Chapter 28

“About time we found something. I was going to be highly upset if we followed this path to the other end of the forest for no good reason.” Zenith grumbled as she followed behind Nick and Paige. She eventually gave up the baby to Paige and had to resort to using her makeshift staff as a walking stick, her shoes not meant for the uneven forest ground.

“To be fair Zenith, Nick offered to carry you. He ignored me outright when I asked.” Paige said as she played with Markus from her side. Tilting her head close to Zenith, she whispered as she looked at the direction Nick had gone. “Zenith, Nick is going to have a hard time adjusting. I know you have feelings for him, but…”

“I know Paige. I want him to like me for who I am, not who I resemble.” Zenith completed Paige’s unspoken words. At first, Zenith was completely happy with the change of her appearance. But now that Zenith knew she resembled Nick late wife caused her to feel terrible. She shook her head and cast her thoughts out as she took in the dilapidated settlement ahead.

The settlement had seen better days. The overgrown weeds were crowding out the path ahead and were starting to climb the low stone fence surrounding the settlement. Three two-story buildings were located inside the fence, their roofs starting to sag and the walls had noticeable holes that exposed the interior rooms to the weather. Beside them, a small barn was centrally located, and what appeared to be a broken blacksmith’s anvil and rusted iron tools. A simple waterwheel was attached to the barn, although the water level of the stream beyond was not high enough to move it.

“Wagon marks lead into the settlement, so either they passed by or they are here,” Nick said after a moment.

“The mana fog is gone as well. Look, it’s stopping right outside the settlement.” Zenith eyed Paige and raised one brow, silently asking for her opinion.

“Zenith, hold the baby. Nick behind me. I’ll go first.” She whispered, passing the baby quietly over to Zenith. “What’s the effective range on your bow, Nick?”

“Unarmored killing range with this bow is thirty meters. I’m confident I can hit any moving target at eighty meters though. Assuming they are not using a movement skill.” Nick said after gauging his bow and the settlement beyond. “I’ll stay in the trees with Zenith. So long as you don’t go into the houses, I can cover you.”

“I can’t do much without a dedicated magic staff, but I can cover you as well with some cantrips. Not much, but I can still provide some distractions.” Zenith helpfully added to the side, adjusting her hold on her staff and the baby.

Looking at the two of them, Paige nodded and started walking to the clearing, her new wooden hoe resting on her shoulders. “Is anyone there? Tyler, you in there?” She shouted as she watched for any signs of movement. “And before you try to hide, I know someone is there. The wagon tracks are still fresh.”

The door creaked open as a short, pot-bellied man walked out, his face oozing with sweat. “A stereotypical Merchant?” Paige asked out loud, disbelief in her eyes.

“Says the stereotypical Farmer.” The man spoke, his face contorting with displeasure. “It’s not like I chose to look this way, Paige.”

“Tyler? How’d you get so…you?” Paige said as she gestured up and down his body. “Zenith, Nick, it’s Tyler.” Tyler glanced at Nick and Zenith and realized that they had all changed, some more than others. Paige still looked mostly like herself, although her hair had grown a few inches and she had an even suntan. Nick looked the same as well, although his beard could use a trimming. Zenith had surprised him, as well as the baby boy judging by the face. He was partly glad he wasn’t the only one whose appearance had changed, although he would be hard pressed to say that he did not get the short end of the stick. Glancing down, Tyler almost cried again as he looked at his massive belly and chubby arms and legs. The only thing he could be happy about was that his head was not balding.

“Well, Tyler looks like you’ll need to exercise that weight off. And possibly a diet too.” Nick said, humor in his voice. He had been slightly jealous of Tyler’s appearance when they had first met. ‘Whatever deity made it so that Warriors retained their youthful looks longer than others should be banished and forgotten. But at least he’s gotten his just desserts,’ ’ Nick thought to himself. “Heh. It’s gonna take months to work that fat off, Tyler. If you can.”

“I’ve trained Apprentices into full Warriors. If I can’t do the same to myself, I’ll eat a wagon.” Tyler yelled indignantly. “I did bring some food though. I almost starved to death when I was last here. I was about to try and fix up this settlement when you all came.”

“Zenith, take the baby into the house. Tyler, look for some firewood. Nick, get some food ready. I’ll clean out the chimney and then we can all talk business.”

“Tyler, you’ve been awfully quiet during our stories. Mind sharing yours?”

Tyler listened quietly to their experiences, saying nothing throughout the groups’ arrival experiences. “I’ve been here for almost a month now. I knew where we were, so I followed the roads to the nearest town of Cidala to get supplies. I used the supplies I found here to open a line of credit with the local merchants association, and went ahead and bought a few items I knew I could sell. I’ve been coming here every week though, thinking I’d eventually find you all here.” Tyler said as he ate Nick’s soup. The ingredients he had brought in from outside the forest had come in handy.

Zenith inched forward to take more food. “How are you able to leave the forest, Tyler? The mana dispersion fog was stopping us from leaving the boundary of the forest.”

“Mana dispersion fog? Is that what that? It was hard to find a way out of the forest but other than that it really posed no problems. In fact, I hardly ran into any animals either, not until I hit the farmland closer to the city.” Tyler looked across at Paige, who was cradling the baby. “Paige, we are close to Castle ________. I wasn’t willing to collect information, not until we all gathered. But I think it’s time you tell us what happened in the mausoleum. None of us remember what happened after we passed through the formation. Care to fill us in on what happened?”

Zenith perked up as well with a question of her own as well. “What happened to Isabella, Paige?”

Paige settled down on the hard-packed floor, leaning lazily against the wall frame. “We went into the formation and elected to rescue Isabella instead of safeguarding the heroic class weapon. The Demon Lord was unwilling to give up either, and we fought to the death against his party.”

Paige hesitated to continue, not knowing how they would take the rest of the news. Coughing lightly, Tyler motioned for her to continue. “That doesn’t really tell us anything specific, Paige. What happened next?”

“You all fought heroically and died in battle.”

“We died! But how are we here then?” Zenith said shocked.

“The formation around the mausoleum was going critical due to the Shaman’s attack. Right before it went critical, Isabella used her skill, and…something happened. Zenith, help me figure this part out.” Paige stopped and drew the formation she saw, indicating what happened step by step, starting from when Isabella used her Skill to the formation splitting in half.

“That…is really out of my league Paige. I could research it if I was in the Mage Guild, but offhand, I would say that the formation going critical was the key that activated the other, unknown formation.” Zenith started drawing circles within circles in front of her. “But what I don’t get is the formation breaking in half. Or why it would absorb the dead as well. Assuming we were dead that is.”

“Trust me, you all were quite dead.”

Nick interrupted from the side, “You said a symbol appeared and absorbed both Isabella and the Demon Lord mana? Does that make any sense to you Zenith?”

Zenith frowned. “The symbol then split and separated into two, distinct parts. In which the Demon Lord’s mana was floating in golden mana…” A thought struck Zenith, who looked at Paige. “The baby.”

“What about the baby?” Tyler said, not understanding the significance of the baby Paige was holding.

“The baby is the Demon Lord, isn’t he?” Nick said quietly, connecting the dots.

Paige hesitated, holding the baby close. “He is. Or I presume he is.”

Nick stood up, his bow already in his arms. “Kill him now, Paige. I’m serious. We should kill the Demon Lord before he becomes a problem in the future.” If Nick’s gaze could kill, Paige and the baby would have long been corpses.

“I don’t think so. He’s just a baby.” Paige locked gazes with Nick.

“A baby that is able to kill all of us when he grows up,” Tyler said from behind Nick. “That baby is a big risk, Paige.”

Paige slowly got up from the floor, her body shielding Markus. “I may be a Farmer right now Nick, but trust me when I say I can still kill you. I know that the formation has tied Isabella’s mana to the boy; and his vice versa. We are not doing anything without more information on that ritual or whatever that was.”

“You’re crazy Paige. Step away from the baby. He’s the source of all our troubles.”

“No Nick. We are doing no such thing.”

“Nick, Tyler. I think Paige is right. The baby has to live.” Zenith said suddenly from the side as she walked in front of Paige. “A formation is always constructed for a singular purpose. Whether that is to check someone’s status or to stop people from spying. Look at the mana fog outside. With this much power still lingering even after the formation has broken, it is unwise to even think about messing with anything even related to the formation. Nick, please. Put your bow down.”

Zenith pleaded with Nick, who was clearly hesitating. Zenith continued on, pushing her argument. “How about this Nick. We know the boundary of the forest as well as the range for the mana dispersion fog. I can backtrack the location of the formation and hopefully find out the specifics. All formations leave some type of imprint, even destroyed ones such as this. There have to be some rules in place to protect the ritual. It was able to transform the Demon Lord back into a baby, so it must also have a failsafe in place as well to protect him.”

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