It had been almost three days since Bran first stepped into his shadow and infiltrated Ariminium. He found Leon quickly enough by sneaking through gates whenever they opened until he reached the keep, then waiting until Leon showed himself. But Bran didn’t make his move right then, rather he decided to wait until Leon wasn’t surrounded by hundreds of other mages who would rush to his aid.
And so began more than two days of stalking, with Bran following Leon’s every move.
Most of the time Leon was accompanied by Alix and Anzu, but Bran didn’t think too much of a pair of second-tier beings, but the problem Bran faced was that Leon didn’t leave the keep or the neighboring barracks, both of which were too heavily enchanted for Bran to be nearly as confident in infiltrating as he was in passing the walls of the Southern Horn.
Fortunately for the Royal Legions, the vampire was single-minded in his pursuit of Leon. He didn’t attack any other knights or try to steal information. All he wanted was Leon’s blood, the rest of Owain and Arthwyn’s war he’d long since stopped caring about. What was more, he was deeply in debt with his demonic Lord now, and paying it off would likely cause even the Talfar Kingdom, which had so far been incredibly tolerant towards him, to attempt to have him killed.
So, when Owain approached him with a request to infiltrate Ariminium and cause some chaos, Bran agreed without reservation.
Over the next couple days, Bran started wondering what was happening outside of the walls. The Talfar army was still there, so the peace talks had evidently not gone anywhere, but beyond that, he had little idea. It seemed like every time his mind started to wander and he thought about what he would do if he were in Arthwyn’s shoes, Leon would appear, and all thoughts about the upcoming battles would be driven from his mind.
And now, something similar happened. It was near midnight and Bran had followed Leon home to the latter’s barracks several hours before. In that time he was waiting he had started contemplating when the Talfar assault would begin, what kind of siege weaponry was most assuredly being constructed, how the famed walls of Ariminium and the Bull’s Horns would fare against a sustained assault, when out of the barracks came Leon, walking through the deserted keep bailey like he owned the place.
More notably, neither Alix nor Anzu were with him; he was all alone.
‘This is it,’ Bran thought. The streets of the Southern Horn were largely deserted, with most of the soldiers on the walls. The main streets and baileys in the Southern Horn still had a fair number of people, but Leon clearly wasn’t heading towards them. In fact, he was walking directly away from the keep.
The vampire gleefully followed, sticking to his shadows, doing his best to keep Leon in view at all times. The instinct to seize him now was almost overwhelming, but Bran kept himself in check, there might still be other people around that could raise the alarm.
Leon walked through the streets and baileys, through several gates, and eventually arrived in one of the small business districts filled with shops and restaurants operated by civilians for the soldiers in the Southern Horn. At that time of day, the place was completely devoid of people.
Bran smiled to himself, stared at Leon’s back as he strode confidently through a small empty market square, and lunged unseen toward the young man’s back like a dark meteor.
“So, what do you make of all this?” Trajan asked Caecilius’ ruby. The ruby and its accompanying onyx plate lay on a crude wooden table in the center of the sparsely furnished room they were waiting in, a room that afforded a great view of the market square just below.
“It’s a good plan, given the short amount of time you and that boy had to put it together,” Caecilius replied, his voice resonating from the ruby. “Though, it does make a few assumptions, like whether or not this invader that’s been tripping silent alarms throughout the fortress these past couple days is really the vampire you’ve crossed blades with.”
“I couldn’t imagine anyone else it could be,” Trajan muttered.
After careful scrutiny, it was determined that the repeated alarms that had been raised hadn’t been false, someone truly was in the fortress who shouldn’t be. The question of who it could possibly be had come up many times before in meetings Trajan had with his subordinates, but he could think of no one other than Bran who had both the power and the will to infiltrate the Horns. With the Talfar army outside the walls, he wanted this problem dealt with before the person could wreak havoc when the Talfar army inevitably assaulted the walls.
To that end, a plan had been decided upon, thought up mostly by Leon who volunteered himself as bait. He had been one of the first to agree with Trajan that it was most likely Bran they were dealing with, and in that case, the vampire would target him above anyone else.
After some debate, Leon’s plan was put into motion. The bait was dangled before the vampire’s eyes, now all they had to do was wait.
Leon stopped in the center of the market square. His heart was beating so fast it felt like it was trying to break free from his chest and his hands were shaking a little bit. An enemy that was in front of him, he could deal with relatively easily. One that was unseen, that was doing nothing but watch him, that was terrifying and put him on edge. During the entire walk over from the barracks, he could almost feel his mysterious stalker’s eyes on his back, waiting for the right moment to strike.
Fortunately, it seemed that they weren’t confident in their ability to escape the Southern Horn after attacking him, and so, for the time being, hadn’t laid their hands upon him despite his walking alone through the midnight streets. This actually calmed him down somewhat, as he feared that whoever was following him might be related to those who killed Artorias and his father’s side of the family instead of the vampire everyone else assumed them to be. But given that since those people had the resources to kill Archduke Kyros in his own home, Leon figured that if anyone in that particular group knew who and where he was, then he’d have been killed long before now.
Of course, another option was just that this person didn’t intend to harm, or at least kill him, but that still left their motive unknown. For the moment, it was better to assume their hostility rather than be surprised by it later.
So, Leon stood in the center of the market square, looking around as if he were waiting for a friend, and held back the urge to project his magic senses. There would be no need to do the latter if this wasn’t a trap, and since magic senses could be perceived, he didn’t want to tip off the infiltrator.
He didn’t have to wait long. The magic lanterns lighting the square dimmed and the shadows grew deeper and longer. Some of them stretched into tendrils and slowly reached for him as if to hem in and keep him from running. Behind him, the shadows rose from the ground and took the shape of a man, and Bran stepped out into the light.
“I have been waiting a long time for you, little morsel,” he cooed.
Leon turned to face the vampire, his anxiety dissipating somewhat now that he knew exactly who he was dealing with. But then, the memory of the illusion Bran trapped him in came back, and his killing intent spiked, but he didn’t speak. Since Bran seemed to want to talk for a little while himself, Leon figured the vampire could do as he pleased until the trap was sprung.
Ignoring Leon’s lack of surprise, panic, and unwillingness to speak, Bran continued with his indulgence, “Days I have been watching you, waiting for the right time, and then you walk out here all alone, where no one can hear your cries for help. Really tickles me pink that you made it so easy after making it so difficult. But, like savoring a fine wine, a good meal must be taken slowly. The hunt is always an indispensable part, don’t you agree? You have the air of a hunter about you, I’m sure you’ve-“
And then the magic lanterns suddenly regained their brightness, twenty sixth-tier mages burst out of the doors of the nearby shops, the roofs were lined with archers, and the anti-darkness spells of Leon’s that had been scattered around the square activated, locking Bran where he was.
Without wasting another moment, Leon drew his sword from his soul realm and began to channel his magic power, wreathing the blade in bright golden lightning that further chased away Bran’s shadows.
Capping these events off, Trajan jumped out of the window of the shop he’d been waiting in, landing in the square next to Leon with an earth-shaking crash.
“Well, you’ve certain-“ Bran began, but he wasn’t able to complete the thought.
“FIRE!!!!” Trajan shouted, cutting the vampire off. The dozens of archers on the nearby roofs rained arrows down upon Bran; the rest of the sixth-tier mages down in the square had given the vampire a wide berth for just this occasion.
Bran began to panic as he utilized all of the speed he had to dodge and weave out of the way of the falling arrows, but with Leon’s spells in the surrounding buildings preventing him from fully utilizing his shadow magic, he wasn’t fast enough to dodge all of the arrows. One arrow grazed his face, opening a shallow cut along his cheek. Another bit into his thigh but was unable to penetrate past his seventh-tier muscles to do serious damage. A third clipped his left elbow, leaving a small fracture that sent sharp jabs of pain into Bran’s head every time he moved his arm.
Finally, the sixth-tier Legate that led the group of archers fired a special arrow, one with a spell wrapped around it just behind the arrowhead. The arrow bounced off the stone bricks under Bran’s feet and burst into a ball of bright white light, bright enough to almost shroud the vampire from the view of the rest of the knights on the ground. Fortunately, they could still see him with their magic senses.
Bran screamed himself hoarse within that light as he felt his magic burn away. All of his shadows that remained melted like ice before a raging bonfire in that light, leaving Bran feeling weak and drained of energy. He still had copious amounts of magic within his body, and more was being released into his blood from his soul realm, but he was still greatly weakened.
“NOW!” Trajan shouted.
The twenty sixth-tier mages surrounding the vampire opened up with their magic power. Fireballs, breams of light, ice and rock spikes, water and wind blades, and one of Leon’s lightning bolts tore into Bran as the light from the arrow died down. The vampire screamed again, this time so loudly that the inside of his throat began to bleed, but in the terrible cacophony kicked up by twenty sixth-tier knights unleashing the full fury of their magic, no one heard him.
The barrage lasted only a few seconds, but to many, it felt like an eternity. In that violent fusillade, copious amounts of dust had been kicked up, but it quickly began to settle, revealing the scope of the damage just inflicted to the market square. The street was broken, scorched, frozen, and eviscerated by the power just displayed. But the damage done to the street wasn’t what drew the attention of Trajan, Leon, or any of the other knights; rather, it was the dark figure still standing in the dust cloud.
“Ready!” Trajan called, and the knights prepared another magical salvo.
However, when Bran staggered forward, leaving the dust cloud and revealing himself, Trajan held off. The vampire’s entire body was cut and burned, and his clothes were nothing more than blood-soaked rags. His aura was weak and feeble, and his killing intent couldn’t intimidate a newborn bunny.
“Well…” the vampire began, his voice creaking like an old door, but he was interrupted by a bout of gasping and wheezing. His eyes glazed over like he was staring into oblivion, then they turned completely black. Trajan was a little startled and almost ordered his knights to attack again, but there was very little magic coming from the vampire, so he held off again.
“Well… played…” the vampire gasped. The darkness that clouded his eyes spread all over his body in an instant and the remains of the monster’s battered body withered before everyone’s eyes.
Leon recognized what was happening, and he almost surged forward to put an end to it, but he refrained. He’d already been afflicted by that demonic power once, and he wasn’t keen on getting too close.
Bran’s lifeless corpse fell to the ground, looking like a millennia-old mummy.
“What… the fuck just happened?” one of the Legates couldn’t help but ask, and the sentiment was shared with most of the other knights.
“He served a demon,” Leon said simply. “He suffered so much damage that he became unable to provide his Lord with any more power, so the demon took what little power the vampire had left.”
Leon couldn’t help but think about the demon in his own soul realm, and though he didn’t think it was possible for Xaphan to drain him of all of his power and leave him for dead, seeing that very thing happen before his eyes a second time started to let a doubt or two trickle into his mind.
“Disgusting!” the knight replied.
“The monster’s dead, at least,” Trajan said, not being overly concerned with the state of Bran’s corpse.
The Prince turned to Leon with a beaming smile, proud in the success of his protégé’s plan, however, before he could say anything, a horn blast echoed over the entirety of Ariminium.
“That was Sir Constantine’s horn!” one of the Legates shouted. “We’re under attack! Talfar must be moving to assault the Horns!”
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