Enjoy the second release of the week! Happy Valentines Day for those fortunate enou-- *sobs and cries*

Three days later, Duke Fisablen's group rode haggardly past the crossing point at Southern and arrived at the main gates of Third Frontier Legion's campsite.

After taking a bath, the duke ignored the fatigue and summoned his military officers to a council meeting. The duke told them the harsh truth: they had been attacked by the four houses and First Frontier Legion had been wiped out. They had also lost Windbury and Third Frontier Legion would be the next target.

A substantial commotion broke out among the officers and the house's household knights. They either barked about how they would make their enemy pay, or expressed worries about the might of the alliance's forces. After all, First Frontier was fully drafted and armed, and was among the top three forces in the whole of the house's forces. If even they were wiped out in a single confrontation, the Third Frontier would have a far harder time.

Duke Fisablen also didn't explain why he only brought a select few with him on his escape from Windbury. All he did was issue a successive stream of orders. First, they would regroup, especially the patrol troupes they had scattered, to fortify their military camp. The walls would be strengthened and outposts erected. Moats would be dug and supplies gathered. They had to be completely prepared for their enemy's inevitable arrival.

They would send scouts and informants to Winston immediately to monitor every enemy movement. They also had to find their missing soldiers and find out where the First Frontier Legion's captives were being kept. If everything really was as Lorist had said -- that First Frontier Legion had been completely wiped out -- then the house's informants had to find out how. Most importantly, they had to find out how many forces their enemy had deployed, and why.

They also had to send envoys to request help from the four central duchies. Duke Fisablen told his envoys to inform his allies that Iblia was currently under attack by the nobles led by the duke of The Northlands, Norton Lorist. They had already lost Winston and Windbury, and House Fisablen's forces were mounting a defense in Southern. However, their enemy was immense and they could only barely hold their ground, but not for long. The moment Southern fell under enemy control, Duke Fisablen would have to return to his dominion to defend it, and the duke of The Northlands would probably turn his sights on the four central duchies.

The central duchies' biggest worry was Andinaq's king, Auguslo. The man previously known as the second highness was the Krissen imperial family's heir and wasn't keen on pardoning their traitorous acts. The four dukes knew the four houses of The Northlands, who had reinstated the second highness, were loyal to him. The moment the second highness joined forces with the four houses, themselves powerful enough to wipe out Madras and possibly Iblia on their own, they would target the central duchies.

Duke Fisablen wasn't sure, however, whether they shared the second highness's goal. He knew Lorist wasn't someone loyal to Andinaq, given how his forces were busy exacting revenge against the Hanayabarta kingdom so far away when the second highness was on the frontlines waging war against Iblia. If Lorist were truly on his side, the second highness's throne wouldn't have been taken over by Queen Carey either.

But his suspicion wouldn't affect his excuse to get his allies to aid him in the slightest. It was mainly because the duchies were unwilling to share a border with Anidnaq. If they did, there would be no peace for them. It was far better for House Fisablen to tangle with The Northlands' forces in Southern than having the conflict take place within the duchies' borders.

So, Duke Fisablen didn't hold back. Not only did he have his envoys call the duchies to reinforce him, he also requested astronomical amounts of food and equipment. He was confident the dukes would seriously consider his request. Even if he only got half of his request, it was already enough. It was expected that the duchies would try to bargain.

After sending out his envoys, he ordered his soldiers deployed. Apart from ordering the reserve legion set to arrive at Windbury that month to regroup with him instead, he also ordered Fifth Frontier Legion, stationed in Eastwild, to rush to Southern to bolster his forces. As for the defenses in Eastwild, it would be handed to the garrison legion. With the few legions Duke Fisablen mobilized guarding Southern, their dominion was still safe for the time being.

So far, Second Frontier Legion was defending the greater and lesser golden creeks while Fourth Frontier Legion was defending Wild Husbandry. Neither could be mobilized. They were, instead, alerted of the attack and prepared to defend against them. Wild Husbandry bordered The Northlands, after all. The best way to deter an invasion was to destroy House Kenmays's iron suspension bridge so they would have one less place to defend. That way, Fourth Frontier Legion could tangle with the enemy in Winston through their citadel at Pedro.

After giving his orders, Duke Fisablen stared at the map silently for a long time. Finally, he decided what else he had to do. He would conscript soldiers from the hundreds of grassland barbarian tribes in the great northeastern plains. The barbarian soldiers could prepare their own robust warhorses, weapons, and rations. And as reward for joining the war in Southern, he generously promised whatever they managed to obtain during the campaign would be theirs.

The household knights and officers in the tent were shocked at the duke's order and objected strongly. The moment they allowed the barbarian soldiers to raid during the campaign, it would do more harm than help to the house's forces. If word of House Fisablen becoming the enablers of barbarian raids spread, their reputation would take a huge hit. Even disregarding that, having disobedient barbarians that preferred to act on their own accord would give their forces a lot of trouble.

Duke Fisablen laughed bitterly. He explained that the Northlander houses couldn't be underestimated, given how they could silently eliminate First Frontier even though they were just 50 kilometres from Windbury. The two regiments of Third Frontier at Twilight Lake Town, almost two thousand men in all, were wiped out as well. Given the current numbers of Third Frontier, the duke wasn't confident they could hold off the inevitable attack. He would have to thank the heavens if their two reinforcement legions could arrive in time.

"This isn't hearsay or propaganda. This war will be a tough and drawn out one. If we don't throw in everything we have, we will be forced back to the corners of the great northeastern plains. Even if we survive, we will be at the mercy of others, subject to their whims and desires." he told his subordinates solemnly.

"But if we manage to emerge victorious, we'll be able to suppress the four houses and link Winston, Southern, and The Northlands into one solid wall. We will be the hegemons of the whole northeast. By relying on the trade route with the four duchies, we can build our strength up gradually. Everyone that contributes to this war will be greatly rewarded, and I won't hesitate to give out titles and land to distinguished household knights and make them part of the peerage.

"The more grassland barbarians that participate in the war, the better it is for us. We can use the promise of great reward and strict military discipline to control them to some extent. Those who don't obey shall be sentenced to death as traitors and their tribes will suffer collective punishment. Those who follow orders will be our scapegoats. We can use them to grind away at the enemy's forces while diminishing the barbarian's numbers as well, removing the threat they pose for good. We must use the casualties we will sustain to neuter the possibility of a revolt from the barbarians."

When the meeting adjourned, Duke Fisablen had a simple meal.  He went to bed immediately afterwards and slept for ten hours straight. The days of running had tired him greatly. When he woke up, he took another bath, had some food, changed into some nice clothes, and had his attendants leave him alone while he enjoyed a bottle of fruit wine as he wallowed in his own tears. All this time, he had been torn by the fact that he had been chased away so haggardly. It was the most humiliating moment of his life.

He had never had to run for his life as desperately before. Not only did he lose Windbury and Twilight Lake Town, he also lost First Frontier. It messed his plans up entirely, and deprived him of the wealth and manpower of roughly 300 thousand people. He had been robbed, beaten, and stripped naked. The robber had even wanted to take him hostage and threaten his house. Fortunately, he managed to escape.

Thinking back on when he confiscated the wealth of the Southern nobles he slaughtered at Windbury and the Winston nobles that rebelled, the duke felt the onset of a headache. It was a huge sum, more than three million gold Fordes. He had intended to use it to construct a strong garrison legion with which to man the three citadels to secure Winston as the battlefield for the upcoming conflict. But it had all become the four houses' spoils.

When he took Lorist's two strikes at the Rose Palace, he could tell the young man wasn't a beat weaker than he in terms of swordsmanship. While he could probably rely on his vast battle experience to hold him back for about 300 strikes -- and even win with some luck -- he was well aware that the result of the duel would be meaningless if what Lorist had said about the extermination of First Frontier and Windbury falling were true. Based on that information, he believed escaping the capital as soon as possible was the only choice.

And yet the duke didn't think Lorist would go out of his way to hold him back. He even sunk to the depths of street thugs and cursing like them as he gave chase. It was due to the pursuit that the duke truly understood that if he had lost to Lorist in the duel, House Fisablen would no longer have a strong foundation to rely on. It would scatter into chaos and the alliance would easily harvest the fruits of victory.

He had come to this conclusion during his escape. He couldn't afford to fall into Lorist's hands no matter what. He could lead the house to regain what he had to give up to escape, but only if he escaped. He would make Lorist pay for this humiliation with blood and flame.

Naturally, Duke Fisablen still had lingering fears of Lorist's swordsmanship. He recalled he had wanted to use the confusion the 600 household soldiers created when the attacked Lorist in Twilight Lake Town to launch a sneak attack or two. But when he saw Lorist dive in like it was just a training exercise, he lost all hope of confronting him. Even he would run away if he had to face a regiment like that. Perhaps he would have to rely on hit and run tactics to slowly kill them off. The most important part was that he absolutely couldn't be surrounded and entangled by so many soldiers at once. That was why most blademasters weren't willing to face off against whole formations of soldiers.

Yet, he had witnessed Lorist charging at the swarm of soldiers. Like an agile fish swimming freely in the river, like the gales blowing freely through the dense forests, he wasn't threatened in the slightest by the spears and swords of the many soldiers. He was like the ghostly apparition of a reaper of life reaping his harvests, claiming the life of one soldier after another, longsword in hand.

Duke Fisablen was immensely shocked at how everything had gone down. It was the power of a domain. He had called his guards and left without a word. It was no wonder he dared to barge into the Rose Palace and face off against a rank 3 blademaster alone. Lorist had absolute confidence in his abilities and swordsmanship. He dared to do so because he was certain he could deal with the situation. Duke Fisablen was relieved he didn't fall into his trap and escaped instead.

However, he was still confused . How did Lorist manage to wield a domain even though he wasn't a swordsaint? Normally, only people in the saint realm could use domains. Lorist didn't gave off the impression of having broken through as a swordsaint.

Duke Fisablen had met a swordsaint personally before. When he was still a rank 1 blademaster just appointed to be the commander of the empire's Frontier Legion, he had an audience with Krissen VII. Back then, the empire still had a resident swordsaint. The feeling he got when he faced the swordsaint was the domineering oppressiveness of a mountain. All of a sudden, the peak of the mountain turned into a vast and endless ocean. The only feeling left within the duke's mind was one of indiscernible nature. It was precisely because of what he experienced then that he trained even harder and managed to reach rank 3 as a blademaster 20 hard years later.

Lorist didn't give off that kind of aura.

Perhaps the kid happened to figure out how domains worked by sheer luck. Oh, back then, Xanthi said he was training in the arts of the ancient eastern martial monks. Either way, he's already a quasi-swordsaint. He just needs a little bit more time to fully break through.

It would be great if Xanthi were here. Perhaps we could work together to resist him, perhaps even teach him a lesson.

When the duke recalled that Lorist said Xanthi had been taken captive by the second highness, his anger only got more severe.

I should send someone to find out more about this! Perhaps that kid was just messing with me! I hope he was!

When he finished his bottle of wine, the duke finished venting his feelings.

Kid... Lorist... Perhaps you dwarf me when it comes to swordsmanship and training... But let's see who triumphs in the war. I swear on House Fisablen that I will pay back all the humiliation I've suffered at your hands ten times over. I'll start by wiping out every last man under your and the other nobles' command!