“What was that?”
“Keep alert! You three, investigate these ruins! Everyone else, sweep through this entire area!”
Leon heard the guards arrive at the training courtyard and kept going as fast as he could. He was far enough in the nearby forest that they wouldn’t be able to see him, but he still had to limit his speed to not make too much noise, either.
He did have an advantage in that the guards had to look everywhere, whereas he could just leave, but he wasn’t going to get careless. Artorias had long ago taught him the virtues of patience and moving with purpose.
Leon smiled as he remembered his father teaching him to hunt, but the smile quickly disappeared. The Forest of Black and White had been his home for as long as he could remember, and thinking about his father and his time there brought recent events back into his mind. Leon grit his teeth, pushed those thoughts out of his head, and kept moving.
He quickly left the Archduke’s residence behind and swung around to head back north. The guards were mostly concentrating on the palace itself, and largely ignored the rest of the estate. Leon wasn’t too surprised by this, as the estate was very large, and the Bull King had made sure it was rather heavily forested, so it would undoubtedly take days for the guards to investigate the entire thing. This had a side effect of allowing Leon to move almost completely unhindered through the forest, as even though there were many thick trees, the ground was still very flat and easy for even a child to walk through, let alone someone like Leon who was raised in much harsher terrain.
But, his luck didn’t hold out. When he arrived at Alexander’s residence, a guard squad had beaten him to it. There were now no less than ten guards, all second-tier or above, inspecting the ruins.
Leon frowned. He had negligently left the hidden passage open, and it was only a matter of time before the guards found it. Based on where they were, Leon guessed he only had about five, maybe ten, minutes before they came across it.
His mind worked fast, assessing several old hunting tricks he’d used back in the Vales. He settled on a very basic one, and his eyes fell to the ground. He very easily located a small white stone—likely a piece of the palace that had been blasted all the way over here. He picked it up and threw it as hard as he could.
His third-tier strength sent the rock flying through the air, loudly hitting the base of a splintered statue several hundred feet away from the residence. The guards heard it and immediately rushed over to investigate, leaving only two of their number to keep an eye on the residence.
Leon grinned and sprinted across the open ground between the tree line and the residence. The two guards left behind were far more interested watching their comrades investigate the sound they had just heard, so Leon went unnoticed. He didn’t waste time and crept along, keeping the mountainous piles of rubble between himself and the guards. A few seconds later, the opening to the escape tunnel entered his view. He was right about to race over when one of the guards let his eyes wander over in his direction. Leon happened to glance over at them to see if he was clear to go, and the two locked gazes.
“Hey! You there! Stop immediately!” The guard acted fast, ordering Leon to freeze and alerting his teammates at the same time.
Leon moved just as quickly, dropping down and grabbing another small stone from the ruins. He rose, took the briefest of moments to aim, and hurled it with all his might. The stone hurtled across the space between the two and slammed into the guard’s chest with a horrendous crunch. The guard had been wearing leather armor which blunted the impact somewhat, but he still suffered a few broken ribs and was knocked flat on his back. The jagged and broken stones he landed on didn’t help matters, but at least the guard didn’t die.
Leon bolted straight to the tunnel and jumped down. He reached back up to pull the stone hatch closed, but the heavy thing barely budged.
“Hector! Hey, are you all right? Can you hear me?”
Leon heard the guard’s comrades find him. He grew a bit more panicked and pulled even harder on the hatch.
“Clodius! Get over here now! Everyone else, fan out! Find the bastard who did this!” The squad medic ran over, pulling out some healing spells on the way, while the rest of the squad surged towards Leon and the tunnel.
Leon pulled at the hatch with all his strength as he heard the guards come closer. Finally, just before the guards got close enough to see him, the hatch started falling back towards him. He threw himself back down the stone ladder, finding his balance just in time to catch the hatch before it slammed shut. He eased it down silently, then dropped down onto the stone platform. Leon wasted no more time and took off down the stairs.
He hit the ground running and rushed down the tunnel. There was no subtlety in his movement; he ran as fast as his legs could carry him. His current destination was the mausoleum. There were two other access points in this tunnel, but he had been to the mausoleum and knew that it was deserted. Besides, the other two access points could be damaged or blocked, and he wasn’t going to risk going one way only to have to turn back. He just needed to get as far away from the estate as fast as he could.
The tunnel was about two miles long, and he crossed it in less than six minutes. He almost flew up the stairs, pausing only to activate a runic circle on the inside of the door, then making sure it closed several seconds later. He hurriedly left the mausoleum, finally slowing when he had put another mile between himself and the tunnel.
It was a quick journey back to the inn. Leon jumped back in through his own window just after midnight, then wearily collapsed on the bed. There would probably be even more chaos among the ranks of the city guard tomorrow, especially since they were already looking for Adrianos, but for now, he just let himself drift off to sleep.
He awoke not long after sunrise. He was still wearing the same clothes from the previous night and even had the leather bag full of books around his shoulder. He quickly stripped and jumped in the shower. Half an hour later, he was dressed, fully awake, and ready for breakfast.
He slightly hesitated before leaving. He took a few more minutes to steel himself for venturing back out into public. He really didn’t want to go out, but the smell of breakfast wafted throughout the entire inn, and Leon hesitated no longer. He left his room, making damned sure to lock his door, then proceeded downstairs.
He wasn’t surprised to find that Charles had beaten him down there. The man must have gotten more sleep then Leon and woken up earlier. But, the energy and enthusiasm with which Charles waved at him made him frown a little. Leon didn’t dislike Charles, but the other man was certainly more open and chatty than Leon was used to.
“Hey, Leon! How’d you sleep? I was like a log, at least until my roommates got back. Those drunks snored all night!”
“Slept well enough, I suppose.”
Charles nodded. “I get you, hard to sleep in a new place. For the first few nights after I came to Teira, I could barely close my eyes long enough to sleep. I guess I was too homesick.”
Leon smiled. Charles was right that he wasn’t feeling very comfortable in this new place, and greatly missed his little house back north and… His smile faded, so Leon decided to change the subject. “Breakfast ready yet?”
“Almost, only a little longer! By the way, we should probably use this time to talk about where you want to see today. You mentioned a barber, a tailor, and a bookstore. Anywhere else?”
“We can cut the bookstore. Can always find one in the capital later.”
Charles gave Leon an odd look, the way one would look at a friend if they just threw a pouch full of silver off a bridge. “Are you sure, buddy? You’re paying me one hundred silvers, but giving me less work?”
Leon shrugged. “Eager to get south. I just… just want to get to the Knight Academy.”
“The Knight Academy, huh? Any reason in particular you’re so jazzed to enroll there?”
“Need power. Magical… and secular…” Leon absentmindedly gripped his sword, and Charles knew not to ask for specifics.
“Well, I got thinking last night. I thought about maybe enrolling in the Academy myself. I’m still young enough, and I’m a first-tier mage, so there shouldn’t be any problem.”
Leon frowned a bit. Charles’ magical foundation was shaky, and he likely had little control over his power. The Knight Academy would be exceptionally hard for him.
“You sure? There are plenty of other jobs for a first-tier mage, jobs that aren’t so dangerous or strenuous.”
“I’ve checked, and trust me, there aren’t that many for me. And those that are for me, I’ve already been fired from. Joining the army means some guaranteed food, silver, and a bed, and becoming a knight is far more respectable than just taking a place in a shield wall. Pay’s much better, too.”
“If you’re serious, it would be nice to have a little company when going south…” Leon surprised himself when he said this. He was even more surprised to find that he meant it! He was getting fairly familiar with Charles and having someone who knew how to get around this land would be very helpful.
“Well that’s settled, then! Tomorrow, we head south!”
The two ate a hearty breakfast, then made their way out into the city. Before they left, though, Leon made sure to pay the innkeeper for another day in his room. He didn’t want to risk the older man throwing his stuff out while he was gone.
They made for a barber first. Charles took Leon to a place just a few streets over, and Leon got a simple cut that was much more in line with the southern style. His hair was less obviously barbarous, and he felt a little more secure walking around. Charles then took him to a good tailor near the triumphal gate, regaling Leon with stories from his hometown that he assured Leon certainly weren’t embellished at all.
“… and I was left standing there, completely naked with nothing more than a few fallen leaves to cover myself with!” Charles laughed uproariously at his own story, while even Leon chuckled a little.
“And how did you get home? Wasn’t her father climbing the mountain at the same time?”
“Well, it was close to sundown, so I decided to wait things out. There was a hidden mountain spring I’d discovered when I was twelve, so that’s where I hid. I chilled for a couple hours until it got dark, then made my way home… relatively unnoticed…”
“Her old man never saw hide or hair from me, but her sister was another story. That demoness beat me black and blue, but I got my revenge several months later when we held a ‘rematch’ in her bedroom.”
“Really?” Leon asked doubtfully.
“Of course! I would never lie about such a thing!”
Leon was about to respond when a guard unit of several hundred marched past them in the street. They moved further into the city with such haste that they were given some very weird looks from the crowds in their way, if only for the sheer number of guards in the formation. Leon felt like he knew why they were in such a hurry, but Charles watched them in confusion.
“By the Ancestors! What are they doing, pulling even more guards out of these districts?! Going to leave this place completely lawless!” a nearby stall keeper shouted to no one in particular. One of her elderly patrons helpfully responded.
“My daughter’s in the guard, and she was told that someone broke into the old palace ruins last night. No one knows who they were, but the guy injured a guard and escaped. The guard commander was furious and humiliated, so he ordered a manhunt for the guy responsible.”
Charles overheard the exchange, and muttered, “Who would be so suicidal as to do that?” Leon remained quiet, and they proceeded on to the tailor once the guard unit finished passing them.
The tailor was about what Leon expected from a place in the slums. No enchanted clothing, nothing particularly fancy or expensive, but he still walked away with nine sets of pants and shirts. Three were white, three more grey, and the rest were black. These clothes were made of loose cloth and didn’t quite fit perfectly, but he no longer looked like a Valeman, so he was quite happy.
When he was done, he and Charles made their way back to the inn. Leon retired to his room, intending to spend the rest of the day reading his way through those books he had taken from the Archives, while Charles took that time to write to his family and tell them he was heading south to the Knight Academy. The two men rested and readied themselves as best they could for the journey south, to the capital.
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