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It was a chilly day, with an overcast sky and light rain, and the Talfar warriors who were sweeping through the forest that Leon had disappeared into were not happy. They had suffered a defeat when they assaulted the Bull’s Horns, and now they were stuck wandering through a mountain forest searching for Leon and failing; their morale was not the greatest, to say the least.
Emrys, Lorcan, and more than one hundred other Talfar warriors were waiting at the narrowest point of the chasm they could find, a section about sixty feet across. It was early, and their guard was down from their lack of success.
Lorcan tried to stifle a powerful yawn, eliciting a look of annoyance from the red-haired Emrys.
“What?” the fifth-tier warrior asked. “We’ve been out here for three damned days and haven’t found hide nor hair of your dead rat.”
“Don’t make assumptions,” Emrys growled, as he had done many times before since he’d lost Leon three days ago. “We can only call this search off once we find evidence that that rat is dead.”
“If it’s evidence we’re looking for, we’re going to be here a long time,” Lorcan grumbled.
Leaning in closer to whisper into his friend’s ear, Emrys softly said, “You could be setting a better example for the others, you know.”
Lorcan’s tired slouch wasn’t doing his already modest stature any favors, and the openness with which he questioned their purpose and clear boredom he displayed was engendering laziness and a lack of vigilance in the rest of the warriors, in Emrys’ eyes.
Before Lorcan could respond, five fifth-tier mages sent by Arthwyn appeared in the trees walking toward Emrys’ group.
“Finally!” Lorcan shouted as he shook himself awake. He wasn’t a morning person, and if it were visible from behind the thick gray rain clouds, the sun would barely be over the horizon at this time of day.
The newcomers nodded to Emrys in greeting and got to work without any further ado. They weren’t there to make friends, they had only one job: build a bridge. All five were earth mages, and once their job was finished, they would return to the camp, and they were more than eager to leave the damp forest and head back.
Working together, the engineer mages started by shaping the cliff they were standing on, curving it until it formed half an arch and extended about halfway to the other side. Then, they elongated the arch until it reached the other side, then shaped that side as well so it could support the weight of a hundred mages traversing it. By the time they were finished half an hour later, a smooth, elegant stone bridge had been formed over the chasm.
“Thanks,” Emrys said to the lead engineer mage as they stepped to the side to evaluate their work. They wouldn’t leave until they were certain the bridge was safe to cross.
“No problem,” the mage replied as he put a few finishing touches on the bridge.
Turning back to his people, Emrys said, “As a reminder, you all have flare enchantments. If you catch sight of our rat, let the rest of us know.”
“We remember,” Lorcan responded with a wry smile.
“Don’t underestimate this little bastard,” Emrys said with an exasperated sigh. “He’s already killed four of my people now, and he’s already proven himself resourceful enough to infiltrate our camp and destroy our supply tent.”
“Relax, buddy, if our dead rat isn’t quite as dead as he should be, we’ll do our duty,” Lorcan said.
Emrys frowned, but he had said what he needed to. He knew that Lorcan’s flippant attitude would disappear the moment anything unexpected happened, so he didn’t bother chastising his lackadaisical attitude.
“You’re all good,” the lead engineer informed Emrys.
“Then let’s get to work,” Emrys said, and he led his hundred-man team across the bridge to the other side of the chasm while the last few warriors left over were left behind to guard the bridge.
The south side had already been exhaustively searched by the two thousand warriors Emrys had been given, and it was agreed that there was no way for their quarry to survive three days in the river below, leaving only the north side to check. Emrys stationed most of the remaining warriors along the chasm to watch for the rat while his team went in to flush him out. This was a job for smaller, faster-moving teams; he didn’t want the rat to hear them coming and vanish into the mountains.
Once on the other side of the bridge, the hundred warriors broke up into ten teams of ten and began spreading out into the forest. On the north side, the forest was dense enough that after walking a mere five hundred feet, none of the teams could see each other. After another two hundred feet, the teams might as well have been alone as the forest was too thick for them to have any hope of noticing if any of their comrades ran into trouble. Even launching an emergency flare wasn’t guaranteed to get the attention of the other teams.
Lorcan’s team wasn’t particularly subtle as they hacked their way through the underbrush.
“Ugh, no way in the hells that someone made it through here,” Lorcan mumbled as his team struggled to get through the thick, undisturbed flora. He couldn’t conceive of the possibility that the rat he was hunting was anywhere close to him, the forest was just too dense for him to get away without leaving any tracks.
But then, his team almost stumbled into a small clearing that had been practically invisible until they were right beside it. What was more, there was a firepit in the center of the clearing with a bed of leaves right beside it.
“The fuck?” Lorcan wondered out loud before the possibility of what he had just discovered sank in. When it did, he wiped away the glib expression that he almost always wore and, with utter seriousness, said, “Spread out! Secure this campsite and pop off a flare!”
His order was followed by a chorus of “Yes, Captain!” from his teammates, and they quickly surged forward to secure the clearing. It wasn’t that large of a space, perhaps only having a radius of thirty feet, so the ten warriors quickly finished. Apart from the make-shift bed and firepit, there didn’t seem to be anything else in the clearing.
As one of the warriors fished around in his satchel for the flare spell, Lorcan spotted a hint of white in the still-smoldering ashes of the campfire. He bent down to examine it, and when he took hold of it and pulled it out of the ashes, it was revealed to be a spell of tremendous complexity, with hundreds of runes arranged in angular geometric patterns, much different from the usual curves and flowing lines of the enchantments that Lorcan was familiar with.
But then, as the Talfar warrior was slowly turning the spell around in his hands, one of the runes in the center of the glyphs lit up with a brilliant glittering blue. Lorcan immediately dropped the spell, as to hold an unknown spell as it’s being activated was the height of foolishness. More runes began to light up, and in less than five seconds, the entire sheet of spell paper was glowing a harsh white-blue.
And then it detonated in a spectacular blast of lightning and rocked the forest with its thunder.
Lorcan, who had only taken a few steps away from the spell, was almost completely disintegrated.
The lightning blasted out from the spell and raked over the other nine warriors, melting flesh and shattering bone. The force of the spell blasted five of the warriors apart after the lightning weakened their bodies, while the other four survived, but were knocked unconscious.
In one horrifically short and brutal lightning explosion, Lorcan’s entire team was eliminated.
Leon jumped. He wasn’t going to allow himself to be taken prisoner by Emrys, and he was more confident in surviving the fall to the river at the bottom of the chasm than he was in facing an experienced sixth-tier mage in direct combat.
He plummeted from the cliff and in mere moments, passed through the mist and foam of the rapidly-flowing river and slammed into the water.
Instantly, Leon felt both of his legs break in multiple places, extracting a terrible shriek of pain from the young knight that was blocked by the water. Leon didn’t fight the current and was swept along at high speed down the river. He crashed into one of the boulders in the center of the river hard enough to fracture his left elbow and dislocate that shoulder, causing Leon to almost black out from the pain of his injuries.
But he held on. As a fifth-tier mage, he could stay underwater for an hour or so despite most of the air in his lungs having been forced out of him when he hit the water, so he channeled his magic to dull his pain and let the current carry him downriver. Yet, not even a minute later, Leon had to try and flail his one good arm to swim out of the way of another boulder, but he failed. Fortunately, though, his armor took most of the impact and he was only winded a little.
And then Leon came to a complete stop. The water continued to rush around him, but it was like he was being held by invisible arms in the center of the river. Leon looked around him, trying to find out what had happened, but he could barely see anything, even with his magic flowing through his eyes. He wasn’t caught on any branches or rocks, he just seemed to be floating in the center of the river, not moving in the slightest bit.
He quickly realized what had happened when he felt something unsettlingly jaw-like clamp down hard on his right shoulder pauldron. He was in the clutches of some kind of river creature, and he couldn’t even see it.
That pressure didn’t let up, and he felt his armor begin to warp under the strain. Leon called upon his magic power and in an instant lit up with golden lightning. The water around him vaporized and he heard a pained yelp come from behind him, but he quickly lost the opportunity to look back when the river suddenly began to affect him again, carrying him downriver faster than he could react.
He was exhausted and severely injured, so when he halted in the river again, he could feel nothing but terror and dismay. He couldn’t see what was attacking him, and they were clearly strong enough to manipulate the river into trapping him.
Leon floated there for what seemed like hours to him, his eyes darting around searching for his assailants, but he saw nothing. In the actual minutes that it was, though, he noticed a pair of yellow orbs begin to take shape above him. These orbs swiftly coalesced into a pair of reptilian eyes that glared into his own, and a face began to solidify out of the river water to accompany them.
This face was that of a gorgeous pale-skinned woman, with high cheekbones, a small chin, and full lips. After her rapidly-materialized head came long flowing black hair that splayed out behind her like the river around her and Leon was completely still. Then came her slender arms and shoulders—one of her pale hands was wrapped quite securely around his right arm, while the other was tracing the silver griffin on his cuirass—her full chest, and her slender waist. This process stopped at the top of her hips, making her look like she’d been cut in half.
For a moment, Leon was entranced with this woman’s stunning beauty, but as her yellow eyes narrowed and her lips were drawn back to reveal sharp shark-like teeth, he snapped out of it and recognized this woman for what she was: a river nymph. She may look mostly human, but she was anything but, and as her face drew closer to him, Leon knew that he was nothing more than food to her.
The nymph’s jaw closed around his right forearm, but his gauntlets prevented any significant damage, though the steel was lightly scratched. Leon instinctively tried to shake her off of him, but the water around him locked him in place and prevented all movement.
So, Leon stopped trying to move and forced himself to calm down. His heart was racing in panic at being caught by a fifth-tier monster that was trying to eat him, he could feel his hands shake in fear and pain, and his instincts screamed at him to flail and fight back.
After a momentary pause, Leon summoned his lightning once again and held nothing back. His eyes sparked and flashed with silver-blue light, and then he seemed to explode in a large blast of silver lightning that hurled the nymph away from him and once again vaporized the water holding him captive.
But it wasn’t over. He didn’t kill the nymph, and he was still in her territory.
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