108. Next Wave
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The last scene of his departure was clearly embedded on Werner's mind, those people dared to look at him coldly. The folks around here had always been dogs of the Steinburg family, always following what they say despite not being properly paid. They are all addled in the head. Werner thought.

Wordlessly unable to endure the stinging glares he whipped the horse and rode away from the gates seething in anger. The city indeed looks different. Trees, paved streets, the towers repaired and the walls. The manor where he used to live with his uncle and stupid cousin, it was never that opulent.

The only satisfaction he got is thinking that all of that splendor will soon slip out of Allen's hand as his title revoked. Once the new landlord settles in he will return. Just thinking of ways to step that garbage cousin of his underfoot gives him a feeling of elation.

The dusk is here now. 

They needed to get to the seaside and return home. While he stewed in fury he neglected to notice that he and his band are about to collide in a pack of Horned Hogs barreling towards the Fortress City. 

Yet before the collision occurred, the Spectre showed up finishing them, watering the ground with their blood.

The people of Steinburg was unaware of the tragedy Werner's people suffered, they went on their daily lives slowly improving the skills they were taught.

 

Sterne thoughtfully played with the ring on her right forefinger. This was the device the Magic Bureau distributed to keep track of each student's progress. By looking at its dull craftsmanship, she could tell the thing is completely useless. She couldn't even feel a slight fluctuation of energy from it.  

Even if she sold the ring, she wouldn't get enough money to buy a mouldy bread! 

Those old fools, did they really think that by giving them these defective toys they can prevent them from advancing? She already suspected that those prunes had hatred towards her, but now she fully understands how big that hatred is. 

Aiy you wrinkly farts, what did I ever do to you to deserve this? Sterne lamented 

Emilia seeing her lady making faces into the wall scratched her head. Now, what is this girl up to?

"Old farts…" She sighed then suddenly realized she cursed out loud, she hurriedly slapped her mouth. If not, Emilia will surely sew her lips! 

"That's what you get for staying too long in the barracks. Look what those rogues taught you!"

Err, Emi no one taught me. I picked it up myself. The self-confident part of herself wanted to say that but the rational part of her mind slapped it away. She really would like to argue with Emilia to tease her but if she did this before the argument is finished it is estimated that her ears will bleed. 

At times like this, DO NOT answer back. 

After half a day of nagging and blaming almost all the Obsidian Emilia finally calmed down and told her to take a bath. Sterne was speechless.

Emilia's vocal power is not to be trifled with.  

A warm bath after a long lecture and avoiding a certain ear injury is really one of the best things in life. The citrus smell and the osmanthus flower soap scent tickles the nose. Sterne closed her eyes to relax. 

Before coming here, the girls did not hold any grand hope of getting a proper soak. Knowing that the place they are going is ravaged by calamity, a bath is the last thing to worry about. Thankfully when the upgrade finished, many rooms that were left to rot gained their function. There at least a hundred rooms inside now. 

The vast first floor has ten spacious drawing rooms, galleries, two grand reception room, a banquet hall seating fifty people in total, a music room under forty two foot domed ceiling, other utility and staff rooms are at the back. 

The second floor is a private place with thirty large bedchambers accompanied by their own bathroom and a living area. There is an indoor garden filled with flowers beside a wide stream of water, arbour, a patio and a stone steps leading to to the topmost garden on the roof. The restored and added rooms can be used when the lord starts receiving guests once again. 

Sterne felt satisfied, it was fun seeing another upgrade like this since Nachtwald. 

While she was merrily stretching the knot on her back a new kind of trouble brewed outside. The storm has come.

On their twenty-second day in Steinburg, chaos finally erupted. It came in the middle of the night were people were already fast asleep. The explosion of magical discharge jolted everyone up. Above, multiple volleys of fire shook the activated barrier of the city.

 

A day before… 

There are a hundred soldiers assembled to probe the extent of the infestation in the forest. All of them now standing at attention on the upper ward of the manor. 

"Our Scouts found two small chasms inside Moonless Forest. All of it is near here in Steinburg." 

A heavy silence fell in the meeting hall. Truthfully, the baron also had this thought for quite some time thus he felt only slightly panicked after hearing Kyrios' confirmation. Of all territories here in the north, only his fief constantly received this heavy blows.

Their visitors have meticulously gone over the idea before breaking this news in front of everyone, fortunately ever since their arrival, they have shown great interest in helping them solve the crisis. Lord Steinburg stood beside the sons of the king as they began to discuss the plan. 

Selected knight, adventurers and soldiers from each team will start to enter the forest before eight in the morning. The remaining two hundred will stay inside the city along with the enrollees. Entering the forest will more or less take two days. A different topography with addition to the unknown enemies is extremely perilous for any inexperienced fighter that is why only the veterans will go and split into two to brave the area beyond.

“If we can reach it early we need to forcibly close it before the monster tide.” Kyrios said while looking at the map sketched out by the former landlords.

The parchment is quite old but the details are still vividly drawn. Captain Heinrich proposed to divide the mages into two teams instead of bringing everyone inside the forest. One to perform sealing spell while the other remains inside Fortress City for an emergency.

“There are more than twenty mages in my team but only one has Faith attribute.” Viktor sighed.

"None in mine." Alyssa voiced out.

The Flying Lowens followed. "Mine neither." 

That goes without saying that the Blue Falcons has no one on their ranks as well. There are more than fifty mages in their entourage, unfortunately only Cecelia has the Faith attribute that can purify the miasma after sealing. They had known they will encounter a monster pool but they, unfortunately, did not anticipate two would appear in the same place. 

“If it is Faith attribute, you can count me in.” Maelys said drawing all attention to her. “You need to take me with you.” 

Everyone let out their objections.

“Denied. I’m sorry my lady but we cannot let the enrollees go into such a dangerous place.” In a solemn voice, Kyrios said.

“What about Cecelia? She is only thirteen."

Kyrios shook his head. "Cecelia has undergone extensive training and has done this many times." 

"The purpose of us coming here is to help. What good will I do if I just sit here and wait?”

“Lady Maelys, the knights are right.” it was Baron Steinburg this time. “You have done quite well since the moment you arrived here and we are grateful beyond words. However, asking you to do more will be impudent of us.”

“But you’re not asking. I’m volunteering.” 

“Maelys is right.”

“Sterne!” Kyrios admonished.

“We didn't come here to play. Have you not recognized her efforts and deeds with your own eyes? As a Hallowed One, her Faith attribute is unquestionably stronger than a mage's, this is also a perfect opportunity for Maelys to learn more of her Blessing. Our purpose is for these waves to stop permanently, am I right? Gentlemen, we know your concern but the academy assigned us here to help." 

Dio tapped the elder brother's shoulder and said, “The safety of the Hallowed Ones must be prioritized above all else. It may sound unfair to you but it is the truth.”

“I know that from the start.” Sterne smiled. “But our Hallowed Ones said that they want to help the people. Who are we to snuff their resolve?”

Maelys nodded. “My decision is firm. I will go with you to the forest.”

Captain Heinrich bored his eyes to the map spread on the table. “We will do another check of the area and clear out the way first before we send you in.”

“No, it’s fine. The shorter the amount of time we spent deliberating, the better.”

They set off fully equipped along with a two-day supply. Enna was replaced by Freiin to stay on Maelys side, Alyssa and the Willows will be her primary bodyguards since they are all females. 

“We will take good care of your friend Lady Sterne so do not worry.” Alyssa said.

She nodded and gave a small smile. “All of you as well.”

Then as a ritual, she hugged her brothers and gave each of them a small vial of Regen Solution. If a critical situation shall arise the vials will be used. Since the two each have their own signacalum as protection, the vials will be more or less used for the members of the troops. Until now, no one has known about the existence of the solution besides those who slain the Behemoth and her family.

This expedition, Stern had great hopes for Maelys awakening a unique skill otherwise they will have to return using the Regen Solution to purify those monster pools.  

The troops were sent with solemn silence. The people looked at the knights with gratitude and a hint of fear for them. It goes without saying that in a short time that they have stayed here the folks become attached making them feel as if they were sending their own children to the jaws of danger.  

For the time being Sterne, Royce and Odette’s remaining troops have to help maintain the security of the city.

“I thought you wished to join as well?”

To her question, Viktor replied with a slight chuckle as he shook his head. “My place has always been by your side milady, what are you talking about?”

“Well, seeing how excited you are to know about the chasm.”

“How rude, I don’t even like those cursed things. I am merely curious as to why they exist. Nothing more.” He liked receiving their lady's unabashed opinions and occasional jabs to his weird hobbies. Even Lucian and Pietra enjoyed her mockery to their eccentric behaviour and interests so despite them burning with fevers they force themselves to remain lively.    

"Go back to bed." Sterne said shoving them to the direction of the manor. Although their lady is crudely dismissing them, it couldn't hide the concerned undertone in her voice. 

Before long, there is only Sterne and Royce sitting on the ramparts overlooking the Moonless Forest. The patrol guards pretended not to notice them and continue with their duties. 

"Something in your mind?"

Actually, Royce didn't have to guess blindly he only need to look at her a little longer, her thoughts were written all over her face. She purposefully accepts being assigned here in Steinburg. Presumably, the places of monsters outbreak had something to do with those Long Tail Sirens resting areas and the last place that is more likely to suffer heavily is here. 

She squirmed feeling somewhat embarrassed to be stared at so strongly. “This one is an accident. This problem has persisted for almost four years, we did not expect that after cleaning up the trail of monster pools, the biggest would suddenly appear here in the north."

"There is no need for you to feel guilty, even when you know this will happen you can only do so much with that small body of yours." While he said that, his eyes skimmed over her stature making her cross her arms over her chest. 

"Who's small?"

Royce did not say anything anymore but there's a sly smile twisting his lips. She felt alarmed all of a sudden, once she heard Freiin warning her that spending too much time with men will eventually make her grow a beard and would cause her chest to shrink. Although Emilia refuted it saying Freiin was just talking nonsense she couldn't help but think about it now.

D-did it really become small?

Seeing her eyes widen in panic Royce shamelessly laughed to her face. 

"What? You're barely nice to look at, don't glare at me. Let me tell you bluntly, you might have grown up a bit but you still lack in some areas."

Sterne hatefully eyed him. "Young Master Royce is really stingy with his flatteries."

"I'm telling the truth, but hey, jokes aside I mean what I said. You can only shoulder so much. From helping your fief improve now you're pushing yourself to change people's lives outside. It may make you feel self-gratified for a time but is the effort really worth your time?"

"You're probably right, I may be doing this to make myself feel gratified." She said flippantly still annoyed with his laughter. 

"Just out of curiosity, why are you so bent on helping?"

"Because I can." 

He cocked an eyebrow. This little sheep is getting unruly and arrogant, Royce knew she wanted to prove something to people. Her ancestor Margrave Stellar is not only a hailed hero but a scorned rebel, a traitor they say. It was one of the main reasons why the Heraldic Order and the Magic Bureau looks down on House Nachtwald until this day. Despite their many achievements, it was hard to extricate themselves from the label of a villain. If anything, they are more wary of them gaining more achievements. Whenever there are scandals, those institutions are always at the ready to add dirt on their name. People are easy to forgive the affront they caused with every good deed after all.    

If not for those two Orders' constant reminder and blatant antagonism, no one would remember that the Black Knight once turned his sword against the kingdom. Does Sterne want to go against those two forces to clear up the name of her ancestor? Is that really all? Royce felt that there is something wrong with his conjecture. He wanted to understand why she is working herself to the bone.          

"It's hard to turn one's back in the face of crisis. But it's even harder to face it and pick up the responsibilities." Sterne said pretending to sound like a wizened old sage. 

Just when he thought he was about to get a serious answer. Royce's pristine face registered a crack.  

"What, you have any opinions about me? Come on, say it. We're partners aren't we?" 

Royce, "What partners?"

"You don't want to? How awful of you Young Master Royce… I even consider you my best buddy."

A stinging headache suddenly assaulted him. "Be serious." 

She grinned at him, probably thinking of another nonsense again when she was stopped by his glare. 

"Rest assured I'm doing this with a plan and not just blindly picking up stones to smash my feet." She said looking up at the sky. Obviously to avoid his eyes. 

After a long stretch of silence.

"I know. I believe you." Royce said in a low voice.

"Thank you."

But how long is she going to keep this up, that's what he wanted to know. Every time he wanted to share the burden she would always cheekily refuse. "Do you need help?"

"I'll ask when the time comes." 

See? It's the same old answer, he thought, gazing at her flushed face. The breeze blew a few tendrils on her cheeks, the thin wisp of hair swaying softly to and fro brushing on her delicate skin adding a more playful look. He turned his sights below and sighed. When he moved his eyes back he found her staring at him.   

"I miss the original colour of your hair." She said with a hint of a whine. "The colour of white snow and cold frost… no, that's wrong, the colour of…" she mumbled for a few moments before finally saying. "Like silver moonlight?"

Royce's mouth open and closed. She was praising him nonstop without batting an eyelid. Can't, can't she be a little more embarrassed? Unfortunately for him, Sterne had always been the kind to speak her mind when she feels like it. He could only endure.   

"Once the monster pools are sealed, Steinburg will return to normal."

"The person after you, they are not going to let this go."  

Sterne laughed it off. "I'm waiting."

***

Moonless Forest

 

The group noticed something peculiar after entering the woodlands, there wasn't a single monster on sight. Half a day after leaving the horses at the foot of the mountain they trudge their way in between jagged rocks, gnarled roots and uneven ground. The terrain did not provide any decent place to set up a camp so for the time being the hundred-or-so people had their meal sitting atop rocks or squeezing in between huge roots while being on guard. For the next two days, the easy to eat meals will be their sustenance. 

The team reached the marker the Scouts indicated as the entrance towards the inner part of the forest. A huge piece of obelisk-like cut stone from a bygone era, its whole thing blackened by weather and moss has chips all over, cracks marred the former smooth surface and tendrils of roots spring from those cracks. 

The other half took the right side while the rest on the left. The Nachtwald siblings split with the purpose of cleansing the chasm if ever they find one on either side. It was an unspoken agreement if ever Maelys exhausted herself.

The Obsidians have encountered numerous chasms from the outbreak four years ago. A dark purple blight where monster continuously pours out. The biggest and most formidable they have suppressed was in a small town beyond Stolz territory. Contrary to the knights' belief, the sealing and purification spell are not the only things that can permanently close it.

After many days of non-stop fighting and continuously suppressing chasms that appear here and there, the mages' magical energies were exhausted. Kyrios remembered the Regen Solution tucked inside his armour. Just as they were about to be overrun by a new horde, he hurled the small bottle of medicine.

The result was instantaneous. The bottle broke, and the clear liquid splashed forth in small droplets like dew on the ground. It was only a small amount yet the blight receded as if washed by a torrent of rainshower leaving no trace of its fiendish colour. He was convinced that the solution is able to cleanse. Nachtwald was a barren land exposed to the Sleeping Forest negative energy for years but it only took overnight to reverse its effect. Not only did it cure Behemoth’s lethal poison, but it also grew their lost limbs back.

Following the faint pulse of dark energy on the ground, they walked deeper and deeper into the forest. They seldom stopped to take a rest, it was only until they were certain that there are no enemies nearby that they would stop to take a breather. When Kyrios and Maelys' group located the source, the calm persisted while on Dio and Cecelia's side had been lively.      

They are already locked in combat with a horde of armoured Skeletal Knight. 

“No doubt about it, there is a chasm nearby.” Dio said blocking an incoming swing from the monster. 

At the centre of a twenty or so Skeleton Warriors, he stood alone with a grin on his face. Signaling the mages to release the light trap. A huge magic circle activated above and splashed the unclean wretch with light melting their bones and flesh. The release of tormented souls made those who look on the sidelines feel an immense sense of discomfort. The chilling wails echoed for quite a while until finally fading. 

“It’s you and me now, eh.” He said facing the Skeletal Knight who went back to his primary fighting stance.

Sword gripped by its bony hands in front. His tattered clothing swaying gently. Even at the fall of his minions, he showed no reaction. What do you expect from the undead anyway?

The skeleton charged forward hacking Dio using the movement from his previous existence. An ingrained technique that even the absence of his soul could not erase. It was easy to defeat one actually, one only needs enough stamina to put up with its persistent sword strikes and patience to land a critical blow. The condition is that you have to at least last a whole minute without getting overwhelmed. The insane speed is what makes them deadly. 

The first hit from its sword are shallow wounds but as you get more the cut becomes deeper. Either you die of exhaustion or blood loss only then Skeletal Knight will cease its assault and turn its back. Dio giddily danced away from his slashes, seeing a sliver of that perfect opportunity he thrust forward stabbing into its left empty eye socket breaking the skull in the process.

The enemy’s whole body crumbled, reduced to mere ashes.

Wandering skeletons are harmless, but skeletons holding blunt weapons with the feral constitution? No need to think hard about that. With the teamwork of knights and mages, their group easily cleaned up the handful of monsters blocking their path. 

“Gentlemen, it seems we have breached their safety perimeter.” Dio said signalling everyone to halt.

All of them launched to the treetops to first observe the situation beyond. The death of the monsters' companions might have alerted the others by now. But as soon as they climb above, what they saw are not frenzied monsters. 

“What in the…”

Standing as if waiting for something, the monsters are scattered like pinecones and pebbles. Unmoving with their vacant stare. 

In the depths of the forest, a huge change slowly emerges. The ground collapsed swallowing within the void layers of soil and everything above ground. A gaping hole half a kilometre wide opened at the foot of the mountain. The booming explosion rippled through carrying it beyond along with the strong vibrations on the ground. 

Steinburg which is hundreds of kilometres away also felt the tremors.

“A quake?”

Everyone is down on the ground as though some giant palm has pressed them down. The sea of unmoving bodies on the street, inside and outside their houses took a while before showing signs of movement. The baron was the first to bob his head up and told them it was fine now.

“Is anyone hurt?”

Fortunately, the fortified Steinburg suffered no damage as well as its people.

“The ground felt like it was about to split. I can still feel the remnant of the vibration on my legs.” 

Dizzy and bewildered faces turned to each other trying to find answers to the phenomena just now. Viktor came rushing from inside the manor.

“The report from mages said that a hole in the forest suddenly appeared.”

“A hole from the quake? Are they alright?”

“Yes milady, apparently the hole was the reason for the quake. They said that the ground collapsed like a sinkhole. Like a…”

“Monster pool.” Sterne said in a small voice.

Viktor nodded slowly in assent. Sharp intake of breaths resounded. Murmurs about the monster pool began to fill the whole city.

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