‘They just keep coming…’ Minerva thought as she stared down at the battle raging below her from a raised observation tower on the wall of the Northern Horn. The Legion lines rippled every five minutes or so as those soldiers in the front line shuffled back, and those in the second line stepped up. Fighting like this, the 21st Legion down in the vale could fight for an entire day if they had to.
Unfortunately, Minerva could see that the Talfar forces were commanded by a skilled leader, as he alternated charges between heavy cataphracts and teams of chariots. The cataphracts were fairly straightforward, simply charging the lines with the occasional blast of magic from a fifth or sixth-tier Talfar mage thrown in as well. The shield wall held under this pressure, with support from the Legion’s own high-tiered mages.
The chariots, however, were much trickier to deal with. Unlike the cataphracts, the chariots didn’t coordinate their charge. Instead, they assaulted the lines with individual hit-and-run tactics. Each chariot was pulled by two fast horses and had a complement of one driver, two archers, and a swordsman that acted as the team leader. The chariots could turn on a silver coin, and with their skilled archers, they never directly hit the Legion lines.
Such exceptional mobility and intentional lack of unit cohesion meant that a tactic that might work for one chariot team didn’t necessarily work for another, yet the chariots were incredibly hard to pin down and crush all at once, especially for the primarily infantry units of the Legion. A few companies of Legion cavalry had been deployed, but they were there to support the Legion flanks and harass the Talfar units when they pulled back to let another unit take their place.
Fortunately, with the Legion battalions deployed in their checkerboard formation, their line was flexible and bent and flexed as necessary under pressure from the Talfar army. With the Tyrrhenian river on one flank and the Border Mountains on the other, the Talfar cavalry was forced to come at the Legion head on, and since they were unable to decisively pierce the shield walls, their units were vulnerable to fire from Legion archers in nearby defense towers and the back ranks of each Legion battalion.
All of this meant that there was a slowly but steadily growing pile of dead warriors, horses, and destroyed chariots in front of the Legion battalions that helped to blunt the Talfar cavalry’s repeated charges. Unfortunately, the Talfar cavalry wasn’t completely ineffective, as Minerva could see the scrambling of Legion medics behind the battalions, as well as a worrying amount of Legion red mixed in with the piles of dead in Talfar blue.
And the Talfar infantry hadn’t even entered the battle, yet, though Minerva honestly didn’t think that they’d be deployed until the Legion had been forced back to the fortress walls. The strength of the Talfar army lay in its cavalry, not its infantry, whereas the opposite was true for the Bull’s Legions.
‘They sent their best to fight with our best,’ noted Minerva. She trusted Dame Saufeia, the Legate in charge of the 21st Legion, to do her job well, and so far, she hadn’t been disappointed. And so, confident that the Legion would hold for as long as it needed to, she turned her attention further south, toward the mass of people outside of Florentia illuminated by the occasional bright flash of lightning or gout of flame.
The mine spells, caltrops, and barricades did their jobs perfectly; the cataphracts charging the shield wall around Trajan’s team were almost stopped cold before they even landed a single hit on the Legion shields. However, after the majority of the first thousand or so cataphracts were thrown from their horses and injured or killed, about a dozen fifth and sixth-tier mages on horseback or in chariots began to ride parallel to the Legion shield wall, using blasts of fire, wind, and ice to clear away the mine spells, while the Talfar earth mages sent tremors through the ground that buried most of the caltrops.
Within a matter of minutes, the way was clear, and Talfar lances struck Legion shields soon after.
But, while important, this development wasn’t the immediate priority for those in the center of the formation. Bran could barely keep himself alive under pressure from Trajan, the Legates, and Leon. Every time he managed to grab someone with his dark tendrils, a bolt of lightning from Leon would free them. Every time he attacked Leon, more lightning would erupt from the young man’s body, obliterating his tendrils and forcing the vampire to expend additional magic power creating more.
It was all the vampire could do to evade all of the attacks directed his way. He knew he was truly in bad shape when he began to run low on magic power. He was a newly ascended seventh-tier mage, with little more power than Trajan possessed at the height of the sixth-tier, and if he didn’t realize before that he couldn’t win an endurance fight with four sixth-tier mages—and Leon—then he certainly did now.
But, finally, after twenty minutes of fighting, Trajan growled his first words toward Bran.
“You’ve come a long way from your home, monster! It’s a shame you had to travel so far just to fall here!”
This bit of speaking gave Bran a brief respite, as Trajan couldn’t attack with nearly the same ferocity speaking as he could when he was silent and focused.
Despite the corner he’d been forced into, Bran laughed in Trajan’s face and roared, “You aren’t enough to defeat me! I will kill all of you! I will drink from your bloody corpses! Resist as you will, but in the end, you are nothing but my food! My fuel to ascend through the tiers of magic and achieve Apotheosis!”
With a sudden and unexpected burst of strength and power, Bran forced back both Trajan and the spear-wielding Legate, conjured five more shadow tendrils, and thrust all five of them into the body of the Legate attacking him with water blades. There was some resistance as the Legate’s magic defended his body, but then Bran lunged forward with startling speed and stabbed the Legate with his rapier.
Fortunately, the Legate managed to dodge out of the way of the killing blow, but Bran’s weapon bit into his left shoulder. His concentration was disrupted, and darkness seeped into his body.
An instant later, Bran had to dodge out of the way of one of Leon’s lightning bolts, but the damage was done. The Marshal waited several more seconds, and then with a single thought, he formed the darkness that infected the water Legate’s body into spikes which burst out of the man with the sickening sound of tearing meat.
The Legate was nearly ripped in half, his torso hanging onto his abdomen by only a few remaining strands of skin.
Despite their experience in fighting and killing, even the hardest of knights that saw this faltered for a moment. This lapse in focus didn’t even last a second, but it was enough for Bran.
The vampire was dead-tired. The magic within his blood felt thin, and he guessed he only had enough mana left for two or maybe three big moves. He immediately used one of these chances when the ring of Tribunes that were using Leon’s spells to anchor him outside of the shadows was disrupted with his brutal killing of the water Legate. Bran called upon his power and, with as much force as he could, whipped his dark tendrils across the shields of the Tribunes, knocking many out of position and even throwing several Tribunes to the ground. The vampire then followed up with another sweep, his shadows slicing through the throats of four Tribunes, instantly removing them from play.
Trajan howled in rage. Seeing so many of his stronger, more promising knights fall to Bran wasn’t something he was going to take with calm serenity. No, the Bull Prince only saw red, and he charged at Bran, wildly swinging his hammer like a man possessed.
Bran felt Trajan’s almost overwhelming killing intent and managed to throw himself to the side just in time to dodge the first strike, and he only evaded the next handful by virtue of being a darkness mage with speed far superior to what little speed Trajan’s earth magic could bestow. But he could see Trajan’s muscles swell up beyond what was human, making the already hulking giant of a man seem like a furious and vengeful god of war, and Bran knew that there was enough strength packed into each of Trajan’s hammer swings that if even one of them connected with him, he would be finished.
But with the circle of Tribunes now permanently broken, he could utilize his darkness magic to its fullest extent. The vampire called his shadows together, and he began to sink into the ground. He was almost out of magic power, and his frenzy at seeing Leon had worn off. He knew that he’d get another shot at the young knight and that it would be wiser and more prudent to retreat for the time being.
And then Leon shouted, “Your Highness!”
The sound of the young man’s voice caused Bran’s entire body to shake and his thoughts to momentarily be filled with nothing but the taste of Leon’s blood. Fortunately for the vampire, Leon’s shout also grabbed Trajan’s attention, causing him to not slam his hammer down into Bran’s head the moment the vampire hesitated.
But Leon wasn’t just shouting for his health, rather the plan’s last contingency was now in place. Each of the five largest warships in most of the fifteen fleets in the Bull Kingdom had two tremendously powerful weapons, a pair of metal cylinders about fifteen feet long with a hollow rune-inscribed cylinder mounted on a rotating steel platform.
These were the Flame Lances, a new prohibitively expensive weapon developed by the Bull Kingdom’s navy. They melted boulders and fired the resulting glob of molten stone at whatever was unfortunate enough to raise the ire of their ship’s captain. Trajan didn’t like these weapons as, despite their power, they also had a limited effective range of seven hundred feet to two miles. Anything closer than that range, and the lances were terribly inaccurate—which given the number of Legion soldiers around, made Trajan hesitant to authorize their use—while at ranges farther than about two miles the molten rock would lose most of its punch, falling apart into a rain of rapidly cooling pebbles moving too slowly to do much damage.
Despite his personal dislike of the weapons, Trajan had been attempting to get a few installed on the walls of Ariminium for years, but the navy wasn’t so keen on sharing its toys, especially since not every fleet had Flame Lances installed into their capital ships. Both fleet Consuls had stalled as much as they could in delivering the Lances to the Legions, leaving the only Flame Lances Trajan had any access to on ships in a fleet that didn’t technically answer to him.
But the Flame Lances weren’t all the Legion brought; Lapis erupted out of the deep river where it had been lying in wait for Bran to be drawn in and exhausted, and the earth beneath everyone’s feet shook with every one of its steps like it was the end of days. It roared something in its harsh, grinding language, and charged forward to support Leon. The fighting area was still small enough to limit Lapis’ fighting options, but Bran wouldn’t be able to do much against the stone giant.
Bran’s eyes widened in shock and fear at the arrival of the giant and the glowing Lances on the ships. He accelerated his attempts to escape, but he knew that even if he made it into his shadow, he wouldn’t be impervious to magical attacks. He braced for the strike from the Flame Lances.
Trajan, after leaping backward, bellowed, “FIRE!”
And three ships answered with titanic, thunderous blasts, and six molten boulders the size of five full-grown men crossed the hundreds of feet between the Lances and Bran in an instant and exploded on the ground all around him. Lapis then surged forward and launched itself into the swiftly solidifying rock and hit the ground, causing it to quake and rend, opening large fissures in the earth.
The last two warships, a bit late with the preparation of their Flame Lances, decided not to waste the magic power they had already committed, and fired their payload of four more molten boulders into the mass of Talfar cavalry that had the Legion soldiers encircled, killing a couple hundred Talfar cataphracts and charioteers.
With the use of these deadly weapons, the Talfar cavalry hurriedly began to retreat from Trajan’s battalions and the ships behind them, while the Legion shield wall reinforced the weak areas that had taken the most casualties and the team of knights in the center of the formation pulled themselves back together and advanced on the spot where they had last seen Bran.
“Anyone see that leech get hit?” asked the wind Legate. Silence was his reply.
Leon frantically searched through the small crater illuminated with dull red lava that was quickly dimming, projecting his magic senses into every nook and cranny that he could see. He wanted to see Bran’s dead body, to see the vampire that had invaded his mind and used the images of those he cared about against him dead at his feet.
Trajan and Lapis did likewise, though the giant, being hardier then the others, got more into the search, sifting through the molten stone with its fingers as if it were cold sand.
“Did we get him? Is he dead?” asked the spear-wielding Legate, and everyone else waited for an answer. Their tension rose with every passing moment, but no one could see Bran’s corpse.
“He couldn’t have gotten away…” muttered one of the Tribunes. “That much firepower coul-“ Before he could finish, a massive pillar of smoky pitch black darkness shot up from the ground and impaled him through his midsection, raising him into the air like he was some kind of morbid decoration.
The Tribune screamed in pain, but his screams were quickly and cruelly cut off when the pillar of darkness retracted as fast as it had appeared, dropping the Tribune to the ground with a sickening crunch.
“You’ll have to try harder than that if you want me dead!” came the sounds of Bran’s fading voice.
Trajan had to almost bite his tongue to hold back his howl of rage, and the rest of the knights expanded their search, looking for the vampire. Leon even conjured a golden lightning spear and readied himself to hurl it if the vampire showed himself.
But he didn’t. They waited for five more minutes for the vampire to strike again, but their vigilance wasn’t rewarded. The vampire had run away, possibly injured but definitely alive.
Their mission had failed.
Trajan’s face twisted in anger and frustration, but there was nothing he could do. The Talfar cavalry were regrouping, but with the nearby ships, they didn’t dare to attack again. Trajan could see miles in the distance that the 21st Legion wasn’t holding as strongly as he would’ve liked, either. It was time to call it a day. They had done what they could, but they still failed.
With a great deal of hesitation, Trajan shouted, “… Back to the ships! Back to the Horns! Back to the ships!”
His order was relayed all down the shield wall, and the Legion soldiers began to orderly file back toward their transports.
“We’ll get you next time,” Leon quietly vowed, his look of hatred easily matching Trajan’s. “You won’t escape us again!”
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