Chapter 127 - FTX XI

Bonus chapter 3 of 3

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After standing at the tree line for about ten minutes, Marcus judged that they had bought enough time for the infiltration team and ordered the shield walls to slowly advance.  He didn’t like having them simply stand there and take fire, but the plan didn’t hinge on these units getting too close, so he had decided to wait for a while.  By the time he ordered his shield walls forward, the Snow Lions had used most of their arrows, so their advance didn’t face nearly so withering of arrow fire as they had during their previous assaults.

In fact, their march to the gate came without sustaining a single casualty.

Once they arrived at the gate, Valeria immediately got to work undoing the enchantments Leon had placed upon it.  Everyone was eager to get inside, as they could hear the sounds of battle coming from within, which Marcus knew meant their infiltration team had succeeded in gaining access to the caves.

It only took Valeria another three minutes or so of slapping sheets of spell paper onto the gate for Leon’s enchantments to fail, at which point she, Asiya, and Actaeon threw themselves against it.  The gate utterly failed to stop the three third-tier mages and was ripped from the palisade after only that one battering.

The allied units swarmed into the palisade and hastily reformed their shield wall, as they had come face-to-face with the Snow Lions’ own formation.  Under normal circumstances, even if all nine of the original alliance’s third-tier trainees worked together, they still wouldn’t have been able to break through the shield wall before the Snow Lions had whittled their units down with arrow fire.  Now, however, the Snow Lions were trapped between the main three allied units on one side and the Black Vipers on the other.  With their archers running low on arrows, it was only a matter of time before they either surrendered or fell.

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Leon and Alphonsus sprinted down a tunnel that led north, leaving Castor behind to hold off their pursuers.

“Three days!  Only three days left, and we’ve lost the camp!” Alphonsus growled in frustration.

“Had to happen eventually, I think.  In fact, I’m quite surprised those three units haven’t been able to overrun us before now,” Leon responded.

“Still pisses me off.  What should we do now?” Alphonsus asked.

“Same thing we planned earlier,” Leon said, “You head north, make for the stone maze.  Stay there for a few days, until the end of the FTX.  So long as you stay hidden and don’t lose those banners, then we win.  Simple as that.”

Alphonsus truly hated that plan, mostly because it involved him hiding away like a cornered rat.  But, he acknowledged that it was probably their best bet to win now that the camp was in the midst of falling to the allies.

“Fine, I’ll go.  But, if you get the chance to escape, you take it!” he said.

“… I will,” Leon replied, a little surprised at Alphonsus’ concern.

Finally, they arrived at a fork in the tunnel, and Alphonsus took off to the north while Leon slowed down to wait for their pursuers to catch up.

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Outnumbered five to one, Castor knew he didn’t have a chance of victory, but that didn’t stop him from fighting with everything he had.  In the end, he managed to buy Leon and Alphonsus three minutes, more than double what he had hoped for.

“You two,” Tiberias said to the two third-tier Black Vipers that had accompanied him, Gaius, and Alcander, “spread out.  Find the way to those archer platforms and clear them.”

The two third-tier nobles in question nodded and left without hesitation.  They followed Tiberias’ orders so quickly, in fact, that Gaius and Alcander couldn’t help but be taken aback.

‘What in the hell did Tiberias do that made those two so loyal?’ Gaius wondered.  He felt a shiver run down his spine at the thought, given what he knew about Tiberias’ twisted personality.

“Now, let’s go catch those two runaways… and capture those banners,” Tiberias said with a smile, though to Gaius, it seemed like he only added on the bit about the banners as an afterthought.

He had had a bad feeling about Tiberias since he had asked to join the alliance, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why.  Now, he started getting an idea; Tiberias wanted to catch up to Leon.  Tiberias had made a point to tell Gaius to be patient after the raid on the Snow Lions’ tower, to wait until Leon had left the Knight Academy before attempting to take his revenge, but Gaius had since set his vengeance aside.  It seemed to him, however, that Tiberias had not done likewise, and was taking advantage of the situation to go after Leon.

‘But it won’t be Tiberias who catches him,’ Gaius thought, a determined look appearing on his face as he, Tiberias, and Alcander took off after Leon and Alphonsus, stepping over Castor’s unconscious form as they did.  ‘I’ll show everyone that I’m not just a hostage!  I’ll earn my place at the Second Prince’s side!’  He almost ripped the bracer his father had sent him off his arm when he thought this, but he managed to restrain himself.  Even if he was insulted by its presence, he still couldn’t allow an object inscribed with his father’s Mana Glyph to leave his person.

The group bolted down the tunnel, and in seconds, had caught sight of a decidedly not in a hurry Leon.  The Snow Lion seemed to be waiting for them, standing with the Deathbringers’, Steel Century’s, and Crimson Tigress’ banners on his back, his arms folded, and his eyes glaring back at them.  He was daring them to keep walking down the tunnel.

The three third-tier nobles slowed down considerably, wary as they were of some kind of trap.

“If he runs,” said Gaius, “One of us should go down the other tunnel, because that’s probably where Alphonsus ran…”

The other two acknowledged this but neither volunteered.  They all wanted to fight Leon, and none were willing to let him slip from their fingers when he was now so close.

“Took you three long enough,” Leon said provocatively.  He smiled confidently at them, baiting them closer.

“We had to crush your unit on the way, of course it would take a hot minute,” Tiberias boasted, but his eyes narrowed when Leon only smiled wider.

“Hand over those banners, and tell us where Alphonsus went,” Gaius ordered, though the three of them were under no illusions that Leon would tell them.

“Well if you’re going to be silent on the matter, then you’ll have to beat us in a contest of arms,” said Alcander as he brandished his greatax.  Then, without waiting for a response from either Leon or the other two at his side, Alcander lunged forward, bringing his ax down in an earth-shaking blow that even Leon with all his speed barely seemed able to dodge.

But Leon had expected Alcander’s opening move to be big, flashy, and backed with all of his strength, so he had only side-stepped as far as he needed to.  Alcander’s ax was stuck into the floor of the rocky tunnel; it took the noble a split-second to recover and draw his ax back into position for another strike.  Leon didn’t waste that brief moment, as he drew and struck at the noble with his longsword in one smooth motion.

Alcander blocked by raising his arm, but the strength of Leon’s blow was great enough that even though the blade hit his bracer, it still paralyzed his left arm.

Fortunately for Alcander, Leon wasn’t able to follow through and finish him off, as Gaius and Tiberias surged forward and put him on the defense.  Alcander had to grit his teeth and deal with his paralyzed arm, but he knew he was lucky that Leon was only able to do that much after exploiting the mistake he had made in overcommitting to a single attack.  He couldn’t continue to use his greatax without both arms, so he dropped the ax and drew the shortsword at his waist, then joined his two allies in their attack.

Their rain of blows was unrelenting and precise, with Gaius, Tiberias, and Alcander each filling in and keeping the pressure on Leon, preventing the Snow Lion from counter-attacking.  Leon was pushed back, constantly having to block, dodge, and deflect, barely managing to keep up with his three attackers.

And then he unleashed all of his killing intent, letting it wash over all three nobles in an instant.  For a brief moment, before they were able to bring forth their own auras to resist, the nobles without exception felt like nothing more than ants beneath a descending boot.  But, Leon knew that they’d be able to fight off the fear his powerful killing intent brought in less than a second, and that he’d only get a single free strike, so he sent that strike at Alcander.  The Century noble had already been partially paralyzed, which made him the only one Leon was confident in bringing down with that one attack.

Leon didn’t hesitate, stabbing into Alcander’s chest with all of his might.  The stunning effect of his training sword broke through the noble’s armor, and Alcander fell to the ground unconscious.

But that still left Gaius and Tiberias, who had been given more than enough time to recover in the space of that attack.  Leon barely managed to bring his sword back around to block Gaius’ strike, but Tiberias’ got through, paralyzing his right arm from the elbow down and causing Leon to drop his training sword.  Seeing that there wasn’t any other option, Leon threw himself backward to avoid Gaius and Tiberias’ follow up strikes, then sprinted down one of the tunnels at the fork.

With neither giving any thought to either Alphonsus or Alcander, both Gaius and Tiberias tore off after Leon.  Gaius had a look of stern determination, whereas Tiberias was fighting back a sadistic smile.  The former wanted the banners and only thought of defeating Leon as a way to bring a measure of closure to his time at the Academy.  The latter, in contrast, wanted to use this fight as an excuse to hurt Leon as badly as possible before sending his family’s assassins after the Snow Lion when the training cycle ended.

The two nobles weren’t able to catch up to Leon on their own, but the tunnel he had chosen to run down brought Leon around in a circle past other cave chambers and back to the main cavern, where Marcus and Valeria were busy arranging the unconscious bodies of all the fallen trainees, Snow Lions included.  But all of that came to an awkward end when Leon arrived, almost literally running into Asiya as he burst into the cavern.

Valeria and Marcus could hardly believe their eyes when Leon showed himself, but they took action almost instantly, moving to block off his escape routes and preventing him from running any farther.  Tiberias and Gaius followed a couple seconds after, blocking Leon off from retreating back the way he came.

“Well, I didn’t expect to see you, Leon.  I thought you’d have taken the banners and run off, given that they weren’t hanging here…” Marcus said, glancing at the three banners rolled up on Leon’s back.

“Who says we didn’t do just that?” Leon asked with a slightly mocking smile.

Marcus frowned.  “Did either of you find the other banners?  And where’s Alcander?!”

Finally realizing that he’d let Alphonsus escape, Gaius had to restrain himself from loudly swearing in front of the rest of his Deathbringers.  Tiberias, meanwhile, ignored Marcus and attacked Leon when the Lion’s back was turned.  Leon pivoted on his back foot and deflected Tiberias’ blade with his left arm, though it cost him the use of that arm as well.

In response, Valeria lunged forward and stunned Leon with a slash of her glaive.  But, her attack wasn’t done out of malice, and she immediately turned her weapon on Tiberias.

They wordlessly stared at each other for a moment before Tiberias smiled, shrugged, and put his weapons away.  Sensing the tension, Marcus intervened before either of them could speak.

“What happened to the other banners?” he asked.

“Alphonsus has them,” Gaius answered, “but we don’t know where he went.”

“Damnit,” Marcus muttered.  He wasted no time organizing the rest of the trainees in the alliance to search the caves.  He planned on occupying the Snow Lions’ camp, which would keep them ‘dead’ for the duration of the occupation.  This meant that Alphonsus was effectively on his own.

However, the allied units failed to catch Alphonsus in the three days they had.  They had barely managed to explore the entire breadth of the cave system before the rest of the time in the FTX had elapsed.

The Snow Lions had spent months in the mountains, and they knew just about every nook and cranny within.  Even Alphonsus, who had hated every moment he had been forced to stay there during the early months of the training cycle, could navigate around the mountains far better and far faster than anyone else among the other units.  Evading their scouts for three days was quite easy for him.  And because of this, he managed to bring the Snow Lions victory over the other nine units.

The final banner count was six for the Snow Lions—The Silver Legionaries, Blood Eagles, Obsidian Cataphracts, Phantom Bulls, Warriors of the Naga, and their own.  The Crimson Tigresses, Deathbringers, Steel Century, and Black Vipers had all retained or reclaimed their own banners, so all four wound up tied for second place.

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And so, this arc comes to an end…

Next chapter begins a short 10 chapter transition arc where business in the capital gets wrapped up and we move on to Leon’s squireship.

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Chapter 128 - Post-FTX

Chapter 126 - FTX X