Raven Valt dragged his weary feet along the wilderness, his back draped by the setting sun. Every one of his footsteps was accompanied by the dripping dark-red blood that trickled down the edges of his rusty sword.
He trudged on.
After a while, Raven paused to fix the leather strap of his bag slung over his shoulder. The bag was filled with decapitated heads, some with their tongues sticking-out, and others with their blood-dried eyeballs half out of their sockets.
Raven looked at the heads indifferently, fixed his bag, and continued forward with his footsteps.
The sight of countless tents and rising white smoke came into Raven’s line of sight. The gigantic makeshift village in the middle of the wilderness was bustling with life.
There were half-naked drunkards with upper bodies plastered with crude tattoos, savages ripping into the morsels of unknown origins, those smirking while sharpening the blade of their stone-made axes, and soldiers forcing fair-faced recruits into their tents.
This anarchic group of soldiers were focused on their own matters at hand. They were spending this evening as usual, even though no one knew if it would be their last.
“The scouts must have come.”
“Only that damned Raven’s returned.”
The group of humans stopped what they were doing and stared at Raven, who was silently walking past the tents.
Their gazes were filled with blatant hostility and fear.
“Damned Raven, surviving by himself again.”
“That cursed Raven’s a symbol of bad luck.”
“He is the grim reaper, I say…”
The streets were full of whispers of the crowd, but Raven still walked towards his destination, his face seemingly devoid of any emotions.
He had no reason to give any attention to the murmurings of insects who probably wouldn’t even survive tomorrow’s battle.
Raven came to a stop in front of a tent that was easily three or four times bigger than the others. The two guards’ eyes came to rest on Raven’s shoulder bag full of heads, and they hurriedly opened the entrance to the tent.
The tent was decorated with the hides of various animals, and bottles of liquor were lying around everywhere.
“Oh, oh, oh!”
The stench of alcohol permeated the room while screams and animal-like moans resounded within the walls of the tent. After looking around with a blank expression, Raven walked towards the giant, bald man in the middle of the tent, who was being served by two women at each side.
The bald man’s hands dug deep into the thighs and breasts of the women, but the women could only flinch, unable to make even a sound.
The gazes of the two women were fixed on the lifeless figure of a woman at the corner of the tent, and the many women that were struggling against the weight of men pressing down on them.
Raven overlooked the sad but heated orgy with a lack of interest and stood in front of the bald giant.
“The brown goblins are set as the vanguard with around ten swamp ogres. All armed and organized.”
The two women shifted back in fear as the heads dropped right in front of the bald giant’s feet.
The giant raised his reddened head displeasingly.
“Fuck. What happened to your men?”
“As you can see, I’ve had a hard time just saving myself and bringing back a couple of heads.”
“Or perhaps you’ve decided to kill them all?”
“It was a joke; take it easy. You did good work and we have valuable good intel. It is a shame for the ones we lost. This information will help us greatly in tomorrow’s battle.”
The bald giant looked back and forth between the heads and Raven, revealing his yellow teeth in a crooked smile.
Raven looked at the giant in silence, observing the sneaky, brutal man whom he knew didn't have an ounce of sincerity in him. Raven spoke.
“From the size of their vanguard. It is accurate to say that their main army is at least triple the size. We do not have a good chance of victory.”
“With just 'us' that might be true. But that is why 'he' came here.”
The giant gestured with his chin.
Raven turned his head. The edge of the so-called village. No, even further away from the outskirts. He saw a tent several times larger than the one he was in.
“Ogres, goblins or whatnot. They’re not even a close match for ‘that'.”
“There may be more to it than just ogres in their main army. We need to be especially wary of sorcerers that may have bound griffons as their contracted creature. You know, griffons are native to the Karon Valley.”
“You worry for nothing. Who cares if they have ten, or twenty griffons? ‘That’ will take care of all of them. What are you worried for? Are you scared? The almighty Raven Valt? Hahaha!”
The giant laughed in his self-amusement then suddenly stopped his cackling.
“Raven, I know you do good work even without me worrying. But you do not have to do anything tomorrow. You’re allowed to take it easy in tomorrow’s battle.”
“What do you…. mean?”
“Other than the ones who got themselves killed today, you’re the only one who’s useful from your company anyways. Give the rest of your men to another company. Right, that damned Isaac offered thirty men to the ogres as fucking nutrients a while ago. His company could probably use some men.”
Raven observed the bald giant, still maintaining his silence.
If anyone else had said those words, they would’ve already been dead on the ground.
But the giant had every right to say those words. This bald giant was Baltai, the leader of the demonic army. It was infamous, composed of all sorts of garbage not fit to be called human.
“What. You do not want to? You just have to last one more month until you complete your 10-year quota and take your freedom. This will likely be your last battle. You should take care of yourself until then. Your bitches will have to find another company after you leave anyways. Might as well send ‘em off now. It is good to get things done, is it not?
Raven’s forehead creased.
It didn’t make sense for Baltai, known for his vicious actions and shamelessness, to care for someone else’s well being. He must have something else planned.
“Well, the rules state that you’re not allowed to avoid battle unless severely injured… But it seems like you only got off with small scratches today as well?”
Baltai scanned Raven’s body, his eyes resembling a snake scanning its prey.
‘This bastard… Does he...’
Raven was inwardly startled, but he tried not to show it.
He had hidden it carefully for so long. Baltai did have good awareness and thinking, unlike his ugly appearance, but he could not possibly know Raven’s secret. No, it didn’t really matter even if he did.
Only one month. Only one more month in this filth. Then he would finally taste the freedom that he’d been yearning for.
After ten years, he would finally become a free man, free from his title of traitorship.
“So anyways… I want you to be a guard for His Grace over there.”
Baltai’s eyes looked to the gigantic tent.
Raven knew that Baltai wasn’t referring to the being of “that,” which would supposedly turn the tides of tomorrow’s battle.
“He’s a damned Duke. Well, not yet at least, but he is going to receive the title officially after this battle. Maybe if you catch his eye, he might just make you a knight of his duchy!”
Baltai’s bullshit didn’t even catch Raven’s ears.
Baltai had practically sent Raven’s men to die, sending them on a mission to scout the enemy.
But Raven could only stay curious as to what made Baltai spout this nonsense.
He had no right to decline.
No matter the circumstance, Baltai was the leader of the demonic army, and Raven had just lost all his experienced subordinates. He was now left with thirty or so inept soldiers that would probably not make it past tomorrow’s battle.
And there was no guarantee that they would even listen to the commands of Raven, since he would be leaving shortly.
“So, I just have to guard him?”
“Yeah. Stay by his side the whole time.”
Baltai’s yellow teeth seemed rather more chill inducing today, yet Raven had no choice but to nod his head.
“Good, good. Then go and report to the future duke. It will make life easier for you to build up a relationship earlier on.”
Raven stepped out of the tent, barely bothering to register Baltai’s words.
“Ah, one more thing. Give my regards to our guardian. I hope he takes good care of the enemy and me tomorrow. Kuhahahaha. Now come here you bitches!”
Following Baltai’s bellowing, the tent was once again filled with the cries of animals.
* * *
The tent was even bigger up close.
It was hard to believe that one contracted creature residing within that tent could decide the fate of tomorrow’s battle. Raven was filled with a sinking feeling of anxiousness.
Maybe it was due to the countless flags decorated with the Pendragon coat of arms that surrounded the tent.
For Raven, the illegitimate child of a common noble family, the duke of the empire was like the Sun to him. More so, since Raven’s family name was dishonored and eliminated by false accusations of treason.
Raven muttered to himself. Ten years had already passed, but the sense of inferiority and reverence towards the imperial family still burned in Raven’s unconsciousness. Raven walked past the Pendragon family’s white crested flag without reservation. Then as he was about to call out the name of the future Duke, whom he would guard tomorrow…
“Who is it…?”
A hoarse voice called out from within the tent. It was almost hard to believe the voice belonged to a human.
Raven hesitated, startled by the unexpected promptness. He immediately brought up business.
“I am the leader of the 12th company, Raven Valt, Your Grace. I have been ordered to serve as your guard for tomorrow’s battle. I am here to report in.”
Raven words carried some etiquette, unlike the others in the demonic army.
There was no answer.
Feeling that the silence had run its course, Raven was about to open his mouth once again to repeat himself. Then, the voice spoke.
“No need for formalities. I will see you tomorrow when we head out. You may go rest…”
The more Raven heard the voice, the eerier he felt at the strangeness of it. He had been through quite a few life-or-death experiences over the last ten years, but even so, the voice gave him chills.
Oddly enough, Raven felt a certain ‘emotion’ from its tone. He could not quite put a name to what it was, but it was certainly something he had felt before. Pondering for a moment, he shook his head. There was no need to concern himself over someone whom he would have nothing to do with after the battle.
Regardless of the outcome of the battle, Raven would live to taste freedom, and the soon-to-be Duke of Pendragon would return to his own place.
“Of course. Then I will set up my tent beside Your Grace’s. If you have any orders, please let me know.”
The short conversation ended, and no presence could be felt from the giant tent anymore.
An eerie stillness.
The tent was quiet. One would even think that it was empty. It was definitely too quiet to be accompanying an heir of a duchy and his vicious contracted creature.
Raven felt like he was standing in front of a mortuary of sorts. Death reeked here.
Raven’s forehead creased with confusion. Inside the giant tent, there was only one ‘human.’ One of the most important people in the empire, the sole heir to the Pendragon duchy, coming to aid the demonic army which was full of human scum. He had come all ‘alone.’
Even if he did have a powerful contracted beast, there was something odd about it.
But Raven quickly threw that thought away.
‘Well… they did say that he was unconscious for ten years as a cripple. And the Pendragon family didn’t fare well either during that time.’
He knew that it wasn’t his business. Rather, he turned his attention to setting up his tent. Hopefully, this would be the last day he fell asleep chewing on dirt in this damned desert.
* * *
It was morning.
The soldiers, who had enjoyed themselves with drinks the night before, groggily crawled out of their tents, knowing fully well that last night’s feast could be their last.
“Fucking 6th company bastards, hurry your ass!”
“The artillery will lead the rear! Check our carts and equipment one more time!”
“Boss! The girls we bought yesterday ran off.”
“What the fuck does that matter, you retard? They’re gonna die anyway if we lose.”
The shouting and the noise were reminiscent of a marketplace, and Raven gathered his equipment, not heeding the noise any mind.
After packing some water and salt, Raven put his rusty seven-year-old scimitar on his waist and decided to wear a cloak that would help block the sandy winds.
Compared to the other soldiers, it was a plain outfit, but it was enough for him.
The morning routines started to quiet down and the hundreds of tents that filled the desert were gradually taken down.
All sorts of soldiers stood beneath their respective flags, and Raven stood far from them, lost in thought.
Baltai walked with heavy footsteps, his steps adorned with a strange silence mixed with anxiety and fear. On his head was a helmet made from carved out ogre bones.
Three thousand pairs of eyes followed Baltai’s footstep.
There was one tent still standing in its place after all the preparations were finished -- the being that would decide the battle and their fate was set to reveal itself.
Baltai was unlike his usual self. He had a habit of swearing with every second word he spoke, but today he was silent, only coughing to clear his throat.
“Your Grace Pendragon. It’s time to set off.”
The tent was motionless, devoid of any presence.
The 3000 men-strong army stood still amidst the curiosity and anticipation.
Baltai became a little impatient, and his face scrunched up even more.
A massive eruption interrupted the silence and Baltai’s voice, attacking Raven’s eardrums.