Chapter 22

Zenith was flustered whenever she was around just Nick, now not just because of her growing affection toward the Ranger. Now it stemmed from his bad mood. Paige and Nick had returned long after both Prim and Beatrice had left. She had been happy when Beatrice treated her like a sister too, but her mood dropped when she saw how bad Nick had looked. Something terrible must have happened when Paige had left, and his mood had not gotten any better these last few days of traveling. Luckily, they were close to the mausoleum at this point, but it was hard not to notice how Nick had withdrawn himself from the party.

“Hey Isabella, I’ll switch with you tonight. You get some rest, and I’ll wake you and Paige for the next shift.” She made up her mind and switched shifts with Isabella, who was looking nervous as well.

“Thanks, Zenith. I’ll, uh, see you in the morning.” The young girl spoke quickly, betraying her anxiety. She ran off to her tent as fast and politely as she could.

“… you didn’t have to do that.” Zenith noticed Nick’s eyes twitched at the sight of the girl running away from him.

“I know, but it looked like you needed some peace and quiet. Isabella would probably have tried to fill the silence again if she had stayed. You stopped your lessons with her at night, so she confided in me that she was uncomfortable on watch with you. I’ll be over here if you want to talk things out.” Zenith knew that having time to think was important for personal issues, but having someone to talk to that was outside of the situation would be helpful as well.

They had camped out at the foot of the mountain range that Mount Terst was a part of. As far as you could see, ancient pine trees were shooting out of the mountainside. A gully separated the mountain range from the plains, although not easily seen from afar. Seeing as Nick was concentrating on the forest around them, she decided to meditate. Closing her eyes, she instantly felt the cool wind whistle around her. The surroundings were highly charged with mana, which she did not expect in a forest such as this. She opened her eyes and lightly released her mana, watching as the pale green mana surrounding her was whisked away with the wind almost instantly, the sound of the wind creating a low pitched sound as it released the excess mana back into the air. Reaching toward a strand of mana, she realized that it was incredibly hard to manipulate.

“Nick,” she started to say, but the man interrupted her quietly, a bit of mirth in his voice, “I thought you said I needed peace and quiet?”

“For your personal reasons yes, not professional ones,” she blushed, pulling her cloak overhead. “Do you feel that excess mana in the surroundings? You have a greater affinity for nature. Can you feel a difference since we’ve set camp?”

Nick furrowed his brows, lightly concentrating. He touched the damp earth with his hand; a dark brown cloud of mana settled into their surroundings. Zenith watched as the cloud of mana rushed back to him. She was jealous of his greater affinity, the benefits of having a greater affinity showing. He didn’t even have to fully meditate in order to gauge how much mana was available, which showed how in tune he was with his surroundings. ‘He would have been a good mage,’ she thought in the back of her mind. She listened as Nick started talking. “There is a lot of mana coursing through the forest here. Tyler mentioned the mountain acted like a leyline, but he didn’t mention which type of mana powered the formations.”

Thinking for a moment, she responded quietly, the sound of their conversation echoing lightly in the forest. “I can feel a significant amount of wind mana here, so if you can feel nature mana here, it must be at least a dual leyline. Normally a leyline would be dependent on the surroundings, not created by the environment. This mountain must be pretty special.”

“True.” Nick frowned as he thought of the different uses a dual leyline could be used for. “Paige said the mausoleum itself is ancient. One can only wonder what it was before it became a mausoleum.” He stopped and went to a crouch, peering out into the darkness.

“See something?” Zenith asked quietly, pointing her staff in the same direction he was looking.

“…the animals are restless. A group of wolves just passed by.” He nocked an arrow onto his bow, drawing his quiver close.

“Well, that’s not too bad,” Zenith whispered quietly, crouching down by his side. Zenith thought they could take down a few wolves, but Nick’s voice was serious.

“Direwolves. A group of twenty. And an elder wolf. They stopped across the ravine. They probably located us through our mana. They’re upwind of us right now,” he whispered urgently.

“I’ll go and wake the others. You and I can’t defeat an elder wolf, not without some help. It’ll be tough with just three of us, but someone has to protect Isabella.” Zenith whispered back, getting ready to turn toward the camp. Nick caught her arm quickly.

“No, we can’t fight. Not this close to the mountain. Any fight is liable to draw attention to us. A battle can echo off the mountains. The last thing we need is to alert any scouts of our presence.”

“Fine.” Turning toward the camp, Zenith almost let out a startled scream as Paige crouched in front of her. The smirk on her face made Zenith want to hit her.

“Nick. Did you say it was an elder wolf?”

“It’s hard to tell, but there should be an elder wolf in that pack. Usually, direwolves announce themselves before they attack. This group didn’t, so it has to have a pack leader. Here one comes now.”

A rustle in the trees in front of them caused Zenith to flinch, as a large, pure white wolf emerged from the brush. Nick swore under his breath as a few darkened wolves emerged from the shadowed forest, noting the others had started to circle their camp. Elder wolves were a Ranger’s worst nightmare, as they were patient and skilled enough to lead their pack to track a Ranger and his horse through a forest. In fact, most of the Ranger casualties from monster attacks were caused by elder wolves.

“Wait a second before you start a fight,” Paige said, putting a hand on Nick’s shoulders. She started walking forward, holding her hands open in front of her.

“You can’t be serious Paige!” Zenith whispered back to her as Paige started walking forward toward the elder wolf. “You’re going to get yourself killed. You can’t reason with a wolf pack. Look at their sizes, they have got to be at least a few hundred years old. I’ve seen carriages smaller than the smallest on here.” She eyed the smallest one in the clearing, one that had to be at least twenty feet long. The elder wolf had to be at least forty feet long, and a good five feet in width.

“Hey there, sorry for intruding. Mind if we pass?” Paige whispered quietly. Zenith eyes twitched at the sight. The white wolf looked at Paige, and his gaze flickered over toward Nick and Zenith. “Put your weapons down you two, it’ll be fine.”

“You know you are crazy right?” Nick swore quietly. The pack animals started to neigh nervously behind, causing Zenith to look back at the camp. She quickly noted that Tyler was already awake and standing beside Isabella’s tent, one arm holding the reins to the pack animals, and the other resting on his scabbard.

“What do you and Tyler know, Paige? Is there something special about these wolves?” She hesitated but rested the head of the staff on the ground. She put her hand on Nick’s bow, pushing it gently to the ground. Nick shot a look at Zenith but offered no resistance as she tried to push it down.

“We have to be careful about the animals here; most are smarter than you would think,” Paige whispered quietly. Looking toward the elder wolf, she bowed her head minutely; her eyes never leaving the wolf. “What do you want, oh elder one?”

Zenith waited tensely, watching as both of them gauged each other. A rustle from Isabella’s tent caught her attention, her heart rate increasing. A young girl popped her head out, sleepily asking out loud, her voice the only sound in the campsite, “Aunt? Is everything alright?”

‘Of course, that would happen. What else could possibly go wrong?’ Zenith quickly backed up, getting close to the tent. “Isabella, are you dressed for combat?”

“Yeah, why?” Blinking her eyes, Isabella quickly noticed the wolves around the campsite. “Aaahh!” she screamed in shock, quickly covering her mouth; her eyes darting across the campsite until she spotted her Aunt looking at a large, white wolf. She nearly screamed again when the wolf’s eyes focused on her. It took Zenith hugging her from behind to stop her from screaming again.

“Paige, hurry up and do something,” Zenith whispered loudly in the clearing. The wolves for their part stood around tensely, their leader opting to sit on his hind legs, causing the wolf to careen over the rest of the group. She could tell that the surrounding wolves were waiting for their leader to decide how to proceed.

“I haven’t hunted your pack, and we have no quarrels. Speak your mind, elder one. I still need to sleep for my travel ahead to the prayer grounds.” Paige spoke up, her eyes never leaving the wolf.

‘Prayer grounds? Why does she call it that instead of a mausoleum?’ Zenith thought to herself. She noted that Paige had idly stepped in front of Isabella, shielding him from view. A low wolf call echoed out of the white wolf, causing Zenith and Nick to tense up; Nick the most.

“He’s calling for the rest of his pack, Paige. We need to decide what to do now before we are outnumbered more than we are now.” His eyes darted behind the elder wolf, silently calculating how much time before reinforcements arrived.

“I’m glad your feeling better Nick. If I had known your mood would improve this dramatically with a single fight, I would have opted to fight something right after we left Trulton. Relax. It’s not the right wolf call for a hunt. Let’s just see how this goes,” Paige said sarcastically, although Zenith thought that Paige did sound confident about the latter half of her conversation.

The tense atmosphere only got tenser. A few minutes later, Nick said quietly, “Ten more incoming. Smaller than the rest though.” The brush revealed ten smaller wolves, all sporting varying degrees of injuries. The worst one limped idly on three feet, another wolf bracing him to stop him from falling. The white wolf looked over at Paige; moving his head to get a view of Isabella.

“Ah. Isabella. Zenith. Get your staffs. He wants them healed.” Paige said after interpreting the elder wolf’s message. The wolf’s head nodded in response, seemingly understanding what she had said.

“Are you sure this is safe Paige?” Nick said tersely. “Elder wolves are a serious threat.” An arrow was still nocked on his bow and he glanced left and right, not letting the wolves nearest to him out of his sight.

“Are we in Leit or Alcudia? It’ll be fine, hopefully. On the flip side, if they attack you have free range. How about that?”

“Au, Au, Aunt. Are you sure about this?” Isabella popped herself back inside the tent, raising her voice so that everyone could hear.

“Tyler, back me up on this,” Paige said after a moment.

Tyler froze for a moment, then talked loud enough for Zenith and Nick to hear him. “That elder wolf guards the area around the mausoleum. We leave their pack alone since they usually do not attack the royal family. It helps us deter graverobbers and spies away since they are very territorial in nature. Although we did not know his pack had grown this much.”

“See. Perfectly safe. In a confrontation of two opposing parties, both of roughly equal status, one side will eventually have to show a bit of faith. We heal them, they’ll leave us alone. Right?”

Zenith could practically see the gears in the white wolf’s head spin and watched as the elder wolf nodded after a brief moment. ‘Although which part he agreed with is suspect. Maybe Paige irked him a bit when she said parties of equal status,’ she thought to herself. Grabbing Isabella’s hand as she left the tent, she walked up slowly to the injured, but wary wolves, glancing at the elder wolf every few steps. Stopping briefly, she decided to test the pack leader’s intelligence herself. “Third Princess Isabella Freal here has not been formally taught healing magic for long, so she may be out of practice. I know a few intermediate healing spells myself, but I will need physical contact for the best effect. I can do healing magic from range, but it will not be as effective.” Weaving in Isabella’s status as royalty and her healing abilities, Zenith really hoped that the wolf was as intelligent as she thought it was.

She could tell that the elder wolf was parsing through what she had said. To what regard, she had no idea. But nevertheless, if what Tyler said was true, then the elder wolf either held the mausoleum or the royal family as important. A low growl came out of the elder wolf’s mouth, and the injured wolves slowly lowered themselves to the ground and slumped on the ground, their ears laying flat back in a submissive posture. The other wolves surrounding the campsite slowly backed away into the woods, only the elder wolf remained where he was sitting.

Isabella was rooted in place, seemingly afraid to get closer to the prostrated wolves. “It’s fine Isabella. Just follow behind of me. Remember that Paige gave us all new equipment. We should be fine against even the Demon Lord’s party, so some wolves should not scare you as much. Just think of them like larger, furrier, more majestic dogs. No offense.” Pulling her hand, she let Isabella trail behind of her, the young girl walking with halting steps. “Okay, you can heal from there. Remember what I taught you about healing. Positive thoughts.”

Looking toward Paige, she lightly commented to both her and the elder wolf, “the glow of the healing will alert anyone with a decent ability to sense magic. How do you want to deal with this?”

Scratching her cheek, Paige looked toward the elder wolf for ideas. “Can you hide the magic?” she asked the wolf stupidly. Zenith was about to say how stupid an idea that was when the wolf howled, a light mist curling around the campsite. The howls of wolves surrounding them echoed in the forest, creating an eerie atmosphere. She watched as the dark forest seemed to get even darker, and even the moon itself seemed to lose its glow.

“Elder wolves such as this one are able to hide their pack well at night, and can even isolate their surroundings so that their prey can’t escape. I didn’t know they could block out magic though,” Nick said quietly to the rest of the party.

“Well, now you know. Zenith, Isabella. Please try to heal them quickly. I’ll negotiate with the elder wolf here and see if he can lead us to the prayer grounds without alerting the Demon Lord and his party.”

Zenith knew that it was going to be a long night.

“Well, that worked out for the best,” Paige said quietly as they reached the outer perimeter of Mount Terst. It looked like only Nick had not gone to sleep for the last three days. Out of professional habit or fear of his head being bitten off, Isabella did not know. It had taken her and Zenith the majority of the night to heal the most injured wolf, and Paige had insisted that the pack would lead them safely to the mausoleum. The elder wolf and the rest of the pack had only appeared at night after that, meaning that their pace was being set by the most injured wolf.

After finally healing the last wolf, it had led them to a large, inconspicuous rock that was jutting out on the far side of the mountain.

“Aunt, why did you keep calling it a prayer ground instead of a mausoleum?” Isabella asked after the wolf had gone out of her view.

“We may call it a mausoleum, but it would be more accurate to call it a prayer ground. This whole area has been blessed by one of the gods. Which one, I have no idea. But I can feel my class weakening just be being near the mountain.” Isabella watched as her aunt shook her hand as if testing something. “Not much, of course, but it is still worrisome. It definitely did not feel like this the last time I was here though.”

“I’d believe you, Paige. You can practically see the mana formations in the air. How many leylines are converging in this one spot?” Zenith said off to the side. She caught Isabella staring blankly, prompting her to continue her thoughts out loud. “The Mage Guild would practically invade the country for this one mountain alone. Look at that cloud over there Isabella.” Looking over to the cloud up ahead, she quickly noticed something was wrong with it; a line had been cut straight through the cloud, bisecting it neatly. “It’s drawing all of the surrounding mana into the circle and powering it. It would take months to analyze something this large, and basically suicidal too.”

Zenith stopped and stared at Paige and Tyler. “How is Isabella going to get us into the mausoleum? The formations are still active.”

Tyler answered Zenith this time, looking at the formation with interest. “Isabella is royalty, and the formations have always allowed royalty to enter. So theoretically, all Isabella needs to do is to state her name, and the formation should transport us directly to the interior courtyard From there, we can enter the Treasury, grab the sword, and leave.”

“What about the Demon Lord’s party?” Isabella asked worriedly.

“The formation is still active, so they have not breached the mausoleum yet. If it works, great. Otherwise, it will still take us a good part of the day to reach the mausoleum entrance. Go ahead and try young Isabella.” Tyler hesitantly said after a moment.

“Okay. Here goes then.” Isabella took a deep breath and walked up to the stone, symbols gathering around the monolithic rock as she neared. Seeing them go bright red, Zenith quickly told Isabella that was close enough, so she stopped and focused. “I, Isabella Freal, of the Princess Class and of Alcudian Royalty descent, hereby request entrance to the mausoleum for myself and my party,” she said out loud.

The symbols flashed blue and the party heaved a sigh of relief, knowing that her request was accepted. Symbols gathered around their group, each of them standing still so that the symbols could anchor themselves to the ground.

Right at this moment, the magic formation around the mausoleum flashed brilliantly, and the symbols around them quickly turned red.

“Oh no! Get out of the circle!” Zenith screamed quickly, trying to leave the circle that the symbols had engraved around her. The others quickly tried to leave as well, but the symbols activated and started to glow brightly.

“They tried to break the circle the same time we got permission! It is a random warp now!” Zenith screamed, the hum of the magic circle drowning out the noise of the forest.

“Isabella, stay where you are! Everyone else, plan to meet back here! I’ll find you after I reach Isabella.” Paige yelled, disappearing as the magic circle activated. A bright light quickly traveled to the other side of the mountain.

“Wait! Isabella will be at the…” Zenith tried to yell, but the magic circle activated, quickly bringing Tyler, Nick and herself away in rapid succession, each beam of light traveling in a different direction; none of them landing on Mount Terst itself.

Closing her eyes, she waited until the flash of light dissipated before she opened her eyes again. A random group of dumbfounded strangers appeared before her eyes. She was about to speak, but a cool sensation on her neck caused her to tense up. Looking down, the gleam of a short sword entered her view. A quiet female voice spoke to her from behind, “Stand still. Who are you?”

“Umm…would you believe me if I say I am just a passerby?” Isabella said shakily, a nervous smile on her face.

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