I have utilized all of my paltry artistic talent to draw a crude map of Ariminium and the Bull’s Horns! You can check it out here!
“Uggh, fighting in caves is the worst,” Adalgrim said with relief as he led the group out of the mine.
“Does this sort of thing happen often? Fighting in caves, I mean,” Leon asked.
“Not so much as to be expected, but certainly enough for me to know that I hate it with a burning passion!” Adalgrim responded. “Uhh, no pun intended…”
The rest of the group walked out of the mine, and all seemed to share Adalgrim’s sentiment; their faces brightened with joy as soon as the shadows of the mine were firmly behind them. None, however, were as happy as Anzu to be out of that dark and confined space, as the griffin displayed when he ran outside jumping and rolling around in the grass.
“Shit,” Leon muttered as he watched Anzu celebrate.
“He’s going to need a serious bath when we get home,” Alix observed.
“I know,” Leon replied with a weary sigh. Since Anzu generally didn’t appreciate being approached, let alone touched, by anyone except Leon, it would then fall to him to make sure the griffin was clean when they returned to the Horns. Anzu tolerated Alix enough that she could help out a little, but it would still fall to Leon to do most of the work.
“I have to say, seeing a tamed griffin is exceedingly rare,” Adalgrim said while the rest of the group got a few minutes of rest. “I’m a little jealous.”
“It was luck that brought him to me,” Leon said. “His mother abandoned him, probably for being an albino and a runt, and she left him almost absurdly close to me. He wasn’t old enough to have opened his eyes yet, so that gave me the opportunity to imprint on him.”
“That is lucky,” Adalgrim replied with a smile of appreciation. “He’s going to be one hell of a war mount when he gets bigger, I can tell. Griffins are fast, strong, and one of the fiercest beasts in the entire Kingdom.”
“Have you ever fought one before?” Alix inquired.
“I have,” Adalgrim answered, not bothered at all with Alix’s question despite her lower rank and status. “About ten years ago, just before I ascended to the fifth-tier, I and my commander were sent out to find a man-eating griffin about fifty miles north of here.”
“I assume you managed to kill it,” Leon guessed, to which Adalgrim nodded with an expression of pride. “How did you keep it from flying away?”
“My commander was a wind mage. We tracked it for two weeks, and when we caught up to it, we ambushed it while it was sleeping. My commander shredded the beast's wings with a few wind blades. Despite these injuries, it still killed more than half of our squad before we ended its life. Griffins are strong beasts and have immense natural talents for wind and lightning magic. As I said, they’re strong and fast, and their abilities with magic only make that even truer.”
“That reminds me,” Leon said as he glanced back at the mine, “why didn’t you use your ice magic from the very beginning of that fight? It seems to me like you could’ve ended that vampire before he had a chance to fight back…”
“Oh… that…” Adalgrim murmured with a bashful look. “I… Well, with one of the Prince’s own men watching, I suppose I wanted to show what my squad could do… I didn’t want to end the battle so quickly that it made the rest of my squad look superfluous…”
“I see…” Leon muttered, failing to hide the hint of disapproval in his voice.
“Why don’t we head back to the village and report our success?” Adalgrim suggested, trying to divert attention away from his embarrassment. “If we hurry, we can even make it back to the Horns by nightfall.”
The prospect of sleeping in their own beds got the tired squad back on their feet and moving back to the village. In fact, they reached their destination in less than an hour, they were so motivated. Then, after informing a grateful mayor of their success and handing over the dead villagers for cremation, the squad jumped on their horses and started making their way back to the Horns.
Since this was his first time performing the job expected of all the Bull King’s knights, Leon still had a couple questions for which he needed answers. To that end, not long after leaving the village, Leon spurred his horse forward to ride next to Adalgrim. Normally, no one was to ride next to the leader of a Legion party, as it was expected that only the leader would take the lead position, but since Leon was the same tier as Adalgrim and served a Prince, no one batted an eye.
“Sir Adalgrim,” Leon began.
“Please, call me Grim,” the older knight replied with a good-natured smile. “Most knights are pretty informal with each other after they’ve been in battle together, no reason we can’t be as well, right? Besides, I know my name's kind of a mouthful…”
“In that case, please just call me Leon,” the younger knight responded, bringing a smile to Adalgrim’s face.
“So, what do you need, Leon?” Grim asked.
“Out of curiosity, how routine was this? Is this what I can expect if Prince Trajan were to send me out again?”
“Well, I suppose it went pretty well, all things considered. There are always a few complications in these kinds of missions that you need to watch out for, chief among them is whether or not the vampire sticks around after its first couple of victims,” Adalgrim explained. Leon listened intently, trying to soak up all that he could so that he wouldn’t be caught off-guard in the future.
“And is it often that you arrive only to find the beast is already gone?” Leon asked.
“I’ve been sent out to investigate more than two dozen vampire attacks, and I’d say in about half of those cases, the creature fled before my party could arrive. This hunt was actually pretty straightforward in that regard. In my experience, vamps will observe their target settlement for a few days, single out enough people who seem like easy prey, then seize as many as they can in a single night. The smart ones then hide as best as they can, and the really smart ones take their captives and get the hell out of there as fast as their demon-worshipping asses can manage.”
“How about other monsters?” Leon eagerly asked. He had been hoping to test himself during this mission to see how far he had come in his training with the Prince, but in the end, he hadn’t actually done much. From the slightly dissatisfied look Alix had behind him, he could tell she felt the same. Anzu, meanwhile, just happily ran alongside Leon’s horse seemingly without a care in the world.
“Like I said before, I was sent after a griffin once,” Grim said. “There were also a few werewolves I was called in for, and quite a few other less exotic animals that were harassing people out in the countryside.”
“And how often are you sent out?” Leon continued, causing Grim to chuckle in amusement.
“Usually once or twice a week, depending on what I was sent out for last. I think my squad and I are looking at a good week off after dealing with a vampire… If we were sent after something like a third-tier bear or a wolf pack led by a relatively strong alpha, then we could be sent back out within a few days.”
“Interesting…” Leon muttered as he lost himself in thought. The job wasn’t always exciting, mostly just hunting beasts and monsters who had grown too strong for local militia and Legion patrols to deal with. And, as Grim continued to elaborate on, going after smaller and less significant beasts was the norm; vampires and werewolves made up only a fraction of what a knight in the Bull Kingdom would have to deal with to keep the peace.
The two knights continued to speak for several hours about the duties they perform, though it was mostly just Leon asking more in-depth questions and Grim answering to the best of his ability. By the time they started drawing near the Horns, it had grown dark and they were still talking. So enthralled were they in their conversation, in fact, that they didn’t notice the soft glow in the distance until Alix spoke up.
“Um… Sirs, look at that!” she said in alarm once they drew close enough to be sure of what the glow was.
Leon, startled by Alix’s loud outburst, glanced over at what she was pointing at: the city of Ariminium that the Southern Horn watched over. Much of the city was obscured in smoke, but they could still see the source: one of the southern districts of the city was burning.
“That district is home to Ariminium’s mage guilds!” Grim said with a slight degree of panic.
“Let’s get back quickly!” Leon responded, to which Grim nodded. The entire squad spurred their horses onward; there were seven miles between them and the post houses by the Northern Horn, and it would take them about half an hour to arrive.
Once they reached the stables, Grim shouted at his squire to take care of the paperwork to sign the horses back in, then he turned to Leon and said, “We need to check in with our bosses!”
“Right!” Leon shouted back. The orange glow of the fire raging in the city illuminated the entire overcast sky, and even from down on the plains they could hear the shouting and alarms coming from the Horns.
“Let’s go!” Leon said to Alix, and they and Anzu sprinted up the ramp. Those manning the gatehouses had to stop them to check their ID’s, but with the current emergency, they didn’t make Leon’s small group wait, rushing them past to make way for the other soldiers who were coming down the ramp.
“Where should we go?” Alix asked.
“The keep, to check in with the Prince,” Leon responded.
“What if he’s not there?” she replied.
“I’m sure he’ll be there coordinating the response for whatever started that fire,” Leon said.
They ran through as much of the Northern Horn as they could, but there were many baileys separated by walls and more gatehouses to get past; it took them almost another hour to finally enter the Southern Horn.
“There’s something definitely wrong here,” Leon observed as they wound their way through the baileys of the Southern Horn. He could hear the sounds of armed and armored soldiers preparing for something, and the glow of the burning city hadn’t diminished.
“If this were a normal fire, then it would’ve been taken care of by now,” Alix added, noticing the same thing Leon had.
Their observations didn’t make them stop; rather, they sped up, reaching the keep fifteen minutes after arriving at the Southern Horn. There, they found the Prince standing in the main bailey surrounded by Legates and Tribunes, while hundreds of soldiers quietly waited in formation.
Noticing them arrive, Trajan shouted, “Sir Leon! Get over here!”
Leon hurried forward with Anzu at his side, while Alix went to wait with the other squires.
“Your Highness,” Leon said, bowing slightly to the Prince. His manner was sloppy, and under normal circumstances would’ve elicited a few disapproving looks from the nobler Tribunes and Legates, but now was not a time to focus on etiquette, and no one paid him any mind.
“You got here just in time,” the Prince said with a deadly serious attitude, “we need everyone we can get. One of the five major mage guilds in the city has rebelled.”
“They rebelled?!” Leon asked in shock. “Here of all places?!”
“We’re still getting to the bottom of why but dealing with the situation at hand is more important,” Trajan said, waving his hand to a map of the city on a temporary table set up just for this meeting.
The delta of the Tyrrhenian River formed a number of large islands, and Ariminium sprawled out over all of them. This meant that much of the city was separated by branches of the river that flowed into the Gulf, and even these islands were filled with small canals.
“The Bluefire Guild has seized control of the entire guild district,” Trajan explained, pointing to one of the largest of the southern islands. “We’ve contained them there, but it’s going to take a large push to get past the barricades they’ve erected on the bridges and enter the district.”
“Your Highness, what about using the navy?” Minerva, the sixth-tier Legate and second-in-command of the Bull’s Horns, asked. Leon, looking around at the suggestion of using ships, noticed that the Legate in charge of the fleet stationed at the Horns was conspicuously absent.
“Legate Merovic has indicated to me that he’s not going to move without a direct order from the Consul of the Gulf,” Trajan said with a furious look. “When we regain control of the guild district, I swear I’m going to have a long conversation with that man about desertion and dereliction of duty!”
Leon looked back at the map. If the navy wasn’t going to help them get to the burning island, then that left one option: forcing their way through the three bridges that connected the island to its neighbors.
He sighed, but inside he felt a sense of exhilaration. He wasn’t able to test himself against Amon’s vampire, but this would be the perfect time to see how much his skills had improved over the past year of training.
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