Chapter 45

“I’m glad you were able to stay for dinner, Sara. It’s quite rare for you to actually take us up on our offer. Am I not scary anymore?” Paige asked with a chuckle, clearly enjoying having company. Sara squirmed under her gaze, answering Paige shyly.

“I did have a good time. Most of what I know is from the teachers at the academy, so it’s nice to get a refresher course. It’s always good to see a master archer at work,” Sara mumbled shyly.

“Ha, hear that Nick! You’ve advanced from a Bower to a Master in the blink of an eye! How does it feel gaining an apprentice, Nick? Care to set a wager on who would win; Markus or Sara? Within a range of one, three and five years.” Her eyes twinkled with light as the wager lit a fire in Sara’s eyes.

“We both know that’s not a contest. Now, let me choose time, place and scenario and maybe I would take you up on that bet.” 

Zenith laughed from the side as a light-hearted argument arose on the feasibility of a fair duel. Even Markus started to participate more freely. ‘For all her quirks, Paige really was a people person. A little pushy, yes, but she knows how to interact with others,’ Zenith thought to herself.

And for whatever reason, she was in a good mood. “We had a good time, Paige. Maybe next time you should come. Sara practiced trick shots and estimating yardage while Markus practiced shooting. I suppose it’s easier for me since I can practically see the wind, but Nick showed them a few ways to predict how the wind will affect an arrow. So, that was how our day went, Paige. How was yours?” 

Paige stopped and smiled enigmatically. “You passed by Boary earlier. Did you notice anything…special? Different?”

“He was sleeping more than usual?” Markus said hesitantly.

“He was bleeding.” “He smelled differently.” “There was a foreign mana signature on him.” Sara, Nick and Zenith responded. 

“Yup to all four answers. He was fighting something when I found him, so I helped him out a little. Guess what it was.” Paige said a little too seriously for Zenith’s liking. Something that could force Paige to join in … “Was it an elder monster?”

“Sort of. It was a juvenile elemental monster.”

“Was it a Flame Bear?” Sara said venomously.

Zenith watched as Paige shook her head slightly, knowing she was probably going to start looking for that monster. “Haven’t seen one of those in these woods. No, it was far stranger actually. It was a Frost Beholder of all things.”

Everyone blinked at that. “A what?” Markus asked. Nick and Sara also had a blank look on their face. But Zenith knew the importance of what Paige had seen.

“A Frost Beholder. You know, it has lots of eyes and floats. Shoots laser beams from it’s tentacle eyeballs. A Beholder.”

Nick laughed at her description. “That has got to be the worst monster I have ever heard of, Paige. Is it’s natural enemy dust? And what, pray tell, is a Beholder good for. “

“An adult can see through most deceptions and illusions. And they can see pretty far too. You can make some pretty neat stuff with their eyeballs. Most use it for goggles and the like.” 

“That’s not the important part. A Beholder -” Zenith started before Paige shot a warning glance at her. “A Beholder is rare enough of a find for a Battle Mage. Most if not all high-class mages will have at least a Beholder amulet of some type, just for its mana dispelling capabilities.”

“So what monster parts did you gather, Paige? If you don’t mind me asking.” Sara asked.

Paige gave Sara a hard look. “No no, before we talk about that, let’s talk about that Flame Bear. Now, I usually look the other way when you come to these woods to stalk, but that was before I knew what you were looking for. Before you start looking for elemental creatures to fight, how about you come here and get one of us. There is no way you are going hunting in these woods without at least Boary following you.”

“Eh? Sara’s been coming here often?” Zenith asked, surprised at the revelation. Was Paige able to tell when someone was close by? Or maybe only when they are nearby and hiding?

“She’s a regular in these woods. You come at least once a week or so. And before you say anything, Boary and I make sure that your camp site stays safe.” Holding up her hand to stop Sara from arguing, her tone softened, “You could have come to us, Sara. I know that it wouldn’t be closure for you unless you killed it yourself but if you want, we can all go and look around these woods a little closer, as a group.”

Sara blushed and looked at her plate, clearly avoiding Paige’s gaze. “I, I might ask for your help once I find that monster. But right now I want to try doing it myself.” 

“Let her be, Paige. But we will have to change some of our defenses around here. Markus, no more wandering without us.” Nick said after a short moment. “And I agree with Paige, Sara. You need to have someone as well from now on. At least until one of us says otherwise.”

“Well, what about you all? How come you aren’t worried about monsters in these woods?” Sara challenged back.

“Look me in the eye and ask me that Sara. Ask any of us that question.” Paige said quietly. Sara sat in silence. “You already know Nick and I can kill elder level monsters with ease. Get our approval, or go with a partner from now on.”

Looking between the three adults sitting down, Zenith decided to throw Sara a lifeline. “Sara, this is a good opportunity. Paige and Nick aren’t that busy that they can’t teach you some tricks and the like. Without Tyler and Lily here, Markus will need someone to practice with. I’m going to be teaching Xavier soon, so you can just come with me back to the forest.” 

“That sounds great!” Sara beamed at the suggestion, not forgetting to throw a thankful gaze over. Zenith could tell that Paige was hiding her smile from behind Sara. ‘At least I get to be the good guy this time,’ she thought to herself. 

Grabbing the food from the kitchen, Zenith decided it was time to shift the mood and put all of this behind them. Plus, now they had something to talk about after Sara and Markus was gone. “Sara, you can stay in the guest bedroom in the stable. I could use a travel companion for tomorrow, after all. Markus after we eat it’ll be time for bed.”

“So you deflected the talk rather quickly, Zenith. What is so important about Beholders?” Nick asked after Sara and Markus had left. The room was lit by candlelight, their shadows dancing silently on the walls. Paige was already standing by the door, making sure that Sara and Markus were already asleep. Giving a slight nod, Zenith started back where she was in the past conversation.

“I’ve never personally hunted a Beholder before, but they are a common enough target for any Mages that they are a common case study for theoretical hunts. It also helps that most countries, as well as the Guild Hall, have a rather detailed description in their bestiaries. Beholders are usually only found in mana dense locations but Elemental Beholders can only be found in its specific biomes.3 A Frost Beholder can only survive in Tundras, Flame Beholders in Volcanic Areas; Aqua Beholders underwater; etc. So how could a Frost Beholder be found in a forest? Paige?”

Paige was silent for a moment, but warily asked, ” What was the highest level monster the two of you have fought?”

Zenith thought for a second, going through her past hunts. “By type or by size? Type wise I have helped fight off a Winged Drake before, but if we are going by size then I would say a Hurricane Swallow. And before you ask, both of those hunts were coordinated between the Appealte Army and the Founding Houses.”  

“Elder Direwolf pack. A group of seven. Nothing noteworthy or elemental though, if that is what you are looking for.” Nick said quietly, the look he was giving her was causing her to blush a little. Too bad Paige was here, so nothing was going to come from that look tonight.

“I don’t have a clue about this. I’ve fought many elemental monsters, but none outside of an environment that suited it.” Paige said, clearly perplexed about the matter.

“Just give us your best guess, Paige. You have more experience dealing with random and weird stuff than Nick or I.” 

“Har, har. Very funny Zenith. My best guess is a portal of some type or some type of random event, but that would be troublesome to deal with as well. Most monsters never leave their natural habitat, especially since most predators will focus especially on atypical monsters. That Frost Beholder being here is a problem. I can usually sense when there is a monster nearby that could pose a problem, but I didn’t notice that Beholder until I was practically at the battlefield.”

“Paige. Do you think the forest is still safe for us?” Nick asked from the side. “I don’t have the same experiences as either of you two, but I know forests. A healthy forest doesn’t tolerate monsters. In fact, most of nature doesn’t tolerate the presence of monsters well. From what I have seen in the past few years, the forest is in relatively good shape. I would even compare it to the ancient forests in Leit in terms of how the mana feels. If something is changing in the forest, it is happening gradually.”

Paige sighed. “Nick, clear your schedule tomorrow. We need to check the forest again. Hopefully it has nothing to do with the ritual we went through.” Paige sighed as she stared at the ceiling above. “I think we need to figure out how that Beholder got here, Zenith. That Beholder could not have gotten here by normal means.” 

“What parts did you get from the Beholder, Paige? Hopefully you saved the core and the main eyeball. I personally never had a Beholder amulet before, but I do know some of the more common items you can make from its parts.” Zenith shuffled side to side. This was an important question to ask. Beholder parts were always in demand, and the complexity of fighting one without destroying all the useful parts was a tough task for any bounty hunter. She hoped that Paige wasn’t in that category of people.

“Boary ate the core. But I did harvest the main eyeball and six subsidiary ones. So overall, I had a fairly good haul.”

Zenith nodded but was inwardly saddened by the fate of the monster’s core. The lack of a Beholder core was disappointing, as a Beholder core was arguably the most important part for a Mage. To be used as a snack for an Elder Boar to snack on was almost degrading. Pulling out her ring, Paige quickly showed her the fruits of her labor, taking great to not damage the large eyeball.Zenith was not expecting to see one as big as that. Seeing the eyeball was amazing, yet also quite eerie. As the large eyeball reflected the light off of the candle, Zenith noted something odd; no matter where Zenith stood, she could swear the eyeball was following her.

“Don’t stare at the eyeball too long, Zenith. I don’t know what class you took on it, but it clearly missed one point. Staring at the main eye is a bad idea. A Beholder’s gaze can charm an enemy quite easily, and most of the fatalities against Beholders often happen because of a lack of attention.” 

“I, I wasn’t staring that much.”

“You were looking at it for almost ten minutes. Honestly, I thought after the first five you would have realized something was wrong.”

Watching as Paige threw a washed cheesecloth on top of the eyeball, her interest in the eye quickly vanished. Zenith blushed as the realization she had indeed been mesmerized by the eye, but luckily for her the candlelight hid most of it. “The lighting is bad here.”

“Mhmm. Anyways, the main eye is fairly large. Zenith, could you incorporate it into a magic circle? I suppose we could make it into a shield, or possibly a scrying mirror? But with only one eye, I don’t know how I feel about doing it ourselves. Is there anyone in Appealte that can process this, Zenith?”

Zenith didn’t need a moment before she shook her head. “Not with the circumstances we are in right now. I know a few Mages who dabble in craftmaking and would love to get their hands on this, but our identities are the main problem. The questions that would arise from us even having this would be a fairly problematic to deal with.”

Paige sighed. “True. And suspicious. I know of few underground groups who could process it, but none of them are based close to Alcudia.”

Storing the materials back into her ring, Paige sighed as she stood up. “For now I’ll hold onto these. I guess we’ll wait for Tyler to get back and then decide our course of action. But we will definitely check out the forest again.” 

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