In the dense forest, a group of people clad in black escorted a carriage across a mountain stream with great difficulty. They were struggling with the rough terrain, but not a sound of complaint escaped them. The group did their best to guard the carriage.
When the carriage was on the gravel path once again, the whole car jolted. Quick to react, one of the men in black stretched his hand out to guide the big carriage to a gentle landing. This was a man who had about the strength of a mid-rank Knecht.
A startled cry came from the carriage. The person inside must've been taken aback by the sudden stumble. The curtains of the carriage opened, revealing a fair, beautiful and picturesque face. "Herr Lane, where are we now?" came the clear voice of the woman in the carriage.
"Your Highness, we're somewhere in the southwest of Morphey Forest. We'll be reaching Bering Mountains soon," said the man in black, who had single handedly kept the carriage on course earlier.
"Bering Mountains? I remember my teacher saying that this place is famous for their fire fruits," said the gorgeous lady.
"Hey, how long will it take to reach my brother?" the lady asked the man in black sullenly. She had been mindlessly sitting in the carriage for nearly two weeks. It was absolute torture for someone like her who was used to a pampered life in the capital.
"For safety reasons, we will take a more remote path. It is estimated that we will reach the nearest unit next week. With their protection, Your Highness will get to see His Highness soon," answered the man in black honestly.
"Can't we go any faster?" the princess complained.
"Your Highness' safety is our top priority." The man in black shot down her objection.
Angrily, the princess drew the curtains and ignored the rigid knight.
Indeed, this unit was made up of Princess Angelina and her guards, who had secretly left the palace. Lane was a jarl of the shadow guards.
The convoy travelled until the evening before making a stop. The shadow guards would split into two groups, with one hunting and the other keeping watch. The princess' bodyguard and her handmaiden started a fire to cook for her.
Lane took his place under the canopy of a century-old tree that stood over 30 metres in height. He was the most powerful person in the team, and he had to pay attention to even the slightest movement.
As night fell, the princess and others sat quietly by the bonfire. Several handmaidens looked at the sparks in boredom, while Angelina read a huge parchment book, mumbling from time to time. After a round of inspection, Lane returned to the tree, leaning against the trunk and staring into the distance.
How did this group of people make such a rash decision to take this trip? thought Lane with annoyance. The most treasured princess of Faustian had just left the palace with only the protection of one shadow guard unit to, out of all places, the dangerous frontlines! Why would they cross Morphey Forest, where monsters were rampant? Lane really wanted to crack open the head of the court herald who assigned him this task to see its inner workings.
When Lane first accepted the task, he thought that this would be his chance to build up his reputation; this would be his chance to rekindle the glory of the Lane household. Those vampires who looked down on him and conspired to ruin his household would pay the price. But now, he only hoped that the princess could be escorted to the destination safely and those delusions of his could go to hell. If anything happened to the princess, the whole Lane family had to be buried.
Lane came from a fallen noble family. His ancestors were said to have been legendary, but somewhere along that line, their prestige started declining. With every generation, they got worse. To this moment, the Lane family had nothing but their family registry, an emblem, and three or two small farms, nothing else. Their noble title had been relinquished long ago. Even some of their few remaining not-very-profitable farms were captured by other nobles when he was a child.
From an early age, Lane was motivated to seek revenge on those who made the Lane family fall. When he was a teenager, he asked a distant relative to send him for shadow-guard training. The shadow guard was the king's sword. Normally, nobles were not allowed to be part of this unit. Lane was lucky enough to squeeze himself in.
Perhaps experiencing humiliation as a teenager had something to do with him not fitting in well. Because of this, he had ruffled many feathers amongst the shadow guard. Despite spending many years in the unit, tirelessly trying many methods and investing a lot of money, he only made it as a jarl of an ordinary Earth unit. Some of the people in his batch had already been promoted to main and deputy jarls of the Sky units. The rest were also in Earth units, but they were doing way better than him.
Lane sometimes lamented the inequalities of this world, but there was nothing more he could do but accept his reality. Lane was not exceptionally talented. He had begun his impetus practice at the most optimal age. Yet, even after ten years, he was still a mid-rank Knecht, and that was with the assistance of his famous teacher and precious potions provided by the shadow guard. Of course, compared to ordinary people, Lane could be considered a genius. At his age, there were not many people who were mid-rank Knechts. This was also one of the important reasons why he was accepted as a shadow guard and appointed as a jarl. It was this jarl position that gave Lane the knighthood bestowed to him by the king and restored some honour for the Lane family. There was indeed real talent in this world, but it was hard to discover them.
Lane remembered how excited he was when he first accepted the order from the inner court. Such a mission to escort the emperor's relatives was not common. Even so, it would usually be assigned to Sky units. Out of all of his relatives, it would be the most honourable Princess Angelina! As long as he fulfilled the princess' wishes, the king would reward him with anything. Lane was truly grateful to the herald and he gave all the gold coins he had in hand to him. The herald praised Lane too, and told him to protect the princess well, not to disclose their whereabouts and a few other reminders. As Lane reflected on this, the only thing he wanted to do to the herald was curse him.
Recalling all his hard work overcoming all the hardship, Lane felt sad. At first, he thought that there would be other teams escorting the princess too. It wasn't until they reached the Faustian border that Lane realised that they were the only escort. This trip was no laughing matter. If things were to go awry, who would be responsible for the princess?
Although Lane was not good at socializing and wasn't doing very well in the shadow guard, it didn't mean that he couldn't communicate. Lane was no fool. Of course, when he left the border of Faustian, he realised that there was a conspiracy. Soon, he would be just some poor guy who suffered at the whims of the noble elite and end up exiled.
Although Lane was inexplicably involved in the conspiracy, he knew that his current priority was to protect Princess Angelina. He wasn't important enough to be remembered by high-level officials. Instead, it was her who was being targeted by someone.
Lane told Angelina about his theory in private. Lane was worried that his unit or the princess' cohort had been infiltrated by a mole. Angelina seemed indifferent to this information. Perhaps she had expected it for a long time. Instead of panicking, she merely persuaded Lane to calm down. "All you need to do is to send me to my brother."
Lane stood out from a pool of rather talented and hardworking individuals. The fact that he had managed to become a jarl meant that he was capable. On the way, he protected the princess to the best of his ability.
As Lane had expected, some of their men disappeared the night after they left the border. They were probably traitors who would be reporting on the princess' location. That information was definitely really valuable. Decisively, Lane discarded most of the unnecessary luggage, even some of the princess' personal items, and hid them somewhere with her permission. Then, he led the group of people into Morphey Forest. Only when they entered the labyrinthine and monster-ridden Morphey Forest would they be able to avoid being blindsided by danger.
They ran into plenty of danger on their journey. Lane had circled around the central area of the forest by using the southern route, but they still suffered a few casualties. Two mid-rank shadow leopards alone managed to reduce the three horse-drawn carriages to two. On top of that, some smaller critters thinned the unit from 30 people to just over ten. Most of the survivors were his shadow guard teammates, while only three of the princess' guards and two handmaidens made it out alive.
As none of them had encountered monsters before, they were badly affected by the attack. The group crumbled right from the beginning, losing several people just by trying to fend off a few low-rank monsters. Even someone like Lane had only encountered such monsters once or twice during his missions. Going up against dozens no doubt grated at his nerves.
Everyone in the woods took a breath of relief after the ordeal. There would be far less powerful beasts after they left Morphey Forest. They all felt assured that safety would not be a problem with Lane's presence. Lane's recent strength had indeed given everyone a lot of confidence. This jarl of the shadow guard could take on two enemies at once. The scene of him fighting off two shadow panthers that were the same rank as him was still fresh in everyone's mind. Princess Angelina was also getting exhausted by the journey. Although she had been protected in the centre, this princess who had never been far away from home was not as indifferent as she appeared. But the way she was raised and the dignity of being a princess did not allow her to show even a hint of nervousness or fear.
Angelina quietly read through her book, titled 'On Monsters and Beasts'. Only reading could ease her worn mind now. With the book in hand, she seemed almost angelic, her visage easing the minds of those around her. Soon, everyone went back to minding their own business.
The bonfire was burning brighter as the guards busied around. With a sudden whoosh, a short, black arrow pierced through the neck of the guard beside the bonfire. The guard's gurgle before he died left everyone aghast.