103. First Wave
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"Oh, this is trouble. We have an S-rank monster all of a sudden." Gram said faltering.

"Even back in our own country, it's rare to encounter them."

"Not in here." Sterne said. "The outbreak recorded more than thirty of those slain here in Aurum. Based on the size of this pack, there might be two Elder Whites."

Members of the Flying Lowens looked at each other apprehensively.

Captain Heinrich tapped his foot on the ground. "Relax, this is not like your normal quest. You have experienced companions here."

Dio crouched down on the ground, took out coal from one of the burners and started sketching.

"Knights and soldiers with experience fighting the Elder White will lead the forefront and press forward to probe where it hides. The second line will attack the direwolves that gets past the front attackers. One direwolf is enough for two to three people. Go for the left foreleg first then, either of the eyes. When it falls stab directly to its neck where it is weakest."

Direwolves are as big as horses, any first-timer encountering them will succumb to panic so simple slaying techniques was relayed. First, you have to immobilize it by wounding the front paw, then go for the two softest spots. Blind its eyes and cut the throat. 

Viktor added. "Third line is long-range support, the mages will back you up from behind so do not worry about being overwhelmed." 

"One last important thing, do not provoke with no intention to kill. If you caught its attention, fight with all you've got or else they will go after your throats." Dio finished. 

The monsters appeared one by one from the shadows of the trees. When Sterne turned around she saw the faces of the local soldiers slowly turn blue. Kyrios told her to get ready, when they returned to the manor, Emilia and the rest already prepared their armours.   

"Let's go!"

They mounted the horses and head out using the northern gate. The bridge was pulled back up once they arrived in the clearing. The howl blasted with force from the forest ahead. 

Dio leads the forefront while Maelys' troops took the left with Kyrios and Alyssa in command.  Odette was placed on the right with Captain Heinrich completing the three-pronged formation making sure all their sides are covered. The two princes, since it was their first time chose the second line to observe and assist.

"Do you always do this?" Quillon asked drawing his sword. His eyes observed his companions varied expressions and gave himself a slight shake.

"Why? Are you scared?" Sterne throws him a confident glance. "Don't worry, if you mess up you will only lose a limb or two." 

The blood rushed to his head hearing her nonchalantly declared that. "Is there no better option?"

"You ask them." she tilted her head to the hungry monsters waiting to launch. "To be honest, this is only my third time with an Elder White but I have been fighting Direwolves since I was twelve."

Quillon stared at her. "Only Direwolves?"

"Unn, my horse seems to have a grudge with them." Whenever Blitz senses any of its kind nearby he would bolt ahead and attack. 

"How come they just let you loose like that?"

"Don't get me wrong, I was the one who begged my father for it. I would rather join the military than sit all day doing embroidery and composing poetry."

He laughed. "So the famed lady also has her own weakness."

"Can you compose poetry and do embroidery?" she returned the question with a snort.

"Not even if my life depended on it."  

"See?" she exclaimed exaggeratedly. 

"Eyes up front." Royce cut in. He was in the middle of trying his hair into a bun when he saw these two talking leisurely. 

Sterne turned to her left and saw the perpetually grumpy faced Highness. "What's the matter Young Master, forgot to eat your breakfast?"

Young Master?

Royce glared at the audacious girl trying hard to stop himself from strangling her. "You look too relaxed."

The first wave rushed out of the forest. 

"Me? Oh, Young Master thinks I'm playing around." her eyes suddenly sparkled with mischief as she draws her sword. "Perfect, since we are here don't you think it's about time you show me the four-year training you are so proud of?"

"Not doing it." 

"What? Are you actually trying to make an excuse?" she taunted. "I waited four years for nothing then?"

Waited four years…? His eyelashes moved. He momentarily turned silent.

Everyone within earshot lit a candle for Royce in their hearts. Most of the time this young man look so sure and confident about himself so they secretly stick him with the title of being aggressive and commanding. Normally, it's the man who would initiate teasing the lady but how come it turned out like this? There is definitely something wrong with this setup!

"You, you really want to play with me that bad?" Royce asked.

"Are you scared you would lose?"

"Price?" He raised his eyes to take another look at her. 

"The loser will massage the winner's feet and become a lackey for a whole day."  

He bowed his head, pretend to think about it while the corners of his mouth rising imperceptibly. "Alright. Don't turn back on your word."

"I won't, I'm not going to lose to you!" she told him proudly urging Blitz forward to attack. Her words trailed behind "You, however, should watch your--"

He smirked at her arrogantly as he caught up beside her. A Direwolves exited the forest en masse Blitz kicked and trampled the approaching beasts while she finishes them off with the sword. 

The front attackers have moved forward spreading the formation further giving a much wider space easy to manoeuvre on horseback. The mages supporting behind kept a safe distance to get a good vantage point. Their priority is to assist the enrollees, but since Maelys can handle herself, they only have Odette to look out for. 

The monsters collided with the first line of defence where the most experienced soldiers are positioned. In just a few minutes the whole clearing's green ground is soaked in red. The angry growls from the enraged pack intermixed with the whimpers of the dying. Under the thick clouds and the chilling air of Steinburg three hundred people battle it out with the wild monsters of Moonless Forest. 

Baron Steinburg stood above the parapets looking at the scene below and couldn't help but held on to the wall to keep himself from shaking. Those… those girls fight better than their own soldiers. Suddenly a loud cheer erupted behind startling him. The people unknowingly climb up the battlements to watch as well. 

The adventurers' faces were flushed with frenzy after they have piled up the bodies of the Direwolves that came and fell on their hands. There was no trace of terror left in their eyes. 

Watching the adventurers slowly adjusting to the fight distracted Sterne quite a bit, Blitz bucked and kicked a monster from behind but another one leapt directly on their front.

A curtain of black blocked her vision followed by a splatter of red. Royce blessedly stopped the Direwolf's mouth in the nick of time, his sword lodged in its open mouth and pushed farther down its throat.

"Pay attention, will you? It's still too early to concede defeat, that won't be exciting." He said and flipped back to his steed.

She mumbled an apology.  

"I'd rather want a thank you though and oh, that one is my tenth kill. How about you?" He reminded with a roguish smile and galloped away.

That rascal! You'll see…

Sterne hit one monster with a vertical blow on its eyes then followed with a thrust to its neck. Another jumped towards her as soon as the other fell, angling her body to the right she swung the sword from above diagonally slicing the monster from the head down. She continues onwards with fierce swift strikes, one after another.

On the other side, Maelys took her time to steady herself before joining the fray. Her sword skill is still rough around the edges, it was better to be cautious she absolutely cannot enter recklessly. Since Kyrios lead the forefront, Alyssa remained on her side to guide her. Odette is gradually adjusting, she can fight now without being squeamish. She began to move more at ease since they entered the territory with the help of the ladies. Though she still needs a bit of help she's improving at a fast rate. 

The monsters coming out of the dense forest thinned out. What's left are being dealt with by Prince Arthur and his squad. The short break came enough for everyone to catch their breaths. Three hundred people are still intact. There are too many monsters this time almost a couple of hundreds as big as Blitz.

The remaining mounted knights and soldiers in the clearing easily defeated them. Amidst the struggle, some of them wondered how the fight went smoothly. It happened so fast when they normally struggle even with just C-rank monsters. The condition of the mounts, in particular, puzzled them.  

Four in the afternoon when the leading teams with her brothers came back. They have just begun cleaning the fields of the blood. If left unsanitized the stench will attract more monsters in the vicinity. The adventurers rejoiced at the many fallen Direwolves, their eyes practically sparkled like gold. 

"The guilds will have their hands full dismantling these, you even gave us the Orthrus bodies." Gram said. "The Direwolf hide sells for twenty-five gold coins apiece, fangs for fifteen gold, the claws for ten while the Orthrus' bones are bought by wealthy aristocrats to be assembled and displayed whole also fetch quite a sum."

Gram cleared his throat and tapped his companion's shoulder. The majority of kills, after all, came from the knights. It would be presumptuous and rude of them to just accept these. "Are you sure you do not need these? They're very expensive when sold you know."   

"It's alright," Captain Heinrich said seeing his worry. "The knights have been earning quite a profit from monster hunting as well so don't hold back."

The Flying Lowens received them with gratitude. Odette poked Sterne's side, "Oh, so this is what you mean by giving them monster loot." 

"Whenever there is danger there is profit."

"Who said so?"

"My brothers. The profit earned here exceeds the amount even A-rank adventurers earn. Those who declined your father's request will cry rivers once they realize they let go of this opportunity."

Odette was completely amused by the thought. Flying Lowes' C-rank party is the highest among her entourage, the other two are D-ranks who are good friends with the Lowens. On their sixth day in Steinburg, their group finally experienced what it's like to fight until they are exhausted. It was even worse than exploring the thirtieth floor of the Federation's labyrinth.

"Gram," Alyssa greeted. "I'm glad the Lowens made it here."

"Thank you for backing us up with your recommendation." He said bowing his head.

"It wasn't much. I have seen you and your members work hard. You deserve it."

"Still… we're only low-ranked adventurers. We couldn't even get past the twentieth floor of the labyrinth."

Alyssa gave a soft laugh. "Forget the labyrinth, those things are can become monotonous and boring. After you are done here, you will find that what I'm saying is true."

Her party members lined up behind her, the rest of the Flying Lowens and others also gathered to express their thanks. The Willows of Lady Alyssa is famous among the guild people since they have special privileges being A-rank and one of the strongest.

"The Obsidian and Blue Falcons really surprised me. I thought knights would be more you know… noble-ish., fancy like the other ones."

"If they stop being like that, this kingdom is doomed. I'm sure of it. Another thing, if you plan on selling those loot you better save that until you return to Freedom Federation."

The lady mage spoke this time. "I heard there is a guild house in Nebel and Anfang City."

"It's better if you don't go to Anfang, Nebel is good but it's far from here. You will not get much." Was all she said but everyone hinted some underlying sarcasm.

Perhaps Lady Alyssa had bad experience from there… who knows?

"Alright, if the Dark Princess says so." the lady mage said. "You hear her guys? No rushing."

""Alright!""

Along with the cheers, a loud booming sound came from the forest suddenly. What came out next is a flock of jet black Feral Ducks.

Sterne's eyes shone with happiness.

"Everyone, catch as many as you can, they taste good when roasted!"

Without minding their shocked expressions she went ahead and hunted as many as she can while thinking what's a good dish to cook them with. There's roast duck, crispy duck pancakes, orange duck and duck braised in brine works fine as well. They can even put it in a salad.  

After the cleanup everyone head back inside the city walls to get ready for a feast.

 

The adventurers helped with the dismantling since there were too many meats to process. The missus slapped and slathered spices to the ducks to be marinated all night and be roasted for tomorrow. The knights looked disappointed when they heard that the roast will not be done until the flavours seeped into the meat.

For tonight it was decided they will have ducks in the orange sauce instead. They are still roasted but a little different from the first batch. The cooks were elated when Sterne gave them the recipe and showed them a little on how to make the sauce.

The ducks are all nice and fat perfect for dinner. Roasting it until the fat falls off and skin turns crispy, it was a slow delicate process while minding not to burn them entirely. The orange sauce is a thick mixture of boiled vinegar, sugar and beef stock. The orange juice and peeled oranges come next then stirred with starch to thicken the mix. Add orange-flavoured wine, salt, and butter a tablespoon at a time, constantly whisking it to avoid clumps. 

While the cooks are busy Emilia and Sterne went out to where the shops are. They poked around the meat shop and found some interesting things.

Sterne had no idea that people would start looking for her after she left.

"Oh, milady. This place stank of meat, you don't want to spoil your appetite before dinner." The butcher said.

"True but I see them more as food."

Emilia behind her gave a sigh. She ignored it and entered like she is the owner of the place. Inside, sausages hang in the line to dry, and several hams floating in brines.

"There's a lot of processed meat." 

"Well, we have to save for the coming cold weather. Although for now, the smokehouse is nearly empty because we lacked meat."

"I see so the shortage is to this extent."

"You could say that. There aren't enough to make bacon. But we do have some for sausages and hams."

"When is the coldest weather?" 

The butcher straightened up. "From the ninth to twelfth month. Oh, yes I forgot that you are from the Royal Capital, the weather there is not as severe here. Six months from now will be the start of the cold and before that, we must stock up."

"If you don't mind, can I drop the Red Bison meat in here? There's plenty in my storage, after all, it will be a long time before they were all finished."

"B-But those are high-grade meat. I've eaten it last night. Is it really alright to leave them here?"

"Sure, as far as I know, Baron Steinburg is not like any other nobles."

"Aye, he is. He allows his people to partake with the bounty of this land, a pity though it's not much. Most lords would hoard them all for themselves. The nearby fiefs punish the people for poaching, even more now that there is an outbreak and food is scarce."

"You have a good lord."

"And we are thankful for that." He said merrily.

A good storage shed would be useful. The smokehouse is only huge enough to cure meat but always eating processed meat is not good for health. It would be nice if they can work on a freeze and ageing room just like those in Nachtwald.

"Then, I'm giving you the Red Bison. You will need your companions because there is a lot to dismantle." 

He gulped loudly. "I, I will call them all right away."

Twenty minutes later the butcher returned along with five men with their dismantling equipment. The arrival of five burly men holding knives rendered her speechless. If anyone were to see this she was sure they will either fall dead in fear or jump out the window.

Please don't go around looking so menacing like that. Even Emilia put up her guard. 

After giving them my greeting, the men proceed to the warehouse behind the meat shop. Sterne began to limber up, after a few seconds she started pulling the Red Bison out of the storage.

"Hu-Hundred? And there's more?" 

They all asked looking at the heap inside the warehouse.

"We ran along them when we were on our way here. They blocked the path so we have no choice but to cull them."

"Is that so…" the butcher said tottering to the side from shock, feeling a bit weak-kneed.

"This is a lot of meat milady. It can last a week's worth of feast."

"There's Feral Ducks as well. Oh, but leave the feathers, they make good stuffing for quilts." she said. 

They all nodded amazed.

If she could find another nice meat it would be even greater. Preferably Electric Trihorn Boar and Crystal Doe. She and Emilia left the meat shop in high spirits and returned to the manor but what awaits her is… 

"You're late, where have you been?" Royce asked frowning.

He stood in the entrance with both hands on his chest.

"The meat shop. Why, do you need anything?"

He clicked his tongue. "I've been looking for you since we get back. I thought you got left outside the walls."

"Why would I be?"

His frown turned even more deep. "To think that I waste my time looking for you out there you were just at the…"

"Oh, you're worried about the bet aren't you? Don't worry whatever the result is, I'm not running." 

He looked at her with a complicated gaze. After tapping his shoulder Sterne entered the manor to talk to Viktor. She wants to have a nice proper bath after this because she reeked of blood. 

"Oh, Sterne. There you are, Royce had been looking for you from the inside and out. Where have you been? He was worried sick!" Maelys said rushing towards her.

"Emilia and I went to the meat shop. Sorry, I forgot to tell everyone."

"You're apologizing to the wrong person." She said with a reprimanding tone.

She turned her head back to the doorway but Royce is nowhere to be seen. He's probably mad, isn't he?

Viktor agreed to her proposal to install magic operated spigots in important places outside the manor. His subordinates will start carving the magic matrix and ask the forge to make the spigots.  

Tonight a feast was laid out in the empty garden of the manor. Pots and cauldrons filled with different food lined up to the side where people are free to pick whatever they like. The whole city never had a feast this big before where food just continues to flow as though it's endless.   

Sitting along with the ladies on the left side of the banquet area, Sterne and the rest mingle with the folks. However, while eating she could barely taste the duck on her mouth as she grew aware of a certain someone's tantrum fit. Royce was quiet all the time like how he usually is, but it seems today he is especially silent. The other ladies were trying to engage him to talk but he remained pensive. 

"What should I do?" she asked Emilia.

"If you understand that what you did was wrong then an apology is needed."

"But Royce never got mad at me before. I don't know how to say I'm sorry." And she doesn't even know what she did wrong. "He might ignore me."

"That's just your assumptions." Maelys said. "You won't know unless you try."

Odette scooted near and also said, "I agree with Maelys, Lord Royce spoils you rotten so it's time you take the initiative."

Being spoiled by him? How? Sterne tried to pull out a memory but there is none. She was chewing on the meat while contemplating, it took a while until the meat no longer had its original taste and texture but she still remained clueless, so she resolved herself to apologize after dinner and think about the details later.

Dinner finished but she is now having second thoughts. 

Why apologize? What did I do wrong?

She hadn't eaten much and ended pacing around the fountain beside the maple tree on the left side of the manor. The more she moved the more her tension pile up.  

"Are you trying to digest your dinner?" It was Quillon with a wry smile. He had been watching her for a good while from inside the house. Seeing her walk around aimlessly, he grew curious. 

Sterne shook her head. Forget digesting, she hasn't had more than five spoonfuls.

Quillon waited but didn't hear her answer. He looked towards the top of her head and said, "It's cold out here." 

She stopped pacing after he said that, she finally noticed she was doing something silly. 

"I'm willing to listen if you want to share it."

"It's alright, it's nothing important." Sterne hedged raising her head looking at the vines growing on the wall, beyond him.

The atmosphere was awkward.

He pressed on. "But you look quite stressed. Does it have something to do with the spawning?"

"Not really…"

"Then what troubles you? Forgive me for being forward, milady it's just that, this is quite different to what you showed me in Anfang and Albertia."

Mentioning those two encounters made her look at him, blinked her eyes a few times and raised an eyebrow. "I've been meaning to ask you that, good thing you reminded me."

Quillon put a serious face, inwardly he was satisfied to catch her attention finally. He had been standing here like an idiot but she doesn't seem inclined to acknowledge his presence. 

"Go ahead ask." he invited.

"Why did you attack me?"

"It was my mistake, I had a scuffle with an enemy and chased after her until it leads me to you."  

Sterne took a look at him and shook her head laughingly. "Just because of that? Commander, are you sure you were in the right state of mind during those times? If you think about it carefully, there are other more women in that village aside from me."

"I admit I had a little bit of a drink that night at the feast. As you can see, I have a low alcohol tolerance, milady could even drink better than me. It was my fault, I'm sorry." 

"What are you talking about? I attended the feast but I never drank alcohol. We were set to move in Kaserne the next morning and-- ah, forget it. I lost my interest." 

Quillon was stunned silly. He lowered his head, his eyes widening in shock. 

What kind of farce is this? He clearly saw her drinking and talking with the other soldiers that night. When did he turn so stupid? But she looked firm on her answer and her voice bereft of deceit. Just fact. For these few weeks, he had seen plenty of her...

"Commander, I rarely drink." she said. This pulled him out of his thoughts. 

She stood in the dimly lit area of the garden where her face is only slightly illuminated by the glow of the light orbs. But even so, her countenance seems to radiate serenity, her eyes especially looked warm and gentle at this moment. Despite the poor light, he can clearly see the angles of her face, he felt enchanted the more he looks.  Quillon took a breath and step forward.  

The maple tree behind them shook and something fell. Sterne felt a prickle on her back as though someone is angrily staring holes through it.

"I, maybe we could talk some other time. Goodnight milady." the commander walked back to the manor after.

"Are you doing it on purpose?" Royce appeared from behind and he sounded angrier.

"Have you been there all along?"

No answer.

"You still have your habit of jumping down the tree." she said slowly turning back at him fully expecting to see an annoyed face.

Silhouetted by the moon and its three bright rings is a silver-haired man with a lonesome look. He had his hair loose down his back and shoulder unlike in his usual half updo. The usually sharp aquamarine eyes held a trace of softness.

"I'm sorry I made you worry." The words gushed out of her mouth.

He was always plucky and lively. This sombre look is not what she was used to seeing.

"And?"

"And for not talking to you immediately."

"You think I'll get jealous if you don't talk to me?"

Jealous? How did he come up with that? She only meant that she did not apologize earlier than this. And why does he sound so prickly? Sterne waved her hand in front of him. 

"So Young Master Royce, who won?"

He harrumphed looking down on her with a smug face. "Fifteen. Yours?"

Sterne hangs her head down. Her kills did not even reach ten, most were trampled by Blitz. Seeing her turning quiet, Royce slowly crossed the distance between them and leaned closer again. 

"I want my foot massage some other time." Royce said then took a step back with his eyes still at her. The corners of his mouth are raised in an innocent gentle manner yet why does she feel like his tone is strange? "So, you resolved your misunderstanding now?"

You were on top of that tree, of course, you heard it.

She nodded while he sauntered around while looking doubtful. What does he want? Stop slithering around it really feels uncomfortable.

"You met that guy in Albertia? Where is that?"

"Southwest from here, near the Nameless City."

"Hm," He made such sceptical sound. On the other hand, her neck is starting to crick while following him around. Her stomach chose the perfect opportunity to growl.

"I knew it, you did not eat a lot." He said stopping and pulled her towards the tree. "Take it out."

Blood rushed to her face. "T-Take what?"

Jewel-like eyes zeroed at her, amused. He laughed next.

"Alright, I forgive you." He said still unable to stop. 

"Wait, what did you mean take off what… "

"Take it out." He corrected. "I mean the food, you have them in your Storage, right?"

Oh, so that's what he meant. For a while there Sterne thought he switched into harassment. She was very much prepared to blacken both his eyes.

Following what he said, and because she is hungry herself, she pulled into two huge bowls of beef noodles and a plate of spring rolls. She made this earlier for a midnight snack because she knew Odette and Maelys would surely come to her room later to ask for food.

Royce said nothing about the storage space and just sat on the ground waiting for the food. Under the silver glow of the moon, sheltered by thick leaves of the tree, two figures can be seen. Inelegant noise can be heard as they started to slurp down the noodles as the second dinner.

What a nostalgic feeling, Sterne thought. They used to eat sandwiches under the tree in Nachtwald before. Royce's hand reached out and touched the ribbon fastened on her braid.

"You're still wearing it." He smiled.

"Ah, this? I like it a lot."

His hand froze, his face stilled and the tips of his ears turn hot. A ripple of joy flashed briefly in his calm eyes. Sterne didn't know what else he did after because Emilia came to tell her that her bath is ready.

"Goodnight, Royce. Have a good sleep."

"Uhnn…" He groaned sounding a bit strangled.  

 

Food... I'm torturing myself.

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