Prologue – Getting Out of Bed on the Wrong Foot
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"To the victors, go the spoils~

For the losers, only soil~

Only those that lived through the day~

Gets to spend their mercenary pay~" - Popular tune amongst mercenary companies.

Avishka Forest

Holy Kingdom of Theodinaz, southern region

Western Alcidea

2nd day, 4th week, 6th month of the year 2 FP.

 

"Damn it."

 

The raindrops drizzled, as they fell and made their way through the jungle canopy, before they fell upon the small group of bedraggled survivors below on the ground. Some people shifted, covering their wounds from the rain. Others shooed off insects that started to approach them, attracted as they were by the smell of blood and guts.

 

"God damn it!"

 

Reinhardt swore for only deity knows how many times that afternoon. The large therian man had a few wounds on his figure, which stained his snow-white spotted fur with the deep red of blood, bandaged crudely, clearly a rushed treatment.

 

"God motherfucking damn it!!!"

 

He swore yet again, before he buried his feline face in his paws, and pondered. He pondered what to do, how to get himself - and the others with him - out of this desperate situation they fell into. How to survive and stay alive. 

 

Just earlier that morning, he and many of his fellow mercenaries had marched together with high hopes. They were the Free Lances mercenary company, one of the best known in Alcidea, and they were employed by the nobles of Knallzog who had attained the honor of launching the first foray into their neighbor, the Holy Kingdom of Theodinaz.

 

Every one of them had thought it would be an easy job. After all, not even half a year ago, the Holy Kingdom had launched an attack towards a new settlement pioneered by the Unliving to their west. They had suffered near total losses to the retaliation they received instead, and what few survivors remained went home in shame.

 

Not unexpectedly, both the neighboring Kingdom of Ezram to its west, and Knallzog to its south, took that opportunity to rub salt in the wound of their hated neighbor. As it was, the group Reinhardt was part of were only the advance forces,  reconnaissance in force, so to speak.

 

Even so they had encountered barely any resistance as they went through the countryside, and even took Fort Ascher, the southernmost military fort of Theodinaz, with relatively little resistance from the locals.

 

None of them had thought of the job as anything more than easy money when they departed from the fort three days ago to further do further "reconnaissance" in the surrounding areas. Their group wasn't the only one, as there were at least a dozen groups, both mercenary and soldierly, spread out to different directions.

 

So none of them had expected the ambush that befell them earlier this morning. He now recognized that they had been blinded by hubris, and had grown lax as they faced minimal resistance. They paid for that hubris in blood.

 

The ambush that struck them had not just hit them by surprise, but also overwhelmed them with numbers. Their detachment of mercenaries only numbered five hundred or so, half the Free Lances, led by their captain, Ingrid Edelstein herself.

 

Reinhardt wasn't sure about the count, but at least three times as many enemies had attacked them from concealment. Nearly a good quarter of their men had fallen to the opening barrage of arrows, javelins, and rocks, and those who survived soon found themselves beset from all sides.

 

It wasn't anything like he had ever faced before. Reinhardt had been a mercenary and actively fought since he was fourteen, easily half his life spent on battlefields or headed towards another, yet never had he fought against such crazed opponents.

 

Their ambushers were not particularly skilled. They were not well trained. They were not even properly disciplined. Yet they all, men and women both, fought like madmen, as if they feared not death, and fell upon the mercenaries like rabid animals.

 

The Free Lances had lost half of their remaining four hundred or so as they forcefully charged and broke through the encirclement, and retreated towards the jungle to their south.

 

Even then, their ambushers doggedly pursued, nipping at their heels, and at least another eighty men and women lost their lives before they reached the woods, their pursuers close behind.

 

It was then that Ingrid Edelstein made her decision. She tasked Reinhardt, her adopted nephew, to take their wounded as well as the younger members who were still alive, and flee through the woods, back to Fort Ascher. 

 

The venerable dwarf herself, remained behind with the surviving older veterans, as they formed a rearguard. All those men and women had lived decades as mercenaries, and had long made their peace that they'd likely find death on the battlefield one day.

 

Reinhardt saw his adopted aunt wade through the sea of bodies, her body bathed in blood. The luxurious beard she took pride in tattered, and what was left of it matted to her chest with drying blood. She and the men and women besides her held the line against the tide of bodies that rushed them, buying time for Reinhardt's group with their lives.

 

That was the last he saw of her, and he knew in his heart that he would never see her again in this life.

 

His small group, forty-six in total, had run themselves ragged through the jungle, and had not dared to stop for a break until they had run for a few hours, when the wounded amongst them could run no more, and nearly collapsed of exhaustion.

 

He had sent a few of their more nimble members, who were in good health, to scout behind them, and only after they reported that there were no signs of pursuers did he give the permission for the group to take a rest.

 

More than half of the group were wounded. The rest were young men and women in their early twenties or even younger. At twenty-eight, Reinhardt was already one of the oldest amongst them, and to his horror, he realized that he was in command, as they looked towards him for orders.

 

He quickly ordered those who were injured to treat their wounds as best they could, and had a few of the uninjured mercenaries keep watch over their surroundings. Only then did he sat upon a fallen log, and tended to his own wounds.

 

It was fortunate that his wounds were just superficial. Light cuts and slashes that failed to injure deeply, shallow flesh wounds that basically had minimal consequences. Even so, he carefully cleaned the injuries with clean water - four of his group were of the water affinity, so at least they were in no danger of running out of clean water - and wrapped them in bandages.

 

He looked around at the ragged group that now looked up to him for leadership, and considered the assets they had left. They had their weapons and armor with them, naturally. None but one of them were injured so badly that they couldn't fight, as most of those so injured were already swallowed and slaughtered by the mob they fought against.

 

Each of them had three days' worth of emergency rations in their storage artifact, and as his adopted aunt had tossed hers to him before she made her last stand, they also had the supplies sequestered within.

 

Put together, they had maybe a week's worth of rations between them, hopefully enough to allow them to return to Fort Ascher before they ran out of supplies. Right as he thought of it, a feeling of dread passed through Reinhardt. 

 

If their reconnaissance detachment had been attacked, what of the others? Were the other detachments subjected to similar attacks as well? Might it be that the fort itself had been attacked by their enemies?

 

Even as he questioned the possibilities, he prayed - and he was not a religious man - to whatever deities were willing to listen, hoping that his wife and child were safe. His wife Elfriede was a fellow mercenary, and their four year old daughter Erycea was with her.

 

Usually they had left Erycea in the care of some of the camp followers when they were out fighting, but the child had taken ill before Reinhardt's group departed, so Elfriede chose to stay behind to take care of her instead of joining him.

 

Now they were both in Fort Ascher, along with the other camp followers and the noncombatant dependents of the company. The fort had kept close to three thousand soldiers to guard against possible incursions, but now Reinhardt wasn't sure if that would have been enough to stop the madmen he fought against earlier. 

 

The image was still vivid in his mind, how those madmen had fought with utter disregard for their lives. He still remembered all too well, how one of them had kept coming even after Lianne had pierced them with her spear, until they managed to grab onto her hand and drag her from the formation, where more of the madmen fell on her with reckless abandon.

 

Reinhardt was nearby, and had seen everything. He even tried to come to her assistance, but the push of the bodies were too much to overcome, even for one with his prodigious strength. He thought he saw her kill another of the madmen, then a second, before she fell under their blades. Just like that, a friend he had known for years perished before his eyes.

 

"Rein?" 

 

The familiar voice calling his name broke Reinhardt free from his thoughts, and he turned towards the voice to see another of his old friends. Kasimir was a half-orc, his mother one of the rarely seen orcs who chose to wander the world, rather than stay with their tribe. 

 

He looked awful, with his rough, reddish hair matted to his scalp by the rain, and bandages wrapped around his head. Reinhardt knew that his old friend had many reasons to look awful too. Not only was he very close to Lianne… but his mother was amongst those who joined the suicidal rear guard led by his aunt. 

 

Kasimir had just lost the girl he loved and his mother in the same afternoon. It would have been a miracle if he felt well after all that.

 

"What do we do now?" Kasimir asked with a trembling voice. As his close friend, Reinhardt knew that the half-orc was far more emotional than his gruff appearance suggested, and that he was likely struggling not to cry at the moment.

 

"We do what we can," said Reinhardt in reply as he looked his old friend in the eye. "We survive, and try to make our way back to the fort. Fortune willing, the other half of our company did not run into an ambush like we did… hopefully."

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