Despite Leon’s attempts to regain his usual stoicism, he couldn’t have made his joy at Elise’s kiss more obvious as he walked through the busy streets of the capital on his way back to the Academy. His smile was a mile wide and his eyes bright; he practically exuded happiness from every fiber of his being.
In fact, many of the people he passed who stared at this inexplicably happy young man wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Leon were to break out into song and skip down the street. But, fortunately for his own ego and sense of shame, he hadn’t lost that much self-control.
[Hehe, hehehe,] chuckled Xaphan. He made it a point to do so loud enough for Leon to hear him.
[… What is it that you find so funny?] asked Leon, the irritation in his voice obvious.
[Oh, nothing much,] answered Xaphan once he was sure Leon could feel his attention.
[Nothing much? Explain yourself, demon, what does that mean?]
[You don’t know what those words mean? You’re even further gone than I thought, human.]
[I know what the damned words mean, what did you mean when you said them?]
[Oh, I was just watching a little chaste boy losing his mind over one tiny kiss. You know, nothing much.]
And just like that, the smile on Leon’s face vanished. He sighed, but when he was about to respond to Xaphan, he decided to hold his tongue. Instead, he turned his thoughts back to Elise, determined as he was not to let his demonic acquaintance ruin his good mood as he had done before.
[Awwww, come on, don’t be like that! Brooding is quite unbecoming, you know. I mean, I’m sure it works on some people, but I doubt it works on anyone that you know.] Xaphan was met with silence, so he, too, sighed, then moved on to business.
[Listen, before you leave the city, there are a couple things you should probably pick up if you don’t already have them back in your fancy little cave…]
After another half hour spent in the capital, Leon finally made his way back to the Snow Lion camp in the gorge. There weren’t many people in his unit who had returned to the caves so early, and those that had—or simply never left in the first place—weren’t particularly numerous and kept to themselves, which suited him just fine. He made his way farther in all the way to his private room.
In the first week after moving in, the Snow Lions had thoroughly explored their new home and had realized that the cave system had as much if not more space than their tower did! This meant that Leon, as a third-tier mage, was able to have his own room, unlike when he had to share a room with Alphonsus and Castor after the Snow Lions had first arrived.
[Alright, first things first,] Xaphan began as soon as Leon set down everything he had bought, [Use that curtain to block the entrance to the room.]
Leon quickly complied, hanging a thick black curtain over the entrance of his door-less room, then quickly dug out a few small magic lanterns to scatter around so he wouldn’t have to constantly channel magic into his eyes to see in the pitch-black caves.
[Good. When we take the Kagu flower and that salamander core out of their packaging, they’ll emit far too much magic for you to avoid questions. That curtain will block the magic aura from spilling out of this room, though,] said Xaphan as Leon unpacked the rest of the things he bought.
First, Leon took out a narrow two-foot-tall stone cylinder and accompanying lid. Then, he pulled out half a dozen water-coals, so-called for being able to burn in water. They were fairly cheap, but they would work for his purposes.
[Next,] instructed Xaphan, [fill that container about halfway with water.]
Leon grabbed the cylinder and made for the bathroom. As with the tower, the trainees had made the discovery that the caves had their own bathrooms that even had fully functioning water runes. It had been an incredible morale boost, as they had for several days been living primarily on the water from the stream in the gorge and a few smaller water runes made by Leon and the others who were in the enchanting class.
The cylinder was filled with the requisite amount of water and Leon hurriedly returned to his room.
[Drop the coals into the water,] said Xaphan. As soon as Leon did so, he impatiently continued with, [Now the core.]
Leon dropped the core into the cylinder as instructed, letting the glowing red crystal sink to the bottom and rest among the coals. The fire magic it radiated ignited the water-coals, causing them to gently burn a dull blue at the bottom of the cylinder.
[And the flower, stem first.]
Leon carefully extracted the Kagu flower from its box, saturating his room with sweltering fire magic, though he found the heat strangely comfortable. Leon gently dipped the long stem of the flower that had been hidden in the box into the water, threading it through the gaps between the salamander core and the water-coals. To finish up that part of his preparations, he set the rest of the flower onto the surface of the water, where it stayed floating even as he closed the lid of the cylinder.
There wasn’t any concern about allowing the flower access to sunlight; all it needed was fire energy to stay alive for as long as Leon and Xaphan needed it to. The coals would provide that energy so as not to drain the core before Heaven’s Eye managed to find the final necessary ingredient. Leon would need to change out the coals every week, but that was a fine sacrifice to make given how much it cost to buy the salamander core.
[Finally,] said Xaphan, interrupting Leon as he leaned back onto his small stone bed, [we need to inscribe a few simple runes onto the cylinder so that the burning coals don’t transfer too much heat into it instead of the water. We want as much of the heat and fire energy to stay in the cylinder as possible.]
[What?] Leon complained, [Why didn’t we do that to begin with? Now I have to do this when it’s full of water and expensive ingredients?!]
[It was far more important to make sure the Kagu flower was properly taken care of and that the core’s magic wouldn’t dissipate into the surrounding environment. So hurry, we need to make sure the water doesn’t boil away. I mean, the lid should keep most of the steam in, but there’s no point in relying on ‘should’.]
Leon sighed, but he still said, [Fine. What’s needed?] As soon as his mind was open to Xaphan’s information, Leon saw exactly what had to be done. He reached for his ink and spell paper and got to work.
It took about an hour of careful work and more spell paper than Leon would care to admit, but even Xaphan couldn’t find any fault with his work. Leon plastered the side of the cylinder with the paper, which stuck as soon as he activated the enchantments.
[Any more steps?] asked an exhausted Leon. He was perfectly willing to perform any more necessary steps but writing the enchantments had left him feeling mentally drained.
[Nope. We’re just waiting on that feather, now. Nothing else to be done except drop in new water-coals every three or four days.]
Leon gave a deep sigh of relief as he laid back onto his bed. He missed the bed back in the Snow Lions’ tower. He’d made the stone bed in the cave relatively comfortable with a few blankets, but it still couldn’t hold a candle to a proper mattress designed for a noble.
Regardless, he fell asleep almost as soon as he got settled. He certainly wasn’t intending on sleeping; he had wanted to spend the rest of his day reading, but he was just that tired.
Leon woke up in time to head for the unit’s tower in time to meet up with the returning trainees. To his surprise—and the surprise of the rest of the extremely cautious Snow Lions—no one had been attacked. The Deathbringers hadn’t made a move the entire day.
In fact, almost no one saw the Deathbringers at all throughout the entire weekend. The other units found them strangely somber and silent during meals, and it was only on Monday that they learned why, when the Deathbringers arrived at the training field with no banners. Since none of the other units had either banner that had been in the Deathbringers’ possession, it didn’t take long for everyone else to realize that the Snow Lions had gotten their revenge.
Some playful insults were thrown around from the other units, but the Deathbringers endured them with a quiet dignity that was most uncharacteristic of them. Gaius especially seemed to have taken the loss completely in stride, interacting with the other nobles as if nothing had happened.
Even during the afternoon enchantments classes when he and Leon shared the same room, Gaius hardly even blinked in frustration or anger. He did send a few looks Leon’s way, but they didn’t carry the tiniest hint of malice, hate, or killing intent. Not even when Leon and Valeria exchanged a few greetings did Gaius’ mood change.
If he dug deep, he would still find the oceans of anger that would’ve erupted had the Snow Lions attacked only a few weeks before, but the weekend had been enough time for him to bury that fury and let it cool. He would only bring dishonor to his family if he acted rashly and without a plan, so remained calm and in control, as if his father were watching over his shoulder. Although, given that his brother was Tribune working at the Academy, it wouldn’t be that inaccurate to say that Duke Tullius had his eye on his youngest son.
But even then, Gaius found his anger oddly easy to suppress. He’d accepted Leon’s fighting strength and skill and a degree of respect couldn’t help but follow, despite his hatred of the Snow Lion. Consequently, rather than waste his time with rage, Gaius channeled that energy into his training. Over the weeks following the Snow Lions’ seizure of the banners, Gaius threw himself into his training and dragged the rest of the Deathbringers with him.
Actaeon had put up a token resistance, but he loved training and had gotten on board with Gaius’ new policy quickly. Linus could see the benefits of the extra training, and though he personally valued his off-time, Gaius was able to convince him to join the training as well.
With all three third-tier mages on the same page, no one else in the unit was able to go against them. They trained hard, with the nobles supervising the lower-tiered trainees and giving out pointers where needed. Additionally, their Senior Instructor had contemplated invoking the same right as the Snow Lions’ Senior Instructor had, that of revoking all weekend privileges until the Deathbringers had retrieved their banner, but he found that he didn’t have to; Gaius had already forced the Deathbringers into weekend training.
Gaius knew they were behind. The Snow Lions had over a month of hard training on the Deathbringers, and Gaius needed to push his unit to catch up as he doubted the Snow Lions would halt their intense training after recovering their banner.
That training paid off less than two weeks after it began, as the heightened attention to security that the increased training brought allowed them to repulse an attack from another unit that tried to exploit their seeming weakness. Securing the front door of their tower every day was made a priority, so when another unit arrived to try and bully the Deathbringers, it took them several minutes to force their way into the entrance hall. By then, they were faced with the prepared Deathbringers, fully armed and armored and ready to defend their dignity. And they did so with aplomb, eliminating two of the enemy’s third-tier trainees and a dozen others besides with an initial volley of arrows, giving the Deathbringers the advantage in numbers.
That outcome gave the other units that were hoping to throw their weight around and use the Deathbringers for their own training pause, allowing the Deathbringers plenty of time for the training that Gaius wanted.
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