“We have to leave,” Leon whispered to the other three, “if we stay here, we’ll eventually be caught.”
“That man is still alive!” one of the men responded. “If we can get to him-“
“And how would we get to him?” Leon demanded. “There are more Valemen arriving every second!” Leon nodded at the crowd of Valemen, gleefully watching the last man assigned to the second watchtower begin to burn. Their numbers had swollen to almost one hundred, and as Leon stated, more kept trickling with each passing moment. Leon could even sense a number of third-tier mages, as well as one man who he couldn’t see through—a fourth-tier mage, another thane of Hakon Fire-Beard’s, he presumed.
“We… we…” the man sputtered.
“We can’t do anything. We can only save ourselves,” Leon said. “Our destination now is the first watchtower. Let’s get moving!”
The other three were reluctant to leave, but once Leon got Alix moving, the other two men fell in line quickly enough. As they left, Leon took one last look at the last living man of the second watchtower. His feet had started to catch fire and his face twisted in agony. Leon could only sigh and move on. He could only spare his attention to those that he was trying to take responsibility for.
The four snuck around the second watchtower, then moved on.
Once they had traveled almost half a mile, Alix wondered aloud, “Why didn’t the second watchtower fire off their flare?”
“Hmm? Didn’t they?” asked one of the men.
“No, they didn’t. The sky was clear, if the signal flare had been activated, it would’ve been still burning hundreds of feet in the air. The fort would’ve been alerted!” Alix responded.
“Maybe they were caught unaware,” suggested the other man.
“The third watchtower didn’t launch their own signal flare, either,” added Leon. “Plus, I think I saw one of Hakon’s thanes in that crowd of Valemen. If a fourth-tier mage were involved, it’s conceivable that the men in the watchtowers could be taken in a surprise assault before the flare enchantment were to be activated. It’s not like the men were particularly attentive, either.”
“We need to get to the first watchtower!” Alix said worriedly.
“Indeed, it’s likely they’re already under attack, but we’re also deep in the pass. We need to move with caution,” Leon said.
With that, the four ceased their talking and concentrated on getting back to the fort. The terrain in the pass was just as rough on the way to the first watchtower as it was going south to the second. The need to move silently slowed the group down even further.
Suddenly, after barely going more than a single mile from the second watchtower, Leon quietly said, “Stop! Get down!”
The other three didn’t question him—although the two men did give him strange looks—and came to a halt. Leon got a few more odd looks when he dropped down onto his stomach and hid himself in the roots of a tree, but he hurriedly waved the other three down to join him.
“What the fuck are you doing, we have to keep moving!” demanded one of the men.
Leon almost cringed at how loud the man spoke, then whispered, “Valemen are close by!”
The man scowled, as he didn’t hear or see anything, but once Alix crouched down and hid, the other two got down as well. As soon as they did, they heard rustling in the trees. Mere seconds later, five Valemen appeared, stopping less than twenty feet in front of Leon’s group.
“I definitely heard someone speaking,” said one of them.
“You’re just hearing things!” said another. “See? There ain’t anybody out here. Well, nobody who ain’t us…”
Leon glared at the man who had questioned him, but the man couldn’t see it, due to Leon’s helmet.
“I know what I heard!” the first Valeman said. “I’m going to check things out.”
“Well, I’m going too, better to be safe than sorry,” said the second. The other three agreed as well.
As the Valemen started walking forward, the two men in Leon’s group looked at each other, then, with no word of warning to Alix or Leon, sprang out of hiding and rushed at the enemy. Leon’s eyes widened in alarm, but he couldn’t stop them in time—even if he tried, there would’ve probably been enough of a scuffle to alert the Valemen anyway.
“Shit…” he muttered. Then, he jumped up and charged, with Alix close behind.
“VALEMAN BASTARDS!” shouted one of the men as he stabbed forward with his spear.
The Valemen dodged with suspicious ease, then smiled and said, “You just made a huge mistake, Southerner…” With a downward swish of his ax, the Valeman ripped the spear from the man’s hands, then smashed the butt of his ax into the man’s chin in an almost derisive follow-up attack. The man’s neck broke and his head was almost ripped clean from his shoulders.
He was only a first-tier mage, but he chose to attack a third-tier Valeman.
“NOOO!” shouted the other man in fear and rage. He’d stabbed one of the other Valemen—though not fatally—and charged at the third-tier Valeman.
The Valeman side-stepped and disarmed the man by breaking both of his hands with the backside of his ax head. But, just as he raised his ax and was about to bring it down on the man’s head, he was forced to lunge back. He brought his ax around and used the haft to deflect a sword that appeared from behind the Legion man.
Leon’s blow sent the Valeman reeling backward, and he didn’t let up. The Valeman barely managed to block the flurry of strikes Leon sent his way, and every time, he was forced back several steps. Leon’s killing intent soared, which kept the Valeman under pressure and unable to counterattack.
The other four Valemen were so caught off-guard at Leon’s sudden appearance that Alix was able to skewer one of them on her spear before they could react. The three remaining Valemen started to panic, with one of them choosing to engage Alix, a second moving to finish off the last surviving man in Sam’s squad, and the third scanning the trees for any more attackers.
If all three ganged up on Alix, she might have been in trouble. However, she could easily handle one lone Valeman. He attacked with his ax as she was pulling her spear out from his dead comrade. She leaned to the side, dodging his strike and putting her in a perfect position to slam the end of her spear into his stomach, knocking him down and leaving him vulnerable. Alix finished him off by stabbing him in the throat.
She then turned her attention to the other two first-tier Valemen. It took her long enough to kill the second Valeman that the third Valeman already slit the throat of the last man in her squad. He turned his attention to her while the fourth Valeman turned to face her as well, confident that no other Legion soldiers were going to spring out from the shadows of the forest. They attacked almost in unison. Alix was able to block, but she was forced to concentrate on her defense; she didn’t have enough breathing room to go on the attack again.
Meanwhile, the third-tier Valeman had his hands full simply trying to survive Leon’s onslaught. Every thrust and slash were dodged or blocked by the skin of his teeth, and Leon didn’t let up. With every blocked strike, the Valeman struggled to hang on to his weapon, and eventually, he found it impossible; blocking one of Leon’s slashes ripped the ax from the Valeman’s hands, and Leon lunged forward to stab the Valeman through the heart. The Valeman tried to dodge, but Leon was too fast.
The third-tier Valeman was killed, and Leon didn’t linger, he immediately moved to assist Alix, who was still being pressured by the last two Valemen. Alix’s opponents weren’t expecting Leon to finish off their leader so quickly, and certainly weren’t prepared for his assault, not that there was going to be much they could do to stop him anyway; with a single slash, one of the Valemen was decapitated, while the other was so distracted and terrified at the sight that Alix was able to easily finish him off.
With the fight over, Leon and Alix stood there, surrounded by seven bodies.
“Damn fools,” Leon muttered while looking at the bodies of the two fallen members of the squad.
Alix was quiet, but she slowly turned to look at him with fury in her eyes. “Couldn’t you have warned them about that strong Valeman?!” she demanded.
“I was trying to be silent,” Leon answered, “and I didn’t think they’d be stupid enough to attack five Valemen!”
Alix was about to say something else, but she shut her mouth. The fight wasn’t necessary, and if her last two squad mates hadn’t attacked—or at least waited for Leon rather than rushing out by themselves—then they wouldn’t have died. Valeman mages were hardly a match for Legion soldiers of a comparable tier; they lack proper training techniques, so their magical powers are typically much weaker and their bodies unable to handle the same level of mana.
There was a moment of silence between Leon and Alix as they checked the two fallen squad members. They confirmed that the two men were as dead as they suspected.
“Come on,” Leon said, “we have to get to the first watchtower. Valemen are probably still crawling all over this forest, so we’re not even close to being safe, yet.”
Alix took a deep breath, then nodded. The two set off again, leaving the bodies behind. They moved as quickly as they could while keeping their eyes open for any more Valemen. Fortunately for them, the rest of the way to the first watchtower was uneventful.
“Look, in the sky,” Leon whispered to Alix as they neared the watchtower. When she turned her eyes upward, Alix saw a red ball of fire a thousand feet in the air, burning bright enough to be seen for over a hundred miles.
“They got the signal out,” she said happily.
“I wouldn’t celebrate quite yet,” Leon said, “this probably means that Valemen are at the first watchtower. If they got the signal out, though, then they’ve probably successfully evacuated. Even if they haven’t, though, we’re still likely on our own.”
Alix frowned, and the two continued. After several hundred more feet, they started to climb the hill the watchtower was built atop of, and Leon had them stop. He strained his ears and eyes, trying to see anything that might tell them the situation at the watchtower. He couldn’t see anything that would indicate the watchtower was burning, but he could hear some shouting. What he heard didn’t seem to be cries of pain, though, so he nodded to Alix and they started moving up the relatively clear hill to the watchtower at the top.
Once they saw who was at the watchtower, the two halted in their tracks and Leon pulled them both to the ground into the shadows of the long grass. Forty or fifty Valemen had surrounded the watchtower, and Leon counted at least two among them whose power he couldn’t see through. They were at least of the fourth-tier.
Suddenly, the door of the watchtower burst open, and an immense man stomped out. He was almost impossibly huge, with arms thick as tree trunks, and a long dark red beard. Leon paled slightly when he saw him; his aura was astounding and the killing intent within turned Leon’s legs to jelly.
“Was there anyone within?” asked one of the fourth-tier Valemen.
“It was empty,” the huge Valeman replied with a hateful expression.
“Damn, we were too late then,” the fourth-tier Valeman said.
“It’s fine. We weren’t going to take all of the watchtowers by surprise,” the huge Valeman said. He glanced up at the sky; the sun had set an hour before, leaving the flare to be a poor substitute. “We press on to that flimsy wall the Southerners think will keep us out, and if we’re lucky, we’ll find that piece of shit that killed Eirik along the way. I think burning him alive would be quite cathartic right now.”
Leon instinctively pressed himself further into the dirt when he heard that. He had his suspicions about who that huge Valeman was, and now he knew the Valeman wanted him dead.
The Valemen left the watchtower, moving south. Fortunately, none saw Leon or Alix.
“Who… who was that…” Alix wondered out loud.
“That… was Hakon Fire-Beard,” Leon answered. “And it seems he’s coming for me…”
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