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The rain started as a gentle drizzle, but in minutes, it hammered the tower in torrential sheets, while the wind howled in the ears of the soldiers, and the sky lit up with frequent flashes of lightning.
Leon kneeled at the top of the tower and closed his eyes to meditate, seeming to not care about the rain that soaked through his charcoal Skyflax armor. Compounding this strange sight was the fact that the soldiers had rigged up numerous pieces of wooden furniture above the battlements to serve as cover from arrows, which the soldiers on top of the tower were now huddled behind to get cover from the rain.
“What the fuck is he doing?!” one soldier wondered aloud, giving Leon a strange look.
“Who cares?” asked the squad leader. “Let him be weird, you just get back keeping watch!”
The soldiers had to shout to be heard over the rain, wind, and thunder, so there wasn’t much talking once the storm started.
“Leon, what are you doing?” Alix asked with some concern. She lay her hand on his shoulder, but a sharp shock of static caused her to jerk her hand away. She was a little annoyed, but it wasn’t until she reached out again and had the exact same reaction that she started looking genuinely worried.
“Answer me, what are you doing?!” she demanded.
“I don’t think he’s going to tell you anything,” the squad leader said.
“Just so long as he responds, in any way,” Alix responded. She tried to shake Leon’s shoulder one more time, but again, she had to jerk her hand back due to a painful static shock.
Alix frowned and stood there in the pouring rain watching Leon, waiting for anything that might show he was alright.
Hakon smiled when the rain started. He opened his arms and welcomed it, relishing every drop that fell upon the roof of the central tower. He watched the blood on the wooden timbers of the roof wash away under the relentless rain, to run down the side of the tower and onto the ground, where the ruins of the inner walls lay.
‘The rain washes away the blood, consecrating this land of our victory with the life force of our enemies,’ Hakon thought to himself as he smiled wider.
“Do you see this, my friends?” he asked of the Valemen in the fort below him. “Do you see how the Thunderbirds bless our actions?”
“How is this a blessing?” a second-tier Valeman bitterly asked as he struggled to stand up straight in the slippery mud. Unfortunately for him, the Great Chief heard him.
“You doubt my words?!” he thundered at the hapless Valeman, who shrunk back like a scared kitten in the face of the wrathful Hakon Fire-Beard.
“N-No,” he squeaked.
“Which would you rather have, a slippery bit of ground or a Southern arrow in your chest?” Hakon demanded to know.
“The… the first one,” the Valeman whispered meekly.
“The Thunderbirds of the Sky Mother have blessed our attack, there’s no other reason for this storm! Those who rule the Sky, those who boiled the oceans and killed the Great Horned Serpents have granted us cover from the Southern arrows! We will be upon them before they have any idea we are even there!”
“YEEAH!” shouted one encouraged Valeman.
“WE ARE BLESSED!” bellowed another.
“BURN THE SOUTHERNERS!” called yet another.
“Yes!” Hakon Fire-Beard shouted in agreement. “Burn the Southerners! Stab the Southerners! Shoot them! Slash them! Kill them!”
The crowd of Valemen were roaring their agreement in between each one of Hakon’s shouts. They bayed for blood so loudly that even the deafening sound of the rain and thunder were momentarily drowned out.
“Find those who live! Cast them from their stone towers! Light their wall aflame! FIND THEM!” With this last shout, Hakon gestured with his hatchet, ‘follow me’, then he charged eastward from the central tower. Like crazed beasts, the Valemen followed their Great Chief to the east.
They broke into every tower and ransacked the rooms, checking and rechecking to make sure no Legion soldiers remained within. It wasn’t until they had gone nearly half a mile that they encountered their first inhabited tower.
Gaston stood atop his tower and stared out into the distance—or at least, as far as he could, given the rain and the darkness. There were two Legion squads behind him, huddled over and trying to keep warm and dry despite the lack of shelter from the rain.
“Endure it,” Gaston said to them. “This rain won’t last forever, and I doubt the Valemen will attack in this weather. So for now, just try to deal with it. After all, isn’t it better to be rained on than to have to endure a Valeman at-“
At that moment, a wind blade sliced through the battlements Gaston was leaning against and cleaved him in half. He had been taken so completely by surprise that he hadn’t even the opportunity to summon his magic power to defend himself.
The rest of the soldiers stared in shock at Gaston’s body as it collapsed into a bloody pile, with his eyes still frozen open in shock. There was a tremendous crash as the Valemen broke through the shoddy barricades they’d managed to set up, followed by the sounds of battle, but only a few of the soldiers were able to react.
“GET UP!” a squad leader shouted. “GET UP! WE’RE UNDER ATTACK! GET UP AND FIGHT!”
But for most of the soldiers, the sight of Gaston’s body, the body of their only fourth-tier mage in the area, in pieces was too much. A few men dropped their weapons. A few more stared at Gaston’s body, unmoving even as Valeman arrows fired almost from the base of the tower arced up and fell upon them. Several more fell to their knees or collapsed in despair as their squad mates were shot around them.
Finally, a gigantic Valeman with a blood-red beard and a blood-red hatchet appeared at the top of the stairs. He was followed by a short and physically unremarkable brown-haired thane who wore a sadistic smile, another thane with shining white hair and a grin of triumph, and one more thane with long black hair and a sash adorned with small bells.
“Kill them,” the leading Valeman growled in a deep voice that seemed to shake the foundations of the tower.
The remaining eastern towers fell before noon. They were unable to stand against the full might of the Valemen once the latter had reached the southern side of the wall. But, that wasn’t to say the Valemen didn’t take casualties—they in fact took many, about twice as many as the soldiers did—but when the Valemen turned their attention west, they still numbered more than eighteen thousand strong.
And all of these thousands of Valeman that hadn’t been sent on a supply raid were marching on Leon’s tower, where the last fifty soldiers of the fort that still breathed were taking shelter. The rain and thunder were loud, blocking the sounds of their marching through the southern hills and forests. The soldiers were also distracted by Leon’s odd behavior, as he continued to kneel in the middle of the tower platform with his face turned upwards and his eyes closed.
Xaphan stared at Leon within the latter’s soul realm. The pseudo-magic body created by the Thunderbird still sat upon Leon’s throne, and it was surrounded by the same lightning cage that Xaphan had come to expect whenever a thunder storm appeared.
But, the demon was anxious; he stared intensely at Leon, keeping watch for anything that might seem strange or out of the ordinary. The Thunderbird itself hadn’t made an appearance since the first time this phenomenon had happened, so Xaphan couldn’t ask it what was happening. He could only stare at his partner attentively, waiting for the storm to pass.
But, something happened that caused Xaphan’s bright orange flames to burn even brighter, and his red eyes to flicker in anger.
[LEON!] he shouted. [WAKE UP! THE VALEMEN HAVE ARRIVED OUTSIDE THE TOWER! WAKE UP!]
Of course, Xaphan had his magic senses tuned to outside Leon’s soul realm, to keep an eye on what was happening outside. If Leon died, so did he, so he had to protect Leon as best as he could.
[WAKE UP!] Xaphan bellowed again as his fiery body burned even more intensely.
Leon remained quiet and unmoving. Xaphan groaned in frustration as he saw the Valemen come closer, creeping through the dark and the rain closer toward the unsuspecting soldiers in the tower.
So, the demon decided to try something drastic. He raised his hand and began to concentrate his magic power into his palm. There, the fire he conjured burned dark red, then began to brighten to orange, then to yellow. Xaphan pulled his arm back to wind himself up.
[HRRUAGH!] the demon shouted as he thrust his arm forward, and the bright yellow flame sped across Leon’s tiny soul realm and hit the lightning cage, exploding into a great gout of flame that engulfed the throne as well as the marble slab it was built upon.
The fire died down almost immediately, and Xaphan saw that it had had no noticeable effect; the lightning cage kept sparking and arcing as it had before, and Leon still knelt motionless at the top of the tower.
[If you don’t wake up, you’re going to be killed,] Xaphan said quietly. He didn’t even mention the result it would have upon him if Leon were to be killed while in this state. Xaphan conjured more fire, holding it until it burned a solar gold. However, as he prepared to launch it at the lightning cage again, a lightning bolt streaked out of the mists surrounding Leon’s island and struck the demon, dissipating his fire and driving him to his knees.
Storm clouds gathered in Leon’s soul realm and encompassed the island in an instant, while an eagle-like cry resounded in Xaphan’s ears.
[Why are you attacking my descendant, demon?] the Thunderbird furiously demanded of Xaphan as it flew from the mists.
“If he doesn’t wake up, he’ll die!” Xaphan shouted in response. The Thunderbird landed atop the throne and looked down at Leon. There it stayed, quietly staring, and Xaphan awaited its response.
“There they are,” whispered Hakon as he stared at the vague outline of the tower barely visible in the rain. He and the rest of his army had managed to get close using the forest and weather as cover, but once they emerged from the tree line and assaulted the doors, he felt they would be showered in arrows.
“Same plan as last time?” Hjalmar asked.
“No,” answered Hakon. “This time, after I deal with those on top, Bragi will take the lead.”
The dark-haired thane wearing the bells smiled and said, “I will break down those doors myself and bring death to the Southerners cowardly hiding within!”
“We still haven’t found that ‘Dark Warrior’ who killed Eirik. If we had killed him, I’m sure we’d have heard about it by now,” Hrorekr said.
“Your point?” Bragi asked.
“He’s probably in that tower, and he’s already demonstrated the capability to kill thanes,” Hrorekr replied.
“But he hasn’t fought me yet,” Bragi responded with a confident smile.
“Cut the dick measuring,” Hakon said sharply. “He may not even be in that tower, but if he is, I want him brought in alive. I want to burn him alive on the same pyre that we burned Eirik and Ulfr upon.”
With the Great Chief’s order, the thanes straightened up and waited for the assault to begin.
Hakon waited for a few minutes until his third-tier warriors and lesser chiefs reported in, telling him that the other towers in the west were empty.
‘That black-armored bastard may have fled, but I’d wager he’s in that tower,’ Hakon thought to himself. Then, with all the hate and power he could muster, he began to channel his magic into his personal greatax. The ax head glowed a soft white from the wind magic, and Hakon held it for almost half a minute. As soon as he felt that it was enough, he swung his ax in a horizontal arc, chopping right through the trees to his right and left and sending a sharp wind blade rocketing toward the battlements at the top of the tower.
Hakon and his Valemen expected the same would happen to this tower as had happened to all the rest, that the wind blade would slice the battlements and leave those at the top of the tower defenseless. Then, they would attack the tower almost as they pleased. However, just as the wind blade was about to come into contact with the stone of the tower, the battlements seemed to erupt in dark red flame. Hakon Fire-Beard’s wind blade wavered within the heat, and when it hit the tower, it did no more damage than the wind of the surrounding storm.
Time seemed to slow for Hakon in that moment. He felt frustration, rage, and a little bit of fear that his attack failed, but those were all forgotten as the fire dissipated. In the dim glow of the last remaining embers, Hakon could see standing at the battlements a soldier dressed in black armor staring back at him through his visor.
And then the embers went out, and the battlements returned to darkness.
“CHAAARGE!” Hakon furiously bellowed, and the Valemen rushed out of the forest and started to sprint up the hill toward the tower, with Bragi leading the way, all the while arrows fell upon them from the tower.
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