A week after they had joined up with the armies of the Southern nobles, they finished their preparations and began a new advance.
Their next target was the city of Prart, to the west of Kalinsha.
Neia could not hide her unease as she wobbled on the back of a horse.
While it was perfectly logical not to let go of this chance to exterminate the demihumans while Jaldabaoth’s wounds had not yet healed, it did not sit well with her feelings. She wanted to increase the number of supporters and put her efforts into finalizing the preparations for the rescue effort that would be sent out in search of the Sorcerer King.
That said, Neia knew from first-hand experience with Remedios that a commander’s irritation would agitate the people under them. She could not take her frustrations out on her subordinates.
She took several deep breaths to calm down, and her lungs filled with cool air. While spring was close, one could still feel winter in the air.
After regaining her composure, Neia surveyed the army which was going forth.
There were about 95’000 people here, so many of them that she had to move her head to take them all in. Their forces were composed of roughly 30’000 men from the Southern nobles and 65’000 men from the Liberation Army. Incidentally, of the remaining 20’000 men from the South, 10’000 were assigned to secure an axis of retreat and the other 10’000 were resting in Kalinsha.
Among them were 2’000 archers led by Neia, all of whom belonged to the Rescue Corps.
The remnants of the demihuman army which they faced were estimated at around 30’000 strong, so they had an overwhelming advantage in numbers.
However, each individual demihuman was stronger than a human being, and more importantly, they had to be on guard against Jaldabaoth, so they could not be careless even with this disparity in numbers.
They had embarked on this operation under the assumption that Jaldabaoth was still wounded and unable to take action. If Jaldabaoth had fully recovered, then they would be marching to their deaths.
Her heart beat like an alarm clock.
Should I have prioritized the Sorcerer King’s rescue over everything else, Neia wondered. Her thoughts began to go around in circles.
“--Baraja-sama. Do you require information from the corps members in other units?”
Beldran had walked his horse beside her before asking his question, and Neia blinked in response. She had no idea what he was talking about.
After some thought, Neia finally got it, and she hurriedly waved the hand which was not holding the reins of her horse.
“No, no, we don’t need to do spy-like stuff like that. After all, we’re comrades marching towards the same goal.”
“Ohhh! I expected nothing less of you, Baraja-sama. As the spokesman for His Majesty, your words are most kind.”
“...Although her face is scary.”
After Beldran praised her, CZ spoke up from behind Neia. Since CZ could not ride, the two of them shared a saddle.
Even if CZ was her senior, and one who was worthy of her respect, it was still a little annoying to hear her keep harping on that over and over again.
Should I just have her walk...
CZ’s stride and stamina exceeded those of a regular human being. She was riding only because it would be rude to let one of the Sorcerer King’s subordinates walk.
Beldran heard this, but he did not help her at all. He neither supported nor rejected that statement. He probably could not deny those words because they had been spoken by a subordinate of the Sorcerer King and because they were true.
Well, I guess he can’t just say no… after all, I wouldn’t have to wear the visor if I weren’t like that...
That said, Neia was a girl. Even if it was true, and even if people had said it enough that she had become used to it, having people say her face was scary still hurt.
“Now then, Baraja-sama. A messenger came from headquarters. Our pioneers have sighted the demihuman army. Their numbers are estimated at 30’000. Therefore, we will be taking formation here. The messenger returned to headquarters after telling us that. What do you make of this?”
“That’s fine. If you feel it needs to be done, then it should be alright.”
Beldran was doing very well as her executive officer.
“Still, do the demihumans really want to fight a field battle…”
The demihumans had a mere third of the Holy Kingdom’s numbers. While each of them was a superior individual combatant, surely they would have no chance if they fought on an open field. If they defended a city instead, they would be able to make full use of the city’s defenses and make up for the shortfall in fighting strength.
In any event, the situation would be dire once Jaldabaoth recovered. The demihumans’ best strategy ought to be buying time.
Either that, or setting up areas inaccessible to cavalry and fighting limited battles.
“So we’re set to fight in an open field, then?”
“Yes. Just so. There are no woods nearby where the enemy could hide ambushers. Rather, there aren’t even any hills, so surely they would be squabbling over where to form up.
“...Why in a place like that?”
Beldran prefaced his response to CZ’s question with “It might be”
“They’re preparing to run away, I think?”
“That’s right, Baraja-sama. Just like how the Zerns betrayed him, not all the demihumans are devoted to Jaldabaoth. If they want to flee even if it means betraying Jaldabaoth, then the people who want to live would not hole up inside a city but choose to fight on open ground. That’s because disengaging will be difficult if they’re defending a city.”
A dark emotion flashed through Beldran’s eyes, and it made her shiver.
Just as Neia wondered if she ought to use the ability she had recently developed, the darkness gradually ebbed away, and his eyes regained their usual shine. Since the fighting was about to start, maybe it might be good to quell the hatred inside him.
CZ nodded in approval, and Beldran simply replied, “That is probably the case.”
Beldran’s words made a lot of sense.
Not even Jaldabaoth could know for sure if they were planning to die in a field battle or run away. If that was the case, it might be better to wait until nightfall before probing them. That way, they might be able to gain a chance to flee, and thus reduce the amount of people who would die for nothing.
Neia knew this, but she did not say it.
The demihumans had caused too much woe to the people of this nation.
While the demihumans under His Majesty could probably be forgiven, they’re going to kill all the other demihumans besides them...
There had even been rumors that people who advocated coexistence with demihumans or who supported demihumans had been secretly killed or openly lynched.
In truth, there were certain prison camps which the Sorcerer King had liberated where she had witnessed several human corpses who looked like they had been the victims of mob justice. They had apparently been people who had tried to suck up to the demihumans.
“Baraja-sama. While I do not know how headquarters intends to deploy us, shall we gather all the unit commanders first?”
“No, I just need a rough idea of where they’ve been allocated. No matter where they’ve been assigned, I believe everyone will know what to do.”
The position of Neia and the others would be determined by how the Holy Kingdom’s leadership wanted to deploy CZ, who was hugging Neia around the waist.
If there were strong foes among the demihumans, then CZ would be sent to the frontlines. If she was to be used as nothing more than an archer, then she would be positioned in the middle of the formation, or perhaps she would be stationed with the other archers. If they did not want to let CZ -- a subordinate of the Sorcerer King -- achieve too much, then they would place her all the way in the rear.
Neia predicted that they would remain into the rear until the army had finished probing.
Three hours later, she realised that this was the right answer.
In contrast to the demihumans’ fish-scale formation, the humans had chosen to divide into two columns. The left flank was composed of 30’000 men from the South and 10’000 men from the Liberation Army, for a total of 40’000. The remaining 55’000 members of the Liberation Army made up the right flank, and together they formed something like a crane-wing formation.
Since the humans wanted to exterminate the demihumans in this battle, they had chosen to encircle the enemy and slowly draw the noose closed.
The demihumans, on the other hand, had chosen a formation that emphasized penetrating power, though whether it was in order to break out of the encirclement or to slaughter as many humans as possible in a melee remained to be seen.
Finally, Neia and the others were a detached unit that were some distance away from the battlefield, and they were placed in charge of protecting the engineers who were setting up camp for them.
This was less an order from Caspond than a request, which meant that they had practically been allowed the run of the place. They could even neglect their duty to protect the engineers with no consequences, which meant that the leadership of the Holy Kingdom had essentially relinquished all command authority over them.
Surely enough, the reason for that was because of CZ’s presence.
While Neia was nominally in command, the fact that she travelled with CZ -- who was practically a citizen of the Sorcerous Kingdom -- meant they could not order her around as they wished. A member of the Holy Kingdom’s royalty issuing a command to a minion of the Sorcerer King might end up becoming a casus belli.
Neia very much wanted to ask why they were doing things differently after CZ had done so much during the attack on Kalinsha. However, the arrival of the Southern nobles had changed the reception she had gotten. This was because they could not simply consider the present, but future events in mind as well.
As Neia and the others formed up, she kept her eyes on the distant battlefield.
That said, she was far enough away that she did not feel the tension of being on the battlefield, because the bloodlust from there could not reach this place. The sound of the engineers pounding stakes with their mauls sounded very leisurely.
“...Are they still looking at each other? When will it start?”
“Our advantage wanes with each passing moment. While I feel we ought to make the first move…”
Beldran had answered CZ’s question.
The darkness of night was the demihumans’ ally. While one could see clearly on a plain as long as there was moonlight, the sky was clouded over. There was no doubt that the demihumans would be a very tricky opponent if they attacked under these circumstances. That was because the camp they were building now was not very sturdy.
Therefore, the humans should have made their move before nightfall.
Besides, they had a massive advantage in numbers, so if they could achieve a complete victory here, they might be able to ruin Jaldabaoth’s scheme. In other words, the Holy Kingdom would be freed from this long torment. There was no reason not to advance.
Neia also hoped that the fighting would end here. That way, nothing else would bind Neia. She could throw her full strength into searching for the Sorcerer King.
Neia looked up.
Her keen hearing had picked up an explosive shout and the thunder of many people running. Beldran seemed to have heard it a moment later, because he quietly said, “It’s begun.”
Nobody knew how these two armies which numbered over 100’000 strong together would move, and then they had clashed furiously.
The plains where the demihumans waited was flat, with no high ground from which they could overlook the battlefield.
While this would be the time to set up a prefabricated watchtower, they did not have such a structure in their camp.
“Our mission is to stay here and protect them. Let’s focus on completing it.”
It was practically impossible for the tremendously outnumbered demihuman army to break through the human forces and reach this place. Keeping CZ -- their strongest fighting force -- here was a good political move, but it was a poor military move.
If they placed her on the frontlines, it would greatly diminish the losses to the Holy Kingdom’s forces.
Everyone understood that, but nobody could actually act on it. That was because they wanted to avoid building CZ’s reputation.
What a senseless waste of lives, Neia thought, but wild horses could not have torn the words from her.
30 minutes later, there were cheers from the right flank. It was not just Neia and her keen ears which picked it up -- the cries of joy were loud enough that they reached the ears of everybody in Neia’s squad. They must have scored quite the victory if they could be heard over such a great distance.
10 minutes after that, a messenger from the battlefield loudly announced what had happened.
“Captain Remedios Custodios of the Paladin Corps has just defeated the enemy commander, one of Jaldabaoth’s henchman demons, the Scale Demon!”
The messenger left after relaying that message.
Neia began to wonder if it was actually true.
No, it was probably true that Remedios had defeated a demon. But was that demon really one of Jaldabaoth’s henchmen?
Neia knew very well the power of the demon she and CZ had fought in Kalinsha.
She did not think that Remedios could have beaten it.
Is the Captain strong enough to beat something like that? Or… could it be some kind of double? If I don’t ask Sempai...
“CZ-sempai, I have a question. How strong is that Scale Demon?”
“...Enough that the Captain could beat it.”
“But the Circlet was stronger, right?”
“...The existence of strong demons implies that there are weak demons. The Scale Demon is one of the weaker ones.”
Neia was relieved. Two of the henchman demons which had entered this country had already been defeated. While that left the great demon in the hills, there was no point thinking about that one.
“The country’s saved now… Since the enemy commander’s dead, the demihuman army ought to break up. According to the Prince’s plan, everything should be over.”
There was a wistful look on Beldran’s face, because he had lost the chance to avenge himself with his own hands.
“...Still need to hunt down the stragglers.”
“That’s right! I expected nothing less of you, CZ-sama!
The left wing -- right in the middle of the noble forces, in fact -- suddenly sprouted a pillar of flame. The roaring inferno was high enough that they could see it clearly even from this distance, and it looked like it would scorch the sky.
Everyone looked worriedly to CZ.
They could think of only one being which could do such a thing. Right after that, CZ confirmed their suspicions.
“...Oh no… it’s Jaldabaoth.”
“Captain Remedios Custodios of the Paladin Corps has just defeated an enemy commander, one of Jaldabaoth’s henchman demons, the Scale Demon!”
The right wing exploded into cheers as they heard what Caspond’s messenger had told them. Marquis Bodipo’s face lit up with a smile.
“Hahaha! She did it! She took down the enemy general! Whatever that woman’s brains might be like, her swordsmanship is first rate. That ought to weaken the enemy’s momentum. I order everyone to conduct a sweeping advance. Kill every last one of those demihumans! In the Prince’s name, let none survive!”
The soldiers spread out immediately upon receiving the Marquis’ orders.
“Truly splendid, Marquis-sama. We are truly fortunate that the commander of the unit facing us in this battle -- in the same battle as us -- has been eliminated.
Count Cohen, a man who was held in quite high regard in his own faction, was all smiles as he said so.
“Indeed it is, Count. Now we’re a step ahead of them.”
Eliminating the commander of the unit that had skirmished repeatedly with the forces of the Southern Noble Alliance during their long confrontation was a massive coup. It was undoubtedly a significant card they could play when negotiating with the other Southern nobles.
Compared to Remedios Custodio, her sister Kelart Custodio had left far more bitter memories in their minds. However, this was an achievement that could wipe those grudges away.
In addition, this was also a feather in the cap for Caspond. Simply put, if he managed to survive all this, the position of the next Holy King was practically his. Even the remaining Southern nobles with any power would not be able to complain about it, and with his own undivided support, there would be no problems at all.
If there were any uncertain elements in this scenario, that would be the other members of the royal family. There would be no problems if all of them were dead. However, he was not yet prepared to stain his hands, so all he could do was pray.
The Marquis joyously imagined the future balance of power in noble society.
If he wanted his family to become the most influential one in the Holy Kingdom, he could not afford any mistakes in the clean-up operation that would follow this. Everything until now had been perfect. All they had to do was keep on going like this.
“Count. Do you think we can drive the demihumans to the south?”
“Marquis-sama, why would you do that?”
The Count looked surprised, and he sounded confused as he asked his question. The Marquis mocked him in his heart.
There was no way he could not understand. The Marquis would not give his favor to anyone who was that incompetent. The Count was pretending surprise even though he knew what the Marquis had in mind.
He must have been trying to give the impression that the great and mighty Marquis-dono was planning something that he could not fathom. It was truly a boring attempt at sucking up to him.
The Marquis decided to go with the flow. If he made the Count believe he could be that easily manipulated, it would be easier to use him.
“Are you listening? The demihumans are an excellent tool to weaken the nobles who aren’t of our faction.”
He raised a finger, adopting the air of an old man who could not resist the urge to explain himself.
“Now that the Northern nobles have been weakened, the balance of power between the North and South has been shattered. Things being what they are now, it is unavoidable that the Southern nobles will end up having a greater say in matters.. However, that would be problematic for the royal family. In other words, this is what the royal family we are helping will face.
“I expected nothing less of you, Marquis-sama. To think your considerations stretched that far!”
The flattery was blatant at this point, but the Count still delivered it with a joyful tone and a loud voice.
“Indeed. Nothing would be better than if they would ravage the lands of the nobles who did us no good.”
As he watched the Count look around hurriedly, the Marquis stroked his beard and thought, this man really is a good actor.
“Relax, Count. We are surrounded by trustworthy people. Word will not get out. Besides, who would believe it?”
“Is, is that so? But, there are too many uncertain elements if we just let the demihumans flee to the South. In that case, why not press them to their wits’ end, and then forge a secret pact with the demihumans…?”
“Employing demihumans, then? A good idea.”
Although the Count sounded like he was disgusted by the idea of using demihumans, that was probably acting too. He was the sort of man who would use everything he could until there was nothing left.
Getting such an excellent man in his own faction was also to keep an eye on him.
In truth, he had already embedded several people in the Count’s family. He had also used people from other factions so he would not be found out even if one used charm spells.
“Count, would you go as well if there was a chance to make a deal with the demihumans?”
The Marquis was keenly aware that the Count was plotting all sorts of things behind those eyes of his.
“I, I don’t really want to go, but if you intend to go, then I would certainly accompany you, Marquis-sama.”
He was probably doing this so he could say “the Marquis said so-and-so” and thus obtain a trump card to use against the Marquis. However, just going there with him would tar him with the same brush. It was too feeble to be used as a trump card.
“...Is that so? Then should we not tell His Highness to stop attacking the demihumans? There’s no need to sacrifice more people in fighting. After this, we shall achieve victory at the negotiation table.”
“It is as you say, Marquis-sama. However, the other Counts seem to be mounting an all-out attack, so we ought to stop them as soon as possible for a better effect.”
While stopping them as they were trying to make a name for themselves would be doing them a disservice, it would be better to keep things as they were when one considered the future. The Marquis was delighted that he would soon be able to influence the future of the Holy Kingdom. Of course, he would never let that show on his face.
“Contact the Counts--”
The pillar of fire that erupted cut the Marquis off halfway.
The Marquis was not completely clueless about magic. He might not be able to use it himself, but knowledge about divine magic was commonplace among the Holy Kingdom’s nobility. However, that was of secondary important, and it was not linked to knowledge of magic from other traditions.
Even so, he understood that the pillar of flame before his eyes was incredibly powerful magic.
“What, could that be magic of the so-called fourth tier? The kind that Kelart Custodio and Her Majesty could use?”
“I, I don’t know. What, what should we do, Marquis-sama?”
“Er, hm. I’m not too sure, but let’s just back up a little and move to a safer place.”