Chapter 57

“You fail, again.”

“Aww, come on Uncle Nick! This makes it a hundred times! Can’t you give me some type of hint of what I’m doing wrong?”

“Nope. Learn from your mistakes. Think about what you’ve been doing consistently for the last hundred times, and change it.” Nick chuckled at Markus’s predicament.

They were standing in the forest. Or rather, Nick was standing while Markus was staring up from the pitfall trap. Markus groaned as he jumped, grabbing onto the roots lining the pit walls. Nick chuckled as Markus slid down the walls, the muddy soil impeding his climb upward.

“I don’t know, uncle. I’ve done everything you’ve taught me and I’m still getting trapped. Please uncle, Aunt Paige is going to kill me if I lose to Sara next month!”

“I heard what your punishment would be, and it’s not that bad.”

“Two days of standing under a waterfall! Two! Days! I can hardly stand there for half a day, and she said that she’d be dropping things from the waterfall if I fail!”

“Zenith won’t let that happen. Besides,” Nick smiled as he reached out his hand. “you might need more motivation in order to take this competition seriously. Paige doesn’t like losing. Not without a good reason. And right now, you don’t have a good reason to lose.”

“Sixty pitfall traps, ten rope traps, nine illusions, three monster dens, eight formations, and ten times finding my way out of the forest slower than Sara. Come on uncle, just a hint will do!” Raising his hand, Markus pleaded silently.

Nick sighed as he held out his hand. “Fine. A simple hint.” Pulling Markus out, Nick thought about the hint. It couldn’t be too obvious; otherwise, Markus would have a really good chance at beating Sara, especially with the Skills he knew. Sara had a bigger advantage with her Class and Skill, but Markus had an overall advantage should the competition continue to nightfall. Mana affinity trumped Skills, especially in a simple navigation competition such as this.

“A hint… Markus, you’re using the wrong skills to navigate inside a forest.”

“I’m using [Trailfinder] and [Natural Explorer], so I don’t understand why I’m so much worse than Aunt Paige and Sara at navigating through this forest! I mean, I was practically raised here for god’s sake!”

Nick looked over to the boy, his leather armor stained heavily by mud. He cut a sorry figure with his clothes looking like that. Not as bad as a child beggar, but he’d give them a run for their money. At least he had kept his sword grip clean. Paige would certainly scrape a layer of skin had his sword grip been ruined. And Tyler would too, once he got back from his travels.

“I said the wrong skills, not Skills. You are relying too heavily on your Skills without knowing how they actually work. You may have them and are receiving information through them, but you don’t know how to separate good information from bad ones. Like this pitfall trap. Why did you walk straight into it?”

“…because my Skills said this was the best way to go.”

“Because this was a very hidden trail Paige and I made, and you mistakenly believed that your Skill would inform you that something was wrong with the path. You should know better than that, Markus. You’ve seen Paige practice walking through the forest without her Skills. Did you think she was doing it for fun?”

“Well, with Aunt Paige I have no idea if she’s actually being serious about it or not,” Markus said as he rubbed the dirt off his gloves. He grumbled as the dirt stain spread further across his gloves and pants now.

Nick stilled. That was entirely true. Half the things Paige tended to do made little to no sense for him as well. Things usually went her way though, so she either knew what she was doing or her luck was astronomical. “Fair enough. But I know Paige checks with her Skills first and then verifies the results manually. That’s why she takes a little longer to travel than Sara or I.Trust, but verify.

“As a Hunter, Sara is more at home in a forest than Paige, not to mention her own affinity. Now, that ‘s enough of a hint for you. I’ll tell you more after Sara officially beats you next week.”

“Ugh. Thanks for the vote of confidence, uncle.” Rolling his eyes, Markus turned to walk back to the settlement as Nick followed behind. Turning, Nick looked over his shoulders to where Boary was standing and grimaced. “Boary, are you coming or what?” Nick turned to stare at the forest beyond, but there was nothing over there. At least from what he could tell. The boar had been acting far more agitated recently, though neither he nor Paige could make out why he was feeling that way.

And now he was acting agitated again. His fur started to change colors as he walked forward, until he seemingly blended in with the forest itself. Nick unfocused his eyes, trusting his mana to show him where the boar was. Illusion magic. Nick knew that the Boar had successfully absorbed the Beholder core, and this was a very, very strange upgrade.for a boar. Then again, he’d never heard of a person giving a Beholder core to a Boar either, so maybe it wasn’t that strange of an upgrade.

Watching as Boary wandered further into the woods, Nick hesitated, but ultimately chose not to follow him. Although Markus was almost nine, none of them were willing to let him wander the forest alone, not with the increase in Elemental monsters appearing in the forest. Even with Zenith recharging the magic circles, there were far too many monsters, as even Paige had started to avoid monster dens. It was starting to get dangerous in these woods, even when they stayed on the main paths.

“Uncle? Will Boary be fine?”

“Yeah, he’ll be fine. He knows where all the traps are too, and he’s crafty to boot.” Nick watched as he Boary cut open a new game path through the woods and quickly disappeared from their view. Mentally making a note to follow the trail later, Nick caught up with Markus. “So.”

“Hm?” Markus looked over.

“So, I know that Paige has been pushing you rather rough lately. How’s your training going?”

“Bad. Aunt Paige is really good at fighting. Like, really good. But she still won’t teach me how to block a sword with a pair of gloves. But she has switched over to using a shovel against me now.”

“She stopped using her hoe?”

Markus nodded. “Mhmm. But she started using a wooden spade head as a makeshift shield. I really don’t understand why she is so set on using farmer tools to fight?”

“It’s just how she is, Markus. We all have our own personal faults.”

“What would yours be then, uncle?”

“Skills. Do you know why I don’t use a lot of abilities, Markus?”

“Because it’s hard to learn archery skills?”

“Funny. No, it’s because I really don’t need to use a lot. Even at my prime, I hardly used more than nine abilities at a time.”

Nick could tell Markus was frowning. “That’s really not a fault, uncle. Tha-“

“Personal, Markus. Maybe one day I’ll tell you a story about my past. But not until I can resolve it myself.”

“Have you started to do something about it?”

“Perhaps. But first I need to see what news Tyler brings back.” Nick’s eyes narrowed as he thought about his request for guessing Paige’s secret.

“I want you to go to Leit, Tyler. Just a short visit,” Nick adked as they sat by the lake. They were there protecting Markus while Paige and Boary went to eliminate some monster nests that had seemingly popped up overnight.

“Hm? I thought we all agreed to focus on Appealte, since it was closer.”

“I want to find out what changed for me, Tyler. If… If my daughter is still alive, at the very least.”

Tyler sat up “…not your wife as well?”

“I had a choice, Tyler. I chose to do this one last request, and then I vowed to take more time with my family instead of the organization. If I chose to stay…

“I told you all what Ranger Austin said about the attacks, and something stuck out to me. All the surrounding Rangers tasked to protect the village died. But my servants were able to escape with my family outside of the village before they were killed.

“My wife and I both agreed that if something were to happen, that Claire should be brought away to safety over everything else. If I had stayed, I would’ve been covering their escape.”

“Paige said the sacrifices always targeted those with Classes first though. What makes you think you would have made a difference?”

“The fact that people were able to escape is telling enough, Tyler. I’m just saying, that if I was there, I would have made sure my daughter survived.”

Tyler thought for a moment, conflicted. Leit was not too far away, sure. But he was sure Paige was going to stop him if he mentioned he was going to check on Nick’s family. “…Fine. What am I looking for? You have to give me something, Nick. And don’t be like Paige. Either tell me everything I need to know or I’d rather not risk heading that way. I want to spend as little time as possible over there. You know merchants don’t fare well alone in Leit.”

“You’ll be fine. There was an old couple living close to our village. A two day walk, minimum. We had made arrangements to protect Claire, just in case anything did happen. I’m sure that’s where my servants were heading. I’ll give you a map and everything. Just drop in, see if they have any news, and head back. You’ll be there for less than a week, max.”

“…that’s it?” Tyler frowned as Nick pulled a map from his knapsack. He really was prepared this time. Unraveling the map, he pointed out to a small village, right on the outskirts of the Alcudian border. Tyler frowned. “It’s pretty close to the borders, all things considering. I thought you would’ve put them somewhere further into Leit.”

“The village was remote enough that only certain people knew the exact location of it. Most merchants would pass those areas up, since it is remote enough that most would lose money off of it should the maps be outdated, so it was relatively protected from outside influence.”

Nick took out another map, this one far more detailed. Tyler could tell that it was a map of the village and the surroundings. “An abandoned animal trail led to their house. From there, the main roads were only a quarter hour away, so it was a nice, unassuming spot; which is why Anna and I decided it was our best fallback plan. The chances of someone finding it naturally is low, even for Rangers. This map,” he tapped the map, “will tell you how to get there, once you arrive at the village. Just make sure you have your compass ready.”

“Paige and Zenith won’t like it.”

“We don’t like half the things Paige has gotten us into thus far, Tyler. I think I have some leeway in that regard.”

“Three weeks, Nick. I can make a fake travel log to Appealte, but I’ll need some way of entering Leit. Safely and legally, mind you.”

“Your a merchant. Take some of my half finished bows and say a Bower wanted to sell his wares. You’ll get laughed out of most cities, but that’s to your benefit in this regard. Remote villages are more likely to purchase goods, even if it is foreign made.”

“Uncle, did you hear me?”

Nick shook his head, focusing on the task at hand. Tyler would be back soon, hopefully with some information about his daughter. “What did you ask, Markus?”

“I said, can you teach me an archery skill? Any will do, really.”

“Paige already forbid you from learning Archery Skills, Markus. You know as well as I do that it would raise too many questions.”

“Aunt had said that there is one skill that would be useful for a Sword Master though, so I thought I should ask at least.” Markus scratched his head idly as he waited for a response.

Nick frowned as he thought of all the skills he knew. Most of them really didn’t apply to a Sword Master. “Which one?”

“[Deflec-.”

“No.”

“Come on, Uncle! It’s a simple Skill, and it sounds really useful.”

“Let me guess what Paige said about it. ‘You can whack arrows with your sword to deflect them’. Was I about right?”

“…Not in so many words. But yeah.” Markus blushed.

“There’s a reason why most people dodge instead. Deflecting an arrow within reach is a bad plan altogether. There’s no telling what Skills have been applied to an arrow, especially if an arrow was able to get that close to you without you being able to notice it. A quick dodge is preferred instead. You might as well ask Paige to teach you [Blink].”

“Aunt Paige knows [Blink]? Why would a Farmer need that skill?”

“To kill Dire Crows. It’s a problem up north.”

“Haha, your kidding Uncle… Right? Uncle?”

Nick strode past Markus as he entered into their clearing. “Damn. I shouldn’t have told him about Blink. Markus is going to-” Nick swore to himself as he checked around their little secluded home.Their little house on the hill was peaceful; the animals were all out in the fields as their gate swung op-

Nick grabbed Markus and rushed back to the forest proper. Markus stayed quiet as they hid in the treeline.

The gate. Markus realized after a moment what Nick was looking at. Both sides of the gate were open.

Markus quickly walked up to Nick and started signing.

Monsters?

Nick looked around and shook his head. No. Animals in field safe. People. He frowned. Sara wasn’t supposed to be here today, and her little songbird was not singing. Zenith was in town with Kate and Emilia, and Paige was supposed to be restoring the magic circles for Zenith today so she could go shopping.

He eyed the two gates. Three enemy, human. Already gone. He signed to Markus as he noticed the gates pointing inward.

“Safe, uncle?”

“…” Gathering his mana to his hand, he gently touched the tree beside him and closed his eyes.

Nature. Life. Sounds.

Releasing his hold on his mana, he waited as his surroundings became clear to his senses, the sound of nature amplified many times over. The forest was unusually still, but life was resuming for many of the animals. That was a good sign for them. Whoever had visited was already long gone.

“We’re safe. Get your weapon out, just in case. We’ll sweep the barn and then the house.”

“Nick, we had visitors?” Paige asked as she entered the house, her hoe resting on her shoulder while she held a spade in the other. Seeing her eyes tracing the entryways, Nick knew that she wasn’t expecting anyone to visit either.

“We did. Whoever it was hadn’t stayed long or left a message. They didn’t even go into the main house or barn. Looked like they came, checked for signs of life and then left when they found nothing here.”

“Hm… Suspicious. And just our luck too. Hey, where’s Boary?” Paige asked suddenly. ” I don’t like that he’s alone. Not while he’s acting so strange.”

“He noticed something in the woods and made a new game path. Wherever he went, I know where his starting point is.”

Paige turned and sat down at the table. Nick had rarely seen her so exhausted. Paige smiled weakly. “The magic circles are too draining. Zenith hadn’t mentioned that the circles were all wind elemental ones. Makes sense in hindsight since she’s the one that usually powers them, but it’s too draining for me to do it alone. Markus?”

“Upstairs. He fell for the pit trap.”

“Sword hilt?”

“Clean. He’s learning fast, Paige. I heard you even had to start using a shield. What’s that about?”

“Slowly getting used to fighting people again. And it’s a spade head, not a true shield. I still can’t use a shield or a weapon really, but I really don’t need to right now either.”

“You should try again. Markus asked when he was going to learn how to block a sword with a pair of gloves.”

“Heh. Okay, I’ll stop doing that at least. It does keep him on edge though.

Paige sat down at the table, inspecting her equipment for defects, though Nick knew that her equipment only looked shabby from use. He knew that Paige had been replacing all the shafts of her equipment with spear shaft instead, and the same with all of her equipment. Even the spades and hand forks had been replaced with mithril infused steel, which had hurt his heart when he saw how liberal she was with mithril. He knew that the Imperial Family was rich, but the shear amount of mithril Paige had stored within her ring was mind boggling to him.

It was nice that she was sharing her stockpile of materials though. All of their equipment had gone from top class adventurer equipment to pseudo-hero level equipment, with solid mithril plating wedged between the layers of their armor. To make up to Zenith, she had even spent months crafting a mithril chainmail for Zenith to wear under her mage robe.

Of course, Paige’s mithril bodysuit was far more expensive than everything else she owned due to the manufacturing difficulties.

“You’re able to wear your bodysuit now, I see. That’s a good change.”

“I suppose so. But even Farmers need to protect themselves, so it’s not that strange. But weapons…” Paige trailed off, shrugging to herself.

“Hm. Well, I’m going to bed Paige. Unexpected visitors make me nervous. I’ll take second watch tonight.”

“Okay. I’ll send a message to Zenith. She should probably stay in Cidala tonight.

“Nick, wake up!” Paige hissed quietly. “We have a problem.”

Nick awoke and dropped the arrow he was holding. Even though it was dark, it was hard to mistake Paige for anyone but her. He looked to the door; the lock still attached securely to the door. The moonlight that shone throughout the room clued in how Paige had gotten in.

“Paige. What are you doing in here? And why-”

“Use a different trap sometimes, Nick. And get a better window lock. But we have a bigger problem.”

He stopped and looked at Paige. Her voice was laced with stress, her words coming out tense; more angry than afraid though.

Pushing her aside so he could get up from the bed, Nick strode over to his chest and pulled out his equipment, clasping his iron pendant and cloak around him. “What equipment do I need?”

“All of it. Grab your steel arrowheads. Make sure you’re well armored.”

Nick stopped and looked up. Paige was ready to fight something…but what caused this change? He pulled a tiny compartment on his chest held his hand out to catch the front of the chest as it unlatched, revealing a multitude of arrowheads and empty arrow shafts.

He held his hand above the arrowheads and grabbed a leather pouch and a bundle of shafts. “You’re in a mood to fight. What happened.”

“You’ll see when we get outside. How long will it take you?”

“Give me three minutes to craft the arrows. Magic arrowheads as well?”

“…no. Use high quality steel though. And make sure it’ll fly quietly without Skills.”

“What are we hunting?”

“People.”

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