Panic engulfed Nova. She frantically looked around her before snatching up a stone from the ground. She felt the mana rising in her and then abruptly shoved it down. If she transferred it into the stone, it would explode and the guards would be all over her. She bit her lip. Her gaze darted around, searching for a solution. Then she saw the crystal from before. It was now dull and lifeless. Could she transfer the mana back?
“Do you see her?” One of the guards shouted.
Nova sucked in a breath and peeked out. The guards had reached the grove she had hidden in and were peering inside.
[Warning you have 15 seconds to transfer mana before eruption.]
Nova trembled. If she waited, would she become a living bomb? She closed her eyes and focused. Her attention locked on the guards. They had turned to look at the grove across from the one she hid in. She clenched her fist. This was her chance. She dashed through the grove, trying to be quiet but focusing on speed instead. She reached the tree with the crystal in it and smacked her hand on it just as one of the guards started to turn. She ducked down and kept her fingers pressed to the crystal and released the excess mana into the crystal.
Please don’t notice me.
The crystal glowed and a thin film of magic shot up. Her eyes widened and she ducked down.
“By the Realms! Did you see that?” one of the guards said. “It just popped up.”
Nova sank lower to the ground, trying to make herself smaller.
Please don’t notice me. Please don’t notice me.
“It’s the Lutyer’s ward. It’s been flicking in and out for months. I’ve been telling the old miser to get it replaced but he rather fight bandits hand-to-hand than fork out the money for a new ward crystal.” The guard paused. “Come on. That girl is long gone. We ain’t not paid enough to search every grove out here.”
“I’ll never understand the field folks. You would think they would pay more to protect their property, especially with that whole war going on.”
The guard laughed. “War? Is that what they’re calling it?” The voices drifted off and she could hear their steps fade as they left.
Nova didn’t move until the only sound was the rustle of leaves. She peeked out from the tree, taking a look at the road. Seeing it was clear, she sighed in relief and stood up. Nova turned to the ward crystal. It didn’t blow up and the mana transfer looked like it worked. Though she didn’t get a message saying artificing completed, which she expected since it was happy to tell her when she failed. Maybe it was a quirk of the system. She took a step forward, curious to take a look at the ward now that she was safe when she felt something cold and sharp press against her neck.
“Don’t move,” a deep voice rumbled behind her. “What are you doing here?”
“I was leaving,” she said quickly. “I’m not trying to cause any trouble.”
“You being here is already a sign of trouble,” the man said. “Turn around, slowly.”
Nova carefully turned around, keenly aware of the metal pressed against her throat. She faced the man and fear shot through her. The man was huge. He towered over her, well over 6ft. If she had to guess he had to be at least 6’4 if not taller. His body was wide and from what she could see of his bare arms, he was nothing but muscle. The axe he held in his hand looked tiny in comparison though no less dangerous. His hair was cropped short, and the faint light of the moon seemed to reflect off his dark skin. He stared down at her with a hard look.
“Who sent you?” His voice rumbled like a mini avalanche.
She started to shake her head but the feel of the axe against her neck stopped her. “No one. I-I was hiding from the guards.”
He studied her for a long time. It made her aware of the mud caked on her skin that was now dry and flaking off. The man seemed to come to a decision and lowered the axe. “Come with me.”
Nova swallowed and nodded. Honestly, she didn’t want to go with him. She had been lucky following around Mathius but part of her had known he needed her so it was easier to lower her guard. This time was different because the man had no reason to let her go. In truth, he had enough reason to throw her to the guards or handle her himself. She had trespassed on his property and for a lot of people even in her own world, that was enough of a reason to shoot someone.
“You hungry?” The man asked as he turned away from her.
Nova blinked in surprise at the question. “What?”
The man didn’t say anything else. He just started walking. His back was turned to her, clearly expecting her to obey, but Nova wasn’t really too keen on following a stranger. She glanced back at the ward. If she ran, there was a chance she would get thrown back, but that was only if it kept people in as well as out. She glanced back at the man who was still walking, his axe at his side.
“Hurry it up,” the man rumbled.
Nova jumped. Her gaze stayed stuck on the axe. If he got her somewhere far away from the road he could chop her up and bury her. Thoughts of serial killers went through her head. There was no way she could win in a fight against the man and her mana transfer didn’t work on people. She took a step forward and then quickly turned and ran.
She didn’t look back. She kept running until she was at the ward. The light flickered when she reached it but she wasn’t thrown back and passed through the ward’s shield easily. Relief flooded her but she didn’t stop. Nova didn’t stop running until she was back in front of the alley that hid the entrance to the underground tunnel.
She looked back and there was no one there. She hadn’t heard the man chasing her but then again, she didn’t hear him sneak behind her with an axe either. She glanced around. There were a few stragglers on the street, but it was pretty much empty. Even the night owls had gone to their beds. She ducked into the alley and pressed herself against the wall. She stayed there, waiting a few minutes. When no one came after her she let out a breath.
She turned back to the stones. It took her a second to find the stone entrance but with some tugging and prodding, she managed to get the stone up and climbed down into the tunnel. It took more effort to get it back in place. Eventually, she was safely back in the underground tunnel.
Nova flopped down, exhausted. A look around showed no sign of Mathius.
“I guess I’m on my own,” she said softly. Thoughts of what she would do next flitted through her mind. She could stay in the tunnel but the thought of simply hiding away didn’t appeal. She had the opportunity to see an entire fantasy world and she planned to take it. Besides, Miko was counting on her and she couldn’t help anyone if she hid away in fear.
“I’ll work on it in the morning,” she mumbled to herself as she stifled a yawn. Nova curled up on the ground and fell asleep.
Nova woke up to something rubbery smacking her in the face. She scrunched up her nose and tried to slap the thing away. It was not to be deferred and she was given another smack in the face for her efforts. She groaned and opened her eyes. Slitted gold eyes stared back at her.
She screamed and swatted the thing off her. A sharp shriek sounded in the air and Nova realized what she had done. “Briney!”
Nova scrambled to her feet.
“That was hilarious.”
She whirled around. There, Mathius sat, watching her from his position on the top of the debris leading to the entrance.
His brow furrowed as he looked at her. “What happened to you? Are you covered in mud?”
Nova wondered why she felt itchy and only now remembered the mud she coated herself in. She decided to ignore his question.
“I should be asking you that. You said you wouldn’t be long and you are just now showing up.” Nova walked over to where Briney had landed, reaching for the kraken. “I’m sorry Briney. You startled me.”
The kraken slapped her hand away and sort of wiggle-hopped away from her.
“I ran into some trouble with the guard and couldn’t get back here. I’m sorry. I had every intention of coming back for you.”
Nova didn’t say anything. Mostly because she wasn’t sure what to say to that. It definitely wasn’t because she was being petty.
Mathius sighed. “I brought food.”
At the mention of food, Nova became aware of just how hungry she was. She hadn’t eaten since she arrived in this world and her whole time here had been fighting, running, and more running.
Nova stopped trying to coax Briney and instead made her way to Mathius. “Where?”
“Manners,” Mathius said.
She glared at him.
With a sigh, he handed her a bundle of food wrapped in a handkerchief. Nova unwrapped it to find bread, a few smooshed berries, and some dried meat.
“I didn’t get around to the market,” Mathius said.
Nova didn’t care. She ripped into the food. Every morsel felt delicious and she found herself finishing the meal faster than she liked.
“So, I was thinking once we get you cleaned up, we can start working on the building. I found this-“
“Wait,” Nova said. “Do you have some water?”
Mathius blinked. “Oh. Yes. I forgot. You must be thirsty.” He pulled out a waterskin and tossed it to her.
Nova opened it and then stopped. She took a sniff. It was just regular water.
“Did you think I was planning to poison you?” Mathius grumbled. “You ate the food quick enough.”
Nova flushed. She did eat the food without a second thought. She would have to be careful in the future. She took a drink of water and then another much longer gulp. Once she was finished, she handed the water back to him.
“Thank you,” she said.
The disgruntled look on Mathius’s face lifted. “Don’t concern yourself. It’s all part of our deal.”
“Speaking of our deal. I think before we get into whatever you have planned, it’s a good idea if you show me around so I get a better handle on your city and its customs.”
Mathius stood up, shaking his head violently. “We don’t have time for that. We have less than sixty days to get the guild started.”
Nova narrowed her eyes. “Part of the deal was information and all I’m asking is you hold up your end of the deal. I think you were already skirting the edge by leaving me here without food for the entire night.”
“That wasn’t my fault,” Mathius protested.
“And it’s not my fault that I’m in a strange city with no idea how the place works.”
Mathius glared at her. “Fine. I’ll show you around but you’ll have to at least hear out my plans.”
She nodded. “That’s perfectly fine with me.” Nova gentled her voice. “Look, Mathius, I’m not trying to get out of our contract. I’m actually pretty excited to help you with your guild but this is new to me and I’ll be better able to help you if I understand what I’m going into.”
Mathius gave her a suspicious look and then nodded. “I guess that makes sense.” He then tugged a bag forward she hadn’t noticed he was carrying. He dug in the bag and then tossed her a bundle. “Put that on. It should keep until we get to my home. You’ll need to clean up before I show you the Outer Ring.”
Nova shook out the bundle. It was a brown woolen cloak, nothing fancy. Once she pulled the cloak on Briney was at her side and was climbing up her cloak. The tiny kraken slid under her cloak and settled on her left shoulder. She supposed that meant she was forgiven.
“Let’s get going,” Mathius said.
“Oh. There’s one more thing,” Nova said as she looked at the lump on her shoulder.
“What?” Mathius asked, giving her a wary look.
“Do you know where I can get mana crystals?”
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