Chapter 37

“Look Paige, the fog is almost gone!” Zenith exclaimed excitedly.

Paige did not share Zenith’s excitement though. “Couldn’t we have come back in the morning? You know, after the sun has risen and I’m not freezing my butt off. Look, even the morning dew is frozen!”

“Paige, we’ve been stuck in here for four years now. How are you not tired of being in a forest? I love nature as much as the next person, but I want to go shopping! I mean, I’m glad Kate is sending merchants this way, but her sense of taste is… not the greatest. I really don’t want another cotton sundress.”

“Notice how Nick isn’t here? That’s exactly how I feel right now.”

“Well someone had to watch Markus. It’s far too cold for him to be out right now.”

“Nu-uh Auntie! I, I, I am fine!” A childish voice called out behind them.

“MARKUS! Get back indoors, it’s freezing outside. Even the morning dew is frozen.”

“But, but, you said once the fog is, is, is gone we can go to the town!” Markus complained loudly. Paige looked over with a smile. Markus had grown over the last four years, but he was still quite the runt. Barely passing three feet tall, he was slightly taller than her waist, his brown eyes shining bright even though the sun still had not peaked over the forest trees behind them.

“He noticed both of you walking on the path and decided he was done with sleeping,” Nick said tiredly, his mock Ranger robe wrapped around him. I’m headed back to bed now.”

“Nick, your already here, stay a bit! It’s an exciting day you know!” Zenith happily exclaimed. “I worked a few days to figure out the exact day the fog would dissipate, and today is the day!”

“Aunt look, the fog is disappearing! It’s leaving, it’s leaving!” Tyler jumped up and down, his voice echoing slightly through the woods behind them.

“Countdown Markus! Three! Two! One! And now!” Zenith and Markus screamed excitedly. Paige rubbed her arms tiredly while Nick stood still, but both watched as the fog disappeared from view.

“… Hooray?” Paige said as she looked around. The forest did look a little weird without the everpresent fog. Not that she would admit it out loud though. “Hold out your wand Zenith. Last I checked I could go about twenty paces out of the woods.”

“Okay, let’s go Markus! We’re off to the town!”

“Hooray! Let’s go see Xavier and John! We can go! We can go!”

Markus ran out happily screaming, easily passing the mental line Paige had drawn on the plains in front of them. Zenith tiptoed to the mental line as well. She had known just how far she was able to go as well since they were stuck within the confines of the mana dispersion fog.

“Okay, here I go!” Zenith closed her eyes and jumped forward, not screaming in pain, which was always a good thing in Paige’s experience.

“Congratulations Zenith! Now can we go back home?” Paige grumbled as she saw Zenith running around in a circle.

“Haha! Nick, come on! Let’s go shopping! We can make it to the Cidala before sunrise if we start running now!”

Nick smiled, a rare sight for Paige. She’d only seen him smile on occasions, but never about something as benign as shopping. A rare wood or a successful fishing trip maybe.

“Sure, Zenith. Markus, get back here!”

Paige watched as Nick strode forward; his eyes locked on Zenith. That’s when she noticed the anomaly. The mist, Paige realized. The mist was rising back from the ground.

“Nick, stop!” Paige yelled hurriedly. Nick turned just as he crossed the line, his face a mix of confusion. “Oh, hell!” She hurried forward, knowing what was about to happen. Nick’s foot hit the ground, the mist coming back in full force around him.

“AAHHH!” Nick screamed in pain as he fell to the ground, writhing in pain.

“NICK!” “UNCLE NICK!” Markus stood shocked as Zenith ran back to pull Nick back into the forest.

“Get him back into the forest, quick!” Paige yelled as she stopped, holding her hoe out in front of her. She cursed as the hoe quickly darkened. “Crap! My mana’s still being recognized! I can’t get him Zenith!”

She drug him back into the forest. “No, that’s not possible. I was able to leave, why, why why!” Zenith exclaimed as tears formed in her eyes.

“Is, is uncle alright?” Markus asked shakily, bringing back some unhappy memories.

“He’ll be fine in a bit, Markus. He just fainted.” Paige said after poking Nick carefully.

“Zenith, I think we need to reevaluate. Look.” Paige pointed at the forest. A slight mist wafted through the trees, refilling the forest.

“NO! It shouldn’t have happened like that! We were supposed to all be able to leave!” Zenith panicked at the sight of the fog.

“You were able to leave Zenith. Can you calculate to see when the fog will dissipate again?”

Zenith sucked a breath in, her chest heaving in shock. “You think only the first person to walk out is able to leave?”

“Maybe. Tyler’s situation is iffy since it seems that the formation actively chose him to be able to leave. But seeing this, I think it may have also been an unfortunate coincidence. By our accounts he awoke first and left the forest first. So…”

Zenith thought about it for a second but noticed Markus still had not calmed down. “Okay. okay. Markus, it’s alright. It’s alright. Shhh shhh, we told them we’d visit today, so we’ll still go.” Zenith quietly said, calming Markus down with a hug.

“But, but uncle. He he -”

“Don’t worry about Uncle Nick, kiddo. Go and have some fun, and make sure you give them our presents. Tell them sorry for us, Zenith. I’ll watch Nick and check on the runes when he’s feeling better. He’ll be fine, Zenith. I promise.”

“…okay. Phew. Okay. Markus, hold my hand. We’ll use [[Wind Walker]] to make it over to Cidala. Take care of him, Paige.” Zenith said steadily, although her eyes betrayed her inner worry.

“….and so, this is my shop! Isn’t it grand! And you didn’t believe me when I said I was the vice-chair of the Merchant Association.” A voice called out to Zenith, awakening her from her thoughts.

“Your right Kate! I didn’t think your shop would be this close to the town square. To be fair though, when we first met you said your shop was a modest little shop. You never mentioned your location.” Zenith smiled a bit, her mood improving. “But where are John and Xavier? Markus was really excited to play with them.”

“They’re helping Tyler and Lily pack their bags. Joanna, can you take Markus here over to Emilia’s house? Thank you!” Zenith watched as a young girl barely older than Markus reached her hand out to grab Markus’s. “Th, this way,” she said quietly as she pulled him fast out the door.

“My little niece is visiting from Trulton. Too little to do in the winter there, so my sister usually sends her this way where it is a bit warmer.” Kate said with a shrug as she caught Zenith’s wondering gaze.

Zenith laid her head down on the counter, sighing loudly. “Sigh. I can’t believe that Lily and Tyler are already leaving for school. It feels just like yesterday that I was just tutoring them, and now…”

“Well, that’s compulsory schooling for you. But they did get into Nespe Academy on their first try, and without recommendations! You know that they only accept less than fifty students a year. I was worried that I might have to grease a few fingers to get Tyler in, but he did it without my help. Lily did too, come to think of it.” Kate said as she packed a few things up from her shop. “Emilia made such a fuss when Lady Emrus bought her son a spot to Nespe Academy. Lily even taunted the poor boy, saying that he probably couldn’t even beat a Farmer if he tried. Oh, the look on everyone’s faces!”

“Well if the Farmer in question is Paige, then Lily’s probably right. They tried so hard to land a hit on Paige last week. Hopefully, they didn’t bruise their ego’s too much.” Zenith said, hoping it would be enough. The week prior, Lily and Tyler requested Paige to stop taking it easy on them, hoping to see just how good Paige was. Their battle was rather….embarrasing to say the least. Everyone present could see just how little effort Paige was putting into the battle. She had closed her eyes and started to hum, still fully able to stop Tyler and Lily from hitting her.

“Where are Paige and Nick anyway? I thought you said everyone was going to visit today?”

“We all were planning on visiting, but Nick and Paige got sick when they left the forest.”

Kate winced. “Ah, did they start vomiting blood again?”

“Yeah. Mana poisoning is no joke. It took me four years before I could leave the forest without triggering a negative mana feedback loop. We didn’t know the ambient mana there was so violent, otherwise, we wouldn’t have stayed. It looks like Paige and Nick accumulated more than I did, hence the effect. I’m just happy it doesn’t affect kids.” Zenith had to make up a plausible explanation to what happened to Paige some time ago, and mana poisoning seemed like the best explanation at the time. Luckily it worked and the Healer’s Hall was not called in. “I have their gifts with me. It won’t make up for them not being here, but at least they’ll know they did intend to come. Paige even asked Merchant Tyler for some special supplies for her gift, so they should enjoy whatever it is.” Zenith patted her bag, some gifts so large they were hanging out of the bag.

“We’ll keep them in our prayers. I’m confident they’ll get better soon. Heh, I’m glad Tyler brought something for the kids; that means it’s at least better than the last gift Paige gave them. I mean, I know she is a Farmer but she could’ve given them something better than just seeds.” Kate said with a chuckle.

Zenith also chuckled but was slightly curious if the two kids managed to grow anything. “Supposedly, Paige said they were magic seeds. But she never really told us what plants they were from. Did anything grow from it?”

“Funny you should ask. A weird tree grew from both. A bonsai really. Paige’s instructions for the tree are pretty rigorous for a kid to follow. Has to grow in the pot she gave them. Three hours of sun, two hours of shade, a minimum of one hour of mana exposure. Enough water to last all night. Actually, that last instruction gave Lily and Tyler some problems, since the pots she gave them couldn’t hold that much water. Emilia had to get a blacksmith to create a drip pot for them.”

Zenith blinked. That did sound…well, it really sounded like it almost could be a magic tree. In fact, it felt like a practical joke until Zenith remembered Paige’s nonsensical [[Friend Finder]] spell and it’s ridiculous conditions to cast. “And they actually keep that schedule?” Kate nodded happily as they walked to the front door. “Mhmm. You said they should practice releasing their mana as long as possible, so they do. I think the tree was a good practice tool for them in that regard.”

“Hm. Well, they’ll be ahead of their class for sure then. Paige said Tyler has a good chance of being tutored one on one with a Warrior instructor, and I think Lily will be shoved into the gifted magical program. They might even be able to skip a few classes if they can get a good enough score on the academic side.” Zenith followed Kate, telling her what their chances were of graduating early. She fully enjoyed the town atmosphere. She hadn’t realized how much she missed being in a town full of people. Most days it was just Paige and Nick to talk with, since Tyler spent a majority of his time growing his business and collecting information. On rare occasions, Kate or Emilia would come too, maybe every few weeks or so.

“So, uh, where are we going Kate?” She wondered as the houses started spreading out farther apart. The houses were starting to get nicer as well.

“Emilia’s house. We’ll be there in a few minutes. Why?”

“Umm, so I never felt comfortable asking. But what is the Thompson family known for?”

“Hm? You never asked? Well, her husband Richard is a pretty influential merchant. He dabbles in a lot of things really, but he helps manage the supply lines for the Alcudian Defensive Lines. The southern part of Alcudia is one of the largest grain suppliers in the nation. We account for almost forty percent of the annual food supplies for the military. He’s even received recognition from Queen Rebecca for his management skills during the invasion. Emilia, on the other hand, owns some of the local iron mines here. But she’s really gotten involved in the library since Lily goes there all the time. Not many are willing to get on their bad side, even in Nespe.”

Zenith blinked. “Huh. Maybe I should have increased the price for tutoring. A hundred gold a year for everything is sounding pretty piddly now.” Kate coughed, “Actually Zenith, we have a contract…”

“Haha, I know. Next time I’m charging three hundred gold.” Zenith laughed as Kate partially tried to convince her to change her mind, both knowing full well that Zenith would never really do that to Xavier and John. Kate stopped in front of a mansion, complete with a Butler standing in the shadow of the gate.

“Hello, Sir Stephone. Which way do we go today?” Kate asked, bowing her head politely. Zenith followed suit, not knowing how polite she had to be. Butler’s tended to be pretty low on the social totem pole in Appealte, but she hadn’t met a butler in Alcudia prior to this, even when she was a Diplomat.

“Lady Kate. Lady Emilia and guests are already in the garden. You should hurry, the carriage is leaving at sundown to make it to Nespe in time for the opening ceremony in the morning.” Butler Stephone said lightly. He stared hard at Zenith, clearly evaluating who she was. Frowning slightly, he took in the woman in front of him. Light complexion, but not light enough to be indoors all day. He could feel a slight magic fluctuation from her, but he couldn’t quite pin down how strong she was. Either she was vastly stronger, or vastly weaker. Her dress clearly marked her as some type of foreigner, typically only seen in the plains to the far east. “And this is…”

“This is Miss Zenith. Lily’s magic and general tutor. She’s been under her care for the last four years now.” Kate supplied carefully, edging in front of Zenith.

“Hrmm…you said you come from Appealte right? Then how come the style of your dress is reminiscent to the Kimihana dress worn in the Eastern Plains?” Butler Stephone’s eyes narrowed slightly, carefully watching Zenith’s expression.

“Eh? My husband is a Bower from Leit. How am I supposed to know where he found the dress?” Zenith truthfully admitted. “My husband says the best Bower’s always trained in Leit. We moved here when Markus was young.” They both looked at each other, one young and one old. They both knew the other was hiding their abilities. Paige had said the dress was worn by traveling nomads in Leit. But she never said it originated in the Eastern Plains. So how did this Butler know where it truly originated from?

“We really need to get going, Sir. Which way do we go?” Kate interrupted their little staring contest.

“…to the eastern gardens, next to the daylilies.” he said after a moment

Kate grabbed Zenith’s hand and ran ahead, calling out after he had informed them where the party was being held. “Thank you, Sir. Come on Zenith, we’re going to be late!”

“He means well, I think? I’ve never seen him look that way before.” Kate apologized profusely.

“Well, no harm no foul. I’ll just be careful around him if I see him again.” Zenith shrugged. She didn’t dare use her mana to check his Class level. But as a former Wind Mage, she knew she had at least a fifty percent chance of beating him outright. From a distance of course.

“Good idea. Ah, here’s everyone!” They turned the corner and ended up in a large garden, a large field blooming with purple daylilies, Lily’s favorite color. A lot of people were gathered here, a majority of those unknown to Zenith. She could tell everyone was evaluating her; her looks, her social rank, her abilities, but Zenith paid it no mind. Wearing a polite smile, Zenith nodded at a few people, unworried about other people’s opinion.

“TEACHER! MENTOR!” Two young voices called out to her, causing her to truly smile. Lily and Tyler were growing up so fast! She bent down to give each of them a hug as they ran up to her. “You really came today! I just knew you would leave that dark and broody forest to come here!” Lily said with a wide grin. Was the forest really that dark and broody though?

“But where is Miss Paige and Mister Nick?” Young Tyler looked around, hoping to spot them in the crowd.

“I’m sorry Tyler. I know it would have meant much for Miss Paige to be here, but she still can’t leave the forest yet, due to her condition. Mister Nick is the same. But I do have their gifts here for you.

Tyler smile faltered for a second, but he shook his head and nodded. “Okay, maybe next time.”

“Tyler, Lily, go and greet the other guests! We’re about to do your present segment next!” Emilia knocked both of their heads gently. “And make sure you smile!” Getting both of their promises, she released them back into the crowds. She turned, looking at Zenith cheerfully, causing her to step back suspiciously. She was never usually this cheerful. “Zenith, thank you for coming! I want to introduce you to everyone!” Emilia laughed a little loudly, hugging both Zenith and Kate.

“That’s alright Emilia. As much as I’d like for you to show me off like a prize dog, I am here just for my two students.” Zenith chuckled slightly, knowing full well what Emilia wanted to do. “Sorry for being late.”

Emilia just shrugged, knowing she had been seen through. “Well, Markus is having fun with the kids over there. I’m glad you two were able to come. I overhead what happened. I am sorry about Nick and Paige as well. Are you sure you don’t need me to hire a healer to come this way? It’s the least I could do for you.”

Zenith was grateful that Emilia at least looked concerned about the two of them. “It’s alright Emilia. Mana poisoning is not something that a Healer is able to fix. Time is the best medicine for that. I do have their presents, do you want me to put them on the table?”

Emilia shook her head, “No, I know full well that both of the children will want your gifts first, no matter what I say. So you might as well keep them on you.”

Zenith linked arms with Emilia, leading her away from the more crowded areas of the garden. “Emilia, I met your Butler. He has quite an intense air around him. Do you know of any reason at all why he might not like me?” She gave Emilia a quick rundown on what had happened at the main entrance.

Emilia frowned. “From what I know, he shouldn’t. And he’s not my butler, per se. He’s Richards butler, appointed by the Queen herself. During the war, there were a lot of officers that had been assassinated at their own homes. Before his death, the late king had placed Royal Guardians to protect the surviving officers. Normally we wouldn’t be included in that list, but with the majority of food supplies flowing from this area…”

“Ah. Fair enough I suppose. I’d be wary of strangers too if I lived a life like that.” Zenith thanked Emilia, and then separated to look for Markus, but she could not find him anywhere. ‘There is a hedge maze right next to the garden. What are the chances that Markus is playing in there? Hmm. Probably pretty good. Maybe I should go and look for him discreetly.’ Zenith paused and stared at the hedge maze, lightly sending wisps of wind throughout the maze, hoping to find Markus.

“Do you need help finding something?” A males voice called out directly behind her.

Zenith steeled her nerves, calming herself down. ‘That butler again. He’s pretty good to get this close to me without me noticing.’ “I am looking for Markus. Have you seen him? About three feet tall or so, brown eyes, black hair.”

“I believe Lily and Tyler brought the kids over for the present portion of the event. This way, if you’d please.” Stephone bowed slightly, indicating which way to go with a sweep of his hand.

“Thank you.” Zenith noted that everyone was moving toward that way, making it less likely that the butler was targeting just her. “Zenith, this way. Your up first!” Kate called out helpfully, seeing that Zenith was next to Stephone.

As she arrived, Zenith frowned as she noticed that the kids were intentionally separating Kate and Tyler from each other. ‘Emilia said some of the parents were hard to deal with. Did the parents intentionally tell their kids to do that?’ Zenith decided to fix that problem herself. “Tyler, Lily, I need both of you here,” she called out, pointing to where she wanted both of them to stand. Tyler moved there easily, while Lily had to push her way out of the crowd of children.

“This is a big milestone for both of you, and while Paige and Nick could not come, I do bring their messages. Lily, Tyler. Choose your party carefully. They will either bring you to new heights or bury you.” Zenith ignored the whispers behind her, keeping eye contact with the two of them until they both nodded slightly.

“From Nick, an adventurer’s knapsack for you two. Never go without one, for you never know when you might need a basic tool.” She pulled out a tiny camouflage bag, one that Nick himself always wore when he went into the forest. Focusing on Lily, Zenith smiled. “Lily, as your mentor, know that I am proud of how far you have come in the last four years. Here is something that Nick and I made for you.” She pulled a thin rod from her sleeves, the sides were highly polished. On the tip shone a bright green shard of stone, the light reflecting green rays of light to the floor below. “The tip is made from a shard of a wind sparrow mana core. The wand itself will last you until you graduate from school. Although I wouldn’t recommend a staff until after you stop growing, you can take the shard off and move it to another.”

Lily smiled brightly as she grasped the wand, the light emanating from the wand fading slightly. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world, mentor!”  

She gave the girl a quick hug before turning to Tyler. Zenith hesitated. This was really supposed to be Paige’s responsibility. That and she didn’t particularly like what she had to do since Paige was not here. “Tyler, your gift is a little different. Paige had Tyler and Nick help with her gift.” She opened her bag, pulling out two small items. A wooden sword handle, and a wooden grip for a shield.

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