Nick stopped as he was about to close his chest. “Explain.”
Paige waved his question aside. “I will once you come outside. Change into your Ranger gear as well. We’re going to have a fight on our hands. Oh, grab an extra bow as well.”
He looked over at Paige, finally noticing what was different about her in the dim lighting. She had her bodysuit and leather armor on. His eyes swiveled to her weapons. He could see the hoe was hanging off her shoulders, though the blade itself was more weapon like than he’d seen before. The blade of the hoe was straight instead, more for thrusting into the ground than tilling. No shield, but he did spy a sheathed carving knife hanging from her belt, within easy reach should she need to draw it.
She was ready for a fight, at least more than she usually was. And that was saying a lot for Paige.
It was then that Nick’s eyes noticed a glimmer by the door. A simple card was duly shining, the crushed mana core powder twinkling from the light of the moon. Her magic circle cards.
Paige must have followed his line of sight. “I don’t want Markus to leave the house. I already trapped most of the upper floor, so nothing should be able to get in or out of the house until we get back. Just close the window on your way out.”
Watching Paige leave through the window, Nick hurried and started assembling his arrows. Grasping the shaft, he quickly scored the bottom with his grooving tool embedded into his desk, the wood screeching lightly in protest as a thin strip of wood was etched out. Carefully aligning the arrowheads with the fletchings and making sure the groove was on the bottom of the arrow, Nick watched the arrow as he tossed it at the far wall. The arrow flew straight and embedded itself in the wall. Nodding to himself, he quickly started working to modify the remaining arrows.
‘High-quality steel and needs to fly quietly without skills. That means I’ll be using my skills to either increase the punch, or to ensure I don’t miss,’ he thought to himself. ‘Accuracy, distance, silence, punching power.’
‘The groove will help keep the arrow’s flight path relatively straight over a further span. I’ll have to account for a flatter trajectory though. Maybe I should increase the weight to account for no skills. No, don’t have enough time to load the shafts. ’
Looking at his fletchings, Nick cut the fletchings off half of his arrows, electing to let the groove stabilize the flight of his arrows instead. No fletchings would help minimize the sound, though he would still have to use his skill to decrease the sound of the bow twang and arrows in flight. Still, less sound meant less mana wastage, so Nick shrugged off the expected cost.
The cold breeze outside traveled through the now open window and with it, a faint smell of iron. Nick’s eye twitched as the smell came in. No, not a faint smell. As the breeze continued blowing, the thick stench of blood wafted through. Someone was bleeding. And a lot.
“Shit Paige, what have you gotten into now?”
Grabbing his gear, he quickly pulled open the dresser and pulled out his cloak and eyed his bows, hidden behind the rest of his and Zenith’s clothes. Long, short, recurve, complex, cross; Nick had a full arsenal of bows at his fingertips. Eyeing the arrows he had just made, he silently pulled a darkened quiver out and placed the arrows within.
‘Night raid. Hiding won’t be a problem, so… a short bow. That’ll give me the best utility inside the forest. Line of sight will be a problem anyway.’
Stringing the bow, he pulled the arrow out of the wall and tested the draw weight and feel of the arrows, quickly calculating how much force the arrows would have. He wouldn’t be able to get more than eighty pounds naturally, but that would still be enough to kill an enemy, assuming no high quality steel armor or defensive skills. But that was why he had [Armor Piercing]. If one arrow wasn’t enough, then four or five would do the trick. Not everyone was like Paige who could probably shrug off an arrow if she wanted to get hit.
Slinging the quiver over his back, Nick quietly walked to the open window and jumped down, crouching as his feet landed. The stench of iron was far more pronounced now. Turning in a circle, his hand never left the bowstring as he looked for the source. This much blood was bound to attract monsters over. Though, oddly enough the forest was quiet.
“Nick, over here,” Paige called out quietly from behind the house.
“Monsters?” he whispered back.
“No, none will attack tonight.”
A strange prediction, but Nick was hardly in the mood to question her statement. Walking around the house, Nick inhaled as he saw Paige and the shadow next to her.
The stench of blood was coming from Boary. Deep scars ran across his body, blood oozing out as the white of the bones could be seen even in the moonlight. His wheezing breath was labored with pain as he laid there. Paige was there sewing the worst of the cuts up, her arms slowly turning deep red as she worked to stop the loss of blood.
Nick walked up and inspected the cuts. There was no doubt that the boar had fought something, though Nick was hesitant to say it was done by a sword. Paige was using a lot of herbs, slathering a thick coat of paste onto the rest of the boar’s body, taking great care not to touch the deep wounds.
“How long ago?”
“Less than half an hour. I had to stem the worst of the wounds before I was able to get you.”
“What makes you think it’s people? I’ve seen Boary cut straight lines in other monsters before.”
“Check his mouth.”
Nick blinked at the suggestion. The mouth? His eyes tracked to the boars mouth. The boars heavy panting was constant, his breath forming a tiny cloud of fog as his warm breath hit the cold morning air. His tusks…Nick inhaled quietly as he spied what Paige had noticed.
A broken bow laid in his mouth. The bow itself was torn asunder, each limb splintered on the outside edge of the bow.
“… it’s Sara’s bow. The bow was broken from too much tension on the limbs. Looks like she drew it back too far. But that doesn’t explain your theory.”
Nick could see that Paige finished sewing the deepest wound on the boars back and moved to his side. “I count seven distinct strikes on Boary’s hide. My best guess is he tried to rescue Sara, but the first strike dashed his hopes on doing that alone.” She pointed to the boar’s head before going back to sew the next cut. He got the cue and walked in front of fallen boar, waiting for Paige to continue her analysis.
“The first strike sheared off his left tusk and continued forward, though the blow was shallow. The weapon was strong enough to break the tusk, but broke after the strike. That’s why it’s a shallow cut. The next one was deeper and hit bone. I think that’s when he abandoned the rescue and went for her weapon instead. Took three blows to the same side, so he had to show him his broadside. Last two were opposite side to his back. They attempted to close him in as he ran past.”
Nick frowned at Paige’s analysis. When she put it like that… “Breached the perimeter, got surrounded, escaped?” Nick turned. “Paige, if that’s true then we need to go rescue Sara. Right now.”
“Don’t tell me what I already know! Let me finish stemming the blood first. You said you know where his trail started. That’s why I need your help. We’ll follow the trail together and get her out.”
“If he was able to charge, then he must have had enough room to build up his speed. Which clearing has enough space for Boary to complete a charge and then escape?”
“Usually only the clover fields; but if he took a new path, then it’ll be next to impossible for me to find it without your help.”
Nick settled down to wait for Paige to finish. Judging by how fast she was sewing, it wouldn’t take more than a few more minutes.
“Who could do this? And why?”
“Any High Class Warrior could do the second blow, Nick. Specialized Warrior, maybe. Depends on how long they have been working in a group.”
Nick looked over the boar again, hoping to find more clues. The boar cut a rather sorry sight, though the smell of the medicinal herbs had finally started replacing the acerbic iron smell in the air. Besides the cuts, Nick could tell that the boar had not been acting right for the past few days. Did this have something to do with it?
He stood up as Paige finished cleaning the last of the wounds, and waited back while Paige said something quietly to the boar. She turned and headed his way, her eyes hardened with resolve.
“Let’s go, Nick. Lead the way.”
Paige frowned as she followed behind Nick. The path they were following was awfully close to leaving the forest proper. Even though she was able to leave the forest, she was still restricted quite close to the forest. “Are you sure this is the right way?”
“It is, Paige. Keep quiet; Boary’s movements started changing here.”
Paige was miffed. Nick was going so slow!
“Nick, how come you’re taking so long? Last time we fought bandits you weren’t nearly this slow.”
“We had surprise on our side. Since Boary attacked, they’ll have a wider range for their sentries. Can’t risk it.”
“Use a skill then, Nick! For god’s sake, we could’ve been there by now if you used [Hide in Plain Sight] or something! Come on, these are basic Ranger Skills, Nick!”
Nick stopped. “[Hide in Plain Sight] is not a basic skill, Paige. Even I don’t know how you got that one.” He rolled his eyes and continued forward.
Paige narrowed her eyes and followed. “It’s a standard Ranger skills. Okay, it’s a skill normally taught to Ranger Trackers. I should know, I taught that skill to the Rangers. It’s one of the better stealth skills for a Ranger to have, in my opinion.”
“Well then whoever you taught that to died. It’s not taught anymore.”
“Really.” Nick turned his head back to her. “You’ve seen my status. Why is it such a big deal?”
Paige frowned as she thought about the past. Hadn’t she taught that skill to Ranger Diana? Or maybe Daniel? “I figured you hid it somehow. You were able to hide that other spell you knew, after all. [Owl Senses] or whatever that spell was.”
“…you know what spells I use as soon as I use it?”
“Mhmm. Benefit of being a Party Leader, after all. Though it consumes far too much mana for a simple spell.” She saw Nick bewildered gaze, but Paige wasn’t in any mood to ask about it. “Anyway, give me your hand. We need to hurry up.”
She stretched out her hand, waiting impatiently for Nick to move. His gaze rested on her hand.
“Just do it already. I could’ve been done by now. And release your mana as well.”
He slowly moved his hand forward. Rolling her eyes, she stepped forward and extended her mana to her hands, a slight tinge of gold coloring her mana.
“I, in my capacity as the Party Leader, share my skill [Hide in Plain Sight] temporarily.”
Party Leader Paige Alduit skill transfer [Hide in Plain Sight] to Party Member Nicholas Brent complete. Party Leader Skill has been locked. Party Leader Skill downgraded to [Concealment]
Paige nodded as she heard the voice. Altogether, the penalty wasn’t half as bad as she thought it’d be. At least she still had a stealth skill available, even though it was technically not helpful for close combat.
“You can share Skills?”
“Mhmm. Individual skill transfers are not as helpful as a Party Fusion, but in this case everyone doesn’t need the skill.” Paige shooed Nick forward and continued whispering, “I told you before that Party Leaders have a lot of power. There’s a reason they’re called Party Leaders.”
“How come you haven’t told any of us that you could do that?”
“Skill transfers is a dangerous thing to do. Ask me about it later, when we’re not on a rescue mission. You can pick up the pace, Nick. I’ll follow twenty paces behind.”
Watching Nick grimace and scout ahead, she thought about what Nick had said and slightly frowned as well. Hadn’t Nick said something about Leit using formal parties to train Rangers? It was the same basic concept, Party Leader helping out his Party, though she had never really tried it with a team of Apprentices. Apprentice Parties were weird to begin with.
No matter. What was more important was that Nick had an actual stealth skill. Now, whether he used it or not was not her problem. Paige smiled as she followed the trail Nick had left for her and noticed it got harder to follow as time went on. Hands on practice was essential for skill acquisition.
Still, her high from doctoring up Boary and realizing Sara had been kidnapped was fading fast. The elder boar’s behavior had been odd. Not as odd as the rest of the forest, since it too had been restless. But something hadn’t felt right in the forest for a few weeks.
She couldn’t quite place the feeling though. Had it been in a normal forest, she would’ve gone straight to the source. But whether it was the forest itself or the fog that made traversing the forest impossible, she had no clue.
‘Nick better find that clearing soon,’ Paige thought as she followed Nick’s trail. She looked up and spied the constellation of Ertea slowly dipping toward the horizon. ‘It looks like we’re getting closer to the edge of the forest? But why would Boary take a circular route to get here?’ She knew that the Boar was able to leave the forest, as he had delivered items for them before.
Paige stopped as she reached Nick’s next marker and eyed it. Nick had stopped breaking branches and had scuffed the ground instead. That meant he was being more careful with his movements.
‘…We must be getting close to a sentry.’
That was a good sign. And a good test of her skill. [Concealment] wasn’t a very useful skill when moving. But in a forest like this at night, she hardly needed to use a skill to stay hidden. Crouching down, Paige took measured steps as she followed Nick’s trail; crouching closer and closer to the forest floor as she continued moving forward.
She stopped moving as a gale of wind picked up around her, goosebumps forming on her arms as the the temperature around her dropped from the sudden breeze. Sound was not her friend right now. It was a rookie mistake to move when the wind blew, as you most scouts would try to move forward given the chance.
Counting to ten, Paige slowly worked her way forward, taking care to avoid the worst of the fallen leaves. The damp, cold air of winter had started to make the leaves brittle; the crunching of the leaves clearly noticeable in the dead of night.
Crounching down and taking measured steps, she stopped as she saw Nick in front of her, hiding behind a bush.
He immediately started signing as soon as they made eye contact, his hands flashing the simple signs she knew. Twenty guards, circle. Class unknown. Battalion. Three tents. Nine hostages seen.
Paige bit her lip and signed back. Warriors?
A light shake of his head. Unseen
‘There has to be a few. Those cuts are consistent with a Warrior!’ She grabbed for her scabbard and felt nothing. Had she left it? No, she was using a spear right now; the shoulder strap digging into her chest as she leaned forward, though it felt far heavier now.
You take perimeter guards. I circle around.
Nick stared at her, hard. Can you?
She scoffed. ‘Can I? That’s a stupid question to ask.’ Yes. Find person?
Yes. Prisoners. Left camp. Six guards around them. Nick stopped and grabbed a few stones, outlining the positions of the camp ahead, as well as the locations of the sentries he’d seen. He must have used a spell to scout it out, as she couldn’t see far into the clearing ahead. Unless their opponents had someone with a greater affinity as well, Nick and Paige were unlikely to get caught using their mana.
Precautions aside, Paige nodded as she memorized the crude map. At least they knew where Sara was. But having prisoners in the open did complicate things, especially since they had no idea what their opponents were doing here. What was their purpose in all of this? Unlucky souls? Hostages? And were they willing to kill their prisoners outright if they attacked?
Nick shook his head. No.
That helped ease Paige’s mind a bit. That spoke volumes that the kids were still alive. Hostages then.
Paige flashed her hands. I’ll attack prisoner guards. You assist. There was a high chance that the guards would try to capture the prisoners again, since it would be a death sentence for them otherwise should they escape and get help. She smirked. It was already a death sentence for them since they captured Sara.
Grabbing his extra bow and a few arrows, Paige flashed three and started moving to her left, toward the prisoners. If they could get Sara’s help, she could lead the rest of the prisoners away from the camp while Nick and her guarded their rear. That would be the best case scenario.
‘Hiding, hiding. Gah, I should’ve asked how good the sentries were! I’m sure I could slip by unnoticed if they are bandits. Though, the last ones were defectors…’ Paige couldn’t help but think about her last battle against bandits. The little children she had rescued.
The altar. She stopped suddenly as that thought echoed in her mind. ‘That would explain a few things. Maybe that’s why Boary was feeling off? But, why would they be all the way here? What the hell is Maxwell doing? The first thing he should’ve done is restrict the borders. So, how did they get this far without anyone else noticing?’
Closing her eyes, she moved those thoughts to the back of her mind and continued moving forward, taking care not to disturb her surroundings in her haste to get in position. Nick would be getting ready to attack soon and she was getting close to the first sentry, assuming that Nick’s judgement was correct.
She could tell that there was someone nearby, his body leaning against the tree lazily, facing out toward the forest beyond.
Sneak attacks weren’t her forte. But the chances of something happening were slim already if she was able to get this close without them noticing.
‘…I could hit them from here with my throwing knives…if I brought them with me,’ Paige frowned as she felt for her knives and came up empty. ‘Tch. How could I forget my weapons? No matter.’ She pulled her spear off of her and quietly got into position, taking care not to look at the sentry. Without knowing what skills the person had, she was unwilling to alert him with her intent.
Paige took a deep breath as she counted down. ‘…three…two…one…Now!’ She sprung up, her spear going straight for the sentries neck. ‘Cut the throat, pin the body so that it doesn’t fall.. Eh?’
Paige watched as the body fell down, the hidden rope holding the body to the tree swaying idly as her thrust tore the body off the tree. It didn’t take much for Paige to realize what had happened, especially as the body crashed onto the forest floor.
‘Great. Just my luck.’ Drawing back her spear, she spun around to grab the dagger headed toward her skull. ‘The sentries are hiding in the trees.’
Swish. Paige spun as she heard the dagger coming toward her and caught the dagger mid-flight. She flicked her wrist in the same direction, throwing the dagger back, the dagger practically invisible as it flew far faster than it had been thrown at her. She didn’t bother to listen for the body to fall. She knew her aim was solid.
“It’s a trap!”
She felt foolish even yelling that. But it alerted more of the sentries hidden around their flanks that she was there. That was the most important part. She had to make sure the prisoners were safe. Or more out of the way, at least.
Paige listened to the forest around her as it came alive. The rustling leaves and the sharp screeching sound of blades scraping their scabbards gave her a good idea of what she was up against, though it was a lot harder to distinguish daggers being drawn from her opponents belts. She could tell that at least seven people were trying to surround her. The thumps of Nick’s arrows coarsed through the air told her that he had gotten her message.
But the sounds at the camp proper were oddly silent.
“Sara, you okay?” Paige called out urgently. She hurried to the clearing, running erratically to avoid any throwing knives that might be aimed at her. Even on her worst days, Paige could still dodge a simple attack, especially when they were using their mana to target her.
She dodged another blade and caught the other as two of her opponents tried to ambush her. There dark clothing and blackened blades told her who she was up against.
Paige turned and faced her opponents, moving forward to attack before they could coordinate against her. She spun her weapon in her hand, changing her grip as she pressed forward.
‘Slice, dodge, thrust, spin! Damn it! Demons? Here of all places?’ she cursed to herself as she kept track of her enemies blades.
A faint wave of mana hit her from behind. Paige ducked as a mana enchanted blade rippled through the air, the dark mana leaching into the very air itself. ‘That’s a good trick to teach Markus. How to time your enchantments.’ Paige spun and kicked the butt of her spear up as she spun it, the spiked end arching upward into the Scouts chest.
His shocked face quickly turned into a blank stare as she spun her spear, the bloodied blade tearing through his armor and chest with practically no resistance.
‘Phew. I would’ve been worried if his armor could withstand a mithril spearhead. Definitely not a high class though. His control over his mana was subpar at best. Maybe he just recently advanced to a Specialized Class?’
She backed up and hit a tree as two more enemies arrived, their swords already blanketed with mana. It was getting harder to notice the swords as the dark mana covering them started influencing the ambient mana, the forest darkening in response.
Paige drew in a breath. “I don’t have time for this.” She turned and ran, her opponents behind her just a few steps behind.
Her mind raced as she ran, listening as her pursuers got closer and closer, their footsteps trailing close behind her. ‘…skills, skills. Which ones to use? Hmm, most of them are not really that helpful in a forest. Tch, what a bad time to not have my sword.’
Paige dashed forward as she realized something. Something so simple she chided herself for not thinking of it before now. ‘…Why do I have to bring a sword? Jeez, and I complained about Zenith needing more battles.’’
She stomped on the ground with her front foot and pivoted backward toward her closest enemy, her whole body off centered as she tried to stop her forward momentum.
He was barely four feet away, his sword already held aloft to strike as soon as he got in attack range. She watched as his face turned into shock as she turned to face him as he hastily lowered his sword to a more defensive posture.
But it wouldn’t be enough. Taking stock of her pursuers positions, Paige tilted her upper body forward, while making sure she had enough room on her sides to complete her action. She outright disregarded the throwing knives that were heading toward her.
“[Javelin], [Arching Throw],” she whispered with a grin. Her spear lashed out of her hand and impaled the first outright, barely stopping as it tore through his heart and arced toward the person behind who was throwing knives at her.
The other two Scouts stood in shock as Paige calmly grabbed the sword from their dead comrade. “You shouldn’t have gone after our friend.”
She swiped her sword forward and cut one of the sentries throat before grabbing a throwing knife and ramming it into the other before he could utter a warning.
Wiping the blade clean, she winced as she thought of her hoe. That would be expensive to replace if she couldn’t find it again. “…Boary should be able to find it for me? I think?”
Paige shook her head, getting her thoughts back in order. Sara. She had to give her the short bow. Nick would probably be needing some help soon too, depending on how many arrows he wasted killing the fake sentries.
“I’m wasting too much time on this. Sara! Where are you?”
Paige turned and ran straight for the prisoners, hoping that they were alright. Running out of the forest and into the clearing, Paige was shocked to find that Nick was still shooting on the far side of the woods, and that no one was following her. Shaking her head, she looked over and saw Sara, who was wide eyed with fear.
“Sara! Thank goodness you’re alive! Are you able to … Sara? Hey, you there?” she snapped her fingers in her face, but Sara just kept on staring at the center tent. Paige glanced at the other prisoners; mainly Farmers and Merchants, it seemed. But what was unsettling was that they were all still with fear.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Not the best time to be doing that, Sara.” She turned to the forest. “Nick! Clear the forest!
The forest immediately died down as Nick backed into the clearing; an arrow in his hand and on the string as he waited to get a good shot.
“I got three, Paige. You?”
“Six. So much for only six sentries,” Paige scoffed as Nick arrived, his frown getting deeper as he noticed how still Sara was.
“They had a much wider perimeter. We got lucky that they didn’t find us in the first place. What’s wrong with them?”
“Don’t know, don’t care. We need to hurry and leave though. I don’t want to stick around much longer, not with an active altar here.”
Nick’s head spun toward her. “Altar? Shit, demons?”
“You didn’t find that out from their mana? They were pumping out so much dark mana that it was starting to distort the natural mana field.”
“Tch. No, they hardly used any skills. Can you destroy the altar like last time? Smite it or something?”
Paige frowned. “I mean, I probably could if I get closer. But I’ve never been in a situation like this before.”
“What do you mean?”
“I always arrived after everyone had been killed and the ritual is finished. But haven’t you noticed? None of the scouts came into the clearing,” Paige said as her eyes narrowed. “So what do they know that we don’t?”
“What are you going to do about Sara and the others here? We can’t leave them like this.”
“Do you know of any way to break this spell? At least, I think it’s a spell?” Paige poked the Sara with the short bow, and she fell, her eyes still stuck on the center tent. “…well then. Looks like we have to destroy that tent and everything in it. Have any flame arrows?”
“Does it look like I’d bring tar with me? Or even elemental arrows? I wasn’t planning on setting things on fire, you know. Use your skills to do it.”
“I’m a Farmer. What skills could I possibly have that would destroy that tent from here?”
“…smite it or something? Whatever; just use the same spell you did last time and let’s get out of here.”
“I have to be a Warrior to do that, Nick. You know I can’t use weapons right now.”
Nick frowned as he looked at her. “Then what are you holding?”
She stilled as she remembered what she had just done. She had used her hoe as a javelin! And she had been able to use her skills!
“I, uh, guess in high stress situations I see myself as a Warrior. Fine, I guess I can do it then. ” Not quite looking Nick in the eye, she turned and faced the camp. It was still night, but she knew she could still do the spell.
She gathered her mana, making sure to tap into the divine mana she held in her mana core. Hopefully she didn’t need to use a lot of it, since there was an altar there. Paige knew that there was a connection there somehow, since every time she had destroyed an altar before it came at little to no cost for her spells.
“[[Blessed Sun Ray]]!”
She pointed her sword up at the moon, and released her mana, slashing her sword straight down at the lone central tent.
The moon ahead shone bright; a lance of pure white light dropped onto the tent, their surroundings illuminated like it was day. Paige looked at the spell with appreciation. It looked far more dramatic at night, but it didn’t radiate heat, which took away part of the wow factor. Nick whistled in surprise behind her and ruined her moment.
“You can that skill it at night? Shouldn’t you be calling it a moon ray though?”
“… don’t ask me for specifics, Nick. It works, so I don’t care about the why. Besides, I worship the Goddess of the Sunset, not the Moon Goddess.”
“And the Goddess of the Dawn, and -”
“Okay, well there are a lot of gods. Maybe the Sun and Moon Goddess are sisters? Or relatives. Whatever.”
The lance of moonlight continued to drive through the tent, the hill slowly dipping as though it was trying to restrain the lance from hitting something inside the tent. Paige frowned as she watched the spell continue, the thread of divine mana slowly starting to dissipate.
“Well, the spell is a bit weaker at night than during the day. Maybe because there’s no heat involved that the attack isn’t as powerful?”
Nick started to frown as the forest around them started to shake, as though enraged by the attack. “Maybe you should stop the attack, Paige. Something doesn’t seem right.”
Paige shook her head. “It’s about to end naturally. I don’t want to experience a mana rebound by outright severing my connection to it.”
“Yes, bu-” Nick started to say something when a loud roar echoed from the tent, the lance of light dissipating as the attack ended. In its place, a pillar of fire erupted, as though enraged.
The tent walls burned, revealing the interior of the tent. Amongst the burning corpses stood a bear; it’s bulky form shielding an altar below it. A symbol glowed ominously red, it’s mana leaking out into the surroundings. She could tell that there was a ruined formation around the tent, the metallic glow of the circle reflecting the light from the flame surrounding the bear. It was as though the magic circle was stopping the altar’s mana from leaking outward, though why that was necessary Paige had no clue.
“What kind of monster is that?” Nick cursed aloud, looking at the very large, deformed flaming bear.
“…A Demonized Flame Bear?” Paige frowned as she looked at the bear. It still had some characteristics of a Flame Bear, but it’s aura matched the symbol it was protecting. And more importantly, she had seen one before. A long, long time ago.
But that one had been a rug. Well, a trophy rug for someone she had well respected.
‘Well now. That solves one mystery. Maybe I should try to pass that information onto Grandmaster Flynn. Assuming he is still alive.’
She snapped out of her thoughts as Nick tapped her with his bow. “Are you able to kill it?”
“Yeah. Although I need to have a better weapon to fight that. A far better weapon,” she said as she pulled out the ruby ring she had hanging on her necklace.
“Ring, ring, ring. Give me my weapon.”
She grabbed her sword and shield as it popped into existence in front of her, spinning her sword absently as she moved forward.
“Looks like there’s three scouts left, Nick. Make sure Sara and those other people stay safe.”
Markus followed the trail through the woods, listening carefully for any monsters that might have been roaming the woods at night. Even with [Natural Explorer], [Trail Finder], [Night Vision] and [Shadow Walking], he felt ill at ease as he wandered the dark woods. Alone.
He knew that it was a bad plan, but something made his blood boil as he looked at his injured friend. The boar had been sleeping peacefully when he had jumped out of Nick’s window. He had half suspected it to be one of his aunt’s tests, since it seemed like something she would do.
But the boar was far too injured for it to be a simple test. He hadn’t awoken even when he was practically touching the boar. No, it was a true emergency. That much he could gather from his uncle’s stash of weapons missing, his aunt’s sewing pattern, and Sara’s broken bow resting by the boar.
Still, he’d felt better with the short sword his Uncle Tyler had stashed away. It must have been a present for him, since it was made in the same style as his practice weapon that Aunt Paige had made for him.
‘Aunt Paige forest rules: Rule One; Don’t use mana unless you have to. Or your affinity matches the surroundings. It does, so I should be okay with that. Rule Two; Silence is golden. Check. Rule Three; Follow your guts.’
He paused as he followed the trail forward. He could hear fighting in front of him, as well as his Aunt yells of ‘It’s A Trap!’
His palms started sweating. He hadn’t been in a true fight yet. And in truth, he had a feeling that his family was training him to fight monsters, not people. Which made sense, since he wanted to join Tyler and Lily as Adventurers. But now that he had to face other people… he hesitated. Could he kill someone if he had to? It was one thing to kill an animal to eat. But a person…
That was when the moon shone bright overhead. He stared blankly as a lance of light fell to the ground in front of him, the dark mana within the forest dissipating as the soft glow of the moon shone throughout the forest.
“…who is Aunt and Uncle fighting?” Markus knew his family was powerful, but was it possible for them to do that?
He smiled ruefully. Of course it was possible. Afterall, his Aunt was involved. Chances were high that she had done something.
The trees around him shook as a wave of mana dispersed throughout the forest. A wave of…unpleasantness spread from in front of him. He gagged as his stomach churned. Something didn’t feel right. He could feel something happening to him. He thought fast to his lessons about mana.
“Hah!” Markus half shouted as he released his hold on his mana, the darkness forming around him like a cloud as it pushed away the ambient mana from around him. He fidgeted as his mana decreased to dangerously low levels. “Gotta hurry. Hopefully this will be enough.”
A loud roar startled him, a monsterous call that he hadn’t ever heard before. Even monsters death cry wasn’t as terrible as the sound from in front.
“They need my help!” Markus dashed forward as the moonlight disappeared. In its place, a flame pillar arose instead. He had to go and help!
But he stopped as the clearing got closer, and the sounds of fighting increased. He could feel the mana in the air coming toward him in waves. Whatever was happening ahead was far above what he had seen in training. It was almost comparable to his aunt casting multiple spells at once! How would he be able to help, when his family didn’t even know he was heading this way?
‘Rule Number Five of Parties; Don’t surprise your own teammates. That is a quick way to get someone killed. So, I don’t know what is happening ahead, so what is the best way I can help?’
“…shouting out the name of the attack! That always works for Aunt Paige!” Markus whispered to himself excitedly.
Markus got onto his belly and started crawling forward, the musky scent of the earth calming his nerves. ‘Just like training. Just like training.’ Moving parallel to the clearing, he listened to the sounds of the battle, hoping to figure out what to expect when he would finally join.
The heavy twang of his Uncle’s bowstring was non-stop. The shrill sounds the arrows made as it impacted the tree trunks around him. His Aunt yelling with exertion as she attacked whatever had made that fire pillar. The roar of anger of an unknown monster.
But whoever his uncle was fighting was not making any sounds at all. It was hard to even hear them over the natural sounds of the forest. The forest was shaking, as though a heavy wind was blowing through it.
‘Uncle isn’t using his mana, but why? He has to be in the open to be firing like that. His position hasn’t changed much either. And he is firing at me, so… I’m in his line of sight. And so are his.’
He shivered, knowing full well that a single mistake could cost him his life. His Uncle was a good shot, after all.
‘They have to be close by. But why haven’t they attacked me yet then? Coincidence? No, either they haven’t noticed me or they think I am an ally. But if uncle is shooting at me, then how come he can find me and they can’t?’
His eyes widened as he thought of a likely reason. His mana affinity and skills were complementing each other. That had to be the reason! And if they were helping him…then the scouts must be doing the same thing! He started sweating as he realized that his uncle must have been targeting him as well. ‘He couldn’t find my position, so he fired at chest level where I could be hiding instead. But they haven’t found me yet either.’
Markus paused as the sounds of arrows being fired started slowing. ‘Uncle must be running out of arrows. He has to be down to less than six arrows then. He has to make those count. That means there has to be less than three enemies here. No, two enemies if he was counting me as well.’
‘Best way to help uncle would be to distract one enemy so that he can get a lethal strike in.’ Pulling his sword out of his sheath, Markus held it in a tight grip, his hands aching with stress. He closed his eyes and waited. He had one chance to make it right. All he had to do was find the enemy near him.
‘Focus. Uncle wouldn’t shoot if he had a good chance of hitting it. The arrows he aimed at me were relatively close to my actual position. So…’
Markus shifted slightly to his right, knowing full well that the clearing was on that side. He could see the arrows embedded in the trees in front of him. The enemy had to be there, somewhere within that spread of arrows.
Markus waited there, his blade darkened with mana as he watched the area he suspected a person to be in. He mentally planned his attack as he watched. He was already using [Dark Blade], so all that was left was to use [Shadow Walking] to close, and [Seismic Slash] to finish. ‘Easy enough… I hope.’
Seconds felt like minutes as the forest continued to stay quiet. He could hear the sound of iron striking against each other further out, his aunt’s mana coming in waves, though he had hardly heard her speaking since the fight had started. ‘Uncle should be getting ready to attack. The enemy will have to move if Uncle is actively shooting at him.’
Chee…Thunk! An arrow rammed itself into a tree, the gleam of the arrowhead piercing through an old oak tree like a knife through butter. Markus sensed movement and picked himself up, moving quickly before his uncle shot at him too.
“[Shadow Walking].” Markus felt the surrounding mana for an obstruction ahead. The skill wouldn’t allow him to occupy the space of another person, something his aunt had drilled repeatedly through practice. Usually anyway. It was a double edged sword, but one that only mattered if your mana core was thick enough to be noticed by the opponent.
Markus moved forward toward the embedded arrowhead. He could tell someone was there, but the location eluded him. Markus frowned as he realized his opponents must be a specialized class. Whether his attack would hit or not was coming down to sheer luck now.
‘If I was hiding, where would I be!?’ Markus thought to himself. He winced as his head spun. He knew the feeling well. ‘Not now! Not -’
“Why would I hide behind a tree? That is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard out of your mouth,” an older woman said as she looked skeptically at him, her mouth curved in a half smile.
She was probably about aunt’s age, or looked like she was around there. It was hard to tell what age people with Classes were, really.
‘No, not now!’ Markus tried to get his thoughts in order. ‘I am in a battle, trying to find the enemy! It’s dangerous!’
He watched as an older him scoffed absently. “Then where would you hide? A tree is a perfectly good cover and shield, all things considering. You can use a skill to conceal yourself at that point, and any enemy would have trouble finding your exact location.”
“That’s the problem with a Warrior Class. You think everything can be solved with a single skill. No, if I was going to hide, I would hide-”
“That’s it!” Markus bit his tongue hard, the world spinning back into normality. He stepped forward and jumped, raising his blade upward toward the branches above.
‘I would hide in the branches.’
He knew that he struck true as the blood rained on him, his blade slowing as it bit into flesh and armor. Kicking the tree trunk, he rolled into the clearing, mainly so that his uncle wouldn’t shoot at him.
“Markus, get over here. NOW!” His uncle yelled, an arrow pointed at the forest beyond him. He turned to survey the clearing and stopped.
His uncle was protecting a lot of people. Most of them were clearly unconscious, though he spied a few people assessing their situation. Sara was there, trying to get out of her bindings; his uncle had to keep watch over the other scout and had no free hands to help her.
But it was his aunt that caught his attention most of all.
A sword in one hand and a shield in the other, she twisted and slashed at a monster, one straight out of his dreams. She was hacking the monster to parts, targeting his weak points with precise strikes. Markus watched as his aunt battled, fighting only with technical sword skills. There was truth in her aunt’s saying as he watched her actually fight. ‘There will always be a time when you run low on mana. Swordplay will save your life.’
But as much as her swordplay entranced him, the monster itself attracted most of his attention. The feeling of wrongness was coming from the bear itself. As he watched, the deformed bear turned and roared challengingly, the flames rising and fury in his eyes increasing as the monster noticed his staring.
His aunt had noticed the same thing as her strikes landed unhindered, her sword rending a deep portion of the bear’s side off.
His back crawled and he gasped in pain, a gloomy feeling spread from his back and he stumbled under the gaze of the bear. He could tell that it was intent on killing him, at all costs.
Markus dashed toward his uncle as his aunt swore loudly, the bear all but abandoning the fight as it lumbered towards Markus instead. Markus could feel it’s furious eyes tracking him as he ran toward his uncle, but he had no time to spare either, his eyes tracking tracking the enemy in the forest proper.
“Markus, free, Sara, now!” His uncle half shouted as he reached him, moving to put himself between the monster and Markus. “Sara, shoot the eyes of the Flame Boar. We need him blinded. I have my hands full with the hidden Scout.”
Markus fumbled with the bindings on Sara’s hands, the coarse rope oiled and pulled tight against her crossed wrists. He hadn’t the slightest clue on how to loosen them.
“Get mine! I’ve already loosened it. I can help you,” a soothing voice called out from his side. Markus turned and saw a young woman watching his movements. Her brown hair and blue eyes shone out in the darkened forest. “Miranda. Hurry, I know this particular binding, but I can’t unravel it alone,” she held up her hands and pleaded quickly, “Come on! That monster is coming over! Miss Paige can’t hold it off alone!”
Markus could tell that the bindings on the girls wrists were looser than Sara’s and moved, quickly following the girls instructions on how to remove the wrist bindings.
Miranda pushed herself over to Sara and started unraveling her bindings as Markus quickly cut the bindings off her ankles. He marveled at how fast the girl was able to undo Sara’s bindings. She mustn’t have been too much older than, Sara, or his aunt but her presence was steady and she knew what she was doing.
“Thanks. Grab the short bow from the Ranger. We need to move, fast. Miss Sara, run to the treeline as soon as you are done and start shooting at the bear’s eyes. Mister Markus, the bear is targeting you for some reason. Can you draw it away from the prisoners?” she turned and stared at him, her gaze steady as she evaluated him.
Markus flushed. “I, I can.”
His arms started trembling as the heat of the bear started to get close enough to feel uncomfortable.
She patted his arms lightly. “You’re a brave little man. Just like when you saved Joanna, just distract it. Hurry.”
Markus calmed himself and ran away from her, his thoughts drawn to what Miranda had said. ‘Miss Kate’s niece? How did she-’
Markus jumped forward and rolled, a searing heat erupting where he once stood. He scrambled and crouched down, moving as fast as he could in an irregular pattern. Unpredictability was key. His aunt had told him that was the best way to confuse a monster, though he had slight misgivings about that.
Thunk. Tink. Tink
Markus turned as he heard the sounds of arrows impacting the bear, though two of them were slightly weaker. He watched in horror as only one arrow embedded itself into the bear hide, the other two snapping upon impact. The bear stopped spewing fire from his mouth as it lumbered forward.
“Shit! [[Deflect Arrows]]. It’s a hunter killer!” Nick swore as he noticed the bear ignoring the arrow that had pierced its side. Markus knew that it wasn’t where his uncle had wanted to land his shot. He watched in horror as it steadily approached him, forgoing Paige’s furious strikes.
“Paige! Kill it.” Nick yelled.
“Trying! Lot harder than it looks,” she tersely responded. Her bluish blade sunk to the hilt as she ripped it diagonally, surely an instant kill for any other creature.
“Nick, go after that Scout! Kill him! You’re no help to me here!” Paige yelled irrately as her next attack failed to kill the monster in front of her. “Markus, evade! I have an idea!” She stopped and watched the bear, pointing her sword at the sky. “Oh, Moon Goddess, smite my enemies with your heavenly light!” He watched as the moon above flashed in time with Paige’s sword. ‘[Moonlight Slash]’
Markus dove, and even the bear itself visibly braced as Paige sweeped her sword. But she hadn’t aimed at the bear. She swung it down at the altar again, the altar wholy unprotected now. The altar pulsed and attempted to block the attack, but failed. The symbol above distorted and broke apart, until it vanished completly.
Markus could feel the mana in the air changing and sighed in relief. The bear screamed in fury as it charged toward Paige, it’s massive bulk expanding as it came closer to Paige.
“Au-” Markus scream cut off as he watched Paige throw her sword into the bear’s skull, the massive brute crashing down.
She walked up and made an unknown sign, whispering something unknown before she released her mana in full, a golden cloud forming around her. It wasn’t the first time he had seen her mana turn that color, but Markus watched in awe as she grabbed the handle of her sword, the dead bear’s form receding as the golden hue covered the bear.
She turned to him and smiled. “Good job Markus.”
Markus smiled, then promptly fainted.
[Author note: Gaah! I know I had a lot planned for this chapter (since this was supposed to be the climax of the arc, but still! I probably should have split the chapter up into two parts at this point)]