101. The Lofty Lord Commander
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The Blattfeld Earldom faces the beautiful snowy peaks. It's an idyllic country scape where pastures are wide and the forest dense with trees and no hint of the monster outbreak. The chosen place for enrollees is set up in such a way that they can enjoy safety while enhancing their skills. It was more like a vacation. Captain Thais held his opinion to himself. The ladies are out in the wide lawn of the earl's country manor enjoying the morning sun.

"Truly a privilege only reserved to the Hallowed Ones, don't you think?"

The man who snuck up behind him was Laius Ravencroft. Earl Ravencroft's adopted son who has bright green hair and black onyx eyes. The scorned house slowly regained their honour when he started making a name inside the Magic Bureau. With their backing, the Ravencroft's name is once again heard in the society. He remembered Andrej mentioning this before, then Helios confirmed the information a couple of weeks ago that is why he is no longer surprised.

"It is such an honour to meet a knight from the hailed Wisteria House."

Captain Thais nodded his head slightly for an acknowledgement.

"You also served the Nachtwald House in the past, correct? Forgive me for asking too much but it intrigues me so as to why the rival houses came to such arrangements."

"The Wisteria and Nachtwald houses are not the only ones in the active rivalry. There are other houses as well."

"Yes, yes, the Blue Falcon's Aquila House as well. Those three have been at it since the olden days I heard, yet how did you end up being assigned as a knight to the other side?"

"It is only natural to take apprenticeship during academy days and being sent to critical areas is the fastest way to earn merits. Besides, the rivalry is held in a convivial manner. It is no way hostile." 

"Hmm…" Laius pondered. 

Whether he is convinced or not, does not matter to the captain. 

"Your former lady, how is she?"

Thais could clearly see it, the slight movement of his lip creating a sharp curve. 

"Lady Sterne is a diligent child. However, my main concern now is…" he made his voice trail as he tipped his head towards Regina and her colleagues.

Laius was caught off guard by the manner how he easily ended the inquisition. Thais answered his question and shifted the subject smoothly. 

"I, as well wonder how to set up a stage for their improvement." He said feigning distress.

Laius had been trying to engage him into a conversation but Captain Thais try not to reveal as much. 

"I believe Lady Regina has all the qualities of a real queen. With our help, she will ascend to the throne standing beside His Highness as his support."

It is obvious to anyone who has a good pair of eyes that the Crown Prince has lukewarm feelings towards Hallowed Ones. He neither revere nor abhor them. He treats the ladies as to how someone would treat a stranger. Or is it that Laius Ravencroft is confident on his words thus they come out unguarded? 

Laius is very much aware of how the Hallowed Ones are viewed by the Crown Prince. However, when it comes to looks, talents and advantages Regina is above them all by many steps. If she can easily draw in people's attention what more if the Crown Prince himself starts paying attention? To achieve that they needed to cut down a number of rivals and raise her favorability to gain the Crown Prince's undivided attention. 

Eliminating rivals… 

Captain Thais looked towards the garden. Those said ladies are having a fun time frolicking under the sun. Most of them do not even think of continuing the training they left off the other day. During the time they entered the Moonless Forest to meet with the rest of the enrollees to hunt monsters the knights were besieged by loud complaints. 

"I cannot take it any longer. My feet are sore."

"Ah~ I'm sticky with sweat."

"Someone carry me, I do not want to walk. My legs are killing me!"

"Hey you there, get me my fan. It's sweltering out here."

The unreasonable demands just kept coming to the point of aggravation. They were treating the knights like manservants. 

"Sir, you heard her." Lady Regina prompted the knight nearby. "It would please us to at least have some respite from this endless practice routine you put us through."

The young knight blushed, "Yes, of course, milady."

The subjugation held did not last for an entire day before it was immediately halted. They went back to their carriages, left Moonless Forest and head back to their designated fiefs.

The knights outside kept an idle chatter. "It cannot be helped. This is too much for delicate maidens to handle."

"Why would the academy suggest such a horrendous idea?"

"The poor things and the weather is not helping at all."

The odd thing Captain Thais noticed were the men from other squads. No matter how they were insulted and chastised by Regina's group they just happily took it. 

"Since our activities were halted I would like to remain here in the forest and double my efforts today. It doesn't matter whether it is first or last week, one must exert effort." Lady Regina said with the lovely voice of a bird. 

Nodding in admiration the knights along with her close aide Tina accompanied her beyond the safe zone. The rest of the Hallowed One candidates have long left content with remaining indolent. 

Praised for her hard work, she had grown popular among the other squad. They were looking at her as if she exudes the purest aura of all. But knowing her strategy to deliberately indulge her competitors to inactivity, Captain Thais could only see with eyes filled with grievance and feelings of revulsion. 

She uses her head wisely but it was by no means amusing to see.

Behind their backs, Lady Regina Stolz loves tormenting people she doesn't like. If she doesn't get what she wants she would pout, in her rare unguarded moments, she would scream or curse at the poor victim and if she hated something she would throw it like garbage. 

Her conduct has gone over beyond spoiled. The restraint she showed on their first day flew off the window, she only grew arrogant as her skills developed.

"Captain, you look upset." She commented one time. 

He made a rule not to talk unless necessary. His squad knows that as well and they follow his example.

"I have caused you such inconvenience, forgive me Lady Regina."

The lady looked up and prettily blinked her eyes. 

Is her eyesight bad? He thought after noticing the annoying habit.  

When she saw his confusion to her deliberate teasing her face froze. Who would have known that this captain was the kind to have emotions like a brick? He wasn't feeling anything at all. Frustrated and insulted she turned her back to retreat. The next time she saw him is when the captain talked to the maid who handed him a basket of sweets. They conversed for a long while he even began to faintly smile. 

Regina sure was not amused. 

He would remain taciturn towards her yet he would freely oblige the peasants. The next day, the maid was dismissed, the following day more maids were dismissed as well for the reason that they were baiting the knights with provocative glances.

The earl has to hire new hands and give warnings. It was chaotic. He feared that before this test is over his household will be in tatters.

***

 

The nearby Fuchs fief has its equal share of worry Bernice and her entourage were not only demandingly abhorrent but indifferent to their surrounding as well despite declaring on their first day that they will do anything within their power to alleviate the people's worry.

Lavish feasts are held whenever the young lady felt like it. The people outside the manor are starving yet she cared for none of that.

One father could not take the situation of his family any longer steeled himself to hunt for food in the forest. He intended to catch only a couple of fat rabbits but alas a deer was felled. 

"Who goes there?"

Hooves pounding the ground approached. There is no time for escape, the father weakly fell to his knees intending to ask for forgiveness. 

"You, what are you doing here?" The young nobleman demanded. 

"I didn't mean to milord, I was only intending to catch a few rabbits for tonight's dinner. I swear I have no plans of killing the deer."

Taron Viridian scowled. His arrow did not hit the deer but this man's measly equipment did? Preposterous!

"This is your lord's forest, it is forbidden to hunt here yet you broke the rule."

"M-My family has nothing to eat milord that is why I--"

"I don't care about your reason. There is an abundance of small animals, grains and plants on the wayside, eat them for all I care but you do not disrupt my hunting time!"

"Milord, I ask for mercy."

The young man laughed without humour. The insult of being robbed of his prey cannot be appeased by just a meagre apology from a dirty old man. He prided himself as a champion yet he couldn't even aim right. The arrow was stuck in a branch of some tree a few feet high.

If there was a bird up there hit by accident he could have at least save face.

To his words, Taron is not swayed. The father was dragged back to the town, chained in both hands to be displayed in the pillory for the public to see. 

Tonight's venison in the banquet was said to be Sir Taron's bounty, born from his excellent arrow wielding skills. 

"This is such a huge game. I'm impressed."Bernice said cutting into a huge slab of greasy meat.

Taron happily watches her stuff her cheeks with the food he did not get while the poor man shivered in cold outside with an empty stomach. To him, it was only natural to punish such activity. The land belongs to the lord and all its bounty, poaching in it is a huge crime. 

A crime he arbitrarily pinned because he was insulted. 

Their arrival has put more strain on the already volatile situation within Fuchs. They savour the hospitality given to them by the earl. 

The hope they held in their hearts before these visitors came is completely extinguished now. None of the locals looks warmly at their countenance any longer, how they wish they just return to the royal capital soon.

***

 

Grandmaster Xanthous proudly declared to his colleagues in the Magic Bureau that the enrollment is progressing smoothly in each location. None of them is aware of the actual situation anyway. The information relayed to the magic device is only about the number of monster kills and the magic the enrollees used.

Many are impressed by the new aspiring talents showing promise. 

The grandmaster smiled inwardly. But of course, he knew the castle and the academy faculty would demand concrete evidence showing their growth. Xanthous made it so his candidate will not be left out. 

Numbers keep floating around the spherical device in the middle of the auditorium. 

The men nodded their heads seemingly satisfied with what they are seeing. Earlier the student's parents paid him visits to ensure their children's success. Numerous gifts, and letters were sent. Some even promised support to the bureau.  

He assumed the same thing has been sent to the mentors of the academy as well.

The liberal amount of bribe could no longer fit his office. In the pretext of taking no side, he discarded the ones he does not need and only took those that caught his favour and hidden them secretly.

His colleagues could only admire his dedication to his work.

Back in the confines of his home Xanthous activated another device Laius Ravencroft personally made for him. An excellent piece of scrying glass mounted on his library wall about the size of a frying pan.

However, it only reflected nothing but black. 

The subject for today's observation will be those enrollees sent at Steinburg. Viktor is also with that team. He sat with a sneer, the rings those enrollees wore will not relay anything to the sphere inside the Royal Academy's observation hall. No matter how hard they work their efforts will not be seen nor is anyone would be willing to spare them time inside the council once this event is over.   

It was convenient to put them all in one place since in the eyes of the public the three ladies share a good relationship. 

Originally he planned to put them on different locations away from each other to see how they will fare but unexpectedly, the people he least presumed to gather support ended up having the best lineup. 

A commoner, a former commoner adopted in a good house and one problem child. 

His patrons did not want them to gather more attention than they already have. The only solution is to put them in the most destitute fief where they will have to struggle for improvement. 

He is well aware of the dangers, but they have reliable escorts. It would be wise for those three to use them to improve their skills, that is if they find the opportunity to do so. Xanthous was sure that the Obsidian commander would surely raise protest to obvious slighting of his child but surprisingly he only said:

"If that is what the academy and the bureau have decided." 

Did he finally lose his fangs? To act more agreeable than your average autocratic nobleman, it's unfathomable. But the placid look on Duke Nachtwald's eyes convinced him that he did agree without hard feelings. 

"You have become soft." Xanthous nodded his head triumphantly.

***

 

Duke Al reviewed all the documents on his desk comprising gossips, testimonies and investigation from his people. 

At a glance, they would look as though they were strewn in a disarray but the duke knows where to look and what paper to consult next. Three knocks sounded from his office doors.

"Come in." He called not looking up.

After hearing the deep baritone, the person turned the handle and pushed the door quietly to enter. "I was told you haven't had dinner yet, Your Grace." Miss Amy said. 

He looked up and gestured for her to be seated. She laughed. "I came here to deliver food, not to chitchat."

"It won't take long." he leaned back in his chair and meshed his fingers above the table. 

Miss Amy called the maid to place the steaming food in the receiving area first before dismissing her. When the door was closed, she waved her hand to create a barrier. Miss Amy walked in front of his desk and took one of the chairs.

"Before Margrave Stellar's death, he managed to find the fateful maiden to help the Hero King cure the madness. Even though he raised a rebellion against the sovereign, his descendants were not persecuted and were given additional title by the monarchs."

Miss Amy nodded. "The Hallowed One and Black Knight were sworn, siblings. Though not from the same womb, they have developed a deep bond during their journey in those times of strife." 

It was a funny story actually, the Black Knight is said to be at the age of twenty and the fateful maiden is only a five-year-old little girl. Travelling across the kingdom battling with the enemies on one hand and raising a baby on the other.

"Ten years after his death, the little girl stormed the king's residence to avenge her brother but in the end, she ended up marrying the king and became his queen." She said.

Duke Al chuckled. "For ten long years that she stayed inside the Royal Castle, she did not give up the idea of revenge despite the Hero King treating her with utmost care."  

She nodded again. The first Hallowed One is said to be magnanimous, a perfect example of compassion and grace but the truth is that she was a wild little hellion who couldn't wait to slit the king's throat. She loved her brother dearly and she hated the person who eternally separated her from him. Now, the real issue here is not the love story nor the heroic deeds of the Black Knight but…   

"Because of the Hallowed One, the enemies plans were foiled. The first king did not fall into a frenzy. When the dwarves begin to disappear and Sleeping Forest rapidly changed, he and his queen managed to hold the kingdom together during the Dark Ages."

"And if they did not?" Miss Amy looked at him and asked.

"Aurum would have never existed on the map."

"Have you heard of this fanatical religious group that worships the Herald?" 

Duke Al stood and walked around the table, near Miss Amy. "Dipterus." 

"Exactly." she tapped her fingers on the desk, a gesture so alike Sterne when she is in deep contemplation. "Thousands of years ago when that Herald came down, a mishap occurred. He was greatly wounded during his descent and took a long time to recuperate. In those times, he lived in a tiny city among the secluded ethnic group. After gaining a little of his strengths, he helped them in return for their kindness but unfortunately, some people are never content. Having learned of his power, many started coveting him until he was left with no choice but to leave the place and fled somewhere else. Whether he returned to the God of Creation's side or remained in this earth no one knows for sure but Dipterus kept a firm belief that the Herald did not leave so they kept the search that lasted for many generations.

The Hero King and his party's arrival in Aurum was just another guise to search for the missing Herald. What do you think those people will do once they find him?" 

"There was a story among our ancestors about an ethereally beautiful young man who came to this land, worn from the journey it did not take long for him to succumb to his illness and die. The ancient tribes who still existed that time sheltered his remains and kept it in a quiet place."   

The two looked at each other silently. 

"Will Dipterus be making a move soon?" Miss Amy asked.

"They've already begun."

The rapid spawning years ago similar to a summoning ritual to call upon the spirits of an ancient force. Pieces of evidence are left on the ground where the stones melted and soil burn to purple. Each place had a chasm, a monster pool as what Sterne calls it that served as a cradle for monsters. 

The enemy intended to bathe the kingdom in blood and they will stop at nothing to find what they have been searching for ages.

"Anyway, enough of the Herald for now," Duke Al said getting straight to the point. "Tomorrow a soiree will be held at the Royal Castle. Would you come with me, my lady?"

***

The next evening at the Royal Castle

 

"How is the problem with the food scarcity?" An autocratic voice brimming with authority swept over the dance hall.

The lord ministers who were scattered just moments ago felt the slight coercion from the king's voice which indicates his agitation. 

"Your Majesty," Duke Vallis replied with a wide smile, wearing a maroon suit and a tan coloured cravat he sauntered forward holding a scroll with golden tassel. "The authority will be handed fully to Lord Aldebrand Nachtwald since he is the one who has enough food supply as of the moment. The ministers and I have agreed to give way to him so that his aid can enter the Royal Capital."

Hearing Duke Nachtwald's name, the King raised a questioning eyebrow.

What he did not mention is that how they agreed to temporarily give him the rights to sell inside Aurea. Duke Vallis surreptitiously observed His Majesty's reaction. The king powerful and kind is unaware of the clandestine moves of his few ministers. He did not know that there are only certain families who hold the market within the royal capital and ten of those are collaborating with Vallis.

With a scroll on hand, Duke Vallis turned towards Duke Al Nachtwald like a prideful peacock. Everyone can see the malicious smile adorning his handsome face, it is as if he can already see Nachtwald failing himself and being mauled by the public.    

"Does Lord Al agree?" The king asked. 

"With great certainty My King." Lord Commander answered unperturbed.

King Ernesti chuckled. "You are given a great responsibility but your expression still doesn't change. Don't you ever get cramps in your face?"

"Never My King." He answered nonplussed.

The hall becomes noisy with murmurs as they witness the warm interaction between their monarch and this supposedly 'unfavored' knight. After recalling almost one-third of Nachtwald's troops, the people thought that it is only a matter of time for Duke Aldebrand to lose his authority too. Years went by but there is no definite action from the king. Their relationship turned lukewarm yet suddenly here they are talking like old friends. Some couldn't help but be suspicious. 

"Tch, brat." He muttered making the Queen beside him giggle. "Alright, as it is now handed to you. I expect great results. Failing to comply and meet the needs of our people will result in severe punishment under the Land's Law."

Everyone sucked in a cold breath. Just when they thought the King and the duke are having a carefree banter between old friends he would bring out the Land's Law.

What kind of punishment are under the Land's Law?

It is the cruellest, most excruciating and humiliating torture an offender can experience. One would rather wish they were dead. Hearing the King's decision, some people couldn't be happier.

One is Duke Vallis who obviously hated the Lord Commander's guts, while the other is Duke Stolz who has a deep-seated grudge with him being born in an ancient family as primary heir while he, on the other hand, had to crawl up from the branch family to seize his now Stolz ducal title. 

Once the King thoroughly lost his sliver of trust in Nachtwald, there will be fewer competitors and Aurum's history will change under their hands. The moment they knocked down this giant the other ancient families will soon follow their fate. How could they not feel elated with such thoughts? 

After handing the scroll, Duke Vallis glared at the clueless Duke Al as though the other is a very hateful enemy.

The day he accepted this bait was the day he set his doom. Duke Vallis could not wait to thoroughly wipe his family name off the anals of history. This old ancient name needed to rest, and when it's time for them to finally take the banner, they will shape the kingdom according to what it's supposed to be hundreds of years ago. Aurum's forces have now grown strong, with the help of Chivalric Order, they will unite every soldier for a campaign to conquer other lands.  

Each time he hears of Nachtwald's victory is the whole body would feel like it was dipped in acid. Fury beyond his imaginings would consume him. Why? His land is infertile, his family has fallen to such dire straits but the people of Aurum looks up to him with fervor second to the king.

Duke Al ignored the hate filled eyes of Vallis. Who cares about his grievances, he knew dealing with him is like dealing with a five-year-old in a tantrum fit. He always gave him the impression of a jealous little boy seeing a much better toy in the hands of his hated playmate. 

"I receive," the duke confirmed. The instant he received the scroll. A slow smile crept up on his face chilling his enemy's heart. 

"You won't be smiling for long. Do you really think you can solve this crisis?"

"Whether I can do it or not is up to me, isn't it?"

Vallis clenched his teeth so hard that veins began to pop on his forehead. However, the subject of his hatred has long ignored him and reverted back to his usual glacial demeanour putting his attention to the beautiful woman beside him. 

"Your Majesty, since Duke Nachtwald is so sure of it himself we will anticipate his remarkable feat in a week's time. Although this is such a huge responsibility we assumed that Duke Nachtwald would at least be less complacent after all this is not as easy as swinging a sword. This also affects people's lives." 

How could he just let this matter drop without throwing a punch at his enemy? With a dark smile, he continued. "If by chance the Duke Nachtwald feels that he cannot fulfil the agreement, he can hurry and turn to us for help. Provided that he admits being inept."

With a cold voice, Duke Nachtwald answered back. "Inept can only be associated with individuals who flap their lips more often than their four limbs." 

Duke Vallis' almost choked in rage. How could he not know that those words are directed towards him? That single string of sentence solicited two kinds of reaction from the crowd. Faces trying not to crack in laughter and faces who turned blue from anger. 

The atmosphere became severely awkward that the King had to clear his throat first to restore some semblance of seriousness.

"Ahem, a week is a bit of a rush. Give it two since food will be coming from Nachtwald fief." The king waved his hands.

Duke Vallis looked at the other ministers who are with him urging them to step up as well. Having freshly tasted some verbal lambasting from their enemy, the lord ministers struggled to put more strength on their taunts. Afraid to be the next target of merciless rebuttal.

"If… If Duke Nachtwald fails to deliver, we and the other minister will try to find another solution."

The others echoed like howling dogs as well in the middle of the night.

Another solution? Of course, there is none, all of these are part of the play. They will make sure Nachtwald's produce will not make it to Aurea, then they will hand in their very own supply that has been long hoarded for this purpose.    

Amongst the clamour and their fake concern, Duke Nachtwald's voice cut in. "Two days. Every market will be full to the brim the day after tomorrow." 

Everybody's eyes turned at him as if he suddenly had gone crazy.

"Ha, Nachtwald. I know you are prideful and arrogant but I never thought you would be too audacious to spout lies in front of our king." This time Duke Stolz snickered. 

Lucretia, accompanying him for tonight squirmed. Her eyes went to the duke in the spotlight but were startled to see a woman in his arms instead. This is the first time the Duke of Nachtwald appeared with a woman after his wife died… 

Miss Amy felt a lot of hostile gazes directed not only to the duke but to herself as well. 

Will Duke Vallis ignore this opportunity to add more insult? Of course not. Smirking he shook his head as if pitying Duke Nachtwald's poor choices and his mindless decisions.

"Are you saying that products will magically appear in the market the day after tomorrow? Duke Nachtwald, even if you use 8th Tier magic it will not change the fact that you are short on time. Besides, you cannot create something out of nothing. You best admit you cannot fulfil your duty and hand it back to us rather than making a false stand like this. It is unseemly."

Duke Nachtwald eyed him indifferently. "Since it was you who pushed this responsibility on me, of course, I'd make sure that this is seen through accordingly. Why must you waste your breath trying to dissuade me?"

Then another minister with pockmarks and wrinkles stepped up. "The King was kind enough to give you two weeks but you arrogantly denied His good graces. You're an ingrate!"

Duke Nachtwald raised his head and made a subtle eye roll. "The King is most gracious but he merely suggested it. However, this job, I can do it in two days."

Pfft~! Queen Juno saw his eye-roll and stifle her laughter.

King Ernesti watched impassively at the black knight before him being surrounded by leeches and snakes. No matter what, the black knight will never bend. Inwardly, he was sneering and cursing these ministers for blatantly showing their true colour in his court. Clearing his throat he stood, seemingly displeased.

"Since that is your resolute decision, I as your monarch will naturally support you in it. Dismissed."

The ministers began a noisy chorus like crickets imploring His Majesty to change his decision but the old tyrant held on to it.

"Please reconsider Your Majesty, Duke Nachtwald is just being unruly."

"If Your Majesty leaves the authority to such a muddle headed man what will happen to our city?"

"He clearly knows nothing of management."

Idiot. If he knows nothing of management, how can he command a large force and make his fief flourish to this degree? The King controlled his urge to slap the audacious stinky minster to death.

"I already said dismissed. Are all of you deaf?" He roared.

Everybody in the dance hall almost fell on their knees as coercion was released. Duke Nachtwald showed no sign of being affected by Enforcement. For someone who possesses Nullification skill either it is 8th or 10th Tier spell it will only feel as gentle as a baby's slap.

But for this lot, releasing two consecutive waves were enough to crush their insides to paste.

Frightened and shivering like wet dogs, the weaker ones tasted blood in their mouths. Not long after, the orchestra began playing a tune. The lord ministers recovered and sported joyful smiles albeit with pale faces.

The opposition was only a show, if they did not at least play the part of good ministers, it will become too obvious that they are all anticipating Duke Nachtwald's fall under the Land's Law the moment he fails.

 

Excuse the errors... ^_^

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