Translator: Kell | Editor: Ryunakama
Forts were built as bases for invasion and defense.
Lia’s attendant said that Akdios was a town built for the king to hole up in. In other words, Fort Lotus was a defensive base built to buy time for the king to retreat from the old royal capital, Ideaverna, to Akdios.
When Cleon became a republic, Ideaverna ceased to be the royal capital and Akdios became just a small town. Having lost its purpose, Fort Lotus was then abandoned.
“According to the map, Fort Lotus is on top of a hill, and there are no villages nearby,” I said. “There should be a supply route leading to Akdios or Ideaverna.”
“Supply route?” Zero asked.
“It may be an abandoned fort now, but it used to be packed with soldiers. They would need food, and to transport food, you’d need carts. Which means creating a somewhat serviceable road was necessary. If we found the road, we could have an easier trip to the fort.”
We had no time to lose. I carried the unconscious priest along with my luggage.
“But what if the bandits do not offer their assistance?” Zero asked. “We have the priest with us, and they probably think we are working for the saint.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Unfortunately, we’ll have to employ a negotiation technique used by mercenaries.”
“What kind of technique would that be?”
I lightly flexed the fingers of my right hand and bared my claws.
Zero breathed a sigh of admiration. “That is an extremely effective negotiation technique. I am impressed.”
“Have a peaceful talk with a Beastfallen, or engage in a head-on clash with lives on the line. For the sake of both sides, I pray that the bandits’ boss is wise.”
Flashing a bright smile, I started walking together with Zero. Night had just fallen. I wanted to get to Fort Lotus before the sun rose.
We trudged along the supply road and into the forest, with Zero’s divination as our guide.
The priest’s breathing was shallow, his body dropping in temperature as he was exposed to the cold, night air. Just being carried on someone’s shoulders was enough to drain one’s strength.
Maybe we shouldn’t hurry to the fort. We could look for a tree hollow and let the guy rest until morning.
“Being on guard duty in this season is brutal.”
Then all of a sudden, I heard a man’s voice. I stopped Zero and softly lowered the priest’s body. After motioning Zero to wait, I dropped low and crept toward the voice. I could see faint light from a lamp through the bushes.
“Nothing we can do about it,” another man said, shivering in the cold. “We attacked the saint. A strike team could come at any moment. If we don’t keep an eye out, we’ll all be slaughtered.”
Their voices sounded familiar. They were none other than Lia’s kidnappers. One was large and tall, while the other was small and stout.
Drawing my knife out silently, I moved closer to them, crawling on my stomach. My target was the taller guy. Grabbing the shorter one could be difficult, considering our height difference.
I inched closer so that they were within reach in one motion. The bandits didn’t seem to notice me.
Amateurs, as expected. I can’t kill him, then. As an apology for last time, I’ll make sure to hold back.
“Does it even matter if we get killed? We’re gonna die anyway, just like Sect! There’s no point in keeping a lookout.”
“You fucking moron! Stop being a pussy! You have one mark, while I have three! The boss will do something about it. Just shut up and do your job for now.”
“He’s right, you know,” I said. “You should take lookout duty a little more seriously.”
I pounced on the tall bandit and pressed a knife to his neck. The blade dug a little into the flesh, stopping the scream that was rising up from his lungs right at his throat.
At the same time, the other bandit drew his sword, held up his lantern and shouted. “What the hell… Who the fuck are you?!”
“Just a passing mercenary. We’ve met actually, so let’s skip the formal introductions.”
Keeping my knife on the bandit’s neck, I removed the hood I was wearing. The light from the lantern illuminated my face. The two bandits looked astonished.
“You’re that Beastfallen! The Saint’s henchman!”
I knew they would assume that.
I breathed a sigh. “You might not believe me, but you got it wrong. I came here to talk—”
The smaller bandit whistled with his fingers. A high-pitched sound echoed throughout the forest, making me flinch.
“We’re under attack!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “I repeat, we are under attack!” Lantern in hand, he scurried into the woods at full speed.
Doesn’t he care about the hostage? He just ditched him right away.
As I stood there dumbfounded, I felt the bandit under my grip shaking. For a moment, I thought he was crying, but I soon realized he was laughing, leaving me even more stupefied.
“Ha! Stupid beast! Did you really think taking a hostage would work? I would die to protect my friends! Go ahead! Kill me if you want! I’m not scared! Not scared at all…”
How brave of you. Fear made his face white as a sheet and his body tremble. They would sacrifice one man if it meant successfully warning their comrades at the fort of danger. They were amateurs, but their bond was strong.
I underestimated them a little. A moment later, my impression would change from “a little” to “too much.”
A light ignited deep in the forest. It started drawing near, then from a single point, spread in all directions like a spider web. In the blink of an eye, I was surrounded by dazzling lights.
“No way! How’d they surround me all of a sudden?!”
Light quickly dispersed the darkness of the night. I couldn’t help but lower my gaze at the radiance.
My ears caught the sound of an incredibly large bird flapping its wings. The bending of a bow and the stretching of its string followed. I pushed the bandit in my arms behind a tree and instinctively fell to the ground. An arrow shot past the spot where my head was a moment ago.
Looking up, I finally realized that the lights came from the lanterns hanging across the forest. They were tied together with oil-soaked string, and when the string was ignited, all the lanterns lit up like a fuse.
In other words, I wasn’t surrounded. My sense told me there was only one guy.
“Boss! This guy’s a mercenary working for the witch!” the bandit I freed shouted from behind a tree. “He and the priest ruined our plan! I’m sure about it!”
Why you ungrateful bastard… I let you go! I could’ve used you a shield, you know. I peered into the direction where the arrow came from. This boss they’re talking about… Is he the bandits’ leader?
The light from the lanterns was too bright for me to see them. I scuttled towards a tree and yelled, watching out for any follow-up attack. “Wait, just hear me out! You got it wrong! I didn’t come here to attack you! I just came to talk!”
“I guess we’ll find out after I beat the crap outta you,” a voice came from above. “Isn’t that how you do things?”
I frowned. The voice sounded familiar. And I had heard that line before. They were the exact same words I said to the hooded man who tried to abduct Theo in the port city of Ideaverna.
“Are you that bastard who tried to kidnap Theo?!”
“I told you it was a misunderstanding. I wasn’t trying to kidnap Theo, I was there to pick him up.”
“Oh, right. Theo told me the whole story after that.”
When Theo cried for help, he just wanted me to drive away his comrade who came to get him.
“In any case, Theo doesn’t want to return to your gang. I don’t think it’s right for you to forcibly drag him back.”
“We have our reasons. If Theo was taken in by some old couple, I would’ve thought twice about it, but I heard he was working with the Saint. I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing. I planned to look for him again soon, but…” He trailed off. He glanced around for a moment, and when he couldn’t see Theo with me, his voice became low and hard. “Where is he right now? It doesn’t look like he’s with you.”
His voice was terribly calm, like he was judging whether I was a friend or foe. If I answered wrong, arrows would probably rain down on me. Cautiously, I opened my mouth.
“I left him with Lia—I mean, the Saint. She took a liking to him and hired him as an errand boy.”
“The saint’s errand boy? Did he wish for that himself?”
“Yes, he did.”