Bran practically had the run of Florentia. The vast majority of citizens were down at the docks waiting to evacuate, while most of the Bull Kingdom’s soldiers were defending the roads leading into the city.
The city had no walls, so the latter wasn’t going to work forever, but for the moment the forces of the Talfar Kingdom were being stymied in their attempts to dislodge the Legion.
But Bran had little interest in any of that. He could easily use his powers to flank the battalion that he had just bypassed, but instead, he started calmly walking through the city as if it were just another average day. He knew that the Legion wasn’t going anywhere in the next few hours and that he had plenty of time to reach his destination, the small hill that Trajan had taken for his command post.
“Your Highness, the ships are away with the first group of civilians,” a Tribune informed Trajan.
The Prince nodded in acknowledgment. “How many did we get on our first trip?” he asked.
“About six thousand, Your Highness,” the Tribune answered.
“Good,” Trajan almost whispered before turning his black eyes back toward the battle raging around the city—or at least, what little he could see past the buildings in the way. He had a good view of the main road leading in, at least.
‘We’re holding out well against the first attack,’ he thought to himself as he tried to plan out how the timeline would go now that he had a reasonable idea of how long it would take to load and unload the ships. Many of the civilian boats were being used as well, but it was still the Legion ships doing most of the heavy carrying.
He couldn’t help but regret that most of the foreign merchants in the city with boats of their own had apparently left as soon as the Talfar army appeared that afternoon. If their ships were still there, they probably could’ve helped to evacuate the city in one go, but the Prince also couldn’t fault them for their decision to save themselves and their livelihoods while they could.
But that still left the Legion with about one or two hours before the ships would return with reinforcements, and then another two hours or so before they could start to evacuate themselves.
Trajan sighed as he watched the Talfar cataphracts fall back to regroup for another assault after suffering hundreds of casualties at the main road. The Legion had chosen their positions well, and the Talfar cavalry had taken casualties at every point they attacked and had failed to break in anywhere. But that wouldn’t last forever; there were plenty of ways into the city that weren’t guarded but were too narrow and restrictive for a large number of people to get through. Talfar would eventually use these streets to flank the Legion, and the soldiers would have to fall back before that happened.
‘It’s only a matter of time. But when reinforcements arrive we can do a better job of locking this city dow-‘
Suddenly, interrupting Trajan’s thoughts, he felt the slightest hint of killing intent. He had no idea why, but it sent a chill running down his spine. He didn’t think, he just called upon his magic power as fast as he could and sent it into his skin, instantly hardening it into another layer of armor beneath his suit of steel plates and leather padding.
He wasn’t a moment too soon, as a black blade shot up from the ground behind him and struck him in the center of his back with enormous force, enough to knock him down.
But fortunately, though the long thin blade pierced through his conventional armor, it lost most of its force doing so and barely scratched his stoneskin.
“Damn, I thought I might get you with that, too…” said a smooth and slightly nasally voice as a figure began to emerge from the shadows between the stone bricks of the forum. The tall and ashen figure of Bran stepped out of this shadow without the slightest sign of duress or anxiety, as if where he was and what he had just done were the most natural things in the world.
Trajan launched himself to his feet while he drew his war hammer from his soul realm. All of the soldiers around him similarly went on alert, and Bran found himself immediately surrounded by the two remaining Legates, Leon, and the other dozen Tribunes that remained with the Prince. Their squires and the other lower-tiered mages present in the forum, meanwhile, took cover to give the higher-tiered mages room to use their power, as was standard practice.
Alix seemed exceptionally reluctant to leave Leon’s side, but she knew that there was nothing she could do against this enemy that all of the knights already moving couldn’t. She scooped up Anzu, who was so terrified of Bran’s aura and towering killing intent that he could barely move let alone resist, and joined the rest of the squires at the edges of the forum.
And yet, Bran didn’t seem even the slightest bit concerned about either his encirclement or the rapid escape of the lower-tiered Legion mages. He stood there in the center of the forum as if he owned the place.
“Identify yourself!” Trajan demanded.
Instead of speaking, Bran brought the tip of his rapier closer to his face and inspected it. He’d scratched Trajan’s stoneskin, which had been just enough to draw a few drops of blood. With an almost orgasmic expression, Bran brought the tip of his weapon to his lips and licked the blood off of it.
“Mmmm!” the Marshal exclaimed, his face lighting up in abject and unapologetic joy. “This flavor! Just what I expected of a Prince of the Bull Kingdom! Your blood is delicious!”
If it weren’t otherwise obvious to the knights from Bran’s gaunt and pale appearance, this demonstration of his vampirism made it abundantly so.
Trajan almost ordered his knights to attack, but he could tell that Bran was stronger than he was. He didn’t want to send his soldiers to their deaths, so he asked again, “Who are you?!”
“Mm? Oh, pardon my rudeness, Your Highness,” Bran said with a sarcastic tone. “I am Bran, Marshal of the Talfar Kingdom, and I have come for you…”
Trajan struggled not to grimace and to maintain a confident expression for the benefit of his knights, but in the face of a mage that was at least of the seventh-tier, that was more difficult than it sounds.
Without another word, Trajan channeled his magic power through his legs and into the ground, causing half a dozen stone spikes to burst out of the ground at Bran’s feet. However, the vampire didn’t seem at all fazed by the attack and easily side-stepped out of the way. He even shot Trajan cheeky smile, as if to say, ‘You missed.’
But Trajan’s other knights didn’t hesitate to do likewise, and the magical aura around the forum churned and roiled as magic of nearly all the elements was called upon. The center of their circle where Bran stood momentarily became the single most deadly place in all of Florentia, with wind blades, fireballs, rock and ice spikes, beams of light, and Leon’s lightning bolts all converging upon the Marshal.
The paved ground fractured in this conflagration, sending stone splinters flying everywhere, but the knights kept up their barrage. After about thirty seconds, they stopped to let the dust and smoke settle so they could survey the results of their assault.
Their faces fell as Bran stepped out from the crater that had just been formed without a hair out of place, and his dull grey armor completely unblemished.
“You’re going to need to do much better than that,” Bran taunted.
“You bastard!” shouted one of the Legates as he coated his spear with golden light. The impatient and enraged Legate surged with all the speed of a light mage and stabbed at Bran’s stomach, which the Marshal wasn’t even trying to protect. The spear stabbed clean through Bran’s abdomen and exited his back, leaving the Marshal skewered upon the Legate’s spear.
“Ha ha!” shouted the Legate in triumph. “How’s that for ‘better’?!”
As he watched the pain and disbelief spread across the vampire’s face, Trajan felt the same subtle killing intent directed at him. It was almost completely lost in the raging magical auras of the surrounding knights, but he could sense it nonetheless. The Prince, trusting in his instincts, threw himself forward, just barely missing Bran’s rapier again as it flew out of the ground toward his spine.
“Well this is surprising,” came Bran’s voice as the shadow holding the rapier grew out of the ground behind Trajan. “I honestly didn’t think you’d be able to dodge a second attack…”
“What the…” muttered the impatient Legate. His spear was lodged in Bran’s midsection, but another Bran had risen out of the ground behind Trajan!
To the shock and horror of all the other knights, the Bran impaled on the Legate’s spear dissipated in a cloud of what appeared to be dark smoke, leaving the Legate standing there with his unstained and bloodless spear raised into the air.
Trajan twisted around and swung his hammer at Bran. He was just out of range of the Marshal, but that didn’t matter as a handful of additional rock spikes burst from the ground with astounding speed and rocketed toward Bran with his swing. And again, the vampire didn’t deign to even try and defend himself.
Or at least, there was no point in trying to dodge Trajan’s rock spikes, as they passed harmlessly through Bran’s body like it wasn’t even there.
Bran, under the disbelieving gazes of the surrounding knights, began to maniacally laugh. In between the exaggerated gasps for air, the Marshal wheezed, “You all… should see… the looks… on your faces! HA HA HA HA!”
“How dare you mock us!” shouted the other Legate as he raised his sword and wiped it on his off-hand, coating it in bright orange fire.
He was about to charge at the Marshal, but Trajan shouted, “Wait!” bringing the Legate to a halt.
“Your Highness?” the Legate said in confusion.
“This guy has already vanished,” Trajan explained, his voice dripping in hatred and fury at having been almost killed twice in a matter of minutes. Just in case, though, he took a few steps away from Bran, or rather, from what he considered to be an illusion conjured by shadow magic.
But, before Trajan could do anything more, Bran’s rapier appeared from the ground just behind the Legate with light magic, rocketed upward through the Legate’s armor, and pierced right through the man’s body.
The Legate sputtered and coughed up a small amount of blood. His skin rapidly paled while his veins and arteries blackened. Bran mockingly grinned at Trajan and brought the dying Legate’s body closer to his mouth. Before he could take a bite out him, however, Trajan, Leon, and three other mages made their moves.
Trajan slammed his hammer into the bricks beneath his feet, saturating the ground with his magic power in an attempt to keep Bran from disappearing back into the shadows again. Leon, meanwhile, conjured a bright golden lightning spear and hurled it with all the strength he could muster at the back of the vampire. The other three Tribunes who were quick to react moved to cut off Bran from trying to dodge by lunging forward to pin him between their spears.
Unfortunately, Bran was faster than all of them. He leaped into the air and threw the body of the Legate off his weapon, dodging Leon’s lightning bolt by the skin of his teeth. Despite this, he could plainly feel the strength and power packed into that lightning bolt, and when he landed with feline grace, he glanced at Leon.
“That was an impressive attack, boy,” he said with an intrigued smile. “Lightning is a rare element outside of the Sunlit Empire… Perhaps I’ll indulge myself in you rather than that waste of meat over there…” He jerked his thumb toward the fallen Legate, who was completely paralyzed and rapidly bleeding to death.
Under the vampire’s predatory gaze, Leon couldn’t help but shiver, but he still stood firm against the vampire and didn’t present him any openings.
Seeing Bran’s attention turned toward Leon, Trajan became so infuriated that he charged straight at Bran without any thought to his own well-being. Bran was slightly surprised that Trajan would do this, but he still dodged the Prince’s opening swing of his war hammer and moved back to try and gain some distance. However, the other knights charged in to aid their Prince, doing their best to cut off Bran no matter where he turned.
Bran dodged and weaved through knights, occasionally conjuring clouds of darkness that dissipated any magical attacks thrown his way. His rapier darted out all the while, biting into the gaps of the knights’ armor, causing light but rapidly growing damage.
Leon called upon all the power he could muster and charged as well, bringing his sword down with tremendous strength on Bran. As with the others, Bran twisted out of the way, but only just barely—Leon’s lightning magic made him almost as fast as the vampire’s own darkness magic. Bran even suspected that if the two were of equal power, then Leon would be the faster.
Leon’s sword bit into nothing but air, but Bran’s follow-up strike stabbed into the young knight’s arm in the gap between his armor’s pauldron and rerebrace. It was a minor wound, but enough to draw blood, and Bran stood there unmoving in the center of the knights. Leon twisted his hips and tried to take advantage of the vampire’s immobility, but his sword passed right through the vampire, and the illusion vanished.
“Missed again,” Bran mocked as he reappeared outside of the circle of knights. Leon’s blood—or rather, mana—glowed bright red on the tip of the rapier along with the blood of several of the other knights. With an immense grin, Bran licked the tip of the rapier in an obvious attempt to intimidate the knights, but as soon as Leon’s blood touched his tongue, he was paralyzed by an explosion of flavor. So intense was the taste that Bran momentarily lost himself and didn’t even realize or care that the knights quickly encircled him again.
But Bran was a seventh-tier mage, and he didn’t stand there slack-jawed for more than a brief moment. When he collected himself, the vampire stared at Leon with a look of wonder.
“Who… are you?” he asked, his eyes glittering at the prospect of sinking his teeth into Leon’s neck.
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