Chapter 61

“Welcome back, Lily!” 

Paige watched with a grin as Zenith rushed over to Lily. She was growing up, that much was apparent. Gone was the slightly shorter girl who was willing to roll in the dirt and go on adventures. Most likely anyway. 

Lily stood confidently, her proud demeanor evident to any who looked. And she looked respectable as well in her mage uniform, the solid hunter green that the school had chosen for the year complimented her hair and staff.

And she hadn’t forgotten her lessons either. The standard mage dress was cinched with a leather belt and pack that was easily accessible from the side. An adventurer’s pack. And Paige could spy the leather armor underneath her mage robes. While it hid any growing curves that Lily might have shown otherwise, Paige was glad that the girl chose security over vanity. At her level, any level of protection was well worth it. 

Paige turned to look at little Tyler, who was being sized up by Tyler himself, who, if Paige was reading his actions correctly, approved of his training the last few years. Gone was the lanky boy who could barely hold up a wooden tower shield. In it’s place, a well built young man stood, his body toned from exercise. 

And he too hadn’t forgotten his lessons. She could spy a metal tower shield on his back, made in a similar style that she had created for him four years ago. Iron, most likely. 

‘That’s good. He’s learning what he is proficient at.’ 

Paige smiled. She felt glad about his choice. He was no longer blindly following her advice but instead picking out what most suited his needs at the moment. That was a big improvement to any close combat battle class.

Younger Tyler noticed her stare and politely ended his conversation with Tyler. Paige wryly grinned to herself. He was more polite than she had ever been at his age. 

“Mentor,” Tyler politely nodded, though she noted that one hand stayed firmly grasped to his sword pommel.

Paige could tell Tyler wanted her approval, though an errant thought struck her. “Well, look at you! Practically a grown-up already! And you’re just as tall as I am!”

“I am growing up, Miss Paige.”

“Hoo, still doing your exercises as well, I see. I’m glad that you haven’t forgotten to keep practicing the basics. Most Apprentices forget that the simplest-”

“-simplest motions can save your life. I remember. I did have to upgrade my shield though.” Tyler smiled wryly and tapped his shield, a slight, dull echo sounded as he tapped it with his leather gloves.

That wasn’t normal. Paige’s eyes homed in on the shield. The tower shield was practically made for someone his size. No, custom made for his size. And it wasn’t plain crude iron either. Steel. Expensive, for a shield that size. Not to mention… 

“Good shield. Lily’s mother chose well.” Paige nodded. Kate wouldn’t be able to buy that herself, even if she pulled some strings and got a loan from the Merchant Association. Military-grade shields were hard to get customized. Thus, Emily had to have gotten it. Paige smiled happily to herself. The harvest must have been really abundant for her to get her hands on a shield like that.

“It was a gift, Miss Paige, but it wasn’t from Mrs. Thompson.”

Paige paused. If not her, then it could only be from a few other options. Though one was far more likely than another. “…Hm. Then either the Healer Hall or Royal Family was very generous then. That must have cost a fortune.” 

Paige walked around Tyler, inspecting his leather armor. He stood still, knowing what his mentor was looking for.0 The bindings were getting a little worn from use, though not to the point of having to restitch the whole thing. But his greaves would have to be resized, as they were starting to become disproportionate to his legs and arms. At least that would be an easy fix.

“I’m glad you didn’t change out your armor though. It took forever for me to make the bindings adjustable.” 

Paige narrowed her eyes as she started inspecting the greaves in earnest. She could tell from the worn leather by his elbows and forearm that Tyler was bracing himself correctly behind his shield, which was to be expected. But what she hadn’t expected was the leather by his knees were getting worn down too. 

‘Is he kneeling to brace himself against attacks?’ Paige paused and knelt to get a closer look at the damage. The scratches were all running in the same direction, parallel to his leg. He was kneeling down to brace his body from falling. Not an ideal way to block, but it was better than getting sprawled out on the ground after an attack.

‘No, he’s getting pushed back instead. Scrapped on the ground. Taller enemies, or stronger blows? Both?’

Tyler coughed lightly, attracting her attention. Everyone was looking at her.

“Sorry, what’s wrong?”

“Lily asked where Markus is,” Zenith said.

“He’s… around,” Paige said cryptically with a smile on her face. A test. Her idea of a warm welcome was a practical test. Now, how she got Markus on board with the test was a totally separate question.

Tyler paused as he heard that and unstrapped his shield from his back, his sword already unsheathed and pointed outward; while Lily moved toward Tyler erratically as she surveyed the area around her. 

Lily looked back at her mentor, who resignedly sighed and pushed her toward Tyler, indicating that Paige wasn’t joking. She nodded, and ran toward Tyler, stopping once she had her back on Tyler’s. 

Paige eyed the two young kids, noting their movements. The long separation hadn’t dulled their senses in that regard. And they were a lot more comfortable with the actions as well, which meant a few different things. On one hand, the practical courses must have gone well; on the other hand, their relationship must still be solid. Childhood relationships could change once puberty hit, and she was glad that the feelings hadn’t changed. Or maybe they had. It had been so long ago for her.

“Umm, what is the scenario, Mentor?”

“Farmer. I’m just a Farmer who is well known in the area as the only location with a roof for the next five hours. Take a guess what the scenario is, rich adventurers who hadn’t bothered to mask their travel path.”

“Ugh. You owe me lunch, Lily. I told you Miss Paige would do this,” Tyler whispered quietly. 

Paige tched. She didn’t do it every time. It got too predictable after the fourth time.

“How was I supposed to know she was in charge of classes today? Mentor always gave us advanced warning!” Lily said as her eyes darted to the shadows.

‘Now that is interesting.’ Paige’s eyes narrowed.‘That is highly unusual. The safer bet would be to keep an eye on the buildings and forest, yet Lily had disregarded that entirely.’

She watched Lily’s eyes, tracking the girl’s line of sight rapidly. ‘Lily is watching the shadows.’ 

Paige frown only deepened when she noticed that Tyler was paying attention to the shadows as well. ‘…Anti-Scout measures? At their age? Why in the world would they learn that of all things? They’re supposed to be learning how to fight monsters, not people.’

Her mind spun fast, thinking of how that was possible. There was really only one answer she could come up with. ‘The Protectors. It has to be them. But why would they have to teach that?’

She wasn’t the only one that noticed their actions. Nick and Tyler both frowned, while Zenith arched an eyebrow as Lily released a stream of mana at the surrounding shadows. Their actions were clearly not what an Apprentice should be doing. Even specialized classes were unlikely to be learning mid tier measures like that.

‘Damn, that’s going to be a problem for Markus.’

Paige knew that their whole strategy was dependent on being able to hide in the shadows to catch the two of them by surprise. And the last few days Paige had made sure to practice extensively with Markus so that he could show his two friends what he had learned.

‘Well, if Markus can’t find the right opportunity… I’ll make one for him.’

Paige walked up to the kids, who watched her warily. 

“Hey, travelers. Now, I usually don’t worry about strangers barging in with weapons drawn, but I do ask that you sheathe them while you’re on my property. No sense in scaring my family because you had a hard day of travels.”

Lily paused and bit her lip. “Umm, pardon us, Miss Farmer. We were just being careful. Would you mind if we keep our weapons in hand?”

“No,” Paige said abruptly. “Either sheathe your weapons or don’t come near the settlement.”

She could tell that Lily and Tyler were hesitating. Her face must have told Lily that she did something wrong, since her tone became humbler at once. 

“Well,” Lily started, “It’s been rather dangerous on the road lately. We’ve heard that there have been reports of dark type monsters on the road.”

“Shadow wolves,” Tyler supplied under his breath.

“Yeah, shadow wolves. They’re rather dangerous monsters that like to hide in unexpected places. We’re just checking the surroundings to make sure that everything is okay. No need to thank us, Miss Farmer.”

Paige was bemused. Lily needed to work on her delivery. That was not reassuring or humble in the slightest. Had she said that to an actual Farmer or Innkeeper, she’d be lucky if  her Party was allowed to sleep in the stables, much less the inn.

Her face must have given something away, as Lily took on a humbler tone.

“If you would like, my Party and I could go out and check the surrounding forest to ensure that no monsters have passed by. My Party has a guild ranking in the low forties, so we are certified to eradicate any monster nests in the area. Do you have a specific request that we could fulfill?”

Paige locked eyes with Lily, but she could see Zenith’s head bobbing from the corner of her eyes. The key was having a real reason to have weapons out. Even keeping Lily’s attention didn’t help Markus though, since Tyler was still on the lookout.

Fine. If Tyler and Lily were already on edge, then the only thing she could do is lessen the distance. “…That’s mighty nice of you to offer. How about we talk about it inside then? Cost to sleep in the stables is one silver. The inn, three. Payment upfront.”

She stuck out her hand, demanding payment upfront. Paige started walking forward. ‘Hopefully Markus knew what I am trying to do.’ She reasoned that he probably did, since he was rather smart in matters such as this.

Paige walked forward at an even pace, wearing a mostly honest smile on her face. She slowed as Lily frowned and pulled at a bag on her side. Her coin pouch, most likely. A slight change in the ambient mana alerted her that Markus had guessed what she was trying to do. Lily and Tyler shifted slightly, wary of a trap.

Her steps slowed as she narrowed the distance to Lily. ‘Three…two…one…now!’

Paige gasped and fell backward as Markus materialized out of her shadow, his blade slashing across where her body was. She coughed dramatically as she fell but kept close watch of Lily and Tyler actions.

Markus had completed his slash and strode to Lily in a single motion, his blade already sweeping toward Lily’s side. Aiming for the neck would have been preferable for a sneak attack, but it was a riskier option overall. If Lily was wearing just her robe or light armor, his strike would most likely break her ribs with his strike. That would stop Lily from spellcasting, unless she was able to focus through her pain.

To her chagrin, Lily and Tyler actions spoke for how much they had practiced together.

“[Gust]! [Air Shield]!”

Both Tyler and Lily shouted as they moved together. Lily jumped backwards as her spell pushed her forward, while Tyler’s shield intercepted Markus’s dark blade for a single moment, just enough time for Lily to back up.

Tyler moved forward to block Markus’s path as he cocked his blade for a throw. A risky move, though it was far more perilous for Markus to abandon his attack altogether. An uncontested mage would dominate the battlefield, especially in an open space such as this.

Zenith and Paige got ready to move. This was the most dangerous part of Paige’s plan, and Zenith had almost vetoed it outright when Paige had first mentioned it. But danger was synonyms with growth for Adventurers such as them.

Markus finished cocking his blade and tossed it upward, everyone’s eyes tracking it warily as it tracked upward. The blade itself gleamed as its polished edges caught the light. It reached the peak and fell to the ground silently, the blade disappearing as it sfrom view like smoke.

“…huh?”

Tyler and Lily looked back and panicked. Markus wasn’t in front of them anymore.

“Lily, roll!” Tyler shouted quickly as he spun and threw his shield with a mighty swing of his arm.

Lily jumped forward and rolled, narrowly dodging Markus’s uncontested strike.

Paige caught the shield with her hand, stopping the heavy metal shield from striking Markus while blocking Lily’s panicked strike with her other hand.

She smiled happily. “Good job you three.”

“You did great, Markus!” “Yeah, that was surprising.” Lily and Tyler talked together as Markus happily smiled.

Paige and the others watched from the side as the three kids talked amongst themselves. They all had done remarkable. She would have to talk with Markus about how to distract enemies better. It was risky for a warrior to waste their mana with creating a fake blade. It would have been far better to move to the side and throw a knife instead of using his skill to travel through shadows multiple times.

He was probably glad that the gap hadn’t widened too much since they had left to school. But the lessons that Lily and Tyler were learning…

“Tyler, that was Anti-Scout training. Right?” Paige looked over to Tyler for confirmation.

He nodded. “It was. They shouldn’t learn that unless they join the army or the militia though.”

“I thought so. Protector’s don’t usually teach that to Apprentice level people either. It’s clear that they had practice though. Did you see how Lily was methodically checking the shadows around her?”

Zenith slowly nodded, lost in her thoughts. “Actual practice, too. I didn’t learn that until my graduate level classes. It’s highly frowned upon for Mages to learn how to kill people until they are more mature.”

“Hm.  Fine. Something to ask them about over dinner. Did Lily tell you the reason they came?” Paige asked. “It’s a little strange for them to be coming now of all times. They should be getting ready for field practice soon. Or maybe cross-country travelling? They haven’t told me what classes they’re taking right now.”

“It’s obvious they came for a reason,” Nick interjected. “They haven’t been allowed to visit us yet, but something had changed now.”

Tyler agreed. “The war.”

“Mhmm. Well, I guess we’ll see what they have to say over dinner.”

“So, Lily. Why were you sent here?” Zenith asked after dinner.

The fireplace was already going, a semi bright flame illuminating their small living room. Everyone had a cup of Paige’s homemade cider, the steam smelling distinctly of fresh apples and cinnamon.

Lily paused as she brought her drink up, her posture relaxed as she sat on a bundle of wheat stalks that Paige had made a cotton cover for. It wasn’t the comfiest seat, but it was softer than the wooden seats that they would otherwise have to sit on.

Young Tyler sat his drink down as he looked at Lily to see if she wanted him to take over. She shook her head as she took a small drink of her cider.

It was strange for Lily to gather her thoughts together. Usually she would already have a plan of action. That made Zenith curious. Was she worried about something?

Lily sat her cup down, a nervous look on her face. “Mentor, are you able to leave the forest for good now?”

Zenith paused, her eyes never leaving Lily’s face.

Young Tyler sighed by her side, nudging Lily with his elbow.

Lily bit her lip. “Miss Paige. Is your entire Party able to leave the forest?”

“Hoo, my Party? Now, that’s an interesting way to ask, Lily. Who said we are in a Party?” Paige asked, her voice oddly neutral. Her eyes were slowly turning hard as Lily looked at her.

Lily looked away, “You did, a long time ago.”

“Bullshit. I usually don’t curse in front of children, but that is a bold face lie.” Paige said quietly to the room. “Don’t lie to me again, Lily. Why do you think we are in a Party?”

Lily stayed silent as she looked down at the floor. Paige’s eyes slowly shifted from Lily to Tyler.

“I made that assumption, Mentor. Everyone listens to your opinion, and you haven’t broken apart yet.” Young Tyler said as Paige focused on him. “And since Mentor Zenith is associated with the Imperial Family, then you all…” his voice quieted down as he stopped.

Zenith mentally frowned as Tyler glanced over at Markus.

His look didn’t escape Paige’s gaze either. “Mhmm. That is a good assumption.”

“Markus. Why do you need Markus?”

Markus started. “Me?”

Lily took a deep breath as she looked over at Markus. “Markus, do you want to come to the Academy with us?”

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