Leon, Alix, and the two other men made their way back south, hoping to reach the second watchtower before the Valemen did. It wasn’t too far, relatively speaking, only about four miles, but those were four miles of rough, hilly, and forested terrain. They had left the second watchtower not long before noon that day and encountered Jack and the Valemen chasing him around two or three in the afternoon, so Leon was confident that they could reach the second watchtower before it grew too dark in the pass.
The small group moved at a quick pace; not quite running, as apart from Leon, the entire squad was made up of first-tier mages, but still going at as fast a clip as could be reasonably maintained. Leon kept his eyes wide open and his ears tuned to the sounds of the forest, so that he would be able to hear if any more Valemen tried to ambush them. He intended to make it back to the fort, and he was determined to make sure the other three did as well. He was, after all, the strongest mage left in the squad, so the burden of command and the responsibility to keep the other three alive fell to him.
That being said, if the two men were killed along the way, Leon honestly couldn’t say that he’d care that much. They and the rest of the squad had been exceedingly rude to him since he arrived, so it was only Sam’s death that left him feeling any regret. Even then, he’d barely known Sam for more than a week, so he doubted he’d lose any sleep over the knight’s death.
Alix, on the other hand, was a different story. Leon kept them moving fast enough that there wasn’t much time to think, but every now and then he heard a sniffle from behind him. He snuck a glance back to see what was up, and saw Alix struggling to hold back her tears.
Leon sighed, then fell back a little to walk at Alix’s side.
“How are you doing?” he asked as gently as he could, which was not particularly gentle at all.
“… Fine,” Alix said tersely.
Leon’s eyes narrowed at the obvious lie, but he didn’t challenge it for the moment. Instead, he took a good look at Alix, as he realized in that moment that he hadn’t done so prior to now. Alix was a tall woman, almost as tall as he was, with full and lustrous brown hair, warm and welcoming hazel eyes, and—before Sam’s death, anyway—a playful smile always on her lips. She was thin and athletic, as almost all mages are, with a charming demeanor that could make even someone as cagey and guarded as Leon feel a little more at ease.
Leon had to admit that he thought she was cute, though he held no romantic notions toward her at all.
“It’s never an easy thing, losing someone close to you in battle,” Leon said after a few moments of silence. After a few more moments of thought, he said quietly, “I lost my father last year. I didn’t cry, but I don’t think I was really capable of doing anything for a couple days.”
Alix looked at Leon in shock, she hadn’t expected him to come back and check up on her in the first place, let alone start talking about something so personal!
“Do you mind if I ask what Sam was to you?” Leon asked.
“… Why did you tell me that?” Alix asked, side-stepping Leon’s question.
“What do you mean?” Leon replied.
“Why did you tell me something so personal? You’ve barely spoken to anyone, and you don’t know me…” Alix said, her voice trailing off when she grew self-conscious from pointing this out.
[Yeah, why did you say that?!] Xaphan asked in shock. [Wait a moment, do you like this girl? Is that gorgeous red-head back in the capital not enough? Looking to sow some wild oats? Hmmm?]
Leon was silent for a long moment, and pointedly ignored Xaphan. Then, he sighed and said, “True, I don’t know you. But that actually helps a little—we might never speak to each other again, so what does it matter? I don’t talk much anyway, especially around rude assholes…” Leon briefly glanced back at the two other men, who were following at a long enough distance that they couldn’t hear what Leon and Alix were talking about, “… but I want to get better at it. We’re in the same squad; we’re going to be watching each other’s backs, at least until we get back to the fort. It would help if we talked a little, no matter what happens after…”
Leon’s emotions were a tumultuous combination of grief at remembering his father, a hint of buried anger at those who took him, and embarrassment in saying so much to Alix. He didn’t know why, but he just felt good talking to her, so he didn’t stop.
“Come on, it helps to talk after a battle,” Leon continued, “at least in my, admittedly limited, experience. Lets you vent some of the pent up frustration and anger and brings you down from the high of surviving mortal danger.”
“Have you been in many battles?” Alix asked curiously.
“Hmmm… if we’re talking solely battles where my life was threatened… this was my fifth?” Leon hesitantly guessed. “There were a good many where I suppose I was technically involved, but where I didn’t do much more than stand around while my father or others did all the work.”
In this regard, Leon only counted the fight with the snow lion, the raid on the bandit camp with the Brown Bears, the fight at his home that ended with Artorias’ death, and the fight with the assassins onboard the galley. As he told Alix, he’d been in a number of other fights, but none that he both took an active role in and where he truly felt his life to be at risk.
“Well, that’s four more than me,” Alix said. “I got here a few weeks before you did, by Sir Samuel’s recommendation. He was my father’s cousin, we’re from the same town and I’ve known him all my life. I wanted to join the Legion, but my father would only let me go if I went with Sam.”
“… I’m sorry,” Leon said. He was getting better at talking to people, especially given where he was only a year before, but he still wasn’t that good at comforting people.
Alix went quiet and a frown appeared on her face. After a moment of silence, Leon asked another question to get her talking again.
“Why did you want to join the Legion?”
Alix sighed, then said, “I guess, because it sounded good at the time? I’m starting to think it was a bad idea…”
Leon smiled and morbidly chuckled. “I guess I’m not too different,” he admitted, “I joined the Legion because my father told me all these stories about the knights to the south. I’ve always wanted to be one.”
“What stories would he tell?” Alix asked.
“I think the Epic of Antares was his favorite, but he also told me Serpent’s Extinction, and Courting of the Four Kingdoms fairly regularly. Personally, I was always partial to Lord of the Nine Rivers.”
“I like your choice. The other three are good stories, but they have terrible endings,” Alix said, “Lord of the Nine Rivers at least lets its hero get his much deserved happy ending.”
“I wouldn’t quite so far as to say the endings to Antares and Serpent’s Extinction are terrible—bittersweet, maybe, but not terrible,” Leon argued. “Although, Four Kingdoms does have an awful end, I’ll admit that much at least. Some of the cast of a story ought to survive to the epilogue, otherwise what’s the point?!”
“Exactly!” Alix agreed.
The two launched into a heated discussion of their favorite books, while the two men behind them scowled and rolled their eyes. Leon, despite participating in the discussion, was still keeping an eye on their surroundings, and he noticed their obvious derision.
‘Not going to talk to them anytime soon,’ he thought to himself. He doubted he’d get far if he tried; they’d probably just call him a savage again, and he’d probably knock their teeth in. ‘Best to leave them be. No good will come from talking to them.’
Hakon Fire-Beard’s bright blue eyes blazed with fury as he stared down at Eirik’s partially charred corpse. His thane was almost unrecognizable.
“Who… did this?” he asked quietly. Containing his rage was a titanic feat, and he was barely able to keep from bellowing his question at the other Valemen who led him back to the site of the battle.
“Some knight, I think,” said one of the Valemen who ran away when Leon killed Eirik. “He was wearing black armor with dark grey clothing. He looked fully grown, but his voice sounded strangely young.”
“So a child dressed in black armor killed one of MY THANES?!” Hakon roared, grabbing the Valeman by the neck.
“… Nnnnooo…” the Valeman squeaked, “… a young… knight… fifth-tier-”
“BULLSHIT!” Hakon thundered. He opened his mouth to shout again, but instead he took a deep breath and collected himself. Then, he opened his mouth again, with a much calmer tone that didn’t quite fit the fact that he was still holding the Valeman off the ground by his neck. “If a fifth-tier mage were present here, none of you worthless maggots would’ve escaped alive. No, this was something else…”
Another of Hakon’s thanes stepped forward, a tall man with a wiry build and hair as white as fresh snow. His clear silver eyes sparkled with intelligence and his remarkably shaven face curved into a frown.
“What are you thinking?” the thane asked.
“Do you remember that lunatic we burned four years ago?” Hakon asked, still holding the Valeman, who had almost been choked into unconsciousness. “The one we caught in the process of freezing a field of silkgrass?”
“Ah, yes! That nutcase who ranted and raved about the ‘Monster of the East’ that he would summon and send us all into an icy hell. Instead, he got a fiery one, or should I say, a pyre-y one, hehehe…”
Hakon rolled his eyes at the pun and decided to ignore it. “Right, that guy. He was only of the fourth-tier, but he could use elemental magic.”
“You think whoever did this to Eirik is like that lunatic?”
“Yes. I mean, he could simply have a piece of gear with a powerful mage’s Mana Glyph inscribed on it, but I doubt any mage would be so foolish as to make themselves vulnerable to a madman. No, I think it’s much more likely that this ‘Dark Warrior’ these cowardly worms were so afraid of is a demon-worshipper.” As Hakon spoke, the Valeman in his hand stopped moving. He’d slipped into unconsciousness, and as soon as Hakon noticed, he dropped the Valeman with a disgusted look.
“Hrorekr, my friend,” Hakon began.
“Yes, my brother!” the white-haired thane answered.
“You will lead our war party on my behalf. I must hunt down this demon-worshipper who murdered Eirik!”
“I understand,” Hrorekr responded solemnly. “I’ve known Eirik as long as you have. Make sure that Dark Warrior suffers.”
“Oh, he’ll suffer all right. He’ll wish he was dead! I’ll flay the flesh from his bones, and burn what’s left, to appease Eirik’s spirit and carry him to the Sky Mother!” Hakon shouted. He clenched his fists and the wind blew around him in a small cyclone, knocking back the Valemen within fifteen feet of him.
‘This was supposed to be our time to seize glory! To raid the south and bring back riches to last our people for generations!’ Hakon thought bitterly. Of his six thanes, Eirik was the youngest and weakest. He was the baby of his circle of friends, the men who aided him in his conquests of the Northern Vales.
Hakon had expected his seven best friends-turned-thanes would accompany him through the rest of his life, but now one had been killed, and the army they’d so painstakingly assembled hadn’t even arrived at the wall at the end of the pass, yet. Hakon was furious, to put it mildly. To put it slightly more accurately, his eyes burned with unquenchable fury, and after one more glance at Eirik’s body, Hakon turned and stormed into the forest. He was accompanied by only two other people, two more of his thanes. They moved south at a terrifying speed. Their fury demanded the death of Leon, who killed their friend.
We’re almost back at the tower, aren’t we?” Leon asked the other three. They’d all been on supply runs before, so they knew the pass far better than he did.
“Yes,” one of the men affirmed exasperatedly. He didn’t say anything more, so Leon let his tone slide.
However, he started to smell something burning again, and he thought he saw smoke filling the forest.
“Something’s wrong,” he said. He resisted the urge to run forward, and instead he stuck with the group. “Move slowly,” he continued, “the second watchtower may have already been attacked.”
Alix nodded with a serious look, while the other two men paled slightly. They could hate Leon for being a Valeman, but they couldn’t deny his skills; they believed him when he said something was wrong.
The group advanced slowly and kept their eyes constantly scanning the trees around them.
Suddenly, Leon stopped them and said, “I can hear someone talking. I can’t quite make out what they’re saying, but they sound quite happy…”
After a few more dozen feet, the other three started to pick up on what Leon was talking about. Another few hundred feet, and there was no longer any doubt: they could all hear the crackling of flames and the hooting and hollering of dozens of men.
When they drew close enough to see what was happening, they jumped behind a small cluster of trees and bushes. They saw several dozen Valemen surrounding the second watchtower, watching the fire they started slowly climb up the walls. The five men who had been stationed there had been hanged from the balconies, with a multitude of mutilations that Leon could see from his hiding place.
One of the men was missing both of his arms, while another had almost his entire face ripped off. Another had lost his legs, while the fourth had an enormous hole in his torso that his lungs were spilling out of. These four were all dead, but the fifth had been untouched. He was left to hang from the balcony by his arms, rather than his neck like the others. He had been gagged, preventing him from screaming, but the terror was obvious in his face. The flames kept getting higher, licking at his feet, while the Valemen below him shouted and laughed at him. A few even threw rocks.
Leon and the other three could do nothing but watch; they couldn’t take on all of the Valemen present, even with all of Leon’s third-tier strength and Xaphan’s demon fire. All they could do was watch, and stew in their anger and frustration at what the Valemen were doing, and pity for the hanging men, both dead and alive.
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