Got a random 0.5 star rating yesterday =/ Now I'm burning with curiosity about whether the person who left it is an asshole, or legitimately thinks this story is just that bad...
Anyway, if you have a couple seconds, I'd very much appreciate you leaving a rating or review on Royal Road.
“A werewolf?!” Jean asked Leon in shock.
“Yes,” Leon confirmed, “and it seems like he’s quite taken with the curse; his body is twisted and bestial.”
“Shit,” Jean muttered. “Well, that’s something to think about…”
He didn’t say anything more, even though he was panicking on the inside. Jean had been waiting at the doors for the scouts to return, and that’s where he met Leon and received the report. They were still there, waiting for the other seven scouts, and surrounded by other Legion soldiers, so Jean couldn’t afford to express his panic.
After a few more hours, six of the seven scouts came back through the doors, bringing back reports of their own. However, the last scout didn’t return, even after Jean and the rest of the fort’s leadership waited until almost sunrise.
“Where is he?!” Jean demanded in frustration.
“He’s gotten captured,” said the filthy supply officer that Leon first met when he arrived.
“… Paul’s right, Sir, I don’t think we’re going to see Victor again…” one of the fourth-tier mages hesitantly agreed.
Jean grit his teeth, then said, “I guess there’s no helping it, then. Everyone, to my office! We need to plan and compile your reports!”
“AAAGHH!” the missing scout screamed in pain. His arms were tied to a pair of wooden stakes that kept him propped upright while a Valeman slowly made his way up the scout’s leg, breaking a bone with a war hammer every time the scout refused to answer a question.
“How many of you are there?!” the Valeman demanded.
The scout clenched his teeth and growled through gasps of pain, “You’ll… get nothing… from me… barbarian!”
“Won’t I?” asked the Valeman as he raised his hammer, waited a moment for the scout to change his mind, then brought it down with a sickening crunch on the scout’s right thigh. “Well that makes every bone in your right leg broken,” the Valeman said. “Color me impressed. I suppose we’re just going to have to move on to your left…”
The screams of pain and defiance from the scout continued for half an hour, drawing a large crowd of jeering Valemen. Many threw rocks, which knocked loose a few teeth and left the scout’s face bloody and bruised. A couple drunk Valemen even came forward to urinate on the scout’s head.
When the Valeman torturing the scout had made it to the scout’s right arm, the crowd of spectators had grown to almost a thousand. They cheered with every crack and crunch that came from the scout and laughed at every cry of pain.
The Valeman with the hammer raised it again after another spit of defiance from the scout, but right before he was about to bring it down on the scout’s hand, he noticed something odd: the crowd in the back seemed to be parting. Obviously, someone important was coming.
‘About time,’ the Valeman thought, ‘I sent a messenger over an hour ago, but only now is a thane coming!’
However, the Valeman was wrong. It wasn’t a thane on his way, but Hakon Fire-Beard himself. The crowd split, and Hakon stepped forward, laying his cold blue eyes on the scout, then on the torturer. The torturer understood what Hakon wanted with that one glance, and he lowered the hammer and stepped back a respectful distance; he was only of the third-tier and didn’t have high enough status to speak with the great chief.
Hakon approached the scout, who was slumped over against the stakes he was tied to, almost unconscious. Hakon grabbed the man’s hair, wrenched his head up to look him in the eye, then said, “If you answer my questions, I’ll end your suffering.”
The scout glared back at Hakon, but he didn’t have the will to say a single word of opposition.
“I’m looking for a man, probably third-tier, with black armor. Who is he? What is his name?” Hakon demanded to know.
The scout kept his silence.
“How strong is the commander of your people?”
Again, the scout remained quiet.
“How many of your people are cowering behind your wall?”
The scout glared back at Hakon, and no words fell from his lips.
Hakon gave a stoic grunt, then stood back up. He turned around and walked back to the edge of the crowd. There, he stopped and simply said, “Burn him,” before returning to his own camp.
Many of the watching Valemen surged forward, grabbing leaves, twigs, and bits of wood, while others started to hack at the surrounding trees for branches. These flammable things were piled up at the scout’s feet, and once there was a small pile, a Valeman ran to the nearest campfire with a leafy tree branch. As the scout watched the Valeman return with the flaming branch, he couldn’t help but widen his eyes in terror.
But, he didn’t make a sound. He faced the Valemen around him with as much stoicism as he could manage with his broken legs, and waited for the moment when he wouldn’t feel any more pain.
“We have to attack them first, before they have a chance to attack us first!” argued one of the fourth-tier mages in Jean’s cabin.
“That’s suicide! Our reinforcements from the local barons haven’t even arrived yet, and you want our five hundred soldiers to attack a force of over fifteen thousand?!” shouted back the other fourth-tier mage.
“They won’t expect it, and we can catch them off-guard! With their lacking discipline, it should be easy to chase them off with only a few casualties!” shouted the former fourth-tier mage.
“I agree with Arrius,” said a third-tier mage. “Although, I don’t think we should be attacking head-on; rather, we should wait to attack them tomorrow night. I don’t think they’ll be quite ready by then, and we should get in some good hits before retreating back to the wall.”
“That still leaves us open and vulnerable at a time when we don’t even have enough men to guard the wall!” shouted the second fourth-tier mage.
“We’re getting a little heated here,” Jean said, trying to soothe the debaters a little, “let’s bring the intensity down some. We’re all friends here, and we don’t need division in our ranks right now.”
As he said this, Abel, a respected older third-tier mage who had been at the fort longer than anyone else, spoke up. “I, too, agree with Arrius. If the Valemen attack us, we’re going to lose the wall. That’s guaranteed. If we attack them, however, we might be able to swing the upcoming battle in our favor. It’s a long shot, but it’s better than a guaranteed defeat.”
“But our focus is only to defend for as long as we can! If the wall is breached, then we can fall back and rendezvous with the Legions when the Consul gets here! Attacking will only serve to get our men killed, when their duty is only to defend the wall!”
“Edmond, I think you’ve made your case,” Jean said. “Ultimately, the decision lies with me. We will do whatever I say…”
Everyone in the room watched Jean with bated breath—even Leon, as he knew that whatever was decided, as a third-tier mage he’d be right in the middle of it.
“We… will attack them. Tomorrow night,” Jean said. Most of the men around the table had been convinced by Arrius and Gaston—the third fourth-tier mage—that attacking was a better alternative to simply waiting for the Valemen to come to them.
“We won’t kill enough of them to make them retreat,” warned Edmond. “All this will accomplish is to provoke them to attack us earlier than they were already planning to! It will hasten our defeat and our deaths when we should only be trying to prolong this!”
“That’s what we’re doing, Edmond,” said Gaston. “We must take the initiative, especially since we don’t know when they’re going to attack us. As you said, they’re guaranteed to attack us, and we’re probably going to lose that fight. We just don’t have the numbers. To hunker down here is to accept defeat.”
“Enough! I’ve made my decision!” Jean said forcefully. “Moving on, we need to find a way to deal with the werewolf Ursus saw. That monster might just be more dangerous than Hakon himself; the last thing we need right now is an outbreak of lycanthropy.”
“That assumes the information that the barbarian brought back is trustworthy…” a third-tier mage muttered.
Leon glared at the man, but he didn’t say a word. He just turned his gaze back to Jean, who was also glaring at the soldier.
“Say something like that again. I dare you…” Jean challenged menacingly. The man, who had been staring arrogantly at Leon suddenly turned sheepish and quiet. “We have tens of thousands of Valemen on our doorstep!” Jean continued, speaking to the entire room. “This is not the time for disunity! If I hear anyone disparage any of our officers here, I will personally throw you from the top of the wall and laugh as the Valemen burns you alive!”
The room was quiet in the wake of Jean’s threat.
“I’ll take that to mean that everyone understands. I’ll be most aggrieved if anyone doesn’t. Now, let’s get to the specifics of our attack. How are we going to do this? I’m open to suggestions…”
The Valemen were quiet the next day. They didn’t respond to the capture of the scout during the night, which Jean believed meant one of two things: either they were still waiting for more Valemen to arrive, or they were waiting for night to fall.
In the morning, there was a steady stream into the fort of about two hundred men, warriors in service of the local barons that were led by about a dozen knights, and taking up positions upon the wall. There wasn’t much conflict between them and the Legion soldiers, as most of the soldiers were locals and their spirits were lifted by quite a bit to see some reinforcements, even if the number was fairly limited.
Leon and Alix trained in the lower rooms of their assigned tower all day, alternating between sparring with swords and meditating. Just as he’d done with Charles, Leon passed on some tips and tricks that he’d been taught by Artorias. These weren’t anything special, no more really than what Alix would’ve learned if she had attended the Knight Academy, but she still started to make much faster progress toward the second-tier than she had when studying under Sam. These techniques, which had been passed down by some of the most powerful noble families in the entire kingdom, were far superior to what little wisdom she could’ve ever gleaned from Sam’s own insights into magic.
For his part, Leon could feel himself on the edge of the fourth-tier. He couldn’t say exactly when he might ascend—though he knew it wouldn’t be in time to help with the current crisis—but he felt it would be within a month, maybe a month and a half. He was able to make that estimation because his brain had been adapting to magic so well, increasing his control of and sensitivity toward magic.
The two ended the day with a nap and more meditation, so that they could be ready for the night operations. They weren’t needed to man the tower, only to be there in case of an attack, which gave them all the free time they needed to train and rest.
“Are you ready for this?” Leon asked Alix as they prepared to leave the tower.
“I’m ready,” she answered with a determined look. “I want to push those Valemen back, to avenge my uncle and to make sure they don’t cause those who live in this region the same pain!”
Leon didn’t quite buy her resolute demeanor, so he said, “If you’re not ready to kill, that’s all right. I just… I’d rather you not have to suffer through losing an entire squad again.”
“That’s appreciated,” she responded, without a hint of resentment or confrontation at Leon’s seeming lack of confidence in her. “I’ll be fine.”
“Meaning you’re not fine now?” Leon inquired.
Alix’s face froze, and it took her a few moments to respond. “I’ll be fine,” she repeated.
“… Can you tell me, honestly, that you can do this?” Leon asked.
“Yes,” Alix said without hesitation.
Leon stared at her for a few seconds, then said, “… Well, good enough, I suppose. Let’s go.”
Leon thought he could sense a hint of killing intent in her aura. And that made him smile; it assured him that she was ready to kill, at least.
The two met up with three hundred Legion soldiers near the doors, who were armed with spears and bows, while Leon was also packing a few spells he’d prepared. Jean and the other three fourth-tier mages were there as well, ready to lead the soldiers out into the pass and kill some Valemen. They, and the eight third-tier mages who took on lesser leadership roles, had already briefed the soldiers on their jobs, and now, it was the time to execute their mission.
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