Chapter 34.1

“You really should think about moving to Cidala. It’s such a lovely town you know, and it’s pretty close to this area, to begin with. A forest such as this is no place to raise a child. I swear I’ll go and tell your husband that he is doing a piss poor job at protecting you and caring for his family,” Lady Emilia Thompson exclaimed angrily. “At least come to town once in a while, You know Lily would love you for it.” Her brown eyes were practically emitting flames as her hair rose without nay a breeze to be felt. 

Well, that’s what Emilia thought she looked like anyways, if she believed her husband’s nonsensical description of her when she was mad. The person in front of her just shrugged, sipping her tea with grace.

“I like the forest, Emilia. It’s peaceful and quiet. No distractions, no annoying neighbors. Just…nature.” Zenith smiled back, filling Emilia’s cup with freshly brewed tea. “How have things been for you? It’s not often you come with Lily to the forest for lessons.”

“It’s fine Zenith. I wanted to make sure Lily is behaving properly. You know, Lily scared off the other teachers in the area. I thought I was going to have to send her to a boarding school.” Emilia said with a small grimace. “That girl will be the death of me yet!”

“Emilia! That’s no way to talk about her. She’s a perfect angel. Mostly.” Zenith glanced away, hiding her smile.

Emilia looked over at Zenith. The young teacher would fit right in Nespe or Cidala if she could ever get her to move. Her brown hair was tied in a braid, the ends dyed forest green. Her manners were impeccable,(judging by the tea tasting they were having), and her clothes marked her as somewhat fashionable. But even constant pay raises couldn’t move the girl, and Zenith almost kicked Lily out of her class when Emilia tried to force her to come back with them.

Sighing into her teacup, Emilia slurped the drink fast, discarding her elegant demeanor. She had been surprised by how anyone would be able to live in the Echoing Woods, and had made a small bet with her husband by how long they would last before moving to Cidala. A bet she lost handily. Not only did they not move for the last two years, none of them even died (to her relief), and the teacher was amazing and cheap. Well, not too cheap since the cost to send her to the woods every day was rather high, but the education she was receiving was just as impressive, if not more, than her own alma mater of Nespe Academy. Lily thirst for knowledge was almost limitless, something she no doubt obtained from the teacher in front of her. She even started volunteering at the local library, just so that Lily could get into the building even earlier than usual.

Emilia tried a different track instead, one that had truly been bothering her. “Let me be blunt Zenith. This forest is creepy as hell. So is that Farmer you’ve hired. Please come with me to the city. Let your husband come to the forest while you stay safe inside the town’s borders”

Zenith frowned as she stared back at Emilia inquisitively, “What’s gotten you so worked up Emilia. This isn’t like you.” They stared at each other, and surprisingly Emilia looked away first.

“Its…it’s a banquet that is happening. I’m supposed to be hosting, but…” she sighed quietly. “But I don’t particularly like anyone that is going.” 

“Well, you could always ask Julia or Kate to come to it. I’m sure they’d take you up on the offer. I’ll watch the kids as well if you’d like. Maybe do a camping trip or something.”

“I don’t think they’d enjoy dealing with stuck up people Zenith. Sometimes I don’t even know how they put up with me!” Zenith coughed a little, hiding her laugh. 

“It’s true Zenith, don’t laugh at me! I know I can come off a little…brash. But the people going to the banquet are absolutely horrendous to be around. You might not know this, but around here Cidala is considered the outskirts of civilization around here. There’s hardly any other town this way unless you hit the defensive line or the Appealte border. So the city of Nespe and the families there are the closest things to nobles around here, and they lord it over the people too.”

“Go ahead and invite Julia and Kate. It’ll be an experience for all of you. Kate will probably take you up on it since her husband is out hunting with his friends; Julia will probably say yes if I babysit. You get some friends, I get to teach more, and Markus has a few extra babysitters. See, a perfect cocktail of events right there. Tea?”

“No thank you. Is that Farmer still around?”

“Hm? Paige? Yeah, she is. I think she mentioned something about being busy. Why?”

“My guards wanted to spar with her. Something about her making fun of his form. Honestly, why Lukas would even want to fight a Farmer is beyond me.” She said as she rubbed her forehead, completely missing Zenith’s pitying gaze.

“Cough, well she might be around later. She’s with Lily and Tyler, so it shouldn’t be a problem right now.”

Emilia glanced up sharply, “My daughter is with her! What happens if they run into a monster?”

“If they do, it’ll be a good practice I suppose. Relax Emilia, this sort of thing is common in schools. The fact that Lily hasn’t even done it once was telling in of itself. She needs to practice using her spells in combat, and Tyler needs practice defending against attacks. The two children will never gain a class if they keep getting coddled.”

“We both know that every school will hire adventurers solely to protect the students. And Kate was fine with it? Letting a Farmer watch over her children?” Emilia said with a slight frown. ‘How would a single Farmer be able to fight against monsters and protect both children?’

Zenith sat upright, looking Emilia square in the eye. “Emilia, I know you don’t like Paige. But I trust her, and that should be enough for you as well.” 

Zenith’s unwavering gaze settled Emilia’s nerve. She knew Zenith was telling the truth, even without her Skills.

“If Lily and Tyler are with Farmer Paige, then where is John, Xavier, and Markus?”

“Kate and Nick are watching them right now. Nick found some herbs that Kate needs for a client, so he’s guarding while Kate and the kids are harvesting. Julia said she was trying to finish knitting a blanket for her neighbor. I think she said Miss Leia was having another baby.” Zenith said with a thoughtful pause. A playful grin came onto Zenith’s face, and Emilia knew she was thinking something troublesome once again. “You know what, it’s kind of boring sitting and drinking tea. How about we go and check on Lily? It might do you some good to see your daughter’s adventurous side.”

“Zenith, you know I don’t do nature. If not for you refusing to leave the forest, I’d host the classes at my house. You wouldn’t know, but I do have room to spare a classroom or two.”

“Come on, it’ll be fun! We wear the same size shoes, you can borrow these.” Zenith handed her a pair of boots and pulled a simple walking stick from a nook by the door. The stick was heavily polished, and the sheen could almost match Emilia’s own steel staff.

“If you insist Zenith. Some light exercise probably wouldn’t hurt me.” Emilia said with a resigned sigh. ‘Honestly, if only Zenith wasn’t so friendly and outspoken.’

“Madam, it’s not safe in these woods! I insist you stay here where it is relatively safe.” A gruff voice sounded out as she followed behind Zenith. Her personal guard and his assistants ran over and stopped in front of Zenith and Emilia before they got onto the forest path. They meant well, and she knew her husband chose them to protect her from harm while out of their estate. But that didn’t stop her temper from flaring up from being told what she could and could not do.

“I didn’t hear you say anything when Lily and Tyler followed Farmer Paige into the woods. What have I said about protecting Lily over myself?”

“Wha! They certainly did not! Farmer Paige and Lily went into the barn as soon as we arrived. They haven’t left since.” Guardsman Lukas exclaimed haughtily. At six feet tall, his steel breastplate shone dully in the forest. His confidence notwithstanding, he was the best Cidala had to offer in terms of guards. The fact that the head guardsman was willing to follow her told Emilia just how much her husband Richard had offered for the town guards assistance.

“You might want to check again, Sir Lukas. It’d be safe to assume that Paige can travel anywhere unhindered.” Zenith said lightly, not meeting anyone’s eyes. 

“Wha! Wayne, Kindale, go and check the barn!” Lukas said with a grimace. Emilia already knew that Zenith was right. She had seen first hand how uncanny the Farmer was. Even when she was watching, a single slip of her concentration and it almost impossible to follow the Farmer; even if she was in plain sight.

“Just stay here and watch the settlement. If Bower Nick or Shopkeeper Kate comes by, let them know we are checking in on the others. And before you say anything else, that is an order,” she stated frankly, taking nothing else for an answer. Taking Zenith’s hand, she stomped out of the clearing and headed straight for the forest path in front of them. She could hear Lukas stuttering in the background and eventually told his apprentices what their new orders were.

“They mean well Emilia,” Zenith eventually said as her temper subsided. 

“I know that. Still doesn’t stop me from being annoyed.” Emilia looked around, not really sure where they were now. Growing up in the city did not help her sense of direction, and she was honestly confused now that there were no landmarks to orient herself. “Do you know where they are?”

“Wait one second,” Zenith simply said. A second laster, a light breeze flowed through the forest and rippled the dress Zenith had on, but oddly left Emilia dress untouched. 

Magic. Oh, if only money could be exchanged for magical talent! Unfortunately, it was not possible. Still, it was both heartwarming and heartbreaking watching her daughter learn magic. That was one of the reasons why Emilia made sure Lily was being taught by Zenith; competent (and in her opinion, honest) magic teachers were rare, even this close to the Appealte border. The ones she had interviewed exclusively told her bluntly that learning spells and skills would be extra, and even she almost had a panic attack when they told her the cost to learn even cantrip spells. 

“They’re this way.” Smiling, Zenith indicated a direction to their right, stepping forward to part the undergrowth away as she followed the wind.

“You’re too nice Zenith. Honestly, those other magic teachers should be ashamed of themselves, especially with what they were charging.”

“Hrmm. The closest graduate-level magic school would be Vidmar School of Elements. Not a bad school by any means, but the cost is rather high to attend. I wouldn’t be surprised if they charged four hundred gold to tutor and teach tier zero spells.” 

“Try two hundred to tutor, and four hundred to teach cantrips,” Emilia said with displeasure. She choked back a laugh when she saw Zenith stumble in disbelief. “So, you never mentioned what your Alma mater is. Would I know the school?” This had been bugging Emilia for quite some time. Someone as good as Zenith could hardly have learned everything she knew from attending regular city schools, even if she had gone to the Terpii National Academy. Maybe the Royal Orphanage, Emilia thought to herself, but Zenith didn’t strike her as an orphan.

“I uh, went to Hall Academy for my primary education as a Mage, then Hall Institute for my thesis level classes in magic tutoring,” Zenith said quietly. 

“Hall Academy? Where is that?” Emilia said, going through the list of Alcudian schools.

“It’s in Appealte. A small school, but they do have a reputation for excellence,” Zenith said, not looking back at Emilia. 

Something in her voice made Emilia think it was not as small as Zenith would like her to believe. “I wouldn’t doubt it Zenith. An excellent alumnus such as yourself says everything about their standards for education.”

“Oh stop it, Emilia. Any more praise and I’ll be flying in the sky. But we are getting close to them, Emilia, quiet.” Zenith said as she crouched behind a tree, peeking out discreetly. Emilia noticed how Zenith had changed the argument and stopped asking, respecting her boundaries. Some people just didn’t want to talk about their past, and Emilia didn’t want to drive her friend away. Still wouldn’t stop her from inquiring about Hall Institute though, just for curiosity’s sake.

“Come here, Emilia! Watch how Lily does.”

Lily was actually here? Stepping close to Zenith, Emilia stayed standing and peered over Zenith into a small clearing that had been carved out of the forest. She noted the rows of clovers and wildflowers growing in the clearing. ‘So that is where Lily had been gathering her flowers at.’ Usually, they wouldn’t be blooming this late into the growing season. But what caught her eye was a young boy holding a wooden shield with a sharpened wooden training sword, and a young girl holding a rough-looking stick.

No, not a stick, a staff. The staff was slightly larger than the girl herself; one end planted in the dirt to help balance the staff. In front of them was a wild boar, roughly as large as the children themselves. The boar’s body was covered in scratches while it’s sharpened tusks laid broken by its feet. 

“Tyler, remember your role. The shield-bearer must protect their party, for without them…” a young woman’s strict voice sounded out somewhere in the field in front. The voice reminded Emilia of her old drill instructors.

“Without them the party is defenseless.” Tyler’s childish voice sounded out in reply, finishing the well known saying. His eyes and stance showed his grim determination to stop the boar in front of him.

“Lily, you need to focus more. Trust your party members. Trust is…”

“Trust is the basis of the party. For without it, a party is useless.” her daughter said loudly, her eyes focused on the boar in front of her. Emilia swelled with pride at the sight, but she still looked apprehensive at the boar. In truth, she thought that it was too tough of a challenge for the children. When she was a child, her party had only fought after the instructors had practically killed the training monster. 

The boar in front pawed the ground roughly, and even Emilia could tell the beast was settling into a charging stance. “Tyler, focus on what the beast is doing. Don’t hide behind the shield yet. How will you know which way to deflect the monster if you aren’t even watching it? Lily..”

“I know! ‘O blowing winds…”

“She’s getting ready to cast her spells. At eight years old, she doesn’t have the mana capacity to instantly cast tier zero spells, so she has to use incantations to prolong the casting time. Lily would be ahead of her class right now if you sent her off to magic school.” Zenith said proudly. Emilia could tell without looking that a smile would be plastered on Zenith’s face right about now. The boar grunted loudly and charged, heading straight for the two children. To the boy’s credit, Tyler stood his ground and watched the boar rapidly advance toward him. Lily faltered, but closed her eyes and focused on her words. 

“How is he going to stop the boar? It’s as large as he is!” Emilia whispered.

“Don’t know. Close combat is not my specialty. I’ll stop it if it gets too dangerous, don’t worry. But let’s see what he comes up with.” Zenith spoke quietly, pointing her walking stick at the boar. Just as the boar was about to strike Tyler, he leaped to the side, causing Emilia’s heart to stop. Lily was right in the path of the boar!

“…Push the enemy, [[Gust]]!” Lily screamed out, a gust of wind caused the trees opposite of them to sway heavily. Tyler screamed and jumped as the gust rammed into his back and shoved the boar’s head to the side, causing the relatively massive beast to fall heavily into the ground and roll, pushing the monster away from Lily. “[[Shield Bash]]!”

The sight stunned Emilia. She knew deep down that their teamwork was far better than her party had at their age. No, not even their age. Even up to her teens, the party she had been in was not as coordinated. “Good job you two! Next time make sure to stab after you bash, Tyler. Lily, after casting your spell you should move in the same direction as the Shield Bearer. Keep your eyes open so that you know which way to move.” Paige clapped her hands, startling Zenith and Emilia. She had been standing right next to them!

“Paige! What did I tell you about sneaking up like that!” Zenith exclaimed angrily.

“Just checking to see who it was, no big deal,” Paige frankly stated as she walked back to the clearing. “Boary, thanks for the practice! You’re free to go.” Emilia stared as the boar rolled to his feet, snorting angrily. Paige watched it boredly, her hands on her wooden hoe. “That’s the deal, they get to practice, you get free food.” The boar snorted again, looking over at his tusks with anger. “We both know your tusks are too dangerous for children. Tell you what, you come to me when you have a problem and I’ll deal with it personally.” Emilia watched with a daze as the boar walked off with a limp. Was Paige a Rancher instead of a Farmer? 

“BYE BOARY! Mother! I defeated a boar!” Lily’s voice broke Emilia’s line of thought and put a quiet smile on her face. She hadn’t heard Lily this happy in ages.

“You did amazing, Lily. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with my party when I was your age.” Emilia said, severely downplaying what age her team would have been able to handle a boar that size.

“I am amazing aren’t I,” Lily said proudly. “Did you see Tyler block that boar mother! We made a great team!” Tyler blushed as they all looked at him.

“You both did well. But remember, you are not allowed to fight monsters by yourselves, not until I and Zenith allow it.” Paige said seriously.

“Yes ma’am!” Tyler and Zenith shouted, their non-dominant hand-pressed on their chest in the standard battle-class salute.

“Lead on you two, show us your navigation skills!” Tyler and Lily nodded, pulling out a small compass and a tiny map from their waist knapsacks. Emilia raised a brow at the sight.

“Really Paige, survival training at eight? That’s at least six years too early.” Zenith said with a disapproving tone.

“Bah, every child should know at least how to survive in the wilderness for a few days. It’s not like it hurts them to know how to navigate. We’ll follow the two of you. Lily, make your mother proud!”

“You were off by forty feet. Not bad, but remember to keep your steps even.” Paige admonished lightly as they stepped into farm fields. Emilia narrowed her eyes and calculated where they would have ended up; and marked a few loosely hanging wooden slats on the corner of the barn to their right.

“I’ll do better next time Teacher Paige!” Lily said with determination. Paige cleared her throat lightly, Lily quickly catching on, “I mean, if I go off again. No, I mean when Teacher Zenith teaches us these techniques. Yeah, that.” Lily said proudly, blushing just a bit. Zenith sighed and Emilia laughed at the sight.

“Whoops, gotta go!” Paige said quickly, running back into the woods. “GET BACK HERE FARMER PAIGE!” Lukas yelled from the main path, rushing quickly over to try and head Paige off from escaping.

As they all headed back to the main house in mostly high spirits, Emilia caught sight of Kate playing with the smaller children. “You know what Zenith, maybe I will invite Kate and Julia to the banquet. A change of pace is exactly what I needed.”

Zenith smiled. “That’s all one really needs at times, Emilia. A nice, quiet change of pace.”

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