“You want me to come with you?” Markus asked, shocked at the question.
Markus could tell that his family was not happy at all. Well, most of his family. Even Lily was looking nervously at him. Did Lily not realize that she was pissing Aunt Paige off?
No. There had to be a good reason. Markus thought carefully about what order Lily had asked. Leaving. Academy.
“Lily, is there a reason you need me to go with you?” he asked as he pointed to himself.
“I do! We need another person to join our Party! We need to have four to go to Alduit Academy!” His whole family started coughing as Lily continued talking. “Please! I’m certain that Tyler and I can get into the academy easily, but our other party member needs help! So, if you join our Party, we’re sure to all get in!”
Markus turned. His Aunt Zenith had a look of disbelief.
Was the Academy that important?
Lily nodded her head “It is supposed to be the best Academy in the entire Empire. I hear that they even students across the Empire travel to get a spot for their party or just as an individual. They have the best teachers, a full library, and Peter even stored his entire legacy there!”
“I thought the Academy was just for the western border countries?”
Lily shook her head. “My father told me that it was originally meant for that. But Peter decided once it was done that it was the perfect place to store all of his belongings. And once he died…
“Well, father said that public opinion was heavily against the Queen. She renamed the Academy and dedicated it to Peter instead. All of his stuff was there to begin with, and with so many magic circles surrounding his stuff…”
“Magic circles?” Paige asked suddenly.
Lily nodded. “Mhmm. He was an expert in magic circles and martial arts. And he was a Blessed True Hero! Of course everyone wants to go to where his heritage is!”
“… backup, Lily,” his Aunt Zenith said. “Why are you transferring schools all of a sudden? It’s practically the middle of the school year.”
Lily and Tyler glanced at each other. “The war, mentor. The Healer Hall gave us an option. Either we go to Alduit Academy, or we go to the Imperial Healer Hall for further instructions.”
Paige whistled quietly to the room. Markus could tell that she was somewhat impressed.
“That’s a fine offer right there. It’s rare for the Imperial Healer Hall to let outsiders train in their facilities. So what’s stopping you from taking that deal?”
Markus turned to his Aunt, confusion in his eyes.
“The Imperial Healer Hall trains their Protectors there. Markus, Protectors are some of the best defenders in the Empire. Even better than Vanguards, really. Vanguards shine in large battles, but Protectors are better in individual fights. Pit ten of each against an army, a beast horde, and a full Party; and I’d expect Vanguards to win against armies, Protectors against parties, and both would have the same chance of surviving a beast horde.”
“What about Heroes?” Markus asked suddenly.
Paige hesitated. “Heroes… It’d depend on equipment. If the hero has a good weapon, then I’d bet on the Hero every time. But if they have comparable weapons, then it’d depend on the focus of the battle.
“If the Protectors just want to defend or stall, then they could do that pretty easily. But any more than that and it’d be a hard fight.”
Paige frowned. “Which begs the question again, Lily. Why do you not want to go there?”
Lily bit her lip. “It sounds amazing, it really does. But I was told their facilities for Mages are lacking. And we can’t bring our family along with us,” she looked down. “I don’t want to really leave, especially when the country needs us. That’s why I am pushing for Alduit Academy. They already have a good curriculum for Mages and Battle Classes, we are close to our families, and we can all be together. So why not go there instead?”
Paige thought for a moment and nodded. “I suppose so. And that is the reason you need Markus?”
“We need four people to register as a Party. I’m sure that we can successfully pass the entrance exam with Markus on our team!”
“What about your other teammate? Are they able to pass the entrance exam?”
“Umm, I’m not sure if she even has to take the exam. I think the Healer Hall is making some concessions to let her get in automatically.”
Tyler looked over to Paige while quirking his eyebrows.
“Hmm… they probably could do that.”
Markus watched as his aunt tapped her chair absently. It was times like this that Markus wanted to ask how she knew so much. His aunts and uncles looked at each other. Markus wondered if they had already come to a consensus. Were they already planning on leaving their home? He felt saddened at the thought of leaving the forest that he called home.
“We were thinking of leaving the forest, now that the war had started. Maybe it would be a good time to move,” Paige sighed.
“Markus needs to go to school anyway, so it’s for the best. And we can go ahead and follow along.”
“Umm, there might be a problem with that, Mentor,” Lily spoke up suddenly. “They had a problem with that before. Now, only direct family members can follow along. For everyone else, the requirements to get in are very strict. Even the surrounding cities have strict requirements for who can enter and how long.”
“That could be a problem then. What about for merchants? We have two right here,” Paige pointed over to Tyler and Nick. “And I’m sure they could always use an extra Teacher and a Farmer.”
“I heard that the requirements are really high. Even nobility have trouble getting in.”
“Hm. Something to think about later then.”
“Markus, your thoughts?” his aunt asked him suddenly.
“Do you think I’m ready for it?”
His Uncle Tyler chuckled, spilling some of his drink on the table.
“Pft. You’ll be ready. Don’t worry about that. A little practice working as a team and you’ll be fine.”
His aunt sighed, barely audible in the room, yet Markus picked it out easily. Markus saw her look into her cup, a little more annoyed than anything else. It sounded like the academy that Lily was talking about was supposedly the best, but why did she have that look on her face?
Markus turned to his friends, who looked about as excited as he felt. A new change was coming!
“So, I can finally join ‘Cidala’s Heroes’ as an official member! That makes it me, Lily, Tyler and …”
Lily smiled happily. “Isabella. Our Cleric.”
Paige sat still as she thought about how much could change just because of a person’s gender. She had been on the run for centuries, albeit some of it of her own making. Sure, she would have been hunted down regardless since she was a Princess, but her actions and choices didn’t help her make a lot of friends either.
And looking back, Paige knew that she would have hardly made a different choice. But the past still haunted her. That, and the fear that something could have been different.
What if it had been better…
She sighed bitterly to herself. Her brother could get an entire academy named after himself. And he had been a Blessed True Hero. That spoke volumes about what he accomplished during his lifetime. Hell, she had hardly been a Blessed True Warrior, and half her Class had been by luck rather than skill alone!
“Isabella. Our Cleric.”
She glanced up sharply. What…
“She’s great! Well, not really great, more clumsy than not! But she tries really hard! And she is getting better at …healing…. too…”
Lily’s voice faltered as she noticed the sharp stares the adults were giving her. Markus and Tyler blinked and shuffled in their seats. It didn’t take much to notice that something wasn’t right.
“Isabella. Platinum hair, about yea high or so? And a Cleric? Or an Apprentice”
Lily shocked gaze told Paige all she needed to know.
“Apprentice. I, I told mentor about her the last time she visited in Nespe. I thought she would have told you about my other party member. Tyler was driving the cart too!”
Zenith. Paige head turned slowly. She was already shaking her head. Her and Tyler both.
“I had no idea, Paige! I swear I would have told you that!”
“I have no recollection of that either. Driving the cart yes, talking to Lily yes, but nothing about Isabella.”
Paige mind moved swiftly. Something was afoot. This was not normal, even for her.
They both had altered memories. It had to have been a wide area spell. No, Lily remembered it. So what could affect a Mage and a Vanguard equally, yet miss an Apprentice talking with them? And a single memory at that? Paige supposed that it could have been an Imperial Mage, one specialized in memory magic. But was there even such a thing as a [Modify Memory] spell to begin with?
Paige turned toward Tyler and tugged her necklace out with one hand, hiding it from the view of the kids. Grasping the small, blue stone tightly with one hand, she grabbed the shaft of her hoe with her other, swinging it toward Tyler’s head. She already knew that Nick would have a fit if she did this suddenly to Zenith.
Tyler sat still, already sensing that Paige wasn’t about to attack him. She pointed her hoe at his head and tapped his forehead lightly.
A Paladin skill. Or maybe it was a Dawn Warrior skill? Or both. Paige could hardly be bothered to remember which Class had given her that skill but she knew that it was the second best only to [Dispel] for removing negative spell effects on people or equipment.
Paige’s brow furrowed as her mana didn’t change. Glancing down, she loosened her grip on her stone slightly, the blue hue of the stone peeking out from the top of her hand. Even her Wardstone hadn’t experienced any changes.
She sat down, ignoring the others in the room.
That idly confirmed two things: One, it was unlikely that a Mage had used a spell. And her Wardstone hadn’t experienced any changes, so she could reasonably presume that an Imperial Mage hadn’t laid a long-term spell on them; and second, if she thought the danger was high enough, she had a good chance of using her Warrior skills. That was good to know.
‘It wasn’t a normal spell. that much is for certain. That only leaves a few options.’
Her eyes stopped on Zenith as she looked her up and down. She was still wearing the spare Imperial Wardstone and she was also affected. So it was doubly doubtful that a magic circle had specifically targeted them, not with that on her.
Zenith opened her eyes, and nodded gravely.
“Paige, there’s no one around us. Nick’s going to go and scout the area as well, just to make sure of that.”
‘The ritual then. It has to be. So the question is, where and when did it start affecting them?’
“Umm, aunt? Everything alright?”
Paige started and looked over to the kids sitting awkwardly to the side. It dawned on her that their actions probably did look a bit strange.
“Hm? Oh, it’s fine. Tyler and Zenith suffered a mental attack. It doesn’t seem like it left any lasting side effects.”
Paige clapped her hands, startling the trio in front of her. “Well, since it is almost night time, stay the night here. I’ll send a carrier pigeon over to your family, Lily, to let them know.”
“But I re-”
Paige softened. “I insist, Lily. It might not be safe right now for you to leave. The forest has gotten more dangerous since you’ve been here last. Look, you can send a letter as well letting them know that Markus will be coming along and anything else that might be time sensitive.
“It’s been ages since you’ve been here, and you might not be coming back for awhile. Come and stay, at least a night. And see Boary?”
“Well, I sup-”
“Great! Lily, you can room with Zenith tonight, or sleep in Sara’s guest bedroom. Tyler, you can sleep in Markus’s room.”
Paige walked up the stairs toward the bedrooms. She knew that Lily and Tyler were taking note of what they were doing, but it wasn’t the time to bother explaining what they were potentially guarding against.
‘Things just keep getting more and more complicated.’
She sighed. Perhaps a change in scenery was in order.
“Talk. Zenith kicked me out of the room, so we have time.”
Nick muttered aloud as he sat down in front of Tyler. For his part, Tyler just looked at his cup and waited.
“For crying out loud, Tyler. Just get on with it.”
“Hey, you asked me for a favor.”
“A favor I won.”
Nick watched as Tyler just quirked his brows lazily. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves and grabbed the teapot in front of him, rapidly pouring a cup for himself; and, begrudgingly for Tyler as well.
“There. Now talk. What did you see?”
“Before I tell you what I saw, let me ask you a question. What can make a Ranger miss a target?”
“I mean it. What can make you miss a target. Or what would stop you from hitting a moving target?”
Nick paused as he sipped from his cup. His brows furrowed as he thought of the ramifications of the question. And none of them were good.
“Before that, tell me what you saw first.”
“Fine. Well, for starters, the directions you gave was worthless. But…”
Nick listened with bated breath as Tyler started talking about what he had seen at his village. But that only exacerbated his confusion. A devastated village. Arrows. That was not at all how it was described to him.
From what he was told, he imagined that there would have been less chaos than Tyler was describing. He thought back to what Commander Austin had said.
‘…They had to have scouted the villages first. Attacked the Rangers stationed there first. It had to have happened fast and quietly. By the time anyone noticed the attacks, it was too late for anyone to escape. Killed everyone, one by one. The farthest anyone was able to escape was just outside the village gates.’
“In conclusion, the attack was different,” Nick stated quietly.
It was clear that the changes in this world were farther reaching than he had initially thought. Now the question was, how much had changed and how to figure out where to investigate next.
“To answer your question, Tyler, there are just a few ways that could make a Ranger miss, especially when they are in their element.
Besides being drugged, there’s only a few things that could actively make us miss. Denial type skills are the most likeliest reason. Rarer reason would be just like the monster Paige and I faced. Hunter Killers.”
Nick stopped and put his cup down, looking over at Tyler gravely.
“Direwolves. Do you know why they are so dangerous to Rangers?”
“Hm. I know some of it. But I faced different threats than that on a usual basis.”
“Fair enough. Just like how people can have titles, it is presumed that monsters can too. A Hunter Killer is just that, a monster who kills Hunters. If they survive enough encounters, they seem to gain the ability that helps them ward off attacks.”
“You haven’t asked about the attack, but I can fill you in on one detail. Even with the altar in place, Paige wasn’t able to kill the monster outright. Our attacks were missing.”
“Paige’s strikes were missing every vital She couldn’t even cripple the monster outright, even though it was healing at an insane rate. I couldn’t hit vitals either.”
“Hm. Well, based off of that, I would have to say that it was likely a monster that did it. It destroyed a house, Nick. What monster could do that?”
“…not many regular monsters. But… the monster we just faced could do it.”
Nick and Tyler stopped to think.
‘A monster attacked the village. But there were casualties. Cleaning the battlefield is standard practice to send any remains back to families… But were they sacrificed, or did something else happen?’
Nick sighed to himself. Priorities. Focus on what mattered now at the moment. And so he decided.
“Tyler, what about my daughter?”
“I verified that an older couple traveled to Alcudia with a baby, but I’ve lost track from there. Do you know anything else about them? A location or relative perhaps?”
Nick closed his eyes and slumped in his seat.
“No. If they traveled to Alcudia to escape, they would have covered their tracks well behind them. Damn.”
“Wait, you don’t even have their real names? How on earth was that your backup plan for your only child?”
He could tell that Tyler was utterly baffled by their decision.
“If they could find a Ranger village, then there is already a problem. It was safer for her to go somewhere that had no relation to the Ranger organization. Once we found out that they had family across the border, we knew that they were the safest option for her long term wise. Best to isolate her far from conflict.”
“And if someone needed to find her…”
“They don’t. That’s the whole point.”
Nick took a sip of his bitter tea and frowned. This was going to be a lot harder to find her than he realized initially. It was one of his assumptions, but it still hurt to realize that she was effectively a ghost right now.
“Anna didn’t want to dig into their pasts. And so long as they followed the laws in Leit, I didn’t bother wasting resources looking into the past either.”
“So what is your plan now?”
Nick looked up.
“Same as it was before. Find my little girl, no matter what it takes.”