It was late in the afternoon, about four o'clock, and the sky had begun to turn dark. Because of the dense foliage, the Black Forest was now already as dark as the middle of the night. The bushes on the ground rustled, and four pairs of eyes that glowed dimly in red appeared on a clearing in the forest. On the ground, there was a pile of ashes, and among the ashes were four corpses burnt toa crisp.
The biting, cold wind whistled through the trees.
"These were our soldiers," said one of them.
"The damned MI3 wouldn't have this kind of strength," said the other. "Who killed them."
"They made no attempts to hide their trails at all," said another one. "Look, here's their footprints. We should catch up to them and find out who they are. Sino, Finville, both of you come with me. We'll hunt them down. Alan, go back to the Skeletal Fort and report this to the great leader!"
The figures split into two directions. One of them rushed into the depths of the Black Forest, while the other followed the visible trails into another direction. About three minutes later, when the dark shadowy figures completely disappeared, a voice emerged in the darkness.
"They really fell for it, Lord Mirose!" said the voice in a hushed tone, suppressing obvious joy.
Soon afterwards, several figures emerged from behind a bush. It was Link and the rest of the search party. They didn't hurry to leave the spot after killing off the first group of ghouls. The waited nearby instead to ambush the second group of ghouls.
As for the footprints that the ghouls found, it was actually Link who'd left them there and wanted the ghouls to find them. This was a similar technique the Dark Elf Magician Lawndale Markins had used on him previously. Link and the scouts had circled a large area of the Black Forest and then came back to the original spot. That meant that the ghouls who had gone following their trails would eventually come back to this spot.
As for the ghoul who went back to Skeletal Fort, he would lead the way for Link and the scouts back to the Dark Elf's main lair.
Link looked in the direction of the lone ghoul and smiled.
"Well," he said, "now we've found ourselves a reliable guide."
His plan was a huge gamble which depended heavily on luck. If the ghouls hadn't decided to take these actions, then it would all go to waste. But fortunately, these ghouls weren't that smart, so everything went just as Link had planned.
As he spoke, Link cast the spell Cheetah's Agility on everyone.
"Let's go!" he said. "I hope our luck is good enough that we'll encounter the prisoner's cart that carries the Dawn Swordsman on our way."
And so, a group of people began to move as quickly as the wind in the forest. Soon, seven people disappeared into the depths of the Black Forest.
When Link and the others in the search party were following the ghoul into the dark bowels of the Black Forest, some of the scouts had been ordered by Link to bring back the captured ghouls to Icy Peak Fortress.
"Open the gates!" the scout yelled outside the fortress wall. "We've brought back captured ghouls!"
Ghouls? And captured too?
The guards on the walls were naturally frightened. The news they'd received so far about the ghouls were of how scary and invincible they were. What they'd seen were the Warriors and scouts getting pursued and killed by the ghouls and never the other way around. How was it possible for anyone to ever beat such fearsome creatures? And they'd managed to capture one alive as well?
This couldn't be...a trap, could it?
The captain of the guards stood at the arrowslit and craned his neck to peer down and look out at the people outside the gates. He saw about a dozen scouts whose attire convinced him that they were indeed members of MI3. There were even one or two faces among them that he found familiar, whom he'd seen only hours earlier as they left the fortress with the search party for the Dawn Swordsman.
They couldn't be spies working for the Dark Elves.
"Where are the ghouls?" he asked. "Let me take a closer look!" There was still a possibility that these scouts were under the ghouls' control.
The scouts then raised up the ghouls who'd been tied up like slaves so the captain could see them more clearly.
The captain of the guards leaned over and looked down. Some soldiers were curious too, so they leaned down and tried to catch a glimpse as well.
In truth, a ghoul didn't look much different from an ordinary Dark Elf, anyway. The only obvious distinguishing feature of a ghoul was the hands. An ordinary Dark Elf's hands looked similar to that of a normal human being's, but a ghoul's hands were full of claws instead of nails.
The captain still looked doubtful, so the scouts raised the ghoul's hands to make it easier for him to discern them.
After several hours of recovery, these ghouls had regained some vigor and were now struggling to free themselves and were even growling in their deep voices.
"Do you see it now?" asked a scout. "This one had his heart ripped out and completely defeated by the Magician, but these bastards still live on and just refuse to die."
The guards' captain had seen everything plainly with his own eyes now, and while he gasped in astonishment, all the doubts in his mind vanished. He ordered the suspension bridge to be laid down.
"Report this to the generals at once," he whispered to one of the soldiers around him. "Tell them the scouts have captured some ghouls."
No matter what had been going on lately, this was still great news for the Norton Kingdom's army.
When the suspension bridge was laid down, and the scouts brought in the three ghouls into the fortress, a large crowd of soldiers began to flock to them. They'd heard news of the ghouls all day every day, but only a few of them had ever seen what a real one looked like. Now that there was a chance, they must find a way to catch a glimpse of them.
Even the captain of the guards came to them. He didn't care much for the ghouls now. They looked just like normal Dark Elves except with claws on their hands anyway. Instead, there was something more important that he must find out from the scouts.
"Didn't you go out to search for the Dawn Swordsman?" he asked one of the scouts that he pulled aside. "Why are you here, then? Where's the princess? Why isn't she here?"
In these circumstances, it seemed that the likeliest scenario was that the search party encountered the ghouls on their way and managed to defeat them. But at the same time, there must've been some fallen scouts who were killed in the process. The fact that the princess wasn't here could only mean that she died in battle!
The princess was the Iron Duke's only daughter. If she died in battle, then that would surely create a huge problem.
The scout shook his head.
"The princess is fine," he said. "She's gone to save Lord Karnose with Lord Mirose."
"Lord Mirose?" asked a soldier there. "Who's that?"
"A Magician!" answered another scout who'd overheard the question. His tone was full of awe and respect. "He's an extremely powerful Magician!"
"Make way!" shouted a soldier. "Make way for the Grand Duke!"
As soon as they heard the words, the soldiers stepped aside immediately, making a path for the duke.
In fact, the duke hadn't arrived on his own. The generals, officers, Battle Mages and even the magistrates had followed him along.
For the soldiers, ghouls were merely frightening creatures in the darkness of the forest. They were merely curious to see what these ghouls looked like and that was all. But for those in the upper ranks of the army, these captured ghouls represented an extremely significant sentiment!
Duke Abel pushed his way through the crowd and finally saw the ghouls. He then searched through the group of scouts with his eyes, desperately trying to find his daughter.
But there was no sign of the princess among the scouts. This discovery hit him like a ton of bricks, and he sank into a dark pit of despair immediately. Was his daughter, who was often rebellious and impossibly stubborn, yet ultimately his affectionate little sweetheart, really gone forever?
For a moment, Duke Abel's eyes turned prickly hot. He found that it was difficult for him to breathe and it felt as if he were about to faint. If his adjutant hadn't quickly held him, he would have collapsed in the middle of the crowd.
After about ten seconds, the duke was finally able to calm his emotions enough to address the scouts.
"You've done an excellent job," he praised the scouts with a hoarse voice. "Now go get some rest."
He had no desire to ask them for any details of the battle. It was too soon for him to hear of the brutal way his daughter must've died, and he had no intention to shed tears in front of these soldiers.
Fortunately, the scouts fully understood what the commander must've felt. One of them quickly stepped up to inform the Duke of what had truly happened.
"My lord," he said, "the princess is safe. She is now with Lord Mirose, and they are on their way to the Black Forest to search for Lord Karnose."
"Huh?" replied Duke Abel incredulously. "What did you say?"
"Princess Annie is still alive, my lord," repeated the scout. "She is still continuing the search and rescue mission. We were merely ordered to send these ghouls back to the fortress."
Duke Abel heaved a long sigh of relief; then he took in a sweet breath of air into his lungs. Somehow, the world seemed bright and beautiful again. He then let out a full hearty laugh.
"Excellent! Excellent!" he exclaimed. "That is good news indeed! Now, tell me exactly how the battle went. I'd like to know how you captured these damned creatures!"
Then, the same scout began to explain in detail of what happened from the time they encountered the ghouls and the sudden appearance of a Magician, to how they eventually defeated the ghouls and captured them. He elaborated on the Magician's arrangement for them to bring back the ghouls while the rest went on to rescue the Dawn Swordsman. Not a single detail was left out.
"He was very powerful," said the scout about Link. "He merely waved his wand gently in the air, and the ghoul's chest exploded!"
"He had a way to prevent the ghouls from dying," explained another scout. "Look at this one's chest. It's filled with a silvery liquid the Magician called Sacred Silver."
"He called himself Mirose," said another scout. "I will respect him for the rest of my life. I feel that every word he said was true."
"That's right," agreed another scout. "I felt like I could die for him!"
The group of scouts spoke simultaneously, and their words got jumbled up until it was quite difficult to make out what they said. But Duke Abel didn't stop them. He'd grasped the big picture of what had happened in his mind.
A young Magician had suddenly appeared when the search party was in the gravest danger. Then, he managed to kill three powerful ghouls instantly. If he hadn't heard the story from the scouts' mouths, he would've thought that it was more of a legend and less of a true account of events.
But everything they said was true, of course. And this proved that an extremely powerful Magician had come north. But who was the Magician? Why wasn't he informed of the fact?
The duke then turned to face the Magician Marco and looked straight into his eyes as if to ask him the question without saying a word.
"My lord," whispered Marco, "we must speak in private."
Duke Abel nodded gently before turning back to the scout.
"You've all worked very hard," he said. "Go get some rest. Later, there will be rewards for you. Come, get these ghouls into the chapel and let the priests see them."
A few soldiers then stepped forward and took the ghouls into the chapel. The scouts were now relieved and happy as they went back to their barracks to get some rest. On their way, they kept talking about what happened in the forest and about that powerful Magician called Mirose.
Duke Abel and the officers all went back to the command hall. Once there, the duke and the Magician continued walking until they reached a private room on the second floor.
"Will you tell me the identity of the Magician now?" asked the duke with a reproachful tone.
"My lord," said Marco meekly, "it was not my intention to conceal it from you. He only just arrived, so I just found out myself."
"You just found out?" asked the duke. "You must've known at least three hours now. Why wasn't I informed all that time?" Duke Abel was almost enraged at this point. He was the commander of the royal army, after all. How could he not have been informed of the arrival of such a powerful figure? It was outrageous!
"It was not my intention, my lord," continued Marco. He knew that he had no other choice but to inform the Duke of the truth now. "It was an order from my mentor, the dean of East Cove Academy. He thought that the less people who knew of this Magician's identity, the better, because he did not come here to join the army, but was instead on a secret mission..."
Duke Abel waved his hand to stop the Magician.
"Alright, alright," he said. "Now tell me, who exactly is he?"
"The new baron of the Ferde Wilderness, my lord," answered Marco.
Duke Abel's eyes widened, and he went silent for a long while.
"I didn't think he'd come here himself," he finally said.
In one move, he'd defeated three ghouls comparable to Level-6 Warriors and even possessed the power to prevent the ghouls from dying.
When he thought of it, Duke Abel finally sighed in relief. Now that his daughter was going to rescue the Dawn Swordsman with such a powerful Magician, then he shouldn't worry too much about her safety anymore.
Still, things were far from safe.
"That young man has an infinitely promising future," said Duke Abel after a long contemplation. "He cannot die in the Black Forest. We must do what we can. Once we've shrunk the line of defense, we must launch a full attack from all fronts!"
"But, my lord, is that wise?" asked Marco, surprised. "The threat from the ghouls are still far from eliminated."
The Duke smiled.
"It's only a ploy to distract the Dark Elf's attention," he said. "What are you worried about?"
Marco finally understood the duke's meaning and smiled.
"You're right, my lord," said the Magician. "I just failed to understand your true intentions just now."
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