104. Moonless Forest
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Tonight's moonlight is especially bright, Maelys observed. She sat on the window sill wrapped in a thick fur coat in the process of relaxing after a long day of battle. Below she saw Sterne's little pig trotting towards a broken stone platform and sat in the middle. The little Hecate doesn't seem to notice that someone is watching, with its little body angled up, it looked above. Maelys giggled seeing that it was acting like a forlorn creature wearing that heavy expression.

The moon's glow seems blinding, yet eerily beautiful that even a little pig would get enthralled by it. Suddenly a black dot that isn't supposed to be there appeared. And it was getting closer and closer! 

Her eyebrows furrowed. Raising her hand, she braced herself to defend against the 'unknown thing' flying towards her. It chirped, once then twice, pulling a deep sigh out of her body.

"Come here." she called extending her hand.

The thing flapped its wings circled a few times before resting on her soft pinkish palm. It was a magic letter. Hurriedly, she closed the window and sat on the table to read. While immersed in the contents her gaze turned warm. His Highness seems to be doing well he even managed to write despite his busy time. 

A certain Highness who was idle the entire week stood facing the wintry mountains with a small frown on his face. "Why is she taking too long to reply?" 

Although the message is filled with the usual greeting, Maelys is somewhat familiar with his roundabout way of checking her situation, she kept reading it for over five times and couldn't help smiling from ear to ear.

"Milady?" Enna prompted making her shoot up from the chair in surprise.

She was stiff as a board for a few seconds before coming about and hurriedly hid the letter behind her. She stammered, "Y-Yes?"  

"Lady Odette is waiting outside, she said you have an agreement to go to Lady Sterne's room."  

Maelys patted her hair nervously and nodded like silly. She almost forgot they agreed to teach Odette a few pointers about basic and effective magic attacks. Enna watched her lady's secretive behaviour and laughed. She looked like a thief getting caught red-handed. 

 

The next day the three girls went to an empty plot of the monastery to teach Odette and a few talented children basic magic uses. Cecelia and Maelys turned to the ones with strong compatibility to Light attribute, as support types mages their help during battle is crucial to the outcome. Freiin taught beginner Ice Magic, while Emilia and Dorn indulged to play spar with the boys. Sterne concentrated on Odette teaching her how to reduce her mana output during casting that doesn't affect the overall strength of the attack. 

Her Wood is a rare variant of Light Magic which is believed to be the type that usually drains a lot of energy. This was a wrong assumption apparently. Since the physical medium already exists such as plants there is no need to expend too much mana to perform magic. Plants itself have their own mana, a little catalyst is enough to stimulate it to action. Lost Recipe also stated that Wood attributed magic is best utilized on offence and defence if the caster can find a good medium, the Druid Tree for one.   

"In a few days, we will be entering Moonless Forest along with the rest. The mentors will let us draw cards with a certain number of preys in them. In case you get a card that requires you to hunt more than ten monsters, you will be ready. At your level, you can easily slay D-rank to C-rank monsters but there are plenty of unpredictable circumstances inside the forest, it's better that you have a hidden advantage to help you to get out of trouble."

Odette nodded earnestly and jumped to hug her. "Thank you, thank you for being patient with me!"

"No need to thank me," Sterne waved her hands. "Of course, all these depends on you, I'm merely adding pointers."

The two finished their two-hour session, Odette is soaking with sweat from the tops of her head down. Mana control wasn't so hard after all but the process was quite long her mind couldn't help but stray several times causing her to lose concentration. Every time she becomes distracted the stretch out force would recoil and hit her. It was a painful lesson so she dare not neglect after.  

Sterne is very satisfied with Odette's performance. Her enthusiasm to learn is the primary reason why she was patient and positive about guiding her, though on the surface she retains the vivacious innocence her mind is set on focusing on her personal growth. 

When they entered the monastery, they heard Cecelia's screeching voice. "No… no. NO!" 

In front of several red-faced teenagers is thirteen years old Cecelia waving her staff. 

"Men will become Clerics and ladies become Healers but that doesn't mean you only have to serve the Heraldic Order. Once you acquire a profession find a good house to render your services, that way the Order won't pester you." she said bluntly while tapping the table.

Sitting on the head chair like an angry mother, she had her legs crossed and her staff vigorously waving left to right then back again.

"C-Can we really do that? Will the Order allow it?"

"Hmph, why should they force people to serve under their banner? Isn't this a free kingdom? Look at me and big brother Viktor, big brother Lucian, big brother Pietra and the other brother of our mage brigade. Did you see any sigil of Heraldic Order on our robes? We serve House Nachtwald, and House Nachtwald alone. In the future you as well will serve House Steinburg so why hold back? Develop your skills and help your lord… geez. The baron is only a young man yet the stress has reduced him into a balding middle-aged uncle, don't you think it's about time you help him as well?"

Her rants went on and on until the whole monastery can hear nothing but her voice. Everyone was speechless. This little thing sure can talk. After saying her point she grabbed a melon seed from the bowl and began cracking them with her teeth.     

Sterne went to Maelys side. "What irked the little devil?" 

"Oh this, they refused to learn more about their magic since they said they will be taken by the Order. They do not want to leave Steinburg that is why they chose to hide their talents."  

She smiled. "Who would have thought that this place is so fertile it's brimming with good sprouts. It would be a waste to just let it wither away."

"Exactly what I'm thinking, but it's not up to us to interfere. Steinburg right now is in the middle of a crisis."

"We can't interfere but, royalties can."

Maelys turned to her, her eyes glinting. "You mean…?"

"We have two here. How about giving those two something to ponder on? I think it's about time Steinburg gain back its title."  

"How?"

"Let the baron earn achievements."

***

 

The day after, the group prepared to depart for Moonless Forest to meet with the rest of the enrollees three days from now. 

In Fuchs territory, the highly agitated voice of Bernice rang out. The one who delivered him the news is one of the knights. 

"Crown Prince is coming?" she dropped the teacup on her hand. It fell and shattered on her feet while her face draining of colour.

Another knight entered with an even paler face. "Milady, His Highness already left. He said… he said he will wait for your explanation in the Moonless Forest."

A maid hurriedly came to clean up the broken pieces. Bernice paced back and forth biting her thumbnail. Her mind churned chaotically, the Crown Prince came, he inspected the place then just left. She knew that the prince will be coming here in the north, but she did not expect that the first place he would visit would be her assigned fief. The condition of Fuchs and its people, was it related to his visit? He must have known already. 

"Quickly, release those peasants. I don't want to hear any more complaints. Pay them if you must and tell the baron to let them have what they want." she said hastily. "Where is Sir Taron?" 

If it wasn't for that idiot going around beating people outside they wouldn't end up in this problem now. When the peasants banded together to complain to the landlord about the lack of food supply, and beg him to allow people to hunt Taron was the first to speak against it. Bernice was too lazy to deal with the problem, look where it took them now.  

"Milady, Sir Taron was… Crown Prince was displeased." the knight carefully replied. He did not want to tell her that Crown Prince did not even acknowledge his presence when he tried to explain, he immediately ordered the landlord to release the peasants and open the grain storage. 

Everyone knew Sir Taron is the nephew to the Queen but with the Crown Prince's attitude towards him, all their good opinions suddenly vanished. He had been relying on his connections to abuse people and his attitude was never been good in the first place. The people already gave him enough respect but it seems it only made him more arrogant. He is finally reminded of his place when the Crown Prince came, much to his shame.  

 

Travelling to meet with the rest of the enrollees in the outer part of Moonless Forest took only a couple of days. Eight o'clock in the morning when Royce, Sterne, Maelys and Odette arrived in the area. A wide plain welcomed their sights after they exited the groves from the western side. Aurum's flag and the Royal Academy's banner dance with the wind, below are several tents of certain individuals. Some richly adorned while some are of simpler colours but with exotic designs, the visual created a collection of shapes and colours under the clear blue sky.

When their party came, many heads turned to look at them. Since they were placed in the farthest corner of the north, most of the enrollees only see them today some couldn't even remember they were participating at all. How sad it is to be nearly forgotten but the group did not mind. 

Prince Sigfried and Prince Arthur took another route for some reason and will be arriving a little later. When the ladies' arrival was announced to the Crown Prince, he merely lifted the corners of his mouth. 

Sterne and the rest sat on their horses following a formation, the academy's uniform impeccable making them look more radiant than travel-worn. There were only handful escorts behind them, the rest were left in Steinburg to supervise the ongoing rehabilitation. Today is the opportunity to show what improvements they have reached in their two-week stay in this territory that is why a lot of them are excited to unleash their skills. 

Princess Lian Hua hurried out of the tent when she found out Sterne came. To her surprise, it wasn't only her who was excited to see them but a number of people as well. Although they say that today's test is relatively difficult, after this activity, she can very well just sit back and enjoy while waiting for the rest of the enrollment to conclude. She had no doubt that those girls will pass so she put her mind at ease.   

With most eyes turned to them, their arrival caused a sensation among the participants. The ladies mounted their steeds with upright postures giving the overall silhouette of the arriving company an air of discipline and expertise. The formation is divided into four with each enrollee leading their own entourage, however, due to the dark and somewhat threatening combination of their colours many paid more attention to appearance than the overall feeling of grandeur they exude. The day is still early and yet they were looked at with resentment as though they were troublemakers who came late to purposefully stir chaos. 

"And here I was worrying what kind of challenge awaits us. It turns out that my worry is wasted." Royce told the girls, he did not even bother to let his eyes wander. Being disliked for being incompetent he could understand, but to be disliked for having an advantage is simply hilarious. 

Maelys shook her head with a smile. Odette wiped the last strand of hesitation she was feeling and followed the three to their tent. 

"I'm more hungry than worried." Royce continued turning his head to Sterne, "Do you have anything in there?"

"I saved a piece of brick. Will that do?"

He rolled his eyes at her but still extended his hand. She knew he was trying to dispel any form of anxiety in their party, three of his companions are, after all, ladies. A little while later, Princess Lian Hua arrived. Before walking near them, she hesitantly stood outside the tent counting her fingers when Dio saw her.

"Not coming in?"

She straightened her back and made a stiff curtsy, "S-Sir Dio."

When he swept hands towards the tent telling her she is welcome, his eyes were warm and his smile gentle. "Go inside."  

"Big brother!" somewhere around the crowd, a sweet voice called out. Dio momentarily lost focus on the princess to acknowledge the newcomer. 

"Lady Milcah."

Milcah Flumen jostled through the crowd wearing her half-plate armour. The princess briefly skimmed her eyes over the brown-eyed beauty waving at the tall handsome youth. Suddenly, she felt a funny feeling poking her chest. Well, don't they look good together? When Dio turned around, the princess had already left the scene and darted inside the tent. 

"...each card will have their own engraved marks ranging from ten to twenty. Once a participant kills a monster, the mark immediately gets crossed out as a sign of completion, a passing score of ten kills is enough but I heard the mentors added a little spice to the test this time."

"Which is?"

"It is to select a few good talents. In order to get an outstanding score, you need the academy's crest to appear on your card and that is to kill all targets or... find an excellent prey. Monsters below E-rank are not counted and will not be converted to points no matter how many you kill. However, if you manage to kill an A-rank you can easily score ten points, killing two all marks on the card will automatically disappear and convert into the academy's crest." Royce is in the middle of explaining the rules of the test when their visitor came. "But I don't recommend this because we are yet to determine the strength of monsters in this area."

The girls nodded obediently. It was then that they noticed their visitor.

"Why the long face, princess?" Sterne asked playfully. 

She pouted sulkily. "Nothing, do go on." 

Royce proceeded to explain the rules, "To steal, to hurt or purposefully block another enrollee is prohibited. Fairness must be observed. One cannot ask for outside help, they must use their own efforts to fulfil the requirements. If an enrollee encounters danger they must quickly withdraw. Do not be reckless, do not show off on purpose and do not do other things that are not included in the enrollment test."

Lian Hua listened halfheartedly, she heard it for over three times today and has already committed herself to it so while waiting, she reached out for a plate of sweets and started gnawing.  

"Hm, so far the rules sounded fair." Odette commented.

"They have to be." Maelys said in a low whisper.

The foot of Moonless Forest run so far filled with old tall trees extending skyward, numerous cold and hot springs and has a plentiful selection of monsters. To ensure the safety of this test the academy put a temporary barricade that will stop enrollees from going beyond the restricted zones. In order to pass the participants not only have to slay an ample amount of prey but they must finish the course within the allocated period else all their efforts are wasted. Teachers and seniors will secretly supervise from the sidelines to avoid any enrollee from violating the rules, also at the same time acting as added security.

 

At nine o'clock in the morning, everyone gathered under the darkening sky. The weather turned sombre all of a sudden gripping the enrollee's hearts with inexplicable discomfort. In the middle of rising unease were five unperturbed figures. Four girls stood beside Royce brimming with anticipation, their hair and ribbons fluttering in the wind, swords on their waists and eyes filled with light. 

Unknowingly, Lian Hua started switching camp and joined their group, the feeling of comfort these people gives was something she never had before. Since their parting in the small village she had been looking forward to this day they will meet again. Sure enough, she wasn't disappointed. They are still as warm as ever. 

Finally, it was time to draw cards. The first ones have to enter the forest immediately and hunt prey corresponding to the card number, so far students only received cards with the required amount of ten to fifteen. 

Dio and Kyrios stood on the side watching their baby sister with knots on their stomach. No matter what number it is, they knew she would be able to pull it off, it's just that watching her dive into a place they themselves are not entirely sure of puts them in too much stress. Father only allowed her until the second layer of Sleeping Forest, this forest may seem ordinary at first glance but as knights, they knew that a quiet unassuming place like this could drastically change in a heartbeat. 

"Hey Sprout, if someone bullied you inside, tell big brother and I will help you beat them up." Dio whispered to Sterne.

She giggled. "You're not allowed to interfere though."

"What are you teaching her?" Kyrios rebuked. "Don't just beat them up, you have my permission to break a leg or two."

Everyone cringed. Sometimes they wonder if House Nachtwald is raising a Lady or a bandit. 

Royce, "An adorable bandit."

Odette smacked her forehead helplessly. "Get your head checked later."

When it was their turn to draw, the mentors paid particular attention to their group. Maelys thought it was a little strange but seeing the Crown Prince sitting not far from the line of teachers she disregarded the feeling. Even if they do something underhanded, they wouldn't openly do it in front of royalty.  She picked a card, followed by Odette and the rest.

Maelys sighed, "Sixteen."

Odette, "Fifteen."

Lian Hua, "Sixteen."

Sterne shrugged, "Ten."

The three looked at her incredulously. "What!?"

"It's fine," she said tapping the card on her palm. "It's a random draw." 

They obviously think she cannot do it in the first place so those cad thinks of embarrassing her. Her two brothers, however, held their laughter.  

"Twenty." Royce said putting the card inside his pockets.

As everyone finishes getting their cards, the teachers stood from the platform and explained the rules once again until everyone is sick of it before sending in their good wishes. Horns were blown and the drums were struck, eleven o'clock came and the test officially starts. Enrollees entered into five different entrances in an orderly manner guided by the seniors. 

The moment they crossed the threshold to challenge, the children's energy skyrocketed displaying their innate strength. Each of them released their pent up energy full force ready for the long and intense fight ahead. Soon figures blurred shooting towards the depths of the woodland and thickets; in a matter of half an hour sounds of fighting can be heard as Moonless Forest fell into an intense scene.

Sterne is about to step out as well when Royce caught her arm. "Be careful." 

Slowly, she turned to him. Eyes like molten silver moved from his chin up to his own crystal-like ones and with an indiscernible smile, she whispered something and quickly walked ahead. His hand was left hanging mid-air for many seconds along with a suspicious tint of pink creeping from the neck up to his ears. 

Dio saw this exchange and frowned. "Our baby is going to pass this test. No need for you to worry." 

Royce wisely chose to ignore the sulky big brother. He knew Dio is much harder to deal with than Kyrios. The eldest may be cold on the outside but he looks at things in a broader perspective and weighs them before taking action he wouldn't be so small-minded as to get mad at anyone who comes near her. The real problem, however, is the second brother. Kyrios once told him that, before Emilia and Miss Amy, there was Dio. He practically raised Sterne by himself before he joined the Royal Academy. He was the one who stayed by her side most of the time fed her milk and hovered around her like a mother whenever he and the duke are out for missions.   

Dio, on the other hand, did not care what this little wolf thinks. After giving Royce a glare he turned to Princess Lian Hua. "Where are your escorts?"

"I, I can do it alone. I'm not clumsy." she answered indignantly. 

"I'm not doubting you. Good luck, princess." his hand habitually reached for the fluffy head and rumpled the hair completely forgetting that this one is a new acquaintance. The little gesture unknowingly fell into the eyes of an onlooker.   

The princess was shocked speechless if it weren't for Maelys and Odette dragging her towards Sterne's direction she would have remained rooted in that spot until the sun sinks.   

 

The spot Sterne chose is a remote stream far from the entrance. This way, she would be able to hunt prey without the worry of bumping into other enrollees but as soon as she landed on a huge rock just above the cascading water, another figure nimbly followed. A crooked smile lifted her face.  

"What does Sir Ravencroft want from me?"

Laius was taken aback by the quick recognition, not only that, she seems to hint a cynical tone as well. This is the first time they formally meet but it looks like Lady Nachtwald has known him for quite some time.

"I, I just want to talk." he started hesitantly. "Can we?"

Sterne let out a low chuckle. He purposefully followed her here, risk delaying his activity for small talk with her?

"Of course." She allowed graciously.

"This is my first time meeting Lady Nachtwald. I confess I only know so little about milady but no matter how little, I would like to express my solemn admiration towards you." the voice had a quiver in it, seemingly shy also partly excited. 

Sterne turned to face him. Laius knew she would be beautiful, but to finally see her in person, his whole body felt like it had been rubbed with static. Her gaze was penetrating, a lady who blossomed in the battlefield looks at him with oppression. Every bone in her body is forged with regal elegance. Just like her father. As courtesy dictates, a woman is not allowed to look directly into men but she, she cared for none of that. 

The lady is not even uneasy in front of him.     

Laius knows his charm and effect to people, his face bore a gentle angle making one easily warm up to him. Today he felt like using all his allure to dominate her but unexpectedly, she merely tilted her head.

It was indeed rare for a man to own ambiguous charm but Sterne has seen a lot of good looking people. Andrej for one has an androgynous frivolous flair with eyes always flashing with vigour and mischief. Whereas Laius' eyes give a very stagnant impression, it was an uncomfortable feeling but it never reflected on her face.

"Who sent you? Magic Bureau or the Heraldic Order?" she went straight to the point.

"As milady knows, I am from the Magic Bureau b-but now I'm going to become a student of the Royal Academy, just like you."

"So you're saying you came from neither?"

Laius nodded slowly. In truth he had a lot of questions for her, merely looking and observing is not enough. It not enough! The more he sees her the more she feels real to him. "I understand Lady Nachtwald's hesitation, after all, my family has done yours wrong. I'm not here to plead for my brother nor try to justify his decision."

"If you're not here for an apology or pick on old wounds. Why did you come?"

His black eyes moved slightly. "I want to make amends. I know what I'm saying would sound superficial but for the sake of a quiet academy life I am willing to come to an agreement."

"There is no need for an agreement." Sterne smiled. 

It was short but it was still a smile. Laius relaxed.

"You and I are completely unrelated. We could end up on the same class but that's it, as long as the other party is willing to let the matter of the past rest, naturally, I will not pursue the issue as well." her voice was neither soft nor arrogant as she clearly stated. It is to say that if he continues to behave, she had no reason to retaliate. 

Anyone with a good head would easily understand her meaning.

His throat ached suddenly. He could care less about the Ravencrofts but the way she dismissively addresses what happened years ago hit his ego. Actually, he didn't have to voice it out, Sterne could clearly see disdain lurking in his seemingly calm eyes. He is on Regina's camp and her being a Nachtwald already put her in their firing line and added by the fact that her family is now openly supporting Maelys the friction was firmly set.

Him approaching her now is a trap. There are plenty of eyes watching, though not obviously but these are still talented students with a keen sense of hearing. In a matter of a few words, she put down the sensitive issue elegantly. Laius' jaw was taut.

"Good day Sir Ravencroft," Sterne smiled thinly. "Oh, let us not meet again while in here. The mentors and seniors who are monitoring might think we are collaborating. That would be bad for our record, wouldn't it?"

She flitted away after dropping that. Those who were listening attentively to their conversation couldn't help but begin a series of discussion.

"Did you hear that? He was ignored by the goddess." said by a certain foreign enrollee. 

"I couldn't help but admire this daring lass. Who is she?"

"You don't know!? Clean your ears and wash your eyes, that's the famed Fair Black Knight!"

"Oh my god! That was her?"

"You probably haven't heard of Lady Nachwald much in gatherings but among the soldiers, the Fair Black Knight is spoken frequently to the point of worship. She is very popular."     

Sterne, however, had no idea of this, she was set on hunting her own prey. The part near the boundaries set by the academy has different kinds of monsters that is why a number of enrollees gathered there to catch their prey. The only problem is that it will take roughly three hours on foot to reach this area and they only have until midnight to finish. If these enrollees are lucky, they would be able to return to the camp before the deadline provided there is no delay while on the road. 

With her minuscule requirement, it didn't even take an hour for her to finish and become idle. Her purpose actually is to find the rest of her friends, to see how they are faring. Not far from her are the Hallowed Ones struggling with their individual activities. Regina and Bernice displayed their full potential in front of onlookers, in a way it is also a silent competition between the two.

Bernice's Wind Magic is smoother than those of her Hallowed One peers, honed by strict instruction of her magic teachers it is only natural that she is able to show this much. Zypher's Call is a 3rd Tier spell and her manipulation of the element is beautifully done, at least that's what her loyalist sees. 

"Mana compression is poor, the light particles are scattered causing her power to leak excessively. Such a waste. The damage it can give is only mid-level." Sterne muttered, her set of grey eyes turning paler mixed with a little blue hue making her already striking features sharper.

If Royce were here, he would be able to recognize it. Herald's Eyes. 

She then turned to Regina, her face sank. "There is no doubt she received the best guidance when it comes to magic. She can already use 6th Tier Firestorm… it's just that the range of its effect is too small." she continues with a grumble. "Is that even a Firestorm? It cannot even roast a dozen monsters."         

She sighed, turned her head down the slope where Maelys is currently fighting. "Not bad m'dear. Keep it up… oh, you swing your sword too wide. Too wide! Don't leave yourself open. Stop using Shadow Walk, you have magic cast boost to yourself. Use more mana!"  

At this moment, Sterne very much wanted to bang her head on the tree. Maelys picked up her habit of using her innate physical strength than her magic. Shadow Walk is a skill developed through years and years of practice, not to brag but the best shadow walkers of this kingdom are none other than her Phantom. Combined with their Concealment skill they can enter and exit practically anywhere without being detected even by the most sensitive mage. The same reason why Dorn can still catch her off-guard sometimes.

The Umbra Corps hiding in the corners silently shed tears:

"We're here as well. Don't ignore us, milady!"

"What else do we do to impress milady?"

A Phantom leisurely munching on peanuts: 

"Simple. Show yourself for once."  

On the other hand… before entering the forest Maelys thanked Sterne's fastidiousness. If it weren't for her, she would probably end up in tatters by now. The light armour she wore was a great help adding a layer of defence. Though the mentors assured them that they will be monitored for safety she did not entirely let her guard down. She finished her requirement an hour ago but these monsters seem to keep on coming for some reason. 

Right this moment, she and some enrollees were pushed down the slope by a couple of A-rank Fire Ignis. An almost three-meter height reptilian monsters with a body as hot as magma. They knew there is a volcano beyond the boundary but these fire type of monsters are not supposed to come here. 

"W-What do we do? It's really becoming more and more aggressive." 

"Dammit! Who provoked them?"     

"No, why are they even here in the first place?"

Maelys stared at the two large enemies with a slight sigh. This isn't a mistake, they were purposefully cordoned here as extras. If not the people monitoring them would have moved to help by now. Maelys walked towards her agitated companions and addressed them calmly.

 

I'm back!!! Alright, potassium drip is hell. HELL I tell you... huhuhuhu... it freaking hurts. It feels like my arm is being torn, minced then burned as it enters my blood vessels. Thank you for your concern everyone. I'm truly, truly happy reading your messages  \^o^/

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