Chapter 27

Paige followed being Nick as he strode through the woods briskly. “You sure you’re okay? I don’t want what just happened to color or teams relationship you know.”

After crying, he was able to pull himself together and told the two women what he had learned while they were staying in Castle Patel. The death of his family, the murderer unknown.

“Tell me again Nick, what is your class?” Zenith said as they followed Nick through the forest. “You keep touching every tree you pass. It’s kind of strange.”

With Nick’s help, finding the path through the forest became much simpler. Although his class had changed as well, the instincts he shaped prior to becoming a Ranger helped him navigate through the forest proper. “I’m now a Bower. Someone who makes bows. And these trees are precious. Old wood too, judging by the density of the trees. They must have had a lot of dry seasons to be this dense.”

“So a specialized woodworker right? Or is it different?”

“There are a few Bower’s stationed at Ranger Command. They basically research the best materials for our weapons. They can do a bit more, but the idea they were trying to accomplish was blending wood materials to create the best bow possible.” Nick said absentmindedly. He did not dare to turn around to face Zenith, and even hearing her voice brought back saddened memories. He had almost the same conversation with his wife when he had first gotten married. The same look, the same voice, and even the same temperament. ‘Zenith is a Teacher, huh.’ Nick sighed to himself quietly. While Anna had not been a teacher, she had been interested in learning anything that crossed her path. ‘I just have to remember that they are two different people. They just look the same.’ He already knew he would have trouble in the future because of this.

Deflecting his thoughts to something other than his wife, he looked at the baby in Paige’s hand. “Paige, are you sure you don’t know what happened?”

“I have an idea of what happened. But let’s find Tyler first before I go over it again. I really want out of these woods.” Paige said as she played with the baby. It was the happiest he’d seen Paige, besides the time at the inn when she was reminiscing. “Besides, until we get out of these woods…” Paige trailed off, hacking her hoe in the ground as she passed.

‘These woods are strange.’ Nick thought to himself. ‘For two days now, no matter which way I left the clearing before, every path led me straight back to where I started. I know that the trial grounds of Leit emphasize teamwork and that it is impossible to move without a group of three. So does this forest operate on the same principles? Or could it be something else?’’ As he took a glance back to look at the baby he caught Anne’s eyes, who quickly looked away. “An- Zenith, How long were you out in the woods for before you met up with Paige?”

Zenith tilted her head and frowned, the question catching her off guard. “It wasn’t long. Maybe a few hours at the most. What about you Paige?” Gazing at Paige, she motioned for her to give the baby up while she thought.

Rolling her eyes, Paige handed the baby off to Zenith. “It wasn’t long for me either. A few minutes before I found the baby. Maybe an hour or two to find Zenith, and then around half a day to find you, Nick. All in all, we’ve been pretty fast.” 

“Fast for you maybe. I’ve been stuck in that clearing for almost two days now. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what might be happening. Paige, you haven’t been back to the Leit trial grounds have you?” Nick said after a moment.

“Nope. Not in a few hundred years at least. There was no reason for me to go and grab Archer equipment. Do you think we are in a dungeon of some type?” Paige said as she walked closer to Zenith and the baby.

“We could be. The Leit trial grounds emphasized teamwork over all else. If we are in the same position…”

“…you think its a natural formation? One that covers a whole forest? That would be impo-. Well, if the Mausoleum could have a formation around it, then maybe…but then something would have to…” Zenith mumbled under her breath.

“Great, look what you did Nick. You sent her into a logic loop.”

“Stop making random conditions up Paige! I think Nick could be right! Look at the fog around us. I think it could be a mana dispersion fog phenomenon!” Zenith said as she spun around. “It’s been well documented that high concentrations of mana can cause skills and spells to react differently. But high concentrations of mana usually clear up over time because the mana reverts back to its original state. I think the fog is the mana that has not reverted yet!” Zenith happily smiled as she looked around. You didn’t get to see something like this often.

“Well, I’m glad your happy that you figured out what the mist is, Zenith. But how does that help us right now?”

“Well, to be honest, it doesn’t really help us right at this moment. But since a mana fog is generated by excess mana, we should decide if we are going toward the epicenter, or away.” Zenith said, a twinkle of light dancing in her eyes. “I say we should head toward the epicenter. Maybe we can find a remnant of the magic circle that caused this mess.”

“Yeah, but look around Zenith, the fog is pretty uniform. How long does it take for this mana fog to totally disperse anyways?” Paige said.

“I don’t know, I never had to deal with this before. I’m not exactly a magic researcher, you know.” Zenith pouted as she exclaimed, the baby in her hands wriggling in her arms.

“Enough. Nick, there was a settlement here in these woods. Would you be able to find it?”

“How large of a settlement are we talking? A few families worth or one?” Nick said with interest. Woods this old would usually have a few full-time lumberjacks and the like.

“One. it was an old rundown lumber mill. I remember that because it was supposed to be haunted, but the owner was just really old and I swear he had a movement and stealth skill. He sold some really nice wooden equipment too. In fact, the handle of my sword was made from this same wood. It was a remarkable mana conductor, and easily enchantable too.”

“Paige… that sounds really sketchy. Are you sure he wasn’t a ghost?” Zenith said as she adjusted the baby, holding him in her arms.

Paige waved it off nonchalantly. “He shouldn’t be. I had the feeling I could kill him if I wanted, so he had to be somewhat mortal. But no one could ever find him again,” she trailed off, her face serious. Zenith’s face contorted with fear. Holding her laughter, she struggled to keep quiet until Zenith looked over, who quickly realized she had been tricking her all along. Well mostly anyway, as no one could find him after that, and she never bothered to find him again. But she wasn’t about to tell Zenith that.

“It’s not funny Paige! He could have been a ghost!”

“Yes, a ghost who unwillingly gives away mana-rich wood for a king’s ransom. Even including inflation, I paid more for the handle on my blade than I did the blade itself! And that’s saying something.” Paige said huffily. Even thinking back on the old man’s grin when she finally paid made her gut wrench. “But that’s supply and demand I suppose.”

“I don’t know how much you paid, but he’s probably right about the price. This wood is that good. Almost any bow I make from this wood can rival my old longbow.”

They stopped talking as they followed Nick through the forest. Eventually, the baby awoke with a muffled cry. “The baby is getting hungry again Paige. It’s concerning that we have nothing to feed him, Paige. We need to find some real food, mana sustenance is dangerous long term wise, especially for children.”

“Nick, any clues on what’s up ahead? How have you been choosing which direction to take?”

“I’ve been following a person’s footsteps. It looks like its leading to the edge of the forest, judging by the density of the trees.”

“Good. I guess we don’t even need to find a settlement then. We’ll get some current news and then we can plan from there. Hopefully we’re following Tyler’s footsteps; otherwise, we’ll have to go looking for him again.”

“It should be, at least judging by the weight and foot size,” Nick said after a moment.

“I’m shocked that you can tell that much from footprints, Nick. But I haven’t really seen any footprints since we’ve started following you.” Zenith said.

“It’s there, you just need to know where to look. For example, look at this rock. Notice how it’s been pushed down slightly, and that the dirt around it has been forced upwards? Feel the ground around it and you’ll notice it is loosely packed and dry, yet the soil around the rock is damp to the touch. Someone had stepped on it and forced the damp soil underneath upward.” Nick said with a smile, watching Zenith’s look of amazement. ‘I’ve forgotten how much joy it was to teach Anna something new.’ His smile faded when he remembered that Anna was dead, and the person in front of him was Zenith.

“Thanks for teaching me Nick,” Zenith said as she stood back up.

“No problem Zenith. I’ll be happy to teach you more later.”

“Sorry for interrupting your little discussion, but we have a problem up ahead,” Paige said from behind them, a frown plastered on her face. “A big problem.”

As they followed Paige, Nick noted that Paige’s hoe was slightly blackened. “What did you find up ahead?”

“Well, the forest does end up ahead, but when I tried to leave this happened,” Paige said as she held up her hoe. “We can’t leave the forest.”

“We can’t leave? How does that even work?” Nick said, a frown on his face. “Zenith said that this fog disperses mana, so how would it stop us from leaving?” As he asked, the trees around them noticeably thinned out and decreased and they walked close to a merchant’s path, judging by the old cart marks left in the mud.

“Well Paige, what did you see?” Nick said as he looked around in confusion.

“Watch.” As Paige stepped forward she held her hoe in front of her, using it as an example, as she passed the final tree leading out of the forest, the fog suddenly strengthened, the hoe charring quickly as the mana enriched air combusted in front of them, but only around the hoe.

As she stepped away, the fog dispersed once again. “I didn’t want to risk stepping out myself. So, what do you think Zenith?”

“It looks like we have to find the formation the fog originated from. It could be that it is still active, and is preventing us from leaving. Do you recognize where we are though Paige?” Zenith unhelpfully said after a moment.

“No. I don’t memorize every road I pass,” Paige said sarcastically.

“We should be able to follow it back through the woods. Look.” Nick said, pointing at the far end of the road. He could see that the path winded through the low hills and eventually entered the forest not too far away from where they were standing. “Paige, you were able to find me when we were at Castle Patel. Are you able to find Tyler the same way?”

“I can’t. A Party Leader is able to, but we aren’t exactly a party right now, or else I wouldn’t have blindly gone wandering the woods.”

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