Baddduuukkk… Baddduuukkk… Baddduuukkk… Baddduuukkk…
Loud rumblings of horse hooves dominated the toughened earth of the region undergoing the harshest dry season that it had in recent history. Following the path that had been laid out before them, the impressive steeds weren’t too hurried, and neither were they too sluggish. The horses galloped at a pace that was much faster than the average human while their riders were careful not to cause too many disturbances that would attract the wrong types of attention.
Consisting of one steel carriage and eight of the finest stallions of Huuring City, the convoy was set up in a diamond formation, with two horses pulling the sole wagon, three leading the pack, two keeping track of the flanks, and one treading behind to protect the rear. Naturally, as the ‘leader’ and the map bearer of the team, Shin sat in the forefront position with Kanari and Emma trodding right behind him. The flanks were covered by Natalie and Ella, while Isadore manned the rear with a lazy expression.
Meanwhile, seated inside of the carriage, Shizen, Elrin and Latina acted as the guards of their supplies. Whenever they were moving as a unit, the seven young heroes had used this formation as their preferred way to protect themselves from any imminent threats. Not to mention, this diamond arrangement has proven itself helpful in the past when fighting off any attackers that may ensnare them.
“Hmmm, we should be arriving soon.” During such extended periods of movement, there were occasions where the team would be bantering excitedly, but there were also times where the convoy would experience a pin-drop silence. Now that the group had been on the road for almost two days, fatigue had begun to pile up, and the majority of them were too lazy to open their mouths. Fortunately, they had an effective leader that would verbally communicate key aspects to them when they arise.
“Any signs of trouble? Ella, Isadore?” Shin asked the two most observant members of his group. Due to their respective training, Ella was the most sensitive to sound while Isadore was highly aware of his immediate surroundings. Whenever they were on the road, those two were responsible for lookouts and giving the warning siren if danger approaches.
“None at all.” Isadore hollered out from the back.
“Nothing on my side. The bushes have been clean.” Ella did the same.
“Alright, then. The map says that once we take a left up ahead, we would be lead into a straight road into the Estrella Region.” Shin pulled the reins on his horse and slowed down the pace of the entire convoy. It was imperative that they didn’t stop the movements of the caravan, lest an ambush lay in wait. “Latina, what do you think?”
“Ah, that map is outdated.” The main guide of the group immediately denied Shin’s suggestion and pointed in the opposite direction. “When I came to Huuring City, that route had been blocked by a landslide. Since there wasn’t anyone here that was powerful enough to clean up the roads, no one did anything to it.”
“A landslide? Emma, could you confirm that?”
“Alright.” The bob-haired young maiden immediately summoned out her Ice Bow and a reflective, glacial crystal, formed in her free hand. Unlike her regular arrows, the projectile that Emma created was much thicker and possessed a certain kind of observative light to it. Nocking the shaft and pulling her bowstring entirely, Emma aimed it at a wide arc as a substantial amount of mana filled her biceps and into the arrow.
The arrow sliced through the air and almost instantly disappeared out of the sights of the group. Watching the projectile fly at a pace that would far surpass even the Federation’s best bowmen, Natalie dropped her jaw once again. Instead of an arrow, the icicle that Emma had released seemed to be a homing missile that would take down any target it had its eye on. While the middle-aged mercenary was still stunned, the rest of the group all turned to Emma without acknowledging that accomplishment. Instead, their eyes were fixated on yet another arrow that Emma had created. Curious, Natalie and Latine too moved forward and peaked over the markswoman’s shoulder.
“That is!” Natalie gasped. Reflected inside of the permafrost arrow, images of the road ahead were being flashed at rapid speeds. If they were a soaring falcon in the sky, perhaps that would be their view.
“Scouring Arrow. One of Emma’s abilities that allows us to scan the area around us.” Elrin, who was in the carriage alongside Latina and Shizen, explained to Natalie. “As long as the Scouring Arrow exists, Emma would be able to view the scenery around it. Quite a handy tool to be honest.”
As Elrin continued to describe the ability, the moving pictures came to a halt as the arrow Emma had fired reached its destination. Thick, massive boulders alongside vast amounts of undergrowth dominated the land, and the brick road leading to the blockade had been heavily fractured. Just as Latina had said, the path was impeded by the remnants of a landslide, making it near impossible for the caravan to pass through.
“Hehe, looks like we’ve chosen the right guide.” Shin praised the young girl before folding the map in his hands. “Now that we’re in the Estrella Region, it would be better if Latina leads the way. After all, the maps that we have a pitifully drawn… So, what do you suggest we do, Latina?”
“Ermmm… Ah…” Instantly becoming the centre of attention, Latina fumbled on her words. Before, the group heavily relied upon maps that were purchased at Huuring City to move into Estrella territory. Unfortunately, there were no good maps about the Estrella Region, due to it being a poorly visited area. Thus, this was the time for their hired guide to shine.
“Hah…” Latina composed herself with a few deep breaths before looking straight to the right. “We can take the route to my old village. It’s a few hours hike from the Ancient Graveyard so we could use it as a place to stay. It’ll take a few additional hours, but we should be able to reach before nightfall if we hurry.”
“Your old village?” The young man immediately fell into thought. “How many people are living in the village?”
“Not many,” Latina replied. “When the war first broke out, many villagers feared that their homes would be the next targets of the Black Masks, so they fled to the bigger cities, myself included. The only ones that remain are those that can’t leave behind their family’s ancestor hall or had no interest in travelling to better shores.”
“I see… Guys, what do you think?”
“That sounds like a great idea!” Shizen exclaimed from Latina’s side. “All this moving around has made my brain go fuzzy. It’s better if we had a base to return to.”
“I concur!” Ella supported the boy’s suggestion.
“While I agree that we should have a fixed camp to keep our resources…” However, Kanari wasn’t all that thrilled about that idea. She scratched the itch around her left shoulder blade and started laid down her arguments. “If the Black Masks really have a base near the Crypts of the First Men, I would imagine that they have that settlement under surveillance. If we stay there, wouldn’t we be advertising that we were on their tail?”
“Ah… I hadn’t thought of that.” Ella instantly changed her mind.
“We’re trying to investigate the potential bases that the Black Masks might have in the region. We shouldn’t be too open about our actions.”
“Kanari’s right. We shouldn’t stay in that village. However, Shizen’s also right to say that we need a base to plant our supplies and act as a return point for all of us… So Latina, can you think of places, possibly an abandoned outpost or something, where there’s no human contact?”
Watching Shin ponder over the choices he had, Natalie couldn’t help but feel impressed. How many young mercenaries in Huuring City had the insight to consider all factors as well as communicate this effectively with the members of his troop? For the seasoned mercenary, observing Shin was like watching the leader of the Moon Mercenaries, Gary in action.
“Hmmm… There is one!” Taking a moment to think back on her childhood home, Latina found the perfect location for the group. “My father used to own a warehouse deep in the woods, a few hours hike from my home. After he disappeared, there was no one left to maintain it, so it has been left to rot. Maybe we could use that?”
“Great idea!” Shin snapped his fingers. Being an abandoned warehouse, it would most probably be overlooked by the Black Masks, and it would also serve as an excellent place to park their carriages and horses. “So how do we get there?”
“It’s a little high up on a mountain, so I’m not sure if our horses can move there…” Latina lowered her voice and dropped her head.
“Don’t worry about that! With Shizen here, we can cross any terrain with ease!”
“Hey! There’s no way I could create a bridge all the way up to a mountain!” The short young man cried out in horror after realising Shin’s intentions. Shizen’s Adivinar Tree was capable of calling vines and clearing unsatisfactory terrain. Whenever they were in a tough situation, it was the Freak of the Dundlewoods powers that proved to be the most valuable.
“Don’t worry! I’ll be giving you water constantly throughout!~” Shin clenched his fist and hollered out a firm declaration.
“That won’t be enough!”
“Why are you complaining?” Ella, who was riding ride next to the carriage, scoffed in derision as she looked down on the hobbit-like man. “These are the only times where you’re useful! You should gratefully offer your services!”
“Hahahaha!!!” The group all uniformly laughed as the two Moon Mercenaries watched on in envy. Latina was in awe that the seven young heroes, who seemed untouchable at first glance, were behaving just like any standard group. Cracking jokes while on the road, it reminded Latina of how the Moon Mercenaries treated one another.
On the other hand, Natalie was gobsmacked at how resourceful each one of them was. Though they were all powerful fighters, the group each possessed amazing secondary skills that aided tremendously in their expedition. Emma was capable of scouting crazy distances. Shizen could alter the terrain as he wished. Elrin had the resources to buy anything that the group needed. Ella and Isadore had amazing senses to pick up on any movements around them. Kanari had the insight to analyse any situation. And finally, the glue that kept them all together, Shin possessed superior planning and management skills that wouldn’t be inferior to any top mercenary leader.
If they dropped out of the Alliance tomorrow, Natalie was sure that they would make amazing mercenaries and would most definitely reach the highest rank a mercenary troop could hope to achieve.
“So it’s decided then!” Shin clapped his hands and turned over to Latina. “Just show us the way to your father’s warehouse. We’ll handle the rest.”
The sun sank lower from the skies as the light of day was drained by the endless horizons, giving way to the velvety darkness of night. Crickets chirped merrily while the nightly wolves howled in bliss. In just a few hours, the entire world would be engulfed by the dark, and without any light from human settlements, the roads were far too dangerous for any to tread on. Fortunately for Shin’s group, it didn’t take them too long to reach their destination.
Stepping into the brick warehouse, Shin and the rest all felt a chilling cold creep up their senses. They were being watched by dozens of crows and bats that had claimed this place as their own, and they quite disliked the visitors that had came to disturb their peace. Nonetheless, this abandoned warehouse was the group’s only hope for sleeping under a roof tonight, and thus, Kanari used her foxfire to scare away the annoying pests inside.
At the same time, Elrin reached into her bag and threw numerous gumballs in the air. As the gums stuck on the pillars and ceilings of their new abode, they began to glow like the moon overhead, bringing ample amounts of light into the dilapidated building. The first thing that caught Shin’s attention was the rusted tools on each table and the many wooden carvings that were littered all over the floor. Some had eroded back to nature, while others remained intact, untouched by time itself.
“Are those made by your father?” Shin asked the only person present that knew of the warehouse’s background.
“Yes. He created carvings as a past-time hobby. This used to be his workshop.” Recounting the happy memories that she had back in the day, Latina dropped her head in despondency. Shin noticed the young girl’s change and rubbed her silky soft head.
“Don’t worry. Once the mission is complete, I promise, we will find your father.”
“No problem!” Shin smiled and allowed Latina to reminisce on her own. For now, he had more important issues to deal with. “Alright! All of you take some time to settle down! Tomorrow, our hunt for the Black Masks begins!”