Chapter 15

As they waited for Isabella to fetch Paige, Nick leaned toward Tyler while glancing at the group behind him. “They have a problem with Paige? What did she do to them?” He wasn’t worried so much as annoyed. Although he had only known her for over a week, her whole reputation was a conundrum. On one hand, she was friends with the current royal family and the local guild master, but on the other, it seemed like she had a notorious reputation among mercenaries and adventurers.

Tyler waited for the waitress to pass by and refill their drinks before he answered the question. “She doesn’t do well in parties. Or rather, she usually refuses to even join parties. When she was traveling with Queen Rebecca, Paige did not join them as a party member. She mainly just tagged along and watched them do requests. The Guild and the former Queen was upset with her for the longest time because it was hard to evaluate the crown princess’s party guild rank.”

“So why do they all hate her then?”

“Because she is one of the rank assessors for the guild in Alcudia. They have to either defeat her or get her approval before they are allowed a rank above one hundred fifty, which is why there is a shortage of people who can do fulfill Regulation Six.”

That got Zenith and Nick’s attention. “That’s a requirement here?”

“The Royal Family petitioned the Guild Hall. Most people believe that Paige had actually requested it.”

“Did she?” Zenith asked quietly, her words slurring a bit. “I got my guild rank from fighting monsters and because of my Wind Magi class. I don’t think I would’ve been able to beat Paige, even on my best days.”

Tyler noticed that Zenith was starting to slow down from her drink. He glanced at the drink in his hand. ‘Can she not handle alcohol?’ Clearing his throat, he continued. “No, Queen Rebecca made that a rule. She may have a lot of secrets, but Paige has always been a good judge of character. The Queen hoped that it would increase the quality of adventurers in Alcudia, and actively sought out anyone who Paige approved of. She was hoping it would strengthen their bonds to the country.” Tyler shrugged nonchalantly. “But it worked. Paige had only approved maybe twenty or so people ever since the Queen was coronated sixty years ago. In fact, many of the national heroes currently at the frontlines are the ones she approved.”

“Why did it work?” Zenith slightly wondered. She knew that Appealte had over a thousand guild affiliated high rankers. In fact, she had originally thought that the Guild Regulation Six would not affect her when she signed the pact with the Guild; not with so many other people available to be chosen from. That was the reason she tried to leave when Paige had first brought it up in the conference room.

“A few reasons actually. She appealed to their sense of justice, but she also didn’t discriminate against a person’s bloodline. Full blood demons and halves had as much of a chance at passing as a full-blooded human. So long as she thought they would protect the country, she would almost always approve of them. Hence the royal family rumor.”

The air freshened up instantly. “One hour’s up. I’ll need to rest for another two hours Mister Tyler.” Zenith responded carefully, knowing that someone was bound to be listening in the now crowded inn. ‘I need a break too. That drink is too strong.’ She had ordered the same spirits that Tyler and Nick chose and had noticed a bit too late that the drink was slightly stronger than she was used to. ‘Maybe I’ll order a fruit juice like Isabella next time.’ She didn’t want to be treated like a child, and she had almost come to blows against the waitress because had not given her the drink initially.

“She can hold her mana for quite a long time. Your ward is pretty good for an Apprentice Mage. Although I still don’t think she will be able to do it again tonight though. Here’s your winnings.” Tyler handed Nick five gold coins to complete the fake bet. Although it wouldn’t stop anyone from spying on them, having a valid reason for a Mage to use a warding skill was necessary when staying in a guild affiliated inn.

“Give her two hours and I’ll bet she can keep it up again, even though she is starting to get drunk,” Nick said, thinking the same thing as Tyler. He went ahead and got the waitress attention, replacing her drink with a fruit juice instead.

“The food better be ready.” A familiar voice called from the top of the stairs.

As Paige stepped down the stairs, he noticed that she had changed her outfit to something more appropriate for a night in the city. Her dark bodysuit and leather armor were gone; in its place was a simple faded blouse and brown skirt. A single yellow bow was holding her light brown hair in a small ponytail. Her confident attitude and small smile had captured the crowd’s attention. Not to mention she was beautiful.

‘Oh hell.’ Tyler closed his head as the bar quieted down suddenly and everyone’s eyes were drawn to Paige. He had just remembered from long, repressed memories, that Paige was notorious for another reason; she had a reputation of beating people unconscious whenever she stayed in inns. Queen Rebecca had made sure that Paige had a full-time residence in the royal capital, but he had forgotten over time that Paige and Rebecca were constantly kicked from inn’s when they were traveling because Paige did not know moderation when she was drunk.

Isabella hid behind Paige as she walked toward the table. He noticed a group of people at the bar were staring daggers at Paige.

“Good good, proper inn food. Just what travelers like us need.” Paige had not noticed or had not really cared about the looks the people around her were shooting at her. She waved at the waitress and asked loudly over the returning din of sounds. “A cup of ale please; I’m parched!” Her face had an easy smile, she continued, speaking over the inn “And a cup of juice for my little friend here!” She had already noticed Tyler and the group in the corner. “Send it to that table over there.”

Walking quickly, Paige and Isabella sat down next to Zenith, who was nursing her new juice in her hands. “It smells heavenly. Whoever chose this spot had good tastes.” Chuckling at her own joke, she sat down just as the waitress came to bring her and Isabella’s drinks. “Thanks Maggie. You’re a lifesaver.”

“Aunt, you know the waitress?” Isabella asked confusedly. All Paige had done when she arrived was sleep.

“Yup. Right Mags? How’s my new favorite waitress doing?” Paige looked Maggie up and down, noting that she had grown since the last time she had seen her. She hadn’t seen her in a few years, but her sense of style was still a little odd though, if her mismatched clothes were any indicator. Her dark brown hair was tied up in a ponytail, but she had a pencil behind one ear and a chef’s hat sitting on top of her head. She was wearing a pale, checkered blue dress that cinched at her waist and a white scarf around her shoulders, but she was also wearing a slightly stained apron and no shoes. It looked like she was trying to balance too many jobs at one time.

“Great actually. Are you going to ruin another inn today? I haven’t forgotten the last time you came to town.”

“Haha, no no. You know I never start the fights.”

Both shared a look and laughed. “I was surprised your new party members didn’t know of your reputation as an inn wrecker. They came right up and asked to reserve a spot for you.” She pointed at Nick and told Paige with a smile.

“Huh? What do you mean?” Nick asked warily. He had noticed the innkeepers were wary the minute he brought Paige’s name up, but he didn’t know why.

“She’s ruined many an inn across the nation,” Maggie said cheerfully. “Among innkeepers, Paige has an informal nickname. ‘Goddess of Remodeling.’ Only innkeepers would know that though.”

They stared at Paige, who was hiding a small smile behind her cup. “It’s really not my fault. And let’s be fair Maggie, I do give large tips to pay for the damages. And I’ll tip your dad great tonight by the looks of it. Was that ‘Slayer of Demons’ and ‘Light Bringers’ parties I saw at the bar?” She nodded her head back toward the bar. “I was wondering who stole the high-grade rooms from me.”

“This is actually my inn now. I’m officially an Apprentice Innkeeper, but I still feel more comfortable doing my job as a waitress or a cook. That was them by the way, I remember signing them in. Pretty sure they are still mad at you for what you did last time.” She flashed a youthful smile toward Paige. She was proud of her class advancement since it was rare to be an Apprentice Innkeeper just out of school age, but she sighed exasperatedly. “And for the record, they didn’t steal it, Paige. You know it is first come, first serve on the good rooms.”

“Fine, I’ll grudgingly believe you. Can I get the standard items from you? And dinner for everyone as well.” Paige asked perfunctorily. She had noticed that there were only drinks and snacks on the table, so they must have waited for her to come down.

The waitress Maggie opened the kitchen door and asked the cook to bring some food over soon. After she was done talking with the chef, Paige tossed a mana core onto the magic circle. The runes around the circle briefly lit up and thin fog appeared around the table. The conversations around them slowly died away and their surroundings shimmered slightly, as though a glass wall had been placed between them and the rest of the room.

“I already compiled it for you when I heard you wanted to stay here.” Maggie pulled out a few stacks of paper from within her apron and slipped it to Paige. “These are the rumors and views of the residents for the last six months. I’ve dated them oldest to newest for you.” Maggie quickly plucked the stone from the circle and went to grab their food from the kitchen for them. The din of conversations slowly came back.

Isabella and Zenith were shocked. Nick had told them he had chosen an inn with a bar so that they could listen quietly to the gossip. She noticed their looks of surprise and added quietly. “I know a few innkeepers across the country who I pay to gather reliable information. In fact, I’m pretty sure a few of the innkeepers I use also pass the information along to the royal spies.” She turned to Nick. “You really thought Tyler or I wouldn’t have a reliable way to gather information besides the guild?”

Nick grunted. “It’s more reliable to listen to conversations in person and make your own judgment calls. Besides, I usually operate by myself and in secrecy too. Most people do not like strangers.”

Paige gave a small nod. “I usually cause a ruckus so that I have a reason to pay the innkeeper.”

“Is that why you were kicked out of inns so often during your little adventures?” Tyler asked questioningly. Paige knew that the Royal Family paid the innkeepers handsomely as well to keep Rebecca’s reputation intact.” That had been a sore point between the former Queen and Paige; her daughter being kicked out of inns had been a rumor going around the noble circles at the time, but no innkeeper ever verified the rumors.

“Yeah. But to be fair, Rebecca, Gale, and Albert all had fun; and we won every bar fight. They enjoyed those days more than you’d think Tyler. Gave them perspective and confidence all at the same time.” Paige smiled at those fleeting memories.

Maggie stepped out of the kitchen and briskly set the plates of food down for them before refilling their drinks. As they all started eating, Paige spoke quietly. “So, I’ve decided that we will go to Castle Patel and head west from there. I know it’s not following the plan, but we should reach the mausoleum around the same day regardless of the path we choose. Go ahead and tell William that we are going a separate route.”

Tyler stopped and put his knife and fork down. “Okay. What will we do for supplies? We’ll have to stop using the guild checkpoints if we choose to go this route.”

Paige nodded. “Yeah but depending on how fast we move we can be there in as little as two weeks. I’m thinking we travel to Castle Patel, stay a day, and head over to Mount Terst. That’ll be about two or three weeks there, and then a week or so to get back to the Castle Lidale or Patel.”

“I think that is very conservative Paige. I would almost double it since we need to be stealthy. There is a high chance that the Demon Lord will be chasing after us; if they have a way to track the heroic weapon.” Nick said. “Alone, that would be feasible. In a group like ours, not so much.”

Paige shrugged. “We really have no other choice. If they do have a way to track the weapon, then it will still be better to head east from the mountain toward Castle Patel instead of trying to fight through the demon army to get back to Castle Lidale. Both have risks, but I believe this one is less risky. Besides, there’s something I need to pick up from around Castle Patel anyways.”

“Hmm? What is so important that we need to go that way instead of following the plan?”

Paige hesitated, and leaned forward, putting a mana stone back into the circle. She waited for it to activate before speaking again. “You may have noticed that I’m not carrying any other warrior equipment. That was intentional.”

“You intentionally did that?” Tyler asked. He thought it was weird that Paige had just that equipment on her.

Paige nodded and continued speaking. “I have a couple of stashes hidden away across the continent. If I am killed, my killers would at least be denied my equipment. I wasn’t lying when I said I carried only subpar equipment. My equipment stashes are far more valuable.”

“Anything that could be traced back to me I kept hidden; others are out in plain sight.” She glanced at Zenith and Nick. “A few trial grounds are actually locations where my equipment has been found. The Air Bow and Magi’s Scepter, for instance, are mine.”

They sucked in a cold breath. Zenith asked shakily, “Those are yours?”

“Yeah, I deposited different class equipment in different countries. Alcudia has many of my warrior equipment; Leit my archer equipment; Appealte my elemental mage equipment, etc. Even smaller countries such as the Pruite Monarchy has specialized equipment. The stashes were meant to encourage distinct classes in different regions. It didn’t necessarily work here in Alcudia, but other countries have class specialties. Appealte has a large majority of Mages for instance, in part because the trial grounds have mostly mage equipment. And before everyone asks, I didn’t create the trial grounds or the dungeons. I think the high concentration of mana in the equipment altered the land around it.”

“Who are you Paige.” Nick asked quietly, his eyes hard. “No one can have that much time or equipment on their hands naturally. You got them from somewhere or someone, and you put them there for a reason.”

“That’s personal.” Paige said harshly in response. “And I did do it for a few reasons. All you need to know is that none of the items are stolen.”

“Give me one good reason for doing it Paige. Or I’ll quit the party right now.” Nick whispered harshly back to her. “You’re hiding too many secrets from us.” Zenith and Tyler said nothing, quietly watching Paige. Zenith had remembered that Isabella thought Paige was potentially from the Imperial Family, which could explain her situation.

Paige visibly hesitated. “…Heroes. One of the reasons is that it was meant to foster class specific Heroes.”

Isabella asked quietly. “But Aunt, I thought Heroes could only be born from a Princess?”

“You’re mostly right Isabella. That is why the Imperial family keeps a strict watch for Princesses. But there are some …unusual ways to gain the Hero Class as well. Fate, alignment of the stars, the god’s sneezing wrong; there are many ways, but often a Hero is born. The Imperial Family prioritizes Warrior Battle Classes; mainly since Warrior Heroes tend to live a lot longer than other types. A Hero with an Archer or a Mage Class could potentially live for five to seven hundred years naturally; a Warrior even longer.”

She looked at each of them gravely. “But humanity has more enemies than friends. If you ever get to my level, I’ll happily share what I know. But until then this is all you need to know.” She pushed the mana stone out from the circle, signaling that was all she was going to say about that matter. Her mood quickly soured as she looked squarely at Nick. “Anything else you want to ask?”

Nick noticed her mood, but eventually asked. “Is the mausoleum one too?”

“No. That mausoleum is old. I’m pretty sure it has been here long before people settled here. Even I haven’t explored it fully.” Paige said briskly.

By now, all of them sitting at the table had realized Paige was in a terrible mood. Her face and body language didn’t show it, but they could tell by the way she was sitting perfectly still. They all hesitated to say something to break the tension building up. Even Isabella wasn’t sure what to say to her Aunt.

“Well well, look who it is. A woman and a coward. The Royal Family isn’t here to protect you today.” A voice spoke from behind Paige,

Zenith, who had started to drink her juice, sprayed it out onto the table and onto Tyler. “Am I about to witness a murder?” She said a bit too loudly.

“Am I about to witness a murder?” A young girl’s voice rang out in the inn.

The inn quieted down at that statement and people started looking over at their little corner of the inn. Zenith shrunk in her seat, blushing furiously.

Paige blinked at the sight, her mood improving slightly. Not a lot, but just enough not to kill the owner of the voice outright. “You’d best watch what you say Jackson. The Guild isn’t here to stop me from maiming you. Jayden, you’d best control Jackson and his dogs before he says something else he shouldn’t.”

She turned her head slightly and looked indifferently to the bar, singling out two people.

“What did you say!” A man wearing heavy armor smashed his cup into the bar, his steel grieves splintering the polished wood bar. A few others at the bar stared daggers at Paige, taking offence at her remark; their hands moving to rest on their sheathed daggers.

“Jackson, watch what you say. This is a guild affiliated inn.” Jayden winced when he noticed the waitress staring, alternating her gaze between Jackson, the splintered wood, and broken tankard. “Paige, don’t mind Jackson, he’s a bit drunk.” He started wiping the front of his mage robe before they became stained with the spilled ale from Jackson’s broken cup. His wife Ava were on speaking terms with Paige, so even though he did not like her, he recognized the indifference in her eyes and realized Paige was in a terrible mood. She was well known for being easy to talk to and had many friends; as was evident by her sitting next to an Apprentice Mage and Archer, the two young girls shrinking in their seats. Coughing to ease the tension in the air, he tried to explain to Paige lightly. “He’s still a bit mad from the evaluation and the report.”

“He should be. What type of Vanguard Warrior tries to attack an enemy directly instead of waiting for an opportunity? And he even got his whole party to follow his example. At least you were there to cover for his party, but even that wouldn’t save you in a real battle.”

The party known as ‘Light of Dawn’ flushed slightly at the provocation, while the ‘Demon Slayers’ party all stood up in indignation. The people in the inn quickly realized this might be a little too dangerous for them, even if they were all adventurers. Some of the younger people quickly exited the inn, while the other patrons watched with interest; wholly confident they could defend themselves in a bar fight.

“It was a sound strategy for fighting against a single opponent! Heavy armored individuals in front to delay the enemy, and long-range mages stay far away from combat and attempt to snipe the target!” Jackson said vehemently. “It was pure luck that you dodged all of our attacks!” He thought back to the battle that ruined his team’s reputation a few years ago.

Jackson had wanted to wipe that small smile Paige had on her face as soon as they arrived at the guild that day to undergo their evaluation assessment to a higher guild rank. His party, the ‘Demon Slayers’ and the ‘Light of Dawn’ party had travelled together across a few countries and had decided to undergo the evaluation together in Alcudia instead of going back to their Appealte. They had high hopes to be the first parties in a long time to apply for a higher guild rank in Alcudia. They were surprised however when the Guild master told them they had to beat Paige in combat in order to advance their class rank. Jayden had tried unsuccessfully to overturn that requirement, since their parties were registered in Appealte. But the Guild master denied them since they were trying to take it in Alcudia.

Eventually, Jackson tired of the argument and agreed, since Paige had a well-known reputation for being a Warrior that had more luck than skill. Even her high-class rank of Warrior was thought to be attributed more to lady luck protecting her than her skill, and her high guild rank due to her looks and friends rather than her achievements.

Unfortunately for the two teams, Paige had destroyed them within a few minutes; despite facing twelve people at once. Jackson nursed a deep hatred of Paige ever since, especially when she announced the combat report afterword to every Guild Hall across the country. The jobs the guild had allowed them to take drastically reduced to almost nothing, and they had to work hard to restore their damaged reputation as combat worthy fighters.

“Your just lucky that the Queen is your friend! Let’s see what you can do here once she is dead!” Jackson spouted vehemently.

“He didn’t mean that Paige, he’s really drunk.” Jayden said loudly, trying to stop Jackson from saying more. Paige stood up slowly, her face deadpan. Tyler grabbed Paige’s arm and Zenith and Isabella grabbed Paige’s other arm.

“The food is on the house! Everyone please leave!” Maggie suddenly screamed. She started shoving people outside the younger bystanders out. She started panicking as the older patrons opted to wait and watch a show. “This is now a reserved area. Only those ranked a hundred twenty and higher can stay. Those who disobey will face official Guild sanctions.” The older patrons hesitated but decided to leave as well.

Maggie turned and walked slowly until she stood in front of Paige. “They’ll get punished for saying that. I swear that on my inn.” Paige gaze bore right through her, still focusing only on the struggling Jackson; Jayden and his team were trying to diffuse the situation on their end as well. “Please Paige, for me?” She said quietly.

Paige shifted her gaze down to the young adult in front of her. She wasn’t the tiny child anymore who loved to play jokes on her guests. No, now she was mostly grown up. Her face was a mixture of blind confidence and belief, but her apron was trembling slightly. ‘A few more years and she’ll look just like her grandmother all those years ago.’ She closed her eyes and exhaled softly, letting go of her anger. “For you Maggie.”

She flashed a weak smile. “Thank you. Come with me to my room. We can talk over there.” Maggie quickly pulled Paige into the kitchen toward the back rooms, hoping to stop Paige from doing something terrible. Isabella quickly followed the two of them as they went through the kitchen door.

Jackson’s face grew furious at the sight of Paige leaving. “Now you wait here you…” As he stepped toward the kitchen door, an arrow embedded itself deeply into the side of the bar, scarring his plate armor.

“Don’t move.” A gruff voice sounded out.

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