It was an elderly mountain wolf. Unlike a usual mountain wolf which had grey-white or black fur, the brown-haired wolf used to be the leader of a small pack. Its distinctive brown coat was the salient feature that marked it as a monster. Although it broke the boundaries and evolved into a monster, its lifespan did not increase much from the average of 20 years. It has now reached the extent of an ordinary mountain wolf's lifespan, being only 10 years away from its maximum lifespan.
Although theoretically it still had one third of its life left, in the fiercely competitive forest, elimination followed after aging. The packs needed strong leaders to guide them. It was recently blinded by a young wolf who had also just evolved into a monster. While it had many years of hunting experience and stronger fighting technique, these also translated into more injuries on its body.
The old wolf had been defeated. The loss of its eye not only signified an end to its reign over Morphey Forest, it was also the best gift to the new leader of its previous pack. It needed to establish its authority.
The old wolf dragged its injured body and left the forest to settle down at the Bering Mountains.
There were many monsters and beasts in Morphey Forest. Their source of food mostly came from ordinary creatures. Only high-level magical creatures would prey on low-level monsters. There used to be about 20 wolves following the old wolf when it went on a hunt. They didn't need to worry about eating, drinking, nor fear low-level monsters. The odds of winning still stood with them since wolves lived in packs.
However, the old wolf was worried about obtaining food now. The mana in its body was slowly depleting. As a former leader smart enough to survive its past 20 years of life, it knew that it was nearing the end of its life. Hence, it made its decision to come to the Bering Mountains.
There were very few monsters in the Bering Mountains. Additionally, as winter was approaching, most creatures had moved to Morphey Forest. There were only three monsters on the same level in the area in which the old wolf resided -- a massive crab living in the saltwater lake down south, an eagle resting on the cliff in the west and a leopard residing in the forest up north, while the wolf settled down in the east. All four magical creatures had their own territory; none was afraid of any other, but none wanted to provoke each other either.
Few living beings remained in the woods during late autumn. The old wolf needed half a day to hunt. Somehow, it ran out of luck today. After searching for the whole noon, it could not find anything except for a foolish guinea pig that barely counted as a snack.
The old wolf pondered if it should advance to the leopard's territory to search for food. There was nothing but the big crab and its relatives in the saltwater lake down south, and there was no need to consider the cliff to the west, since the old wolf had no arboreal agility. The only option left was to venture into the forest in the leopard's territory.
After giving it a long thought, the old wolf shook its head and headed north.
Locke tensed his body and hid on the ground. He only released a sigh of relief when he felt the brown wolf slowly leaving. He cursed silently for bumping into such a dangerous animal just by wandering nearby. It was the first time Locke saw a wolf two metres in length. Besides that, it was not difficult to deduce that it was a dangerous predator based on its oddly coloured fur. Locke, who had not recovered to his prime condition, had no choice but to hide.
He stood up and carefully inspected his surroundings to make sure that there were no other creatures. Then, Locke relaxed and went in search of edible fruits. He hadn't forgotten the reason he came so far for.
Fortunately, luck was on Locke's side this time. He came to a strange tree with trunks resembling bamboo. A cluster of white fruits not unlike grapes could be found on these 10-metre-tall trees.
Locke only returned to the cave by the lake about two to three in the afternoon. The bunches of grape-like fruits hanging on his body were the literal fruits of his labour this afternoon. It had taken much effort for Locke to climb trees with such thin trunks on his first try.
Angelina, who had made a good recovery, was able to sit up now. Although she couldn't walk yet, the path to a full recovery was a few more days away. Angelina had been sitting on a straw mat in the cave for a few hours while waiting for Locke. The tedious wait incited a thought she never had before -- she felt as if she was a wife waiting for the return of her husband. This thought crossed her mind occasionally.
If it wasn't for the inconvenience of her legs, Angelina would have gone out to find Locke. She did not dare imagine how she would survive alone in this uninhabited forest without Locke by her side. Just when Angelina's patience almost wore thin, Locke came back. Gushing with excitement, Angelina tried to stand up but staggered and sat back down. Luckily Locke did not see the sight or he would be amused by the cute struggle.
Locke saw Angelina sitting in a prim manner from afar. He scratched his head and greeted her. "Hey, are you better now?" He did not know how to interact with someone as prestigious as her and merely spoke colloquially.
"Yeah, much better." Angelina did not know how to reply to this guy who took advantage of her too.
This was the first formal conversation they had since they met. It was simple and childish.
To avoid the embarrassing atmosphere, Locke hurriedly started to prepare lunch. He headed towards the beach to pick up a rock, then cut open a 'chicken' and stuffed as many fruits into it as he could. He limited himself and didn't catch too many of those weird creatures. Before he could find new sources of meat, Locke didn't want to kill off all of them.
The grape-like fruit he found later on was edible. However, it tasted rather bland. It was neither sweet nor sour. The only thing worth noting was the fruit had a really high water content.
Upon finishing, Locke tore half of the meat off and gave it to Angelina. He also handed her a few yellow-coloured fruits for lunch. It was simple but they enjoyed it fully. Locke was initially worried that Angelina wouldn't be used with the simple food he made, but it seemed that was not the case.
Angelina was not picky; furthermore, she was hungry too, and wouldn't bother if the food is delicious or not. Besides, the food made by Locke was not too bad.
"What is your name?" Angelina asked casually during lunch.
"Locke. What about you?" he returned the question. He had taken care of Angelina and served her for some time, but he still did not know the name of the princess.
"Angelina Faustain, but you can call me Angelina," she said.
"Oh." Locke replied.
For her to use the country's name as her surname, however oblivious Locke was on the topic of nobility, he knew that the princess was definitely of royal descent, and on top of that, was in the direct line of succession. The gap between them is too wide. If it wasn't for their interaction beforehand, Locke could never have the same calmness and composure when talking to her. Most likely than not, he would behave respectfully and humbly.
The two of them continued eating. Angelina pointed at the food in her hand and asked, "How did you manage to capture these salt crabs?"
"Salt crab? Do you mean these 'water chickens'? There are many of these creatures near the rocky bank. They are really easy to deal with. As long as you don't get pinched by their claws, you can use a stone to capture them."
"Water chickens?" Angelina was curious. "Why did you name them that?"
"Because they taste like chicken," Locke answered honestly.
"Pffft!" Angelina chuckled.
The atmosphere between them became more harmonious following the exchange. "Do you know? Salt crabs have the potential to become monsters. "Angelina informed Locke of her knowledge.
"Monsters?!" Locke's pitch was raised. He has only ever seen one monster, which was the wolf he met this afternoon. Even at his peak, he could not guarantee that he could fight and defeat the wolf. To think that these small critters could develop into monsters too...
"Yes, the salt crab belongs to one of the eight-legged-crab family. They can evolve through salt, water and power. As long as they have the stroke of luck to happen upon insight and one of those elements, they can then evolve into monsters," Angelina continued, recalling the knowledge she acquired from her teacher's collection of books.
Locke did not understand much of what Angelina had said. However, he picked up a point. This type of grey-white crustacean creature he had killed many times before was very likely to evolve into a monster.
"Should we kill them now before they evolve?" Locked was worried. He did not want to be surrounded by ticking time bombs, especially when he had collected a litter of them.
"The evolution of these creatures is not as easy as you think." Angelina rolled her eyes. "Like human advancement, whether it be the progression through caster ranks or knight ranks, it is never easy, and even harder for monsters. According to my teacher, without precious resources and luck, monsters can never advance far in their lifetime. They could only remain at their current level."
Unlike humans who had countless knights and casters using impetus or mental power to garner mana, monsters could only depend on their own passive metamorphosis, which had its constraints.
"What if this thing suddenly evolves?" Locke asked after taking the last bite of his food.
"Then we can only blame our misfortune," Angelina replied confidently. A thought crossed her mind. "Are there many salt crabs around here?"
"Not many. Barring the seven to eight crabs I've killed, there should be only five to six crabs left." Locke replied after a moment of thought.
Angelina blinked and stared at Locke, "Fifteen crabs is the standard number of a salt crab cluster. It is very likely that they have a leader."
A sudden unease came upon Locke. "Crab leader? What does that mean?"
"A monster that developed insights into at least one of these aspects." Angelina told Locke the unfortunate truth.
Locke jumped. A magical creature was nearby and he had just killed most of its tribe. This was going to be a terrible situation for him.
In contrast, Angelina remained calm while maintaining a confident demeanor.
"One more thing... Once salt crabs evolve to monsters, they are not called salt crabs anymore but are addressed according to the element they gain insight into. Saltwater crabs are those that have aptitude in the salt aspect, power crabs for crabs with power aspect and freshwater crabs for crabs with aptitude for the water aspect. All three of them hibernate!" Angelina smiled with a mischievous wink.