A wooden mug half-filled with ale struck a table with a dull clack. Chairs rattled while voices sang in joy. Jeers and laughter ran from one corner to another. Banters were exchanged from person to person. All the while they seated around rectangular tables wearing cloth shirts topped with leather vests or jackets.
“Show me what you got!” Along with the men with medium to large builds, a brown-haired man raised his mug and clunked it with another. His name was Kasta, a man with a shaved beard in his late twenties.
Opposite Kasta, “No need to tell me!” was a man with a flushed face. He raised his mug and took a swig of his ale. After several gulps, “Baah! Nothing beats a good drink!” he said with foams stuck to his black mustache.
Kasta then urged the man to take another swig as he poured his own into the other’s mug. The man, without a hint of shame, accepted the offer and gulped the contents in one go.
Kasta and the man were sitting in a tavern in a large town called Sardon. Northwest of Sardon, two days away by foot, was Brent’s capital city, Spere.
While they drank to their heart’s content, they exchanged stories. Their topic wandered from the surroundings of Sardon, the culture of Brent, and more. It didn't take long until the topic turned to Kasta’s identity. Urged by the man to give a proof, Kasta slid his hand into his pocket and presented an engraved metal plate at the size of a card.
“Hmm… So you really are Demian adventurer huh? Now lemme see.” The man leaned forward and squinted. “Tarkas? Did I say that right?”
“Got that right.” The plate indicated his name as Tarkas and his affiliation to the adventurer guild of Academia, hence Demian. Then after returning the plate into his pocket, he said, “I heard that Brent will soon start a war to reclaim Niveria, so I came here to try my luck by becoming a mercenary.”
The man grinned. “Heh, you’ve got guts for a Demian. But I’ll tell you, it won’t be easy to fight against those demons. Unlike beasts, they use tactics like us humans.”
“You meant Beastmen?”
“Demons, Beastmen, whatever. I don’t care what others call them. I’ll call them demons.”
“In any case, have you heard the news? It says that Laurel will support Brent in this war.”
“That’s rare. Haven’t you traveled from Academia, then Laurel before coming here? That news arrived here a day ago!”
“I was traveling a few days back and had just recently arrived here so I’m not well-informed.”
It had been three days since the conclusion of the dialogue between Laurel and Brent had been announced. The news of the conclusion had spread like wildfire and informed the citizens of Laurel, Brent, Academia, and Libet.
The merchants were especially enthusiastic of the result. With the free trade between the two kingdoms, their businesses can reach out further than they expected. Due to that, the merchants immediately set-off to inform their partners from different parts of Randia, either by land or sea.
“With Laurel supporting the war, we can rest assured for the supplies.” Kasta smiled. “But I never expected them to announce their eagerness to wed Princess Clarissa and Prince Argent at the same time.”
“Neither did I.” The man laughed. “I never imagined that it would be those two. At the least—to us Rentians—we expected the marriage between Prince Maxwell and Princess Amelia. Those two had been appearing in public this last five years that we’d come to naturally think that ‘this two would be married soon.’”
“Ha! You can say that again!” Kasta said with a nod. “It’s because of those two that the relationship between Brent and Laurel continued. But I have some qualms if ever those two were wed.”
“What about it?”
“You see, wouldn’t that Princess be frustrated if she stays here in Brent? After all, it’s well-known that she despises the act of slavery, human or not. Then if it ever happened, she’d lash out at the slave traders and the churches here.”
“You have a point. But give her time and she’d change that naive thinking of hers.”
Kasta laughed. “I can see that, but before that happens, the church here is Sardon would surely be bashed with discriminating words.”
“Right!” Then he laughed heartily.
At that same moment, a slight grin rose on Kasta’s face.
Time passed by leisurely while they exchanged more stories with each other. Kasta and the man did not know one another. But after Kasta approached the man, who was known to be a heavy drinker, and offered a free drink, the man immediately agreed.
Soon, through the continuous urging from Kasta, the man fell on the table unconscious.
“Oi, are you okay?” Kasta nudged the man but only a groan was returned.
After he confirmed the man’s state, he approached the Tavern’s counter and paid for their bill. Afterward, he moved his feet to the cloth rack beside the entrance and took his robe. He then took a step outside and moved a small distance away. Clear from obstruction, he took a glance at the sky where the moon and the stars glittered.
“It’s almost time,” he muttered in a low voice.
Past the wooden structures with stone bases was a wide street illuminated by candle-lit lanterns. To the sides were men and women wearing layered clothing out of cotton. The women especially wore long skirts and dresses with long sleeves.
At the end of the street, Kasta took a right turn. He was headed to Sardon’s eastern plaza. As he walked, several carriages passed by, sometimes carrying iron cages topped with thin pieces of cloth. Soon, his feet brought him to a two-story wooden structure with a board engraved with a bed.
Kasta entered and was promptly greeted by a girl at around the age of fifteen. After passing by the girl, Kasta waved back and took to the stairs. There, he walked into a hallway then into his room. Then when he sat down on his wooden bed topped with only a thin piece of cloth, he used Wind Whisper.
[Were you able to gather information about Sardon’s church?]
[[Yes.]] Four other replies were passed to him.
[Then I’ll start with mine.]
Kasta and the other four are part of Amelia’s Guards. They were sent to Brent at a day earlier than the official announcement. Their task was the investigation of the parish ruled by the priest from the recent dialogue. Each of them had a genuine adventurer plate. However, the information engraved on the plates were fake. It was through Amelia’s authority—using forged papers—that the plates were made.
The adventurer’s guild does not require a proof of identity to take requests, but it required when taking requests submitted by people with a considerable position. It was done to avoid assassination attempts when the takers of the request meet the one who demanded the request.
About a year ago, there used to be a large bandit group that stationed itself on the border between Academia and Laurel. Through the use of the border, the bandits avoided clashing with the troops from either side. Amelia, knowing that’d take time to get Academia’s cooperation, and knowing that the spoils would be split apart in doing so, she made her Guards—using their identities as adventurers—undertake the subjugation request that she herself indirectly issued in the guild.
[That’s it for now.] Kasta ended his explanation to his comrades.
The others followed in stating the result of their investigation. However, since it was their first day, only the gist of the situation in Sardon was gathered.
The following day, the other four left the inn in pairs while Kasta moved alone. They left the inn at separate times while wearing an average cloth shirt similar to the citizens of Sardon. Although they had their adventurer plates, only two others, excluding Kasta, introduced themselves as adventurers. The other two introduced themselves as tourists.
Each on their separate way, they wandered around Sardon and gathered information. They spoke with merchants, listened to rumors, made friends with the residents and shared stories, and more. Also, at different times of the day, they’d pass by the church and observe the movements of the paladins. They took note of the places where the paladins stood guard and counted their number. There were times that they entered and pretended as devout believers.
Another three days had passed until the news regarding the poisoning of Niveria’s refugees had reached Sardon. It was said that Amelia announced it herself and had made her Guards present the heads of the people related to the church.
At the same time, the news of the priest returning from Laurel came. He was scheduled to arrive in Sardon in three days time.
Upon hearing of the news, Kasta immediately fired off an order.
Two who introduced themselves as Demian adventurers undertook a mana herb collection request. After receiving the request, they took-off to the south gate of Sardon. They headed further south where a wide prairie past the farms surrounding Sardon stood.
The remaining two, along with Kasta, went towards East where rocky hills dotted the horizon. There they searched for a cave but failed. So instead, they constructed a makeshift one using Earth Mold. It resulted in a small cave with a depth of twelve meters and a height that required an adult human to crouch.
On the third day, the two acting adventurers had established themselves to be on a search for mana herbs.
Meanwhile, Kasta and the other two positioned themselves further south of the two acting adventurers. They laid in wait near the dirt road, hiding in the tall grass with elliptically shaped rocks around their feet.
After an hour passed, The carriage is late, Kasta thought.
Several minutes later, the carriage they were waiting for finally appeared. However, contrary to their expectations, the carriage was running at full speed.
In addition to the oddity, “Hya! Hya!” a group of horsemen was chasing the carriage from behind. The horsemen wore scraped leather vests over their dirt smudged clothing. They had their swords raised as they closed in on the priest’s carriage.
Impossible, Kasta thought. There’s a nearby post further south. Bandits shouldn’t be present at this distance.
Kasta turned to his comrades and said, “There’s no change in plans.”
It doesn’t matter. We’re expecting to fight against at most eight paladins anyway. The only difference is that we’re taking down bandits instead.
Then through Kasta’s order, they started pouring mana into the shards they held. In response, the rocks around their feet momentarily floated and hurled itself towards the carriage’s wheels. Struck by numerous Rock Bullets, the wooden supports snapped and tore the wheel off of its axle.
“Wha-?!” the coachman shouted in surprise.
The carriage abruptly tilted to its right and threw the coachman to the roadside. On the other hand, the two horses at the front were partly lifted. Then due to the carriage’s momentum, the horses were mercilessly dragged by the carriage’s frame. What was left was a cloud of dust, a ravaged carriage, and bleeding horses.
“Next,” Kasta said as he moved his sight towards the bandits. But as soon as he shifted his eyes towards them, the bandits reared their horses and immediately retreated.
“What?” Kasta blinked. “They won’t fight?”
However, since they didn’t have the time to waste, they ignored the bandits and headed towards the carriage after knocking the coachman unconscious. They then pried the carriage’s door open and dragged the priest. Luckily, the priest was already unconscious while bleeding on his head.
After they tied the priest and the coachman to their horses, they immediately galloped towards the rocky hills.
At the south gate of Sardon, ten paladins wore white ceremonial armors. They stood in two lines of five, waiting for the priest’s arrival. Contrary to that, two adventurers came rushing to them with their horses.
“T-the priest’s carriage! It was attacked by bandits!” shouted one of the adventurers while rearing the neck of his horse.
The paladins, suspicious of the late arrival of the priest, and worried of the priest’s state, urged their horses to gallop with two adventurers on the lead. They did so after sending a gate guard to inform the parish maiden of the situation. The adventurers then led the paladins to the site of the carriage’s crash. A soon as they arrived, the paladins climbed down their horses and hurriedly inspected the carriage.
“Tsk! Blasted bandits!” The leader of the paladins balled his hand into a fist and bellowed “Search the surroundings! Look for their horses’ tracks!”
It did not take long for them to locate the tracks left by Kasta and his men.
“We’re chasing them down!”
Then again, their horses galloped towards the rocky hills. When the traces ended at the foot of the first hill, the paladin leader threw his arm and gave a search order. Included among those were the adventurers.
At each passing minute, the paladin leader’s blood burned hotter and hotter.
The leader of the paladins lived a life of prestige under the priest’s tutelage. Back then, he used to be nothing but an orphaned child. But when it was found that he had an affinity with light, the priest took him in made him what he was that day.
You’ll see! I’ll have your heads displayed at the gates!
It took a few minutes before one of the adventurers shouted, “I found a cave! There are vague traces of footprints too!”
Quickly, the leader ran to the adventurer’s side and checked the cave. “Gather everyone!”
Upon checking the cave himself, Hmph! This is obviously man-made! thought the leader.
As the paladins gathered, the leader stationed them all around the cave at fixed distances. Some were crouched beside a rock, while some remained on guard with their shields held up.
“You.” The leader pointed to one of the adventurers. “Get inside the cave.”
“Y-yes sir!” The adventurer then crouched at the entrance and manifested a Light Ball with a chant. With his path illuminated, he crept inside while urging the ball forward.
While the adventurer crawled, the leader crouched on the mouth of the cave and observed. He took note of the adventurer turning to the left. “Is the priest there?”
“I haven’t seen him.” the adventurer replied as he vanished from the leader’s sight. “There’s another turn here, so I’ll check it out.”
A few seconds later. “I found the priest!”
“Great! Now bring him here!”
“On it!” Then suddenly, a piercing scream rang out from the cave. “AAAAAHHHHH!!!”
“What?!” Surprised flitted across the leader’s face. “What happened?! Oi! Answer!”
Only a silence was returned. Not even a faint rustle of cloth was heard from within.
“You!” The leader rose to his feet and glanced on the second adventurer. “Get in the-!”
His words were interrupted by an arrow that pierced from the back of his head and through his open mouth. Then with a dull thud, his knees struck the dirt followed by his body.
“Sire!” shouted one of the paladins as he rushed to the leader’s side. “Si-” Unfortunately, he met the same fate as his leader and stacked himself over his leader’s corpse.
“A-an attack! An ambush! Hide!” shouted the other adventurer as he ran farther from the cave.
“W-what?! Where?!” The paladins turned their heads left and right, trying to locate the source of the arrows. With their leader down, their chain of command immediately broke.
“There!” A paladin pointed to the peak of a nearby hill. There stood two figures with arrows knocked on their bows. But before the others realized it, another two was struck down.
In response to the archers sniping them from afar, they gathered. “It’s fine! This is nothing new!”
Though leaderless they were, they held a sense of camaraderie and began to cover each other with shields. Then gradually, with their defense assured against the arrows, they ascended the hill. But little did they know that the other adventurer was missing in their formation.
When the earth trembled beneath their feet, they realized their mistake.
The paladins fired off one curse after the other. Gradually, the earth underneath dragged them deeper. From the sides of the pitfall, earthen spikes burst and pierced through the paladin’s bodies. It was acene similar to them entering a large beast’s maw.
After ascertaining the deaths of the paladins, the adventurer who entered the cave came out with the priest and the coachman in tow. They were both stripped of their clothes.
“We’re done here,” the adventurer that came out from the cave said. “Let’s prepare the carriage.”
To their surprise, an unknown voice came. It was accompanied by the clamor of hoof-beats. Soon, their numbers emerged from atop the hill. Their figures numbered at least twenty. They were the same bandits that chased the priest’s carriage.
At the east gate of Sardon, “H-help! Help me!” a man wearing a tattered and bloodied clothes for coachmen cried. Then in-between breaths, he said, “A-ambush! The paladins were ambushed! I-I was able to escape, but the paladins! The priest! They were all captured by bandits!” His chest heaved erratically as sweat ran down his pale face.
The gate guards immediately rushed to his side and gleaned information. They were hesitant at first, but when he took out the priest’s seal, they relaxed. The man pleaded that he is brought before the parish maiden, for he had a message to deliver.
“You there,” the guard pointed to his comrade. “Rush to the Lord’s manor and inform him of the situation with the bandits. Tell him that the priest was captured.” Then he shifted his sight towards the others. “Everyone else, run around the walls and inform the squad leaders. We’ll march East at the Lord’s order.”
After the guard finished ordering his men, the coachman was brought to Sardon’s church. There he was passed over to the paladins and was brought before the parish maiden.
With the paladins at his side, he sat down on a cream tiled floor covered by a red carpet and faced the parish maiden.
“What is this for?” The woman was in her mid-twenties. She had a long black hair hanging on the left side of her shoulder. A waist-fit white robe laced with golden threads was cast on her slender body.
Behind her, on a raised platform, was an altar. Embedded on the altar’s center was a gold ornament shaped into a cross-turned-sword. Further behind were three large panes of blue stained-glass positioned in an arc. To the sides of the panes were banners stitched with the same symbol of a cross.
“They want gold and women in exchange for the priest?” the woman asked with her brows knit tightly. The coachman informed her of the circumstances and the bandits’ demands. “Very well, let them have those lowly slaves.”
The maiden, a rank lower than a parish priest, had started to give orders to the remaining paladins. She ordered them to bring five slaves before the coachman.
Shortly after, two clerics arrived with slaves in tow. They bowed to the maiden before the altar and arranged the slaves.
Lined side by side—A black collar around their necks—five naked women kneeled with their backs facing the stained-glass. All the women, pale and thin, had shackles around their limbs. The first one on the left was a black-haired human girl from a distant hamlet. The other four had human features, and at the same, features that of beastmen.
They were called Fallens, a short for Fallen Demons.
Among the Fallens present, two had light-brown hair topped by roundish black ears with hints of brown and white, a Lycaon half. One other had a drooped gray rabbit ears streaked with bruises and cuts above her dirty-gray hair. And lastly, one with brown cow ears and small horns above her chestnut hair.
Though the Fallens had a body similar to humans, their limbs were partway covered in fur. They also had tails hanging from their rears.
“Are they to your liking?” A mischievous smile rose on her face.
She took a step down the platform and sensually walked behind the slaves. Each step produced a clack that ticked like a clock’s hand. At the moment she reached the back of the human slave, she gracefully swung her hand as if presenting her wares. “As a reward for reporting the priest’s circumstances with your life, I’ll let you take one of these women.”
The slaves were startled and their eyes trembled. They raised their dreary heads and looked the coachman in the eye. Their cracked lips parted.
“I-I can pleasure you.”
“No, me. Choose me.”
After each was given time to speak their part, the clerics beside the slaves shouted. “Quiet!”
The slaves were forced to keep their mouth shut. They knew that collars would tighten around their necks if they disobeyed.
“I-I am honored, oh Maiden, b-but I believe I’m not worthy of such reward.” It pained him to say such words, but he endured.
Please wait a while longer.
In response to the coachman’s answer, the slaves slumped and stared at the floor. It seemed that they, again, lost hope.
In response to the coachman, the maiden snapped her fingers. “My, what a wise choice to not indulge in such filthy creatures.” She peered down on the slaves before her. “For now, get that priestess-in-training.” She ordered the clerics standing beside the slaves. As they vanished into the corridor to the right, the maiden climbed the platform and waited.
Then from the same corridor came a blue-eyed girl whose age was twelve. She wore a few layers of see-through white garments. Sliding down her thin shoulders was her wavy blonde hair. Then in a childish voice, “H-have you called for me, Maiden?” she said.
“Hilda, escort this man to your chamber.” The man pointed to the coachman.
Upon hearing the maiden’s words, Hilda jolted.“Y-yes.” Then she hesitantly inched closer to the coachman. At that moment, the coachman’s, no, Kasta’s eyes twitched.
“Treat his wounds,” the Maiden said. “And you, your name is?”
“If by chance the priest returns alive, you may take Hilda as your wife. Now go and treat him.”
At the Maiden’s order, Hilda—with the help of the paladins—took Kasta to her chamber.
“Now for you,” she said with scorn. “I have a task. If by chance you succeed, I’ll release you from slavery.”
Those simple words seeped into the hearts of the slaves. All they wished was freedom, and now, it was offered to them.
“All you need is to offer your body to the bandits. And while they rest, pierce them with the poisoned needles we’ll present to you. If you succeed, and of course if you remain alive, I myself will remove your collars and shackles that bound you.”