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

The four guards at the entrance looked at Lorist walk over as he mumbled.

"Hey, what's wrong?" asked one of them.

"Don't ask, it's far too disgusting... Blademaster Benack is too cruel," Lorist said as he knocked his wrist on the bars of the gates, "Stam wanted me to get some cleaning tools. We'll have to move some corpses later as well."

One of the guards said as he opened the gate, "Are you an idiot? Why would you do it yourself? Just get a slave down here to do it! After all, the corpses will be fed to the magic beasts anyway."

Lorist nodded.

"That was what I thought should be done as well, but Stam told me to hurry up because the blademaster doesn't have the patience for me to go all the way up to get one."

Another guard chuckled and said, "Well, sucks to be the two of you, bumping into the blademaster when he's in a bad mood. Oh, and, how many died just now? The cries I heard sounded rather terrifying. The slaves must have died horribly."

With the door opened, Lorist walked through to a good spot, snickered, and replied, "Four."

With a flash of his sword, the four guards lost their lives. Four strokes, each making an opening on a guard's throat. They fell one after another without a sound, slipping into death's cold embrace in silence. Waving his hands, Els and eight other household soldiers rushed over and stripped the corpses bare. Three soldiers with physiques similar to the guards put on the uniforms.

The remaining soldiers dragged the four corpses back to where they came from. Lorist looked at Els and the other three and nodded with satisfaction.

"Very well, fortunately, the enemy loadout includes an old-style bronze helmet that hides faces well enough. If the enemy comes and says they want to go in to check because they don't recognize you, let them. Only kill them if you have. We don't want them to report the situation and call for reinforcements after all."

Els nodded and said, "Understood, Milord."

Lorist took the silver key and left. With Els watching over the situation, he was not worried in the slightest. After all, most of the royal defense army's soldiers were of the bronze rank. Only leaders had to be silver ranked and above. On that front, they were not that much different from the Nortons' forces. Even if a group of ten patrol soldiers came over to check, with a three-star-silver-rank like Els and a few other iron ranks with him, there would be no issue.

"Thanks. He's called Jades, and this here is Messen. Over here we have Sendhank and Plom. All four of them are gold ranks, so they're locked up here with me. How should I address you, by the way?" asked the blademaster, Shuss, as he received the keys and opened the cells to release the four gold-ranked fighters.

"I'm Norton Lorist. Just call me Locke," said Lorist before he nodded to the gold-ranked fighters.

"Our lord is the head of the Family of the Raging Bear of The Northlands. He's a count," said Charade as he stepped forward to introduce Lorist formally.

However, Blademaster Shuss did not really care for Lorist's title and casually said, "Fine, we'll either call you Lord Locke or Lord Count. Jades, Plom, here are the keys. Release the other fellows at the back."

"Please, call me Locke. My friends all refer to me as such," Lorist said.

He eyed Jades and Plom as they disappeared into the darkness beyond the room they were in.

"Are there more?" asked he.

"Yes. The third basement was originally only for keeping silver-ranked slave fighters. There are 27 others deeper inside. Most of your men were kept over here and were made examples for the rest of them to follow, mainly because their loyalty and solidarity were too strong," said Shuss.

"Milord, did you mention that our forces have already occupied Nupite?" asked Charade.

"That's right," Lorist said, before he gave a brief description of the current conflict, "I snuck into the capital because I was worried about you guys. Fortunately, I got here in time. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to meet you guys again for the rest of my life."

"Milord, you shouldn't have risked your safety like this. While it's not a huge deal if we die, you are different! You have to lead the house. If some misfortune befalls you, our rescue will have been in vain," said Jim, as he, Tok, Klinbo and the other household knights teared up.

"That's right, Milord. You shouldn't have taken that kind of risk," said Charade.

"Bullshit. Even though I'm the leader of the house, you guys are my friends and brothers. It's because you fought for the house that you ended up in captivity. Would I still be human if I left you to rot like this?" asked Lorist.

"Nicely said. Naturally, you acted on what you said as well. Nobles like you are rare these days. What are you going to do next, Lord Locke?" asked Blademaster Shuss.

"Well," Lorist stroked his head, "I didn't really come here with a plan. Originally, I only wanted to check this place out to get a grasp of the area. All I wanted was to see them safe. But the urgency of the situation forced my hand. If it's only one or two people, perhaps I can find a way to bring them out. But I really have no clue what I should do with so many people. At worst, we'll have to fight our way out. It's a possible feat given that the royal defense army was just deployed and the capital is not as well defended as usual. But I can't say how many will survive."

Shuss stared into Lorist's eyes. He became curious about what gave Lorist the confidence to say that he would be able to fight his way out of the capital.

"If all you want is to leave the capital, we don't even have to fight, I know a secret path. Follow me," said he finally.

Shuss turned and walked away. Lorist and his companions waited where they were.

The sound of metal clattering on stone could be heard from the other side of the dark tunnel. Soon a group of slaves, led by the three gold-ranks, emerged. They greeted Lorist and the blademaster as they passed.

Shuss brought them to the innermost cell of the floor and stood there for a good moment before having the gold rank called Jades to open the cell. Once inside, he moved aside an old wooden bed and some rotting dried grass and tapped on the stone floor. He removed one of the tiles. A small hole became visible beneath. It was just large enough for a person to fit through.

"Old Jones spent 14 years digging this tunnel, but just as he was about to escape, he lost his life on the dueling grounds," he said wistfully, "That day, he even told me excitedly that he would sneak two pieces of black bread with him before he escapes during the night. Who knew that he would be pitted against two swordtooth tigers on his own that very day."

If a slave fighter managed to win a fight, they would be awarded a luxurious meal that included roast meat, potatoes, black bread and some cheap liquor. They were even allowed to take two extra pieces of black bread for supper.

"Where does this tunnel head?" asked Lorist.

"Even I don't know the answer to that," the blademaster said, shaking his head, "Jones only told me that he dug until he reached a waterway and left the last piece of rock untouched. He just had to remove the last rock to escape. But since his death two years ago, I never managed to enter his cell, so I haven't been able to check it out myself."

When he finished, the blademaster rummaged around the old wooden bed and found a small piece of metal and a thumb-length wire. "These were his tools. This here is a piece of metal broken off a sword Jones found and kept. This wire here he got from a broken basket. The most important feature about these two items is that they can both conduct battleforce and allow a blade glow to form. Old Jones relied on only these two items to dig that tunnel over 14 years."

Lorist could not help but recall a certain classic Hollywood film he watched in his past life, titled Shaw-something Redemption. The protagonist was sentenced to serve a very long jail sentence and managed to use an iron spoon to dig a tunnel over the course of ten-odd years to finally obtain freedom. Jones was quite similar in that regard, save for his ill fortune.

"Milord, let's go down there to check," said Tok, before he jumped right inside.

"Hey, wait a second," Charade said before he passed the torch to Tok, "Take this torch down there so that we can see better."

After around half an hour, Tok reemerged from the hole covered with mud.

"Milord, this path is not that long, only around 15 meters deep. The only thing is it's a little too narrow. I wasn't able to twist my body around or breathe properly but there is a bit more space near the stone wall at the end. I knocked apart two larger rocks and walked towards where there was an air current and saw the exit. It's gated with iron bars at least as thick as a bowl."

Tok gestured to show the width of the bars and said after some hesitance, "After looking around, I found the exit of the waterway had two towers to its left and right around 50 meters away. A huge wall connected those two towers. If we escape through the waterway, we'll be detected easily by people on that tower. We won't be able to retaliate if they attack us with crossbows or other ranged weaponry."

Tok knelt down and drew two semi-circles and two circles at the two ends to denote the two towers. At the center of the indented side of the inner semi-circle was a dot that represented the waterway exit.

"What about the other waterway? Where does that head?" asked Charade.

"I didn't go there so I don't know. I only know that it leads pretty far away, and I didn't want to make you worry by staying down there for too long," said Tok, shaking his head.

"You don't need to go all the way to the end just to find out. I know where that leads," Blademaster Shuss said, "I recall one slave fighter said it leads to the ring road. That path is actually a huge sewer. As storms around the Hanayabarta archipelago typically last two to three days, the capital built these waterways to help with the irrigation and avoid flooding. There are four city sectors with one such waterway underground. Every month on the 10th, some guards would bring us to clear up the waterways. That fighter knew that because he used to be one of those slaves as well. He was sent to the dueling grounds because he got into a fight with a slave manager. Shame he only lasted three rounds before dying."

"What do we do now, Milord?" asked Charade.

Lorist considered his options. Even though he would be able to escape the capital safely through the waterway, he had to free more than 200 men, not just a few. It would take them at least three hours to make it out and they were all tired and hungry to boot. According to Charade, they only got a meal of gruel for the whole day when the dueling grounds were closed. While seeing Lorist come to their rescue did improve their mood a bit, that would probably not be able to last them the whole journey out.

Additionally, according to Tok's findings, escaping the waterway was no easy task either. The guards on the towers would surely notice that many people coming through the waterway. Without any weapons, it would only end badly for them. While Lorist did want to help them escape, he did not want to lead them to their deaths.

Even if he did manage to kill the enemies on the towers and wall first before the rest escaped, it still was not going to end well. While Lorist did not consider the guards a threat to him, they were doubtlessly on high alert and his ascent up the walls would alarm all of them. As long as the enemy sent a number of blademasters to hold Lorist down while others chased Charade and the rest down, the unarmed household knights would be unable to fight back. There was no way Lorist could save everyone, regardless of how strong he was.

Lorist was in a dilemma and was not able to come up with a resolution for a good while as he stroked his chin in thought.

"Lord Locke, I heard you mention that the royal defense army has mobilized this morning. Do you know how many guards they have left at the dueling grounds?" asked Blademaster Shuss, knocking Lorist off his train of thought.

"Hmm, I believe there should be around two hundred of them. Roughly two squads" replied Lorist.

"That's wonderful. Then, Lord Locke, can you lend us a couple of weapons? I want to rescue the other slave fighters on the upper basement and conquer the first basement as soon as we can," said Blademaster Shuss.

"Oh?" Lorist mused, not knowing what the blademaster intended to achieve.

"Here's the plan," Blademaster Shuss said after seeing Lorist's troubled expression, "Actually, the 200 royal defense army guards you mentioned are only responsible for the patrols and supervision. There are another one or two hundred instructors and supervisors here. They are the ones who pose a real threat to us. Another rank 2 blademaster, Jiluet, is also among them.

"However, there is only one entrance to where we are locked up. If we strike fast and seal off the sole entrance to stop the instructors and supervisors as well as the blademaster from barging in, we'll have enough time to plan our departure."

"Then, do you know where the pantry and armory are?" asked Lorist.

"They're over there as well," the blademaster said as he knelt down and drew an oval on the ground with the mud on his finger, "Lord, this here is the dueling grounds. The prison for us slave fighters is located a little bit to the right. It's where the magic beasts are kept as well. As for the instructors and supervisors, their dorm is to the left, alongside the pantry and armory. Every morning, some slaves would be sent to collect some food to feed those of us down here. Only after we have our meals will the instructors bring us out for different kinds of training."

"I see. Blademaster Shuss, how do you compare to that rank 2 blademaster? Is the gap wide?"

"Well, usually I would be able to fight on even grounds with him. Perhaps, I might even win if I fight desperately enough, but I definitely wouldn't be able to walk away with the victory without any damage. There are ten other gold-ranked instructors and I definitely won't be able to handle them if they come at me at the same time. Don't think that Jades and Messen will be able to hold their ground either. Despite being gold ranks, they have been underfed and chained up like this for far too long. We'll definitely lose if they fight desperately enough. That's the reason I suggested fighting our way up and occupying the entrance while the guards' numbers are low to buy us some time," explained the blademaster concisely.

Since that's the case, why shouldn't I occupy the dueling grounds? thought Lorist, before an idea suddenly surfaced in his mind, When the enemy is unprepared, we'll deal with the 200-odd guards here first before finishing off the gold-ranked instructors, supervisors and rank 2 blademaster while we're at it. Wouldn't this give my soldiers enough time to rest and recover? At the same time, we can have the underground tunnel widened for ease of passage and arm ourselves with the most basic armaments. Only after that and some food and rest will we stand a chance at escaping...

"I have an idea," began Lorist...