Chapter 239 - Hunting a Vampire II

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There was a palpable feeling of dread that settled over the ship as it departed from Ariminium.  Trajan almost had to threaten the fleet’s Legate in order to get it to move, but remembering the last time he tried to refuse the Prince, the Legate wisely decided to ‘loan’ his fleet to Trajan for the duration of the siege.  But this tension between the Legate and the Prince wasn’t the reason for the dread that the knights aboard the ship felt.

Rather, it was because most of the knights that had fought Bran in Florentia were now about to parade themselves before the city hoping to bait the Marshal into starting round two.  There were a few new knights along for the ride—two new Legates, specifically, bringing the force of sixth-tier mages aboard the ship to six—but any enthusiasm they might have felt at being chosen for such an illustrious mission was quickly quashed by the look of fear in the eyes of those who had faced the vampire before.

No one wanted to experience that demonic illusion again, and those that had yet to experience it for themselves weren’t keen on their potential first experience.

The only paltry solace any of the knights could find were in the spells that Leon passed out as they boarded the ship.  He’d given them some basic instructions for how to use them, but all he could tell anyone about what the spells would do was that they could help defend against and banish darkness magic.

‘Delightfully non-specific,’ Leon had thought, thinking it best not to explain too much about his spells for fear of revealing where he had gotten them.  In that vein, he was gambling on none of the other knights being enchanting experts, but since skilled enchanters were, generally speaking, too valuable to be risked in a combat scenario, he thought it a safe bet.

Once the ship was underway with its other transports and escorts, Leon joined Trajan at the prow of the vessel.  The Prince stared at the distant lights of Florentia, silently mulling over the specifics of their plan.  The crux of it hinged on two things, that Bran would be in Florentia and would attack them, and that Arthwyn would be too busy dealing with the deployed Legion to render aid to the vampire.

The first was far from guaranteed.  Legion scouts had confirmed that Bran’s unit of fifty-thousand had occupied Florentia, but no sign of the Marshal himself had been seen since the evacuation.  The second wasn’t guaranteed, either, as twenty-thousand Legion soldiers wouldn’t be able to hold out forever against the main Talfar army.

It was a risky plan, and Trajan couldn’t help but second-guess it at every possible opportunity.  They had to divert a great amount of their magical fighting potential toward dealing with Bran, compounding their manpower shortage against Arthwyn.  With fifty thousand soldiers, most of which were cavalry and chariot units, and the relatively flat ground flanking the river, the four thousand Legion soldiers Trajan was bringing for the mission were in great danger, as well.

However, even if they lost the Legion in the field and all four battalions in the ships, if they could kill Bran, then it would be worth the price.  Trajan hated to admit it, but it was true, though he would still do everything within his power to ensure every one of the soldiers he was responsible for made it home safe.  He knew this was an unrealistic goal, but he was going to try nonetheless.

But first and foremost, they had to kill the vampire.  A seventh-tier mage was strong enough to tear through their battle formations, and without another mage of comparable power to stop him, then the Bull’s Horns could very well fall to Talfar’s superior numbers, given enough time.

Leon and Trajan stood side-by-side, staring at Florentia as they grew closer.  Both men were silent, with the tension in their eyes growing ever stronger the closer the city came.

And then, Trajan stiffened, then smiled.  He had caught sight of Bran as the vampire left the villa at the highest point in the city.  The vampire smiled, licked his lips, then vanished into his shadow.

“The enemy has seen us!” Trajan shouted back to the knights waiting on the flagship’s Heartwood deck.

The knights readied themselves, and the fleet’s flagship turned toward the riverbank, followed by the rest of the ships accompanying it.  Trajan didn’t know how long they had before Bran arrived, but he didn’t want to fight on board a ship with its limited space to fight.  Instead, the transports disgorged their contents all over the riverbank; four thousand soldiers set up portable spiked barricades they’d fashioned in the previous couple days that would blunt any cavalry charges, tossed out a few caltrops and mine spells, then formed up into a strong three-sided shield wall with the river at their backs.

This left a large open space in the center of their formation, and this is where Trajan, Leon, and the rest of the Prince’s knights gathered.

“Come to us, monster,” Trajan whispered.  The soldiers had gotten set up in a mere handful of minutes, but that was still enough time for the vampire to traverse the few miles between Florentia’s outskirts and their position.  The Marshal would be on them at any moment.

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Bran paused for a moment and almost gawked in amusement from the darkness he hid in at the defenses that Trajan had set up.  The caltrops almost sparkled in the moonlight, and he could see the magic kicked up by the mine spells as plain as day.  None of them would stop him.

But he also knew that they weren’t there for him.  Even the thousands of Legion soldiers behind the wooden spikes weren’t there to stop him.  His cavalry was mustering in Florentia and preparing to charge this position and prevent these soldiers from flanking Arthwyn’s troops when the other Marshal engaged the Legion closer to their camp, and these defenses that Trajan had set up were to keep his soldiers from being immediately overrun in the open ground outside of Florentia.

All of this was a clear invitation for Bran to attack.  They wanted him to do something rash.  They thought themselves ready, but…

Bran caught sight of Leon again with his magic senses, and any composure he had regained in the minutes since seeing him on the ship vanished.  He charged through the formation, sliding undetected and unimpeded through the shadows cast by the shield wall.

The vampire’s mouth began to water, and his eyes focused on Leon so completely that he barely noticed anything else.  He took no notice of the subtle way that Trajan’s knights spread out to keep their Prince in the center of their formation, and he barely saw, let alone questioned, why each of the fifth-tier knights had shields.  He had eyes only for Leon.

Bran wasted no time.  He had to get his teeth into Leon’s neck, regardless of the price.  As he moved, an illusory Bran appeared behind him, taking form out of the shadows.  As expected, all of the knights turned to face their perceived threat, and the real hidden Bran sped forward, eager to taste Leon’s blood again.  With all eyes turned away, Bran burst out of the shadows, a dark silent specter barely visible in the moonlight, and he reached for Leon from behind…

… and instantly felt the darkness painfully melt off of his skin.  The vampire didn’t care, though, and he grabbed Leon’s neck from behind, intending to seize the young knight and drag him back down into the shadows.

But nothing happened.  The illusory Bran he’d conjured dissipated into black smoke and he was left standing in the center of the Legion formation with his hand around Leon’s neck and all of the other knights slowly turning to face him.

For a quick second, Bran tried to summon his magic power and to sink back into the shadows on the ground, but every time his magic would dissolve away as soon as it left his body.

“Got you now,” came a whisper from Bran’s left.

With the vampire unable to run and his defenses lowered, Trajan loomed over him like the embodiment of death.  The Prince had already raised his war hammer when Bran’s illusion was conjured, and he now brought it down with all of his strength on the vampire.

Bran had a quick choice to make: release Leon, or try to tank one of Trajan’s attacks.  Darkness magic was not known for possessing strong defensive characteristics, so the vampire could only scowl as his fingers loosened and he threw himself backward, letting Leon go free.

The younger knight immediately spun around, golden lightning exploding out of his body and pursuing the retreating vampire.  Bran raised his arms to block and felt his skin sizzle and burn under the heat of Leon’s lightning.

But Trajan’s hammer strike missed, and Bran only had a few superficial, if somewhat painful, burns.

Bran was given no time to collect his thoughts and analyze what was happening; Trajan followed through his first strike and spun that momentum into another savage blow, while Leon summoned a golden lightning bolt and prepared to hurl it at the vampire.  All around Bran, the rest of the fifth-tier knights had raised their shields and were channeling their power into the spells Leon had given them that were attached to the inside face of their shields.  The sixth-tier knights charged, hurrying to support their Prince in his assault on the seventh-tier vampire.

There were no more words spoken.  They all knew exactly what they had to do, and there was no point in useless banter.  Bran dodged strikes from Trajan’s hammer and another Legate’s spear thrusts, while blades of wind and water ripped at his clothes and Leon’s lightning bolts exploded on his flesh.

However, Bran managed to avoid serious damage, and the longer the fight continued, the more time he had to think and realize what was happening.  And Trajan knew this, as his expression became more and more wild and desperate with every missed strike.  No matter how he shifted the earth beneath Bran’s feet, no matter where or when the ground ruptured or spikes erupted toward Bran’s legs, the vampire always managed to dodge by the skin of his teeth.

And the more time Bran bought himself, the more the vampire realized that only his ability to vanish into darkness was being affected by whatever it was the Legion knights were doing; the rest of his magical powers weren’t affected, though his favored tactic of replacing himself with an illusion while he disappeared was off the table.

The instant Bran realized his options weren’t as limited as he first thought, his thin pale lips stretched into an enormous smile, exposing his fangs for all the world to see.  As he ducked underneath another of Trajan’s hammer strikes and pivoted away from a spike bursting from the ground beneath him, his shadow elongated and separated into five black smoky tendrils.

Three of these tendrils wrapped themselves around the spear-wielding Legate, immobilizing him.  This gave Bran just enough of an opening to summon his rapier from his soul realm, dodge out of Trajan’s way, and charge at the helpless knight.  However, just before he was about to run his rapier through the knight’s armored chest, a bolt of Leon’s golden lightning ripped through the air and struck the knight.  The knight screamed in pain, but Bran was forced back, and his dark tendrils evaporated off of the knight.

Bran glared at Leon, and his remaining two tendrils lashed out at him, rising from the ground like the tentacles of a kraken and striking Leon across the face of his helmet.  Leon was sent reeling, while one of the tendrils grabbed his leg and raised him upside down into the air.

But Bran couldn’t capitalize on this with Trajan and the other two Legates firing off their magical attacks at him.

And then, the ground began to vibrate and the air was filled with the sound of beating hooves.  Bran’s cavalry had finally arrived, and the mass of horses and chariots were charging the lines of Trajan’s shield wall.

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Chapter 240 - Hunting a Vampire III

Chapter 238 - Hunting a Vampire I