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Read Chapter I

“Alright, quiet! Not a word!” Nick said under his breath. “You don’t have to tell me twice!” Elmar replied. Slowly, they anticipated its move. It was standing still. Ever so slowly, they crept up to the bushes closest to it. Elmar took out an arrow from his quiver and fixed it to his bow. Carefully he fixed his aim. “Okay, Elmar. Take the shot!”

The stag realized something was flying towards it. But before it could even think of escaping, the arrow pierced its heart and it fell. “Excellent job, Elmar! A round of applause to the best hunter of the party. Oh, wait. Weren’t you the best hunter of the castle?” Elmar bowed to an imaginary crowd at the humor his friend made. But it was true. Elmar was a well-reputed hunter and his throwing had very good accuracy be it an arrow or a stone. “Okay, time to get the stag.”

As they approached the stag, they felt the presence of something behind them. As they turned around, they saw two hajers coming towards them. The thing that terrified them was that swords aren’t the best things that could cut through rocks. And Elmar didn’t even have a sword. All he had other than the bow and arrow, was his dagger perhaps.

Yet, they couldn’t just sit around here. Nick took out his sword. Alright Elmar, ready?” As he looked to his right he became puzzled. Elmar wasn’t there anymore. “Where’d he go? Did he ditch me at a time like this? Oh no, I hope he didn’t get caught by any other monsters. If there is any and I hope there isn’t any,” he thought. He wasn’t sure if he was feeling anxious or angry.

He didn’t have much time to think as the hajers were now mere feet away and were about to strike a blow. With determination, he took a forward stance and swayed his sword. Surprisingly, both the hajers turned to rubbles. He stood there, bewildered. Surely, it couldn’t be him. As he looked around he caught a glimpse of a tall black figure merging back into the bushes. “Who or what was that?” Nick exclaimed.

He looked around and shouted “Elmar! Where are you?” There was no response. “God, I hope he’s okay,” he thought. He didn’t consider the place very safe anymore. There was a possibility of other monsters being here as well. He went back to the place where the party set up a temporary camp.

“Sir, I have bad news,” Nick reported to the party leader. “What is it?” the party leader asked. “And did you not find anything to hunt?” “We did, sir. We killed it too. But the bad news starts from there sir.” He took a deep breath and said “sir, we have noticed monsters in the Sundre forest.” The leader’s expression changed to a more serious one. Yet, there were no signs that he was nervous. “How many?” he asked. “We’re not sure sir. I just saw two hajers. And there was another strange incident, sir.”

At this, perhaps the leader got even more interested. “Go on,” he said. “Well sir, when I swayed my sword at one of the hajers, they both broke into pieces and that also in one slash. I could’ve sworn I hit only one of the hajers, sir. And a sword can’t break those rock monsters now, can they? So, when I looked around to see if it was something else or not, I noticed a tall black figure, sir. But it was just a glimpse, sir. I couldn’t trace it.”

The leader thought for a while and said “good job on the reports. And where is the other guy I sent with you?” “Well, he……..” “Captain, we got ourselves a good hunt!” Elmar called out as he approached with the stag over his shoulder. Nick stared at him with astonishment for a while and finally ran towards and said “You okay, man? Where did you go?” “Well, I, uh…….” “At first, someone get the stag from that boy. Then we can ask the questions.” Some other soldiers standing around the leader helped him put the stag down. “Nice job, now we can enjoy a good feast!” a soldier commented.

This forest of Sundre is still pretty green as monster attacks here had been very rare. The forest had enjoyed the protection from Aggard castle in the south and Rendo castle in the north. That is why, the trees are still good looking and forages as well as animals for hunting can be pretty easily found. Things are however about to change now that the Aggard castle has fallen.

The party has been moving for three days straight, resting only during the nights. So this afternoon, they decided to take a break and find some good hunts which they could all have a good taste of meat and conserve the food they brought with them. Though the truth is they were not going to run out of food anytime soon. They just needed a break and get some good meat to eat. However, now that their initial assumption of the monsters not catching up to them was wrong, they had to make sure to move quicker.

As the soldiers carried the stag away, the party leader said “well Elmar, did you see anything else other than what Nick saw?” “Well, what did he see?” “He reported seeing two hajers.” “Yes sir, I saw that,” Elmar replied. “And he also saw a black figure and apparently, it could have some role in destroying the hajers. He only caught a glimpse though.” “No sir. I saw the hajers but I did not see the black figure sir.” “Okay, good. Since we already decided to stop, we are not going to continue our journey until tomorrow dawn. However, we are going to increase men in our night patrol, in case anything happens. So you guys, go set up your tents. And one more thing. There is no need to tell all these to the people just yet. They’ll just panic too much.” “Yes sir,” Elmar replied.

As Nick and Elmar starting heading out, Nick said sarcastically “I can’t believe you abandoned me like that!” “I didn’t! Promise!” he sounded desperately apologetic. “Yeah, okay!” Nick said again. “But where did you go? I mean you were there with me and one moment I turn to look at the hajers and the next moment, you’re gone! You were okay, right?” “Yeah, definitely!” Elmar still used the apologetic tone. “I was just so scared seeing those monsters, I went to pee in the bushes.” Nick laughed at this. “Okay, man. Jokes aside, really, where did you go?” Elmar looked down to the ground. “Well, I uh…” Nick could see the uneasiness Elmar felt. “Okay, don’t tell me. But you know what? Just try not to get yourself killed, man,” Nick said with a pat on Elmar’s back.

Lately, Elmar had been acting strange and Nick could easily tell that. “I don’t know what he’s up to but I know Elmar isn’t the type of guy who would run out on someone. Something is definitely wrong and I need to know what,” were Nick’s thoughts. On the other hand, Elmar too was feeling guilty. He knows that the truth is that he didn’t run out on him. “But I don’t know how he’ll react if I tell him about this,” he thought. No matter what, he didn’t want him to think that he ran out on him, the best buddy he had since he came to the Aggard castle.

Among the few friends Elmar made at the Aggard castle in his two months of living there, perhaps his best friend was Nick. The first time Nick met him was when he overheard a conversation of Elmar with his fellow peasants about going to the Kansarg woods near the castle. His fellow peasants had told him on how a good amount of hunts were available in the woods around the Kansarg village and how it required crossing the Barh canal, a place which was filled with rogues and salamanders. Sometimes the soldiers who got their rare two or more days break used to go there for hunting. Elmar declared upon learning it, that he wanted to go there because if it is a place where only soldiers could go, then surviving there would mean that he is in the same level of any ordinary soldier. “That way, perhaps I could convince the castle commander to get me a place in the army,” he thought.

As Nick overheard their conversation, he laughed at Elmar saying that “you, pretty boy, don’t have the face of a warrior. That pretty face of yours could be perfect for a duke or even a prince but a warrior? Nah! Warriors need to have a tougher face than that.” But that prejudice of this would have changed, had he seen the extraordinary determination that Elmar was blessed with. And determination he did see. Elmar declared boldly that looks does not matter. “After all, it is not the look that made you a warrior but rather, because you’re a warrior, you have that tough face,” he said. Nick was almost intimidated at this determination. So he decided to give Elmar a chance. He decided to take Elmar along with him and his few friends in the army on hunting there, as his three day break was starting. “But if you slow us down, we won’t hesitate to leave you behind,” said Nick

And there, he showed what he was made of. Back then too, he was a great hunter and his arrow shooting was quite good. But on their way back they had to face a bunch of rogues which was inevitable because no one had returned from the Kansarg woods without fighting a few monsters. There were just too many of them to avoid. The others were able to easily shake the group of five rogues off but Elmar couldn’t compete. He was knocked down on the ground by a rogue. He saw the rogue raise its hand and then suddenly saw a sword pierce its heart from the back. It fell.

And a familiar face emerged from behind the rogue. It was Nick holding the sword. Elmar picked himself up and said “thanks. But you said that you wouldn’t want me to slow you guys down.” He said with a crooked smile “look, there is this look in your eyes and it’s pretty scary. Scary because I don’t remember the last time I saw someone with that much determination. So if I don’t save you all that determination would go to waste. And trust me, we are going to need all that determination if we want to get rid of this Armageddon.

“And you look just like the perfect guy who attracts too much trouble. So, I’m going to look after your back from now, get it?” he finished with a smile. “Thanks. I owe you my life, man.” “You do, don’t you?” Nick said mockingly.

The person to whom he owed him his life, he would run out on that person? No, that was definitely not like Elmar. And thus, he was filled with more worry than anger.

That night, much to the relief of the army, went by safely without any monsters in the vicinity. The peasants set up tents, made campfires, sat around and chatted with each other. Even if it was for a little while, they forgot about the hardship they had to go through every day, about the constant feeling that they were about to get killed by monsters. Elmar’s ring began to glow again that night but it was a faint glow. “What! Not this again!” he thought.  “This can’t mean good news,” he thought.

In the morning, some soldiers came back to the place where the party decided to rest, on horsebacks and from the looks, they were making their best to hurry back there as quickly as possible. “So, what’s the news? Did you spot anything?” “Yes sir, bad news.” “Burning sky?” “No sir. No burning sky. But the huge body of monsters that landed on the Aggard castle is making their way towards here, sir. All of them.” “They can’t possibly be coming after our party, can they?” one of the soldiers standing with the party commander said. “No, I don’t think so,” the party commander replied. “This way leads to Rendo castle and that is perhaps what they are after. They are just going to trample us on their way.”

Elmar gasped overhearing their conversation. The guards won’t let him enter the party commander’s tent because he had to have some “private and important” conversation with the other high ranking soldiers about the tactics of this journey. Thus Elmar kept a low profile somewhere around the tent so that he could hear what information they had on any possibility of a monster group advancing. “I was right, then. This is bad! What do I do now! Now I won’t be able to keep the secret of the ring much longer.”

“Well, so I have made a decision,” the party commander, a Captain in rank, said “our job was to protect the peasants until we reach Rendo castle and we are going to do exactly that. The soldiers are going to form a defensive line over here while about one-fourth are going to accompany the peasants to the Rendo castle. We will try to stop the monsters here. Even if we don’t succeed, we will be able to slow them down. And thus we will buy the peasants enough time to go to the castle. Once they are in, their safety is up to Rendo.” “But sir, that is suicide!” a Sergeant cried out. “The entire body of the monsters is coming towards us. That is way too many monsters for us to stop. Let alone stop them, even if we slow them down, we may perhaps slow them down by a second. If we stand in their way, we’ll simply be squished like ants!” “But we have to try, Sergeant. If we keep going at this speed, monster will catch up to us for sure. Thus, either way, we will get killed. So, let us at least try to at least save some lives by forming a defensive line. Those of you who oppose the plan, do say it. Now!” No one said anything. “Alright then. No objections. Any questions?”

As one of the soldiers asked a question about the details of their plan, Elmar thought to himself “Maybe I should have eliminated them when I had the chance. Now, it is inevitable. Even if I do engage them now, I will never be able to stop them from getting to the party. I guess the army forming a line of defense here is the best choice that I have. I guess I have no choice. This is what I wanted. I always wanted to play a role to get rid of this apocalypse. And now, I have the perfect chance to play the biggest role. Whoever said that I only had to fight the monsters to get rid of this apocalypse? I guess one of the things I have to fight is the minds of the people. So be it.”

Elmar sneaked away from the camp and took a deep breath. “Maybe I should just go ahead and engage the monsters where they are. I could lighten them up a bit at least,” Elmar thought. As he left towards the woods Nick saw him. “Isn’t that Elmar? Where is he going?” he said to himself. As he went forward to follow him, he lost Elmar but was staggered at what he saw. “It is that strange black figure again! What is that doing here? And where did Elmar go?” He couldn’t see it for long and it quickly ran off with inhuman speed towards something and vanished from his sight.

After searching for a few minutes and being unable to find his friend, he went back with more concern than what he already had, to report what he saw. “Captain, this is Corporal Nick. There is something I want to report, sir,” Nick said when he met the Captain as he was coming out of his tent. “Ah, Corporal, good timing. There is an announcement I want you to make to the party. But before that, what is it that you want to say?” “Sir, it is the black figure. I saw it again, sir.” “Hm. Did you see it do anything hostile?” “No sir, no hostile activity. And this time too, sir, its appearance coincided with Elmar’s disappearance.” “Elmar? The hunter? He disappeared again? Like the last time you went hunting with him and he suddenly disappeared?” “Apparently so, sir.” The Captain thought for a while and said “anyway, I hope he didn’t go too far. And since the black figure you saw was not being hostile, we will put that matter aside for now. However, I’ll keep that in mind. Right now, we have more pressing matters at hand.”

The Captain explained to him how scouts reported that there was a huge body and monsters coming and their suicidal plan to achieve their quest of making sure that the peasants get to the Rendo castle safely. “I want you to announce this to the peasants. Telling them the size of the monster body is unnecessary because it will only increase panic among the people. Just tell them that a body of monsters are approaching and we need to hurry up on our journey and that we are going to form a defensive line here to make sure they reach the castle safely. I know that your speechcraft skills are remarkable. You can do it. You can announce this to the people without panicking them. That is what my observation tells me. So go ahead and do it.” “Understood sir,” he saluted. It is true. He truly did have a good power of speech. But it only showed up occasionally. Sometimes, out of the blue, the speaking monster inside him would wake up and would conquer the hearts of the people.

Even as he announced this in the most convincing way possible, yet some of the people started panicking. “Perhaps, we should’ve never stopped here in the first place. Now, we will be damned!” “Oh, no! Are we never going to be safe for once?” “Have hope! Because truly, what have you got from all this despairing? Nothing! Despairing will inevitably take you to damnation. But with hope you will believe you’ll have a chance. Maybe both could result in your death but what is the use of regretting until the last second of your death? If you’re going to die, then it is just better to be happy about it.” Strangely, these words of his actually kicked some sense into a lot of people.

It wasn’t true that all of the peasants were the panicking and despairing type. They were perhaps twenty percent. Thirty percent of the people would usually be convinced whichever way the most people were speaking. Another thirty percent were people who were ready to be united, quite the more far-sighted type. And the rest twenty percent, which consisted mostly of the youth, were the ones who would fight, no matter what. They weren’t simply willing to give up to this apocalypse. Thus if one could get good responses from those thirty percent far-sighted type and suppress the twenty percent panicking type, he could easily get the crowd under control. That is how mostly things worked at least for the people of the Aggard castle.

Even though he put the crowd well under control, he couldn’t really dwell on his success. He was still worried about Elmar. “First he behaves strangely, then he apparently abandons me and now he suddenly disappears and that black figure appears coincidentally at the exact same time he disappears, that also twice. What is going on? Whatever it is, I hope he is alright.” As he prayed, he went back to where the army was forming up.

“Elmar! You’re here?” Nick said at the sudden sight of Elmar somewhere near the place where the army was forming up. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you.” “Why I was around here. You didn’t notice?” “No, I just once saw you going somewhere deep into the forest and then I lost sight. And I saw that black figure again at around exactly the same place you were standing. Did you see it this time?” Elmar gulped but in a way to keep Nick from noticing. “Black figure, eh? Nah! Missed it this time too.” “Really?” Nick gave him a suspicious look. “Why should I be lying?” Elmar tried to sound obvious. “I don’t know. You really have been acting a bit strange lately, whether you’ve noticed or not.” “I am?” Elmar said. “Anyway, whatever it is that is bothering you, do tell me when we get to Rendo, okay? We are going to make it for sure. Have faith.”

“Oh, speaking of Rendo, I heard what the Captain was planning. I have volunteered to stay here to help the soldiers hold the monsters back,” Elmar said. “Well, you do have Logdo’s recommendation letter which makes you a recruit, actually more than a normal recruit, you perhaps got a pretty high rank in the army. Or perhaps you got a place in the Knights’ Guild or maybe the Matilda Quest Corps.” “Commanders can recommend for the Knights’ Guild?” “Yeah, of course they can. But a recommendation isn’t necessarily a guarantee because all recommended candidates are personally judged by the Marshall or a member of Marshall’s Board of Staffs. But a recommendation always means that you’ll be getting a promotion. Seriously, you didn’t even join the army and you’re already on your way to becoming a big shot.” “Huh?” Elmar was puzzled at the revelation. “That was a good one, bro!” he gave a silly laugh. “You think I am kidding? You tell me does anyone need a recommendation letter to become a recruit? Recommendation letters are given only when they want to give you a big responsibility!”

Elmar stood there for a while with his mouth open. “Say, then…..” Elmar was interrupted. “Ask your question later. I have to get back to duty right now,” Nick said. “Oh yeah, me too. I am a volunteer, after all.” As Elmar saw Nick walk away he stopped and said “Hey Elmar. Whatever is bothering you, just make sure you make it to Rendo castle alive, okay? If you get yourself killed, I am going to kill you!” “Sir, yes sir!” he saluted in a mock-scared way.

As the sun slowly rose up the sky and settled exactly above the head, all the hundred peasants along with ten soldiers as their escorts, left. The soldiers were already taking their positions according to the plan made by the Captain. “This is the most possible path the monsters will be taking. Their formation is quite dense. So, attacking head on is suicide even if we outnumbered them by two to one. So, we are going to scatter ourselves in the trees, spreading ourselves all around their line.

“Wait for my signal and only upon the signal and not a moment too soon, shoot the monsters. That way they will come after you and they will be more scattered, causing them a delay as because, you know, these monsters, especially the salamanders, won’t go anywhere without hunting down the one who attacked it.

“As they come to attack you, spread yourselves further, that is, fall further back into the woods and that also before they get too close to you. Once you find another tree to hide continue shooting arrows at them again. And again when they start getting close, fall back to another tree.

“In this way, we hold on for half a day. The entire party is estimated to reach the Rendo castle in about a day and a half that is, by tomorrow nightfall. The monsters may arrive here within nightfall today. So, if we can hold them off until tomorrow dawn, the monsters won’t be able to catch up. So, we hold them off until tomorrow dawn and then fall back.

“There is another slight problem, the agnons. These flying menaces will be arriving here within the rest one hour. So, we are going to form several lines against their flight path and hopefully they’ll be taking the same path as the ground monsters. So, the first line starts shooting arrows on sight. All the lines behind them must stay alert and shoot them as soon as they enter your ranges, shoot them down. These brats are fast, so stay sharp. Good news is that the scouts reported to have seen only ten agnons. If that is all of them, we will easily take them down. Let’s hope there will be no more.

“Immediately after taking down those agnons, we will spread ourselves in the trees as planned. If however, there are way more agnons than anticipated, say, twice as much, we’ll be needing a lot of time to defeat them, taking almost up to nightfall. Thus if that were to happen, then, an hour before dawn the first four lines will scatter into the forest and take up their respective positions according to the previously described plan while the rearmost line will remain in their position and engage the rest of the agnons. Thus, the scattered soldiers will take down the ground monsters while the rest will fight the agnons and if they see the ground monsters getting close, they will fall back to form a new line further backwards. Is that understood?”

“Captain, are you sure this will work?” a sergeant asked. He sighed. “I want all of you guys to know one thing,” the Captain said. “The chances that this plan will go perfect are very slim. You have to fully understand the risk of this plan and you have to be prepared for death. But still, I am hopeful that we will achieve our objective here and for a soldier, there is no death sweeter than a death where he knows that his death will not go in vain. So, we have to stick to the plan.” “Yes, sir,” the Sergeant replied.

All the forty soldiers along with twenty among the peasants who volunteered, stood in the decided formation, hiding in the trees, waiting for hell to arrive. Somewhere in the second line Nick was sitting in a tree, thinking if this is where he’ll die or not. “And just when I was telling Elmar not to die! Seriously, how delusional could I get! I don’t even know if I’ll survive. I don’t even know if the Captain will survive. Oh well, this is it. And somehow I have a feeling that whatever Elmar is hiding will come out now.”

Elmar was in the absolute front line. He was placed there for the excellent archery he had shown time and again. He took a deep breath. “I hope it all goes well”. They all waited breathlessly for the agnons. Elmar’s ring was already glowing for a while. “They are close by,” he thought. Soon, as the sun tilted towards the west, the front line spotted large creatures with huge wings in the far south-eastern sky. “Time to get ready.” He pulled the arrow against his bow and suddenly noticed that the ruby on his ring started glowing with extreme intensity. “Oh, no! Not now!” It began to glow so bright, he could barely see his own arm. “I need to stop this. I have to delay this, just for a little while.” “Elmar, the agnons have entered our range. Shoot! Now!” one of the soldiers shouted out. Immediately, he and the others started to shoot. “Oh no! Stop this!” Now, his hand was completely covered by a red glow. “No, this isn’t a good time! Why will it not stop?”

Read Chapter III Part 1

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