On the Icy Peak of the Black Forest in the northern part of Norton Kingdom.
More than four months ago, the Norton Kingdom's army thwarted the first attack from the Dark Elves at Icy Peak. From then on, they charged straight forward through the forest and into the Pralync Kingdom.
As they moved forward, Icy Peak also changed from being a battlefield to the rear camp of the Norton Kingdom's army. Now after months of construction with almost unlimited funding, it had become a large-scale fortress.
Today, the weather was as terrible as usual with the dark clouds in the sky and the biting wind whistling through the air. The low temperatures here could easily freeze people's ears off their heads. Nonetheless, the guards of the fortress dared not take their duties lightly even in such weather. A team of soldiers patrolled the outer walls of the fortress. The soldiers rubbed their hands and stomped their feet to keep warm, but their eyes remained sharp and vigilant as they guarded the northern wall of the fortress.
The Black Forest was gloomy and bitingly cold. When the wind blew through the forest trees, it would make an eerie howling sound. Moreover, the forest seemed to be packed with crows which would appear suddenly and caw loudly.
It was as if the Black Forest was haunted!
Just then, the soldiers heard the clip-clop sound of horses approaching the fortress. The guard captain immediately shouted an order, "Everyone, on guard!"
The soldiers gripped their weapons tightly. The archers nocked their arrows, while the other soldiers locked their eyes on the direction where the horse was approaching. If they noticed anything wrong at all, they would not hesitate to attack instantly.
The horse approached closer and closer, and after about half a minute, a group of knights emerged from the dense forest. There were a total of 13 knights, and all their armor had been stained red with blood. The knight in front was clad in dark green armor, and he was carrying a bleeding and dying Magician on his saddle.
"I'm Falcon, Royal Knight of the Norton Kingdom! Open the gate!" shouted the knight who was carrying the Magician.
Falcon, a Royal Knight of the kingdom, was a Level-6 Warrior and the captain of the vanguard. His weapon was the Holy Cross sword. Once Battle Aura flowed into this sword, it would light up in a holy, silver light that was unique to the sword.
The soldiers looked at the sword and waited for another five or six seconds. After determining that Falcon was not pursued by any enemies behind him, they slowly opened the gate of the fortress and let him in.
The knights sped through the fortress gate before it closed up again immediately as all of them had entered. Not a single second was wasted.
Once they were all inside, Falcon carried the dying Magician down from the saddle of his horse and gave him to the knight beside him.
"Quick," he ordered, "take Artor to the priest!"
The knight then held the young Magician and ran towards a small chapel of the fortress. The Magician, Artor was slashed in the neck, but fortunately, none of his vital veins were cut, so he was still alive.
Falcon continued to gallop more than 150 feet into the fortress square before dismounting. He gave the horse to a soldier nearby while he himself rushed into the command hall.
Inside the hall, there were loud voices from different figures of various positions. Some were generals and officers, while others were clerks and soldiers. They were all discussing their strategic plans.
Falcon walked to the entrance and wiped the blood traces that had been frozen to ice off his face.
"My lord," he loudly said, "the vanguard camp has been attacked!"
All of a sudden, the hall fell silent. Everyone's eyes turned to Falcon. Duke Abel, who sat at the head of the long table, turned to Falcon with an expressionless face.
"What did you say?" he asked. "Repeat yourself!"
Falcon rushed into the hall with signs of panic still in his eyes.
"Those ghouls blinded our guards early this morning, my lord," he reported. "Then the Black Tooth Legion of the Dark Elf army suddenly launched an attack on our camp. There were 5000 soldiers in the vanguard...but only 13 escaped."
The ghouls were a terrifying group of Dark Elves that suddenly appeared on the battlefields since the war started. Their speed was as fast as the wind, they were almost invisible, and their strength was inexhaustible. Ordinary swords and weapons could never kill them, even when their vital points were struck down. In short, these ghouls were close to supernatural!
Only 13 soldiers in the vanguard camp escaped out of 5000. In other words, the entire camp was annihilated.
Duke Abel's face turned hard and cold.
"What about Karnose?" he asked Falcon. "Wasn't he in the vanguard camp? Where is he?"
The Black Forest was where most of the ghouls lay; that was the area around the vanguard camp. To help combat them, the Dawn Swordsman was sent there. As the only Level-8 Warrior in the kingdom, he was deemed as the best person who could eliminate the threat of these ghouls. But no matter how powerful the Warrior was, in the end, he was just one person, while the total number of ghouls wasn't clear. So far, according to reports, there were more than a hundred of them now. The presence of the Dawn Swordsman could do nothing but temporarily suppress the wild attacks of the ghouls.
Falcon's eyes turned red as he thought of Karnose.
"I don't know, my lord," he said. "To protect us and make sure that we escaped from the camp, Lord Karnose decided to remain there and fight. As for what happened to him now, I...I don't know."
It had gone so quiet at this point that a pin dropping on the floor would echo throughout the hall.
The people here had been through wars before, so they knew its harsh brutality well. They knew that even if Karnose was an invincible Warrior when faced with an army, the most he could do was kill a hundred of the soldiers. He still wouldn't be able to escape certain death himself.
In other words, the top Warrior of Norton Kingdom had now almost certainly died in battle.
Silence lingered in the hall. No one made a sound for three minutes. Then, Duke Abel stood up and took a deep breath then looked around at all the generals in the hall.
"It's time to shrink the line of defense!" he said coldly.
At present, there were 190,000 soldiers in the North divided into ten regiments. These regiments were centered in Icy Peak which then formed a defense line facing the north of Black Forest. The vanguard camp, on the other hand, was kept 50 miles further north of the fortress.
Once the vanguard camp was attacked, there was now only one legion left to protect the fortress. The situation had become a little too dangerous. If the defeat had come from a normal battle, the Norton Kingdom army would certainly be able to counterattack from the flanking sides of the battlefield and teach the Dark Elves a harsh lesson. But now that these ghouls came into the picture, things had gotten a lot trickier.
These ghouls hid in the Black Forest and were almost untraceable. The scouts from the MI3 weren't able to fight against them, and all that encountered the ghouls had died with very little exceptions.
So far, the number of scouts in the forest kept dwindling, and the army received less and less information. By now, the links between various regiments had almost been cut off by these ghouls which made fighting a war that much more difficult.
In this case, the safest strategy was to retreat the line of defense. Duke Abel still had some doubts about the decision, but now that the best Warrior in the army had fallen and the entire vanguard camp was annihilated, he had to make up his mind.
The generals had nothing to say, either. Everyone knew that at this point it was basically impossible to fight on. They'd even begun to draw up orders to get ready to withdraw.
Duke Abel then turned to a man wearing gray leather armor beside him.
"Karnose might still be alive," he said, "I want you to send out a search party and find news of Karnose."
That man was Dilo. He was the commander of the scout team of the MI3. He was responsible for collecting information on the battlefield. A month earlier, he did an excellent job and had almost squeezed the life out of the Dark Elf army. But ever since the ghouls appeared, the tables were turned completely.
Dilo frowned when he heard Duke Abel's order.
"My lord," he said with a lowered voice, "the Black Forest is infested with the ghouls. If we send more people out into the forest, there would only be more people dead."
He did not say this out of cowardice. He'd seen what happened in the last half month how with every team of scouts he sent out into the Black Forest only about 10% survived and came back alive. At this point, all the news the king and the army received was in exchange for the scouts' lives.
Naturally, as the leader of these scouts, he was sad to see his elite members sacrificed one-by-one.
But Duke Abel got furious as he listened to Dilo's reply.
"Stop your excuses!" he spat. "This is a military order! Find him at all costs!" He was well aware of the dangers in the Black Forest. Still, Karnose wasn't just a Level-8 Warrior-he was the source of morale for the entire army.
If even the Dawn Swordsman had fallen, how would the rest of the army find any courage to continue to stay in the North? How would they fight on in this war?
"As you wish, my lord," said Dilo. He had no other choices. Then, he rushed out of the hall and began to carry out the orders.
To everyone's surprise, Dilo returned again to the hall after ten minutes.
"What's the matter?" Duke Abel asked impatiently.
"My lord," said Dilo in a hushed voice as he walked up to the duke. "The princess insisted that she wants to join the search party. I came to ask you for your advice."
The Iron Duke's jaw dropped for a few moments. He wanted to tell Dilo to refuse his daughter's request, but just as he was about to utter the words, he discovered that everyone in the hall was watching him. They must've heard of what happened now.
He hesitated for a while, but finally, Duke Abel gave Dilo his decision.
"Let her go," he said with a trembling voice. "Don't treat her any differently from other members of the team. The search and rescue of Karnose is the most important thing."
His daughter, Annie, was now only a Level-4 Assassin. In the past, this level would be considered powerful. But now with the ghouls around, sending someone of her level out into the forest would practically be a death sentence for her. Yet now, he could do nothing to stop it; it was the price he had to pay for being the commander of the army.
Duke Abel then stood up and announced, "I must go get some rest."
He turned away from the command hall as all eyes watched him leave silently. The Iron Duke seemed to have aged ten years in the last few minutes. Even his walking gait had gotten weak now.
"Dilo," the duke's adjutant whispered, "you must not let anything happen to the princess."
"I will do what I can," said Dilo with a thin smile. In truth, it was too late for him to do anything now.
The news that the vanguard camp was attacked and that the fate of the Dawn Swordsman was unknown couldn't be kept a secret for long. When the search party left the Icy Peak, all tens of thousands of people in the fortress had heard of the news by then.
For a time, the air in the fortress was extremely tense. Although the main force of the army had not been lost, their morale suffered a deep plunge. At that moment, the Black Forest had become less of a battlefield, but more of a deep abyss that sucked lives into its deep and dark underbelly.
No more than half an hour after the search party left, a figure clad in a loose black cloak walked out from the forest near the fortress. It was Link.
He'd just arrived, so he knew nothing about the current situation.
He stared at the strong and magnificent fortress in front of him and couldn't help but admire it.
"They've built such a large fortress in less than six months' time," he exclaimed. "What a feat!"
He then quickened his pace and approached the fortress gate.
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