Here's the third release of the week. Enjoy the read!

The rumbling of horses' hooves broke the night's silence. About a hundred light cavalry rode forward at breakneck speed. They came to a halt at the edge of a valley. The leader waved his arms. Shortly after a squad of ten broke away from the group and headed off into the area.  The main unit dismounted and began to feed their horses. An hour later, the men mounted up once more and continued heading towards the plains near the capital.  Nobody noticed that only eight men rejoined the main unit.

Lorist and Tarkel had snuck into the woods. After they were unable to hear the sound of the galloping, they began to make their move.

Had they traveled by carriage using the route directly from Nupite to Hamidas, they would arrive at the capital about fourteen hours after their departure. A messenger that traveled quickly on horseback would only need about ten hours to cover that distance. It would take at least a day and a half, however, to make one's way from Nupite to Hamidas on foot.

Lorist and Tarkel could not use the main route, it was under Norton control. Even idiots would suspect someone who reached the capital with that route. Thus, the two prepared to make a detour around the hills and pretend to be one of the enemies from the inner city that managed to escape capture at Nupite.

After walking for two hours and resting twice, the skies were gradually beginning to brighten.

Lorist, who was walking at the front, ceased his steps and pointed forward before sneaking in the direction. Tarkel was by his side.

They were in a dense forest. Not far from their position was a small hill where sounds of flowing water could be heard.

Right beneath the hill was a small, busy stream, next to which a few people were resting. They seemed to be some nobles who had escaped from the port.

A hugely-built, tanned, half-naked man with one battle scar after another visible on his unclad back could be seen standing in the middle of the stream, crouching and attempting to catch some of the fish with his bare hands.

Unfortunately for the man, he did not have any experience catching fish. His endeavors bore no fruit despite getting himself wet; his prey eluded his snatches one after another.

A glamorously-dressed noble could be seen leaning on a boulder near the stream. He appeared in his thirties with a pale look on his face. He wore a tired gaze and sat slumped over the boulder, An old man was massaging the noble's feet as he cursed the huge man in the river for being so useless.

Beside the nobleman knelt a middle-aged man, in his forties. Another huge man wearing shiny-silver chain mail could be spotted lying on the ground not far away, using both his hands to prop his head up as he stared absent-mindedly at the commotion going on nearby.

Tarkel signaled to Lorist with his hands. Upon seeing Lorist nod, Tarkel walked out from the woods towards the riverbank.

"Who goes there?" called out the mail-wearing man.

He appeared to be the most alert of them all, given that he leaped upright and drew his sword right away. With a flash of light, a golden blade glow covered his sword, revealing his level. But, while the mail-wearing man was of the gold rank, his stance was rather laughable. His front foot stepping weakly on the ground and his weight centered around his rear. It was the stance of a person ready to make his escape at any moment.

The kneeling middle-aged man and the nobleman turned silent at the sight of the newcomers. As the middle-aged man drew his sword in preparation to guard the nobleman, his master kicked him in the back and said angrily, "What are you waiting for? Put the shoe back on me right this instant!"

The huge man in the stream also looked towards the woods cautiously.

"Don't be so tense, Kalik, it's me," said Tarkel as he got closer to the stream.

Upon realizing that it was indeed Tarkel, the middle-aged man said, "Oh, Tarkel?"

"Good riddance, I was completely damned by the lot of you. You forced me to enter the inner city saying that the place would be properly defended, yet you made your escape even before the enemy made their attack. Had it not been for my miraculous luck, I might have died as a result of your actions," cursed Tarkel as he stepped into the stream and walked towards the middle-aged man.

Being able to see clearly for himself, the middle-aged man breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Ah, so it's you, Tarkel... I thought that Klimo would be with you as well..."

"Kilmo? He's long dead. We were still together when we left the city, but a stray ballista bolt nailed him right back on the walls! You don't know how terrified I was! I ran and ran only to notice that I had somehow lost Ballop and Feline. Right after, though, the enemy cavalry troops started closing in on me," said Tarkel as he spun a story while approaching the middle-aged man.

"So you're saying that you made it here alone?" asked the wary gold-ranked knight.

"Come on, there's no way I would be able to pull that off!" he complained as he sat down in a tired manner.  He continued after he took a few swigs from the stream.

"Had it not been for the three guards that the guild sent to protect me in the shadows, I would've long been captured or killed by those cavalry troops."

"Locke, it's okay now. Come out, they're friendlies," called Tarkel towards the woods.

Lorist emerged from the trees and approached slowly.

"He's one of the guards sent by your guild? Why haven't I seen him before?" asked the middle-aged man, Kalik.

"They were tailing me in secret, mainly to protect Els and me and to report our trip back to the guild. Had it not been for the emergency, they wouldn't ever have appeared," explained Tarkel.

It was enough to convince the rest that Lorist's untimely presence was fortuitous. It was quite common for huge noble families to send someone to watch over their descendants secretly as they traveled around. By doing so, they would also be able to understand the temperament of their descendants better and evaluate whether investing money and effort in training such an heir was going to be worth it.

"Didn't you say that there were three of them?" asked Kalik as he eyed down Lorist.

Tarkel cursed out, "Sheesh, I don't know how the hell I ended up deciding to come to your island just in time for a war to break out! Didn't you say that you don't have any sort of enemies? Gosh, they even came knocking at your doorstep! Had I been allowed to stay in the outer city, I might have been treated as a VIP and wouldn't have to worry about my life...

"But after I was brought into the inner city by you lot, I was forced to run for the whole night, only to meet up with more cavalry troops who wouldn't bother to hear my explanation at all. Had it not been for my guards' help, I would have been long dead. In the end, three of the cavalry troops died at the cost of my two other guards. It was far from enough to stop the rest of the cavalry from giving chase, however. Had it not been for Locke here, who's adept at navigating the woods, I would've had to toil hard and scale the hills just to be able to survive!"

Kalik stroked his nose in embarrassment and said, "Tarkel, I only brought you there for your own safety since you're a friend of mine. I didn't think that the enemy would actually be that powerful..."

Tarkel waved his hands dismissively and shook them dry as he said, "How in the world did you offend someone as mighty as them? I think I heard some people from the guild mention that they recognize the bear insignia of the enemy, but I just can't recall their names."

Kalik kneeled back down and said, "I'm not too sure either. I only heard that around three months ago, some slaver nobles and slaver bands got together and sent a few people to Silowas, an island in the Andinaq kingdom, to hunt for more slaves. The operation didn't end too well. I believe the island was the dominion of a house called Norton..."

"House Norton?" Tarkel exclaimed, "Good gods, how did the lot of you get the courage to offend them? It's no wonder they came all the way here..."

"Oh? You know about House Norton?" asked Kalik.

"I've only heard rumors. They are known as the Roaring Raging Bear of the Northlands and are a house of the former Krissen Empire with sizeable military achievements. Before I left to travel, I heard the Nortons defeated the 100-thousand-strong army of the Iblia kingdom's king. How brain dead were you to provoke people like them willingly? Gosh, a military-oriented noble house like them will persist until they settle the grudge completely. Wasn't the dominion of the Nortons in the Northlands? Since when did they own Silowas?"

"Honestly, I don't know much about this either. I heard that Silowas also belonged to the Nortons and that they'd brought up to 60 thousand refugees there to begin development. That's why the higher-ups decided it was a good idea to target them. I heard during one of the meetings that our kingdom has been lacking slaves as of late, so it's no surprise they got greedy when they heared about all those refugees," explained Kalik.

"Are the nobles of your kingdom all idiots? Even if you want to attack, you should at least research the background of your target. Why didn't you use your brain a little? Is a noble house that's capable of recruiting more than 60 thousand refugees that easy to target? Normal nobles won't even be able to sustain 60 thousand of their own subjects! With your slaves dying because of your reckless use, it's no wonder that you're lacking in them! Why don't you guys understand that slaves are not expendable objects; they will continue to create wealth for their owners if used right. Can't you give them a little more care for that? The death of a slave is naturally a loss for the master. It's just that simple!" criticized Tarkel.

"Kalik, where is this friend of yours from? It sounds like he has strong opinions on us, the nobles of the Hanayabarta kingdom. Should we have him educate us on how to train and discipline our slaves?" asked the noble who was still leaning on the huge boulder.

"Ah, Lord Viscount, I forgot to make the introductions. I'm truly sorry for that. This is the eldest son of the Peterson Merchant Guild's vice president, the guild is one of the Union's big-seven. The other young master that's not present with us is called Elibak, and they've come to visit our kingdom to learn more about us. That over there is his guard, um, what's his name again?" asked Kalik.

"He's called Locke, a guard of the Peterson Merchant Guild. It's my pleasure to be made your acquaintance, respected Lord Viscount. Tarkel of the Peterson Merchant Guild pays respect to you," greeted Tarkel respectfully to the pale-faced noble.

However, the nobleman merely humphed without bothering to answer the greeting.

Not minding it one bit, Tarkel headed to the stream and asked Kalik quietly, "Who's that?"

"That's Viscount Timba. His ancestor was one of the 17 dukes who founded the kingdom, but his title has since degraded after being passed down for three generations. However, his elder sister is the consort of the current king, Lude III. She just gave birth to a male heir for the royal family. It's quite possible he'll be made a count soon," explained Kalik with a similarly quiet tone.

The 17 dukes were in fact 17 pirate bosses with greater influence than the rest. Given that pirates ran the kingdom, it was quite expected for things to be run a little differently. A regulation was made in the early days that if the duke's successor was not able to pay a healthy sum to inherit the title, it would be downgraded by one rank when it was passed on. While the territory of the dominion would not change, the lesser rank did sound less than pleasing to the ears of many. It seemed that the predecessors of the current viscount were rather frugal, to say the least, willing to have their rank downgraded rather than paying the inheritance sum.

"What about that person?" asked Tarkel as he gestured with his gaze at the gold-ranked swordsman lying on the ground behind the boulder.

"That's one of Duke Gouffman's gold-ranked knights. He's called Oss or something. We only just met him yesterday, and the viscount paid a good price for him to be our escort to Hamidas," said Kalik.

Kalik was one of the few close friends Tarkel managed to make at Nupite. He was a junior supervisor working for the city hall. He was in charge of the security and management of the warehouses. After being treated to a few drinks, he found himself treating him as a good friend and was even willing to share the warehouses' details and information about the resources stored near the city.

Tarkel had promised him that if the Peterson Merchant Guild formed a trading post in the city, he would give him ten percent shares. That was why Kalik was so insistent on bringing Tarkel to 'safety' in the inner city the moment the Norton troops defeated the three thousand or so slaver fighters.

Being a frequent visitor of the city hall, the junior supervisor was actually acquainted with the viscount. During the city's evacuation, Viscount Timba escaped on a carriage but was unfortunate enough to be one of the first to make his way to the hilly area where Josk and Yuriy are camped, waiting. In the end, all of his servants and guards were killed, only two slaves were still by his side. The first was a grey-clad middle-aged man, and the other the huge man currently attempting to catch some fish in the river.

In his rush to escape, the viscount encountered Kalik. The latter was forcefully brought along to be his escort. Later, Duke Gouffman's men showed up, but they didn't bother with Viscount Timba for he had lost all his troops and servants. Afraid that he would be drafted into their forces as enemy fodder, Kalik encouraged Viscount Timba to take a small detour to avoid the main route, which required crossing the hills to arrive at the capital.

Kalik suspected that gold-ranked knight Oss was a deserter as he was traveling on the same route as their group. Kalik had no choice, however, but to allow Oss to tag along. The former was only an iron rank and didn't have much of a say in the matter.

Kalik continued to whisper quietly into Tarkel's ears, "This gold-ranked knight Oss is not trustworthy. Given that he was able to disobey his lord's order and desert, we are no doubt nothing but ants in his eyes. Had it not been for Viscount Timba's promise to pay him after they arrive at the capital, I suspect that he wouldn't risk his life being with us like this."

Kalik was also glad to meet Tarkel as he was a silver-ranked swordsman. At the very least, Tarkel would be able to take a few hits for himself while he tried to escape for his life should some misfortunate incident come to pass.

"So, what are you guys up to right now?" asked Tarkel curiously.