Chapter 28 - Return Journey

Roland, the knights, and the men-at-arms all split off from the group and began wandering around the glade, taking care to disturb the place as little as possible, while looking for any signs of the amber they were there for.

Artorias, Leon, Sir Roger, and the squires all made for the clearing in the center of the glade, to begin setting up tents so they could stay the night.

Those looking for the amber, despite only speaking in whispers, and restraining their auras as best as they could, were still far more comfortable than those setting up camp.  Artorias was still in a bad mood, and the squires could feel it.  Sir Andrew was able to shake off the slight discomfort that Artorias’ aura brought, but the squires didn’t have that kind of power.

They began setting up the tents in silence.

Artorias and Leon preferred to sleep under the sky, so they had little work to do.  Artorias lay down and closed his eyes, while Leon, feeling somewhat restless, decided to go over to Victoria and Luke.

“…  Need any help?”  Leon asked, with some hesitation and uncertainty.

The two squires froze in shock.  Victoria, the more outgoing one, recovered fast.

“We’d love your help.”  She smiled at Leon, and he joined them in their work.

After that short exchange, the only sounds were of wooden poles being pounded into the dirt, and the shuffling of cloth as the tents were completed.

By the time they were finished, Artorias had fallen asleep, and the killing aura he radiated faded.

Leon went and took a seat next to his father, while Sir Roger and the squires sat down in the center of the small camp.  With everyone feeling more relaxed without the constant killing intent, the squires began talking amongst themselves while Sir Roger sat and stared off into the glade.

“What kind of shit is that?  Not a chance that Flavius would beat Theodoro in a fair match!  My boy Theo’s got some thick drake scale armor, and stoneskin earth magic that can stop attacks from fifth-tier mages!  Flavius wouldn’t even penetrate Theodoro’s defenses and would eat shit with a single hit from Theo’s maul.”  Kevin said passionately.

From the sounds of it, Leon guessed that the squires were talking about famous arena fighters.  Artorias had told him of the enormous arena in the capital city, a stadium that can seat over a hundred thousand people.  It was the only venue in the entire kingdom that could rival Konstantine’s Dome in Teira in size and spectacle.

“Flavius may only be a fourth-tier mage, but he’s got stamina.  His wind magic has a very low mana cost, so he can dance circles around the heavier Theodoro.  He just has to make the big guy tired, stoneskin takes a lot of mana to maintain.”  Luke responded.

“Did you see Flavius’ last fight?  He almost got turned inside out!  And he was using that very strategy, but it didn’t work!”  John added.

“Yes, but he wasn’t fighting a defensive opponent, he was fighting Nikephoros, a water mage.  Water mages have weak defense, so they tend to focus on offense, so of course Flavius couldn’t take his time and wear Nike down.  But Theodoro isn’t that fast, he won’t be able to touch Flavius, and once he loses that stoneskin, Flavius will end things with a single swing of his blade!”

“What about you, Victoria?  Do you like light and speedy…”  Kevin nodded at Luke.  “…Or do you like tough and strong?”  He crossed his huge and muscular arms, subtly flexing to appear even bigger.

“Hmmmmm…”  Victoria sat and thought for a moment before a dreamy look appeared in her eyes.  “I actually like that Antonius guy.”

The other three squires sighed in dejection.

“Of course you do…”  said Kevin

“No surprise there.”  Luke nodded in understanding.

“Big shocker, that one.”  John’s voice was dripping with sarcasm.

“What’s wrong with that?  He’s won more than thirty matches in a row!”  Victoria responded indignantly.

“Yeah, that’s because he’s too damned pretty for the arena,” Kevin said bitterly.

“It should be a rule that nobles can’t participate,” John said, with a tone that could turn wine into vinegar.

Victoria looked at the two of them quizzically.  “What do you mean?”

“His manager and many other arena operators noticed how many ladies turn out to see him, so they generally just have him fight against opponents far inferior to him.  Even though most of his matches are set against fourth-tier mages, just like him, they are typically far less experienced.”  Luke replied.

“Let me ask you something, Victoria.  How many of his opponents can you name?”  Kevin asked.

“Well… there was… Right! There was Themistocles!”

“Good, but that was like, twenty matches ago.  Themistocles has come into his own since then, but he had no noteworthy fights before then.  Can you name any others?”

Victoria thought for a while, before finally answering no.

“Exactly.  He fights nobodies.  Themistocles became someone afterward, but he’s an exception.   No one wants to take a risk that Antonius will actually lose, he makes everyone involved too much money.”

“He’s a showman, not a fighter.  He fights for the money, not for the sport,” John said.

Luke’s face distorted in disgust.  “Indeed.  He’s always talking publicly about the Seventh Echelon gear he has and wears their armor in the arena.”

“And what’s wrong with that?  Seventh Echelon has some good gear.”  Victoria was starting to get worked up now, as her favorite athlete was Antonius, and he was getting dumped on now.

“Seventh Echelon has some good enchanted gear, but if you want some good shit, then you’d be better served asking a Heaven’s Eye merchant or to go to the Blasted Furnace.”  Luke smiled at everyone, then reaching into his leather chest armor, and pulled out a small dagger.  “In fact, I got this at the Furnace.  It’s got an enchantment that can keep it sharp enough to shave with from now till the plane crumbles into the Chaos.  I could pierce armor fit for a third-tier mage with this.”

Leon had been listening to their conversation this entire time, as he was extremely curious about the kingdom, but when the talk of enchanting started, his ears really perked up.  While the other squires were admiring the shine of the blade, and the workmanship of the griffon bone hilt, Luke noticed that Leon had sat up, and was looking over at them.

“Hey there, why don’t you come and join us?”  Luke waved to Leon and patted the ground next to him.  Kevin and John smiled at him, while Victoria looked a bit conflicted for a moment, remembering their first encounter, but then thoughts of Leon helping during the fight with the bandits brought her beautiful smile back out.

Despite some hesitation, Leon decided to accept their invitation.  He sat down next to Luke, and the squire passed him the dagger to check out.

“Interested in enchanting, are you?”  Kevin asked.

“A bit.”  Leon tacitly responded.  Leon finished examining the dagger, paying close attention to the runic glyph carved into the handle, and passed it back to Luke, who put it back in its sheath.  “Thank you.”

“Yeah, no problem.  In fact, I should be the one thanking you, after all, you did help us hold out during that battle the other day.”  Leon nodded to Luke in acknowledgment, but his face remained completely passive and expressionless.

“You’re a damn good fighter.  Did your father teach you?”  Victoria asked, leaning over and smiling at Leon.

“Yes.”  It seemed that that was all he intended to say, so after an awkward pause, Victoria continued.

“Well, it’s a very effective style.”

“Hey, I have a question.  Do you know what’s up with this vale?  Ever since we got here, I’ve felt drained and weak, like I’m carrying two hundred pounds of armor.”  John asked.

Leon looked curiously at him.  “I haven’t ever noticed anything.  This place feels just like the Brown Bear’s vale, just like it always has.”

“Huh…  That’s weird.”

“Hey, um ‘Little Lion’, was it?  Do you have another, easier name we could call you?”  Luke asked.

“My name is Leon.  Everyone just calls me little lion.”

“Ah, that makes sense.  Leon, you, um, you helped Victoria and myself back in the city too…”

“Yes, I remember.  Some of those thugs had messed with me before, and I broke some of their bones.  That’s why they ran off.”

“Ok, but I was wondering if we had somehow offended you because you hit us with your killing intent when we tried to thank you.  If we someh-“

“I did?!”  Leon looked shocked, and he glanced over at Victoria.  She nodded, slightly confused by his reaction.  Leon’s face grew red from embarrassment, and he looked down in shame.

“I’m terribly sorry, I’m still learning how to control my aura.  That was unintentional,” he said quickly, with some panic in his voice.

Luke looked quite taken aback at that, as control over their aura is typically the first thing taught to a first-tier mage.

“Uh… It’s fine, don’t worry about it.”  He smiled at Leon, who was growing more embarrassed by the second, especially with the other squires looking at him.  Victoria even giggled at him, finding his actions kind of cute.

While everyone at the camp relaxed, the others were out scouring the glade, looking for any signs of Heartwood Amber.

“Ugh, by the ancestors, this place sucks.  Ever since we entered the vale, I’ve been feeling awful.”  One of the men-at-arms complained.

“Yeah, there’s something about it that almost feels like it’s weighing me down.  The sooner we leave, the better.”  Another responded.

“Well then, maybe you should be looking rather than chatting!”  Sir Andrew reprimanded.  The two men-at-arms immediately returned to their objective, and Sir Andrew turned to Roland.

“They’re not wrong, sir.  This vale really does suck.  And that Artorias isn’t making things any better.  He seemed alright when we met up at that temple, but now he’s in a terrible mood.”

Roland sighed.  “I think that’s my fault.  I spoke with him a little last night, and it seems I’ve put him on edge.”

Maybe it’s a mistake, given how he reacted last time, but I’ll reassure him that I won’t tell anyone about him when returning south…’ Roland thought to himself.

Roland, Sir Andrew, and two men-at-arms had decided to go west after entering the glade, while Dame Sheira took the other four men-at-arms and went east.  They were all scanning the trees, looking for anything that might be the amber they need.  And Roland was in luck.

These were very old trees, and they had a long time to accumulate resin in small pockets and hollows.  After about three hours, Roland finally spotted a large chunk of amber about thirty feet up the trunk of a tree.  He’d hoped it would take less time, as his magic senses had been spread out over a large portion of the glade but finding something small and inanimate was incredibly difficult with magical senses, not to mention the magic that surrounded these trees were obscuring any amber he might otherwise detect.  So, it wasn’t until he actually began looking with his eyes that he spotted what he’d come for.

Roland began making his way towards the tree with the amber, but he suddenly froze.  He’d seen something walking around the base.  As the group drew closer, they realized it was a small pack of wind wolves.

Wind wolves are a dark grey wolf, with few distinguishing physical characteristics about them other than their brilliant green eyes, and that their fluffy fur was almost always moving like the wind was blowing through it, even when there was no wind.

The wolf pack froze as the group approached.  Roland’s hand went to his sword by reflex, but he caught himself before drawing it.  He could feel a subtle pressure being exerted by the trees, and their aura of peace was omnipresent throughout the glade, so he slowly let go of the sword, and stared back at the wolves.  After a brief staring contest, the wolves walked away, vanishing into the glade.

The group breathed a sigh of relief, and Roland quickly jumped up the trunk of the tree towards the amber.  It was lodged in a small crevasse where two small branches sprang out from the trunk, but it didn’t take much jostling for Roland to get a hold of it and pull most of the amber out.  He swiftly jumped back to the ground with a chunk of gently glowing golden amber the size of his head in hand.

He smiled at the rest of the group, and they began making their way to the camp.  They now had their amber, and it was time to go home, a prospect they were all eager for.  They could almost feel the hot food, baths, and proper beds they had back in the capital, and were it not for the calm and quiet aura emanating from the glade, they would’ve jumped and whooped for joy.

After ten more minutes, they arrived at the camp.  Roland sent one of the men-at-arms to grab Dame Sheira’s group, and the others all relaxed.  The squires were ecstatic at the prospect of going back home, and in their exultation, no one noticed Leon slipping away to somewhere quieter and less filled with people.

Dame Sheira’s group arrived not too long after, and Roland showed off the amber.  Everyone finally relaxed, knowing that the mission was almost over, and was as good as done so long as they were careful on the way out of this vale.

So, the rest of the day was spent with everyone mostly sitting around the camp, polishing up their weapons and eating some food.  The knights and their squires did some training, but it wasn’t very strenuous, and when they woke the next morning, the squires weren’t even sore.

Artorias, throughout all this, continued to sleep.  He hadn’t gotten much sleep after Roland revealed that he knew who he was, and now he was catching up.  Even when everyone was admiring the heartwood trees’ golden glow during the night, Artorias slumbered on.

He was awake by morning, though.  He wasn’t emitting his killing intent like he was the previous day, but he wasn’t any more talkative.  Roland excitedly informed him that they were good to go, and Artorias simply nodded and led them out of the glade.

It was an uneventful journey back to Leon and Artorias’ fort, and the two all but locked themselves up in their houses while Roland’s group rested outside.  Their jubilant mood was only dampened when Sir Andrew threw together a wooden litter for Connor and carved a small air rune on the bottom, just big enough to get it off the ground by a foot or so and make it easier to carry Connor back home.

The next morning, they left early, leaving the tents they borrowed from Artorias behind, intending to reach the mountain pass as quickly as possible.  With the memory of what happened when they dallied for too long still fresh in their minds, as well as seeing Sir Andrew pull the floating litter behind them, they didn’t screw around.  They didn’t slow down to admire the colorful forest, and they didn’t stop to stare down into the Divine Scar, either.  They just continued west, towards the mountain pass.

The sun was going down when they arrived, so Artorias and Leon decided to stay the night with Roland’s group in the pass.

Roland took the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to keeping Artorias’ location under wraps, but when he brought up the topic, Artorias fixed him in a steely gaze that made Roland retreat back towards his bedroll again.

When the morning came, the squires approached Leon.

“Thank you again, Leon, for all that you’ve done for us on this mission,” Luke said warmly, clasping Leon’s shoulder.  Leon wasn’t a fan of that, and jerked his shoulder away, prompting Luke to apologize.

“Well, then, I hope we meet again, Leon.  Stay safe out there!”  Victoria gave a beaming smile to Leon, and the young man smiled in embarrassment.

“…  Yeah…  You too…”  He was barely able to speak and gave a shy wave to the squires.  And with that, he and Artorias turned and vanished back into the forest.  Artorias didn’t bother saying goodbye to anyone.

Roland nodded to his people, gave a somber look at Connor, also remembering the other two men-at-arms in Vale Town, and led his group west through the mountain pass.

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Chapter 29 - A Call

Chapter 27 - The Glade