Royce realized that the pranks he did to the little sheep when he was younger are now coming back to him manifolds. He sometimes feels he is being led by the nose, her words and every action greatly affects his mood. This made him, someone who always had the situation under control suffer endlessly.
Just when did he start becoming so unsure?
After the quake, it is anticipated that a horde of monsters will come out from Moonless Forest. Everybody stood alert for incoming attack, the people on the outer curtain wall planting crops were called back inside, and every gate was sealed. Viktor and his subordinates barely recovered from their fevers on the day the great monster tide finally arrived.
The weather was particularly chilly, the whistling of ice-cold wind penetrated the skin leaving people no choice but to stay inside their homes. The only souls that can be seen outside are the line of mages and knights standing above the walls waiting for the monster to cross the grasslands.
After assessing the situation outside, everybody's face turned bad. They concluded that this amount of enemies will be enough to destroy the newly restored outer wall if not trimmed out fast.
Royce crossed his arms on his chest, "We can lead them to circle around the city using our fastest horses while the rest attack the horde above the walls."
The little sheep said, "That's a good idea."
"No, it's reckless and dangerous. We cannot guarantee that the monsters will move according to your plan." Captain Legrand objected quickly.
"We can use a lure to make sure they follow a pattern." Sterne said. She already noticed that the monsters will not attack unless they sense any movement. They just stood outside for long without advancing which is very peculiar.
"But we do not have a rough estimate of how many of those things are still coming from the forest." He understands that these youths are hotblooded and not someone who easily folds with just the sight of a horde. However, as an adult, how could he let these children go out just like that? "I'm going out as well."
Royce stopped him. "Captain, your team will man the eastern walls to instruct magic archers. Viktor, on the other hand, will stand on the south, the mages will be equally spread in all direction to continuously launch attacks." He then turned to Odette. "You and the adventurers' team are in charge of the western side, are you willing?"
"It's the fastest option we have. If we let these monsters return to the forest they will surely collide with the teams we sent and only heaven knows what's going to happen." Sterne explained.
The captain wanted to dissuade her from pushing the idea but knowing how stubborn their lady is he could only nod to agree reluctantly. Everyone who is sensitive can feel the pressure of the upcoming disaster. By noon, the tension grew thicker they can feel a thin layer of sweat breaking out their skin despite the cold weather.
"At last, after almost three weeks of waiting!"
"Milady, you're still grinning at a time like this?" Emilia couldn't help but complain.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Sterne did not mind her handmaiden's scowl. "Emi, quick quick help me with my armour. I'm going to hunt many today."
Emila did not want to but her lady already piled up the things she needed on a heap so she had no choice.
"I'm very happy, I thought I was going to wait for a week more."
Ugh, why is her lady like this? The other family's child is content sitting in a garden sipping tea discussing the beauty of life and keeping their fingernails clean instead of going out using themselves as monster bait!
"You must remember not to ride far from Lord Royce."
"I have Blitz, besides how am I supposed to hunt if I stick close to him?"
"..." Emilia could feel her hair turning white.
The whole city is as still as a graveyard, people are afraid to make any noise that may alert the monsters waiting outside. While Sterne kept on teasing her handmaiden, Royce came.
"Follow closely. Do not act recklessly."
"You heard him?" Emilia reminded the errant child.
She pursed her lips and wanted to protest but then she was already being dragged downstairs. The two of them along with ten knights from Royce's team carried monster lures, ride around the city and leave all the work to the mages and archers above the walls. This strategy sounds simple but it requires a lot of concentration and precision, one team will launch an offensive to the pursuing monsters while the other will make sure to keep the enemies away from the group acting as bait.
The soldiers saw Royce and Sterne mounting their steeds and they become anxious. They're too young! It didn't long for the bailey to be filled with people who wanted to stop them from going out but the two could only deny them. Listening to the chorus of pleas made Sterne feel warm; however, they still have to do this.
[Blitz, we're going out to play.]
[[Glady, milady. If only the guardian of Moonless Forest returns, this would not happen.]]
[That guardian suffered an injury and needed to heal itself. Staying inside the forest thick with miasma will only kill it.]
Blitz did not say more and just whipped his head on the side after a snort. The northern gate was opened and twelve figures dashed out. Everyone was stunned at how fast the scene unfolded before their eyes.
Sensing movements from inside the Fortress City, the monsters sluggishly advanced. Compared to the speed of the horses, they were somehow oddly slow in the onset. As they took a whiff of the lure some monsters become frenzied, pick up their speed and gave chase.
The growls and sounds of snapping teeth behind Sterne raised the hair on her nape. This is the first time she is being chased by something, it never occurred to her that the feeling could be so nerve-wracking. But that was only in the beginning, after a fraction of a second she calmly raised her hand, channelled mana to her bracelet and write a spell in the air.
A rumble shook Steinburg once but it did not come from the ground this time, a dark cloud began to cluster above and streaks of purple lightning zipped past hitting a crazed group of goblins riding on grass newts. As soon as she was finished, she pulled her sword and flicked sharply on her left. Two orthrus heads flew.
On the other hand, Royce was flanked by two. Before she could move to help he already dealt with it. With a sullen expression, she returned to her position. He raised his head, his lips rose into a self-satisfied arc. The Little Sheep's rarely seen sulky face made him smile even more. He couldn't help but enjoy looking at it.
That was just a short moment of indulgences however as a series of magical discharge began. The spells cast by mages ceaselessly whittle down the horde tailing them from behind. Even with the overcast sky, the whole territory looked amazingly bright.
They continue to ride around Steinburg careful not to lose their catch from behind. Fortunately, the monsters are muddled by the smell of the lure and could only blindly rush towards it. As the weaker ones easily died out, the monsters with magic attacks came next. Minutes later, two-meter Frost Golems rolled on the ground coming after them. Hellflare activated nearby followed by a canopy of Firestorms reducing the poor creatures into puddles.
Sterne looked up and saw Pietra and two more Fire Mages with their hands still midair after casting. She raised a hand to wave at them.
"Are you alright?" Royce asked.
Her eyes sparkled, as though there were stars inside. "Did you see that?"
"I saw you nearly turned into a flat cake."
"The boys of my family are all amazing!"
Royce already accepted that this girl's head is completely weird.
Before long, mutilated corpse of monsters covered the ground, flesh and bones scattered all over, the lure no longer attracted the living monster's interest but the smell of blood.
Royce moved near and saw her unfazed by the sight as her eyes stare out coolly. If it were any other boy they would surely admire her courage. But unfortunately, Royce was here who knew her all too well. The shimmering sheen of perspiration on her smooth forehead, added by the pallid colour on her face… "That's enough, stop looking at it. You will not be able to eat dinner later."
Sterne hadn't opened her mouth yet when her whole body shivered. "Urk."
Royce's face darkened. He looked at the silly girl and took Blitz' reins dragging both master and horseback to the Fortress City. Sterne hung her head in shame. Today she lost all dignity in front of this young master.
Sterne did not think that her moment of weakness is already known to everybody. In fact, she hid well for many years. Most of the time she looks steady when she is obviously the baby of the group. Cecelia wouldn't even feel sick at the sight of mutilated monsters.
The heavy visual stimulated her enough to vomit las night's meal. After dumping all the contents of her stomach, she weakly climbed into the settee and let Emilia fuss over her. What about the clean up after? Hmph, she threw it all at the back of her mind. What she wanted to do now is to lay there and grow moulds until she forgets that scene!
But life chose to be cruel. In the middle of the night where everyone is already resting…
"Shit, we have enemies!" Viktor jump off his bed raced to the window after grabbing his grimoire.
The multiple magic array above is a type of bombardment magic reserved for a siege.
"What the hell, who's shooting at us!?" Quillon immediately donned his armour and jumped outside.
"What is happening?" Odette asked disoriented.
Sterne's eyes bulged out seeing her wearing only her chemise. And she's barefoot! She quickly grabbed a thick robe inside her spatial storage and wrapped it on her.
"Milady, there are enemies outside. They have cast bombardment magic."
"How many?" Sterne asked twisting her hair into a bun.
"At least t-ten."
Bombardment. Are they serious? That's too cruel. Her heart pounded violently. Looking up to inspect the crude magical array in monochrome, she couldn't help but clench her fist tighter. Her brothers and most of the senior knights are not here. The two princes are also here but each of them only has five Halcyon Knights assigned.
This is too suspicious to be just coincidence. It was a good thing they have prioritized fortifying the city first. Herald's Eye found a few gaps in their spell matrix, there's no time to waste.
"Viktor, start with the jamming spell. Here," She handed him a piece of paper with a drawn up spell matrix. "Startle them a little."
Royce hurried to her side. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine." She said with a wry smile.
The soldiers take on their positions to the towers.
"Everyone stay calm. They cannot breach the city." Baron shouted in a hoarse voice. He had been trying to pacify the panicked people since this afternoon that it had already taken a toll on his throat.
They barely took a breather from this afternoon's attack now they had to deal with this rude visitors as well?
The attacks are concentrated on the top. If they have plans of entering, they should have rammed the gates. Sterne's face turned grim. This is not a siege, it's a slaughter… they really plan to annihilate the whole city in one move.
Her first reaction was to run away when she saw Sterne's eyes. "Y-Yes?"
"Can you block the road leading to the royal capital?"
She nodded and leave it for the other girl to handle.
Ten blooming flowers shoot up the sky hitting the magic arrays above quickly dissolving them back to particles of light. The attacks finally stopped. Viktor was quite agitated as well that is why the quality of magic they released was dense it exploded grandly above.
Outside, the man leading a troop of fifty mages spat out a mouthful of blood. His body was thrown by an invisible force several feet away from his companions. He staggered back up while enduring the searing pain from his bruised organs.
"Grandmaster!" A crowd of robed men gathered around him.
In the darkness of the night, their black clothes melded but whenever a flicker of light appears one would be able to see the familiar faces of these people. All of them were taken aback by the violent backlash. Since when did Viktor and his team employ such strong spell? The old grandmaster, grabbed his staff smacking the nearby rock so hard it shattered to pieces.
"That bastard child dared to break my masterpiece!"
A chuckle came out from the shadows. "See? I told you… they are a lot more clever than you."
"Nonsense. It was only a puny 4th Tier magic!"
Puny? Cheap? Did he not see the speed of formation and activation? Normally, it takes ten mages to release this kind of attack and at least five minutes to create a counter matrix yet those children inside took less than a minute.
"Give it up, grandmaster. You failed this one."
"No!" The old man shouted, breaking down.
"No?" the melodic voice of the devil rang. "If it's only once you can still excuse it as an accident, the second one will be deliberate. If you fail yet again, prepare to offer your head on a spike."
He looked at the old man mockingly and watch him lose his resolve little by little.
Grandmaster Xanthous's eyes glazed, his old body is already too weak but the ambition is deeply rooted in his bones. The unfavourable news coming from here coupled with the suppressed hatred he stewed for years eroded his reason. It all suddenly came spilling out. If not for the Blessed Son coming here who knew what he could have done next.
He swallowed a hard lump on his throat. Fifty, he brought his most trusted fifty mages in the north just to stir trouble?
"W-What have I done?"
Aelous no longer paid him any mind. His eyes focused only inside the city.
Grandmaster snapped back to reality and hastily ordered to return. "My gratitude to the Blessed Son for stopping my foolishness in time. The Magic Bureau will be in your debt."
"No need." he waved his hand.
Gratitude? He felt no pity for this kind of tool. He only stopped him because they are still useful. He looked at the magic discharge that lit up the sky with complex feelings. That wasn't even from her, he guessed it was probably the mages who were with her who activated it. But the spell script definitely came from her.
Such treasure… and it all belongs to that little lady.
If she so wished she could have given the caster a backlash ten times more, he wondered why she didn't. Is she really that soft-hearted? Since the fun quickly ended, he turned away to leave.
"Oh, not so fast." From the darkness, two shadows leapt out to attack.
Before the transportation spell could move them away two of their companions got snatched. The rest escaped along with the culprit.
"Teleportation spell!" Emilia said grimly. "They scurry like mice." She gripped her knives firmly looking into the darkness where the enemy has run off to.
Dorn dragged two unconscious robed mages, flinging them to her feet. "Do you recognize any of them?"
"No. But we'll know after I make these birds sing."
Inside the city, people began to come out from hiding.
"That's it?" The tower guards murmured confused after the barrage stopped.
A curtain of silence fell all over Steinburg as they anticipate the next attack. Nothing came after half an hour making them all sigh in relief.
"Are those maniacs out of their minds?" Prince Siegfried strode angrily on the streets looking for any damage.
Prince Arthur walked beside him wearing the same dark frown. "If Steinburg had not been fortified, the citizens could have perished…"
"So they dare start to move even knowing that there are people in here. They must be tired of living."
"We might need to hurry the enrollment test before this gets any more serious."
That morning when the scouts returned from the forest, the captains held an emergency meeting. The king issued the test to be put on hold ordering all enrollees to head back to the royal capital at once. This time the Magic Bureau and Royal Academy cannot intervene on the decision made by the king.
Their accomplishment at Steinburg did not go unnoticed, the chasms have been thoroughly cleansed and the Fortress City is slowly gaining back its momentum.
Grandmaster Xanthous is in a mixture of agitation and loathing as he listened to the king read the reports written on the scroll for the whole assembly to hear.
Earlier, he and some mentors paced inside the empty office thinking of another way to hinder the plan of exempting those ladies. The ones with top scores were called firsthand to share their thoughts about the cancellation and possible revision of the tests. Surprisingly, the hall held the faces of people they least expect to show up.
"I find the situation unfair." Lady Bernice protested aggravated that the centre of discussion was unknowingly snatched by those three. That's not all, the king himself recognized their efforts? For what!?
Aren't they supposed to fail the test? But according to the news they not only manage to pass but did exemplary on their task? Her father informed her earlier that it will be impossible for their rivals sent in the northwest to gather merits since that place is hopeless. How come it suddenly turned into their favour?
Their number of monster kills was not recorded but who would have thought that they would cleverly collect rune ores and monster parts as evidence?
"We were put at a disadvantage, after all, our location has fewer monsters so how are we supposed to find our targets?" Bernice continues with a sneer thrown at the three.
"You should have probed deeper." Maelys answered indifferently.
"Are you saying that we should have left the walls?"
"Why not? We all did?"
This time, Regina was most willing to send a helping hand to Bernice. They both hate the trio after all. "It is by sheer luck that Lady Nachtwald, Lady Mare and Lady Odette landed on such crucial spot. Of course, they will rack up points quickly whereas the rest of us were placed on the eastern and central part."
The teachers along with the other heads listening began to show ambiguous expression. What she said is logical, subtly mentioning luck, she was implying that it was by chance that they were placed in Steinburg which is a place full of targets and that it is only natural that they earn points.
The more they talk the more Odette felt wronged. Why do they make it sound as if it was their fault they were placed in the danger zone? "We fought and did our best, isn't that enough recognition of effort?"
Bernice hated that she couldn't slap this girl's face.
"Recognition of efforts? Those things you brought, who knows if they were personally slain by you."
With that obscure sentence, she eyed the dean and the mentors sitting on the topmost part of the hall.
"Ladies," Royce finally stood speaking in a genial warm tone. "Weren't you the ones who requested to be placed in those areas firsthand?"
Bernice felt a chill sweeping up her back. The handsome guy is smiling but why do his eyes look menacing?
"As I could clearly remember this is a first come first serve request from the lords. Was there even a chance to draw lots? No, there wasn't. Those of you who received the request clearly know which is most advantageous than not. The rest of us who were placed last has to cram in the northwestern part where the spawn rate is at a level the average student cannot handle." Shaking his head he addressed everyone on the table. "Yet what's this? You complain that you didn't have enough monsters to slay… you change your mind suddenly."
Regina's face turned ugly from her scowl. "Lord Royce, this is a talk between enrollees."
He smiled thinly, turned towards her and slapped his hand on the desk. It might as well be her face. Those who are present jumped on their seats involuntarily.
"Did I forget to mention? I'm also an enrollee myself. Did you hear me complain until now?"
This time, the look on Regina's face could not be described in mere words. Laius sitting beside her subtly patted her hand but she was still mad. No one, absolutely none has ever refuted her words. Especially a man! But whatever anger she has she had to swallow it. A warning flashed in her mind, there is something about Lord Royce that she finds very dangerous.
Now that she knows he could possibly become her classmate, she absolutely must have him on her side. Lowering her eyes to show a contrite submissive expression, she aimed to appease his grievance for now.
"Royce…" Laius minced the word, he narrowed his eyes lightly. "The heir of Asteraceae Conglomerate? The one from Zircon Empire?"
"That's him." Regina confirmed.
Royce caught the fake brother's slight smirk. He then paid them no mind, he watched with satisfaction how the dean and mentors' face turned green. Sterne, on the other hand, is looking at him, gauging his mood. She had always been wondering how he will hide his identity from this fake brother when he is using his real name. As it turns out, his name became as common as wayside grass in their empire you can practically bump into a random stranger with the name 'Royce'. Not to be mistaken with the Crown Prince who has silver hair and a face loved by the gods.
Sterne's mouth opened in a huge 'Ah'
He gave her a furtive smile as he sat back down. "Earning points is an added bonus after we have put our necks on the line. To put it bluntly," This time he faced the grandmaster who is not looking too well he might be sick or something. His tone was as smooth as honey. "Weren't we pushed in the den of monsters to act as baits? So tell me, which part of it is unfair?"
"L-Lord Royce, you should watch what you are saying this is slander."
"Is it?" Prince Siegfried asked. He only entered the chamber but the truth is that he had been standing outside the door to listen in the conversation.
"No need. Stay seated."
The dean was confused as to why he suddenly appeared. For all he knows, the youngest prince is cooped up inside the castle busy inclosed-door door training with the Halcyon Knights.
"Your Highness, these children are making up slanders, one after another. This is preposterous, to even hint that we deliberately--"
Siegfried raised a hand. "I understand your concern for the credibility of the Royal Academy, however, I was there myself."
His face drained of blood all of a sudden.
"Steinburg was a calamity stricken, a desolate place far from its neighboring fiefs."
"But the reports say that wasn't the case. Steinburg is a massive fortified city, an upcoming tourist hub." one of the mentors spoke still wanted to justify their action.
"Do you know why?" The third prince asked calmly. His eyes glittered with danger.
He swallowed convulsively. He doesn't know. When he turned to the grandmaster he also sported the same blank look.
A tight smile dawned on the prince's face. "You'll know why later."
And so as the announcement was read by none other than the king himself, the listeners couldn't help but gawk in astonishment. Not only did these four enrollees slay monster hordes but they as well assisted on the rehabilitation of a dilapidated city.
Barely a month? Who builds a city in just a month? Suspicion floated at the edge of his mind, unless some grand magic was activated the grandmaster will not acknowledge this piece of news. Then he remembered Viktor's team, could it be him?
Grandmaster Xanthous choked on the lump of anger the moment he heard of it.
All enrollees will be admitted to the Royal Academy and start taking classes in the condition that they have to double their efforts to pass the trials and graduate.
When Sterne and her party came out last of the chamber, they discovered the clusters of Royal Academy senior students who gathered at the corridors and balcony to curiously size up their new juniors.
Some looked eager but there are those who were doubting the result since it was a premature test. Their names weren't on the list of the top scorers posted on the board but the message from the king confirmed that it was them who had exerted tremendous effort during this last month.
Using the excuse that their recorder ring was broken was too poor for a reason, Royce had his functioning well. The enemy did not anticipate that Prince Siegfried would be there himself along with Prince Arthur. The prince's word is an irrefutable fact so whatever protest the other teachers are cooking up were discarded.
Arthur knew they wouldn't easily believe him even if he vouched for them due to that scandal at the ball a month ago. For all, they knew Prince Arthur is not in his right state of mind as of the moment so they can only tolerate his whims. However, Siegfried was also there to support his statement giving them no room to protest.
If they pushed in further, it will be taken as though they are questioning the royal family.
Then Grandmaster Xanthous remembered Duke Nachtwald's bland reaction.
Damn it, he knew. All these time he knew! No wonder he was so relaxed while his daughter is being singled out. She did not only save herself from this mess but managed to help the other two Hallowed Ones as well. He was so mad the injury inside his body become aggravated until he vomited blood.