Alix looked back at Fort 127 for the last time. It looked completely different with sixty thousand Legion soldiers there than it had only a week before—like a small city. Most of those who were garrisoned there had been killed, including Sam and just about everyone she was friendly with. She couldn’t help but sigh as she turned south.
“You all right?” Leon asked her. “You don’t have to leave if you don’t want to, I can always get a different squire…”
“It’s fine,” Alix said quickly. “Nothing left for me here anyway. Let’s just go.”
Leon nodded and started walking down the dirt road that would eventually lead them back to Cyrene and the Naga River. His pack was much lighter than it was when he came north, as most of his clothes had been stolen by the Valemen and lost when the war party was obliterated; he at least still had all of his books and a fair amount of enchanting supplies, as he didn’t leave them in his tent when he and Alix moved to the tower.
“Do you want to stop anywhere? You did say you were from a village around these parts, right?” Leon inquired.
“We have our orders to get south, and we shouldn’t stop on my account. Besides, my family moved not long after I signed up. They live on the Great Plateau now, as I recall…” Alix replied with a distant look in her eyes.
Leon didn’t know what else he could say. ‘Probably best not to say anything right now,’ he thought to himself, ‘give her some time to adapt to the changing circumstances…’
The rest of the day passed in relative silence.
A week later, they found themselves in Cyrene, and Alix was somewhat back to her normal self. The journey had given her plenty of time to think, as well as something to focus on when not thinking. Now, the two of them were in a city that was larger than any she had ever been in before.
Her head was on a swivel, constantly looking around and taking in the sights. Cyrene was a Royal Legion fortress city to its core, but it still had more amenities and shops than someone raised in a small village would’ve ever dreamed of.
Remembering his own first time entering a large city not too long ago, Leon didn’t say a word, he just let her take in the sights. They slowly made their way through the crowded streets to the Legion citadel, where they were plunged head-first into a sea of paperwork. Fortunately, it didn’t take longer than a couple of hours, and the two were hurried onto a galley that was scheduled to leave that afternoon.
Again, Leon was given a private cabin; he was a fourth-tier knight, after all. As he had a squire, the room was a little bigger so they could share.
“So, listen for a moment,” Leon hesitantly began as he and Alix got settled in the galley after dinner. Alix looked up from the book she was reading and gave Leon her attention.
“Last time I was on a galley, I was attacked. Actually, I think I was technically attacked twice, once by a group of thugs that had been working as rowers, and the second time several minutes later by those I think hired them…”
Alix’s eyes grew wider as she listened to Leon. “Why?!” she asked worriedly.
“… I’m not sure,” Leon admitted. “I defeated the attackers, but they didn’t have any identifying objects on their persons. I have no concrete idea of who did it, or why. That being said, just about every officer I spoke to when I was being transferred to the fort said that I must have made some enemies in the Knight Academy to get such a remote post. I find myself agreeing with them.”
“No shit,” Alix said.
“So, just be aware of that. I’m not sure what to expect on the way back south, so stay on your toes. Don’t leave the cabin alone.”
Alix nodded to acknowledge Leon’s instructions.
“Moving on, we should talk about what what’s going to happen when we arrive in the capital,” Leon said.
“We got the authorization for leave?” Alix asked, her face lighting up in excitement.
“I did. We get two weeks, starting from the moment we check in at the Legion harbor.”
Alix immediately snapped her book closed as she thought about all the things she’d heard about the capital and what she wanted to do during her off time.
Seeing her about to get lost in her own plans, Leon said, “I will want to allocate some time for training, and I’ll expect you to be there.”
Alix immediately refocused back on Leon with a slight frown, but she knew the importance of training even if she didn’t want to lose time in the biggest city in the kingdom. “How long will this training last?” she asked.
“One to two hours of combat training, another hour of muscle training, and two to three hours of meditation, at least,” Leon answered. Alix’s face twisted a little at that amount of time, but Leon reassured her as he continued, “It doesn’t all have to be right after each other. We can have muscle and combat training in the morning, and have you meditate in the evening. Leave the late morning and afternoon all to you.”
“… Sounds good,” Alix said, her face returning to her usual smile.
“In the interest of training, we’ll be staying at the same place,” Leon mentioned.
“I’m your squire, I didn’t think we’d be separated,” Alix replied.
“Well, we’re not going to be staying at an inn. Or at least, I hope we don’t have to…” Leon said apprehensively.
“Why not? Do you know someone in the capital? A lady, perhaps?” Alix asked. She began to inch forward with an immensely curious look on her face.
“I do, in fact, know a lady in the capital,” Leon said with a subtle smile. “However, she told me to send a letter to her once I arrived at where I was going…”
“Oh,” Alix said, her smile faltering a little bit. She knew that getting mail out from Fort 127 was a nightmare, and the Legion rarely bothered to try. After being at the fort for barely two weeks, there wasn’t any way Leon could’ve sent the promised letter to his lady friend.
“So,” Leon continued, “she might be a little angry. That being said, I hope we can still stay with her, as being able to come back for a couple weeks rather than having to wait at least two years will… hopefully blunt her anger… But, even if she is incredibly angry, I don’t think she’d toss us out onto the streets…”
“What’s this girl like?” Alix asked.
Leon sat back in his bed, glanced out of his tiny cabin window, and smiled. It was a gentle smile, one that Alix hadn’t ever seen Leon have before.
“She’s incredibly bold, confident in just about every aspect of her life, and very smart,” Leon said with a serenity that Alix had also never seen him express.
“You really like her, don’t you?” she asked. Leon slowly nodded to her with his smile growing wider. “I can tell,” she said.
“It’s only been a month since I saw her last, but I’m already greatly looking forward to seeing her again,” Leon said in a warm and quiet tone that Alix found incredibly soothing.
“I’m looking forward to meeting someone who can make you act like this,” she said with a mischievous smile.
The two stayed awake chatting for another few minutes and went to bed soon after. Or at least, Alix did. Given what had happened the last time he’d taken a river galley, Leon was restless and couldn’t sleep.
After more than two hours of tossing and turning, he sighed and sat up to try and read by moonlight.
As Leon reached for one of his family’s books on enchantment, Xaphan said, [Leon, we should talk a bit…]
The demon’s voice wavered with hesitation, making Leon pause for a moment before agreeing.
[You’re a fourth-tier mage now, and you got there by your own power. I already told you about how the Thunderbird released you from your lightning cage, but we still need to talk about what comes next,] Xaphan said.
At the mention of the Thunderbird, Leon couldn’t help but frown a little. Xaphan had told him about the encounter, but there hadn’t been many details, so it had been a short and uninformative conversation. His ancestor’s aloofness was something Leon found more than a little annoying.
[So, what comes next?] Leon asked.
[You must work toward the fifth-tier,] Xaphan answered quickly.
[Changing my mana type…] Leon muttered.
[That shouldn’t take very long; it’s actually something you’ve been working toward for a while,] Xaphan said.
[What do you mean?]
[Do you remember those exercises your family’s books have detailed?]
Leon thought back for a moment and remembered his attempts to practice conjuring a lightning spear. It had gone about as well as could be expected for a third-tier mage, which is to say it didn’t work at all.
[I think I understand…] Leon said thoughtfully. [So those exercises were about changing my mana type, right?]
[I believe they were,] the demon said.
Leon clenched his fist and called forth some of his magic power. He had to compress it as much as he could, then release it and let it arc throughout his body like lightning. Now that he was a fourth-tier mage, he should have the control to accomplish the task.
He gathered his power in his chest and squeezed it as much as he could. It was far easier now than when he had last tried it more than half a year before, but he still felt like he couldn’t compress his power enough.
[You don’t need to start practicing immediately…] Xaphan noted. [Just so long as you practice when you train. Work on getting to the fifth-tier, when you can get started on your magic body. The sooner you can enter your soul realm consciously, the better.]
[I think your ancestor will be a little more willing to talk, and I hope you would ask it some questions of mine…]
[I’ll think about it,] Leon replied.
[Well, you still need to work on getting stronger. As you get stronger, so do I.]
[And I would very much like you to get stronger, demon, as the more power you have, the more I can draw upon,] Leon said with a smile. On the island in Leon’s soul realm, Xaphan wore a matching smile, though it was completely obscured by bright orange fire. He could feel his flames burn hotter as his power gradually restored itself.
[Speaking of your power,] Leon continued, [I can control more of it, now. I got off quite a few more blasts of fire against Fire-Beard than I could’ve had he attacked only a day before. Your power kept us alive.]
[Of course. You are now a fourth-tier mage, so it shouldn’t be surprising that you can handle stronger magics. Still didn’t stop you from charring your tiny arms into uselessness, though…]
[Don’t get used to things like that,] Leon declared, [I’m getting stronger all the time, and I may just pass you by…]
[Not a damned chance, young mage!]
[You’re still relying on the power in my soul realm to nourish your demonic core, aren’t you?]
Xaphan ground his teeth a little, but he still answered a quiet, [Yes…]
[Then your rate of recovery won’t be as great as my gains. Once I make it to the fifth-tier, I’ll be able to use your fifth-tier fire with impunity, as if it were my own. Don’t fall too far behind, now, demon.]
[Just watch me, boy. Don’t forget that I’ve done all of this before, and I have far more time to devote to my recovery than you have to your training. You won’t catch up.]
[We’ll see. We’ll see.]
Xaphan was silent for a moment, then he said in a smug tone, [Well, I was going to teach you how to project your magic senses now that you’re a fourth-tier mage, but I guess you can figure that out for yourself…]
Leon’s eyes widened in surprise. [I can do that now?!] he asked excitedly, his teasing tone with his partner gone.
[You can, or at least, you can do it a little bit. We should talk more when your attitude improves.]
Leon bit back his retort, and quietly said, [I’ll hold you to that, demon. Something like magic senses is a tool that I can’t afford to ignore.]
[We’ll see,] Xaphan replied, throwing Leon’s words back in his face. [Trying to assert superiority over me won’t get you a single damned thing, though…]
[Mmhmm,] Leon responded, now thoroughly annoyed. He turned over in his bed and went back to silently trying to sleep, to not fuel Xaphan’s vanity or offend his pride again. Magic senses were fully worth him making a concession on this, at least.
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