Chapter 37 - West

“What kind of surprises, Master?” asked the apprentice at the top of the stone tower.

“Well, I never would have guessed that he’d know the proper method of burying someone with a Heartwood seed.  I’d thought records of that particular ritual had long been forgotten on this plane, unless…”

The Apprentice waited a moment for his Master to continue, but the Master remained silent.  Just when the Apprentice was about to ask what the Master meant by ‘unless’, the Master said, “Oh well!  No use speculating about it now!  I’ll keep an eye on the boy and if I see anything too concerning, I’ll act on it.

The Apprentice respectfully bowed, then disappeared back into the tower.  The Master took one last look back north before following.

’That Old Hawk isn’t speaking to him, is he?  That would be the most surprising thing of all…’

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The tunnel leading out of the fort had been flooded when Timotheos’ team attempted to sneak through, but it had drained in the days since.  Of course, that didn’t fix the shattered stone walls, which had begun to sag and were clearly close to collapse.

Leon hurried through, but not so fast that he didn’t close and lock the inner door.  The outer door was still battered and broken from Timotheos breaking out, but Leon didn’t bother fixing it, as he had no time, and it hardly mattered now anyway.

He bolted out of the tunnel and kept up his pace as he vanished into the tree line.  There was no time to lose, he had to make it to the pass by sundown, or he’d almost certainly be caught and killed by ice wraiths.

First was to go north.  The Divine Scar lay between him and the pass, and there was no way he was going to climb down that thing.  Leon blazed past the trees and underbrush of the forest, slowing down only to adjust his pack and keep his sword tight around his waist.  The bright and vibrant colors of the forest held no interest for him, and he was in too much of a hurry to appreciate them even if they did.

But, before he made it far enough north to pass the Divine Scar, he did come to a full stop once.  There was a beast in his way, an enormous monster with pitch black fur and claws like the sharpest of knives: a black-iron bear.

Leon wasn’t being subtle as he hurtled through the forest, and the bear noticed him before Leon noticed it.  Had this been a week prior, Leon might’ve relished the opportunity to test himself against such a foe, but now, he just wanted to get out of the vale.

The bear was busy feasting on a large deer, but it raised its bloody snout and glared at Leon with its tiny red eyes.  There was a brief moment of silence where the two just stared at each other, waiting for the other to make the first move.  The bear broke that silence by shambling a few steps towards Leon, pushing itself onto its hind legs making itself almost fifteen feet tall, and gave a roar loud enough to startle smaller animals half a mile away.

Leon took the hint and bolted.  He turned east and sprinted off deeper into the forest, while the bear turned back to its kill.

After that mercifully brief encounter, Leon didn’t run into another living thing on his journey.  He was making a ton of noise, and anything he might’ve seen had noticed him first and gave him a wide berth.

After heading into the trees for several hundred feet, Leon turned back to the north, until he judged that he had gone far enough, and swung back around to the west.

He glanced up.  He was making great time; it wasn’t even noon yet.  When he and Artorias usually made this journey, they went at a much more leisurely pace, but on the other hand, something like the black-iron bear might’ve sensed Artorias’ radiant aura and cleared out before laying eyes on the two men. 

That being said, Leon was still pleased with his progress.  But, he didn’t slow down.  He was a little hungry and getting a little tired, but just the thought of the ice wraiths kept him moving.

All this time, he was thinking.  He wanted to find out who those men who attacked him were and why they attacked his home, and the best place to start was with Roland, to question him about that man-at-arms he’d recognized.  The problem with that was that if Roland were his enemy, then he would probably be crushed as soon as they met.  He was only a third-tier mage, after all, while Roland was at the late sixth-tier.

Leon still had some doubts as to whether Roland was involved, but he decided not to seek out the paladin for now, at least until he could look the man in the eye as an equal.

So then, his objective was to seek power first, and only then would he pursue answers.  There were a few possibilities in that respect.  Artorias had often spoken about the gladiator fights in the southern arenas, which might be one way for Leon to train and gain strength.  The thing that gave Leon pause about that was the style.  He wasn’t too comfortable with fame and attention, so he decided against that for now.

He could sign on with a magical guild.  They might be willing to finance his training, but they could also expect quite a bit of work out of him in return.  There were few guilds that wouldn’t accept a sixteen-year-old third-tier mage, but Leon knew that his gains would be minor until he had spent a good deal of time with the guild and built up plenty of trust.  This would tie him down to the guild, and wouldn’t give him enough time or authority for him to find out who sent those men.

This left his last option: joining the Knight Academy.  He was still young enough to join, and more than strong enough already to graduate.  If he were to be knighted by the Bull Kingdom, he could relatively easily gain the strength and influence he needed to investigate his enemies and pursue his revenge.

Leon smiled in anticipation as he ran through the forest.  His father had told him enough stories and made him read enough books that Leon had always fantasized about being a knight, especially when he was a child.  Now, he might just make good on those fantasies.

No, he decided that he would make good on them.  Leon just had to think about the possibility and he was already sold on the idea.  He would go south and sign up at the Knight Academy.

With his short-term goal decided on, Leon became excited and picked up the pace.

Fortunately, he arrived at the mountain pass with no difficulties and time to spare.  The sun was still well above the mountains, but Leon’s muscles were starting to give out.  Leon released some of his stored magic out from his heart, turning it into mana, and allowed it to feed his muscles, relieving his fatigue.  He walked a good ways into the pass, finding the same place that he’d stayed with the knights when they had passed through, and laid down.

Here, with the mountains surrounding him, the sun had already set, but there was no danger that creatures of the vale would venture out into the pass.  So, after a quick meal, Leon fell asleep.

The pass was still dark when he awoke, but the sky was already turning blue.  He didn’t screw around, wolfing down a few pieces of bread and dried meat for breakfast, then immediately taking off.

This leg of the journey wound up being quite uneventful.  It was just a straight shot west and following the first road he encountered north-west all the way to Vale Town.

Just like last time, word was brought back to the longhouse when he was spotted by the warriors on watch.  There was some confusion as to why he was back to soon, and why Artorias wasn’t with him, but Torfinn loved Leon like his own nephew and prepared for his arrival.

Sure enough, Leon walked through his doors just in time for an early dinner.

“Little Lion!  Welcome!  Come on in, you have great timing, we were just getting ready for dinner!”  Torfinn clapped Leon on the shoulder and led him to his table.  The merchants and other warriors in the longhouse shouted and raised their mugs and mead horns in welcome, as well.

Everyone here was fairly familiar with Leon’s behavior, so his lack of expression or speech as he followed Torfinn didn’t strike any of them as odd.  Torfinn himself was his usual jolly self and didn’t pay enough attention to Leon to realize anything, either.

When they had sat down, Torfinn waved over some servants and had them bring Leon some food and mead.

“So, what brings you so far away from home?” Torfinn asked good-naturedly.

Leon barely touched the food brought to him.  He just looked back at Torfinn’s face, flushed from the mead he’d been drinking, and said in a deadpan manner, “My father is dead.”  Silence broke out over the entire hall, as despite a few other conversations happening, Leon’s statement still shocked everyone present.

Torfinn froze as well.  “What?” he asked quietly.  Leon’s expression didn’t change, and Torfinn quickly realized that he was being deadly serious, that Artorias was truly no longer in the land of the living.  “Wha… What happened?” he asked Leon incredulously.

“Five men attacked us a few days ago.  Dad killed them, but they stabbed him with a poisoned dagger.  Tried to heal him, but he…”  Leon trailed off there, and his gaze drifted to the floor.

A battle between anger and sadness erupted on Torfinn’s face, but he still placed a slightly shaking hand on Leon’s shoulder and said, “Little Lion, you…” Torfinn paused to choke back some tears, then continued.  “You are always welcome in my hall.  Before… Before we continue, why don’t you get some food in you?”  Torfinn gestured to the roasted chicken, baked potatoes, and freshly baked bread in front of Leon.

The younger man nodded and slowly began picking at his dinner.

Silence continued to reign in the hall, while Leon ate and Torfinn processed this information.  Artorias was his best friend, a man who came to his aid when the Red Crow Tribe was ravaging his lands, a man who was like a brother to him.  But, Torfinn was ultimately a fifth-tier mage who was quite used to death, so he managed to control his grief.  He knew he’d be spending this night in the nearby sky temple, praying for the Thunderbirds to guide his brother to the Sky Mother.

Leon didn’t attack his food with his usual gusto, but he was still finished quite quickly, as Torfinn was still lost in thought.  He politely gave Torfinn some time, and after a few more minutes, the chief turned back to Leon.

“So, what’s your plan now, Little Lion?”

“Going south.  I intend to join the Knight Academy.  I’m too weak to seek answers or revenge right now and enrolling in the Knight Academy sounds like a good way to gain strength.  I’ll need that strength if I want to find whoever sent those men and cut them in half.”  Leon said in an even tone, though his voice turned very hateful by the end.

“You know, you could always stay here, there isn’t a man among my warriors who would ever sell you out to some southern bastard who comes north.”

“I know.  Still, have to go.  Won’t get revenge if I don’t.”  Despite the simplicity of his replies, Torfinn could see the determination in Leon’s eyes.  He wasn’t going to convince him to stay, he recognized that look from Artorias whenever he made up his mind to do something.

“When do you plan on leaving?  You could wait a little while, many of our merchants are preparing to go south to sell their silkgrass in anticipation of our alliance with the Bulls being renewed, and you could accompany them.”

“I want to leave tomorrow.  And I’d rather travel alone.  I don’t know those merchants, I don’t want to travel at their pace, and I don’t want to go through Clear Ice Fortress.  But, I’d… like to ask for your help with supplies.”

“Of course!  You are my brother’s son, how could I not?  But, how do you plan on crossing the Frozen Mountains if not by going past Clear Ice?”  Torfinn waved as he waited for an answer, and another servant hurried up.  “Just tell him how much food you need, and he’ll see that you get it by morning.”

“Thank you,” Leon said curtly.  He spoke a few words to the servant and turned back to an expectant Torfinn.  “I know a hidden path through the mountains.  My father and I took it a few years ago to visit the Great Plateau.”

Torfinn nodded, with a slightly more relieved expression.  If Leon was familiar with the path, and if it was one that Artorias had shown him, then that was enough.  With all that said, he threw his arm around Leon in a fatherly manner.

“Little Lion, you will always be welcome in my hall.  Should you ever need anything, remember that you have friends in the Brown Bears.  Now, let’s drink to the memory of the Wraith-Killer, and celebrate his life!”  Torfinn raised his mead.

All the others in the longhouse somberly raised their cups to join their chief, and Leon followed suit.  None were particularly in the mood for celebration, as Artorias had always been a friend to their people, but the Brown Bears weren’t given to mourning in public, so they drank.  It would be a quiet few weeks in the longhouse after this, for sure.

Leon, for his part, didn’t partake in the drinking very much.  After less than an hour, he excused himself and went to bed.  Just as Torfinn promised, when he woke up, enough food had been brought to him to last almost two weeks.  It was so much, in fact, that he had some trouble fitting it all into his pack.  But, after almost half an hour, he finally had everything packed and ready to go.

He met Torfinn as he left the longhouse, thanked him for his hospitality, and continued on his journey south.

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So, like many web authors, it is my goal to write professionally.  To that end, I intent to launch a Patreon on Monday next week (the 9th).  Nothing here will change, there will be always be three free chapters here per week, but there will also be the option to get up to 5 chapters ahead!  I've also set a few funding goals that will unlock a few bonus chapters, so even those who can't/don't want to donate can still reap some rewards!  Above all, though, I want to stress that donation will be optional, and the established schedule of releases both here and on Royal Road will not be changing.

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Chapter 38 - The Prison in the Mountains I

Chapter 36 - Ambition