Chapter 18

As dusk fell the next day, Isabella organized her thoughts about what she had learned while setting up her tent close to Zenith’s tent. Paige had only answered a few questions after that, and then the rest of yesterday and today was spent mostly in silence. Nick, Tyler, and Paige had spent much of the time travelling sorting through the papers, looking for any rumors that might be helpful.

Tired of the forest scenery and sore from the travels, Isabella went to brush the mules and asked any questions that came to mind, trying to fill the silence. “Zenith, are party sizes always less than six people? Both of the parties yesterday had six people in them.”

“That’s a really good question, Isabella. Most kids don’t ever ask that since they think having more people is always better but they quickly learn at school why that is wrong. The number one reasons all parties will have less than six members is mainly because of cost,” Zenith said as she put down her supplies next to her campsite. “think about the two teams who fought yesterday at the inn.I’d be surprised if food and supplies cost them less than twenty gold a week for both their teams combined.”

“That doesn’t sound too expensive though. A family of four could survive on a hundred gold a year. Twenty gold per week, per year, would come out to…eighty gold per person?”

“For an adventuring team that is expensive. Think of it like this. With the mana core that I found; they could survive on the rewards for a little over a month if they found someone who needed it fast. If they traded it directly to the Guild, they would at most get about thirty or forty gold instead, which would last them about two weeks or so,” Zenith spoke, shrugging her shoulders while she walked toward the mules to help Isabella.

“But the chance to find a core like that is close to one in a thousand, Isabella. They would need to fulfill missions full time just to keep their party running. And that is not assuming they get hurt, their equipment breaks, etc. I joined maybe three or four parties before I graduated, simply because we ran out of money each time.”

“Isn’t it just for fun?” Isabella asked, noting Zenith’s rueful grin.

“Parties are usually formed in the first year and kept together throughout the entire school term, which is why most parents try to send their kids to the more prestigious schools. Bigger schools, more opportunities. But with more people, you start to get different factions, or multiple groups of parties combining under a single banner. In Appealte, for instance, the different founding houses had separate factions and encouraged people to join them. Tyler, how are school’s run in Alcudia?”

“Same for the most part, although factions are somewhat frowned upon. Some noble children try, but the Queen forbid her children from forming one themselves. Better to let them interact with different types of people instead of just one group’s narrow thinking,” Tyler responded absentmindedly. “Talking about schools, I heard that Alcudia, Leit, and Appealte were trying to form a single school for nobles to interact with each other. Something about promoting unity or extending goodwill. Paige, did you see something about that?”

“Yeah, check page five or so. One of the papers mentioned briefly that the Duchess was trying to get a spot for her son when it opens in a few years. Although they say nobles only, it would almost certainly have commoners as well.”

Isabella tilted her head and stopped brushing for a moment. “Why do you say that?”

“Because little Isabella, if it was just nobles, who would they pick on? Who would they suck up to? The more ambitious ones will certainly try to recruit talented commoners and forge connections with other nobles. Nobles who might be able to help them in the future. I’d wager that most commoners will gladly join a noble’s party simply for the benefits.”

Paige continued. “Not to speak ill of anyone, but even Everest and Albert joined me and Rebecca initially because their families wanted them to get closer to your mom while she was still just a crown princess. In a party, benefits simply matter more than friendships. Although it is always nice to have both. Right Zenith?”

Zenith looked away from Isabella’s hopeful stare. “Your Aunt is right, Isabella. Unless you have good friends, benefits will always matter more than friendships. I knew of some nobles who willingly exploited commoners and then cast them away. Their children would have been taught to know who they can and cannot offend. Commoners are just easy, low-risk prey for them.”

“That’s not right though,” Isabella said angrily, mad at the idea that some parties were formed simply for benefits.

“No, it’s not. The most I could do was not join those parties or hang out with those nobles. But I wasn’t ever allowed to condone it in public. ‘For the good of the family’, as my family always said.”

“What would you have done differently Zenith, if you were able to go back?” Isabella asked awkwardly. ‘It seems like Zenith really didn’t get along with her family or her classmates.’ She thought silently.

Zenith reminisced for a while, eventually saying “If I ever went back, I’d be far warier of nobles, even the ones my family were friends with. I would hide my identity and see how they act toward someone of lesser standing. Not all nobles are bad, but one bad apple can spoil the bunch as they say.”

“Can you see if I am doing this spell right, Teacher Zenith?” Isabella changed topics quickly, hoping Zenith would be happy to see her progress.

“Sure. Which spell are you going to try?” Zenith nodded, her eyes glowing with anticipation.

“I was thinking of practicing [[Healing Light]] again, but Nick and Paige suggested I try [[Shadow Healing]] instead.”

Zenith had taught the girl only a few cantrip spells to test out her abilities in manipulating mana. Although Zenith was more adept at teaching her healing spells, Isabella’s lower affinities toward light and darkness were intriguing to test. She had focused on wind magic in school, but the school she had gone to was known for its research in combination magic. As a result, she was required to have a basic understanding of each affinity and their typical usage. Learning mixed affinity spells were one of the last classes you would take, but she had decided to teach Isabella differently.

Looking over at Nick, Zenith raised a single eyebrow. Nick raised his head when he heard his name and caught the questioning look from Zenith. “I don’t know much about magic, but I do know that while [[Healing Light]] is a good spell to learn, it is also quite noticeable. Paige said there is a spell called [[Shadow Healing]] instead that might be a better option to try.”

“But those are two very different affinities. How would they even correspond to each other?” Zenith questioned Paige.

Paige spoke up to defend her position. “A few classes have certain skills that do almost the exact same thing. That’s where the inspiration came from. In the far east, there is a class called Witch Doctors that can use dark affinities to heal people. Even some battle classes over there can heal using their dark affinity. I think they were called…Ninja’s?” She faltered at the end, not knowing if that was what they were called. “I’m sure that it can work though.”

“We’ll work on both Isabella. The reason I suggested [[Healing Light]] over learning something like [[Healing Touch]] is because we can practice combining similar elements together. Theoretically, it could work…”

“It will work,” Paige said confidently.

“…Could work but it will be a bit harder to practice. Tell me again what your thoughts on what it means to heal, and we can go from there. Remember, your intentions matter for spells,” Zenith stressed heavily, using herself as an example. “For instance, when I think of [[Healing Wind]], I think of a summer breeze caressing me. Think of something that can relate to both darkness and comfort. Maybe even ask Nick about his thoughts, since most of the older forests are perpetually dark. Eventually, though, you must have a concrete idea of what you want the spell to do, and how it will do it. Watch me.”

She grabbed a short dagger from her side and slashed her left hand, suppressing the urge to scream. Closing her eyes, she imagined the wind gathering around her, focusing on the wound. Her breathing slowed, and she said lightly under her breath. “[[Healing Wind]]”. The pain subsided greatly after a short while.

“That was amazing!” Isabella said. Healing spells never ceased to amaze her. She had watched from the side and felt the air move as a breeze gathered around Zenith, miniature whirlwinds of leaves dancing around the clearing. Isabella watched as one whirlwind slowly enveloped Zenith; her wound glowed with a white light as the whirlwind fully encompassed her. Slowly, the light diminished, and the wound was gone. Although that did not stop Zenith from shaking her hand, as though trying to dispel the pain. Touching her now healed left hand with her right, she focused, and a bright white light gathered in her palm. Isabella quickly blinked the stars out from her eyes as the flash of light disappeared.

“You can easily see the difference between the two spells. My combination healing spell was able to encompass the entire clearing, but it only healed the flesh wound and was not able to completely block out the pain. My regular healing spell though, [[Healing Touch]], got rid of the underlying pain, but it was very noticeable. Therefore, I use [[Healing Wind]] on battlefields instead of [[Healing Touch]] and is also was one of the few combinations I am glad to know. Now, stop gawking and grab your staff.”

Urging the young girl to action, Zenith waits for Isabella to come back to show her how to collect mana from the environment once again.

“We’re close to Castle Patel. Should only take a couple more hours or so,” Paige said quietly while taking a break to watch Isabella struggle to gather mana.

“These latest rumors don’t paint a pretty picture for the war effort,” Nick sighed after reading through all the pages.

“I agree, but they are from a civilian’s perspective. There is a lot of hysteria over the defensive lines being lost, and how they have not been retaken yet,” Tyler responded. “The defensive lines were not supposed to be lost this fast. For half of the country to be taken over in less than a year, the pressure on each castle must be immense.”

He looked back at his notes. “It looks like the castles on the frontlines are resisting well though. These rumors indicate that the Jenna, Markus, and Ronald are still supporting Castle Masthe from falling. General William is probably coordinating with them. I think they’ll try and pincer the enemy from behind and reestablish the defensive route between the castles.”

Paige nodded. “I agree. That should pull many of the scouts away from the mausoleum. We should be able to arrive in secret as planned. It looks like the enemy commander has shifted his forces though. Most of the enemies in the north are now heavy infantry, so they should have fewer scouts to begin with anyways.”

“Leit’s suppression army will not be able to as help much then. It’ll mostly be pikemen and archers. A few of the fiefs might bring knights, although you shouldn’t count on it,” Nick said after a moment.

“No Rangers? Pikemen and knights will still useful though, they can at least stop a frontal attack effectively.”

“If there are Rangers, it’ll probably be only a few fully trained Rangers. Ranger Command will probably send more Apprentices or Marksmen.”

“Okay, so punching power might be an issue for them. Tyler, what type of soldiers is William working with? I thought I saw some knights in the reports, but…”

“Mostly warriors and mercenaries. The Guild Hall is putting out lucrative missions though, so it really depends on the area and strategic importance. William is fortifying some parts of the frontlines with just mercenary parties. First Prince Daniel has most of the Knights under his command, and he is currently at Castle Vord supporting the resistance there.”

“Tyler, I’m assuming you have been in contact with Williams. Where is the crown princess now?”

“She’s with him at Castle Lidale. Gale is there as well.”

She sighed. “Well, we missed them, but we’ll see the queen. Do you happen to know where the second princess is?”

“She’s at Castle Patel watching over the queen.”

“Great, I haven’t seen her in a while. Hopefully she’s still a rambunctious child,” Paige’s mood brightened, and while going over her plans tomorrow she thought of a question for Nick.

“Your Ranger emblem should be able to sense if there are others nearby. Can you tell how close they are to us?” Paige asked after thinking for a minute.

“They are nearby. We should meet them at Castle Patel,” Nick was confident the other Rangers were moving at a faster rate than the rest of the army. “I’m planning on contacting them while you visit the Healer’s Hall. Is there anything you need me to ask?”

Tyler thought, then nodded his head in affirmation. “Have them coordinate with General Williams if possible. Williams is already coordinating with King Erickson’s strategists, but it will be good to keep the Ranger’s in the loop as well on our end.”

As Zenith helped Isabella along with her mana control, Paige decided it was time to help as well, “Nick, Tyler. Since Zenith and Isabella are practicing their spells, do you have any questions about your subclass?” Paige said suddenly, “Let me check what skills you’ve gained; focus on just your subclass while I check your status.” Inhaling, she focused her mana and said loudly, “I, Paige Alduit, request the subclass status and skills of my party members in front of me.”

Nick frowned, focusing his mind and thinking only of his subclass. He could subconsciously feel his surroundings get denser as the mana from the forest accumulated in the gathering. He noticed Zenith looking at the surroundings carefully as if trying to figure out how Paige had done it as well. ‘I’ll have to ask how she is doing that,’ he thought to himself quietly. Words floated across his view and he quickly identified what they said.

Ranger Sentinel

[Advanced Close Combat], [Weapon Shift], [Defensive Engagement].

Vanguard Crusader

[Battlefield Sense], [Weapon Break], [Party Damage Distribution], [Offensive Engagement].

Paige arched her eyebrows and let out a low whistle. “You both actually got some of the better skills. Congratulations. And those skills are rather helpful for parties too.”

“I used [Defensive Engagement] and [Weapon Shift] in the bar fight, but nothing really happened.”

Paige disagreed. “Jackson’s team was planning on fighting you one on one. So [Defensive Engagement] worked out great. That skill is meant to force single combat, unless someone else uses a skill that conflicts with it, such as [Offensive Engagement]. And I heard you parried and knocked another out with your bow. Did you strengthen the bow with a different skill?”

Nick recalled his actions at the bar. “…No. I only used those two skills.”

“And don’t try to tell me that you often use your bow like that. We both know that the wood used in bow construction is chosen for its limberness; otherwise, the draw weight would be too heavy, and the effective range would decrease. [Weapon Shift] worked out great too. It changed the properties of your bow so that it stiffer and more like a wooden sword” Paige continued. “At least you didn’t say the names out loud. Those have nothing to do with a typical Archer class.

“Paige, how do you become a Sentinel? Those skills could almost be Vanguard skills,” Tyler remarked after hearing Paige’s analysis.

“Hmm…I think I got that class for patrolling and defending an area against intruders. So, I guess you could say it’s like a defensive warrior? It makes sense that it was paired with Nick’s class. Yours too, to some degree.” Looking at Tyler, she crossed her arms and evaluated his skills as well, “It’s not really a coincidence that you received the Crusader class either. It seems like your subclass is helping round out your capabilities.”

“It wasn’t random?” Tyler was shocked. Although he had never seen someone create a party as Paige had done, it seemed farfetched that even the subclasses were assigned rather than given randomly.

“I had an inkling of what skills each of you would have; so, I chose a class that would help increase the areas in which you were lacking. A Vanguard is good at defense, and our battles show that. The only reason I lost after you became a Vanguard is because of that stupid time rule, not because you actually beat me.” She pouted, indignant at the losses she suffered, “A Crusader though is known for its offensive techniques and their control over a battlefield. The skills you received reflect that.”

Paige intentionally thought out loud to herself, so that Nick and Tyler could follow along with her, “Now, those two classes have more than just three or four skills, but the skills you received are some of the more advanced ones. If you were unlucky, you could have received something as mundane as [Polished Armor] or [Quiet Step], which would have rendered the subclasses basically useless at your level.”

“What about mine then Paige? What’s the difference between my Mage Knight and Isabella’s Princess Knight subclasses?” Zenith had been paying attention to what Paige had been saying.

Paige turned and repeated her instructions, formally looking over the skills each had received.

“It looks like your subclass granted you two defensive skills, [Defensive Cloth] and [Vital Guard], which would help you in close combat situations. I’d recommend testing it though to see how much protection the skill can give your clothing though,” Paige turned to Isabella, “Meanwhile, in Isabella’s case…do you believe in any specific gods? [Divine Right], [Divine Shield], and [Divine Protection] all point to a deity’s blessing instead of class skills.”

“Not that I know of. Are those skills bad? What is a divine level skill, Aunt?” Isabella asked worriedly.

“Well…when we normally use a skill or spell, we have to convert our own mana to materialize the skill or spell into reality. That is why you typically cannot use skills while you are battling someone around the same skill level as you; because it takes time and attention away during a battle.” Paige indicated toward Isabella’s teacher, “For instance, Zenith’s new skill, [Defensive Cloth], uses her mana to increase the density of her clothes, allowing it to better resist slash or piercing attacks. Or [Vital Guard], which uses her mana to protect vulnerable spots on her body, like her heart or head. But she would have to use it at the start of a battle because of how draining it is to her mana.”

Pointing at Isabella, she continued, “A divine level skill doesn’t use your mana to activate the skills, which is a problem since we don’t know what deity gave you a blessing. Maybe [Divine Shield] can only block one or two, or maybe it needs a special requirement to activate the skill. Since it doesn’t use your mana and not knowing how often you can use it, it’s hard to say what the limits are. Whatever the case is, it looks like you can protect yourself against physical and magical attacks at least once.”

“Well, it can’t be that bad to have a god watching over you. Right?”

“I suppose so. I’d rather be Blessed than have a few skills though. Okay, some skills are good to have in a pinch, but the requirements are usually pretty hard to fulfill.” Paige frowned thoughtfully, “Well, maybe you’ll become a Blessed Princess in the future?”

—–

“Okay everyone. Let’s fight.” Paige declared loudly. Everyone stared at her skeptically. After eating dinner, Paige had cleared out a large swath of forest so that it was open and relatively leveled.

“You all haven’t fought a Demon Lord before, so it’s best if you get an idea of how tough one is,” she said exasperatedly. “He’s in a party as well, so we might as well operate under the assumption that he’s getting the full benefits of being a Party Leader. With two Nightwalkers in his group, I’d assume his speed is high, and maybe his stealth too.”

“And how does that translate into fighting you?” Tyler asked, after seeing how serious Paige was acting.

“Not to be rude, but I am probably the only one comparable to the Demon Lord in the entire Western Borderlands. Now stand up, I’ll give you all a few minutes before I start,” she said as she walked toward the far side of the clearing.  

Eying Paige’s back, Zenith remarked quietly, “So… how should we do this? Tyler, you’ve fought Paige the most. Any suggestions for fighting against a Warrior?”

“The problem we have without Paige is defending against close range attacks. We’ll go like this. Isabella and Zenith in the back, Nick in the middle, and I’ll be in front. Zenith, you stick within arms reach of Isabella. I’ll block long range attacks, and if she moves in to engage, then we’ll gather closer together. Nick, fall back and defend the spellcasters and let Zenith use spells to entrap the enemy.”

“What should I do Mister Tyler?” Isabella asked nervously. “I wasn’t really supposed to be fighting.”

“No, but it’s good practice to know what to do in a fight. If this was a real fight and you didn’t have a plan, you’d be dragging our team down. Since you were practicing your spells earlier, try and focus on healing during a battle. It’ll be harder since we will be moving, so just focus on healing one person at a time.” Standing up, Tyler grabbed his trusty tower shield and planted it firmly in the ground. The others gathered behind Tyler, getting ready for the battle.

“Ready?” Paige visibly relaxed, her sword resting idly on her shoulder. She stood twenty meters away, settling into an attacking stance; her left leg slightly bent, and her upper body leaned forward.

“Ready. Stop at first blood?”

“Sure, I’ll stop if you can wound me, and I’ll stop if I wound all of you.”

“Here I come then,” Paige took a step forward and disappeared. An impact jolted him from the side and a sharp pain worked its way across his cheek. “One.”

‘Skills!’ He quickly realized what had happened and swung his tower shield horizontally. A hand grabbed the shield, stopping it in place. “Done.” He stared blankly at her, then swung his head to look at the rest of his team. A small cut could be seen on each of their cheeks.

“You never said to use skills, Paige! I thought we were going to do a normal battle.”

Paige looked askance at Tyler, “That is how fast the Demon Lord can go. Besides, who said I used a skill?”

“Don’t try to play dumb, you…you were taking easy on me all these years, weren’t you?”

“No, I did try my best, at the level I was claiming to be. You should be glad at that; not many can do force me into a stalemate. But yes, under the assumption that I am not limited by hiding my abilities, your abilities are lacking. This is about the level of most Imperial Scions, not to mention a Demon Lord. No offense, but there IS a reason why Heroes are hard to kill. Reflexes, strength, dexterity, charisma; whatever you name, Heroes have it in spades.”

“If we must fight the Demon Lord, I’ll be blocking him. Your roles would be to block his party members while we retreat. If we can retreat with the heroic weapon, great. But our goal is to verify and retreat, alive. We’ll let the Imperial Family deal with getting the weapon back if we cannot.”

Paige appeared back in her spot at the other end of the clearing. “This time use your skills and block. I’ll tone my speed down a tad, maybe to the level of his party.”

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