As James had expected, the heroes caught up with them by the end of the day as his group was making camp off the road in a clearing. While it was a rather small space, there had been a small creek nearby, which would allow his weary party to clean up a bit.
They had set up two tents, and Kira cooked dinner while Diana and Howard set up lighting posts every few tens of meters around the camp to offer them better visibility through the night. Something about this place gave James the creeps, so he’d extended the post range by about sixty meters. Although Kira did not need light on a full moon like it would be tonight, if something happened, the rest would need the artificial light to see past the main camp’s fire. Otherwise, their defenses would quickly fall apart into shambles, especially since James’s accuracy with his boomstick would be adversely affected.
It was just as Kira was handing out the skewers of boar they’d hunted during the day that the heroes arrived along with a few passersby traveling the other way. This trend of fellow travelers being attracted off the main road by the party’s warm fire continued throughout and after supper, with a few contributing their own rations to assure that everyone was fed. By the time night fell, well over thirty travelers rested in the makeshift camp. Sensing an opportunity to collect some final wares before traversing the barren stretches of land between Kingdoms, James spent most of this time buying and selling things by the wagon while the others prepared their own tents. It was only now that he could truly appreciate that he had saved a large amount of merchandise because half the stock he had reserved for trading was depleted after a long night of bargaining. He quickly learned why so many were eager to gobble up his up-marked healing potions and common weapons: werewolves roamed the plains they currently traversed, and on a full moon, they would be dangerous beasts capable of taking out a low Level [Knight] with a bit of luck.
Throughout the night, as fellow travelers conversed over food, the only talk that could be heard concerned the werewolves that had preyed on many a fellow. When he’d first heard about this, he’d dismissed it as idle talk. However, after listening to horror stories for hours, James had finally scowled and decided to spend the night on top of the wagon on guard for an attack. Of course, he’d lie next to his weapon pre-loaded with fire shots. According to his logic, while it would be a long night, he’d at least be able to contribute toward protecting his fellow travelers should an attack occur. His bullets were all he had that could affect the fearsome predators.
From eavesdropping while roaming between the two adventurer groups that had made camp at their clearing, Diana also became wary, noting the dark circles beneath the eyes of the group that had been staying around the area the past few nights. It seemed that this werewolf infestation could trouble even experienced adventurers. Thus, she opted to sleep in the wagon rather than a tent, which she let a thankful young couple have instead. She blushed, thinking about what they’d do in the privacy of the mobile home… Shaking her head, she turned to glance at Kira who was impatiently striding below, her green eyes glinting beneath the firelight.
As the night had worn on, Kira had kept a lookout for anything lurking in the darkness outside the rim of the light posts. One of her Racial Skills was |Feline Eyes|, a useful Skill in any situation. Every few minutes, the Hersha would check up on the three-person patrol along the campfire’s parameter. Collectively, the entire camp had decided to perform guard shifts by collecting volunteers from each group. In this way, it was assumed that people would be able to sleep more easily. After all, werewolves rarely dared to attack large groups of clearly armed travelers. Still, James could not fall asleep, and the subtle chill above the wagon certainly did not help with that. Eventually, he reluctantly acquiesced to his insomnia and started working on a smoke-bomb-like item he had bought in the last town to try out how compatible the alchemical tool was with his methods of infusing magic crystals into items. The thought of a magical mist silently knocking out enemies certainly appealed to his pacifist sentiments. He had had to suppress his urge to curse himself for being silly and not thinking of such a functional idea beforehand, but still, a hint of excitement flickered in his heart as he began working on this new gadget.
Carefully taking some of the reagents he’d prepared for this journey, he first tried simply poking a small hole in the smoke bomb and pouring liquified crystal essence inside. However, he’d had to immediately trap that in a testing barrier because it had started violently vibrating and giving off fumes. Clearly, there was either some type of anti-tampering enchantment or more likely, a complex reaction going on. Pulling out a sheet of paper, James began jotting down his observations, trying to figure out whether there was some way to easily combine the two pieces of magic.
After a few minutes, James wondered whether he could simply douse the smoke bomb in liquified essence, but discarded the idea as too wasteful and would anyway probably not cause a great enough mana taint for the smoke to change in quality. Finally, he resolved to actually dismantle the smoke bomb with all its enchantments to figure out how to make one of his own. While it was far more work, he suspected it was the only way to succeed.
Slicing open the wooden and cloth ball, he examined the powder nestled inside surrounded by several tightly-spaced runes. He grimaced. Rune work was definitely not one of his strengths since he’d originally been more of a mechanical engineer, not a computer scientist. Still, after puzzling over the runes beneath the lamplight he figured out the mechanism.
Effectively, the outside was a small circuit that would break when the bomb was thrown as the wood splintered. In addition, this circuit could be broken by pouring in an excess of mana or twisting the cap through which the runes ran. After that, the rest of the bomb was far less clever and more straightforward. Basically, a couple of runes would vaporize the powder with a highly concentrated burst of mana as well as act as a fan and circulate the air within the small device. Finally, the smoke would escape through the cloth parts of the bomb. James guessed the only reason this hadn’t been universally weaponized was that easily mana-vaporizable substances were also highly volatile and were, thus, usually too expensive or dangerous to work with.
Smirking, he mixed some crushed fire crystal essence with the smoke particles and resealed the device, redesigning the runes to assure that the seal was far more secure and would only go off if the cap was twisted. He shuddered thinking about what would happen if an innocent human were to unleash the fury of this weapon: third-degree burns would be getting off easy. Still, with werewolves and other fast healing monsters, only fire would truly end them with any efficiency. While unlike some species of trolls and other monsters, werewolves couldn’t survive decapitation or complete destruction of their hearts, anything less than that would see them living to hunt another day.
He had just finished the third grenade, which was hopefully his second successful one, (he wasn’t quite sure as he hadn’t tested it yet) when Kira crept up behind him and gently rubbed his shoulders. “Master, you look so tired. Take a break.”
James thoroughly wiped his hands before pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, careful to not expose himself to excess mana elements. He wriggled the skin, trying to massage his tired brain. “It would take at least twice as long to make a core out here compared to when in the shop, not to mention the lower quality that would be produced due to the impurities in the environment. It’s not comfortable either.” Sighing, he leaned back against the Hersha, trying to figure out how to further improve the smoke bomb. Kira kept looking around as her rubbing became firmer, turning into a massage.
James smiled happily as he lay his head on her arm. “Next time we get to a place with rooms for rent, I’ll get the others to share one for themselves and leave us one to ourselves.” James had expected her to purr in pleasure upon hearing that, but she did not. Instead, she rose up. He cursed, already knowing what he’d find.
James looked up and saw her growling with her claws extended. James grabbed his weapon, and the bell beside it, vigorously ringing it to raise the alarm. Like amateurs, the three on patrol glanced back at him to find the source of the sound, allowing the werewolves to reach halfway past the torches on the outskirts unimpeded. James looked away before the inevitable happened. After all, he wouldn’t waste a charge on a nearly impossible shot in the dark. The guards never stood a chance, but the others in the camp quickly awakened at the screams and sound of tearing flesh. Diana instantly shot outside the wagon, sword in hand, and stood by the tents, standing guard over the other three in her party.
James noted his wristwatch and turned to Kira. “No need to hold back.” Handing her one of the grenades he’d made for her [Bombardier] Class, he warned, “This one’s a flame area of effect. Be careful. 6-second fuse.” Raising his own boomstick, he began combat with a shot straight through a werewolf. In such a chaotic battle against so many opponents, a fifteen-second quick start advantage would not be sufficient to overcome the later speed penalty. Taking a stand on the cover of the wagon, James took aim at his next target.
Kira growled louder as her fur lengthened, solidifying into a tough material that rivaled wood in sturdiness, and she leaped off the wagon. He had no time to worry about her as he hurriedly raised his weapon to target a werewolf sneaking up on Howard. Nevertheless, he knew he didn’t need to guard her. After all, besides her [Maid] Class, she also had her natural Racial Class, which embodied the lethal attributes of feline predators. While they weren’t quite sure what type of Class it had transformed into, it was still a [Berserker] Class and was probably only stronger than what it had been before.
Diana ripped through a werewolf’s stomach, grimacing as a bit of bloody spittle landed on her face. Ducking another werewolf’s slash at her head, she prepared to finish off her target. The impaled humanoid beast bloodthirsty grinned as it grabbed her blade, trapping it in its body. Slowly, it stumbled forward, trying to reach the [Knight]. She grinned right back at it.
The werewolf howled in surprise as the flamberge burst into flames, lighting its fur on fire. Fearfully batting at the flames on its body, the werewolf died with a flaming sword straight through the head. Diana spun around to face her next opponent. Watching its predatory sway, she suddenly felt like she grasped some elusive concept that she had only previously been able to glimpse a shadow of despite countless hours of training. The Skill seemed to almost unconsciously flow out from her flaming sword. |Sword of the Howling Wolves| surged forward, sending flickering waves of scorching heat toward the leering werewolves creeping upon her.
Howard stumbled forward, a werewolf’s claws glancing off his armor plate. He was once again extremely thankful that he’d decided to sleep in armor for most of this trip. A force of habit from years of assassination attempts and a life spent on the battlefield. The [Knight] who had surpassed the fiftieth Level, once a powerhouse on his own, sighed as he lunged forward, his two hands grasping his longsword. Bang!
Shooting a glance behind him, Howard found a headless werewolf that had snuck into his blind spot. Age had dulled his reflexes. Nodding toward the figure on top of the wagon behind him, he focused on the battlefield in front of him. With a grunt of effort, he shook his head and roared, joining a group of armed travelers charging the center of the pack where the alpha no doubt waited.
James scooped some water from the drinking barrel that he’d gathered and boiled from the river earlier in the night. He dumped it into a large pot hanging over the campfire while Howard and Diana examined the injured. The two hero groups had helped a lot, confronting almost half of the werewolves themselves, with Olaf’s group handling slightly more than the other one despite the other’s greater experience fighting werewolves. Nevertheless, the two [Knights], Hersha, and James had not slacked off either, taking out by themselves a fair number of the over forty dead werewolf corpses that the pack had left behind when they’d finally been scared away. More impressively, the three humans had done it without injuries, although several other members of their little camp had met their grisly ends at the werewolves’ claws. Based off a brief inspection of the corpses, James had killed at least five while Diana and her grandfather had finished off over eight together. Kira’s claw marks marred more than a few of them as well.
James could tell she had entered the fray among the vanguard of the camp, hitting as many as she could while continuously moving around to avoid being ganged up on by the werewolf pack. After all, werewolves had an animal cunning to take out the most difficult opponents first so they could feast on the weak. What concerned James was that he had still not found her even as the camp slowly restored itself to order and reorganized the tents and fires. Just as he was about to initiate an exploration into the dark, James suddenly saw something lurch in the darkness.
Swinging his flashlight over, a glint flashed through the night, reflecting off a pair of eyes. James readied to defend himself against a werewolf straggler until a familiar feminine figure appeared. Kira was still in her Berserker form, that signature form of the Beast Kin gifted with the Skill of |Ancestral Linkage|. Her muscles bulged even though they were covered in cuts and blood, both her own and otherwise. James lowered his gun and reached for a rag, dribbling some warm water from his flask onto it. He approached her with it when the heroes suddenly cut him off. Olaf warned, “Stand back. She’s dangerous. You never know what a Berserker will do. Can’t believe we traveled with one for so long without an incident. Let her calm down; I don’t want to have to put down a decent Hersha.”
James rushed forward, both angry and annoyed. He used his free hand to hit Olaf and a burly man raising a club in the back of their heads.
“Stop your damn staring! She doesn’t like people seeing her naked, you perverts!” They look at him in surprise as he gently dabbed Kira’s bloody cheek with the cloth. It wiped off the blood on one side of her face, but not the other, as James would discover the next morning. She hugged him and lay her head on his shoulder, rubbing her face against his clothes. “Master!” James held her up as she collapsed in his arms, slowly reverting back to her thin form. As he passed the heroes to take Kira toward the healers, Olaf gazed at him in shock and awe. “So freaking cool! Even a Berserked Hersha girl melts in his arms.”