Reidy lay flat in the grass, his whole body covered in mud and partially submerged as he paid attention to the barks and footsteps approaching from the distance.
I should have been on the run for a month or so by now, right? I can't even remember the date anymore. The weather's getting colder every day… winter must be approaching.
Reidy didn't expect his pursuers wouldn't give up even after he had escaped into the swamps of Egret Basin. Not only did they recruit a few experienced hunters from the nearby area, they also mobilized the standing army. Reidy's days were now harder than ever. He was even unable to get any good rest. It didn't take more than two hours for the hunting dogs to track him down. He had no choice but to continuously strain his mind and body to their limits to keep himself out of their hands.
He finally began to reflect on the arrogance and thoughtlessness he had displayed. Ever since Lorist acknowledged his swordsmanship, he began to feel proud. It was especially the case ever since he emerged as the champion in the knighthood competition. He no longer took gold-ranked knights seriously and already saw himself as being on the level of rank 1 blademasters.
Even after a bounty had been placed on his head by the Handra and Shabaj duchies, Reidy still remained confident. Certainly, mere rank 1 blademasters couldn't do much to him. He didn't fear facing one head-on since it usually took them at least a hundred strikes to gain the advantage. Had it not been for the other blademaster joining the fray, Reidy wouldn't have minded clashing with the first. Right now, he recalled his teacher's words. He was just like a 'frog in a well' who didn't know how wide the skies truly were. He could only see the well in which he lived. Thinking that he was already on par with rank 1 blademasters, Reidy proudly accepted Blademaster Xanthi's challenge, only to discover that he wasn't able to even take a single strike from her. Had it not been for the river behind him, his head would've been lopped off.
Darned old woman... She's not taking our previous interactions at all into account at all.
Back when Xanthi accompanied Princess Sylvia on her trip around The Northlands, Reidy had been their guide and even made tea for them on numerous occasions. She knew that he was Lorist's eldest disciple, yet she didn't hold back in the slightest and fought with all her strength right from the get-go. It was apparent that Xanthi didn't care about Lorist nor House Norton. Reidy wondered what he had done to have Duke Fisablen desire his death no matter what.
The poor Reidy began to recall all that had happened during his pursuit. Usually, local nobles wouldn't care much when a crime boss or two were killed in their territory. Even if the bosses were chosen by the nobles themselves to rule the underworld on their behalf, the nobles wouldn't bat an eye to their death. They'd simply choose someone else to take their place. Even if they were to place a bounty on someone, it would only be for show. After all, it wasn't uncommon for a crime boss to be killed because of some grudge. Even if the crime bosses were the nobles' relative, the latter usually didn't want to risk the lives of their knights to avenge a mere crime boss.
Since it probably wasn't due to the crime bosses he had killed, Reidy reasoned that it had to be the envoy. The more he thought about it, the more familiar the envoy seemed. After a long time, he finally noticed that he might've seen that fellow beside Duke Fisablen during the knighthood tournament. Lorist had introduced the man as the son of the duke's younger brother. He was a three-star silver rank, the most likely to be the one to step into the gold rank after Princess Sylvia. It was too bad he had lost in the jousting match with Loze.
Reidy finally realized why Xanthi was there, and the magnitude of trouble he was in. He could no longer continue his travels and would have to return to The Northlands right away, should he manage to escape. He would only be safe by his teacher's side. However, he still had to deal with the three sword wounds that Xanthi had dealt him. He would have to stop the bleeding so he wouldn't leave any tracks.
Fortunately, he had trained in the ancient combat technique of the eastern combat monks, the Dan Ocean Ki-Refining Technique. The method of training was completely unlike battleforce. Not only did it allow his swordsmanship to grow explosively, he could even suppress gold-ranked knights with his internal energy. The most important feature was that he could use internal energy to temporarily seal off the circulation where he was injured so he wouldn't bleed and leave a trail.
After he jumped into the river, everyone thought he would emerge on the other side. However, Reidy chose to remain where he was and slip back onto the shore where he jumped right under their noses. After sewing his wounds shut with the sewing kit he carried with him, he applied some medicine, bandaged them, and turned tail to head to Egret Lake. By the time his pursuers realized he had turned back, Reidy had managed to buy himself a few days' time and even allowed his wounds to recover somewhat.
However, there were far too many people on his tail. Even if he were able to reach towns or villages, he wouldn't be able to gain aid there. Only a few days after he entered the swamp, the pursuers brought hunters and hunting dogs to seek him out almost immediately. Currently, Reidy was a rabbit fortunate enough to escape the trap it was caught in. Many of the vital routes to the highlands from the swamp were sealed off, further making it more difficult for Reidy to escape.
Three oily furred hunting dogs half as tall as a man lowered their noses and began sniffing the grass. Beside the dogs were a dozen soldiers and two hunters clad in brown leather. The frontmost three soldiers held up half-body shields. Four pikemen stood behind them. At the tail end of the party were two crossbowmen and three longbowmen. Each one wore alert expressions and were ready to unleash their attacks at any moment.
The three hunting dogs gradually approached a spot roughly three meters away. When the two hunters approached, they relaxed before they turned to the soldiers.
"There's no need to be so tense. We can rest for a bit. The one you're looking for is done for," reported one.
"How so?" asked the solders' leader.
"Our hunting dogs only track a human scent as far as this spot. He might've entered the grasslands here already," replied the man, pointing at the grass.
"Our orders were to find him. Even if he's entered the grasslands, we still have to continue our search," said the leader.
"We can't enter," the hunter said while his partner joined him for a laugh, "Didn't you hear me say he was done for? Don't be mistaken by how tall the grass is. The grass floats on the surface of a very deep pool. No matter who it is, once someone steps in, he will sink and die beneath the grass. The animals and people who died in the pool nourished the grass above it, causing it to grow this tall. Those around here call this the Demongrass Swamp."
"You're saying that the one we're chasing might've drowned after entering this patch of grass?" asked the leader as he relaxed.
No one could alert for so long. The moment the soldiers heard the hunters, they lowered their shields, crossbows, and bows before surrounding the patch of tall grass in discussion. A few walked up to the edge of the grass, unbuttoned their pants, and released a stream of urine.
A rush of pungent urine landed not far away from where Reidy was hiding. A little even sprinkled on his face, but he didn't move. Ideally, he would convince his pursuers he had died in the swamp. If he was already going to return to The Northlands, he could definitely do without the company of those blademasters. However, as with most dreams crushed by reality, the scenario Reidy imagined didn't come to pass.
"Which one of you will make a trip back to report what we've discovered?" he heard the leader ask.
"Leader, what should we report? Should we say our target died after escaping into Demongrass Swamp?" asked one of the soldiers.
"Officer, why can't we just head back together? There's no need to make a trip back, is there? Isn't this matter done with already?" asked the older hunter.
The squad leader sighed.
"Do you think I don't want to go back? The higher-ups said they want to see the corpse if the target is dead. If we report he died inside Demongrass Swamp, they will order us to scour the swamp until we find his corpse. All we can report is that we've lost all trace of him around here and have the higher ups send people over to do the search themselves. No matter what, we don't dare to tell them our target fell to his death in the swamp," answered he.
The younger hunter scratched his face.
"Isn't that ridiculous? How could you find the corpse if it's already sunk all the way down there?"
"Well, they might bring a torch to set the grass alight before they have us poke around inside with long sticks. Even if the swamp is deep, there's no way he could go very far in. He should still be laying dead somewhere in the shallower parts."
Reidy took a deep breath. He launched himself from the mud and dove into the group. His sword flashed quickly a few times. One figure after another fell as blood gushed out of their bodies. In a few short seconds, the eight soldiers were dead already.
Loud barking could be heard as the three hunting dogs leaped over. With a sudden turn, Reidy split one's head before he maneuvered his sword to pierce through the head of the second from below. Releasing his sword and doing a roll, Reidy managed to dodge the third. Using his right hand to take a throwing axe one of the dead soldiers carried by his waist, Reidy hacked the final dog's back. With a puff, the dog crashed against the ground, blood leaking out of its mouth as it flailed in an attempt to stand.
All that remained were four soldiers and two hunters. The leader had already got his three subordinates to hold up their shields and pikes. When they met Reidy's eyes, the four couldn't help but feel despair and panic. As for the two hunters, they had already escaped the moment they instructed their hunting dogs to attack. They were already ten meters away.
Reidy laughed lightly before he flicked his leg. A bow and a quiver on the ground by his feet shot up and landed in his arms. The squad leader's gaze tensed up.
"Careful, everyone!" yelled he as he tried his best to shrink behind the shields.
The woosh of arrows could be heard three times in quick succession. Two cries of pain rang out from behind the group. The leader turned to look and saw the two hunters collapsed on the ground. One had an arrow through his back, the other two. He flushed with embarrassment. He didn't think that being looked down upon by an enemy would be so infuriating. However, the cries calmed him, even though he had wanted to clash with Reidy just moments before. It was obvious that the muddy-looking man intended to have his whole squad stay behind.
Behind the shields, the squad leader took out a small bamboo cone and handed it to the person behind him before he whispered.
"Whoever's at the back, ignite the smoke signal. The rest of you stand your ground together. We'll try our best to stall until reinforcements arrive. We'll be safe once they do."
At that moment, Reidy was removing the sword stuck through one of the hunting dogs. He had used a little too much force to draw the bow quickly moments ago, the wounds on his chest had reopened. It didn't stop him from killing the four soldiers in front of him, though.
He collected his spoils. He had already not eaten for a few days, his last meal was a poisonous yellowish-purple snake. He was so hungry he accidentally popped the snake's gallbladder. The contents spilt on the meat causing it to taste incredibly bitter. He had been so hungry he ate it anyway.
Currently, even normal rations tasted like delicacies to Reidy. Apart from his longsword, he didn't carry anything with him. Even his clothes were horribly torn. He was caked in mud from head to toe. As the swamps were filled with swarms of huge mosquitos who's stings resulted in massive swelling, he had no choice but to muddy himself to make sure his blood wasn't sucked dry.
The four soldiers that remained huddled together. The one at the front held up a shield and the other two raised their pikes. The last soldier was busy with something, but he couldn't see what it was. He was was sure he wasn't holding a crossbow, though, as the ones armed with them had been his first targets. The two crossbows on the floor were in plain sight. For all Reidy knew, the man might be unarmed, since it wasn't surprising for one to forget one's weapon when ambushed.
But when a loud hiss rang out, the look on Reidy's face changed. A small bamboo tube let out thick smoke into the air visible from kilometers away. The smoke signal was something Frontier Legion used to signal units far away on the great expanses of the grasslands. Reidy didn't think his pursuers would be given them as well.
"Die!" roared Reidy as he rushed forward.
He knocked the two pikes that shot at him like poisonous pythons away. Stepping hard on the shield and leaping over it, he swung his sword and cleft the throats of the two pike-wielding soldiers, before slashing behind him after he landed behind the shield bearer. The man dropped his shield and grabbed his wound before kneeling gradually. Reidy withdrew his sword. Only the pale-faced soldier holding the smoke signal was left.
"Go to hell," yelled Reidy as he ended the man with one strike.
Despite being cleft in twain, the bamboo tube still continued to let out smoke. Not long after, loud barking could be heard in the distance.
"Sol!" cursed Reidy before he picked up the two crossbows and bows on the ground, the two quivers, and the spear.
He hurriedly searched the dead soldiers' rucksacks and picked what he needed quickly. He packed everything into a sack which he tied to his waist. After looking around and seeing movement in the distance, Reidy smiled before he jumped onto the muddy slope and disappeared into the Demongrass Swamp.