The drizzle that had fallen since midnight had finally let up just before noon. It was a welcome change in the weather. After all, it was almost winter, and nobody wanted to freeze in the rain.
Ralphus looked down at his men from atop his horse and gently shook his head.
It wasn’t too strange considering that they were marching towards war, but nobody seemed to be talking. Even still, Ralphus felt that it was too quiet.
All of his men were looking at the ground as they traveled the road by horse, as if they were about to be crushed by the uncertainty of the future to come.
It was understandable…… The enemy they were about to fight was Zarmine, after all. No one would be excited at the prospect of fighting a battle they couldn’t win. Even the most honorable of knights would want to return alive from the battlefield. Nobody in their right mind would wish for anything less.
The weight of his men’s lives weighed heavily on Ralphus’ chest.
They were in the land that had once been Lunan, which had been destroyed by Zarmine half a year ago…… The narrow road they traveled passed through a remote forest.
Ralphus had accompanied the King and had passed the border several days ago, but he was now marching on with only his own unit.
The reason was simple —he had been left behind by the King.
That morning, he had awoken to find, to his great displeasure, that King Douglass and the other High Generals had already left with their troops in tow.
It appeared that Ralphus was considerably disliked by the King. It was most likely because he had covered for Rain.
He had thought that it was strange that his unit had been sent to camp so far away from the rest of the army, but he had never thought that they would be left behind right in the middle of an enemy nation.
Ralphus did not regret his earlier actions in the least, but his feelings regarding the king’s lack of magnanimity had crossed beyond disappointment and into the verge of despair.
He could not believe that the King had the nerve to do something like this for petty revenge.
After all, it would only serve to put the army at a greater disadvantage if a battle were to suddenly break out.
……Stop right there. Thinking about it won’t solve anything. I’ll just have to make the most of the situation.
After deciding to change his mindset, he called out to his men in a loud voice.
It was imperative that they caught up with the King as quickly as possible, but it was also necessary to rest.
“Attention! All units, we will take a short break before moving on! You are permitted to eat a light meal if you’d like.”
Ralphus heard his men regain some of their cheer as they dismounted and began to take their breaks as they pleased.
A loud voice called out to him from behind as he looked over his troops.
“Boss! What are ya doin’?! When ya take a break, ya gotta do it properly!”
A giant of a man who was large in both size and stature rode up next to Ralphus.
He was a heavily bearded and looked every bit like a rough mountain bandit. He had a deep, throaty voice and a thick mane of disheveled hair.
His name was Gwen, and he had been Ralphus’ aide ever since the latter had first ventured out onto the battlefield at the tender age of fifteen. He was already in his mid-thirties.
“No, I have to……”
“C’mon, let’s go rest over there. I’ll go with ya!”
Ralphus said with a wry smile as he dismounted.
Gwen was a good-natured man, but he was stubborn and refused to back down when he wanted something done. It was more sensible than not to play along with his ideas.
In addition, Gwen always called Ralphus ‘Boss’ for some reason, and had been doing so for the past ten years. When corrected, he would call Ralphus by the correct title of ‘General’ for a while, but would soon return to saying ‘Boss’ again. Ralphus had long since decided to drop the matter and no longer minded being called ‘Boss’.
After all, Gwen did not hold the slightest bit of ill intent against him.
Together, they walked away from the rest of the unit and sat down with their backs against a tree.
“Tch. The ground’s all moist. My butt’s gonna get wet,”
Gwen complained with a heavy scowl.
“It’s something you can feel only because you’re alive,”
Ralphus accidentally let slip out. He only realized what he had done when Gwen asked,
“do ya really think we might be in some serious trouble this time, Boss? The enemy’s a bit tough, after all.”
Ralphus had intended to play it down, but then reconsidered. There was no point in hiding it from Gwen. He corrected himself, saying,
“I’m afraid I do. I can’t deny that Zarmine is absurdly powerful.”
“I agree with ya there. We were only able to scrape together fifteen-thousand men, but they’ve got forty to fifty-thousand just in their expeditionary force, right?”
“Yeah. At least that’s what our intel says. Their commander was…… General Garblake, I believe?”
And Garblake’s aide’s name should have been Luminas, or something of the sort.
Ralphus recalled their names in a composed manner. Garblake was a veteran general who had distinguished himself on the battlefield in countless wars, and Luminas appeared to be a man with many schemes up his sleeves who fought with brains rather than brawn. However, Ralphus could not be certain because he did not have enough information since this was the first time that Zarmine and Sunkwoll had gone to war.
However, they were talking about the absolutely meritocratic kingdom of Zarmine. There was no doubt that Garblake and Luminas could not be underestimated.
“Well, we can’t do nothin’ about the difference in our military might, but rather than that, there’s somethin’ else that doesn’t sit too right with me.”
Gwen stared intently at Ralphus with his gigantic eyes. Then, for some reason, he proceeded to scowl magnificently.
“It’s not like you to be so indirect about something. What’s upsetting you?”
Ralphus asked gently. Gwen answered immediately, as if he had been waiting for permission to continue.
“It’s Boss Rain, of course!”
“Exactly! He’s technically yer friend, Boss, ain’t he? But he just ran away, and that doesn’t sit too right with me. He left all alone, when things are gettin’ so dangerous——. It’s as if he’s just gone and abandoned ya, Boss!”
“Rain, huh? I wonder what he’s been up to?”
Ralphus thought about his best friend back home in Sunkwoll and smiled. Rain should have returned to his own lands at least ten days ago, and was probably being pestered by the beautiful blond Senoa every day.
Ralphus had also sent Rain a letter asking him to take Princess Shelfa under his care, but did not know if it had reached him yet.
“What are ya thinking about? I’m incredibly angry here!”
“Getting angry with me won’t solve anything.”
“That’s true, but…… gah, yer too nice for yer own good, Boss. Aren’t ya even a little angry?!”
Talking about the matter seemed to have agitated Gwen even more, as he suddenly drew closer to Ralphus while looking like he was about to pop a vein.
Although he was a little apologetic to admit it, Ralphus thought that Gwen looked like a child who had been crying through the night. Then again, Ralphus had always thought that Gwen was very expressive.
Oblivious to Ralphus’ feeling, Gwen complained,
“ya know, when all things are said and done, I do respect that guy a little. After all, he’s helped ya out a couple of times, Boss. I thought he’d at least help ya out this time, too, even if he abandoned everyone else. Geez, what a mess!”
“……Even if you put it that way, I don’t feel as though I’ve been betrayed by Rain.”
“What are ya sayin’ after all this time…… If this ain’t betrayal, I dunno what is. How else would ya explain his behavior?”
Ralphus shrugged, unable to offer a response.
He had every confidence that Rain was not the type of person to betray his friends. However, it was difficult to convey that confidence to others. He didn’t know how to take the convictions from the depths of his heart and turn them into words.
Still, Ralphus thought that Gwen needed to give Rain more credit, since he too had been saved by Rain before.
Well, Rain wasn’t acting the way he normally does, either——wait.
Something caught Ralphus’ attention as he was thinking.
To begin with, why did Rain go out of his way to get put under house arrest, despite the dangers of doing so? If he had really wanted to run away, there were better ways to do it. Is there some other reason behind his actions? A reason that I haven’t thought of yet?
A flash of inspiration struck Ralphus as he thought.
“I see! That guy…!”
Ralphus began to explain his revelation with great zeal, as Gwen’s eyes opened wide in shock, saying,
“I’ve figured it out. I know why Rain wanted to be put under house arrest.”
“……What are ya gettin’ at?”
“Basically, it’s like this. What would happen if Rain had sortied with us?”
“Well, then he’d be fightin’ with us.”
“That’s not it, you’ve missed the point.”
Ralphus shook his head fervently before continuing,
“if Rain had sortied with us, he would just die with us in the upcoming battle. If he died, he wouldn’t be able to fulfill his objective.”
“Hold it, Boss…… Ya can’t say stuff like that!”
Gwen looked around to make sure that no one else had heard them. Ralphus essentially declared that they would lose the battle, and that was not something a general should say to his men.
“This isn’t like ya, Boss. So, what’s his objective, then?”
“Needless to say, it’s to save us,”
Ralphus declared with confidence.
“Had he followed orders and joined our expeditionary forces, even he wouldn’t be free to act as he’d like, no? He would be bound by His Majesty’s orders, and would ultimately die with the rest of us. That’s why he got himself put under house arrest on purpose. This way, he’s free to act as he needs in order to save us. And that’s the truth.”
Of this, Ralphus had no doubt.
However, he knew that His Majesty would not be one of the people who Rain was trying to save.
Gwen stared in unfiltered skepticism as Ralphus burst with confidence. In his doubt, Gwen had the face of a greedy loan shark lending money to a poor debtor.
“……Well, if that’s how things are, he’d better do his damned best job. After all, he’s always goin’ on about how he’s a genius and whatnot.”
Gwen, who still clearly did not have any faith in Rain, turned his gaze to the rest of the army. He did not seem to have believed Ralphus’ explanation at all.
“He’ll do something without fail. And Gwen, you seem to doubt him quite a bit, but Rain is every bit the genius that he claims to be. For some reason, though, I don’t think he believes it himself.”
“That, that’s not even funny!”
Gwen said, gawking in surprise. He continued,
“he stops to call himself a genius every ten steps, ya know?”
“Gwen, you’re exaggerating. Well, I guess I can’t deny that he says it fairly often. It’s just that I feel as if what he says and how he actually feels about the matter are two different things.”
“Did he say somethin’ about it?”
Gwen asked in a whisper as Ralphus responded with a lonely smile.
“Of course not. He’s not someone who’d readily open up his heart for the world to see. It’s just what I feel about the matter.”
Unable to quell Gwen’s doubts any further, Ralphus stood up as he saw his other aide approach them.
“Did something happen, Nigel?”
Nigel was an aide with considerable military experience, but he did not look like a knight at all.
His hair, which must have been washed in the morning, glistened in the sunlight, and he stared at Ralphus silently with girlishly large green eyes.
His effeminate face was the very picture of composure.
Yet, there was no way that this silent and solitary youth had come over simply to chat, so a situation that he had felt the need to report to his superior officer must have arisen. Ralphus had a bad feeling about it.
After greeting Ralphus with a salute that was perfect in every sense of the word, Nigel continued as if he was simply talking about the weather.
“The scouts have not returned, although the appointed time has passed.”
Ralphus met Gwen’s gaze.
Ralhpus always sent out scouts before advancing through enemy territory. The fact that they had not returned was not a simple matter.
“Oi! Do ya mean that not a single one of ‘em came back?!”
Nigel nodded silently.
Nigel looked unconcerned, but this was not a turn of events that Ralphus could afford to ignore. It was generally assumed that scouts had been killed by the enemy if they did not return.
Of course, in this case, the enemy in question was none other than Zarmine.
Evidently, the enemy had grasped their movements long ago.
Well, we should have expected the obvious, Ralphus thought as he bit down on his lips. Even if Zarmine had only acquired the territory just recently, it was reasonable to expect that they would suspect any strange forces that had been moving about in their lands for days. There was no point in saying it out loud, but this plan had been a failure from the very start.
“……Boss, ain’t this pretty bad?”
“Yeah. We were planning to ambush the enemy, but it seems like we’re the ones getting ambushed instead. I’m worried about His Majesty. We must catch up to him at once!”
But right as Ralphus finished talking——
The faint sound of countless people bellowing from afar echoed into his ears.
Along with it, he heard the distinct clang of metal clashing against metal.
“Damn! It seems that we’re too late!”
Ralphus said as he broke out into a run with his armor clanking after him. His two aides followed him not to far behind.
The three of them cut through the crowd of discomposed soldiers and jumped atop their horses. Then, Ralphus addressed his men, shouting,
“listen up! Bad news, but it seems that the enemy has made the first move. What we’re hearing is most likely the sound of His Majesty’s troops, who departed before us, battling the enemy! We must go to their aide at once!”
The army fell as silent as death and listened intently, as if the commotion from just before had never happened. All of their eyes and ears were trained on Ralphus.
After making sure that everyone ——or at least everyone who was ranked knight-captain and above—— understood the gravity of the situation, Ralphus commanded,
“all right! Then, we will begin to advance in formation a quickly as we can. Form ranks as soon as you reach the battlefield and await further orders. All units, move out! And quickly!”
Under Ralphus’ orders, the once-bewildered group of knights gathered their wits and began to move as one. They moved with composure and without falter.
Behind his stern demeanor, Ralphus’ voice held a tint of satisfaction as he looked to Gwen and said,
“they’re all so composed even in the face of war. I would have expected no less from these knights.”
“Nah, that ain’t quite it. It’s all because yer the one givin’ orders, Boss.”
“——? I don’t understand.”
Gwen simply shook his head and pointed forward as Ralphus knit his eyebrows in confusion.
“It’s fine if ya don’t get it. Let’s get goin’! It wouldn’t make sense for ya to be the last one to get there, Boss.”
“Y, yeah. You’re right!”
Ralphus gently spurred his horse into a spirited gallop.
He prayed that he wouldn’t be too late.
Ralphus advanced with his men for a short while. The screams and bellows grew louder as they drew nearer.
As he was hurrying down the path, Ralphus spotted a group of knights approaching them.
He recognized a centurion among the group, so he knew that they were not enemy forces. Still, all of them had abandoned their horses and were scrambling closer on foot. Taking into consideration the fact that several of the men were injured, Ralphus concluded that they were retreating.
After stopping his horse, Ralphus called out,
“hold! What are you doing? What happened to the battle?”
The men had stiffened up when they first saw Ralphus’ troops, but they became visibly relieved after realizing who he was.
Gwen snorted loudly and said,
“hey, what, yer already runnin’ for yer lives?”
“H, how dare…!”
the centurion began with indignation, but quickly lost his nerve and looked away after one look at Ralphus’ sharp eyes. He continued,
“w, we had no other choice! W, we were betrayed by our own!”
Ralphus asked sternly, staring hard at the other man.
The centurion gulped.
“Y, yes, sir. Lord Ganoa and Lord Gilles attacked His Majesty’s unit as soon as the enemy approached…… And they… His Majesty’s h, head……”
The man trailed off at the end of his sentence after seeing the color drain from Ralphus’ face.
After gritting his teeth together, Ralphus quietly asked,
“so you mean to say that His Majesty has passed away.”
“Y, yes, sir!”
The men took one look at Ralphus’ rage and began to quiver in fear, as if they were criminals before the gallows.
“……Ganao or Gilles —which one killed His Majesty?”
“I, I don’t know. They seemed to be competing over it.”
Ralphus understood the gist of the situation.
To sum it up, although he did not know when it had happened, the two of them had accepted some sort of offer from Zarmine. Then, they had made their final decision after learning of this reckless strategy.
They had rushed at King Douglass at the critical moment when the Zarmine army had appeared. After all, the head of a king was a great token of surrender and an even better tool to buy favors with.
“Damnit!! Those dirty bastards!!”
Gwen roared as he finally came back to his senses. Nigel silently folded his arms from atop his horse, seemingly lost in thought.
“……We should hurry,”
Ralphus said as he spurred on his horse without another word, ignoring the men who seemed to have more to say.
Heavy feelings of regret stirred within his heart as he pressed onwards.
If I had been more careful, could I have saved His Majesty? Or, have I simply been making all of the wrong choices up until now?
Ralphus could not help but blame himself, despite knowing that there was no point in brooding over the matter anymore.
“There’s the end of the forest!”
Gwen called out in a somewhat hesitantly. Ralphus spurred on his horse faster and leapt into the sunlight.
As his field of vision widened, Ralphus saw the large, black army in the distance.
The Zarmine army’s armor was fundamentally black and standard across all units, and was quite the spectacle. It looked as if the earth itself had been covered by a giant, black bullet.
Yet, only a fraction of Zarmine’s army continued fighting, pushing the Sunkwoll army to the brink annihilation. Or rather, the difference in military might was so great that the remainder of Sunkwoll’s army would either flee or be wiped out sooner rather than later.
After being swallowed up and crushed by enemy forces of 40,000 strong, Sunkwoll’s defeat was imminent.
The cluster of silver armor was being pushed back by black troops.
Moreover, as far as Ralphus could tell, the King’s personal unit of 5,000 men had already been annihilated, and only a few thousand men lead by the surviving High Generals still continued to fight.
Ralphus’ men, lined up in orderly rows behind him, stared silently at the disaster before them.
“Boss…… This is, already…”
Gwen said hesitantly.
Ralphus slowly turned away. He understood what Gwen was saying. There was no longer a point in joining the battle. The King they were supposed to protect had fallen, and their remaining allies were already fleeing the battlefield.
Only, there was no way that the Zarmine army would simply let them leave, so if Ralphus and his men wanted to retreat, they would have to leave at once.
“I know, Gwen,”
Ralphus said, surprising even himself with how calm he was. Then, he turned to face his men and declared,
“it is unfortunate, but the outcome of this battle has already been decided. There is no longer a reason for us to join this fight.”
Ralphus’ men, still standing in formation, silently listened to his words. He continued,
“return to your homes in Sunkwoll as fast as your horses can carry you! You don’t need to wait for my orders any more. Everyone is to return home!”
Ralphus saluted them away with a wave of his hand.
But not a single man returned his salute. His men usually followed his orders immediately, but not a single man had moved.
Irritated, Ralphus was about to repeat his order when Nigel silently came forward.
“What will you do, General?”
he asked in a deep voice.
“Me? Well, I’ll ——”
Ralphus tried to think of an excuse, but quickly gave on the prospect.
He knew that he would not be able to deceive his men so easily.
“I have decided that this will be the place where I will die. So, don’t worry about me and hurry home.”
Nigel wordlessly stared back at Ralphus.
“……What are you thinking about, Nigel?”
“I’m afraid I cannot answer. You would stop me if I did, General. In any case, I understand how you feel.”
“Your reply tells me everything I need to know! Can’t you be quiet and do as you’re told?!”
Nigel replied bluntly.
His reply left Ralphus dumbfounded and unable to reply.
Just then, a beat-red Gwen slapped Nigel hard across the back.
Apparently having been greatly moved by Nigel’s reply, he continued to hit Nigel across the back until the latter burst into a coughing fit.
“Good fer you! That kind of attitude’s what makes a man a man! I thought ya were all about the doom n’ gloom, but yer actually a manly guy when it counts!”
“……It doesn’t make me happy to be praised by you, Sir Gwen,”
Nigel said once he stopped coughing.
“Tch. Yer just as uncute as ever, aren’t ya?”
Gwen threw back his head and laughed heartily.
“Hey, hold on a second! This isn’t the time to be laughing, Gwen. Nigel, you too. I’m begging you, so won’t you please return home? You can still make it if you leave now.”
“Ain’t that enough, Boss? Anyone who doesn’t wanna die will leave on their own, and anyone who wants to share yer fate ain’t gonna listen no matter what ya say,”
Gwen said cheerfully as he swung around the giant battle axe that had been draped around his shoulder.
You’re just talking about yourself, aren’t you? Ralphus thought with a sigh.
However, Gwen wasn’t alone in the sentiment.
Starting with Nigel, not a single man had moved an inch.
“I’m sorry, everyone……”
“What are ya talkin’ about? Anyways, where do we start? Our enemies are all up fer grabs.”
Ralphus recovered his composure and pointed at a group of men that stood a little way from the Zarmine army —the men who had once been their allies.
“If we’re to die anyway, we might as well tie up any loose ends first.”
Gilles, who had betrayed Sunkwoll, was very uncharacteristically standing at the frontlines despite the fact that the battle was still going on.
Of course, he had his reasons.
Since Ganoa had already taken the best war prize, Douglass’ head, he had to prove his fidelity to Zarmine by taking as many of his former allies’ heads as possible now that their army was in chaos.
The fact that he had waited until the last moment possible before acting on his pledge to betray Sunkwoll had now come back to bite him where it hurt.
Well, his former allies had already been routed out for the most part, so the frontlines were quite safe anyways.
Or at least, that was what Gilles thought.
——That idiot Ganoa. He retreated immediately after taking the King’s head. Doesn’t he know that this is the perfect chance to curry more favor with Zarmine?
Gilles contemplated his future plans at leisure as his fat figure swayed on his horse.
Zarmine had sent him a secret message saying that they would reward him with lands several times larger than the territory he currently owned. With that much wealth, he could even build himself a new castle.
He had always thought that his current castle was much too small for him.
He would also need more concubines. He had to order his men to find him the most beautiful women.
The image of Princess Shelfa’s exquisite beauty came into Gilles’ mind. Could he possibly make that beauty his? Well, it wouldn’t be impossible. That girl was no longer a flower too far out of his reach.
As Gilles smirked while imagining himself having his way with the delicate princess, one of his aides approached him on horseback. His face was deathly pale.
“General! There’s trouble! The enemy… it’s the enemy!”
“The enemy? What on earth are you talking about? They’ve already been almost wiped out by now!”
“It’s a different enemy!”
His face was filled with agitation and a tint of fear as his continued,
“it’s General Ralphus’ troops…… They’re heading straight for us! They’ll be here at any moment now!”
Gilles turned his head and looked ahead in a panic.
Indeed, a small unit was kicking up a large cloud of dust as they rushed towards him with great vigor. The lion insignia on their banners undoubtedly belonged to Ralphus.
Gilles’ fat frame trembled as he let out a whimper.
It was not that he had failed to notice Ralphus’ arrival. However, he had never in his wildest dreams imagined that Ralphus would join the battle after everything that had happened.
The outcome of the battle had long since been decided, and he had thought that there was no way someone as skilled in the art of war as Ralphus would charge into the fray when the Sunkwoll army was on its last legs. Even if Ralphus was loyal to Sunkwoll, Gilles had thought that he would withdraw and re-group in preparation for another battle.
——This was a huge miscalculation on Gilles’ part, especially considering that he had always lived according to the rules of profit and loss.
Ralphus’ moral standards were something that he could never understand even if he tried.
“What do we do, General?”
Gilles’ aide asked the same question that Gilles had wanted to ask himself.
“B, brace yourselves, for the time being. The Zarmine army will come to help us soon!”
The first wave hit as Gilles barked out the first thing that popped into his head.
The enemy’s vanguard cut through Gilles’ men like a sharp drill.
Hardly any of Gilles’ men had the will to fight.
Not only were they weighed down by the guilt of knowing that they had betrayed their comrades, but they also held an unshakeable fear for Ralphus himself. After all, his feats of bravery were renown amongst Sunkwoll’s knights.
Gilles, who commanded the weak-willed army, was no exception. He was a man filled with self-confidence, but he had never once thought that he could ever defeat Ralphus.
Sure enough, Ralphus’ army, spearheaded by the man himself, broke through Gilles’ vanguard in an instant. Gilles gulped.
Such power…… There’s no way I’ll win. Zarmine… why won’t they come to help!! At the brink of tears, he stole a glance at the Zarmine army behind him and to his dismay he found that they had already withdrawn, despite being not too far away. They had not taken a single step from their formation.
They were simply observing the situation with a tranquility that was almost offensive.
“Damnit, just what the hell is going on?!”
A cold sweat ran down Gilles’ back as he turned around to complain to his aide only to find that the latter had long since disappeared.
He abandoned me!
Gilles began to tremble. To make matters worse, his other officers and men, realizing that they could not possibly win, had also turned tail and fled on their horses.
From the start, none of Gilles’ men had truly followed him out of respect, and when push came to shove, they abandoned their nasty bully of a commander all too easily.
Succumbing to fear himself, Gilles pulled hard at his reins in an attempt to flee.
Being unused to such rough treatment, his horse bucked and threw its rider off with a whinny.
Gilles shouted as he tumbled to the ground and landed hard on his back.
Unfortunately, everyone in his immediately vicinity had already fled, and Ralphus had seen the entire exchange.
Gilles’ and Ralphus’ eyes met, as if an invisible line had been drawn between them.
“Gilles! Stay right where you are!!”
The normally quiet Ralphus roared in a thunderous voice.
Feeling as if his soul would leap out of his body, Gilles attempted to crawl away to safety but found, to his dismay, that his horse had long since galloped away.
“Is, is there no one here?!”
When no one answered his calls, Gilles scrambled to his feet only to find Ralphus standing tacitly before him.
He stared Gilles down with a stern face as his two commoner aides stood behind him.
Without taking his eyes off of Gilles’ face, Ralphus quietly asked,
“was it you who struck down His Majesty, Gilles?”
“No, never! The one, who, the one who killed him was Ganoa! It wasn’t me!”
“……I see. I that case, I will send him to Hades after you…… Now, prepare yourself, Gilles!”
Ralphus drew his sword and took his stance.
With a piercing gaze and a stance that left no openings——Ralphus was the very picture of overwhelming force.
Gilles had always thought of Ralphus as a quiet guy who was too kind for his own good. But now, as his entire body trembled with fear, he realized—
That up until now he had only known a mere fraction of the man standing before him.
This isn’t even funny! As if I could beat this guy! If anyone could, it’d be that monster, Rain!
“Wa, wait. There’s no need for you to take this so seriously. Right? Sunkwoll is just as good as gone. Even you’ll have to think about how you’ll act once she falls, right?”
Gilles laughed weakly as he slowly straightened himself in a manner that would cause no alarm.
Ralphus simply knit his eyebrows in response.
Then, he changed his stance and thrust his sword against the tip of Gilles’ nose.
“Gilles. How about you take up your sword like a knight in your final moments?”
Gilles shuddered after peering into Ralphus’ eyes.
He’s serious! He’s seriously going to——
“My, my reward! I’ll give you everything that I was supposed to receive! So, so please, spare me!”
“That’s unsightly, Gilles!”
Ralphus brandished his sword.
Screaming his throat out, Gilles turned tail and tried to run away.
“You fool!” was the last this he heard as he felt his back burn up in white-hot pain and lost consciousness forever.
“If possible, I hadn’t wanted to cut you down from behind,”
Ralphus said, shaking his head as he looked down at Gilles’ corpse sprawled out in front of him.
After removing the blood off of his sword with one smooth swing, he returned it to its scabbard.
“It couldn’t a’ been helped. He tried to run away like the stubborn idiot he was. He got what he deserved,”
Gwen stated resolutely, spitting on the ground.
He didn’t appear to hold any sympathy for Gilles, who had been unsightly until the very end. Nigel, who was staring down at Gilles with cold eyes, likely shared the sentiment.
“On another note, Boss. Zarmine didn’t come to help this worthless bastard at all. What’s the deal with that?”
Ralphus replied in a quiet tone,
“it’s not really that strange. From their point of view, two nuisances were simply finishing each other off. It’s a nice way to get things done without having to lift a finger, no?”
“——Makes sense. So, they’d been planin’ on abandoning Gilles from the start. They used him and threw him away…… tch, it doesn’t sit right with me.”
Gwen spat on the ground again.
He was a cleanly person by nature, despite what his appearance may suggest, so he must have been extremely upset.
Ralphus wasn’t too happy either, but he pushed his feelings aside.
He turned around and searched for Ganoa within the droves of Zarmine’s large army.
However, he could not find Ganoa’s insignia anywhere, perhaps because the latter had moved far back to the rear of the army.
As Ralphus persisted in his search regardless, he heard something akin to a high-pitched whistle.
There was no need to guess what it had signaled. The Dark Army, renown throughout the continent, caused the earth to tremble as they began to move. Naturally, they moved to destroy Ralphus and his unit.
After all, the other units had already been wiped out or had fled the scene.
“It seems like we’ll have to give up on Ganoa.”
“——That it does,”
Gwen calmly concurred.
Nigel simply watched the oncoming army without any sign of distress.
……But, in any case, Ralphus wanted for the two of them to survive.
“Gwen, Nigel, you two should——”
“Yer fallin’ on deaf ears, Boss.”
“We’ve already made up our minds,”
they said together as soon as Ralphus had opened his mouth.
“……Is that so?”
Even Ralphus was unable to keep insisting otherwise.
They had already decided that they would share his fate no matter what. They would not back down even if he ordered them to do so.
After taking another look at his loyal aides, Ralphus turned to the rest of his unit waiting behind him. Then, he nimbly mounted his favorite steed and took up a pike.
“Then, there is nothing more to say! Let us show the enemy just how stubborn we can be!”
With the cheer of his two-thousand men behind him, Ralphus shot out like an arrow.
He charged straight for the heart of the looming enemy army.
The enemy vanguard grew steadily closer. Before making contact, Ralphus stopped his horse and bellowed,
“my name is Ralphus Juliard Sunkwoll! Anyone who wishes to fight me, come forth!!”
The Zarmine knights were momentarily taken aback, but they soon swarmed at once to take their fearless enemy’s head.
“What a surprise. A man by the name of Ralphus has apparently challenged us to battle,”
muttered Luminas, one of the commanding officers of the Zarmine army.
He was a military man of about thirty with a sharp chin and smooth skin. The black armor he donned did not really suit him. He gazed at his enemy before him with attentive eyes.
The man called Ralphus was, of all things, leading a pitifully small force against them. Luminas was honestly exasperated, but at the same time, he could not help but admire the man a little.
“Hmph. Now that’s what I call a true knight. You couldn’t even compare him to the likes of Ganoa or Gilles, who crossed over to our side so easily. By the way, is that man royalty? He called himself Sunkwoll just now,”
said a heroic man with a bulky, muscular build as he stroked his long beard. His stern visage, adorned by short-trimmed golden hair, looked as if it had been chiseled from stone. He was much older than Luminas.
He was the highest commander of the entire expeditionary force, Garblake.
“No. This man, Ralphus, was granted use of the name Sunkwoll for his military exploits…… I wish that someone like him had become our ally,”
Luminas replied, knowing fully well that he wished for the impossible.
He had already known from prior research that Ralphus was passionately loyal man. If he was someone who could be swayed by land or riches, they would have already welcomed him to their side.
Most men could be enticed by promises of profit. However, there also existed men who could not be swayed from their convictions.
“It’s impossible to pull him over to our side at this point…… then what should we do?”
Garblake asked, disappointed.
Naturally, Luminas, the army’s strategist, had an answer prepared.
The enemy had already engaged their vanguard. The ensuing fight would not be a very long one.
“We defeat him, of course. If we cannot make him our ally, then he is simply another enemy.”
“I guess that’s the only thing we can do.”
Luminas responded curtly.
No matter how great of a tactician Ralphus was, he could not possibly overcome the fact that he was recklessly charging at an army with tens of thousands more soldiers than his on a flat plain with no obstacles to hide behind. The staggering difference in numbers alone would determine the outcome of the battle.
If a large army clashed with a small force a hundred times, the army would win a hundred times. That was the absolute truth of war.
And yet…… something still bothered him.
And that something was none other than Rain.
In truth, the Sunkwoll high general that Luminas was the wariest of was Rain, the “Unknown Genius”.
Intel from multiple spies had confirmed that Rain was currently under house arrest. The reason behind it seemed to have had been his opposition to the surprise attack that had been advocated by the war counsel.
It simply meant that Rain wasn’t foolish enough to fight a poorly planned out war, but Luminas could not help but wonder if Rain was the type of man to abandon his friends.
According to his reports, Rain and Ralphus were quite close……
That was the issue that bothered Luminas. To put it simply, he thought that Rain might have planted a trap somewhere.
But, if there really was trap, then how would that explain Ralphus’ rash actions? They had put Ralphus’, the commanding officer’s, life on the line.
——So, did Rain not tell Ralphus about his plan? Am I overthinking this?
As Luminas was lost deep in thought when Garblake interjected,
“is there something bothering you?”
“Well…… no, but I was a little worried about Ralphus’ fellow general, Rain.”
Luminas outlined the gist of his concerns.
“——and so, I’m afraid that he might try to interfere.”
“Hmm. Now that you mention it, His Majesty had also warned us about Rain. But he should be in his own castle at the moment. And even if our intel was wrong and he comes here with reinforcements, he won’t be a match for our army.”
“……That man is dangerous. I’d rather not underestimate him,”
Luminas insisted cautiously, even knowing that he was dangerously close to openly defying his superior.
He had more than enough reasons to be guarded against Rain. However, he decided that it was not a good idea to tell Garblake at the moment.
In any case, Garblake was indifferent to Luminas’ objections.
Garblake snorted and gave Luminas a sidelong glance, as if he had been offended somehow.
And without a moment’s complaint, he complained,
“I don’t give a damn about Rain. And, Luminas, what are you doing? Our frontlines are beginning to give way. Hurry up and give the order. We have more than enough reserves to spare.”
Luminas started at Garblake’s voice and confirmed the situation.
Ralphus’ unit cut through the frontlines by strategically exchanging members of their vanguard and rear guard in a dizzying manner. It was quite the feat from such a small until. But, however, it was not enough to turn the tides of battle.
They charged forward like madmen, but even so they could not make up for their lack of numbers.
“Our hands are tied. He was a man who deserved far better, but it’s about time that we finished up here.”
Luminas called for a messenger and ordered five-thousand soldiers to be split into two groups and deployed to flank Ralphus’ until from both sides. This was the end.
The unit that had received those orders rallied and began to move out. Luminas and Garblake followed them with their eyes.
His field of vision had suddenly blurred for some reason.
As Luminas began to wonder what the blurriness was, it changed into a thick, white mist at once.
Garblake seemed to have noticed as well.
The forest in the distance, the unit that had just been dispatched——, they were both dissolving into the mist. And the mist continued to grow thicker and thicker.
“What the…, is this mist?”
“No, this is…… shit! Is this magic?!”
The pure white mist that surrounded Luminas had already begun to obscure both friend and foe alike. In a panic, Luminas called the messenger back and retracted his previous order.
At this rate, they risked attacking their own men.
“What is going on, Luminas?!”
“It’s probably the enemy’s magic. I think that multiple enemy mages are creating this mist with magic.”
You’ve one-upped us, Rain.
Luminas sighed. Only Rain would have intervened here and now. It seemed that he had never intended on abandoning Ralphus after all.
Rain must have dispatched his men because, according to the Magic Vision that the lookouts were using, he had not moved from his castle.
He had just been outwitted, but Luminas was not very upset about it for some reason.
“Luminas, we can’t act freely at this rate……”
“Indeed. We cannot risk having our men attack each other by mistake. I’ll have a few men sent out to search for the mages creating the mist,”
said Luminas as he added, though it’ll be impossible to find such a small number of people in this situation, to himself.
They had no choice but to wait for the mist to clear.
——You’ve won this round. But Rain, you can’t win a war if you’re always running away. We will still be victorious in the end.
Luminas crossed his arms as he sat atop his horse and stoically waited for the mist to clear.
Ralphus, who had been engrossed in battle, finally stopped his horse when the heavy mist around him rendered it impossible to fight any longer.
The Zarmine army was retreating in order to prevent accidental infighting.
“……We were spared by the skin of our teeth, Boss,”
said Gwen with a sigh as he guided his horse closer.
His armor was covered in dents and cracks, telling the silent story of his participation in the battle. Nigel, who waited silently behind him, fared no better.
“Gwen, you’re hurt!”
Ralphus tried to dismount in a panic after seeing blood ooze out from a hole in Gwen’s leg armor.
Gwen stopped him with a single hand.
“This is nothin’, Boss. It didn’t get to the bone. And Boss, ain’t yer stomach hurting yerself?”
“……This is just a scratch.”
Ralphus brushed his wound aside as if it was nothing. It was definitely more than a scratch, but it was certainly not enough to threaten his life.
“But still, this mist couldn’t a’ had better timin’. This here’s a miracle, Boss.”
“Gwen, miracles don’t come so cheap. This is Rain’s doing. Or one of his men’s.”
“Naw, no way. Yer overthinkin’ this.”
“……Someone is coming,”
Nigel quietly interjected.
Indeed, they could hear the sound of hooves approaching them. They seemed to belong to a single horseman.
Gwen readied his battle axe without a moment’s delay. Nigel tightened his grip on his spear as well.
But Ralphus, who had a hunch about who it might be, did not move.
“Both of you, lower your weapons. It’s alright, it’s probably…”
Before he could finish, a man riding a black horse emerged from the thick fog.
“Sir Ralphus, I presume?”
The man stopped his horse and stared intently at Ralphus.
He was rather slim, and had a delicate visage that could have been mistaken for a woman’s. He wore no armor, and instead wore only a cloak over his thick shirt.
His black hair and green eyes marked him as a Sunkwoll commoner, but his eyes were uncannily sharp. On top of that, he looked sullen, as if something grossly unpleasant was on his mind. Or, perhaps, that was simply how is face naturally rested.
“Indeed, I am Ralphus. And you are?”
The man gave a half-hearted bow upon Ralphus’ response.
“My apologies. I am called Gunther Valoa. Under orders from my master, Lord Rain, I have come to meet you, Lord Ralphus,”
Gunther replied morosely.
“As I’d thought.”
Ralphus sighed as he glanced sideways at Gwen, whose mouth was open wide in surprise. He continued,
“is he here too?”
“No, Lord Rain had originally intended to meet you himself, but I convinced him otherwise. It was easier to keep the enemy off guard if my Lord remained at Cortecreas Castle.”
“……Is that so? But Gunther. I’d thought that I was quite familiar with Rain’s officers, but this is my first time meeting you.”
“I am the leader of the intelligence and covert operations division, whom Lord Rain has reserved especially for times like now. Putting that aside, please hurry up and escape. My subordinates are creating this fog with magic, but their magic will not last forever.”
Gunther urged Ralphus on with a hint of irritation in his voice. They probably did not have much time left.
Instead of answering, Ralphus glared silently into the mist. Gwen, Nigel, and his other men watched him without a word.
At long last, Ralphus said in anguish,
“I had hoped to die before Rain came to help. I did not intend to be forgiven for allowing His Majesty to die so easily. And even now, my feelings haven’t changed.”
“Does that mean that you intend on making this place your grave?”
Gunther asked, his face betraying no hint of emotion.
“That’s correct. I’d like you to return and pass on a message to Rain. I want him to live on and support the Princess. There’s no way that Zarmine will simply let her be. And, if possible, I’d like you to take my men with you.”
Gwen, who had been listening silently until now, firmly interjected. He continued,
“that matter’s already been decided. We’re goin’ to follow ya wherever ya go, Boss.”
“In any event, I cannot pass on that message to my Lord,”
said Gunther, interrupting the pair as they began to bicker.
“What do you mean?”
“To me, Lord Rain’s orders are absolute. I have no intention of returning to him without you. It’s not what I had wanted, but I will simply have to die along with you,”
Gunther tacitly stated without skipping a beat, as if he was commenting on local gossip.
Ralphus stared into his face, wondering if he was truly serious.
Gunther calmly stared back. His eyes did not waver in the slightest.
Just what kind of man was he? He didn’t appear to be a noble, but he still had a surname.
“So you’re choosing death, yes? In that case, I must entrust the rest of this mission to my men. Now, then…!”
Ralphus barely managed to stop Gunther, who had made to leave without any lingering hesitations, in the nick of time.
“Is there still something else?”
Gunther asked, thoroughly annoyed.
It was rare to find someone who cared so little about life or death. He had simply chosen to die alongside Ralphus, instead of trying to convince the latter otherwise.
A seed of doubt sprouted in Ralphus’ heart.
If things continued as they were, this man would surely die. One look at Gunther’s eyes told him that this was not a bluff.
In other words, one of Rain’s trusted men would die because of him.
No, it wasn’t only Gunther. Not a single one of Ralphus’ men had tried to leave either.
Even despite the fact that Ralphus did not want to take anyone down with him.
What should I do?! What can be done?!
Gwen and Nigel watched over Ralphus with concern.
Gunther looked on at their exchange without a hint of emotion. Then, as if he had suddenly remembered something he had forgotten, he muttered,
“ah, yes, I have a message from Lord Rain that I forgot to relay.”
“……What is it?”
Ralphus asked, still at a loss.
Keeping his composure, Gunther replied,
“Lord Rain instructed me to tell you that a fight isn’t about the fighting itself. It’s about who remains standing at the end.”
Ralphus asked with a wry smile. Without returning the gesture, Gunther continued,
“now that you mention it, he also said this: “Don’t push all of your responsibilities onto me, idiot!””
“Now that’s something he would say,”
Ralphus said as he burst out in laughter despite the situation.
Eventually, his shoulders began to shake and his laughing grew louder. He ignored the stares he was receiving from his men.
“So, what will you do? Have you changed your mind? I am in a hurry,”
Gunther asked, still obviously displeased. Deep wrinkles ran between his eyebrows. They dampened his attractive features.
With some effort, Ralphus finally stopped laughing and confidently replied,
“Yeah, I’ve changed my mind. It seems that Rain still has a plan for victory yet. I’ll bet on that.”
“……How troublesome. You should have said that from the beginning,”
Gunther retorted sullenly.