Chapter 1 - The Beginning
“Ugh…” a faint groan squeezed through the boy’s blood-stained lips. His face was still youthful beneath the dripping blood that covered it.
“Agh…” another groan broke out from between his snow-white lips. Instinctively, he tried to hold back his whimpering and weakly gasped for air. When he paid careful attention to his surroundings, he could hear voices.
“Run away! Don’t look back!”
“Go! Run away!”
“Brother! Take me with you!”
The boy began to wriggle. He couldn’t continue lying down here like this. He had to move. As he tried, though, blood dripped from his mouth. The pain was debilitating, making his body tremble uncontrollably. However, what made the boy suffer more than anything was the silence. Dead silence. It was proof that he was all alone.
The boy raised his head, but quickly dropped it back down into the pool of mud with a splash. Blood and saliva trickled out of his slightly parted lips, spilling into the filth underneath him. He couldn’t do anything to stop it. He shook like a leaf from the pain, but his body didn’t listen. It had refused his order to get up right away and instead remained still.
At that moment, he could hear someone laughing at him. The laughter sounded from both far and near. It sounded in his ears, his head, his heart…
The boy suddenly came back to his senses again. Rain was pouring from the black sky. With a scream, he managed to turn himself over. He had to get up if he wanted to see his family. He had to get up. He tried to use his arms to raise himself from the pool of mud.
Just a little bit more. Get up! Get up already!
At that moment, the sky rumbled as lightning struck somewhere. The boy pulled back at the noise, surprised at what he had seen or, rather, not seen. There should have been a flash of light if there was lightning.
Thunder rolled again, and the boy blinked. He could hear the sound, but he still couldn’t see the intense lightning. Considering his dark surroundings, it should have lit up the whole world. ‘What on earth is this…?’
The rain pounded down on him, but with superhuman strength, he managed to push himself up. He took a step forward only to be thrown back into the pool of mud. Everything turned black, and wet soil rushed into his open mouth. He gasped for air as he felt his body being sucked into the mud. His consciousness began to be pulled down into the darkness as well.
However, thoughts constantly replayed in his head, ‘I have to get up. I have to find my family. I have to get up. I don’t want to be left alone.’
* * *
The man’s blood-stained hair had lost its original color and his black eyes were filled solely with bloodlust. The sound of people shrieking and yelling as if there was no tomorrow, the smell of blood in the air, and the breaths filled with terror… they all served to whet his bloodthirst. He wielded a longsword dripping with blood, and now he could finally see Duke Blaim.
“P-please l-let the children live at least,” Duke Blaim begged with a servile expression. He had given it at last, but there was no emotion on the face of the man who was watching him. Duke Blaim continued to beg, “Please let the children live. If you let them live, if you let them live…”
‘Ha!’ A cold smile appeared on the watching man’s face. With heavy steps, he walked to the groveling duke. The man leaned down, his gleaming black eyes meeting Duke Blaim’s own, which were clouded in despair.
“That’s what my father said as well,” the man told him.
Duke Blaim lowered his head as nausea overtook him; the man stank of nothing but blood. When he did so, the man reached out a heavily scarred hand and forced Duke Blaim to look up, clutching his chin as if to crush it.
Looking into Duke Blaim’s eyes, the man asked a question, “Do you remember what your answer was back then?”
‘No way…’ A startled look passed Duke Blaim’s face. Pitch-black eyes and now this question. Duke Blaim violently shook his head. No, it couldn’t be. They had all been exterminated back then. He had checked everywhere. No one would have survived. But…
“You laughed at my father back then,” the man said.
“No, no,” Duke Blaim began desperately, “That’s not—”
The man slammed Duke Blaim’s head against the stone floor. The duke let out a deathly gasp as blood splashed everywhere, including on the man’s face and clothes. However, he just grabbed the duke’s hair and forced him to raise his head again as if nothing had happened.
He looked at the duke’s hopeless gray eyes, his own gleaming with bloodthirst. “Don’t you dare close your eyes.”
Duke Blaim began to sob, hearing his children cry as they were dragged over. His instincts told him that they would face a more brutal death if he closed his eyes. At that moment, he heard a quiet, villainous laugh.
* * *
The man sat in a chair and waited for the report while wiping blood from his longsword. Torchlight lit the hall soon after and his right-hand man, Giggs, approached.
“All 25 of them were found,” Giggs reported the extermination of the family and approached the man submerged in darkness as he carefully held out something, “Please take a look at this. Is this what you were looking for?”
The man reached out and took what Giggs had proffered. He fiddled with it, his back to the torch. A ring. It was his father’s ring, stolen seven years ago. He had finally recovered it. However, his fingers moved unexcitedly, his expression indifferent.
“Will you speak to the king yourself? He said he’d definitely return the title if you took care of this commission,” Giggs asked, looking at him with anticipation.
The man remained silent for a moment, then slowly opened his mouth to say coldly, “I’ll only reclaim the estate. I don’t want to live as someone’s dog anymore.” He placed his well-polished longsword on his waist and slowly got up from his seat.
“Hansen,” he called.
“Yes, sir,” Hansen, his left-hand man, replied this time.
“You go to the king with the duke’s head and get my seal back.”
“Giggs,” the man called out.
“Get the men ready. We’ll leave soon.”
The man continued to fiddle with the heavy ring on his palm after Hansen and Giggs had left. It had taken him seven years to find it.
His cold lips suddenly drew into an icy smile. “I’ve finally got it back, Father,” he muttered to himself.
He had never forgotten the family he had lost. He couldn’t, as the misery of that time still plagued him when he closed his eyes. He turned the ring over in his hand, continuing to think. Killing Duke Blaim and his family had been a commission from the king, but he had done far more than he would for any regular job; the reason for that was this ring. The man soon closed his palm and clasped it tightly.
The man carried the scent and stain of blood with him always. His name was Gareth, and he was the most vicious and skilled mercenary in existence.
* * *
Gareth’s notoriety shook the whole country long after the extermination of Duke Blaim’s family. He and the eleven mercenaries who followed him were called madmen, and it was said that death followed in their wake. This was truly an age of utter confusion; a world where even kings hired mercenaries, the warring states period where power trumped everything. The current king lacked the power to control the lords’ selfish infighting and power struggles, and the chaotic era gave them all the more reason to hire mercenaries.
It was especially true for mercenaries like Gareth who never failed. He and his men never lacked for work due to the constant disputes. He had his pick of commissions, and only took the ones he wanted. His continued success only meant that the price to hire him kept growing.
However, Gareth wasn’t just after money; he was after survival. He considered his subordinates irreplaceable. In return, his subordinates put absolute trust in him. They believed that they would not die or be betrayed as long as they followed Gareth’s orders, and there was one truth that they knew to the very marrow of their bones: “you will die if you make Gareth your enemy.”
* * *
The first daughter of Count Townsend was struggling to stay calm. Her proudly straightened back was showing an uneasy tension that she barely managed to hide, and her hands trembled. She was only 17, but she managed to endure nevertheless. She looked at the man sitting in front of her, her face pale but her gaze straightforward and arrogant.
“I’m waiting for an answer now, Elena.” Count Logan had wolfish brown eyes that revealed his cold yet violent temperament. He placed his muddy gaiters on the old table, then pretended to trim his nails with a dagger in a laid-back manner. He urged her again, narrowing his eyes and staring at her astonishingly abundant black hair. A bloodthirsty smile formed on his lips at that moment.
Elena could clearly sense Logan’s lewd desires escalating, threatening to ensnare her. She gritted her teeth. “My answer will always be the same.”
“Is that so?” Logan asked.
“I will never marry you,” she said firmly.
There was a loud noise as Logan pushed his chair back and bolted upright. He approached her with quick steps, grabbing her trembling chin. “Do you know what I want to do every time you act like this? I want to rip this dress up and grab you. You won’t be able to say such arrogant words if you felt me just once. I would make you worship at my feet.”
The woman glared at him with deep green eyes, then spoke every word through her teeth as if to spit out her anger. “I’d rather a beast than you.”
Logan let out a faint sneer, bending so close to Elena’s lips she could feel his hot breath as he said, “Your father spoke so coldly two years ago, and you are just the same. You can’t properly judge the reality of the situation because you’re tied to useless pride.”
The places his breath touched felt like they were rotting, but Elena couldn’t shake him off. Her father, Count Townsend, had left for the capital to accuse Count Logan of invading his territory on various pretexts and continuously causing conflict. As a result, Elena was in charge of the Townsend estate until her father returned. She had no choice but to lean on her pride and endure these terrible insults.