Soul Of Searing Steel Chapter 3


Chapter 3: The Itch in the Fists

A corner of the canyon was still engulfed by the night sky.

The troops of soldiers rushed over to Joshua with speed that could rival that of a cheetah. Mud was sent flying with each heavy step they took. Just when Joshua forced himself to calm down, he noticed they did not bear any malicious intent. When they were a few meters from him, their speed slowed down. None of them looked beaten up like he was.

"Deputy commander!"

One of the soldiers stood out among the troop and frowned heavily with eyes of concern. "Such injuries Are you alright?!"

Like hell I am

When he first saw his face, he could not recognize him. However, his memories came flooding in and he immediately knew the names and faces of all the men that were clad in the crow armor. They were the Crows' Frontline Strike team that was under his command. When he recalled their names and faces, he relaxed and sighed. "Well? Help me out, will you? Please be careful of the wounds. I'm bleeding like a faucet here."

Instantly, like waking up from a dream, the soldiers realized his condition and rushed to help. As soldiers of the Empire, all of them were trained with emergency first-aid skills. However, when they tried to tend to his wounds, they found it to be beyond their capabilities. Such wounds would make any normal human bedridden for months, lest mention of even walking!

Joshua noticed that most of the soldiers around him were in a state of shock, but it was a matter that he did not care. The soldiers were genuinely surprised to see Joshua since they thought he was long dead. How could anyone not be? The man charged into the orc's base camp alone. No one would have thought that he could come back alive, and still walk in one piece! Even though he was limping badly, he was still walking! From the looks of it, he could still fight if needed! As expected of the deputy commander.

It took only two soldiers out of the entire group to help Joshua back to the army camp. There, two priests and one necromancer tended to his wounds.

Even though the necromancer class sounds bad and malicious, they were not the enemies in the Mycroft Continent. They were accepted as official tender to dead corpses for the purpose of studying the human anatomy. In fact, their knowledge expands further to other species as well. They were considered as the best surgeons since they had intimate knowledge of the internal structure of humans. That, and the ability to communicate with spiritual beings. Their contributions proved to be extremely helpful to the army.

Naturally, amongst those that studied the art of necromancy, there was a small faction that specialized in the art of killing. They were called the death reapers. Weirdly enough, they were fascinated with experimenting with living beings, making gruesome modifications to their bodies and corrupting their souls. Some of their greatest achievement were zombies, chimeras, abominations, undead puppets, and many more monsters and unnatural creations famous throughout the history of mankind.

Priests' divine arts were only capable of restoring external wounds and injuries. On the other hand, necromancers excelled at healing internal injuries.

After thirty minutes of healing, and a not so fancy meal, Joshua could feel energy circulating through his body. All the injuries around his abdomen were healed perfectly. The HP value on the Attribute tab had changed from [Critical] to [Injured]. The negative status from before was elevated to only [Exhausted].

Joshua gobbled the last drop of army rations and asked, "Why are you guys here? Give me a brief report."

"We are the company that was in charge of clearing the battlefield to prepare a blockade at Fort D'ruis."

The man that Joshua was talking to was his subordinate, the captain of the company. His name was Ryan. As instructed, Ryan began to explain the situation. "The orc forces on the frontline have been destroyed completely. Currently, they are completely forced back to their base. Our scouts reported that they have withdrawn and are standing guard at the fortress. Our only task for now is to seal off every possible route in and out of the fortress."

The Black Crow Army was one of the four great armies of the Empire. They consisted of the frontal assault division, the general soldiers, the heavy assault knights, and the magicians. The magicians were made up of priests and other magicians that were capable of conjuring spells, both offensive and defensive. There were also five divisions in the department of military logistics.

In the game, there was also a special warrior class called the 'Black Crow Ambusher', a special knight class called the 'Black Crow Conqueror', and a special bandit class called the 'Death Sweeper'.

Joshua was young yet he was one of the two deputy commanders of the frontal assault division. Half the reason was due to his family's name, and the other half was due to his own ability as a fighter. The soldiers were impressed with his fighting skills and revered him as their leader. His position was good but after saving him and knowing of his achievement, their respect towards him was raised even higher. All because Ryan and the other soldiers had scouted the battlefield where he came back from.

The air of the battleground was heavily polluted with the smell of both rust and blood. The earth was sullied heavily by the remains of the corpses and had turned into an unnatural rotten color. The smell that lingered around the place could make any man ill. It was a nightmarish scene and no one could believe that Joshua could survive such a battle that had resulted in such a scene. The fact that he was actually walking back to them was solid proof of what he was capable of.

Ryan then swallowed his pride and spoke, "The sun is still down. We are unable to confirm the exact number of orcs." He paused for a moment. He could not even think of his next words. After a few seconds, the soldier adjusted his helmet and straightforwardly exclaimed, "I I had been in doubt of your ability as a deputy commander due to your age and proofless strength yet after seeing the battlefield with my own eyes, I must apologize for underestimating you, sir."

Joshua was indifferent to what he said.

"For your glorious deeds, perhaps even the General would see you in a different light. I sincerely hope that you would receive the Blade of Glory."

The Blade of Glory was not a weapon to be used but a medal of honor given to those that had achieved something great in the military. Those who acquired such an item would undoubtedly be a man of prestige and bravery. In the game, however, the Blade of Glory badge was a necessary achievement to obtain the Platinum Trophy achievement. The highest price he had seen players buying it for was over 100,000 gold coins. Normally, the price would only be around 20,000 gold coins. As a comparison to its price, a full set of Magic Armor would be around 70,000 to 80,000 gold coins.

In the game, one Blade of Glory medal would be exchanged for an [Explorer Knight Appointment Manuscript]. The completed task would enable a player to open an instant dungeon in an inhabited wild wasteland or the Dark Forest. Defeat the dungeon and one could build an Explorer Knight's Territory and be its owner.

"Perhaps so," said Joshua with as little interest as possible whilst waving his hand to dismiss it.

Back then, when he was still playing the game, he went through hell and back just to form the best group garrison. Since the Blade of Glory thing was a hard to earn item, he spent more than a whole day and night just to defeat the dungeon. The entire ordeal was so mentally and physically taxing that he felt nauseated just thinking about it. Such a thing was not even as valuable as a [Master Healer Appointment Manuscript], hence, it was not even worth thinking about. In fact, he would rather think of nothing right then. Not even about the orcs. The dungeon in the northwest flatlands had been raided more than a hundred times. That was why he could kill the orcs without a second thought.

Joshua felt his body was already on the verge of healing completely. In fact, he felt like all he needed was a good, quiet, and peaceful sleep. Joshua nodded and sent Ryan away politely. "Well You have your duty to perform. Carry on and do not feel the need to tend to me anymore."

"Ah What will you be doing now? Deputy commander?"

"I'll be back to talk to the officer alone."

What he meant by the officer was not the army's general but the brigade general of the Frontal Assault division. Following military law and regulations, every army officer must gather together for a meeting to discuss their given task, which included Joshua. However, due to his previous predicament, he had missed the meeting. However, all he needed to do was to speak with his superior officer to notify him of his report.

After rejecting Ryan's men offer of assistance, he changed into fresh new clothes and made his way towards the central command center of the Black Crow Army.

Aside from the wound located at the corner of his eye that could not fully heal, other major wounds had been healed partially. Even though he felt a little tired and his eyelids were weighing a ton, his posture remained neat and refined.

Half an hour later, Joshua reached the central command without any interruption. It was most probably due to his presence of a deputy commander.

On the other hand, his superior officer, the brigade general of the Black Crow Frontal Assault division, clad in heavy gold plated armor, was sipping on a cup of coffee, while reading a report sent by his spy.

He had short curly golden hair and a body that could fight a wild bear. His arms were so ripped that they looked like could explode from his armor at any given time. His gaze was so piercing that they could tear the paper that he was reading then.

"Pfffft"

Before he could finish his report, Otto spit the cold coffee out and inhaled deeply.

"The Wild Wolf Squad of the E'to tribe has been annihilated?! No survivors? Reinforcements canceled?"

He pulled out a napkin and wiped his mouth. Frowning, he said, "E'to tribe was the largest orc tribe. Wild Wolf Squad consisted of their elite killers. That's more than a hundred Silver-Tier orcs right there. They were all above average in strength and not some random scraps! How could they be completely annihilated?!"

Otto put the report down on his desk and sighed. "Did the orcs capture the spy and beat the crap out of him? No that wouldn't be right. They wouldn't dare to write something as absurd as this in a million years... Whatever they write must be true..."

Otto picked the report up and flipped a few pages back to read it again.

After a while, someone came into his tent and announced with a deafening voice.

"Report! Deputy commander of the Frontal Assault division, Joshua has arrived!"

"Let him in."

"Sir! Yes, sir!"

Joshua let himself pass the covers of the tent and noted that his superior officer was glaring at him with the eyes that identified him as an enemy.

"Tell me the truth. Were you possessed by the demons from the Abyss?"

"Um What?"

"You! A man of your caliber annihilated the entire Wild Wolf Squad!? Hah! No offense, but you don't strike me as someone capable of something of that magnitude."

Otto crossed his arms and continued to glare at Joshua. It was as if he was meeting him for the first time. His glare gradually softened, so did his manner of speech. "Even though we have the terrain advantage at our disposal I must say that your ability has far exceeded what I had expected of you. Gold tier even!"

Joshua finally understood what he was talking about. Otto was informed about his feat of killing a bunch of orcs. Still What is the Wild Wolf Squad?

Joshua did not realize what facial expression he was making then until Otto screamed. "Look at yourself now! What were you thinking when you were behind enemy lines?! Do you even know what you did?!"

Joshua remained unfazed and when Otto saw it, he sighed heavily. He felt like he was an old man who would never understand the mind of a young man. He sat back on his chair and tapped the table rhythmically. "Do you not want to go back and claim that title of count? My young soon-to-be count?"

Otto knew the count well, who was also Joshua's father. Since both of them had a close relationship, both Joshua and Otto would drop the formalities when conversing with each other.

"Yes sir What you said is true."

"Sigh Even the blind can see that you're exhausted. Go back and rest. There's nothing for you to do right now."

The brigade general shook his head and signaled Joshua to leave. Right then, when Joshua pulled the tent cloth aside, Otto made a final comment, "I'm glad that you're still alive."

The next day, the battle between the orcs and humans come to a temporary halt. The frontline troop of the Black Crow Army was called back to rest and recuperate.

A large tent, filled with neatly arranged decorations that signified someone of high rank had appeared at the central command center. Inside, there were signs of smoke and ash on the floor. On the table next to the makeshift bed were various tools and canisters that were meant for weapon maintenance.

"Deputy commander!"

Joshua had changed into a new uniform and had slept like a log for the entire night. Just when he was about to complete writing his retirement letter, he heard an officer calling him from outside his tent. He placed the quill aside and said, "Speak your mind."

"The brigade general wishes to have a word with you."

"Coincidentally, I have something to tell him as well. Tell him I'll be right over."

"Roger that, sir."

After a brief period

"Withdraw?"

"No. Retire."

"It's the same. I understand that there's trouble in your hometown. But right now, it's warring period. I have neither the authority nor clearance to relieve you of your duties."

Otto rested his weary head on his right palm. He looked a little too annoyed and disappointed. "Still the war is almost over. Winter is coming and the orcs will call off the war. From the looks of it, their rations would not support their cause. When the time comes, you will be transferred back after the usual process."

"It would be too late by then!" Joshua cried. His voice was so loud that other soldiers that were patrolling outside the black and gold adorned giant tent could hear him. The superior officer sitting behind a large mahogany desk frowned immediately. Joshua did not care. "The letter has clearly expressed the urgency of the issue. If I waited until winter, who knows what sort of mess would befall my home!"

"You can scream and shout all you want to me. That does not change the fact that I cannot let you leave. I called you here not to inconvenience you. There are some guys sent by the higher-ups and they called out a few names. One of them was you. All the more reason that I cannot let you go."

Brigade General Otto pressed his hands together and rested his upper body on the wooden desk. He raised his head to look at the serious glare of his underling and felt a little troubled.

"Who are they?"

"You'll see them in a while. Just They are the Golden Libra."

*****

"Joshua van Radcliffe. Born on15th October, Starfall Year 810. The first heir to the ruling family of Moldavia. Army participant in the Year 826. Acceptance by recommendation to the Empire's military academy in Year 828. Year 830, graduated from the military academy with the highest honor. After receiving exemplary experience from the academy, you have been fighting in the frontline at the northeast flatlands, in Thomas Grand Canyon."

A long, monotonous speech was given by a middle-aged man who was sitting at a long board table. The man was wearing a long red robe with black stripes on its edges. Like a machine, his face was impassive and his voice was extremely flat.

"The current time and date is 11:47 hours, Year 831, 16th October."

He paused and turned his head to face Joshua. Finally, after the long meaningless speech of Joshua's personal life, he spoke in a playful tone. "There's thirteen minutes till noon, Mister Deputy Commander of the Black Crow Frontal Assault division. That's thirteen minutes of time for you to explain your offense."

There was a bright and extremely grand medal resting on the man's left breast. The medal had a sword on the upper half and a tasseled wheat dcor that surrounded the sword like a reversed arch. It was the symbol for the Golden Libra. A symbol the signified that the wearer as one of the members of the royal court.

"Right Mr. Investigator, Sir Mengsk. Before we start"

Thanks to Otto advise, he was mentally prepared for such an interview. Hence, he was not nervous. He cupped both of his hands together and politely asked, "May I have a cup of tea?"

"Absolutely," said the man, again with the monotonous tone. Still, he was good to talk to. "Red tea?"

"Yes, please. A little ice would be nice."

"My pleasure."

The guards that were standing at the door came in and offered him a cup of cold red tea. The investigator then added, "It's twelve minutes to noon."

Joshua took a sip of the cold tea and smiled. "That's seems to be a problem for you."

"Mm."

"Hahaha."

Both of them laughed nonchalantly yet Joshua's mind was whirring.

He had no idea that his act of retiring from the army during a battle had spread so fast to the higher-ups. It was even less than two days! Such an effective investigation!

He knew clearly that a soldier whether high ranked or not, was not allowed to withdraw from a battle in progress due to the possible disruption of the military formation.

When he was 'transferring' between worlds, he had already broken three martial laws. A regular soldier would have been thrown into the stockade and wait for the Court Martial to conduct their judgment. Even he, a noble from a noble family would be sent to stand for trial by the royal court. That was the main reason why Investigator Mengsk was sent there to question Joshua.

The royal court was not a charity organization. They represented the Empire's authority as a whole. The authority covered even the highest of nobles residing in the Empire. They punished criminals that belonged to the nobles and mediated territorial wars. Their duties included reporting directly to the emperor about the hidden Shadow Corp that moved around in secrecy gathering intelligence about the movement of all nobles. All in all, they handled all cases that revolved around the powerful nobles.

Technically, cases such as a son committing homicide, killing his brother and assassinating his father to claim the title of count was part of the report which the royal court must comply. Though, it would seem that the court had never handled such a case before.

He knew the power they held. He knew how ferocious they could be. Yet, Joshua remained unfazed even when Mengsk's voice turned threatening.

"I know my crime. I have disobeyed a direct order, left the command center without permission, and broke from the military formation. In summary, I violated Martial Law rule 2, 6, and 17."

Joshua took another sip of tea and continued his speech, "I will accept any punishment of the court without any objections."

He was calm. Without stuttering, he confessed all his crimes and admitted he was guilty.

"I listen and comply."

There was still no emotion on Mengsk's face, as if he had expected Joshua to say something like that.

"You're exceptionally co-operative."

Joshua placed the cup down on the table and kept quiet.

He was not behaving like a snob, nor did he feel like he was wrongly accused. All because he knew that the law was absolute.

An unbreakable holy guidance of the army.

"The victor has no sin."

Joshua had close ties with the southern royal court and had witnessed many of the cases handled. He knew what those words meant. True, he had disobeyed a direct order and left the formation, disrupting and causing chaos among the soldiers of the frontal assault. However, he did single handedly destroy the orcs' defenses in the left wing and annihilated all the orcs that were withdrawing from the battle.

The man was a killing machine. He had killed over 300 enemies. An achievement which no soldier had ever done before in history. If he had failed, he would be sent to prison and wait for trial. (There's even the possibility of him dying in the war before he was sent to prison.) The investigator would be more than happy to write down his name in the logbook saying something like 'Joshua van Radcliffe, heir to the northern Moldavia family, violated the Martial Law and will be sent to the fourth noble prison.'

However, Joshua did not fail. He succeeded in pushing back the orcs from the canyon. All he had to do was to confess his 'crime' and await his 'punishment'.

"Joshua Van Radcliffe. Your crimes and achievements have been thoroughly investigated by the royal court. You need not fear unjust treatment."

Such a casual phrase, of which Joshua knew what it actually meant. It's what Mengsk, the middle-aged man, working as a diligent investigator for the court, would say when he wanted no trouble for himself and Joshua. All he had to do was to listen to what Mengsk had to say and everything would be over in a blink of an eye.

Without pausing in between sentences, Mengsk quickly connected his sentence coldly and again, monotonously. "After considerations, the court has come to a decision. You have indeed broken the law yet there was nothing but benefits for the army. Your bravery was proven true and contained no malicious schemes towards the Empire and its interests. Henceforth, your judgment has been decided."

"Effective immediately, Joshua van Radcliffe shall be relieved from his duties as the deputy commander or the Black Crow Frontal Assault division. You shall henceforth retire from the army and return to your territory. However, your achievement will not be forgotten, yet your achievement cannot make your violations go unpunished. Hence, the court had decided to award you with the Blade of Glory for your exemplary bravery on the battlefield."

As he finished reading off the scroll in his hands, Mengsk turned to Joshua and smiled eerily. "The judgment has been delivered to the deputy commander of the Black Crow Frontal Assault Army. That is all."

He paced slowly towards Joshua and whispered. "We had initially decided to temporary have you on probation for three months and then raise your ranks to that of a general. However, considering that fact that you have troubles back in the North while the war with the orcs will be prolonged until the end of summer next year, we changed the decision to have you removed from the military and send you back home. How do you plea?"

Plea? What else was there to plea for?! That's what he wanted since the beginning!

Joshua smiled and nodded his head silently.

"I accept and obey."

It was an obvious reward for Joshua. There was no need for the court to remove him from his ranks. Removal from a military rank did not mean that he could never come back. It just meant that he was stripped of his deputy commander role to become a regular soldier. He was never removed from the military. Also, he was able to go home, legally! Joshua, who had made preparations to retire from the military itself was giving a chance to go home. It was more of a reward than a punishment.

"This ends the court session. Please adjourn to your seat and I shall proceed on with the Black Crow Army's tradition. I shall give you the warrior's blessing."

Mengsk's voice became dull and deep, his glare hallow and out of focus. "Humanity's fragility leads to Death."

Unconsciously, Joshua felt the need to stand firm and still. A burning passion rose from his gut and Joshua opened his mouth to speak loud and clear, "Yet Faith bears Life."

"May the Glory of the Dead be with you. O man of Bravery."

The two exchanged salutations and ended the court session.

"Well then. I'll hope that you'll have a nice"

Mengsk held his tongue when something on inside his robes started to vibrate.

"An emergency magic broadcast message?'

Mengsk nodded apologetically and pulled out a silvery metallic pole that looked like a miniature pitchfork. Engrave on the side of the two forks were runes which he held it against his palm to imbued magic in it to activate the device. "Level 3 Emergency Message What could it be?"

"Should I take my leave?" asked Joshua promptly when he heard the message's level of importance. He would not want to listen to something he would get into trouble with.

"It's fine. This message has only Level 2 Secrecy. Rest assured that it's something that you should know as well."

The rune was activated and the forks started to vibrate at supersonic speed to produce a machine-like sound.

"Northern Moldavia Family. The Winter Count, Beirut de Radcliffe's death has been certified. Danlya la Radcliffe has submitted paperwork to inherit the count's title."

When the message stopped broadcasting, Mengsk's eyes widened. He felt an intense killing aura behind him which sent a chill down his spine. Even though it was a brief moment, the coldness in the air was so intense, it felt like he was experiencing the fear of being attacked by a dragon. An eerie silence filled the room.

After a short moment, the frost killing intent subsided as Joshua calmed himself down. "Well, what do you know? Isn't this just perfect?"

He spoke but in a volume that was so soft, no one could hear it. "It's about d*mn time for me to return home."