Chapter 12

“Now what are we going to do?” Nick asked after walking to where Paige was standing quietly. He looked around at the ruined campsite and asked quietly, “How did you realize they were demons from Trent? I noticed that even some of their own people hadn’t realized their friends were infiltrators.” He knew that it was almost impossible to determine a person’s bloodline by appearance alone. Usually, you would have to have a specialty magic circle determine how pure someone’s bloodline was.

“If you looked carefully at the leather armor, you’d notice that they are all brand new, and some even had the royal insignia on the armor. They were plundered from the castle’s armory.” She exhaled slowly. “The altar was taking the life force from the bodies and enhancing the demon’s bloodline. “One or both of the officers were most likely demon officers who blended in and was assigned a scout group, and then subsequently convinced them to become deserters.”

“Any survivors left?” Nick asked quietly. He noticed that she had missed only one tent with her last attack.

“A few children. Children that small don’t have as much vitality as adults; so, they aren’t usually sacrificed like this.” She walked toward the female bodies lying on the ground. “Help me make the bodies decent; we can at least let the children say their goodbyes.”

‘This was great.’ Isabella ran slightly ahead of Zenith and Tyler, who was informing Tyler about their discussion with the shopkeeper Harry. ‘Maybe I could convince Paige to go toward Castle Patel, it’d be great if mother could wake up by then.’

Tyler pulled Isabella aside, before using his rapier to impale a snake on hiding in the bushes. “Be a tad more careful, young princess. Stay in the middle of the path,”

“But the middle of the path is boring. There’s not even any branches overhead, so there’s not any shade either.” She argued. Zenith walked closer to Isabella and chided her as well. “I may have healing spells and skills, but I still wouldn’t want to deal with healing poison. It becomes a hassle since people react differently to poisons.” We’re not likely to get poisoned by a simple snake like that, not with our classes; but it wouldn’t hurt to be careful.” She chided Tyler as well, making sure she was fair with her criticisms.

‘Simple teaching moments.’ she thought to herself. Isabella was still young, and Tyler was making it seem like the whole world was dangerous. ‘It’s a good lesson for ourselves too; we usually don’t have to deal with children this young.’ She knew that Paige, Tyler and herself had no real experience with raising children. And it was questionable how much raising Nick did, she thought, knowing how often Rangers were sent out to deal with the many different problems that came with a nation as disjointed as the Leit Confederation.

She sighed as she thought about Isabella’s future. ‘I know I promised her it will be alright but is there anything I can do to help?’ She had full confidence that Paige would stop the Imperial family from taking the girl. How she would do it was a mystery though.

‘She does know a lot of people though, just from judging by her skills.’ It was hard finding a teacher to teach the more advanced Mage Skill, like the one Paige had used to create the magic circle. Even her former school did not have many who could, or would, teach their disciples those skills, let alone students or friends. Still, Zenith sighed, lamenting that her skills as a Wind Magi couldn’t even match up to a Warrior. ‘Maybe she could teach me?’ She thought idly to herself.

Tyler stopped Isabella and Zenith, signaling them to stand still and quiet. She focused and could faintly hear children crying. “That’s in the direction of our camp.” Tyler said quietly. “It looks like they found the bandits.” He pulled his sword and buckler out, attaching it to his arm. He stepped quietly into the clearing but stopped when an arrow embedded itself on the tree next to him. He hadn’t even heard the arrow being launched before it had hit the tree with a resounding thump.

“Eek!” The children started to scream as Nick dropped his short bow to his side. Paige was just smiling, trying to console the crying children.

“I told you it was them.” Paige admonished Nick, saying loudly over the cries of the children. “And you said you know how to deal with children.” Even from this far, Zenith could tell her voice was dripping with disdain.

“I know how to deal with babies. I didn’t say children.” He replied.

As Zenith walked into view of the campsite, she noticed that Paige had on an additional piece of clothing underneath her leather armor. She was now wearing a full body suit in addition to the armor. Zenith assumed that it was her full warrior garb, because she noticed that the bodysuit was shining slightly even in the forest shade. ‘Is her whole bodysuit made of mithril? That’s…rather expensive.’ She assumed the leather armor on top was being used to hide the true value of her bodysuit. She noted that Paige’s mithril armor was rather flexible, judging by how it hugged her body tightly as it followed the contours of her body. Mithril was famous for its defensive properties, as well as its flexibility if made straight into armor, with no other metal blended in. That was the hardest and most costly part about mithril; finding a blacksmith or tailor who knew how to process the ore alone.

‘I’m not even sure the elders in the family own a mithril breastplate.’ She was very jealous; even if she could sell everything she’s ever earned, it still would not even amount to a mithril weapon. ‘Her gaze is slightly darker too.’ Zenith wondered what had happened while they were out in the hamlet.

“Aunt Paige, who are they?” asked Isabella as she walked into the campsite. Zenith was sure she did not notice Isabella’s outfit. ‘From their looks, they can’t be much younger than me. Are they the kidnapped kids the shopkeeper was talking about?’’ She was shocked that he had been telling the truth; she only assumed that he was saying that to scare her.

“You all stay here with sister Isabella and Zenith” Paige spoke kindly to the children around her; “I’m just going to talk with Mister Tyler over there and then we’ll get you all safely home.” Zenith was shocked. ‘I guess Paige does know how to deal with children.’ The children cried even harder and clung to Paige, not wanting her to leave. “Isabella, Zenith, a little help please.” Paige said wryly, trying to gently pull a little girl off her legs.

“That is bad news Paige. Is there any way to verify this?” Tyler responded grimly, already writing a message to Officer Steve back in the hamlet. He had informed the duo quickly about the meeting they had at the rundown inn.

“At least half of the soldiers were demons Tyler. I could see it in their faces when Paige yelled it out. More than half of the corpses had armor from the capital’s keep.” Nick added. He had made sure to check their armor when he retrieved the arrowheads from the corpses. The shafts he left behind; steel tipped arrows such as these were not cheap, nor was it easy to find in Alcudia.

“Thoughts Paige? Nick?”

“Let General William decide what to do on that front. That is the army’s problem, not ours.” Paige said after a minute.

“Paige, that is just deflecting the problem to someone else.” Tyler disagreed with her suggestion.

“But it is a valid solution. Although the first prince is the commander of the suppression army, we all know that the Generals from Appealte and Leit will only converse among themselves and then they will inform the first prince of the plan.” Paige argued back. “Nick, what are the Ranger’s likely to do?” She turned, asking Nick for help.

He thought for a moment and looked toward Tyler. “I agree with Paige. Let the army decide army matters.” He spoke aloud, gathering his thoughts as he told them. “Ranger Command will not take an active role in the suppression army; at most they will just be oversight and protectors for the King that is chosen.” After going through a list in his head, he shared his thoughts with the two of them. “King Erickson of Ocean Fief will most likely be leading the suppression army. His fief is the closest to the borders, and he has experience fighting with the late Alcudian King.”

“Will he make a move against the Queen?” Paige asked Nick harshly. ‘Ah, that was the one time she had attacked Leit.’ King Erickson had a reputation as a philanderer, and was smitten when he saw Queen Rebecca last, even though she was with child. That war only lasted a few days, since Paige stormed the castle herself to rescue Queen Rebecca. He had a good laugh at that; until he read the confidential reports stating that the Warrior had given advance notice she was coming, and still had knocked out every Ranger there.

“No. Although he won’t be the only king on the battlefield, the Ranger Command will be watching, as well as the others. The chance to get prestige like this does not come often, so the other king’s will be looking for any reason to replace him.”

“Fine, I’ll inform General William to be wary of infiltrators, and how you spotted them. Hopefully that will be enough information for them to come up with a plan, quietly.

“What are you plans for the kids, Paige? The parents?” Tyler asked quietly. He knew that Zenith had already found some clues about what had happened. “Sacrificed. Kids were going to slavers.” she responded quietly. Tyler saw Zenith shake when Paige said that. ‘She must be using a spell to listen as well.’

“I was hoping you could let Officer Steve take them to the nearest royal orphanage. The regular ones are probably full of refugees this late in the war. Their parents did die at the hands of deserters when it is all said and done.”

Tyler hesitated. “I can request it. You know that’s not really our place to…”

“I’ll write a letter to Crown Princess Alexandra. She’ll approve it. If that doesn’t work, I’ll send a letter to General William’s wife. Let’s see if he says no to that.” Paige cut Tyler off, challenging him to say something else.

“Fine. Let me send the messenger bird off, and we can travel back to the hamlet. We should be able to make it back to camp by nightfall at the very least.”

Paige hesitated, clearly torn at whether to object to that or not. In the end, she agreed to it; knowing full well that they shouldn’t waste more time. The kids cried, but she was able to convince the older kids that it was for the best.

“Zenith, I’m going to travel with Tyler, Isabella, and the children to the hamlet. Did you want to come as well?” Isabella had gotten her way as well, clearly trying to act like an adult; even though she was only older than a few of the kids by two or three years.

“I’ll stay. I had my fill of walking; so, I’m planning on resting a bit before dark. I’ll take first shift with Isabella again once you get back.” Zenith responded.

“Okay. Don’t let Nick take liberties with you.” She replied, trying to lighten her own mood up by teasing the younger girl.

“He is married you know.” Zenith stated dryly as she blushed. Looking over at Nick, she had already noticed that he wasn’t too terrible looking. But he flatly stated he wasn’t interested in Isabella. She wasn’t sure that didn’t include her as well since they looked about the same, even though she was over twice Isabella’s age.

“Mhmm, long nights away from home too. Rest well.” Her mood was better now after messing around. Paige picked up some children and started walking toward the hamlet.

“I want to ask you something, Zenith.” Nick said suddenly. She noticed he had sent out his own carrier pigeon, so she did not know if he had heard their little discussion.

“Sure, what can I help you with?” She said, blushing slightly.

“Paige used some spells today; or maybe a skill. I wanted your take on it.” He replied, his voice gruff and professional sounding. She knew he was being serious, so she settled her mind and listened as Nick spoke about what he saw Paige do.

“It is sad that they were being taken to the slavers. Parts of Appealte still hold onto that disgusting tradition.” Zenith sighed sadly, tears in her eyes. She had known many children at the school who had indentured families or were slaves themselves. She had heard that some parties were made entirely of slaves, or their masters were the Party Leaders.

“But it is slightly better than being executed. At least some crimes can be pardoned after they have served their time or have repaid the debts.” The laws surrounding child slaves were very strict in Appealte and Leit; they were required to be set free after becoming an adult. Although it was not easy to protect children from abuse; the use of truth spells made it easy to check for and harsh punishment awaited those who broke that law. Most of the founding families placed very strict standards on their offspring, and she had seen prominent kids from other founding families be placed into slavery for breaking those very rules.

Nick didn’t say anything. He knew Zenith was from one of the noble houses, so he didn’t break her bubble of ignorance at how bad some slaves were treated.

“That aside, what do you think of Paige’s actions. Were those skills or spells?”

“Skills. They almost had to be class skills. Her status said she was a Dawn Warrior, so my best guess would be her class gave them to her. Or maybe her title did. Blessed Sun Ray might have been a spell though, it’s hard to say.” Zenith responded instantly, regulating her emotions. “You said she spoke something prior to using a skill, right? Do you remember what she said exactly? It has to be exact.”

He thought for a second and said quietly, watching the sky warily. “Oh, Goddess of Sunset, Smite my enemies with your heavenly fire!”

Zenith’s eyes widened. “She really said that?”

“Yes. Then her sword practically exploded with flames.”

“That was a prayer. Or maybe an incantation.” She responded excitedly. “You almost never see that in our countries in the west. I hear out east there are mages who supposedly get all their powers from the gods. Even the Imperial family is said to pray to certain gods for power.”

“Only mages?” Nick asked. He had noticed that point when Zenith was talking. She was quite animated, her eyes practically starry. ‘I haven’t seen a look directed at me like that in ages.’ he thought, thinking of his wife back home. Trying to get Zenith to slow down talking he interrupted her. “What about warriors? Have you heard of the class Dawn Warrior?”

“I personally haven’t. Although there are weird classes and titles such as Advanced Farmer or Illogical Mage, so it could just be a special class.” She shrugged. “I don’t know of anyone concrete who could tell you the answer to that; either at my old school or from my family.”

Hesitating for a bit, she added “We won’t really know much unless we ask her directly. Or maybe ask Isabella to ask. I don’t think she would say no to her. I asked her last night if she could ask Paige to open up to us a bit more.” She relayed what Isabella had spoken to her last night, focusing on what Paige had said to Isabella as consolation.

“I think she might have been a Princess, or maybe even part of the Imperial family. But without knowing her age, it’s really hard to say who she may be affiliated with.”

“She’s over five hundred years old. I can verify that with proof.” Nick responded instantly.

Zenith was shocked. “Five hundred? Some of my great, great, great grandparents aren’t even that old. The great elder might be approaching seven hundred, but who knows if he is even alive still.” She had not seen the great elder before, since her standing in her family was low; even lower than some of the servants.

“It is rare to see someone that old look their age, but high classes do age slower. We tend to live longer too.” Nick said quietly.

“True. Was there anything else you wanted to ask?” Zenith quickly spoke up. “Otherwise I’m going to take a nap before watch.”

“There is something, but it can wait.” He really wanted to ask about the symbol but hesitated. “I’ll make something light for dinner; you can have it during your watch.” Nick turned, setting up a cooking fire. “Have a good rest Zenith.”

“…Thank you. You too Nick.” She went to her bedroll and tried to rest.

After reaching the hamlet, the chief elder and older shopkeepers saw Paige and the small children emerge from the forest. They had been in an uproar, as some had recognized the children as locals from the farming dwelling just beyond the other side of the forest. Luckily, Officer Steve and his companions had gotten the message and had assembled in their official gear; helping to relieve the tension in the air.

“I’ve already asked the children, and most of them don’t have relatives in the area. Can you take them to the nearest royal orphanage, and also try and contact their relatives to let them know the children are being taken care of? I know it’s a long shot and will take some time, but please try.” Paige spoke to Steve quietly.

Although the settlement had been attacked and everyone was killed, it would be easy for the locals to repurpose the now abandoned settlement for their own young adults instead. She knew some of the shadier adults in the hamlet would try to adopt the children; just so that they would have a reason to take over the settlement.

“I’ll do my best, Ms. Paige.” Officer Steve replied, not using her title of warrior since some of the locals were clearly trying to eavesdrop on their conversation.

“I’ll take full responsibility of this matter.” She hesitated, but eventually pulled a slightly worn piece of paper out from a hidden pocket in her leather breastplate. She quickly wrote something on the paper and sealed it with a wax ball and a ring on her finger.

Steve though was shocked. The paper was originally just a blank piece of paper, but he noticed at the end of the page it was already filled out and signed. “…by my order, I, Queen Rebecca Freal the Third, hereby proclaim that whatever is written on this page shall be done in my name.” He looked at the seal, and saw that it resembled the queen’s seal, except around the coat of arms, there was a banner that simply stated ‘Paige Alduit, Savior of the Queen.’

She smiled at Steve’s shocked face. “Heh, I bet Rebecca never thought I’d use it for something like this.” She smiled. “I got a few of these after the saving the queen a few times. Said I deserved at least this much.” she chuckled slightly. “In truth, I think I scared her when I told her I’d request a full mithril bodysuit next time I save her.”

Her bodysuit was costly; she’d be surprised if the queen could even afford a blended mithril heart protector; let alone a full bodysuit like the one she had on. Unless you knew what to look for, Paige’s armor looked like a slightly shiny full bodysuit; one that a female Monk or Brawler might wear. Although, a regular bodysuit would not be able to stop magic or blades quite as readily, if at all.

She knew in her heart that when Rebecca saw her bodysuit, her attitude shifted toward her significantly. Only a few had ever seen her in her bodysuit, and even fewer knew the true worth of what she was wearing. ‘It is pretty eye-catching though’. She noticed quite a few people were staring at her. Out in the sun, her bodysuit was less conspicuous, at least in terms of hiding the true value of it.

“Cough, Isabella, come on. Let’s head back to camp.” Clearing her throat, she attracted the attention of Isabella and the children, the latter were already tearing up. “Mister Steve here is my friend, and he’s said that he’ll bring you somewhere special.” She patted the head of the youngest child. “It’ll be a safe place, and an opportunity. Study hard and stay well.”

She started to walk away when the oldest boy, not even seven years old, asked with uncertainty  “Will I be able to get revenge one day if I go?”

“What’s your name, little boy?”

“De, Dean.”

“…Yes, you can if you go there. But hopefully you will also learn to enjoy life. Where there is life, there is hope. She smiled brilliantly. “I’m the best example of that.”

Isabella wondered why Paige had said that.

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