“You’re a summoner?!” Everyone turned to look at Kristin.
“Yeah, it’s not a secret.” The female caster merely shrugged. She opened her palm and manifested a tiny photomancy major monster. “This was my first familiar, the muse to our name.”
“It’s so adorable!” Kristin squealed excitedly. There were stars in her eyes as she stared at the pliant critter on the Lehrling’s hand. It was only ten centimetres long!
“It’s a drieraney photocicada,” introduced the caster. Photomancy monsters were rare and the fact that she could have one as a familiar spoke volumes of her resource.
Locke had heard of drieraney photocicadas. Angelina once told him in passing that Grandmeisterin Carla bred hundreds of photocicadas in her private nursery. The cicadas were harmless lifeforms that could conjure stable environments of choice as a collective. Many of the manipulated conditions required for experiments were achieved with these wonderful creatures.
Kristin wasn’t in the mood to find out more about their functions, though. She was completely smitten by how delicate they looked. “Can I please hold it for a bit, Sister Miran?” Kristin batted her eyelashes at the female caster.
“Well…” The chestnut-haired girl paused. There was a beat of hesitation before she answered, “Here you go.” They were five years apart and Kristin’s mischievous vibe was captivating. It was easy for anyone to grow fond of her.
The bulker shield wielder and reconnoitre would stand guard through the night. The former was a practitioner of terramancy impetus and Locke could sense his heavy presence even from a good distance away. The shield attached to his wrist had a thickness of three fingers, which would take a great deal of effort to breach even for a quasi-Ritter. The man was plenty capable since adventurers who could survive the odds were definitely no simpletons. Team Dawnlight had been on the scene for many years so everyone had developed respective strengths over time.
Locke noticed something interesting about their dynamics. The chestnut-haired female caster, Miran, and the well-behaved swordsman were a couple. The archer, on the other hand, was doing a poor job at hiding his affections for Miran.
“Tsk tsk. It must be nice to be young!” Locke sighed longingly to himself. Being a quasi-Ritter had allowed him to pry into the subtle interactions among Team Dawnlight behind their backs. The reconnoitre hadn’t noticed that they were being watched even with his sharper perception. Yet, Locke had a feeling that the middle-aged shield wielder was growing suspicious of him, which was natural given that the man was the only mid-rank Knecht out of the bunch.
True enough, the shield wielder had been studying Locke with great intensity. Could it be some kind of special masking equipment? He thought to himself as he flipped the crackling firewood nonchalantly to keep the flames alive. Since their current contractor was capable of hiring two gorgeous and competent female guards, it wouldn’t be too out of place to find a magic gear or two on him.
Locke stretched his body. The sunlight was bleeding out into darkness and Depan Forest was growing silent by the minute. He figured it was time to retire for the night.
“Herr Locke.” The better-behaved swordsman, Martin, paced over.
“Depan Forest is relatively safe but there have been reports of monster waves once in a blue moon. I don’t think we’ll be in luck for one tonight but I highly suggest that you stay within our perimeter till morning,” said Martin.
“Monster wave?” Locke echoed with a raised brow. That term was new to him.
“Yes.” Martin launched into an explanation. The causes of monster waves remained a mystery to the swordsman since he was only an illiterate adventurer. It was probably better to ask a caster about the matter since adventurers were more focused on surviving the ordeal instead.
“I don’t think we’ll be that unfortunate either.” Locke let out a small laugh. Based on Martin’s description, monster waves were a moving swarm of hundreds and thousands of monsters that occurred at unpredictable frequencies throughout the year. The thought of it sent a chill down Locke’s spine; even a quasi-Ritter like him would be vulnerable when faced with a wave of monsters. He could never forget how the larger Botanian population was annihilated by only thousands of bloodthirsty slaves during the planar war.
Humans weren’t built to be as strong as major monsters and the same went for knights. Locke’s physique was only close to a regular major monster but not one of similar rank.
Martin returned to the bonfire after the reminder. Locke watched on as the swordsman wrapped his arms around Miran’s waist for warmth as the archer stared at them in silence. The archer dropped his head and wiped at his arrows on a nearby rock. Locke drew the curtains. If he was in the archer’s shoes, he would’ve tried to give a shot at courting Miran. How was anyone supposed to notice your feelings if you kept them to yourself?
Three people were crammed into the carriage for the night. Apart from Kristin, Locke had called Laffey inside as well. The woods were rather chilly in the dark and Locke didn’t have the heart to leave Laffey outside in the cold. Fortunately, the wheels of the carriage were made out of sturdy wood so he wasn’t worried about destroying the vehicle with their combined weight. The three of them snuggled up and drifted into slumber.
It was midnight when the peace was disrupted. Flames danced tantalisingly outside the carriage, crackling noises adding to the forest ambience. The shield wielder added firewood as needed to feed the blaze. Three leaves fell with a slight rustle from the lush cypress tree beside the carriage, rousing Locke from his light sleep.
There’s no way we can be this unfortunate, right? Locke sighed to himself. He tapped at Kristin and Laffey’s arms. Laffey quickly woke at the gesture while Kristin languidly wiped the drool that’d collected at the corner of her lips, unwilling to regain consciousness just yet. He stared at her helplessly.
“Stay close to me later. I’m afraid we have trouble coming our way,” whispered Locke.
“What’s going on?” Kristin snapped awake.
“Shh!” Locke hushed her, tilting his head to the window. The young women perked their ears and listened. There was a faint commotion in the distance, one that was almost inaudible if they hadn’t paid it any mind.
Before Kristin could understand what she was hearing, the archer’s voice boomed across the campsite. “Wake up! Something’s wrong!”
Amidst the widespread confusion, the reconnoitre on the trees shouted, “Something is coming from the southeast in great numbers!” His warning sent Team Dawnlight into a flurry for their weapons and gear. The skies were still dark so they had no idea what was awaiting them.
The bulky man gripped his shield tighter, taking his spot in the forefront of their formation facing the southeast. The rumbling got louder and with higher frequency; it sounded like a thousand horses were galloping towards them. It was at that moment that the shield wielder finally put everything together. He screamed, “Run for your lives! It’s the monster wave!”
Everyone lurched into motion.
“Martin, Howl, protect Herr Locke!”
“Mien, can you see which direction is the main monster crowd heading towards?”
“Standby, Brother Quacker and Daler!”
Miran may look like the average female Lehrling but she was a great leader in times of emergency. She laid systematic instructions to the members of Team Dawnlight, effectively restoring order amidst the chaos. The group of six quickly formed three defence fronts around the camp based on her precise arrangement.
Their first line of defence was Mien the recon and his traps. He was tasked with pinpointing the direction of the monster wave and immediately retreating if formidable opponents were encountered. The second was Quacker the shield wielder, Daler the archer and Miran the caster. They were capable of explosive attacks and their position was within the proximity of Martin and Howl, who was placed in front of the carriage to protect Locke’s group.
Locke was impressed that Team Dawnlight was extremely professional and determined to keep their end of the deal. It was obvious that the formation was to protect the carriage.
“Herr Locke, are you awake? The monster wave is heading our way!” Martin shouted into the carriage. Locke, Kristin and Laffey stumbled out of the compartment. The cramped sleeping arrangement had rumpled their clothes, giving them an unsightly appearance. Martin, being the better behaved one, frowned at the display ever so slightly but quickly ignored it due to the dire situation. The other swordsman, Howl, darted a knowing gaze between the three of them. It was almost as if he could imagine what they’d been up to earlier that night.
“We seriously can’t be that unlucky, right?” Locke asked.
“I’m afraid we might just be that unfortunate, Herr Locke. There’s no need to worry too much, though. The route we chose is a little off the main path of the recently reported monster waves. We wouldn’t be right in their path under normal circumstances. I reckon we’ll only be affected by the stragglers near the side of the wave,” said Martin.
“I see. I’ll leave our safety in your capable hands.” Locke nodded. If they were truly in the direct line of the monster wave, he would drag Kristin and Laffey away to safety right away. He was a quasi-Ritter but he would be equally vulnerable when faced with hundreds of mid-rank major monsters. It was only by becoming a level-one Ritter that he could come out of a monster wave unscathed.
There was an approach to advancement that required its candidate to struggle in a dire situation of life and death. Locke had read this from the records of two Ritters, who’d too advanced under such extreme circumstances. If Kristin and Laffey hadn’t come along, he would’ve tried his luck with the monster wave as a last resort. His current situation didn’t permit that; he hadn’t reached a situation where he was forced to gamble his life.
“Here they come!” Martin peered towards the southeast closely. The ground shook violently and the horses began to neigh anxiously.