“Check all the corpses. With any luck, they still have their weapons and armor in one piece. And if there’s anyone alive, you know what to do,” Nicolas said after the water was gone and they could see the valleys between the hills.
All that was left was a trail of destruction and death.
The leader of the forest’s bandits didn’t move.
“If the army comes back, my people will die,” he said in a low and neutral voice, doing his best to not seem as if contradicting the former Sword of the King. “We don’t have the fog now. We need to get out of here now.”
Nicolas stared the short man, analyzing his new companion.
For a moment Tetsuko felt the killing intent. The other man did too. But didn’t hesitate.
But then it vanished as soon as it had appeared.
“Don’t worry, Otto. They won’t come back. Not so soon. And not this army,” he said, looking down at the vale where a few dead people laid near where they were. “If Enrique survived, he’ll be looking for this instead of trying to kill your people.”
He jerked his head to the unconscious noble.
It’s true, the soul in the sword thought. If Enrique is alive, he’ll probably think Alonso got caught in the water… I doubt he’ll think Alonso was captured… no one saw…
She turned to her wielder. His black hair was soaked with blood.
That blow to his head was heavy… it’ll take some time for him to wake up… especially adding his previous injuries. And when he wakes up, he’ll be a prisoner…
The soul in the sword turned her attention back to the man responsible for that. It can’t be a coincidence his energy is just as twisted as Lucky Chaos… They’re the practically the same…
But how can he be involved in this? Did he plan this before suggesting the plans to Alonso? Did he inform Nicolas after? Why would he do this?
Tetsuko didn’t know those answers. But there was one thing she knew.
Just like my wielder predicted… Lucky Chaos ended up being his ruin…
Otto still hesitated to give the order to his bandits.
“We both need more weapons,” Nicolas went on, trying to convince the other bandit leader. “After this, the King won’t be able to turn a blind eye at me anymore. And now you’re involved.”
“I never wanted this!” Otto shouted, attracting glances of the nearest people. Despite the height difference, the leader of the forest’s bandits didn’t let himself be intimidated.
Nicolas stood in his full height, looking down at the other man.
“It doesn’t matter if you wanted or not. You’re a part of this. Remember, you came to me,” he said in a cold voice.
Otto pressed his lips and lowered his head. He clenched his fist so hard it was trembling. Then, in a frustrated voice, he ordered his subordinate to go down and pick up anything useful they could find and kill any survivors.
Nicolas flashed a smile that had no joy in it. “Good, my new partner.”
Despite not being used to scavengers’ work, the bandits collected enough weapons and armor to make up for all the equipment they left at the forest.
Nicolas seemed satisfied.
“Good. Now let’s go back and celebrate!” he shouted.
Some cheered with him, but most remained quiet.
But then, little by little, the men and women began to smile at each other. Soon they were cheering as well.
Nicolas knows how to handle people… Even in this situation.
Tetsuko could sense the general mood.
It wasn’t just the joy of the victory. They were celebrating their survival.
My new wielder is a leader…
Without going down to the labyrinth, Nicolas led both bandits’ groups through the path in the forest.
When they could see the exit of the forest of Stone Hill Labyrinth, it the sun was beginning to set.
Nicolas said nothing as he sat. Otto hesitated but sat too.
When the sun was completely set, and the stars shone in the moonless sky, a group of riders came from the north.
“Here they come,” Nicolas said in a low voice, climbing down from the hill to meet the riders.
Despite the situation, Tetsuko couldn’t help but admire her new wielder.
I don’t know if he planned this alone, but he timed the fight and the walk here in order to avoid pursuers…
He’s truly a cunning and smart. No wonder he was the leader of the Royal army years ago.
When the weapons and the armors were secure, and the injuries, and Alonso, strapped on the horses, they rode towards Nicolas’ lair.
So this is a swamp… Tetsuko couldn’t help but stare in wonder.
It could be described as a muddy place where water and land fought for dominance all the time.
Strange trees with thick vines with the muddy and smelly water create an uninviting land.
The smell is awful… and familiar…
Then she realized where she knew.
The same smell as those plants Lucky Chaos brought… so he’s behind all this…
Otto’s people hesitated as they stared at the dark swamp.
“Be careful where you step,” Nicolas said with a smile.
Some bandits sniggered as they after him.
Otto looked at his people and nodded, despite all his hesitation.
He’s just as a prisoner as Alonso, even if he’s not bound by ropes…
In a dead silence that had none of the celebrating mood from before, the bandits went in a single line.
“Leave the horses here,” someone said after some time.
In a large patch of dry and high land in the middle of the swamp there were crude stables that could protect the animals from the cold and rain, but nothing else.
The smell of rotten flesh was too strong.
“From here, we go by boat,” Nicolas explained in a low voice.
Even he avoids making too much sound here, Tetsuko realized.
The wildlife in the swamps was overworking her senses.
She could feel thousands of energies here and there. But she had yet to see a living being beside the horses and the bandits.
All the animals know can sense the humans… They’re only waiting for a chance to get some food…
My head hurts from this, she thought, closing her eyes she didn’t have for a moment.
As she cleared her mind, she sensed it.
A huge energy was coming in their direction.
A few seconds later, it appeared, climbing the land with its short legs.
Over 20 meters from head to tail, the animal looked as if weight over a ton.
Is that what they call crocodile…?
There was no way that thing can be considered a snake with legs…
The forest’s bandits moved back as much they could at once. Some even screamed, stirring the wildlife even more.
A man fell lost his footing and fell in the water.
His friends went to help, but before they could do anything, a much smaller crocodile came from the depths of the water.
It bit the man’s leg and pulled him down in an instant.
The water stirred as the man tried to fight back. But he lost.
Bubbles of water popped on the surface for a moment. Then it stopped.
Otto looked shocked, but Nicolas shrugged.
“I told to be careful where you step,” he said, walking towards the monstrous crocodile.
On the animal’s back, there was a sort of saddle. Unlike a horse’s, it was high enough to prevent the rider’s leg from touching the water.
As the animal swam away, hundreds of bandits appeared from the darkness in boats for four people.
Little by little, all the bandits climbed and followed swamp’s bandits’ mount.
So the Lord of the swamps truly rides a crocodile as a horse, Tetsuko thought as they reached the lair.
When everyone settled in the main room, Nicolas ordered treat Alonso’s injuries before putting him in the prison, the weapons on the armory and to bring the food and drinks.
“I know it’s been a rough couple of days for you. But now the army is defeated. It’s time to celebrate!” the former Sword of the King shouted, drinking an entire bottle of wine himself.
Everyone loosed up and the mood brightened little by little.
Only Otto refrained from joining the celebration.
“What’s the matter, my new partner?” Nicolas asked, his face somewhat red with all the alcohol he had.
“How can I celebrate when so many of my people, my friends have died?” he said in a low and angry and frustrated voice.
“That’s the risk of doing what we do,” Nicolas said, indifferent.
“I’m not like you! I didn’t choose this because I wanted. None of us did. But if we didn’t steal, we all would’ve died by now.”
Nicolas stared at the shorter man, the rage clear in his face.
“I didn’t choose this either,” he said in a low voice.
Tetsuko sensed it again. The man’s energy was becoming less twisted and the other energy grew stronger inside him.
“I was the Sword of the King. I killed enemies for him, his enemies. I made his territory grow. But then, because of a mistake, everything changed. I was cast out. Called a traitor. Sentenced to die… This was the only way I could remain alive…”
The energy was brighter than ever. At the same time, his eyes became less pale.
But the next moment it was gone, his energy back to the same twisted state as Lucky Chaos, the eyes dull again.
Nicolas’ rage vanished.
“I know what you’re feeling. So instead of treating me like an enemy, let’s be true companions,” he said, offering a cup of wine to the shorter man.
Otto took the drink. He stared at it and then closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they shone with a look of someone who would do anything to save the people he considered his family.
“You’re right. I’m here now and there’s nothing I can do to change. So let’s be true companions,” he said, drinking the wine in one gulp.
Nicolas smiled and offered his hand.
Otto took it.
Then it happened.
It was faint, but there was no way Tetsuko wouldn’t have sensed it.
As the men shook hands, Otto’s energy became twisted.
It was little, but, at the same time, his eyes lost a bit of the color, becoming pale.