Chapter 262 - The Bull's Ghost II

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Four days had passed since the bridge was completed, and Emrys had nearly all of his two-thousand strong force searching the dozens of square miles of forest on the northern side of the chasm.  Well, to be more accurate, his seventeen or eighteen hundred strong force.  Over the past few days no less than twenty squads had turned up dead, and another six were missing, and no living warrior had yet seen hide or hair of their prey.

To say that the atmosphere in the squads was tense would be putting it mildly; in the four days since crossing the chasm, Emrys’ warriors were now so on edge that the Warrior-Chief was having to punish insubordination on an almost hourly basis whenever he wasn’t actively participating in the search.

Compounding the issue was that supplies from the camp were frustratingly light.  Emrys knew that Talfar’s supply situation was in dire straights after most of it went up in flames, but that did little to help when his warriors’ stomachs were rumbling so loudly that he was almost surprised the ground didn’t shake.  Hunting in the forest mitigated this a little bit, but Emrys couldn’t devote too many people to foraging when their rat was still on the loose.

“Damn, that’s a terrible way to die,” one fourth-tier warrior muttered as Emrys’ squad surveyed the carnage in one remote corner of the forest.  Ten corpses were scattered around a blackened section of the forest, most of them little more than ash and scorched bone.

Emrys had heard the sounds of battle in the distance, but when they finally managed to work their way through the dense forest, the fight was long over and ten more Talfar warriors were dead.  Most of them had been burned to death, but three of the warriors near the edges of the still-smoldering ambush area had been clearly killed with a bladed weapon rather than fire.

“Be careful,” Emrys warned, “there may be mines left behind for anyone who came to investigate…”

There had been several times when squads had been found dead, only for those warriors that found them to be caught in traps left for them by the rat.  However, those measures were mostly confined to areas closer to the bridge, and in this remote corner of the forest there likely wasn’t much danger, but Emrys wasn’t going to let his guard down when lives were on the line.

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As Leon watched the Emrys’ squad examine the dead squad he’d left behind, he clicked his tongue and thought, ‘Knew I should’ve left a few mines behind.  Oh well.’

The lost opportunity stung a little, but he didn’t dwell on it and he hauled ass away; he wasn’t about to take on a sixth-tier mage in battle if he didn’t have to, and he wasn’t going to wait around for said mage to release his magic senses.  Fortunately for him, it seemed like the sixth-tier mage was getting tired from the pressure Leon had been exerting on the Talfar force and had been getting slower by the day with his power.

Over the past four days, he’d been doing everything he could to whittle down the Talfar warriors searching for him.  He chose his battles with caution, only launching an ambush if he knew he could take on the entire squad.  With well-placed spells and arrows and his stellar ability to quickly move unseen through forested terrain, he’d killed twenty squads of warriors and left the others increasingly stressed.

Unfortunately, Emrys wasn’t an idiot, and he’d flooded the northern forest with thousands of warriors and left the bridge heavily guarded, stymying Leon’s desire to cross.  Taking on ten warriors was one thing, but the forty that Emrys had assigned to the bridge was another thing entirely.

On the third day, Leon had gone east to scout out the plains between the forest and Briga and found the cataphract and chariot patrols too numerous to try and sneak past.  So, his options were fairly limited.  He could hide and wait for them to leave, he could go west and try to find a way through the Border Mountains, or he could step up his guerrilla campaign in the hopes of whittling the Talfar warriors down enough to make his attempt to cross the bridge easier.

Leon quickly chose the latter, as he had done several days before.  He’d been gone from the Horns for almost five days, and finding a way south still seemed the fastest way back.  To that end, Leon moved on to find a new target before the sixth-tier warrior decided to move on from the remains of the other squad.

With the number of warriors in the forest, Leon didn’t have to go far to find another squad, but he kept moving instead of attacking—he was still too close to the sixth-tier warrior for his liking.

When he encountered a second squad a few minutes later, though, he didn’t make the same decision.  The fifth-tier mage leading this squad had taken the lead and was tensely walking through the forest in Leon’s general direction.  Leon quickly hid behind a bush where he wouldn’t be seen and waited.  The instant the fifth-tier warrior came close, Leon burst from the bush with lightning magic coursing through his body and moved faster than the warriors could react.  He impaled the warrior on his sword and shattered his soul realm, killing him instantly.

The rest of the squad fell in short order.  A quick blast of lightning killed the lower-tiered mages, and Leon’s quick swordplay did likewise to the remaining pair of fourth-tier mages.

Once the deed was done, Leon moved on.  He didn’t linger at any ambush site, he just kept moving, using his sword and lightning magic to ambush Talfar warriors for the rest of the day.  These were the best tools available to him since he was saving his spells for a plan he hoped would get him out of this mess.

Talfar lost fifteen more squads by the time the sun fell.

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Emrys established his search unit’s forward operating base close to the bridge on the southern side of the chasm.  This way, his warriors could keep an eye on the bridge and come to the aid of its defenders if they came under attack.

Every night, Emrys would hold a meeting with his top Warrior-Captains and get an idea of what had gone down that day.  He had yet to be pleased with their progress.

“The Ghost killed seventeen squads today,” one warrior dourly reported, eliciting a chorus of groans from the rest of the Captains.

“That’s almost double what we’ve lost in the entire time we’ve been out here!” another Captain exclaimed.

A third Captain spoke up to air his frustrations with their current assignment, “How is this fucker doing this?!  The Ghost runs through our squads like a hot knife through butter, and we’ve yet to find any evidence of his movements apart from the bodies he leaves behind!”

“We’ll find this ‘Ghost’ eventually,” Emrys testily added.  Since none of the lower-tiered warriors had even seen the rat yet, they had started to call him the Bull’s Ghost.  Emrys didn’t mind if the rank-and-file warriors used it, but he found the use of the nickname for their elusive rat in more formal settings distasteful, and he put a great deal of emphasis on the word to express it.

“What strategy would Your Lordship suggest?” one of Emrys’ more level-headed Captains asked.

“Burn the forest,” Emrys stated.  “We’ve lost almost four hundred warriors to the rat.  Tomorrow morning, we will flush him out of whatever hole he’s hiding in and catch him in our trap!  Burn the forest to the ground, and he’ll show himself!”

Emrys’ thirty remaining Captains nodded to him, and a few even clapped shouted in favor of the plan.

But then, an explosion ripped through half a dozen tents in the base and spread fire across another half dozen.  The titanic noise hammered Emrys and the Captains’ eardrums, stunning them into momentary silence as they tried to figure out what just happened.  The screams of the dying pulled them back to reality, and the Captains burst out of the command tent.

Each of their tents held a squad, and there was now a massive burning hole where many of their tents used to be.  A few warriors who survived the blast were either lying the dirt moaning in pain or shambling around in shock.

“PUT OUT THOSE FIRES!” Emrys roared, instantly taking command of the situation.  The Captains instantly sprinted into the midst of the bright orange flames to do what they could.  The earth mages buried the fires, the water and ice mages doused them, and the fire mages simply waved their hands and the fires disappeared.  In less than a minute, the fire had been brought under control and the wounded were being seen to.

“How did this happen?” one Captain wondered out loud.

“It was-“ Emrys began, but he was cut off by the ear-splitting roar of a second horrific explosion in another part of the camp.

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‘These had better be hitting the target,’ Leon bitterly thought as he prepared his third arrow.

Over the past four days he’d been in the forest, he’d made it so dangerous for the Talfar warriors that they would fall back over their bridge to the south side of the chasm when the sun set.  Leon had capitalized on their absence to work on replenishing his stash of spells, but it wasn’t his usual white-fire spells that occupied his time.  Rather, he used those nights to inscribe five more of the explosion spells he’d created and two more Thunderblast spells.

But this night, however, was different.  Instead of spending his time with paper and ink, he spent it scouting up and down the chasm looking for anything that could possibly help him get across.  If he were a stronger mage, he would be able to jump over, but he quickly came to the conclusion that there was no safe way back to the southern side without using Talfar’s bridge.

During that time spent scouting, though, Leon had seen evidence of the base where the warriors hunting him were sleeping.  Specifically, he noticed some flickering lights through distant trees, and he saw the smoke from campfires in the sky.  Realizing what it was that he was seeing, he quickly came up with a new plan.

To that end, he’d fired two arrows with his explosion spells at the enemy camp and hoped that his aim was true, and they were landing in the ranks of his enemy.  He could hear the explosions and the panicked shouting, so he figured he was doing at least some damage, but he wasn’t sure if it was enough.

He hesitated for a long moment, then fired his third arrow at an almost absurd angle, leaving him with only two explosion spells and two Thunderblast spells.  He heard the explosion in the distance, followed by even more muted shouting and screaming.

Now he needed to decide if he ought to use one more.

‘I might need them when getting back to the Horns, but there’s no point to having them if I don’t use them when I have the opportunity,’ he thought.  He’d need those spells if he were detected trying to sneak past the main Talfar camp, but another explosion might help him sneak past the warriors here.

Leon played around with the idea in his head for about another minute, then decided that one more explosion would do the trick.  So, he fired off one more arrow and then was running for the bridge before he even heard the fourth explosion.

About a quarter-mile later, Leon arrived unseen at the stone bridge and found that the warriors guarding it were just as numerous as ever but were at least far more distracted now.  In fact, all three of the fifth-tier warriors that were the main reason Leon couldn’t get across the bridge had huddled together to discuss what was happening, negligently ignoring what was happening on Leon’s side of the chasm.

Leon almost couldn’t believe his luck, but this didn’t stop him from pulling out a Thunderblast spell and immediately firing it at this tempting target.  The three warriors in charge of the Talfar forces at the bridge barely even registered that they were under attack before they were torn apart by a blast of lightning, along with twelve other warriors that were around them and severely injuring the rest.

Leon wasted no time and charged out of the forest and over the bridge.  With lightning magic coursing through his body he was fast enough to kill three more warriors as he ran past, creating a hole in their defenses big enough for him to run through and reach the trees on the other side.

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Chapter 263 - Running for the River

Chapter 261 - The Bull's Ghost I