“Are you sure you can make it, mentor?” Lily asked skeptically.
Zenith knew why she was asking since Paige was hardly in the mood to bother with it, but it still irked her to hear her little apprentice nag.
“I will make sure to hurry Paige along. We’ll be there in a week. I promise. But are you sure you don’t want any company for the ride over? Markus and I could follow the two of you to town.”
“We, we’ll be fine by ourselves, mentor. But please don’t forget that the Queen is planning a private banquet, so if you need anything at all, just-”
“Relax, Lily. I can handle things in that regard. Just enjoy your break and we will see you soon.”
Standing at the edge of the forest, Zenith waved them off until they were out of sight before she turned to look at the young man standing next to her, standing indignantly off to her side.
She cocked an eyebrow.
“Well? Are you going to say it now?”
“How come I couldn’t just go with them right now! It’s not like you need me for anything here! They’re my only friends, aunt!” Markus exploded.
She turned and headed back to the house, following the same dirt path they had first walked on a scant eight years ago. Time was flying by, but now things were starting to change, hopefully for the better.
“Oh, hush. Xavier would be offended if he heard that.”
“We’d have to see him first, aunt. I hardly see him either, nowadays.”
Zenith’s stern face faltered. He wasn’t entirely wrong. Besides training in the forest, Markus hadn’t had the chance to go see anyone his age for quite some time now.
“We need your help packing things up. And saying goodbye to Boary as well. An elder monster like him won’t be able to go with us to the Academy. He’s going to have to stay here.”
“Wait, Boary isn’t coming with us?”
Markus stopped on the path. Zenith looked over to Markus and blinked. His body was starting to blend in with shadows. Already his form was starting to become hazy.
‘His control over his mana was getting better,’ Zenith noted. ‘It’s a shame he didn’t want to become a mage, though he probably would’ve had a hard time.’
“He can’t. There is a difference Markus. But he won’t be alone. Sara will still be coming here to stay instead, at least to sleep and hunt. That’s one of the reasons why I personally have to stay here, at least for a good portion of the week. I’m planning on modifying the surrounding magic circles to better suit her needs.
Markus frowned. “But I thought that the magic circles would have to be powered every so often. Is Miss Sara able to power it by herself?”
“No, but we’ve been storing mana cores for a while now. We really don’t need them for anything, and we wouldn’t get a fair price in the cities if we sold it.”
“No, but that is beside the point. We’re going to have a lot of stuff to do once we move, so we have to use this time wisely. Your uncle is already heading to Nespe to look at temporary lodgings for us, and then we’ll decide what our next plan is once we understand what will happen with your new party.”
“Um, aunt? About that,” Markus hesitated. “Who is Isabella?”
Zenith stopped and sighed. “You’ll hear about her eventually, so I guess I could tell you. She’s… important. To Paige.
“I know that much, aunt. But why?”
“It’s complicated. Paige has been looking for her for a long time now.”
“I don’t exactly know why. She knew her mother, but even then, it doesn’t really explain her persistence in trying to find her,” Zenith lied.
Zenith knew exactly why Paige was insistent on finding her. Isabella still had Paige’s old Princess Class. Or, Paige said she should still have it.
Her explanation of why hardly made sense, but Paige had only one argument.
“Their original Classes will attract endless troubles. And if Isabella doesn’t have the Princess Class yet, then chances are she’d have the Apprentice Class just like, Markus. So we need to find her sooner rather than later.
“I never gave birth to a Hero, Zenith, so I have no idea if Apprentice is the starting point for everything. If they mature into those classes…” Paige trailed off.
That argument still holds true to this day, for both Markus and Isabella.
Even though Paige had postponed looking for Isabella four years ago, it hadn’t stopped her from asking Tyler to keep an ear out for any new information. Zenith could only pray that the eventual meeting with Isabella would not be terribly awkward.
She shook her head. That was all in the future. Zenith looked over to Markus and rubbed his head.
“Look, Markus, things will be hectic once we move. We need to be ready to settle down in a new location as soon as possible. Can you please help out around here?”
Seeing his nod, Zenith paused for a moment and looked around. She would miss their little slice of paradise out in the woods.
“We have a week. Let’s make the most of it.”
Zenith looked around and was astounded at how fast Paige had packed up her room. It was practically empty now, save for her furniture. Of course, having a storage ring had helped in that matter.
She turned to look at Paige, who was leaning on the door, her eyes closed in concentration as she activated a privacy ward, the magic circle gleaming heavily as Paige kept her finger on it. Zenith didn’t want to be jealous, but it was getting harder as she noticed how much Paige’s mana core really expanded. Even with her null affinity handicap, her core could almost rival a Specialized Mage’s core. That was a very big upgrade for her, though she noted that Paige was still very efficient with her mana usage.
“Okay, Zenith. It’s been activated. So, what did you and Nick find out?” Paige asked.
Zenith took out a simplified map of the heart of the forest, showing the symbols that she and Nick had seen. For whatever reason, the center of the forest never changed positions, which made it easy to map out.
“Paige, the symbols that we found were inert. From what I can tell, the ritual is either running out of power or it has completed its purpose.”
Zenith knew that would happen, as the mana dispersion fog was now totally gone from the forest. She half wondered if the fog was suppressing the forest itself, as the problems didn’t start cropping up until the fog had started to disperse.
“Everyone’s Class is still the same though, and we haven’t changed back to our original bodies. What are your thoughts on it?”
“It’s hard to say, Paige. You are our Party Leader, so we’ll follow your lead. But you need to think about your plan again. I’m not an expert at ritual spells, Paige, but with the formation losing its power, I think we are stuck here in this alternate world. Forever. We need to decide how we are going to survive here, long term.”
Zenith and Paige sat in the quiet room. She could only hope that Paige started to take their situation more seriously. Paige wasn’t the worst leader Zenith had ever followed, but it was hard to trust her judgment sometimes, even though things had worked out thus far. She knew that Nick and Tyler felt the same way, as well. But Paige was far stronger than all of them combined, even as a Farmer.
Farmer Conscript? Farmer Warrior? Zenith sighed for the umpteenth time. She hoped that Paige could change her Class if she started using battle skills more prominently. They all would, actually. The moment they stepped on a status checker, their cover would definitely be exposed. After all, how would they explain how their Support Classes could rival High Battle Classes?
“Thanks for trusting me, Zenith. I know that I’m not the best leader, but I am glad you all decided to stay,” Paige suddenly said.
“Just remember that trust goes both ways, Paige. We need to work together, and that means our plans and goals as well.”
“I know. I know,” Paige sighed. “I mean it. I know that. Which is why I wanted to get your opinion on this before I talk with Nick and Tyler.”
Zenith paused. “Your opinion on…”
“On how this banquet will go. See…”
“The message said that they are coming? To the banquet?”
“Yes, your majesty. Lily has already confirmed it. Her mentor and the rest of her party will be coming,” her guard Haille expressed with interest as she read the response letter.
Queen Rebecca paced back and forth nervously in the conference room, her eyes swiveling and lips pursed. It was apparent that something was wrong, even to Glenn, who hardly knew the Queen.
“And that is bad because?” Glenn asked boredly. He stared at the open map, the red pendants markers increasing ever so slightly at the western edge. He was rather impressed by the Queen’s choices.
Had Isabella been present, she would have been surprised that the old man was even talking. It was apparent that he wanted to meet this suspicious group, though the particulars eluded Rebecca as to why.
“Something isn’t right. It’s too easy. This party has been here for some time now and they’ve never wanted to meet, so how were they persuaded so easily?”
Rebecca made up an excuse, but she knew something had made Paige move, not the other way around.
‘For Paige to just get up and move here is suspicious, in and of itself. If that was the case, then why hadn’t she made any moves before now?’
From her memories, Paige should’ve been chomping at the bits to do something. Anything. She knew that Paige had never been good at settling down in one location for long. But here she was, staying hidden in a forest for years on end now.
“Now that you mention it, Queen Rebecca, I have some questions to ask that Scout who met them.”
Rebecca turned around and evaluated Glenn warily. It wasn’t the first time he had asked that, but he had only written letters to her; letters that she intentionally did not answer. But as she looked around the room and the communication network that the Healer Hall had lent her, Rebecca knew that she couldn’t justify her actions any longer.
Glenn was far too abnormal. Even as he stood there, Rebecca noticed that the other Protectors had left their posts around the equipment. It was clear that the man in front of her was confident in protecting the artifacts alone. And it was also clear that he wasn’t a normal Protector either. His actions in protecting Isabella and her Party were very much needed, as she was afraid that Maxwell would have abducted the three of them long ago, just to deal with the girl’s mentor.
But the man had promised many things in the name of the Healer Hall, and he had actually followed through with his promises almost instantly. In her opinion, that actually reminded her of someone and made him far more dangerous than she had initially thought.
Rebecca closed her eyes and calculated the risk. “…Haille, call in Scout Miranda. I believe our guest has some questions to ask her.”
“Yes, your highness.”
Rebecca watched Haille leave and sighed. She knew that Glenn had something on Paige and her party. She could only hope that they didn’t know everything.