Lorist and his two thousand guards were on their way to Jigzai. It had been more than ten days since the attack on Messen and Lorist couldn't have been busier. Organizing everything for moving Messen's citizens to The Northlands was taking up most of his time. They had no homes anymore, so they were now considered the lowest class of people and they hated the Nortons for it.

Lorist had no real say in the matter, though. They were at war and he had protected them as best he could already. Even so, he couldn't stop them from losing their wealth, thus their hatred. At the same time, not only did he have to deal with their accommodation and food on the journey, the old, the female, and the young had to be allocated carriages. It was beyond confounding and Lorist could only escape after Camorra arrived and took over.

On the way, the conscripts they passed cheered, hands full of spoils and cruddy weapons. They made way for the entourage respectfully. Lorist's face was dark and he couldn't be bothered to regard the ragtag bunch, though. To him, his so-called allies were far more worthy of hate than his enemies.

He had ensured the 100 thousand citizens' safety, while these conscripts raided the city for wealth. For that, they were willing to dig deep into the ground and level buildings. After they were done, they even set fire to the buildings. Had Lorist not stopped them quickly, the whole city might have burned to the ground. When he stepped in, however, they dared declare they had been given these areas and could do whatever they wanted.

Lorist had hanged the nearest ten men right there in a fit of rage. If they had really been allowed to set fire to the areas they were allowed to raid, what would the others in the city do? Were they going to burn together when the fire spread? Many of the conscripts had experienced the civil war. They were accustomed to such behavior. Some wanted to burn everything down to vent frustration at bad plunder, while others just went with the flow.

Even as Lorist began moving the former citizens out, the nobles and their men plunged the province into chaos. The provincial capital had fallen, but many villages were still ripe for the picking. The nobles unsatisfied with their plunder in the city turned their attention to the countryside. Messen's cleansing had begun.

The nobles' retinues were very different from House Norton's military.  House Norton's men were disciplined and professional, the nobles' retinues were barely any different from bandits. They killed, raped, and burned without restraint. Some even tried to capture villagers and sell them to Lorist after hearing House Norton needed people, but Camorra quickly put a stop to it.

He told Lorist with utmost seriousness that he shouldn't be buying people. If he did, it would set a precedent and establish a good excuse for the noble's to continue capturing people. If the house were involved in slave trading, they would be no different from slave owners and that went against the oaths they had taken to be against the slave trade. If the nobles knew they weren't buying, they would instead turn their sights on wealth and women. House Norton could then take in the ruined villagers, who would, in turn, be thankful.

Lorist knew Camorra was right. Though he sympathized with the poor villagers, he had to steal his heart. House Norton's forces could easily wipe the noble's out but it wasn't in his ability to stop this. He didn't have the authority. This was war, a war on Grindia. The noble's and their men's behavior was only to be expected. It was really common for nobles. Noble houses with oaths against such practices were exceedingly rare.

All Lorist could do to console himself was repeat the phrase, 'see no evil', in his mind. No matter what, the nobles were his allies. Fighting one's allies for the enemy's sake was something only an imbecile would do. Lorist pretended he saw nothing and made it to Jigzai.

A messenger sent by Loze two days earlier reported that Duke Shabaj had successfully escaped with his family to Farkel. However, as the duke had sacrificed part of his cohort every time he was about to be captured, only about five thousand men of the dutchy's first legion remained. The remaining ones had been exterminated for trying to stop Tigersoar and Shazin's two light cavalry divisions.

Shabaj was completely lost. Apart from a few strongly defended towns, nothing remained. Even Duke Shabaj had to escape, further sealing its fate. The few forts and towns would either surrender or be flattened.

Farkel was going to send three legions to aid Shabaj. They managed to secure Rimad and erect a strong defense to hold off Pegasus, Fisablen's reserve legion, and Third Frontier' assault. Forund wasn't in as good a position, Freewood had already been breached. Even its capital, Paetro, located in Prolina wasn't safe. It frequently came under attack.

Fortunately, Handra's two newly formed legions were sent to Forund. Duke Farkel also managed to recruit two legions of troops and sent one to Samora to reinforce Forund and the other to reinforce Paetro. It gave Duke Forund a decent boost. He also managed to rally two legions. In total, there were five legions, roughly 200 thousand men, manning Freewood's defenses. The front was currently at a stalemate.

Lorist was quite satisfied with how everything had turned out. He still had the initiative. The three remaining duchies had suffered because they didn't have strong cavalry to counter the highly mobile light cavalry. Though Farkel and Forund both had defenses set up and manned by nearly 300 thousand men, they had to defend two fronts. The alliance and House Fisablen only had to occupy Jigzai and launch an attack on either front. Forund and Farkel could only fight back passively.

Lorist decided to take a breather. There was no need to send light cavalry to attack strongly fortified defenses. He would wait until Auguslo and Whitelion arrived. Reports from the rear were that upon hearing of the conquest of Shabaj, Auguslo doubled the march and had now entered Southern. It would still be another 30 days before he arrived.

Actually, the conquest of Shabaj did not net the alliance and House Fisablen much.

Shazin was one of the few who fared better. He had gotten 300 thousand gold Fordes' worth of plunder, while Lorist got around 200 thousand from single-handedly conquering a few towns and citadels. Felim and Fisablen got about the same: less than 100 thousand. Each of the minor houses got a few thousand.

The biggest gains from conquering Shabaj was manpower and food. Apart from House Norton, which needed more manpower to develop Southern, Shazin also took around three thousand households with three to four people in each back to his dominion. They were influenced by Lorist in that they focused on keeping families together. Only by doing so could the new citizens acclimatize more easily to their new environment and become loyal subjects of the ruling house.

What troubled Lorist was that Duke Fisablen had similar intentions. However, his method was crueler in that he only took in young men and women and abandoned the old and the weak, causing the outskirts of his captive camp to be littered with white heads. They begged to be reunited with their family but their cries fell on deaf ears.

When Duke Fisablen sought Lorist out and asked him to open the borders of Southern so he could send the spoils home, the latter sighed deeply and told the duke he was rather unwilling to let House Fisablen take so many youths into its dominion because it would only strengthen them. But as he had pledged to treat House Fisablen as he would his allies, he would have Firmrock open the borders nevertheless. However, he requested the youths be allowed to reunite with their family members so they wouldn't be torn apart because of the move.

Duke Fisablen nodded and left. Lorist then saw the camps' gates open, letting the old folk flood in. Cries of gratitude echoed across the plain and Lorist penned a border-crossing permit. Only after sitting down did he slap himself in the forehead upon realizing that he had fallen for the old fox's trick.

It was obvious the scene of tearing the families apart was made for him. The old fox was worried he wouldn't be willing to open the borders And let him through, so he came up with this trick. Otherwise, he would've chased the old people away already. He knew if he really abandoned them, the youths would hate him and his house. There was simply no way the old fox wouldn't understand such a simple principle. The reason he separated them was to stimulate Lorist's sympathy and allow them to cross the border.

Lorist smiled bitterly.

Whatever, there's no need to go through so much trouble. No matter how he grows his house's might, he can't catch up to me. I already have the right timing, terrain, and men on my side. If I really allow the old fox to turn the tables, I'd bang my head against a flagpole until I die.

The old fox was even more careful of him than he was of the duke. It was obvious from how he made Lorist swear to not set any traps for their forces.

Jigzai used to be House Shabaj's hereditary dominion and it was also an agricultural province, having wide expanses of flat land. It was the perfect place for light cavalry troops to show their prowess. Following the When word of Tigersoar's attack on the few citadels and town spread, as well as the defeat and retreat of Shabaj's 12 thousand troops stationed at Egret Swamp by Els's Jaeger Legion, it could be said that apart from the duke himself, the Shabaj duchy was already exterminated.

That war was far too cruel on the duchy. All three of its provinces were torn apart from the war. It wasn't due to the mere loss of wealth, but rather, the large droves of population that were forced to move away. Before the war, the duchy had a population of around 800 thousand, but only less than 300 thousand survivors remained in the three provinces. Apart from the casualties of war or the refugees that escaped to Farkel, almost half of the population of the duchy had been moved to the dominions of the four houses of The Northlands or House Fisablen, causing development in those provinces to stagnate in the following two decades after the war.

On the 7th day of the 9th month, the late Auguslo finally arrived at the camp in Jigzai with House Kenmays's two heavy-armored divisions.

Following three days of rest, Auguslo held a military council and discussed how they should proceed with the attack on Farkel and Forund. The situation was quite clear-cut. Farkel and Forund were in full-on defense mode while Andinaq held the initiative for attack and could hit wherever they wanted. Whether it be the defense line of Farkel and the borders of Samora or the defense line of Forund at Freewood, as long as either one was breached, the other duchy would also be affected.

If the extermination of the eight garrison legions at those locations were successful, then Forund, Farkel, and even Handra's extermination would be at bay. To the three duchies, their current predicament was far more dangerous than the first prince's invasion a decade ago. That was especially so in the case of Shabaj's extermination and the infiltration of Andinaq's forces into the heart of the duchy. From both terrain and military might, the three duchies were at a disadvantage.

Auguslo hoped to leave only one light cavalry legion to hold back Farkel's three garrison legions and focus all the other military resources on breaching Forund's defense line at Freewood. Even though there were up to five garrison legions there, that defense line was spread out and the terrain was flat, which made it even more suitable for a cavalry attack.

Auguslo was going to use Whitelion and House Kenmay's two heavy-armored divisions to breach one of the spots on the defenses to make an opening while House Fisablen's reserve legion and Third Frontier, House Felim's Pegasus, House Shazin's two light cavalry divisions and Lorist's Tigersoar would enter Forund through the opening and attack Handra and Farkel from the rear, deciding the outcome in one battle.

The king said, "The three duchies are an egg. Their only hard points are the two defense lines before us, and as long as we can breach it, we'll be able to taste the sweet, delicious yolk within. I believe that the might of our combined forces is unmatched and they won't be stopped. Wars are won through might and things are fell through fights. The four central duchies will soon be history, so I wish that you will give this your all and make wondrous contributions to the unification of the empire."