Sam’s face contorted in shock as he raised his hand to touch the arrow sticking out of his neck. He barely brushed his fingers against the arrow’s feathers when he lost strength in his legs and collapsed.
The rest of the squad stared in horror for a split second before more arrows came hurtling out from the trees.
“GET DOWN!” Leon shouted as he threw himself to the ground.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the squad had sharp enough reflexes to get out of the way, and four more men were peppered with arrows. The barrage was over as soon as it had started, but the danger wasn’t over; about thirty more Valemen charged out into the clearing.
Leon drew his sword as he stood up, slashing across the chest of the closest Valeman to him with the same motion. Then, he raised his sword to block an ax strike from another Valeman and raised his left arm to block an attack from a third. His armor held, and the ax bounced off his gauntlet. However, it also seemed that his armor gave the Valemen the impression that he was someone important, as it seemed almost half of the attackers were gathering around him.
But Leon didn’t have the time to contemplate how the Valemen chose their targets. He thrust out at the Valeman on his right, skewering him through the chest, then pivoting on the ball of his foot to dodge a spear thrust from another Valeman. Leon continued that motion to gain some distance from the spearman, while drawing closer to another Valeman who had an ax. Leon struck out with an overhead slash. The Valeman tried to block, but he was only a first-tier mage, so the ax was ripped from his hands, dislocating some of his fingers, and Leon’s sword bit into his shoulder.
Only ten seconds after the fight started, Leon had already killed or incapacitated three Valemen, a good start. The rest of the squad wasn’t so good, but a few other Valemen had been impaled on the spears of the squad. But, two more of the squad members fell in that same time. Those who were left amounted to Leon, Alix, Jack, and two other men.
Alix was terrified, but she still rose from the ground just after Leon did, and managed to dodge an ax strike, sweep the legs out from under that Valeman who attacked her, and stabbed him while he was on the ground.
Jack tried to draw Sam’s sword, but the way Sam had fallen made it difficult. He was still struggling to arm himself when a Valeman appeared from behind and brought his ax down on Jack’s head, nearly splitting his skull in half.
The two other squad members hardly fared much better, but they were still lightly injured by the attacking Valemen. They were forced back by increased attacks, but they still managed to kill two more Valemen as they fell back.
Leon, meanwhile, was like a lion among sheep. Every one of his attacks either injured a Valeman or outright killed one, while all of the attacks sent his way were either dodged or failed to penetrate his armor when they did hit their mark.
The Valemen weren’t particularly disciplined; they bunched up and attacked only two or three at a time. With their numbers, they could easily have surrounded the remains of the squad and killed them by attacking their exposed flanks, but instead they allowed the four remaining squad members to gradually fall back into a group.
“We’ve got this,” Leon said, encouraging the other three. They didn’t really agree with him, but the pressure the Valemen put them under precluded any response.
“HRRAGH!” shouted an enormous man with an equally enormous battleax as he swung it down toward Leon. His effort was wasted, though, as Leon nimbly dodged the attack and countered with a stab to the man’s stomach. The Valemen were about as armored as the rest of the squad, which is to say barely at all, so even this one strike was enough to put the Valeman down for good.
But, another came to fill his place, this one with a pair of short spears, each barely three feet long. He lunged forward with one of the spears, and as Leon dodged, he stabbed forward with the other, hoping to catch Leon off-balance. He didn’t, as Leon only had to block with his off-hand gauntlet, and it was the Valeman who was knocked off-balance. Leon finished him off by first cutting off one of his arms, then slashing the Valeman’s throat.
The other three were faring fairly well once their backs were almost against each other and they no longer had to fear being flanked—especially since the Valemen only came one or two at a time. Alix was still shaking with fear, but she kept the Valemen at bay with her spear, as did the other two. The three of them together killed another four Valemen, bringing the remaining attackers down to about twenty, as far as Leon could tell.
Then, the Valemen fell back, giving the four some slight breathing room. They were still surrounded, but they now had the opportunity to catch their breath. For a few seconds, catch their breath was exactly what they did; they didn’t attack to try and escape, and they didn’t talk to each other.
“Isn’t this impressive?” came a mocking voice from the trees. The Valemen closest to the voice respectfully parted to allow the source of the voice to come forward and stand about ten feet in front of Leon. It was a man slightly taller than Leon, with a lithe build and loose clothing. His hair and beard were pitch black and he had light brown eyes.
“Tell me your name, Dark Warrior, that I might properly offer your bones to the Mountain Father,” the man said.
Leon glared at the man, though with his helmet on, the man didn’t notice. When Leon unleashed all of his killing intent, however, the man certainly took notice.
“What an adorable aura!” the man said, not disturbed in the slightest by Leon’s killing intent. He then showed off his own killing intent, and for the first time in a very long time, Leon felt the fear of being overpowered. His skin crawled and he felt a chill run down his spine.
‘This man is stronger than I am. He’s killed more, a lot more…’ Leon thought to himself as he restrained his aura to defend himself.
“I am Eirik, thane to Hakon Fire-Beard!” the man said proudly.
“… Leon,” Leon responded.
Noticing his young voice, Eirik remarked, “You sound quite young, Leon! To live a short life is such a shame, but to die at my hands is an honor you may relay to your ancestors!” Then, he drew a dagger in one hand and a hatchet in the other, and attacked.
Leon lunged forward and met the attack, blocking the hatchet with his sword and deflecting the dagger with his gauntlet. He tried to attack fast enough to seize the initiative and put Eirik on the defense, but Eirik smiled and pressed forward; Leon couldn’t get in a single attack.
[Leon, this guy is a fourth-tier mage!] shouted Xaphan.
[I noticed!] Leon responded.
Eirik caught Leon’s sword in the gap between the head of his hatchet and the wooden shaft, then stabbed forward with his dagger. Leon couldn’t dodge with his sword stuck in the hatchet, so he made the quick decision to catch the dagger. Fortunately, the dagger wasn’t sharp to cut through his leather gloves, but Eirik only smiled and pushed forward. Leon tried to hold fast, but Eirik was much stronger, and Leon was forced back one step, then another, and another. Eirik just kept pushing, forcing Leon to give more and more ground. He’d already been pushed to within a few steps of the other three surviving squad members, who watched in dejection as Eirik got closer.
“This is a nice sword you got,” said Eirik in a mocking tone, “Shame it’s wasted on you. Once I kill you and take it, the first thing I’m going to do is kill your two boyfriends over there. Maybe I’ll even use it to kill that fine woman there, once I’m done with her…”
Alix gripped her spear a little tighter once Eirik’s lustful gaze swept over her. If it came down to it, she’d kill herself before letting Eirik have his way with her, though that isn’t to say it was something she particularly wanted to do.
“Kill that fucking pig!” she shouted at Leon.
“Oooh, I like your attitude,” Eirik said, “I’m going to enjoy breaking you!”
Alix’s anger instantly grew so great that she forgot all about her fear. Her terrified shaking stopped, and she glared at the surrounding Valemen, who were watching and waiting for Eirik to stop playing around.
[You’re going to have to use my power,] said Xaphan worriedly, [this bastard will kill you, otherwise.]
[I know!] Leon replied in frustration. He located the ‘thread’ in his chest, the connection between himself and Xaphan, and pulled. He felt the familiar heat rushing out from his chest, and he concentrated his mana to direct it into his left arm, which still held the dagger.
“You know, it’s cute the way you’re resisting, but you’re only…” Eirik began, but he was cut off when Leon’s left hand burst into flame. Eirik reeled back in instinctive panic, dropping the rapidly-melting dagger as he did so, but his own right hand was already on fire.
“AAAHHGH!” he screamed in pain. He so distracted that he allowed Leon to twist himself closer and raise his left close to his face. Eirik’s eyes widened when he looked up from his burning hand and saw Leon’s fingers inches away from his face. “No,” he whispered, as crimson fire erupted from Leon’s hand and engulfed his head.
Eirik was dead before he hit the ground, his head and most of his neck and shoulders charred beyond recognition.
Everyone stared at Leon in stunned silence.
“What the fuck…” muttered one of the Valemen.
“He… He must be at least of the fifth-tier!” cried another as he turned around and fled back into the trees. One by one, all the rest of the Valemen retreated. They were so frightened by Leon’s show of power that they didn’t notice the pain with which he cradled his left arm, or the fact that he hadn’t moved a single muscle since killing Eirik.
In seconds, the four survivors stood alone in the clearing, surrounded by almost fifty bodies. Alix hurried over to check on Sam once it was clear that the Valemen were gone, but Sam had bled out during the fight. The other two men quickly checked the rest of the squad, but they were all dead as well.
“We… should retreat. Fall back… to the second watchtower,” Leon said, almost choking out the words.
“Are… you alright?” Alix asked.
“Just fine,” Leon answered, “or at least, I will be.”
“What in the hell was that?” demanded one of the men. “How are you able to use elemental magic?! Aren’t you only a third-tier mage!”
“This isn’t the time for that,” Leon responded. The other man protested, but Leon ignored him as he pulled out a healing spell and pressed it against his arm, relieving the pain he felt from using Xaphan’s fire. Then, he started walking back south.
“Hold up!” Alix called. She ran back to Samuel and took his sword, stopping only to give him and their other fallen comrades one last sad look before hurrying over to follow Leon.
The other two men grit their teeth, but as Leon was the strongest among them and had trained at the Knight Academy, he was easily the most qualified out of the four to take charge. But his qualifications hardly made them any happier at having to follow a Valeman, especially after losing most of their squad to a Valeman attack.
Regardless, they fell in behind Alix and Leon. They desperately wanted to get back home to safety, and their chances would be better with someone of Leon’s power than if they moved on their own.
Sam and the rest were left there on the ground. It was distasteful, but they couldn’t bring the bodies with them with large amounts of Valemen in the area.
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