Chapter 20

“I’m heading out,” Nick said quietly to the party after they had passed the gated checkpoint leading into city surrounding Castle Patel. Since the Royal Guards had taken over the duty of the local militia, Tyler and Paige were able to use their status to bypass the usual procedures.

Paige nodded in affirmation, “We will be at the Healer’s Hall. I think we’ll stay there the night. You are welcome to come as well if you want. Just head that way when you are done.” Nick watched as Paige waved goodbye, practically dragging Zenith and Isabella with her toward the castle.

“Take this badge with you. The Royal Guards around the castle will notify us and we’ll come and get you.” Tyler handed over a simple copper badge, one stamped with the Alcudian national flag on one side and the Merk Family coat of arms on the other.

“Thanks.” Drawing his hood, Nick walked away from the castle and headed toward the slums located in the easternmost portion of the city. Since the castle was part of the Alcudian defensive line, stricter measures had been put in place to safeguard the city; thus the slums were not the typical slums you’d expect to see in a smaller town. The houses were not rundown and in disrepair, but rather were rather modest in size and material compared to the rest of the city.

Holding his Ranger pendant hidden in his hand, he walked on the cobblestone paths, the pendent heating up as he neared his fellow Rangers. Stopping at the intersections to see which way to go, he followed his pendant to a tavern that was discreetly hidden in the cellars of an old bookshop.

Stopping to read a simple sign that pointed toward the cellar door, his eye twitched when he read the sign. “The Parched Tavern. A good book and good wine will water your soul and mind. To enter, you must state the last book you’ve read (and finished),” the sign stated, heavily underscoring the last part of the sentence.

“They couldn’t pick a normal tavern?” Making sure this was his final destination, he walked around the building, cursing quietly when his pendant had confirmed that the other Rangers were indeed in the bookshop cellar. Walking up to the door, tested it lightly to see if it would open. Noting that the door was locked, he rapped the door with his knuckles and said loudly. “An Archer and his Bride.” He chose at random a book his wife had been reading the last time he had visited home.

“A classic fairy tale. Aren’t you a little old for a book like that?” A voice called out. Low chuckles drifted out from beyond the door.

“I have a young daughter. Unlock the damn door.”

“Hehe, fine. You’ll find a better book than that here. Welcome to my tavern.” From behind the door, a man unbolted the lock and gestured behind him, “Party or individual?”

“Party.” Stepping in, he scanned the room. Oddly enough, there were more people in here than he’d thought there would be, judging by the location of the tavern. The room was lit by torches resting in the pockets of the cobblestone wall, safely away from the wooden beams holding the bookshop and the many flammable materials above. Tables were dotted around the cellar, with lounge chairs in the circle. Dozens of short bookshelves isolated the tables, almost creating individual rooms.

“There’s a group like you over in the far corner; reserved the entire back portion for themselves. Here’s a ward stone,” Nick turned as the man handed him a stone. “It’s not mine. I was paid to hand it to someone like you and to keep quiet. With this, my business is done. If you want wine, you have to come to the bar.” The owner of the tavern turned and headed for the bar, grabbing a book to read on the way over.

Fiddling with the stone in his hand, Nick confirmed that it was indeed a standard issue Ranger gear and walked over to the back corner of the cellar. “The stone is too nice and polished.” As he walked, he took stock of the people he passed and noticed each of them were Apprentice Rangers in training. “Amateurs,” he sighed, noticing that every eye was on him, and some had even stood up as he headed toward the active ward. “Who the hell trained these apprentices?” Brushing his hand across his cloak, his Ranger pendant glowed with a fresh light. “Out of my way.”

Eyes wide open, the apprentices in front of him quickly sat down and looked away. Stopping at a line of symbols on the ground, Nick confirmed that the symbols etched onto the stone in his hand was identical to the one on the ground. The consequences for stepping over an active ward without protection was not something he wanted to deal with this morning. Nodding his head, he held the stone in front of him and walked through, the room going out of focus as mana in the air condensed to form an opaque wall.

Walking completely through it, the room got noticeably brighter and a few people were conversing quietly at the many scattered tables. He strode straight to the middle table where four people were playing cards and slapped the stone on the table, a metallic clunking sound issuing out. “Those apprentices out there are terrible. They wouldn’t be able to hide their intentions from a child.”

“How are you, Rick? Was the traveling fun, Rick? Why didn’t you bring my apprentices, Rick? It’s good to see you are in good health, Nicholas,” an exasperated voice sounded out. Looking at his cards in disgust, he threw them on the table and looked at Nick. “You need to work on your pleasantries. Your nothing but business.” Rick stood up, holding his hand out for Nick. “Welcome back brother in arms.”

Nick chuckled, shaking Rick’s extended hand “The apprentices really could use some work, Rick.”

Sighing, Rick nodded as well. “We sent out a few groups of Rangers, and I drew the short end of the stick and got stuck babysitting them. But a majority of them aren’t mine,” he said as he nodded over to the Ranger on his left, “talk to this guy about their training.”

The Ranger folded his cards with a sigh, “I fold as well. Nicholas, what a sight for sore eyes. It’s been years since I’ve seen you last.” A youthful voice sounded out as the Ranger stood up to greet Nick.

“Ranger Dave, I haven’t seen you since you became a full Ranger. Are you still at Terril Fief?” Nick was actually glad to meet Dave, as he was one of the original apprentices he had trained. A sense of pride welled up in him, knowing that his efforts to train the young man was worth it in the end.

“Nope, I’m actually at Reten Fief now. I was assigned there to help Ranger Lorney get rid of a band of bandits, but they were cleaned up before we got there. Lorney retired soon after, so now I’m in charge of the area. I’m still trying to track down any leads for that actually when I’m not training apprentices, that is.”

“Don’t bother with it. I already know who did it, and there is no way we can press charges against her,” Nick replied back.

“Her? Someone all of us knows perhaps? I fold, how do you have such a good poker face?” The voice in front of him rumbled lowly. Turning around, an older, heavyset man turned in his seat and faced Nick. “Welcome back Nick.”

Nick nodded to the man, “Jerril. I didn’t expect to see you here. The queen’s friend, Paige Alduit, evidently cleaned up the area when she passed through. Unless we want to force a diplomatic issue, it’s not a good time to confront her about it; not with the war going on.”

“Ah, the supposed “Warrior of Luck and Good Chances”. How was she able to get past the borders? Reten Fief is pretty far from the Alcudian border.” The last man said with a zealous voice. “Was it on the orders of the Alcudian Royal Family?” The speaker lifted his hood and revealed his face, his amber eyes glowing with an ardent light.

“Commander Austin. She’s a fully licensed Adventurer aligned with the Guild Hall. My guess is she got into the country that way and left the same way.” Although he said that, he now knew that Paige would have no trouble evading seasoned Rangers and would have even less trouble with regular border guards.

“I knew having a centralized Guild Hall would be a terrible decision. Allowing people free access to every fief is a danger,” Austin’s voice echoed in the room, drawing stares from the other tables.

“Yes, but so is not having mercenaries available to offset our workload. We’ll petition the Guild Hall and address this issue with Ranger Command.” Nick said confidently.

Austin eyed him suspiciously. “Your last communications was noticeably concise. Care to tell us in greater detail about these demon infiltrators over a game of cards? Stakes are in gold.”

“Sure commander, I’ll be happy to take some gold off your hands.” Nick knew his poker face was just as good as his immediate superior. “You can also tell me the latest news as well.” Although he had mentioned to Paige and Tyler that it would mostly be apprentices heading over, the sight of two of his peers and one commanding officer shook him. Even more when there were still four tables occupied with other Rangers.

He quickly informed them off the battle and the aftermath.“Sixteen Rangers. That is quite a lot for a suppression army.” Nick said somewhat politely, knowing full well he might not get an answer if he asked later.

“Forty Rangers. One hundred Apprentices. That’s how many there are.” Austin supplied briefly while looking at his cards. “Half of Ranger Command is here to help out. It’s not our policy to get involved in other nation’s affairs, as God knows we have our own problems to deal with. But we are determined to stop the war from getting anywhere close to our borders. Another quarter will be patrolling the borders, now that we know there could be demon infiltrators as well.”

“Was it really that bad, Nick? Even you couldn’t tell something was off with the officers?” Jerril spoke, already throwing his cards down. “Blood sacrifices is a nasty business.”

“It was bad. It makes our illegal cults look civil. The demon infiltrators knew enough to confuse even appointed officers. Only their armor gave them away. I think we need to halt all soldiers from entering the borders, Commander Austin.”

Austin glared at his cards. “Agreed. This is bad for humanity overall. Ranger Command has told the Alcudian Queen that allowing demons and halves to become citizens would be a mistake, and here we are now.” The rest of the Rangers were quiet Nick answered each of their questions, specifically the unknown symbols and Paige’s combat level. Although he could not outright answer some of the problems, they all had enough experience to know something was off about Paige.

“You said she indicated her battle plans to you?”

“Party Secret.”

“Could she interpret Ranger commands?”

“Party Secret.”

“Umm, why are you repeating yourself, Nicholas?” Dave asked after the twentieth time Nick had said that.

“I swore an oath. I can’t divulge any secrets about the members of the party.” So long as he said nothing or tried to keep it a secret, it seemed like the [Oath of Silence] would not stop him from saying ‘Party Secret’.

“How strong is she, Nicholas. Stronger than the Grand Commander?” Austin pressed harder.

A sharp tug in his core told him he was headed into dangerous territory. “Stop asking Austin.” Paige had said any conversations concerning secrets would be forgotten, but it seemed that she had left out the part about questions impacting a person’s mana core. “I can’t even hint or guide this question, even if I wanted to. Formal Party rules”

“You actually joined a formal party? What were you thinking, doing something like that? There is a reason Ranger Command forbids forming formal parties. What did you lose when you joined?”

Nick hesitated, testing the limits of what he could say. The pain decreased as he found a suitable response. “Guild Regulation Six. I can’t say anything.”

Austin drew in a sharp breath. “Fine. We’ll stop asking. But you better have a good response after the mission is done.”

Dave whistled softly, “How come they didn’t ask anyone else to help afterward? Is there a special rule I don’t know about?”

“It’s just a reconnaissance mission. No point in tipping off the target with multiple groups of people.” Nick responded briskly.

“Commander, I am requesting time off after my current mission. I have been away from home far too long now.” Nick had hesitated to ask the entire night, but eventually, he steeled his mind and asked away.

Austin hesitated. “How about a few more missions Nick? We desperately need your help pacifying the northwest region. Your the only other commander that can navigate the passages between the highland marshes and the tidal banks.”

Nick’s eyes hardened and his brows furrowed. ‘What is making the commander hesitate? That is exactly the opposite direction of my hometown.’ He grunted in acknowledgment and didn’t press the issue with Austin. Glancing at the rest of the tables, he realized that no one else had really spoken to him.

Instead of asking a question, he singled out the one person he knew he could pressure. Nick stared at Ranger Dave until he broke out in a sweat.

“Umm, what do you need, uh, sir?”

“What is everyone hiding?”

“It can wait until you get back Nick,” Dave said, trying to dodge the question.

“No. It can’t. What news is so bad that everyone is hesitating to tell me?”

Dave hesitated but quietly told Nick the bad news. “There was an incident, Nick. Anna and Claire are dead.”

“Dead?” Nick’s head spun. “No, that’s not possible.” Grabbing Dave roughly, he growled, “How? When?”

“It’s not just them Nick. The whole village was massacred Even the Rangers protecting your family died.” Commander Austin said quietly from behind Nick. “Over here.” Breaking a ward stone on the ground, a magic circle appeared and separated Austin and Nick from the rest of the Rangers.

“There’s a traitor in the organization Nick. Six families have already been killed in unusual circumstances.” Austin said gravely.

“Who else?” Nick said after a moment, his voice unnaturally steady.

“Mine and a few of the others. There are no patterns to who is chosen that we can establish, and no solid leads either. The only clue we know is that they are targeting our families. Hence, a traitor,” his voice had a rough edge to it as he continued, “I want revenge as much as the others, but I will not outright state there is a traitor in our organization.”

“One is a coincidence, four is a pattern Austin. We both know that. How did my family die?”

“A battle, and a hard one at that. Your wife went down hard Nick. No bodies were left intact. My family died the same way. Whoever did it left no witnesses either.”

“And my child?” Nick stared directly at Austin. “What happened to my child?”

“…The butler and nursemaid were found dead outside the village. Your child was with them. They had enough time to escape the village, but no farther than that.”

Austin continued, “And before you ask, from what we can gather the Rangers were the first to die. Rangers, then those with classes, and finally commoners. That is why I was interested in your encounter with the demons. If they are involved…”

“…then we have a major issue on our hands.”

“We need to find the traitor, especially before anyone else dies. The only new link we have is the demons, so it is important to figure out how they are being singled out.”

“…was there any weird symbols in the area? And no one else survived? Not a single person?”

“No. Ranger Command sent all of the closest Rangers to each scene. None of them saw a living soul within at least twenty miles of the attacks. Whoever did this was thorough in their attack. The most we could…what is she doing here?” Austin stopped talking, looking over at the tavern’s entrance.

Nick turned around and groaned quietly, his headache now worsening. He watched as Paige walked down the steps, looking idly at the surroundings. She had donned only her leather armor and her buckler shield, her hair braided around her head. ‘At least she is not in her bodysuit,’ he thought to himself. ‘Although she is showing off way too much skin.’ Paige reached into her pocket and threw a badge at the barkeep before he stood all the way up, giving him a pointed look while talking slowly, “Tavern inspection. By the order of the queen.”

“This is a private bar! You can’t just walk in here, there are established rules you have to go through,” he said quickly, trying to stall Paige from walking fully into the room. Nick watched as the Apprentices started to stand up, the hands going toward their bows under the table.

“Are they in danger Nick?” Austin broke the ward circle he had created around himself and Nick and motioned for the other Rangers to get ready.

“No, they aren’t in any danger. They’ll have bruised egos though.” He said quietly, sitting down on the chair Austin had been sitting in.

He watched as Paige stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked around the room. “There are three things wrong with this picture.” He saw as she seemingly locked eyes with him and headed directly toward him. “First off, there are over a hundred young men in here and not a single woman. Odd for a tavern this size. Second, all of you are wearing the same style of clothing and have the same weapons.” As she passed, she gave a provocative look at some of the older apprentices, “At least try to blend in a bit. Peh, Ranger standards must have gone down a notch.”

“Who are you calling a Ranger miss? We’re honest woodsmen.” One of the younger apprentices spoke up, looking toward the others for encouragement. A choral of voices chimed in as well. “Besides, the entrance sign clearly stated no women allowed.”

‘Don’t try to negotiate with someone clearly hostile and knowledgeable. Just deny everything or else you’ll only make things worse. That’s practically the first rule of Ranger Code if you have been identified.’ He closed his eyes, already seeing how this would play out.

Paige’s face took on a hurt expression, as she walked over toward the apprentice, her eyes flickering between the back of the room and the apprentice. “Oh no, the rules will be broken. What will become of me, a lone girl in a tavern; clearly outmatched and outnumbered? Are you going to hurt me, young man?” As the apprentice started to stutter and looked toward his friends for help, she covered her face and flashed a smile toward Nick’s location.

“Crap. Who trained those Apprentices?” Nick heard mutterings from behind, “A single look and a sentence was able to lower their guards. Have they already forgotten that she is working for the queen? Her outfit clearly marks her as a close range class of some type.”

“Ranger Dave….” Austin turned and looked toward the younger man.

“To be fair, I was a bit of a flirt before I joined. How was I supposed to know some people have trouble talking with women?” He said, offended at the accusation. “They know all of the standard codes.”

“She’s already positioned herself to attack the apprentices too.”

“The third point, young man,” interrupting the apprentice, Paige looked toward the crowd and dropped her aggrieved tone of voice, “ is that there is an active magic circle in the back, which is highly illegal in a tavern like this, and you all are clearly blocking my way forward. Get out of my way before I make you move.”

“Hah! You really think you could take on all of us?” A slightly drunk Apprentice chuckled.

Paige sighed to herself, clearly embarrassed for Nick. Throwing a sympathetic gaze toward the back, she mouthed to the back of the room quietly, “I’ll just knock them out. If you have any complaints, please file them toward the nearest embassy.”

“Well then. That went faster than I expected,” Paige said quietly, her left eye twitching a bit. In truth, she had expected the apprentices to put up a decent fight at the very least, or have no problems coordinating with each other as fellow Apprentices. Sloppy positioning, no coordination, and at the very end of the fight some had had even drawn their short bows in the hopes of stopping Paige. “They should have just surrendered. I thought I clearly stated this was official business from the Alcudian government. With the war ongoing, it’s not like I would actually force the situation into a diplomatic incident.” Sighing to herself, she walked up to the magic circle and stared at the symbols shining on the ground.

“We’ll increase the difficulty of the training and beat some common sense into the apprentices. Add in practical training as well.” Austin had a dark look on his face, as though he himself was ashamed at the apprentice’s performance. “Ranger Mitch, write down that we need to add to the manual how to talk with women and strangers; what not to do on foreign soil; as well as coordination between different parties.”

“They didn’t know what to do without a Senior Ranger telling them. We should rethink their training on coordinating who is in charge when everyone is the same rank,” Nick said after a moment. He idly noted that Paige was staring at the symbols, and he had a bad feeling she was about to do something she shouldn’t be able to do.

Idly plucking the string of his bow, the heavy set Jerril, still sitting down, spoke, “She didn’t loot the apprentices for a ward stone. What is she trying to do?” They watched as she stood up, tapping her shield on the wall of mana. She nodded as if she understood something.

“What is she…”

Paige flicked her shield at the wall and the symbols cracked on the ground, a thin line of cracks appearing on the wall.

“She is trying to break the mana wall! Isn’t she worried it will explode?” Dave said shocked, quickly backing away from the volatile wall. Breaking an active magic circle usually did one of three things: nothing; a mana implosion, killing everyone inside the circle; or mana explosion, killing everyone outside the circle. Only two options were good for either party and one bad for the opposing party. Most sane people would not try their luck.

“She’s watching the symbols. I think she’s trying to drain the mana from the wall.” Nick confirmed after a moment, watching as the wall thinned and the room in front of them came back into a clear focus.

“Ah, Nick. Glad I found you. Who are your friends?” Paige said with a smile, looking around at the gathering of Rangers. He watched as she assessed the Rangers and focused on Commander Austin. Raising her eyebrows, she playfully commented to him, watching as he flushed with anger, “You really need to focus on training the apprentices better. Who was the Ranger that was in charge of training these people? Actually not knowing how to flirt with a woman, peh.” Over to the side, Ranger Dave flushed at the accusation.

“Well excuse me for not training them up to your standards, miss.” Dave shot back in an acerbic tone of voice.

“You should be.” Dismissing the young man outright, she turned toward Nick; idly noting something was off about him. “You alright Nick?”

Nick sighed to himself, “…I’ll be alright in a bit. Just dealing with some personal issues.”

He watched as Paige evaluated him, her eyes worried. “No, something is…”

“How were you able to find Nick? The cloaks are warded to stop tracking spells.” Austin jumped in, stopping her from asking out loud. Although all of the Ranger’s knew what was happening, no one wanted to voice out loud the problem, for fear that their families would be next just for talking about it.

“Simple. Party resonance. It doesn’t take much for a Party Leader to find their own members. Am I interrupting something? ” Paige frowned as she surveyed the other Rangers.

“No. Let’s go.” Nick stood up and started walking toward the tavern door. He called out behind him, “I’m taking time off after this mission, Commander. And I won’t stop until I find out who did it.”

Paige looked thoughtfully at Nick and the other Rangers, who were feeling uncomfortable. “Did what?”

“Nothing you need to know about Paige,” Nick said darkly as he left the tavern and Paige behind him.

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