The sun slowly rose above the horizon, casting long shadows across the city of Conncinnata. Exotic violet-feathered pigeons cooed from the rooftops. People with bags under their eyes meandered along the streets. Most of which were heading to workplaces. Among the people was a group of three traveling down the main road drawing curious glances from others.
“Ugh… these sacks are heavy,” Ian groaned.
Gaelan chuckled and said, “Just think of it as extra training.”
“But why do I have to carry your stuff too?!”
“Umm… I can carry my own luggage if it’s too much for you, Mister Ian,” Bianca offered with concern radiating from her eyes.
“Nah, it’s fine,” Ian muttered without thinking. He inwardly cursed himself for feeling like he needed to maintain a strong appearance in front of her. Although, even without his useless pride, he probably would have said the same thing. After all, Bianca had walked with an excited spring to her step from the moment she woke up this morning. Even Ian could tell she was looking forward to this small adventure he took for granted.
Suddenly, Gaelan stiffened, much to Ian’s surprise. Wondering what was up, Ian followed Gaelan’s gaze until his eyes landed on a familiar face. A bear of a man with blond hair and blue eyes also noticed them and altered his course in order to cross paths with them. The man grinned, but his eyes glowed with a competitive ferocity. Within moments, they were standing face to face.
“My, my. If it isn’t the famous Master Marlow himself!” Allon Smithson exclaimed, slamming his hand onto Gaelan’s shoulder with enough force to crack the street.
Not budging an inch despite the powerful slap, Gaelan returned the favor with equal strength and replied, “Oho~ It seems the equally famous Master Smithson is in a good mood this morning.”
Startled, Ian stared at the two burly smiths who were clasping each other’s shoulders with enough strength to snap a tree in half. Then, he glanced at the cracks that spread through the cobblestone from their firmly planted feet. Sweat formed on his forehead. A simple movement from these guys cracked the street. He knew they were strong, but it still caught him off guard. On the other hand, Bianca sighed and stepped back a few meters as though she had seen this many times before. Ian assumed it was for a good reason and followed suit.
“Sorry, Mister Ian. Dad and Mister Smithson are a little feisty whenever they meet.”
“Uh… I can see that.”
Wasn’t this a little beyond feisty, though? The ground even rumbled slightly. Ian widened his eyes upon feeling the influence of both Gaelan’s and Allon’s Earth Affinity in the earth below their feet competing for control. The soil beneath the cobblestone groaned as though being torn apart. The commotion even drew the attention of strangers.
Eventually, Allon noticed the two off to the side and without breaking concentration said, “Well, hello there young miss, it’s been a while.”
“Yes, it has,” Bianca replied, smiling politely. As she continued speaking, Ian couldn’t help thinking she looked like a doll with an unchanging expression. “You look well, Mister Smithson.”
“Why thank you. And… Aren’t you Ian?” Smithson asked, raising a brow. A perplexed expression slid onto his face. His concentration broke just enough for Gaelan to take advantage of the moment and push him back a step while smirking like an evil villain.
“Yeah, nice to see you again,” Ian answered.
“You’re with this old man, so… he took you as an apprentice? I’m shocked.”
You don’t look shocked, Ian thought.
“I’m surprised you have room to speak to them, Master Smithson,” Gaelan chided with a condescending tone.
“Obviously, I have the upper hand and, therefore, the luxury to speak with other people, Master Marlow. You, however, seem to be struggling?”
“Hoh~ You must be in a good mood to be joking so early in the morning!”
Ian leaned toward Bianca and quietly asked, “Will this take a while?”
In response, Bianca tilted her head thoughtfully and answered, “Um… probably not?”
Eyebrows furrowed, Ian thought, What’s with the uncertain response?
Meanwhile, Gaelan glared into Smithson’s eyes and said, “Unfortunately, I need to go with my apprentice and daughter somewhere and am in a hurry. Since you’re going to lose anyway, do you mind giving up here?”
Pushing back, Smithson retorted, “Me? Lose? You jest. If you are in such a hurry, then perhaps you should give up.”
“Stubborn bag o’ muscles. Just admit I’m better and stronger than you.”
“Hahahaha! Better at being a sore loser, are you?” Smithson retorted. The cracks in the ground spread further as he spoke.
A vein popped out on Gaelan’s forehead. Then, he grinned slyly and said, “You should probably back off, friend.”
“I could say the same.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
All of a sudden, a sharp crack sounded out from several meters behind Ian, Gaelan, and Bianca as a huge chunk of dirt and stone with the circumference of a grown man launched into the air. Everyone watching the scene was startled, especially Ian and Smithson since neither of them noticed Gaelan reaching out that far with his Earth Affinity.
“Like I said,” Gaelan repeated with a confident smile, “you should probably back off.”
The earthen boulder arced through the sky at an obscene angle until it almost vanished from sight. Then, it plummeted straight down toward Gaelan and Smithson with frightening velocity. Smithson’s face paled at the sight.
Returning his gaze to Gaelan, Allon Smithson frowned and said, “You are crazy.”
“You should probably move, yeah?”
“It’s going to hit you as well. There’s no way you can control it from that far away.”
“You underestimate my power!” Gaelan retorted with a chuckle.
Ian’s brows twitched at the statement. Did this guy happen to see that quote while messing around on his phone the last time they visited Earth?
Smithson grimaced and replied, “No, I don’t think I did. Controlling earth from that distance is impossible even for those with High Affinity. We’re both in for a world’s worth of hurt.”
“It’s all simple math, friend. Simple. Math. It’ll squash you and I’ll be barely okay.”
That isn’t simple math! Ian screamed in his head as he stared at the two men. This had gone way too far beyond ‘feisty’. This was just plain deadly.
The huge chunk of dirt and stone steadily plummeted toward Gaelan and Smithson. Everyone in the vicinity, including Ian and Bianca, paled while backing away. Ian worriedly looked at Allon Smithson. Was one of the few people who welcomed him to this unfamiliar land going to die today?
Under the weight of Gaelan’s confident gaze, Smithson finally decided to let go of his stubbornness. His influence quickly retreated from the earth and focused entirely on the ground just below him. At the last second, he glared at Gaelan one last time before launching himself backward with the stones beneath his feet.
Ian blinked, and the next thing he knew, the boulder slammed into the street inches in front of Gaelan. The crash of the boulder colliding with the ground caused Ian to flinch while worrying for his mentor’s safety. Debris exploded in every direction. People closest to the impact shielded their faces from the flying dirt and stone fragments with their arms. One person even strained while using Earth Affinity to form a small shield out of the street and ducked behind it.
Nearby, Bianca muttered, “Ugh. Mister Smithson always brings the worst out of dad.”
A shocked expression flashed across Ian’s face at the unfamiliar tone in her voice. Then, he was more surprised when the cloud of debris and dust began to swirl around the point of impact while fusing back together. Riotous laughter could be heard from within the dust cloud.
Ah, I didn’t need to worry about this guy in the first place, Ian realized.
A minute later, all the debris in the air collected back into a boulder under Gaelan’s will. It rested next to him as though it had never smashed into the ground in the first place. If not for the two small craters where the boulder originated and crashed back into the ground, no evidence would be left behind. The people watching were startled by the level of control over the Earth element Gaelan displayed since barely any dust reached them.
“Now,” Gaelan said, focusing on Smithson, “help me clean up.”
To everyone’s surprise, Allon Smithson, one of the most distinguished blacksmiths in the human kingdom, sighed with a defeated expression and replied, “Alright.”
“Eh?” Ian was surprised by this development. He didn’t expect Smithson to agree so easily.
Suddenly, Gaelan spun around, looked Ian dead in the eye, and said, “You help too.”
“You’ve got Earth Affinity and you’re my apprentice. It’s only natural that you help clean up this mess Smithson made.”
“You’re the one who made this mess,” Smithson corrected with a sigh. Then, he smiled in a friendly manner and added, “That’s just like you to push the responsibility on me, though.”
Gaelan ignored the comment and asked Ian, “You coming over here to help me or what?”
Ian could only sigh while wondering if he chose the wrong mentor. Even so, he begrudgingly sauntered over and helped the two master blacksmiths return the road to its previous state. Well, they weren’t artists, so it looked as unorganized as a Picasso painting. At least wagons could travel across it. By the time they finished, all the spectators had left. Most people had already arrived at their workplaces. Only a few people passed by occasionally but barely gave more than a curious glance at the three men and Bianca.
“You’re as crazy as ever, you old geezer,” Smithson grumbled as soon as they finished. Then, he looked at Ian, who was sweating like a pig on a treadmill due to the exertion of Dark Matter that he still hadn’t adjusted to, and said, “You have surprisingly high Earth Affinity. Are you sure you don’t want to come to my smithy instead of working under this guy?”
“Nah, it’s fine,” Ian said. He couldn’t muster up any more words than that.
“You won’t be able to bring him to the top,” Gaelan added.
“You have too many apprentices. His abilities won’t shine under you.”
“Hmm… That’s quite the provocative statement,” Smithson muttered. Then, he faced Ian and said, “Good luck working with this guy in the future, then.”
Ian nodded weakly after wiping his brow with the neck of his shirt.
“Anyway,” Smithson said, returning his attention to Gaelan, “how have you been? I haven’t seen you since the blacksmith competition a few months ago.”
“Things are going well. Got a few orders from the king recently. It seemed like he’s trying to strengthen the knights.”
“Oh. I also got orders from his Majesty. It’s all mass production weapons and armor, though.”
Gaelan raised a brow. “Really? That’s odd, considering there haven’t been any major conflicts recently.”
“I thought the same thing. It’s not on the level of war preparation, but it makes me wonder what his Majesty is up to.”
“Well, it doesn’t change the fact that we have to do our jobs.”
While the two blacksmiths conversed, Ian watched them with a confused expression. Weren’t they at each others’ throats only a few minutes ago? Suddenly, a breath tickled his ear as a young woman whispered to him. It was Bianca
“Um… Although they don’t seem like it, they are friends. They just have fierce competition as business rivals.”
“Ah, I guess that makes sense, but still…”
Wasn’t this too much to be considered a competition?
While Ian was sighing about the relationship between the two smiths, Gaelan faced him and said, “We probably shouldn’t keep your friend waiting any longer.”
“Ah, right. I forgot because of your antics.”
Gaelan shrugged. Then he nodded toward Smithson and said, “We have something to do, so I’ll see you next time, Allon.”
“Please don’t throw a boulder at me the next time we meet.”
“Hah! Just remember you’ll never beat me!”
Smithson sighed but replied, “I’ll overtake you eventually. Still, it was good to see you in good health. Don’t die before I take all your business.”
With that, Ian, Gaelan, and Bianca waved goodbye to Smithson and resumed walking toward the Southern Gate. Ian wondered what kind of crazy people he got himself involved with along the way.