Chapter 33.1

“I need a bow.” The girl said seriously. “And it has to be a good one.”

The shopkeeper in front of her smiled. “Well, we have just what you need then! Take a look at our selection on the back wall.” Ash tried her best to control her facial expression but caught sight of Shopkeeper Kate’s smile fading fast. “I really don’t have any other bows. Most go to the Guild Hall to buy bows since they are made specifically to hunt monsters.”

“But I don’t need to hunt monsters. I need to hunt deer, maybe even a rabbit or a fox. Do you know what happens if I use an Adventurers’ bow to kill game animals? THEY EXPLODE!” She yelled as she pounded the wooden counter with her hand. “I don’t want to pick up the pieces of an exploded deer. Again!”

“Sara..” “ASH! My name is now Ash, Kate. Please.” The girl shook slightly; her voice unsteady.

Kate reevaluated her friend. Sara’s hazel eyes were starting to blur with tears, her lightly tanned face was smeared with dried dirt, and her dark green clothes were covered with leaves and small twigs. Even her hair had started to grow out longer than she’d seen in years; her dark brown hair hiding twigs in it as well. Had she been sleeping outside again? Kate had known Sara all her life and was part of her party in school. When Kate married her childhood sweetheart and settled down to become a Shopkeeper, Sara had joined the local Guild Hall as an Adventurer. Or did she become a Mercenary? By all accounts, she was a really good party member, but after her last mission…

“Ash. A specialty bow costs money. More so since you have to import weapons from the capital. Last I heard, the Royal Family has not rescinded the order to create army-grade weapons. It seems that most of the Army’s supplies were already plundered when the defensive line castles were finally retaken by the Alliance Army.”

“I know that Kate, but I still need a bow. I can’t keep using a training bow to hunt game animals. By the time they bleed to death, another predator would have already gotten to it.” And I feel bad for prolonging the pain…bleeding out…blood trails to a dead body…

“Ash, you alright? You turned pale all of a sudden.” Kate’s concerned voice brought her back into reality.

“I, I’ll be fine Kate. Nothing you need to worry about.” This worried Kate more than anything. She knew that Sara was usually headstrong and confident, but now… A thought blossomed in her mind, going back to a few weeks ago. “You know Sa-, Ash, a Travelling Merchant came through a while back and needed a cart to get his supplies from the Echoing Woods. No one believed him, but I offered to lend him my cart to gather his supplies, for a small fee of course. No real worry, since I am the vice-chair and my line of credit is good. So imagine my surprise when he comes back to return the cart and tells us that there are people living there. Now, he had already sold his merchandise, and I checked the sales receipts and it indicated they were short bows. They must have been pretty bad bows since they were only sold for around three gold a piece though, or perhaps he sold them at a loss to gain some goodwill.”

“Where are you going with this Kate?”

“I’m getting there! Patience Ash; heh, you used to always tell me that! Well, the tax collector just stopped by and said there are people living there, and guess what the classes are?!” Kate said with a small smile.

That intrigued Ash, but she was not in the mood to guess. “…”

“…”

“…”

“A Bower, Ash. And a Teacher!” Kate mimed Ash answering, who just rolled her eyes at the sight. “Can I hire you to do something for me, Ash?”

“What’s the payment?”

“A warm bed, heated bath, dinner with my family. George is out on a supply run to Nespe, so it’s just me and the kids. I’m sure they’ll be happy to see you again. Maybe I can even get Julia to stop by as well with her son.”

“Okay. What request do you have in mind?” Ash said with a tired smile.

“Lady Emilia wanted someone to bring a contract over to the teacher, or to invite her to negotiate the terms. Apparently, she is having trouble finding a teacher for her daughter. I figure you could go and give it to her, and also ask the Bower if he could make you a custom bow.”

Ash hesitated. “I don’t have the money on hand fo-”

“I’ll handle it. Just let them know the Merchant Association is covering the bill. Consider it a bonus reward for a good job done.” Kate teased playfully.

“Monster sightings? Any known bandits?” Ash got down to business, evaluating what supplies she would need for the day trip over.

“Nope and nope. You think Lazy Aldwin will go anywhere it is even slightly dangerous? I talked with Cindy already and she confirmed she saw no monsters in the vicinity of the settlement. I have some lunch packed for you already, just head over and come back. We’ll figure dinner out tonight.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Kate!” Ash said gratefully, truly smiling for the first time in a long time.

Kate smiled. “I know. Here are the Lady Emilia’s contract and a notarized letter from the Merchant Association stating we will cover the cost of the bow.”

Ash stilled, “You planned this, didn’t you?”

“Yup. Now hop to it, the clock is ticking and the requester is waiting for an answer!”

Ash let out a loud whistle as she left the town of Cidala. “Tweeet” Pausing to check her surroundings, she let out another whistle, waiting for the response.

“Tweet tweet,” a small bird peeked out of an old oak tree, nestled in the shadow of the town’s outer walls.

“There you are, Sara! Let’s go, we have a job to do!” Ash called out. The small, blue songbird fluttered over and landed on her mule, laden with a few supplies. Kate would not be surprised to know she was right; A semi worn blanket could be seen draped over the mule, its pack noticeably empty.

“Kate gave me some food. I know she’s worried about me, but I’m fine. Really fine.” No, I’m not fine. Not fine at all… “I just wish someone…” Shaking her head fiercely, she banished her darkened thoughts to a corner of her mind.

“So, guess what Sara! We’re gonna find a Bower! Supposedly they are able to make really good bows. The best Bowers are even said to be able to turn metal bows into wooden ones! Can you imagine it Sara, a wooden bow that has the strength of a steel one, but still able to retain its flexibility and decreased draw!” Sara the songbird just tweeted in response, unknown if it was really understood or not. Ash was just glad for the company. She talked the entire way to the forest, remarkably different than when she was with Kate. She stopped when she reached the edge of the woods, the mule and the songbird quieting down as soon as she stepped into the shade of the trees. A tingling sensation ran through her, causing her to shudder. She knew the reputation these woods had as much as any other native. But she knew that there were safety and danger hidden in these woods. Probably more danger though.

“Well Sara, my [Danger Sense] isn’t going off, so instinctively I don’t recognize anything on sight that could be dangerous. But my [Trail Finder] Skill isn’t going off either, and there is a trail right in front of me. I knew I should have gone to the Guild and gotten updated information. Okay Muellner, let’s go. Slowly. Ash slowly coaxed her Mule, Muellner, into the woods; going slow to give him the chance to get used to the surroundings.

Biting her lip, she slowly released her mana, letting it soak into the woods. She willed her mana into her songbird, the bird stilling for a few seconds. ‘[[Blessing of the Wild]],’ the only spell she knew besides [[Advanced Status]]. “I need help, Sara. Please guide me to my destination.”

The blue songbird slowly flew in front of her, stopping at a low hanging branch; seemingly waiting for her to move.

In truth, [[Blessing of the Wild]] was a unique skill; one that most Hunters hoped for, but most would never receive. She didn’t have much mana, but her lesser affinity toward nature helped her feel the surroundings. Noting that her surroundings were mostly at peace, and no predators that she could deduce from her initial feel of the forest, Ash hesitated and decided to use her skill on Muellner as well. ‘I shouldn’t have to use a skill, so I can be a little less frugal with my mana here. Her mule slowly followed the songbird without her instructions.

Ash pulled open her pack, reaching for something that was hidden in the bottom of the bag. A long dagger, and a slightly damaged wooden short bow. As the bag was emptied, a rusting buckler could be seen strapped to the mule’s left side. She reached into the other bag and pulled out a few broad tipped iron arrows, the bag flapping up and down with the mule’s gait. She chose one of the straighter arrows and nocked it tightly on the string. “Just because they didn’t see any monsters doesn’t mean there are none. Some like to hide in plain sight. Sara, Muellner, be careful.” She would rather explode a monster than let it kill another party member of hers. “Mullany would be furious if he was here. Ashton would probably laugh at both of us, saying he’d be cooking us stew for dinner since the meat is already prepared,” she said quietly to herself. But they are never coming back. And it’s all your fault. Her breath caught, a mild panic setting in. ‘I shouldn’t have done this. What was I thinking of going into the Echoing Woods by myself? I need a team!’

Her breath was coming in gasps now as she slowly sunk into her mind. She flinched as something pecked at her, but she had no time focus on it. ‘I need to get out of here. It’s not safe. I have to tell my party members! I ha-’

She crashed into the damp forest floor, her back cramping with the sudden pain. “Wha?” Muellner looked at her with unfocused eyes, Sara flapping around her head anxiously. Ash slowly realized what had happened. “Sorry for making you two worried. I’m fine now. Let’s get to that settlement and go home.” Unbeknownst to her, a pair of eyes had seen everything that had happened.

The first indicator Ash that she was getting close to the settlement was the sound of a hoe hitting the ground. Or at least she hoped that was a hoe hitting the ground. The smell of freshly turned dirt wafted from behind the trees, a comforting smell. Damp dirt meant someone was actively farming. And no sane Farmer would dare farm if there were monsters nearby. 

“Stop right there.” A grim voice stopped her from calling out to the Farmer.

“I am a Hunter Ash Kovak from Cidala. I took on a request to bring something over to the Teacher living here.” She said carefully, dropping the arrow from the bow to the ground. The other quietly rested on her dagger.

“Your name isn’t Ash. Try again.” The man’s voice echoed from the woods. Ash was having a hard time locating it, even with [[Blessing of the Wild]].

“My, my name is Sara Kovak. A Hunter from Cidala.” Ash spoke aloud, noticing that the thumps of the hoe had stopped up ahead. “I do have something for the Teacher here. It’s a teaching contract, or at least I think it is.”

“Nick, stop scaring the girl. She’s practically shaking in her saddle!” A woman appeared from the trees ahead, clearly evaluating her. The Farmer, Sara guessed lightly, judging by her worn and faded brown overall. Her blue eyes shone brightly within the forest shade, her hair was pale gold, almost the color of wheat. She looked a little older than herself, but she still couldn’t be a day older than twenty-eight. ‘She must be pretty brave to live outside of the village.’ She snapped out of her thoughts as the Farmer murmured to someone unseen. “Anyways, You can follow me, Sara. Your pets can come along; just make sure they don’t eat my plants.” She said with some humor in her voice. 

“Zenith! We have some company. Someone wants to hire you!”. Sara was surprised by the amount of work that was being done to the settlement. The buildings were obviously really old, but she could tell they were being renovated. The bottom portion already had new wooden boards up and someone had started mudding it, giving the lower portions of the building a nice, flat sheen of clay plaster. Artistic too, judging by the wooden stamp that was being carved for the corners of the building.

“Wa! Wait a moment, Paige! Let me finish changing Markus!” A panicked voice called out from the house.

“So, Sara, did you see any monsters trails?” Paige asked while she fidgeted with her wooden hoe, clearly nervous about monsters. 

“No ma’am. I had a really nice ride over.” Please leave, please leave. Ash stood straight as she waited for the Farmer to leave. 

“Well…that’s good I suppose?” Ash noticed that the Farmer was watching her with a pensive look.

“Is there something I can help you with?” Ash said in a slightly acerbic tone of voice.

“You said your name was Ash. Is it short for something?”

Ash caught herself before she said something she shouldn’t. “I go by Ash. Look, do you know where I can find the Bower? I need a specialty bow crafted.”

“Yeah, I can tell by the blood on it you’ll need a new one. Must have been some battle to damage it that much.”

Blood on it…Using it to hold Ash upright, Mullany laying there, his eyes open…

A loud clap woke her from her thoughts. “Did you hear what I said, he’s over in the woods to the right. Give me the contract, and you go ahead and talk to him. I wouldn’t want to delay your travel back to the town now.” Paige said as she grabbed the contract from her hand. For some reason, Ash could tell Paige was a little nicer all of a sudden. “Go on, it shouldn’t take long,” the rude Farmer waved her off like a fly.

 —

“A bow? What is your draw strength with and without skills?”

“It’s about twenty pounds without skills, about sixty with.”

“Hrmm, less than average draw then.” Less than average! What was his expectations for a Hunter?!

“And what are you hunting? Treants? Gryphens? Elder Elk, Forest Boars, Burning Boars, Death S-?”

“Wha, no! I just want to hunt game animals! Normal game animals! Foxes, deer, maybe an occasional wolf. I don’t hunt monsters anymore!”

“And why not?”

“Its…look, I don’t want to talk about it. Can I get a simple, high-quality bow made?” Ash said a little louder than she wanted.

“Sure. Just answer me this,” the Bower looked up, waiting for an answer.

“Huh?” Sara hesitantly nodded.

“Who was Ashton and Mullany?” The Bower asked quietly.

“What?” Ash could feel the world spinning.

“Were they your party members? You said their names in the forest earlier.” 

“Wa, How could you hear that? I had [[Blessing of the Wild]] activated? NO! Wh wh why should I tell you! I don’t have to tell you anything! I’m leaving!” Panicked, Ash started walking away. 

 “You can’t run from your past!” Nick said as he followed behind slowly

“Go away!”

“It wasn’t your fault!” Nick calmly said. Ash stopped midstride. 

“You survived where your friends did not Sara. But that doesn’t make it your fault.”

“It does make it my fault. IT DOES! I was the newest person of the party! I was the weakest one there! So why did I survive!” Ash fell down, her entire body shaking.

“I survived…” Sara said as she fainted.

“…Wa…u…Wake….Wake up!” A voice shook Sara awake.

Sara’s tears started falling. “I survived…”

“People die kid. You’re not the only one to lose friends in a mission, and it won’t be the last time. The wrong day, wrong monster, wrong intel.” The Bower said quietly. Sara was going to refute, but something in his voice stopped her. “Your bow’s seen better days. It’s bent far beyond what it’s supposed to be. Hundred-eighty pounds. Give or take. That’s how much weight your bow was supporting when it bent past its elastic range.” 

“My first party was killed by Direwolves. They were just a myth where we grew up. Our whole class snuck out of the school to go to practice for our final exams. It was supposed to be a simple tracking exercise. But we didn’t know that there was a severe famine. They got fifteen of us within a few moments, twelve of us as we ran. Half of the Ra..Renowned Adventurers that were supposed to protect us died stopping the wolf horde, allowing us time to escape.”  

The Bower looked over, a sad smile on his face. “Don’t feel guilty about surviving. Live your life to the fullest instead. If not for you, then for the life those who died would have lived.”

“Give me a few weeks for a simple game animal bow, if you still want one. Until then, take that,” he said, pointing at a bow laying to the side of the tree she was resting under. Sara looked over at the bow, her eyes widening at the sight. A small unstrung wooden bow laid next to her, it’s curves fully polished. A true recurve bow, judging by how it curved outward.

“It has a thirty-pound natural draw, but it’s been enchanted to withstand up to a hundred. Just make sure not to dry fire it. Go on Hunter Sara Kovak. I think Paige and Zenith are waiting for you back at the settlement.”

The return trip flew by in a blur, Sara realized as she stood in front of Kate’s door. Hesitating, Sara knocked on the door. “Kate, it’s me. Di-“

The door abruptly opened as someone appeared behind the door. “Sa-Ash! Welcome back! I was starting to get worried that you wouldn’t be back tonight. Come in! Tyler, Xavier! Look, its Aunt Ash!” 

“Aunt Sara, actually. Kate, thank you. For everything.”

It took longer for the famous Hunter Sara Kovak to recover, but her road to recovery started here.

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