Chapter 126 - FTX X

Bonus chapter 2 of 3

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“Coming here alone was quite bold,” Marcus said to Tiberias.  The leader of the Black Vipers had shown up at the south-eastern pass without a single other member of his unit and asked to speak with the nine third-tier leaders of the allied units.  He was consequently shown into their command tent.

“Was it really so bold?” Tiberias asked in response.  “I’m merely trying to show my trust in all of you not to take me hostage, as well as my commitment to what I want to propose.”

Marcus frowned.  Tiberias had sounded completely sincere, and he had a pleasant enough expression, but it seemed fake to him.  He couldn’t imagine that the leader of the Black Vipers, who had spent the previous month and a half skillfully fending off the other four units to keep their banner in hand, would show up in their camp without some kind of ulterior motive.

“What is it you propose?” Gaius inquired.

“Only that my unit join this alliance you all have built.”

“Why?” Valeria bluntly asked.

“Because it’s my understanding that your three units aren’t quite enough to cut through the Snow Lions’ defenses, and neither have you found an alternate entrance into their caves.  Well, I just so happen to have…”  Tiberias reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a piece of paper, folded many times to fit.  “… a map of their cave system, including the system’s hidden entrances.”

“Let me see that,” said Alcander as he stepped forward and reached for the map, but Marcus stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Hang on,” Marcus said.

“You only explained why allowing you to join our alliance would help us,” Valeria stated, picking up on the same thing Marcus had.  “You failed to explain why you want to join us in the first place.  Surely, if your map is accurate, you could just infiltrate their camp yourself, yet you’re here.  Why?

Tiberias’ smile didn’t shift in the slightest from Valeria’s questioning, which only served to put both her and Marcus further on edge.  It was incredibly disconcerting for them how completely unfazed Tiberias was, with his easy-going smile that barely even twitched coming across more like a mask to the two of them than as actual amicability.

Tiberias was silent for a long moment after Valeria’s question; he only stared at her unblinkingly.  Finally, he said, “I want the same thing all of you want: banners.  However, three other strong units have been unable to penetrate the Snow Lions’ defenses and accomplish their goal.  Makes me very apprehensive.  So, even if my unit only gains one or two banners by joining up with all of you, it’s far better than the none I think we’d likely get if we tried this on our own.”

With his fake-seeming smile, Marcus had a hard time believing him, but his reasoning was sound.  The Snow Lions had resisted for a month and a half against the alliance, so it was quite understandable that the Black Vipers would seek out support rather than attack on their own.

“Aren’t you afraid that we’d just stun you, take your map, then attack the Snow Lions without your unit?” Alcander asked, while his hand started to wrap around the handle of his greatax in an obvious threat.

Tiberias’ answer was a simple “No,” but his demeanor was so confident that Alcander unconsciously hesitated to attack.  Plus, Tiberias’ eyes had narrowed, as if to turn his smile into a direct challenge for Alcander.

“Why don’t you let us see that map, and we’ll think about it?  You know, a little show of good faith?” asked Gaius.  Tiberias happily handed the map over to him without any fear; he had a good relationship with Gaius and trusted him not to try anything deceitful.

Gaius opened the map and spread it out on their table.  It was incredibly detailed, with every cave within a half mile of the allied camp marked in red.  Marked in green was a series of lines that emanated from the region protected by the Snow Lions’ palisade, which Gaius guessed to be the cave system.

“So, how about it?  Are you all interested in my offer?” asked Tiberias.

Gaius, Valeria, and Marcus exchanged glances.  Marcus and Valeria were still a little apprehensive, but with only a single week left in the FTX, they weren’t in a position to casually turn down help.  All three nodded, and the Black Vipers joined the alliance.

---

For four more days, the allies were quiet.  They didn’t attack the Snow Lions, few scouts were sent out, and the Snow Lions’ own scouts reported that not enough trainees left their camp to signal an attack.

Suffice it to say, Castor, Leon, and Alphonsus were extremely suspicious.

“What are they doing?” Castor wondered aloud as he stared out into the forest from one of the inner watchtowers along the palisade.

“They’re definitely planning something,” said Alphonsus.

“Maybe we should go and attack them before they can try it,” Leon suggested.  “No real use waiting around for them to do what they’re planning to.”

“We hardly have the numbers to beat them in an assault,” Castor reminded.

“I’m not saying we have to run them out of the mountains, just disturb them a little.  Put them on the defensive, maybe force them to take enough casualties that they have to delay whatever they’re planning,” Leon said.

Castor frowned in hesitation.  There were only three days left until the FTX came to an end, and the tension was making him anxious.

“For now,” he said, “we’ll keep an eye on them.  I want to know everything they’re doing, so let’s have scouts watching them around the clock.”

“They’ve learned a lot about the terrain around here, our scouts will have a hard time getting close enough for that kind of monitoring,” Alphonsus said.

“Hmm, well, let’s have them do their best.  For now, we’ll remain-“  In the middle of his sentence, Castor was interrupted by three flare enchantments flying into the sky and illuminating the entire forest.

“Looks like we won’t have to wait to see what they’re planning!” Alphonsus remarked while Castor activated the alarm enchantment for the cave.  By the time the first few allied trainees came into view, all of the Snow Lions were in place.

But, they didn’t advance toward the gate like they always had in past assaults.  Instead, the shield walls took up a position to cover the archers in the tree line.  Both sides exchanged fire, but the allies remained motionless, even when their archers were occasionally hit.

‘What is this?’ Leon wondered.  ‘Why aren’t they attacking?!  Staying in range of our archers without moving will only bring them needless casualties, what are they thinking?!’

And then, something occurred to him.  He scanned the shield walls and the archers behind them for the third-tier trainees.  They were a little too far for him to see their faces, but he could still see their auras, and a quick count only brought him to seven.  Two of their third-tier nobles were missing.

Leon stopped firing his arrows and fell back from the watchtowers into the caves, where he sprinted straight to the highest archer platform.

“What are you doing here?” Castor asked when Leon arrived.

“Some of them are missing,” Leon answered.  “We need to make sure the banners are secured, because they may have found one of our secondary entrances.”

Castor thought for a moment, then nodded to Leon.  “Do what you need to do,” he said.

Leon nodded back, then ran back into the caves.  The banners had been hung on the wall in the main cavern, though Leon had only placed light enchantments upon them to keep them secure.  He quickly went to work removing them from the wall.

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“It’s impressive that they’ve managed to do so much,” Gaius marveled as he, Alcander, Tiberias, and the other three third-tier Black Vipers stared at a wooden wall with an incredibly secure-looking door.  Several second-tier Black Vipers were working on opening the door while the other hundred trainees of their unit waited behind the six third-tier nobles.  As soon as the door was open, they’d charge into the tunnel it was blocking and hit the Snow Lions from behind.

“They’ve had months to fortify these caves.  They clearly put that time to good use,” Alcander said with a smile.  He was almost bouncing with excitement at the prospect of finally rooting the Snow Lions out of the caves they had been hunkered down in.

“That’s it, it’s open!” said one of the second-tier Vipers.  He pushed the door open, and the third-tier leaders took point.

But, they were so preoccupied with rushing into the Snow Lions’ camp that they didn’t notice a glyph on the back of the door flash, then blink out.

---

Leon had gotten six of the nine banners undone and rolled up for transport when he heard the deep rumbling alarm of someone penetrating one of the secondary entrances.

“Shit,” he whispered, knowing that he had been right to be suspicious.  The allies had found another way in, and their attack outside was only a diversion while they came in a different way.  Fortunately, they hadn’t noticed the alarm, and soon after, Castor and Alphonsus sprinted back into the caves.

“They’re in,” Leon said, confirming what they already knew.

“What do we do now?!  We can’t fight them off if they’re already in the caves!  The only reason we could hold out was because of the palisade!” Alphonsus shouted in hysteria.  They were only three days away from ending the FTX with nine of the banners!  But now they were almost certainly going to lose all of them.

“Help us with these,” Castor said calmly as he joined Leon in removing the last three banners from the wall.

“What’re you planning?” Alphonsus asked.

“Probably the same thing Leon had in mind.  We’re going to move these banners while most of the unit stays behind and buys enough time for one of us to escape,” Castor said, to which Leon nodded.

“Then who’s going to go?!” Alphonsus shouted.

Castor glanced over at Leon.  He had made his own decision, but he wanted to know Leon’s opinion.

“I’m staying,” Leon said.  “And I’ll be keeping three of the banners.”

“What?!” Alphonsus asked in confusion.

“I won’t be enough to keep the invaders from pursuing whoever escapes, I’ll need some kind of bait.  The unit banners will do.”

“Do it,” agreed Castor.  “And Al, take these other banners and go!”

“Where to?”

“Anywhere!  Wherever you can lay low until the FTX is over!”

Alphonsus couldn’t help but hesitate.  All nine banners were quickly rolled up and distributed, with three hung over Leon’s shoulder and the other six given to him.  But, he still couldn’t bring himself to leave Leon or Castor.

“I… I won’t leave!  We can fight them off!  I’m not going to leave you two behind!” he said, remembering all of his behavior earlier in the training cycle.  His face now burned in shame at how Leon and Castor were now so willing to stay and buy him time to leave.

“You are!” shouted Castor.  “They’re in the caves!  They have the numbers to beat us!  So you’re going to win this for us!  Go!”

“He’s not going anywhere,” came a voice from a nearby tunnel.  Emerging into the light of the main cavern came dozens of Black Vipers, led by Alcander, Gaius, and Tiberias, the latter of whom had been the one to speak.

“Go and open the gates,” Tiberias said to the unit at his back and, led by one of the other three Vipers, the rest of the unit sprinted to the cave entrance and spilled out into the courtyard.

“Hand over those banners!” Alcander shouted.

Leon, Alphonsus, and Castor glanced at each other.  There was no arguing it now, they had lost the camp.  In an instant, they all came to the same conclusion and immediately turned to run down a tunnel behind them.

“Oh, you’re not getting away that easily,” Tiberias said with a smile as he, Alcander, Gaius, and the other two Vipers gave chase.

The three Snow Lions knew the caves better, but they still couldn’t gain much ground.  The caves were winding enough that running at full speed was impossible.  So, knowing there wasn’t an abundance of choice, Castor shouted to the other two Lions, “Keep going!  I’ll give you a few seconds!”

With that, he stopped and turned around to face the five pursuers in the narrow tunnel.

Alphonsus grimaced, but he kept going, as did Leon.  So long as those banners remained in their hands, the Snow Lions hadn’t completely lost quite yet.

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Chapter 127 - FTX XI

Chapter 125 - FTX IX