Locke arrived at the training grounds by ten. The venue was already bustling and he could see the watermelon squad leader and his team from a distance.
Morning training had been unbearably boring. Zauberia boasted formal training structures for knights and casters alike, so Mist City’s training regime was incredibly pathetic in comparison. It didn’t help that most Botanians were weaker in strength too; there was barely anyone who could lift a mere two-hundred-pound boulder. With the average weight of regular Botanians hovering around 50 pounds, Locke was almost certain that the regular folks of the Three Western Isles were stronger than them.
Fortunately, the Botanians’ mucus was profoundly lethal or else the regular Botanians would’ve gone extinct a long time ago.
“Aurol, are you alright?” Allie wasn’t on patrol duty outside the city today. The city lord had apparently ordered that they intensify patrol efforts within the city. Allie’s team was tasked with monitoring western Mist City as a change.
No one had noticed anything off about Locke, let alone Allie who had been in close contact with him over the past few days. His pale complexion merely gave off the impression that he hadn’t slept well last night.
“Do you need a break?” The peach was fully aware of the commotion this morning. She lived in southwest Mist City, hence her whole family had suffered from the disturbance.
“I’m good. Just carry on with your job, yeah?” Locke yawned and waved at Allie.
The two Botanians on Allie’s patrol team had been decent to Locke. After all, they were the ones that helped lift Locke to ‘safety’, hence there was at least a hint of familiarity between them. Their leader, Azer the durian Botanian, was different. There had always been a strong tension between him and Locke since their first encounter.
The odd hostility had Locke confused; he couldn’t understand how he’d possibly offended Azer. Fortunately for him, the answer was made obvious when Allie came to check on him with a face of concern. The irritation and jealousy that burnt in Azer’s eyes could not be mistaken.
Interspecies marriage was rare among Botanians, but it wasn’t a taboo. There have been many celebrated and tragic interspecies love stories throughout their history.
The durian Botanian clearly harboured unrequited feelings for Allie. It was unfortunate that the peach had seen him as nothing more than a brother.
The training programme formulated for the city guards was simple since most of them were volunteers without foundation. It was sad to say that the Botanians had no other advantages apart from their deadly mucus and considerable strength.
On the training grounds at southwest Mist City, the Botanian recruits practised spearmanship under the instruction of the watermelon squad leader.
Locke couldn’t tear his attention away from the mysterious area at the southeast of the city. What could be there? Locke pondered. It looked unassuming at best but it made no sense to station a huge number of Botanians around barren land. There was no way it had nothing to offer.
He bid farewell as soon as training was over, leaving under the impressed gazes of his three subordinates. Aside from his impressive height, Locke’s talent in battle had most of them awestruck. The watermelon squad leader wasn’t even a match for him when it came to spear-wielding.
Ari, the tomato Botanian who’d lost his family to the invaders, had even dropped to the ground begging for Locke’s tutelage. Locke had rejected him but promised to give him pointers during training. Ari would have to make use of the experience himself.
Night fell and the polygonal moon had appeared once again. Its lunar light was washed out by the thick rolling clouds and crystal mist in the air.
A black-cloaked Botanian crept out from behind a door. This time, Locke had assumed the disguise of an apple Botanian as he sprinted down the wide streets. He was going to find out what was hidden in the forbidden area tonight.
He had switched his disguise and layered on another cloak as a precautionary step, figuring that it’d reduce his risk of piquing the Botanian guards’ attention. He squeezed his right shoulder, mind unconsciously reminded of the powerful lemon Botanian yesterday.
To Locke’s surprise, the lemon was as strong as a quasi-Ritter. If it was possible, he’d like to challenge the Botanian to a fight. He was sure that he wouldn’t fail too badly with his multitude of strategies and strong confidence.
The fallen leaves on the main street rustled with the chilly night breeze. For a second right there, the thick crystal mist was dispersed ever so slightly. Oh, tonight was bound to be a sleepless night.
“What? This time it was an apple?” The crystal fruit city lord blinked in disbelief.
The lemon general had been on a lookout again last night. He wasn’t pleased that the watermelon Botanian had escaped under his watch, hence he had been waiting at the forbidden zone all night long. It was a pleasant surprise that an intruder had appeared as anticipated.
The black-cloaked Botanian circled the forbidden zone a few times before the lemon general ambushed him. It was amidst the Botanian’s franticness that the lemon noticed it was an apple instead.
“Did you manage to capture him?”
The question was unnecessary. If the lemon had managed to capture him, he wouldn’t have visited the lord’s manor empty-handed.
“No.” The lemon general shook his head.
“Increase patrol efforts around the forbidden zone again. No regular Botanians are allowed to come close to its parameters. I have a strong feeling that they’re working for the invaders.” With stronger powers came better foresight. However, the crystal fruit refused to believe that his kind would betray Botania at a time like this; he’d rather pin this fault on the alien invaders.
The truth was oftentimes closer than expected.
“Yes, My Lord!” The lemon Botanian burnt with embarrassment. Intruders had roamed the forbidden zone and escaped unscathed twice under his watch. Be it the watermelon or apple Botanian, the lemon general was determined to give them hell once captured.
“You’re dismissed.” The crystal fruit waved a languid arm at the lemon, he looked rather tired.
The city lord had been burdened by the arrival of more Botanian refugees. An impending doom seemed likely; he had a feeling that something bad was on its way. Crystal fruit Botanians were rarely wrong when it came to gut feeling, let alone a level-one lifeform like him.
“Don’t worry, you still have me.” A thinner crystal fruit Botanian approached the city lord once the lemon was gone. She began to rub his shoulder in circles. The crystal fruit city lord hummed, relaxing into the touch of his wife with his eyes closed.
This was Locke’s fifth day in Mist City. He had explored the southwest forbidden zone twice and hadn’t left empty-handed!
“Parlina can look into these when I return to camp.” Locke thought to himself as he pinched some translucent rocks.
What was thought to be a tower wasn’t actually one. Instead, it was a massive crystal fruit tree that was planted atop a three-metre soil pile surrounded by an abundance of translucent rocks. Some were buried in the dirt while some were exposed to their surroundings. Their exact function remained a mystery but Locke was certain that they were placed here on purpose.
Pushing that aside, Locke too had figured out the general layout of the defences here. He clenched his teeth and rubbed his sore back, internally cursing the lemon Botanian.
Locke seethed. He couldn’t wait to see the lemon quiver in fear as their contingent breaches past the city gates. However, he had to admit that he underestimated the capabilities of a quasi-Ritter. The lemon Botanian had ambushed him during his second attempt to scout out the forbidden zone. The violent attack had caught him by surprise, almost forcing him to reveal his true form in a moment of panic. If it wasn’t for his huge collection of potions, wind impetus and the magic black robe, Locke would’ve died long ago.
Though his infiltration had been fruitful, Locke was beaten up so badly that he could barely fight back. It was at a point where Locke wouldn’t consider the recline of his capabilities as the most pressing issue; the magic black robe was damaged by the lemon’s attack.
Despite being a piece of equipment crafted by the skilled hands of a level-one Magister, it had reached its limit after receiving two powerful blows from a quasi-Ritter.
The robe was his best tool throughout the infiltration. However, his human skin was already starting to peek through a discreet corner of his pear Botanian disguise. Locke was worried that the robe would stop working out of the blue and land him in a sticky situation.
He dared not imagine what chaos would ensue at the appearance of a Zauberian knight in the middle of a densely populated Botanian city. It was likely that he wouldn’t survive the ordeal. Locke was desperate to leave Mist City as soon as he could access the northern defences of the city.
He tucked anything suspicious in his room away and left for the training grounds once again. He did have to admit that his team leader position had brought unexpected convenience to his infiltration. It guaranteed him some degree of safety and it would be a total waste to not utilise it.
Just as he opened the cottage’s door, he came face to face with Allie, who was here specifically to deliver him a meal. “Aurol, I brought you some glacier soil. Do you want some?”
“No, thank you.” Locke continued, “I need to leave for the training grounds now.”
Allie’s expression sank at his prompt refusal. “Oh, okay."