and holding it. It had a lot of the same functions as a phone. But over the course of months, I had gone above and beyond what even a smartphone could do in some ways, and in others was still lacking. It would be fair to call it its own thing now, which only really shared some similarity to a cell phone as I knew them. "Alright, sync up with the drone and display its feed, please."
  
  My phone chirped before an image lit the quartz screen-a view from the glass drone I"d made, looking down on Roa and Fittoa. "Projector mode." A hologram sprang to life above it, turning the image 3-D. Tapping the image of Roa, I instructed, "Begin photographing the city, then pan out from there and get the surrounding area as altitude increases, zooming in as needed. Highlight all roads between them. In the future, default to projection mode unless I specify otherwise, please."
  
  I had hit a wall in my project towards making a magical cell phone. Yes, I could make spells for light, sound, touch, and even transmit light and sound between them using summoning/sending spells. Physically constructing one and enchanting it the spells I did have was easy enough-just required a little quartz, a small magic crystal, and some metal for the edge (I was using brass at the moment). What I couldn"t figure out was how to get it to store data, let alone how to begin programming it if it couldn"t retain data. No data storage meant no OS, no apps, none of the fancy stuff that made a cell phone a pocket computer.
  
  Given enough time, I"m sure I would have figured it out eventually, but I wanted them up and running ASAP so I could send one out to Roxy.
  
  So, I cheated.
  
  Is it artificial intelligence when you summon a spirit of intelligence and convince her to live in your magi-tech device to play the part of its operating system? I mean, it was an extant intelligence created from magic and whatever else made spirits, so it wasn"t actually artificial... but on the other hand, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck then there"s little reason to believe it"s actually a goose disguised as a duck. (It"s a goose.)
  
  The little sprite hadn"t actually had a name when I"d called her up with a Saint-level summoning spell and the intent behind it to summon up something smart enough to help me and compliant enough to listen. Intent mattered when summoning thinking beings. I got a spirit of light who agreed to inhabit my phone and manage every device connected to it, including other phones. In return, I provided it mana, entertainment, and shelter. Two of those were self-explanatory-I had to power the phone with my own mana and she just sipped off the top from the mana crystal, while the phone itself provided shelter. As for entertainment, apparently being a spirit is pretty boring stuff unless they"re interacting with living beings.
  
  In other words, she was constantly spying on me. Not that I minded all that much. She didn"t really talk much, even though she could-mostly resorting to affirmative or negative chirps and the occasional sound to get my attention if she felt it was warranted. It was unobtrusive enough that I could almost forget she was there.
  
  I had been super creative in naming her Sprite and calling it a day (that"s sarcasm, I suck at naming things). Now, I had something in my phone that would follow instructions, retain data, use the enchanted spells within it, and which could make suggestions for new enchantments.
  
  Still not quite "pocket computer," but getting damn close.
  
  As a spirit of intelligence, Sprite"s memory was infallible. I had initially been skeptical, even a bit suspicious, but over the past month as nothing bad happened I had begun using the phone to digitize... spiritize? my information. Maps I"d had Phillip buy for me where I couldn"t get them myself from town were photographed and could be called up at any time, as were my research notes, designs, and blueprints. I was about to the point of going into the library and copying everything in there, too.
  
  Sprite loved every minute of it. New knowledge, to a spirit of information, was like manna from heaven. A steak for a starving man.
  
  Or maybe drugs for an addict.
  
  Either way, I had four phones up and working at the moment-enough to have one for myself, Roxy, Sylphie, and a spare. It wouldn"t take much effort to make more, but I didn"t want to burn through my collection of mana crystals. I was getting kind of low and they were expensive, even if I had "fuck you money" now.
  
  Eventually, the "drone" I"d sent up (little more than a magical camera carried by a spirit of wind) came back down and I collected it. I had plans for a more advanced drone later, something that would be closer to the ones I was familiar with from Earth, but this was good enough for now. I used it to get a lay of the land and had Sprite use the maps I"d stored to start labeling things, giving me the most accurate map possible. Using light spells, the camera had a ridiculous level of zoom and Sprite worked very fast. Pretty much everything she could see was photographed in minute detail-the kind of detail that would let one read microfiche clearly from orbit.
  
  "Okay, now, let"s see about sending one to Roxy."
  
  Back when I"d first started the warehouse project, I had created a set of boxes and sent them off to Sylphie and Roxie. Sylphie had gotten hers within the week, but so far, Roxy had yet to receive hers. At this point, I was testing it daily by summoning a letter from within it then sending it back. The letter came with a simple set of instructions-a single line, actually.
  
  Roxy, when you get this, write something on this letter and put it back in the box. -Rudy.
  
  Focusing on my mental image of the box, I summoned just its contents to my hand. Unfolding it, I grinned when I found a new line beneath my first.
  
  I have received the box, Rudeus. I"ve also taken some time to examine it. Is this a magical tool to allow one to send and receive mail? -Roxy.
  
  Summoning Roxy"s phone to hand, I sent it to the inside of the box. "Sprite, give me a visual from the phone I just sent."
  
  A hologram sprang up above my phone, showing black. "Okay, it"s late afternoon. She should be free, unless she"s doing something. Chirp over there for me, would you?"
  
  Sprite complied and I heard her chirping through the feed. When nothing happened, I sighed. "Okay, keep watch on it and if you hear or see something, let me know. You can shut down the display now."
  
  Since Roxy would have her phone today, tomorrow at the latest, I went ahead and sent Sylphie hers-direct to Sylphie, as opposed to her mail box, because at this time of day she should be practicing by herself. "View from Sylphie"s phone," I instructed, and a hologram filled the air over my phone, showing a surprised greenette looking at the piece of crystal and brass along with her surroundings-which was currently the view from our hilltop tree.
  
  "Rudy?" Sylphie wondered quietly.
  
  "Full A/V transmission. Put a hologram up on her side," I ordered.
  
  Sylphie dropped the phone. "Eek!"
  
  I laughed. "Hey, don"t drop it," I sent her a smile, and the girl lunged for the hologram.
  
  Her hands passed right through and Sylphie pouted. "It"s not real?"
  
  "It"s just an illusion. Well, hologram. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. But hey, we can talk like this now. Neat, huh?" Sylphie nodded so hard I worried she"d hurt herself as she picked up the phone and moved to sit down under the tree.
  
  "So, how does it work?" she asked, turning the phone over curiously in her hands.
  
  "Magic," I grinned, getting an eye roll in answer. "Short answer, I summoned a spirit and she"s controlling my phone and everything connected to it-which includes your phone and Roxy"s."
  
  Sylphie looked excited. "So I can talk to Roxy too?!"
  
  "Sure can. As soon as she finds it. It"s in her mail box now. I"ll tell her to call you later."
  
  "Mm!" Sylphie nodded happily. Studying the image, she asked, "Where are you?"
  
  I gestured towards the lab behind me. "Oh, this? It"s where I go to get away from Eris-I mean, work on projects."
  
  Sylphie"s eyes narrowed as she frowned. "You shouldn"t be mean, Rudy."
  
  "I"m not being mean-"
  
  "She"s not there to defend herself," Sylphie pointed out.
  
  I resisted the urge to sigh. "It was a joke. Mostly because yeah, it"s where I used to go to get some time to myself. She"s gotten a lot better now."
  
  Maybe I did too good a job of teaching her to stand up for herself? I wondered, before dismissing the idea. As she was before, I was afraid someone could have just come along and forced her into pretty much anything and she wouldn"t have protested.
  
  Sylphie didn"t look particularly appeased, but she allowed it to drop. "What"s that in the corner?"
  
  Turning to look, I spotted the triangular form of the delta wing I"d made for the ultralight bike modification. I had since removed the fan and was working on a purely spell-driven engine-essentially a tube that was wider on one end and would act as a forced air engine. "That is a wing, for flying."
  
  I went on to explain how it worked and what I was doing with it, before Sylphie moved on to the next curiosity that caught her interest-a scale model of a drone that I"d been working on. And so on, and so forth.
  
  Finally, once her curiosity was satisfied, I asked, "How have things been with my family?"
  
  Sylphie hummed quietly. "Your sisters are doing well. Aisha is doing very well in her studies and loves magic. Norn," she hesitated, "not so much? It"s not that she doesn"t like magic, or she prefers the sword or anything. She"s just... not as quick to learn as her sister. She"s interested, she just takes longer and seems to struggle more than her sister."
  
  "That"s normal for some people. Some grow out of it, some don"t. Just be patient with her."
  
  "I am," Sylphie agreed. "As for everyone else, well, Lilia is fine. I think she misses you. But you know it"s hard to tell with her. She keeps everything to herself."
  
  I nodded. "Yeah, she really does."
  
  "Your mom has been spending a lot of time with mine, playing with the baby."
  
  "Did they finally name her?" Apparently, most people tended to wait a few months to a year before naming a new child, especially if they didn"t have access to a healer. Infant mortality was pretty high here, so I wasn"t surprised. Even with Zenith and Sylphie on tap, Sylphie"s parents had decided to wait a bit before naming the little blonde bundle of... screaming and mess-making joy.
  
  Smiling, the limette said, "Elin."
  
  "Cute."
  
  "She really is!" Well, at least she was enthusiastic.
  
  The smile slipped from her face as Sylphie said, "But Zenith hasn"t had much time to come visit lately. She, your father, my father, and every watchman in the village has been called up to put down monsters in the forest. Apparently, something is setting them off or drawing more in and there are a lot more than usual. We"ve had some attacks on the outlying farms and some people have lost some livestock to them. Uncle lost a couple of sheep, the next farm over lost a cow, and the one next to that lost a horse."
  
  "Really?" I asked, frowning as I considered what she"d told me. "And they haven"t asked you for help?"
  
  "I offered, but everyone says it"s no place for a child. I heard them saying they might have to put in a request with the Adventurers" Guild if it gets much worse."
  
  "Huh. I see," I murmured. On the one hand, I don"t owe a bunch of people who turned their backs on me anything. On the other hand... This problem directly affects Sylphie, Zenith, my sisters, Lilia, Uncle, and the few decent folk in the village.
  
  After a moment, I came to a decision. "I"ll talk to Sauros and ask if he can do something."
  
  "Should I let anyone know...?"
  
  "No," I shook my head. "Don"t want them figuring out we have a means of communicating. Sprite, the spirit running the phone"s functions, won"t respond to anyone but you or someone you or I explicitly tell her to, so there"s no real risk of someone stealing it and figuring out what it is that way but that doesn"t mean someone couldn"t take it away from you."
  
  The girl smiled mischievously, her ears wagging slightly as she did. "I could just summon it back."
  
  Her grin was infectious and I felt myself smiling in return. "You could. It seems I"ve corrupted you."
  
  "Oh no. Whatever shall I do? I"ll never be able to marry now," Sylphie laughed.
  
  We talked a bit longer before she had to head off to teach Norn and Aisha, but not before promising to call when she could. Once she was off the phone, I slipped mine into my pocket and made my way out of the lab to get cleaned up for dinner. I ate with the family for a change, speaking with Phillip about where I stood on certain projects he was interested in using to turn a profit along with the status of Eris" education (much better than it had been), and in turn getting updates on how much we had made off our ventures so far (a lot).
  
  I broached the topic of the monster incursion in Buena Village to Sauros, but the old man shook his head. "Let your father deal with it. That"s what I pay him for. If he needs help, he"ll put in a request with the Guild."
  
  Seeing as that wasn"t going anywhere, I gave up on that line of dealing with the problem. Instead I said goodnight and left the dining room. Making my way to Ghislaine"s room, I knocked and waited. "Come in."
  
  I opened the door and slipped inside to find Ghislaine reclining on her bed. Her pants, coat, and sword were on the floor, leaving her in just a black set of thong panties and the floss and eye patches she called a top. One hand rested on her inner thigh while the other held a bottle of alcohol of some sort. "Rudeus. Did you need something?"
  
  "Ah, yeah. Did I come at a bad time?"
  
  The big cat woman shook her head. "It"s fine. What did you need?"
  
  Leaning against the wall beside her door, I crossed my arms over my chest as I thought about how to word what I wanted to ask. "Suppose a village has a monster problem and they send in a request to the Adventurers" Guild. About what level would you need to be to take such a quest?"
  
  Humming quietly, the woman considered me for a moment before she answered. "Depends on the monsters and the area. Somewhere like Buena Village? It"d probably be a C-ranked mission, maybe B. Meaning a C-rank adventurer could take the job."
  
  "How long do you think it would take three people to get to C-rank, if they had the benefit of a motorcycle?"
  
  Ghislaine shrugged. "That would depend on the available jobs and how quickly you could finish them. Most F- and E-rank jobs are within whatever city or town you"re operating in. Did you have something in mind?"
  
  "I spoke with Sylphie today. Apparently, there"s some kind of surge in monsters coming out of the forest. No one"s sure why. They"ve attacked a few of the outlying farms. Paul has it handled for now, but they"re already talking about getting Guild help."
  
  "Mm. I see." The big woman sipped at her bottle as she thought it over. Finally, she made a suggestion. "If you wanted to switch to more practical lessons for Eris, I wouldn"t be opposed. We could treat it like the field exercises we"ve been doing. Go out, get you two registered as adventurers, do a few missions. But I don"t know that you"d be in time to do anything to help your village. Don"t think you should, either. Not like that, anyway. You already talk to the old man?"
  
  I nodded. "Sauros told me to let Paul deal with it. Thing is, I know the stubborn idiot and he"s not going to ask for help until after he"s already beaten, not before."
  
  "Sounds about right," Ghislaine confirmed. "Don"t think you should try to go behind the old man"s back."
  
  "So how am I supposed to get this done if the guy ostensibly in charge of the village isn"t requesting aid?"
  
  "You don"t. It"s not your problem." I opened my mouth and she held up a hand. "You have to learn when to let things go. Even if you can do something doesn"t mean you should, Rudeus. You could cause more problems by sticking your nose in."
  
  Reaching up, I pinched the bridge of my nose as I bit back a sigh. "Right. Okay. Thanks, Ghislaine."
  
  I left and made my way up to my room for some light reading and fine mana control exercises. It grated, especially because I knew she was right, but I supposed I would have to let it go for now. I knew I had a very "see problem, fix problem" mentality sometimes, but in this case, it wasn"t Sylphie"s place to ask for help and wasn"t my place to fix it.
  
  If I was being honest with myself, it was likely leftover frustration at being unable to do anything about the ominous mana sphere hovering above Roa. I"d taken some time recently to test it, carefully. As reported, the thing ate any mana used on it, to no visible effect aside from growing just that much stronger, according to Ghislaine"s eye. Physical objects just passed straight through it with no effect, either on the object used or the sphere.
  
  I had even tried to set up a sort of backwards charging enchantment on a cage that would drain mana off of whatever was placed inside it and feed the mana to a mana crystal. That worked, since it could drain the mana the thing was passively radiating just by existing, but eventually the mana crystal got full with no significant change. Enchanting a constantly cast telekinesis effect to keep the cage in place and a few others to waste mana, I"d managed to strike a balance of constantly absorbing and burning off about five percent of the sphere"s total passive output.
  
  That worked for about an hour, before the whole thing suddenly collapsed and fell out of the sky. I"d checked my enchantments and everything was fine, but when I tried to set it back up, I found that it could no longer absorb mana from the damn thing and I had no idea why.
  
  So yeah, maybe I was looking at the Buena Village thing as something to take my mind off the potential rain of pink elephants-or fire, flood, locusts, plague, or who even fucking knew at this point. The number of potential effects was ridiculous even if I kept them out of the realm of the absurd.
  
  What about using it as an excuse to take Eris out on a "live fire" training exercise? Shaking my head, I forced myself to drop it and focus on my book.
  
  Shortly after I had settled in to read, my phone chirped. "Sprite?" I asked, using telekinesis to pick up the phone from where it sat on my writing desk and bring it over. The holographic projection spit out a black image, but I could hear footsteps in the background. Sprite chirped from the other side and the footsteps stopped, before quickly drawing closer. Light came to the hologram along with a familiar face as the top of the box opened. Roxy looked down at the phone in confusion.
  
  "What in the world did you send me, Rudeus?"
  
  "Full hologram transmission, Sprite."
  
  A moment later, Roxy"s eyes went wide. "Rudy?!"
  
  "Hey there, beautiful," I sent her a grin.
  
  Roxy sighed, closing her eyes as a quiet laugh left her lips. She picked up the phone and hurried across her room, before dropping onto her bed. "Of course. I am going to guess, based on the descriptions you gave me while we were together, that this is a "cell phone?""
  
  "Ooh, good work on the English. You"re right," I agreed with a nod. "Or close enough, anyway. But yeah, now we can talk and don"t need to wait months for letters to arrive, or send multiple copies. You just have to remember to charge the mana crystal when it gets low. Sprite will let you know when it"s time. Just make sure to keep it on you at all times. Don"t want someone getting ahold of it that shouldn"t, even if she won"t respond to anyone else. Sure, one of us could just summon it back, but I"d rather not have to."
  ""Sprite?"" Roxy asked. The phone she held chirped twice and she nearly dropped it. "Is that a spirit?"
  
  "Got it in one. Sooo..." I drew out the word and grinned. "How"d you like my books? Done anything interesting with them?"
  
  The bluenette smiled. "Perhaps."
  
  I sent her an amused look. "So, you"re keeping it a secret?" Roxy nodded once. "Fine, fine. Surprise me later. Now, how have you been?"
  
  And so, I spent the night catching up with my former master/future wife. Unfortunately, there was no kinky video sex. I suggested it, but Roxy didn"t feel secure doing it. Apparently, the however manyth prince Flatulence (that was his name, right? I"d have to go back over her letter and check it) was still persisting in his attempts at seducing her, even after she had declared herself betrothed and set his head on fire.
  
  Serious fire, not comedy fire. He was persistent, I"ll give him that much.
  
  Oh well, that was fine. Even just being able to hear her voice again was a treat.
  
  Eris practically vibrated in place as we waited. Ghislaine leaned against the wall, her visible eye closed as she waited. I"ll give them this, for all the talk I"d heard about the Adventurers" Guild being a rowdy bunch, Roa"s branch ran a tight ship and kept their guild offices separate from the general gathering area for adventurers.
  
  "Okay, I"m ready for you now. Just come up and press your finger on the plate here," the busty guild worker instructed.
  
  Eris ran over and slammed her hand down so hard she nearly sent the device off the counter. I approached at a much more sedate pace, letting the redhead enjoy her moment. At my side, Sylphie quietly laughed at the other girl"s antics.
  
  You"re probably wondering how that worked, exactly-what with Sylphie"s father not wanting her to have anything to do with me.
  
  The simple answer was that Sylphie stopped playing nice.
  
  It was a bit more complicated than that, of course.
  
  I had introduced Eris and Sylphie over the phone and after a bit of initial awkwardness, they hit it off. Sylphie asked if I could give Eris her own phone so they could talk without needing to borrow mine, so I had given Eris the spare. Then, because it made sense for her to have one if Eris had one, I"d made a new one for Ghislaine. Followed by one for the house, since it would be better if we could communicate if there was some problem. I finally made another spare that I was holding on to in case one broke, but I was almost out of magic stones so I"d had to put in an order for more.
  
  Things had sort of spiraled from there.
  
  Sylphie liked Eris" bike, so I made her an identical one, in a shade of green to match her hair. That was my first attempt at making one with the new titanium-aluminum alloy and so far, nothing had gone wrong with it, so I had upgraded the rest of the bikes the same way.
  
  A motorcycle wasn"t exactly something she could hide effectively, so of course, Laws found out. He was not pleased. At all.
  
  Sylphie had filled me in on what happened.
  
  Sylphie was... not a happy girl.
  
  "Has the rebellious teenager phase come early?" her mother wondered as she and her father exchanged glares over the table.
  
  Well, Sylphie glared. Her father looked tired, and like he would rather be doing anything but having this conversation. "No."
  
  It was a sign of just how angry and frustrated she was that she was actually willing to stand her ground against her father, and so firmly that she didn"t call him "sir" or address him as "father." "Sylphiette, give me the journal and whatever that magical tool is. It looks like some kind of magical vehicle, and if you think you"re using it to go visit Rudeus, you"re mistaken. I"m not going to ask again."
  
  "My answer isn"t going to change," she denied him again.
  
  "I know you"re using the journal to communicate with Rudeus somehow. I"ve seen what"s in it. I don"t know what it says and that worries me." Sighing, he gestured helplessly at her. "Luffy, this isn"t like you."
  
  Crossing her arms over her chest, Sylphie asked, "Why does it worry you? What has Rudy done to lose your trust, father?"
  
  Her mother sent her father an annoyed look. "Yes, dear. What has Rudy done?"
  
  "Nothing in particular," Laws admitted, shooting a sidelong glare at his wife that silently screamed, "you should be taking my side on this!" "I just don"t want to see anything bad happen to you."
  
  "And what has Rudy done, to make you believe that something bad will happen?"
  
  Once upon a time, she wouldn"t dare talk to her father like this. A few years ago, she would have been a nervous, stuttering wreck if she even thought about it. It was thanks to Rudeus that she could actually hold an argument.
  
  She didn"t truly understand why he occasionally did it at the time, back when she was still learning under him-even when he explained that it was to prepare her for dealing with "people like him" in the future. Why he sometimes asked her questions, then made her defend her position, sometimes coming after her with reason and seemingly logical counter arguments-other times coming at her with nonsensical arguments, words that played on her emotions in one way or another, even insults, cruel words, and sometimes raising his voice (though after those instances, he always hugged her and apologized, told her she did well, and explained where she went wrong if he thought she had).
  
  Now she understood.
  
  He hadn"t been teaching her to stand up to "someone like him," Rudy had been teaching her to stand up to himself-and in so doing, teaching her how to stand up to anyone else as well.
  
  Lately, she had pieced together that for some reason, their fathers really didn"t want her speaking to her friend. She had suspected that was the case when he was forced to leave for Roa. He had never said it outright later on, when he had taught her how to summon their journal, but the more time she spent around Rudeus" family, the more her eyes were opened to the truth. Eventually, Lilia had confirmed it when Sylphie asked-that Paul had lost faith in his own son. The maid laid out the entire situation and let Sylphie draw her own conclusions as to why that was.
  
  Sylphie may have been a little more vindictive in her spars with Rudy"s father after that.
  
  Then, one day while she was out practicing her magic under their tree, a flash of light had announced the arrival of a slab of what looked like glass and brass, but was clearly a magical tool given the magic stone in it. An image of Rudy"s face and the inside of what looked like some sort of office had filled the air over the tool and she had dropped it.
  
  Rudy explained what the "phone" was and how to use it to speak with himself or Roxy. After a nice call with Rudy, Roxy had called her the next day and she got to catch up with their former master. That was when she broached the topic of the things going on in the village. The rumors. Their fathers. Rudy"s being sent away. What Lilia had told her.
  
  Roxy had taken it all in, thought it over, and explained it as best as she could with what little information she had. Needless to say, Sylphie had not been pleased.
  
  At some point in the past few days, her father had apparently searched her room and found the magical phone and the journal. Not knowing what they were (one because it wouldn"t respond to anyone but her, the other because it was entirely in English), but suspecting who they were from, he had left them alone. And now, after apparently finding her motorcycle and speaking with Rudy"s father again, he had come to demand she hand them all over.
  
  She was hurt that he had violated her privacy and searched her things, out of fear that she had been in contact with Rudy through some unknown means. She was more upset that her father didn"t trust Rudy, after all he had done for her, for their family, and for their village. It was so frustrating to hear the villagers talking bad about the boy that had done so much for them and being expected to just... let it go. To not "rock the boat," as her father put it. She was getting sick and tired of it and it had all come to a head, finally.
  
  So, just as Rudy had taught her, she confronted the problem head on-calmly, rationally, forcing the other party to justify their argument with reason instead of feelings. And her father clearly couldn"t.
  
  Which was why they found themselves at an impasse.
  
  Her father wanted something that belonged to her and she refused to comply without just cause, which he couldn"t provide. She didn"t think her father would try to force her to obey, but if he did... Sylphiette was a Saint-level mage of water, wind, and earth, and she had trained with Rudy to cast silently and almost instantly. She had also been training with Paul and getting pointers from Rudy via the journal, and later the phone, so she knew how to use her Touki and was at least Intermediate-rank in Sword and Water God styles.
  
  Her father knew that any physical confrontation would end in her favor.
  
  "Listen, Luffy. I"m your father, you just have to trust that I know what"s best for you."
  
  "I don"t because you can"t tell me why it"s better." Something Rudy had said to her came to mind. "If you can"t defend your position, you know it"s not worth defending."
  
  Finally seeming to have had enough, her father stood and pointed towards the far end of their home. "Go to your room. I"m taking your books and you"re not getting them back-"
  
  Sylphie focused on the mental image of her books and Summoned them to her. Her father blinked. Sylphie focused again and Sent them to the tree, with her journal, phone, and the bike.
  
  "Where did you put them?" came the demand.
  
  Standing up from the table, Sylphie shook her head and made her way to her room, before closing her door and laying down on her bed. Magic really made any threat her father had to give... meaningless. Just as it had the threats from her former bullies. Rudy hadn"t just given her some toy, or even a means to defend herself from the people trying to hurt her, he had given her freedom. She was coming to realize just what that meant-freedom to walk about the village without being bullied by the other kids, freedom to live her life in peace, the freedom to choose who she wanted to spend her time with, or how she wanted to live her life...
  
  "You see what I mean?" her father grumbled from the kitchen, causing her ear to twitch in that direction. "This is his doing! She was never like this before-"
  
  "You mean "before," when she was being bullied for her hair?"
  
  "Nn," her father sounded frustrated. "That"s not- I didn"t mean it like that! Paul was right, he"s gotten into her head."
  
  Her mother sighed. "I think you"re forgetting something, dear." Her father made a questioning noise and she continued, "Weren"t you just as stubborn and rebellious, at her age? If not more so?"
  
  "This is different. I was at least thinking for myself, not just going along with what someone else wanted."
  
  "What if it"s what she wants?"
  
  "She"s too young to decide for herself. Until she turns fifteen, as long as she"s living under my roof, she"ll do as she"s told."
  
  Her mother sighed. "The more you try to put your foot down, the more she"s going to rebel. And now, she has a way of leaving the village quickly. I"ve seen her on that thing. No horse could ever keep up. If she decided to leave, we could never catch her-and we certainly couldn"t stop her."
  
  "That"s my point! It"s why we need to take them away, before she does something stupid."
  
  "Laws, husband. Sit down for a moment." Sylphie heard one of the chairs at the table scratch across the floor as her father put his weight in it. "Listen to me. Our daughter is a mage-a Saint-level mage, at that. If she wanted, she could leave tomorrow and make her way wherever she went. She could take after their master or Rudy himself and become a teacher. She already does work around the village, so becoming an itinerant mage isn"t out of the question, especially with the "bike" Rudy sent her. Or an adventurer. Or a bodyguard to some noble. Any of those things would pay handsomely.
  
  "You saw the way she and Rudy "played" with magic. You"ve seen her training with Paul. If someone caused her trouble, I don"t doubt that she"d be able to defend herself. The only thing stopping her from leaving and doing just that is her love for us and Rudy"s family. She doesn"t need us, in the way a normal child does any more because she"s been taught everything she needs to provide for herself. If you keep pushing, you"re going to push her away. She"ll leave and there"ll be nothing we can do about it. So please, I"m begging you, leave it alone Laws."
  
  "Should have just burned those damn books. Poisoned chalice."
  
  Sylphie"s eyes narrowed in anger at the threat to the precious, priceless gift Rudy had given her. She hadn"t realized how valuable they were at first, until she fully understood English. Then she realized that math and science were really just another extension of magic. Or perhaps it was the other way around.
  
  She had already begun experimenting with things in the "biology" section in an attempt to improve her healing spells, using crickets, ants, field mice, and rabbits, and what she had seen so far was amazing. She knew now how Rudy could come up with things like a spell to fly-but even with another lifetime worth of knowledge, the things he took for granted as simple "common knowledge" where he came from amazed her. It was a magic all to itself, really.
  
  Then she had spoken to Roxy and truly understood just how much they were worth, and how dangerous they could be in the wrong hands.
  
  And that phrase, she had heard it before, but still didn"t understand why Rudy"s gift to her would be a "poisoned chalice." I should ask him. No, he gave Roxy books as well. I"ll ask her.
  
  "It"s not an engagement present, dear. You know the boy has his eye set on Ms. Roxy. Rudy isn"t trying to buy our daughter."
  
  Oh. Oh! That made so much more sense. And in light of that, almost everything else made sense now.
  
  Rudy had pursued Roxy and pretty much the entire village knew about it by now.
  
  After Roxy left, Rudy spent a lot of time teaching her.
  
  Rudy gave herself and Roxy books, because he wanted to.
  
  Her father thought the books were an engagement present from Rudy to her... when he was already pursuing Roxy. She didn"t see why that was a bad thing, but apparently he felt it was, and it had something to do with Rudy"s father and the fact that Rudy now had two little sisters-one by his mother, the other by Lilia, his father"s second wife.
  
  Rudy"s father is with Ms. Zenith and Ms. Lilia, and they aren"t the only people in the village where it"s one husband and two wives. Roxy and I agreed that Rudy had to be fair with the two of us. I don"t see why father would be worried about Rudy doing something bad.
  
  It really just seemed like her father and Rudy"s were being stupid and unfair.
  
  I"m tired of it, she finally decided.
  
  Opening her closet, she took out the leather bag Rudy had sent her some time ago, using the journal to explain that it was "in case of emergencies." Folding her clothes neatly, she slipped several changes inside. Going around her room, she gathered up everything she wanted to take. Prying off a loose floor board, she took out the box of silver she had been saving and emptied it into one of the pockets on the bag.
  
  The figurines of herself, a brown bird with a white head and a golden beak landing on a branch, and some kind of black and white spotted dog she didn"t recognize (but Rudy called a beagle named Snoopy) all went in the bag. Her wand was already safely in her pocket, as it always was. The books and phone, she summoned back to her and stuffed them in their proper places as well-books in the backpack, phone in her pocket. The magical mail box she left, so she could send letters to her family.
  
  That was when she realized that, aside from a few odds and ends, she didn"t really have much in the way of mementos. Any toy she got before had inevitably been stolen or destroyed if she took it out of the house, before Rudy came along. She had told her parents what happened to them, but they didn"t really have the money to replace them. Everything she had that wasn"t clothes had been given to her by Rudy.
  
  Shouldering the pack, she adjusted the straps until they were comfortable before leaving her room. She had to pass through the kitchen on the way out, but that was fine. She intended to tell her parents where she was going anyway. Her mother and father stopped arguing as they saw her.
  
  "I thought I told you-" her father began, only for her mother to smack his arm and shut him up, her eyes fixed on the backpack.
  
  "Sylphie, dear, where are you going with that?"
  
  Sylphie sent her father a warning look before answering her mother. "I"m going to go get a job in the city. If I"m not living under your roof, I can spend time with my friends and talk to who I like."
  
  Laws actually winced at that. "You heard that? I"m sorry, Luffy. I didn"t mean it like that."
  
  ""We often say the things in anger that we wish we could say but can"t." Just because you were angry doesn"t mean it"s not how you feel," Sylphie countered.
  
  "And my ears aren"t decorative, father." She wagged them for emphasis. "That"s not the only thing I"ve heard. You, Rudy"s father, and most of the village-you"re all being dumb. Rudy never did anything to me or taught me anything strange. He wasn"t trying to turn me into some doll or toy, either."
  
  "You"re just a child, you couldn"t possibly understand-"
  
  "No!" Sylphie cut him off, a gust of wind bursting off of her for emphasis. In the back room where she had been put down to sleep for the night, Elin woke and started crying. "I"m not going to stand for you or anyone else badmouthing the boy I like any more! Especially when he"s not here to defend himself. Now, I"m leaving."
  
  Sylphie"s mother stood and hurried around the table, before wrapping her arms around her in a hug. "Will you be back?"
  
  Sylphie nodded. "On the weekends, to check on Norn and Aisha. I"ll come visit."
  
  Her mother took a deep breath, squeezing her harder for a moment, before letting go. "I know your father"s being stupid," she turned a glare on Laws, "but we both love you. Just... be careful, okay?"
  
  "I will," the limette agreed quietly.
  
  She left without saying goodbye to her father, who had turned and stormed off towards Elin"s room. Summoning the bike to herself, she slid on and started to leave, before a thought occurred. Remembering that she was leaving something behind after all, she focused on what she wanted and summoned it to her. The sword that appeared in her hands was heavy, but she had been training to use it for a while now. Strapping it on, she let it hang just under the backpack, the handle sticking out to the right so she could grab it easily.
  
  That done, she hit the switches to turn the bike and its lights on (both the headlight and the eerie green glow that came from inside the bike), then left the village. The little needle in the dimly lighted circle mounted between the handle bars pointed to 45 when she got up to what she felt was probably the fastest safe speed she could make in the dark, even on the nice, smooth road to Roa. Wind whipped her hair around, but a set of riding goggles kept both wind and hair out of her eyes. It was cool on her skin, but a bit of magic changed that, making it feel like she was driving through a stream of pleasantly warm air.
  
  As she rode, she wondered what to do from here. She hadn"t exactly left with a plan beyond getting out, after all. I can"t impose on Eris" family. I"ll stop by to let them know I"ve left home, then go get a room at an inn. I have a good bit of silver, so I should be okay for a while. Then, I need to see about work. Perhaps I could become an adventurer?
  
  Some time later, she found herself pulling up to the gates of Roa. They were firmly closed, but one of the guards on the other side called out to her when he spotted it. "Oy! You with the governor"s lot?"
  
  She knew that Eris" father was the governor of Roa, and technically she was "with" them in the sense that Rudy and Eris were her friends, so she hesitantly answered, "Yes?"
  
  "Thought so," the man nodded, before opening the gate. "They"re the only ones going around on those contraptions. You"re free to go on up to the manor. Just do us a favor and go slow through town. Ms. Eris gives people a fright when she won"t slow down."
  
  "Of course!" Sylphie agreed easily, a smile on her face as she rolled through the gate. Once she was through, she pulled her phone out of her pocket, holding it left handed so she could operate the throttle in her right. "Ms. Sprite?"
  
  "Just Sprite," a voice answered quietly from the phone, light and young-sounding.
  
  Sylphie nodded. "Sprite, could you show me how to get to where Rudy is?"
  
  A hologram of an arrow popped up above the phone, pointing down the street. She followed it, taking the occasional turn as directed the further into the city she got, before she found herself slowing to a stop in front of a gate. Beyond the gate lie a castle-that was the only way to put it. A man on duty there looked out between the bars and eyed her and the glowing bike. "That"s one of Rudeus" bikes, but who are you miss?"
  
  "Sylphiette. I"m-"
  
  He opened the gate and waved her in. At her confused look, he grinned. "We"ve got standing orders from the young master to keep an eye out for you and let you in if you ever showed up at our gate. Go on up to the house and they"ll show you inside. You can park that thing out front and we"ll get it moved into the shed with the others."
  
  "Thank you, sir," she beamed a smile at him, before riding slowly up the path to the front of the house. There, Sylphie found a pair of beast-kin maids waiting for her.
  
  "I"ll take that, miss," a rabbit-folk woman offered, approaching the bike. Sylphie nodded, pocketing her key as she handed the bike over to the maid, who began rolling it away.
  
  The second maid gestured towards the house. "Follow me, please. I"ll take you to see the young master."
  
  "Rudy?" she asked, and the maid shook her head.
  
  "Master Phillip. But don"t worry, I"ll summon Rudeus too."
  
  Sylphie said her thanks and followed along, looking around at all the fancy decorations. The smooth, warm wooden walls. The stone floor, polished to a shine. The paintings that probably cost a fortune. It was nice, but she didn"t think she could live somewhere like this. It was just... too much.
  
  She looked up as she was led into an office, where she found a brown haired man sitting at a desk, tapping away at a mechanical contraption that had to be Rudy"s handiwork. The maid disappeared, leaving her alone. The man tapped a few more times before the thing dinged and part of it slid to the side, before he began pulling out a sheet of paper. Looking up as he set it aside, the man smiled. Something about it, about the way the man looked at her, set her slightly on edge. "So, you"re the Sylphiette I"ve heard so much about. First from Paul, then from Rudy. It"s nice to finally meet you. Please, sit."
  
  Taking the offered chair, Sylphie waited patiently. "I am Phillip Boreas Greyrat, the governor of Roa and Rudy"s employer. Also, your sponsor to get into Ranoa College of Magic, per the deal made with Paul and Rudy to teach my daughter. If you don"t mind, I"d like to ask a few questions."
  
  "I don"t mind, sir," Sylphie shook her head.
  
  Phillip smiled, and this time it was at least a nicer smile. "Firstly, just so I know what I"m dealing with, can you cast like Rudeus?" By way of answer, Sylphie held out a hand and conjured up a Water Ball, before letting it disperse into vapor. "Excellent. And what rank would you say you are?"
  
  "Rudy said Saint-level. I"m better with water, wind, and earth, while fire lags behind a level. But I"ve grown since then and I think I may be able to cast those three at King-level. Healing is what I"m best with, but I don"t have any spells other than the Elementary and Intermediate ones. I think I have two or three spells of King-level worth of mana capacity, maybe a little more."
  
  Phillip raised an eyebrow. "And lightning?"
  
  Sylphie frowned. She knew Rudy had told her to keep that one to herself, but if he already knew, then there was no point hiding it. "The same as everything but fire."
  
  "I see," the man murmured, clasping his hands in front of him and resting his chin on them. "You"re here awfully late. May I ask what for?"
  
  Biting her bottom lip, Sylphie hesitantly answered, "I decided to leave home and find a job in Roa."
  
  Nodding, the man asked, "What sort of skills do you have?"
  
  Sylphie considered the question and frowned as she came up short for a moment. "Magic. Rudy"s father said I was around Intermediate-level in Water and Sword God schools. I"m literate and educated in mathematics and other subjects. I"ve been teaching Rudy"s younger sisters as well, so I would say that I have experience teaching."
  
  "Not bad. Not bad at all." Picking up the brass thing he had been using, he held it out above the floor to the side of the desk and dropped it. With a crunch and a ping of metal on stone that made Sylphie wince, it hit the floor and broke into several pieces. "Fix this."
  
  At her confused look, Phillip elaborated. "Rudeus demonstrated his competence as a mage by fighting my daughter and later, putting on a demonstration of King-level magic that, according to Ghislaine"s report, drew the attention of Perugius himself. Consider it a test of your ability."
  
  Nodding, Sylphie stood and picked up the broken device. A bit of wind magic drew the scattered pieces to her and she sat it all down on top of the desk. Focusing on earth magic, she reached into it to see how it worked. It was broken, obviously, but a few of the internal pieces were still intact. There are letters written backwards on little parts inside that, when you push one of these levers on the front with the matching lever, push it against the paper. So, I"ll start by straightening everything out and removing the dents...
  
  She worked silently, straightening out dents, dings, and bends. Where pieces had sheered off, she fused them back together. Parts that wouldn"t move, she adjusted until they actioned correctly. Finally, she handed the whole thing to Phillip and the man slotted in a new piece of paper. Then, he began tapping away at it. Within a few moments, he finished and pulled the paper out. Drawing two lines on it with a pen, obviously made by Rudy, he signed one and turned the paper around. "You"re hired. Sign here."
  
  "Wha-?" Sylphie asked, picking up the paper and reading it over. The gist of it was that room and board would be provided at the mansion. Her duties were to go around and inspect the equipment Rudeus had made and Phillip had installed in various facilities and repair anything that had broken or perform "preventative maintenance" to make sure they didn"t break. The pay was listed in gold, not silver. "This, isn"t this too much?"
  
  "I"ve had another mage I trust look at it before, but he can"t make heads or tails of half the stuff Rudy makes and the half he can, he can"t figure out how to fix with magic. The boy says it"s supposed to be repairable completely without magic, but honestly I"d rather just have a mage of his caliber look over them once in a while and keep them from breaking in the first place. Rudy"s inventions have made us a lot of money and will continue to do so for many years. I"m sure we"ll be able to train up people capable of fixing them without magic eventually, but in the meantime there is no such person and Rudeus is stretching himself thin enough between teaching my daughter, his lessons with Ghislaine, and his various "projects." Asking him to go back and fix something would only slow down his development of whatever new thing he makes next."
  
  "I see." Considering the paper, she asked, "Is there any set schedule...?"
  
  "No, no," Phillip shook his head. "You"ll be expected to go around once every fortnight and inspect everything, but when you do that and how you divide the inspections up is entirely up to you. You could do it all in one day, or spread it out over the course of a few hours a day every week. If something breaks, you would be expected to repair it within a reasonable timeframe, but I"m going to be pretty lenient on that considering that the normal idea of "reasonable" for getting a blacksmith to fix something is measured in weeks or months. Otherwise, your time is your own to do with as you see fit. The figure listed is a retainer fee-money I"m paying you to keep you on hand and available. I"ll pay more on a per-repair basis."
  
  That sounds beyond fair, Sylphie admitted to herself. Taking up the pen, she signed her name below Phillip"s and passed the pen and contract back.
  
  Phillip held out a hand and Sylphie hesitantly took it. "Welcome aboard," the man grinned. "Now, why don"t you-"
  
  The door opened and Rudy stepped in, looking around in confusion. "Sylphie? What are you doing here?" His eyes trailed over her form and he asked, "Is that my sword?"
  
  "Mhmm. And I got a job!" she beamed.
  
  Rudy"s green eyes cut over to Phillip-a warning look in them. Phillip held up both hands. "Nothing horrible, I promise. I"m going to have her do some repairs and maintenance on the cannery and printing press."
  
  Rudy sighed. "You could have come to me for that. I told you, the parts are all user serviceable-"
  
  Phillip chuckled. "Not everyone understands it like you do, Rudeus. It"s going to take time to get to the point where we can train up a few people who do. Sylphiette here can fix a broken typewriter without ever having seen one before and in less than an hour. It"d be a shame to let those skills go to waste."
  
  Looking between Sylphie and Phillip, Rudy asked, "Is that what you want?"
  
  "Mm! It"s better than I was expecting when I left home."
  
  The boy frowned. "Yeah, you"re going to have to tell me about that later. But fine, I won"t stop you from making money. Where will you be staying?"
  
  "I believe we have an open room in the same wing as yourself and Eris," Phillip suggested.
  
  Rudy sent the man a flat look. "What are you playing at?"
  
  The older man smiled. "Keeping the mage who makes us so much money happy. I don"t think you realize just what you"ve done for us, Rudeus. As it stands, Roa is set to surpass Ars in terms of its economy within a few years. The only way things could be better is if we had a way of moving goods faster and further, to a wider audience."
  
  "Could just make a train," the boy muttered, getting that distracted look Sylphie recognized any time he started working on something new.
  
  Frowning, she asked, "Rudy, when was the last time you went out and did something just for fun?"
  
  "Huh?" the boy blinked, fixing her with a confused look. "Last weekend? Eris, Ghislaine, and I went out camping-"
  
  "Was it part of a training exercise?"
  
  Rudy looked more confused. "Well, yeah. We"re teaching Eris woodcraft."
  
  Sylphie sighed. Sending Phillip a smile, she took Rudy by the hand and dragged him from the room. "Why don"t you show me where I"ll be sleeping? Then we can talk about going out and doing something fun this weekend!"
  
  Eris quickly discovered Sylphie"s presence and, after including Ghislaine in the discussion (because the big woman would be coming regardless), it was decided that we would go out and register as adventurers and have ourselves an adventure. That was how we found ourselves in Roa"s Guild the following weekend.
  
  Taking her card, Eris held it up triumphantly before pulling me into a hug and planting a kiss on my cheek. Then, she spun out of the Guild on cloud nine, Ghislaine hot on her heels. I shook my head, but a moment later a second pair of lips pressed against the other cheek. Turning a confused look on Sylphie, I asked, "What was that for?"
  
  "So we"re even," she smiled, stepping up and putting her finger on the device and stating her name. She accepted the card it printed and placed it in her pocket.
  
  Then, it was my turn. "Rudeus Greyrat," I said, and a moment later what looked like a magical laser printer spit out my own card. Reading it over, I found the information was correct and pocketed it.
  
  "Would you like to register a party now?" the clerk asked, and I shook my head. "We can just do missions as a group without being a party, right?"
  
  "Technically, yes. If you work as a group the credit, reward, and rank up will be distributed evenly."
  
  "Then that"s what we"ll do for now," I decided. Turning to Sylphie, I motioned her to follow.
  
  We found Eris out in the general area, looking over the job board. "What do you mean, there"s no goblin extermination quest?!"
  
  "There are no goblins to eliminate in the area," was Ghislaine"s simple answer. "And elimination missions are typically C-rank. As an F-rank adventurer, you can only accept F- and E-ranked jobs."
  
  Eris stomped her foot and put her fists on her hips, thrusting her chest out and glaring at the board. "This sucks!"
  
  Sylphie made her way over and soothingly patted the redhead"s arm. "It"s okay. We can just work our way up the ranks and go somewhere they have a goblin elimination mission. We have the bikes and I don"t think your father would be against a road trip."
  
  "Only if you can prove you can handle it," Ghislaine stipulated.
  
  Eris took a deep breath and relaxed. "Okay. Okay, fine. So, what now?"
  
  Sylphie cast a look over the board and frowned. "How about we do something else for the rest of the day. None of these really sound fun after all. More like chores."
  
  Looking over the board beside the limette, Eris nodded. "Yeah, you"re right. The point was to drag Rudy out of the office and away from work, not into a different kind of work." Looking contemplative, she turned to me and asked, "How about we go visit your family?"
  
  I shook my head. "Paul would pitch a shit fit. I"ll try it on my birthday. Besides, if we go there, I"ll just wind up heading over to the forest and setting the whole thing on fire or something to get rid of the monsters. Or maybe a large scale wind spell, to strip the oxygen out of the air for ten minutes or so. Long enough for anything inside to die. Sure, a bunch of wildlife would die off, but they"d repopulate eventually..."
  
  "Could just go out for a ride," Ghislaine supplied, pulling me from my thoughts.
  
  "Fine by me," I agreed. Honestly, I was kind of at a loss here. I"d be perfectly happy just sitting somewhere reading a book, but the girls wanted to go out and do something and Sylphie felt the need to get me outside and away from anything remotely related to work, so I went along with it.
  
  Besides, it"s not like I hated the idea of spending time with Sylphie, or Eris. Especially when they were actually getting along.
  
  I should probably take more time outside anyway. Going to have to do something nice for Sylphie after this.
  
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  "I ever mention how much these quests suck?" I asked, turning in the marker for a "find the lost pet" mission.
  
  "All the time," Eris grumbled. "I know they suck, but we"ll be C-ranked soon, then we can take on better stuff."
  
  Sylphie yawned, but opted not to comment. The clerk verified the mission completion and doled out our reward. "You"re only three more C-ranks away from a rank up," the woman smiled at us.
  
  "Finally." Turning to look at Eris and Sylphie, I asked, "Do we want to knock those out today or wait for tomorrow?"
  
  "Today," Eris answered.
  
  Sylphie shrugged. "I could go either way."
  
  We went out and looked over the board. There were a couple of new missions since we checked that morning. "Okay, how about Eris and Ghislaine take two of the "kill X monster" quests and Sylphie and I can pick up this pest elimination quest? We split up, get everything done, and meet back here this afternoon. Sound good?"
  
  The redhead nodded. "Yeah, that"s fine."
  
  Ghislaine wouldn"t care either way, and was currently getting a lunch of meat skewers for all of us from the market, so I counted her towards Eris" vote. Sylphie nodded and that settled it. "Okay then."
  I took the pest elimination mission down and we went to find Ghislaine. After our lunch, Eris and Ghislaine took off with orders from Ghislaine to call if something came up, and Sylphie and I set off for the client"s location. As we went, Sylphie tugged at my sleeve. Leaning up to my ear, she murmured, "There are people talking about us."
  
  I laughed, as though she'd just told a joke, before whispering, "Where and how many?"
  
  "At least two men, behind us. I think they've been following since the Guild."
  
  "What else are they saying?"
  
  "Something about a bounty? I think they want to take you somewhere but they're complaining about the crowd and that you have someone with you."
  
  Looks like we've got more kidnappers. Joy. Well, this time I'll make sure to take them alive.
  
  "You remember how to make a Quagmire and trap someone in it?" Sylphie nodded. "Then let's head for the client and see what they do."
  
  Things were a bit tense as we walked through Roa, leaving most of the crowd behind in the market. 'Storehouse 6, west Roa commercial district' turned out to be a ratty, beat up old building with a sliding door on the front for loading and unloading of cargo into carts. There were holes and obvious signs of rot in the wooden walls, whatever paint it had had long since been flaked away, the roof was partially collapsed in one place, and it looked like the kind of place you"d find hobos squatting.
  
  It looked like it should have been condemned years ago. A fire would do the entire neighborhood good.
  
  "This place is a dump. There's no way someone's still using it for legitimate business," I said as I took in the state of the warehouse.
  
  "Rudy, there are more," Sylphie murmured. "They're following the first group but I don't think they're together. I heard one say something about us not having a magic tool with us today?"
  
  I raised an eyebrow at that but nodded. Knocking at the man-door to the warehouse, I waited as the footsteps closed in behind us. The door opened and an unsavory type looked us up and down before grinning. More of a leer, really. The man was older, with a bald head, scraggly beard, and a mouth full of missing or broken teeth that the leer showed off. I noticed that it was directed mostly at Sylphie and had to clamp down on the urge to fry him then and there. "Well, hello there. What do we have here?"
  
  "We're from the Guild, here for the pest removal job?" Sylphie supplied, turning up the moe as had become our routine.
  
  I was not above weaponizing Sylphie's natural Sylphie-ness in order to make sure things went smooth for us, or to ensure better tips (not that we needed the money, but I figured it was good practice for socializing her). I may have even coached her how to do it for maximum effect, using Eris as her test dummy.
  
  ... Pretty sure the reason they got along so well and that Eris was such an easy target for it was because of the Boreas beast-kin fetish. Sure, you could argue that Sylphie was more elf or human than beast-kin, but I think the Boreas can smell it or something. The entire household loved her. Or it could just be that she"s lovable.
  
  The filthy, stinking man in the door grinned wider. "Right, right. 'Pest elimination.' Well, come on in and we'll see about getting it taken care of."
  
  Trap? Trap. Couldn"t be more obvious if he tried. So, are these idiots working with the first batch? The second? Or do we have three entirely separate groups of assholes? And what the hell did we do to get their attention? Ah well, let"s spring it and see what shakes out.
  
  He moved aside and we followed him in. "What sort of pests are we talking about?" I asked, looking around as two more men slipped out of the shadows of the warehouse to try to flank us. They were of a kind with the one who had led us inside-ugly, older, and clearly having seen better days.
  
  "Rats. Big gray ones," the man nodded. "Causing all kinds of problems for some very important people. But they'll be happy if we get rid of one in particular. It's kind of scrawny, but that's the one they have their sights set on."
  
  Wow, you are bad at this, I mentally sighed.
  
  "Uh huh," I nodded along, playing up my own 'cute, oblivious shota' act. "That sounds awful, mister! What kind of important people?"
  
  The man stopped in the middle of the room and spun around, drawing a stiletto from behind his back. A look at the two on our flanks showed them having drawn swords of their own. Shitty, pitted and rusted things that looked like they wouldn"t stand up to being swung around much before snapping. "The kind who pay good money to get rid of mouthy brats."
  
  Before we could get down to the business of murdering the fuck out of capturing our would-be assassins, the man-door to the warehouse burst open and four men came storming in, weapons drawn.
  
  "What's all this, then?!" The one in the lead yelled as the two men flanking us turned to square off against the newcomers.
  
  The new guys looked in much better condition that the assassins, with better quality weapons, some armor, and generally looking like they didn't spend all their pay on liquor. The one in the lead was a tall, lean, clean-shaven swordsman with long, loose brown hair. Aside from the leader, the other three carried what looked like cudgels or short clubs.
  
  "What's the meaning of this? You tryin' to horn in on our job?!" the lead assassin demanded, waving his knife. "Fuck off! They're ours."
  
  "Now, now. No need for that. Tell you what, you let us have the boy, you can keep the girl," kidnapper in chief suggested.
  
  The master assassin spat off to the side. "Go fuck yourself. We're killing him and taking his head back for our reward."
  
  The kidnapper shook his head. "Can't let you do that. We need him alive for our own bounty. There's a man in the capitol who"s paying too well to part with the money."
  
  "Out of curiosity," I asked, turning my head to eye the assassin, "what do you intend to do with my friend here?"
  
  "What d'ya think, brat? Sell her to the highest bidder as a slave. After me and the boys sample the goods."
  
  At my side, Sylphie flinched, the hand on the hilt of her sword tightening where she had yet to draw it. I nodded, smiling along as though he hadn't just outright admitted to intending to rape and sell Sylphie into slavery. "And would it change your minds at all if I told you-"
  
  The wall off to the side of the building exploded in a ball of fire and a shower of splinters. A group of three stormed inside, weapons ready.
  
  The first was a big, burly man wielding a huge sword and wearing heavy armor. The second wore leather armor and carried a bow, the arrow nocked and tracking over various people before landing on the master assassin. The third was a woman, who wore robes and carried a staff/glaive thing. Given the size of the mana crystal in the staff, it looked expensive, but the blade at the end told me it was supposed to be functional as more than a simple blunt weapon.
  
  They looked very much like adventurers. So much so in fact that I recognized them as adventurers who had been hanging around the Guild hall lately.
  
  "Well, well, well. What do we have here? Looks like someone overbooked," the mage laughed quietly. "So, just who are you boys?"
  
  "We was here first, you lot can fuck right off with the others!" The master assassin demanded.
  
  "And I told you, we're not leaving here without the boy," the gentleman kidnapper countered.
  
  "We don't get paid without his head, so we're not letting you just walk out of here with him."
  
  The mage nodded along, before tapping her staff on the ground and drawing the attention of the others. "Okay, I think I understand the situation. You," she pointed at the assassin, "have a contact to kill him. And you," she shifted her attention to the kidnapper, "have a contact to kidnap him. Either of those is fine by us and you can work out who gets to do what between yourselves, just so long as you give us a few minutes with him first. You see, we've been paid to secure one of those fancy personal vehicles they've been flaunting all over town and get the secret of how they were made out of whoever made them. Word has it, you did. Is that correct?" She asked, finally turning her attention to me.
  
  I smiled, and suddenly every weapon in the room aside from my own and Sylphie"s was pointed my way. Looking confused, I asked Sylphie, "What, is there something on my face?"
  
  "Just a scary look," Sylphie murmured, shaking her head.
  
  I shrugged before turning my attention back to the would-be assassins, kidnappers, and thieves. "Maybe. Tell me, did anyone tell you just who it was you had been sent after?"
  
  "A bastard Greyrat. Probably one of Sauros' many illegitimate spawn," the assassin supplied.
  
  The kidnapper frowned, shaking his head. "Rudeus Greyrat, son of the S-ranked adventurer Paul Greyrat, formerly of the Notos Greyrat family."
  
  That"s new information. Didn"t realize their party got to S-Rank. Ghislaine"s been holding out on me, I mused, but knowing her, she probably didn"t feel it was important enough to mention.
  
  "Oh, so we got us a noble here! Been a while since I spilled noble blood," the assassin jeered.
  
  The thief hummed quietly, before nodding at the kidnapper. "What he said, with the addition that you're a mage."
  
  I nodded. "Well then, seems you've got all the pieces but two. I am in fact Rudeus Greyrat. Unfortunately, my father is that Paul Greyrat. And I am indeed a mage. They left out one detail about that, however."
  
  "And what's that then, mister noble?"
  
  I nodded at the enemy mage. "Why don't you ask her?"
  
  The woman frowned, before it clicked and she stilled. "Your rank."
  
  "Give the lady a prize."
  
  "Mages and swordsmen. You and your dick waving with your ranks and titles. Not gonna matter what you call yourself when I put this blade between your ribs," the assassin rolled his eyes.
  
  "Then there"s the other thing you're forgetting. Sylphie?" I put a hand on her shoulder and the girl looked over at me. "Sink "em."
  
  The ground around us collapsed, dropping the entire group up to their necks in muck. She followed it up by pulling the water out and solidifying the ground around them to rock, just as I'd taught her. There were shouts of surprise from the newly trapped ne'er do wells as they tried and failed to get loose.
  
  "The other thing you should have been asking was, 'who's the girl with him?' This is my student, Sylphiette. Saint-level Water mage."
  
  The mage thief was silent for a moment before asking, "Did she cast that silently?"
  
  "Maybe," I grinned as I went around collecting weapons and sending them off to my bunker. The glaive-staff I kept in hand, giving it a twirl to get a feel for the weight. A little heavy towards the front, and a bit too big for me at the moment. But the way playing with it makes that bitch"s face twitch is priceless, so I"ll hang onto it for now.
  
  A little earth manipulation relieved them of any copper, silver, or gold on their persons, and confirmed the mage's suspicions, if the sending of their gear hadn"t already. "Now, you all wait right here. I'm going to go get someone to send some guards by to pick you up. Sylphie, if they try to escape, zap them. If that mage starts chanting, zap her twice."
  
  "Mm! I will."
  
  Still trying to work himself free, the lead assassin yelled, "You can"t do this, you little shit! We"ve got friends in high places!"
  
  I sent the man a grin. "Oh? Do you now? Well, be sure to tell my friends in high places all about yours later, okay? I"d sure love to meet them. Sit down, share some tea, have a nice little talk about why it"s a horrible fucking idea to piss in my Cheerios. Or send idiots who make the mistake of threatening to rape and sell off my friend. Now, you"re already on my shit list for that, so I suggest you shut up before I shut you up."
  
  Walking outside, I checked to make sure there was no one around before pulling out the phone. "Sprite, could you call the house?"
  
  The phone rang a couple of times before the hologram popped up, showing Phillip"s face. "Rudy?" he asked, looking around the hologram on his end with a frown. "What"s going on? Are you in the slums?"
  
  "Close enough, apparently. The commercial district, but I guess this is the old part of it. We just captured not one, not two, but three separate groups trying to either kill, kidnap, or steal from us. Well, me. Think you could send some guys by to collect them?"
  
  Crack! Crack!
  
  Phillip flinched at the sound, a worried look coming over his face. It was a sound he knew pretty well now, given the way Sylphie and I tossed lightning around for practice. "What was that?"
  
  I snickered. "That would be the mage we captured testing Sylphie and getting zapped for her trouble. I warned her not to."
  
  Phillip picked up a bell from beside the desk and rang it. "I"ll send some men over. Where are you exactly?"
  
  I gave him the address as a maid walked into the room on his side. We said our goodbyes and I made my way inside to check on our captives. "She tried to chant," Sylphie explained as soon as I walked in.
  
  Looking at the groaning, insensate mage with obvious lightning burns on her face and neck, I shook my head. "Good job, Sylphie. Phillip"s sending some people to collect them, so we"ll just hang around here until they"re done."
  
  "Mm," the girl nodded, moving over and leaning against my side. We stood like that in silence, watching the now strangely silent prisoners.
  
  Curious, I turned to the gentleman kidnapper. "Cat got your tongues?"
  
  The man gave a wry smile. "I think we"ve collectively decided we don"t want to get "zapped" by your little friend there. It looks quite painful."
  
  "I assure you, it is," I grinned.
  
  "Rudy," Sylphie tugged at my sleeve. I sent her a questioning look. "Does this mean we"ll have to do another quest, since this one was fake?"
  
  My eyebrow twitched. Taking a calming breath, I asked, "Which one of you shitheels set up the fake job with the guild?"
  
  "It was him!" one of the assassin mooks nodded in the direction of their boss.
  
  "You fuckin" sellout!" the man growled.
  
  He went silent as lightning danced between my fingers. "Did you happen to keep the quest marker?"
  
  The assassin cleared his throat, clearly trying to remember whether he had or not. After a moment, a triumphant look came over his face. "It"s in my pocket."
  
  "Uh huh. Well, when we dig you out, you"re going to mark it complete for us, okay?"
  
  The man sneered. "What"s in it for me? Way I see it, we"re dead anyway. Might as well leave behind one final "fuck you," little nob."
  
  I pointed at him and the Arc became a low powered Bolt, landing on his cheek and drawing a howl of pain and rage. "What was that? You"ve volunteered to be a test dummy for trying out creating medical spells? Gee, thanks mister! I"ve been meaning to get a new one. All my old ones died in horrible agony and the survivors are all horrendously deformed and insane. It"s a shame that Millis keeps their spells locked down so tight, so enterprising mages who want to learn higher level healing have to find live test subjects for making their own. Mice can"t really talk back when you work on them, see? But a person... well, person-shaped sack of shit, in your case. You can tell me what I"m doing wrong. Right up until your head explodes like the last one, anyway."
  
  "You don"t have the balls-"
  
  I laughed. "That"s funny. Neither will you, when I"m done. I make sure to neuter my test subjects. Makes them more compliant. Easier to manage."
  
  That part was at least true. Tiny had convinced me of the need when he started humping the bars of his cage and spraying the female mice in the cages around him with cups of spunk a day. What was, even from a MOUS perspective, a porn-logic amount of semen. That some of those mice actually got pregnant was both unsettling and worrying.
  
  I had just been making an empty threat about the rest, but the more I considered it... "You"re prisoners. Murderers, thieves, and kidnappers. You"re slated for execution anyway, after interrogation. May as well get some use out of you before you shuffle off the mortal coil, and what better way than advancing the field of medicine? Think of how many people your sad, miserable little lives could help."
  The more I considered it, the better the idea sounded.
  
  "Rudy," Sylphie tugged on my sleeve again. I looked over at her and she sent me a small frown. "No."
  
  "What? Come on! They"re acceptable targets!" I gestured at the acceptable targets in question. "Human garbage. How many lives do you think these people have ruined over the course of their careers as criminals? How many people killed, kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery, or just had their valuables stolen and lives ruined. How many families have been hurt or broken because of them?"
  
  The girl simply stared at me, expectantly.
  
  "No, really, rats can"t talk. They could speed up spell development by years just by being able to tell me how they feel. With that, I could make spells to regenerate missing limbs, cure incurable diseases, treat untreatable injuries like Lilia"s."
  
  More staring.
  
  "Think of all the sick and injured children in war-torn lands these miserable wastes of oxygen would save, just by spending a few weeks in a lab."
  
  Even. More. Staring.
  
  I sighed, before metaphorically throwing up my hands. "Damnit. Fine! Have it your way."
  
  Sylphie"s arms wrapped around me in a hug and her lips found my cheek. "Thank you."
  
  "Yeah, yeah," I waved her off. "Slowing the advance of medicine by centuries because it"d make you feel bad. The things I do for you," I grumbled.
  
  It was around that time that several men in the uniform of the city guard swept into the building through the man-door in the front. The leader came up and saluted. "The governor sent us. If you could pull them out of the ground one at a time, we"ll take them into custody from here."
  
  We spent the next several minutes digging people out of the ground and letting the guards shackle them together, before they were marched off towards wherever it was the city guard kept their prisoners. Turning to Sylphie, I sighed and held out my arm. The girl took it and we started walking back to the guild. "Guess we"ll go report this cock-up and pick up another mission."
  
  "It"s fine. We"re not in a hurry, right?"
  
  I shrugged. "Not really. I just hate having to redo work because someone screwed up somewhere."
  
  Sylphie nodded, humming quietly before a small smile crossed her face. "Eris is going to be annoyed that she missed out on the adventure."
  
  "Not much of an adventure," I countered, before a thought occurred and I winced. "Shit. I forgot to call Ghislaine."
  
  The limette laughed. "You should call her or she"s going to be angry."
  
  I briefly considered not calling at all and just keeping it quiet. "If she finds out from someone else, she"ll be even angrier."
  
  I shot the girl at my side an amused look. "Stop reading my mind."
  
  Sylphie simply smiled. "Let"s visit your lab later. I want to show you something."
  
  "Sure, sounds fun," I agreed easily.
  
  Later that day, I stared at the results of Sylphie's handiwork: a perfectly healthy mouse that had been dislegged, cancerous, deformed, and on the brink of dying from old age. "How?!"
  
  "I just wanted it to work."
  
  I palmed my face. "Oh, god. Not the Paul school of magic. Come on, give me some details."
  
  Sylphie nodded. "I wanted a spell that would revert someone to a previous, healthy state to remove any harmful changes from their body while keeping beneficial changes."
  
  I stared at the girl. "That sounds more like time magic or something. How did you select for 'harmful changes?'"
  
  "I let the spell do it."
  
  I twitched. "That's not how that works." Sylphie gestured at the mouse. "...That is some bullshit."
  
  Sighing, I shook my head and turned to the phone laying nearby. "You catch all that, Sprite?"
  
  "Yes, Rudy."
  
  "Think you can duplicate it?"
  
  The spirit was quiet for a while before giving a one-word answer that didn't instill me with confidence. "Possibly?"
  
  "You can if you just try, Miss Sprite. Just believe you can!" Sylphie cheered her on.
  
  Sighing, I sent the girl a fond, if exasperated look. "The student has surpassed the master. This is definitely how Roxy felt."
  
  "We should call her."
  
  "No." I couldn't let her see me like this.
  
  "Sprite, would you please call her?"
  
  I groaned when Roxy picked up on the first ring. Looking between me pinching the bridge of my nose and Sylphie grinning gormlessly, she asked, "What happened?"
  
  "Oh, nothing. Sylphie just figured out higher level healing magic I've been banging my head against for the past few months just by wanting it to work right."
  
  Roxy sent me a commiserating look before turning to Sylphie. "Tell me what you did to break him."
  
  "I didn't break him!" Sylphie protested.
  
  I collapsed into my chair and sent the two a look. It was, of course, at that moment that Eris would choose to burst in. I turned and checked the door for the sign, but found I hadn't put it up. Guess she hasn't earned that spanking yet.
  
  Looking at me, Sylphie, and Roxy Eris paused for a moment before putting her hands on her hips and glaring at the other two girls. "Okay, which one of you broke him?!"
  
  "God damn it," I grunted.
  
  "This is getting out of control."
  
  "Mm?" Paul grunted, sipping at his pint as Laws finished his second of the night and started on the third. He"s going hard at it tonight. He"s going to make me carry him back again.
  
  His glass thumped onto the table and Laws let out a frustrated breath. "My girl. Your boy. This whole thing," he gestured around them. Paul frowned. "Danz got kicked in the head by his mule today. His wife and boy dragged him up to the house to ask Sylphiette to heal him. I had to tell them my daughter couldn"t do it because she fucked off and ran away to go be with your son in Roa. His missus chewed my ass good for running her off. This is the third time since she left-"
  
  Sighing, the dirty-blonde man turned to his half-elven friend. "Laws, you made the call to keep her leaving quiet yourself. The only one to blame for her leaving is Rudeus, for ignoring what I told him about not contacting her and going behind our backs. Not to mention giving her that contraption. Not yourself, not me. Rudeus."
  
  "Well maybe if you had done a better job raising him," Laws griped, picking up a sausage off the plate of bar food the waitress had dropped off with their drinks and biting into it.
  
  Paul snorted into his beer. "I don"t think Rudy ever needed us to raise him."
  
  Washing his sausage down with another drink, Laws asked, "Do you have any idea how humiliating it is to have your nine year old daughter sending home more in a week than you make in a month? Her first letter said it was "to provide for her family," but... It"s exactly one copper more than I make in a month. It"s a gods damned slap in the face, Paul."
  
  "Oh boo-fuckin"-hoo."
  
  Paul and Laws looked up from their table, off to their right at the corner table. There sat an old, bearded face familiar to anyone who lived in the village. The surly visage of Uncle greeted them as the man studied his own plate. "Uncle, this is a private conversa-"
  
  "Shut yer goddamn yap, you uptight twig," Uncle snapped, his volume increasing. Laws shut his yap. Conversation in the small bar quieted. While everyone had previously been at least pretending to ignore the conversation going on between their Lord-appointed knight and his direct subordinate-the man ostensibly in charge of the city-watch now they weren"t even bothering with that pretense, sensing a blowup about to occur.
  
  Uncle did not disappoint.
  
  ""Oh, woe is me. My daughter"s been corrupted by the evil mage and run off to his tower. Now, people think I"m a fuckin" idiot for running off one of the two healers we had in town-arguably the stronger of the two. The mage who offered, out of the kindness of her heart, to go help clear out the problem we"re having in the forest, but I declined to help because it would make me and my boss look bad to accept help from a child. Now she"s sending my family money to help take care of her baby sister and it"s making me feel like a useless waste of a twig because she"s doing better than I am.""
  
  The old man paused to wet his throat. Laws took that moment to complain. "It"s not that simple, Uncle."
  
  "The fuck it"s not," Uncle put his glass down. "And did I say you could open your fucking cockhole, pretty-boy? No? Then keep it closed. You"ll know when I"m done tearing you a new asshole, son. Now, where was I?"
  
  He considered it for a moment before nodding. "Oh, right. Going over your many failures. Perhaps the biggest one is sitting right there in front of you. You trusted that idiot over what you could see with your own eyes and the two of you ran off the other ridiculously powerful mage in the village. You know, the one who was watering the fields for cheap and who raised the roads we walk and drive our carts on from the muddy, pot-hole filled dirt tracks they were for free.
  
  "The one you idiots," Uncle shot a glare at the rest of the room and several of the men (and a few women) who had been not-so-discretely watching the show turned away at the sudden scrutiny, "turned around and treated like a damned outsider the moment he left, because you didn"t want to accept the fact that your little brats are absolute shits and you know fuck-all about raising a child."
  
  "Says the man who got his daughter killed."
  
  The room went absolutely silent. Uncle"s gaze drifted up from his pint to meet Paul"s gaze. "That"s rich, coming from the man whose at the time seven year old son put him down and humiliated him in front of his family and friends and gave you the beating you were going to give him. Tell me, Paul. What do you think little Rudy"s been doing all this time? Diddling that noble you sent him off to teach? Or d"ya think he"s been working with that beast of a woman that came to get him on getting better at swinging a stick?"
  
  "You need to shut up now, Uncle. You"re drunk. Go home."
  
  Uncle snorted. "Fuck off, you washed up has-been. What are you going to do? Beat an old man? You can try it boy, but I"ll make sure you"re the one coming off worse in the end."
  
  When Paul didn"t move from his seat, Uncle nodded. "That"s what I thought. You two chuckle-fucks are going to be the end of this village. Between the two of you, you"ve sent off or run off two of the only mages born here in decades. Mages that might have gone off for a time to do some adventuring, before coming back with their money to settle down here and probably start a family of their own-a family of mages, because that"s how it tends to go. Everyone knows mages bring in money. They"re worth their weight in gold, and you two pissed it away."
  
  Finishing off his drink, Uncle waved over the only barmaid for a fresh pint. "Have either of you two shitbirds been into Roa lately?" When neither Paul nor Laws answered, Uncle glared. "I"m not asking for my health. Answer the damn question."
  
  Paul sighed. "Can"t say I have. Where are you going with this?"
  
  When Laws just shook his head, Uncle rolled his eyes. "Know what I hear, every time I pull into the city to trade my wares? I hear people talking. I see what happens when a mage puts his mind towards making a place better. Talking about how the roads for a hundred miles in every direction from Roa have been done just like ours. They"re calling your son Rudeus the Road-Builder, Paul. I see goods coming from further than they ever have before, more money changing hands than Asura has seen anywhere but in Ars-certainly nowhere in Fittoa. Merchants talking about how this year, Roa"s going to beat out the capital for profits. People talking about strange new things coming out of Roa that no one quite knows where they came from, but we all know who made "em."
  
  Uncle pointed a gnarled finger at the swordsman. "If you had just let him be, we"d be up to our eyeballs in gold. Hell, even if you sent the boy off, as long as you didn"t burn that bridge he"d have come back one day and brought it all back with him. But no, Paul. You shit all over that. And for what? Oh, everyone"s heard the rumors, considering they come straight from the twig there in that very seat. But those of us who don"t have our heads up our asses, who actually met the lad and that master of his before him, know they"re nothing but hogwash. So the only thing you"re protecting in sending the boy off is your fuckin" ego."
  
  Paul was silent as the realization set in that he truly had screwed over the village exactly as the old man claimed. Then, his jaw clenched and he shook his head. "You"re wrong. None of it would be worth a shit if it came-"
  
  When Paul abruptly shut his mouth with a click of teeth, Uncle shot the man a glare. "Finish it, Paul. Go ahead. Say what you were going to say. It wouldn"t be worth a shit if it came from where?"
  
  "From the kind of people I left behind."
  "And if you think little Rudy is that kind of man, you"re a goddamned idiot," Uncle declared, before finishing his drink and slamming the glass down. Standing up, he dropped some coin on the table. "And now, your stupidity has cost us Sylphiette as well, at a time when we could most use the help. I hope you"re both fuckin" satisfied."
  
  Turning to Laws, Uncle demanded, "Well twig? Go ahead and open that cockhole you call a mouth. What have you got to say for yourself? You"ll have to speak up, though. I "magine it"ll be hard to hear with how far you"ve got your head buried up Paul"s ass, but I"ll give it a try."
  
  Looking up from his drink, Laws said, "It"s none of your business how I choose to raise my daughter-"
  
  "That"s where you"re wrong, twig. It becomes town business when it starts hurting the town. You running Sylphiette off hurts the town. If you continue the trend, you two might as well go ahead and send little Aisha and Elin off now and save yourselves the time."
  
  "I didn"t run her off! She was talking to Rudeus behind our backs and ran away on her own!"
  
  Uncle snorted, hocked, and spat off to the side. "So what? Girl"s got to grow up some time. Or were you planning to keep her locked away in your home until she was thirty, to make sure she didn"t turn into your mother and leave you? I"d call her a whore, but a whore doesn"t do the payin." And don"t that just sting, that she did it anyway."
  
  Laws jumped to his feet, grabbing his mug by the handle and swinging for the old man"s head. Uncle stood his ground. The empty pint glass stopped a foot from its target as Paul"s hand locked around Laws" wrist in a grip like steel. "Alright, enough! Laws, sit down. Uncle, if you"ve said your piece, go home. You went too far."
  
  Quietly, but still loud enough that everyone in the bar heard, Uncle asked, "Bringing my dead daughter into it like you know a fuckin" thing about it is fine, but talking about the boy"s mama and what we all know for fact ain"t. Is that what you"re saying? Sounds a whole lot like "rules for thee, but not for me." Guess you can take the brat from the nobles, but you can"t take the noble out of the brat. But that"s fine. Ol" Uncle"s said his piece."
  
  Turning away, the man made for the door. "Think I"ll see if I can find something blonde and twiggy next time I head into town. Maybe get her to call me "daddy.""
  
  Laws jerked in his seat but Paul held him in place until the ornery old goat left, having taken one last parting shot at the half-elf by way of Laws" mother and Paul"s former party member, Elinalise. Sitting down, Paul waved the bar maid over. "Something a little stronger."
  
  The woman came back with a bottle and a pair of glasses and left it when Paul dropped a gold coin on the table. Opening the bottle, Paul poured for himself and his friend. "He"s just-"
  "Shut the fuck up, Paul," Laws growled, taking the offered glass and downing it in one gulp, before pouring a second. "He"s right. This mess is your fault. What if you"re wrong about Lewdeus," he slurred, "Lewdy. Rude. Ru-. You know what I mean."
  
  Paul sighed, shaking his head as he watched his friend climb into the bottle. "I"m not. I told you, it"s what I would do," he answered honestly. "And Rudy is just like his father."
  
  "That"s "cause you"re a piece of shit," Laws rolled his eyes. "What if you"re wrong, Paul?"
  
  "I"m not. You just have to trust me."
  
  They polished off the rest of the bottle in relative silence, ignoring the other patrons. Eventually, Paul stood and hefted Laws up onto his feet and got him moving. "You should know your limits by now," he grumbled good-naturedly as he directed his friend back to his home. The door was unlocked when he tried the handle, so he lead Laws inside, where he found the man"s wife sitting on their couch, knitting and rocking the crib holding their new daughter.
  
  Looking up, the woman eyed the pair and took a sniff before wrinkling her nose. "Ugh. Drop him here," she said, standing up from the couch. "I"m not sharing the bed with that tonight."
  
  What little brain muscle-to-mouth filter Paul had was currently off the clock, so instead the bigger of the two muscles that directed his life did the talking for him-his dick. He dropped Laws on the cough and turned to the woman with the grin that he knew made his wives" panties wet and asked, "So you"ve got room for me then, Sylvia?"
  
  "Shameless flirt," the woman rolled her eyes. "Go home."
  
  Paul chuckled, giving Laws one last pat on the boot before heading back home. He had some frustration to work off and the wives always appreciated it when he was more "energetic" than usual.
  
  Uncle is right about one thing. With Sylphie gone, we"re down to just Zenith.
  
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  I"ve gone out.
  Lessons have been canceled for today.
  I"ll be back before nightfall.
  If something comes up, follow the smoke.
  -Rudeus.
  
  I considered the brief letter I had written before, with a thought and a bit of mana, it went up in flames. A bit of wind sent the ash and smoke out my bedroom window. Gathering up my bladed staff, I cast a look at the bed and the pair still sleeping there-red and green hair making a mess on my pillow where Sylphie and Eris had closed the distance between themselves and cuddled each other after I"d gotten up.
  
  Yeah, I had two bed partners now.
  
  Sylphie had come back from one of her visits to Buena a bit teary eyed, one weekend. Between Hilda"s doting, Phillip"s worry, and Sauros loudly declaring that he would be paying Buena a visit to find out what the hell was going on, I finally managed to coax what happened out of her. She and her father had gotten into an argument over Elin and Sylphie teaching her sister magic. Laws was firmly against the idea. Sylvia was fully in support of it. When pressed by both his wife and eldest daughter, Laws had finally snapped and yelled at Sylphie that he didn"t want his youngest turning out like her and she"d be easier for him to handle if she couldn"t just dismiss him as a parent with a flick of the fingers and a bit of magic.
  
  Sylphie had basically disowned herself after that. Or more accurately, disowned her father specifically, because she didn"t want to cut ties with her mother and sister. She offered to find Sylvia and Elin a place in Roa. Surprisingly, Sylvia took her up on it. Now the two were staying in town, in a nice little house in the noble district that Sylphie had bought flat out. Well, more like I loaned her the money-
  
  Okay, I basically forced the money on her and told her to use it when she told me she was looking to find a place for her mother and sister in the commoner district. Mostly because somehow, I had a feeling that this was my fault. Yeah, Laws pissed in his bed and now he could lie in it, but I had tipped over the first domino in this chain of events by convincing Roxy to take Sylphie in and I"d feel kind of shitty if Sylvia and Elin suffered as a result of my actions, considering they were basically family at this point-especially since I didn"t regret taking those actions in the slightest. Sylphie promised that she would pay me back, but I didn"t really care if I never saw a cent of it.
  
  Sylphie felt responsible for breaking up her family, and an emotionally distraught Sylphie was a clingy Sylphie. When she wasn"t spending the night with Sylvia and Elin, she was spending it in my bed.
  
  Eris saw this one night, rushed off to her room, and came back in her sleepwear. Her reasoning behind this?
  
  Eris, in tsundere defiant pose number three (pointing at someone and glaring at them), had declared to Sylphie, "You"ve already got a head start! I won"t let you beat me!"
  
  Sylphie minded not in the least. I think she just enjoyed the physical attention, considering Eris cuddled her almost as much as me. As for myself, well, it was easier to put up with Eris" antics sometimes than fight her on it. It had nothing to do with the fact that she felt nice pressed against my side, with those curves coming along nicely and all that soft, smooth skin.
  
  Looking up as I entered the kitchen, I picked up a quick breakfast I could eat in a napkin while I made my way outside. I slipped onto my bike and drove into town. I had finally taken the time to upgrade my own bike to match the looks of the others, so it had the same racing motorcycle look as theirs. The biggest differences were that I didn"t bother with fancy lighting effects and mine had a mount for the ultralight delta wing attachment, and the dark gray paint scheme.
  
  Stopping by the Guild, I made my way inside and waved to the staff on duty before checking out the job board, skipping over the C-Ranks entirely and checking out the B-ranks.
  
  Job: Monster Elimination.
  Location: Buena Village, Fittoa Region, Asura Kingdom, Central Continent.
  Contact: Paul Greyrat or Zenith Greyrat.
  Pay: Standard plus bonus per proof of kill.
  Description: Monsters are swarming in the forest outside Buena Village and taking livestock. Two villagers, a man and a child, were killed this month. The job is to sweep the forest bordering Buena Village for monsters and eliminate them all.
  
  I picked up the quest, whistling quietly as I read the description. "Hey Sprite?" I asked, pulling my phone from my pocket. The spirit chirped and I said, "Give me a map of Buena and the surrounding area."
  
  The hologram sprang to life above the phone and I eyeballed the distance the forest in question took up. "Yeah, that"s... a lot of ground to cover."
  
  Making my way up to the counter, I passed the marker over along with my card. "I want to go ahead and register this one for my party, [Morning Star]."
  
  I had let Eris pick the name, but wound up vetoing the first few. Not just because I sucked at naming things, but because this whole "adventurer" thing had been about her in the first place.
  
  "Sure thing," the young woman at the counter smiled down at me and began to fill out the appropriate paperwork. "Here you go, sweetie."
  
  Saying my thanks, I left the Guild and made my way back home. I found Sylphie and Eris dressed and eating breakfast with Ghislaine when I returned. Making my way over to the big cat-woman, I handed her the paperwork for the job. Ghislaine flipped it open and held it with one hand while she ate. I was proud to see that she had advanced to the point of being able to speed-read its contents.
  
  Looking up from her breakfast, finishing off the sausage in her mouth, Ghislaine sent me a look. "What?" I asked. "It"s a legitimate quest so it"s fair game."
  
  Eris and Sylphie shared a look between themselves before the redhead asked, "What is?"
  
  "A monster extermination quest for Buena Village."
  
  Sylphie stilled at my answer, before turning pleading eyes towards Ghislaine. "Can we go? Please Ms. Ghislaine?"
  
  The big woman sighed, before her look at me turned annoyed. "You were supposed to stay here for your birthday."
  
  Eris snorted quietly. "Oh please. We can go there, kill the monsters, and be back in time for lunch!"
  
  "The forest is actually pretty big. Dinner, more likely," I clarified for her. "Depending on how much of it they want to save."
  
  Pushing her seat back, Ghislaine stood and set her hand on my shoulder, grabbing a fist full of my shirt and vest. "Come with me. We"re going to see the old man." Sylphie and Eris made to rise. "You two stay here."
  
  Sylphie pouted and Eris glared, but I waved them off and allowed myself to be dragged out of the room. Once we were in the hall, Ghislaine let go. "You put me in a bad position, Rudeus."
  
  "Sorry Ghislaine, but not really. You don"t need to make the call either way, just let Sauros handle it."
  
  The woman grunted, before nodding. "That was the plan. Fine. I understand how you feel. It must have been frustrating these past months, knowing the problem is getting worse but being unable to do anything about it. That"s just how you are."
  
  I sent the woman an amused look. "I"m glad you understand."
  
  Ghislaine ignored the subtle sarcasm like a pro. "It"s official now though, which means Zenith probably talked sense into Paul before things got too bad. If those two are asking for help, then I don"t mind lending a hand." She turned and leveled a stern look at me. "Next time, ask first. Okay?"
  
  "Okay," I agreed, understanding where she was coming from. I didn"t enjoy being volunteered for things either, even if I would have agreed to them if someone had asked.
  
  We stopped at the door to Sauros" office and Ghislaine knocked. "Enter!" the old man bellowed, and we piled in. "Ghislaine, Rudeus. Good morning." Turning a grin on me, he added, "Happy birthday, Rudeus."
  
  "Thank you."
  
  The old man nodded before asking, "What have you come for today?"
  
  Ghislaine passed him the mission papers. "Rudeus picked up a mission in town."
  
  "Oh?" Sauros hummed and began reading over the paper. A frown formed as he read further. Finally, he set the paper down and propped his elbows on the desk, resting his chin against his fingers as he considered us.
  
  Nice Gendo pose, but you don"t have the right beard for it.
  
  "I see," the old man murmured. "Yes, I suppose it"s not an overreach if you took the quest on behalf of the Guild, in your role as an adventurer. If you had just gone off and taken care of it yourself, you would have stepped on several sets of toes-mine included. It sends a bad message, if we have a rogue mage just doing whatever he likes. But now that my stubborn nephew as finally asked for help, I can do something about it in an official capacity."
  
  Sauros reached into a desk drawer and took out a clean sheet of paper, then began to pen out a letter or form of some kind. As he wrote, he spoke. "This deputizes you to act in my name and on my behalf as the Lord of Fittoa, Rudeus. Go to Buena Village, assess the situation, determine whether the local knight and town watch handled the situation appropriately, and find a way to keep it from happening again."
  
  He stamped the bottom of the page with his official seal and passed it over to me, where I dried it with wind magic, folded it up, and put it in my breast pocket. "I shouldn"t need to say this, but just in case... That forest is the primary source of lumber for Buena Village. Please do not burn it down. However, so long as it"s still standing and the monsters are dead, I"ll consider your mission on behalf of the Guild a success."
  
  I sent the old man a wry look. "What makes you think I was planning to just-"
  
  "Every letter you"ve ever left, telling us that if we need to find you it would be fastest to follow the destruction."
  
  "Elemental dragons," Ghislaine supplied.
  
  Scratching the back of my head in embarrassment as I remembered burning just such a letter this morning, I chuckled quietly. "Yeah, okay. Fair enough."
  
  Turning his attention to the tanned beast-kin woman, Sauros said, "Make sure no one interferes. And get back before nightfall if at all possible."
  
  "Mm. Sure," the woman agreed.
  
  "Ghislaine, I mean it," Sauros sent her a stern look. "No one."
  
  The woman blinked before nodding slowly. "Understood."
  
  Taking that as a dismissal, we left, finding Eris and Sylphie waiting nearby. The limette"s ears twitched and she looked bashful, while Eris grinned. "So, we"re leaving now, right?"
  
  "You shouldn"t drop eaves," Ghislaine reached out and knuckled the girl"s head, earning a wince. "Yes, we"re leaving now."
  
  I grinned, sending her a side-eyed look. "So, we"re flying, right?"
  
  "Yes!" Eris cheered.
  
  Ghislaine nearly stumbled. "No," she vehemently disagreed.
  
  "Aww," Sylphie pouted.
  
  "It wouldn"t take much to modify-"
  
  "Absolutely not. We"ll stay on the ground."
  
  "Damn," Eris grumbled.
  
  I had made some modifications since the first time I"d used my bike as an ultralight. I had spent the past seven months improving the design off and on, as I had time.
  
  The wing and engine were now one piece and joined securely in place at two points in the rear of the bike. The struts I had been using had been integrated into the bike itself, standing in place like a pair of angled mufflers. I had done away with the fan engine and moved to a purely magical, wind based ramjet style engine-essentially, an air scoop that caught air in one end, compressed it in the middle, and pushed it out at greater pressure from the rear to provide thrust. The controls were completely redone and changed from a fly-by-wire design to magically controlled.
  
  I had worked out each individual control surface-ailerons, elevators, and rudder-then I"d built in actual controls. Basically, pedals, a set of two control sticks recessed into where the gas can would typically be that extended to the left and right of the frame when in use, and a throttle that wasn"t mounted on the handlebars. I"d added a more aerodynamic faring and seat, making the bike look more along the lines of those I"d made for Eris and the others. The front wheel locked into place in flight with a steel pin and the rim had been changed to a more solid design. Then, I"d spent even more time learning to fly it without needing to resort to bailing out and catching it before it hit the ground.
  
  Eris absolutely loved it. Ghislaine had flown with me exactly once before declaring, "Never again," and staying resolutely ground-bound ever since. Phillip refused to leave the ground while Sauros took after his granddaughter-save that where Eris took simple pleasure in flying, Sauros had me survey the land with him so he could see the area from above for himself. Sylphie had been afraid at first, but after the initial flight, she had decided it was safe enough since she could get herself down if something happened. Surprisingly, Hilda was actually the most enthusiastic about it-even more so than her daughter and father-in-law. Any time we had a chance, she asked me to take her out at night and we"d spend some time flying over the area and talking.
  
  Yeah, maybe flying over Roa wasn"t a great idea. Ever since the first flight, we"d had mages coming and going, trying to catch a glimpse of the "unidentified monster," since rumor spread pretty quickly. One intrepid (read: too dumb to live) mage thought it would be a good idea to try to bring me down with a microburst. I had actually crashed that time and wound up hurting myself since I too fast to actually bail out and was low enough that I didn"t have time to get out of the harness. Luckily, no one was flying with me at the time.
  
  Then the dickhead had the gall to try to claim my ultralight for his own as I was digging myself out of the wreckage and healing up. I told him to go piss up a rope, he told me he"d fuck my mother. He chanted out his Advanced-level fire spell, I very politely allowed him time to get it off and shielded with a dome of earth. I summoned up a dozen Elementary-level fireballs. He died screaming (bringing my count up to four) when his own earthen shield melted into slag and collapsed on top of him when I dumped more mana into my "Elementary-level" fireballs in the temperature variable stage and they went white-hot.
  
  Good times.
  
  I stopped by my room to pick up my riding goggles and pack as a force of habit, rejoining the others outside shortly after and setting off for Buena Village. It was roughly a little over an hour ride to Buena Village from Roa, at an average of fifty miles per hour over my raised road and looking out for people or monsters on the road. At around one-fifty as the crow flies with clear skies, that would have been about twenty or so minutes. Oh well, it"s not like I minded a nice morning ride.
  
  Our group of four bikes passed nearly silently through the town, to looks of surprise from the villagers as they moved out of the way of Ghislaine as she lead the way up the road, past the buildings, and out the other side of town. We finally pulled up just outside the fence surrounding my-the Greyrat home.
  
  I pulled up my goggles and pulled off my pack and rested it against the bike as I unhooked my staff from the rack securing it to the bike while the others similarly dismounted and stretched. It was kind of awkward to try to ride with a five foot length of wood, steel, and monster core in any position but parallel to the ground and pointed forward, so the mount I"d made was an arm that extended out from the rear, just behind my seat, and allowed me to lock the staff in place at my side where I could grab it and pull it out if needed.
  
  Focusing on what I wanted next, I summoned a small, delta-shaped object to my hands from the lab. It was roughly a foot long and three feet wide, and looked very much like the delta wing for my ultralight in miniature. In the center was a single forced air engine like the one on the ultralight, along with a small monster core to power it. Charging it up, I summoned the usual wind spirit I used for the job and let it sink into the small drone. Then, I pulled out my phone and let go of the drone, allowing the spirit to keep it at a hover in the air.
  
  "Okay, Sprite, I need you to have the drone circle the forest and scan for monsters. Let me know when you"re done, right?" The spirit in my phone gave a confirmation chirp and the drone took off with a blast of pressurized air as it climbed.
  
  This was a routine that had become pretty common over the last month. I had decided that if we were going to be doing missions hunting for specific monsters, it would help if we had eyes in the sky to track them down ahead of time instead of trying to find them. Thus, a drone. I"d enchanted it with many of the same spells I"d used on the phone, along with the prototype drone, allowing Sprite to remote control it in conjunction with a wind spirit doing the heavy lifting for moving it around. Light spells worked on every spectrum of light, including infrared and ultraviolet. Meaning that unless it was cold blooded, it couldn"t hide from Sprite. And even then, larger cold blooded monsters tended to produce a certain level of heat that set them apart from their environment.
  
  The front door opened behind us. "What in the world?" a familiar voice called from the house. I turned towards the source of the voice. "Rudy? Rudy!"
  
  Zenith practically crushed me into her breasts as she lifted me up and spun around. I was growing quickly these days (maybe a little faster than I should, considering I"d had to let out the hems of my pants recently), but she was still a good head taller than me. "Hey."
  
  The last time I had spoken to her, I had been pissed at her running her mouth to Paul. I"d sent letters, but never anything specifically to anyone in the house. No one here ever sent anything back, likely Paul"s doing. We hadn"t exactly reconciled-
  
  The blonde woman cried as she kissed my cheeks, forehead, and even planted a sloppy, chaste kiss on my lips. "I"m sorry, Rudy."
  
  I shook my head. "It"s fine. I"m over it. I"m sorry for overreacting."
  
  Zenith pulled me back into a tight hug and I felt her fingers running through my hair. I relaxed a bit and hugged her back. No, I couldn"t ever see her as my mom and I was done trying, but she was still family. It was good to finally get a chance to see her again. I missed this.
  
  A moment later, we were joined by a second set of arms and I looked over to find the redheaded Lilia. "Good morning, master Rudeus. Happy birthday."
  
  "Thanks, Lilia," I smiled at her. "So, how are my sisters?"
  
  "They have a fever."
  
  I frowned, looking at Zenith. "I haven"t been able to fix it with Detoxification magic," the blonde explained.
  
  Coughing quietly nearby, Eris demanded, "Well? Aren"t you going to introduce us?!"
  
  Sylphie and Ghislaine chuckled as Zenith and Lilia detached themselves and took in the other three women. "Ghislaine, good to see you again," Zenith greeted, quickly moving over and giving the larger woman a hug. Then she let go and moved on to Sylphie. "Sylphie! Welcome back!"
  
  "Eris, these are Zenith and Lilia. My mom and... step-mom?" I asked the redhead for clarification.
  
  Zenith sighed, turning a conflicted look on me. "Mother is fine, Rudy."
  
  "Call me as you wish, Master Rudeus," Lilia deferred.
  
  I considered the woman. As much as I liked her and didn"t want to make her feel excluded, I also didn"t really feel like I should legitimize Paul"s fuckup any more than I already had. I could barely manage calling Zenith "mom" or "mother" to her face, I"d never be able to fake it convincingly for Lilia. She was too sharp, as she had proven in the past. I had a feeling she"d appreciate honesty better anyway. "I"ll stick to Lilia, if you don"t mind?"
  
  The redhead smiled and nodded. "That"s fine."
  
  Moving over to Eris, I took her by the shoulders and pushed her forward. "And this is Eris, my student in Roa."
  
  Zenith smiled while Lilia studied the redhead and nodded. The trio exchanged greetings before we got down to business.
  
  I took out the Guild paperwork and opened it up. "So, what can you tell us about-"
  
  We were interrupted by a third voice. "Rudy?" Paul called from the door to the house.
  
  Fuck. I sent a polite wave. "Hey."
  
  "What are you doing here?" he asked, crossing his arms over his chest as he looked over our group. "How did you even get here?"
  
  "We rode here," I gestured at the bikes with a grin. "Neat, huh?"
  
  Paul palmed his face with a sigh. "Go back to Roa, Rudy. You need to leave. And we need to get going, Zenith."
  
  The blonde stood, frowning as she crossed her own arms. "Paul, wait. They"re here on-"
  
  Paul shook his head. "I"m not going to argue about this. Rudy, go and take your friends with you. You"re not supposed to be back for another two years." Turning to Ghislaine, he frowned. "He talked you into this mess, huh?"
  
  Ghislaine shrugged. "Here on official business."
  
  Before Paul could ask her more, I shook my head. "I didn"t agree to that and we"re already here. Now, what"s the rush?"
  
  "We don"t have time-"
  
  "Paul. They have the Guild job," Zenith cut Paul off. "We could use the help."
  
  "Absolutely not."
  
  "Rudeus is a powerful mage, Paul. You know that. And he has Sylphiette and Ghislaine with him. Why should we turn their help down?"
  
  "Because he"ll just use it as an excuse to stick around."
  
  I moved between the pair, walked up to Paul, and slapped him in the chest with the paperwork. "You don"t get a choice. When we take a job, we finish the job and we get paid. Now, either help or shut up, but we"re done arguing about this."
  
  Paul fell silent at that, his jaw and fist clenching. Taking the paperwork, he unfolded it and read it. "We decline your party"s services. I"ll sort it out with the guild and they"ll send someone else. Now go."
  
  "No." Digging into the breast pocket of my jacket, I fished out the second set of paperwork. This one, I didn"t let him touch, but held it up so he could read it. "This authorizes me to be here and, in fact, gives me authority that surpasses your own. Now stand down and get out of my way, or you can leave. Either by choice or by force."
  
  When Paul looked like he was seriously considering swinging a fist, Ghislaine approached and put a hand on his shoulder. From the way he flinched, she didn"t hold back when she squeezed. "Rudeus has the old man"s approval to be here and do the job. He instructed me to make sure that no one interfered."
  
  "That doesn"t mean me-"
  
  "It especially means you," Ghislaine countered the man"s protest. "Help, or don"t. But if you get in the way, it"s Sauros you"ll have to answer to. I"ll subdue you if I have to, Paul. Don"t make me."
  
  Paul"s eye twitched as he looked between Ghislaine and where she"d put herself between him and me, as I put away my paperwork. "So, he got to you too."
  
  The woman raised an eyebrow. "What"s that supposed to mean?"
  
  "Nothing." Shoving her hand off his shoulder, Paul stomped away and turned his back, crossing his arms over his chest and ignoring us. He looked so much like a petulant child that I couldn"t believe the man was in his mid-twenties. Quietly, he muttered, "Hiding behind a woman"s skirt again."
  
  "I"m not hiding. As I said, we"re here on business on behalf of the Lord of Fittoa. Your, you know, boss." Paul made no comment at that.
  
  My phone chirped and I pulled it out. "All done?" I asked, getting an affirmative response. "Hover mode, large display." I tossed the phone out ahead of me, where it stopped a few feet away and hovered-Telekinesis at work as Sprite moved it under her own power. The hologram that popped up this time was much larger, and drew the eyes of everyone present. Even Paul turned his head to take it in. Looking at the blobs of red, I whistled. "That"s a lot of monsters. No people in there, right?"
  
  "No, master," Sprite answered quietly, startling Zenith and Lilia.
  
  "What was that?" Zenith asked, confusion on her face as she studied the map. "And is that the forest?"
  
  "Mm! That"s Sprite, she"s a spirit Rudy summoned," Sylphie explained. "She"s showing a view from the air. The red spots are monsters."
  
  Gathering mana, I eyed the area of the forest and focused on a combined spell-a Saint-level wind spell and Sending to send it to the location I was eyeballing. Nothing visibly happened as I felt the mana settle into place and do what I wanted as the spell activated.
  
  "So, can we go in and fight yet?" Eris asked, fingers eagerly drumming on the hilt of her short sword. "That should be fun."
  
  ""Fun?"" Paul echoed. "Absolutely not. It"s no place for children. This confirms that there are hundreds of monsters in there. It"s more than I"ve ever seen in any one place. They"ve probably killed all the local wildlife just to reproduce faster-and it explains why they"ve been snatching up all the livestock they can. The mission has changed. That"s a job for multiple A-Ranked parties, at the very least. Not three kids, one caster, and two people who can swing a sword reliably."
  
  Turning to shoot a glare at me, he added, "You"re still my son, Rudeus. I don"t want to see you throw your life away on something stupid."
  
  I grinned. "Well, it"s a good thing I don"t intend to, then. I can kill them all without setting foot in the forest."
  
  Paul sighed. "How? Burn it all down? I"m sure the old man explained, but we need the lumber. If you burn it down, you kill the village just as surely as if you"d let the monsters run wild."
  
  Sighing, I sent a questioning look at Sylphie and Eris. "When have I ever-"
  
  "There was that time-" Eris began, but I cut her off.
  
  "We agreed that never happened!"
  
  Apparently, it"s possible to sleep-cast. It"s especially bad if your dreams are filled with anime magical girls who like to cast large scale destructive spells. Like "Explosion."
  
  And I would never, ever be introducing Eris to the idea of that particular spell. I didn"t need the Shana wannabe flinging around Megumin"s go-to like candy. She was enough of a pyromaniac as it was.
  
  Zenith giggled while Lilia sighed. "Master Rudeus, what did you do?"
  
  "Nothing," I grumbled. Eyeing the map, I watched as various red blobs stopped moving and several of them began to fade to darker colors. Just keep them talking a while longer.
  
  "So if we"re not going in and you"re not blowing up the forest," I shot Eris a glare, "how are we dealing with it?"
  
  "Magic," I answered simply. "I"ll handle it."
  
  That didn"t satisfy the girl, but she took the answer at face value. And by "not satisfied," I mean she was clearly disappointed she wouldn"t be getting her hands dirty. Unfortunately for her, I happened to agree with Paul. Shit was way too dangerous to just walk into with those kinds of numbers. Maybe if I were solo and could cut loose, but I"d rather not risk it when I had perfectly good magic that worked at range, kept us all safe, and got the job done in a fraction of the time it would take to walk in and track down every single monster.
  
  I fell silent as the others talked, watching the map while I held my spell up. Eventually though, someone noticed what I had. "Rudeus, they"re going dark," Ghislaine pointed out.
  
  I nodded. "Yeah. That looks like the last ones down. I"ll leave the spell up for a few more minutes, but it should be safe now. Sprite, would you mind collecting the materials for us?"
  
  "Of course, master," the spirit answered verbally, the hologram shutting down and the phone drifting back to me. Somewhere above the forest, I spotted a glint in the air from the drone as it dove into the forest to set to work using Telekinesis to start rendering down monsters into parts and burn the corpses. We didn"t use her often for this sort of thing, only when monsters were spread out over a large enough area that it would be a pain in the ass to track them all down. It would defeat the purpose of teaching Eris and Sylphie how to do these sorts of jobs if they couldn"t do them without aid.
  
  "Right. Job"s done. I"ll inspect the village on the way out, but my recommendation is going to be "build walls," and suggesting myself and Sylphie do it," I admitted.
  
  "You"ve been around Phillip too long. That"s something he would do. Making work that you then do yourself for profit," Ghislaine pointed out with an amused look.
  
  Eris sighed, sending me an annoyed look. "You take all the fun out of it."
  
  I sent her a smile as Sylphie giggled. "It"s work. Work should be completed as quickly, efficiently, and accurately as possible. You enjoy killing monsters and need the practice, so I let you. I don"t really care one way or another, so if I"m the one doing it, I"m going to do it my way," I gestured in the direction of the forest for emphasis. "Now, let"s go inside and see my sisters. Sylphie, think you can fix whatever ails them?"
  
  "No."
  
  Everyone there looked at Paul.
  
  "Paul?" Zenith asked. "What"s the problem?"
  
  Crossing his arms over his chest, the man took on a particularly mulish look. "That paper lets you into the village. It lets you deal with monsters. It doesn"t let you see my daughters."
  
  "Are you fucking retarded?" I blurted out, my brain-to-mouth filter failing entirely as I finally hit my limit for bullshit. "What is your major malfunction? Did your mother drop you on your head as a child? Did you eat lead paint chips or drink out of lead cups? Take one too many blows to the head during your adventurer days? Or do you have to actually work at it to be this stupid?"
  
  Zenith put a hand over her mouth, a shocked look on her face. Lilia turned away, hiding the fact that she was fighting down a smile. Ghislaine had no such compunctions and laughed out loud. "Well, I do seem to recall Zenith healing more than one knock to his head."
  
  Taking a deep breath, I suggested, "Why don"t you all go inside for a bit while father and I talk."
  
  It may have been phrased as a question, but the tone sent Sylphie and Eris scurrying off-the first because she had never really seen me angry, the second because she knew the tone from personal experience and it had last preceded her being strung up naked overnight. Lilia followed after, but Zenith and Ghislaine remained behind. I sent a questioning look to the big cat-woman and she shrugged. "Making sure neither of you does something stupid."
  
  That was fair enough. As it stood, I was about a Chihuahua"s cunt hair from just zapping him and carrying on about my business and I knew from his body language that Paul really wanted to use his fists to make his point.
  
  Zenith, on the other hand, had crossed her arms over her breasts and was glaring at the man. "Husband, that"s enough. Or do you think it"s good for them to grow up not knowing their older brother? I agreed to sending Rudy to Roa because it would be good for him and help him to grow, not to keep him out of our daughters" lives."
  
  "I"d rather Rudeus be the big brother they look up to, working diligently away from home than have him meet them once or twice and break their hearts every time he has to leave." Okay, that was fairly sound logic for Paul- "I don"t like the idea of him getting into their heads and turning them against me, either."
  
  I take that back, he"s still an idiot.
  
  Sighing, I studied the man across from me and decided to try talking this out one more time. If it failed... I"d burn that bridge when I got to it. "I"ll make you a deal. You explain exactly what it is about me that bothers you so much, tell me what the hell I did to lose your trust. And use your words, not grunts and noises. You do that and explain it to my satisfaction, and I"ll leave. I"ll go back to Roa and stay there. I won"t come back to visit my family."
  
  "And if I can"t explain it in a way you like?"
  
  That was a pretty fair question. One I only had one answer to. Well, technically two. "The way I see it, that only goes one of two ways. Either I follow your example and just force my way onto other people..." Paul winced. "Or I"ll go back to Roa and I won"t come back. Probably take off for Shirone with Sylphie and pick up Roxy when I"m done teaching Eris. Spend a year or two labyrinth diving, then go to the university. When people ask me who I am, I"ll tell them I"m just Rudeus. And that will be the end of it."
  
  "No! You can"t!" Zenith yelled, latching onto me from behind and pulling me against her chest. "Please don"t, Rudy."
  
  "He"s not leaving me much choice," I pointed out.
  
  Running a hand over his face, Paul grumbled, "Neither of those are good choices, Rudeus."
  
  "You"re saying that like I"m the one being unreasonable here, Paul. I just want to see my sisters, who have no memory of me beyond whatever they"ve been told by mom, Lilia, Sylphie, and you. They"ve never met me and unlike me, I doubt they remember being babies. And if anyone"s turning someone against someone else, it"s you. Sylphie told me about her dad. I spoke with Sylvia, too. What gave you the right to tell that idiot I that I was a threat to his daughter just because Roxy and I have a thing? Just because she left doesn"t mean I started diddling Sylphie as a replacement for Roxy. And letting him spread it around the village? Do you have any idea what most of those people have been saying about me, behind my back? That I"m some kind of child molester or something. I"d actually be worried about my future here, if I intended to come back and live here once I got done with Ranoa. Now I"ve had to scrap that idea for a happy little place in the country with a wife and kids where I could be with family, because I"d have to worry that those idiots would say something stupid to them."
  
  "He-he didn"t mean for it to get that out of hand, Rudy," Zenith pleaded in my ear. "People took what they heard and twisted it-"
  
  "And what if my sisters heard that rumor?" I cut her off and felt Zenith wince against my back. "Why didn"t you do something about it?"
  
  "I have been!" Zenith protested. "But you know how people are once they"ve made their minds up about something."
  
  I sent a meaningful look at Paul. "Yeah, pretty much."
  
  Paul sighed. "And this is why I didn"t want your mother involved in this. You use some sob story and she"ll just give you what you want."
  
  "Sounds to me like you suspect I"ll do the same things you actually do, except because I"m smarter, I"ll do it better than you. I"m not," I almost said "your mini-me," "a smaller version of you. I"m my own person. I can make my own mistakes, thanks. Now, spit it out already."
  
  Paul went silent as he gave it some thought. "My own wife doesn"t trust my judgment anymore, Rudeus. Where you"re concerned, she"s always second guessing my decisions," he gestured at Zenith.
  
  "I wonder why that could be," Zenith murmured in an annoyed tone, low enough that I think only Ghislaine and I picked it up.
  
  I sent the man a flat look. "To be fair, you fucked up twice-almost three times, if Roxy hadn"t stepped in. Your judgment is questionable at best."
  
  Paul glared, but didn"t deny it. "You hid behind her coat tails instead of taking your punishment like a man."
  
  "What punishment?" I asked, incredulous. "For saving Sylphie from bullies? I"ll ask again, are you retarded? Or are you just pissed that someone stood up to you and you didn"t get to act on your gut instinct?"
  
  "Maybe I am," he admitted. "When a man comes to you with a problem, you shouldn"t let someone else deal with it Rudeus. Even if they"re in the wrong, you should face the consequences of it for yourself."
  
  Palming my face, I ground out. "Roxy was my master. She was involved in the situation. It was exactly her place to intercede on behalf of her student, the same way I would if someone wanted to come after Eris, Sylphie, or even Ghislaine for something they did that the master themselves approved of. I wasn"t hiding behind her coat tails. It"s a master"s duty to take responsibility for their student."
  
  "It"s a parent"s duty to discipline their child. A master shouldn"t stand between a parent and child," Paul waved a hand like he was dismissing my argument. "Then there"s Lilia. She thinks you can do no wrong since you stepped in and saved her and Aisha from my mess."
  
  "I did what any decent person would do and tried to keep a woman and her kid from being sent out into a blizzard to die because someone couldn"t keep it in his pants. I didn"t do it to get something over her-"
  
  "But that"s exactly what happened." Giving a rueful chuckle, he turned away as he continued to speak quietly. "She"s training up our daughter into some kind of maid, devoted solely to you. I want you to think about that a minute, Rudy. One of my women is training our daughter to serve my son."
  
  I shrugged. "I don"t see how that one"s my fault. I haven"t been involved in their lives since I was seven, as you"ll recall. And even if it were, it"s just housework and stuff. In a few years, I"ll be happy to hire Aisha on as a maid if that"s what she wants. Better than having her work in a castle or something. The nobles in those places are perverts and I don"t want them within a mile of my sister."
  
  Paul looked at me like I was an idiot. Behind me, Zenith sucked in a quiet breath. Even Ghislaine looked a bit awkward. Taking a deep breath, he visibly restrained himself. "Rudy, maids usually have sex with their masters."
  
  Blinking, I turned a confused look on the taller man. "Do what?" The man nodded. I looked first to Ghislaine then to Zenith, both of whom confirmed that. Studying the blonde, I asked, "Mom, what the fuck?"
  
  Zenith winced again. "I"ve tried to curb the worst of Lilia"s... Lilia-ness where Aisha is concerned, but even then she"s still getting one parent who says one thing and two more who say another. I don"t think it"s as bad as Paul makes it out to be."
  
  "Huh. Okay. Not really all that surprising, I suppose. I"m not planning to sleep with my half-sister."
  
  Lilia is really hot and Aisha is only a half-sister, though...
  
  I ignored dirty old man brain. "What else you got? Because those two are firmly not my fault. You brought the first one on yourself and I haven"t spoken with Lilia since leaving for Roa, so it"s not like I"m telling her how to raise my sister into the perfect sex toy. That"s on you and her, and it sounds like you two are doing all you can to keep Lilia from completely skewing Aisha"s worldview."
  
  Rubbing at his chin, Paul studied the ground at his feet. Some part of him was clearly reluctant to say whatever he wanted to say next, but eventually he spit it out. "I"ve known people like you before, Rudeus. People who were too smart for their own good, or the good of everyone around them. They thought they were so clever and treated everyone around them like shit. Or worse, they were nice. They used words and pretty smiles to twist the people around them into doing what they wanted. Turned them against friends and family with poisonous thoughts that, once they set in, couldn"t be gotten back out. I said it before, but sometimes, you look at us like insects. Like you"re looking at me right now. You have a silver tongue, Rudy. Even now, I feel like I"m being an idiot, but I know I"m right. If you can make me doubt myself..." He trailed off, shaking his head with a frustrated look.
  
  "That"s because you are being an idiot, husband," Zenith countered.
  
  Ghislaine nodded. "Definitely. I"ve never once seen Rudeus do any of that, and we both know who you"re talking about. He"s not like Geese."
  
  "Him or the Notos Greyrat family," I guessed, and Paul nodded. "I"m not your old party member, running off with everyone"s money to go gambling. I"m not one of the degenerate Notos nobles. Nor am I looking to screw over everyone around me. If all you see when you look at me is either Geese, the bad part of the family, or yourself then the problem lies with you-not me. Can you point to one thing I"ve done that would justify this? Can you name one thing that justifies keeping me away from my sisters, or convincing Laws I"m such a threat to his daughter that he has to keep me away at all costs when I"ve been nothing but kind to her? The man went from treating me like a future son-in-law to a stranger. What evidence do you have that justifies his family breaking up?"
  
  With a quiet "tch," Paul turned away. "Aside from going behind our backs to talk to Sylphie when we told you not to?"
  
  "I never agreed to that. I said I wouldn"t put messages in her lesson plans."
  
  "See what I mean? Twisting the truth," Paul grumbled.
  
  "If you mean "not blindly obeying you" or "telling you what you want to hear then ignoring you while I do what I have to," then sure. Now, do you have anything else?"
  
  "Nothing that we know of."
  
  "So your gut tells you I"m trouble and you refuse to believe any evidence to the contrary? Is that honestly how you feel?" I asked, and the man jerkily nodded, refusing to meet my eyes.
  
  I considered it for a few moments before shaking my head and gently pushing Zenith off of me. "Not good enough. Now, I"m going to go see my sisters-"
  
  Paul"s hand dropped to the hilt of his sword.
  
  Well, if that"s how you want to play it, okay then.
  
  Lightning danced between my fingers and over my staff. That was the obvious threat. The less obvious threat was the band of Telekinesis I"d slipped around his waist and was getting ready to use to hoist him into the air. I"d found that if you take away a swordsman"s traction, he couldn"t do much unless he either had some sort of energy attack like Ghislaine or threw his sword like a fucking idiot. A normal swordsman anyway-Eris, Sylphie, and myself notwithstanding.
  
  "I really don"t want to resort to your method of just brute forcing whatever I want from people. Last chance to see reason. Move or I"m going through you."
  
  "I won"t let you, Rudeus."
  
  Before we could settle things one way or another, and it looked very much like Ghislaine had taken Zenith by the arm and pulled her away so we could do exactly that, the front door to the house burst open and two little almost four year old girls came bounding out. I dispelled my lightning as my eyes turned towards my sisters-Sylphie, Eris, and Lilia trailing after them.
  
  "Big brother!" the redhead of the two yelled, crashing into my knees and hugging with a force that nearly popped the joint.
  
  The blonde of the two looked between me and Paul before latching onto Paul"s leg. "Why does everyone look angry at papa?" she demanded, glaring at me.
  
  "Well sweetie," I began.
  
  "Rudy, be quiet. Norn, we weren"t-"
  
  "It"s because papa thinks I"ve done something bad, or might do something bad, and doesn"t want me to see you," I gave the simplest answer as Eris, Sylphie, and Lilia came to stand with me and Aisha. The former maid ran a hand through her daughter"s hair fondly, before reaching out and pulling the both of us against her.
  
  "Damnit Rudeus," Paul tossed my way.
  
  Norn looked between me and Paul before turning a questioning look at Zenith. "Did he, mama?"
  
  "No, dear. It"s a misunderstanding on your father"s part-"
  
  Paul shook his head, putting his hand on top of Norn"s head. "I didn"t misunderstand."
  
  Wish a tired sigh, I asked, "How about we ask the supposed aggrieved party? Sylphie, what do you say? Did I ever do anything bad to you?"
  
  Sylphie hummed, putting a finger to her lips and pretending to consider it. From the smile on her lips, I could see she was teasing a bit. "Well, Rudy was very rough sometimes in training. And his water spells were always so cold."
  
  "I"ve noticed that," Eris agreed, sending me a glare.
  
  "It taught you to dodge, didn"t it?" I grinned.
  
  The girl grumbled but nodded. Sylphie smiled. "Beyond that, no. Rudy never did anything bad. The village thinks he pushed me down and did things to me, but he didn"t."
  
  "Rudeus buried me up to my neck in the dirt and made me drink out of a dog bowl and pee myself when I needed to use the bathroom." Everyone present save for Ghislaine and myself stared at Eris. Seemingly oblivious to this, she continued, "Then he stripped me naked and left me outside overnight."
  
  "Eris, you"re not helping," I found myself facepalming again. "Just stop talking."
  
  "What? It"s true," she shrugged. "I... It sucks to admit it, but I kind of needed the wake-up call. When Rudeus first showed up, I thought he was just some know-it-all brat looking down on me, so I tried to attack him like some mad dog. He... kicked my ass up and down the halls, stuck me in the ground, and told me that ladies get to eat at the table but dogs eat from a bowl on the ground and gave me the choice of which one I wanted to be. I tried to attack someone I had just met just because he said something that made me mad. I don"t even remember what it was. Probably something stupid."
  
  Sighing, she added, "I was so stupid that I got us kidnapped and it took getting beaten twice and Rudy threatening to leave me for the kidnappers to find for me to pull my head out of my ass. If he"s done anything bad to me, it"s because I deserved it or needed it so I would stop being bad." Reaching down, she hesitantly patted Aisha on the head, causing the girl to start a bit before leaning into it as she began cautiously scratching Aisha"s scalp in much the same way one would a cat. "I wish I"d had a brother like Rudeus growing up, but both of mine were taken from me. I don"t even remember their faces."
  
  Her red eyed gaze turned to glare at Paul. "That"s why this whole thing pisses me off! Where do you get off trying to separate siblings over something so stupid?! Are you trying to be like my uncle? Because that"s what it looks like!"
  
  Paul sighed. "You"re both too young to understand."
  
  "I"m twelve. I understand," Eris growled.
  
  "Alright, that"s enough," Zenith called. "Paul, Lilia, Ghislaine, why don"t we go inside and catch up? Let the kids play for a while."
  
  "No-"
  
  "Now, Paul." Paul flinched at the tone. I did too. I remembered it well, because I"d only heard it once, the last time Zenith got fed up with Paul"s bullshit. This time, I wasn"t going to step in and intervene on his behalf. I could hear Paul"s teeth grinding as he turned and marched for the house. Zenith followed beside him, after pushing Norn in our general direction.
  
  As they went, I heard Zenith say, "This stops now. No, don"t give me that look. You won"t convince me again. I"ve heard your side of things and I"ve heard theirs. Ghislaine can answer questions for us, but from what I"ve seen, you"re worried about nothing. And if you don"t stop, things are going to turn out like they did for Laws. Is that what you want?"
  
  The door closed behind the last of the "adults" and I sent a look down to Aisha and Norn. "So..."
  
  I had no idea where to start. Sylphie, on the other hand, asked, "Why don"t you tell your brother which of the toys he sent you is your favorite?"
  
  Norn looked unsure and a little surly. "The pony with the horn."
  
  "That"s a unicorn," I corrected. With a bit of magic, I had a stone table and chairs rising from the ground for us to sit in. Aisha looked like Christmas had come early while Norn... looked slightly impressed but was trying mightily to hide it.
  
  "I like the fox," Aisha beamed, claiming my lap as soon as I sat down. Norn opted to sit across from me, while Sylphie took the left and Eris the right. "I thought the red was pretty."
  
  It wasn"t quite the right color of red, being some paint I"d had left over from making Eris" bike, but as long as she liked it I wasn"t going to complain. "What kind of-"
  
  "Why don"t you visit?" Norn interrupted me.
  
  I winced. Aisha turned on my lap to study my face. "Because our father doesn"t want me to."
  
  "Then why are you here now?" the little blonde asked belligerently.
  
  Sylphie fielded that one. "Because the village was in danger. Even then, Mr. Paul didn"t want Rudy in the village."
  
  "My grandfather is the lord of the region. He gave Rudy permission to be here and your father still tried to keep you from seeing him. What do you think would"ve happened if he had just showed up out of the blue? I mean, it"s not like he couldn"t," Eris asked.
  
  "Is that why it looked like you were going to fight?" Norn glared my way.
  
  "Pretty much. We"re both stubborn in our own way. I may not want to fight him, but if it was to see you, I would. I never agreed to this whole "no contact" thing. At first, it was just to keep me from seeing Sylphie, but I guess at some point that came to include you as well. I wouldn"t have left if I thought this was going to happen."
  
  Norn and Aisha shared a look before Aisha asked, "Why are you teaching Ms. Eris?"
  
  "Because I asked our father to see if he could get me a job, so I could make enough money to pay for Sylphie and I to go to Ranoa College of Magic. Her parents couldn"t afford it and at the time it looked to be the best option. Now? I could probably pay for tuition for all of us and not notice the money was gone. I"ve already sent off a letter asking after their fees so I can set aside money for the two of you to go."
  
  "Okay," Aisha nodded, "but why are you teaching her? Isn"t she older than you?"
  
  Eris had the decency to blush at that. I sent the older redhead an amused look. "Well, you see, Eris was a very bad girl," Eris" blush deepened and I earmarked that phrase for later exploration in a more lewd situation, maybe in a few years, "and she kept running off her teachers."
  
  "Rudeus was the only one other than Ghislaine who stood up to me," Eris supplied quietly. "The rest weren"t worth my time. But your brother has been great." Surprising me to the point of shock, Eris bowed in her seat. "Thank you for letting me borrow him."
  
  Huh, so she does know the meaning of the words "best behavior." And actually has a "best behavior" to be on. This day"s just full of surprises.
  
  Norn and Aisha were quiet for a few, before they traded another of those looks. Finally, Norn asked, "What"s it like in the city?"
  
  "Crowded, stinking, loud, and generally messy. But it can be fun. I"d rather be here, but I don"t think I can convince Eris" dad to ship her off out to the country for her to learn. Or rather, her grandfather," I corrected myself, earning a quiet laugh and a nod from Eris.
  
  "What do you do for fun?" Aisha asked.
  
  "How about we take turns asking things about each other? That way, it"s not just one-sided," I suggested.
  
  Aisha and Norn nodded before Norn added, "As long as we both each get a question."
  
  I nodded in agreement. "That"s fine. Now, as for fun... I like to play with magic and build things, mostly with magic. Has Sylphie shown you her bike?" They both nodded. "I made those. Oh! Here, I made these too." Focusing on what I wanted, I summoned a pair of phones from the lab and handed one to each girl. "These are for you. Now, we can talk any time we want. Keep them on you and don"t let anyone take them, okay?"
  
  And so, for the first time in years, I got to spend the day with my sisters.
  
  I was a bit disappointed when Ghislaine came out, Lilia and Zenith trailing her, and informed me that we needed to head back soon. Lilia presented me with a cloth wrapped bundle containing a set of what looked like gauntlets or something for my birthday, apparently from the three of them. I gave a phone each to Zenith and Lilia and traded hugs all around before we left.
  
  Sprite directed us out of the village, to a small hill overlooking the forest, where we found a large pile of furs, fangs, claws, and monster cores. The prize of the batch was a large red core half the size of my fist that Sprite said came from some sort of big fire bear, along with said bear"s fur. I Sent the whole pile back to the bunker with the drone.
  
  As we made our way back, I wondered what I could do to improve the situation. Doesn"t really sound like I can do anything other than avoid dealing with Paul. Write him off and call it a day. All future dealings go through Zenith or Lilia alone. I"ve already given everyone that matters a phone, and Sprite can just Send them back to Norn or Aisha if Paul tries to take them away.
  
  It sucked that our relationship had soured that much, but I knew from experience that sometimes, you had to cut your losses and walk away.
  
  Or set the bridge on fire and watch it burn.
  
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  sinereal, Mar 24, 2021Report#4715Like+ QuoteReply
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  sinereal
  sinereal
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  Obligatory warning/disclaimer.
  Lewds ahead.
  Characters fully lewded: Rudeus (Lewdy), Ghislaine, Eris.
  Characters partially lewded: Sylphie, Roxy.
  Tags: shota, loli, older woman, threesome, voyeurism, involuntary exhibitionism, masturbation, watersports (magic), bondage, tentacles, sex in the missionary position for the purpose of procreation, handholding.
  
  
  Once we got back to Roa, I summoned up what we needed to show for proof of the completed mission, along with the furs (other than the bear, which was going to become a bearskin rug) and we collected our pay, to astonished looks and whispers from the guild workers who they had to call up to come move it all.
  
  We made it back to the manor and rolled up to the shed to put our bikes away. I Sent my bladed staff back to the lab, along with my pack. Stretching out, I yawned. "I"m kind of tired, so I think I"ll turn in-"
  
  "No you don"t!" Eris yelled, grabbing one of my arms while Sylphie took the other. Together, the pair dragged me through the mansion towards the dining room. "You"re not ruining this for us!"
  
  "Ruining what?" I asked. When the younger girls refused to answer, I turned a questioning look on Ghislaine, who simply smiled and shook her head.
  
  I found out the "what" shortly after, as we entered the dining room. "We"re back!" Eris called, kicking open the door.
  
  Applause sounded across the room and I blinked as I took in the people gathered there. Sauros, Phillip, Hilda, Sylvia with Elin in her arms, the staff, and of course Sylphie, Eris, and Ghislaine. "Happy birthday, Rudeus!" they shouted, and I wondered if they practiced that.
  
  Eris and the Boreas family have made me feel more welcome and gone to greater lengths for me today than my own family. That is... depressing.
  
  "I uh, thank you all," I smiled, taking a small bow. Alright Rudy, get it together. Eris was right, even if she didn"t realize it. This is for them. Doesn"t matter how I feel.
  
  I put on my best smile and took Eris and Sylphie about the waist, pulling them into my sides with a quiet "eep!" from the redhead and a laugh from the greenette. Then, I played the role of the happily surprised young man as I spent time with the people who had become friends and family to me over the years. I put thoughts of Buena Village from my mind for a while and simply enjoyed myself.
  
  At one point during the festivities, I caught Ghislaine slipping over to speak with Phillip and Sauros. Casting my preferred wind-based audio eavesdropping spell, I listened in with half an ear as Eris told me about the frankly amazing staff that was Aqua Heartia. Shame about the chuuni name though.
  
  "How bad was it?" Phillip was asking.
  
  Ghislaine. "Bad. "Send three parties" bad."
  
  Sauros. "How did you deal with it?"
  
  Ghislaine. "Rudeus used a Saint-level Wind manipulation spell. No one even knew he had cast until he announced that he was done. I asked afterwards and he explained that it was an idea he had toyed with before-essentially removing the stuff we breathe from the air in an area, so whatever"s inside suffocates."
  
  Phillip. "Well, that"s nasty. And about what we"ve come to expect from Rudeus. How bad was my cousin?"
  
  Ghislaine. "The usual."
  
  Sauros. "So a stubborn fool. Did Rudeus injure him?"
  
  Ghislaine. "No. Sadly. I kind of wanted to see him twitch on the ground again."
  
  Sauros snorted. "Of course."
  
  "Rudy! Are you listening?" Eris demanded, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring.
  
  I smiled. "Sorry Eris, I got distracted."
  
  The girl huffed, turning her head away. "Well, I suppose it"s fine. So, do you like it?"
  
  "I love it."
  
  Looking over the crowd, I found Sylphie had migrated over to speak to her mother. Taking Eris by the arm, I pulled her along and went to go see Sylvia and Elin.
  
  The night wore on. I ate good food and cake, Eris and Sylphie chattered away, and we generally had a great time. Eventually, Eris fell asleep after getting into the wine and had to be carried to her room by Ghislaine. Sylphie decided to go to bed early, after walking Sylvia and her sister home. Hilda left shortly after Eris, taking a bottle with her after giving me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Sauros snagged a beast-kin maid and made off with a lecherous look, so I had a feeling he was making his way up to the tower for a bit of nighttime fun. Phillip, however, waved me over to sit with him.
  
  "Did you ever wonder why Eris doesn"t have any siblings, Rudeus?"
  
  I had, but had written it off to miscarriages or infant mortality. Zenith had problems getting pregnant, so I kind of assumed that was the norm. At least, I had before Eris blurted it out today when she confronted Paul. "I had. I thought she was an only child until today. Eris said her brothers were taken away?"
  
  Phillip nodded his head. "Eris has two brothers. An older brother and a younger. The younger one is as old as you are now."
  
  He then went on to explain the Boreas family tradition-a continuous fight to inherit the title of head of the family-and what it meant. Phillip lost their little pissing match and James, his brother, demanded that any male children Phillip or his other brothers have be sent to the capitol, to be adopted by James. Essentially, they were kept as hostages to keep the family, and especially Phillip, from turning against James. And for the Boreas family, this was just tradition. If Phillip had won, he would have done the same.
  
  Then, he told me of his plan to use Eris to wrest control of the family back from his brother, by wedding Eris to his brother"s eldest son.
  
  "This is Eris we"re talking about. She"ll kill him the moment he tries to lay his hands on her." She would, too. And she probably wouldn"t stop there. No, knowing her as I did, put into that situation Eris would cut a bloody swathe straight back to Roa.
  
  "I know," Phillip nodded. "That was the plan. Why I had Ghislaine train her so hard. Why, before you stepped in, I never truly curbed her... let us say unladylike ways."
  
  Considering that he was telling me this out in the open, I had a feeling that plan had been scrapped. "So, what changed your mind?"
  
  "You did, Rudeus. You"re a King-level mage at your age. You turn out inventions that are on the way to seeing Roa surpass Ars within the next five years seemingly with minimal effort. And perhaps most importantly, you know how to handle my Eris. You"ve been kind to her, but stern as needed, and I see she"s becoming a fine young lady thanks to your efforts. She"s even made another friend, in the form of Sylphiette-another stupendously powerful mage."
  
  "So, mostly because I"ve got power and make it rain money. Fair enough," I conceded.
  
  Phillip laughed quietly, shaking his head. "Did you know that Hilda sees you as a son now, even though she hated you when you first came to us? She resented you, because you go to live the life her boys didn"t."
  
  "Well, I knew she didn"t like me. All I did was talk to her and spend time with her," I shrugged. I usually spent a lot of time in the library, when I wasn"t busy with other pursuits. Especially recently, after Roxy sent me a book on the Demon language and I started learning that, Sword-God language, and Beast-God language (from Ghislaine). Hilda loved to read and, between that and flying, we had found common ground and become close.
  
  Phillip smiled, leaning back in his chair as he asked, "How would you feel about marrying Eris and taking on the Boreas name? I"ll give Eris to you right now if you accept."
  
  I laughed quietly, suspecting he was joking. This was the man who had hired me on the basis of not being like my father and going after his daughter, after all. When he only raised an eyebrow and I saw he was completely serious, I laughed harder. Eventually, I settled myself down enough to respond. "Eris has no interest in me as a future husband. Pretty sure she knows she"s got competition there in the form of Roxy and Sylphie."
  
  "I think you"re mistaken."
  
  I considered it for a moment before realizing that he may be correct. She was exhibiting all the classic signs of a tsundere interested in someone. I"d just sort of been tuning it out for the most part... My relationship status was complicated enough as it was without adding "violent, territorial tsundere" to the mix. That, and I didn"t want to know what the girls got up to in their "girls only" calls, where they occasionally invited Ghislaine and/or Hilda.
  
  On the other hand, is Eris all that territorial? Competitive with Sylphie, sure. But if she were territorial, she"d have been a bit more... fighty with Sylphie and she hasn"t been. Sure, they disagree on some things, but for the most part they enjoy each other"s company.
  
  "Okay, say you"re right. Even if she were interested, and setting aside my own goal of pursuing my former master and the thing with Sylphie, I wouldn"t want to force her into something she isn"t ready for. Nor do I have any interest in inter-family politics. I have a low tolerance for bullshit and if your brother sent someone after me, I"d wind up removing him as a future threat. ...Which I suspect you already accounted for when you asked."
  
  The man across from me nodded. "I had considered the possibility, yes. He already had, when he discovered that you"re involved in Roa"s sudden economic boom. I"ve been keeping a lid on it, but there"s only so much father and I can do. It was inevitable that he would find out. The kidnappers of that group you brought in a while back were sent by James, through a few cutouts. The assassins, we suspect were sent by someone higher up the layer cake that is the nobility."
  
  "So, I suppose that means I"ll be paying him a visit personally soon, then. I"ll need to know where he lives. As for the other group, there isn"t much of anyone higher than the Lords..." I blinked, realizing what he meant. "Oh. Royalty."
  
  "Most likely. They were fed false information and after finding the first cutout, the trail went cold. It was probably a test to see if you were vulnerable at all, not a serious attempt. If it were serious, you"d be dead."
  
  "Well, that"s scary," I muttered. "I hate politics."
  
  "Mm. Well, as for that, you could just be a figurehead and I would take care of everything. It won"t stop any potential assassination attempts, unfortunately."
  
  I fell silent as I thought it over. It"s not a terrible idea. It would put me in a better position to begin distributing information and techniques to improve Roa and potentially provide some protection from the royal family if they decided to try to chain me to a desk somewhere, cranking out weapons of war or have me killed, depending on which faction we"re dealing with. The problem is, Phillip lost this battle and Paul ran away from it, so what chance do I have of winning other than brute force? Not that that isn"t apparently an acceptable route to victory. And on the other hand, there are a lot of things I want to see, learn, and do before I lock myself down in any one place. Go to Ranoa College of Magic with Sylphie, do some adventuring with Roxy and Sylphie, maybe bring Eris along for the ride...
  
  "I"m not saying no," I began, putting my thoughts to words, "just not yet. Not without Eris agreeing and us working something out with Roxy. If they can"t agree on something, I"d call it off. And I wouldn"t just be a puppet. You would have to teach me everything I need to know."
  
  "Of course."
  
  "Then I"ll give it some thought."
  
  We said our goodnights and I headed off to my room for bed. Opening the door, I raised an eyebrow as I found Ghislaine waiting at my table. Drinking my alcohol, no less.
  
  "Well, this is a surprise," I muttered, closing the door and moving to sit at the table. "What"s up?"
  
  Ghislaine eyed me as she sipped at her drink. Taking the bottle, I conjured a glass of ice and poured a bit for myself. "Eris wanted to join you tonight, you know? For more than just sleep."
  
  Chuckling at that, I took a sip and winced at the burn. Still wasn"t used to the stuff going down. Then again, if I ever did get used to it, I should probably take that as a bad sign and stop altogether. "You change her mind?"
  
  The beast-kin woman shook her head. "She passed out. Too much to drink."
  
  "Not surprised. Hope she"s not picking up a bad habit."
  
  Ghislaine studied me for a while as we sat in comfortable silence. Finally, she asked, "You"re not going back, are you?"
  
  "You"re smarter than you look," I sent the woman a teasing grin, earning a halfhearted kick at my shin under the table. "How did you know?"
  
  "I"ll tell you if you answer."
  
  I nodded. "No, I don"t think I will be. I"m done with Paul, until he can dig his head out of his ass. I don"t know what it"s going to take to convince him that I"m not what he thinks I am and I"m not willing to try any more. I"m about this," I held up my fingers, about a hair"s width apart, "close to just saying "fuck it" and giving up the Greyrat name entirely."
  
  The entire situation had gotten on my nerves, but I had gone into it expecting some sort of confrontation. The thing with Aisha though, that kind of pissed me off in retrospect. Honestly, I felt like Paul and Zenith were exaggerating a bit there. Or a lot. After speaking with the girl, she seemed normal enough. Any clinginess on her part could easily be put down to finally getting to meet her older brother and wanting to be close to him.
  
  And even they weren"t... I mean, sure, some of my favorite doujin search tags were "little sister" and "maids," but if you"re going to judge a man by his porn preferences, you may as well go ahead and throw in "elves," "milf," "oyakodon," "mind control," and a few more besides. The idea of a little sister maid character was appealing in porn. In real life? Not so much. Kind of like mother/son or aunt/son incest. Great fap material, probably not great IRL. In other words, I wasn"t particularly interested.
  
  "Mm." Ghislaine nodded. "And what will you do?"
  
  Humming quietly, I considered the woman in front of me. I killed the rest of my drink and let the cup evaporate into water vapor. "When my contract here expires, I"ll ask Phillip and Sauros if they want to let Eris stretch her wings a bit. I"ll take Sylphie and Eris if they"ll let her go, track down Roxy, and we"ll go adventuring for a while. Then I"ll see about going to Ranoa."
  
  Ghislaine sipped at her drink and I asked, "What did they say while you four were talking?"
  
  "They asked me questions about your time with Eris. I told them the truth that I hadn"t seen anything strange. Paul seems to think you"re working to turn everyone against him. Especially Zenith and Lilia. Why does he think that? Have you, somehow?"
  
  Considering it a moment, I shook my head. "Not really. Like I told him, any doubt they have of him is because of his own fuck-ups. I think he just doesn"t want to face up to it. At worst, Lilia may feel indebted to me because I kept her and Aisha from being thrown out in the middle of a blizzard when Paul got caught after knocking her up."
  
  "Then it sounds like he"s just being an idiot."
  
  I couldn"t help but agree there, but I had a feeling it was likely deeper than that. At a guess, he probably felt insecure in his position as husband and father at the moment-especially since I kicked his ass the last time he tried to get his way with brute force and someone wasn"t standing between us. That was entirely his own fault though. I didn"t start the fight, but as my original father and grandfather always taught me, I sure as hell ended it. If his ego couldn"t take the licking, maybe he should stop thinking with his muscles.
  
  Her curiosity seemingly satisfied, Ghislaine said, "I could smell it."
  
  Raising an eyebrow, I asked, "Oh? Do you mean metaphorically or literally?"
  
  "I mean with my nose. You smelled sad."
  
  "Literally, then," I nodded. "That"s kind of cool. Also, worrying. What does it smell like and what else can you smell?"
  
  Ghislaine shrugged, studying her drink. "Doesn"t smell great. And people put off different scents depending on how they"re feeling. Around here, I"m mostly smelling people who are horny."
  
  Snickering, I asked, "Let me guess. Sauros and Phillip?"
  
  "And Hilda. Eris lately, too," the swordswoman added ruefully. "Or Sylphiette, around you."
  
  I blinked, and if I"d been drinking something at the time I likely would have drowned. "She"s nine!"
  
  Ghislaine shrugged. "That age comes on sooner for different people."
  
  Sighing, I thumped my head on the table. I eyed the bottle, seriously considering another glass. Turning a curious look on me, Ghislaine said, "But I don"t get that from you. Not all the time, anyway. Only after we"ve been training."
  
  "What can I say? You"re an attractive woman, Ghislaine," I sent her a grin.
  
  "Or when one of the maids tries to get a rise out of you," she added, almost as an afterthought.
  
  I rolled my eyes. "I knew they were doing it intentionally, but I could never prove it. Do they enjoy the attention or something?"
  
  Ghislaine nodded. "Most of them do. I"ve spoken with them. They felt it was strange that you were a Greyrat but didn"t stare at their ears or tails, and didn"t smell aroused any time one of them was around. So they"ve made a game out of seeing who could get a reaction."
  
  "I was taught not to look at women like a starving wolf eyes up a steak."
  
  "Zenith"s doing," she came to the most likely conclusion, even if it was wrong.
  
  I blinked as something she had said registered. "Wait. Ghislaine, did you just... make an innuendo?"
  
  The woman nodded. "Did I do it right?"
  
  "It came out so smooth I almost missed it," I admitted. Deciding this deserved recognition, I gave her a golf clap. "Well done."
  
  "Thank you," she smiled.
  
  Yawning, I stood and snagged the bottle she had pilfered, moving it back to its cabinet. Fishing my phone out of my pocket, I put it on the dresser for the night. "Well, it"s been... a really long day. I"m going to turn in."
  
  "Mm." Draining the rest of her drink, the big cat-woman stood and I turned away to start undressing.
  
  Something hit the ground behind me. I frowned, wondering if it was the glass, and turned to look only to find Ghislaine had dropped her top. Pausing in unbuttoning my shirt, I stared for a moment before shaking myself out of my momentary stupor at the sight of those magnificent massive mammaries in all their tanned, surprisingly perky glory. "This is probably a stupid question," I began.
  
  "Probably," Ghislaine agreed with an amused look as she kicked off her boots.
  
  "What are you doing?"
  
  "I thought that was obvious. Are you sure you"re Paul"s son?" she asked as her sword belt hit the floor and she began working her way out of her shorts.
  
  I reached up and pinched the bridge of my nose. "Fair enough. Better question then. Why are you doing it?"
  
  "I didn"t really think that far," Ghislaine shrugged. "Do you want to or not?"
  
  On the one hand, Roxy, Sylphie, Eris, and a whole handful of reasons I probably shouldn"t.
  
  On the other hand, I was horny, she was there (and apparently also ready to go). And a good lay would help work off some of the frustration left over from the day.
  
  Puberty had hit me early, so the fact that I had enough spare blood and could fight through the hormones to even parse that I probably shouldn"t was a minor miracle.
  
  For just a moment, I felt like the dog that had finally caught the car. "Now what do I do with it?"
  
  Eh, fuck it. I"ve always wanted to try mountain climbing.
  
  I sent her a smile and resumed working on the buttons of my shirt. "I guess we"re both asking stupid questions tonight." I watched her finish undressing as I shucked my own clothes off, admiring the woman"s tan skin and muscular-yet-womanly build. "Since we"re on the subject of stupid questions," I toed off my boots and undid my belt. "Are you up for something... different?"
  
  Ghislaine raised an eyebrow. "I"ve taken it in the ass before. It"s not that fun," she shrugged.
  
  "Not in my need to know category and not what I meant." Holding out a hand, I focused on summoning water. What came out was a phallic shape covered in bumps. Manipulating the surface tension, I made sure it was flexible and soft, while about the rigidity of rubber. A bit more magic made it around body temperature. I hadn"t wanted to expose this world to the idea of magical sex toys based on those from Earth if they didn"t already have their own, but it was a spell and I think maybe two other people in the entire world had a chance of duplicating it with magic alone, and it wouldn"t be leaving my bedroom anyway...
  
  Ghislaine stared. "What in the world?"
  
  I patted the bed. "Come on. Lay down and we"ll see how it does." Ghislaine looked briefly unsure, so I goaded her a little. "Or not. I mean, it is an untested magical technique. Perfectly normal to be a little leery of it-"
  
  The beast-kin woman dropped down onto the bed and spread her legs, scooting up close to the edge and leaning forward so she could watch. "I"ve seen stranger. You can try your toy but after that, I"m going to try to break the bed with your hips. Hope you"ve got healing magic ready."
  
  "Deal."
  
  Despite her stoic demeanor, Ghislaine was clearly aroused, as evidenced by the trickle of slick wetness dripping from her lips, hidden under a neatly trimmed bush the same color as her hair. I had never actually explored a beast-kin though, so I dismissed my construct for the moment and got to work doing just that, to her surprise.
  
  "Ah, you don"t have to-" Ghislaine sucked in a quiet breath as I licked tentatively at her. "But I won"t say no."
  
  Yeah, didn"t think so, I rolled my eyes, getting a good taste of the woman. Like Roxy, I"d have to file her under "odd, but not bad."
  
  From there, I began exploring with my fingers, finding everything to be pretty much as I expected from a human woman, again just as with Roxy. It"s probably bad form to compare a current lover with a former one, but it was all in the name of science-or so I would claim if pressed. I was, after all, cataloging what was effectively an alien species from what we"d had on Earth. Maybe I should take a page from Interspecies Reviewers and hit up brothels, write a book reviewing various species. Nah.
  
  Reigning in my wandering mind, I checked on Ghislaine and found her watching me with rapt attention. Her breathing was steady and deep, but the way her eyes (both visible now that she could control her demon eye) lidded and the barely noticable flush to her skin, and the way she occasionally twitched when I hit the right spot told me she was enjoying it. Okay, let"s see how long she can stay quiet then.
  
  Water reformed in my hand, taking on the shape I wanted, and I flopped it against Ghislaine"s lower lips, sending a smile up at her. "Ready?"
  
  "Sure," she agreed easily, spreading her legs a bit wider in anticipation.
  
  The watery pseudo-cock slid in easily. A hand on her leg let me cast Diagnose-the diagnostic medical spell I"d finally gotten working-bouncing the spell to Sprite to filter information I didn"t need, who bounced the results back to my head with what I wanted to know. Namely, how she was reacting and if I was doing something to hurt her.
  
  With Ghislaine"s body unable to lie to me regardless of what her mouth had to say (or not say, as she had maintained her silence so far as she watched), I set about adjusting the spell for maximum effect. Adjusting the girth, length, angle, and shape. Then, I sent Sprite the mental request for what I wanted to know next and the spirit of intelligence painted me a mental picture of Ghislaine"s insides, her nervous system around the area I was interested in, every last one of her erogenous zones. Then, I adjusted the shape of my spell again, adding protrusions-bumps, knobs, and other shapes and adapting as her body responded.
  
  Ghislaine quickly began to squirm where she sat, her even breathing growing ragged. "Rudeus, w-what-"
  
  Awe, isn"t that cute? Her voice cracked! I suppressed a leer, focusing on the internal structure of the spell, then directed the watery interior to spin and flex. The effects were immediately apparent as Ghislaine went taut like a drawn bow for a handful of seconds before collapsing backwards onto the bed, hands pawing weakly at the sheets. Yeah, she just came. And this is why we don"t want to use these things too much. Don"t want them to get used to it. Still, Ghislaine"s a big girl, she can take a little roughhousing, just this once.
  
  I began throttling the spell"s internal RPM up and down while stretching it further inside of her-wider and longer-and curving here and there to put more pressure in one area versus another so she would never quite adapt to it. The bed creaked ominously, my sheets starting to tear in places under the woman"s claws. And finally, she began to howl, wail, and moan as it became too much for her to handle. Ghislaine"s hips rocked back and forth as every muscle in her body appeared to twitch all at once.
  
  Eris yawned sleepily as someone shook her shoulder. "Eris, get up."
  
  "Wha-?" the girl murmured, feeling strangely both tired and not. Her mother leaned over her bed, pulling her covers off and helping Eris to sit up. "Mom?"
  
  "Come on, hurry up. Let"s go get you cleaned up."
  
  "Huh?" Eris blinked blearily as her head began to clear, allowing herself to be pulled along by her elbow towards the nearest bathroom. There, she was unceremoniously stripped and veritably thrown into a hub of hot water. "Gah!"
  
  Eris struggled as Hilda took a scrub brush and soap to her body. "What are you doing?!" the younger redhead finally got out.
  
  "You nearly missed your chance to seduce Rudeus," Hilda explained, using a bucket to rinse her daughter off and starting to work on her hair. "You shouldn"t emulate your grandfather"s drinking habits."
  
  "What about yours instead?" Eris snarked, standing up and using the soap and a wash cloth to start scrubbing everything that had been underwater.
  
  Eris flinched as Hilda popped her daughter"s pale ass, a strangled noise escaping her lips. "Don"t sass me, young lady," Hilda chastised. She blinked as she looked up to see Eris" reaction, then smirked upon seeing two very obvious tells. "You should have him do that to you. Your father and I enjoy a little bit of discipline-"
  
  Eris plugged her ears. "I can"t hear you!"
  
  Hilda giggled, then reached over and flipped the shower on as she hit the switch for the drain. Moving away, she collected a towel and dried her hands. She turned around to find Eris stepping out of the tub and wind blowing around the girl. "Stop that!" she called, rushing over and throwing the towel over her daughter.
  
  "Why?" Eris asked. "This is how we always dry off."
  
  The older woman sighed. "Trust me. The "fresh out of the bath" look is sexier."
  
  Eris set about drying herself off, mostly focusing on getting the water out of her hair-but apparently not too much. "Why am I seducing Rudy tonight? I"ve already got a thing worked out with Sylphie and Roxy where we agree to share him."
  
  "Even better. I had hoped you two girls would work something out. Sylphiette is adorable and would be a lovely addition to the family, as would that master of his. But that doesn"t mean you can just take it for granted. You have to secure your position."
  
  "Uh huh," Eris stared at her mother through the curtain of her hair as she worked on it. "And why do you want this?"
  
  Hilda"s answer caught her by surprise. "I want Rudeus as my son. I like him and he"s good for you."
  
  "And what does father think?" Eris asked, flipping her long hair back and letting it lay against her back. Taking the red, sheer silk night dress her mother handed her, she pulled it on and pulled her hair through it, before turning around so her mother could run a brush through her hair.
  
  "He agrees that Rudy is a fine match for you, but you know him. He"s more interested in the political aspects."
  
  Eris snorted softly. "Rudy doesn"t have the patience for politics. The first person to get in his way is going to get struck down by lightning. Any people stupid enough to send assassins are going to wind up with a dragon stomping through their town."
  
  Looking down at herself, Eris sighed. "Are you sure he"s even going to want me?"
  
  Hilda chuckled. "You forget, I"ve spoken with the woman he"s so infatuated with. She"s a Migurd. She"ll never develop any further than she is now, physically. You, on the other hand," Hilda reached out and cupped her daughter"s small breasts, earning a squeak, before she let go and hefted her own considerably sized breasts. "I expect you still have some growing left to do." Turning Eris towards the door, she patted the girl on the bottom and sent her on her way. "Now, go on. This is the one step you can take before Sylphiette or Roxy. I suggest you do it now."
  
  Eris took a shaky breath before nodding and hurrying down the hall. Her mother was right, Roxy and Sylphie were so far ahead of her that the only way to catch up would be to steal a march on them.
  
  Making her way to Rudy"s room, she paused at the door as she heard conversation inside. The door wasn"t entirely shut all the way, the wood having shifted slightly as the temperature warmed as tended to happen around this time every year, so it had likely popped out. Pressing on it just a bit, Eris risked a look inside as she listened. What she saw was Ghislaine stand up from her chair as Rudy moved towards his bed, clearly starting to get ready to retire for the night. Good, I"ll just wait for her to leave and-
  
  Eris" thoughts froze as Ghislaine pulled her top off and let it fall to the floor. The much larger woman was turned side on, so Eris had a decent view of her tits. Sure, she had bathed with Ghislaine before and always appreciated the view, but this was... so much different, with Rudy in the same room and taking off his own clothes. Eris" heart pounded in her chest and her nipples grew almost uncomfortably hard as the thought crossed her mind that maybe, just maybe, Rudy and Ghislaine were about to, to have sex.
  
  No, there"s no way.
  
  Her mouth grew parched and her throat constricted as Rudy turned at some noise from Ghislaine. Eris" eyes left Ghislaine"s absolutely amazing tanned form for the body of her younger friend, teacher, and... the boy she kind of had a crush on. He was smaller than her, but those muscles! Rudy worked just as hard as herself and Ghislaine when it came to training-perhaps more, some days-and he had earned the body to show for it, even at this young age. And she knew he was far from done growing.
  
  Abs, Eris suddenly found that her case of dry mouth had been replaced by drool.
  
  "This is probably a stupid question."
  
  Definitely! Stop asking stupid questions and read the mood, Rudy! she practically shouted at him in the privacy of her mind. Ghislaine, it seemed, shared her assessment.
  
  Do you really need to know why she wants a roll in the sack?! "I"m horny, I want to fuck!" It"s not hard to understand! Biting her lip, she eased one hand down under her nightgown when it looked like Rudy might actually take Ghislaine up on her obvious offer.
  
  Eris... was not entirely sure how to feel about this. She was kind of conflicted, if she said so herself. On the one hand, she was kind of jealous that Ghislaine of all people had beaten her to the punch. Apparently, no one else had expected it of the beast-kin woman, either. She wasn"t quite sure whether she was jealous of Ghislaine for taking Rudy to bed, or Rudy for taking Ghislaine to bed... or if it was both. No, it"s definitely both! she decided firmly.
  
  On the other hand, it was the most exciting thing she had ever seen and she couldn"t look away. Her everything was tight as a drawn bow and she was starting to get the shakes all over. Her breath was coming in fast, quiet little pants and the trail of cooling fluid running down her thighs told her she was more wet than she had ever been before.
  
  She really kind of just... wanted to watch for a while.
  
  So, she did. Eris carefully adjusted the door a bit and checked to make sure the hall was clear. Then, the hand that had been sneaking under her dress found her mound, fingers slipping over the dark red curls before moving to her lips, where she began to gently brush herself back and forth. Her fingers quickly became soaked as she watched, body jerking occasionally with excitement or pretty much any time she brushed the little nub that felt oh so good.
  
  Her eyes went wide as Rudy"s pants came off, exposing his member to open air. That is a lot bigger than my fingers, she realized as she watched it bob a bit. Then, her focus was drawn to his hands as he cast water magic and conjured some sort of... penis-shaped blob of liquid? What in the world?
  
  Rudy dismissed the construct as he got Ghislaine onto the bed, facing the door. The woman"s spread legs gave her a brief view of her white, straight haired bush, before Rudy went to his knees and started doing something with his mouth. Ghislaine was clearly trying to keep from moaning as her muscles clenched, keeping herself under control-barely. Eris had had years to learn the older woman"s body language and right now, it pretty much screamed that she was one second from losing all control and composure. Apparently, whatever he was doing, he was really good at it.
  
  Not surprising. Didn"t Roxy say he did that with her? And he"s got that "reincarnation" thing going too, so he probably did that a lot in his first life, the girl nodded to herself, her eyes wide as she watched and imagined it was her Rudy was lavishing attention on with his mouth and tongue. His tongue tracing its way up and down her slick, hot lower lips, circling her clit, before teasing at her entrance, his hand teasing her small tit through her night down, gently pulling at her nipple. Eris panted, shifting where she stood.
  
  She saw Ghislaine come to ecstasy the first time and felt a small smirk curl up on her lips. Rudy didn"t seem to notice as he kept on working, but before long, he apparently had enough of Ghislaine trying to hide her reactions-not that Eris blamed him. She had snuck up the tower to watch her grandfather play with the maids more than once and the sounds and faces they made were one of the best parts-not that she had any experience with the actual best part, but that would hopefully change soon. Maybe with Rudy and Ghislaine?
  
  Eris shuddered as the thought sent her over the edge, clenching her jaw closed and breathing in deeply through her nose. Oh yeah, that"s good stuff for playing with myself later.
  
  She almost laughed when Rudy clearly lost his patience with Ghislaine"s act and pulled out the water construct he had been showing off earlier. She couldn"t blame him-if she hadn"t known Ghislaine as well as she did and were in his position, she imagined she would be getting a little frustrated right now too. Eris felt a little bad for Rudy, even if she suspected she knew why Ghislaine was doing it-namely, to encourage him to try his hardest and not give him a big head if he happened to get lucky. Not that she agreed with the strategy personally. She"d rather reward her lover for doing well than try to goad them into trying harder when what they were doing was working in the first place.
  
  Ghislaine has more experience though, so I suppose she knows better than me on that?
  
  Eris put the thought from her mind when Ghislaine"s facade broke and the woman collapsed back onto the bed, twitching and clenching in another orgasm. Whatever Rudy was doing though, he didn"t let up, because the woman began clawing at the sheets and positively howling. Ah, damnit! I can"t see her face from here! Or anything, really.
  
  Annoyed, Eris pushed the door open just a hair more. The door squeaked.
  
  Ghislaine may have been incapacitated, but Rudy"s reflexes were on point. Eris would have been proud... if it didn"t wind up with an invisible force yanking her into the room through the door and a positively murderous looking Rudy glaring at her for a moment before the look passed from his face and he heaved a sigh. If she was being honest with herself, the danger kind of made her even hotter.
  
  "Eris," Rudy sighed again, "what are you doing?"
  
  Ghislaine moaned where she lay, one eye cracking open and her head tilting enough to shoot the younger woman an annoyed look. "This is the first time I"ve been laid in years, Eris. This had better be good," the woman threatened.
  
  "I uh, I was watching," Eris admitted, blushing. There was no point denying it, she had been caught with her hand in her crotch (where it still was, in fact) and the evidence clearly would have told them that anyway.
  
  Rudy set her on the ground and she felt his Telekinesis spell release her. Considering her, he reached back and gently stroked Ghislaine, just above her bush, drawing a quiet sigh from the woman. Eris" nerves wound up so tight she felt like she might snap in half.
  
  "Okay," he nodded finally. "In or out. Your choice."
  
  "Y-you mean I can..." she gestured vaguely at Ghislaine.
  
  Rudy shrugged before turning to the larger woman. "Do you mind?"
  
  "It"s fine," Ghislaine shrugged, setting her breasts to swaying on her chest and drawing both Eris" and Rudy"s eyes. "Lock the door."
  
  Rudy gestured at the door and it slammed shut. The lock slid home, then a pillar of ice stretching from floor to ceiling sprang up in front of it. For a brief moment, she felt panic-trapped... but Rudy"s hand on her thigh drew her mind away from the feeling and back to the feeling of nervous excitement that threatened to boil over. "C-can I," Eris stuttered and the boy chuckled quietly.
  
  "Whatever you want."
  
  He must have thought she"d go for Ghislaine, because he was surprised when she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him soundly on the mouth. His rod-Cock!-pressed into her belly, hot and hard as steel as her lips moved clumsily against his. Their teeth clicked together and Rudy pulled away with a grin.
  
  "Settle down, Eris. There"s no need to rush," he gently chastised her, before pulling her back into a kiss. His lips were on hers and, just as when he"d taught her to dance, she followed his lead. His lips parted slightly and his tongue brushed against her upper lip. Eris opened her mouth hesitantly and his tongue slipped inside, flicking her own. Taking it as a challenge, she responded in kind. Is this what Ghislaine tastes like? she wondered idly as the boy"s hand stroked her back.
  
  Eventually Rudy pulled away again and tilted his head towards Ghislaine. "Want to help me with this?"
  
  "Absolutely," Eris practically growled. Looking down on the tanned, muscular woman, Eris hesitated. "Uh, what do I do...?"
  Rudy"s fingers found the back of her head and for a moment, Eris thought he was going to play with her hair or something. That was until she found herself pushed gently but insistently into the older woman"s breasts. "Play with those for a while."
  
  Eris did as she was told, one hand squeezing one of Ghislaine"s massive tits (she"d wanted to do that for so long she couldn"t resist even if she wanted to) while her mouth went straight to the woman"s other nipple. Knowing at least some of what she herself liked, Eris set her tongue to work flicking and circling Ghislaine"s surprisingly large nipple while giving it the occasional suckle. She shifted her body to look down and see what Rudy was doing, but she didn"t really need to as she felt Ghislaine stiffen under her confirming what her eyes were telling her-that he had gone back to work on the larger woman with that spell of his.
  
  "Get on your knees," the boy ordered, and something in the tone sent a delicious little shiver straight from her ears to her dripping slit. Eris quickly shifted around, sacrificing her view of Rudy to do so and instead turning her gaze to watching Ghislaine"s face. "Eris, this is your one chance to tell me to stop, no, or something. If you don"t speak up right now, I"m going to dive right in and I"m not going to stop until your hips give out."
  
  Eris grinned around a mouthful of nipple. That sounded like a challenge to her. Feeling particularly bold, she wagged her hips back and forth, taunting the boy. His answer was a slap to her ass cheek, hard enough to sting a bit and make a nice, loud sound even over the solo performance Ghislaine was putting on. "Cheeky brat," he complained. "Let"s see if I can leave this here... Yeah, great. It"s stable, sweet!" She could practically hear his leer and feel his attention shift almost fully to her. "Your turn."
  
  And then, his hands were on her hips, adjusting her position a bit before moving down to gently part her hairless lips. His mouth met her sex and Eris gasped around her mouthful of Ghislaine, pulling away from the big woman as her body went rigid and her hands clenched desperately at something, anything. Ghislaine"s hands found her and pulled her up the larger woman"s body, her mouth finding Eris" lips before trailing down to her jaw, to her ears, then to her neck. Eris felt like her body would catch fire, but she paid attention as the older woman worked and did her best to imitate what Ghislaine was doing to her.
  
  That is, until Rudy"s lips and tongue found her clit and one of his fingers slit inside her entrance and drove all thought from her mind for a moment.
  
  Eris whimpered into Ghislaine"s neck as her body shook and Rudy eased back a bit, slowing his attentions and shifting away from her clit to lapping her slit. "Wow, you are really sensitive. Or incredibly turned on."
  
  "B, both," Eris admitted breathily. Swallowing her drool and trying to get her breathing under control, she wanted to ask how he was so damn calm about this with that thing positively throbbing and leaking between his legs, but then another of his fingers was inside her, Ghislaine"s tongue was in her ear, and she found she couldn"t muster the words.
  
  I toyed with Eris and Ghislaine like that, trying to see if I could get them to come in sync. It"s harder than you"d think, sadly.
  
  Fun to try, though.
  
  That is, until someone gets tired of it and snaps. Ghislaine reached her breaking point a lot sooner than I had expected as she reached down, grabbed the spell construct trying to turn her cunt inside out, yanked it out, and flung it across the room. I rolled my eyes and let the water evaporate before it hit the ground. So it was that I was distracted and unprepared when Ghislaine shoved Eris to the side on the bed and sat up quickly, her hands grabbing my shoulders and forcing me down flat on my back against the bed.
  
  "Cock. In me. Now!" the woman demanded.
  
  I opened my mouth to tell her that I would in no way be protesting that as she manhandled my dick into position and shifted her hips to line herself up, but then Eris dropped her thighs on either side of my head. "I want to watch this and I really want you to keep licking me, so," Eris drew out the word and lowered herself down. Catching the hint like a bat to the head, I took her hips in my hands and eased her down the rest of the way, arranging her so I could breathe while I worked my tongue up and down her slit.
  
  And then, tight, silky heat enveloped my cock and I was in heaven. For just a moment, I forgot about everything and just focused on the feeling of Ghislaine easing herself down on my cock inch by inch. Then, she bottomed out and her tight, muscular ass was seated firmly in my lap.
  
  "Wow," Eris murmured. I couldn"t help but agree.
  
  Then, the breath was driven out of me when the woman raised her hips and slammed herself back down almost painfully as she began to set a frantic pace, her hips swishing forward on every down thrust to rub her clit against me. Something I was not ready for at all. Between the sexiness of the situation, my body"s lack of experience, the fact that I"d been working on the two of them for a good half hour or more... Yeah, I"m just going to go ahead and say I"m excused for the fact that it was only a matter of minutes before Ghislaine"s vice-grip cunt was wringing the first load out of me.
  
  Eris eased back off my face, sitting down just above my head as I panted. "That"s it?" she asked, and I scraped enough effort to glare at her.
  
  I"m going to remind you of this later, brat.
  
  Ghislaine simply chuckled quietly. Instead of looking irritated, the woman looked amused. And a bit proud of herself for some reason. "You weren"t using touki, were you?"
  
  "No," I drew the word out as it dawned on me that she definitely was and fully intended to try to carry through with her threat of using my hips to break the bed. "I suppose I should be?"
  
  "Definitely," she nodded. Sliding off my cock, she shifted over to the side of the bed and ran a finger up her slit, bringing the semen-coated digit to her mouth and humming approvingly as she cleaned it off. Popping the finger out of her mouth, she turned her gaze to Eris. "Catch your breath, then pop Eris" cherry while I watch. Then we can trade off again."
  
  Eris froze, looking suddenly unsure of herself. "Err..."
  
  Closing my eyes, I focused on getting my breathing under control. "Last chance to back out," I told her, reaching up and patting her thigh fondly as I sent her a smile. Focusing on my touki, I let it wash over me and the pleasantly tired feeling of post-coital bliss was washed away, leaving me feeling ready to run a marathon. Or try to fuck a woman about three times my size and an energetic redhead into the ground. My cock stood to attention and I rolled over, sitting up and facing Eris.
  
  A look of resolve passed over her face and Eris nodded to herself, before taking hold of the bottom of her little silk slip and pulling the whole thing up and off in one movement, throwing it off to the side of the bed and leaving herself in the nude. I gave her a long, appreciative look. Taking in the budding breasts topped with perky little nipples that looked like they were doing their best to cut diamonds. The smooth plane of her stomach and feminine abs, not yet the "muscle girl" look Ghislaine had. The curve of her hips. Her bare cunt with the patch of dense, blood red hair above it. Her shapely thighs that I"d recently been using as ear muffs, leading down muscular legs and calves to surprisingly dainty feet.
  
  Not quite ripe yet, but close enough. Eh, she"ll be thirteen in a couple of months anyway.
  
  We met in another kiss, one that was more like a fight for control. The larger girl tried to push me down, but I"d had enough of that with Ghislaine, thanks. We wrestled across the bed for a moment, both of us enjoying the struggle given the way she giggled into my mouth, before I pinned her-arms held captured above her head and my knee between her legs, her pussy practically burning my leg with the heat coming off of her and absolutely soaking me where it touched. Her red eyes met my green and Eris rolled her hips, biting her lips on a little sigh as she ground her sex against my knee.
  
  I transferred her wrists to my left hand while bringing the right down to cup her face, my thumb brushing over her lips. The little minx tried to bite my thumb and I quickly moved my hand down to pinch one of her nipples, earning a hiss but no protest. I descended on her, my lips meeting hers briefly before heading for her neck and doing my best to find the places where she was most sensitive. A bit of shifting around had Eris" legs spread to either side of me and I moved my free hand down, taking hold of my cock and running it up and down her slit.
  
  "Ready?" I asked into her ear, nipping at the lobe.
  
  "Yes," she breathed out, her lips on my own ear. "Do it, Rudy."
  
  Beside us, I felt Ghislaine"s weight shift on the bed and turned to look. The woman had moved a bit closer and shifted around for a better view. Waving me on, I ignored Ghislaine for the moment and refused on the cute little virgin redhead under me. I eased into Eris, pushing past her lips and sinking in an inch at a time. Eris moaned, a quiet "Ahn~"
  
  I stopped a few inches in, pulled back a bit and went a little deeper on the next stroke. Eris repeated her little moan, louder this time. I was about halfway in now and no sign of a hymen, but I wasn"t entirely surprised-Eris was a very sporty and active girl, so it likely broke early during one exercise or another. As I pulled out again, she whined, "All the way iiIN~!"
  
  My last thrust came hard and fast, bottoming out in the girl with a clap of my hips against hers that caused her voice to hitch. She fluttered around me, shuddering lightly all over. Smirking down at her, I asked, "That"s it?"
  
  "S-shut uuup~" Eris whined, her legs coming up to wrap around my hips. "Just, just shut up and f-fuck me already!"
  
  "Oh? Such naughty language. Someone"s a bad girl," Eris shuddered. "And do you know what bad girls get, Eris?"
  
  "No?" she asked, in a surprisingly innocent tone... that went straight to my dick.
  
  "Bad girls get spankings," I leered down at her.
  
  She blushed, all the way down. Looking away, she eased her hands out of my grip, bringing them down before grabbing her hair up into twin tails. "Eris has been a bad girl and needs to be punished, teacher. Nyan~"
  
  "Urk." I wasn"t entirely sure whether the sound came from me, Ghislaine, or both of us. Either way, the sound from the beast-kin woman temporarily shattered the little scene Eris and I had going on, drawing both our attention to the big woman. Eris glared while I hummed quietly, watching as Ghislaine fingered herself while watching. "What?" she asked, before following our gazes down to her fingers. "I said I wanted to watch you pop her cherry."
  
  Eris and I shared a look before the redhead jerked her head towards Ghislaine. "Think you can...?"
  
  "Yeah," I agreed, easing back from her enough to focus on the silver haired beast-kin. Water answered my will and took shape in streamers around the bigger woman, who raised an eyebrow. Then, the streamers solidified much like how the toy spell I"d been using on her had, taking on a gelatinous semi-solid quality as it became a mass of tentacles.
  
  Ghislaine"s eyebrows went into her hairline for a moment before tentacles wrapped around her hips and hefted her up into the air above the bed. Around her legs, splaying them apart. Around her arms, where they bound them together behind her back. A tentacle wrapped around her neck before a bulbous, phallic end brushed against her lips. "This is new," Ghislaine admitted, a moment before I forced the tentacle past her lips. Two more wrapped around her breasts, squeezing them tightly as the ends flicked at her nipples before shifting into more of a cup shape and latching on, where they began to put suction on them. A final, particularly thick tentacle brushed at the entrance to her cunt before squirming its way inside her, taking on the properties of the toy she had tossed away and beginning to work her over.
  
  "Damn that"s hot," Eris breathed as she watched Ghislaine get fucked in the air above the bed. Blinking, she slowly turned her head towards me. "I, I don"t think I"m ready for something like that-"
  
  I kissed her lips to silence her and slid my hips forward, firmly but not particularly hard. Pulling away from her lips, I set myself into a steady rhythm as I sawed in and out of her with deep, firm strokes. "Not for your first time, no. Maybe later."
  
  Then we were done with conversation, for the most part, beyond the usual sort of requests for "harder," "faster," or "just like that~." Or Ghislaine"s occasional "gluck, gluck, gluck!" as I tried to see just how far the woman could take a cock in her mouth.
  
  Answer: all the way down her throat, pretty much.
  
  True to how she had been most of the night, Eris came quickly. She locked her arms and legs around me, nails trying to dig into my back as she tried to hold me in place while she squealed and her cunt tried its best to milk me dry. "Rudyyy~"
  
  Ghislaine broke out of her "restraints" with a splash of water, shaking herself off as she watched Eris come down. "She makes good faces," the woman commented.
  
  Says the woman who, up until a minute ago, was getting hearts in her eyes.
  
  Easing Eris" legs and arms out from around me, I pulled out of the limp, panting, and flushed redhead staring at me in a half-lidded, not-entirely-there look. Gesturing towards Eris, I asked, "Want to give her a show while she catches her breath?"
  
  "From behind?" the woman asked, and I nodded. "Sure."
  Instead of just getting on all fours over the younger girl, Ghislaine straddled Eris and wiggled her ass. Her breasts were just short of smothering Eris as she wrapped her arms around the much smaller form beneath her. I took an appreciative look at the sight before me-Ghislaine in all her naked, muscular cat-girl glory spread out over Eris, with her sporty, developing form. Reaching out, I took the cat-woman"s tail in one hand, gently squeezing the base just above her ass and earning an appreciative groan as I used it to guide her hips down, parted her lowed lips, and slid inside her.
  
  Don"t feel remotely close to coming again yet, I mused as I set into Ghislaine with exactly the sort of hard and fast pace she had used on me, the clapping of my thighs against her ass echoing in the room. I was pretty sure that it was touki doing it, which meant I had a good idea of exactly how- And let"s stop that thought there and focus on that beautiful, tan ass. Too bad I can"t see anything of her tits but side-boob from here.
  
  Eris at least seemed to appreciate having easy access to Ghislaine, as she pawed at the older woman"s chest with one hand while reaching up to fondle her ears with the other, a particularly lewd giggle escaping her lips as she did.
  
  When Ghislaine came, I pulled out and slid into Eris in a single, long thrust, drawing a groan from the redhead. After a few strokes into Eris, I slid back into Ghislaine again for a few, before going back and forth. My second orgasm of the night filled up Eris" tight little snatch, drawing a low moan from the girl. I never actually went soft and it was only a few moments after that I could go again. A little water magic cleaned her out just in case and I changed up our positions again, putting Eris on top of Ghislaine and in the classic sixty-nine position. The beast-kin woman got the hint and started licking away at the redhead while I fucked the older woman and Eris lapped at the top of my dick and Ghislaine"s slit as she could.
  
  It had been a long, long time since I"d last had a threesome-an entire lifetime ago, really. I was determined to keep going until either I ran out of steam or Eris and Ghislaine both wanted to stop. Considering I had more touki than both of them put together, that first one wasn"t likely to happen...
  
  Question is, do I value sleep enough to try to get some, or do I want to see how long I can drag this out? ...Eh, it"s Eris"s first time. I can save the all-nighter for later. She"d probably appreciate cuddling more than a full night of sex. Which means I"m going to have to try to run Ghislaine down first.
  
  Sylphie rolled over in her bed, one eye cracking open sleepily as she wondered what had woken her. Her ears twitched before the left one flicked in the direction of Rudy"s room. A deep, low moan sounded through the wall separating their rooms. Sylphie blushed and her heartbeat picked up. Casting about on her night stand, she picked up her phone.
  
  "Sprite?" she asked.
  
  "Yes, Sylphie?"
  
  "What"s that noise?"
  
  The spirit was silent for a moment before a hologram sprang into existence above the screen, of a woman in miniature. Her hair hung down to her shoulders, the bangs wild and a thick braid in the back-and it couldn"t seem to settle on a color between white, green, red, or blue. Colors familiar to Sylphie. Other things about the miniature woman"s features were familiar. The general shape of Roxy"s face. Ghislaine"s gold eyes. Eris"s nose. Sylphie"s ears. A trim and muscular body that looked older than herself or Eris but younger than Ghislaine, entirely nude.
  
  "Oh! You finally chose a body?" Sylphie asked, smiling down at the spirit"s projection.
  
  "Mm," the spirit nodded. "Do you want me to show you?"
  
  "Show me?" Sylphie asked, before another moan caught her ear. She nodded. "Please."
  
  The spirit stepped off to the side of the projection, sitting down "mid-air," as a second projection popped into place-the familiar view of Rudy"s room, but from an unfamiliar angle, namely that of his dresser where he left his phone. Focused front and center of the hologram were Rudy and Ghislaine, naked and on Rudy"s bed as Rudy did something to the older woman with some sort of spell. Sylphie"s mouth went dry as her eyes took in the boy she adored.
  
  A thought occurred. "Sprite, could you send this to Roxy?"
  
  "Yes," the spirit agreed with a nod, not taking her own attention off of the display.
  
  Rudy abruptly turned to glare at the door and Sylphie heard a thump from outside her room, along with a quiet yelp as Eris flew into the hologram. Sylphie listened as they spoke for a bit, feeling a strange heat and excitement build within her as she watched. Her hands felt shaky, so she set the phone down and scooted back, propping up her pillow against the headboard as she settled in to watch. For some reason, her nipples absolutely ached they were so hard and her panties felt like they were starting to stick to her uncomfortably from how much wetness was seeping from her lower lips.
  
  Is, is this normal? she wondered, unsure if she should call and ask her mom or "big sister" now or just wait and ask later. On the one hand, she was kind of worried. On the other... it didn"t hurt. No, if anything, it felt good-just somehow... lacking. Reaching down, her hand slipped inside her panties as she explored herself to see if something was wrong, and she gasped as she made contact with the little bud at the top of her "flower" as her mother called it. Oh goodness, that feels good!
  
  Sylphie idly continued to explore herself as she watched, a small smile on her face as two of the people she loved most kissed and did other things. That must be what Rudy said I was too young to do. Eris is twelve, almost thirteen. Is that old enough? It must be. That means I only have to wait about two more years, then we can do that too.
  
  It was late, late into the night and Sylphie was so very tired when Eris finally collapsed into a panting heap and waved off any further playing from Rudy. He and Ghislaine played a bit longer before the older woman got off of her friend, stretched, and leaned down to plant a kiss on Rudy"s lips-the only one she"d seen them exchange. The woman left a moment later after Rudy dispelled the ice blocking the door, leaving Rudy and Eris behind. Rudy began casting, water and air magic from what she could tell, before settling into the bed to spoon up against Eris.
  
  Feeling like it wouldn"t be intruding now that they seemed to be through, Sylphie thanked Sprite for showing her before putting away her phone. Then, she quickly made her way over to Rudy"s room and slipped in behind Rudy. The boy gave a tired greeting, reaching back to pat her side, before he was swiftly asleep. Sylphie tried to get to sleep herself, but even as tired as she was she felt... unsatisfied, somehow.
  
  Maybe if I touch myself more? But Rudy and Eris are right there. What if they wake up?
  
  Sylphie decided to risk it. Something about the potential of Rudy rolling over and watching her as she did something she knew was distinctly naughty made that feeling of excitement in her belly do flips...
  
  Roxy stirred in her bed as her phone chimed.
  
  She dug it out from under her other pillow and looked at the screen. "Wha?" Roxy murmured, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. "Who- Sprite?"
  
  "Sylphie wanted you to see," the spirit explained without materializing her personal hologram. Instead, she started broadcasting the same view that Sylphie was privy to.
  
  Roxy"s eyes widened and she looked around the room to make sure she was alone and Pax hadn"t done something stupid, like drill a hole in the wall to spy on her. Again.
  
  Quickly casting two of her sadly most common spells of late-invisibility around the bed, along with a sphere of silence around the room, both of which she's gotten from Rudy-she settled under the covers to watch. The phone she let rest on the bed while both hands went under the blankets to start rubbing at her sex and fondling her breasts.
  
  Several hours later, a very exhausted, sexually frustrated, somewhat jealous (because she couldn"t be there, not that Eris got to take Rudy"s second virginity), and raw Roxy put away her phone as the hologram shut off. Sighing, she cast healing on herself, leaving her only pleasantly sore, before stretching out in the bed and rolling into her favorite sleeping position on her belly. As she began drifting off, she considered everything she had seen.
  
  I was right. Rudeus is more than I can handle alone. The fact that neither he nor Ghislaine looked entirely ready to stop at the end and that they only did because they ran Eris down is worrisome.
  
  ...Going to need a larger party for that boss battle.
  
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  I woke up to the feeling of someone trying to examine my tonsils with their tongue. Cracking my eyes open as I responded to the invader, I found Eris" red eyes staring into my own. I felt her smirk against my lips, before the tight, wet heat enveloping my cock shifted and she loosed a quiet sigh into my mouth as she worked herself slowly back and forth as she rode me. My hands came up and found her hips, trailing up and down her sides and drawing a little shudder and an appreciative hum from the redhead.
  
  Pulling away from my mouth, she murmured, ""Morning."
  
  "Good morning," I smiled up at her, thrusting up to meet her and match her rhythm, earning a quiet gasp as she bit her bottom lip and her eyes went half lidded.
  
  A look around showed we were alone, but I knew Sylphie had joined us at some point after we finished last night. "Sylphie"s getting breakfast for us. Mm. I asked her to, ah, give us a few."
  
  Reaching up, I squeezed the girl"s budding breasts, rolling her nipples between my thumb and forefinger and gently squeezing them, drawing a muffled moan from her lips as she tried to contain herself. "We can, mm, do this more later, right?"
  
  I nodded, pecking the redhead"s lips. "Much as you want."
  
  "What if I want a, ahn~ What if I want a lot?"
  
  Chuckling quietly, I reached up and grabbed her by the hair at the back of her head, gently but firmly pulling her head back and exposing her throat for me to kiss, bite, and give her hickies. Eris whined as I nipped at her throat. "Then I guess we"ll do it a lot," I murmured against the soft skin of her neck.
  
  "Every, ah, day!" Eris grunted, picking up the pace of her grinding against me. I wasn"t stupid, so I wasn"t going to argue with that request. "Can, mm, can we find- Mmf! That"s nice. Ah, can we get someone else like Ghislaine? Another beast-kin, hmf, our age?"
  
  "Fine with it," I grunted out. "But ask Roxy and Sylphie first."
  
  "I know, unf the rules. Oh god," she panted. "Gonna, gonna come."
  
  I wasn"t using touki at the moment and was getting close myself, so I picked up the force of my thrusts into her and stopped holding back. Eris mewled as she came, her cunt clenching down around me and sending me over the edge. The girl wrapped her arms around me as she shook, her lips finding my own as her movements slowed. "Mmm. It"s all hot inside me," she moaned against my lips.
  
  I ran my hands up and down her back, petting her as we lay there. "We should get up. Get cleaned up and ready for the day."
  
  "Don" wanna," Eris grumbled. "Comfortable."
  
  My hand went lower before I raised it and smacked her ass once, drawing a squeak from her as her cunt clenched around my deflating member. "You"re just making me want to stay with that," she admitted.
  
  I let her stay there for a bit, enjoying the closeness for a while as we shared a moment. Eventually though, I decided one of us had to be the mature one here or she really would stay in bed all day. I eased her off of me, to a pout from Eris, and sat up. Telekinesis brought me a towel and a fresh change of clothes. Seeing her disappointed look, I rolled my eyes. "If you go get your clothes and a towel in the next two minutes, we can shower together. And maybe fool around in the shower."
  
  Eris jumped up, gathered her things, and streaked naked out of my room down the hall to her own. Laughing quietly, I put on a set of underwear and left the room, only to freeze as I caught sight of three beast-kin maids. All three wearing knowing looks, and who just happened to have been dusting or cleaning things in the hall at the moment.
  
  "Good morning, master Rudy!" they called, and I felt like a piece of meat as those gazes took in my mostly nude form.
  
  "Ladies," I nodded to them, walking unhurriedly to the bathroom with as much dignity as I could muster. Which was actually a good deal, considering I didn"t care if they knew about what happened. The fact that they were here told me they"d likely sussed something out, either from Ghislaine or someone hearing us go at it last night, or this morning.
  
  Giggling followed me to the bathroom and I rolled my eyes, putting my things away and waiting for Eris. The redhead burst in a few moments later, casting a lusty look back over her shoulder, likely at the servants. "Eris, no."
  
  "But-"
  
  "No," I denied. "Not sharing sloppy seconds, thirds, or however manyths with Phillip and Sauros."
  
  Eris wrinkled her nose. "Ew! Yeah, no. Gross." Turning a glare on me as she put her things on the shelf with mine, she said, "Just for that mental image, you owe me!"
  
  Flipping on the water, I waited for it to warm up before gesturing for her to join me. "Well, come on then."
  
  ""Kay!" Eris chirped, leering at me as I pulled off my underwear and climbing in first.
  
  I yelped when she pinched my ass as she hurried past. "Really, Eris?"
  
  "What?" she asked, the picture of innocence.
  
  By the time we made it down to breakfast, Sylphie was finished with her own and waiting for us. "Oh, you"re up!" she greeted, getting up and giving us both a hug and a kiss. That last one was new, since we usually kept that sort of thing behind closed doors, but since no one else was in the small side room where we usually took our meals when not eating with the rest of the family, I waved it off.
  
  "So, what are we going today?" Eris asked.
  
  "I"m going to visit my mom. I need to ask her some things," Sylphie explained.
  
  I raised an eyebrow. "Anything I can help with?"
  
  Sylphie blushed and shook her head. "Girl stuff!"
  
  "Ahh," I nodded, digging into my breakfast. "Have fun."
  
  Yeah, I wanted absolutely no part of that conversation. If she felt I needed to know or wanted my advice for something, she knew to ask by now. If Sylphie was going to her mom and not, say, Hilda, Ghislaine, or even Eris then I"d say it was personal, private, embarrassing, and firmly not my business.
  
  Sylphie left soon after while Ghislaine joined us. We finished up breakfast before I made my way towards the lab, Eris and Ghislaine in tow. Eris didn"t seem to want to be more than three feet away from me and kept reaching out and touching me occasionally, but I didn"t really mind the attention or the freshly de-hymenated girl being a bit touchy-feely or clingy.
  
  I settled in and got to work. Eris watched for a while before growing bored. "We never do anything normal."
  
  "Define "normal,"" I retorted on automatic, not looking up from my work. At the moment, I was modifying the keys to the various bikes to add small magic stones and enchanting summoning spells to each. Mostly because Ghislaine couldn"t use the summoning spell and Eris was... iffy at times.
  
  Eris huffed, and presumably crossed her arms over her chest, legs spread, shoulders back, head tilted back. Tsundere defiance pose number one, basically. "Let"s go have a picnic!"
  
  I considered it for moment as I finished Ghislaine"s key and started on Eris". "Why? That"s not a no, I just want to know why."
  
  "Because you spend too much time cooped up in here." I waited, having a feeling there was more. Sure enough, from the corner of my eye I saw her body language change to something a bit less sure of herself and she looked away. "And I kind of... wanted to spend some time together out of the city."
  
  "Like a date?" I teased.
  
  Eris" eyes bulged. "Psh wha- No! Not at all like a date! Just a picnic! Besides, Ghislaine will be there! It"s not like I want to spend time with just you or anything!"
  
  Oh, that"s fucking adorable. We had sex last night and most of this morning and she was fine, but mention a date and she loses her cool. I bet I could really set her off with some lewd handholding.
  
  "Mhmm." I finished up Eris" key and tossed it to her, pocketing my own and Ghislaine"s. The key for Phillip and Sauros" shared bike could wait for now. "Alright, let"s go."
  
  "Yes!" Eris cheered, pumping her arm. "I"ll go get everything together!"
  
  I turned and met Ghislaine"s gaze from where she was watching from beside the door, an amused look on her face. For just a moment, the woman"s smile shifted into something slightly more predatory, before smoothing out.
  
  Ghislaine seemed pretty casual about everything and I didn"t feel any need to chase after her, ask about her feelings, or any other classic mistakes a man can make-especially with a woman who, putting it bluntly, thinks like a man. I was comfortable with what I had and she wasn"t making any sort of big deal about anything. The only real difference was the occasional smirk on her lips or distracted and aroused look-pretty much exactly what you"d expect from someone after a particularly good lay.
  
  That, and the knowledge that if one of us was in the mood, the other might just be up for some fun.
  
  No, the problem wasn"t with Ghislaine. It was with the servants, starting with the ones this morning.
  
  Apparently, every beast-kin in the house could smell it. And now that they knew that I was "on the market" so to speak, they had started to up their antics in trying to get my attention. I"d come across more than one beast-kin servant scrubbing the floor or bent over to pick something up, her skirt pulled tight over her ass, riding up, or in one case just plain flipped up to expose her ass, tail, and panties as she wagged her hips invitingly while she pretended to work.
  
  And all that was just in the walk between the bathroom and breakfast, then to the lab.
  
  At breakfast, a pretty rabbit girl with her maid uniform"s top cut so low that when she bent over to set the drink tray on the table, I could see her nipples and straight down the valley of her breasts to her stomach was the one to serve us. And she made sure I got a good, long look at what she had to offer. Then, the little minx had the gall to ask that old line (a bit modified, because they knew my drink preferences by now). "What else would you like, master? Juice, tea, or... me?"
  
  I"m pretty sure that the fact that I managed to be so collected in my response of, "Juice, please," just further encouraged her. Eris didn"t even get that far.
  
  I think it was worse because it was Ghislaine and Eris, as opposed to one of the maids.
  
  I knew Sauros, Phillip, and Hilda all helped themselves to the help. I"d even caught Eris eyeing them contemplatively occasionally, since puberty struck the girl. That I treated them respectfully and didn"t leer, stare, or take advantage had just spurred them on, as Ghislaine had told me last night. But going after Ghislaine and Eris confirmed, at least in their minds, that I wasn"t sexually disinterested due to age and that I had no problems sleeping with beast-kin.
  
  If it had been one of the maids, I would have just been another Greyrat and things would have likely settled down. Now? It seemed like they felt that they had something to prove.
  
  Before we left the castle, I asked, Eris, "How far are we planning to go?"
  "Just outside the city. But we"ll take the bikes!" She paused, thinking for a moment before adding, "Oh, but I want to walk through the market first. I called Sylphie when I went to get our stuff and let her know, but she"s going to be with Sylvia most of the day."
  
  Nodding, I grabbed my bag and slung it over my shoulders by force of habit, just in case I came across something I wanted to buy. I snagged Aqua Heartia on the way out from where it was leaning beside the door, next to my unnamed bladed staff.
  
  Well, I suppose this is our weekend for free time. I don"t mind spending it with Eris is she"s feeling like she wants attention. Especially after last night.
  
  We made our way through Roa, stopping at a few stalls here and there as they drew our interest. I found one selling exotic spices, herbs, and seeds and made a few purchases, stowing them in small containers in my bag. I wanted to try my hand at a few new recipes and I had permission to use the kitchen, since everyone loved hamburgers. The fact that cinnamon, cocoa, and black pepper (let alone red pepper) were exotic hurt my heart.
  
  Part of the city was blocked off by the guard and a crowd, so we had to go around. As we went, I heard snatches of conversation that painted a worrying picture. If the rubberneckers were to be believed, someone had broken into a certain building last night and made off with some things in a cart. A building with a water wheel attached. I knew of a few of those, but asking around confirmed that it was probably the building where our printing press was turning out books. Some of the people who worked there were also unaccounted for. I"ll have to ask Phillip for confirmation later. Wonder what they stole, though.
  
  Once we had made it out of the city, we summoned our bikes and followed Ghislaine to a small hill overlooking Roa. "How did you find this place?" I asked as we parked and Eris began setting out the blanket.
  
  Ghislaine shrugged. "I train out this way sometimes."
  
  We sat down as Eris opened up the basket and began pulling out food. I wanted to ask who she"d pestered to make it, but I resisted the urge to tease. For now.
  
  Magic created a tea pot and cups. I pulled a sealed MRE labeled "Tea" from my bag, taking one of the small packets and dropping it into the pot before resealing the bag and replacing everything. A little fire magic heated the water and from there, all we had to do was wait for drinks.
  
  "Looks good," I said, looking over the spread and taking a few slices of ham, sliding them between the halves of a roll I had cut open, followed by cheese, lettuce, and tomato slices. Ghislaine and Eris followed suit, each loading up their own sandwich and eating. I noted that there was a jar of brown mustard I had made for the house in the basket, so I slapped a dash of that on my sandwich.
  
  "We should do this more often," Eris said around a mouthful.
  
  "Say it, don"t spray it," I chastised, and the girl actually had the decency to blush. "And you"re right. It"s nice. Sorry, you know how I get when I"m working on something."
  
  "We know," Eris and Ghislaine said at the same time, Eris rolling her eyes.
  
  Looking at me with a surprisingly contemplative and worried look, Eris asked, "Rudeus, what are your plans for when you"re finished teaching me?"
  
  "That"s a good question." I had given it some thought since the confrontation with Paul and after speaking with Phillip last night. My best bet there was to follow through. "I"ll probably take Sylphie, go collect Roxy, and go labyrinth diving for a few years before heading to Ranoa College of Magic."
  
  "O-oh," Eris muttered, looking away. "I see."
  
  "Why do you ask? Did you have something else in mind?"
  
  "N-no!" Eris squeaked, before crossing her arms over her chest and glaring.
  
  Chuckling, and earning a bit more force in that glare, I sent an inquisitive look at Ghislaine who simply shrugged. Turning back to Eris, I said, "You know, if you wanted to keep up your magical studies after my term as your teacher is up, I wouldn"t mind. I"d have to adjust my plans a little. We"d have to talk to your dad, too. But... I think there"d be room for one more on a trip. Maybe two, since I doubt they"d let you leave the house without Ghislaine, even if I"m the one you"re with."
  
  Eris perked up immediately. "Really?! I could really go?!"
  
  "I wouldn"t mind, but like I said, we"d have to talk to your dad. I think it"d be fun."
  
  The redhead was practically vibrating where she sat. "Mm! Really fun! I"ve always wanted to travel and explore labyrinths. You already helped me become an adventurer, so why not go all the way? We"ve got two swordswomen, a mage, and a magic swordsman already, so if we get Roxy that"s a second mage."
  
  "So, did you have anything planned for yourself once I left?"
  
  Eris shook her head. "Not really. Father had been talking about marrying me off before you came, but he"s stopped since then. Mom wants me to marry you. Father probably agrees."
  
  I wasn"t surprised about Hilda, considering what I"d learned from Phillip last night. The man was looking at me as a weapon he could use against his brother, after all. Hilda was most likely just looking out for Eris. Standing, I gathered up the basket and made my way towards the bikes. Walking around them, I strapped it down to Eris" bike where it had come from. "How about we head back and ask-" I looked up to make the suggestion to Eris, only to freeze at what I saw.
  
  Ghislaine was the first to react. "Rudeus?" she asked, sensing my sudden wariness as I stood there, studying the sky intently.
  
  "What is it?" Eris asked, standing as well and following our line of sight. "What is that?"
  
  That was the sky turning a strange color over Roa. Grey, black, purple, and yellow. It was a color I was familiar with-after all, I saw it every time I summoned or sent something. Ghislaine confirmed my suspicions when I suspect she used her demon eye. "It"s mana. A lot of mana. What"s it doing?"
  
  "I think it"s summoning magic," I answered absently, casting about for my staff. I found Aqua Heartia where I"d left it leaning against my bike. I hadn"t had a chance to test it before now, but I felt more comfortable with a physical weapon in hand. What I was seeing was... unnerving, to say the least. The mana required for that size of a spell was immense, to the point that I could feel it from here now, brushing against my own mana like wind. That"s King-, no Emperor-level magic, at a minimum. What kind of fucking idiot uses that inside a city? If it were miscast you could de-
  
  It suddenly occurred to me exactly what kind of idiot would use something of that scale in the city. More importantly, where it was most likely coming from. "Ghislaine! The orb," I called, and the woman twitched at the worry in my voice. "Do you think it"s an attack?"
  
  "I"m not sure-"
  
  A beam of light fell from the sky, painting the sky white and striking the ground, creating an expanding half-dome of white light preceded by a visible pressure wave.
  
  It should surprise absolutely no one familiar with Earth post World War 2 that the first thing my mind jumped to was the only other phenomena I had seen on this scale, with similar effects. Given where I was though, I made the most obvious leap in logic. Magic nuke.
  
  I took in its speed as the pressure wave shattered windows, the light approaching behind it. The mansion disappeared in the light as it swallowed up the city. Sylphie!
  
  I couldn"t do anything for her. She was gone. Eris was here, though-if I couldn"t save Sylphie, maybe I could do something for Eris.
  
  She stood between myself and Ghislaine. Ghislaine was just beginning to turn, mouth opening to shout. Bikes between us. Send!
  
  The bikes disappeared as I channeled touki to my body, simultaneously casting Air Running and channeling a Shield. The ground exploded under me in a gust of wind and dirt. There was no time to be gentle. I could heal her later, assuming we lived.
  
  I slammed into Eris as Ghislaine disappeared into the light. I pressed Eris flat to the ground, dumping mana into a Barrier over us. Not enough.
  
  Casting blindly ahead, I tried to put a physical barrier between us and the oncoming blast. The earth shook violently under us as a mountain rose up in the path of the blast-a King-level spell"s worth of power causing the earth to explode outwards. A sea of water solidified into ice locking it down. A hurricane"s worth of wind squeezed into a hundred yards of ground to brace-
  
  It meant nothing at all as the light swept it all away. I closed my eyes, pulling my mana back into the Barrier as the light swept over us, hoping against hope that what I had done would deflect enough of the energy to survive-
  
  The world went white.
  
  Roxy frowned from the balcony of her room, looking at the strangely colored sky. She recognized the colors, of course, just never on that scale. The amount of mana required to cast a spell of that size, and the fact that it looks to be coming from the Asura Kingdom... Rudy, what are you doing?
  
  Worry had her reaching into a pocket of her robe and pulling out the magical tool Rudy had sent her. Like Rudeus himself, it was impossible and had the potential to change the world, but the boy just brushed it off as something he had made so he could keep in touch with her and Sylphie, before Sylphie had joined him in Roa. Tapping at the screen, she spoke to the spirit residing within the tool. "Call Rudy."
  
  No signal.
  
  Reading the words on the display, Roxy"s eyes narrowed. "What does that mean?"
  
  Summoning magic connection to hub node lost.
  Attempts to reconnect fail.
  
  "Why?"
  
  Speculative: high concentration mana interference. Large scale summoning/sending spell in use. Mana disruption.
  
  "Your guard is down!" an unfortunately familiar voice called from behind her and Roxy sighed. A gust of wind knocked the 7th prince, Pax Shirone to the ground. "A-attacking a royal is punishable by death!"
  
  "I"ve told you before, I am betrothed."
  
  Standing up and dusting himself off, the prince demanded, "If you don"t leave your fiancee and become my woman, I"ll send assassins to have him killed!"
  
  Turning away from the window, Roxy considered Pax as amusement pulled at her lips. "Does your highness have a servant capable of infiltrating the borders of the Asura kingdom?" Pax nodded.
  
  "Who can sneak into the Citadel of Roa, past the guards, then into the mansion belonging to the lord of the Fittoa region and his son, the governor of Roa-both of whom are members of the Boreas Greyrat family?" A slightly less sure nod this time, and a look that said he clearly didn"t recognize the name despite his lessons having covered them as one of the four feudal lords of the Asuran Kingdom.
  
  "Then, either evade or eliminate Sword-King Ghislaine." Pax blinked, a confused and worried look crossing his face. That name he at least recognized.
  
  "And finally, once they have passed all of that, eliminate a master magician of-at a minimum-King-level, capable of silently, instantly casting spells and who is currently training under Sword-King Ghislaine."
  
  "Urk." Pax made a choked sound.
  
  "I don"t believe such a person exists in the Shirone kingdom, your highness." Something flashed and she turned back to the window, eyes widening at the sight of a bright white light where the gathered mana had been, before it faded to nothing. Ignoring the prince, she hurried into the room and quickly gathered her things, packing away her luggage neatly and efficiently.
  
  The prince followed her with his eyes. "What are you doing?"
  
  "Leaving," Roxy answered distractedly, making sure she didn"t leave anything behind. Especially her panties.
  
  "You can"t-"
  
  The blue haired mage ignored the boy"s-no, man"s protests as she left. She didn"t even bother to let the king know she was going. Her contract was to teach the seventh prince until he became an adult. He had turned fifteen recently, so as far as she was concerned, her contract was fulfilled and any more time she spent here after the fact had been at her own volition in order to save up some money.
  
  As she went, she gave orders to Sprite. "Sylphiette has a phone. Try calling her."
  
  No signal.
  
  "Try Eris. The Boreas Greyrat manor. All of them. And keep trying."
  
  If someone answered, she would have her confirmation that they weren"t dead. If not... it was a six month journey back to the Fittoa region to find out what happened for herself. She found herself wishing she had agreed to let Rudy send her a bike, but she had been worried Pax would do something to it. Now, she was stuck taking the slow way.
  
  Please be safe.
  
  Ars, capitol city of the Asuran Kingdom, was the largest and most populous city in the world. Its seat of power was the (misnamed) Silver Palace, a white palace set in the center of the citadel city and considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. Yet, despite the beautiful exterior, Second Princess Ariel Anemoi Asura loathed it with every fiber of her being.
  
  She hated the way the beautiful exterior hid the corruption and decadence of the royals within.
  
  She hated the constant power struggle, the backbiting, lies, backroom deals, and the constant knowledge that should her guards fail her life would be forfeit-or worse.
  
  She hated the royal family, the nobles, the minister, and the clergy-degenerate filth, the lot of them.
  
  Perhaps most of all, she hated having to pretend. To hide who she was. To put on a mask and pretend to be one of them when every fiber of her being screamed at her to just let it go and burn them all down...
  
  "Princess Ariel?"
  
  Ariel smiled, a tinkling laugh leaving her lips. The one that the common people, the normal folk just going about their lives and the soldiers loved so much. "I"m sorry, I was daydreaming. What color were they, Luke?"
  
  "A brilliant pink, with a tinge of orange."
  
  Even this, she hated. Listening while one of her guards, Luke Notos Greyrat prattled on about his latest conquest and the color of her nipples. She would much rather join Derrick Redbat, her more reserved magical guard, in scowling at the topic but that would out her as something abnormal-a person with decency and morals, in a hive of scum and villainy.
  
  More than that, she hated what she would have to do next. "I prefer them a perfect cherry pink, standing proudly from atop mounds of pure, porcelain white."
  
  If she didn"t play along, didn"t pretend to be as deviant and perverted as the rest of them, word would get out that something was wrong with the second princess-something her siblings would capitalize on immediately. In order to blend in, to look like one of them, she had to act like one of them-say the things they said, do the things they did. Which meant that she had to establish a sufficient cover, a false identity. This lead to Ariel being whispered of as a bit of a sadist, in the way she "played" with the female servants. She gave up her first time with a woman in order to establish the "fact" that she liked women and dissuade some of her male suitors, or at least slow them down.
  
  She worried, not for the first time, that this place was changing her. I barely even recognize myself any more. How much longer will I last, before the only face I see in the mirror is Ariel and not-
  
  Derrick gave a nod, excusing himself for the facilities as Luke carried on. "So, you like them inverted?"
  
  Not that there was anything wrong with innie nipples, she liked them just fine either way. I can"t believe I even have preferences for that sort of thing! ...And it hurts to admit that I feel cheated out of all of my firsts, from the first time around.
  
  "What about Sarisha, the new maid?"
  
  And so it went. She carried on the conversation with half a mind, paying attention to her surroundings, wishing she could be anywhere else-doing anything else. I want to practice magic.
  
  Magic!
  
  Right there at her fingertips. All readily accessible and available from a simple book! Well, not all, but a lot. Up to Advanced-level in the book she had found. But like so many other things, it was something she had to keep secret. No one could know that she hardly needed a magical guard when she could protect herself, even if she didn"t know any healing spells yet-but Derrick was a good man and having at least two guards was the bare minimum she would allow herself. Or that she had spent so many late nights practicing that she could cast her spells without chanting.
  
  Like staying up to learn magic even begins to compare to cram school. One of these things is not like the other. Learning magic is fun and rewarding. Cram school was hell.
  
  "Princess Ariel!" Derrick yelled, drawing her and Luke"s attention to him as he pointed, running their way.
  
  Turning her head to look, Ariel took in the form striding out of the Hibiscus Forest, part of the White Lily Garden where she liked to hold these little discussions so she could at least get some privacy from the other nobles. Or at least the illusion of privacy. All of the maids and butlers reported her words and actions back to a variety of people. The walls had eyes and ears.
  
  It was a boar. A giant boar, walking upright on two legs. She recognized it from her studies as a Terminator Boar-a D-ranked threat by themselves, but their tenacity and the fact that they tended to travel with a pack of other monsters under their direction bumped them up closer to high C-rank or low B-Rank.
  
  But we"re in the castle, in the garden. There are guards all over-unless someone paid them to let it in, or an enemy mage summoned it.
  
  An assassination attempt. It made perfect sense. This was likely a move by one of her siblings.
  
  Ariel and Luke stood as the boar charged, Luke moving to intercept the beast while Ariel moved away. Her dress caught under one of her heels and Ariel fell, left sprawled on the ground as Derrick arrived in time for the board to bash Luke aside and turn its attention to the mage. With no time to cast, the mage put himself between Ariel and the boar. Had he been a second slower, he would have lived, and Ariel would have thrown her secret away to save the life of one of the very few decent people she knew.
  
  Instead, Derrick got his chest caved in by the boar"s fist for his trouble. Luke rejoined the fight, giving Ariel time to scrabble madly away and check on Derrick. I"m pretty sure that"s lethal, the girl assessed, gritting her teeth in frustration as she watched Derrick drown in his own blood. "Cleric! Medic! Man down! Someone bring a healer!"
  
  "Your highness," the man choked out, blood foaming at the corners of his lips, "too.. late."
  
  Ariel took his hand, finding her own shaking as she held it. "No. No, don"t. You can"t-"
  
  She fell silent as he pleaded with her between shallow gasps. "Please, become queen... Make Asura great again."
  
  Derrick fell limp as he exhaled a quiet rattle and breathed no more, his eyes stuck on Ariel, pleading. Turning to the boar, Ariel watched it approach with the gleam of malicious intelligence in its eyes. "I hate this world," she muttered, fire building in her hand and shifting from red, through orange, to white. "You can all just d-"
  
  "aaaaaa-"
  
  The boar stopped moving, its ears flicking as it turned its head this way and that.
  
  "aaaAAA-"
  
  Ariel looked up. The boar looked up.
  
  Falling from the sky, wearing tattered clothes, was a white haired angel.
  
  That"s not a scream, Ariel realized as the caught sight of the "angel"s" face, and its look of absolute righteous fury. That"s a war cry.
  
  Lightning lit the sky of Ars as Ariel"s avenging angel touched down lightly on a gust of wind, ruffling its-her!-hair, before the angel turned red eyes on her.
  
  Two thoughts ran through Ariel"s mind.
  
  Red eyes, take warning!
  
  And,
  
  Beautiful.
  
  "Sylphie?" her mother asked, rocking Elin in her arms as she looked out the front window.
  
  "Hm?" the girl hummed, looking up from where she had been helping make lunch. Following her mother"s gaze, she saw a few people standing in the street outside their front gate. Putting down the knife, she followed her mother out of the house and onto the lawn-actually larger than the one they"d had in Buena Village. Looking up, she saw a strange light in the sky.
  
  "What is that?" Sylvia murmured, clutching tighter to Elin in worry.
  
  "I don"t know. It"s magic, but it"s huge. There"s only one other person in Roa who could cast something on that scale, but I don"t know why Rudy would. Hang on." Fishing her phone, she asked, "Sprite, can you call Rudy?"
  
  Sprite"s small form materialized, staring up at the sky as well. "No signal," the spirit reported, before pointing up. "That is interfering with the summoning/sending spells that connect my other terminals."
  
  "Eh?"
  
  The world went white. Reflexively, she cast a shield-the biggest shield she could manage, around herself, her mother, and her sister. The world went black as she lost consciousness.
  
  Sylphie woke to the sound of wind roaring in her ears-a terrible feeling of vertigo assailing her as she felt like she was spinning. Opening her eyes, she watched the sky tumble past, then the ground, then sky again. "Eh?!"
  
  She couldn"t hear herself over the sound of the wind. Clenching her hands in fright, she found that somehow, she was still holding onto the crystal phone. Sprite clung to the phone comically, screaming in a tiny wail as they tumbled. "Eee!"
  
  Quickly, she stuffed the phone into her pocket, praying it wouldn"t fly away. Then, she thought back to her lessons with Rudy. When they danced across the sky, and he taught her what to do if she ever lost control-how to recover from a fall and land safely.
  
  Stretching herself out slowed her fall a little and slowly righted her spin until she was laying face towards the sky. Twisting around, she faced the ground.
  
  "Change direction and slowly bleed off speed. Don"t try to stop all at once or you"ll hurt yourself."
  
  Channeling the Air Running spell, she kicked off, feeling the stress on her knee and ankle as she did. Too much!
  
  She changed the angle on the next kick, bounding back the other direction. The change in motion was gut-wrenching, but not nearly as painful as the first attempt had been. So she did it again and again, until she was simply using Air Running normally and could focus on her surroundings.
  
  Where am I? Sylphie wondered, turning in the air as she looked around. Beneath her sprawled a huge city. Around the city, miles and miles of farmland and countryside. And far in the distance, a fading light...
  
  Air Lens let her see into the distance and what she saw made her heart crawl into her throat. There was a perfectly circular patch of nothing but dirt.
  
  Trees? Gone. Houses? Gone. Grass? Gone. People? Go-
  
  Movement between her and the blank space had her refocusing the telescopic spell and she gasped as she watched a person fall, and fall, and fall until they hit the ground with a small explosion of gore. I think I"m going to be sick.
  
  She lowered herself towards the ground, using Rudy"s flight spell now that she had herself under control and could hurry. She had to get back home. Summon her bike and ride back to Roa. She had to find her mother and sister. Even, yes, her father-as angry as he made her, she still loved him and hoped he would come around. I can"t let the last words I spoke to my father be in anger-
  
  A scream from below drew her attention to the garden she was descending into. Two men, barely more than boys, were trying to protect a pretty blonde girl from some sort of walking boar monster. She watched as the swordsman was knocked away, then the mage"s chest was caved in. The boar advanced on the girl.
  
  What if mother, Elin, and father lived, but wound up somewhere dangerous? What if they"re being killed by monsters even now? What if Rudy fell, but didn"t wake up? He just... hit the ground and he"s just laying there somewhere, splattered... N-no, I-No. No!
  
  Sylphie saw red.
  
  Lightning answered her call and for a brief moment, the world went white again, and the sound of thunder nearly deafened her.
  
  The boar exploded in a shower of blood and burned chunks of meat and fur. Panting, she landed in the garden and allowed her wind spell to die down. After making sure the boar was dead-Not that it could be anything but, when it"s been reduced to little more than the burned stumps of its legs-she turned to check the young woman and the mage.
  
  Her eyes found those of the blonde-clear, sky blue, unlike Roxy"s aqua blue.
  
  "Beautiful," the blonde murmured, staring-her fireball dissipating at her side.
  
  Sylphie ran towards the downed mage as the swordsman pushed himself to his feet. Sliding to a stop beside the young man, she reached out and touched his neck to check for a pulse as Rudy had shown her. Finding nothing, she tried a healing spell anyway-sometimes, if it was soon enough, she had learned that she could revive someone who had died. Or at least, that was how it worked with insects and small animals like the mice and rabbits she caught using earth magic, or the mice in Rudy"s lab-she had never tried it with a person before.
  
  "Who are you?" the boy demanded, and she felt the steel of his blade rest on her shoulder. "Did you set that monster loose?"
  
  Perhaps the Sylphiette she had been before meeting Rudy would have answered differently. Her father was right about one thing-she had changed. And yes, maybe Rudy was responsible.
  
  "Don"t ever start a fight you aren"t sure you can win, especially when you could just as easily talk it through. On the other hand, if someone starts a fight with you, end it, and make sure they"ll never start another."
  
  "If someone throws a spell at you, if they bare their blade at you, assume they mean to kill you. At that point, the fight"s already started. Unless you want to die, you"d better be ready to kill them first."
  
  Lightning crackled and the swordsman made a quiet "Urk!" before falling over as she channeled electricity through his sword and up his arm. Turning around, Sylphie kicked the sword away and channeled another lightning spell, aiming at his head.
  
  "Stop! Please!" the blonde called. "Both of you! Luke, it"s okay, she saved us. She was, she was checking Derrick to see if there was anything she could do for him."
  
  The boy on the ground glared up at her as his body twitched weakly. Sylphie kept one eye on him and one on the blonde. Slowly, the young woman approached, until she was within arm"s length. Reaching out, the taller girl placed a warm hand over the one Sylphie was using to pin Luke but didn"t put any weight on it. "Thank you for saving me. Please, it"s okay. He"s my guard, it"s his job to protect me. That"s all he was doing-making sure you weren"t a threat to me. I"m a princess, you see-Princess Ariel Anemoi Asura. This is the Silver Palace, in Ars, the capitol of Asura. Where did you come from?"
  
  "Fittoa. In Roa. Something happened. There was a light in the sky over Roa. Then a white light and I was suddenly in the sky, falling," Sylphie explained quietly, allowing the lightning spell she was holding to dissipate. Ariel slowly pushed her hand down and Sylphie stopped resisting. "I saw-" her breath hitched, but she forced herself to speak normally. "I saw someone else fall to the ground, not far from here."
  
  Luke finally righted himself and managed to get to his feet. "Oof, that really hurt." Stretching himself out, he added, "What you"re describing sounds kind of like a teleportation trap."
  
  Ariel considered Sylphie and Luke, her eyes straying to the corpses of Derrick and the boar, before she finally said, "Let"s get inside. In case there are any more surprises. The... the healers will take care of Derrick when they arrive." Taking Sylphie"s arm in her own, she pulled the smaller girl along. "What"s your name?"
  
  "Sylphiette. I need to get home-"
  
  "Yes," Ariel agreed, before bulling right over whatever else Sylphie was going to say. "But Fittoa could be dangerous right now. You"re in one of the safest places you could be at the moment. I"ll send some scouts to investigate and we should have a report within the week. Until then, please, allow me to thank you for saving my life by putting you up."
  
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  Wind roared in my ears and buffeted my body as I came to. I felt odd, like I was flying, or falling. Opening my eyes, I saw it was more of the former, but by the way we were losing speed it would soon become the latter.
  
  Eris was held tightly in my arms, along with my new staff. The world around us was a constantly changing blur of shapes and colors as we seemed to be bouncing around like a pinball.
  
  Have to land or we're going to go splat.
  
  I tried to focus on the ground, channeling mana to my eyes desperately in an attempt to see more, to pierce the maddening blur.
  
  The world slowed, just a bit, and I could make out more details. Strips or bands of land zipped by beneath us.
  
  Sea. Can't drink it all and I'm not dealing with magical Jaws. Fuck that noise.
  
  Mountains. Rocky landing and most of the ranges in this world are full of dragons. Nope.
  
  Forests. Too many monsters.
  
  Desert. Fuck no.
  
  Barren, reddish brown land. Good enough!
  
  I focused, casting Air Running and kicking us in that direction. The sense of flying stopped and suddenly, we were falling. But that was fine, I'd fallen from higher testing new spells or my ultralight before. I cast my go to flight spell, turning our fall into a gentle glide down. Touching down on the ground atop a mesa, I surveyed our surroundings.
  
  It was night here, the sun having set already and the moon full in the sky. The land was a barren red-brown that reminded me of home. Home on Earth, that is. It even smelled familiar, owing to a high iron content in the soil. The terrain was rocky, with hard packed sandy ground and nothing in the way of grass, trees, or even scrub brush as far as I could see. I hadn't seen any water sources on the way down, either. It was hot, but not an oven. There was enough mana in the air that I could feel it brushing against my own like cobwebs. That was worrying because everything I'd read said high mana density areas meant strong monsters.
  
  But aren"t those usually in forests? Not barren wastelands?
  
  Checking over Eris, I found she was simply sleeping. I could wake her up now, but I would rather have a better handle on the situation first and be able to at least tell her where we were and have some idea of what our next move was. So, I set to work getting just that.
  
  Stone grew out in a circle around us, giving us a teen foot tall sloped wall a yard thick. Just to drive the point home to any monsters lurking in the area and thinking we'd make an easy meal, I added serrated spikes. Next, I raised a stone dome around us, open on the sides, to give us some shade. A bit of wind magic produced a comfortable breeze that I could sustain indefinitely while I worked.
  
  Shelter taken care of, I summoned the drone I had just used yesterday to help clear out the forest outside Buena. Fishing my phone out of my pocket, I said, "Sprite, I"m sending this up. Think you can do some aerial recon?"
  
  "Of course, master," the spirit answered dutifully, and the wind spirit within the drone roused to wakefulness and took off. While that"s working, I should make a few more.
  
  The ground here was full of minerals compared to Fittoa, too many really for it to be good for much of anything normally. But it was pretty much perfect for my purposes, as I began stripping out iron and a few other trace metals-mostly nickel and copper by the feel of them. Sprite could probably tell me the exact composition if I tied some earth spells into her enchantments, but it wasn"t important right now. Maybe later. Drones that could scan for mineral deposits. Now that could be handy.
  
  Fire magic provided heat enough to smelt everything down and allow me to better strengthen it while keeping it light. I poured it into a telekinetic mold that left lots of little pockets of vacuum in it to cut down the weight, I then cooled it slowly with water magic.
  
  Next, I summoned a mana crystal and merged it into the new structure, enchanted it with the same enchantments as the first true drone, and checked that everything that needed to move would.
  
  Finally, I used summoning to call up a new little crystal butterfly-identical to the first one already inside my current drone overhead. "Okay girl, I need you to take this up and circle for me. Got it? Go wide around the drone already up there."
  
  The wind spirit gave a positive sounding chirp in answer before its crystal body dissolved and sank into the drone. The flaps gave a few experimental twitches before it lifted off on a gust of wind. When it got far enough up, the whoosh of the engine kicked in and it zipped away before turning upwards.
  
  Pulling out my phone, I began giving orders. "Sprite, give me the feed from the drones. Highlight anything that looks like a monster or person. Then start mapping and comparing it to the data from our paper maps. I want to know where we are as soon as possible."
  
  "Right away, master," she acknowledged and a full color hologram popped up above the display. Immediately, things began to stand out as they were highlighted.
  
  Reds indicated confirmed monsters, of which there were many within as little as a mile of us, but nothing in the immediate vicinity-mostly due to being on top of one of the many plateaus. As I had thought earlier, it was very much like a mesa. The entire area was reminding me more and more of Colorado in terms of geography. And now that I had drones up, I could actually make out plant life. There wasn"t much, but there was some-most of it scrub, as I"d thought. It was just very hard to see from the air without zooming in, which Sprite could. The biggest threat in the area were several very large turtle or tortoise looking monsters that stood out in particular for their size.
  
  Yellows indicated suspected camouflaged monsters, of which there were a few. Most of them were disguised as rocks, but a few were clearly outlines of big lizards or something that looked like mangy coyotes laying among the rocks.
  
  Blues indicated humanoids. There was a village of them not too far from us, maybe ten miles on foot if counted only in horizontal distance, but no others nearby... Save for one, about three miles away, approaching our position unerringly in as straight a line as it could manage given the terrain and at great speed-leaping through the terrain like something out of a goddamn shonen manga and confirming whoever it was definitely knew how to use touki. It only veered away to approach one of the yellows, which turned red the moment he got close and shifted from what looked like a rock into some kind of wood or brush monster, like a living tumbleweed.
  
  Forewarned is forearmed, so I channeled and held a few Telekinesis spells ready just in case, that way it wouldn't be obvious if whoever it was meant no harm.
  
  Before I could contemplate too much on that, my phone rang. I blinked as the hologram I was watching moved to the side, making way for a little box requesting a call from Roxy.
  
  I accepted immediately and a new hologram joined the first-that of my future wife looking worried as she watched her surroundings and occasionally glanced at her phone. She looked to be walking down a road somewhere, but I couldn't place it. And just as it was when I left, it was mid-morning where she was. Meaning I was far enough away to have crossed several time zones, if this world even had those, which I doubted. More due to a lack of global communication and fast travel than any sort of lack of timekeeping, at a guess.
  
  I did notice that Sprite"s clock in the corner of the display had updated and now displayed local time for both myself and Roxy-or what must be a guess of local time, at around midnight, with a question mark beside it. She"ll update it when the sun comes up.
  
  Roxy's eyes locked onto mine the moment she realized the call had connected. "Rudy. You're okay." She breathed a quiet sigh. "What happened? Sprite said she couldn't connect."
  
  The relief was audible, even if it barely showed on her face. "I think we were teleported. Eris is here with me. Not just us, though. We were outside the city when it happened. It looked like a nuke going off."
  
  Roxy was the only other person on this planet who would understand the significance of those words, in that context. The book I gave Sylphie may have contained references to them, but Roxy was the only one I'd gone out of my way to explain what they were to. Mostly to impress upon her just how dangerous science could be, what with the force of such a blast and the following invisible radiation.
  
  The woman frowned, eyes narrowing as she studied the hologram of where I was on her side. After a moment, she asked, "You"ve made a shelter and fortified your position. Good work. Do you know where you are?"
  
  "Nope. Hang on. Sprite, could you send her the drone feed?"
  
  Sprite chirped once and Roxy looked off to the side, studying what she saw there. It didn't take her long to come to a conclusion. "You are in immense danger. That is the Demon Continent. I believe that this village," she tapped the settlement visible in the feed and Sprite helpfully highlighted it, "is my former home. Make camp tonight and tomorrow, travel there and see. If it is, I suggest staying there. I can come get you-"
  
  "Roxy," I interrupted her gently. "I think I can handle myself, even looking after Eris at the same time-even if I trust her to handle herself, for the most part. I'll be careful and try my hand at a few of the local monsters just to be sure, but I'm not going to sit around twiddling my thumbs while we wait for you to come rescue us. If I have to, I can scale up and fly there. But I don"t want to leave immediately. I"m worried that if we were teleported outside the city, then we"ve got at least a city"s worth of people unaccounted for. If we made it here, I want to check around and see if I can find Sylphie, her mom and sister, Ghislaine, and Eris" family. If we can't get ahold of them. You're the first person I've heard from."
  
  Roxy went silent as she studied me for a moment before she sighed and chuckled quietly. "No, you wouldn't, would you Rudy? Very well. Then I suggest making your way to Rikarisu, to the northeast of the continent. Report the incident to the Adventurers" Guild and they"ll spread the information to other guilds and likely start a search and rescue mission for survivors. From there, you should make your way southwest across the continent to Wind Port. There, you can take a ship across the sea. I will try to meet you in Wind Port."
  
  There was really no reason not to meet up with her. "Sounds like a plan. So-"
  
  The holograms of Roxy and my drone feed were joined by a third hologram. Roxy and I both fell silent. This feed showed the inside of what looked to be some sort of bedchamber, white walls richly decorated with gold and silver fixtures and expensive looking furniture. Just as Roxy's feed had a text tag under it identifying that it came from Roxy's phone, this one was labeled 'Sylphie.' And yet...
  
  The face that greeted us was the one I had kissed just this morning. Same face, same eyes, same ears. But the hair was a startling shade of white.
  
  "Rudy! Roxy! You're safe!" The girl cheered, tears springing to her eyes as she looked at us. Roxy and I traded a confused look. I shrugged and she gave an equally baffled reply.
  
  "It's good to see you, Sylphie. I"m glad you"re safe," I sent the girl a smile.
  
  "I"m happy that you're safe, but where are you now? What happened to your hair?" Roxy asked.
  
  "I-I'm in the Silver Palace, in Ars." Looking confused, she asked, "What about my hair?"
  
  "It"s white. And Ars as in Asura?" I asked, getting a nod in answer. That answered the question of where at least one of the people on my list were, but what about the rest? Last I knew, Sylphie was with Sylvia and Elin. Frowning, I asked, "Were you with your mother when it happened? Is she there with you?"
  
  "I was, and she"s not. She doesn"t have a phone. Do you have a spare I can Send her?"
  
  "Yeah, sure," I nodded, digging out my spare from my pocket and Sending it to Sylphie, who immediately Sent it with her own magic. Thankfully, I had a few more completed models in storage now, so if needed I could just summon another up.
  
  "Thank you, Rudy. Sprite, could you...?" A new hologram joined the others, this one showing a woman curled around a child, laying in what looked like a snow bank in bright light, shivering.
  
  I frowned, picking up my own phone and beginning to add new enchantments-one for each of the general elemental manipulation fields. "Sprite, update everything you"ve got access to with this. You saw me make this shelter. Think you can duplicate it? Also going to need you to provide a fire."
  
  "I believe so, master. I shall try," the spirit agreed, and a moment later, a stone wall began to rise out from under the snow, before it stopped. "The local terminal does not have enough mana to finish."
  
  Frowning, I considered the problem. Okay, I could summon it back and forth, but that"d be a waste of time. How about a way to charge it wirelessly. Can you Send mana? I... don"t really see why not. If you had enough mana, it would cover the network overhead for the Sending spell and then some.
  
  I began enchanting the phone again while summoning a few more monster cores/mana crystals. Taking out a couple of silver coins from my pocket, I used earth magic to reshape them into a bracelet, wrapping around a trio of mana crystals. Then, I enchanted the bracelet to Send mana to my phone, detect their current mana level, and if it fell below 50% to Summon mana from me. As soon as the spell settled in, it filled them with mana. "Okay Sprite, update everything and see if you can-"
  
  "I have it, master!" The wall on the other end of Sylvia"s phone rose up, along with a shelter over her. Then, she cleared the snow under and around Sylvia and Elin down to dirt, which swiftly dried up. A rock rose out of the ground nearby and nothing visibly happened for a moment, until I noticed what looked like heat waves shimmering off of it. "I will move the local terminal into an overwatch position and alert you when she wakes, or if monsters approach."
  
  "Thank you, Sprite," Sylphie sighed, smiling at the phone as the new hologram cut out. Turning back to me and Roxy, she continued her story. "There was a bright white light, then I was falling from the sky. ...I saw a man fall to his death. I was too far to do anything about it and he just, he just splattered. I kept thinking, what if that was you...?"
  
  "We're fine, Sylphie. But thanks for worrying," I sent the girl what I hoped was a reassuring smile. I met Roxy's eyes, bringing up the next problem I'd realized. "That was a big blast. If it wasn"t isolated to Roa, if it reached the village... Sprite, where are Norn and Aisha"s phones? Who has the one from the mansion? And go ahead and call Ghislaine, get her in on this."
  
  "One moment," the spirit answered. Then four new views popped up. One from the inside of a building, with stone walls in what looked like a closet. Aisha and Lilia were unconscious on the floor. The second was the inside of a city that reminded be of something out of the middle east-from the construction to the coloration, simple and very "desert town" look. Hilda was laid down atop a bale of hay in a stall with some sort of giant lizard wearing a saddle and nosing her curiously, but not aggressively.
  
  The third phone came online and we saw Ghislaine holding it up in some kind of forest. "Rudeus. Is Eris with you?" the big woman asked, before looking over Sylphie, Roxy, Sylvia and Elin, and finally Hilda. "What about Phillip and Sauros? Zenith and the others?"
  
  "Eris is with me. No idea on Phillip and Sauros. I'll try to Send phones to them shortly. Zenith... well," I gestured at the last hologram.
  
  The fourth and final phone was... underwater, looking up at the sun through a few feet of water, with small fish swimming around.
  
  The last phone lifted up out of the water before the hologram spun around, taking in the surroundings-an ocean, a beach, and not a person visible for miles. The tag was labeled "Norn." "Shit," I muttered. "Okay, try Sending the phone to Norn."
  
  Nothing happened. "The Sending failed, master. Should I try for Zenith?"
  
  "Yeah," I agreed.
  
  Sprite"s answer was a hesitant, "Second failure."
  
  "Okay," I murmured, considering the options. "Doesn"t mean they"re dead. There are a few reasons Summoning or Sending will fail. Most of them boil down to either magical interference or a change in the object summoned or destination sent to."
  
  "It's a six month journey on foot. I was already on the road," Roxy offered.
  
  "I don"t know where I am," Ghislaine supplied. "A forest somewhere. The whole thing stinks of blood-" The woman paused, her ears flicking, before looking off into the forest. "I have to go. I"ll contact you later."
  
  Ghislaine"s feed cut out and we all shared a worried look. Shaking my head, I decided on a course of action. "Yeah, screw that. I'll build a drone and send it ahead to confirm the damage. Actually, a carrier drone, to send over a whole mess of drones to spread out and search. Should take two, three days tops before we know for sure about Fittoa. With any luck, Sprite can spot Norn and Zenith from the air or something. We can decide what to do from there."
  
  Summoning another two phones from the bunker, I Sent one each to Phillip and Sauros and had Sprite connect them immediately. Sauros picked his up immediately, and I, and several of the others, winced. "RUDY MY BOY!"
  
  "Put some damn clothes on!" I yelled back at the man, who was naked from the waist down, giving everyone an eyeful of floppy old man cock. One of the beast-kin maids I recognized as being one of Sauros' favorites hurried into view, naked herself, handing him a set of pants. "Where are you?"
  
  Sauros began pulling his pants on as he looked around. In the background, I could see what looked like a forest and maybe a road. "I'm not sure, my boy. Millis, perhaps? It's the only other place with a road that straight," he supplied, before asking, "Is Eris with you?"
  
  "She's asleep."
  
  "Good. And I see Hilda there," he nodded towards Hilda's feed. "What about Phillip?"
  
  I sent a look at Sprite, who had gone somewhat pale and quiet. "Sprite?"
  
  "What- what do I do, master?" she asked, and a feed popped up. Phillip, being beaten by a group of people I didn't recognize.
  
  My eye twitched. "Kill them all."
  
  The spirit hesitated for just a moment before nodding. And then, people started dying as invisible forces removed heads from shoulders. It was over so quickly that you couldn't even call it a fight. A larger hologram of Sprite's avatar formed over the phone and she made her way over to Phillip. "He'll be fine," she assessed a moment later. "I will stay here and communicate what's going on."
  
  "Okay," I agreed. "And uh, put some clothes on, would you? Don't want to give him an eye full."
  
  The spirit blinked and a small smile crossed her lips before clothing flickered onto her hologram. "Of course, master."
  
  "Thank you, young lady," Sauros murmured as he looked at the feed, his eyes going over the damage. "Those were soldiers, not bandits. I believe that may be the Conflict Zone."
  
  Hearing a crunching of boots on the ground, I sighed quietly. It seemed that I was going to have to wrap this up for the moment. "I have to go. Something I have to deal with. I'll get in contact again tomorrow-"
  
  Behind Sylphie, a door burst open and a blonde girl somewhere around my age, maybe as old as Eris, looked into the room with a look of confusion. Sylphie turned her direction and the girl's eyes locked on the hologram, then trailed down to Sylphie's hands.
  
  Jaw flopping open, the blonde pointed. "Is that a スマートフォン?!"
  
  I frowned. The pronunciation was... off, but I recognized the words. "Did you just ask if that was a smartphone in Engurishu?"
  
  "Nani?"
  
  I blinked, then grinned. "Moshi moshi desu. Sorry, that's about the extent of my Nippongo these days."
  
  The blonde started at me. "You're from Earth!"
  
  "Yup. Roxy, could you talk with her later, in private? And keep an eye on Lilia and Aisha. When they wake up, let them know we"re safe and find out where they are, please. I'll call back."
  
  "Yes," the bluenette agreed and I disconnected the call, but left my aerial view up. The full moon provided a good amount of light, but even if it didn"t the light magic the drone was enchanted with could see in starlight like it was full day, so long as there was some light to magnify. Not to mention infrared, UV, and so on. The view might as well be in daylight and painted with the hues of heat coming off things. Things like the person sneaking into our camp.
  
  "Why don't you come down from there and introduce yourself, stranger?" I called out.
  
  The figure who had perched itself on my wall hopped down, circling around our open dome before crouching down just outside of it to peer inside. I reached into the magic holding the dome in place and caused it to flow back into the ground, before creating a ball of light above us.
  
  The threat was obvious enough that I didn't think it needed to be said aloud: he had walked into an area under the complete control of a mage who could cast silently and there was a good chance that if he did something I didn't like, the ground would swallow him whole. In reality, I was ready to pull a Lucy and pop someone"s head off if shit got real, with my Telekinesis spells already settling into place around his body.
  
  Our visitor was definitely a 'he.' In the light of my spell, I could clearly see the green hair and red gem in his forehead. This time, I felt I was correct in guessing this was a member of the murder hobo race Roxy had warned me about, the Superd. I supposed it was a good thing he was polite enough to wait for me to finish my call before walking in. Wouldn"t want to worry her needlessly that some dangerous-looking guy might be getting ready to murder me and Eris both.
  
  And yet... While he carried a trident/spear in one hand, in the other arm he held a tied up load of uneven branches that were clearly meant to be used as fire wood. He also didn't appear like he had any hostile intent as he took a seat across from me and set his load and weapon down.
  
  "You are not afraid."
  
  I shook my head. "Not really. Cautious, certainly, but I saw you coming."
  
  The man turned his attention to the floating hologram. "I see. You are a human child, did your parents not teach you of the Superd?"
  
  "No, but my master did. She warned me to stay away from them."
  
  "You're disregarding her words, you know?" The implied question of why was obvious.
  
  "Unless you meant to eat us after killing us, you wouldn't have brought wood," I pointed out.
  
  "We don't eat people."
  
  "Didn't think so." I extended my hand. "Rudeus Greyrat. That's Eris Boreas Greyrat."
  
  The man eyed my hand for a moment before reaching out and taking it. "Ruijerd Superdia." He released my hand and reached for the cloak around him. Unclasping it, he handed it to me. "For her."
  
  I leaned over and draped the cloak over Eris. Turning back, I found Ruijerd had untied the bundle of wood and was making a fire pit. Deciding to help him out, I caused the ground under it to sink in and turn to stone. The man nodded, pulling flint and steel from his bag, but a bit of mana on my part had the wood catching fire.
  
  "So, where exactly on the Demon Continent are we?"
  
  "The Biegoya region. The nearest settlement is a group of Migurd, there," he pointed towards the map. "We are not far from the old Kishirisu castle, in Rikarisu. Where do you hail from?"
  
  "The citadel of Roa, in the country of Asura, of the Central Continent."
  
  "You are very far from home. How did that come to be?"
  
  "We were teleported. Before you arrived, I spoke with my old master and fellow student. Sylphie, the other student, said she had been teleported as well. We also managed to find a few more of our family." I sighed, casting a glance at Eris. "Just going by the cases we know of-ourselves, Sylphie, and a man Sylphie saw fall from the sky-the teleportation event was dangerous. Potentially fatal for most people."
  
  I couldn't bring myself to finish the thought. In the time I had spent there, the Boreas Greyrats had become like a second family to me. Especially given everything going on with Paul. Ghislaine could take care of herself, but Phillip? Sauros? Hilda? Zenith and Norn?
  
  I had my doubts.
  
  Hilda had a phone with her, so she was relatively safe for now, since Sprite could discourage anyone from messing with her. Phillip and Sauros hadn"t had that benefit, until I Sent them spares. And look how that turned out. A few minutes later and Phillip may have been dead. Well, Sprite's on overwatch now and she's proven she can handle most problems. They should be fine for the moment. It's Zenith and Norn I'm more worried about.
  
  "I'll see you both safely back there."
  
  I sent the man a raised eyebrow. "Why?"
  
  "It is a warrior's duty to protect the weak.
  
  I shook my head. "You don't have to. I can look after us and we'll be moving fast enough that monsters... probably won't be an issue."
  
  "A Superd warrior never goes back on his word. You are children. I will accompany you."
  
  I studied the man across the fire from me as I considered my options.
  
  Could take the bikes and ditch him. There's no way he could keep up, even with touki. I've got drones, so monsters really won't be able to get the jump on us unless they're subterranean. Do as Roxy said and head to Rikarisu. We can cover a lot of ground with the bikes in a day, and if Aisha and Lilia are anything to go on, the teleportation effect definitely reached the village...
  
  "Sprite, spawn a new hologram. Map of Fittoa, centered on Roa." A new hologram sprang into being, this one an overhead image of the Fittoa region, annotated with the details from the paper maps I"d taken photos of. "Give me a line from Roa to Buena Village." Sprite drew a red line between the city and the village. "Draw a circle using that as the radius, then highlight every settlement within the circle."
  
  Ruijerd watched silently as I worked. Eventually, he said, "That area covers many miles. Many towns and villages."
  
  "Yeah," I muttered. At a rough estimate, we were looking at thousands, maybe tens of thousands of displaced depending on Roa"s population, and that's just if it stopped at Buena Village. Which I doubted.
  
  On the other hand, it couldn't hurt to have a local guide. Someone who knows the lay of the land beyond a top down view. An extra set of eyes, to look for other displaced Fittoa residents. We can go towards Wind Port, but with the bikes we can cover a lot of ground very quickly. We could hit every town within a day's ride between here and there on the way. Go out of our way to hit every major city. Everywhere Sprite can confirm survivors.
  
  Question is, should I? Aside from looking for Zenith and Norn, it"s not my responsibility. As Sauros, Phillip, an Ghislaine pointed out, it"s not my place to do so.
  
  I decided to put voice to these thoughts. "I'm thinking about searching every village between Rikarisu and Wind Port for survivors. Is that going to be a problem, if I decide to do it?"
  
  Ruijerd frowned. "No, but it will take much time."
  
  "Not as much as you think."
  
  Eris murmured something in her sleep and rolled over onto her back. Reaching out, I laid a hand atop her head. "She's going to wake up soon, probably. Fair warning, Eris can be... loud."
  
  Ruijerd nodded but made no comment on it. Picking up my phone, I checked the time. Time here worked much as it did on Earth. Twenty-four hours in a day, the sun rose in the east and set in the west, days were longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. And the world was round.
  
  Which meant that while it was around 1p.m. in Roa, Sprite had adjusted her timekeeping based on sunset earlier, which put us at 2a.m. here. Maybe. She was guessing and would adjust after the sun came up, but it was at least accurate as a counter for how long we"d been here so far. At a rough estimate for distance, it was about as far from here to Roa as it was from New York to Shanghai.
  
  Give or take a few thousand miles, one direction or the other.
  
  I decided to get to work making a much larger carrier drone. In so doing, I realized that I had been stroking Eris' head for some time now. She's grown on me. I guess I can"t just keep looking at her as a tsundere and a kid any more. Especially not after last night.
  
  Focusing on what I wanted, I summoned the magical core from the bear I'd killed outside Buena Village. The one I had sent to the bunker with all of our other spoils from that outing, since I"d had no immediate use for it. Setting it down beside me, I began making the wing frame-a much larger version of the ones I had overhead. Much, much larger.
  
  Speaking of... "Sprite, put the drones in an expanding spiral. I want as much of the surrounding terrain mapped as you can get overnight. And if you spot any people, try to get enough of a shot of their face to identify whether they"re human or not. I doubt there are going to be too many humans wandering the Demon Continent," I sent Ruijerd a questioning look and he shook his head.
  
  "Sometimes adventurers do come here, but it"s rare."
  
  "Thought so. Yeah, Sprite, mark their locations and take pictures of their faces. If they"re dead... well, do the same and mark them as deceased. If they"re in immediate danger and you can do something about it, please do."
  
  "The monsters won"t leave much in the way of a corpse," Ruijerd warned, and I nodded. It was awful, but a fact of life in this world. Monsters ate people.
  
  That taken care of, I settled into my work. I have no idea how much time passed, but eventually Eris jerked awake and looked around. She seemed confused at her surroundings, but otherwise okay when she spotted me.
  
  Then she saw Ruijerd and freaked right the fuck out. "Aaaaahhhh! Nooooo!" she shrieked, scrabbling backwards madly from the man who was... just sitting there, looking calm but mildly disappointed.
  
  Looking between him and Eris, I asked, "That happen a lot?"
  
  Ruijerd nodded. "Sadly. This reaction is the one I am most accustomed to."
  
  "So I'm the weird one for not panicking?" I asked, and the man nodded again.
  
  Frowning, I stood and made my way over to the panicked girl. Something didn't feel right. At all. I knew Eris. She didn't get scared often and when she did, every time before now she attacked that fear head on. By which, I mean she took whatever was at hand and beat on whatever made her scared until it stopped scaring her.
  
  This was... Out of character.
  
  Moving been Eris and Ruijerd, I crouched down and blocked her view of the man, looking into her eyes as I reached out and took her hands. Eris latched on like a drowning man thrown a life preserver.
  
  "Shh. It's okay. You're safe."
  
  "Rudeus! No, no we're not! Not safe! I don't want to die! It's a monster!"
  
  Taking one of my hands back, I reached out and covered her eyes. Eris quieted, but I could feel her trembling. "No one's going to hurt us. Okay?"
  
  "A-are you sure?"
  
  "I'm sure," I agreed, and she slowly settled down. Moving to the side, I lifted my hand.
  
  Eris' red eyed gaze found Ruijerd again. "Eeee!"
  
  She panicked, looked around, and promptly put me between her and the supposed threat before latching on and shaking her head. "Blast it! Make it go away!"
  
  "Eris, listen," I tried to get her attention. When I saw she had settled a little, I asked, "What's so scary about that man?"
  
  "He's a Superd! They eat children alive!"
  
  Understandable, but I"ve never seen her this scared. It would make sense if he were doing something threatening, but not just sitting there. It"s like... looking at a Fear effect in real life.
  
  Grabbing her hand, I pulled it up to my mouth and nibbled on one of her fingers. "Eek!" She shrieked, before realizing it was just me. "S-stop that, Rudeus! It's not funny!"
  
  "It totally was," I countered.
  
  "Okay." Reaching around, I grabbed Eris and forced her around in front of me. It took a lot of work because she apparently really didn't want to be moved, but I eventually got it done.
  
  "Alright Eris, this is Ruijerd Superdia. He's a... A friend. A warrior. He's going to be traveling with us while we're heading back to Roa and acting as our guide. I promise, he's not going to hurt you. Now, open your eyes and greet him properly."
  
  "Nn..." Eris hissed, pulling a face before very cautiously opening her eyes. She flinched when she saw him, but didn't run. "H-h-hello. I-I'm Eris Boreas G-Greyrat. Pleased.. to meet you."
  
  She even managed a sloppy curtsy. I was impressed.
  
  "Hello."
  
  "Great, now you know each other. Eris, play nice. I have some things to take care of. Ruijerd, please fill her in on where we are and what's going on."
  
  "W-wait! You're just leaving me here?!"
  
  I rolled my eyes. "Eris, I'm going right over here to work on something. I promise, I'm not going to just leave you here with some guy we just met, even if he does seem like a decent person."
  
  "O-okay," she nodded. Turning to Ruijerd, Eris put her fists on her hips and assumed tsundere defiant stance number two. "Where are we and what's going on?!"
  
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  As Eris and Ruijerd talked, I worked. For this new model drone, I decided to go with two engines instead of the single engine design on the smaller drone-speed was of the essence here. Because it would be acting as a carrier, I made it large-so large I had to knock down the walls and raise them again when I was satisfied it was big enough-and made the interior hollow, giving it a set of doors on the bottom that would open and release smaller drones.
  
  I gave it retractable landing struts so that it could touch down somewhere if needed. Then, because I saw the need for vertical takeoff and landing, along with hovering in place, and wanted to make it easier on the spirit I was planning to stick into it I added a set of four small, vertical facing engines that would be sealed off under normal flight conditions for aerodynamic reasons. Those, I set each on their own independently turning gimbal system so they could direct thrust as needed. Luckily, I didn"t actually need to do anything beyond build the parts and tie in some control enchantments-the spirit I summoned would do the rest.
  
  Because I was a bit paranoid about defending it, I also enchanted in a Shield spell and Invisibility, on top of the general elemental manipulation spells I"d added to the phones-then I had Sprite go ahead and update the phones with those too, in case they were needed. It would be easier to shield against a threat than to try to fix "dead," after all. The rest of the enchantments were pretty much copy/pasted from the phones and other drones at this point, since nothing really needed to be added that I could think of at the moment-but I something did come up, I could remote update it.
  
  Finally, looking over the new engines, I decided that the situation warranted breaking out something I'd been thinking about for a while now but hadn't had a need for yet and so hadn"t really gotten around to playing with. Before now, all my 'jet' engines were essentially forced air scoops running off a modified wind spell. The short version was, they ran off of compressed air. But I really wanted this thing to get where it was going as soon as possible and while compressed air engines were fast (I"d gotten up to, at a guess, 250 in the ultralight on a relatively small version of that engine), actual jet engines were faster.
  
  Why not Send it to Sylphie or Roxy, since they were closer? Actually, that was the plan. It still had to cover the ground between either Ars or Shirone back to Fittoa though.
  
  I created a smaller drone as a mock-up for the new design and held it in place with Telekinesis, then enchanted the new, smaller engine with the spells I wanted. Since I was holding it in place, I could power it myself, so there was no need for a mana crystal or summoned spirit yet. When I was satisfied, I looked over to my companions. "I'm about to test something. This could get loud."
  
  Eris looked over, saw what I was working on, and grinned like a loon. She knew from experience that any time I improved something like this, that improvement generally went towards every other design that worked on the same principals. So if I improved my bike, hers got the same improvements shortly after. When I went from the fan engine to the pressure jet, Eris had demanded I take her up and had the time of her life. To her, improvements with something like this generally translated to her getting to ride something fast, and the girl was a speed demon.
  
  Bracing myself with Telekinesis and creating a shield around myself just in case, I fired up the engine.
  
  The engine promptly exploded, sending shrapnel pinging off my shield. Instead of looking annoyed, Eris only looked more excited.
  
  "Well, that didn't work."
  
  Apparently just throwing fire and wind together was a bad idea. What about... A fuel tank? Pull water from the air. Split water into hydrogen and oxygen in separate tanks. Mix hydrogen and oxygen in engine. Cram in air to burn. Ignite fuel air mixture. Second ignition as it exits the engine... Essentially, a hybrid between a hydroxy engine and a true ramjet with afterburner.
  
  More shaping of metal, more enchanting, more shields... And I was ready to test again.
  
  This time, it didn't explode. Not immediately. No, the single engine roared to life and flames shot out the ass end at it tried to hit escape velocity and I held it in place. The force behind it was immense and the engine was loud, but it seemed stable. Ish. It had enough force that where it was pressing against the telekinetic force holding it, the frame was starting to warp. Still, I had learned my lesson from the tires. Even with magic, sometimes problems weren't immediately obvious.
  
  So, I tested it to failure. I upped the output to full burn and waited. Eventually, the metal began to glow a cherry red, then parts began to slag. Finally, the whole thing exploded when, if I had to guess, something hot got to the hydrogen fuel tank. Right. No fuel tanks. Straight conversion from atmosphere inside the jet itself. Going to need cooling too, so an ice spell on the engines maybe. What about something less intense than a full time burn and instead, timed pulses? The old "donuts on a rope." Could get it up into scramjet territory if I do it right. Just requires changing the internal structure for more compression, if I recall correctly. Add in magic and we could up that by a lot. Also, I think I can just enchant it to use earth magic to self-repair, so I"ll test that too. That way, if it starts looking like it"s going to break, Sprite can fix it.
  
  As I worked, I set my phone to the side. "Sprite, call Roxy and Sylphie again for me."
  
  "I"ll reconnect you to their group call. Should I add Eris, master?"
  
  I sent a look over at the girl talking to the Superd. "Eris, I"m going to call Roxy and Sylphie again," I called out to her.
  
  Eris looked between me and the Superd warrior. Ruijerd gestured for her to join me. "Go. I will go hunt for food."
  
  "Mm," Eris nodded, hurrying over to sit beside me.
  
  So we wouldn"t have to hear the drone"s engines, or it exploding, I enveloped the whole thing in a sphere of silence. Then, I had Sprite place the call. I saw that in addition to Roxy and Sylphie, we had the blonde on Sylphie"s side still-though apparently Sauros had hung up at some point, so it was just the three of them. The slightly older girl"s sky blue eyes immediately shifted to me. "You"re American!" she accused.
  
  I sighed. "Guilty as charged." Casting a sidelong look at Eris, I considered her for a moment. "So, truth is I"m not from this world-"
  
  "Reincarnated. I know. Roxy and Sylphie told me."
  
  Blinking, I turned my gaze back to the hologram. Roxy had the good grace to blush. "Did she now?"
  
  "Yeah," Eris nodded. "Doesn"t really change anything. Annoyed you didn"t tell me yourself, but... I probably would"ve blabbed it to everyone if you had earlier anyway."
  
  Nodding at that, I asked, "So, you two told Eris?"
  
  It was Sylphie who answered. "Sorry, Rudy! We just thought-"
  
  Roxy cut her off with a simple, "Yes."
  
  No attempt to prevaricate, explain, plead, or anything else. A simple statement of fact, admittance that she did it, and apparent willingness to accept responsibility for it. I sighed. "Well, it"s not like I wasn"t considering considering it anyway, especially after last night. I would"ve told her eventually. Don"t tell anyone else unless I give you permission, okay? Blondie there is the exception, if only because we figured each other out."
  
  "I won"t," Roxy agreed immediately.
  
  "Okay!" was Sylphie"s reply.
  
  A simple ""Kay," was all I got from Eris.
  
  Nodding, I sent the bluenette a threatening promising look. "Roxy, you"re still getting a spanking later."
  
  "Eh?! W-why?"
  
  "You"re old enough that you should have known better," I answered.
  
  Hesitantly, Eris leaned closer and asked, "Can I watch?"
  
  "EH?!" Roxy"s response was a bit louder.
  
  "Me too!" Sylphie cheered.
  
  Roxy buried her face in her hands, hiding a blush. "Eep!"
  
  The blonde laughing drew us out of our moment. "Wow. You really are a harem protagonist."
  
  I sent her a flat look. "Not even remotely. Firstly, I"m not dense when it comes to recognizing when the women around me are interested." Eris and Sylphie nodded. "Secondly, I actively pursue women." Roxy nodded where she still had her face hidden. "Thirdly, I"m not some celibate Japanese herbivore man with decision paralysis or moral qualms about whether he should or shouldn"t sleep with the women surrounding him. I can and do get laid." Eris leered, nodding enthusiastically.
  
  "Now, not to be impolite, but who are you and why are you with Sylphie?" I asked the blonde.
  
  "Rudy!" Sylphie hissed, trying to wave me off. I raised an eyebrow at that.
  
  "Ariel," the blonde introduced herself with a smile. "And who might I have the pleasure of addressing?"
  
  I considered the surroundings on Sylphie"s side of the call, what the girl was wearing, and her general high class looks-on top of the fact that she had introduced herself as Ariel and was speaking in a more down-to-Earth manner. Mid-to-high ranked nobility, maybe royalty. She"s not throwing around her titles or her noble status, and she"s trying to make herself approachable and put herself on our level socially. And Sylphie, I looked at the formerly green-haired girl who nodded hesitantly, isn"t giving more details and is implying I go along with it for now. Okay then. I"ll play her game and see where it goes.
  
  "Rudeus Greyrat."
  
  Beside me, Eris puffed herself up. "Eris Boreas Greyrat."
  
  Ariel nodded. "Sylphiette-Sylphie? Can I call you Sylphie?" she asked, turning her attention to the gre-white haired girl in question.
  
  "Y-yes Your-"
  
  "Ah ah ah! No. Ariel," she insisted, before gesturing at me. "Be more like Rudeus there. Please?" After getting a mumbled agreement from Sylphie, she said, "The others told me you were looking into the Fittoa situation?"
  
  "Yeah. I should have a drone over there by mid-day tomorrow at the latest. Just depends on how long it takes to prototype, then I can Send it over."
  
  Ariel blinked, before laughing. "Of course. I should have known. And you make these yourself? What all can they do? How do they work?"
  
  "Yeah, I make them. They"re basically flying wing style drones with forced air engines, aside from the big one I"m using for a carrier. I think I"ve managed to figure out a scramjet. Maybe. Still trying to keep it from exploding but I should have something that works by the morning. They"ve got many of the same enchantments the phones have on them, so remote A/V capability, and a few other spells-"
  
  "By which you mean they"re armed."
  
  I rolled my eyes. "Well, yeah. American."
  
  "Naturally," the girl laughed.
  
  "And they"re all controlled by summoned spirits."
  
  Looking interested, Ariel asked, "What other things have you managed to import over from our world? Besides cellphones and drones, that is."
  
  "You want it in order, or by what I think is the most impressive?" I considered it for a moment before a small grin crossed my lips. "Not that it matters, it starts the same way anyway."
  
  "Oh? What do you feel was the most important?"
  
  "The flush toilet, followed by the shower."
  
  Ariel froze in place, her eyes growing slowly wider before she turned to Sylphie. "Is this true?"
  
  Sylphie nodded, but it was Roxy who answered. "I helped Rudy build the first one. That was the day he told me about your world. My first hot bath was... amazing."
  
  Orgasmic. She meant to say "orgasmic." She tried to be quiet, but I"d heard her in there having fun.
  
  "They are pretty nice," Eris agreed.
  
  Ariel whimpered. "No, no, no. You people don"t understand. For you, this, this living in filth is normal and those things are a novelty at best! Nice, but you could do without. But you!" Ariel turned suddenly half-crazed eyes my direction. "You understand."
  
  "I do," I agreed with a nod. "I could make you one when we get back, as a favor to a fellow modern day citizen of Earth."
  
  Ariel looked like she could weep with joy. "Thank you."
  
  "And speaking of returning, that brings up a good question. What is the kingdom of Asura going to do about the refugees, princess?"
  
  The blonde flinched slightly, a quiet sigh escaping her lips. Sitting up, back straight, tucking her hands into her lap just so, and tilting her head to look down at me ever so slightly Ariel put on a kind smile. The time for pretending to be normal was over and we needed to talk business, and while she seemed reluctant to do so, that didn"t stop her from doing it. "What is your magely title, Rudeus Greyrat?"
  
  I sketched a half-bow. "King-level Elemental Mage Rudeus Greyrat, at your service... Second Princess Ariel Anemoi Asura."
  
  Yeah, I"d done my research. I didn"t recognize her on sight, but given her bearing and everything else, along with the name, the list of potential candidates was short. Considering that Sylphie cut herself off from addressing her as "your highness," that kind of shortened that list to one.
  
  The girl"s smile became slightly strained, but she nodded. "I see. As of now, my father, the king, is not aware of any disaster or happening in the Fittoa region of the kingdom. He is aware of an irregularity that teleported a monster into the palace garden and killed one of my guards, Derrick Redbat. A monster which Sylphiette rescued me from." She reached out and patted Sylphie on the shoulder once, her smile turning much more genuine for a moment. "However, it will be the better part of a week before scouts can reach the region, assess the situation, and report back."
  
  "And if he had access to visual evidence?"
  
  Ariel shook her head. "Your friends have adapted well to the idea, both from whatever you"ve taught them and from seeing it for themselves-not to mention, they all trust you greatly. My father is not so trusting-cannot be. Nor does he have the benefit of our knowledge. I believe you because I understand the technology and concepts involved, but lacking that information he would likely believe it to be a ruse of some sort. I cannot vouch for you in this as to do so would be to reveal my nature and that is a risk I cannot take-for both my reputation and safety."
  
  "I see. They don"t know you"re a reincarnation. Fair enough, I didn"t exactly tell my parents either, nor do I plan to. You"re from Japan and if the royals are anything like most of the nobles, that must be rough. How old were you?"
  
  The mask of "Princess Ariel" cracked. "You have no idea. The nobility are all degenerate filth, but the royals take that and turn it into a contest. I was seventeen and in my third year of highschool. The things I"ve had to do, to sacrifice to fit in, just to keep them from suspecting that I"m not one of them..."
  
  "I"m guessing you were the girl on the street that day?" Ariel nodded. "I"m sorry. If I could"ve saved you too, I would have."
  
  Taking in a deep, shuddering breath, Ariel closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, the princess was back. "I don"t blame you. It was our fault for having our argument in the middle of the street. The driver is equally at fault for his failure to stop. You did all that a man could in that situation-more even than most of my," she paused and I could see her forcing herself to correct the thought, "my former people would have. The past is the past. Let"s leave it buried there and focus on the present."
  
  "Agreed. What do you think the king will do, once he learns of the disaster? What will he do about the various refugees? Sprite hasn"t had the drones up for long here and she"s already spotted a few and had to intervene to prevent them from getting killed right away. And that"s just the few within a small radius of where I am now. There"s no telling how many are out there dying right this second. Eris" father would have likely suffered a similar fate, had we not intervened."
  
  "He may submit a mission to the Adventurers" Guild, organizing a Search and Rescue mission and offering a reward for their return." After a moment"s pause, she added, "Or he may decide it"s a problem for the Lord of Fittoa and delegate it to your grandfather, Sauros," she directed her gaze to Eris, who nodded. "Who was next in the line of succession?"
  
  "My father," Eris supplied.
  
  "Who was also in Roa when the disaster struck," Ariel murmured. "Then it would probably go to your uncle." Eris winced and, seeing that, Ariel extended an olive branch. "I"ll talk to father about it. If he doesn"t handle it himself, I can bankroll it on behalf of myself as princess."
  
  "Thank you," Eris muttered, looking away as she did.
  
  "And I take it your father wouldn"t take seeing Sauros on a call as proof of life and not hand over the reigns to her uncle?"
  
  Ariel shook her head. "Most likely not. Not without having one of our court mages examine your magical cell phones and mostly figure out how they work."
  
  "Yeah, that"s not happening," I immediately denied. "Okay. If the Guild is handling it, I can go to Rikarisu"s Guild office and submit the same mission. Then, I can scale up, build a plane or an airship, and we can come pick Sylphie and Roxy up and start looking for our families within the week."
  
  Ariel"s sharp-eyed gaze locked firmly on me. "You could build airships?"
  
  I nodded. "Yeah. It"d probably take a while to get it right, but not that long. I"ve been experimenting with related stuff for a while. It"s just a matter of putting it all together. Here, I"ll send you a phone so you don"t have to borrow Sylphie"s and you can let me know when your dad makes his decision. Just don"t let your court mages get ahold of it. I don"t need someone trying to replicate the tech. Someone"s been sending thieves and assassins after me for about a year now, and that was just over the bikes and an ultralight aircraft."
  
  I Summoned a spare phone from the bunker to hand and Sent it line of sight to Ariel"s own hands. The girl fumbled the phone, her mask as the princess breaking entirely as she caught it before looking up at me with wide eyes. "You can teleport things?!"
  
  Roxy smirked at me. "I was wondering what it would take to finally break her."
  
  "What? But- This is bullshit!" Ariel yelled.
  
  Turning a more amused smile on Ariel, she said, "Now you see what we have to deal with."
  
  Ignoring Roxy, Ariel asked, "You can teleport things! You can clearly do it line of sight. You have drones! Why can"t you just teleport all the refugees back-"
  
  "NO!" a chorus of three voices shouted her down instantly, silencing the princess and leaving her with a flummoxed expression.
  
  Ariel glanced to her side where Sylphie shuddered. "Never. Again."
  
  Eris was reacting likewise beside me. "So many tentacles."
  
  Roxy pulled a face. "Rudy, did you upgrade your lab to include automatic purge protocols yet?"
  
  I nodded. "Yeah. Anything that gets out of hand will get a Saint-level spell"s worth of fire magic crammed into the space of an Elementary-level Fireball to the face."
  
  Seeing our reactions, Ariel asked, "Okay, just, what? Would someone please explain?"
  
  Sighing quietly, I fielded that one myself. "Someone," Eris winced, "suggested pretty much the same thing. At the time, I was experimenting with..." I blinked. "Oh. Shit."
  
  "What?" Ariel demanded.
  
  Eris and Sylphie turned their gazes onto me, but it was Roxy who asked, "Rudy, what do you think the odds of the test subjects surviving the teleport incident are?"
  
  "Too high for comfort," I murmured. Clapping my hands, I grinned. "Good news though! They"re all sterile. So we won"t be overrun with a swarm of magically enhanced super mice!"
  
  ""Magically enhanced super-"" Ariel blinked, her eyes going wide, before narrowing into a glare. "Did you make those things from Warhammer? The intelligent rats?"
  
  "Not quite," I answered evasively. "Tiny was the closest thing to them, and he"s dead."
  
  "Unless he regenerated," Roxy whispered.
  
  "Very. Very. Dead." I reiterated. Turning my attention back to Ariel, I asked, "You ever watch classic horror? American horror, that is."
  
  Ariel shook her head. "Not really my genre, sorry. Scary things are scary. My friends made me watch the original Ring once and I refused to watch any other scary movies."
  
  "Okay, well, let me explain. You see, what had happened was, we tried a live teleportation experiment on one of the lab mice I had been keeping for medical experiments-trying to develop higher level healing spells. Cause, you know, Millis."
  
  "Yeah, those guys suck," Ariel agreed.
  
  "Well, Tiny was a MOUS." Ariel raised an eyebrow. "Mouse of Unusual Size-"
  
  "Princess Bride! I haven"t seen that in ages." She stopped, then cleared her throat and retook her "princess" pose. "Continue."
  
  "As you wish." The mask cracked around a giggle and a smile. "Well, Tiny was a cantankerous, evil little shit. By the time we tried this experiment, he was about the size of a badger-and mean as one too. I Sent him from one side of the lab to the other. The problem is, we shouldn"t have disregarded the warnings in the book. Summoning/Sending is a much lower level spell than Teleportation or creating a Portal. If you"re into scifi, it"s the equivalent of a cargo transporter-good for inanimate objects, but not something you send live specimens through. We Sent Tiny through and he came out looking like a badger crossed with a pillbug, covered in tentacles."
  
  Eris covered her ears and shook her head. "La la la! I can"t hear you!"
  
  "Yeah, apparently it isn"t immediately lethal. No, instead you get The Fly. He was, I guess spliced with tardigrades and likely some sort of intestinal parasite. Someone thought it"d be a good idea to take her sword to him-"
  
  "It seemed like a good idea at the time!" Eris wailed, still covering her ears.
  
  "Except some worms regenerate when you cut them. So instead of one armored tentacle badger, we got two. Then ten when they started moving again. Eventually, Sylphie and I killed it with fire."
  
  The white-haired girl nodded. "It smelled really bad. And they screamed the entire time..."
  
  By now, Ariel was looking a bit green around the gills. "You should have nuked the entire site from orbit, just to be sure. You"re American, surely you"ve built one by now."
  
  "So miss "scary things are scary and I refuse to watch horror movies" has seen Aliens. And hey! I resent that accusation!" Ariel stared. "...I haven"t had time," I admitted quietly.
  
  "Please don"t," Roxy shook her head.
  
  Ariel cast a look between Roxy and myself before asking, "You told her about those?" I nodded and she sighed. "Well, please keep the nuclear genie in the bottle. As to the refugees, I can see that teleportation isn"t an option. But you can build airships. Would you construct some and ferry refugees back to Fittoa?"
  
  Looking between Eris, who shrugged, and Sylphie and Roxy who nodded, I gave my own shrug. "Sure, as long as I get paid."
  
  "Out of my own pocket if I have to," Ariel agreed immediately. "In fact, I"ll set things up for it tomorrow."
  
  I guess we"ll go with my original plan. Use drones to scout out the Demon Continent, find the survivors, and get them all down to Wind Port. Then I"ll make some airships and send them home. Are you going to pay extra to get people from places other than the Demon Continent?"
  
  Ariel nodded. "You"re the only one I know of with the ability to do so, other than perhaps Perugius. And no one simply walks into Laputa and knocks on the door. As if they could get up there anyway."
  
  "Fine. I guess it looks like we"re not going to be making a quick trip back. Sylphie, what do you want to do about your mom and sister?"
  
  The girl bit her lip and considered it. "I want to go get them, but even knowing they"re safe in Sprite"s care we don"t know where they are."
  
  "I"ll send a drone once I have one made," I promised. "Have you tried summoning your bike?"
  
  Sylphie shook her head. Pulling out her key, she held it out to the side of the bed and did so. What appeared was... mostly a bike, if it had been wrapped around a tree. Hers hadn"t been in the bunker with ours, so it stood to reason that something could have happened to it. I winced, but Sylphie hummed. "I think I can fix this. The enchantments feel intact and the tires look fine, so all I really need to do is straighten out the metal."
  
  Ariel stared. "Is that a motorcycle?"
  
  "Yep," I nodded.
  
  Considering the bike, Ariel asked, "Could you make a car? Or perhaps something larger?"
  
  "Maybe. All I"ve got is bike tires, but I don"t think it"d matter much. Why do you ask?"
  
  Sending the girl at her side a fond smile, Ariel answered, "Sylphiette saved my life. I am in her debt. And yours, as her master. I would like to provide her an escort to wherever she needs to go to find her mother."
  
  Reading further into that, I asked, "You suspect you"re going to have to leave or something?"
  
  The princess hesitated before nodding once. "Eventually. I"ve been considering bowing out of the political backbiting and leaving to go to Ranoa College of Magic for a while now. This would give me a legitimate excuse to leave and a way to get ahead of any messengers my siblings could send. My own magical bodyguard died in the teleport incident and I had hoped to ask to pay Sylphiette for her services, but that would keep her from rescuing her family. If I leave now however... Two birds, one stone."
  
  Humming, I sent Sylphie a raised eyebrow. "It"s your choice."
  
  The white-haired girl nodded slowly before turning to Ariel. "My fee is that of a King-level mage and Intermediate-level swordsman."
  
  Ariel laughed, agreeing with a nod. "Of course. I would pay whatever you like."
  
  "Alright, now that that"s settled," I cut in. "I"m going to hand the call off to Eris so I can get back to work on that carrier drone. Anything you need from me, ask her to relay and she can fill me in later. Sylphie, Eris, try to get ahold of your family and wake them up. Roxy, did Lilia and Aisha ever wake up?"
  
  "They have not yet. Sprite said she would alert me when they did. She believes they are in the Shirone kingdom, within the castle, after some investigation using her imaging spells."
  
  I blinked, before turning my eyes to the silently waiting and watching hologram of a woman in miniature, off to the side of my projection. "Thank you. Do you think you could...?"
  
  The spirit smiled. "Of course, master. I cloaked them inside an invisibility spell and am moving them now, using telekinesis. I will choose an inn and set them down nearby, where they can wait for mistress Roxy."
  
  Chuckling quietly, I sighed. "Thank you for anticipating my needs, Sprite. I know you do a lot for me, but I"m afraid I"m going to have to ask for more very soon."
  
  "Command me as you will, my master. I will do whatever I can for you if it is within my power to do so."
  
  Turning my attention back to the others, I said, "Okay. I"ve got to get back to it. Let Sprite know when you"re ready to reconvene tomorrow and we"ll get together and review where we stand. Hopefully, I"ll have a drone in the air over Roa by then. Ariel, it was nice meeting you. We"ll have to talk more later. Sylphie, Roxy, good night."
  
  Having said our goodbyes, I had Sprite transfer the call over to Eris" phone and pocketed my own before shooing the girl off. Then, I settled in and got back to work.
  
  That was how I spent the rest of the night, refining the drone design until I was sure it wouldn"t explode. Shortly before dawn, yawning and feeling the lack of sleep but knowing that if I slept now I"d never get over the magical jet lag, I summoned up another wind spirit and had it take over the big drone, after I finished loading the last of the smaller drones inside (and having summoned a spirit for each). Four wind-based pressure engines lifted it up and out of our shelter before directing it away. Then, the main engines kicked in and it began to accelerate and climb, retractable doors closing over the VTOL engines as it picked up speed.
  
  It circled a few times before it disappeared in a flash of multi-colored light as Sprite sent it back to the Central Continent, using the feed from Sylphie"s phone there to send it to the sky over Ars, where it immediately began releasing a few of the smaller drones as it winged its way towards Roa-the drones each peeling off in a different direction. One to stay behind in Ars and one in each cardinal direction but west since Ars was situated on the coast. Over the next week, I planned to make more drones to Send to the current drones and spread out from there.
  
  I checked the feed from my phone just to make sure everything was working as it should be, then instructed Sprite to let me know if something happened. Looking over the camp, I found Eris curled up asleep nearby under Ruijerd"s cloak. The Superd man had watched the drone take off in silence, a contemplative look on his face. "Alright," I called over to him, "let"s get a move on."
  
  "You aren"t going to sleep?"
  
  I cast a healing spell on myself and shook my head. The spell would blunt the worst of the effects of sleep deprivation, but it wouldn"t do any of the things sleep did for the body and mind-meaning I"d just put off the inevitable crash for a few hours. "I"m fine for now."
  Reaching down, I shook Eris awake. The girl sat up with a confused look, starting slightly when she spotted Ruijerd before calming down and reminding me of that particular mess I wanted to investigate. Later. Way later. It didn"t even make the top one hundred on the list of shit I needed to get done ASAP. "Oh. We"re really here."
  
  "Yeah," I quietly confirmed. "You hungry?" I asked, before realizing I hadn"t eaten the night before. A glance over at the fire showed no leftovers from whatever Ruijerd brought back.
  
  "Mm," Eris nodded, sitting up and rubbing sleep from her eyes.
  
  I fished one of the MREs out of my backpack and broke it open, before offering her the bag. Eris dug out a handful of jerky and a couple of pieces of hardtack. I took a bit for myself before offering the package to Ruijerd. The man took it in hand and studied it curiously before fishing out a piece of jerky. He bit into it carefully before nodding, a small smile crossing his face. "It"s good. Thank you."
  
  I dug out the tea and made us some drinks to go with it. Once everyone was done, I put everything away and moved off to the side. "Alright, let"s see what the damage is," I muttered, before focusing on my bike and summoning it. I had sent them to the underground storehouse, but I hadn"t exactly been careful about it when I did, so I was worried that I might have damaged one of the frames or something.
  
  Turns out, I needn"t have worried and should have trusted my own skill at building them-or maybe my skill with Sending. Either way. My bike looked fine when I inspected it, both visually and with magic. Eris took out her key and summoned her own bike and I gave that a look over too before confirming it was good to ride. Ruijerd had stood and approached, looking at the bikes with curiosity. "What are they?"
  
  Eris chuckled deviously, climbing onto her seat. "You"ll see. Rudy! Knock down the walls!"
  
  "Hold your horses," I grumbled. I considered summoning Ghislaine"s bike, but she would need that to get back to Roa-or what was left of it-and it would be faster on wheels than on foot. Instead, I tried to summon the bike that Phillip and Sauros had been using. When that met with failure, I instead summoned the key for the bike and used it to summon the bike itself-since the keys were enchanted to summon a specific mana crystal and everything attached to it and not "the bike." That was how Sylphie had summoned her own bike and one of the reasons I had enchanted them the way I had-specifically so that if someone stole it and damaged or repainted it, I could still summon it as long as the mana crystal was intact. It arrived exactly as I had originally expected my own bike to, and in a pretty similar state to Sylphie"s-with a warped frame and damaged parts. Thankfully, nothing was missing, so I was able to get it back into shape in just a few minutes.
  
  Setting the newly restored bike upright, I patted the seat. "Okay, hop on."
  
  Looking at Eris waiting impatiently, Ruijerd mimicked her pose on the bike, holding his spear in one hand. "Oh, hang on, you"re going to need both hands," I held up a hand. A bit of reshaping the metal of the faring and I had a place to put the spear for now, until I could work up something like the mount for my staff. "Right, put that in here. Now, let me show you how it works."
  
  Eventually, I lowered the wall and we took off, allowing Ruijerd to lead-even if he was still a bit wobbly on the bike at the moment. Several hours of time difference, so Roxy and Sylphie are still sleeping. I"ll give them a call when I think they"ve woken up and we"ll review and compare notes. In the meantime...
  
  "Eris," I called to the girl, riding up beside her. "Tell me how things went with everyone else last night. And any update from Ghislaine?"
  
  "Mom"s fine. She was awake by the time we called her back. She"s in some place called Labyrinth City. Roxy said it"s about as dangerous outside the city as the Demon Continent, but she"s got money so she"ll be staying there for a while. Sylphie"s mom and sister are in the north somewhere-she said thanks for sending her a drone, by the way. Sprite killed some kind of bears that were prowling around and now they"re walking towards a town. Lilia and your half-sister woke up and are waiting on Roxy to get them out of the city in an inn. Ghislaine met up with some people and she"s somewhere called the Conflict Zone. Sprite thinks dad is there too. She"s actually pretty close to Roxy, but Ghislaine is going the opposite direction, back to Fittoa. Grandfather was able to confirm he"s in Millis, so he"s going to head to Millishion and get a carriage back, after speaking with the local Guild and organizing a search and rescue mission."
  
  "I see," I said, once she"d finished speaking. "Okay, that"s... mostly good."
  
  Quietly, almost so quietly I didn"t hear her over the sound of our wheels on the ground, Eris said, "We"ll get our family back, Rudeus. We will."
  
  That wasn"t hope I heard in her voice, I realized. It was faith.
  
  Faith in me. In what I had done and built.
  
  I wished I could feel the same. But as time had proven again and again, faith was no shield against imminent physical danger. Not from men and certainly not from the monsters of this world.
  
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  As we rode, I molded a slot for my phone on the "gas tank" section of my bike and slotted it in, then had Sprite project a hologram from one of the small drones that I"d had flying overwatch for us. We picked up speed as Ruijerd grew more comfortable riding (and I was able to extend the range for my earth spells to create a road and the occasional bridge-seriously, the terrain here was awful) and I frowned as I watched our path veer around monsters-even when terrain prohibited line of sight. He"s obviously detecting them somehow. I wonder if I can make a spell to do the same?
  
  Still, it was irritating. I needed to see just how much danger we were in for myself and he was skirting around said danger. I left it alone the first few times he did it, but eventually I moved up beside him and asked.
  
  "You"re riding around monsters before we even get close enough to see them."
  
  "It would be better to avoid them," was his short answer.
  
  I shook my head. "No can do. We need to get a feel for the local monsters and what we"re dealing with."
  
  "You are children. There is no need for you to concern yourselves with it."
  
  "I"m a King-level Elemental mage capable of silent casting and Advanced-level in Sword God and Water God styles. Eris is Advanced-level in both of those, if not close to Saint-level, and Intermediate- to Advanced-level in every element and healing magic." Only because I beat it into her head that she needed to be able to heal herself during or after a fight, in case she was ever in a situation where she had to act on her own. "I know the village is close so it"s not a big deal right now, but later, we need to get some experience fighting actual monsters."
  
  Ruijerd was silent as he considered it. Finally, he asked, "You wish to become warriors?"
  
  "We already are. Untested, maybe, for the most part," I admitted, because I wouldn"t actually call what I had done to rack up my kill count as any kind of test beyond one of will to survive, "but we"ve had training. Besides, I"m looking at this as an opportunity. We get to test those skills out on live targets. I"m sure you"re a pretty powerful warrior if you"re wandering around out here by yourself, but we don"t want you to fight our battles for us. With us, as partners, certainly. But we"re not going to be dead weight."
  
  "Very well."
  
  With that decided, I fell back closer to Eris. "What was that about?"
  
  I turned and shot the redhead a smile. "Don"t worry about it."
  
  The Migurd village wasn"t all that far from where we had fallen. A few klicks maybe, but most of that was up and down steep terrain, ravines, and so on. Even so, I"d built the bikes with rough terrain in mind (much rougher than the relatively smooth road I was making as a rough job, anyway) and even at a low speed and going around enemies, they ate up ground much faster than if we had been hoofing it. We were rolling to a stop outside their gate within the hour, to a confused look from the blue haired guard. There were a dozen or so homes crowded inside a crude fence, with a little plot of tended land off to the side.
  
  "Ruijerd, what in the world are you riding?" the man asked, eyeing the bikes. I say man because with Migurd, it was hard to tell. He didn"t look any older than Roxy had.
  
  The green-haired Superd dismounted his bike and popped the stand down as I"d taught him. "A magical tool for traveling. Do you remember the shooting star we saw fall last night? That was them."
  
  "Uh huh," the man looked us over critically. Eris glared back, not taking kindly to being eyed up. "They look suspicious."
  
  "They are victims of a magical disaster-"
  
  "What did he say?" the redhead asked quietly from behind me.
  
  "Don"t worry about it. I"ll explain later," I murmured back.
  
  Sliding off my bike, I walked up to Ruijerd"s side as he was glaring at the guard, reaching under my collar and pulling Roxy"s necklace out of my shirt. "What do you mean, they look suspicious?"
  
  "They just-" the guard stopped, his eyes swiveling to the trinket dangling around my neck. "You! Boy! Where did you get that?!"
  
  "My old master. She told me if I ever found my way to the demon continent, I should be treated well if people saw it," I explained.
  
  The man stared at it before asking, "What was the name of your master?"
  
  Ruijerd was now eyeing the necklace as well-a necklace that closely resembled the one worn by the guard. "Perhaps this is a conversation best held with the chief, Rowin."
  
  The now-named Rowin"s eyes cut over to glare at Ruijerd before he sighed and closed his eyes. He was silent for several seconds and I blinked as I realized what it was he was doing. That"s right, Roxy said they can communicate telepathically. It"s why she left her village, because she couldn"t and felt like an outsider. ...Wonder how she"d react if I could figure out a spell version? Well, we have the bikes, so I could spend a day or two here observing to try and figure something out. It"d give me time to turn out a few more drones in the meantime.
  
  With that in mind, I took hold of my mana and pushed outwards, trying to feel for anything abnormal. I had felt things with it before, especially recently-as though powerful mana were brushing against my own. All of the direct manipul