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The first indication that Leon had that Arthwyn had cottoned on to his actions was the sound of several chariots driving in his direction. He stopped and crouched low to the ground. He was still invisible, but he wanted to present the smallest possible target, nonetheless.
A few seconds later, three light chariots materialized out of the smoke. Each was pulled by a pair of horses and had a team of three warriors within—one driver, one archer, and the chariot leader, a swordsman.
All were clearly on high alert, but Leon was tempted to attack them anyway. With three well-placed white-fire arrows, he felt like he had a good shot at taking them down.
He thought better of it, though. A group of three chariots wasn’t an attractive enough target for him to risk exposing himself over, so he watched with some hesitation and regret as they drove past him and vanished again into the grey smoke.
But even though he didn’t take the opportunity, those chariots still told him all he needed to know about his current situation: even if they hadn’t detected him, specifically, Talfar had still noticed his actions and were taking measures to find him and probably to protect their remaining trebuchets.
Now the question he needed to answer was whether it was worth going after the rest of Talfar’s siege weapons. He still didn’t know how many there were or their locations, he was basically just wandering the vale and keeping his ears open for the tell-tale signs of a trebuchet firing at the walls. That being said, he was still only wandering the western portion of the vale, as even trebuchets reinforced with magic had restrictions on their range. About three miles east of the first wall was Leon’s guess, though he had no real evidence for it apart from where the other five trebuchets he’d already destroyed were.
He stayed still for a few more minutes debating with himself the virtues of continuing on his reckless venture. There were so many things he had yet to find out, so many enemies he had to uncover. He had so much he had to do that he hadn’t even started yet, and he was risking it all just to seek vengeance for what Bran did to him, and for what Talfar had done to Anzu.
Elise’s face flashed through his mind, as it had so many times over the past week, except now, for the first time since Bran’s illusion, it wasn’t twisted with scorn and derision. Rather, he remembered her smile, the way her gorgeous red hair seemed to sparkle in the morning sun, and how, just like him, she struggled to wake up in the morning and always preferred lazing around in bed when she could get away with it. If he continued, he’d be caught sooner or later, and he’d never see her again.
But then his thoughts turned to Alix and Anzu. On one hand, he didn’t want to leave them alone, but he also wanted to do everything he could to keep them alive. Charles, Henry, and Alain, too. He hadn’t had much time since the Talfar army had appeared to spend time with his friends, but they were here as well, defending Ariminium and the Bull’s Horns with everything they had.
A griffin that depended on him like a child depends on its parent, and four friends on the road to knighthood, fighting against a foreign invader. And he still had the ability to seriously bloody that invader.
Leon pressed on. He hadn’t made his decision quite yet, but he was certainly leaning toward turning back. And yet, he had to see for himself how guarded the remaining trebuchets were. He was still invisible, after all, and with the magic he possessed, he could remain so for hours more, boosting his confidence in ways that only invisibility could.
After taking a few hesitant steps, Leon broke out into a slow jog, or about as fast as he could move while being both utterly silent and on alert for any patrolling chariots. And, soon enough, he heard the sounds of a large group of people and the snapping of rope, and he knew he had found another trebuchet.
He crept closer, keeping his eyes and ears open for any alerted Talfar warriors. As he approached the trebuchet, though, he found that it was much more heavily guarded than the previous ones he’d attacked; instead of only half a dozen guards that weren’t paying attention, Leon found about two dozen cataphracts surrounding the trebuchet just waiting for anyone to come and make trouble. What was worse, he could sense at least two fifth-tier mages among the cataphracts, and if they let off even a single blast of elemental magic in his direction, his invisibility could be easily stripped away.
This was too much force for him to feel comfortable taking on. Of the bigger explosion spells that he’d used on previous trebuchets, he only had a single one left, which he wanted to save for a dire situation. The same with his lightning spell, he had but one remaining.
He reluctantly turned around to start making his way back toward the Bull’s Horns.
And then he stopped. Something indisputably stupid and reckless had occurred to him, but it could also potentially put more of a dent in the Talfar army than whatever losses they would sustain today might.
All of Owain and Arthwyn’s best warriors were participating in the assault on the walls, and the vast majority of their levied peasants were with them, leaving only as many people behind to garrison Florentia and their camp as they thought they needed. In the case of their camp, Leon doubted there was anything more than a token force left behind to deter people from trying to loot the camp while the army was out fighting.
But he wasn’t a looter. He was a trained knight with fifth-tier strength, dozens of white-fire spells, and invisibility. He couldn’t imagine that the kind of warriors left behind would not be the kind that could stop him from burning supplies. Of course, there might be a few here and there that could pose a threat to him, especially those who might be stationed around Arthwyn and Owain’s tents, but with his bow, he wouldn’t need to get close…
‘It’s worth the risk to check out,’ Leon thought to himself, and he turned around again and took off toward the Talfar camp, his old near-forgotten predatory instincts from his childhood awakening even further with the discovery of even more prey.
This wasn’t the Forest of Black and White, but from the way Leon treated the dark, smoky vale, it might as well have been. He stayed low to the ground, moving between what little cover there was, and kept his head on a swivel. With the sounds of fighting in the distance, even those few chariot patrols that he passed never heard what little noise he made.
About twenty minutes later, Leon exited the smoke cloud on the eastern side, about a mile or so from the Talfar camp. The camp was surrounded by a large palisade—mostly built with wood from the forest just a few miles to the northeast, in Talfar territory—and from what little he could see into the camp from the entrance, additional palisades split the camp into smaller sections.
Leon had a couple options for infiltrating the camp. The first and most obvious was to simply jump over the palisade. It was only about twenty feet tall, an easy height for a fifth-tier mage to leap over. However, he could sense a fair degree of magic flowing through the spiked logs that made up the palisade, and he guessed that there had been some defensive wards placed to prevent such infiltration.
Sneaking past the guards at the entrance was risky, as they might notice his footprints in the dust, dirt, and grass, but they also looked incredibly bored and inattentive, being far more interested in trying to see what was happening with the battle behind the smoke than they were in actually guarding the camp.
He could also just attack the guards and hope to get into the camp in the confusion, but he quickly ruled that option out. The last thing he needed was to be trapped in an alerted camp before his work was completed.
Leon chose to try and sneak past the guards. Any thought of returning to the Horns had left his mind. He had an opportunity to seriously disrupt Talfar’s operations, and he was going to take it. Besides, the strongest of the guards was only a single fourth-tier mage; if they did happen to notice him sneaking past, he was confident in dealing with them and making an escape.
As he drew closer, he could hear them speaking, but unfortunately, they were speaking Prethonic, the primary spoken language of the Talfar Kingdom. The language spoken by those in the upper classes, like Owain, Arthwyn, and Bran, was so closely related to the language spoken in the Bull Kingdom that there was little difficulty in communicating. The same, however, could not be said for the language of the common people in Talfar, whose words were completely unintelligible to Leon’s ears.
This made a degree of sense to him, as the state built by the Storm King eighty thousand years ago would’ve had a unified language. The upper classes of Aeterna would still be speaking variants of this language as a sign of prestige, while the commoners might speak something completely different.
Things were a little different in the Bull Kingdom, though, as the relatively dominant position of House Raime over the past eighty thousand years ensured that the language of the Storm King endured among the population, even after the First Bull King conquered and unified the region.
Leon quickly shook his head, clearing it of thoughts about language and focused back on the task at hand.
‘I must be tired indeed if I’m getting so easily distracted,’ Leon thought. He hadn’t had much rest since the ambush that killed Bran, and it was starting to catch up with him, despite the magic and adrenaline coursing through his veins.
Leon approached the entrance and began taking extremely careful steps. There was too much ambient noise for him to be worried about being heard, but he was careful, nonetheless. He kept watch on the dozen guards, with a focus on the fourth-tier mage who appeared to be leading them. If anything happened, Leon would kill that man first.
The guards were joking, staring west, or otherwise slacking off, so Leon slipped past them with surprising ease. There was a nerve-wracking moment when it seemed like the fourth-tier guy had noticed him, as he turned his head in Leon’s direction and appeared to take a breath, but before Leon could react by drawing his sword, the mage sneezed and turned his head back toward his comrades. With a silent sigh of relief, Leon stepped past them and into the main entrance corridor of the camp.
To enter the camp proper, he had to pass another palisade, this one with a physical gate. However, the gate was wide open and the guards were just as negligent as those before, so Leon was able to easily walk right past them and enter the main camp.
The camp was enormous, but Leon wasted no time with surprise. His goal was to find Talfar’s supplies, and he greatly doubted that the main storage places for food wouldn’t be near the edge of the camp. There was a nearby guard tower set up, though it was barely more than an open platform supported on a few wooden struts. Leon could climb up and get a good view of the camp, but doing so would likely alert the guards on the tower.
Again, Leon was faced with the choice of continuing on or simply killing the guards that were in his way, and as before, Leon decided to be prudent and spare the two guards on the tower platform.
There was only one place that he could think of where the majority of valuable supplies would be kept: the center of the camp, where the highest-ranked members of the army slept and strategized. Leon didn’t want to go there. The guards would likely be leagues more professional than those at the entrance of the camp, making sneaking past them much more difficult.
‘Maybe I ought to explore more of this place before resorting to that,’ Leon thought. He guessed that he was in the area for the professional infantry, as the tents seemed too nice for the peasants. The road leading further into the camp was also the only place wide enough to allow for horses and chariots.
Leon began to walk around, sticking close to the main ‘road’ looking for anything that might indicate a storage point for food and other supplies. For about ten minutes, he had no luck in his search, until he stumbled on a small clearing a fair distance into the camp that appeared to be some kind of field hospital. The tent flaps were wide open, and he could see numerous injured warriors lying on cots within.
‘There must be medical supplies somewhere around here,’ Leon thought, and he began to poke around, though he had to be mindful of the few healers that were still tending to their patients that hadn’t accompanied the main army in its assault.
He got lucky fairly quickly; a doorway in the back of the tent led to a storage area filled with boxes of thousands of healing spells. Leon sprouted a huge smile and almost dropped a white-fire spell right then, but he was able to stop himself. Such a spell would be obvious sabotage, and he didn’t want to alert the camp just for a single small medical station.
Still, he also couldn’t just leave this place intact, so instead of a white-fire spell that would reduce the entire stockpile of spells and other miscellaneous medical supplies to ash in seconds, he would have to use another fire spell that he learned from Xaphan. Leon quietly dropped this spell behind one of the boxes near the back and hoped that it would be enough. He then left the tent as quickly as he could.
The spell he left behind would burn orange after a delay of about twenty minutes. Leon hoped that it would look like an accidental fire, but he wasn’t going to stick around to watch.
He pressed further into the camp, avoiding the occasional warriors that had been left behind. Since the army had left the camp to assault the walls, those left behind to guard the camp were generally those battalions that were considered too highly trained to be used as cannon fodder, like the civilians, yet too unskilled and unprofessional to be with the rest of the infantry. Whenever they were brought along on campaigns, these barely-more-than-militia battalions were always used to guard the camps, as most Talfar commanders couldn’t think of anything else they were useful for.
Because of the lower quality of these warriors, Leon had no trouble moving through the camp. In fact, they actually had a tendency to neglect their duties, mostly by falling asleep, practically giving Leon the run of the camp. But this did little to help Leon find the supplies he was looking for.
But then, as he was exploring one of the larger roads that crisscrossed the camp, he found a small caravan of five wheel-less wagons being driven by some tired-looking people and guarded by about fifteen mages who appeared to Leon’s eyes to be mercenaries.
Leon had been in the camp for about half an hour by this point, and his anxiety was growing almost by the second. There hadn’t been an uproar from his earlier spell, so it didn’t go off, the healers were able to contain the fire, there wasn’t enough evidence of sabotage for the alarm to be raised, or some combination of the three.
But now, Leon couldn’t believe his luck. Owain’s army would, of course, need regular shipments of food from his home province, but Leon didn’t actually think that he’d run into one of these shipments.
With an enormous smile on his face, Leon fell in behind the caravan and began following it toward its destination.
However, as they continued, Leon’s smile faltered; they were heading toward the center of the camp. Leon knew that there would be much higher quality warriors left behind to watch over the possessions of the higher-ranked warriors, especially for Owain and Arthwyn’s tents, which is why he wanted to avoid this area if possible. Unfortunately, it seemed that his initial guess of where the supplies were being kept was spot on.
He had to go to the center of the camp.
Stifling a sigh, Leon kept going. The caravan was stopped at the gate of the palisade that separated the center of the camp from the other sections, and Leon immediately knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to get in and out once the guards began to poke around and search through the wagons.
To avoid being seen, Leon slowly walked around the caravan, keeping as much space between himself and the guards as he could. He didn’t want to accidentally bump into one and be revealed.
After about fifteen anxious minutes, the guards let the caravan pass, though another group of guards was waiting for them on the other side of the gate to escort them to their destination. Leon slipped through the gate just as it began to close, only breathing somewhat normally again when it was clear that no one had seen him.
After another few minutes, the caravan arrived outside of another tent, this one as large as a decent-sized warehouse and too lacking in decoration to be a residential tent, leading Leon to believe that he’d finally arrived at what he had been seeking. His suspicions were confirmed when boxes began to be unloaded from the wagons and he snuck inside.
Thousands of boxes, barrels, and sacks had almost completely filled the tent. The labels on the nearby sacks read ‘wheat’, ‘hay’, and ‘barley’, while the nearby barrels were filled with beer, wine, and water.
Leon didn’t need to fully explore the tent to know that this was exactly where he wanted to be. He glanced back at the people unloading the wagons to ensure that he was still undetected, and then got to work.
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