Thirteen

Over the next week, the village began to settle into a new routine. Yun would spend her days analyzing, drawing, planning, and, now, teaching. Intermittently, hornant scouts would surface, unaware that the previous envoys had been dealt with. The village had no shortage of food now, learning that with proper processing, hornant was perfectly edible, even reminiscent of shellfish, if a little funkier.  Still, it was important to clear the nest soon, lest it catch wind of their scouts going missing and send a battalion. 

Artyem grew quickly, learning the broad mechanics of alchemy quickly, but also memorizing the specific sigils much quicker than Yun ever had. Though his line work was still sloppy, it was clear he had the aptitude to perfect it with time.

“I thought you found this boring,” Yun remarked.

“That was before I started getting it.” 

“I see.”

“Plus, I need to get stronger.”

“Stronger?”

Artyem nodded. 

“So I can help people.”

“Do you want to be an adventurer?”

He nodded again. 

“Well, you have plenty of time. I wouldn’t rush into anything.”

“My parents say the heroes came here, a long time ago.”

“Mhm?”

“They fought a big demon here and saved the village. If I was born earlier, I could have helped.”

Yun smiled.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing to be born in times of peace.” 

Yun had assembled a large amount of materials outside the entrance to the hornant nest. A raft of wood nailed together and etched with chalk, large amounts of base materials and buckets of water. The whole village gathered around, watching with bated breath. Yun breathed in and out, focusing her mana into the alchemical circle and watching as it began to glow. The materials slowly disappeared, seemingly into nothing. After what seemed like an eternity, Yun got back up and clapped the dust off her hands. 

“Your problem should be solved.” 

“What did you do?” The village elder asked.

“I figured out the compositions of the hornants’ pheromones and flooded the nest with a mix of aggression, danger, panic, and nest collapse. It should turn the ants against each other and prevent the queen from producing more eggs.” 

“And that will work?”

“We can only wait and see.” 

It only took a handful of minutes to feel the ground start to shake, ever so slightly, indications of a disturbance deep in the ground. The tremors continued for a good while, an hour or so before they settled down. Yun exhaled, feeling as though she’d been tense for the better part of the entire week. There was never a guarantee something like this would work. She once watched Alexis pour lava into a hornant nest, clearing the entire thing and blocking up all the tunnels. But obviously she couldn’t do something like that. 

The villagers started to clap, slowly building into a crescendo. It was only then that Yun felt a sudden sense of dread. Something was definitely wrong, but she couldn’t quite place it. 

“Clear the area. NOW!” She yelled. 

The villagers were confused, but did as she said, clearing the area moments before a massive tremor rolled through the area. 

“Well that-“ Yun said, interrupted by the emergence of the largest hornant she had ever seen, covered in the viscera of its nest mates, chewing on the lifeless head of a queen. It easily cleared the size of a bear and had four massive wings. It had sustained some injuries, the puncture marks lining its body seemed to originate from the mandibles of other hornants, but it had certainly come out on top. 

“-couldn’t possibly be any worse. RUN!” She tried to capture its attention while it was getting its bearings, multi-sectioned eyes bristling under the first rays of sunlight it had ever encountered. 

“Everyone! Go!” She shooed away even the hardy crew that had wrangled the scouts up till now. Even just the vibration of its wings would be enough to damage the hearing of anyone too close, so she had to make sure everyone was evacuated. Not that she had the faintest idea how to fight something like this. 

“Just my luck.” Yun clicked her tongue, looking around for anything that might be useful. She flipped rapidly between that and adjusting the threads of the nearby inhabitants, pulling frantically to keep them balanced. The rhythm was off, like the discordant playing of a child. 

Yun managed to evacuate most of the inhabitants while dodging the hornant emperor’s strafes, each pass sending shockwaves bouncing through her entire body from the sheer power of the vibrations. If it weren’t for her now quickly dwindling mana supply, her body would have succumbed to the shock and died minutes ago. 

Ugh. She hated endurance battles, but it seemed like the only way through this. It had already sustained some injuries and surely would require a massive amount of energy to keep flying around. She would wait for it to land and… Right. She had no way of following through. 

Yun clenched her fist until her nails dug into her palm, drawing blood. She wanted desperately to reach into her own chest and rip out her heart, scream at it to quiet down, scream at herself to be better, to be worth something. Clever solutions, studying, alchemy, it all boiled down to her never being enough; she just couldn’t follow through. She was there when the Demon Lord was defeated, but here she would die to a big insect, unable to protect even a small village. 

She could feel the emotions welling up past her, moving before she could even think about it. The involuntary convulsions of her chest, the irregularity of breath, the tears welling at her cheeks. Her ears rang and her head pounded with dull pain. She was tired. Would it have been so bad if this was as far as she went? Even a cursory glance at her own thread showed the same tangled web of half-frayed threads, each so delicate as to possibly snap at any moment, but nonetheless holding her aloft.        

But, then, the villagers had treated her so nicely. They were convinced she could solve their problems. They were counting on her. Those wishes couldn’t fix her. They couldn’t give her the ability to wield a bow nor turn her into an arcanist. But they could get her moving again. Those expectations could get her to move her broken body, gather it up and puppeteer it once more. 

“Ms. Yun!” A voice cried out, forcing her eyes open. It was Artyem.

“What are you doing here?! I thought I told you to leave!” 

“I wanna help.” 

“You can’t. Just being here is too dangerous.” 

“You promised you would teach me alchemy.” 

“You cheeky little-“

Artyem turned and held his hands out and Yun watched as his thread came together, golden and shining, almost as visceral as Nari’s own. Alchemical sigils began to draw themselves in the air in glowing lines, hanging like objects. 

“You’re kidding me.” Yun’s eyes widened. 

The Sage’s Sign was a special gift, one that Yun had only seen once before, in the genius alchemist of her party. To have a second event happen so close together was, historically, unprecedented, but cemented the fact that Artyem had all the makings of a legendary adventurer. 

The air around the hornant emperor’s wings grew hazy, then froze completely solid, bringing the creature crashing to the ground with a thunderous impact. Unbelievable. 

Very well then. Yun focused, drawing all the fortune from her own thread and channeling it into Artyem’s, a resonant glow resounding with a clear, pure tone.

“Follow my lead,” Yun said, starting to run. The aggravated creature plowed through the field after her, slowing down due to the extreme weight increase caused by the ice. It chased after her with feverish determination. She kicked down the door to one of the homes, paying a silent apology while rooting around the stove. Aha! She found the striker used to ignite the fire just as the emperor tore the roof off the building. Yun bolted, trying to draw it to an empty clearing. The next course of action was crystal clear; a trick so well known it was one of the textbook examples of alchemy. 

”The air! Break down the air!” 

Artyem responded in kind, drawing the circle to force the air around the hornant emperor to decompose into its composite elements, the circle growing larger and larger as more air was broken down. 

“DUCK!” She shouted, bringing the striker down and creating sparks that caught on the volatile, flammable gases floating around, following a path directly to the hornant emperor. The force of the explosion knocked Yun back, sending her skipping along the ground like a stone through water. The blaze caught on the creature as it flailed, eventually succumbing to its fatigue and ceasing all movement. The crackling of the flames were nearly silent following the life or death scramble. 

Artyem walked gingerly over to the motionless Yun, concerned. He started reaching down when she coughed violently, turning into laughter. 

“Are you broken?”

”Probably. Never mind that. Artyem, your gift is incredible!” Yun beamed, perhaps partially from the high of surviving and partially from the familiar feeling of overcoming impossible odds. He seemed like he wanted to puff his chest out in pride, but instead just looked a little tired. She recognized something in his eyes. 

“Artyem.” 

He looked over.

“That was scary, wasn’t it?”

He nodded.

“I know. I was scared, too.”

“Is being an adventurer always like that?”

“Not always. But a lot of the time, yeah.” She let that hang in the air for a second before continuing. “You don’t have to be one to help people, though.”

“You don’t?”

“No one’s asking you to be a hero. Your gift could be used for all kinds of things. If you wanted to continue pursuing alchemy, that is.” 

“I do.” 

“Alright.” Yun slowly dragged herself up and tossed Artyem his journal. “You can have that back. It might take some time, but I’ll send someone to teach you.” 

“Are you leaving?”

“Yeah. I have some things I need to take care of.” Yun smiled, ruffling his hair. He hugged her tightly, burying his face in her abdomen. 

“Don’t die,” he said.

“I won’t.”

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