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“They’re late,” Alix said with a look of boredom and annoyance on her face.
“Not yet,” Leon said patiently, “they still have a few minutes left before the appointed time. Besides, when have you known Dame Minerva to ever be anything other than perfectly on time?”
“Hmm, good point,” Alix replied with a thoughtful frown. “Do you have any idea why we’re here in the first place?”
“Prince Trajan only told me that we needed some experience to go with our training and that Dame Minerva had something come up that he wanted us to tag along for.”
Alix sighed and resigned herself to more waiting without knowing why.
They were at the foot of the ramp that led up to the Northern Horn, waiting for Dame Minerva to arrive and tell them what was going on. Each was dressed in their full combat kit, as this was more likely than not going to be a violent job. Alix wore armor extremely reminiscent of that worn by Centurions: gambeson, some chainmail, leather skirt, boots, and bracers, and finally, a cuirass that Leon commissioned for her made of blood-red scales. Completing the ensemble was a full-face Legion helmet, but instead of steel, it was made of the same red metal as the scales on her cuirass. At her side was a sword of a size that could be used with either one hand or both.
Leon was in his usual black and grey armor, but a silver griffin now sat in profile, gleaming on the chest of his cuirass, rather than a lion. At his side was Anzu, now grown to be about as big as a large dog. The griffin had lost all of his baby down and sprouted pure white feathers to complement his white fur—though his wings were still too small and weak for him to fly. His claws and beak were longer and sharper, but when he was around Leon, the young griffin was as friendly and tame as any house pet; however, in the rare times that Anzu was separated from Leon, he didn’t allow anyone to get close to him without glaring and snapping.
While they sat waiting, Leon passed the time by staring out into the plains between the Horns, while Anzu napped and Alix watched the lowest gatehouse on the ramp like a hawk, as that was where Dame Minerva would appear when she arrived.
It had been a year since they returned from the Crater Tribe and joined Prince Trajan’s retinue. Leon hadn’t gained too much raw strength in that time, but he had been diligently training with Trajan to increase his endurance when using magic and to lay the foundations for the creation of his magic body.
Alix, too, had spent a great deal of time training, and her efforts were rewarded with ascension to the second-tier. They both had grown more powerful and more skilled overall, and they couldn’t help but be eager to test themselves against an enemy to truly gauge how far they had come.
“Ah! She’s here!” Alix cried when she saw the gatehouse open and Dame Minerva appear.
The lady knight glanced around and, upon noticing them, began to walk in their direction with a squad of soldiers in tow. She had shiny black hair of moderate length tied back into a ponytail and dark eyes that didn’t miss a single detail of her surroundings. Her features were sharp and suited her serious attitude well; she was still beautiful, but not in a cute or delicate fashion. She was dressed in the standard officer’s wear for higher-ranked members of the Royal Legions: dark green trimmed with gold thread, though she had decided not to add any garish medals or ribbons to her ensemble.
Minerva walked with a quick and deliberate gait past the stables and other buildings of the small village at the foot of the ramp, not caring about the sights or smells, focusing only on the task ahead of her. However, more than a few people took notice of her, and a few passing soldiers stopped and made short respectful bows as she passed. She was the sixth-tier mage in charge of the Northern Horn, one of the most senior Legates under Trajan’s command, and the second-in-command of the entire fortress complex.
“It’s good you’re here,” she said as soon as she came within comfortable speaking distance of Leon and Alix. Before the latter two could offer any kind of greeting, however, she continued, asking, “Have you been told anything of the mission that you’re to accompany this squad on?”
“No, Ma’am,” Leon instantly replied.
“We’ve gotten word from a village about a hundred miles away of a possible vampire attack,” Minerva explained. “Sir Adalgrim’s squad has been assigned to investigate. You two will be accompanying them. You will stay out of his way and observe, and you will not order his squad around, understand?”
The fifth-tier knight behind her nodded to Leon with a friendly smile; Leon was, after all, a knight in service to the Prince, and Adalgrim wasn’t about to give the younger knight cause to complain to Minerva or Trajan about him. Besides, they were both fifth-tier mages, and the least they could do was to show each other at least a modicum of respect and civility.
“I understand,” Leon quickly replied to Minerva.
“Good,” she replied. Then, she turned to Adalgrim and said, “I will leave the rest to you.” And with that, she turned around and made her way back to the Northern Horn, her excuse to get out and walk around in fresh air over.
“It’s good to meet the two of you,” Adalgrim said as he took a few steps forward with his hand outstretched.
Leon hesitantly reached out and shook it—he wasn’t that thrilled at touching someone else, but he also didn’t want to make an incredibly rude first impression. “So, what’s the plan?” he asked.
“We’re going to grab some horses, and then we’re going to ride west for a few hours. The village is along the Gold Road, so it’s a straight shot from here,” Adalgrim replied.
“I see…” Leon replied unenthusiastically. In the year and a half since he’d left the Knight Academy, he’d only gotten back on a horse a handful of times at Trajan’s urging. Despite this practice, he only considered his horseback riding skills marginally better than they were back then, and he certainly didn’t enjoy riding horses now any more than he did then.
In contrast to Leon, Alix’s eyes lit up in anticipation of the ride. The first time she had tried to ride a horse, it was clear that she was a natural. It came so naturally to her, in fact, that she had drawn the attention of a Tribune in charge of a cavalry unit who had almost tried to talk Leon into letting her join his unit—until he learned that Leon was one of Trajan’s knights, and he tactfully held his tongue.
“Well, no point in wasting time here when we can talk on the road,” Adalgrim said with a smile as he led his squad toward nearby stables. Since their group wasn’t cavalry and none of them owned horses, they would have to rely on the horses within the post house stables, rather than using any of the well-bred warhorses stabled in the Southern Horn.
There was a small mountain of paperwork to get through before they could go, but in less than half an hour it had been squared away and the group of twelve departed the post house and began their ride west.
Leon rode up front alongside Adalgrim, with both of their squires behind them and Anzu happily bounding along beside Leon’s horse.
“While we have a few hours to kill,” Leon began, deciding to talk to take his mind off how uncomfortable he was in the saddle, “mind if I ask you about the specifics of the situation at this village?”
“Sure thing, we’d have to talk about this eventually,” Adalgrim said with an accommodating smile. “So, apparently, several weeks ago, there were a few disappearances among the farmers in the outskirts of the village. There’s only a few hundred people who live there, so the fact that these people were missing was noticed fairly quickly. From what we were told, many of the hunters went out to search for the missing farmers, and one of them was found completely drained of blood and with puncture wounds on his neck.”
“A vampire?” Leon asked.
“Looks to be,” Adalgrim said, nodding his head. “So keep your guard up, this creature will have been consuming blood and sacrificing humans to whatever demon it worships for a long time to leave the kind of neat and clean wounds the village reported on their missing guy. And that means it will be strong and cunning to have evaded capture until now.”
“What are the chances that we’re going to have to deal with multiple vampires?” Leon asked. His lessons from the Knight Academy and from his father gave him the impression that vampires would, more often than not, try and turn humans into its servants by offering to share its power with them, much like how the demon it sacrificed to would share its own power.
“There were only five missing people, which should be enough to last a single vampire several months, if they're bled slowly,” Adalgrim explained. “It’s been a week since the farmers disappeared, and there have been no new missing person reports, so even if there are multiple vampires, there shouldn’t be that many.”
“Sounds good,” Leon said.
“You think you’re ready for this?” Adalgrim asked.
“What’s there to be ready for? I’m only here to watch,” Leon said with a sarcastic smile.
“That’s only if everything goes according to procedure,” Adalgrim replied. He could hear the sarcasm in Leon’s voice, but he needed to make sure that Trajan’s young knight didn’t come back in pieces, so he said the obvious anyway. “Things can go badly very easily, and you need to be ready to defend yourself in the worst case scenario.”
“I’m confident in my ability to defend myself,” Leon quietly said.
‘The only thing I’m worried about is not fighting anything on this trip,’ he thought to himself. His hand instinctively went to his waist, feeling around for his nonexistent sword. He quietly clicked his tongue in displeasure, but Trajan had insisted on his not parading about putting his family’s weapon on display. Still, he couldn’t help but feel naked going out without its familiar weight at his hip, even though he knew that it wasn’t far away.
Adalgrim didn’t need to see through Leon’s face-concealing helmet to know the younger knight was smiling; Adalgrim could hear it in his voice, so he said, “I don’t need you running off the reservation here, don’t go doing something reckless just to prove yourself…”
“I like to think that I’m not a reckless person,” Leon said as he straightened his face out and wiped it clean of the smile that had been there. “I’ll stay with you the whole time, if you’d prefer…”
“I think that would be for the best,” Adalgrim responded. Leon was a fifth-tier knight, but he was also an eighteen-year-old boy, and the veteran knight wasn’t about to let some young buck with a chip on his shoulder run off looking for glory—though Leon’s calm and relatively quiet demeanor didn’t give Adalgrim the impression that he would do something to put the rest of the squad in danger.
Leon and Adalgrim continued to talk for a while longer about specific tactics that Leon should watch out for, none of which Leon wasn’t already at least somewhat cognizant of from his classes in the Knight Academy. The younger knight was still grateful for the refresher course, though.
Soon enough, not long after midday, the village they were looking for appeared amid the thin forest that grew along the Gold Road. The village itself wasn’t located along the main paved road, and the group had to ride about a mile and a half down a dirt road into the forest. Leon guessed that if the village were located on the Gold Road itself, it would be significantly bigger and wealthier.
The huts and hovels were a far cry from the beautiful stone bricks of the cities Leon had grown accustomed to since coming to the Bull Kingdom, but rather resembled what he had seen way back in Vale Town: homes made entirely of timber and wooden planks, with only the occasional larger place built upon a stone foundation. Despite this, he could still feel a few small currents of magic flowing through the walls, which he guessed powered ice and water enchantments for food preservation and hygiene purposes.
Even this far out into the sticks of the Bull Kingdom, the homes were more magically advanced than in the largest city in the Northern Vales.
“This is our destination,” Adalgrim announced. “Somewhere out there, a vampire took five people and drained one of them of his blood. Hopefully, it’s still around, because if it is, we’re going to find it and kill it.”
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