Chapter 124 - FTX VIII

As promised last month, there will be 3 bonus chapters after this =)

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“They’re going to attack tonight,” Castor stated.

“You say that as if it were ever a question,” Leon responded with a smile.  “That attack last night was only a probe.  They wanted to see how we would react.  No doubt that they’ll use what they learned to plan for their attack.”

“Then we should attack them first!  They won’t attack us if they take serious casualties!” said Alphonsus.

“Hmm, I’m certainly tempted to attack as well,” Castor agreed.

“That might not be the best option,” said Leon.

“What do you mean?” asked Alphonsus.

“Only that we know where they’ll come from and we know where they’re going,” Leon answered. “That gives us… options…”

“You’re saying we should spring an ambush?” asked Castor.

“Yes,” Leon responded instantly.  “We shouldn’t just wait around for the attack like a turtle hiding in its shell.  We can hit them before they attack, or even after their attack has started.  A couple of squads can be pulled from defending the palisades without seriously compromising its security; we need only to hide them in the forest and hit them in the flank when they present an opportunity.”

“That also doesn’t preclude us from hitting them a few times during the day,” reminded Alphonsus.

“No, it doesn’t…” said Castor while he lost himself in thought.

“Both ideas are not necessarily different,” said Leon.  “In fact, they’re essentially the same, only taking place at different locations.  I think we can do both at the same time…”

“What are you thinking?” asked Castor.

Leon smiled at him, moved over to their map, then began to speak.

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Alphonsus readied half a dozen arrows.  He and the rest of his squad had taken three bundles of arrows each, ninety per person, and set out not long after the third-tier strategy meeting finished.  It had taken them all day to reach their destination, one of the small ridgelines that flanked the pass between the allied units’ camp and the Snow Lions’ gorge.  Across the pass, he could see another similarly-equipped archer squad led by Obellius.  They had posted up just beyond the narrowest part of the pass.

It had taken all day for both squads to finish climbing to these locations, but it put them in positions that were not only nearly untouchable from the ground, but also gave them a commanding view of the pass.  Their job now was to wait.

After about half an hour, the sun set behind the mountains and both squads began to hear increased movement coming from the allied camps’ direction.  An hour or so later, after darkness had completely fallen, they saw the first of the allied units appear.

The Steel Century had taken point, with Marcus and Alcander at the head of the formation.  Behind them came the Deathbringers, led by Gaius.  Bringing up the rear were the Crimson Tigresses, led by Valeria.  At the very back of the formation was Asiya, Actaeon, and Linus.

“Looks like they’re afraid of being hit from behind,” whispered Alphonsus with a smile.  ‘They should’ve worried more about what was above them than what might be behind…’

All twenty Snow Lions archers over both ridges made their final preparations while the allied formation slowly moved through the pass.  They readied a handful of arrows and waited for the exact time to fire.  That moment came when the allies had moved about two-thirds of the way through the pass.  They were spread out enough that Marcus and Alcander had disappeared into the forest on the other side.

Silently, Alphonsus raised his bow and waited for a single heartbeat, just long enough for the rest of the Snow Lions to do likewise, then he loosed his first arrow.  Everyone else did the same, and then just kept shooting with the arrows already in their hands.  In less than five seconds, eighty arrows had fallen upon the unsuspecting allies, leaving fifty of them unconscious or too paralyzed to fight.

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Several hundred feet ahead, Marcus and Alcander were leading the allies through the forest when Marcus suddenly called the formation to a stop.  He could hear shouting coming from behind them, though he couldn’t quite make out what was being said.

“What’s going on back there?” he asked quietly.  When he had explained the plan to the second-tier trainees, he had emphasized keeping the units silent and undetected for as long as possible—right up until they launched their attack if they could manage it—but the noise coming from further back in the marching column was throwing a wrench into that plan.

Suddenly, one of his second-tier noble followers came sprinting up from further back and explained what had just happened.

“Shit,” Marcus muttered under his breath.  He quickly ordered the trainees to turn around and head for the pass, to support those under fire.  ‘The Snow Lions obviously figured out what we were going to do… though this isn’t unsalvageable, we just need to get back to the units under fire’ he thought.

However, the trainees had only taken a few steps back, just enough to completely turn around, when dozens of arrows came whizzing through the trees and into their exposed backs and flanks.  This happened along almost the entire length of the marching column that had entered the forest, and the allied trainees fell in droves.  Even Marcus himself was hit by no less than three arrows, but each one had hit him directly in his back plates, where his armor was thickest.  He was knocked to the ground, but he wasn’t out of the fight just yet.

“TURN BACK AROUND!” he roared while struggling back to his feet.  “GET IN A SHIELD WALL!”

Alcander had been stunned, as had more than thirty men in the Steel Century, but those still standing charged forward into a tight formation and covered themselves with their shields.

“ADVANCE!  BUT KEEP YOUR SHIELD UP!” Marcus bellowed.  The shield wall quickly broke, but the trainees stayed in tight groups and kept their shields up.  However, the arrow fire didn’t abate, and the Snow Lions’ targets quickly changed; those who had been firing on the right flank then targeted the left, who had their backs and flanks exposed, while the same happened on the left.

“KEEP MOVING FORWARD!” Marcus ordered, keeping his trainees charging into the trees, ignoring those who fell while they frantically searched for the Snow Lions shooting at them.

And his tactic seemed to work, as after they had run forward for about one hundred and fifty feet, the arrows ceased to fall.  In the distance, Marcus could see a few brief glimpses of the retreating Snow Lions.  He almost ordered his trainees to keep pushing forward, but there were more than fifty of his men either partially paralyzed or completely stunned.  Besides, he still didn’t know the situation back in the pass, so he could only grit his teeth and order a retreat.

---

The situation in the pass wasn’t much better than in the forest for the allies; the Snow Lions kept up a heavy barrage, but Valeria had managed to get the trainees behind their shields, so the casualty rate they suffered plummeted.  After that, she organized a few archers to take cover behind the shields while they returned fire, but the angle they were firing back at limited their effectiveness.

However, Asiya who had run forward and Gaius who had run back had both managed to take a few Snow Lions out with well-placed arrows.  Valeria herself, meanwhile, ran forward and jumped with all the strength she could muster.  The cliff was only about thirty feet tall, just low enough for her to jump, grab ahold of the cliff’s edge, then pull herself up.  As soon as she did, she made quick work of the two closest Snow Lions.  Another quickly fired the arrow he had been about to shoot into the allies down below at her, but she raised her arm and blocked it with her bracer.  The arrow’s stunning effect badly stung; her arm went numb, but she could still move it.

While Valeria began tearing through the Snow Lions on the ridge, Marcus and his men came charging out from the trees.  Marcus left twenty trainees with their shields raised at the tree line while he and eighty men from the Steel Century and Deathbringers came to support the fifty remaining Deathbringers and Crimson Tigresses in the rear.

Up on the other ridge, Alphonsus could see Obellius’ squad being torn apart by Valeria.  He had been about to order his archers to shoot her, but then he saw Marcus’ charge and instead ordered a retreat.  He trusted that Obellius and the other two second-tier trainees in his squad could hold Valeria long enough for them to get away, but he fired a few arrows at her anyway to help them out.  All of his arrows hit her in the armor, so she wasn’t stunned, but he did knock her down long enough for Obellius and his squad to grab their stunned comrades and pull back.  Alphonsus’ squad then did likewise before Marcus or any of the other allied third-tier mages could follow Valeria’s example and take the fight directly to them on the ridge.

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“What’s the final casualty count?” Marcus asked as the stunned trainees were gathered back in the camp.

“One hundred and nine either unconscious or otherwise unable to fight,” answered Gaius.

“An entire unit, taken out,” Asiya whispered in both awe and disbelief.

Marcus paced a few times in the command tent and thought, resting his chin in his hand as he did so.

“… We can still launch our attack,” he said after several long seconds.

“What?!” Linus almost shouted.  “We just had more than a third of our people stunned!”

“They’ll recover before the night’s over, and I have a few second-tier nobles from the Steel Century keeping an eye on those ridgelines, so we won’t be ambushed from there again,” Marcus calmly responded.  “We can’t attack now, because the Snow Lions are likely on guard and waiting for us to keep up with our attack.  However, if we take this opportunity to rest and attack again just before dawn, we might be able to pull this off.”

The allied units spent the next several hours recovering, making sure all of their stunned trainees woke up and had some time to collect themselves.  Then, barely more than an hour before dawn, they set out again.  The units moved with extreme caution, keeping their eyes on the ridgelines and their weapons drawn.  They even had sixty trainees with bows and arrows in hand ready to return any fire they might receive.

But, for all their caution, they didn’t encounter a single setback on their way to the Snow Lions’ camp.  There wasn’t a single arrow that flew at them from the darkness, and they didn’t trip a single flare spell.

Finally, they arrived at their destination: the bank of the river that flowed through the gorge.  It was only another five hundred feet to the Snow Lions’ palisade, but the units stopped to get in a few last minutes of rest before the attack began.  In that time, Marcus, Valeria, and Gaius snuck forward to the tree line to see how the Lion’s defenses looked.  The watchtowers were still manned, as were the archer towers.  In fact, it seemed like the Snow Lion sentries were just as alert as they would have been if they hadn’t ambushed the allies earlier that night.

The three unit leaders quietly snuck back to their waiting trainees with smiles on their faces.

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Leon walked out of the cave and into the camp’s courtyard.  He had led four squads into the forest to ambush the allies’ front, and when Marcus pushed his men forward, Leon had his trainees retreat.  They had done their job and inflicted heavy casualties, so they didn’t need to stick around and get dragged into a fight with an enemy with far superior numbers.

All-in-all, the ambush was a success, the three allied units had been turned back.  But, something didn’t quite sit right with Leon, and it kept him from sleeping.  After hours of tossing and turning, he had decided to call it quits and resign himself to sleeplessness.  He had then left the cave to get some fresh air, though that restless feeling in him didn’t die down, so he had taken the extra time to put his armor on.

He couldn’t pin down what felt wrong, but there was just something about the ambush that didn’t feel right.  Had it been anyone else leading the allies other than Marcus, he probably would’ve gone to bed with a satisfied heart, but from what he knew of Marcus, he didn’t think the noble would end things so easily.

Leon walked a few laps around the inside of the palisade to loosen up, then he climbed one of the watchtowers to get a look out into the forest.

“Everything going all right here?” he asked the first-tier trainee in the tower.  The trainee tiredly nodded in response.

And then, as if mocking the young trainee, dozens of arrows began to fly out from the forest and straight into the towers.

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Chapter 125 - FTX IX

Chapter 123 - FTX VII