“Who… are you?” Bran asked, his eyes filled with nothing but the black-armored Leon. The vampire didn’t wait for a response and was upon Leon before the young man could react. Bran wrapped one hand around Leon’s throat and easily lifted him into the air, while the other ripped off his helmet, exposing his face to the Marshal.
As the vampire memorized every detail of Leon’s face, from his black hair and golden eyes to his long straight nose and strong jawline, Trajan and the rest of the knights charged once more at the vampire. They weren’t about to let Bran have another of their number, and Trajan especially wasn’t going to just give Leon to the vampire without an extreme amount of resistance.
“No, this one is mine!” Bran shouted as a cloud of darkness exploded out from him, enshrouding almost the entire forum and momentarily blinding the knights. Bran began to run with his prize in hand, but Leon wasn’t going to let things go that easily. He summoned all of the remaining power at his command, used his off-hand to grip the vampire’s arm that he was being held up by, and raised his sword in the other.
After a brief moment, Leon’s body almost exploded with lightning, driving back the dark cloud around him and partially illuminating the entire forum. The sudden brightness and painful shock of lightning coursing through him startled Bran, who was so captivated by the taste of Leon’s blood that he’d taken leave of his senses, and he almost dropped Leon on instinct.
In Bran’s moment of surprise, Trajan barreled into him, knocking the Marshal down and freeing Leon from his grasp.
Bran clicked his tongue in annoyance before an opaque black cloud began to cover him from behind. Whatever he was doing, Trajan wasn’t going to let him do it and charged once again, putting all of his extreme weight and strength behind a swing of his war hammer. Bran took a step back to dodge, but the hammer still clipped his arm and sent him reeling, but when he lost his balance and fell to the ground, he vanished in a cloud of smoky darkness.
“You all right?” Trajan asked Leon. He wanted to help the younger man to his feet, but he couldn’t let his guard down without knowing where Bran was. Fortunately, the rest of the knights quickly formed a defensive circle around both Leon and the Prince.
“I’m fine,” Leon said as he pushed himself up to his feet. One Legate had already been killed by Bran, so he had no intention of saying anything about the pain in his neck.
Trajan, of course, could tell that Leon wasn’t as fine as he proclaimed, but he didn’t press the issue. Instead, he projected his magic senses to try and find Bran, as did most of the other knights around him.
It was in this moment of calm, when all of Trajan’s senses were on high alert for anything that might indicate where Bran was lurking, that he heard something curious. He could hear a slow rumbling that, as an earth mage, he was quite familiar with: the sound of boulders grinding against each other. For the moment, he couldn’t think of anything that would be making that noise, and it was barely distinguishable from the sounds of battle coming from the other parts of the city, so he made the call not to pay it much mind.
But he found that he couldn’t just dismiss that sound, as it seemed to be growing louder, and the ground started to ominously shake and tremble.
Bran felt this too. In fact, since he was hiding in the shadows on the ground in the dark forum, waiting for the knights to lower their guard so he could strike again, he could feel this vibration even more acutely than Trajan could. Bran didn’t like that feeling, and his instincts screamed at him that it wouldn’t be a good thing for him to stick around. However, that taste of Leon’s blood had been intoxicating, and Bran wanted to try and seize the young knight one last time.
To accomplish this, he cast his attention inward, toward his soul realm where he felt a powerful connection to another being. Bran pulled upon this connection and within his mind, said, [My Lord, I request a taste of your power…]
The response was immediate and dramatic. A voice that slithered into his mind like a serpent through fallen leaves whispered back, [You have already had a taste, and yet you ask for more?] This voice, despite it’s seeming serenity, shook Bran’s entire soul realm so hard that the vampire nearly lost control of his magic. He had to fight with all of his strength not to be ejected from the shadow he had taken refuge in.
After regaining control over himself, Bran shakily responded, [If you provide me with only one more wisp of strength, My Lord, a tiny fraction of your awesome power, then I will create for you a feast the likes of which have yet to be seen!]
[You speak in great words,] the voice replied with a hint of amusement—though this amusement didn’t stop the discomfort and pain that wracked Bran’s body simply by maintaining this connection, [I have feasted upon entire planes before, boy. What precisely do you offer in exchange?]
Bran was silent for a moment, but through his connection, he felt a rising impatience and irritation, so he hurriedly explained while dodging talk of price, [I have tasted something magnificent, and I must have more of it!]
[A truly bestial desire,] the voice observed, the smile on the face of whatever the voice belonged to evident from the tone alone. [Very well, I shall provide you with the strength for a single invocation. Use it wisely.]
[Yes, my Lord,] Bran replied, soon feeling a surge of magical power from his soul realm that filled his body with an almost uncomfortable amount of mana.
However, right before Bran was about to make his move, the voice spoke again.
[The price for this will be one thousand. Third-tier of the magic realm or higher.]
Bran couldn’t help but shiver. He already had the power, so he had to accept the price, but that price was steep. Were he in the lands he controlled as Marshal, he could easily make a few people disappear every now and then as sacrifices to the demon he worshipped, but a thousand strong mages were something else entirely. Especially so with a war that now occupied his time.
But Bran knew that his Lord would not accept such excuses, and he had no choice but to say with some trepidation, [Yes, my Lord…]
[I will look forward to it…] muttered the voice, and its overwhelming presence in Bran’s mind quickly vanished.
Bran clenched his teeth at the thought of finding one thousand relatively strong mages to sacrifice, but he hurriedly refocused his attention on Leon, and to a lesser extent, Trajan. He could worry about the promised sacrifices at a later date.
The Legion soldiers were still facing outward waiting for Bran to show himself with Leon and Trajan in the center of their formation. Under normal circumstances, it would take no small amount of extremely careful effort to bypass them, even when hidden in the shadows, but now that he was chock-full of demonic power, Bran wasn’t worried in the slightest. With an eager smile of anticipation, he summoned the power granted to him by his Lord.
Trajan, meanwhile, kept sending his magic out through his legs and into the ground, hoping to get lucky and catch a hint of the enemy Marshal. So far, he had little success, and he began contemplating destroying the entire forum to flush Bran out of hiding. But just as he began to raise his war hammer, the surroundings rapidly darkened.
The soldiers around him instantly raised their guard, expecting an imminent attack. Instead, the buildings and even the sky began to fade into the thickening cloud of darkness. This cloud slowly closed in on the group and their anxiety grew. Leon, in particular, began to channel all of his remaining power in anticipation of fighting off this cloud.
The cloud didn’t stop rolling in until even the closest of friendly soldiers disappeared from sight.
“Stick together!” Trajan roared. He was a little too late, as several seconds later, one of the fifth-tier Tribunes began to scream his lungs out. Before any of the others could start to frantically search for the location of their comrade, another Tribune on the opposite side of the circle added his voice to the first, as he started screaming as well.
“What’s going on?!” Trajan demanded of his soldiers. “Can anyone see anything?!”
Feeling around him, he realized that Leon was still standing right next to him.
With some small relief, the Prince said, “Stick with me, Ursus.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Leon said as he turned so that he and Trajan were facing outward back-to-back.
Leon tried channeling magic into his eyes, but this darkness that surrounded them was completely impenetrable. It even scattered his magic senses when he tried to project them.
Trajan did the same, achieving similar results. None of his knights had responded to his calls, but more and more of the knights began to scream themselves hoarse until the entire forum was filled with their cries.
And then they started to fall silent. Trajan listened with rapidly growing apprehension as each of the voices quit, and he himself stopped demanding for them to respond to him. He tapped the stone bricks beneath him with his hammer, probing the area around him with his earth magic, but much like his magic senses, his power vanished into the dark barely a few feet away from him.
The Prince could do nothing but grit his teeth and wait for Bran’s inevitable attack.
Leon’s own unease grew more than it had even when Hakon’s raiders had put his tower to siege at Fort 127. He waited with his sword outstretched and lightning magic coursing through it for the vampire to show himself. His eyes darted to and fro, but the darkness was completely opaque, and he couldn’t even see Trajan standing directly behind him.
He leaned back a little, just to see if the Prince was still there. Leon hadn’t heard anything that would lead him to believe he was alone, but when he felt nothing behind him, that fear began to grow within him.
“Your Highness?” Leon asked uncertainly.
There was no response.
Leon tried to ignite a flame in his off-hand, hoping to use it to see his surroundings, but he couldn’t even push his magic out of his body enough to create a candle-sized flame in this black cloud.
“Come on, then,” Leon muttered, his unease growing to the point that he just wanted Bran to attack and bring an end to this darkness. “Come on… Come on!”
“What’s the rush?” came a chilling voice in his right ear. “We have all the time we need to savor these circumstances, no need to go too fast, is there?”
Leon twisted and slashed in the direction the voice had come from. He had felt breath on his ear as if those words had been whispered directly into it, but his blade tasted neither flesh nor bone.
“Ha ha ha ha!” the vampire mockingly laughed, this time from Leon’s left side.
Leon pivoted to face his enemy, but in the darkness, he still couldn’t see hide nor hair of the vampire.
But then, he saw a tiny pinprick of light in the distance. Leon quickly focused on it, ready for a fight. The light grew and expanded until it completely encompassed everything he could see, and it stopped being an indistinct light; Leon could see trees within it, some with blue leaves and pale white bark, and others with black bark and leaves like glittering emeralds.
Recognizing these surroundings, Leon glanced down and saw that he was standing in a field of purple grass, and to his right was a short palisade. A pit had been dug in front of the palisade and lined with grey stone bricks where an enchanted door blocked the tunnel leading into the compound that the palisade protected.
Leon’s eyes widened as he recognized his and Artorias’ home in the Northern Vales.
Something was in there that he had to see. He didn’t know how he knew this, but he knew that he had to go inside. Without any thought, he took a few hesitant steps toward the door, slowly making his way back toward the pavilion where he had grown up.
A feeling of dread began to fill his chest, and his face became coated in sweat. The light at the end of the tunnel that outlined the inner door was all he could see. He didn’t even notice as the sword in his hand disappeared and the door behind him slammed shut.
When he reached the door at the opposite end of the tunnel, he found it unlocked. Leon pushed it open and stepped out into the courtyard of the only real home he had ever known, and immediately froze.
Both houses and all three storehouses were intact, untouched by the fire that Leon started as he left and without any sign of the battle that had raged there. The obelisk that warded away the ice wraiths and their pet banshees was standing proudly in the center of the pavilion. What truly grabbed his attention, however, was the sight of Artorias standing over a dead stag as he expertly butchered it on the stone slab outside of his house.
Hearing the door open, Artorias turned around and smiled at Leon.
“Well don’t just stand there, little lion, come help out!” he said with a light laugh, waving Leon over.
Leon’s mind had clouded making it hard to think, so he followed Artorias’ directions without thought. However, as he drew closer, the vision before him changed. The houses burst into flame, the obelisk fractured and collapsed, and the palisade around him crumbled and splintered apart as ice wraiths forced their way inside.
Leon immediately tried to summon his power, but when he glanced back at his father, he froze once more. Artorias’ skin was pale and his black veins visible. There was a hole in his chest where a gnarled black tree had sprouted, and Artorias whispered, “You… did this to me…”
When he tried to respond, Leon found that his mouth had been sealed. Try as he might, he couldn’t get out even a single word.
He frantically looked around him, searching for anything that could help in this situation, but then he saw a small group of mages follow him out of the tunnel. He recognized all five of the men wearing black as the assassins that had killed his father, but accompanying them were two female figures.
As their faces came into focus, Leon’s heart sank. The first was someone he had sparred with many times at the Knight Academy, a young woman that he felt was his martial equal in every way, Valeria Isynos. The other was a woman he knew even better, with her radiant flame-colored hair, sparkling green eyes, and sensual body that she proudly showed off with a skin-tight black dress.
“That’s him,” Elise said with scorn dripping from her voice, “that’s Leon Raime.”
“I see,” muttered Valeria as she raised her glaive and lunged toward Leon, an expression of such utter hatred on her face that, had Leon’s voice not already been taken from him, would’ve shocked him speechless.
Leon could do nothing as the glaive slashed across his chest and he fell to his knees in pain. When he looked up at Elise, she lowered herself to whisper into his ear, “You’re a weak little boy, with nothing to his name except the cold glories of a long-dead clan. I am the daughter of the exalted Tower Lord that runs every Heaven’s Eye operation in the Bull Kingdom! You are nothing to me…”
Bran stepped out of his shadow with the utmost care. To use magic so far beyond him had taken its toll, and blood poured out his eyes, mouth, ears, and who knows where else. He could feel his organs within him break and dissolve when he summoned his Lord’s power, which only stopped once he ended his attack and what little magic he had left was drained away into his soul realm and absorbed by his demonic connection.
But as he staggered to his feet, Bran proudly saw that all fifteen of the knights that had been arrayed against him were indisposed. Those least affected by his dark cloud were simply unconscious, while those more profoundly affected were either curled up and sobbing to themselves or kneeling with their mouths slack and their eyes staring unfocused at things Bran couldn’t see.
Bran didn’t pay any attention to the knights that had been scattered around the forum; he only had eyes for Leon, who had crumpled to the ground where he had stood, just as Trajan had done beside him.
The vampire licked his lips and hurried as fast as his extraordinarily injured body could manage toward the collapsed Leon. He had shed a lot of blood, expended a great deal of magical power, and incurred a massive debt with his Lord…
‘… but it will all be worth it when I sink my fangs into his flesh…’
Bran kneeled over the fallen Leon and gently took the younger man’s head in his hands. Leon’s helmet had already been ripped off earlier in the fight, so the vampire ripped at the Skyflax padding that covered the young knight’s neck until Leon’s left carotid artery had been exposed.
However, just as Bran bent down to feed upon Leon, his reverie was harshly shattered with the thunderous sound of boulders shattering against each other, and he looked up just in time to see an enormous stone giant across the forum from him.
It saw Bran above Leon, and it roared in anger. It barreled across the forum with terrifying speed, and Bran barely had the time to throw himself back when the giant swung its titanic stone fist toward his head. Despite the giant missing, the vampire had no time to recover as stone spikes burst out of the ground and impaled his legs, eliciting a blood-curdling cry of pain from the Marshal.
Lapis, for indeed that was the identity of the giant that now towered over Bran, raised its massive rocky arms into the air and brought them down with as much force as it could onto the vampire. The force of Lapis’ strike fractured the remnants of the forum as, once more, cracks spread out across the entirety of the stone bricks it had been paved with.
The giant expected to feel the crunch of bones and the squishy sensation of crushed flesh, but it felt neither. When it raised its arms to get a look at Bran, the Lapis found nothing more than a few small splashes of blood from the Marshal’s legs. Lapis roared again in its harsh avalanche-like voice, its rage echoing throughout all of Florentia.
Bran, when faced with death, managed to make the split-second decision to cut his losses and escape, fading away into the darkness of the night just before Lapis’ arms fell upon him. He, too, howled in rage at being denied the prize he was now obligated to sacrifice so much for, though none could hear him within the shadows.
Lapis stood watch over Leon for a little while longer, waiting for the young man to wake up and watching for the vampire’s return. Bran could tell that he wasn’t getting past the watchful giant—at least, not in his severely injured condition—and after one last baleful look at Lapis, he sped away to lick his wounds.
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