The imperial troops followed closely without losing the tracks, but even if they lost sight of things, they are confident that the shadow hounds would lead them true with their noses.
When they finally traced their targets to the Rice Paddy Plateau, they found signs that there was a pause at this place for a while. But after a quick searching of the area, they could not discover anything at all.
This stoppage that their foes made, however, somehow caused everyone to feel wary, and the group unconsciously hasten their steps to get out of the place. It was an instinct that were honed from the countless battlefields they had experienced that prodded them forth.
At this time, the nudging feeling became stronger, like the buzzing of a persistent fly, and it caused their leader to bark out an urgent command, “We’re leaving at full speed! Follow me”
Instead of the quick pace they were doing, they charged at full-speed eastwards. But little did they know that their caution amounts to nothing, because the area that the Snowdrifts members rigged is indeed the entire plateau.
A series of explosions, sets off like firework, and tore apart the men and their mounts. Immediately cutting their numbers down by a quarter.
This is what Kairos had sent them to do right after they separated at Vox Shalua, and because they had a lot of time, the explosives were hidden so carefully they are nearly impossible to discover. Every member of the Snowdrifts already had a great deal of experience in using explosives that even the thief who supervised them could only nod appreciatively at their skill.
After that earthshaking mess, the entire landmark has been turned into a great charred and lifeless land, as black smoke rises from all around them.
The troops that had been blown away from each other, slowly and groggily picked themselves up.
Being an imperial guard means that not only do they have to guard the emperor, their group also serve as the strongest military force in the empire. Most of them have prepared multiple protective items on them for cases like this, and therefore the majority managed to survive. However, even though they are all veterans, those that did not react fast enough were still killed.
The captain swore under his breath after he saw how many had fallen, then without mourning for the dead, they gathered the corpses into their time-space containers then left towards the tallgrass prairie where the group masquerading as Kairos’ gang had went before.
After a while’s ride, they quickly reached the place. As the professionals they are, each of them began to focus on the task at hand instead of dwelling on the trap they faced before.
They understand that to spot something off could save all their lives, and so, it is more important to keep their focus than mope on what had happened. However, what they noticed at this place caused them to be further baffled, “It’s here that they dismounted. But why would they dismount? Do they think they could even hide from us with these tall shoots?” A soldier muttered under his breath as the others looked confusedly at each other for a moment, before returning to following the tracks.
By now, it is already rather obvious to them that those they are chasing are headed towards Vox Shalua. There are no other place of refuge close enough for their targets, before the troops can catch up.
They reached the middle of the prairie and they found dug up mud and crushed grass. An indication that their target had decided to musk their scent and confuse the hounds at this spot.
“This is ridiculous…” One of them started, but before he could finish his sentence their captain immediately shoot him a fearsome glare.
“Don’t be a tool. They are smart enough to escape with a prisoner from the royal dungeon from the hands of the guardian, and able to set that large of an explosion even with us chasing behind their backs. If you underestimate them you’ll die”
“B…but captain, even if the shadow hounds could no longer pick up their scent, we would still be able to track them down. Or guess where they are going” He tried to defend himself and pointed at a slight mark on the mud. When observed carefully, that mark fits the heel of a boot, and it points out the direction for them to follow.
“Let’s hope that they are truly that careless. Regardless, move out!” The captain said, unconvinced things would be truly as smooth sailing as his naïve men believed, but otherwise chose to remain silent.
His main purpose is to find their targets and apprehend time, all the while keeping his troops alive. There is no purpose on reprimanding them on a job if it wouldn’t help the task. But, once they are back at camp, he vowed to remedy that naivety.
The guys followed the direction which the mark is pointed. Taking care to search carefully among the shoots. Their sight are nearly hidden by the grass, and their hounds no longer able to tell which direction to go. The search became a crawl, only the rare instances where they found a broken stem or a muddied footprint become their only assurance that they are in the right track.
“Don’t falter, we are still in the right directions. Number 3, are you properly rallying all these to the headquarters?”
“Yes captain!” barely able to see each other, a voice sounded from the line behind is his only response.
The soldiers took a while to exit the prairie, taking far longer than the 7 did, but things did not become easier afterwards.
After returning to the grass plains outside of the prairie, the tracks suddenly became much more difficult to trace.
The reason for this is because of the rogue that guided the 6 members of the Snowdrifts, and thieves are experts at being light-footed. It wasn’t long before the soldiers lost all traces of the ones they are following, “Damnit, we totally lost track of them. Should we continue this way?”
“Send the message back to HQ, and split the men up in all directions. 25 of you follow me, we shall rush towards Vox at full speed” The captain said decisively.
“Roger!” The men immediately split into the 8 cardinal directions, their targets are the closest landmarks in the direction.
The group splits up and quickly dispersed for their own mission, charging at full speed on their mounts. The beasts they are on are the silver lynx, a type of powerful cat that are famous for having strong and lithe bodies. They are naturally able to provide impressive bursts of speed, and yet also have the stamina for long distances. The only drawback it has is its dismal lack of combat ability, not only does its lithe build made it bad for fighting, few can grow beyond B rank.
But even so, it is extremely popular as it gave them the edge they needed to chase down fugitives, especially against cultivators that may have all sorts of methods to run. It is certainly faster than a land wyrm, even if it wasn’t burdened by over half a dozen people.
The captain continued for nearly a week, until his group finally come close to the borders of Vox Shalua. Along the way, they had found no traces of the ones they are chasing, but here they noticed large groups of patrols roaming the fields ahead of them.
“Ho friends!” The captain of the imperial troops shouted from far, and he quickly ride ahead to meet them. On the surface, Vox Shalua is only known as Vox, and it is still a city belonging to the Silent Lambs Empire. Therefore, even if it is an open secret that the King of Thieves controls the city, there should be no hostility towards imperial troops like them.
“What are you guys looking for?” The captain stopped cautiously a distance away, the amount of guards from Vox Shalua are too much for comfort, and he could not bet on their friendliness.
“An imperial guard? What are you doing so far east?” Someone among the Vox patrol shouted back a reply.
“I’m looking for a group of fugitives, 6 children and 1 adult, all males. They may have additional company. Know anything?” The communication mostly done by yelling. He prefers to wait where he is until someone from the other side come to him.
And as he hoped, one of them trotted over on a dragon horse, and addressed him politely. No matter who is the one they truly serve, on the surface they are of the same side, and an imperial guard is after all a high rank among the soldiers.
“Hey man, I think you might be looking for the same group as us. We found a group, like you described, heading past here about half a day ago, and we’re trying to track them down, but they are too slippery to be found”
“I know what you mean. We had a hard time finding their tracks as well”, the captain said, not about to reveal his embarrassment that they had actually lost all traces of their targets, “But, why are you guys chasing them as well?”
If the Vox Shalua guards replies that they had heard about these fugitives and are trying to help, he would turn tail and run immediately. It would be too obvious a trap, and he steeled himself, ready to flee at a moment’s notice.
“It’s a long story mate” He sighed before continuing without asking if the captain would like to hear, “A week ago, we caught someone trying to cross the mountains into Saint Empire. A young girl who was completely terrified by the time we got to her.
During our questioning, she blurted out everything, saying that she was sent to prepare a way across the mountain range for her friends. Now, you know that crossing the mountains is prohibited, so we had prepared to stop her friends. But at that time, we received information on a new bounty of the highest alert.
6 boys and an adult male. It completely fits what the girl told us, so we came out in great numbers. Then, someone reported scanning a fitting party heading towards the mountain ranges from this area, with a visual crystal and we came right over”
The captain felt something is off, but the story fits perfectly. Turning his mount around he shouted to his group, “They go towards the mountains, we ride tonight!” It’s his intention to cut off Kairos’ group before they enter the treacherous steeps.
Kairos’ plans to lure his pursuers away from him had succeeded. The soldiers shall roam the mountain ranges, thinking they had attempted to cross the dangerous frozen peaks to return to Saint Empire, while they are actually on their way straight towards Saint Empire.
The 7 who served as their decoys are now on their way towards Vox Shalua for a short holiday trip. A beautiful suite in the fanciest inn of the undercity has already been prepared for them, compliments of Fritzgen of the Treasures Pavilion. They do not fear that the imperial troops would seize them, even if spotted face-to-face, they are unrecognizable having left the party so early ahead of time.
And after the chaos died down, they will be on their way back to Saint Empire with hired transportation.
There was, of course, no young girl detained by the Vox Shalua patrols. Nor anyone actually spotted heading towards the mountain ranges.
The entire message that the patrol gave the imperial troop captain was a cleverly planned ruse. When Kairos’ group was leaving the undercity, the boy had visited the office of the governor. This plan was what they chatted privately at that time.
Back in the palace, the Emperor Axtaius had just finished another meeting with his uncle from the immortal realm. It turns out that their situation is even grimmer than expected, even making him wonder if he should send out the injured guardian.
With his head hanging down with burden, he called for a meeting, but what came were not a shuffle of feet as he expected and instead his loyal steward with a news.
While he was away, his children -- the prince and princess -- had each led a hundred of his soldiers to chase down the group. They left a message saying that Kairos had completely disrespected them and they see fit to mete out the punishments personally. Not only so, the guardian of the realm was discovered to have mysteriously vanished, leaving only the royal guard captain as the only commander in the palace.
The direction his children chose to go is directly towards the borders, southwards, and it caused the Emperor to worry greatly, being so close in proximity towards the Saint Empire borders. As well as the fact that these fugitives they are chasing were strong enough to repel Syriong.
“Send my command, have every town and cities to stop all people from exiting. Increase the patrols within the walls but do not let it be obvious from the outside”
“Yes sir, should we stop people from entering as well?”
“Idiot. Keep the gates open for anyone that wish to enter, and ask them to report back frequently. Also… Mobilise the phantoms” The emperor added the last bit hesitantly. The phantoms had always been his last resort, but the crown prince could not be risked.