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Huge formations of soldiers streamed through the streets of Ariminium toward the guild district. Their first point of order was to reinforce the units already posted on the islands that surrounded the guild district, but it would take a while for the ten thousand soldiers that had been mobilized to make their way through the winding streets and arrive at their destination. Slowing them down even further was the continued refusal of the Legate in charge of the local fleet to transport troops, so all of the soldiers had to pass through the narrow streets and bridges, forming bottlenecks that took an inordinate amount of time to get past.
“At this rate, we’ll be lucky if we can launch our attack by morning,” Minerva said to Trajan as she frowned at the sight of thousands of soldiers attempting to cross a bridge only wide enough for five or six at a time.
“I actually have an idea that should help speed things up a little,” Trajan said, turning Minerva’s attention toward the smoke and fiery glow in the distance. There were still several miles of two, three, and four-story buildings to get through before they arrived at the closest bridge to the guild district, so they couldn’t see their goal, but the light of the fire reflecting off the thick clouds in the sky couldn’t be missed.
“What’s the plan?” Minerva inquired.
“I don’t want to explain it more than once, so let’s wait until we can form up with the rest of my knights before we speak further…” Trajan said. “Plus, I sent Sir Aquillius and some of his people ahead to try and calm things down. Clearly, that hasn’t happened, but they and Sir Avremar should have some more information to tell us when we arrive.”
“Is that who you picked to lead the quarantine?” Minerva asked with a slightly disapproving look, referring to Avremar.
“Do you have a problem with that?” Trajan asked without a hint of challenge in his voice. Minerva was the second strongest mage at the Bull’s Horns, behind only himself, and he greatly valued her opinion.
“Nothing major,” Minerva replied, her frown lessening slightly. “I just think he’s a little over-cautious. I would prefer if those in the Legions led their soldiers with a little more aggressiveness…”
“Ah, I’ve the same opinion of him, but his cautious and defensive nature was why I sent him to hold the bridges and keep the rioting mages from spilling out into the rest of the city.”
As the two spoke, they quickly moved toward their forward operating base, the front line command post which had been established in a small market square only two blocks away from the river and four blocks from the closest bridge to the guild district. All of the stalls that normally filled the square had been moved out and replaced with half a dozen tents, and the streets were deserted of everyone but the soldiers.
When they arrived at the base, they wasted no time entering the central tent. Waiting for them were Aquillius, Avremar, and about a dozen Tribunes and Legates in Trajan’s retinue, including Leon. They had all been sent ahead while Trajan and Minerva kept an eye on the half-Legion marching through the streets; the latter only made for the base when it was clear that the ten Tribunes leading their battalions were keeping everyone moving in an orderly fashion.
“What’s the situation?” Trajan asked Avremar.
“The Bluefire Guild has effectively seized the island,” the Tribune instantly responded. He started with information everyone already had to make sure everyone was on the same page.
“And the other guilds?” Trajan asked.
“From what we can tell, almost all of the smaller guilds managed to evacuate, while most of the lower-tiered mages in the other five major guilds joined them,” Avremar explained.
“And from what we can tell, the higher-tiered mages in the other major guilds stayed behind to prevent the riots from touching their guild halls,” Aquillius added. “However, Dame Anna received some reports that a few mages from the Sanctified and Iron Dove Guilds have joined the rioters.”
“Where did these reports come from?” Minerva asked the cheery young knight standing next to Aquillius.
“Some of the rioters were captured when we first tried to retake the bridges,” Anna happily said with a huge smile of pride on her face. “I told a few of them that what they had done counted as treason, punishable by death. They were only too happy to give me the information they had to lessen their sentence…”
Several of the knights around the tent were a little taken aback at how bubbly Anna was as she explained her manipulation—the rioters had committed serious crimes, but not quite enough to be charged with treason, though with Trajan now taking charge, that would change for the rest of their comrades. The disconnect between her attitude and her words threw these knights for a loop, though Leon and Alix both seemed unfazed. Anna was a fifth-tier mage and an important diplomat, they knew, and her demeanor wouldn’t shift much no matter her topic of conversation.
“Did they tell you the reason why they started the riot in the first place?” Minerva inquired.
“Apparently the Bluefire Guild tried to change their payment mechanism,” Anna said.
Most mages that belong to guilds were essentially contractors, hired out to perform any conceivable job that might need a mage. A request would be made of the guild, the guild would receive payment, and mages could then take on the requests for a portion of that payment—the exact portion varying between guilds. These requests could be anything from creating a freezer by inscribing an ice rune to hunting rare and valuable beasts and monsters. There were even a few jobs where mages could be hired as mercenaries or bodyguards.
A significant amount of money that flowed in guilds, however, were from the businesses they ran—mostly alchemists, enchanters, and doctors. The best of each of these fields worked for Heaven’s Eye, but more than half of the alchemists and enchanters in the Bull Kingdom worked for one of the big guilds in some way.
“They wanted to take all of the payment for themselves and pay their mages with some kind of ‘contribution credit’ that could be used to purchase guild products,” Anna continued. “Most of the mages took exception to that and began a protest, preventing anyone from entering the Bluefire guildhall regardless of whether they had a request or were fellow guildmates. The higher-ups in the guild tried to break up the protest, things got violent, and then everything just spiraled out of control from there… Apparently, they even tried to extend this to their enchanters, doctors, and alchemists, which only provided additional kindling for the riots.”
“Fucking idiots,” Avremar muttered. “You don’t fuck with people’s money, to do so is just inviting trouble that we inevitably have to clean up!”
“You’re not wrong,” Minerva conceded, but her eyes were sharp and glaring at Avremar, “but you don’t have to phrase it so crudely.”
“I’m sorry Ma’am,” Avremar immediately realized his mistake and apologized while straightening up. His battalion had failed to break through the barricades on the bridges hours before and he had been under a great deal of stress since. However, he knew that he would find no sympathy in this crowd as a little stress was no reason for a lack of formality when the situation called for it.
Sensing the need to move on, Trajan walked forward and examined the map in the center of the table they had all gathered around. “It’s going to take a few hours to get the battalions into position…” he said, glancing around the table and making sure everyone was paying attention. After ensuring that all eyes were on him, he continued, “but there’s no reason we can’t get started right away.”
He began to mark a few positions around the map, six in total, all along the riverbanks of the three islands around the guild district.
“We’re going to have six groups of three or four of our best fighters cross the river at these points and infiltrate the guild island,” Trajan explained. “They will then converge on the bridges, two teams per bridge.”
The knights around the table visibly tightened up. They would storm the bridges when their soldiers got into position, and while it would be dangerous, with their formations up and three thousand soldiers at their back, the risk was minimal until they entered the district itself. The six teams, on the other hand, would be moving through a hostile district while it burned around them.
“Are there any volunteers?” Trajan asked, glancing around the room.
Minerva immediately said, “I’m in.” She was swiftly joined by six more fifth-tier knights—including Adalgrim—and two sixth-tier knights in Trajan’s retinue. The sixth-tier knights were Trajan’s personal soldiers, and without Legions of their own to command, they didn’t see much point in joining the shield walls.
Leon, too, didn’t see much point in his taking part in the main assault on the bridges, if only because he didn’t have a shield. So, when Trajan’s eyes swept over the assembled knights again, Leon said, “Count me in, as well.”
Alix beside him trembled at his volunteering them, but she quickly nodded in solidarity when he glanced over to her. Anzu, as if sensing the increased tension in the tent, stepped closer to Leon for comfort; it was clear that the griffin wasn’t going to leave Leon no matter what.
After a few more minutes, the six teams were filled out with powerful volunteers, and a time to begin was set. The rest of the meeting was spent going over which battalions would go where and coordinating them to ensure their assault coincided with the six teams’ own attack.
Knowing that the two had just returned from a mission together, Minerva had Leon and Adalgrim join up in a team of their own. So, when Trajan decided that they were ready and dismissed everyone to prepare, Adalgrim and Leon left together.
“Well, I honestly didn’t expect us to work together again so soon,” Grim said good-naturedly. “However, I’m glad to be paired with someone I know to be dependable.”
“Same to you,” Leon replied, smiling at the other knight.
Their team consisted of the two knights, their two squires, and Anzu.
“Is your griffin going to accompany us?” Grim asked him, glancing down at Anzu who, as always, was right at Leon’s side.
“I hope so,” Leon replied. “I’ve had to take him to the beastmasters several times in the past year, to ensure he remains healthy and growing well, and each time they’ve given him a long bath in a large shallow pool. Apparently, it’s supposed to help the beasts grow accustomed to water, but we’ve yet to test it out. He doesn’t struggle as much when being bathed, though.”
“I can certainly join you in hoping the little guy joins us,” Grim replied. “Even at the size he’s at, I can guarantee that he’ll tear through first and second-tier mages fairly easily.”
“It would be his first time in actual combat, and there are thousands of rioting mages in that district,” Leon muttered as he looked down at Anzu. The griffin looked back at him, his bright red eyes communicating nothing but trust and confidence to Leon. His pure white body radiated the same strength as a second-tier mage, but Leon still couldn’t help but worry that Anzu was going to get hurt.
“I can’t help but be a little jealous, Sir,” Alix stated. “Anzu and I are the same tier, but you’re only worried about him!”
“I know what you can do,” Leon replied. “We’ve fought together before, and I have faith in your abilities. Anzu is yet to be tested in battle…”
“That little beast is ready to spill some blood, trust me,” Grim stated.
“I agree,” Alix added.
“I guess that’s that, then,” Leon said with a sarcastic smile. “Anzu is perfectly ready to join us in battle.”
Throughout their conversation, the team had been walking through the evacuated streets of Ariminium, with the clamor and din raised by the soldiers fading behind them. Their assigned crossing point was about a mile from the closest bridge, so they couldn’t waste too much time crossing the river before the assault would begin. But, they still reached the Tyrrhenian River in good time despite their conversation.
“There doesn’t seem to be any sentries posted this far away from the bridges,” Grim’s squire whispered from atop a nearby villa. The team hadn’t walked along the riverbank to prevent the rioting mages from seeing them and raising the alarm, but that also meant that they couldn’t see the other side. Consequently, before they exposed themselves, Grim had his squire do a little scouting.
“Then we should be able to make it to the other side without trouble,” Grim said. He then looked at Leon and continued, “Let’s do this now before anyone shows up.”
Leon nodded, and the team walked out to the riverbank. Both sides of the river had been reinforced with the same concrete that the wall between the Horns was made of, and the team was about ten feet above the waterline. Fortunately, the crossing point was picked specifically because there was a small private dock nearby that gave easy access to the river.
The team quickly scurried down the wooden ramp and onto the small pier. The boat that was to dock there was absent, but they didn’t think it would be there to begin with, given what was going on over on the other side.
“This is going to be a fantastic swim,” Leon said sarcastically as he stared at the distant riverbank, more than a thousand feet away. He didn’t have the hours it would require for him to pull his armor into his soul realm—and doing so would leave him so drained as to be almost worthless in battle, besides—so he was going to have make this crossing in full kit.
“It’s not going to get any closer, no matter how long we stare,” Grim said as he crouched down and slipped into the water—his armor was much lighter, being little more than gambeson and a leather boots and bracers. Alix and his squire quickly followed suit. None of them hesitated, despite being armored themselves.
Leon sighed, then slowly lowered himself into the river. He flinched a little when his feet brushed the cold water, but the others were staring at him expectantly, so he didn’t waste any more time and dropped himself in.
Immediately, he began to fight to keep himself above the water, and he flailed a bit until he grabbed ahold of the pier and held himself up.
“I do not envy you right now,” Alix playfully whispered. She was wearing her own armor, but much like Grim’s, it was considerably lighter than Leon’s. “Regretting your choice of attire?”
“A little,” Leon admitted.
“You’re a fifth-tier mage, you should be able to reach the other side in a single breath,” Alix responded. “That would hardly be comfortable, but if you have to resort to it, we’ll pull you out on the other side.”
“Thanks,” Leon said with only a hint of sarcasm. He then glanced back at the pier, where Anzu was staring at him. The griffin was hanging off the pier, desperate to follow him but extremely apprehensive about the river.
“Come on,” Leon said, coaxing the griffin into the river. “There isn’t anything in here that you need to fear, it’s only a little water…”
After a few seconds, Leon managed to get Anzu into the river, though the griffin certainly didn’t look happy. And with that, the team pushed off from the pier.
As soon as his hand left the pier, Leon struggled to keep his head above water. The current wasn’t too strong, but it still threatened to sweep them all into the Gulf. Fighting both the current and gravity, Leon forced himself to concentrate simply on kicking his legs and keeping himself moving; his fifth-tier strength was great, and he was extremely grateful for it, as he doubted that he’d have been able to keep going with all of his armor if he were any weaker.
Still, he could see that the other three were able to keep moving, and even Anzu was keeping pace, so there was no way he could stand to fall behind.
It took the team fifteen freezing, agonizing minutes to make it to their target island. There was another private dock on the other side, and they were able to pull themselves up there. Leon made it, despite the weight of his armor. Anzu, however, was having some trouble getting out of the river on account of not having any arms. He whimpered and cried as he kept himself afloat, and Leon lay down on the dock, reached back into the river, and grabbed the griffin. Anzu had started to flail around in panic, but as soon as Leon’s arms wrapped around him, he stopped and allowed Leon to lift him out of the water.
Everyone was breathing hard, and Alix and the other squire were shivering. Unfortunately, they were unable to take much time to rest.
“There are soldiers over here!” came a shout from above them. “They crossed the river! They’re attacking!”
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