The Kraej Company’s private army is the greatest military force in the world. And that’s only the one we know about. Their so-called “shadow army” is everywhere.
—excerpt from “The Real Score,” an underground newspaper
As I put the finishing touches on the bento I was making for the three of us, a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Back in Singapore, my parents hadn’t liked to cook, but there were plenty of cheap takeout places. I really missed my morning nasi goreng, cheap neighborhood bakery curry puffs, fresh-off-the-grill satay, and all the other great food I used to eat in Singapore.
In Verden, I’d learned how to cook. Today, I prepared a hearty lunch of eadive mushroom croquettes, refried tiakra beans, and braised harnaih monster meat. The meat was cheap stuff, tough and gamy, so I’d braised it for 12 hours to make it edible. They would think I had splurged on the meat, not knowing that I could afford to eat the best meat every day if I wanted it. We’d eat it with the store-bought flatbread.
Oren and Katja were going monster hunting with me. In the past weeks, I’d become friends with both of them and met Oren’s commanding officer, Israfel, too.
I’d confessed that I was a self-taught fighter with an affinity for bolt spells and support magic, but I’d never fought with a group. They’d kindly agreed to train with me even though I was a newbie. I’d offered to pay for expenses, but they refused since it was standard practice for a group to pay for expenses with what they earned monster hunting.
Katja was waiting at our meeting place, the dinette where she worked.
“Is this okay?” I asked Katja, indicating my outfit.
Katja was wearing practical brown pants, a red jacket, and a black T-shirt with cut-off sleeves. I was wearing a blue cardigan, a knee-length blue dress with black leggings and a black corset with a white chemise under it. Corsets have a bad reputation on Earth, but I found them to be comfortable. The heavy-duty support they provided stopped my “girls” from bouncing too much. Everything except for the shoes and corset was secondhand. The dress was of good quality, but had been sold for cheap because it had a tiny tear on the skirt. A small decorative flower patch had fixed that problem.
“Jump up and down for me,” said Katja.
“Huh? Okay.” I jumped up and down.
“Lose the corset. I like it better when you’re bouncier,” she said.
I showed her my cheap wand while we waited for Oren to arrive. I’d equipped a bolt artifact on it, but I could switch it with heal, cure, and shield artifacts.
“Shield isn’t very useful, but heal and cure are great,” said Katja. “Check out mine!”
I inspected her bracelet that had two artifacts equipped. One was a link artifact and the other was an earth artifact. The combination imbued each of her attacks with extra earth-type damage. In this world, people had elemental affinities. Mine was electricity, and Katja's was earth. Oren didn't know it yet, but his element was fire.
“Great stuff!” I said.
“Thanks, I saved up for it. This is three months’ salary worth,” she said. She was two years older than me and had been in Kraej City for a year. “Look, there’s Oren!”
We waved to him, and Oren broke into a jog. Katja and I jumped up from the dinette table and met him halfway.
“Let’s go! I’m so excited to go on my first monster-hunting trip,” I said.
Oren looked me over from head to toe. “Are those boots new?”
“Take them off and put an old pair on,” he said.
“No, her old pair’s falling apart,” said Katja.
“Okay, but don’t force yourself to go on if your feet hurt or start bleeding,” said Oren to me.
“I won't because I hate pain,” I said.
Oren, ever the gentleman, took my backpack from me. I let him since it wasn’t heavy because all it contained were three water bottles and the bento.
“You look really cute,” I said to Oren. “Your hair is extra blond and spiky today.”
Oren ran his hand through his hair, giving me his patented “Aw Shucks, It Ain’t Nothing, Ma’am” look while Katja convulsed with laughter. He was wearing a sky blue shirt that really brought out the color of his eyes. I gestured at the two of us and asked Katja, “Matching colors! Do you think we look like brother and sister?”
“No, we look like a lady and her knight,” said Oren.
“Oh my goodness! How smooth! He’s a heartbreaker, isn’t he?” I said to Katja.
Katja just shook her head. “You two are too slick.”
We bantered like that all the way to the hunting grounds outside of the city.
In Verden, monster hunting was a noble profession, and every town had its resident monster hunters who were looked up to as its protectors. People on the streets looked at us approvingly, nodding or waving as they passed, since they could tell we were a monster hunting party because Oren was wearing his rookie uniform jacket, trousers, and boots.
The bus ride took two hours and we rented dyr outside the city gates. It was another three hours before we reached the place where the cernean could be found. Cerneans were slow four-footed monsters twice as large as the average man and looked like fanged, horned, orange-colored bovines. Their anima cores weren’t worth much, but they were easy to hunt.
“My heart’s pounding like crazy,” I whispered to Katja after we dismounted and tied the dyr to some nearby trees.
“You’re scared? It’s just cernean.”
“I’m a bit of a wimp.”
Katja put an arm around my shoulders and said, “Don’t worry, little girl. Big sister Katja will protect you.”
“Thanks, I’ll be counting on you.”
We decided that the best formation for our group would be a V-shape with me in the middle and behind the other two. Oren and Katja, as melee fighters, would be positioned in front of me on both sides. Since the two childhood friends had fought together many times before, they knew the correct distance they needed to stay to not get in each other’s way.
The three of us would work in rotation on one cernean.
“Bolt!” I pointed the wand at the monster, and electricity streamed from its tip to the nearest cernean. There was no need to say the spell out loud, but it was considered courteous to do for the sake of the other members of the team.
The bolt spell shocked the cernean slightly. Its eyes turned red, and it opened its mouth to roar out a challenge.
“Good job!” said Oren. He had to wait a few seconds since the electricity coursing through the monster would damage him if he made contact with it immediately after my spell. “My turn.”
Oren had no artifacts so his attack was purely muscle-based. His sword struck the Cerean’s head, only missing the eyes because the monster used its horns to turn the sword aside at the last minute.
Katja attacked immediately after Oren finished and moved out of the way. Her punch, backed with the force of the earth artifact, was powerful enough to make the huge cernean sway on its feet.
“Bolt!” Now the monster was shocked, off-balance, and blinded by the blood running down from its forehead into its eyes. The cernean never stood a chance as we continued to take turns attacking it.
“Victory!” One final punch from Katja knocked it off its feet and Oren dealt the deathblow by stabbing it in the heart. Katja and I clasped arms and did a little jumping dance.
“Fine, I’ll do the honors,” said Oren as he took out disposable elbow-length gloves from his pocket. Making an incision on the cernean’s chest, he shoved his arm in.
“Eww!” I said.
“Israfel told me this should be worth around fifty credits,” said Oren. He’d introduced Israfel to Katja and me when we had visited the barracks to return the jacket and get the package from Katja’s mom. I had instantly recognized the EL’s name from the game. Israfel was average-looking and unmemorable. He seemed to have taken a shine to the hero and was mentoring him a little bit.
Oren showed us the cernean’s anima core, also called a monster core, that he had extracted from the corpse. The bus fare and dyr rental had cost us a total of one hundred and eight credits so we’d have to kill at least three Cerneans.
“Next one.” Katja pointed to a nearby cernean that was bigger than the rest.
“Yes, ma’am!” I approximated a soldier’s salute in her direction.
And now the answers to the True or False Trivia Guessing Game!
Thanks to everyone who participated. I hope you enjoyed my April Fool's 2021 special.
People often cry and/or run away when they see Seraphiel. Sometimes, they lose control of their bowels and/or bladder, too.
False. It happens very rarely, not often.
Hjalmar (the hero who accidentally sank a continent) was one hot daddy! People say he was the sexiest man to ever live.
True. By the way, the reason why there is a lot of lore about Adon and Hjalmar is because I originally planned them to be Asteria's summons, but the more I thought about it, the worse that idea seemed. It would mean that the heroes are not at peace even after their death. So there will be no hero summons!
Israfel has a really punchable face.
False. He has an NPC face, the type you can’t remember.
Monster pets are not a thing in Verden, but plants are. Ely is that world’s version of a crazy cat lady.
True. I worded it badly, sorry! I'm sure some crazy person somewhere in Verden has some monster they call a pet, but it's definitely not something a sane person would do.
Sariel’s real hair color is black. That is why his hair is always dyed. He doesn’t want to be compared to Seraphiel.
False. His real hair color is platinum blonde. It takes dye very easily. Someone actually guessed this correctly!
Slash pairings of the S-class ELs are incredibly popular among fangirls. Uriel, Sariel, and Seraphiel know all about it.
Katja says she’s bicurious, but she’s only dated men so far.
False. Katja says she’s one hundred percent straight.
Uriel wears tights under his uniform.
True. Silk tights, they are all the rage right now.
In a recent survey, the women voted who among the S-class Els they would like to fxxk, marry, kill. Result: Fxxk Uriel, Marry Seraphiel, Kill Sariel.
False. The real results were: Fxxk Sariel, Marry Uriel, Kill Seraphiel. I'm afraid Seraphiel is considered scarier than the other two.
Sariel’s type: cute. Uriel’s type: tall and glamorous. Israfel’s type: blonde. Oren’s type: petite. Seraphiel’s type: bendy.
True. Most people have a type they prefer, but that doesn't mean they'll reject everyone who isn't that type. There's always the exception to the rule! By "bendy" I meant someone with a very flexible body, like a gymnast, acrobat, or contortionist. Slightly pervy trivia about Seraphiel:
When he was growing up in the laboratory, there wasn't a lot of privacy. Nor could he go out and get ...interesting materials. The closest he could get to that was the time when the scientists let him watch sports events on TV, and he saw the female gymnasts in their skin-tight leotards. 🤸