Chapter 18 - Angry Duke
Marquis Notable Ice Breeze, wearing white armor with blue gemstones, had one knee to the ground and was sniffing the air.
"Eggs and bacon, three days ago," he reported to Duke Eminence Ninefingers, who was standing nearby wearing an impressive black armor with red gemstones.
"Track them," he said in absolute fury. "I want their heads!" He bellowed, unconsciously releasing mana that pressured everyone nearby to lower their heads and get to their knees.
Not one of the thousands of people knew why their Duke was so angry about other people having killed the forest monster. To them, not having to fight it was a great relief, not something to be upset about.
However, whatever the Duke's reasoning, it wasn't for them to question their orders but to obey.
And obey the Marquis did. Employing a spell that only he in the retinue was able to use, he sniffed his way to those who had wronged the Duke.
"They are one day behind us," Aaron informed his group.
He had detected the pursuers two days ago by the disturbances their search spells were causing to the ambient mana in the whole forest. Since then, the distance between them had been constantly decreasing.
"Please, leave us and escape, Master," Mark pleaded for what felt like the thousandth time.
Aaron shook his head silently. He didn't mind the pursuit enough to abandon his people yet. In fact, he was curious about who was following him, and why.
He was confident that it wasn't the Crusade, for whoever was behind him now was simply too slow to catch up. This weakness didn't match the powerful picture of the Immortal Crusade he had seen in the Eminence's mind.
The pursuers were also too many, his Geoscan spell having detected enough tremors to suggest hundreds of people, while the Crusade was known for acting in two opening ways, espionage or dispatching powerful small groups of less than five people to do its deeds. When those options weren't enough, they didn't send tens of people, then hundreds, and then thousands. Instead, they used a force strong enough to destroy a country and if that failed, a full-fledged continental war was declared.
Unfortunately, the people after him were out of range for him to learn more than their approximate number. He was sure that they were after him though, for he had changed directions more than once and they kept following.
"Should we run, then, Master?" Mark insisted.
Aaron waved his hands dismissively. "Of course not, that would be rude. If we have guests, we should simply set up a welcoming gift for them."
The wicked smile that Aaron showed made Mark shiver.
The Marquis stopped right outside a cave within a big clearing with a frown to his face. Behind him, a hundred mages stopped, too. The klutzes and warriors had been left behind the day before as to not slow the pursuit.
"What is it?" The Duke asked.
"Something is wrong," the Marquis said. "The smell, the footprints, even the lack of animals in the area confirm they entered the cave, but something... I can't explain it, it just feels off."
"Lack of animals? What about it?" Ninefingers asked.
"Wild animals avoid mages," Ice Breeze explained, "and most mages forget about it when setting up diversions. Finding undisturbed animals where a mage supposedly just went through is a huge tell sign."
"You're telling me that everything indicates they went inside, including the lack of animals that no mage thinks about, but you 'feel' something is wrong?" The Duke asked impatiently.
The Marquis nodded seriously, not caring much about the Duke's tone. He had worked long enough under the Duke to know that the latter appreciated competence no matter how much it might go against his own plans.
"Yes," the Marquis said.
Aaron was watching the discussion from atop a tree some hundreds of meters away from the group of pursuers, right at the edge of the clearing. A magical bubble prevented Sara, Mark, and him from being seen, smelled, heard, or felt. They had briefly entered the cave, then used the bubble to leave unnoticed.
He was surprised to see that his pursuers were a hundred and one mages, one of which was an Eminence, and even more surprised when the Notable tracker felt something was off with the cave.
"What's happening?" Sara whispered anxiously. She couldn't hear what was being said and had been warned not to use a spell outside the barrier or it might be detected.
"You don't need to whisper, the barrier would prevent even screams from getting to them," Aaron said. "As for your question, I hid the signs of the beast living inside the cave, but the tracker's subconsciousness is probably telling him that such a mana-rich cave would surely be occupied, even if his conscious mind doesn't realize it yet." Aaron didn't use a spell to hear the conversation, as it was too risky even for him. He had merely enhanced his vision and was reading the tracker's lips.
Plan A was to wait for everyone to get into the cave and for the men and the beast to fight each other. Aaron would then use the chaos and the limited space to defeat his enemies with ease. As for their identities, he highly doubted that a hundred and one unknown people would follow him unannounced with good intentions.
Mark and Sara agreed with him. The mage society wasn't one where people were that desperate to track others in the forest for good reasons, especially not at the cost of using up the energy stored in the gemstones of the armors that five of them were wearing. It would cost them a lot to replace the gemstones later.
"I think the man in black armor is Duke Eminence Ninefingers," Sara kept whispering despite Aaron's reassurance of safety. "I never saw his armor before, but the description matches, and only a Duke should have enough authority to command a hundred mages this close to the Royal Capital."
Aaron put a hand to his chin. So, Ninefingers had come for vengeance, did he? What were the secrets behind the wraith? Aaron didn't have enough information to get to a conclusion, but it was obvious that the wraith was more important to Ninefingers than just being used as a material.
As for trying to negotiate, Aaron struck the idea off as soon as he considered it. The Duke was visibly infuriated, and Aaron never negotiated with infuriated people who had the advantage of level and numbers unless there was no better option.
"What do we do, Master?" Mark asked.
"We wait," Aaron replied.
"Do you recommend we backtrack to find the right trail?" The Duke crossed his arms and asked.
The Marquis shook his head. "I paid utmost attention all the way here and avoided all the false trails they left behind. I'm sure they went inside, it's just strange. Now that I think about it, why did they enter the cave? They had no reason to do so. It..." His eyes widened in realization. "Wait, shouldn't there be a beast in the cave?!" He finally realized what was bothering him.
"Stop mumbling!" Ninefingers said angrily. "Are they inside, or not?"
"I'm not sure," Ice Breeze said. "I'm confident they entered the cave, but they might have left using other means. Besides, with such rich energy in the area, there should be a beast inside, but I can't detect any signs of it. It might be a trap, so I recommend we send a scouting party."
The Duke snorted. "Just go with the recommendation from the beginning the next time." He turned back. "Group A, scout ahead!"
Five mages, with a Notable being the strongest of the group, immediately obeyed and entered the cave.
"Not good," Sara whispered anxiously. "They won't spring the trap."
Aaron smiled. "Oh, they just did." Plan A was a no go, but that's why he had prepared plan B beforehand.
Before she could ask him what he meant, a huge roar shook the very ground of the forest coming from the cave. The beast inside was pissed with the mages who had just invaded its lair.
At the same time, Aaron raised and snapped his fingers.
Myriad Arts — Spellcasting, Beast Taming — Single Element: Soul — Seventh Taunting!
An even greater disturbance than the roar resounded in the nearby area, moving like a wave through the plane where souls dwelled with Aaron in the center. It was a vibration made of Soul mana in high frequency, something no mage without the right spell would detect.
But plenty of beasts did detect it, and many other roars and cheeps came from all around the forest.
"It's a trap!" The Marquis said when he heard the beasts.
"Defensive formation, now!" Ninefingers ordered.
Almost before the Duke had finished giving the order, the mages swiftly divided themselves into groups of five and strategically positioned themselves around Ninefingers. Finding himself in the middle of the defensive formation, he used a simple spell to raise a small platform of earth beneath him, pulling him up and giving him a vantage point from where he could direct the incoming battle.
Most of the mages had spatial treasures with them, from which they produced fist-sized orbs, head-sized orbs, metal staves, swords, shields, and all kinds of enchanted weaponry. The four armored people other than the Duke all stood close to him, forming a last line of defense around him.
It all happened in an instant, and yet they had all barely gotten in position when the corpse of one of the mages who had gone inside the cave came flying out of it, leaving a trail of blood behind. The corpse, twisted and missing a limb, hit the ground like a broken doll.
A lizard four times the size of a horse came running from the cave, roaring in a way that showed three rows of pointy teeth on the top of its mouth. Its black frill was open, and its red body was so hot that it even set air alight in some places.
"Groups F through I, kill that thing," Ninefingers ordered through his communication earing and kept looking around, trying to locate the mastermind behind the trap.
The massive lizard, a Notable Beast, got even angrier when it saw the men outside its lair and spat a fireball while still running at them. Twenty mages moved to intercept both the attack and the beast.
While everyone was focusing on the lizard, a rhinoceros merely as tall as Aaron appeared on the other side of the group. It had a gray body that shone like metal and two bull horns on its head that not only looked like metal but were made of metal. It moved way too fast, like a blur, and slammed straight into a mage.
The mage didn't even have time to yell before his body was broken in two and the rhino moved towards the next target.
From all around the group, more beasts appeared. Ice wolves shot ice spikes, electric birds shot lightning, monkeys threw rocks, and a bear twice the size of the lizard just bulged in like a mad bull.
Under the command of Ninefingers, the mages counterattacked. They erected elemental barriers, from earth to wind, ice to fire, and even some spatial ones. They shot fireballs, ice spikes, lightning, and rocks back.
Explosions of all elements shook the ground, poison in the air made the air unbreathable, and a maelstrom of spells colored the air in a kind of energetic rainbow that was beautiful to witness if you weren't inside it.
It was chaos.
The beasts were too many and too strong. For every three beasts the mages killed, at least another mage died. The lizard and the rhino were especially devious, but a black bear, a Champion Beast, the strongest of the attacking beasts that appeared, died surprisingly fast.
It had rushed straight at the Duke, and one of the four armored men protecting Ninefingers summoned tens of powerful lightning spikes in quick succession. All the gemstones on his armor overcharged as too much energy was pulled from them too fast and they all broke; thankfully for the mage, the job was done.
The lighting spikes shot straight through the bear's head, filling it holes, shocking and burning its brain. It died just like that.
It was a Champion Beast, but the armor the Notable Mage was wearing increased his elemental power and provided him with more mana to power his spells, giving him the upper hand.
Momentum kept the bear's corpse going forward after its death, and the armored man was forced to erect a thick earth wall to protect the Duke. The corpse was stopped, but the armored man put his hands to his knees, breathing haggardly.
Now that both he and the gemstones were exhausted, he had to hope no new Champion Beast appeared and charged his direction.
All the while, Ninefingers didn't use a single spell. Like a hawk, his eyes kept scanning his surroundings, trying to locate the three people he had come to find.
The rest of the battle was quick and brutal. The lizard lost a limb and ran back to the cave. The rhino killed over thirty mages before facing strong opposition from an armored mage and escaping. Every other beast either died or ran away too.
In the end, on the blood-covered corpse-filled battlefield, only thirteen of the hundred and one mages remained, seven of which were heavily injured. The armored man who defeated the bear was exhausted, and another armored man, who had defended against the rhino, fell unconscious to the ground.
"Are you done, coward?!" The Duke yelled at the forest. "Come out! Face me like a true mage!" He was seething with rage.
Aaron had watched everything with disappointment.
The way those mages fought was just like what he had seen in the memories from the Eminence he had killed, way too weak.
He would have to release a few didactic books when he finally reached the Three Towers — where he still had to go to save his grandfather and hopefully perfect his magic, despite people wanting his head —, or he would simply not have a strong enough army to attack the other regions of the continent when the time came, and then, the armies of the Immortals in the final war.
As long as they didn't show themselves to be complete morons, he would groom Mark and Sara to become his generals, but the three of them would hardly be enough.
The very battle he had just witnessed was an indication of why he needed an army. The beasts had ranged from Four Stars to Champion level, and it was a miracle any mage had survived at all, considering their pitiful individual ability. The only things they had going for them, which had allowed them to survive, were that they fought well as a group, covering for each other, and that they had superior equipment.
Now, he was waiting for those same mages to leave so he could safely go his own way.
"Master, with all due respect..." Mark said tentatively.
"Yes?" Aaron asked.
"Why don't you kill them?"
The boy shook his head. "Three reasons. First, because even though I have the power to do it, there's no guarantee they don't have hidden cards that would lead to me being killed or captured. Second, because they have nothing that I can't buy in the city we're going next, so I'd be risking my life for no real reward. And third, because we're still on the hide and it would be unwise to show ourselves. Who knows who might be watching, either in the present or in the future? The tracker exhausted himself enough that he won't be able to use a spell for at least a week, so we're safe just leaving." He sighed. "Even the little we did might have revealed too much already."
"Oh," Mark said.
Ninefingers chose that moment to release a huge wave of Wind mana around him. The wind died much before it hit the tree where Aaron was hiding, some three hundred meters away.
When the wind failed to reveal anyone, the Duke activated his Mana Sense, but Aaron's spell was good enough to hide them as long as he didn't move.
"As fun as killing your enemies might be," he said as if he wasn't being actively hunted by an Eminence, "remember what I taught you a few days ago, you must never allow emotion to rule over reason. Unless, of course, you deliberately decide to do so, but only after weighing the pros and cons of such a decision."
"I'll reflect on your teachings, Master," the man said. Sara also had a thoughtful expression on her face.
The Duke vented his fury by damaging the area around him for almost an hour before leaving, and Aaron waited for a few hours after that before moving on.
"We believe we found him," the shadow said as soon as it materialized in the throne room.
Bloodvine was sitting on her throne, breathing heavily. She had just gone through a bodily training session and it had been strenuous.
"Where?" She asked.
"Unleaving Forest," the shadow said. "Eminence Ninefingers was following a group of three people who killed the local Tyrant Beast. A few hours ago, he and his men were ambushed by local beasts, with eighty-eight casualties out of one hundred and one. We believe the three people he was following are the kid and its followers."
"Good," the Queen said. "Get to the boy and confirm whether he is a demon as soon as possible. We've been trying to get to him for eight days already, and the others are annoying me to work faster. Just don't break any law unless required."
The old Warden of the East had been trying to get rid of her for the last fifty years. Already a hundred years old, he was still full of undying ambition and would attack at the smallest show of weakness. If she took too long to find the boy, she would suffer a political backslash, but if she was found breaking laws to hasten her search, she would also suffer a political backslash. It was all very annoying, but her own plans were in motion and he would soon lose his greatest support!
"Yes, my Queen," the shadow said, but didn't leave. "There's one more thing."
"When our informant with Eminence Ninefingers told us about the three people, he also sent us another report. Children disappearing in the middle of the night with no real investigation being done. There was also no reason to take thousands of people into the Unleaving Forest to kill the-"
"Spare me the details," the Queen said. "Are you saying Ninefingers is suspected of harboring or helping demons?"
"Investigate," she ordered.
"At once," the shadow said, and disappeared.
The Queen didn't let reports of an Eminence helping demons take away the happiness she was feeling. Before her floated the World's Writ.
Attribute: Speed (Body)
Grade: 1 > 2
Your body has improved!
Grade: 1 > 2
No change to your level!
You're already level 9 — Overlord Mage.
Even though her level hadn't changed, she had just become physically as strong as a Two Stars Warrior, and able to use any martial ability such a warrior could!
She couldn't stop smiling.
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I'm Ed, a writer of GameLit. So far I have released only two books, but I'm working on increasing this number by tens! No, by hundreds! Maybe thousands! xP
Mailing list: http://www.edward-castle.com/