Leon made it back to the southern side of the chasm, but he wasn’t particularly subtle about it. The remaining warriors guarding the bridge saw him, and as he vanished into the forest, he heard the rumble of a horn as the warriors alerted the camp to his presence. Unfortunately for them, the fifteen warriors or so back in the camp were far more concerned with the burning camp than anything else, and none of the other twenty-two warriors at the bridge were strong or fast enough to pursue Leon even if his Thunderblast spell hadn’t left them with bleeding ears and severe lightning burns.
So, Leon was essentially unchallenged as he bolted south through the forest.
He didn’t stop for anything. He had a bad feeling that if he stopped before he reached the end of the forest, he’d be caught by the sixth-tier warrior that had been leading the search for him. This wasn’t true, of course, and the rational part of his brain knew that, as that warrior was probably too busy tending to the damage Leon had done with his explosion spells.
Leon didn’t know how badly mangled the Talfar force was, but he also wasn’t going to waste time finding out. He was south of the chasm and that’s what mattered to him.
He didn’t slow down until he reached the tree line on the south side of the forest.
The main Talfar camp was visible in the distance, as were the dozens of chariots and cataphracts in the plains to the east and south-east. Leon was confident that with his lightning magic, he’d be able to outrun any Talfar mage on foot, but those cavalry units were another matter entirely. He’d almost been run down by Talfar charioteers five days prior when he was first forced to enter the forest, and he wasn’t keen on repeating that experience.
But, despite the relatively flat plains between himself and the camp, there were still a few small hills and natural ditches here and there, not to mention the tall wild grass that blanketed the region south of the Border Mountains. With the darkness, Leon was sure that there was enough cover for him to try and go west back to the Horns.
But that wasn’t to say that he was completely certain in his decision and lacked all hesitation, he was incredibly nervous about his course of action.
Regardless of his misgivings, Leon darted into the plains and stuck to the tallest grasses as best he could. There were a few areas where this wasn’t possible, and he sprinted through them as fast as he could, trusting his black armor to keep him hidden in the early evening darkness.
And it seemed to be working, he made it about halfway between the forest and the camp before he had to stop for a passing cataphract patrol. There was a brief moment where it seemed like he had been detected, as one of the cataphracts paused for a moment near the patch of tall grass Leon had hidden himself in, but after a few brief words with the patrol commander, the cataphracts moved on.
Unfortunately, Leon was in for an unpleasant surprise as he drew closer to the gap between the camp and the mountains, for that happened to be just the place that Arthwyn had ordered the replacement siege engines be built. Work had stopped for the most part when the sun went down, but there were still enough warriors among the construction equipment and half-built trebuchets and siege towers that Leon knew there was no way he was going to get past.
Leon grimaced in dismay. He hadn’t been able to see this area until he was almost on top of it as it was behind a gentle hill; he never would’ve come this far if he knew that slipping past wasn’t feasible.
But this wasn’t the time for regrets. He needed a new way to get west, and he needed it before he ran out of luck. In the few minutes he allowed himself, he could only think of one direction to go: further south. He’d need to swing all the way around the Talfar camp and hope that he wasn’t spotted.
Leon clenched his teeth and began running south rather than west. This wasn’t necessarily a fatal setback, but the land between the camp and Florentia that he would have to get through was much flatter and had less grass to hide in. Making matters worse, after about a mile, Leon could see that thousands of the Talfar war horses had been let out to graze, and were under heavy guard.
‘FUCK!’ Leon shouted in his head in frustration.
Unbeknownst to him, many of the scouts that Trajan had ordered deployed had been detected, so combined with the loss of the main supply tent, Arthwyn had security around the camp raised, leading to Leon’s current situation. There was no way he was going to get past the guards around the siege engines or the warriors guarding the grazing horses without his ring of invisibility, effectively cutting him off from the Horns.
Or at least, cut off by land. Leon could see Florentia just beyond the grazing horses, and the Tyrrhenian River, shining a bright silver in the moonlight. The river ran straight to Ariminium, and the Talfar warriors were notoriously poor sailors.
Leon glanced at the camp, then back at the forest, and finally at Florentia again.
‘I’ve come this far already,’ he thought with a combination of determination and fear.
Leon started moving south again, but this time he was much more careful. There were more cataphracts out around the horses, so he had to move slower than before if he didn’t want to be seen.
Partway to Florentia, as he was moving from a small patch of long grass to a natural ditch, he noticed a chariot team driving toward him. They weren’t moving as fast as they would if they had seen him, but they would still be upon him in seconds. His first instinct was to start running for Florentia, but his rationality won out and he dropped to the ground and submerged himself in the shadows of the ditch.
“…something around here?” Leon heard the lead charioteers ask.
“I swear, I saw someone in this area,” another warrior responded.
“Let’s do a sweep. There’s been too many damned Legion scouts in the area these days, we can’t let even a single one slip through our fingers,” the lead warrior ordered, and the chariot driver began taking them on a slow, methodical search of the area.
Fortunately, they did not see Leon, and it didn’t seem like any of them were strong enough to use magic senses. Because of this and the fact that laying down in a ditch while Talfar warriors were searching for him was wreaking havoc on his nerves, Leon was tempted to unlimber his bow and hit the chariot with his last explosion spell. But again, his reason kept him in the ditch and his bow over his shoulder.
After a few minutes of searching, the chariot team drove off, and Leon was able to breathe a sigh of relief, but then it was back to sneaking toward Florentia with his body wracked with tension.
Through skill and more than a little bit of luck, Leon reached Florentia without being detected. Every road leading into the city was guarded, though, but the guards mostly seemed bored and weren’t paying good attention. Leon was able to find a short wall near the main road and jumped right over, landing in the back courtyard of a small villa. From there, he made it into the streets.
Sticking to the alleys as best he could, Leon slowly made his way toward the river. He was fortunate that the city was long and thin, so he only had about a quarter of a mile to go from where he entered the city. In less than five minutes, Leon could see the Tyrrhenian River.
He looked left and right, and after not seeing anyone obviously watching the river, he sprinted forward and jumped into the water as quietly as he could.
Unfortunately, while he didn’t see anyone monitoring the river, that didn’t mean it wasn’t being watched.
“Did you see that?” a third-tier Talfar warrior asked his superior from the third story of a villa that gave them commanding views of the western side of the river.
“See what?” the fifth-tier Warrior-Captain asked.
“I swear I just saw something jump into the river!” the warrior explained.
The Captain frowned, not quite believing his subordinate, but he was a diligent man and wasn’t going to take the chance he was wrong when Legion scouts had been out in force recently. The Captain grabbed a Fisherman’s Spyglass from a nearby table and used it to take a look at the river.
This spyglass was an expensive magical device that allowed anyone who looked through it to see the auras of beings in water, an invaluable tool for anyone who has to regularly venture out into dangerous waters. And with this spyglass, the Captain saw a bright white-blue aura and knew that someone was in the river.
“Sound the alarm!” the Captain shouted, and the other three warriors on watch with him sprang into action. There was the possibility that this person was some stupid warrior, but the Captain wasn’t going to risk it.
‘Shit, shit, shit!’ Leon thought as he dove beneath the water’s surface and began to swim as fast as he could. He couldn’t so much hear as feel the water around him shake as the deep alarm raised by the watching warriors thundered through the city. There was no way in his mind that it wasn’t because of him.
Fortunately, it wasn’t like there were hundreds of warriors already in place ready to take him down, so he had some time. He used those crucial moments as best as he could, swimming like his life depended on it—because it very much did.
He had almost made it out of the city by the time a proper response was mustered by the Talfar warriors. About a dozen archers were placed in tall buildings by the edge of the city on the river, and they shot numerous arrows at him. The Talfar Kingdom, though, wasn’t known for having spectacular foot archers—most of their best marksmen were put in chariots—so barely even a tenth of the arrows shot at Leon down near the riverbed even so much as grazed his armor.
Leon kept swimming, but as he left the range of the archers on the riverbanks, Talfar wrangled together a few captured fishing boats and pursued him. Leon could see their hulks slide in above him, causing him to grimace in frustration. There were far too many miles between him and Ariminium to remain below the water the entire time.
To counter the boats, Leon called upon his magic. He didn’t know how effective his lightning would be from the bottom of the river, but he didn’t have much choice unless he wanted to go for broke and use the last of his spells. Leon extended his hand toward the boat directly above him, a small thing that could barely hold a dozen people without sinking, and a bolt of golden lightning burst out of him and crashed into the boat’s keel. The fishing boat was nowhere near as magically reinforced as a proper war galley, and the keel almost completely disintegrated, sending the boat crashing down into the river.
But that also meant that Leon now had to contend with a dozen Talfar warriors in the water with him. He kicked himself forward, sliding his sword into the throat of a third-tier warrior directly in front of him, then twisting as fast as he could and slashing a pair of second-tier warriors. The water hindered his movements, but he was still a fifth-tier mage, and his prodigious strength kept him far more lethal than the Talfar warriors would’ve liked.
And then a rock spike burst out of the river bed and would’ve impaled Leon had he not pushed himself just barely out of the way, causing the spike to brush past his armor and knock him closer to the surface. The remaining nine warriors in the water surrounded him, including the earth mage who had the biggest shit-eating grin on his face as he stared Leon down from just below the surface.
Leon almost shouted in anger as he called upon his magic power to summon his last Thunderblast spell, but just as the paper appeared in his hand, he felt the river current pick up to a startling speed and sweep him right past a Talfar warrior. The warrior attempted to stab Leon with his short spear as he passed, but the water around him constricted and sliced him into several dozen pieces.
The rest of the warriors stared in horror at their buddy’s gruesome death, but when the earth mage attempted to summon another rock spike to attack Leon with, the fingers on his extended hand were instantly severed by tiny water blades. His hand followed, then his arm, and then the rest of his extremities. He had just enough time to scream in pain and terror before one last water blade sliced his head off and everything went dark.
Leon rocketed down the river at a speed that made it obvious there was a water mage somewhere helping him along, but when he looked around, he didn’t see anything. A possibility occurred to him, but he’d lost the feeling that told him Naiad’s general location after he got far enough away from the pond where she’d left him, and it hadn’t returned.
With no other evidence, he decided to just thank his lucky stars and let the river carry him onward. There were still three more boats after him, but the pace at which the river carried him was helping him to rapidly outstrip them. He even had enough space to surface and take another breath before diving back down to avoid the subsequent rain of arrows.
About two miles from the mouth of the river, where three massive stone towers stood at the end of the walls of Ariminium that could each easily sink the tiny fishing boats, the Talfar warriors called it quits and turned around. They weren’t going to risk their lives for someone who they thought was no more than a single Bull scout.
Leon relaxed, seeing the boats turn around, but he didn’t surface until he was well past the towers; he didn’t want them to shoot him if they thought he was a Talfar warrior, even though he didn’t honestly think that would happen. Regardless, he didn’t even try to avoid the alarm enchantments as he passed them; he could already see on the docks of the first island a company of Legion soldiers mustering to capture him in the likely event he was a Talfar warrior.
But the sight only calmed him down and released most of his tension. He’d made it back to Ariminium.
Miles behind him, an invisible being watched him. The water was her territory, her body had even transformed until it was indistinguishable from the river around her.
Her eyes tracked Leon as he swam for the closest docks on the first island, rolling slightly when he climbed out of the water.
‘Stupid boy, taking such a risk,’ she thought. ‘You owe me a child; you can’t die until you pay your debt!’
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