Paige and the trio of kids stepped out of the house, quietly as the sun rose over the peaks of the trees. It was becoming more dangerous to live out here ever since the attack. Even more monsters were coming out of the woods now. Nothing they couldn’t handle, but it was far more annoying to deal with.
Still, the sense of caution helped give credence to her statement that the woods were becoming more dangerous.
Boary sat in his field of clover, idly scanning the edge of the forest for any signs of movement. Paige called the trio to come close as they gathered around him, his bulk sheltering them from the wind and the cool autumn morning.
“So before you go back, I need your help with something. All your help, actually.” Paige whispered quietly.
“Hm? Our help?”
“Yes. There’s an old man in these woods who sells what you need the most. The problem is, you can only find him once in a lifetime or something. Anyway, I need your help to find him.”
Lily, Markus, and Tyler looked at each other oddly. That was a very weird request, even if Paige herself was asking for help.
“Why not ask Mister Nick or someone else?”
“Intuition. They don’t have anything they really need. You three, on the other hand,” Paige said as she pointed at the three of them, “will have something you’ll need since you are young. No offense.”
“Um, Aunt? What happens when we meet this old man? He gives us something we need?”
“Yes. He gives you something that you’ll need, either for now or in the future. It’s hard to say, really. But for a baseline,” Paige said after a moment of thought, “the Royal Scout and Sara survived due to what she received.”
“Woah! What did she get?” Lily asked excitedly.
“Just a statue that could hide mana signatures.”
“And what did you get?”
“Last time. You must have gotten something if you had met him last time and can’t find him.”
“…”, “…”, “…”.
The three kids stared at her with an intense gaze. Their gazes of suspicion and doubt were fine, but it was Lily’s gaze of downright disbelief that irked her the most.
“… a sword hilt.”
“Pft. Rea- ow!”
Markus yelped as Paige whacked him across the head. Her look silenced him immediately.
“I thought it was a good trade. A mana-dense sword handle for a trinket. It wasn’t until later that I found out later that I got tricked into a bad trade. Hence, I want to find him. Now, are you all going to help me, or not?”
Lily and the others looked amongst each other and nodded earnestly.
“We can, Miss Paige. But how do we even find him?”
That was the most confusing part, even to Paige. She hadn’t been able to find her, even when she was alone and in her prime. She was half tempted to call it impossible, but she looked at the kids and nodded inwardly.
The ignorance of Youth. The age of Vibrancy. The willfulness of Life.
Those three components would draw things together, Paige was sure of it. She motioned them along toward the side of the road and gently pushed them into the forest.
“You go on ahead and Boary and I will follow behind. Think of it as us shadowing your Party in a mission.”
Tyler was starting to sweat by the time the sun was fully rising above him. The forest air was far more humid than he would prefer, and even the chill of the forest was unwelcome. Still, they had been traveling in relative quiet since they had left, and he judged that it would be safe to start talking now, especially since they hadn’t seen any monsters as of yet.
“So what type of sword handle do you think she got as a gift?” Tyler asked quietly.
He knew that Paige could probably hear him since even the Protectors could listen to their conversation with relative ease. But it didn’t hurt to ask the question on his mind.
Tyler could see that Markus was frowning.
“Aunt said it was a ‘mana-dense sword handle’. Whatever that is. Lily?”
“Hmm… I think it’s probably like my staff. Without a mana shard at the end, the wood itself is what is absorbing my mana and releasing it. So, I guess a sword handle would do the same? Mana dense wood is rare. I think?”
Markus looked around and tapped on a few trees. Tyler paused as he watched Markus. He followed behind and tapped the trees. They all sounded and looked the same to him, though he could tell that Markus was looking for something.
“Is it? Uncle Nick says this forest is stuffed full of it. That’s why Aunt said it was a bad trade for her. She could have made one herself.”
Lily stopped as Markus tapped a tree with his knuckle.
“I think this is the type of tree that your staff was made from, Lily. The Something something moonlight tree.”
“A Forest Autumn Moonlight tree?”
Markus stopped and looked at the tree.
“I don’t think that was what it was called,” he said hesitantly.
Lily pursed her lips in thought.
“Well, I don’t remember the true name of it either. Besides, it’s easier to just call it by the properties it has currently. One of my advanced classes had a sample for us to inspect year-round. It’s a special tree that changes properties depending on the time and location. With the right conditions, you can make it so that resonates with a single type of mana.”
Lily walked up to the tree and lightly placed her hand on it. He watched as she drew in a breath and released her mana, a pulse of light green released from her hand and enveloped the tree. Tyler stared at the branches, the leaves changing from autumn orange to spring green.
“See. It can even mimic your own mana somewhat. Releasing a mana wave is how you can find one in the wild. But you have to be careful since you don’t know what monsters could also be lurking around.”
“Huh. That is neat. I wonder…” Markus walked up to the tree and placed his hand on it, much like Lily had. “Can it also mimic dark mana?”
Lily frowned in thought. “Maybe? Isabella wasn’t present for the display, so it’s hard to say if it could mimic dark mana.”
Tyler knew he had to put a stop to it before something weird happened. Testing it at this time was bound to get them into trouble somehow.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, Markus. We’re supposed to be finding a person, not playing around. We can always try on our way back. Besides, they’re probably getting sick of waiting.”
Markus withdrew his hand from the tree and nodded. “You’re probably right.”
“No. I think you should do that, young boy,” an old, wizened voice called out to the trio.
Tyler started and turned to face the voice, making sure to keep Lily behind him.
His training hadn’t failed him yet. Tyler knew that the first step to dealing with an unknown situation was to always protect the Mages. He was about to call out to Markus when he noticed that he was right beside Lily, scanning the surroundings behind him for any movements. Lily’s hand shot up as she muttered something under her breath, and a circle of mana appeared in her hand. She held it aloft and calmly looked around.
Tyler scanned the surroundings ahead of him and frowned when he noticed something weird. The forest looked normal. But he knew somehow that something was standing in front of him, at least within a few dozen feet of him. The feeling shifted to his left and he adjusted himself accordingly.
“Hm? Now, that’s something I haven’t seen in a long time. Who would even enchant an armor like that?”
“I don’t know who you are, but please, we mean you no harm,” Lily called out hesitantly as the mana in her hand expanded outwards around the trio.
“Neither do I, young Magi.”
Tyler blinked and an old merchant stood there, his back bent with age and hardship, though his eyes twinkled like tiny stars. His back was empty, and he was nondescript, save for his carved wooden cane.
Lily’s panicked gasp and the shift of her feet told Tyler that she hadn’t seen him at first.
‘How was I able to see him before Lily?’
Tyler knew that something was odd about the whole situation, and he suddenly realized what was wrong. Paige and Boary were missing.
The whole plan was centered around the fact that Paige was following behind them. If she wasn’t there, then what use would it be to find the man in the first place!
Tyler racked his brains and tried to figure out when he had last seen the two of them following behind. It seemed like mere minutes, but he was unsure of when he had last sensed Boary and Paige following.
‘Stick to the plan. Miss Paige will surely find us.’
“Umm, sir? Are you a Merchant, by chance?”
It was a fair question for him to ask since the man clearly had a bag on his back. Or did he? Tyler squinted slightly. Something was strange about the man. He seemed to change slightly as he looked, but only when he lost his concentration. Was there a bag on his back earlier?
“I may be, and I may not be. Why do you ask?”
“Just wondering. Your bag looks pretty heavy, especially since you are bent over.”
“Tyler, don’t be rude. He isn’t bent over at all,” Lily whispered from behind.
Tyler looked again, and the man wasn’t bent over. In fact, he didn’t have the cane from before either. He shifted slightly, blocking Lily’s body from the man. He didn’t feel dangerous, but something was odd.
“Lily, is your mana dipping? Active spell?” Tyler whispered.
“…no, my mana hasn’t dropped. Why?”
“Something is odd about this situation.”
“You don’t say, Tyler,” Markus whispered as he shifted closer. “Something is off about him. Even my skills are having a hard time sensing him, and he’s clearly standing right there.”
“Call me Pitna. Merchant Pitna, to be exact. And if you have some time, I’m willing to make a trade with the three of you.”
Pitna pointed his cane at the tree, his eyes sparkling as he examined it.
“That there is a Chameleon Mana Moonlight Tree. Very rare in certain parts of the world, though it seems to like these woods. I’m willing to trade for some of my trinkets for a Death Shadow Moonlight Tree. That should be simple enough for the young man to do, with his actual Class and all.”
Tyler was confused. Death Shadow? And what did he mean by Markus’s actual Class? That would be something to ask Markus later, and not in this situation.
“Wh, What’s in it for us?” Lily asked hesitantly.
Tyler knew that Lily was feeling nervous about this situation too. The old man stared at them, and he could feel…something happening around him. His stare was penetrating, as though he could see into his very soul.
“… three trinkets. One for each of you. A shield, a wand, and a sword. I take it you’ll need it soon enough, with the war and all.”
“What about one big item instead? What would that get us?” Lily asked suddenly.
The old man frowned and stared at Lily.
“It depends. Who is it for?”
Tyler glanced back at Markus. “Lily or Isabella?”
“It has to be one of you three. I don’t make deals with people not present and cannot consent to the gift,” The man replied suddenly.
“Can you give us a hint on what it would be?” Markus asked.
“Well, that stinks. We’re basically doing a random exchange at this point,” Markus grumbled. “Aunt Zenith always said to prioritize Mages. So, Lily, care to take it?”
Lily nodded. “Sure, if no one else minds.”
“One big item for our Mage, for the tree,” Tyler nodded.
“Deal. The tree first, then payment,” Pitna replied happily.
“Markus, can you even change the tree’s properties into what he wants?” Lily asked suddenly.
Markus frowned as he looked over at the tree.
“Hmm… you said the tree takes on the properties of whatever is around it. So, I can mimic a shadow just fine if I push my mana to form a cloud. But for death… any ideas?”
“Umm… you could try killing something? Well, probably not. What about skills? Did mentor teach you any spells?”
“Umm, I know a few dark affinity spells, but nothing remotely related to death.”
“Hey, how do we do imitate ‘death’?” Lily asked abruptly.
Pitna stared blankly. “Use [[False Life]].”
“I don’t know it,” Markus said.
“Don’t know that one either.”
Pitna frowned. “[Ghost Sound]? [Death Touch]? [Death Blade]? [Assassinate]?”
The three of them stared at the weird man. Markus looked just as perplexed as Tyler felt.
“…what do you think I’ve been learning? Wait, what Classes learn those?” Markus said bewildered.
“Huh, I guess you haven’t been learning anything useful. Well… just channel your mana into the blade and think of how you felt when you first killed someone.”
“That’s the stupidest thing ever!” Lily half-shouted. “How wo-”
“Magic is tied to intent. Or did your mentor not teach that?”
Lily faltered. “Well…that’s…fine! Markus, hurry up and do it.”
Tyler watched as Markus pulled out his sword and walked up to the tree, inspecting the tree. The glow of Lily’s mana was starting to fade from the leaves of the tree.
“Well… here goes nothing,” Markus muttered.
The world around Markus started to shift, a grey cloud swirling around him as he forced his mana out. Dark mana. It reminded Tyler of Isabella’s aunt, though she wielded her mana in a much subtler manner. Markus’s blade darkened in his hand as his mana flowed into his blade. Markus took a deep breath and suddenly thrust his blade into the trunk of the tree.
The tree groaned in protest as it changed, as the bark shriveled while the leaves fell off in bunches.
‘Death and shadow. Though, had Markus actually killed someone before?’
“The deal is set. Here’s your item,” Pitna called out happily as he looked at the tree.
He tossed over a tiny item to Tyler, barely taking a glance while he tossed it over. Tyler lunged forward to grab it and he stared at it. It was a tiny amulet, with a single name etched into it. Lily Thompson.
“How did you know Lily’s name?” Tyler asked guardedly.
That was not normal. Not normal at all.
Pitna waved them off. “The deal is struck. I have nothing more to say to the three of you.”
“Good. Then we have time to talk instead,” Paige called out suddenly as she and Boary stepped forward from the trees. “Hello again, merchant.”
Going back a few minutes…
‘How could I lose the kids!?’
Paige stared at the forest ahead of her. She had even taken care to keep within twenty feet of them, and they were still missing.
The air was fresh as she stood in the middle of the forest. Unnaturally fresh. The merchant had done something to stop her. How he had done it, she couldn’t say. But Paige knew that she wouldn’t be able to find the kids normally.
Which is why she brought Boary along as well.
“…Boary, find Lily.”
Boary stepped forward and started to sniff the air.
‘If I can’t do it, then chances are that it confuses only people who have met him. But, what are the chances that it could target monsters as well?’
It was a big risk, but it would be worth it in the end. The man was a living legend, and it was well established that nothing bad would come out of meeting him. And the kids would get something too. Something that they would all need. That would be enough to make up to Zenith, not that there would be much danger in them meeting him.
“Boary, any luck? We need to find them fast,” Paige said hurriedly. She followed behind the boar, but she could tell that his path was curving around to where they had initially lost them.
It wasn’t working. Whatever the merchant was doing was interfering with Boary as well. Paige hesitated. The last time she went searching, even using divine mana to augment her skills didn’t help her.
“Boary. Do you have her scent?”
She could tell that Boary was hesitating, but he still nodded his head. Paige rubbed the boar body, her hands gently touching the healing scars.
‘Fine. You’ve earned some of my trust, Boary. Desperate times and whatnot.’
“Boary, hold still. I’m gonna try something different.”
Paige knew it was a risk, but she had to do it. She needed answers, and the old man probably knew something. She closed her eyes and focused, her mana swirling inside her while keeping a hand on Boary. She hadn’t ever tried it before, but she knew the theory behind it. If you could transfer mana to others, then it should be possible to transfer mana to monsters as well. They had a core, after all.
She just wasn’t sure if it had ever been done to a non-contracted monster. A Beast Tamer’s sole goal was to tame monsters, and while she never had the chance to see one actively tame a creature, the only real reason she could deduce was that they were somehow using their mana to manipulate the monster. But the bigger question was, had anyone ever used divine mana to tame a creature?
Releasing her mana, she drove the mana toward her hand and into Boary. The boar froze as Paige’s mana flowed straight into his core. Paige watched Boary carefully to make sure that he wasn’t experiencing anything drastic. He shouldn’t since he could absorb dual opposing mana cores at once and come out fine, but she needed him to be awake and not in a month-long coma.
‘Moment of truth now.’
She breathed heavily and released a single strand of divine mana, which flowed into Boary without resistance. Boary’s squeal of confidence was a nice change.
“Boary. Find Lily.”
Paige chuckled at the sight of the four people in front of her.
‘So monsters have an ability to break through…whatever the merchant did. That’s good news. I can find him again if I need.’
Pitna looked aghast at the uninvited intruders.
“How did you-“
“Aunt Paige! You found us!” Markus shouted happily.
“Paige?” Pitna whispered in horror.
“I did. Death Shadow wood is really rare, you three. Did you get something good for it?”
“We got one big gift? I guess?” Lily said.
Markus asked, “What can you make out of it?”
Paige chuckled, though her eyes never left Pitna.
“A few things. Demon Assassins prefer it as their main choice of materials for their daggers. It’s practically invisible and the compatibility to dark affinity is great. All they have to do is slide a thin blade of metal for the killing edge or they shave it down for a hilt. Now, the three of you follow Boary home. I have some business with him.”
“Um, are you sure, aunt?”
“Yes. Go home. Boary, take them with you.”
Pitna’s eyes tracked the boar as the children left with him.
“What have you done?” he whispered fearfully.
“What I needed to. I want my pendant back.” Paige thrust out her hand.
“A pendant!? Did you make that monstrosity just for a single pendant?” Pitna’s eyes bulged. “That, that thing, is a monster! Do you even know what you have done! To waste your mana on a monster, that, that’s-”
Paige narrowed her eyes. He could tell that she had used divine mana on Boary.
Her voice dropped down low. “I don’t care about Boary. So far, he’s more trustworthy than you are. Back then, you gave me a bad trade. I want to get my pendant back.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“When Rebecca and I met you last time, she asked a specific question. ‘What happens if we don’t like the trade later on?’ And you had the audacity to laugh and said, and I quote, ‘You can get a refund if you find me.’ Guess what, I found you.”
Paige and Pitna stared at each other. Though it was tense, neither side moved.
“Do you know what the pendant does?” Pitna asked.
“Now I do. The little voice in my head is adamant I get it back this time.”
Pitna sighed. “Kill the boar and I’ll call it an even trade.”
“No. You take your hilt back, and I call it an even trade.”
“You can’t kill me,” Pitna said nervously. “The gods are watching.”
Paige stopped, her mind working furiously.
The gods are watching.
“It’s funny you say that. Everyone here believes that the gods are dead.”
Pitna stared. “Your pendant or answers. Pick one.”
“Pendant,” Paige instantly replied.
Answers were good and all, but she needed the pendant back. That was non-negotiable.
The old man slowly pulled a small pendant from his shirt and held it aloft. Paige stared hard at it. The golden yellow gleam was unmistakable for what it was. But it wasn’t the metal that was important. It was the symbolism attached to the pendant. A golden sun rising above the landscape could be seen etched into the tiny pendant. As she watched, the sun slowly set below the etched horizon.
A token from the Goddess of Sunset.
Paige could feel her eye twitching as she saw the pendant actually do something. If it had done that before, she wouldn’t have traded it.
“You might not want to lose it this time. Or let it break.”
Pinta smiled mischievously.
“What are you-”
He threw it low to the side, away from both of them. She could see the pendant twirling to the ground and cursed. Paige lunged forward to grab it before it hit the ground, her body aching as she landed hard on the ground.
She checked the pendant quickly, noting that the pendant was the exact one she had given away, all those years ago.
“Are you crazy!?”
Paige turned back to Pinta, only to see an empty clearing. Even the dead magic tree was gone, an empty hole the only evidence that the tree was there. The forest shifted unnaturally as she stood there.
She took a step forward and frowned as she looked at the boulder in front of her. She felt a headache coming as she saw the words, the same one she had written a couple of months ago.
Three Monster nest nearby. Be quiet!
“That boar will be a problem in the future! Mark my words!” Pinta screamed, his echo bouncing off the trees and into the forest beyond.
The forest was still for a second before it burst into activity.
Paige walked back to the clearance in worse shape than she had left. A lot worse shape. The front of her overalls were covered in dirt and cut apart, and her hair was disheveled. Even her hoe was bent unnaturally.
Lily was reading a note from a hawk while Markus and Tyler practiced. They all stopped and stared at her. Zenith saw and covered her mouth, though she kept silent at her predicament.
‘Maim him. I will definitely get him back for this!’
“So, uh, did you get your item back, aunt?” Markus asked hesitantly from the side.
Paige turned, her annoyance clear to all. “I did. And then I got attacked. By not three, but six nests. Six.”
“Huh, what did you do to alert them?” Zenith asked.
“I did nothing. Someone shifted the markers we placed on the monsters, so I used the wrong tool,” Paige said tiredly.
She looked at her hoe and sighed. Had she known she was going to be facing Armored Alligators, she wouldn’t have used a hoe. She would have switched to something more useful, like a tamper. Or a sledgehammer.
“Hey, Paige. Lily, had something she wanted to ask you.”
“Fine, but hurry. I want to take a bath and sleep. I’ve had a long day so far,” Paige said irately.
Lily saw the look on Paige face and shrunk.
“Umm, mentor? Would you like to give her the news instead?” she said quietly.
Zenith smiled. “Nope. You need to get more practice in giving bad news.”
Paige stopped. How could the day get any worse?
“The queen is holding a banquet for their new party. Guess who all is invited?”
Her day just got worse.