“I heard Sir Raynold was fired?”
“Our Lord ordered us all to surround the forest, but Sir Raynold disobeyed the order and sent his men into the forest for a chance at glory. The result of which was Hans’s entire group getting killed.”
“Hans? That third child of the hunter?”
“That’s what I heard.”
“Wouldn’t he know the forest better than any of us here?”
“Have you never been here at night before? It gets quite creepy once the sun sets.”
“Hey! Who do you think I am? Back in my day, I used to date my wife here. Kuh! I still remember it like yesterday. My wife saw me sipping on some wine while basking in the moonlight, and she fell head over heels for me instantly.”
“Ha! As if!”
“Hey, it’s true!”
“You lot! Focus! You think we’re here to play?”
The banter between the soldiers grew louder with each exchange, and the knight who was leading the soldiers at the front shouted at them when even he could hear their conversations. The soldiers who were conversing with one another quickly shrunk back and became silent, but some of the more senior soldiers in the group continued to whisper to one another while keeping an eye on the knight.
“Can you believe half of the entire fiefdom’s army was deployed to capture one person? I heard he’s critically injured too.”
“We’re the lucky ones you know. I hear cleaning up the dead corpses of those summoned monsters makes you want to kill yourself.”
“You have a point. What would happen if by chance you got cursed by touching those disgusting things? Uhuk! I never thought I’d get to see monsters in my life. They really do look hideous. But why do we have to do the search ourselves? Can’t we just send in the hounds to do the work?”
“Haven’t you heard? The magical artefact he has even erases his scent so the dogs can’t smell him.”
“Wow! You’d be set for life if you got a hold of that thing alone.”
“Don’t worry. The Lord said he’ll give us a bounty and a share of the artefacts the warlock has if we capture him.”
“Ha! As if that’ll happen. I’m sure the knights will get everything important, and we’ll be given whatever remains.”
“That’s better than nothing.”
“And would you even want to keep artefacts previously owned by a warlock?”
“You’re not so sharp are you? I’m sure any of the magical spires would pay a fortune to get a hold of anything a warlock owned. It’s not just the bounty, but even a small piece of his clothes would net you a decent profit.”
The senior soldiers continued to talk to one another, oblivious to the fact that one of the recruits was keenly eavesdropping on their conversation. The recruit followed the group diligently, when he suddenly noticed a gleam within the bushes.
Curious, the recruit approached the bush to find a ring of an unknown owner. The recruit was about to call out to his seniors, when he remembered the conversation about how he could sell the warlock’s possessions for a high price. Possessed by greed, the recruit carefully looked around and then snatched the ring. As he did, he felt something snap, and that was the last thing he felt.
One of the soldiers in the group noticed that a recruit had split off from the formation and was approaching him to give a scolding. But then, he screamed as a ball of wooden stakes dug itself into the recruit’s head.
Seeing someone die was a sight that these soldiers had never witnessed, having never fought in a provincial war before – not to mention that the victim was a fellow soldier whom everyone was familiar with. Everyone fell into a panic, seniors and new recruits alike.
“Shit! What happened?”
Everyone gathered around the dead soldier’s body, and even the knight who was leading the group had turned back to join them.
“It was a trap, Sir.”
The knight’s face crumbled at the report he had received. The loss of soldiers was always marked on a performance evaluation. The knight was indeed unhappy that this blunder had clouded his future prospects, but he needed to deal with the body for now.
One of the soldiers who returned with the knight seemed to have been close with the dead soldier, as he cried in agony. Seeing this, the knight tried to put up as somber an expression as possible as he gave his order.
“Let’s take his body for now.”
With the order given, one of the soldiers took out a dagger and cut the string tying the stakes together. With a loud ‘bang!’ the ball of stakes exploded and launched the pieces of the wooden stakes into the surrounding like a claymore.
“Aak! My eye!”
The damage had been magnified by the fact that everyone gathered next to the dead soldier’s body. The knight, who was secretly complaining about the situation, was immediately killed when a hand-sized splinter pierced through his eye, and other soldiers screamed in pain as they were turned into a bloody mess after being showered in shrapnel.
Logan was leading the way into the forest, cutting through every bush and branch that was in his way with great annoyance. This was because he was deployed to search the forest immediately after eliminating all of the monsters overnight, not allowing him any rest.
Too many things happened over one night. Monsters and a warlock suddenly appeared. Many fellow knights died in the attack, and those unfortunate enough ended up in the stomachs of these monsters. Remembering this fact set his mind ablaze in anger at the warlock.
“That son of a bitch. You just wait. Once I get a hold of you, I’ll wring your head like the chicken you are.”
Logan swore at the warlock whose face he had never seen. Looking behind, he wasn’t happy to see that his soldiers weren’t sharing his motivation as they searched.
“Hurry up and move it! You think we’re here for a picnic? We can only go back once we’ve captured him!”
The soldiers picked up their pace when Logan shouted those words. Whether the motivating factor was the anger in Logan’s voice or the fact that they wouldn’t be allowed to return until they captured the warlock was unknown. Even so, Logan was still unsatisfied with the performance of his soldiers.
Logan had always been unhappy with the fact that he was pushed out of the order of knights. He had even sworn an oath to Viscount Luken, but his combat prowess was simply inferior to the other combat knights. He found his situation pathetic, having been demoted to become a leader of soldiers now.
He needed to stand out from the rest of the combat knights and rise through the ranks by achieving a great feat. But because of his lack of connections, he was ordered to lead this rabble instead. And it was the soldiers under Logan who bore the brunt of his frustration.
After advancing through the forest, Logan noticed something brown on the ground. He looked to see what it was, and couldn’t help but frown when he identified it.
“Filthy bastard, taking a shit here.”
The soldiers had never been to this part of the forest before, so there was only one culprit who could have taken a dump in the middle of the forest and neglected to clean it up. But that also meant that the direction they were searching in was in line with where they believed Isaac had run off to.
“Everyone, keep your eyes peeled! He may be nearby.”
The soldiers spread out at Logan’s order. Logan also continued in his search, and placed his foot to the side of where the dung pile was. His foot suddenly sunk into the ground and searing pain shot up his leg.
Logan lost his balance and fell onto the ground, when he heard something from above. A sharp spear, which had been attached to a plank, swung right at his face. In a panic, Logan raised his arms to cover his face, and that was the last thing he remembered.
As the new day dawned, the knight’s naked corpse was found hanging on a tree. Written in blood on his chest were the words ‘come at me!’ along with a mysterious yet infuriating symbol of ‘ㅗ^^ㅗ’. The knights quivered in anger. The warlock was hunting them instead of running.
The soldiers flinched in terror as a scream echoed throughout the forest. Another one. Twenty men had died because of these malevolent traps. Of them, 6 were knights. There were about 50 men who had also been injured by these traps.
What was once a favoured picnic spot for the people of this fiefdom had now been turned into a place of unfathomable danger at Isaac’s arrival.
All they’d do was push away a branch that was hindering their sight, and then a branch which had been pulled back would whomp them. At the end of the branch would be a sharpened stake or a dagger, and it meant instant death if it hit their vitals.
The ground was also not safe. These holes were only ankle deep, but inside these holes were sharpened stakes and fragments of steel, which bloodied one’s foot so badly that nobody felt confident in treating it.
The army shook in terror at these sinister traps that aimed not to kill but to cripple. But the worst were the soldiers who went missing after splitting away from the group.
These missing soldiers would be found hours later, brutally murdered and hung onto a tree as if Isaac was trying to show off his handiwork. If the aim was to instill fear and demoralise the soldiers, it had done its job. Their morale plummeted each time the soldiers saw one of their fellow men being transported to the back because of an injury. No amount of encouragement or soothing could convince the soldiers to continue the search when they ran into a tree with a dead body hung upon it. The soldiers were even hostile to some of the knights who used force to make them continue.
“We’ll achieve nothing if we go on like this. The morale of our soldiers has already hit rock bottom.”
“We’ve lost almost a hundred men. And these are from basic traps, not magic!”
“We need to withdraw and regroup before we start another search.”
Viscount Luken shut his eyes in the face of his Knights’ commotion. Every casualty suffered by his army worsened the doubt and contempt directed at Luken and his rule. It had already been two days. And yet all they managed to find was a series of traps, while Isaac himself had yet to be seen. The rumour of a warlock had begun to spread, so it was only a matter of time before the agents from the Directorate of Surveillance caught wind of it and arrived here. He needed to find Isaac before that.
Yet these vassals only sought their own survival in the face of danger whilst oblivious to their Lord’s true intention. Their lack of motivation was understandable, however. None of them were aware that Luken himself was a member of the Dark Royale or that the target they were searching for wasn’t a warlock but Isaac.
“Withdraw the soldiers and have them surround the forest instead. We’ll continue the search with just the knights.”
All of the knights were furious after hearing Viscount Luken’s order, but just before they could burst out in outrage, Luken made his move first.
“Fools! Can you not see! We are all walking a tightrope atop a cliff right now! Don’t you understand? We aren’t talking about some ordinary criminal, but a warlock! A warlock suddenly appeared within our castle! Do you really think Central is going to waste their time investigating all of us one by one? They’ll just dispose of us all as a whole!”
“But if we just surround the forest to aid Central in their capture…”
“Are you telling me to suck on my thumb and wait until Central arrives when a warlock is rampaging through my fiefdom?”
When one of the knights questioned him, Viscount Luken quickly cut him off mid-sentence and shouted.
“I want vengeance. Vengeance for brutally murdering my knights and soldiers! I want to restore my honour! Restored with the proof that we can kill the warlock without the aid of Central! Will you continue to hide like cowards! Your comrades! Your subordinates have died in front of you!”
Viscount Luken performed his act masterfully, making him look like a great noble who wanted to avenge his fallen men and restore his honour. If Isaac were to witness Luken’s act, he would have applauded without hesitation. The knights were also taken by Luken’s speech and stood up in response.
“Do not worry my Lord! I, Rowen, will bring you the warlock!”
“I will go too! I will let you bear witness to his decapitated head!”
‘I’ve finally convinced them.’
Luken’s expression was appreciative to the actions of his knights, but his eyes alone shone coldly. Although he convinced them, he felt bitter. To think that he had been calling these pathetic tools as his subordinates.
They were the kind who’d turn their backs on him the moment that agents from the Directorate of Surveillance uttered a single word instead of following him to the very end. So Luken needed to use them as much as he could while it was still possible.