The motivation Alix worked up after speaking with Leon didn’t last long. The two were assigned to a tower that lacked a third-tier mage, and the resulting guard duty that lasted for hours without doing anything else instilled a boredom that killed just about all excitement and motivation.
When they had arrived, the squad that had been in the tower to begin with didn’t seem particularly thrilled about having them around—or at least, the squad leader didn’t appreciate Leon’s presence. He seemed to think that Leon wanted to take over his unit and deprive him of command. Things only became less tense when, after a few barbed comments, Leon assured the squad leader that he wasn’t intending to usurp authority. He was only there to guard against higher tiered Valemen who might try to attack the tower.
But, even though tensions were lowered, Leon and Alix still weren’t quite welcome in the tower. The other ten soldiers barely even looked at them, leaving them to their own devices. On the one hand, this led to the aforementioned boredom, but on the other hand, Leon quite enjoyed the treatment. Alix, however, wasn’t used to being treated so coldly.
Noticing her discomfort with the situation, Leon suggested, “Why don’t we pass the time with some training?” Most of the floors of the tower weren’t being used, as there just weren’t enough soldiers manning the wall. This would give the two plenty of space and privacy for training.
“Sure!” Alix said. With nothing else to do, she jumped at the chance to do anything that would take her mind off the previous day’s events, which were creeping back into her mind.
They spent an hour or so doing some more light sparring, then Leon taught Alix the same breathing techniques that he taught Charles on the way to the Knight Academy over a year before.
Through a combination of meditation and sparring, the day passed quickly; before they knew it, the sun was beginning to set. Leon was starting to think that he liked teaching, as he’d barely noticed the passing of time. Alix, too, didn’t keep track of the time as she was far too ecstatic at how full of magic power she felt from meditation. In fact, it wasn’t until Alix’s stomach growled that they glanced out of the nearest window and noticed the reddening sky.
“Time to get some food?” Leon suggested. He, being a third-tier mage, was a little more resistant to hunger than the first-tier Alix, but he was a man who enjoyed his food. He hated missing meals.
“Absolutely,” Alix replied.
The food for the tower guards is brought to the ground floor every day. There weren’t enough people in the fort to allow the guards to leave for long. Most of the tower guards slept in tents right next to their towers, in fact.
Leon and Alix walked down the stairs to the ground floor to get something to eat, but just as Leon was about to grab a piece of bread, one of the fourth-tier soldiers stuck his head through the door of the tower, looked around, then said, “Ursus! There’s a meeting in the commander’s cabin! All third-tier mages are to attend!”
Leon automatically nodded before looking back at the food with a look of dejection. He wasn’t missing much, just some bread and dried meat, but he still wanted a few minutes to eat. The fourth-tier soldier wasn’t leaving, though, so Leon could only grab a piece of bread and leave.
“Hopefully, this shouldn’t take too long,” Leon said to Alix on the way out of the door. She couldn’t help but frown as she was left in the tower.
“What’s this about?” Leon asked the fourth-tier soldier on the way to Jean’s cabin.
“Don’t know,” the soldier responded. “I’d guess something about scouting the Valeman position. They seem to still be assembling their forces, so we have some time to get a good idea of how many of them are out there, and maybe plan some kind of delaying action.”
“Hmm,” Leon hummed in acknowledgement. He had a few more questions, but he held his tongue for after the meeting.
All thirty officers of Fort 127—including Leon—crammed themselves into Jean’s cabin just as they had the night before. Leon and the fourth-tier soldier with him were actually the last to arrive, so the meeting began as soon as they took a seat.
“Well,” Jean began, “I think we all know what our current situation is, so let’s try and make this quick. We have an unknown number of Valemen outside of our wall, though we know that number is likely over ten thousand.” Several of the knights around the table grimaced at that number, especially considering that their own battalion was only five hundred strong. Five hundred, to man two miles of wall.
Jean continued, “Fortunately, Dion returned just half an hour ago with good news: he visited the castles of the five barons within twenty miles, and we should be getting two or three hundred men early tomorrow morning. Any more reinforcements, though, will depend on when Count Whitefield or the Consul of the North arrive, which may be a week or two. That’s how long we’re going to have to hold this wall, to keep these Valemen from sacking half the Northern Territories.
“Which brings us to what we’re going to need to do tonight. I want eight volunteers to scout the Valemen positions. We need to know what we’re up against.” Jean paused, waiting for volunteers. The other three fourth-tier mages apart from him immediately raised their hands, and Jean nodded in appreciation. Four third-tier mages then raised their hands in rapid succession, but no more.
After waiting a moment, Jean said, “I want at least one more,” and cast his gaze around the table.
During that second pause, Leon noticed several of the other knights surreptitiously glare at him.
[Hmm, seems like you have some enemies,] Xaphan remarked.
[Maybe not enemies,] Leon responded, [but certainly not friends. I guess they think that a Valeman should be the one to go out into the pass, but they’re all anointed knights, so they can’t just rudely demand that I volunteer.]
“I’ll go,” Leon said out loud.
“Then we have our eight,” Jean said. “Assemble at the doors at sundown. I’ll want you all back in less than three hours, as the Valemen might try to attack us tonight. If they do, they’ll probably do so at midnight, so everyone else, get some rest and make sure your units are ready for battle then!”
Jean rose from his chair, signaling the end of the meeting, and the knights around the table began to get up and make their way to the door of the cabin.
[Why did you volunteer?] Xaphan asked. [I mean, it’s noble and all, but I’d rather you didn’t get yourself, and me by extension, killed by doing something foolish and reckless.]
[I’m sure I would’ve been volunteered if I’d waited any longer. Best to get it over with,] Leon replied. [Besides, might win me some goodwill.]
[With the way those asshats were staring at you, you could probably save their children from a burning building and they’d still hate you,] Xaphan said.
Leon couldn’t deny what the demon said, so he remained quiet as he walked back to his assigned tower.
Soon enough, the appointed time came for the scouts to assemble at the doors of the wall. Jean met the eight of them there, and he said, “Don’t take undo risk! We need every one of you to make it back! So focus on returning alive, even if you don’t bring back any valuable information!”
The volunteers nodded in acknowledgement, and then made for the wall. They only met at the doors, they wouldn’t leave through them as the Valemen were likely keeping an eye on them. Or at least, it was better to assume that they were, even if none of the knights truly thought the Valemen had the discipline and organization to do such a thing.
All eight scouts would investigate their own separate areas of the pass, focusing on the largest clusters of campfires they could see from the top of the wall. Leon chose the biggest cluster of campfires, about half a mile from the doors of the wall.
[You made a bold choice,] Xaphan said as Leon jumped down from the wall to the north side of the pass. As the scouts were all third or fourth-tier, they could jump down easily, as well as back up when they returned, so what Leon did wasn’t anything particularly special.
[I have the best chance to successfully scout out that area, and the better this scouting mission goes, the better chances we’ll have to live through this,] Leon responded.
[Are you talking about that ring?] Xaphan asked excitedly.
[I am, indeed,] Leon replied with a smile. He’d finished figuring out how to use the invisibility ring he had taken from the assassins who came for him on the galley, but he hadn’t had a good chance to use it yet—or at least, not a chance that wouldn’t have left a squadmate on their own.
But, now that he was on his own, he could use the ring with impunity, without any fear of revealing another of the cards up his sleeve, as he had with Xaphan’s flame. Alix hadn’t followed up with the latter, so it seemed like his secret was safe on that front, at least for the moment, but he still didn’t want to so openly display his capabilities.
Leon sprinted across the open field on the north side of the wall and vanished into the trees. He then hid himself behind a large bush and waited to see if any Valemen that might have seen him would show up. When no one came, he smiled and rubbed the emerald ring on his right index finger.
[First time actually using this thing, let’s see how well it works,] Leon said to Xaphan with anticipation.
[You know,] Xaphan replied, [I’ve always wanted some kind of piece of gear with an invisibility enchantment, but I never managed to acquire one. So, this ought to be enlightening…]
Leon channeled his magic power into the ring, activating the enchantment. It took a few seconds, but light began to bend around him, obscuring his body with a black lightless veil, then making him completely transparent.
[Holy shit…] Leon muttered when he looked down and saw nothing; his body had completely vanished!
[Ok, that’s pretty damned cool,] Xaphan appreciatively.
[It really is,] Leon responded with a smile, though no one could see it. [Time to get to work…]
Leon darted out from his hiding place and silently made his way through the forest. He moved boldly, not even stopping when Valemen appeared in front of him. He passed by three fairly sizeable Valeman camps, each with more than five hundred men within, and when he reached his destination, he felt a strange confidence that he never had before. The ring made him feel almost omnipotent.
But, Leon quickly quashed those feeling by remembering some of the limitations the ring had, like immediately dispelling the effect if he came into contact with anything else magical—such as another mage. If Leon so much as bumped into someone else, the invisibility effect would fail and it would take no less than five minutes for him to reactivate it, during which he would probably be killed. So with that in mind, Leon took a few deep breaths to calm himself down, then entered the main camp.
There were tents almost beyond counting, though Leon tried. His efforts weren’t helped with the Valemen’s haphazard method of building the camp, with no organization whatsoever; tents weren’t arranged in a grid pattern, as the Legion did, rather every Valeman would set himself up wherever he saw fit.
Leon carefully made his way through the camp, ignoring most of the Valemen but making sure to count every third-tier mage he saw. None of them saw any sign of Leon among them.
After about five minutes, Leon felt his mana supply starting to run low, so he turned back. However, as he was doing so, he noticed a group of tents in the distance. They were near the center of the main camp, but no other Valemen set up their tents near this little sub-camp, forming a small uninhabited ring around it.
Leon could see several of the men in the sub-camp sitting and chatting around an enormous campfire, and every one of them had an aura that he couldn’t see through, indicating their strength. These were Hakon Fire-Beard’s thanes, and if they were around, then Hakon himself wouldn’t be too far.
Leon’s hand found its way to the hilt of his sword and he started to slowly edge forward, closer to the thane’s camp. However, as he grew close, another man walked out of a tent. Seeing him, Leon froze.
This man was gigantic, over eight feet tall, though his hunchback was so severe that he was reduced to a mere six and a half feet. The proportions of his body were all off, with an inhumanely muscled upper body, arms that were long enough to reach past his knees, and legs that seemed far too skinny to hold up his massive frame. His skin was white enough that it almost glowed in the moonlight, but most of it was obscured by thick black fur-like hair that covered his exposed back, chest, and arms. His eyes burned blood red, and his face was elongated like the snout of an animal.
‘A werewolf.’ Leon recognized the misshapen body from his lessons in the Knight Academy. At that moment, he didn’t wonder why the man was there, or why he was tolerated within the Valeman camp, but he didn’t think that his ring of invisibility would help him much if he got closer; he suspected the werewolf would be able to smell him without any trouble.
Leon took a quick glance at the werewolf’s aura, and when he saw that it was at least of the fourth-tier, Leon turned around and made to leave the Valeman camp without hesitation. When he reached the edge of the camp and plunged back into the dark forest, he allowed the invisibility effect to dissolve, and he leaned against a tree, panting from panic at seeing the werewolf and exhaustion from using so much magic power.
After a few minutes of quiet recovery, Leon hurriedly began sneaking back to the fort. There wasn’t anything else he could learn from the Valeman camp that he thought was more important than bringing back word of a fourth-tier werewolf in the enemy ranks.
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