Chapter 14 - Siege of Hoggard's Pass
Some time ago...
The harder you look for something, the more it evades you. Perhaps there was some truth to that saying after all.
Rukham glanced at the healing potion in his left hand, casually swirling its contents. Calling it a potion was a disservice to all real alchemists - this was a pitiful amateur's work that wasn't even fit for his vassals to consume. For it to be carried by the army, how should he say it... as expected of an E Class world. However, there was something very special about this bottle that had immediately caught his attention.
"Item Analysis." He murmured, wanting to check it again.
[Item: “Healing Potion”.]
[Rapidly heals internal and external injuries while restoring stamina.]
[Herbalism Proficiency Bonus: +10% effect]
There was no mistake. This item was made by someone with "Proficiency". After over four years, he had finally found a trace of the other Ascendant.
Rukham had already given up on the fruitless search, since his opponent was obviously a master of stealth and misdirection. No matter how thoroughly he looked or burned, the other Ascendant skillfully eluded his grasp. He had even disguised his ears so he could sneak into human taverns and listen to rumors, but it was all useless. With much reluctance, he decided to just continue with his original plan of destroying all three major kingdoms once he had built up enough strength. That was the best way for him to earn Karma and would draw the rat out eventually.
But then this random Elswain patrol he wiped out just happened to hold a vital clue.
It was almost too convenient how he had stumbled upon it. The System probably had a hand in this - looks like the other one was penalized for hiding like a coward. Or maybe it was on purpose? Could this be a clever trap meant to lure him in? No, that's too unrealistic. This is almost certainly just 'fate'.
But even though Rukham was delighted by this unexpected turn of events, something was wrong. His instincts warned him that following this lead and attacking the Ascendant now would make the situation spiral out of his control. Maybe it will even expose his identity to every human kingdom and make it impossible to continue putting the blame on Bulirin. If the three nations put aside their differences... well, it wouldn't be impossible to win anyway, but it would be much harder. His sixth sense had been honed over thousands of years, so he was confident that this prediction was accurate. What should he do?
Would he act now and possibly ruin his chances of a perfect run?
Or would he wait for ten years until his legion was large enough to rampage throughout the land unchecked?
He smirked. It wasn't even a choice. Missing out on easy Karma was nothing if he could cross swords with an unknown Ascendant right now. The title of "Headhunter" wasn't just for show; he was a battle maniac beyond help, and when had his faction ever shied from doing things the hard way? Plus, if Rukham wins, the "bounty" he'd earn would be enough to cover his losses. If he dies? The senior members of Eclipse would make fun of him for a few centuries, but he would learn something from the experience at least.
A wounded soldier - the only survivor of this Elswain patrol - groaned in pain underneath his foot. The young man couldn't be older than twenty, and he looked scared out of his mind at the armored figure standing above him. Didn't the rumors say that it was a Bulirin knight? Impossible, he thought. This was no knight; this was nothing less than a vicious demon lord. How did they get it so wrong!?
"Tell me, boy. Where do you come from?" Rukham asked the wounded soldier lazily.
"T-the town of Bask, sir." He answered quickly in terror. "P-please, I'll do anything, don't kill m-"
"Oh, shut up." Rukham sighed. The soldier immediately ceased his blubbering. "If you don't want to end up like your friends, tell me everything about your home and where this potion came from."
Without a moment's hesitation, the soldier immediately began spilling any details that came to mind. Most of it was useless, but when Rukham learned about the two herbalists who regularly supplied Bask's Merchant Guild with high quality healing items, he ordered him to elaborate. Unfortunately, the soldier only knew that they came from a village near the town.
"Alright, fine, that is enough. I'll show you mercy." Rukham finally cut him off.
"Thank you for letting me live, great one!" The Elswain soldier almost cried in relief.
"Who said anything about living?" Ascendant Headhunter said in genuine surprise. "I just meant that your death would be cleaner than the others."
One slash later, the man's head was sent flying. Rukham thought about putting this head into his storage, but quickly decided against it. He would accept even a lowly goblin chief, but there was no value in a coward. It would only taint his collection.
"That far into Elswain land, huh... a distraction might be needed."
He could get away with a simple disguise in these frontier lands, but the deeper he went into a kingdom, the more likely it was he'd run into someone capable of seeing his real self and powers.
Rukham wasn't afraid of normal soldiers. Even if there were ten thousand of them, their weapons couldn't break through his Regalia's defenses. No, the only thing that posed a threat to him in this E Class world was the kingdoms' "elite forces" - its knighthood orders, royal wizards, and ancient noble houses. No matter how weak a world might look at first glance, there are always a few nasty surprises waiting for overconfident Ascendants. That's how the System worked.
As such, he couldn't just openly stroll into the heart of enemy territory, or he might find himself covered in layers upon layers of restrictive spells. That would be followed by a very slow, painful, and humiliating death. Something like that happened to a member of Eclipse over three thousands years ago, and poor Crimson Era still hasn't lived it down.
Rukham finally thought of something. His lips curled up into a playful smile.
"If the final act really will happen after this... then why not use those cards now?"
* * *
General Vigil drummed his fingers on the table impatiently. It had been over a week now with no news. He expected the worst, but could not help but hope...
A Lumor soldier walked into the tent and saluted. "General, one of our scouts just came back with an urgent report."
Vigil's heart sank as he took note of the man's grim expression. When he unfurled and read the parchment, it took only a few seconds for his breathing to grow ragged with rage. His hands trembling, the old general looked at the soldier with a steely gaze.
"Prepare my horse. I want to see it for myself."
The gruesome spectacle was sighted on top of a grassy hill, not far from their main encampment.
It was much worse than the letter described. Vigil and his personal guards looked solemnly at the display, their fists clenched in silent anger. There were thirty naked corpses impaled on stakes. Burn marks, disfigurement, and other signs of torture were visible even from a distance. On each body hung a sign, bearing insults like "filthy Lumor dogs" or "this one cried and wet himself". Such vicious cruelty... there's no question who was responsible.
To see the brave soldiers of his kingdom reduced to this was already more than what General Vigil could tolerate. But even worse, one of the dead men was his son, who had been part of the squad that disappeared last week on a simple reconnaisance mission. Vigil insisted on making young Rodrick climb up the ranks by his own efforts. Who would have thought that decision would result in such a tragedy?
My foolish pride led to this... but with the Gods above as my witnesses, I swear that I will make Bulirin pay.
"General, we should cut them down and give them a proper burial." Vigil's second-in-command said quietly.
"No." Vigil answered in a disturbingly calm tone. "I want every single one of our men to see this and carve it into their hearts."
Turning his horse back towards the direction of the encampment, Vigil took a deep breath. The cool wind that blew through the meadow did nothing to soothe his rage. His hesitation lasted less than a second. If the royal family would one day demand his head for this betrayal, then so be it. Blood must be spilled to appease the fallen. Each man here would be buried with hundreds of Bulirin skulls as a final offering.
"Enough skirmishes and blustering. We will marshal all of the forces under my command and march for Hoggard's Pass."
"But General, we have not yet declared war! The capital stated that-"
Vigil drew his sword and pointed it at the man's neck. "Did you not hear my orders? Is this not enough of a declaration of war for you?" He asked in a bone chilling voice, gesturing at the mutilated corpses.
"U-understood!" The second-in-command answered, then started barking orders at his own aides.
Perhaps if it were only thirty "ordinary" soldiers that were killed and disgraced, Vigil would not have acted so rashly. Calmer heads may have kept things together until the true enemy was revealed. But fate had other plans.
Even Rukham could not have predicted that his little trick would work so well. When the Lumor soldiers were being tortured and interrogated, the general's son never once broke or mentioned his parentage, afraid that he would be used as a bargaining chip by the "Bulirin" devils. It was not known even by his entire squad, so the young man died with his secret kept. Alas, his determination was meaningless, as the war's beginning was guaranteed the moment he was captured.
Lumor's military would descend upon the unsuspecting Bulirin forces.
* * *
The fortress of Hoggard's Pass was a strategic point near the Lumor-Bulirin border. It controlled access to three key provinces of the Bulirin Kingdom, and was thus a cornerstone of their defense. Naturally it was very heavily defended, but over the last few months the soldiers there had been growing complacent. Peace talks were finally progressing, and it seemed like it wouldn't be long before Bulirin could clear its name and demand compensation from Lumor for the grievous accusations. They were looking forward to gloating at the damn savages that had dared to besmirch their country's name.
That peaceful illusion was instantly shattered by the first Lumor trebuchet salvo.
"Attack! We're under attack!"
"I can fucking see that, you moron! Why are they here!? There was no declaration!"
"Send riders and birds to all nearby camps and forts. Their numbers are massive, we need reinforcements!"
"The commanding officer! Shit, he actually got buried in the rubble... what kind of fucking luck-"
Despite the chaos and their fortress commander losing consciousness in the first bombardment, the Bulirin soldiers showed their training. It only took a short time for all of the men to get to their posts. Soon the tower-mounted ballistae were firing massive bolts at the far away trebuchets, attempting to disable the fearsome siege engines. Crossbowmen were lined up on the walls, ready to shoot once the advancing Lumor horde was in range. Vats of boiling pitch were ready at the gates, and the Bulirin riders were moving at full speed towards allied forces, seeking help for Hoggard's Pass.
At the Lumor battle camp, General Vigil watched with grim satisfaction as his trebuchets continued to bombard Hoggard's Pass. He could not afford to go overboard, however; the objective was to take and hold the fortress, not level it to the ground. The more damage he dealt to the fortifications now, the harder it would be to hold it until the rest of the Lumor army arrived to consolidate their position. The walls must be won with the blood of his men.
Bulirin's soldiers are the most heavily armored on the continent, and their crossbows are truly fearsome. They excel in defensive battles like this. To take Hoggard's Pass will require an unimaginable sacrifice... but I am prepared to pay that price.
"How much time can you buy us, Wind Shroud?" Vigil turned and asked the young woman standing to the left side of his horse. She was a beautiful mage with long green hair, though one would not be able to tell from a distance. Most of her body was hidden underneath a thick brown robe, and a plain wooden staff was held in her delicate hands. One may have even mistaken her for a pilgrim. But this girl was one of the few trump cards held by Vigil, a precious talent who can sway the flow of any battle.
"With so many defenders... a little over two minutes without risk. Four minutes with a sixty percent chance of survival. Seven minutes if you are willing." The beautiful green haired maiden answered in a soft voice.
"We need ten minutes. Do it at any cost."
Wind Shroud was startled, then bit her lip and looked downwards in resignation. "Understood, General Vigil. I shall obey."
"Thank you." Vigil said quietly. And please forgive me, he thought to himself. This was another sin he would likely have to answer for.
Later, when the Lumor infantry charged towards the walls with siege ladders, Wind Shroud rode in front of them on top of a white horse. The first wave of crossbow bolts fired, hundreds of lines that screamed death. Pulling back her hood then raising her hands, Wind Shroud summoned every ounce of power she had to protect the Lumor army.
The girl was a hedge wizard, a mage who grew up without any formal tutoring in how to control magic. This was a rare existence in this world where any sign of magic would guarantee you a comfortable life. She was completely untrained in the arcane arts and had only one ability: a wall of wind that makes ranged weapons useless. But that ability was mastered to such a terrifying degree that not a single Bulirin bolt hit Lumor flesh while her shroud was active. She remained there, her arms raised and eyes closed in concentration, as mana rapidly poured out of her body.
A little longer... it's only been three minutes...
Cracks were already starting to show in her shroud. A bolt finally hit a Lumor soldier... the first casualty of their side. But that was meaningless, since the ladders were steadily drawing closer to the fortress walls. Once they engaged the defenders in close combat, their chances of success would rise drastically.
Wind Shroud's brain was in searing pain by now. Permanent damage was being done to her mind and body because of the strain; she had never attempted something of this scale before. Her skin paled and her lush green hair started to lose its color. After an unexpectedly strong burst of pain, she spat out a mouthful of blood, and the shroud wavered; in that instance, over a hundred Lumor men died.
No! Not yet! I will not break... AHHHH!
She had been the target of Bulirin's hate ever since they realized what was going on. Finally, a bolt had gotten past her defenses and pierced her left thigh. Wind Shroud grit her teeth, using the physical pain to distract her mind from its approaching collapse. The shroud regained its strength once again, and Lumor advanced unimpeded.
Seven minutes... no, has it been eight? I don't know...
Regardless of her determination, there was a limit to any one mage's power. Her shroud broke once again, and hundreds of bolts soared towards the Bulirin forces. Roughly a third of them were aimed at her. The girl looked blankly at the wall of bolts, her bloodshot eyes seeing but barely comprehending.
Ahh... I failed. I'm sorry, dear Vigil. Ten minutes was too hard. I'm tired...
Several nearby soldiers tried to pull her down from the horse and shield her, but they were too slow and simply doomed themselves to the salvo as well. It would not have saved her shattered mind anyway. The first bolt burrowed into her shoulder. The second one into her breast. The third into her stomach. The fourth into her arm. The fifth into her forehead. All of the rest were unfelt.
A fair distance away, Vigil and his honor guard watched as Wind Shroud's body was roughly thrown to the ground by the sheer force of the projectiles. The general clenched his fists, guilt eating away at him. To use and throw away such a sweet girl... it was something he would strongly hesitate to do under normal circumstances, but this was a battle he could not afford to lose. Regardless, the girl's sacrifice had done it.
The Bulirin crossbowmen were only able to fire two more rounds before the first wave of berserk Lumor attackers reached the top of the fortress walls. They swung wildly at anyone stupid enough to block their path. Unafraid of death, they kept coming until they managed to carve enough room on the walls to let them fight on level ground against the Bulirin soldiers. That was the beginning of the end for the defenders.
As Lumor morale surged, however, deep horns sounded in the distance. From both the western and eastern paths, tall banners flew above the thousands of men marching in their direction. Their heavy footsteps shook the ground with a rhythm louder and more domineering than any drum could possibly produce.
"Oh? Looks like the Bulirin reinforcements are here." Vigil's second-in-command said dryly.
"Good. It was starting to get boring." Vigil answered with a chuckle.
The general rode forward, calling upon his heavy cavalry, archers, and reserve forces.
"Men! It is time to pay back the Bulirin devil scum who have slaughtered our brethren and pillaged our lands for so long! Those vile beasts despicable enough to even side with monsters, today we shall put them down with our own hands! We are the righteous, and we shall be victorious!"
Deafening cheers answered Vigil, as the army's bloodlust soared to the skies. This was a day for heroics and impossible feats. No matter how many of their brothers died, the survivors would charge onwards. Every grievance, every frustration Lumor had suffered over the past few years... it would all be repaid today with interest. A pity it was towards the wrong people, but many of these men wouldn't live to find that out. The dead are truly fortunate.
The battle raged on and off for over twelve hours, and resulted in a staggering number of casualties on both sides. Thousands of bodies littered the fields and walls. In the end, Lumor's army succeeded in pushing the Bulirin reinforcements back and Hoggard's Pass fortress fell to them. Not a single defender was spared... and a few were tortured in revenge for what happened to the thirty.
"Vigil's Rage" was not the bloodiest battle in Skosia's history, but this one was special. Historians would call it the greatest waste of life to have ever occurred because of when it happened - mere weeks before the start of humanity's War of Survival.
This battle was Lumor's victory. Soon it would become its most bitter regret.
* * *
A few days later, in the Elswain royal palace...
An oaf crashed into Prince Nicolai's private study, opening the door with such force that a large stack of books tumbled to the floor. There was no need to even ask who it was. Only two people in the world called him by that nickname, and only one of them would ever behave this shamefully.
The Third Prince's expression immediately soured and he rubbed his forehead in exasperation. Putting his quill down, he turned to greet this noisy intruder.
"For God's sake Tybalt, I told you to knoc-"
"Nevermind that!" Second Prince Tybalt cut him off, waving his hands in an incomparably excited fashion. "Lumor's fucking done it!"
Nicolai frowned. "Done what, brother?"
"They attacked Bulirin! Several regiments attacked and took Hoggard's Pass. They've been holding it since against repeated assaults. It's finally starting!"
Nicolai shot to his feet, grabbing onto Tybalt's shoulders with frantic urgency.
"Is this information reliable?"
"Of course it is, Nico. Would I be in such a rush otherwise?" Tybalt rolled his eyes.
The Third Prince felt dumbfounded as he sank back into his chair.
This doesn't make sense. Why would they start the war now!? We worked so hard and things were finally cooling down... and even if they were determined to attack, the Lumor emmissary has yet to arrive here to discuss our alliance. It makes no sense!
"Why did they do it?"
Tybalt shrugged. "My guess is the northern lads did something stupid to drive Lumor over the edge. We'll find out eventually. Anyway, mom and dad have called for a royal assembly in two hours. Don't forget to come!"
The idiot Second Prince walked out of the study, humming a tune in merry anticipation. He had felt stifled all this time, being all but useless in governance, so he had long wished to return to the battlefield. It looks like he would soon have his wish granted.
On the other hand, Nicolai was racking his brain trying to understand the situation, and figure out a way to defuse it.
No, it's impossible to defuse anything at this point. Things have gone too far. Unless my guess is right, and some other party truly is manipulating things from behind the scenes. I need to find proof of that if we'll have any hope of preventing a war of annihilation between the other two countries.
It was not that Nicolai cared about the fate of Lumor and Bulirin. But he knew that the ones to suffer most would be the peasantry. In addition, he (and some other members of the peace faction across the three kingdoms) somehow felt that this was all a prelude to a far greater calamity... if he was right, then it was all the more important for humanity to stand united.
Could it be one of the dark cults? They may have gained the power to control monsters somehow, and are trying to increase conflict in the world. If we're looking at who would benefit most from humans killing each other, then the remnants of the Beastman race come to mind. They definitely still want revenge for us massacring and enslaving their people. Wait, non-human? It couldn't be...
All of the descriptions of the mysterious figure leading the monsters mentioned a tall, thin figure dressed in Bulirin knight armor. Disregard the armor for a bit; while it was extremely difficult for an outsider to gain a set, it wasn't impossible. Which non-human race has powerful magic and most closely matches the description?
Nicolai took a deep breath. It was almost sacrilege to point a finger at them. They were the "chosen" of the God of Earth. Less than a hundred in number, the elves were eternal guardians of the sacred glade in the center of the continent. All three human kingdoms have respected their sovereignty of that area for the past thousand years, since the fury of the elves was a terrifying thing to behold. And truly, it made no sense to suspect them. What could they possibly hope to gain by doing this? They were reclusive freaks who barely showed their faces once a century. But if it really is one of them pulling the strings...
I must send a knightly delegation to the sacred glade at once and find out for sure. But while waiting, it's important to keep the situation from growing any worse.
The hawkish nobles will definitely jump on this chance, and urge the Elswain royal family to declare war on Bulirin as well. Since Lumor seemed to have the upper hand right now, attacking from the east would cripple Bulirin and allow Elswain to seize valuable lands. They would argue that sitting out would allow Lumor to establish a terrifying foundation that may threaten Elswain in the future. The peace faction will be hard pressed to hold its ground in this assembly.
Hopefully Felix and I can convince Tybalt not to support those shortsighted idiots...
With a sigh, Nicolai tore up the previous letter he was writing and pulled out a fresh roll of parchment. There were more important matters to attend to now.