Chapter 46

“Paige, we’ve been at this for almost three weeks now. How much longer do you want to comb the forest?” Nick said with a weary tone. The sunlight barely penetrated the upper canopy of the forest, dark shadows and the ever-present fog were grating on his nerves. The first week had barely been a trial run of mapping out the forest in full, but the more they explored, the more their written map didn’t seem to make sense. Even systematically mapping out the forest was an issue, as some parts just didn’t seem to link up when looking at the map. Only the main paths in and out of the forest, and perhaps about a hundred yards to either side were consistent. After that, it seemed chance played a bigger part. Or was it Skills?

Nick knew on some level that something was strange with the forest the last four years, but he relied heavily on his Skills to traverse this ancient forest. It just didn’t seem right not to initially, for some reason. Besides, after walking the woods so many times with his Skills he was always able to get back to where he wanted with relative ease. But with Paige present, his Skills no longer seemed to work, which brought the inconsistent feeling to the forefront of his mind.

The forest wasn’t transversable by normal means. Nick looked over at Paige, who was walking with her eyes closed. This is what they had to resort to: alternating each of their skills. Nick’s [Nature’s Calling] skill was somehow incompatible with Paige’s [Natural Explorer] skill, which made sense to Nick after working through the issue. One skill focused on listening and moving along with nature, while the other was focused on exploring nature. A small distinction, but it seemed that it mattered now.

“We’ll keep on travelling until we find something recognizable. I can swear I have been here before, Nick. I just know it.”

“You said that about every place we’ve found so far. How you’ve ever survived out in the wilderness is a mystery, Paige.”

“You are just mad that I can find the way back to the trails faster than you can, mister ‘I’ve lived in forests all my life.’ Psh, more like lost in a forest all your life.” Paige shot back, her sickle slicing through the underbrush with relative ease. “It has to be some type of natural formation. I mean, I think I’ve seen something like this in the far east. Some bandits had made their home in a forest, and I took the job to flush them out.”

Nick eyed Paige as she thought to herself. It was odd how he forgot how old Paige was sometimes. She certainly didn’t act her age, but hearing these stories from her past really highlighted how experienced Paige truly was. Not many battle classes left their home country and even less traveled the majority of the Empire willingly. She had to be over a thousand years old, surely. “And, pray tell Paige, how does this remind you of bandits?”

Paige could hear the sarcasm in Nick’s voice, but ignored it outright. “It took me almost two months to find their hideout and flush them out. The main reason was the forest changed constantly. You had to take a certain path each time to reach certain parts of the forest. That one was lined up to the cardinal directions, and you had to use a specific pattern to reach parts of it.” He stared at Paige with a frown. She was a lot smarter than he gave her credit sometimes. “You’ve already tested it, haven’t you?”

She nodded. “Yeah, when I was looking for Boary, I was using [Trail Finder], and I followed a trail that I knew headed toward some ancient pines deeper in the forest. You know which one I’m talking about. Well, I never made it. I ended up in a clearing instead. I never really gave it much mind until a few days ago, but I haven’t been able to find that clearing again.”

“Maybe your Skills, Paige. Have you talked to Zenith about it?”

“I have when she came back last time, but both of our Skills are fairly rare to have. Even Sara’s skill is relatively rare for a Hunter to have. Or what is our equivalent to a Hunter? An Apprentice Marksman?” Paige asked skeptically.

“An Apprentice Archer more like, or whatever monster she killed the most of. An Apprentice Deerslayer? Marksman are usually only found in Armies.” Nick replied after a moment.

“You were a Hunter, right? Before you became a Ranger, I mean.” The pendant you gave Isabella had a slight hint of mithril. Not a lot, but just enough to make it shinier than usual. 

Now this was rare; Paige actually brought up Isabella on her own. Privately, Nick thought Paige was far more doting on Isabella than she should. Was there a story behind that? “I was a Hunter before a Ranger. The skills translate pretty easily, you know. I don’t know if she would be classified as an Apprentice though. Just her Skill alone would mark her above the rest. [[Blessing of the Wild]] is not something to sneeze at, Paige. Even I don’t know how she gained that skill.”

“Fortituous encounter, perhaps? Or maybe it’s just an innate skill. Definitely not something her affinity granted her. She should only have a lesser affinity to nature, if that, and her mana capacity is minimal to none. I’m surprised she can even use her Skill, If I am being totally honest.”

Nick grunted in acknowledgment. He couldn’t speak for Paige, but his skills hardly used that much mana either, and he had more mana than Paige. Originally at least. Over the last few years, he had noticed Paige using far more skills than usual. Being a Farmer had somehow allowed Paige to have a much denser mana core than before. “You know, your mana capacity wasn’t anything to talk about either. “

“I know, but I also had years of practice to make mana consumption very, very efficient.” Stopping at a boulder, Paige sighed. “We hit Zenith’s trap formation again. So going northwest toward the lake takes us southwest instead.” 

Nick noted idly that the fog and canopy had thinned out considerably as well. “It took us far out of the depth of the forest as well. I don’t know how we missed that. Let’s head back Paige, we can restart from this location tomorrow.”

Paige nodded with a sigh and started heading back the way they came. The main path soon appeared and they reached a slight turn in the road, confirming to Nick that they had indeed traveled farther than they should have. They were far closer to the settlement than they should have been, considering that they had started heading off toward the lake initially.

“Nick, what do you think of Sara? Does she have enough potential to truly mentor her?”

Nick stopped. “What brought that on, Paige?”

“You haven’t really gotten any of your combat skills back. So maybe mentoring someone would let you get it back. I mean, even Tyler and Zenith got some of their skills back that way.”

“I could try, but you didn’t get your skills back that way. You got yours from practicing constantly in your fields. Marcus told me you like to have mock fights with Boary.”

Paige blushed slightly, not really denying his claims. “Okay, so I do sometimes have mock fights; but the majority of my combat skills are still locked, unlike Tyler and Zenith. Only the ones I heavily modified for farming or traveling are available. I still can’t use [Blink] or [Seismic Slash] reliably, for instance. Maybe one in ten? One in five? Whatever, it still isn’t high enough for me to take the risk.”

“Would it kill you not to brag, Paige?” Nick’s eyes twitched at her estimates. Using a skill subconsciously, having even one in a hundred was a praiseworthy amount, all things considering, not to say her ten to twenty percent. 

She scoffed. “It’s the truth though. Especially for a skill like [Blink]. The whole purpose of having an instant movement skill is being able to set up an attack from a distance. Do you know how stupid it would look slashing blankly at air if the skill doesn’t work? Not to mention it practically shouts to the opponent that you know some type of skill. Have you never fought a High Class to the death before?”

“I don’t make it a regular occurrence. And I’m a Ranger, Paige. Sneak attacks and ambushes are what I’d rather plan for. You wouldn’t see me waiting in the middle of a path for an enemy to arrive. You’d get an arrow to the heart instead if I could manage it.”

Silence. Paige thought about it for a moment and shrugged. Slowing his steps to walk behind, Nick looked beyond the forest and thought about Paige’s original question. Sara. Would she be a good Ranger candidate? He knew that it was against every regulation to train someone outside not fully recognized as an Apprentice Ranger, but to his surprise, he wasn’t conflicted as much as he thought he would be.

“If what Paige said is true, then mentoring someone should help me unlock my battle skills reliably. But do I need all of my Skills? I already have [Nature’s Calling] and [Silent Arrow].” Unstringing his longbow, he thought about his other skills. One for stabilizing the bow, another for increased punching power, and another to reinforce the bow to minimize breakage. When had he started relying on his Skills to be a Ranger? Was it right to even call him a Ranger at that point? That was the main reason he wasn’t in a hurry to gain his Skills back. Did he really need them to be a Ranger? His spells were different, but without a guide or a spellbook, he probably couldn’t relearn his spells. 

“Hey, Tyler is finally back. Wonder what news he has to share with us.” Snapping out of his thoughts, he looked toward what Paige was pointing at ahead. Tyler’s backpack was leaning on the steps to the house, his cart and pack mule already tied to the side of the barn. 

Walking quickly into the settlement, Paige whistled sharply, looking up to the sky for something. A figure darted out of the woods and quickly circled around Paige’s head. The Peregrine Falcon. “Paige, how did you train that Falcon? Shouldn’t you need a Class, or at least a beast taming skill?”

“Usually you would, but I’m not asking for it to do anything special. Now, if I wanted it to gather intelligence, or stalk something then sure, but all I want is for it to deliver messages to a specific recipient. Time, a scent for tracking, some positive reinforcement, and a command to show itself is really all that is needed for a messenger bird.” Holding her hand up, Nick watched as Paige whistled a simple tune, which the falcon in question chirped back. “Okay. It is Tyler. I guess let’s welcome him back home.”

“Paige. Nick.” Tyler said as they both walked through the door. He was sitting at the table, already munching on an apple Zenith had left on the table for decor. Tyler was looking much more fit this time around than even last time, Nick noted. True to his word, Tyler had shed most of his weight and bulked up in muscle instead. His worn backpack straps told how much weight and how much use they had gotten out of, the leather practically fraying where most of the weight was distributed across the straps. His brown hair was cut short as usual, almost to a regulation buzz cut most armies so typically favored.

Nick noticed that Tyler had less of a tan this time around than his past trips. ‘He must have taken mainly forest routes then,’ he thought to herself. Locking his eyes on the map that was laid out on the table in front of Tyler, Nick quickly plotted his most likely route, based upon his assumptions. Almost a month out would have put him quite close to the interior zones of the defensive line. He must have already been headed back this way for him to have made the trip this soon.

“Tyler, you look happy. Did you have a good time sightseeing and selling… weapons, supplies, … and candy? It smells like you burnt some of it,” Paige sniffed the air heavily at her last question, as though she could smell something in the air.

“Haha, I did burn some sugar. For some reason the smell sticks heavily to the leather. I need to apply some lacquer to the leather, but I ran out of high-quality flax oil.”

“Hm. We can ask Kate for some next time you go to the merchant association. Or did you already?”

“I went there already to report my earnings. I saw Zenith teaching there too, which was surprising. But I’m guessing something went wrong, since Nick and you are still here in the forest. That was definitely not the plan.”

“Yeah, we can explain while we wait for Zenith to come back. Care to give us a snippet of what you learned?” Paige asked with a frown as she looked at the map thoughtfully. The bright x’s on the defensive line did not paint a pretty picture.

Tyler grimaced. “It’s not looking good, Paige. Not by a long shot.”

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